“And is that why you let them all propose to you?” rejoined the youth bitterly.
“Certainly; it didn’t hurt me, and it pleased them. Most of ’em will never come back to try it again, and it is our duty to help all we can.”
“And you really want to help all you can, do you?” asked Wilfred desperately. “Well, if I were to join the army would you help me – that way?”
This was a direct question. It was the argumentum ad feminam with a vengeance. Caroline hesitated. A swift blush overspread her cheek, but she was game to the core.
“Why, of course I would, if there was anything I – could do,” she answered.
“Well, there is something you can do.” He unrolled his package and seized the trousers by the waistband and dangled them before her eyes. “Cut those off,” he said; “they are twice too long. All you have to do is to cut them here and sew up the ends, so that they don’t ravel out.”
Caroline stared at him in great bewilderment. She had expected something quite different.
“Why, they are uniform trousers,” she said finally. “You are going to join the army?” She clapped her hands gleefully. “Give them to me.”
“Hush! don’t talk so loud, for Heaven’s sake,” said Wilfred. “I’ve got a jacket here, too.” He drew out of the parcel a small army jacket, a private soldier’s coat. “It’s nearly a fit. It came from the hospital. Johnny Seldon wore it, but he won’t want it any more, you know, and he was just about my size, only his legs were longer. Well,” he continued, as the girl continued to look at him strangely, “I thought you said you wanted to help me.”
“I certainly do.”
“What are you waiting for, then?” asked Wilfred.
The girl took the trousers and dropped on her knees before him.
“Stand still,” she said, as she measured the trousers from the waistband to the floor.
“This is about the place, isn’t it?”
“Yes, just there.”
“Wait,” she continued, “until I mark it with a pin.”
Wilfred stood quietly until the proper length had been ascertained, and then he assisted Caroline to her feet.
“Do you see any scissors about?” she asked in a businesslike way.
“I don’t believe there are any in the drawing-room, but I can get some from the women sewing over there. Wait a moment.”
“No, don’t,” said the girl; “they would want to know what you wanted with them, and then you would have to tell them.”
“Yes,” said the boy; “and I want to keep this a secret between us.”
“When are you going to wear them?”
“As soon as you get them ready.”
“But your mother – ”
“She knows it. She is going to write to father to-night. She said she would send it by a special messenger, so we ought to get an answer by to-morrow.”
“But if he says no?”
“I am going anyway.”
“Oh, Wilfred, I am so glad. Why, it makes another thing of it,” cried the girl. “When I said that about staying in Richmond, I didn’t know – Oh, I do want to help all I can.”
“You do? Well, then, for Heaven’s sake, be quick about it and cut off those trousers. So long as I get them in the morning,” said Wilfred, “I guess it will be in plenty of time.”
“When did you say your mother was going to write?”
“Of course, she doesn’t want you to go, and she’ll tell your father not to let you. Yes,” she continued sagely, as Wilfred looked up, horror-stricken at the idea; “that’s the way mothers always do.”
“What can I do, then?” he asked her.
“Why don’t you write to him yourself, and then you can tell him just what you like.”
“That’s a fine idea. I’ll tell him that I can’t stay here, and that I’m going to enlist whether he says so or not. That’ll make him say yes, won’t it?”
“Why, of course; there’ll be nothing else for him to say.”
“Say, you are a pretty good girl,” said Wilfred, catching her hand impulsively. “I’ll go upstairs and write it now. You finish these as soon as you can. You can ask those women for some scissors, and when they are ready leave them in this closet, but don’t let any one see you doing it, whatever happens.”
“No, I won’t,” said Caroline, as Wilfred hurried off.
She went over to the room where the women were sewing, and borrowed a pair of scissors; then she came back and started to cut off the trousers where they were marked. The cloth was old and worn, but it was, nevertheless, stiff and hard, and her scissors were dull. Men spent their time in sharpening other things than women’s tools during those days in Richmond, and her slender fingers made hard work of the amputations. Beside, she was prone to stop and think and dream of her soldier boy while engaged in this congenial work. She had not finished the alteration, therefore, when she heard a step in the hall. She caught up the trousers, striving to conceal them, entirely forgetful of the jacket which lay on the table.
