He spoke weakly, but in a clear voice and a most imperative manner. He took his hand off Caroline’s shoulder. If he were to deal with this, so grave and critical a situation, he must do it without feminine support. By a great effort he held himself resolutely erect, repeating his command.
“Send her to me.”
“No,” said Caroline faintly, just as Mrs. Varney reëntered the room.
“What is it?” asked the mother.
“He wants to see Edith,” returned the girl.
“Not now, Wilfred,” persisted Mrs. Varney; “you are weak and ill, and Edith – ”
“Tell her to come here, I must see her at once,” repeated Wilfred.
Mrs. Varney instantly divined the reason. Caroline had told him about the telegraph office, but she could see no advantage to be gained by the interview he sought.
“It won’t do you any good, Wilfred,” she said. “She won’t speak a word to anybody about it.”
“I don’t want her to speak to me,” returned the boy grimly; “I am going to speak to her.”
“But some other time, Wilfred,” urged his mother.
“No, no; immediately,” but as no one made the slightest effort toward complying with his demand, “Very well,” he continued, moving slowly toward the door, and by a determined effort keeping his feet. “If you won’t send her to me, I will – ”
“There, there,” said Mrs. Varney, interposing swiftly; “if you must, you must. Since you insist, I will call her.”
“I do insist.”
“Stay with him, dear,” said Mrs. Varney to Caroline, “and I will go and call her.”
“No,” said Wilfred, “I want to see her alone.”
Wondering much at this move of her boy-lover, but somehow feeling that Wilfred represented his father and the law, Caroline, after one long look at his pale but composed face, turned and followed Mrs. Varney out of the room.
After the two women had left him, Wilfred stood motionless for a moment, and then sat wearily down to rest. Scarcely had he done so when he heard shouts far outside in the street, the heavy trampling of feet, cries, directions, orders. He rose and walked over to the window. The cries were growing louder and the footsteps more distinct. Men were approaching the house rapidly, he could tell that they were running. What could they be? What was toward? A suspicion flashed into his mind. It had hardly found lodgment there when Thorne sprang upon the porch, leaped across it, and burst through the other front window into the long room. A pedestal with a bust of Washington on it was standing between the windows. As Thorne sprang back from the window, he knocked against it. It fell to the floor with a tremendous crash.
He stood staring a moment toward the window, listening while the noise of the running feet died away in the distance. It seemed that he had distanced his pursuers or eluded them for the time being. It could only be for a moment, however; he had other things to think of. Well, that moment would be enough; it was all he required. He turned to go down the room, only to find himself confronted by the boy.
It is hard to say which was the more surprised of the two – Thorne at seeing Wilfred, or Wilfred at Thorne’s appearance. The latter’s face was pale, his breath was coming rapidly, he was bareheaded. His brow was covered with sweat, and he had the hunted, desperate look of a man at the very end of his resources. Neither at first said anything to the other. It was Thorne who first recovered himself. He sought to pass by the boy, but Wilfred seized him.
“Halt!” he cried; “you are under arrest.”
“Wait a moment!” gasped out Thorne; “and I will go with you.”
As he spoke he shook himself loose from the weak grasp of the wounded young man, and started down the room.
“Halt, I say!” cried Wilfred. “You are my prisoner.”
“All right, all right,” said Thorne quietly; “your prisoner, anything you like. Here,” – he drew his revolver from his pocket and pushed it into the boy’s hand; “take this, shoot the life out of me, if you wish; but give me a chance to see my brother first.”
“Yes. He was shot here to-night. I want one look at his face; that’s all.”
“Where is he?”
“Maybe they put him in the room across the hall yonder.”
“What would he be doing there?” asked Wilfred, not yet apprehending the situation from Thorne’s remarks.
“Nothing,” said the other bitterly; “I guess he is dead.”
“Wait,” said Wilfred. He stepped across the hall, keeping Thorne covered with his revolver. “Don’t move; I will see.” He threw open the door, glanced in, and then came back. “It’s a lie!” he said.
“What!” exclaimed Thorne.
