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XV VENUS AND MARS
Since those days men have made "fire-proof" buildings. You know them; let certain aggravations combine--they burn like straw. We had barely started when I began to be threatened with a conflagration against which I should have called it an insult to have been warned. The adroit beauty at my side set in to explain more fully her presence. From her window she had seen those two trim fellows hurrying along in a fair way to blunder into the Federal pickets within an hour, had cautioned them, and had finally asked leave to come with them, they under her guidance, she under their protection.

"You were so anxious to get the General's letter?" I asked.

"I was so anxious about you," she replied, with feeling, and then broke into a quizzical laugh.

I had not the faintest doubt she was lying. What was I to her? The times were fearfully out of joint; women as well as men were taking war's licenses, and with a boy's unmerciful directness I sprang to the conclusion that here was an adventuress. Yet I had some better thoughts too. While I felt a moral tipsiness going into all my veins, I asked myself if it was not mainly due to my own inability to rise in full manliness to a most exceptional situation. Her jaunty method of confronting it, was I not failing to regard that with due magnanimity? Was this the truth, or after all ought I really to see that at every turn of her speech, by coy bendings of the head, by the dark seductions of dim half-captive locks about her oval temples, and by many an indescribable swaying of the form and of the voice, I was being--to speak it brutally--challenged? Even in the poetic obscurity of the night I lost all steadiness of eye as I pertly said--

"And so here you are in this awful fix."

"I'm enjoying one advantage," she replied, "which you do not."

"What is that?"

"Why, I can read my safety in your face. You can't read anything in mine; you're afraid to look."

All I got by looking then was a mellow laugh from behind her relowered veil; but we were going at a swift trot, nearing a roadside fire of fence-rails left by some belated foraging team, and as she came into the glare of it I turned my eyes a second time. She was revealed in a garb of brown enriched by the red beams of the fire, and was on the gray mare I had seen that morning under Lieutenant Edgard Ferry-Durand.

"You recognize her?" the rider asked, delightedly. "She's not stolen, she's only served her country a little better than usual to-day; haven't you, Cousin Sallie?" (Cousin Sallie was short for Confederate States.)

The note of patriotism righted me and I looked a third time. The one art of dress worth knowing in '63 was to slight its fashions without offending them, and this pretty gift I had marked all day in the Harpers. But never have I seen it half so successful as in the veiled horsewoman illumined by the side-lights of those burning fence-rails. The white apparition at the veranda's edge gleamed in my mind, yet swiftly faded out, and a new fascination, more sudden than worthy heaved at my heart. Then the fire was behind us and we were in the deep night.

On the crest of a ridge we slackened speed and my fellow-traveller lifted her veil and asked exultantly what those two splendid stars were that overhung yonder fringe of woods so low and so close to each other. The less brilliant one, I said, the red one, was Mars.

"And the one following, almost at his side?"

"Don't you know?" I asked.

Her eyes flashed round upon me like stars themselves. "Not--Venus?" she whispered, snatched in her breath, bit her lip, and half averting her face, shot me through with both "twinklers" at once. Then she took a long look at the planets and suddenly exclaimed with a scandalized air--

"They're going down into the woods together!"

"Yes," I responded, "and without even waiting for Diana."

She dropped the rein and lifted both arms toward them. "Oh, blessings on your glorious old heathen hearts, what do you want of Diana, or of any one in heaven or earth except each other!"

Foolish, idle cry, and meant for no more, by a heart on fire with temptations of which I knew nothing. But then and there my poor adolescent soul found out that the preceptive stuff of which it had built its treasure-house and citadel was not fire-proof.


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