The baying of hounds and at length the rapid tread of horses’ hoofs reached their ears, growing more distinct each instant.
“They are coming this way,” Harriot murmured under her breath.
“Why should they come here?” Dorothea demanded, beginning to feel more and more apprehensive.
“I suppose somebody’s servant has run away,” Harriot answered, a little reluctantly. “Not ours,” she hastened to add. “Our people wouldn’t run away for anything. They’re too well treated.”
“Then there are some that aren’t well treated?” Dorothea’s tone was more coldly judicial than she knew.
“Oh, of course there are mean men everywhere,” Harriot explained. “Father says the worst treated servants are those that are owned by other negroes.”
“By other negroes,” Dorothea echoed in amazement. “You mean that there are blacks who have slaves?”
Harriot nodded indifferently. This was no new idea to her and she could not quite understand Dorothea’s surprise.
“Why, there isn’t anything a negro would rather have than a slave of his own,” she remarked. “Father says there are African tribes that were slave-owners long before—”
“Yes, but they are savages and don’t know any better,” Dorothea interrupted.
Both girls entirely lost the significance of this remark, for by this time a company of horsemen had galloped into the May place and were pulling up on the drive.
The cousins, looking out of the window, could see the forms of mounted men and huge dogs moving here and there across the lawns below them. The low whines of the eager hounds as they snuffed about could be heard above the murmured talk among the men and the restless trampling of the horses. Whether these great beasts, trained for man-hunting, were after a slave or an escaping Union soldier she as yet did not know; but in either case it seemed a very horrible proceeding to Dorothea, and by so much her sympathy for the Southern cause was weakened.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a thundering knock at the front door, which echoed through the house, and in a moment there was a murmur of voices growing increasingly distinct. Hal May and Val Tracy could be heard talking earnestly to a stranger, but in so low a tone that the girls could not make out what it was all about. On either side of them, however, windows were opening and they knew that all the other members of the household were on the alert.
“Oh, I wish I were dressed!” Harriot cried, fidgeting about impatiently. “I wonder what they want here, anyway? They know we wouldn’t help to run off anybody’s servants. I’m going to slip something on and go down.” She ran out of the room, leaving Dorothea alone at the window.
“Ladies,” came the voice of Val Tracy as he stepped out on the lawn and called up to those at the windows above the gallery, “these gentlemen are out after a Yankee officer who has escaped from Andersonville. We have assured them that none of us has seen any one lurking about the place, but they insist that the fugitive was traced here and that they will feel more content if we inquire of you ladies whether or not you have seen anything out of the ordinary to-night?”
There was silence for a moment and in that short space of time Dorothea’s mind was busy. She had no intention of volunteering any information as to what she had seen. She was convinced now of the correctness of her first impression—that the face she had beheld for a moment was that of the escaping officer. But instantly her thoughts flew again to April: Her cousin’s distinct surprise at finding her out on the porch; her evident confusion and her final injunction to Dorothea not to say anything to the others of having seen her; all these things pointed to one explanation.
April knew as well as she that there was some one outside the house that night.
“But why,” Dorothea speculated to herself, “should April shield a Yankee officer who was escaping?” and instantly she remembered the thin band of red in her cousin’s girdle and the “Red Strings” of whom Hal had told them that night.
“Can April be a ‘Red String’?” she asked herself. “Impossible!” she answered. April never lost an opportunity to proclaim her loyalty or to condemn the Yankees whom she apparently hated. Yet to seem excessively loyal would be the best way to keep her secret if she had one, was the next conclusion Dorothea reached—and this thought seemed to her an explanation of many things.
“At least I shan’t tell anything, if I don’t have to,” she concluded and so waited for the next words from out of the darkness.
“No one saw anybody, I’m sure,” she heard Mrs. May calling down to those on the lawn. “The hounds must have followed the wrong scent, and—”
“Were any of you ladies outside the house during the evening?” asked Val Tracy.
