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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBefore The Dawn: A Story Of The Fall Of Richmond - Chapter 24. The Despatch Bearer
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Before The Dawn: A Story Of The Fall Of Richmond - Chapter 24. The Despatch Bearer Post by :Refugee Category :Long Stories Author :Joseph A. Altsheler Date :May 2012 Read :1182

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Before The Dawn: A Story Of The Fall Of Richmond - Chapter 24. The Despatch Bearer

CHAPTER XXIV. THE DESPATCH BEARER

Leaves of yellow and red and brown were falling, and the wind that came up the valley played on the boughs like a bow on the strings of a violin. The mountain ridges piled against each other cut the blue sky like a saber's edge, and the forests on the slopes rising terrace above terrace burned in vivid colours painted by the brush of autumn. The despatch bearer's eye, sweeping peaks and slopes and valleys, saw nothing living save himself and his good horse. The silver streams in the valleys, the vivid forests on the slopes and the blue peaks above told of peace, which was also in the musical note of the wind, in the shy eyes of a deer that looked at him a moment then fled away to the forest, and in the bubbles of pink and blue that floated on the silver surface of the stream at his feet.

Prescott had been into the far South on a special mission from the Confederate Government in Richmond after his return from the Wilderness and complete recovery from his wound, and now he was going back through a sea of mountains, the great range that fills up so much of North Carolina and its fifty thousand square miles, and he was not sorry to find the way long. He enjoyed the crisp air, the winds, the burning colours of the forest, the deep blue of the sky and the infinite peace. But the nights lay cold on the ridges, and Prescott, when he could find no cabin for shelter, built a fire of pine branches and, wrapping himself in his blanket, slept with his feet to the coals. The cold increased by and by, and icy wind roared among the peaks and brought a skim of snow. Then Prescott shivered and pined for the lowlands and the haunts of men.

He descended at last from the peaks and entered a tiny hamlet of the backwoods, where he found among other things a two-weeks-old Richmond newspaper. Looking eagerly through its meager columns to see what had happened while he was buried in the hills, he learned that there was no new stage in the war--no other great battle. The armies were facing each other across their entrenchments at Petersburg, and the moment a head appeared above either parapet the crack of a rifle from the other told of one more death added to the hundreds of thousands. That was all of the war save that food was growing scarcer and the blockade of the Southern ports more vigilant. It was a skilful and daring blockade runner now that could creep past the watching ships.

On an inside page he found social news. Richmond was crowded with refugees, and wherever men and women gather they must have diversion though at the very mouths of the guns. The gaiety of the capital, real or feigned, continued, and his eye was caught by the name of Lucia Catherwood. There was a new beauty in Richmond, the newspaper said, one whose graces of face and figure were equaled only by the qualities of her mind. She had relatives of strong Northern tendencies, and she had been known to express such sympathies herself; but they only lent piquancy to her conversation. She had appeared at one of the President's receptions; and further on Prescott saw the name of Mr. Sefton. There was nothing by which he could tell with certainty, but he inferred that she had gone there with the Secretary. A sudden thought assailed and tormented him. What could the Secretary be to her? Well, why not? Mr. Sefton was an able and insinuating man. Moreover, he was no bitter partisan: the fact that she believed in the cause of the North would not trouble him. She had refused himself and not many minutes later had been seen talking with the Secretary in what seemed to be the most confidential manner. Why had she come back to Richmond, from which she had escaped amid such dangers? Did it not mean that she and the Secretary had become allies more than friends? The thought would not let Prescott rest.

Prescott put the newspaper in his pocket and left the little tavern with an abruptness that astonished his host, setting out upon his ride with increased haste and turning eastward, intending to reach the railroad at the nearest point where he could take a train to Richmond.

His was not a morbid mind, but the fever in it grew. He had thought that the Secretary loved Helen Harley: but once he had fancied himself in love with Helen, too, and why might not the Secretary suffering from the same delusion be changed in the same way? He took out the newspaper and read the story again. There was much about her beauty, a description of her dress, and the distinction of her manner and appearance. The President himself, it said, was charmed with her, and departing from his usual cold reserve gave her graceful compliments.

This new reading of the newspaper only added more impetus to his speed and on the afternoon of the same day he reached the railroad station. Early the next morning he entered Richmond.

His heart, despite its recurrent troubles, was light, for he was coming home once more.

The streets were but slightly changed--perhaps a little more bareness and leanness of aspect, an older and more faded look to the clothing of the people whom he passed, but the same fine courage shone in their eyes. If Richmond, after nearly four years of fighting, heard the guns of the foe once more, she merely drew tighter the belt around her lean waist and turning her face toward the enemy smiled bravely.

The President received the despatch bearer in his private room, looking taller, thinner and sterner than ever. Although a Kentuckian by birth, he had been bred in the far South, but had little of that far South about him save the dress he wore. He was too cold, too precise, too free from sudden emotion to be of the Gulf Coast State that sent him to the capital. Prescott often reflected upon the odd coincidence that the opposing Presidents, Lincoln and Davis, should have been produced by the same State, Kentucky, and that the President of the South should be Northern in manner and the President of the North Southern in manner.

Mr. Davis read the despatches while their bearer, at his request, waited by. Prescott knew the hopeless tenor of those letters, but he could see no change in the stern, gray face as its owner read them, letter after letter. More than a half-hour passed and there was no sound in the room save the rustling of the paper as the President turned it sheet by sheet. Then in even, dry tones he said:

"You need not wait any longer, Captain Prescott; you have done your part well and I thank you. You will remain in Richmond until further orders."

Prescott saluted and went out, glad to get into the free air again. He did not envy the responsibility of a president in war time, whether the president of a country already established or of one yet tentative. He hurried home, and it was his mother herself who responded to the sound of the knocker--his mother, quiet, smiling and undemonstrative as of old, but with an endless tenderness for him in the depths of her blue eyes.

"Here I am again, mother, and unwounded this time," he cried after the first greeting; "and I suppose that as soon as they hear of my arrival all the Yankees will be running back to the North."

She smiled her quiet, placid smile.

"Ah, my son," she said, and from her voice he could not doubt her seriousness, "I'm afraid they will not go even when they hear of your arrival."

"In your heart of hearts, mother, you have always believed that they would come into Richmond. But remember they are not here yet. They were even closer than this before the Seven Days, but they got their faces burned then for their pains."

They talked after their old custom, while Prescott ate his luncheon and his mother gave him the news of Richmond and the people whom he knew. He noticed often how closely she followed the fortunes of their friends, despite her seeming indifference, and, informed by experience, he never doubted the accuracy of her reports.

"Helen Harley is yet in the employ of Mr. Sefton," she said, "and the money that she earns is, I hear, still welcome in the house of the Harleys. Mr. Harley is a fine Southern gentleman, but he has found means of overcoming his pride; it requires something to support his state."

"But what of Helen?" asked Prescott. He always had a feeling of repulsion toward Mr. Harley, his sounding talk, his colossal vanity and his selfishness.

"Helen, I think," said his mother, "is more of a woman than she used to be. Her mind has been strengthened by occupation. You won't object, Robert, will you, if I tell you that in my opinion both the men and women of the South have suffered from lack of diversity and variety in interests and ambitions. When men have only two ambitions, war and politics, and when women care only for the social side of life, important enough, but not everything, there can be no symmetrical development. A Southern republic, even if they should win this war, is impossible, because to support a State it takes a great deal more than the ability to speak and fight well."

Prescott laughed.

"What a political economist we have grown to be, mother!" he said, and then he added thoughtfully: "I won't deny, however, that you are right--at least, in part. But what more of Helen, mother? Is Mr. Sefton as attentive as ever to his clerk?"

She looked at him covertly, as if she would measure alike his expression and the tone of his voice.

"He is still attentive to Helen--in a way," she replied, "but the Secretary is like many other men: he sees more than one beautiful flower in the garden."

"What do you mean, mother?" asked Prescott quickly.

His face flushed suddenly and then turned pale. She gave him another keen but covert look from under lowered eyelids.

"There's a new star in Richmond," she replied quietly, "and singular as it may seem, it is a star of the North. You know Miss Charlotte Grayson and her Northern sympathies: it is a relative of hers--a Miss Catherwood, Miss Lucia Catherwood, who came to visit her shortly after the battles in the Wilderness--the 'Beautiful Yankee,' they call her. Her beauty, her grace and distinction of manner are so great that all Richmond raves about her. She is modest and would remain in retirement, but for the sake of her own peace and Miss Grayson's she has been compelled to enter our social life here."

"And the Secretary?" said Prescott. He was now able to assume an air of indifference.

"He warms himself at the flame and perhaps scorches himself, too, or it may be that he wishes to make some one else jealous--Helen Harley, for instance. I merely venture the suggestion; I do not pretend to know all the secrets of the social life of Richmond."

Prescott went that very afternoon to the Grayson cottage, and he prepared himself with the greatest care for his going. He felt a sudden and strong anxiety about his clothing. His uniform was old, ragged and stained, but he had a civilian suit of good quality.

"This dates from the fall of '60," he said, looking at it, "and that's more than four years ago; but it's hard to keep the latest fashions in Richmond now."