“There is no one in there. It is just one of your tricks. Call the guard!” He shouted toward the hall, and then toward the window. “Sergeant of the Guard! Captain Thorne is here, in this house.”
He stepped out on the porch and shouted again with astonishing power for one so painfully wounded as he. Then the boy felt a faintness come over him. He sank down on a seat on the porch and leaned his head against the house, and sought to recover his strength, fighting a desperate battle; fearful lest Thorne should escape while he was thus helpless.
It was Edith Varney who first replied to his frantic summons by hurrying into the room. She was as much surprised to see Thorne as he was to see her. Her heart leaped in her bosom at the sight of him, and she stared at him as at a wraith or a vision.
“You wouldn’t tell me an untruth, would you?” said Thorne, coming closer to her. “He was shot in this room an hour ago, my brother Henry. I’d like to take one look at his dead face before they send me the same way. Where is he? Can’t you tell me that much, Miss Varney? Is he in the house?”
Edith looked at his face, shook her head a little, and moved away from him toward the table. Thorne threw up his hands in a gesture of despair, and turned toward the window. As he did so, Wilfred, having recovered from his faintness a little, called out again:
“The guard! The escaped prisoner, Captain Thorne!”
This time his frantic outcry was answered. At last they were closing in upon the wretched man. He turned from the window and faced the girl, scarcely less wretched than he, and laughed shortly.
“They are on the scent, you see,” he said; “they’ll get me in a minute; and when they do, it won’t take them long to finish me off. And as that’ll be the last of me, Miss Varney, maybe you’ll listen to one thing. We can’t all die a soldier’s death, in the roar and glory of battle, our friends about us, under the flag we love. No, not all! Some of us have orders for another kind of work, dare-devil, desperate work, the hazardous schemes of the Secret Service. We fight our battles alone, no comrades to cheer us on, ten thousand to one against us, death at every turn. If we win, we escape with our lives; if we lose, we are dragged out and butchered like dogs. No soldier’s grave, not even a trench with the rest of the boys – alone, despised, forgotten! These were my orders, Miss Varney; this is the death I die to-night, and I don’t want you to think for one moment that I am ashamed of it; no, not for one moment.”
The sound of heavy feet drew nearer. Wilfred called again, while the two in the room confronted each other, the man erect, and the woman, too. A strange pain was in her heart. At least here was a man, but before she could say a word in answer to his impassioned defence, the room filled with soldiers.
“There’s your man, Sergeant,” said Wilfred; “I hand him over to you.”
“You are my prisoner,” said the Sergeant.
His command was reinforced by a number of others, including Corporal Matson and his squad, and some of the men of the Provost Guard, who had been chasing Thorne through the streets. At this juncture, Arrelsford, panting and breathless, also joined the company in the drawing-room. He came in rapidly, thrusting aside those in his way.
“Where is he?” he cried. “Ah!” he exclaimed triumphantly, as his eye fell upon Thorne, standing quietly, surrounded by the soldiers. “We’ve got him, have we?”
“Young Mr. Varney, here, took him, sir,” said the Sergeant.
“So,” returned Arrelsford to his prisoner, “run down at last. Now, you will find out what it costs to play your little game with our Government Telegraph lines.”
But Thorne did not turn his head, although Arrelsford spoke almost in his ear. He looked straight at Edith Varney, and she returned his glance.
“Don’t waste any time, Sergeant,” said Arrelsford furiously. “Take him down the street and shoot him full of lead. Out with him.”
“Very well, sir,” said the Sergeant.
But Wilfred interposed. He came forward, Thorne’s revolver still in his hand.
“No,” he said decisively; “whatever he is, whatever he has done, he has the right to a trial.”
“The head of the Secret Service Department said to me if I found him, to shoot him at sight,” snarled Arrelsford.
“I don’t care what General Tarleton said. I captured this man; he’s in this house, and he is not going out unless he is treated fairly.”
The Sergeant looked uncertainly from Wilfred to Arrelsford. Mrs. Varney, who had entered with the rest of them, and who now stood by her daughter’s side, looked her approval at her son. The mettle of his distinguished father was surely in his veins.