Here was a direct question that seemed to Dorothea aimed at her. Still, she held her tongue. April, as well as she, had been out and she waited for her cousin to answer.
“I saw Miss Drummond go out on the gallery,” came the gentle voice of Miss Perrine. “Of course I don’t say she saw anything, and probably she has forgotten she went out, but—”
“I was on the porch with Dorothea,” April cut in, “and I saw no one.”
“But did Dorothea see any one?” Hal demanded out of the darkness.
It seemed to her that the time had come when she must answer and she could not bring herself to lie deliberately. She hoped that the man she had seen was now far enough away to escape; but, whatever came of the matter, she could not deny that she had seen him if the direct question was put to her. Greatly to her surprise a voice beside her answered the question for her.
“Dorothea may have seen the same face at the window I saw.” Dorothea turned and found beside her the figure of Miss Imogene, who had come into the room so silently that she had not noticed her till that minute.
“Then there was somebody!” cried a strange voice. “Where did he go?”
“Back to the quarters, I reckon,” Miss Imogene answered calmly.
“Back to the quarters!” was the disappointed murmur from below.
“We were singing and the negroes are always attracted by music,” Miss Imogene explained; but at the same moment she put an arm about Dorothea’s waist and drew her close to her. The girl felt instinctively an effort on the part of both Miss Imogene and April to intervene before she was forced to speak. She could not see the reasons for this. She was perplexed and puzzled at such evasion, but it satisfied her to remain silent, though why either of them should wish to shield an escaping Yankee was a mystery.
At that moment one of the great hounds lifted up its head and bayed dismally and in an instant the others, their noses close to the ground, made for the spot and joined in a chorus.
“They’ve found the scent again,” some one cried. “Come on, men. If our bird was here he’s gone on!”
There was a hurried beat of horses’ hoofs as their riders wheeled and started at a gallop behind the dogs.
“Sorry to have disturbed you, ladies,” came the voice of the leader out of the darkness, “but we have to catch this Yankee!”
The sounds of their rapid movements grew fainter and fainter and finally ceased as the men drew away.
At last all was silent again. And all the while Dorothea had stood beside Miss Imogene, wondering if the man she had seen would be taken, puzzled by the strange conflict and mystery which she felt surrounded her, getting no reasonable explanation for this obvious intervention by April and Miss Imogene to keep her in the background.
The woman beside her shivered a little and a long sigh escaped her lips.
“I’m cold, child,” she murmured, and releasing Dorothea went to the fire and held her tiny hands to the dying blaze.
The girl herself felt a chill in the air and, closing the window, went to the hearth for warmth.
“Shall I put on another log, Miss Imogene?” she asked.
“Do, honey,” said the elder woman; “I don’t know whether it’s my nerves or the night air, but I haven’t felt so chilly for a long time.”
Dorothea put on another stick of wood and sat down at Miss Imogene’s feet, watching while the fire kindled. It was plain that her companion was overwrought and she herself had no desire to talk. Her brain kept going over and over again the puzzling points in the night’s experience and she could make neither head nor tail out of it all. Nor could she rid herself of the horror of these great dogs tearing across the country while the vision of the haggard face she had seen at the window still haunted her. Would they catch him at last? Would these mouthing hounds surround the poor fellow, perhaps in some swamp where he had fled, half dead with privations and hunger, to escape them? She, too, shivered at the thought.
“What is it, dear?” asked Miss Imogene, bending down to the girl at her feet.
“I can’t help thinking of that poor man they are after,” she answered in a low tone. “It seems so awful to hunt human beings with dogs.”
“Don’t worry,” Miss Imogene consoled her. “I don’t think they will catch this prisoner from Andersonville.”
“But the dogs, Miss Imogene, they were on the track,” Dorothea replied.
“On the wrong track, my dear,” the elder lady answered, with a nervous little chuckle. “The wrong track.”
