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XVII TWO UNDER ONE HAT-BRIM
"Is this the conservatory?" playfully whispered Miss Rothvelt; and if a hot, damp air, motionless, and heavy with the sleeping breath of countless growths could make it so, a conservatory it was. Every slightest turn had to be alertly chosen, and the tangle of branches and vines made going by the stars nearly impossible. The undergrowth crowded us into single file. We scarcely exchanged another word until our horses came abreast in the creek and stopped to drink. Conditions beyond were much the same until near the end of our détour, when my horse swerved abruptly and the buzz of a rattlesnake sounded almost under foot. The mare swerved, too, and hurried forward to my horse's side.

"That was almost an adventure, itself," laughingly murmured my companion, as if adventures were what we were in search of. While she spoke we came out into a slender road and turned due north. "Did you," she went on, childishly, "ever take a snake up by the tail, in your thumb and finger, and watch him try to double on himself and bite you? I have, it's great fun; makes you feel so creepy, and yet you know you're safe!"

She laughed under her breath as if at hide-and-seek. Then we galloped, then trotted again, galloped, walked and trotted again. Two miles, three, four, we reckoned off, and slowed to a walk to come out cautiously upon the union Church and Fayette road. A sound brought us to a halt. From the right, out on the main road, it came; it was made by the wheels of a loaded wagon. I leaned sidewise until her hat-brim was over me and whispered "Yankee foragers;" but as I drew my revolver we heard voices, I breathed a sigh of relief, and with her locks touching mine we chuckled to each other in the dark. The passers were slaves escaping to the Federal camp.

Now they came into view, on the broader road, two whole ragged families with a four-mule team. They passed on. And then all at once the whole situation was too much for me. In the joy of release I groped out caressingly and touched my companion's cheek. Whereat she took my fingers and drew them to her lips--twice. The next moment I found--we found--my lifted wrists in the slender grasp of her two hands and she was murmuring incoherent protests. Suddenly she grew eloquent. "Oh, think what you are and have always been! Do you think I don't know? Do you suppose I would have put myself into this situation, or taken the liberties I have taken with you, if I had not known you, and known you well, before ever I saw you? Ah! I have heard such good things of you! and the moment I saw you I saw they were true!--Yes,--yes, I tell you they were, they are! And I'm not going to take my trust away from you now! You shall keep my trust as you have kept all others. You shall be as miserly of it as of your general's. You will keep it!" Her whispers grew more and more gentle. "My dear friend, my dear friend! what is this trust compared to the trust I wish I might lay on you?" What did she mean by that! Had she some schemer's use for me? I could not ask, for her little hands had gradually slipped from my wrists to my fingers and were softly, torturingly fondling them. Suddenly she laughed and threw her hands behind her back. "I'm blundering! Oh, Richard Smith, be kind to a woman's poor wits, and let me say to-morrow that I know one man who can be trusted--who I know can be trusted--to make a woman's folly her protection. Do you know, dear, that any woman who can say that, is richer than any who cannot? And I am but a woman, sometimes a bit silly. Trouble is I'm a live one and a whole one!--or else I'm a live one and not quite a whole one--I wonder which it is!"

I mumbled something about never wishing to tempt any one.

"Oh, you haven't tempted me," she replied, with kind amusement. "You couldn't if you should try. You're a true soldier, with a true soldier's ideals; and I'm pledged to help you keep them."

"What do you mean?" I demanded. "To whom are you pledged for any such--"

"Oh!--don't you wish you knew! Why, to myself, for instance. Come! duty calls."

"Come!" I echoed. We swung into the broader road and followed the contrabands.

We came as close to them as was wise, and had to walk our horses. I could discern Miss Rothvelt's features once more, and felt a truer deference than I had yet given her. Near the blacksmith's shop, in the dusk of some shade-trees, she once more touched my shoulder. I turned resentfully to bid her not do it, but her shadowy gaze stopped me.