“Well done,” said the woman softly, but not so softly that those about her did not hear; “your father would have spoken so.”
Arrelsford came to a sudden decision.
“Well, let him have a trial. We’ll give him a drumhead court-martial, but it will be the quickest ever held on earth. Stack your muskets here, and organise a court,” he said.
“Fall in here,” cried the Sergeant, at which the men quickly took their places. “Attention! Stack arms! Two of you take the prisoner. Where shall we find a vacant room, ma’am?”
“Across the hall,” said Mrs. Varney; “where the ladies were sewing this evening.”
“Very good,” said the Sergeant. “Left face! Forward, march!”
Arrelsford and Wilfred followed the soldiers.
“I am the chief witness,” said the former.
“I will see that he gets fair play,” remarked the latter, as they marched out.
“I must go to Howard,” said Mrs. Varney; “this excitement is killing him; I am afraid he will hardly survive the night. Caroline is with him now.”
“Very well, mother,” said Edith, going slowly up the now deserted room and standing in the window, looking out into the night, thinking her strange, appalling thoughts. They would convict him, shoot him, there was no hope. What had he said? He was not ashamed of his work. It was the highest duty and involved the highest and noblest sacrifice, because it made the greatest demand; and they would shoot him like a mad dog.
“Oh, God!” she whispered; “if some bullet would only find my heart as well.”
It so happened that the soldiers who had thrust old Jonas back in his closet, whence they had taken him a short time before, in their haste, had failed to lock the door upon him. The negro, who had listened for the click of the key in the lock, had at once known of their carelessness. So soon as they had withdrawn from the room, and their search took them to other parts of the house, he had opened the door cautiously and had made his way toward the hall by the drawing-room, which he felt instinctively was the place where the exciting events of the night would soon culminate.
Thorne’s entry and the circumstances of his apprehension had been so engrossing that no one had given a thought to Jonas, or to any other part of the house, for that matter, and he had been able to see everything through the hangings. He was a quick-witted old negro, and he knew, of course, that there would be but one verdict given by such a court-martial as had assembled. Now, the men who composed the court would of necessity be detailed to carry out their own sentence. The long room was filled with stacks of guns. Every soldier, even those under the command of Corporal Matson in Arrelsford’s Department, had gone to the court-martial. There was nothing else of interest to attract them in the house. Every gun was there in that room, unguarded.
A recent capture of a battalion of Federal riflemen had put the Confederates into possession of a few hundred breech-loading weapons, not of the latest and most approved pattern, for the cartridges in these guns were in cardboard shells, but still better than any the South possessed. These rifles had been distributed to some of the companies in garrison at Richmond, and it so happened that the men of the Secret Service squad and the Provost Guard had received most of them. Every gun in the stacks was of this pattern.
In his earlier days, Jonas had been his young master’s personal attendant, his body-servant, and as such he had often gone hunting with him. During the war he had frequently visited him in camp, charged with messages of one sort or another, and he knew all about weapons.
As he stared into the long room after the departing soldiers, he did not know Edith Varney was still there, nor could he see her at all, for she was on the other side of the curtain, looking out of the window, and it seemed to him that the room was empty.
Jonas was a very intelligent negro, and while under any ordinary circumstances his devotion to his master and mistress would have been absolutely sure, yet he had become tinged with the ideas of freedom and liberty in the air. He had assisted many and many a Union prisoner. Captain Thorne, by his pleasant ways and nice address, had won his heart. And he himself was deeply concerned personally that the young man should not be punished for his attempt to bring about the success of the Union cause, which Jonas felt to be his own cause. Therefore he had a double motive to secure the freedom of his principal if it were in any way possible. Of course, any direct interposition was out of the question. He was still only a slave. His open interference would have been fruitless of any consequences except bad ones for himself, and he was already more than compromised by the events of the night. What he was to do he must do by stealth.
