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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBefore The Dawn: A Story Of The Fall Of Richmond - Chapter 6. The Pursuit Of A Woman
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Before The Dawn: A Story Of The Fall Of Richmond - Chapter 6. The Pursuit Of A Woman Post by :Refugee Category :Long Stories Author :Joseph A. Altsheler Date :May 2012 Read :1541

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Before The Dawn: A Story Of The Fall Of Richmond - Chapter 6. The Pursuit Of A Woman

CHAPTER VI. THE PURSUIT OF A WOMAN

The silver lining which the reception to General Morgan put in the cloud always hanging over Richmond lasted until the next day, when the content of the capital was rudely shattered by news that important papers had been stolen from the office of the President in the granite building on Bank Street. The exact value of these papers the public did not know, but they contained plans, it was said, of the coming campaign and exact data concerning the military and financial condition of the Confederacy. They were, therefore, of value alike to the Government and its enemies, and great was the noise over their disappearance.

The theft, so supposition ran, was committed while nearly all the officials were present at the festivities of the preceding day, and when the guard about the public offices, never very strict, was relaxed more than usual. But the clue stopped there, and, so far as the city could hear, it bade fair to remain at that point, as the crush of great affairs about to decide the fate of a nation would not permit a long search for such a secret spring, though the leakage might prove expensive.

"Probably some faithless servant who hopes to sell them to the North for a large reward," said Raymond to Prescott.

"I think not," replied Prescott with emphasis.

"Ah, you don't? Then what do you think?" asked Raymond, looking at him sharply.

"A common spy," replied Prescott, not wishing to be surprised into further disclosure of his thought. "You know such must be here. In war no city or army is free from spies."

"But that's a vague generalization," said Raymond, "and leads to nothing."

"True," said Prescott, but he intended a further inquiry into the matter on his own account, and this he undertook as soon as he was free from others. He was perhaps better fitted than any one else in Richmond for the search, because he had sufficient basis upon which to build a plan that might or might not lead to a definite issue.

He went at once to the building in which the President had his office, where, despite the robbery of the day before, he roamed about among the rooms and halls almost as he pleased, inquiring and making suggestions which might draw from the attendants facts to them of slight importance. Yes, visitors had been there the day before, chiefly ladies, some from the farther South, drawn by veneration for their beloved President and a wish to see the severe and simple offices from which the destiny of eleven great States and the fate of the mightiest war the world had ever known was directed.

And who were the ladies? If their names were not known, could not a description of their appearance be given? But no one had any definite memory on these points; they were just like other sightseers. Was there a tall woman with a brown cloak among them? Prescott put this question to several people, but drew no affirmative reply until he found an old coloured man who swept the halls. The sweeper thought that he did remember seeing such a figure on the lower floor, but he was not sure, and with that Prescott was forced to be content.

He felt that his search had not been wholly in vain, leading as it did to what might be called the shadow of a clue, and he resolved to continue it. There had been leaks before in the Confederacy, some by chance and some by design, notably an instance of the former when Lee's message to his lieutenant was lost by the messenger and found by a Northern sympathizer, thus informing his opponents of his plan and compelling him to fight the costly battle of Antietam. If he pursued this matter and prevented its ultimate issue, he might save the Confederacy far more than he could otherwise.

Richmond was a small city, difficult of entrance without a pass, and for two or three days Prescott, abandoning the society of his friends, trod its streets industriously, not neglecting the smallest and meanest among them, seeking always a tall figure in a brown dress and brown cloak. It became an obsession with him, and, as he now recognized, there was even more in it than a mere hunt for a spy. This woman troubled him; he wished to know who and what she was and why she, a girl, had undertaken a task so unfitting. Yet war, he remembered, is a destroyer of conventions, and the mighty upheaval through which the country was going could account for anything.

He found on the third day his reward in another glimpse of the elusive and now tantalizing brown figure under the brow of Shockoe Hill, strolling along casually, as if the beauty of the day and the free air of the heavens alone attracted.

The brown dress had been changed, but the brown cloak remained the same, and Prescott felt a pang of remorse lest he had done an injustice to a woman who looked so innocent. Until this moment he had never seen her face distinctly, save one glimpse, but now the brown hood that she wore was thrown back a little and there shone beneath it clear eyes of darkest blue, illuminating a face as young, as pure, as delicate in outline as he could have wished for in a sister of his own. No harm could be there. A woman who looked like that could not be engaged upon an errand such as he suspected, and he would leave her undisturbed.