However, it was a vast improvement, and the change to civilian garb made him feel like a man of peace once more.

He went into the street and found Richmond under the dim cold of a November sky, distant houses melting into a gray blur and people shivering as they passed. As he walked briskly along he heard behind him the roll of carriage wheels, and when he glanced over his shoulder what he beheld brought the red to his face.

Mr. Sefton was driving and Helen Harley sat beside him. On the rear seat were Colonel Harley and Lucia Catherwood. As he looked the Secretary turned back and said something in a laughing manner to Lucia, and she, laughing in like fashion, replied. Prescott was too far away to understand the words even had he wished, but Lucia's eyes were smiling and her face was rosy with the cold and the swift motion. She was muffled in a heavy black cloak, but her expression was happy.

The carriage passed so swiftly that she did not see Prescott standing on the sidewalk. He gazed after the disappearing party and others did likewise, for carriages were becoming too scarce in Richmond not to be noticed. Some one spoke lightly, coupling the names of James Sefton and Lucia Catherwood. Prescott turned fiercely upon him and bade him beware how he repeated such remarks. The man did not reply, startled by such heat, and Prescott walked on, striving to keep down the anger and grief that were rising within him.

He concluded that he need not hurry now, because if he went at once to the little house in the cross street she would not be there; and he came to an angry conclusion that while he had been upon an errand of hardship and danger she had been enjoying all the excitement of life in the capital and with a powerful friend at court. He had always felt a sense of proprietorship in her and now it was rudely shocked. He forgot that if he had saved her she had saved him. It never occurred to him in his glowing youth that she had an entire right to love and marry James Sefton if fate so decreed.

He walked back and forth so angrily and so thoroughly wrapped in his own thoughts that he noticed nobody, though many noticed him and wondered at the young man with the pale face and the hot eyes.

It was twilight before he resumed his journey to the little house. The gray November day was thickening into the chill gloom of a winter night when he knocked at the well-remembered door. The shutters were closed, but some bars of ruddy light shone through them and fell across the brown earth. He was not coming now in secrecy as of old, but he had come with a better heart then.

It was Lucia herself who opened the door--Lucia, with a softer face than in the earlier time, but with a royal dignity that he had never seen in any other woman, and he had seen women who were royal by birth. She was clad in some soft gray stuff and her hair was drawn high upon her head, a crown of burnished black, gleaming with tints of red, like flame, where the firelight behind her flickered and fell upon it.

The twilight was heavy without and she did not see at once who was standing at the door. She put up her hands to shade her eyes, but when she beheld Prescott a little cry of gladness broke from her. "Ah, it is you!" she said, holding out both her hands, and his jealousy and pain were swept away for the moment.

He clasped her hands in the warm pressure of his own, saying: "Yes, it is I; and I cannot tell you how glad I am to see you once more."

The room behind her seemed to be filled with a glow, and when they went in the fire blazed and sparkled and its red light fell across the floor. Miss Grayson, small, quiet and gray as usual, came forward to meet him. Her tiny cool hand rested in his a moment, and the look in her eyes told him as truly as the words she spoke that he was welcome.

"When did you arrive?" asked Lucia.

"But this morning," he replied. "You see, I have come at once to find you. I saw you when you did not see me."

"When?" she asked in surprise.

"In the carriage with the Secretary and the Harleys," he replied, the feeling of jealousy and pain returning. "You passed me, but you were too busy to see me."

She noticed the slight change in his tone, but she replied without any self-consciousness.

"Yes; Mr. Sefton--he has been very kind to us--asked me to go with Miss Harley, her brother and himself. How sorry I am that none of us saw you."

The feeling that he had a grievance took strong hold of Prescott, and it was inflamed at the new mention of the Secretary's name. If it were any other it might be more tolerable, but Mr. Sefton was a crafty and dangerous man, perhaps unscrupulous too. He remembered that light remark of the bystander coupling the name of the Secretary and Lucia Catherwood, and at the recollection the red flushed into his face.

"The Secretary is able and powerful," he said, "but not wholly to be trusted. He is an intriguer."

Miss Grayson looked up with her quiet smile.

"Mr. Sefton has been kind to us," she said, "and he has made our life in Richmond more tolerable. We could not be ungrateful, and I urged Lucia to go with them to-day."

The colour flickered in the sensitive, proud face of Lucia Catherwood.

"But, Charlotte, I should have gone of my own accord, and it was a pleasant drive."

