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FRANK. Yes, sir. [KERCHIVAL _moves to him and grasps his hand; looks into his eyes a moment before speaking._
KERCHIVAL. Frank Haverill.
FRANK. You--you know me, sir?
KERCHIVAL. I saw Mrs. Haverill while I was pa.s.sing through Washington on Sat.u.r.day. She told me that you had escaped from prison in Richmond, and had re-entered the service. She did not know then that you had been a.s.signed to my regiment. I received a letter from her, in Winchester, this morning, informing me of the fact, and asking for my good offices in your behalf. But here is the letter. [_Taking letter from wallet and giving it to him._] It is for you rather than for me.
I shall do everything I can for you, my dear fellow.
FRANK. Thank you, sir. [_Opens letter, dropping the envelope upon the table._] Kind, thoughtful and gentle to my faults, as ever--[_Looking at the letter._]--and always thinking of my welfare. My poor little wife, too, is under her protection. Gentlemen, I beg of you not to reveal my secret to my father.
KERCHIVAL. General Haverill shall know nothing from us, my boy; you have my word for that.
KERCHIVAL. And he cannot possibly recognize you. What with your full beard, and thinking as he does, that you are--
FRANK. That I am dead. I am dead to him. It would have been better if I had died. Nothing but my death--not even that--can wipe out the disgrace which I brought upon his name.
HEARTSEASE. [_Looking right._] General Haverill has arrived.
_Enter_ GENERAL HAVERILL _with a_ STAFF OFFICER.
FRANK. My father!
HAVERILL. [_Exchanging salutes with the three officers. He turns to the_ STAFF OFFICER, _giving him a paper and brief instructions in dumb show. The_ OFFICER _goes out over the incline. Another_ STAFF OFFICER _enters, salutes and hands him a paper, then stands up stage._]
Ah! The men are ready. [_Looking at the paper. Then to_ KERCHIVAL.]
Colonel! I have a very important matter to arrange with you; there is not a moment to be lost. I will ask Captain Heartsease to remain.
[FRANK _salutes and starts up stage;_ HAVERILL _looks at him, starting slightly; raises his hand to detain him._] One moment; your name!
HEARTSEASE. Lieutenant Bedloe, General, of my own troop, and one of our best officers. [HAVERILL _steps to_ FRANK, _looking into his face a moment._
HAVERILL. Pardon me! [_Stepping down stage._ FRANK _moves up, stops and looks back at him._ HAVERILL _stands a moment in thought, covers his face with one hand, then draws up._] Colonel West! We have a most dangerous piece of work for a young officer--[FRANK _starts joyfully._]--to lead a party of men, whom I have already selected. I cannot order an officer to undertake anything so nearly hopeless; he must be a volunteer.
FRANK. Oh, sir, General! Let me be their leader.
HAVERILL. I thought you had pa.s.sed on.
FRANK. Do not refuse me, sir. [HAVERILL _looks at him a moment._ HEARTSEASE _and_ KERCHIVAL _exchange glances._
HAVERILL. You are the man we need, my young friend. You shall go.
Listen! We wish to secure a key to the cipher despatches, which the enemy are now sending from their signal station on Three Top Mountain.
There is another Confederate Signal Station in the Valley, just beyond Buckton's Ford. [_Pointing._] Your duty will be this: First, to get inside the enemy's line; then to follow a path through the woods, with one of our scouts as your guide; attack the Station suddenly, and secure their code, if possible. I have this moment received word that the scout and the men are at the fort, now, awaiting their leader. Major McCandless, of my staff, will take you to the place.
[_Indicating the_ STAFF OFFICER. FRANK _exchanges salutes with him._]
My young friend! I do not conceal from you the dangerous nature of the work on which I am sending you. If--if you do not return, I--I will write, myself, to your friends. [_Taking out note-book._] Have you a father living?
FRANK. My--father--is--is--he is--
HAVERILL. I understand you. A mother? Or--
KERCHIVAL. I have the address of Lieutenant Bedloe's friends, General.
HAVERILL. I will ask you to give it to me, if necessary. [_Extends his hand._] Good-bye, my lad. [FRANK _moves to him._ HAVERILL _grasps his hand, warmly._] Keep a brave heart and come back to us. [FRANK _moves up stage. Exit_ STAFF OFFICER.
