The General's Aide
THE June twilight was fast deepening into night. The younger members of the Charlton family had been put to bed early, quite worn out with the excitement and late hours of the last few days. Dr. and Mrs. Charlton, Eunice and Lucy, were on the veranda, listening to the hymns rising from a thousand deep-throated singers.
The young colonel was a martinet where religion was concerned, and not a man that could be spared from duty was missing from that great semicircle of soldiers closely seated on the grass and joining fervently in the singing or listening patiently and immovably to the sermon no Southern preacher would venture to make less than two hours in length. The two older boys had begged to be allowed to join the congregation, and were seated on the skirts of the throng, with a devout air which was in unconscious imitation of the bearded men around them. Torches were flaring about the improvised pulpit, whose brilliant but unsteady light threw the strong faces in the front ranks into bold relief, but left the outer circles in dusk. The four on the veranda were thoroughly appreciating the picturesque scene and joining reverently in the spirit of devotion.
"I have never known a sweeter or more peaceful Sabbath, " said Mrs. Charlton, with a restful sigh.
They had accepted the colonel's invitation, Mrs. Charlton feeling that not to accept it in the same gracious spirit in which it was made would show themselves less high-toned and generous than their foe. At dinner and supper they had sat at table with these rough men, who were yet thorough gentlemen, and the colonel's negro servants had cooked their meals and waited on them with the effusive politeness native to the Southern darky; and now, in the quiet of the evening, Mrs. Charlton was feeling a delicious sense of repose born of the fact that no distasteful drudgeries had marred the Sabbath peace, and none awaited her on the morrow.
Dr. Charlton answered her little speech:
"It is wonderful! Ewell's whole corps encamped in our town, and Bellaire has never known a quieter Sunday!"
There was a little disturbance down at the big gate that led to the street. Two officers on horseback were trying to ride into the president's garden, and the sentry was preventing them. The officer in advance was a man whose hair and beard were fast turning white. He was dressed in an old suit of gray with the three stars of a colonel embroidered on the collar, and an old gray hat of soft felt was pulled down over kindly brown eyes in whose depths lurked the flash of the lightning. He was of splendid physique and was riding a magnificent horse.
As the sentinel refused them entrance, the younger officer tried to interpose; evidently he was about to tell the officious sentinel what high dignitary he was treating so summarily. But the older man prevented.
"No, no, " he said hastily, "the man is quite right. He is here to protect private property, and we have no right to be riding over garden paths."
And then in a lower tone, as they turned their horses down the street toward the Iron Gate:
"You must not forget that I am trying to conceal my identity. I think you came very near betraying me to that private."
The younger man was abashed, and earnestly begged his superior's pardon. But he was also greatly disappointed. He had caught a glimpse of the white dresses on the veranda, and he had been ardently longing for a closer view of them.
They rode through the Iron Gate, where the countersign gave them ready entrance, and under a clump of trees dismounted and tied their horses, walked forward to the great congregation, and sat down on the outer circle. It was already growing dark there under the trees, and no one noticed them as they took their seats and pulled their hats still lower over their eyes.
The congregation was singing with swelling chorus,
"How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord!"The two officers took no part in the singing until the last stanza, and then in a low voice, but with concentrated earnestness, the older man sang:
"The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose,They bowed reverent heads through the long and fervid prayer, but when the preacher had announced his text and his congregation were settling themselves more comfortably for patient listening, the older man arose and beckoned the younger to follow him. He could not see the dismay in his subordinate's eyes, he did not know that for the second time he was intensely disappointed. The young officer had been nervous and restless through the hymn and the prayer, straining his eyes to catch a glimpse of the white dresses on the veranda. He had just decided that since he could leave his general safe among his soldiers, he must ask for a few minutes' leave of absence to call at the president's house. To have the summons that could not be disregarded come at that very moment was hard to bear. For the first time the young aide followed the great commander reluctantly.
As they moved off in the darkness toward their horses, the general threw his arm affectionately over his aide's shoulder.
"Rex," he said gravely, "I am greatly troubled. No word from Stuart yet-do you think anything can have happened to him?"
"Oh, I am sure not, sir," Rex answered, eager to quiet his general's anxieties. "Nothing ever happens to Stuart-he'll turn up, in a day or two."
"A day or two!" exclaimed the other, with unusual bitterness. "And I am perfectly in the dark as to where Hooker or Hancock or Meade is. It is Stuart's duty to keep me informed. He has never failed me, and I fear some great disaster. Rex, I tell you we are walking into a trap! I must find out where the Army of the Potomac is by to-morrow night, or we are undone!"
Rex hesitated for the fraction of a second, and then he said quietly:
"And I will undertake to find it out for you, sir."
"You!" exclaimed his general, aghast for a moment. "You are no scout!"
"No, sir," returned Rex; "but I know this country well. I know the roads to York and Hanover, Baltimore and Washington. I am sure I can find out by to-morrow morning what the Army of the Potomac is doing, and you shall know by to-morrow night."
But the general would not listen at first.