But, second thought came. He put together again all the circumstances, the occasions upon which he had seen her, especially that day of the Morgan reception, and his suspicions returned. So he followed her again, at a distance now, lest she should see him, and was led a long and winding chase about the capital.

He did not believe that she knew of his presence, and these vague meanderings through the streets of Richmond confirmed his belief. No one with a clear conscience would leave such crooked tracks, and what other purpose could she have now save to escape observation until the vigilance of the sentinels, on edge over the robbery, should relax a little and she could escape through the cordon of guards that belted in Richmond.

She passed at last into an obscure side street and there entered a little brown wooden cottage. Prescott, watching from the corner, saw her disappear within, and he resolved that he would see her, too, when she came out again. Therefore he remained at the corner or near it, sauntering about now and then to avoid notice, but always keeping within a narrow circle and never losing sight of the house.

He was aware that he might remain there a long time, but he had a stiff will and he was bent upon solving this problem which puzzled and irritated him.

It was about the middle of the afternoon when he traced her to the cottage, but the fragment of the day remaining seemed long to him. Golden shadows hung over the capital, but at last the sun went down in a sea of flame and the cold night of winter gathered all within its folds.

Prescott shivered as he trod his beat like a policeman, but he was of a tenacious fiber, and scorning alike the warnings of cold and hunger, he remained near the house, drawing closer and watching it more zealously than ever in the moonlight. His resolution strengthened, too; he would stay there, if necessary, until the sunset of the next day.

More hours passed at a limping gait. The murmur of the city died, and all was dark and still in the side street. Far into the night, nearly twelve, it must have been, when a figure stole from the cottage and glanced up the little ravine toward the main street, where Prescott stood invisible in the shadow of a high wooden fence.

She did not come by the front door, but stole out from the rear. He was convinced that he was right in his suspicions, and now every action of this unknown woman indicated guilt to his mind.

He crouched down in an angle of the fence, hidden completely by its shadow and the night, though he could see her well as she came up the little street, walking with light step and watching warily on every side. He noticed even then how strong and elastic her figure appeared and that every step was instinct with life and vitality. She must be a woman of more than common will and mould.

She came on, slightly increasing her speed, and did not see the dark figure of the man by the fence. A hood was drawn to her eyes and a fold of her cloak covered her chin. He could see now only a wisp of face like a sickle of a silver moon, and the feeling that disturbed him in the day did not return to him. He again imagined her cold and hard, a woman of middle age, battered by the world, an adventuress who did not fear to go forth in the night upon what he thought unholy errands.

She entered the main street, passed swiftly down it toward the barriers of the city, and Prescott, with noiseless footsteps, came behind; one shadow following the other.

None save themselves seemed to be abroad. The city was steeped in Sabbath calm and a quiet moon rode in a quiet heaven. Prescott did not stop now to analyze his feelings, though he knew that a touch of pique, and perhaps curiosity, too, entered into this pursuit, otherwise he should not have troubled himself so much with an unbidden task. But he was the hunter and she the hunted, and he was alive now with the spirit of the chase.

She turned toward the northwest, where the lines of earthwork were thinnest, where, in fact, a single person might slip between them in the darkness, and Prescott no longer had any doubt that his first surmise was correct. Moreover, she was wary to the last degree, looking cautiously on every side and stopping now and then to see that she was not followed. A fine moon sometimes shed its full rays upon her, and she seemed then to Prescott to be made of silver mist.

He, too, was most wary, knowing the need of it, and allowed the distance between them to lengthen, clinging meanwhile to the shadow of buildings and fences with such effect that when she looked back she never saw the man behind.

They passed into the suburbs, low and straggling, little groups of negro cabins stringing out now and then in the darkness, and the woman, save for her occasional pauses to see if she were pursued, kept a straight and rapid course as if she knew her mind and the way.

They came at last to a spot where there was a small break in the earthworks, and Prescott saw the sentinels walking their beats, gun on shoulder. Then the fugitive paused in the shadow of bushes and high grass and watched attentively.

The pursuit had become curiously unreal to Prescott. It seemed to him that he was in the presence of the mysterious and weird, but he was resolute to follow, and he wished only that she should resume her flight.