As he stared at the pyramids of guns, listening to the hum of conversation from the room across the hall – the door had been fortunately closed – a thought came to him. He pushed aside the portières with which he had concealed himself, and entered the room by the back door. He glanced about apprehensively. He was not burdened with any overplus of physical courage, and what he did was the more remarkable, especially in view of the fact that the soldiers might return at any moment and catch him at what they could very easily construe as an act of high treason, which would result in his blood being mingled with that of Captain Thorne, in the same gutter, probably.
He moved with cat-like swiftness in the direction of the first stack of rules. He knelt down by it, seized the nearest gun, which lay across the other three, swiftly opened the breech-plug, drew out the cartridge, looked at it a moment, put the end of it in his mouth, and crunched his strong white teeth down upon it. When he finished, he had the leaden bullet in his mouth, and the cardboard shell in his hand. He replaced this latter in the chamber and closed the breech-plug. A smile of triumph irradiated his sable features. The gun could be fired, but whatever or whoever stood in front of it would be unharmed.
He had not been quite sure that he could do this, but the result of his experiment convinced him. All the other guns were of the same character, and, given the time, he could render them all harmless. He did not waste time in reflection, but started in with the same process on the others. He worked with furious haste until every bullet had been bitten off every cartridge. It would have been impossible to have drawn the bullets of the ordinary muzzle-loading rifle, or army musket, in twenty times the period.
The noise of Jonas’ first entrance had attracted the attention of Edith Varney. She had turned with the intention of going into the room, but, on second thought, she had concealed herself further behind the curtains. Between the wall and the edge of the portières was a little space, through which she peered. She saw the whole performance, and divined instantly what was in Jonas’ mind, and what the result of his actions would be.
In an incredibly short time, considering what he had to do, the old negro finished his task. He rose to his feet and stood staring triumphantly at the long stacks of guns. He even permitted himself a low chuckle, with a glance across the hall to the court. Well, he had at least done something worthy of a man’s approbation in this dramatic game in which he was so humble a player.
Now Edith Varney, who had observed him with mingled admiration and resentment – resentment that he had proven false to her people, her family; and admiration at his cleverness – stepped further into the room as he finished the last musket, and, as he started toward the lower end of the room to make good his escape, she coughed slightly.
Jonas stopped and wheeled about instantly, frightened to death, of course, but somewhat relieved when he saw who it was who had had him under observation, and who had interrupted him. He realised at once that it was no use to attempt to conceal anything, and he threw himself upon the mercy of his young mistress, and, with great adroitness, sought to enlist her support for what he had done.
“Dey’s gwine to shoot him, shoot him down lak a dog, missy,” he said in a low, pleading whisper, “an’ Ah couldn’t b’ah to see ’em do dat. Ah wouldn’t lak to see him killed, Ah wouldn’t lak it noways. You won’t say nuffin’ about dis fo’ de sake ob old Jonas, what always was so fond ob you ebah sense you was a little chile. You see, Ah jes’ tek dese yeah” – he extended his hand, full of leaden bullets – “an’ den dey won’t be no ha’m cum to him whatsomebah, les’n dey loads ’em up agin. When dey shoots, an’ he jes’ draps down, dey’ll roll him obah into de guttah, an’ be off lak mad. Den Ah kin be neah by an’” – he stopped, and, if his face had been full of apprehension before, it now became transformed with anxiety. “How’s he gwine to know?” he asked. “If he don’t drap down, dey’ll shoot him agin, an’ dey’ll hab bullets in dem next time. What Ah gwine to do, how Ah gwine to tell him?”
Edith had listened to him as one in a dream. Her face had softened a little. After all, this negro had done this thing for the man she – God forgive her – still loved.
“You tell him,” whispered Jonas; “you tell him, it’s de on’y way. Tell him to drap down. Do dis fo’ ole Jonas, honey; do it fo’ me, an’ Ah’ll be a slabe to you as long as Ah lib, no mattah what Mars Linkum does. Listen,” said the old man, as a sudden commotion was heard in the room across the hall. “Dey gwine to kill him. You do it.”