FRANK. He is my father still. [_Exit._
HAVERILL. My dead boy's face! [_Dropping his face into both hands._
HEARTSEASE. [_Apart to_ KERCHIVAL.] He shall not go alone. [_Aloud._]
General! Will you kindly give me leave of absence from the command?
HAVERILL. Leave of absence! To an officer in active service--and in the presence of the enemy?
KERCHIVAL. [_Taking hand of_ HEARTSEASE. _Apart._] G.o.d bless you, old fellow! Look after the boy.
HAVERILL. A--h--[_With a sudden thought, turns._] I think I understand you, Captain Heartsease. Yes; you may have leave of absence.
HEARTSEASE. Thank you. [_Salutes._ HAVERILL _and_ KERCHIVAL _salute.
KERCHIVAL. Have you any further orders for me, General?
HAVERILL. I wish you to understand the great importance of the duty to which I have just a.s.signed this young officer. General Sheridan started for Washington this noon, by way of Front Royal. Since his departure, we have had reason to believe that the enemy are about to move, and we must be able to read their signal despatches, if possible. [_Sitting._] I have ordered Captain Lockwood, of our own Signal Corps, to report to you here, with officers and men. [_Takes up the empty envelope on table, unconsciously, as he speaks, tapping it on the table._] If Lieutenant Bedloe succeeds in getting the key to the enemy's cipher, we can signal from this point--[_Pointing to elevation._]--to our station at Front Royal. Men and horses are waiting there now, to carry forward a message, if necessary, to General Sheridan himself. [_He starts suddenly, looking at the envelope in his hand; reads address. Aside._] "Colonel Kerchival West"--in my wife's handwriting.
KERCHIVAL. I'll attend to your orders.
HAVERILL. Postmarked at Washington, yesterday. [_Reads._] "Private and confidential." [_Aloud._] Colonel West! I found a paragraph, to-day, in a paper published in Richmond, taken from a prisoner. I will read it to you. [_Takes newspaper slip from his wallet and reads._]
"From the Charleston Mercury. Captain Edward Thornton, of the Confederate Secret Service, has been a.s.signed to duty in the Shenandoah Valley. Our gallant Captain still bears upon his face the mark of his meeting, in 1861, with Lieutenant, now Colonel Kerchival West, who is also to serve in the Valley, with Sheridan's Army.
Another meeting between these two men would be one of the strange coincidences of the war, as they were at one time, if not indeed at present, interested in the same beautiful woman." [_Rises._]
I will ask you to read the last few lines, yourself. [_Hands KERCHIVAL the slip._
KERCHIVAL. [_Reading._] "The scandal connected with the lovely wife of a Northern officer, at the opening of the war, was overshadowed, of course, by the attack on Fort Sumter; but many Charlestonians will remember it. The lady in defense of whose good name Captain Thornton fought the duel"--he defending her good name!--"is the wife of General Haverill, who will be Colonel West's immediate commander." [_He pauses a moment, then hands back the slip._] General! I struck Mr. Thornton, after a personal quarrel.
HAVERILL. And the cause of the blow? There is much more in this than I have ever known of. I need hardly say that I do not accept the statement of this scandalous paragraph as correct. I will ask you to tell me the whole story, frankly, as man to man.
KERCHIVAL. [_After a moment's thought._] I will tell you--all--frankly, General.
_Enter_ SERGEANT BARKET.
BARKET. Colonel West? Adjutant Rollins wishes to report--a prisoner--just captured.
HAVERILL. We will meet again later, to-night, when the camp is at rest. We are both soldiers, and have duties before us, at once. For the present, Colonel, be on the alert; we must watch the enemy.
[_He moves up stage._ BARKET _salutes._ HAVERILL _stops and looks at envelope in his hands, reading._] "Private and confidential." [_Exit._
KERCHIVAL. Sergeant Barket! Lieutenant Bedloe has crossed the enemy's line, at Buckton's Ford, with a party of men. I wish you to ride to the Ford yourself, and remain there, with your horse in readiness and fresh. As soon as any survivor of the party returns, ride back with the first news at full speed.
BARKET. Yes, sir. [_Starting._