THERE was great excitement in the Charlton household the next morning. It was a time of excitements; not a day passed that some news did not thrill the family to its innermost center. But none so far had stirred them quite so profoundly as this of the early Monday.
Millie was a child of the morning. She loved to be out in the dewy freshness of the new day, and she had run down this morning to have a chat with her "Butternuts"-as she was beginning to consider him-before breakfast. But she came running back in a moment and burst into her mother's room, wildly excited.
"Mother! mother!" she called before she had the door fairly open, "Cousin Rex has been here, I'm, sure!"
Mrs. Charlton turned pale and in her excitement she unconsciously spoke sharply:
"What do you mean, Millie?" she said, and then seeing Millie look abashed at the severity of her tone, she added gently:
"There, I didn't mean to scold, but you startled me, child."
Millie was holding in her hand a white rose, a little withered.
"Mother," she said, "some one sent this to Miss Eunice and said to tell her it was from a friend of hers in the Southern army. And 'Butternuts' says he was tall and had very dark eyes and black, curly hair; don't you think it must have been Cousin Rex?"
Mrs. Charlton thought without doubt it must have been. But that he should have been so near and not come to see them filled her with wonder and regret and the keenest pain for Eunice. She knew nothing of a white rose, but she knew it might easily have some special significance for Eunice, and she dreaded the effect the sudden announcement of Rex's nearness might have on her.
Neither did she like to disappoint little Millie, to whom the telling of such great news to Miss Eunice was an event of wonderful importance, but she could trust her to see the reason of the matter.
"Millie," she said deprecatingly, "it may frighten Miss Eunice even more than it frightened mother to hear too suddenly that Cousin Rex has been here; don't you think it would be better that I should take the rose to her and explain about it?"
"Yes 'm," answered Millie, choking down her disappointment and bravely putting the rose in her mother's hand; "but you'll give it to her quick, won't you, mother, before it fades any more?"
"Right away," answered her mother, smiling her appreciation of the child's abnegation. "And, Millie," she added as she turned to go up to Eunice a room, "if Cæsar should announce breakfast before I come down, tell them to sit down without me-I may be detained."
Millie ran down to finish her chat with "Butternuts," and Mrs. Charlton went up-stairs. She had given Millie those last instructions because she was not quite sure what Eunice would do. If she were at all like other girls she might easily faint or go into hysterics at the news, for Mrs. Charlton had long since decided that Rex had been the great tragedy in Eunice's life.
But Eunice was not like other girls. She trembled and turned white, fearing she knew not what, while Mrs. Charlton was delicately trying to prepare her for the great news; but when she gave her the rose and the message that came with it, a swift look of exaltation flashed into Eunice's face. Her cheeks were glowing, her eyes were shining, as she caught the rose swiftly from Mrs. Charlton's hand.
"Oh, Mrs. Charlton," she murmured happily, "it was Rex!"
Mrs. Charlton had never heard Eunice call him anything but Mr. McAllister, but his name on her lips did not surprise her.
"Yes, I think so," she said; and then she could not help adding: "But why do you suppose he did not come to see us?"
"Oh, he could not," Eunice returned confidently. "I'm sure he would have come if he could." Then a quick thought came to her:
"Mrs. Charlton, do you remember two officers trying to ride in at the gate last evening, and the sentinel would not let them?"
"Yes, but why?"
"Mrs. Charlton," said Eunice solemnly, "I am sure one of them was Rex. I was sure of it at the time, but I tried to think it was only one of my foolish fancies. I wanted to run down to the gate while they were parleying with the sentry, but I knew how foolish I would seem to all of you."
"I wish you had followed your impulse, Eunice," said Mrs. Charlton; and then she added wonderingly, "But are you not disappointed to have him come so near and not see him?"
"Oh, yes, greatly disappointed," answered Eunice, simply. "But, Mrs. Charlton, I am so glad! I have been afraid, often, that he might have been killed in one of those awful battles, and now I know he is alive." And to herself she added, "And thinking of me."
Nothing could have been more significant to Eunice than the white rose, and she brooded so happily over the message it brought, over all that she was sure it was intended to mean, that she had little room for a feeling of disappointment or unhappiness of any kind.
Far from wanting to stay in her room alone, as Mrs. Charlton had rather thought she might, she was ready and quite willing to go down to breakfast with the others, wearing Rex's rose in her hair, and her face so much brighter and younger and sweeter than it had been of late that the young officers at the table, whose furtive glances had heretofore been for Lucy's golden curls, were now divided in their admiration and lost a large part of the awe with which they had heretofore regarded the New England school-teacher.
And when the fact that Rex McAllister has been in Bellaire comes up at the table (but not his message to Eunice), it appears that the young colonel knows him well, and has many tales to tell of his prowess on the field. Whereat Eunice's gray eyes shine with such pride that the colonel easily guesses her story.