“Oh,” said Mrs. Varney, as she came into the room; “you haven’t gone yet?”
“No,” faltered the girl; “we don’t assemble for a little while, and – ”
“I mean for the party. It doesn’t begin for half an hour yet, and – ”
“Oh; then you have plenty of time.”
“Yes,” said Caroline. “But I will have to go now, sure enough.” She turned away and, as she did so, her scissors fell clattering to the floor.
“You dropped your scissors, my dear,” said Mrs. Varney.
“I thought I heard something fall,” she faltered in growing confusion.
She came back for her scissors, and, in her agitation and nervousness, she dropped one of the pieces of trouser leg on the floor.
“What are you making, Caroline?” asked Mrs. Varney, looking curiously at the little huddled-up soiled piece of grey on the carpet, while Caroline made a desperate grab at it.
“Oh, just altering an old – dress, Mrs. Varney. That’s all.”
Mrs. Varney looked at her through her glasses. As she did so, Caroline’s agitated movement caused the other trouser leg, with its half-severed end hanging from it, to dangle over her arm.
“And what is that?” asked Mrs. Varney.
“Oh – that’s – er – one of the sleeves,” answered Caroline desperately, hurrying out in great confusion.
Mrs. Varney laughed softly to herself. As she did so, her glance fell upon the little heap of grey on the table. She picked it up and opened it. It was a grey jacket, a soldier’s jacket. It looked as if it might be about Wilfred’s size. There was a bullet hole in the breast, and there was a dull brown stain around the opening. Mrs. Varney kissed the worn coat. She saw it all now.
“For Wilfred,” she whispered. “He has probably got it from some dead soldier at the hospital, and Caroline’s dress that she was altering – ”
She clasped the jacket tightly to her breast, looked up, and smiled and prayed through her tears.
But Mrs. Varney was not allowed to indulge in either her bitter retrospect or her dread anticipations very long. Her reverie was interrupted by the subdued trampling of heavy feet upon the floor of the back porch. The long drawing-room extended across the house, and had porches at front and back, to which access was had through long French windows. The sound was so sudden and so unexpected that she dropped the jacket on the couch and turned to the window. The sound of low, hushed voices came to her, and the next moment a tall, fine-looking young man of rather distinguished appearance entered the room. He was not in uniform, but wore the customary full-skirted frock coat of the period, and carried his big black hat in his hand. For the rest, he was a very keen, sharp-eyed man, whose movements were quick and stealthy, and whose quick, comprehensive glance seemed to take in not only Mrs. Varney, but everything in the room. Through the windows and the far door soldiers could be seen dimly. Mrs. Varney was very indignant at the entrance of this newcomer in this unceremonious manner.
“Mr. Arrelsford!” she exclaimed haughtily.
In two or three quick steps Mr. Benton Arrelsford of the Confederate Secret Service was by her side. Although she was alone, through habit and excessive caution he lowered his voice when he spoke to her.
“Your pardon, Mrs. Varney,” he said, with just a shade too much of the peremptory for perfect breeding, “I was compelled to enter without ceremony. You will understand when I tell you why.”
“And those men – ” said Mrs. Varney, pointing to the back windows and the far door. “What have we done that we should be – ”
“They are on guard.”
“On guard!” exclaimed the woman, greatly surprised and equally resentful.
“Yes, ma’am; and I am very much afraid we shall be compelled to put you to a little inconvenience; temporary, I assure you, but necessary.” He glanced about cautiously and pointed to the door across the hall. “Is there anybody in that room, Mrs. Varney?”
“Yes, a number of ladies sewing for the hospital; they expect to stay all night.”
