The War Department Telegraph Office had once been a handsome apartment, one of those old-fashioned, heavily corniced, marble-manteled, low-windowed, double-doored rooms in a public building. It was now in a state of extreme dilapidation, the neglected and forlorn condition somehow being significant of the moribund Confederacy in which practically everything was either dead or dying but the men and women.
A large double door in one corner gave entrance to a corridor. The doors were of handsome mahogany, but they had been kicked and battered until varnish and polish had both disappeared and they looked as dilapidated as the cob-webbed corners and the broken mouldings. On the other side of the room, three long French windows gave entrance to a shallow balcony of cast iron fantastically moulded, which hung against the outer wall. Beyond this the observer peering through the dusty panes could discern the large white pillars of the huge porch which overhung the front of the building. Further away beyond the shadow of the porch were visible the lights of the sleeping town, seen dimly in the bright moonlight.
The handsome furniture which the room had probably once contained, had been long since displaced by the rude telegraph equipment and the heavy plaster cornices and mouldings were sadly marred by telegraph wires which ran down the walls to the tables, rough pine affairs, which carried the instruments. There were two of these tables, each with a telegraph key at either end. One of them stood near the centre of the room, and the other some distance away was backed up against the fine old marble mantel, chipped, battered, ruined like the rest of the room. For the rest, the apartment contained a desk, shelves with the batteries on them, and half a dozen chairs of the commonest and cheapest variety. The floor was bare, dusty, and tobacco stained. The sole remnant of the ancient glory of the room was a large handsome old clock on the wall above the mantel, the hands of which pointed to the hour of ten.
But if the room itself was in a dingy and even dirty condition, the occupants were very much alive. One young man, Lieutenant Allison, sat at the table under the clock, and another, Lieutenant Foray, at the table in the centre of the room. Both were busy sending or receiving messages. The instruments kept up a continuous clicking, heard distinctly above the buzz of conversation which came from half a dozen youngsters, scarcely more than boys, grouped together at the opposite side of the room, waiting to take to the various offices of the Department, or to the several officials of the government, the messages which were constantly being handed out to them by the two military operators.
In the midst of this busy activity there came the noise of drums, faintly at first, but presently growing clearer and louder, while the tramp of many feet sounded in the street below.
“What’s that?” asked one messenger of the other.
“I don’t know,” was the answer, “troops of some kind. I’ll look out and see.”
He stepped to one of the long windows, opened it, and went out on the balcony. The other young fellows clustered at his back or peered through the other windows.
“It’s the Richmond Greys,” said the observer outside.
There was an outburst of exclamations from the room, except from the operators, who had no time to spare from their work.
“Yes, that’s what they are. You can see their uniforms. They must be sending them down to the lines at Petersburg,” said another.
“Well, I don’t believe they would send the Greys out unless there was something going on to-night,” observed a third.
“To-night, why, good heavens, it’s as quiet as a tomb,” broke in a fourth. “I don’t hear a sound from the front.”
“That’s probably what’s worrying them. It is so damn unusual,” returned the first messenger.
“Things have come to a pretty pass if the Grandfathers of the Home Guard have got to go to the front,” remarked another.
“Following in the footsteps of their grandsons,” said the first. “I wish I could go. I hate this business of carrying telegrams and – ”
“Messenger here!” cried Lieutenant Foray, folding up a message and inserting it in its envelope.
The nearest youngster detached himself from the group while all of them turned away from the windows, stepped to the side of the officer, and saluted.
“War Department,” said Foray tersely. “Tell the Secretary it’s from General Lee, and here’s a duplicate which you are to give to the President.”
“Very good, sir,” said the messenger, taking the message and turning away.
As he passed out of the door, an orderly entered the room, stepped to the side of Lieutenant Foray, the senior of the two officers on duty, clicked his heels together, and saluted.
“Secretary’s compliments, sir, and he wants to know if there is anything from General Lee,” he said.
“My compliments to the Secretary,” returned the Lieutenant. “I have just sent a message to his office with a duplicate for the President.”
“The President’s with the Cabinet yet, sir,” returned the orderly. “He didn’t go home. The Secretary’s there, too. They want an operator right quick to take down some cipher telegrams.”
Lieutenant Foray looked over to his subordinate.
“Got anything on, Charlie?” he called out.
“Not right now,” answered Lieutenant Allison.
