Arrelsford stared after the departing figures with a mixture of amusement, contempt, and annoyance in his glance. So soon as the door had closed behind them he turned to Lieutenant Foray, who was regarding him with ill-concealed aversion.
“Let me have that despatch,” he began in his usual peremptory manner.
“You said you had an order, sir,” returned Foray stubbornly.
“Yes, yes,” replied the Secret Service Agent impatiently, throwing an order on the table, “there it is, don’t waste time.”
But Lieutenant Foray was not satisfied, principally because he did not wish to be. He scrutinised the order carefully, and with great distaste at its contents. It was quite evident that if he could have found a possible pretext for refusing obedience, he would gladly have done so. His sympathies were entirely with Miss Mitford.
“I suppose you are Mr. Benton Arrelsford, all right?” he began deliberately, fingering the paper.
“Certainly I am,” returned Arrelsford haughtily.
“We have to be very careful nowadays,” continued Foray shortly. “But I reckon it’s all right. Here’s the telegram.”
“Did the girl seem nervous or excited when she handed this in?” asked the other, taking the message.
“Do you mean Miss Mitford?” asked Foray reprovingly.
“Certainly, who else?”
“Yes, she did.”
“She was anxious not to have it seen by anybody?”
“Anxious, I should say so. She didn’t even want me to see it.”
“Umph!” said Arrelsford. “I don’t mind telling you, Mr. Foray, that we are on the track of a serious affair and I believe she’s mixed up in it.”
“But that despatch is to young Varney, a mere boy, the General’s son,” urged the Lieutenant.
“I didn’t know he had gone to the front. So much the worse. It’s one of the ugliest affairs we have ever had. I had them put me on it, and I have got it pretty close. We have had some checks but we will end it right here in this office inside of thirty minutes.”
There was a slight tap on the door at this juncture. Arrelsford turned to the door, opened it, and found himself face to face with a soldier, who saluted and stood at attention.
“Well, what is it?”
“The lady’s here, sir,” said the soldier.
“Where is she?” asked Arrelsford.
“Waiting down below at the front entrance.”
“Did she come alone?”
“Show her up here at once. I suppose you have a revolver here,” continued the Secret Service Man, turning to Lieutenant Foray, who had listened with much interest.
“Certainly,” answered Foray, “we are always armed in the telegraph office.”
From a drawer in the table he drew forth a revolver which he laid on the top of the table.
“Good,” said Arrelsford, “while I want to handle this thing myself, I may call you. Be ready, that’s all.”
“Obey any orders you may get, and send out all despatches unless I stop you.”
“And if you don’t mind, I don’t care to have all these messenger boys coming back here. I will order them to stop in the hall. If you have any messages for them, you can take them out there. I don’t want to have too many people in the room.”
“Very good, sir. Will you give the order to your orderly when he brings up the young lady?”
Arrelsford stepped to the door, and Foray busied himself with the clicking instruments. After a few minutes’ conversation with the orderly, who had just returned, Arrelsford ushered Edith Varney into the room. With not even a glance at the operator in her intense preoccupation, the girl spoke directly to Arrelsford.
“I – I’ve accepted your invitation, you see.”
“I am greatly obliged to you, Miss Varney,” returned Arrelsford with deferential courtesy. “As a matter of justice to me, it was – ”
“I didn’t come to oblige you,” answered Edith, haughtily.
She had never liked Mr. Arrelsford. His addresses had been most unpleasant and unwelcome to her, and now she not only hated him but she loathed him.
“I came here,” she continued, as Arrelsford attempted to speak, “to see that no more – ” her voice broke for a moment, “murders are committed here – to satisfy your singular curiosity.”
“Murders!” exclaimed Arrelsford, flushing deeply.
The girl nodded.
“The Union soldier who escaped from prison – ” she began.
“Is the man dead?” interrupted Arrelsford.
“The man is dead.”
“It is a curious thing, Miss Varney,” continued the other with cutting emphasis, “that one Yankee prisoner more or less should make so much difference to you, isn’t it? They are dying down in Libby by the hundreds.”