“But how do you know?” demanded Dorothea, turning to look up into the face of Miss Imogene alight in the now blazing fire.
“For a woman’s reason, ‘because,’” the other answered evasively but with a bright smile as she stood up. “I must go back to bed, honey, and I advise you to stop thinking about runaway Yankees and get your beauty sleep.”
Without another word Dorothea accompanied her visitor to the door.
“Good-night, honey,” said Miss Imogene, kissing the girl with a genuine warmth. “We are going to be good friends, for I love you already, my child.”
Dorothea closed the door behind her without a word. Once more her thoughts flew back to the matters that had been puzzling her all the evening. Miss Imogene wore a red band of velvet around her throat. Was she a “Red String”? The girl went back to the fire and seated herself once more in front of it, her eyes gazing into the flames leaping up the chimney, and her thoughts going over and over again the experiences of this first night in her new home.
But not yet had she come to the end of her perplexities. She heard voices whispering in the hall and then there came again a soft tapping on her door.
Dorothea guessed that it was April, and was not surprised when her beautiful cousin came in.
“I must talk to you a moment, Dorothea,” April said, sitting down by the fire. There was something antagonistic in her manner, though Dorothea could not say wherein it was displayed. “I did not hear you say to-night that you had or had not seen anybody outside the house. Did you see any one?” The question was direct and, as she asked it, her eyes fell upon the red band of velvet about Dorothea’s wrist.
Dorothea was at a loss what to reply. She believed that April was demanding an answer to something she knew already and could see no motive for it.
“I had rather not talk about that, April,” she answered at last, with a smile. “Can’t we forget all about it?”
“No,” answered April, “no, we can’t. You must remember, Dorothea, that we are at war. You say your sympathies are with the South. We believe you, but you seem to have evaded a direct question and—and—well, I want to know, so that there will be no doubt in my mind. Did you see someone?”
“Yes, I did,” Dorothea answered. She felt that under any circumstances it would do no harm to the escaping officer if April knew. It was out of her hands now either to help or hinder the poor prisoner.
April’s eyes widened.
“Why did you not tell them?” she demanded.
“Because,” Dorothea replied firmly, “I did not have a chance, in the first place, and, in the second, I was in no hurry to be the means of setting dogs on a man, whoever he might be.”
“You do not understand these things,” April replied. “We have no other way of finding prisoners. But Cousin Imogene said it was one of the negroes.”
“The man I saw was a white man,” Dorothea answered.
“Then he was the one who escaped from Andersonville,” April said, her voice rising a little. “You have helped a Yankee to escape! That is not the action or one who is in sympathy with the South.” Again her eyes sought the red velvet band about Dorothea’s wrist.
“It may have been a Yankee,” Dorothea confessed, calmly. “I certainly thought so.”
“And you were deliberately silent?” April spoke angrily. “You let one of our enemies get away when you might have helped to catch him? I tell you, Dorothea, we can’t stand that. I shall tell Hal; it may not be too late to get word to the men who are searching.” She rose to her feet.
“You are not fair, April,” the other protested, rising also. “What were you doing on the porch? You said nothing of seeing any one any more than I did, and you must have—”
April’s eyes widened in surprise for an instant and then, going close to her cousin, she whispered:
“What was the man like, Dorothea?”
“I only saw his face for a moment but it was very pale and haggard,” Dorothea answered. “His hair was dark and there was a long lock that came down over his forehead. I think, too, that there was a small mole on his cheek, but that might have been a spot of mud. I can’t tell you—”
She stopped abruptly, seeing a great change in her cousin’s face. April had lost her look of anger and in its place there was an expression of profound sorrow, and her beautiful eyes filled with tears.
“I was mistaken, Dorothea,” she faltered, half choking with some hidden emotion. “Forgive me.”
She turned away and hurried out of the room, while Dorothea stood for a moment, gazing at the shut door and wondering what would happen next to deepen the mystery.