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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBefore The Dawn: A Story Of The Fall Of Richmond - Chapter 28. The Way Out
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Before The Dawn: A Story Of The Fall Of Richmond - Chapter 28. The Way Out Post by :Refugee Category :Long Stories Author :Joseph A. Altsheler Date :May 2012 Read :2030

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Before The Dawn: A Story Of The Fall Of Richmond - Chapter 28. The Way Out

CHAPTER XXVIII. THE WAY OUT

Prescott at three o'clock the following afternoon knocked on the door of Mr. Sefton's private office and the response "Come in!" was like his knock, crisp and decisive. Prescott entered and shut the door behind him. The Secretary had been sitting by the window, but he rose and received his guest courteously, extending his hand.

Prescott took the proffered hand. He had learned to look upon the Secretary as his enemy, but he found himself unable to hate him.

"We had an interview in this room once before," said the Secretary, "and it was not wholly unfriendly."

"That is true," replied Prescott, "and as the subject that I have to propose now is of a somewhat kindred nature I hope that we may keep the same tone."

"It rests with you, my dear Captain," said the Secretary meaningly.

Prescott was somewhat embarrassed. He scarcely knew how to begin.

"I came to ask a favour," he said at last.

"The willingness to bestow favours does not always imply the power."

"It is true," said Prescott; "but in this case the will may go with the power. I have come to speak to you of Lucia Catherwood."

"What of her?" asked the Secretary sharply. He was betrayed into a momentary interruption of his habitual calm, but settled himself into his seat and looked keenly across the table at his rival, trying to guess the young man's plan of campaign. Calculating upon the basis of what he himself would do in the same position, he could form no conclusion.

"I have come to speak on her account," continued Prescott, "and though I may be somewhat involved, I wish it to be distinctly understood that I am not to be considered. I ask no favour for myself."

"I see that you have brought your pride with you," said the Secretary dryly.

Prescott flushed a little.

"I trust that I always have it with me," he said.

"We are frank with each other."

"It is best so, and I have come for yet plainer speaking. I am well aware, Mr. Sefton, that you know all there is to be known concerning Miss Catherwood and myself."

"'All' is a large statement."

"I refer to the facts of Miss Catherwood's former presence in Richmond, what she did while here, and how she escaped from the city. You know that I helped her."

"And by doing so you put yourself in an extremely delicate position, should any one choose to relate the facts to the Government."

"Precisely. But again it is Miss Catherwood of whom I am speaking, not myself. You may speak of me, you may denounce me at any time you choose, but I ask you, Mr. Sefton, to respect the secret of Miss Catherwood. She has told me that her acts were almost involuntary; she came here because she had nowhere else to come--to her cousin, Miss Grayson. She admits that she was once tempted to act as a spy--that the impulse was strong within her. You know the depth of her Northern sympathies, the strength of her nature, and how deeply she was moved--but that is all she admits. This impulse has now passed. Would you ruin her here, as you can do, where she has so many friends, and where it is possible for her life to be happy?"

A thin smile appeared on the face of the Secretary.

"You will pardon me if I call this a somewhat extraordinary appeal, Captain Prescott," he said. "You seem to show a deep interest in Miss Catherwood, and yet if I am to judge by what I saw the other night, and before, your devotion is for another lady."

Prescott flushed an angry red; but remembering his resolve he replied quietly:

"It is not a question of my devotion to anybody, Mr. Sefton. I merely speak for Miss Catherwood, believing that she is in your power."

"And what induced you to believe that I would betray her?"

"I have not indicated such a belief. I merely seek to provide against a contingency."

The Secretary pondered, lightly tapping the table with the forefinger of his right hand. Prescott observed his thin, almost ascetic face, smooth-shaven and finely cut. Both General Wood and the Secretary were mountaineers, but the two faces were different; one represented blunt strength and courage; the other suppleness, dexterity, meditation, the power of silent combination. Had the two been blended here would have been one of the world's giant figures.

"We have begun by being frank; we should continue so," said the Secretary presently. "We seem doomed to be rivals always, Captain Prescott; at least we can give each other the credit of good taste. At first it was Helen Harley who took our fancy--a fancy it was and nothing more--but now I think a deeper passion has been stirred in us by the same object, Miss Catherwood. You see, I am still frank. I know very well that you care nothing for Mrs. Markham. It is but a momentary folly, the result of jealousy or something akin to it--and here I am, resolved to triumph over you, not because I would enjoy your defeat, but because my own victories are sweet to me. If I happen to hold in my hand certain cards which chance has not dealt to you, can you blame me if I play them?"