When the sentinels were some distance apart she slid between like a shadow, unseen and unheard, and Prescott, an adept at pursuit, quickly followed. They were now beyond the first line of earthworks, though yet within the ring of Richmond's outer defenses, but a single person with ordinary caution might pass the latter, too.

He followed her through bushes and clumps of trees which hung like patches of black on the shoulders of the hills, and he shortened the space between them, not caring now if she saw him, as he no longer had any doubt of her purpose. He looked back once and saw behind him an almost imperceptible glow which he knew was the city, and then on the left beheld another light, the mark of a Confederate fortress, set there as a guard upon the ways.

She turned to the right, leaving the fortress behind, passing into country still more desolate, and Prescott thought it was now time to end the pursuit. He pressed forward with increased speed, and she, hearing the sound of a footstep behind her, looked back. He heard in the dead stillness of the night the low cry of fright that broke from her. She stood for a moment as if the power of motion had departed, and then fled like a wounded deer, with Prescott, more than ever the hunter, swiftly following after.

He was surprised at her speed. Clearly she was long-limbed and strong, and for the time his energies were taxed to keep within sight of her fleeing figure. But he was a man, she a woman, and the pursuit was not long. At last she sank, panting, upon a fallen log, and Prescott approached her, a strange mingling of triumph and pity in his heart.

She looked up and there was appeal in her face. Again he saw how young she was, how pure the light of her eyes, how delicately moulded each feature, and surprise came, as a third emotion, to mingle with the triumph and pity, and not in a less degree.

"Ah, it is you," she said, and in her tone there was no surprise, only aversion.

"Yes, it is I," replied Prescott; "and you seemed to have expected me."

"Not in the way that you think," she replied haughtily.

A wonderful change came over her face, and her figure seemed to stiffen; every lineament, every curve expressed scorn and contempt. Prescott had never before seen such a remarkable transformation, and for the moment felt as if he were the guilty one and she the judge.

While he was wondering thus at her attractive personality, she rose and stood before him.

"Now, sir," she said, "you shall let me go, Mr.----Mr.----"

"I am Captain Robert Prescott of the Confederate Army," said Prescott. "I have nothing to conceal," and then he added significantly: "At present I am on voluntary duty."

"I have seen enough of you," she said in the same unbending tone. "You have given me a fright, but now I am recovered and I bid you leave me."

"You mistake, Madam or Miss," replied Prescott calmly, recovering his composure; "you and I have not seen enough of each other. I am a gentleman, I hope, at least I have passed for one, and I have no intent to insult you."

"What is your wish?" she asked, still standing before him, straight and tall, her tone as cold as ice.

"Truly," thought Prescott, "she can carry it off well, and if such business as this must be done by a woman, hers is a mind for the task." But aloud he said: "Madam--or--Miss--you see you are less frank than I; you do not supply the omission--certain documents important to the Government which I serve, and as important to our enemies if they can get them, were taken yesterday from the office of the President. Kindly give them to me, as I am a better custodian for them than you are."

Her face remained unchanged. Not by a single quiver of the lip or gleam of the eye did she show emotion, and in the same cold, even voice she replied:

"You are dreaming, Captain Prescott. Some freak of the fancy has mastered you. I know nothing of the documents. How could I, a woman, do such a thing?"

"It is not more strange than your flight from Richmond alone and at such an hour."

"What signifies that? These are times of war and strange times demand strange conduct. Besides, it concerns me alone."

"Not so," replied Prescott firmly; "give me the papers."

Her face now changed from its calm. Variable emotions shot over it. Prescott, as he stood there before her, was conscious of admiration. What vagary had sent a girl who looked like this upon such a task!

"The papers," he repeated.

"I have none," she replied.

"If you do not give them to me I shall be compelled to search you, and that, I fancy, you do not wish. But I assure you that I shall do it."

His tone was resolute. He saw a spark of fire in her eye, but he did not quail.

"I shall turn my back," he added, "and if the papers are not produced in one minute's time I shall begin my search."

"Would you dare?" she asked with flashing eyes.

"I certainly would," he replied. "I trust that I know my duty."

But in a moment the light in her eyes changed. The look there was an appeal, and it expressed confidence, too. Prescott felt a strange tremour. Her glance rested full upon him and it was strangely soft and pathetic.

"Captain Prescott," she said, "upon my honour--by the memory of my mother, I have no papers."

