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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBefore The Dawn: A Story Of The Fall Of Richmond - Chapter 12. A Flight By Two
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Before The Dawn: A Story Of The Fall Of Richmond - Chapter 12. A Flight By Two Post by :Refugee Category :Long Stories Author :Joseph A. Altsheler Date :May 2012 Read :2382

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Before The Dawn: A Story Of The Fall Of Richmond - Chapter 12. A Flight By Two

CHAPTER XII. A FLIGHT BY TWO

It was about ten by the watch, and a very cold, dark and quiet night, when Prescott reached the Grayson cottage and paused a moment at the gate, the dry snow crumbling under his heels. There was no light in the window, nor could he see any smoke rising from the chimney. The coal must be approaching the last lump, he thought, and the gold would be gone soon, too. But there was another and greater necessity than either of those driving him on, and, opening the gate, he quickly knocked upon the door. It was low but heavy, a repeated and insistent knock, like the muffled tattoo of a drum, and at last Miss Grayson answered, opening the door a scant four inches and staring out with bright eyes.

"Mr. Prescott!" she exclaimed, "it is you! You again! Ah, I have warned you and for your own good, too! You cannot enter here!"

"But I must come in," he replied; "and it is for my own good, too, as well as yours and Miss Catherwood's."

She looked at him with searching inquiry.

"Don't you see that I am freezing on your doorstep?" he said humourously.

He saw her frown plainly by the faint flicker of the firelight, and knew she did not relish a jest at such a time.

"Let me in and I will tell you everything," he added quickly. "It is an errand more urgent than any on which I have come before."

She opened the door slowly, belief and unbelief competing in her mind, and when it was closed again Prescott insisted upon knowing at once if Miss Catherwood were still in the house.

"Yes, she is here," Miss Grayson replied at last and reluctantly.

"Then I must see her and see her now," said Prescott, as he quietly took a seat in the chair before her.

"You cannot see her again," said Miss Grayson.

"I do not move from this chair until she comes," said Prescott resolutely, as he spread his fingers out to the tiny blaze.

Miss Grayson gave him one angry glance; her lips moved as if she would say something, but changing her mind, she took a chair on the other side of the fire and her face also bore the cast of resolution.

"It is no use, Miss Grayson," said Prescott. "I am here for the best of purposes, I assure you, and I will not stir. Please call Miss Catherwood."

Miss Grayson held out for a minute or two longer, and then, a red spot in either cheek, she walked into the next room and returned with Lucia.

Prescott knew her step, light as it was, before she came, and his heart beat a little more heavily. He rose, too, and bowed with deep respect when she appeared, feeling a strange thrill of pleasure at seeing her again.

He had wondered in what aspect she would appear, she whose nature seemed to him so varied and contradictory, and whose face was the index to these changing phases. She came in quietly, a young girl, pale, inquiring, yet saying no word; but there was a sparkle in her gaze that made the blood leap for a moment to Prescott's face.

"Miss Catherwood," he said, "you forbade me to return here, but I have come nevertheless."

She was still silent, her inquiring look upon him.

"You must leave Richmond to-night!" he said. "There must be no delay."

She made a gesture as if she would call his attention to the frozen world outside and said:

"I am willing enough to leave Richmond if I knew a way."

"I will find the way--I go with you!"

"That I cannot permit; you shall not risk your future by making such an attempt with me."

"It will certainly be risked greatly if I do not make the attempt with you," he replied.

They looked at him in wonder. Prescott saw now, by a sudden intuition, the course of action that would appeal to them most, and he said:

"It is as much for my sake as it is for yours. That you are here is known to a man powerful in this Government, and he knows also that I am aware of your presence. There is to be another search for you and I shall be forced to lead it. It means my ruin unless you escape before that search begins."

Then he explained to them as much as he thought necessary, although he did not give Mr. Sefton's name, and dwelt artfully upon his own peril rather than upon hers.

Lucia Catherwood neither moved nor spoke as Prescott told the story. Once there was a strange light in her eyes as she regarded him, but it was momentary, gone like a flash, and her face remained expressionless.

"But is there a way?" asked Miss Grayson in doubt and alarm.

"I shall find a way," replied Prescott confidently. "Lift the curtain from the window and look. The night is dark and cold; all who can will be under roofs, and even the sentinels will hug walls and earthworks. Now is our time."

"You must go, Lucia," said Miss Grayson decisively.

Miss Catherwood bowed assent and went at once to the next room to prepare for the journey.

"Will you care for her as if she were your own, your sister?" asked Miss Grayson, turning appealingly to Prescott.

"As God is my witness," he replied, and the ring in his tone was so deep and true that she could not doubt it.

"I believe you," said this bravest of old maids, looking him steadfastly in the eye for a few moments and then following the girl into the next room.