There was a shade of defiance in her tone, and Prescott, restless and uneasy, stared into the fire. He had expected her to yield to his challenge, to be humble, to make some apology; but she did not, having no excuses to offer, and he found his own position difficult and unpleasant. The stubborn part of his nature was stirred and he spoke coldly of something else, while she replied in like fashion. He was sure now that Sefton had transferred his love to her, and if she did not return it she at least looked upon him with favouring eyes. As for himself, he had become an outsider. He remembered her refusal of him. Then the impression she gave him once that she had fled from Richmond, partly and perhaps chiefly to save him, was false. On second thought no doubt it was false. And despite her statement she might really have been a spy! How could he believe her now?

Miss Grayson, quiet and observant, noticed the change. She liked this young man, so serious and steady and so different from the passionate and reckless youths who are erroneously taken by outsiders to be the universal type of the South. Her heart rallied to the side of her cousin, Lucia Catherwood, with whom she had shared hardships and dangers and whose worth she knew; but with the keen eye of the kindly old maid she saw what troubled Prescott, and being a woman she could not blame him. Taking upon herself the burden of the conversation, she asked Prescott about his southern journey, and as he told her of the path that led him through mountains, the glory of the autumn woods and the peace of the wilderness, there was a little bitterness in his tone in referring to those lonesome but happy days. He had felt then that he was coming north to the struggles and passions of a battleground, and now he was finding the premonition true in more senses than one.

Lucia sat in the far corner of the little room where the flickering firelight fell across her face and dress. They had not lighted candle nor lamp, but the rich tints in her hair gleamed with a deeper sheen when the glow of the flames fell across it. Prescott's former sense of proprietorship was going, and she seemed more beautiful, more worth the effort of a lifetime than ever before. Here was a woman of mind and heart, one not bounded by narrow sectionalism, but seeing the good wherever it might be. He felt that he had behaved like a prig and a fool. Why should he be influenced by the idle words of some idle man in the street? He was not Lucia Catherwood's guardian; if there were any question of guardianship, she was much better fitted to be the guardian of him.

Had he obeyed this rush of feeling he would have swept away all constraint by words abrupt, disjointed perhaps, but alive with sincerity, and Miss Grayson gave him ample opportunity by slipping with excuses into the next room. The pride and stubbornness in Prescott's nature were tenacious and refused to die. Although wishing to say words that would undo the effect of those already spoken, he spoke instead of something else--topics foreign then to the heart of either--of the war, the social life of Richmond. Miss Harley was still a great favourite in the capital and the Secretary paid her much attention, so Lucia said without the slightest change in her tone. Helen's brother had made several visits to Richmond; General Wood had come once, and Mr. Talbot once. Mr. Talbot--and now she smiled--was overpowered on his last visit. Some Northern prisoners had told how the vanguard of their army was held back in the darkness at the passage of the river by a single man who was taken prisoner, but not until he had given his beaten brigade time to escape. That man was discovered to be Talbot and he had fled from Richmond to escape an excess of attention and compliments.

"And it was old Talbot who saved us from capture," said Prescott. "I've often wondered why we were not pursued more closely that night. And he never said anything about it."

"Mrs. Markham, too, is in Richmond," Lucia continued, "and she is, perhaps, the most conspicuous of its social lights. General Markham is at the front with the army"--here she stopped abruptly and the colour came into her face. But Prescott guessed the rest. Colonel Harley was constantly in Mrs. Markham's train and that was why he came so often to Richmond. The capital was not without its gossip.

The flames died down and a red-and-yellow glow came from the heart of the coals. The light now gleamed only at times on the face of Lucia Catherwood. It seemed to Prescott (or was it fancy) that by this flickering radiance he saw a pathetic look on her face--a little touch of appeal. Again he felt a great wave of tenderness and of reverence, too. She was far better than he. Words of humility and apology leaped once more to the end of his tongue, but they did not pass his lips. He could not say them. His stubborn pride still controlled and he rambled on with commonplace and idle talk.

Miss Grayson came back bearing a lamp, and by chance, as it were, she let its flame fall first upon the face of the man and then upon the face of the woman, and she felt a little thrill of disappointment when she noted the result in either case. Miss Charlotte Grayson was one of the gentlest of fine old maids, and her heart was soft within her. She remembered the long vigils of Prescott, his deep sympathy, the substantial help that he had given, and, at last, how, at the risk of his own career, he had helped Lucia Catherwood to escape from Richmond and danger. She marked the coldness and constraint still in the air and was sorry, but knew not what to do.

Prescott rose presently and said good-night, expressing the hope that it would not be long until he again saw them both. Lucia echoed his hope in a like formal fashion and Prescott went out. He did not look back to see if the light from the window still fell across the brown grass, but hurried away in the darkness.

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