"Then what have you done with them?" said Prescott.

"I have never had any."

He looked at her doubtfully. He believed and yet he did not. But her eyes shone with the light of purity and truth.

"Then why are you out here at such an hour, seeking to escape from Richmond?" he asked at last.

"Lest I bring harm to another," she said proudly.

Prescott laughed slightly and at once he saw a deep flush dye her face, and then involuntarily he made an apology, feeling that he was in the presence of one who was his equal.

"But I must have those papers," he said.

"Then keep your threat," she said, and folding her arms proudly across her breast she regarded him with a look of fire.

Prescott felt the blood rising in his face. He could not fulfil his menace and now he knew it.

"Come," he said abruptly, "you must go back to Richmond with me. I can take you safely past the earthworks and back to the house from which you came; there my task shall end, but not my duty."

However, he comforted himself with the thought that she had not passed the last line of defenses and perhaps could not do so at another time.

The girl said nothing, but walked obediently beside him, tall, straight and strong. She seemed now to be subdued and ready to go wherever he directed.

Prescott recognized that his own position in following the course that he had chosen was doubtful. He might turn her over to the nearest military post and then his troubles concerning her would be at an end; but he could not choose that alternative save as a last resort. She had made an appeal to him and she was a woman, a woman of no ordinary type.

The night was far gone, but the moon was full, and now spread its veil of silver mist over all the hills and fields. The earth swam in an unreal light and again the woman beside Prescott became unreal, too. He felt that if he should reach out his hand and touch her he would touch nothing but air, and then he smiled to himself at such a trick of fancy.

"I have given you my name," he said. "Now what shall I call you?"

"Let it go for the time," she replied.

"I must, since I have no way to compel you," he said.

They approached the inner line of earthworks through which they had passed in the flight and pursuit, and now Prescott felt it his duty to find the way back, without pausing to reflect on the strangeness of the fact that he, a Confederate soldier, was seeking to escape the notice of the Confederate pickets for the sake of a spy belonging to the other side.

They saw again the sentinels walking back and forth, gun on shoulder, and waiting until they were farthest apart, Prescott touched the woman on the arm. "Now is our time," he said, and they slid with soundless footsteps between the sentinels and back into Richmond.

"That was well done!" said Prescott joyfully. "You can shut an army out of a town, but you can't close the way to one man or two."

"Captain Prescott," said the girl, "you have brought me back into Richmond. Why not let me go now?"

"I take you to the house from which you came," he replied.

"That is your Southern chivalry," she said, "the chivalry of which I have heard so much."

He was stung by the keen irony in her tone. She had seemed to him, for awhile, so humble and appealing that he had begun to feel, in a sense, her protector, and he did not expect a jeer at the expense of himself and his section. He had been merciful to her, too! He had sacrificed himself and perhaps injured his cause that he might spare her.

"Is a woman who plays the part of a spy, a part that most men would scorn, entitled to much consideration?" he asked bluntly.

She regarded him with a cold stare, and her figure stiffened as he had seen it stiffen once before.

"I am not a spy," she said, "and I may have reasons, powerful reasons, of which you know nothing, for this attempted flight from Richmond to-night," she replied; "but that does not mean that I will explain them to you."

Prescott stiffened in his turn and said with equal coldness:

"I request you, Madam or Miss, whichever you may be, to come with me at once, as we waste time here."

He led the way through the silent city, lying then under the moonlight, back to the little street in which stood the wooden cottage, neither speaking on the way. They passed nobody, not even a dog howled at them, and when they stood before the cottage it, too, was dark and silent. Then Prescott said:

"I do not know who lives there and I do not know who you are, but I shall consider my task ended, for the present at least, when its doors hide you from me."

He spoke in the cold, indifferent tone that he had assumed when he detected the irony in her voice. But now she changed again.

"Perhaps I owe you some thanks, Captain Prescott," she said.

"Perhaps, but you need not give them. I trust, madam, and I do not say it with any intent of impoliteness, that we shall never meet again."

"You speak wisely, Captain Prescott," she said.

But she raised the hood that hid her brow and gave him a glance from dark blue eyes that a second time brought to Prescott that strange tremour at once a cause of surprise and anger. Then she opened the door of the cottage and disappeared within.

He stood for a few moments in the street looking at the little house and then he hurried to his home.

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