Prescott sat alone by the fire, staring at three or four coals that glowed redly on the hearth, and wondering how he should escape with this girl from Richmond. He had said confidently that he should find a way and he believed he would, but he knew of none.

They came back presently, the girl wrapped to the eyes in a heavy black cloak.

"It is Miss Grayson's," she said with a touch of humour. "She has consented to take my brown one in its place."

"Overshoes?" said Prescott, interrogatively.

Her feet peeped from beneath her dress.

"Two pairs," she replied. "I have on both Charlotte's and my own."

"Gloves?"

She held out her hands enclosed in the thickest mittens.

"You will do," said Prescott; "and now is the time for us to go."

He turned his back while these two women, tried by so many dangers, wished each other farewell. There were no tears, no vehement protestations; just a silent, clinging embrace, a few words spoken low, and then the parting. Prescott's own eyes were moist. There must be unusual qualities in these two women to inspire so deep an attachment, so much capacity for sacrifice.

He opened the door an inch or so and, looking out, beheld a city silent and dark, like a city of the dead.

"Come," he said, and the two went out into the silence and cold desolation. He glanced back and saw the door yet open a few inches. Then it closed and the brave old maid was left alone.

The girl shivered at the first touch of the night and Prescott asked anxiously if she found the cold too great.

"Only for a moment," she replied. "Which way shall we go?"

He started at the question, not yet having chosen a course, and replied in haste:

"We must reach the Baltimore road; it is not so far to the Northern pickets, and when we approach them I can leave you."

"And you?" she said, "What is to become of you?"

All save her eyes was hidden by the dark cloak, but she looked up and he saw there a light like that which had shone when she came forth to meet him in the house.

"I?" he replied lightly. "Don't worry about me. I shall return to Richmond and then help my army to fight and beat your army. Really General Lee couldn't spare me, you know. Come!"

They stole forward, two shadows in the deeper shadow, the dry snow rustling like paper under their feet. From some far point came the faint cry of a sentinel, announcing to a sleepy world that all was well, and after that the silence hung heavily as ever over the city. The cold was not unpleasant to either of them, muffled as they were in heavy clothing, for it imparted briskness and vigour to their strong young bodies, and they went on at a swift pace through the densest part of the city, into the thinning suburbs and then toward the fields and open spaces which lay on the nearer side of the earthworks. Not a human being did they see not a dog barked at them as they passed, scarcely a light showed in a window; all around them the city lay in a lethargy beneath its icy covering.

Involuntarily the girl, oppressed by the loneliness which had taken on a certain weird quality, walked closer to Prescott, and he could faintly hear her breathing as she fled with him, step for step.

"The Baltimore road lies there," he said, "and yonder are earthworks. See! Where the faint light is twinkling! that low line is what we have to pass."

They heard the creaking of wagons and the sound of voices as of men speaking to horses, and stopped to listen. Then they beheld lights nearer by on the left.

"Stay here a moment and I'll see what it is," said Prescott.

"Oh, don't leave me!" she cried with a sudden tremour.

"It is only for a moment," he replied, glad to hear that sudden tremour in her voice.

Turning aside he found close at hand an obscure tavern, and beside it at least a dozen wagons, the horses hitched as if ready for a journey. He guessed immediately that these were the wagons of farmers who had been selling provisions in the city. The owners were inside taking something to warm them up for the home journey and the horses outside were stamping their feet with the same purpose.

"Not likely to bother us," was Prescott's unspoken comment as he returned to the girl who stood motionless in the snow awaiting him. "It is nothing," he said. "We must go forward now, watch our chance and slip through the earthworks."

She did not speak, but went on with him, showing an infinite trust that appealed to every fiber of his being. The chill of the wintry night had been driven away by vigourous exercise, but its tonic effect remained with both, and now their courage began to rise as they approached the first barrier. It seemed to them that they could not fail on such a night.

"There is an interval yonder between two of the earthworks," said Prescott. "I'm sure we can pass them."

Silently they approached the opening. The moon glimmered but faintly across the white snow, and no sign of life came from the earthworks. But as they drew near a sentinel, gun on shoulder, appeared walking back and forth, and beyond where his post ended was another soldier, likewise walking back and forth, gun on shoulder.

"It is evident that our way doesn't lie there," said Prescott, turning back quickly lest the sentinel should see them and demand an explanation.

"What shall we do?" she asked, seeming now to trust to him implicitly.

"Why, try another place," he replied lightly. "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."

They tried again and failed as before. The sentinels of the Confederacy everywhere were watchful, despite the wintry night and the little apparent need of precaution. Yet the two were drawn closer and closer together by the community of hope and despair, and when at last they drifted back toward the tavern and the wagons Prescott felt as if he, too, were seeking to escape from Richmond to join the Army of the North. He even found it in his heart to condemn the vigilance of his own.