"No," he said; "that is the duty of scouts. Not even a trained scout could ride through the enemy's country without every moment being in danger of his life. It is not your duty; they will take you for a spy. No, Rex; I could never look your mother in the face again if I sent her boy off on such an errand and he died a shameful death."
But Rex was on fire now with the idea of doing some great service for his idolized chief.
"Let me go, sir!" he begged. "If I lose my life, I could not lose it in a better cause; there is no way in which I could make it count for so much. But I shall not lose it; I shall be back to-morrow, and you shall know what you want to know."
They had reached their horses by this time, and Rex was eager to secure his general's permission and be off. He knew he had a long and hard ride before him and there was no time to be lost, yet he had in mind that he would take five minutes first and call at Dr. Charlton's house and learn what he could of Eunice. Leaning on their horses' necks in the deep shadow of the trees, they talked long and earnestly: Rex eager and impatient as he dared to be, the general doubtful, hesitating, and convinced against his will. And when he had yielded at last, there were still the arrangements to be talked over and a place of meeting to be decided upon, and by the time they were ready to mount their horses the sermon had ended, the congregation had broken up, and the campus had taken on the stillness of night and sleep.
Rex hoped there was still time for his call, but he must first see his commander safely to General Ewell's headquarters at the barracks, and every delay fretted him. His general would not let him come farther than the sentry at the gates of the barracks.
"I am perfectly safe now, Rex," he said; "and you must be off." And then leaning from his horse and taking Rex's hand in an iron grip, he said tenderly:
"Go, my son, and may your mother's God go with you and bring you back in safety!"
Rex was deeply touched; for a moment he could not answer, but he found his voice at last to say unsteadily:
"Good-by, Uncle Robert. If I do not come back, tell my mother good-by for me."
He wheeled his horse and dashed away in the moonlight. His general watched him until he disappeared in the shade of the avenue of lindens and maples, and then he lifted his face to the stars and took off his hat.
"O Lord God," he said reverently, "when will it all end? When can we keep our boys beside us, and not send them out to almost certain death! Keep him and bring him back to his mother!"
He was thinking of his own boys and their mother, and his heart, deeply touched by what seemed to him Rex's certain fate, was wrung for all the sorrowing mothers of the South.
Rex dashed blindly on for a few minutes, the mist in his eyes blurring the path before him. But it cleared away, and his impatience to see the Charltons returned with double force, driving out every keen pang at parting with his general.
It is only two blocks out of his way to the college; his good horse can cover that in a few minutes, and he will not stay more than five. He easily reconciles it with his conscience to take this flying visit on his way.
But when he arrives at the gate where he and his general were refused entrance, he looks up at the house with dismay to find the windows all darkened. Still he will not give up hope entirely. He dismounts and fastens his horse to the ring in the carriage-block, and the sentry challenging him at the gate, he gives the countersign. But it is the sentry's orders to admit no one after ten o'clock, and all Rex's arguments and inducements are powerless to make him disobey orders. The sentinels have been changed since Rex was there before; it is the curly-headed, blue-eyed boy in butternuts that is on duty now, and Rex determines to throw himself upon his generosity. He asks him, first, if there is a young lady staying at Dr. Charlton's, not one of his daughters. "Butternuts" thinks there is. There are two young ladies and one little girl, and "Butternuts" believes the older young lady is not the president's daughter. Rex asks for a description of her, and cannot doubt the description belongs to Eunice, while he secretly swells with pride at the boy's account of her beauty. But the boy insists also that the family are all in bed; they have been abed for an hour, and on no account will he permit them to be disturbed. Then Rex begs him to let him enter the garden only so far as that white rose-bush shining in the moonlight. This the boy at last consents to do, and Rex gathers two roses from the very bush from which Eunice plucks one every day for her hair (though this he does not know), and he stands for a minute looking up at that window through whose bowed shutters she once dropped him a white rose. Is she there behind those shutters? Would she answer if he called her name? He is desperate. How can he go away without one look into her eyes. and one touch of her hand!
But he has given his word of honor to go no farther than the rose-bush and time is passing; he must be away on that commission that may well mean death to him. He goes slowly back to the boy.
"Sentinel," he says, "will you do something for a comrade who is starting on an expedition which is likely to cost him his life?"
"Gladly," says the boy, gravely; "though I think we are all on an expedition that is likely to cost us our lives."
Rex assents grimly, and then he says:
"Will you take this rose and to-morrow morning will you see that Miss Harlowe gets it? Be sure to remember the name-Miss Harlowe, the beautiful lady with the brown curls-and tell her a friend in the Southern army sent it to her?"
The boy promises faithfully, and Rex puts one of the two white roses in his hand, puts the other carefully away in his own breast-pocket, says, "Good-by, comrade," and is away in the night on his arduous task.
No one knows better than he how arduous it will be: threading dark and dangerous mountain passes, swimming deep rivers, making long detours to avoid scouting or skirmishing parties of the enemy, many weary miles to be traveled before the morning light will increase the dangers of his path, and liable at any moment to have his long journey ended by a bullet in his back.
As his horse springs forward at the touch of his spur, he turns in his saddle, waves his band to the darkened window, and whispers: