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XXIII FERRY TALKS OF CHARLOTTE

"You have no carbine," said my commander. "And you have but one revolver; here is another."

I knew it at a glance. "It's Oliver's," I said.

"We'll call it yours now," he replied. "Kendall picked it up, but he has no need of it."

I remarked irrelevantly that I had not noticed when Sergeant Jim and Kendall rejoined us, but Ferry stuck to the subject of the captured weapon. "Take it," he insisted; "if you are not fully armed you will find yourself holding horses every time we dismount to fight. And now, Smith, I shall not report to the General this matter of the Olivers; you shall tell him the whole of it, yourself; you are my scout, but you are his courier."

"Lieutenant, I--I wish I knew the whole of it."

"Tell him all you know."

"Even things she doesn't want told?"

"Ah!"--he gave a Creole shrug--"that you must decide, on the honor of a good soldier. She has taken you into her confidence?"

"Only into her service," I said, but he raised his brows. "That is more; certainly you are honored. What is it you would rather not tell the General and yet you must; do I know that already?"

"Yes, for one thing, I've got to tell him that old Lucius Oliver can't be hung too high or too soon. For months he has been--"

Ferry showed pain. "I know; save that for the General. And what else?"

"Why, the other one--the son. Lieutenant, is she that monster's wife?"

Ferry stroked his horse's neck and said very softly, "She is his wife." I had to wait long for him to say more, but at length, with the same measured mildness, he spoke on. This amazing Charlotte, bereft of father, brother and mother, ward of a light-headed married sister, and in these distracted times lacking any friend with the courage, wisdom and kind activity to probe the pretensions of her suitor, had been literally snared into marriage by this human spider, this Oliver, a man of just the measure to simulate with cunning and patient labor the character, bearing and antecedents of a true and exceptional gentleman for the sake of devouring a glorious woman.

"But, eh!" I exclaimed, "how could ever such as she mistake him for--"

"Ah, he is, I doubt not, but the burnt-out ruin of what he was half a year ago. You perceive, he has not succeeded; he has not devoured her; actually she has turned his fangs upon himself and has defeated his designs toward her as if by magic. And yet the only magic has been her vigilance, her courage, her sagacity. Smith,"--again he stroked the mane of his charger--"if I tell you--"

I gave him no pledge but a look.

"Since the hour of her marriage she has never gone into her chamber without locking the door; she has never come out of it unarmed."

I remarked that had I been in her place I should either have sunk into the mire, so to speak, or thrown myself, literally, into the river.

"Yes," he responded, "but not she! Her life is still hers; she will neither give it away nor throw it away. She wants it, and she wants it whole."

"Did she say that to you?"

He looked at me in wide surprise. "Ah! could you think she would speak with me on that subject? No, I have learned what I know from a man we shall meet to-day; the brother of Major Harper; and he, he has it from--" my companion smiled--"somebody you have known a pretty long time, I think, eh?"

"I see; I see; you mean my mother!"

He let me ponder the fact a long time. "Lieutenant," I asked at length, "did you know your plot against the two Olivers would cross her wishes?"

"Ah!" was his quick response, "it crossed mine, like-wise. But, you know, this life we have to live, it is never for two people only."

"No," I replied, with my eagerness to moralize, "no two persons, and above all no one man and one woman, can ever be sure of their duty, or even of their happiness, till they consider at least one third person,--"

"Hoh!" interrupted Ferry, in the manner of one to whom the fact was somehow of the most immediate and lively practical interest, "and to consider a thousand is better." Then, after a pause, "Yes," he said, "I know she could not like that move, but you remember our talk of yesterday, where we first met?"

Indeed I did. Between young men, to whom the principles of living were still unproved weapons, there was, to my taste, just one sort of talk better than table-talk, and that was saddle-talk; I remembered vividly.

"You mean when we were saying that on whatever road a man's journey lies, if he will, first of all, stick to that road, and then every time it divides take the--I see! you came to where the road divided!"

"Yes, and of course I had to take the upper fork. I am glad you said that yesterday morning; it came as sometimes the artillery, eh?--just at the right moment."

"I didn't say it, Lieutenant; you said it."

"No, I think you said it;--sounds like you."

"It was you who said it! and anyhow, it was you who had the strength to do it!"

He laughed. "Oh!--a little strength, a little vanity,--pride--self-love--we have to use them all--as a good politician uses men."

I looked him squarely in the eyes and began to burn. At every new unfolding of his confidence I had let my own vanity, pride, self-love be more and more flattered, and here at length was getting ready to esteem him less for showing such lack of reserve as to use me as an escape-valve for his pent-up thoughts, when all at once I fancied I saw what he was trying to do. I believed he had guessed my temptations of the night and was making use of himself to warn me how to fight them. "I understand," said I, humbly.

But this only pleasantly mystified him. He glanced all over me with a playful eye and said, "You must have a carbine the first time our ordnance-wagon finds us. drop back, now, into the ranks."

I did so; but I felt sure I should ride beside him again as soon as he could make an opportunity; for it was plain that by a subtle unconfessed accord he and she had chosen me to be a true friend between them.

About noon, while taking a brief rest to give our horses a bite, we were joined by an ambulance carrying Major Harper's brother and some freight which certainly was not hospital stores. When we remounted, this vehicle moved on with us, in the middle of the column, and I was called to ride beside it and tell all about the arrival of Miss Harper and her nieces at Hazlehurst, and their journey from Brookhaven to camp. Ned Ferry rode on the side opposite me and I noticed that all the fellows nearest the ambulance were choice men; Sergeant Jim was not there, but Kendall was one, and a young chap on a large white-footed pacer was another. Having finished my task I had gathered my horse to fall back to my place at the rear, when my distinguished auditor said, "I'm acquainted with your mother, you know."

He was not so handsome as his brother, though younger. His affability came by gleams. I asked how that good fortune had come to my mother, and he replied that there was hardly time now for another story; we might be interrupted--by the Yankees. "Ask the young lady you met yesterday evening," he added, with a knowing gleam, and smiled me away; and when by and by the enemy did interrupt, I had forgiven him. Whoever failed to answer my questions, in those days, incurred my forgiveness.


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