"Captain Prescott," said the girl, as they stood watching the light in the tavern window, "I insist that you leave me here. I wish to make an attempt alone. Why should you risk yourself?"

"Even if you passed the fortifications," he replied, "you would perish in the frozen hills beyond. Do you think I have come so far to turn back now?"

Staring at the wagons and the stamping horses, he noticed one of the farmers come out of the tavern. His appearance gave Prescott a happy inspiration.

"Stay here a moment or two, Miss Catherwood," he said. "I want to talk to that man."

She obeyed without a word of protest, and he approached the farmer, who lurched toward one of the wagons. Prescott had marked this suggestive lurch, and it gave him an idea.

The farmer, heated by many warm drinks, was fumbling with the gear of his horses when Prescott approached, and to his muddled eyes the stranger seemed at least a general, looming very stiff and very tall with his great military cloak drawn threateningly about him.

"What is your name?" asked Prescott sternly.

The severe tone made a deep and proper impression on the intoxicated gentleman's agricultural mind, so he replied promptly, though with a stutter:

"Elias Gardner."

"Where are you from, Elias, and what are you doing here?"

The military discipline about Richmond was very strict, and the farmer, anxious to show his good standing, replied with equal promptness:

"From Wellsville. I've been selling a load of farm truck in Richmond. Oh, I've got my pass right enough, Colonel."

He took his pass from his pocket and handed it to the man who from the dignity and severity of his manner might be a general officer. Prescott looking at it felt a thrill of joy, but there was no change in the sternness of his tone when he addressed the farmer again.

"Why, this pass," he said, "is made out to Elias Gardner _and wife_. You said nothing about your wife."

The farmer was somewhat confused, and explained hastily that his wife was going to stay awhile in Richmond with relatives, while he went home alone. In three or four days he would be back with another load of provisions and then he could get her. The face of the stern officer gradually relaxed and he accused the good Mr. Gardner of taking advantage of his wife's absence to enjoy himself. Prescott nodded his head slightly toward the tavern, and the farmer, taking courage from the jocular contraction of the Colonel's left eye, did not resent the insinuation. On the contrary, he enjoyed it, feeling that he was a devil of a fellow, and significantly tapped the left pocket of his coat, which gave forth a ring as of glass.

"The quality of yours is bad," said Prescott. "Here, try mine; it's like velvet to the throat, a tonic to the stomach, and it means sweet sleep to-morrow."

Drawing from his pocket his own well-filled flask, with which from prudential motives he had provided himself before undertaking his journey, he handed it to Mr. Gardner of Wellsville and made him drink deep and long.

When the farmer finished he sighed deeply, and words of appreciation and gratitude flowed from his tongue.

"Bah, man!" said Prescott, "you cannot drink at all. You do not get the real taste of it with one little sip like that on such a cold night as this. Here, drink it down a real drink, this time. Are you a girl to refuse such liquor?"

The last taunt struck home, and Mr. Gardner of Wellsville, making a mighty suspiration, drank so long and deep that the world wavered when he handed the flask back to Prescott, and a most generous fire leaped up and sparkled in his veins. But when he undertook to step forward the treacherous earth slid from under his feet, and it was only the arm of the friendly officer that kept him from falling. He tried to reach his wagon, but it unkindly moved off into space.

Prescott helped him to the wagon and then into it. "How my head goes round!" murmured the poor farmer.

"Another taste of this will put you all right," said Prescott, and he forced the neck of his flask into Elias Gardner's mouth. Elias drank deeply, either because he wanted to or because he could not help himself, and closing his eyes dropped off to slumber as peacefully as a tired child.

Prescott laid Mr. Gardner down in the bed of his own wagon, and then this chivalrous Confederate officer picked a man's pocket--deliberately and with malice aforethought. But he did not take much--only a piece of paper with a little writing on it, which he put in the pocket of his waistcoat. Moreover, as a sort of compensation he pulled off the man's overcoat--which was a poor one--and putting it on his own shoulders, wrapped his heavy military cloak around the prostrate farmer. Then he stretched him out in a comfortable place in the wagon bed and heaped empty sacks above him until Elias was as cozy as if he had been in his own bed at home.

Having placed empty chicken crates on either side of Elias and others across the top, to form a sort of roof beneath which the man still slept sweetly, though invisibly, Prescott contemplated his work for a moment with deep satisfaction. Then he summoned the girl, and the two, mounting the seat, drove the impatient horses along the well-defined road through the snow towards the interval between the earthworks.

"It is necessary for me to inform you, Miss Catherwood, that you're not Miss Catherwood at all," said Prescott.