"Don't be moody," she said; "the whole mistake is four-fifths mine. And anyhow, repining is only a counterfeit repentance, you know. Come, I don't want to tease you. It's only myself I love to torment. I'm the snake I like to hold up by the tail. Did you never have some dull, incessant ache that seemed to pain less when you pressed hard on it?" She laughed, left me and rode into the cottage gate.

What do you say?--Yes, she might have spoken more wisely. Yet always there vibrated in her voice a wealth of thought, now bitter, now sweet, and often both at once, and a splendor of emotions, beyond the scope of all ordinary natures. How far beyond my own scope they were, even with my passions at flood-tide and turbid as a back-street overflow, I failed to ponder while I passed around the paling fence alone.

In the edge of the woods at the rear of this enclosure I found the road that led into Cole's Creek bottom, and there turned and waited. A corner of the cottage was still in view among its cedars and china-trees. In an intervening melon-patch blinked the yellow lamps of countless fireflies. And now there came the ghost of a sound from beyond the patch, then a glimpse of drapery, and I beheld again the subject of my thoughts. Such thoughts! Ah! why had I neither modesty, wit nor charity enough to see that yonder came a woman whose heart beat only more strongly than the hearts of all the common run of us, with impulses both kind and high, although society, by the pure defects of its awkward machinery, had incurably mutilated her fate; a woman wrestling with a deep-founded love that, held by her at arm's length, yielded only humiliations and by its torments kept her half ripe for any sudden treason even against that love itself.

She came without her horse, pointing eagerly at the brightness of the sky above the unrisen moon. "Diana!" she whispered, and tossed a kiss toward it. "You saw me put the mare into the stable and go into the house by the back door?"

"Yes," I said, and handed her, as I dismounted, the General's gift, the pass.

She snatched it gaily, loosed a fastening at her throat and dropped the missive into her bosom. Then with passionate gravity she asked, "Now, are you going straight on to Clifton to-night--without stopping?"

"I haven't been ordered to tell any one where I'm going."

"Neither was Lieutenant Ferry," she dryly responded, "yet I have it from him."

"He told you?--Ah! you're only guessing," I said, and saw that I was helping her to guess more correctly.

"Pooh!" she replied, ever so prettily, "do you suppose I don't know? Ferry's scouts are at Clifton, and you've got a despatch for Lieutenant--eh,--Durand--hem!" She posed playfully. "Now, tell me; you're not to report to him till daylight, are you? Then why need you hurry on now? This house where I am is the only safe place for you to sleep in between here and Clifton. I'll wake you, myself, in good time." My heart pounded and rose in my throat, yet I managed to say, "My orders are plain." I flinched visibly, for again I had told too much. I pretended to listen toward the depths of the wood.

She struck a mock-sentimental attitude and murmured musically--
  "'The beating of our own hearts
  Was all the sound we heard.'

"Yes,"--she put away gaiety--"your orders are plain; and they're as cruel as they are plain!"

"Cruel to you?" I took her hand from my arm and held it.

"Oh! cruel to you, Richard, dear; to you! And--yes!--yes!--I'll confess. I'll confess--if only you'll do as I beg! Yes, ah yes, cruel to me! But don't ask how, and we'll see if you are man enough to keep a real woman's real secret! And first, promise me not to put up at that house which the General and Lieutenant Ferry--"

"Lieutenant Ferry is not sending me to any house."

"Pardon me, I know better. This is his scheme." She laid her free hand on our two. "Tell me you will not go to that house!"

I attempted an evasion. "Oh--a blanket on the ground--face covered up in it from the mosquitos--is really--"

"Right!" She laughed. "I wish a woman could choose that way. Oh! if you'll do that I'll go with you and stand guard over you!"

Dolt that I was, I would have drawn her close, but she put me off with an outstretched arm and forbidden smile. "No!--No! this is a matter of life and death."