“Well, go over with the orderly to the Cabinet room and take down their ciphers. Hurry back though,” said Foray as Allison slipped on his coat – both officers had been working in their shirt sleeves – “we need you here. We are so short-handed in the office now that I don’t know how we are going to get through to-night. I can’t handle four instruments, and – ”
“I will do my best,” said Allison, turning away rapidly.
He bowed as he did so to a little party which at that moment entered the room through the door, obstructing his passage. There were two very spick and span young officers with Miss Caroline Mitford between them, while just behind loomed the ponderous figure of old Martha.
“You wait in the hall right here, Martha; I won’t be long,” said Caroline, pausing a moment to let the others precede her.
The two young men stopped on either side of the door and waited for her.
“Miss Mitford,” said the elder, “this is the Department Telegraph Office.”
“Thank you,” said Caroline, entering the room with only the briefest of acknowledgments of the profound bows of her escorts.
She was evidently very much agitated and troubled over what she was about to attempt. The two young men followed her as she stepped down the long room.
“I am afraid you have gone back on the Army, Miss Mitford,” said one of them pleasantly.
“Gone back on the Army, why?” asked Caroline mystified.
“Seems like we should have a salute as you went by.”
“Oh, yes,” said the girl.
She raised her hand and saluted in a perfunctory and absent-minded manner, then turned away from them. She nodded to the messengers, some of whom she knew. One of them, who knew her best, stepped forward.
“Good-evening, Miss Mitford, could we do anything in the office for you to-night?” he asked.
“Oh, yes, – you can. I want to send a – a telegram.”
The other of the young officers who had escorted her, who had remained silent, now entered the conversation.
“Have you been receiving some bad news, Miss Mitford?” he asked sympathetically.
“Maybe some friend of yours has gone to the front, and – ” interposed the first officer.
“Well, supposing he had,” said Caroline, “would you call that bad news?”
“I don’t know as you would exactly like to – ”
“Let me tell you,” said Caroline, “as you don’t seem to know, that all my friends have gone to the front.”
There was an emphasis on the pronoun which should have warned the young soldier what was about to occur, but he rushed blindly to his doom.
“I hope not all, Miss Mitford,” he replied.
“Yes, all,” rejoined Caroline, making the “all” very emphatic, “for if they did not they wouldn’t be my friends.”
“But some of us are obliged to stay here to take care of you, you know,” contributed the other young man.
“Well, there are altogether too many of you trying to take care of me,” said Caroline saucily, with some return of her usual lightness, “and you are all discharged.”
“Do you mean that, Miss Mitford?”
“I certainly do.”
“Well, I suppose if we are really discharged, we will have to go,” returned the other.
“Yes,” said his companion regretfully, “but we are mighty sorry to see you in such low spirits.”
“Would you like to put me in real good spirits, you two?” asked Caroline, resolved to read these young dandies who were staying at home a lesson.
“Wouldn’t we!” they both cried together. “There’s nothing we would like better.”
“Well, I will tell you just what to do then,” returned the girl gravely and with deep meaning.
Everybody in the room, with the exception of Lieutenant Foray, was now listening intently.
“Start right out this very night,” said the girl, “and don’t stop till you get to where my real friends are, lying in trenches and ditches and earth-works between us and the Yankee guns.”
“But really, Miss Mitford,” began one, his face flushing at her severe rebuke, “you don’t absolutely mean that.”
“So far as we are concerned,” said one of the messengers, including his companions with a sweep of his hand, “we’d like nothing better, but they won’t let us go, and – ”
“I know they won’t,” said Caroline, “but so far as you two gentlemen are concerned, I really mean it. Go and fight the Yankees a few days and lie in ditches a few nights until those uniforms you’ve got on look as if they might have been of some use to somebody. If you are so mighty anxious to do something for me, that is what you can do. It is the only thing I want, it is the only thing anybody wants.”
“Messenger here!” cried Lieutenant Foray as the two young officers, humiliated beyond expression by the taunts of the impudent young maiden, backed away and finally managed to make an ungraceful exit through the open door, followed by the titters of the messengers, who took advantage of the presence of the young girl to indulge in this grave breach of discipline.
“Messenger!” cried Foray impatiently.
“Here, sir,” came the answer.
“Commissary General’s office!” was the injunction with which Foray handed the man the telegram.
He looked up at the same time, and with a great start of surprise caught sight of Caroline at the far end of the long room.
