Read CHAPTER XXXI - THE DISAPPEARANCE OF BILLIE of Love Under Fire, free online book, by Randall Parrish, on ReadCentral.com.

I stared at him in surprise, and then sprang forward, and glanced into her room. It was empty, except for a trooper kneeling at the window. I faced Hardy again with a question:

“Not here! Where has she gone?”

He shook his head, without attempting to speak.

“You don’t know? Conroy, have you seen anything of a young lady since you came up here?”

“No, sir; all these doors was standin’ wide open, and this Johnny Reb was prowlin’ ’round in here. I didn’t know what his business might be so I collared him. Ain’t that right, Murphy?” appealing to the soldier at the window, who had faced about at sound of our voices.

“Straight as far as it goes,” was the reply, “but maybe that guard back in the ell saw the lady afore we come up.”

“What guard?”

“One o’ your fellows,” said the corporal. “Anyhow he had his buttons cut off. I guess he’s there yet.”

I was out into the hall as quickly as I could turn, Conroy and the major following closely. A dozen steps took us beyond the chimney jog, and to the top of the back stairs. There was no one there. The side doors stood open, and the narrow hallway was vacant. My eyes met the corporal’s.

“Well, I’ll be jiggered,” he exclaimed. “He was right there by the second door when I saw him. I was goin’ to post Murphy at that end window, sir, but I didn’t think there was any need o’ two men there.”

“Did you speak to him?”

“I told him what was up, sir, and that he better stay by the window.”

“Did he answer you?”

“He said ‘all right,’ or something like that, an’ went back. I never thought anything was wrong; all I noticed particular was he had only a revolver, but most o’ yer fellows was armed that way. I meant to get him a gun as soon as I had time.” He strode forward, looking into the rooms. “He ain’t here now anyhow, and I’m damned if I know where he could o’ gone. Did I make a mistake, sir?”

“No, this is no fault of yours, Corporal, but it’s strange nevertheless. We had no guard up here, but this fellow, wearing our uniform, has been seen before Miss Hardy, this gentleman’s daughter, saw him, and now she has disappeared. There was murder done in this hall this morning.”

The corporal crossed himself, his lips murmuring as he glanced about, and then into my face.

“Murder, sir! The Confederate captain lying in yonder on the bed?”

“Yes; he was waylaid here, and struck down from behind. I found his body out in front of that door, the skull crushed.”

“An’ ye think that feller did it?”

“I don’t know who did it. But I should like to discover where that lad hides, and what he is here for. We have accounted for all our men, and searched this floor inch by inch. I began to think Miss Hardy was mistaken, but now you’ve seen him also.”

“An’ Murphy,” broke in the horrified corporal, edging closer. “Murphy saw him too. Bedad, maybe it was a ghost!”

“Ghosts don’t talk, and I never heard of any wearing revolvers. Major, when did you see Billie last?”

I noticed how haggard his face was, and he answered slowly, his hands grasping the stair-rail.

“We were together in the front hall when your men came. You were talking loudly, and the new voices attracted our attention. We both went forward to the head of the stairs.”

“You overheard what was said?” I interrupted, a new possibility dawning upon me.

“Much of it, yes,” he admitted.

“The plan of attack? the orders sent me?”

His expression answered.

“And what were you going to do with this information, Major Hardy?”

“Nothing. I considered myself a prisoner on parole. I merely proposed asking your permission to leave the house with my daughter before hostilities began. I started down the stairs for that purpose.”

“And Billie?”

“I told her this, and sent her to her room after some things. Before I got down you had disappeared, and I returned up stairs. She was not in her room, nor could I find a trace of her.”

I thought rapidly, staring into his bewildered face, insensibly listening to the continuous roar without. It was tragedy within tragedy, the threads of war and love inextricably tangled. What had occurred here during that minute or two? Had she left voluntarily, inspired by some wild hope of service to the South? Did that mysterious figure, attired in our uniform, have anything to do with her disappearance? Did Hardy know, or suspect more than he had already told? By what means could she have left the house? If she had not left where could she remain concealed? Each query only served to make the situation more complicated, more difficult to solve. To no one of them could I find an answer.

“Major, did you tell your daughter why you could not carry that information to your own people? that you considered yourself a parolled prisoner?”

He hesitated, realizing now what it was I was seeking to discover.

“Why, I may have said something like that. We spoke of the situation, and and Billie appeared excited, but, why, Galesworth, you do not imagine the girl would try to carry the news out, alone, do you?”

His doubt was so genuine as to be beyond question. Whatever Billie had done, it was through no connivance with the father, but upon her own initiative. Yet she was fully capable of the effort; convinced the cause of the South was in her hands, she was one to go through fire and water in service. Neither her life nor mine would weigh in the decision her only thought the Confederacy. Still it was not a pleasant reflection that she would thus war openly against me; would deliberately expose me to defeat, even death. Could she have made such a choice if she truly loved me? Her words, eyes, actions continually deceived me. Again and again I had supposed I knew her, believed I had solved her nature, only to be led into deeper bewilderment.

“Major,” I said soberly. “I do imagine just that. There is no sacrifice your daughter would not make for the South. She realized the importance of this information, and that she alone could take it to Chambers.”

I turned to the back stairs, and went down, feeling my way in the gloom, until I touched the door. To my surprise it opened, although I knew I had locked it, and the key was still in my pocket. There were four troopers in the kitchen, and they turned at the noise to stare at me.

“How long have you boys been stationed here?” I questioned.

“’Bout fifteen minutes, I guess,” answered the nearest. “Ain’t that about it, Joe?”

“Not no longer.”

“Room empty when you came?”

