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XIX ASLEEP IN THE DEATH-TRAP
The dwelling was entirely dark. I came close in the bright moonlight and hallooed. At my second hail the door came a small way open, and after a brief parley a man's voice bade me put up my horse and come in. The stable was a few steps to the right and rear. Returning, I took care to notice the form of the house: a hall from front to rear; one front and one rear room on each side of it; above the whole a low attic, probably occupied by the slave housemaids.

I was met in the bare unpainted hall by a dropsical man of nearly sixty, holding a dim candle, a wax-myrtle dip wrapped on a corncob. He had a retreating chin, a throat-latch beard and a roving eye; stepped with one foot and slid with the other, spoke in a dejected voice, and had very poor use of his right hand. I followed him to the rear corner chamber, the one nearest the stable, feeling that, poor as the choice was, I should rather have him for my robber and murderer than those villains down at the quarters. I detained him in conversation while I drew off my boots and threw my jacket upon the back of a chair in such a way as to let my despatch be seen. The toss was a lucky one; the document, sealed with red wax, stuck out arrogantly from an inside pocket. Then, asking lively questions the while as if to conceal a blunder and its correction, I moved quickly between him and it and slipped the missive under a pillow of the fourpost bedstead.

He was not wordy, and he tarried but a moment, yet he explained his paralysis. In the dreary monotone of a chronic sour temper he related that some Confederates, about a year before, had come here impressing horses, and their officer, on being called by him "no gentleman," had struck him behind the ear with the butt of a carbine. I asked what punishment the officer received, and I noticed the plural pronoun as he icily replied, "We didn't enter any complaint."

I said with genuine warmth that if he would give me that man's name--etc.

He waited on the threshold with his dropsical back to me for my last word, and then, still in the same attitude, droned, "O-oh, he's dead. And anyhow," he finished out of sight in the hall, "that's not our way."

I sat on the edge of the bed, in the moonlight, wishing I knew what their way was. I considered my small stock of facts. The one that appalled me most was the inward guilt which I brought with me to this ordeal. I wanted to say my childhood prayers and I could not. For I could not repent; at least the emotion of repentance would not come. Moreover, every now and then there leapt across this blackness of guilt a forked lightning of fright, as I realized that I could no more plan than I could pray. No doubt Coralie Rothvelt, by this time in Fayette, was telling some Federal commander that a certain Confederate courier, now asleep at the house of Lucius Oliver, had let slip to her the fact that his despatches were written to be captured, and that, read with that knowledge, they would be of guiding value. What mine host himself might have in view for me I could not guess, but most likely those three rapscallions down at the quarters were already plotting my murder. So now for a counterplot--alas! the counterplot would not unfold for me!

I rallied all my wits. Here was an open window. Through it the moonlight poured in upon the lower half of the bed. If I should lie with my eyes in the shadow of the headboard no one entering by the door opposite could see that I was looking. Good! but what to do when the time should come--ah me!--and "Oh, God!" and "Oh, God!" again. Ought I, now, to let the enemy get the despatch, or must I not rather keep it from him at whatever risk of death or disgrace? Ah! if I might only fight, and let the outcome decide for me! And why not? Yes, I would fight! And oh! how I would fight! If by fighting too well I should keep the despatch, why, that, as matters now stood, was likely to be the very best for my country's cause. On the other hand, should I fight till I fell dead or senseless and only then lose it, surely then it would be counted genuine and retain all its value to mislead. Oh, yes,--I could contrive nothing better--I would fight!

I drew the counterpane aside, lay down under it revolver in hand, and then, for the first time since I had put on the glorious gray, found I could not face the thought of death. I grew steadily, penetratingly, excruciatingly cold, and presently--to the singular satisfaction of my conscience--began to shake from head to foot with a nervous chill. It was agonizing, but it was so much better than the spiritual chill of which it took the place! I felt as though I should never be warm again. Yet the attack slowly passed away, and with my finger once more close to the trigger, I lay trying to use my brain, when, without prayer or plan, I solved the riddle, what I should do, by doing the only thing I knew I ought not to do. I slept.


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