Nothing could be gained by remaining. He had said all he could, used every argument possible to him, and, realising his danger, he turned and disappeared through the back door into the dark rear hall. There was a scraping of chairs and a trampling of feet, a few words heard indistinctly, and then the voice of the old Sergeant:
“Fall in! Right Face! Forward – March!”
Before they came into the hall, Jonas made one last appeal. He thrust his old black face through the portieres, his eyes rolling, his jaws working.
“Fo’ Gawd’s sek, missy, tell him to drap down,” he whispered as he disappeared.
Wilfred, not waiting for the soldiers, came into the room, and Caroline followed him.
“Where’s mother?” asked Wilfred.
“She’s gone up to Howard; I think he is dying,” said Caroline. “She can’t leave him for anybody or anything.”
If Edith heard, she gave no sign. She stood motionless on the other side of the room, and stared toward the door; they would bring him back that way, and she could see him again.
“Wilfred dear,” asked Caroline, “what are they going to do?”
“Out in the street.”
Caroline’s low exclamation of pity struck a responsive chord in Wilfred’s heart. He nodded gravely, and bit his lips. He did not feel particularly happy over the situation, evidently, but the conversation was interrupted by the entrance of the men. They came into the room in a double line, Thorne walking easily between them. They entered the room by the door, marched down it, came back, and ranged themselves opposite the stacks of arms.
“Halt!” cried the Sergeant. “Right Face! Take arms! Carry arms! Left face! Forward – March!”
Edith had not taken her eyes off Thorne since he had reëntered the room. She had watched him as if fascinated. He had shot at her one quick, searching glance, and then had kept his eyes averted, not because he would not like to look at her, but because he could not bear himself like a man in these last swift terrible seconds, if he did.
As the men moved to carry out their last order, the girl awoke to her surroundings.
“Wait,” she said. “Who is in command!”
“I am, miss,” answered the Sergeant.
Arrelsford, who had entered with the soldiers, started at this, but he said nothing.
“I’d like to speak to the – the prisoner,” continued Edith.
“I’m sorry, miss,” answered the Sergeant respectfully, but abruptly; “but we haven’t the time.”
“Only a word, Sergeant,” pleaded the girl, stepping close to him, and laying her hand on his arm.
The Sergeant looked at her a moment. What he saw in her eyes touched his very soul.
“Very well,” he said. “Right face! Fall out the prisoner!”
Thorne stepped out in front of the ranks.
“Now, Miss,” said the Sergeant; “be quick about it.”
“No!” said Wilfred sternly.
“Oh, Wilfred!” cried Caroline, laying her hand on his arm. “Let her speak to him, let her say good-bye.”
There was an instant’s pause. Wilfred looked from Caroline’s flushed, eager face, to Edith’s pale one. After all, what was the harm? He nodded his head, but no one moved. It was the Sergeant who broke the silence.
“The lady,” he said, looking at Thorne, and pointing at Edith. As he spoke, he added another order. “Matson, take your squad and guard the windows. Prisoner, you can go over to the side of the room.”
The Sergeant’s purpose was plain. It would give Edith Varney an opportunity to say what she had to say to Thorne in a low voice if she chose, without the possibility of being overheard. The initiative must come from the woman, the man realised. It was Edith who turned and walked slowly across the room, Thorne followed her more rapidly, and the two stood side by side. They were thus so placed by the kindness of the veteran that she could speak her words, and no one could hear what they were.
“One of the servants,” began the girl in a low, utterly passionless and expressionless voice, “Jonas, has taken the bullets from the guns. If you will drop when they fire, you can escape with your life.”
In exactly the same level, almost monotonous, voice, Thorne whispered a pertinent question:
“Shall I do this for you?”
“It is nothing to me,” said the woman quietly, and might God forgive her, she prayed, for that falsehood.
Thorne looked at her, his soul in his eyes. If her face had been carved from marble, it could not have been more expressionless and indifferent. He could not know how wildly her heart was beating underneath that stony exterior. Well, she had turned against him. He was nothing to her. There was no use living any longer. She did not care.
