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XVI AN ACHING CONSCIENCE
Yet great is precept. Precept is a well. Up from its far depths by slow, humble, constant process you may draw, in a slender silver thread, and store for sudden use, the pure waters of character.

It has happened, however, that a man's own armor has been the death of him. So the moral isolation of a young prig of good red blood who is laudably trying to pump his conduct higher than his character--for that's the way he gets his character higher--has its own peculiar dangers. Take this example: that he does not dream any one will, or can, in mere frivolity, coquette, dally, play mud-pies, with a passion the sacredest in subjection, the shamefulest in mutiny, and the deepest and most perilous to tamper with, in our nature. As hotly alive in the nethermost cavern of his heart as in that of the vilest rogue there is a kennel of hounds to which one word of sophistry is as the call to the chase, and such a word I believed my companion had knowingly spoken. I was gone as wanton-tipsy as any low-flung fool, and actually fancied myself invited to be valiant by this transparent embodiment of passion whose outburst of amorous rebellion had been uttered not because I was there, but only in pure recklessness of my presence. Of course I ought to have seen that this was a soul only over-rich in woman's love; mettlesome, aspiring, but untrained to renunciation; consciously superior in mind and soul to the throng about her, and caught in some hideous gin of iron-bound--convention-bound--or even law-bound--foul play. But I was so besotted as to suggest a base analogy between us and those two sinking stars.

Unluckily she retorted with some playful parry that just lacked the saving quality of true resentment. How I rejoined would be small profit to tell. I had a fearful sense of falling; first like a wounded squirrel, dropping in fierce amazement, catching, holding on for a panting moment, then dropping, catching and dropping again, down from the top of the great tree where I had so lately sat scolding all the forest; and then, later, with an appalling passivity. And at every fresh exchange of words, while she laughed and fended, and fended and laughed, along with this passivity came a yet more appalling perversity; a passivity and perversity as of delirium, and as horrid to her as to me, though I little thought so then.

We came where a line of dense woods on our left marked the bottom-lands of Morgan's Creek. With her two earlier companions my fellow-traveller had crossed a ford here shortly after sunset, seeing no one; but a guard might easily have been put here since, by the Federals in Fayette. Pretty soon the road, bending toward it, led us down between two fenced fields and we stealthily walked our horses. Close to a way-side tree I murmured that if she would keep my horse I would steal nearer on foot and reconnoitre, and I had partly risen from the saddle, when I was thrilled by the pressure of her hand upon mine on the saddle-bow. "Don't commit the soldier's deadliest sin, my dear Mr. Smith," she said under her breath, and smiled at my agitation; "I mean, don't lose time."

I was about to put a false meaning even on that, when she added "We don't need the ford this time of year; let us ride back as if we gave up the trip--for there may be a vidette looking at us now in the edge of those bushes--and as soon as we get where we can't be seen let us take a circuit. We can cross the creek somewhere above and strike the Wiggins road up in the woods. You can find your way by the blessed stars, can't you--being the angel you are?"

My whole nature was upheaved. You may smile, but my plight was awful. In the sultry night I grew cold. My bridle-hand, still lying under her palm, turned and folded its big stupid fingers over hers. Then our hands slid apart and we rode back. "I wish I were good enough to know the stars," she said, gazing up. "Tell me some of them."

I told them. Two or three times my voice stuck in my throat, I found the sky so filled, so possessed, by constellations of evil name. At our back the Dragon writhed between the two Bears; over us hung the Eagle, and in the south were the Wolf, the Crow, the Hydra, the Serpent--"Oh, don't tell any more," she exclaimed. "Or rather--what are those three bright stars yonder? Why do you skip them?"

"Those? That one is the Virgin's sheaf; and those two are the Balances."

I failed to catch her reply. She spoke in a tone of pain and sunk her face in her hand. "Head ache?" I asked. "No." She straightened, and from under her coquettish hat bent upon me such a look as I had never seen. In her eyes, in her tightened lips, and in the lift of her head, was a whole history of hope, pride, pain, resolve, strife, bafflement and defiance. She could not have chosen to betray so much; she must have counted too fully on the shade of her hat-brim. The beautiful frown relaxed into a smile. "No," she repeated, "only an aching conscience. Ever have one?"

I averted my face and answered with a nod.

"I don't believe you! I don't believe you ever had cause for one!" She laid a hand again upon mine.

I covered it fiercely and sunk my brow upon it. And thereupon the wave of folly drew back, and on the bared sands of recollection I saw, like drowned things, my mother's face, and Gholson's and the General's, and Major Harper's, and Ned Ferry's, and Camille's. Each in turn brought its separate and peculiar pang; and among those that came a second time and with a crueler pang than before was Camille's.

"You're tired!" murmured the voice beside me, and the wave rolled in again. I lifted my brow and moved one hand from hers to make room on it for my lips, but her fingers slipped away and alighted compassionately on my neck. "You must be one ache from head to foot!" she whispered.

I turned upon her choking with anger, but her melting beauty rendered me helpless. Black woods were on our left. "Shall we turn in here?" I asked.

"Yes." She stooped low under the interlacing boughs and plunged with me into the double darkness.


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