“At least they are not being killed in our houses, in our drawing-rooms, before our very eyes!”
She confronted Arrelsford with a bitterly reproachful glance, before which his eyes for a moment fell, and he was glad indeed to turn to another orderly who had just entered the room.
“Have you kept track of him!” he asked in a low voice.
“He’s coming down the street to the Department now, sir.”
“Where has he been since he left Mrs. Varney’s house?”
“He went to his quarters on Gary Street. We got in the next room and watched him through a transom.”
“What was he doing?”
“Working on some papers or documents.”
“Could you see them? Did you see what they were?”
“They looked like orders from the War Department, sir.”
“He is coming here with forged orders, I suppose.”
“I don’t doubt it, sir.”
“I surmise that his game is to get control of these wires and then send out despatches to the front that will take away a battery or a brigade from some vital point, the vital point indicated by ‘Plan 3.’ That’s where they mean to attack to-night.”
“Looks like it, sir,” agreed the orderly respectfully.
“‘Plan 3,’ that’s where they will hit us,” mused the Secret Service Agent. “Is there a guard in the building?”
“Not inside, sir,” answered the orderly, “there’s a guard in front and sentries around the barracks over in the square.”
“If I shouted, they could hear from this window, couldn’t they?” asked Arrelsford.
“The guard in front could hear you, sir. But the time is getting short. He must be nearly here, you’d better look out, sir.”
Edith Varney had heard enough of the conversation to understand that Thorne was coming. Of course it would never do for him to see her there.
“Where am I to go?” she asked.
“Outside here on the balcony,” said Arrelsford. “There is no closet in the room and it is the only place. I will be with you in a moment.”
“But if he should come to the window?”
“We will step in at the other window. Stay, orderly, see if the window of the Commissary General’s Office, the next room to the left, is open.”
They waited while the orderly went out on the balcony and made his inspection.
“The window of the next room is open, sir,” he reported.
“That’s all I want of you. Report back to Corporal Matson. Tell him to get the body of the prisoner out of the Varney house. He knows where it’s to go.”
“Very well, sir.”
“Mr. Foray,” continued Arrelsford, “whoever comes here you are to keep on with your work and don’t give the slightest sign of my presence to any one on any account. You understand?”
“Yes, sir,” said Foray from the telegraph table in the centre of the room.
He had caught something of the conversation, but he was too good a soldier to ask any questions, beside his business was with the telegraph, not with Mr. Arrelsford.
“Now, Miss Varney,” said the Secret Service Agent, “this way, please.”
He opened the middle window. The girl stepped through, and he was about to follow when he caught sight of a messenger entering the room. Leaving the window, he retraced his steps.
“Where did you come from?” he said abruptly to the young man.
“War Department, sir.”
“You know me, don’t you?”
“I’ve seen you at the office, sir, and – ”
“I’m here on Department business,” said Arrelsford. “All you have to do is to keep quiet about it. Weren’t you stopped in the hall?”
“Yes, sir, but I had a despatch from the President that had to be delivered to Lieutenant Foray.”
“Well, it is just as well,” said Arrelsford. “Don’t mention having seen me to anybody under any pretext and stay here. You might be needed. On second thoughts, Foray, let any messenger come in.”
With that Mr. Arrelsford stepped out onto the balcony through the window which he closed after him, and he and Edith disappeared from view.
“Messenger,” said Foray, “step down the hall and tell the private there that by Mr. Arrelsford’s orders, messengers are allowed to come up as they report.”
The room which had been the scene of these various colloquies became silent save for the continuous clicking of the telegraph keys. Presently two messengers came back and took their positions as before.
Hard on their heels entered Captain Thorne. He was in uniform, of course, and a paper was tucked in his belt. He walked rapidly down the room, acknowledged the salutes of the messengers, and stopped before the table. His quick scrutiny of the room as he advanced had shown him that there was no one present except the messengers and Lieutenant Foray. Foray glanced up, nodded, finished taking the despatch which was on the wires at the time, wrote it out, put it in its envelope, and then rose to his feet and saluted.
“Captain Thorne,” he said.
“Lieutenant Foray,” replied Thorne, taking the order from his belt and handing it to the operator.
“Order from the Department?” asked Foray.
“I believe so,” answered Thorne briefly.
Lieutenant Foray opened it and read it.
“They want me to take a cipher despatch over to the President’s house,” he said as he finished.
“Yes,” said Thorne, moving to the vacant place at the table. He pulled the chair back a little, tossed his hat on the other table, and otherwise made himself at home.
“I am ordered to stay here until you get back,” he began casually, shoving the paper aside and stretching his hand toward the key.
“That’s an odd thing, Captain,” began Lieutenant Foray dubiously. “I understood that the President was meeting with the Cabinet. In fact, Lieutenant Allison went over there to take some code work a moment ago. He must have gone home, I reckon.”
“Looks like it,” said Thorne quietly. “If he is not at home you had better wait.”
“Yes,” said Foray, moving away, “I suppose I had better wait for him. You will have to look out for Allison’s wire though on the other table. He was called over to the Department.”
“Oh, Allison!” said Thorne carelessly. “Be gone long, do you think?” he continued as he seated himself at the table and began to arrange the papers.
“Well, you know how it is. They generally whip around quite a while before they make up their minds what they want to do. I don’t suppose they will trouble you much. It’s as quiet as a church down the river. Good-night.”
“See here, Mr. Foray, wait a moment. You had better not walk out and leave – no matter,” continued Thorne, as the operator stopped and turned back. “It’s none of my business, still if you want some good advice, that is a dangerous thing to do.”
“What is it, Captain?” asked Foray, somewhat surprised.
“Leave a cigar lying around an office like that. Somebody might walk in any minute and take it away. I can’t watch your cigars all day.”
He picked up the cigar, and before Foray could prevent it, lighted it and began to smoke. Foray laughed.
“Help yourself, Captain, and if there is any trouble you will find a revolver on the table.”
“I see,” said Thorne, “but what makes you think there is going to be trouble?”
“Oh, well there might be.”
“Been having a bad dream?” asked the Captain nonchalantly.
“No, but you never can tell. All sorts of things are liable to happen in an office like this, and – .”
“That’s right,” said Thorne, puffing away at his cigar, “you never can tell. But see here. If you never can tell when you are going to have trouble you had better take that gun along with you. I have one of my own.”
“Well,” said the operator, “if you have one of your own, I might as well.”
He took the revolver up and tucked it in his belt. “Look out for yourself, Captain. Good-bye. I will be back as soon as the President gives me that despatch. That despatch I have just finished is for the Commissary General’s Office, but it can wait until the morning.”
“All right,” said Thorne, and the next moment the operator turned away while the clicking of the key called Thorne to the table. It took him but a few minutes to write the brief message which he addressed and turned to the first messenger, “Quartermaster General.”
“He wasn’t in his office a short time ago, sir,” said the messenger.
“Very well, find him. He has probably gone home and he has to have this message.”
“Very good, sir.”
The key kept up its clicking. In a short time another message was written off.
“Ready here,” cried Thorne, looking at the other messenger. “This is for the Secretary of the Treasury, marked private. Take it to his home.”
“He was down at the Cabinet meeting a little while ago, sir,” said the second messenger.
“No difference, take it to his house and wait until he comes.”
The instant the departing messenger left him alone in the room, Thorne leaped to his feet and ran with cat-like swiftness to the door, opened it, and quickly but carefully examined the corridor to make sure that no one was there on duty. Then he closed the door and turned to the nearest window, which he opened also, and looked out on the balcony, which he saw was empty. He closed the window and came back to the table, unbuckling his belt and coat as he came. These he threw on the table. The coat fell back, and he glanced in the breast pocket to see that a certain document was in sight and at hand, where he could get it quickly. Then he took his revolver, which he had previously slipped from his belt to his hip pocket, and laid it down beside the instrument.
After a final glance around him to see that he was still alone and unobserved, he seized the key on which he sounded a certain call. An expert telegrapher would have recognised it, a dash, four dots in rapid succession, then two dots together, and then two more ( – … ...). He waited a few moments, and when no answer came he signalled the call a second time, and after another longer wait he sent it a third time.
After this effort he made a longer pause, and just as he had about reached the end of his patience – he was in a fever of anxiety, for upon what happened in the next moment the failure or the success of the whole plan absolutely turned – the silent key clicked out an answer, repeating the same signal which he himself had made. The next moment he made a leap upon the key, but before he could send a single letter steps were heard outside in the corridor.
Thorne released the key, leaned back in his chair, seized a match from the little holder on the table and struck it, and when another messenger entered he seemed to be lazily lighting his cigar. He cursed in his heart at the inopportune arrival. Another uninterrupted moment and he would have sent the order, but as usual he gave no outward evidence of his extreme annoyance. The messenger came rapidly down toward the table and handed Captain Thorne a message.
“From the Secretary of War, Captain Thorne,” he said saluting, “and he wants it to go out right away.”
“Here, here,” said Thorne, as the messenger turned away, “what’s all this?” He ran his fingers through the envelope, tore it open, and spread out the despatch. “Is that the Secretary’s signature?” he asked.
The messenger came back.
“Yes, sir; I saw him sign it myself. I’m his personal messenger.”
“Oh!” said Thorne, spreading the despatch out on the table and O.K.’ing it, “you saw him sign it yourself, did you?”
“Very well. We have to be pretty careful to-night,” he explained, “there is something on. You are sure of this, are you?”
“I could swear to that signature anywhere, sir,” said the messenger.
“Very well,” said Thorne, “you may go.”
As soon as the door was closed behind the messenger Thorne laid his cigar down on the table. Then he picked up the despatch from the Secretary of War which the messenger had just brought in, and folded it very dexterously. Then with a pair of scissors which he found in a drawer he cut off the lower part of the Secretary’s despatch containing his signature. He put this between his teeth and tore the rest into pieces. He started to throw the pieces into the waste basket but after a moment’s reflection he stuffed them into his trouser pocket. Then he picked up his coat from the back of the chair and took from the inside breast pocket another document written on the same paper as that which had just come from the Secretary of War. Spreading this out on the table he cut off the signature and quickly pasted to it the piece of the real order bearing the real signature. He carefully wiped this pasted despatch with his handkerchief, making an exceedingly neat job of it.
As he did so, he smiled slightly. Fortune, which had dealt him so many rebuffs had evened up matters a little by giving him this opportunity. He had now in his possession a despatch bearing the genuine signature of the Secretary of War. Even if he were interrupted the chances were he would still be able to send it. So soon as he had doctored the despatch, he sat down at the instrument and once more essayed to send the message.
Now during all this rapid bit of manipulation Thorne had been under close observation, for Arrelsford and Edith Varney had come from the Commissary General’s Office, where they had concealed themselves while Thorne examined the porch, and had stepped back to the nearest window and were intently watching. Fortunately, his back partially concealed his actions and the watchers could not tell exactly what he had done, although it was quite evident that he was in some way altering some kind of a despatch.
Just as Thorne began to send the message, Arrelsford accidentally struck the window with his elbow, making a slight sound. The instant he did so, he and the girl vanished from sight. Once again Thorne released the key, and his hand moved quietly but rapidly from the instrument to the revolver. The instant it was in his hand he sprang to his feet, whirled about, leaped to the gas bracket and turned off the light. The room was left in darkness, save for the faint illumination of the moonlight through the windows.
Immediately he turned off the light he ran to the doors leading into the hall. They were provided with heavy old-fashioned bolts which he shot swiftly, locking them on the inside. Then with the utmost caution he edged around the wall until he came to the first window. He waited with his left hand on the catch of the window, and with his right advanced his revolver. After a moment’s pause he threw it open quickly and stepped out on the balcony. It was empty as before.
He must have made a mistake, he thought, since no one was there, and he blamed the whole incident to his over-agitated nerves. Indeed what he had gone through in the preceding two hours would have shaken any man’s nerves, might have broken most men’s. He was annoyed at having wasted precious time, and turned to the table again, stopping on his way to relight the light.
Once more he seized the key. He could telegraph equally well with either hand. He did not lay down his revolver on the table this time, but kept it in his right hand while the fingers of his left hand touched the button. He had scarcely made a dot or a dash when there was a sudden flash of light and the sound of an explosion, that of a heavy revolver, mingled with the crash of shattered glass. Captain Thorne’s fingers fell from the key and a jet of blood spurted out upon the table and the papers.
He rose to his feet with incredible swiftness, his revolver in his right hand, only to be confronted by Arrelsford at the front window. The latter held in his hand, pointed fairly and squarely at Thorne, the heavy service revolver with which he had just shot him in the left wrist. Thorne made a swift motion with his right hand but Arrelsford was too quick for him.
“Drop that gun!” he shouted. “Drop it quick, or you are a dead man!”
There was no possibility of disobedience. Thorne straightened up and laid his revolver on the table. The two confronted each other, and if looks could have killed they had both been dead men. The soldier shrugged his shoulders at last, took his handkerchief out of his pocket, put one end of it between his teeth, and with the other hand wrapped it tightly around his wounded wrist.
The civilian meantime advanced toward him, keeping him covered all the time with his revolver.
“Do you know why I didn’t kill you like the dog you are, just now?” he asked truculently, as he drew nearer.
“Because you are such a damned bad shot, I suppose,” coolly answered Thorne between his teeth, still tying the bandage, after which he calmly picked up his cigar and began smoking again with the utmost indifference.
Whatever fate had in store for him could better be met, he thought swiftly at this juncture, provided he kept his temper, and so he spoke as nonchalantly as before. Indeed his manner had always been most irritating and exacerbating to Arrelsford.
“Maybe you will change your mind about that later on,” the latter rejoined.
“Well, I hope so,” said Thorne, completing his bandage and tying the knot so as to leave the fingers of his left hand free. “You see, it isn’t pleasant to be riddled up this way.”
“Next time you’ll be riddled somewhere else beside the wrist. There’s only one reason why you are not lying there now with a bullet through your head.”
“Only one?” queried Thorne.
“Do I hear it?”
“You do. I gave my word of honour to some one outside that I wouldn’t kill you, and – ”
“Oh, then this isn’t a little tête-à-tête just between ourselves. You have some one with you?” asked Thorne, interested greatly in this new development, wondering who the some one was who had interfered in his behalf. Perhaps that evident friendship might be turned to account later on. For a moment not an idea of who was there entered Thorne’s mind.
“Yes, I have some one with me, Captain Thorne, who takes quite an interest in what you are doing to-night,” returned Arrelsford sneeringly.
“That is very kind, I am sure. Is the – er – gentleman going to stay out there all alone on the balcony or shall I have the pleasure of inviting him in here and having a charming little three-handed – ”
The third party answered the question, for Edith Varney came through the window with the shattered pane through which Arrelsford had fired and entered. Thorne was shocked beyond measure by her arrival, not the slightest suspicion that she could have been there had crossed his mind. So she had been an eye witness to his treachery. He had faced Arrelsford’s pistol with the utmost composure, there was something in Edith Varney’s look that cut him to the heart, yet she did not look at him either. On the contrary, she carefully avoided his glance. Instead she turned to Arrelsford.
“I think I will go, Mr. Arrelsford,” she said in a low, choked voice.
“Not yet, Miss Varney,” he said peremptorily.
The girl gave him no heed. She turned and walked blindly toward the door.
“I don’t wish, to stay here any longer,” she faltered.
“One moment, please,” said Arrelsford, as she stopped, “we need you.”
“As a witness.”
“You can send for me if you need me, I will be at home.”
“I am sorry,” said Arrelsford, again interposing, “I will have to detain you until I turn him over to the guard. It won’t take long.”
The middle window was open and he stepped to it, still keeping an eye on Thorne, and shouted at the top of his voice:
“Call the guard! Corporal of the Guard! Send up the guard to the telegraph office!”
The note of triumph in his voice was unmistakable. From the street the three inside heard a faint cry:
“What’s the matter? Who calls the guard?”
“Up here in the telegraph office,” said Arrelsford, “send them up quick.”
The answer was evident sufficient, for they could hear the orders and the tumult in the square below.
“Corporal of the Guard, Post Four! Fall in the guard! Fall in! Lively, men!” and so on.
The game appeared to be up this time. Mr. Arrelsford held all the winning cards, thought Thorne, and he was playing them skilfully. He ground his teeth at the thought that another moment and the order would have been sent probably beyond recall. Fate had played him a scurvy trick, it had thwarted him at the last move, and Arrelsford had so contrived that his treachery had been before the woman he loved. Under other circumstances the wound in his wrist would have given him exquisite pain, as it was he scarcely realised at the time that he had been hurt.
Arrelsford still stood by the window, glancing out on the square but keeping Thorne under close observation. The evil look in his eyes and the malicious sneer on his lips well seconded the expression of triumph in his face. He had the man he hated where he wanted him. It was a splendid piece of work that he had performed, and in the performance he sated his private vengeance and carried out his public duty.
On his part, Thorne was absolutely helpless. There was that in the bearing of the woman he loved that prevented him from approaching her. He shot a mute look of appeal to her which she received with marble face, apparently absolutely indifferent to his presence, yet she was suffering scarcely less than he. In her anguish she turned desperately to Arrelsford.
“I am not going to stay,” she said decisively, “I don’t wish to be a witness.”
“Whatever your feelings may be, Miss Varney,” persisted Arrelsford, “I can’t permit you to refuse.”
“If you won’t take me downstairs, I will find the way myself,” returned the girl as if she had not heard.
She turned resolutely toward the door. Before she reached it the heavy tramping of the guard was heard.
“Too late,” said Arrelsford triumphantly, “you can’t go now, the guard is here.”
Edith could hear the approaching soldiers as well as anybody. The way was barred, she realised instantly. Well, if she could not escape, at least she could get out of sight. She turned and opened the nearest window and stepped out. Arrelsford knew that she could not go far, and that he could produce her whenever he wanted her. He made no objection to her departure that way, therefore. Instead he looked at Thorne.
“I have you just where I want you at last,” he said mockingly, as the trampling feet came nearer. “You thought you were mighty smart, but you will find that I can match your trick every time.”
Outside in the hall the men came to a sudden halt before the door. One of them knocked loudly upon it.
“What’s the matter here?” cried the Sergeant of the Guard without.
The handle was tried and the door was shoved violently, but the brass bolt held.
“Let us in!” he cried angrily.
Quick as a flash of lightning an idea came to Thorne.
“Sergeant!” he shouted in a powerful voice. “Sergeant of the Guard!”
“Break down the door! Break it down with your musket butts!”
As the butts of the muskets pounded against the heavy mahogany panels, Arrelsford cried out in great surprise:
“What did you say?”
In his astonishment, he did not notice a swift movement Thorne made toward the door.
“You want them in, don’t you?” the soldier said, as he approached the door. “It is locked and – ”
But Arrelsford recovered himself a little and again presented his revolver.
“Stand where you are,” he cried, but Thorne by this time had reached the door.
“Smash it down, Sergeant!” he cried. “What are you waiting for! Batter it down!”
The next moment the door gave way with a crash, and into the room poured the guard. The grizzled old Sergeant had scarcely stepped inside the room when Thorne shouted in tones of the fiercest authority, pointing at Arrelsford:
“Arrest that man!”
Before the dazed Secret Service Agent could say a word or press the trigger the soldiers were upon him.
“He got in here with a revolver,” continued Thorne more quietly, “and is playing hell with it. Hold him fast!”