“Lieutenant Foray,” began the girl.
“I beg your pardon, Miss Mitford,” said the operator, scrambling to his feet and making a frantic effort to get into his coat. “I heard some one come in, but I was busy with an important message and didn’t appreciate that – ”
“No, never mind, don’t put on your coat,” said Caroline. “I came on business, and – ”
“You want to send a telegram?” asked the Lieutenant.
“I am afraid we can’t do anything for you here, Miss Mitford, this is the War Department Official Telegraph Office, you know.”
“Yes, I know,” said Caroline, “but it is the only way to send it where I want it to go, and I – ”
At that moment the clicking of a key called Lieutenant Foray away.
“Excuse me,” he said, stepping quickly to his table.
Miss Mitford, who had never before been in a telegraph office, was very much mystified by the peremptory manner in which the officer had cut her short, but she had nothing to do but wait. Presently the message was transcribed, another messenger was called.
“Over to the Department, quick as you can go. They are waiting for it,” said Foray. “Now, what was it you wanted me to do, Miss Mitford?”
“Just to – to send a telegram,” faltered Caroline.
“It’s private business, is it not?” said Foray.
“Yes, it is strictly private.”
“Then you will have to get an order from – ”
“That is what I thought,” said Caroline, “so here it is.”
“Why didn’t you tell me before,” returned Foray, taking the paper. “Oh, – Major Selwin – ”
“Yes, he – he’s one of my friends.”
“It’s all right then,” interposed the Lieutenant, who was naturally very businesslike and peremptory.
He pushed a chair to the other side of the table, placed a small sheet of paper on the table in front of her, and shoved the pen and ink conveniently to hand.
“You can write there, Miss Mitford,” he said.
“Thank you,” said Caroline, looking rather ruefully at the tiny piece of paper which had been provided for her.
Paper was a scarce article then, and every scrap was precious. She decided that such a piece was not sufficient for her purposes, and when Lieutenant Foray’s back was turned she took a larger piece of paper of sufficient capacity to contain her important message, to the composition of which she proceeded with much difficulty and many pauses and sighs.
Nobody had any time to devote to Miss Mitford just then, for a perfect rain of messages came and went as she slowly composed her own despatch. Messengers constantly came in while others went out. The lines were evidently busy that night. Finally there came a pause in the despatches coming and going, and Foray remembering her, looked over toward the other end of the table where she sat.
“Is that message of yours ready yet, Miss Mitford?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Caroline, rising and folding it. “Of course you have got to take it.”
“Certainly,” returned the operator smiling. “If it’s to be sent, I have to send it.”
“Well, here it is then,” said the girl, extending the folded paper which Lieutenant Foray took and unceremoniously opened.
“Oh!” exclaimed Caroline, quickly snatching the paper from his hand, “I didn’t tell you you could read it.”
Foray stared at her in amazement.
“What do you want me to do with it?”
“I want you to send it.”
“Well, how am I going to send it if I don’t read it?”
“Do you mean to say that – ” began the girl, who had evidently forgotten – if she had ever known – how telegrams were sent.
“I mean to say that I have got to spell out every word on the key. Didn’t you know that?”
“Oh, I did, of course – I – but I had forgotten,” said Caroline, dismayed by this unexpected development.
“Is there any harm in my reading the message that I have to send?”
“Why I wouldn’t have you see it for the world! My gracious!”
“Is it as bad as that, Miss Mitford?” he said laughing.
“Bad! It isn’t bad at all, but I wouldn’t have it get all over town for anything.”
“It will never get out of this office, Miss Mitford,” returned Foray composedly. “We are not allowed to mention anything that goes on in here.”
“You wouldn’t mention it?”
“Certainly not. All sorts of private messages go through here, and – ?”
“Every day. Now if that telegram is important – ?”
“Important, well I should think it was. It is the most important – ”
“Then I reckon you had better trust it to me,” said Lieutenant Foray.
“Yes,” said Caroline, blushing a vivid crimson, “I reckon I had.”
She handed him the telegram. He opened it, glanced at it, bit his lips to control his emotion, and then his hands reached for the key.
“Oh, stop!” cried Caroline.
Foray looked at her, his eyes full of amusement, his whole body shaking with suppressed laughter, which she was too wrought up to perceive.
“Wait till – I – I don’t want to be here while you spell out every word – I couldn’t stand that.”