It was in one of the picturesque passes leading from the Northumberland Valley across South Mountain that Rex's general had appointed to meet him not later than six o'clock on Monday evening. Long before six the general was there, sitting on a rock beside a bubbling spring-the spring that Rex himself had selected for their meeting-place, since it was a well-known landmark and easy to locate.
It has been a long, hot June day, but in that pleasant forest glade, high hills rising all around it, and the little brook from the bubbling spring dancing merrily down its rocky bed bordered with fragrant pennyroyal, it is cool and dewy and refreshing to the tired horses and tired men gathered there.
The general is bending over a map of southern Pennsylvania, and around him is a little group of officers, Hill, Longstreet, McLaws, all eagerly studying the same map and trying to guess whether it is on the York or Hanover or Baltimore turnpike they may expect to meet the Army of the Potomac.
It is nearing six o'clock, and the general is growing visibly restless and anxious. He has just sent one of his young officers out to see if he can discover what has become of his aide, Lieutenant McAllister, when down the Gettysburg road, from the opposite direction, he dashes into sight. He is worn and spent and white. In the twenty hours since he said good-by to his general, he has been out of the saddle only long enough to curry and feed his horse. His own meals have been precarious ones, and have largely been made from early June apples picked from the orchards along his route.
But he brings great news. First of all, Hooker is no longer commander of the Army of the Potomac. Hooker has resigned because the authorities at Washington would not give him unconditional control of the Harper's Ferry troops; and on the eve of a great battle (for no one doubts that a great battle is preparing) the Army of the Potomac has a new commander. That in itself is hopeful news, for Meade, the new general, has not yet proved what he can do, and they have had trial of the mettle of "Fighting Joe" at Chancellorsville, and know he is an antagonist to be dreaded.
But Rex's next news is disquieting. Meade's army is advancing in several divisions, under Hancock, Reynolds, Slocum, and Sickles, toward Gettysburg. Buford's cavalry Rex himself had caught a glimpse of not three hours before, with their horses' heads turned in the same direction.
And he has had news of Stuart gleaned from a band of refugee farmers; for Rex' s coat, the only part of his dress that made any pretensions to uniform, lies neatly folded in his saddle-bags, and in his flannel shirt and soft felt hat he can easily masquerade as a fleeing farmer himself. Only his speech might betray him, but Rex has lived four years within sound of the peculiar Pennsylvania inflections, and it is a small matter to adopt them for his own when necessary.
Stuart had been in engagement with Kilpatrick at Hanover, and had routed him. He had been burning bridges, tearing up railroads, destroying telegraphic communication, and capturing supplies. He had been most of the time between the Army of the Potomac and Washington, and as the Union troops were between him and his commander, communication had been impossible. He was now advancing toward York, but was moving slowly, hampered by his captured trains of mules and horses.
The general had listened quietly through Rex's startling budget of news. He had not been sure until this moment that the Union troops had crossed the Potomac; to know that they were all well on their way toward Gettysburg, only a few miles distant was startling indeed. But he made no sign until Rex's last words; then he groaned:
"Oh, what folly! Stuart thinks this is only one of his raids, and he spends his time in playing with the enemy and thinks I will be delighted with his present of a few hundred mules, when I am needing him here to keep me informed of the movements of the enemy!" Then he added with a burst of the impatience that his generals had seen before, but so rarely that it was greatly dreaded:
"That is the way with cavalry! They are good enough for raiding and foraging, but they are never on hand when you want them. Stuart should be here at this minute!"
There was no reply from any in the little circle, and the general sat with his head bowed in his hands for a moment. When he lifted it his impatience was all gone, and he said, with the tenderness that was the strength and the weakness of his character:
"I am wrong. There is no finer, more brilliant, or more trustworthy soldier in the army than Stuart, and he is only acting under orders. I myself told him to get all the supplies possible, and Longstreet ordered him to get in the rear of Hooker."
And then, with an entire change of tone:
"Gentlemen, the hour for action has arrived! Lieutenant Harding, you will ride at once to Bellaire and countermand my orders to Ewell. I had ordered him to advance on Henrysburg and capture it; you will tell him to turn his troops southward, cross South Mountain, and await orders at Cashtown. I fear he may already have left; if so, you will follow him, overtake him, and turn him back. The Army of the Potomac is coming north; we will turn south and meet it!"
"Wait one moment," he added as the little circle began to disintegrate and get ready for movement. Turning to Rex, he said formally:
"Lieutenant McAllister, you will have embroidered upon your collar the single star of a major. I present to you, gentlemen, Major McAllister, of my staff, who has this day rendered distinguished service to the Southern Confederacy!"