A faint gleam of humour flickered in her eye.

"And who am I, pray?" she asked.

"You are a much more respectable young woman than that noted Yankee spy," replied Prescott in a light tone. "You are Mrs. Elias Gardner, the wife of a most staid and worthy farmer, of strong Southern proclivities, living twenty miles out on the Baltimore road."

"And who are you?" she asked, the flicker of humour reappearing in her eye.

"I am Mr. Elias Gardner, your husband, and, as I have just said, a most honest and worthy man, but, unfortunately, somewhat addicted to the use of strong liquors, especially on a night as cold as this."

If Prescott's attention had not been demanded then by the horses he would have seen a rosy glow appear on her face. But it passed in a moment, and she remained silent.

Then he told her of the whole lucky chance, his use of it, and how the way now lay clear before them.

"We shall take Mr. Gardner back home," he said, "and save him the trouble of driving. It will be one of the easiest and most comfortable journeys that he ever took, and not a particle of harm will come to him from it."

"But you? How will you get back into Richmond?"

She looked at him anxiously as she spoke.

"How do you know that I want to return?"

"I am speaking seriously."

"I am sure it will not be a difficult matter," he said. "A man alone can pass the fortifications of any city without much trouble. It is not a matter that I worry about at all. But please remember that you are Mrs. Elias Gardner, my wife, as questions may be asked of you before this night's journey ends."

The flush stole over her cheeks again, but she said nothing.

Prescott picked up the long whip, called a "black snake," which was lying on the seat and cracked it over the horses, a fine, sturdy pair, as he had noticed already. They stepped briskly along, as if anxious to warm themselves after their long wait in the cold, and Prescott, who was a good driver, felt the glorious sensation of triumph over difficulties glowing within him.

"Ho, for a fine ride, Mrs. Gardner!" he said gaily to the girl.

His high spirits were infectious and she smiled back at him.

"With such an accomplished driver holding the lines, and so fine a chariot as this, it ought to be," she replied.

The horses blew the steam from their nostrils, the dry snow crunched under their heels, and the real Elias Gardner slumbered peacefully under his own chicken crates as they approached the earthworks.

As before, when they had walked instead of coming in their own private carriage, they soon saw the sentinel, half frozen but vigilant, and he promptly halted them. Prescott produced at once the pass that he had picked from the pocket of the unconscious Elias, and the sentinel called the officer of the guard, who appeared holding a dim lantern and yawning mightily.

Now this officer of the guard was none other than Thomas Talbot, Esquire, himself, as large as life but uncommonly sleepy, and anxious to have done with his task. Prescott was startled by his friend's appearance there at such a critical moment, but he remembered that the night was dark and he was heavily muffled.

Talbot looked at the pass, expressed his satisfaction and handed it back to Prescott, who replaced it in his waistcoat pocket with ostentatious care.

"Cold night for a long drive," said Talbot, wishing to be friendly.

Prescott nodded but did not speak.

"Especially for a lady," added Talbot gallantly.

Miss Catherwood nodded also, and with muttered thanks Prescott, gathering up the lines, drove on.

"That was a particular friend of mine," he said, when they were beyond the hearing of the outpost, "but I do not recall a time when the sight of him was more unwelcome."

"Well, at any rate, he was less troublesome than friends often are."

"Now, don't forget that you are still Mrs. Elias Gardner of Wellsville," he continued, "as there are more earthworks and outposts to pass."

"I don't think that fugitives often flee from a city in their own coach and four," she said with that recurring flicker of humour.

"At least not in such a magnificent chariot as ours," he said, looking around at the lumbering farm wagon. The feeling of exultation was growing upon him. When he had resolved to find a way he did not see one, but behold, he had found it and it was better than any for which he had hoped. They were not merely walking out of Richmond--they were driving and in comfort. The road seemed to have been made smooth and pleasant for them.

There was another line of earthworks and an outpost beyond, but the pass for honest Elias Gardner and wife was sufficient. The officer, always a young man and disposed to be friendly, would glance at it, wave them on their way and retreat to shelter as quickly as possible.

The last barrier was soon crossed and they were alone in the white desolation of the snow-covered hills and forests. Meanwhile, the real Elias Gardner slumbered peacefully in his own wagon, the "world forgetting and by the world forgot."

"You must go back, Captain Prescott, as I am now well beyond the Confederate lines encircling Richmond and can readily care for myself," said Miss Catherwood.

But he refused to do so, asserting with indignation that it was not his habit to leave his tasks half finished, and he could not abandon her in such a frozen waste as that lying around them. She protested no further, and Prescott, cracking his whip over the horses, increased their speed, but before long they settled into an easy walk. The city behind sank down in the darkness, and before them curved the white world of hills and forests, white even under its covering of a somber night.

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