I stepped back, heaving. "Who and what are you? Who and what are you?"

"Why, who and what should I be?"

"Charlotte Oliver!"

"Hmm; Charlotte Oliver. Are you sure you have the name just right?"

"Why haven't I got it right?"

"Oh, I don't doubt you have; though I didn't know but it might be Charlie Toliver or something."

I dilated. "Who told--did Ned Ferry tell you that story?"

"He did. Or, to be accurate, Lieutenant Ferry-Durand. My dear Richard, we cannot be witty and remain un-talked-about."

"I--I believe it yet! You are Charlotte Oliver!"

She became frigid. "Do you know who and what Charlotte Oliver is?--No? Well, to begin with, she's a married woman--but pshaw! you believe nothing till it's proved. If I tell you who and what I am will you do what I've asked you; will you promise not to stop at Lucius Oliver's house?" She softly reached for my hand and pressed and stroked it. "Don't stop there, dear. Oh, say you will not!"

"Is it so dangerous?"

"General Austin believes it is. You're being used to bait a trap, Richard."

I laughed a gay disdain. "Who is Lucius; is he Charlotte's husband?"

The reply came slowly. "No; her husband is quite another man; this man's wife has been dead for years. No, Charlotte Oliver lives in--hark!"

The sound we had heard was only some stir of nature in her sleep. "I must go," I said.

"Oh, no, no! I cannot let you!" She clutched the hand she had been stroking.

"Coralie! Coralie Rothvelt!"--my cry was an honest one--"you tempt me beyond human endurance."

She threw my hand from her. "I know I do! I'm so unworthy to do it that I wouldn't have believed I could. You thought I was Charlotte Oliver--Heavens! boy, if you should breathe the atmosphere Charlotte Oliver has to live in! But understand again, for your soul's comfort, you haven't tempted me. Go, if you must; go, take your chances; and if you're spared ever to see your dear, dear little mother--"

"My mother! Do you know my mother?"

"Tell her I tried to keep my promise to her."

"You promised her--what did you promise her?"

"Only to take care of you whenever I had the chance. Go, now, you must!"

"And was care for me your only motive in--"

"No; no, Richard, I wanted, and I still want, you to take care of me! But go, now, go! at once or not at all! Good-bye!" She laughed and fluttered away. I sprang upon my horse and sped into the forest.

Another mile, another half; then my horror and dismay broke into gesture and speech, and over and over I reviled myself as a fool, a traitorous fool, to be fooled into confession of my errand! I moaned with physical pain; every fatigue of the long day now levied payment, and my back, knees, shoulders, ached cruelly. But my heart ached most, and I bowed in the saddle and cried--

"What have I done, oh, what have I done? My secret! my general's, my country's secret! That woman has got it--bought it with flatteries and lies! She has drawn it from my befouled soul like a charge from a gun!"

For a moment I quite forgot how evident it was that she had gathered earlier inklings of it from some one else. Suddenly my thought was of something far more startling. It stopped my breath; I halted; I held my temples; I stared. What would she do with a secret she had taken such hazards to extort? Ah! she'd carry it straight to market--why not? She would give it to the enemy! Before my closed eyes came a vision of the issue--disaster to our arms; bleeding, maiming, death, and widows' and orphans' tears.

"My God! she shall not!" I cried, and whirled about and galloped back.

At the edge of the wood, where we had parted, I tied my horse, and crept along the moonlight shadows of the melon-patch to the stable. The door was ajar. In the interior gloom I passed my hands over the necks and heads of what I recognized to be the pair of small mules I had seen at Gallatin. Near a third stall were pegs for saddle and bridle, but they were empty. So was the stall; the mare was gone.

"Gone to the Yankees at Fayette!" I moaned, and hurried back to my horse. To attempt to overtake one within those few miles would only make failure complete, and I scurried once more into the north with such a burden of alarm and anguish as I had never before known.


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