Caroline had evidently forgotten that the spelling would be in the Morse Code, and that it would be about as intelligible to her as Sanskrit. The Lieutenant humoured her, and waited while Caroline turned toward the door and summoned Martha to her. She did not leave the room, however, for her way was barred by a young private in a grey uniform. The newcomer looked hastily at her and the old negress, stopped by them, and asked them very respectfully to wait a moment. He then approached Foray, who was impatiently waiting until he could send the message. He saluted him and handed him a written order, and then crossed to the other side of the room. A glance put Foray in possession of the contents of this order. He rose to his feet and approached Caroline still standing by the door.
“Miss Mitford,” he said.
“I don’t understand this, but here is an order that has just come from the Secret Service Department directing me to hold up any despatch you may try to send.”
“Hold back my telegram?”
“Yes, Miss Mitford,” and Foray looked very embarrassed as he stared again at the order and then from the young girl to the orderly, “and that isn’t the worst of it.”
“What else is there!” asked the girl, her eyes big with apprehension.
“Why, this man has orders to take back your message with him to the Secret Service Office.”
“Take back my message!” cried Caroline.
“There must be some mistake,” answered Foray, “but that’s what the order says.”
“To whom does it say to take it back?” asked the girl, growing more and more indignant.
“To a Mr. Arrelsford.”
“Do you mean to tell me that that order is for that man to take my despatch back to Mr. Arrelsford?”
“Yes, Miss Mitford,” returned Lieutenant Foray.
“And does it say anything in there about what I am going to do in the meantime?” asked the girl indignantly.
“Well, that is too bad,” returned Caroline ominously.
“I am sorry this has occurred, Miss Mitford,” said the Lieutenant earnestly, “but the orders are signed by the head of the Secret Service Department, and you will see that I have no choice – ”
“Don’t worry about it, Lieutenant Foray,” said Caroline calmly, “there is no need of your feeling sorry, because it hasn’t occurred, beside that, it is not going to occur. When it does, you can go around being sorry all you like. Have you the faintest idea that I am going to let him take my telegram away with him and show it to the man? Do you suppose – ”
She was too indignant to finish her sentence and old Martha valiantly entered the fray.
“No, suh,” she cried, in her deepest and most indignant voice. “You all ain’t gwine to do it, you kin be right suah you ain’t.”
“But what can I do?” persisted Foray, greatly distressed.
“You can hand it back to me, that’s what you can do.”
“Yes, suh, dat’s de vehy best thing you kin do,” said old Martha stoutly, “an’ de soonah you do it de quickah it’ll be done – Ah kin tel you dat right now, suh.”
“But this man has come here with orders for me to – ” began Foray, endeavouring to explain.
He realised that there was some mistake somewhere. The girl’s message had nothing whatever to do with military matters, and he quite understood that she would not want this communication read by every Tom, Dick, or Harry in the Secret Service Department. Beside all this, as she stood before him, her face flushed with emotion, she was a sufficiently pretty, a sufficiently pleading figure to make him most anxious and most willing to help her. In addition, the portly figure of old Martha, whose cheeks doubtless would have been flushed with the same feeling had they not been so black, were more than disconcerting.
“This man,” said Caroline, shaking her finger at helpless Private Eddinger, who also found his position most unpleasant, “can go straight back where he came from and report to Mr. Arrelsford that he could not carry out his orders. That’s what he can do.”
Martha, now thoroughly aroused to a sense of the role she was to play, turned and confronted the abashed private.
“Jes’ let him try to tek it. Let him tek it if he wants it so pow’ful bad! Jes let de othah one dere gib it to him – an’ den see him try an’ git out thu dis yeah do’ wid it! Ah wants to see him go by,” she said. “Ah’m jes waitin’ fur de sight ob him gittin’ pas’ dis do’. Dat’s what Ah’s waitin’ fo’. Ah’d lak to know what dey s’pose it was Ah comed around yeah fo’ anyway – dese men wid dese ordahs afussin’ an’ – ”
“Miss Mitford,” said Foray earnestly, “if I were to give this despatch back to you it would get me in a heap of trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?” asked Caroline dubiously.
“I might be put in prison, I might be shot.”
“Do you mean that they would – ”
“Sure to do one thing or another.”
“Just for giving it back to me when it is my message?”
“Just for that.”
“Then you will have to keep it, I suppose,” said Caroline faltering.
“Thank you, Miss Mitford.”
