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Here, in the dense, dank Virginian woods, the autumn leaves are glowing blood-red in the rays of the dying sun.
Many a long league of salt sea lies between us and the English woodlands at home, where, to-day, while they knocked over 'rocketers,' or killed right and left, as the birds whirred out of the warm corner,' men who had known The Bey'in the old time had never a thought to waste upon him now-whose deadly skill had time and often brought grins of silent approval on the gnarled and wrinkled visages of grey-haired keepers at Longleate or Savernake.
He had dropped out of men's minds as he had dropped out of their world. His disappearance had been a nine-days' wonder, and then they had forgotten him as we all forget and are forgotten.
He had told Valérie the truth; they were, indeed, not likely to look upon each other's face again.
And, when he had gone from her, she knew he was as far beyond recal as the wild hawk that has burst its bondage. They two had met and parted for the last time.
Where he was, not even those of us whom he trusted most could
even guess. It was not till later, when Brankston brought back the news, that we knew how it had fared with the man whose love and whose life The Vavasour had flung away.
Before the roses had withered that year, the 'Eugénie '--swiftest and most successful of blockade-runners --had landed Molyneux at Charleston.
There was wild work preparing then, for those were the days when the 'blue flag' waved proudly over the victorious Southerners, and Lee and Jackson were rolling back the tide of invasion, and the Federal retreat was like to become a rout; and they welcomed a leader like 'The Bey' among them eagerly enough.
They gave him the command he asked for an Irregular Virginian Cavalry Corps, nominally attached to Gilmore's division.
But, after his first exploit, a midnight dash across the border and
the smiting asunder of an advancing Federal column, they left him to himself, and 'The Bey' cut out his own work.
The foe soon learned to dread the very mention of his name, as, in the days gone by, Cossack and Russian had done. When they thought him miles away-when their spies had reported him killed, wounded, a prisoner-when he had been unheard of for days, and they were hoping they were rid of him at last, he would come swooping down on them with his resistless rush-the hoarse yell of his pitiless troopers, as they charged, the only warning of his coming. Swift to smite and never to spare,' he did such service in the lost cause he had drawn the sword for, as men on both sides talk of yet.
As the Osmanli troopers had followed him straight and unswerving, when he led them through the withering hail-storm of shot and shell, down on the broken foe, his stalwart Virginians, striking hard and mercilessly for all they loved and all they had lost, rode behind him now.
He led them as they had never been led before.
So cool, so calm, when the peril was deadliest; so patient, so untiring in pursuit; so carelessly reckless when the right moment came, and men and horses, straining like hounds in the leash might be let slip at last; and the stretching gallop of his gallant English hunter was bringing him down, six lengths a head of his squadron, first on the reeling Northern line, 'The Bey' got the work of Paladins out of his men by the sheer force of his own example.
They never knew, when they saw the light of battle' gleam upon his face, just before he took them into fire, why the most desperate service in a cause that was not his, came ever most welcome to their leader. They were fighting for the land of their birth and the women of their love; he, as it seemed to them, for a soldier's love of the thing alone.
None there knew how the haunting vision of a woman's face, scornful and blighting in its beauty as he
had seen it last, ever before his eyes now, was driving him to fling down in honour the weary burden of his life. None knew how, when the fight was ended, and scathless, as though he bore a charmed life, he rode out of the mêlée, he envied, in the bitterness of his soul, the dead that were at peace, lying on the bloody, trampled sod, with white, calm faces, in their last sleep, slain outright by shot or steel that ever passed him by. It haunted him like a curse the memory of the woman he had loved with the great love of his whole life. He saw her in her fatal beauty, mocking, pitiless, maddening, ever, ever before him-his evil angel, that, in bright noontide, or cold dead night-in the midst of the men he led, or when he sat alone by the waning bivouacfires, as the last stars were paling before the dawn, stood by him still.
Only in the mad excitement of a headlong charge; in desperate fighting against heavy odds, when he and the Anakim who followed him had to hew and slash their way out of the bristling square they had pierced in their first rush-only when, right and left of him men went down beneath the sway of his sabre and 'Red Lancer's' trampling hoofs-only when the delirium of the battle field was on him could he forget her. Only then, and so, though day by day the ranks grew thinner and weaker, he had ever fresh work for his command to do.
Evil days for the overmatched Confederacy came at last-days of rebuke and blasphemy.
The Gettysburgh 'mistake' let in once more the fierce tide of invasion from the North. The Southern armies were falling back, fighting every inch of ground, to their last entrenchments.