"Will you spare Miss Catherwood?" asked Prescott.

"Should I not play my cards?" repeated the Secretary.

"I see," said Prescott. "You told me that I brought my pride with me. Well, I did not bring all of it. I left at home enough to permit me to ask this favour of you. But I was wrong; I should not have made the request."

"I have not refused it yet," said the Secretary. "I merely do not wish to pledge myself. When a man makes promises he places bonds on his own arms, and I prefer mine free; but since I seek Miss Catherwood as a wife, is it not a fair inference that her fame is as dear to me as it is to you?"

Prescott was compelled to admit the truth of this statement, but it did not cover all the ground. He felt that the Secretary, while not betraying Lucia, would in some way use his knowledge of her for his own advantage. This was the thought at the bottom of his mind, but he could not speak it aloud to the Secretary. Any man would repel such an intimation at once as an insult, and the agile mind of James Sefton would make use of it as another strong trump card in playing his game.

"Then you will make no promise?" asked Prescott.

"Promises are poor coin," replied the Secretary, "hardly better than our Confederate bills. Let me repeat that the fame of Lucia Catherwood is as dear to me as it is to you. With that you should be content."

"If that is all, good-day," said Prescott, and he went out, holding his head very high. The Secretary saw defiance in his attitude.

Mr. Sefton went the following evening to the little house in the cross street, seeking an interview with Lucia Catherwood, and she, holding many things in mind, was afraid to deny him.

"It is your friend, Captain Prescott, of whom I wish to speak," he said.

"Why my friend rather than the friend of anybody else?" she asked.

"He has been of service to you, and for that reason I wish to be of service to him. There has been talk about him. He may find himself presently in a very dangerous position."

The face of Lucia Catherwood flushed very red and then became equally pale. The Secretary noticed how her form stiffened, nor did he fail to observe the single angry flash from her eyes. "She cares very much for that man," was his mental comment. The Secretary was not less frank with himself in his love than in other matters.

"If you have come here merely to discuss Richmond gossip I shall beg you to leave at once," she said coldly.

"You misunderstand me," replied the Secretary. "I do not speak of any affair of the heart that Captain Prescott may have. It is no concern of mine where his affections may fall, even if it be in an unlicensed quarter. The difficulty to which I allude is of another kind. There is malicious gossip in Richmond; something has leaked out in some way that connects him with an affair of a spy last winter. Connect is scarcely the word, because that is too definite; this is exceedingly vague. Harley spoke of it the other night, and although he did not call Prescott by name, his manner indicated that he was the man meant. Harley seems to have received a little nebulous information from a certain quarter, not enough upon which to take action had one the malice to wish it, but enough to indicate that he might obtain more from the same source."

The Secretary paused, and his expression was one of mingled concern and sympathy. A young man whom he liked was about to fall into serious difficulties and he would save him from them if he could. Yet they understood each other perfectly. A single glance, a spark from steel like that which had passed between Prescott and the Secretary, passed now between these two. The Secretary was opening another mine in the arduous siege that he had undertaken; if he could not win by treaty he would by arms, and now he was threatening her through Prescott.

She did not flinch and therefore she won his increased admiration. Her natural colour returned and she met his glance firmly. The life of Lucia Catherwood had been hard and she was trained to repression and self-reliance.

"I do not understand why you should speak of this to me," she said.

"Merely that you might exert your influence in his favour."

She was measuring him then with a glance not less penetrating than his own. Why should she seek now to save Prescott? But she would, if she could. This was a threat that the Secretary might keep, but not at once, and she would seek time.

"Captain Prescott has done me a great service," she said, "and naturally I should be grateful to any who did as much for him."

"Perhaps some one who will do as much can be found," he said. "It may be that I shall speak to him of you later and then he will claim the reward that you promise."

It was on her lips to say that she promised nothing except gratitude, but she withheld the words. It suddenly seemed fair to a singularly honest mind to meet craft with craft. She had heard of the military phrase, "in the air"; she would leave the Secretary in the air. So she merely said:

"I am not in Captain Prescott's confidence, but I know that he will thank you."

"He should," said the Secretary dryly, and left her.

Almost at the very moment that the Secretary was going to the Grayson cottage Prescott was on his way to Winthrop's newspaper office.

There was little to be done, and a group including General Wood, who had come that afternoon from Petersburg, sat in the old fashion by the stove and talked of public affairs, especially the stage into which the war had now come. The heat of the room felt grateful, as a winter night was falling outside, and in the society of his friends Prescott found himself becoming more of an optimist than he had been for some days. Cheerfulness is riveted in such a physical base as youth and strength, and Prescott was no exception. He could even smile behind his hand when he saw General Wood draw forth the infallible bowie-knife, pull a piece of pine from a rickety box that held fuel for the stove and begin to whittle from it long, symmetrical shavings that curled beautifully. This was certain evidence that General Wood, for the evening at least, was inclined to look on the bright side of life.

Unto this placid group came two men, walking heavily up the wooden stairs and showing signs of mental wear. Their eyebrows were raised with surprise at the sight of Prescott, but they made no comment. They were Harley and Redfield.

Harley approached Winthrop with a jovial air.

"I've found you a new contributor to your paper and he's ready to bring you a most interesting piece of news."

Winthrop flipped the ash off his cigar and regarded Harley coolly.

"Colonel!" he said, "I'm always grateful for good news, but I don't take it as a favour. If it comes to the pinch I can write my newspaper all by myself."

Harley changed countenance and his tone changed too.

"It's in the interest of justice," he said, "and it will be sure to attract attention at the same time."

"I imagine that it must be in the interest of justice when you and Mr. Redfield take so much trouble to secure its publication," said Winthrop; "and I imagine that I'm not risking much when I also say that you are the brilliant author who has written the little piece."

"It's this," said Harley. "It's about a man who has been paying too ardent attentions to a married woman--no names given, of course; he is a captain, a young man who is here on leave, and she is the wife of a general who is at the front and can't look after his own honour. Gossip says, too, that the captain has been concerned in something else that will bring him up with a jerk if the Government hears of it. It's all written out here. Oh, it will make a fine stir!"

Prescott half rose from his seat, but sank back and remained quiet. Again he imitated the Secretary's example of self-repression and waited to see what Winthrop would do. General Wood trimmed off a shaving so long that it coiled all the way around his wrist. Then he took it off carefully, dropped it on the floor with the others, and at once went to work whittling a new one.

"Let's see the article," said Winthrop.

Harley handed it to him and he read it carefully.

"A fine piece of work," he said; "who wrote it--you or Redfield?"

"Oh, we did it together," replied Harley with a smile of appreciation.

Redfield uttered a denial, but it was too late.

"A fine piece of work," repeated Winthrop, "admirably adapted to the kindling of fires. Unfortunately my fire is already kindled, but it can help on the good cause."

With that he cast the paper into the stove.

Harley uttered an oath.

"What do you mean?" he cried.

"I mean that you can't use my paper to gratify your private revenge. If you want to do that sort of thing you must get a newspaper of your own."

"I think you are infernally impertinent."

"And I think, Vincent Harley, that you are a damned fool. You want a duel with the man about whom you've written this card, but for excellent reasons he will decline to meet you. Still I hate to see a man who is looking for a fight go disappointed, and just to oblige you I'll fight you myself."

"But I've no quarrel with you," said Harley sullenly.

"Oh, I can give you ample cause," said Winthrop briskly. "I can throw this water in your face, or if you prefer it I can give you a blow on the cheek, a hard one, too. Take your choice."

Prescott arose.

"I'm much obliged to you, Winthrop," he said, "for taking up my quarrel and trying to shield me. All of you know that I am meant in that card which he calls such 'a piece of good news.' I admire Colonel Harley's methods, and since he is so persistent I will fight him on the condition that the meeting and its causes be kept absolutely secret. If either of us is wounded or killed let it be said that it was in a skirmish with the enemy."

"Why these conditions?" asked Redfield.

"For the sake of others. Colonel Harley imagines that he has a grievance against me. He has none, and if he had the one that he imagines he is certainly in no position to call me to account. Since he will have it no other way, I will fight him."

"I object," said Winthrop with temper. "I have a prior claim. Colonel Harley has tried to use me, an unoffending third party, as the instrument of his private revenge, and that is a deadly offense. I have the reputation of being a hot-blooded man and I intend to live up to my reputation."

A glass of water was standing by the cooler. He lifted it and hurled the contents into Harley's face. The man started back, strangling and coughing, then wiped the water from his face with a handkerchief.

"Do you dispute the priority of my claim over Captain Prescott?" asked Winthrop.

"I do not," said Harley. "Mr. Redfield will call on you again in my behalf within an hour."

Prescott was irresolute.

"Winthrop," he said, "I can't permit this."

"Oh, yes, you can," said Winthrop, "because you can't help yourself."

Then General Wood upreared his gigantic form and ran the fingers of his left hand solemnly through his black whiskers. He put his bowie-knife in its sheath, brushed the last shaving off his trousers and said:

"But there's somebody who can help it, an' I'm the man. What's more, I mean to do it. Colonel Harley, General Lee transferred your regiment to my command yesterday and I need you at the front. I order you to report for duty at once, and I won't have any delay about it either. You report to me in Petersburg to-morrow or I'll know the reason why; I go myself at daylight, but I'll leave a request with the Government that Captain Prescott also be despatched to me. I've got work for him to do."

The man spoke with the utmost dignity and his big black eyes shot fire.

"The king commands," said Raymond softly.

Wood put his hand on Harley's arm.

"Colonel," he said, "you are one of my lieutenants, and we're thinkin' about a movement that I've got to talk over with you. You'll come with me now to the Spotswood Hotel, because there's no time to waste. I don't reckon you or I will get much sleep to-night, but if we don't sleep to-night we'll doze in the saddle to-morrow."

"The king not only commands, but knows what to command," said Raymond softly.

It was the general of the battlefield, the man of lightning force who spoke, and there was none who dared to disobey. Harley, himself a brilliant soldier though nothing else, yielded when he felt the hand of steel on his arm, and acknowledged the presence of a superior force.

"Very well, General," he said respectfully; "I am at your service."

"Good-night, gentlemen," said Wood to the others, and he added laughingly to the editors: "Don't you boys print anythin' until you know what you're printin'," and to Prescott: "I reckon you'd better say good-by to-morrow to your friends in Richmond. I don't allow that you'll have more'n a couple of days longer here," and then to Harley: "Come along, Colonel; an' I s'pose you're goin' out with us, too, Mr. Redfield."

He swept up the two with his glance and the three left together, their footsteps sounding on the rickety steps until they passed into the street.

"There goes a man, a real man," said Raymond with emphasis. "Winthrop, it takes such as he to reduce fellows like you and Harley to their proper places."

"It is unkind of him to kidnap Harley in that summary fashion," said Winthrop ruefully. "I really wanted to put a bullet through him. Not in a vital place--say through the shoulder or the fleshy part of the arm, where it would let blood flow freely. That's what he needs."

But Prescott was devoutly thankful to Wood, and especially for his promise that he, too, should speedily be sent to the front. What he wished most of all now was to escape from Richmond.

The promise was kept, the order to report to General Wood himself in Petersburg came the next day and he was to start on the following morning.

He took courage to call upon Lucia and found her at home, sitting silently in the little parlour, the glow from the fire falling across her hair and tinting it with deep gleams of reddish gold. Whether she was surprised to see him he could not judge, her face remaining calm and no movement that would betray emotion escaping her.

"Miss Catherwood," he said, "I have come to bid you farewell. I rejoin the army to-morrow and I am glad to go."

"I, too, am glad that you are going," she said, shading her eyes with her hands as if to protect them from the glow of the fire.

"There is one thing that I would ask of you," he said, "and it is that you remember me as I was last winter, and not as I have appeared to you since I returned from the South. That was real; this is false."

His voice trembled, and she did not speak, fearing that her own would do the same.

"I have made mistakes," he said. "I have yielded to rash impulses, and have put myself in a false position before the world; but I have not been criminal in anything, either in deed or intent. Even now what I remember best, the memory that I value most, is when you and I fled together from Richmond in the cold and the snow, when you trusted me and I trusted you."

She wished to speak to him then, remembering the man, stained with his own blood, whom she had carried in her strong young arms off the battlefield. With a true woman's heart she liked him better when she was acting for him than when he was acting for her; but something held her back--the shadow of a fair woman with lurking green depths in her blue eyes.

"Lucia!" exclaimed Prescott passionately, "have you nothing to say to me? Can't you forget my follies and remember at least the few good things that I have done?"

"I wish you well. I cannot forget the great service that you did me, and I hope that you will return safely from a war soon to end."

"You might wish anybody that, even those whom you have never seen," he said.

Then with a few formal words he went away, and long after he was gone she still sat there staring into the fire, the gleams of reddish gold in her hair becoming fainter and fainter.

Prescott left Richmond the next morning.

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