“Very well,” said Caroline, “it is understood. You don’t give it back to me, and you can’t give it back to him, so nobody’s disobeying any orders at all. And that’s the way it stands. I reckon I can stay as long as he can.” She stepped to a nearby chair and sat down. “I haven’t very much to do and probably he has.”
“But, Miss Mitford – ” began Foray.
“There isn’t any good talking any longer. If you have got any telegraphing to do, you had better do it. I won’t disturb you. But don’t you give it to him.”
Foray stared at her helplessly. What might have resulted, it is impossible to say, for there entered at that opportune moment, Mr. Arrelsford himself, relieving Mr. Foray of the further conduct of the intricate case. His glance took in all the occupants of the room. It was to his own messenger that he first addressed himself.
“Yes, Mr. Arrelsford.”
“Didn’t you get here in time!”
“Then why – ”
“I beg your pardon,” said Foray, “are you Mr. Arrelsford of the Secret Service Department?”
“Yes. Are you holding back a despatch?”
“Why didn’t Eddinger bring it to me?”
“Well, you see – ” began Foray, hesitating, “Miss Mitford – ”
Arrelsford instantly comprehended.
“Eddinger,” he said.
“Report back to Corporal Matson and tell him to send a surgeon to the prisoner who was wounded at General Varney’s house, if he isn’t dead by this time. Now let me see that despatch,” he continued, as the orderly saluted and ran rapidly from the room.
But again Miss Mitford interposed. She stepped quickly between Arrelsford and Foray, both of whom fell back from her.
“I expect,” she said impudently, “that you think you are going to get my telegram and read it?”
“I certainly intend to do so,” was the curt answer.
“Well, there’s a great disappointment looming up in front of you,” returned Caroline defiantly.
“So!” said Arrelsford, with growing suspicion. “You have been trying to send out something that you don’t want us to see.”
“What if I have, sir.”
“Just this,” said Arrelsford determinedly. “You won’t send it out and I will see it. This is a case – ”
“This is a case where nobody is going to read my private writing,” persisted Caroline.
The young girl confronted him with blazing eyes and a mien like a small fury. Arrelsford looked at her with ill-concealed yet somewhat vexatious amusement.
“Lieutenant Foray, you have an order to give me that despatch. Bring it to me at once,” he said.
Although it was quite evident that Foray greatly disliked the rôle he was compelled to play, his orders were plain, he had no option. He stepped slowly toward the Secret Service-Agent, only to be confronted by old Martha, who again interrupted.
“Dat Leftenant kin stay jes whah he is,” said the old negress defiantly.
A struggle with her would have been an unseemly spectacle indeed, thought both men.
“Is that Miss Mitford’s despatch you have in your hand?” asked Arrelsford.
“Since you can’t hand it to me, read it.”
Caroline turned to him with a gasp of horror. Martha gave way, and Foray stood surprised.
“Read it out! Don’t you hear me?” repeated Arrelsford peremptorily.
“Don’t dare to do such a thing,” cried Caroline, “you have no right to read a private telegram.”
“No, suh! He ain’t got no business to read her lettahs, none whatsomebah!” urged Martha.
“Silence!” roared Arrelsford, his patience at an end. “If either of you interfere any further with the business of this office, I will have you both put under arrest. Read that despatch instantly, Lieutenant Foray.”
The game was up so far as the women were concerned. Caroline’s head sank on Martha’s shoulder and she sobbed passionately, while Lieutenant Foray read the following astonishing and incriminating message.
“‘Forgive me, Wilfred darling, please forgive me and I will help you all I can.’”
It was harmless, as harmless as it was foolish, that message, but it evidently impressed Mr. Arrelsford as containing some deep, some hidden, some sinister meaning.
“That despatch can’t go,” he said shortly.
“That despatch can go,” said Caroline, stopping her sobbing as suddenly as she had begun. “And that despatch will go. I know some one whose orders even you are bound to respect, and some one who will come here with me and see that you do it.”
“It may be,” answered Arrelsford composedly. “I have a good and sufficient reason – ”
“Then you will have to show him, I can tell you that, Mr. Arrelsford.”
“I shall be glad to give my reason to my superiors, Miss Mitford, not to you.”
“Then you will have to go around giving them to everybody in Richmond, Mr. Arrelsford,” said the girl, as she swept petulantly through the door, followed by old Martha, both of whom were very much disturbed by what had occurred.