“Very good,” said Arrelsford. “Will you kindly come a little farther away? I would not have them overhear by any possibility.”
There was no possibility of any one overhearing their conversation, but if Mr. Arrelsford ever erred it was not through lack of caution. Still more astonished, Mrs. Varney followed him. They stopped by the fireplace.
“One of your servants has got himself into trouble, Mrs. Varney, and we’re compelled to have him watched,” he began.
“Watched by a squad of soldiers?”
“It is well not to neglect any precaution, ma’am.”
“And what kind of trouble, pray?” asked the woman.
“Very serious, I am sorry to say. At least that is the way it looks now. You’ve got an old white-haired butler here – ”
“You mean Jonas?”
“I believe that’s his name,” said Arrelsford.
“And you suspect him of something?”
Mr. Arrelsford lowered his voice still further and assumed an air of great importance.
“We don’t merely suspect him; we know what he has done.”
“And what has he done, sir?”
“He has been down to Libby Prison under pretence of selling things to the Yankees we’ve got in there, and he now has on his person a written communication from one of them which he intends to deliver to some Yankee spy or agent, here in Richmond.”
Mrs. Varney gasped in astonishment at this tremendous charge, which was made in Arrelsford’s most impressive manner.
“I don’t believe it,” she said at last. “He has been in the family for years; he wouldn’t dare.”
Arrelsford shook his head.
“I am afraid it is true,” he said.
“Very well,” said Mrs. Varney decidedly, apparently not at all convinced. “I will send for the man. Let us see – ”
She reached out her hand to the bell-rope hanging from the wall, but Mr Arrelsford caught her arm, evidently to her great repugnance.
“No, no!” he said quickly, “not yet. We have got to get that paper, and if he’s alarmed he will destroy it, and we must have it. It will give us the clue to one of their cursed plots. They have been right close on this town for months, trying to break down our defences and get in on us. This is some rascally game they are at to weaken us from the inside. Two weeks ago we got word from our secret agents that we keep over there in the Yankee lines, telling us that two brothers, Lewis and Henry Dumont – ”
“The Dumonts of West Virginia?” interrupted Mrs. Varney, who was now keenly attentive to all that was said.
“The very same.”
“Why, their father is a General in the Yankee Army.”
“Yes; and they are in the Federal Secret Service, and they are the boldest, most desperately determined men in the whole Yankee Army. They’ve already done us more harm than an army corps.”
“They have volunteered to do some desperate piece of work here in Richmond, we have learned. We have close descriptions of both these men, but we have never been able to get our hands on either of them until last night.”
“Have you captured them?”
“We’ve got one of them, and it won’t take long to get the other,” said Arrelsford, in a fierce, truculent whisper.
“The one you caught, was he here in Richmond?” asked Mrs. Varney, greatly affected by the other’s overwhelming emotion.
“No, he was brought in last night with a lot of men we captured in a little sortie.”
“Yes, but without resistance.”
“I don’t understand.”
“He let himself be taken. That’s one of their tricks for getting into our lines when they want to bring a message or give some signal.”
“You mean that they deliberately allow themselves to be taken to Libby Prison?”
“Yes, damn them!” said Arrelsford harshly. “I beg your pardon, ma’am, but – ”
Mrs. Varney waved her hand as if Mr. Arrelsford’s oaths, like his presence, were nothing to her.
“We were on the lookout for this man, and we spotted him pretty quickly. I gave orders not to search him, and not to have his clothes taken away from him, but to put him in with the others and keep the closest watch on him that was ever kept on a man. We knew from his coming in that his brother must be here in the city, and he’d send a message to him the first chance he got.”
“But Jonas, how could he – ”
“Easily enough. He comes down to the prison to sell things to the prisoners with other negroes. We let him pass in, watching him as we watch them all. He fools around a while, until he gets a chance to brush against this man Dumont. My men are keeping that fellow under close observation, and they saw a piece of paper pass between them. By my orders they gave no sign. We want to catch the man to whom he is to deliver the paper. He has the paper on him now.”