“Not a rat here, that we saw; did we, Joe?”

The other shook his head.

“Was that bar across the outer door there then?”

“No, sir, there wan’t no lock on it, an’ Bill rigged up that contrivance hisself.”

I believed now I comprehended how it had occurred, all except the mysterious unlocking of the door at the foot of the stairs, and this fellow in our uniform that haunted the ell. To make certain I retained the key, I took it out, and fitted it into the lock. Still there might be a duplicate, and as for the soldier, I was hardly half convinced of his reality. Billie had acted quickly, under the inspiration of discovery, and all the circumstances had conspired to make her escape from the house easy. Miles had withdrawn his men on my orders, and we were all grouped together in the front hall. She had simply slipped down these back stairs, used a duplicate key, passed through the kitchen unobserved, and out into the garden. Where then? To the stable, without doubt, and, mounted, into Chambers’ lines, taking her news to the highest officer she could reach. We would hear from it presently, strange if not even already some of those troops were wheeling to invest the house. I called back up the stairs,

“Conroy, send Major Hardy down here.”

The Confederate appeared almost instantly, his eyes anxiously surveying the room.

“Have you found my girl?”

“No, but I have satisfied myself as to where she is. Without doubt she came down those stairs, and out this door, while we were in the front hall. A battle-line is a rough place for a woman, and I am going to turn you out now to see if you cannot find and protect her. One of you men take down that bar.”

The major stared at me, and then extended his hand.

“You you don’t suppose I sent her?”

“Oh, no, you have been most honorable. There is no reason why I should hold you here; the others have gone, and you may be of assistance to Miss Willifred. It is bound to be lively enough for us in here presently without prisoners to look after.”

“But you have not accepted my hand, Lieutenant Galesworth. I wish to feel that we part friends.”

“We certainly do,” I returned heartily, grasping his fingers. “And and I may never see your daughter again. There is scarcely a possibility that I ever shall. Tell her that I respect her loyalty to the South.”

He stood looking directly into my eyes, grasping both my hands.

“You mean to remain here, defending the house?”

“While there is a man left alive.”

“It is a pity in my judgment; not war, but a useless sacrifice.”

“Yet a soldier’s duty, Major obedience to orders.”

He bowed, choking in the throat, as he lifted his hat. With one glance at the silent soldier holding open the door he passed out. Then he turned, hat still in hand, and glanced back.

“You may feel assured I will deliver your message, sir, good-bye.”

The broad hallway ran from the front of the house to the kitchen ell, and I could see its entire length. Several men were clustered at the other end, peering out through the narrow panes of glass either side the front door, and one came running toward me. It was the Irish sergeant.

“They’re a-coomin’, sorr a bunch o’ gray-backs. Shud Oi hay’ the byes let drive?”

“Not until I speak to them, Mahoney. We’ll give the fellows fair warning first.”

I hurried back with him, and a soldier stepped aside to give me opportunity to look out. A glance was sufficient. A regiment of cavalry was halted under the trees of the lawn, the men dismounted and standing at the heads of their horses. Apparently they were, merely waiting orders. Riding straight across the grass toward the porch came a little group of a dozen officers, as I judged, although this was largely conjecture, their uniforms so dust-covered as to be meaningless. The carelessness of their approach, scarcely glancing toward the house, convinced me they had no thought of meeting any resistance from within their only object the shade of the steps, or a possible glass of wine. To greet them with a volley would be murder, and I motioned the men to open the door just wide enough to permit of my slipping through. I walked forward to the edge of the porch, and stood there, leaning against a pillar. The approaching party was sufficiently close by this time so that I saw that one of the three in advance was Bell. Apparently I remained unobserved, but as they came to the gravel driveway I spoke.

“That will be quite far enough, gentlemen, until you explain your purpose.”

They pulled up, astonished at the sound of my voice, those behind bunching about the first three, all staring open-mouthed at my uniform. Several voices asked, “What does this mean?” “Who the hell are you?”

“One at a time, please,” I returned, enjoying their surprise. “This house is garrisoned by Federal troops at present, and we are not receiving callers put that back! There are riflemen at every window.”

“Don’t be a fool, Brown,” growled the man in the centre, glancing aside, and then facing back toward me. “Are you in command?”

“I am here to receive any communication.”

“What troops have you?”

I bowed smiling.

“Sufficient for the purpose.”

Bell, evidently short-sighted, was staring at me through glasses, and broke in,

“It’s Galesworth, the Yankee lieutenant I told you about, Colonel. Say, I thought you left.”

“Instead of leaving, Captain Bell, I have decided to stay.”

“But, good Lord, you can’t hold that house against us with only ten men!”

“You will discover we have considerable more than ten when you come to capture it.”

They whispered together, evidently undecided how seriously to take me. I thought Bell was trying to impress the others with the idea that it was all a bluff, but my coolness made them suspicious. I leaned motionless against the post in apparent indifference. The gruff-voiced colonel broke the silence.

“Do you know we have a division of troops within bugle call?”

“Oh, yes, and they have got their work cut out for them. Your whole force is at it already, except the cavalry.”

My tone angered him.

“There are enough in reserve to crush you,” he retorted warmly. “I demand your immediate surrender, sir.”

“On what terms?”

“Unconditional,” he thundered, “and if I have to charge you we shall take no prisoners.”

I waited for a lull in the firing, and they accepted the pause as hesitation. Then I stepped backward to the door.

“I regret greatly to disappoint you, Colonel,” I said clearly, “but we have decided to fight. If you are not out of range within two minutes my men will open fire.”

Without awaiting an answer, I stepped within and closed the door.