Too long she waited for him ...
|"Ah! Miss Celestine!"
The girl twisted in her lover's embrace. "Why do you call me that?" groaned the daughter of Washington Randolph Alderson. The pulse at her milky throat throbbed at the brush of Henry Rufus's fingertips.
"Have I not the right to call you by your name?" Henry's lips touched her raven-colored hair. "What would you have me call you, if not—?"
"Could you not call me merely, 'Celestine'!"
The chatter of the party guests was muffled where they stood, on the night-wrapped verandah of Montfort Acres, but from across the fields, in seeming counterpoint, echoed a chant from the slave quarters. The Carolina air, suffused with the humid exhalations of moss, clung wetly to the lovers.
Ardor brimmed in Henry's eyes. "But what of Paris?" he asked.
"He is with General Beauregard." Celestine Mae Alderson wrung her hands. "But you are with me!"
"Should I have been with Beauregard too?" Henry asked. "Or with Lee? The Northern armies—"
She gripped his arm. "They also serve," she replied with light irony, "who sit in the legislature. Besides—" She turned to gaze into the darkness beyond the Chinese lanterns that hung in the side yard. "Paris himself asked you to stay and look after me."
A new voice now sounded, and the lovers whirled. "And see how well my cousin chose!"
John Arrington McFaddin, freshly arrayed in a gray uniform, had silently joined them. "I suppose," he drawled, "one must not judge too harshly the fox who has been set to guard the chicken coop, even if the farmer mistook him for a faithful hound."
"I have violated no trust," Rufus stiffly retorted.
"I would call making love to my cousin's beau—" McFaddin's lip curled as he glanced at Celestine.
"If I have made love to your cousin's beau," Rufus growled, "I did so without intending it."
"If you made love to me, Henry," the girl snapped, "it was because I encouraged you!"
"Celestine!" Henry cried.
"Ah!" McFaddin's eyebrows shot up. "It is merely 'Celestine' now?" He slapped his gloves against his open palm. "If Paris had entrusted her care to me and not to you, Rufus, I would—"
He broke off, to stare at a spot behind them. Rufus and Celestine turned. The girl stifled a cry.
There stood George Paris Arrington, her distant cousin and—in the balmy days before the firing on Fort Sumter—her lover. His face was pale and his uniform disordered as though from a hard journey. He had lost his hat, and dark blotches stained his tunic.
"Paris," Celestine cried faintly. Henry shrank back a step.
"I have returned for you," Arrington said. His voice was faint, and like his gaze haggard. "Did you wait, as you promised?"
"You've returned?" Twin roses of embarrassment showed in Celestine's cheeks.
"I will fight no more."
McFaddin spoke into the cold silence. "Cousin, we had no news of your return." His fist tightened about his gloves. "We—"
"You will take my hand?" Arrington asked Celestine. "I have come for you."
Now she glanced sidelong at Henry. But Rufus looked at his shoes, and his shoulders drooped. Yet McFaddin still tensed, and his eyes darted.
"Yes. Yes I will, my dearest Paris," Celestine said. She lifted her chin. "My hand in yours, as we promised when—"
Then she gasped, and snatched her hand from his. "You are chilled throughout!"
"Warm me," urged Arrington. McFaddin sought Rufus's eyes, but the defeated rival still stared at his boots.
"Yes. Come." Despite a shudder Celestine gripped her beau's hand more firmly. "Let us find my father and—"
"No—" Arrington put his lips to her ear and murmured. In his words Celestine lost the last of her color, but she nodded, and with a slight shudder drew him through the open doorway and toward the sweeping staircase. The other two followed at a distance, and watched.
Some minutes they passed in silence. Then Henry turned at a touch to his elbow. It was their host: Celestine's father.
"Take this," Alderson muttered, and he thrust a letter into Henry's hand. "Keep it on you, but don't let Celestine Mae see it." Worry showed in his face. "I must find her first."
McFaddin made to speak. "She's—"
But Henry stilled him with a nudge, and they let Alderson in his distracted state push his way toward the parlor. Henry said, "Let Miss Celestine and her ... intended ... join him in their own time."
"So it is 'Miss Celestine' again," the other noted. "You yield her to him?"
"Was she ever mine to yield?" Henry replied with some bitterness.
Then his eyes fell to the letter his host had pressed upon him. The seal was broken, and spitefully he shook it open. McFaddin added, "I would that you could still disappoint me, Rufus."
Henry stiffened but did not reply as his brow furrowed. "I don't understand," he murmured as he studied the note.
Henry thrust the flapping letter into the other's chest, and turned a pinched and puzzled face upward toward the top of the staircase. McFaddin's jaw slackened as he read the missive.
"Damn!" he whispered, and briefly turned it over to examine the seal. "But what can it mean?" He read it a second time. "Paris killed at Pittsburg Landing?" He lifted his chin alongside Henry's, to gaze uneasily up the staircase. "But if he is here while his regiment is at—" His lips twisted. "I would never believe an Arrington could be a deserter!"
"Nor I," Henry said. The lines about his eyes tightened. "And I don't. Somehow I fear—"
What he feared he did not say. Instead, he thrust himself at the staircase. Some premonition must have quickened his step, for he took it three steps in a stride.
But he had a scarce reached the landing before a scream rent the night.