'The Bey's' corps, separated by some leagues from its main supports, had got hemmed in by two Federal columns advancing by parallel routes to the front.
• Between him and safety lay the heaviest outnumbering him tenfold, and comprising two batteries of field artillery. The other was advancing slowly, but with grim
pertinacity, and closing in upon his flank and rear. He was caught, as it were, in a steel trap. Where he was now-on a long, level plateau, bordered on either side by the dense Virginian forest, through the rough tracks of which the Federal divisions were forcing their way-he had halted, as the autumn afternoon was closing in, to give men and horses breathing-time, ere he led them on to one last desperate struggle to wrench themselves free from the toils.
Desperate it was likely to be, he knew; and well-nigh hopeless. His only chance was to cut his way through the column in his front in one fierce, sudden rush, before the other had time to get up. That once done, he might reach the Confederate outposts with perhaps half his regiment. But the odds against him were very heavy-heavier than even those bold riders, whose ranks were sadly thinned now, but whose pluck and confidence in their chief were strong as ever, had faced before. If they failed they knew their fate; and this knowledge nerved every man to do or die. Better the sudden end by shot or steel than the long-drawn agony of death that awaited them yonder in the warprisons of the North. While the girths were loosened, and, bridle in hand, the troopers sat or lay on the dry, short turf, waiting the word to mount, their leader, a little in advance, stood leaning his arm on 'Red Lancer's' shoulder, tranquilly finishing the brûle-gueule he was smoking. Where were his thoughts then? Far away across that warscarred land, and the salt sea-far away from the End whose shadow was even then upon him-far away in the land he had left, with the woman he had loved. Once more her face rose up before him-that peerless face his eyes were wont to feast upon in bygone days, that seemed so long bygone-her face still, but not as he had seen it last, now. Out of the dark, deep eyes, the scornful mocking look that had once stung him to the soul had faded quite-meek seemed the full lips,' and the pale features sorrowful, after a proudly repentant sort,
Suddenly Red Lancer' snorts and pricks his ears. From out the dark woods yonder come a sharp, quick flash-a sharper report. Then another, and another. A moment more, and with a ringing cheer of defiance, the Virginian out-picket comes galloping in on the main body, not a saddle emptied.
The Federal column is upon them.
Almost before the word can be given, the ranks of troop and squadron are formed and close up. Brandon Raleigh, a boy-soldier, the pet of The Bey's' command, and the leader of the advanced party, makes his report in half a dozen words to his Chief, and falls back to his place at the head of his squadron.
The fire grows hotter as the long dark Federal line debouches from the woods which have masked their advance on to the plateau. Here and there in the stern, silent ranks, where, with desperate grip on pistol and sabre, the Southerners sit motionless on their horses, waiting for the word to charge, a trooper reels in his saddle and falls heavily on his charger's neck; for the hail of rifle-balls is beginning to tell. But 'The Bey,' in his place in the front, is waiting his time a while longer, yet.
It comes at last. With his back to the iron shower which hisses by him and tears up the turf at his horse's feet, he speaks some dozen words to his men in that tranquil, clear voice of his, which, for all the rattle of the musketry, every one of them can hear distinctly.
Then he wheels round 'Red Lancer' once more. Keep cool, keep straight, and keep together!' he says 'Now!'
And, through that deadly hail, the Virginian troopers ride straight upon the Northern line.
They crush and break it at the point which The Bey's' eye had marked as weakest, with the sheer impetus of their rush.
But all round them closes the steel trap-all round that little circle of horsemen, who have barely room to swing the sabres that must hew them their path through the bristling bayonets to safety and freedom.
Thrice The Bey' has almost cut his way out of the mélée. Thrice the sheer weight of numbers has barred him back. Right and left of him the saddles are emptied, and, dealing their last bitter blow, the gallant Southerners go down one by one, dying hard, as hunted wolves die; but he is scathless still. Brandon Raleigh, wielding that heavy sabre in his woman's hand with such deadly skill, as he fights bridle to bridle with his chief, is wondering to himself how much longer this can last. The relics of the Southern corps are half-beaten by sheer fatigue, but The Bey 's' arm never wearies, and, clear above the tumult and the din, his men hear that calm stern voice they know so well, bidding them close up and strike together. And, though all is hopeless, they obey him.
Not till Red Lancer,' wounded to the death, stumbles and falls,— not till the eagle's feather which the Southern Leader wears goes down, and, with his notched and crimsoned sabre broken in his fall, The Bey' lies at last under the thirsty bayonets and brandished musket-butts-not till then does the fight end. For then barely a score of Virginians are left in their saddles.