“Were you responsible in any way for it?” he asked.
The girl shook her head and turned away without looking at him. She had not the least idea of what he was about to do. Not one man in a thousand would have done it. Perhaps if he went to his death in some quixotic way, he might redeem himself in her eyes, had flashed into Thorne’s mind, as he turned to the guard.
“Sergeant,” he said, saluting. He spoke in a clear, cool, most indifferent way. “You had better take a look at the rifles of your command. I understand they have been tampered with.”
“What the hell!” cried the Sergeant, seizing a piece from the nearest man. He snapped open the breech-plug and drew out the cartridge and examined it. Some one had bitten off the bullet! He saw everything clearly. “Squad ready!” he cried. “Draw cartridges!”
There was a rattling of breech-plugs and a low murmur of astonishment, as every man found that his cartridge was without a bullet.
“With ball cartridges, load!” cried the Sergeant. “Carry arms!”
When this little manœuvre, which was completed with swiftness and precision because the men were all veterans, was finished, the Sergeant turned to the prisoner, who had stood composedly watching the performance which took away his last opportunity for escape, and saluted him with distinct admiration.
“I am much obliged to you, sir,” he said.
How Edith Varney kept her feet, why she did not scream or faint away, she could not tell. Thorne’s words had petrified her. Her pride kept her from acknowledging what she felt. She had never dreamed of any such action on his part, and it seemed to her that she had sent him to his death again. How could she retrace her steps, repair her blunder? There was nothing to do. But her countenance changed. A look of such desperate entreaty came into her face as fully betrayed her feelings. Of the people in the room, only Arrelsford observed her, and even his jealousy and resentment were slightly softened by her visible anguish. Everybody was staring at Thorne, for they all knew the result of his remarkable action, although no one could in the least degree fathom the reason.
It was Wilfred who broke the silence. He walked slowly up to Thorne and thrust out his hand.
“I would like to shake hands with you,” he said admiringly, and for the first time in the long hours a slight smile quivered about the man’s lips. It was the generous, spontaneous tribute of youth that gave him that moment of melancholy satisfaction.
“Oh,” thought Edith, watching her brother; “if only I dared to do the like.”
“Is this for yourself?” asked Thorne, “or your father?”
“For both of us, sir,” answered Wilfred.
Thorne shook him by the hand. The two looked into each other’s faces, and everybody saw the satisfaction and gratification of the older man.
“That’s all, Sergeant,” said Thorne, turning away.
“Fall in the prisoner! Escort left face! Forward – March!” cried the Sergeant.
At that moment a man, breathless from having run rapidly, entered the room by the window. His uniform was that of an officer, and he wore a Lieutenant’s shoulder-straps.
“Halt!” he cried, as he burst into the room. “Are you in command, Sergeant?”
“General Randolph’s on the way here with orders. You will please wait until – ”
But Arrelsford now interposed.
“What orders, Lieutenant? Anything to do with this case?”
The officer looked greatly surprised at this intervention by a civilian, but he answered civilly enough:
“I don’t know what his orders are. He has been with the President.”
“But I sent word to the Department,” said Arrelsford, “that we had got the man, and were going to drumhead him on the spot.”
“Then this must be the case, sir. The General wishes to be present.”
“It is impossible,” returned Arrelsford. “We have already held the court, and I have sent the findings to the Secretary. The messenger is to get his approval and meet us at the corner of the street yonder. I have no doubt he is waiting there now. It is a mere formality.”
“I have no further orders to give, sir,” said the Lieutenant. “General Randolph will be here in a minute, but you can wait for him or not, as you see fit.”
The Sergeant stood uncertain. For one thing, he was not anxious to carry out the orders he had been given now. That one little action of Thorne’s had changed the whole situation. For another thing, Arrelsford was only a civilian, and General Randolph was one of the ranking officers in Richmond.
“Move on, Sergeant,” said Arrelsford peremptorily. “You have all the authority you want, and – ”
The Sergeant held back, uncertainly, but the day was saved by the advent of the General himself.