“I will never believe it.”
“It is true, and that is the reason for these men on the back porch that you see. I have put others at every window at the back of the house. He can’t get away; he will have to give it up.”
“And the man he gives it to will be the man you want?” said Mrs. Varney.
“Yes; but I can’t wait long. If that nigger sees my men or hears a sound, he will destroy it before we can jump in on him. I want the man, but I want the paper, too. Excuse me.” He stepped to the back window. “Corporal!” he said softly. The long porch window was open on account of the balmy air of the night, and a soldier, tattered and dusty, instantly appeared and saluted. “How are things now?” asked Arrelsford.
“All quiet now, sir.”
“Very good,” said Arrelsford. “I was afraid he would get away. We’ve got to get the paper. If we have the paper, perhaps we can get the man. It is the key to the game they are trying to play against us, and without it the man is helpless.”
“No, no,” urged Mrs. Varney. “The man he is going to give it to, get him.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” assented Arrelsford; “but that paper might give us a clue. If not, I’ll make the nigger tell. Damn him, I’ll shoot it out of him. How quickly can you get at him from that door, Corporal?”
“In no time at all, sir. It’s through a hallway and across the dining-room. He is in the pantry.”
“Well,” said Arrelsford, “take two men, and – ”
“Wait,” said Mrs. Varney; “I still doubt your story, but I am glad to help. Why don’t you keep your men out of sight and let me send for him here, and then – ”
Arrelsford thought a moment.
“That may be the better plan,” he admitted. “Get him in here and, while you are talking to him, they can seize him from behind. He won’t be able to do a thing. Do you hear, Corporal?”
“Keep your men out of sight; get them back there in the hall, and while we’re making him talk, send a man down each side and pin him. Hold him stiff. He mustn’t destroy any paper he’s got.”
The Corporal raised his hand in salute and left the room. The men disappeared from the windows, and the back porch looked as empty as before. The whole discussion and the movements of the men had been practically noiseless.
“Now, Mr. Arrelsford, are you ready?”
Mrs. Varney rang the bell on the instant. The two watched each other intently, and in a moment old Martha appeared at the door.
“Did you-all ring, ma’am?”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Varney; “I want some one to send to the hospital.”
“Luthah is out heah, ma’am.”
“Luther? He’s too small, I don’t want a boy.”
“Well, den, Jonas – ”
“Yes, Jonas will do; tell him to come in here immediately.”
“Perhaps you had better sit down, Mrs. Varney,” said Arrelsford; “and if you will permit me, I will stand back by the front window yonder.”
“That will be just as well,” said Mrs. Varney, seating herself near the table, while Arrelsford, making no effort at concealment, stepped over to the window. Old Jonas entered the door just as they had placed themselves. He bowed low before Mrs. Varney, entirely unsuspicious of anything out of the ordinary until his eye fell on the tall form of Arrelsford. He glanced furtively at the man for a moment, stiffened imperceptibly, but, as there was nothing else to do, came on.
“Jonas,” said Mrs. Varney, her voice low and level in spite of her agitation.
“Have you any idea why I sent for you?”
“Ah heahd you was gwine send me to de hossiple, ma’am.”
“Oh, then Martha told you,” said Mrs. Varney.
While the little dialogue was taking place, Mr. Arrelsford had made a signal, and the Corporal and two men had entered the room silently, and now swiftly advanced to the side of the still unobserving old negro.
“She didn’t ezzactly say whut you – ” he began.
The next instant the two men fell upon him. He might have made some struggle, although it would have been useless. The windows were instantly filled with men, and an order would have called them into the room. He was an old man, and the two soldiers that seized him were young. He was too surprised to fight, and stood as helpless as a lamb about to be slaughtered, his face fairly grey with sudden terror. The Corporal flung open the butler’s faded livery coat, and for the moment Jonas, menaced now by a search, and knowing what the result would be, struggled furiously, but the men soon mastered him, and the Corporal, continuing his search, presently drew from an inside pocket a small folded paper.
“Jonas! Jonas!” said Mrs. Varney, in bitter disappointment; “how could you?”
“I told you so,” said Mr. Arrelsford truthfully, triumphantly, and most aggravatingly under the circumstances, taking the folded paper. “Corporal,” he added, “while I read this, see if he has got anything more.”
A further search, however, revealed nothing. Arrelsford had scarcely completed the reading of the brief note when the Corporal reported:
“That is all he has, sir.”
Arrelsford nodded. The men had released Jonas, but stood by his side, and the Secret Service Agent now approached him.
“Who was this for?” he asked sharply and tensely.
The negro stared at him stolidly and silently, his face ashen with fright.
“Look here,” continued the other, “if you don’t tell me it is going to make it pretty bad for you.”
The words apparently made no further impression upon the servant. Arrelsford tried another tack. He turned to Mrs. Varney, who was completely dismayed at this breach of trust by one who had been attached to the family fortunes for so many years.
“I am right sorry, ma’am,” he said very distinctly, “but it looks like we have got to shoot him.”
“Oh!” cried Mrs. Varney at that. “Jonas, speak!”
But even to that appeal he remained silent. Arrelsford waited a moment and then:
“Corporal,” he said; “take him outside and get it out of him. String him up until he talks. But don’t let him yell or give any alarm; gag him until he’s ready to tell. You understand?”
The Corporal nodded and turned toward the hall door.
“Not that way,” said Arrelsford; “take him to the back of the house and keep him quiet, whatever you do. Nobody must know about this, not a soul.”
“Very good, sir,” said the Corporal, saluting. He gave an order to the men, and they marched Jonas off, swiftly and silently. Nothing that had been said or done had disturbed the women across the hall. Mrs. Varney glanced up at the unfolded piece of paper in Mr. Arrelsford’s hand. He was smiling triumphantly.
“Was there anything in that?” she asked.
“Yes, there was. We know the trick they meant to play.”
“But not the man who was to play it?”
“I didn’t say that, ma’am.”
“Does it give you a clue to it?”
“Will it answer?”
“Then you know – ”
“As plain as if we had his name.”
“Thank God for that,” exclaimed the woman. “May I see it?”
“I see no reason why you should not.”
He extended his hand toward her, and she glanced at the paper.
“Attack to-night. Plan 3. Use telegraph!” she read. She looked up.
“What does it mean?” she asked tremulously.
“They are to attack to-night, and the place where they are to strike is indicated by Plan 3.”
“Plan 3?” questioned the woman.
“Yes; the man this is sent to will know what is meant by that. It has been arranged beforehand, and – ”
“But the last words,” said Mrs. Varney. “Use telegraph?”
“That is plain, too. He is to use our War Department Telegraph and send some false order to weaken that position, the one they indicate by ‘Plan 3,’ so that when they assault it, they will find it feebly defended or not at all, and break through and come down on the city and swamp us.”
“But,” exclaimed Mrs. Varney in deepest indignation and excitement, “the man who was to do this? Who is he? There is nothing about him that I can see.”
“But I can see something.”
“In the words, ‘Use Telegraph.’ We know every man on the telegraph service, and every one of them is true. There is some one who will try to get into that service if the game is carried out, and – ”
“Then he will be the man,” said Mrs. Varney.
“Yes; there aren’t so many men in Richmond that can do that. It isn’t every man that’s expert enough – Mrs. Varney, Jonas brought this paper to your house, and – ”
“To my house?” exclaimed the woman in great astonishment, and then she stopped, appalled by a sudden thought which came to her.
“At the same time,” said Arrelsford, “your daughter has been trying to get an appointment for some one on the telegraph service. Perhaps she could give us some idea, and – ”
Mrs. Varney rose and stood as if rooted to the spot.
“You mean – ”
“Captain Thorne,” said Arrelsford impressively.