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A black cross had been set against Judge Hawkins' name; why, it is not for me to say. We were not accustomed to explain our motives or to give reasons for our deeds. The deeds were enough, and this black cross meant death; and when it had been shown us, all that we needed to know further was at what hour we should meet for the contemplated raid.
A word from the captain settled that; and when the next Friday came, a dozen men met at the place of rendezvous, ready for the ride which should bring them to the Judge's solitary mansion across the mountains.
I was amongst them, and in as satisfactory a mood as I had ever been in my life; for the night was favorable, and the men hearty and in first-rate condition.
But after we had started, and were threading a certain wood, I began to have doubts. Feelings I had never before experienced assailed me with a force that first perplexed and then astounded me. I was afraid, and what rather heightened than diminished the unwonted sensation, was the fact that I was not afraid of anything tangible, either in the present or future, but of something unexplainable and peculiar, which, if it lay in the skies, certainly made them look dark indeed; and if it hid in the forest, caused its faintest murmur to seem like the utterance of a great dread, as awful as it was inexplicable.
I nevertheless proceeded, and should have done so if the great streaks of lightning which now and then shot zigzag through the sky had taken the shape of words and bid us all beware. I was not one to be daunted, and knew no other course than that of advance when once a stroke of justice had been planned, and the direction for its fulfilment marked out. I went on, but I began to think, and that to me was an experience; for I had never been taught to reflect, only to fight and obey.
The house towards which we were riding was built on a hillside, and the first thing we saw on emerging from the forest, was a light burning in one of its distant windows. This was a surprise; for the hour was late, and in that part of the country people were accustomed to retire early, even such busy men as the Judge. He must have a visitor, and a visitor meant a possible complication of affairs; so a halt was called and I was singled out to reconnoitre the premises, and bring back word of what we had a right to expect.
I started off in a strange state of mind. The fear I had spoken of had left me, but a vague shadow remained, through which, as through a mist, I saw the light in that far away window beckoning me on to what I felt was in some way to make an end of my present life. As I drew nearer to it, the feeling increased; then it, too, left me, and I found myself once more the daring avenger. This was when I came to the foot of the hill and discovered I had but a few steps more to take.
The house, which had now become plainly visible, was a solid one of stone, built as I have said, on the hillside. It faced the road, as was shown by the large portico, dimly to be discerned in that direction; but its rooms were mainly on the side, and it was from one of these that the light shone. As I came yet nearer, I perceived that these rooms were guarded by a piazza, which, communicating with the portico in front, afforded an open road to that window and a clear sight of what lay behind it.
I was instantly off my horse and upon the piazza, and before I had had time to realize that my fears had returned to me with double force, I had crept with stealthy steps towards that uncurtained window and looked in.
What did I see? At first nothing but a calm, studious figure, bending above a batch of closely written papers, upon which the light shone too brightly for me to perceive much of what lay beyond them. But gradually an influence, of whose workings I was scarcely conscious, drew my eyes away, and I began to discover on every side strange and beautiful objects which greatly interested me, until suddenly my eyes fell upon a vision of loveliness so enchanting that I forgot to look elsewhere, and became for the moment nothing but sight and feeling.
It was a picture, or so I thought in that first instant of awe and delight. But presently I saw that it was a woman, living and full of the thoughts that had never been mine; and at the discovery a sudden trembling seized me; for I had never seen anything in heaven or earth like her beauty, while she saw nothing but the man who was bending over his papers.
There was a door or something dark behind her, and against it her tall strong figure, clad in a close white gown, stood out with a distinctness that was not altogether earthly. But it was her face that held me, and made of me from moment to moment a new man.
For in it I discerned what I had never believed in till now, devotion that had no limit, and love which asked nothing in return. She seemed to be faltering on the threshold of that room, like one who would like to enter but does not dare, and in another moment, with a smile that pierced me through and through, she turned as if to go. Instantly I forgot everything but my despair, and leaned forward with an impetuosity that betrayed my presence, for she glanced quickly towards the window, and seeing me, turned pale, even while she rose in height till I felt myself shrink and grow small before her.
Thrusting out her hand, she caught from the table before her what looked like a small dagger, and holding it up, advanced upon me with blazing eyes and parted lips, not seeing that the Judge had risen to his feet, not seeing anything but my face glued against the pane, and staring with an expression that must have struck her to the heart as surely as her look pierced mine. When she was almost upon me I turned and fled. Hell could not have frightened me, but Heaven did; and for me that woman was Heaven whether she smiled or frowned, gazed upon another with love, or raised a dagger to strike me to the ground.
How soon I met my mates I cannot say. In a few minutes, doubtless, for they had stolen after me and had detected me running away from the window. I was forced to tell my tale, and I told it unhesitatingly, for I knew I could not save him--if I wanted to--and I knew I should save her or die in the attempt.
"He is alone there with a girl," I announced. "Whether she is his wife or not I cannot say, but there is no cross against her name, and I ask that she be spared not only from sharing his fate, but from the sight of his death, for she loves him."
This from me! No wonder the captain stared, then laughed. But I did not laugh in return, and being the strongest man in the band and the surest with my rifle, he did not trifle long, but listened to my plans and in part consented to them, so that I retreated to my post at the gateway with something like confidence, while he, approaching the door, lifted the knocker and let it fall with a resounding clang that must have rung like a knell of death to the hearts within.
For the Judge knew our errand. I saw it in his face when he rose to his feet, and he had no hope, for we had never failed in our attempts, and the house, though strongly built, was easily assailable.
* * * * * * *
While the captain knocked, three men had scaled the portico and were ready to enter the open windows, if the Judge refused to appear or offered any resistance to what was known as the captain's will.
"Death to the Judge!" was the cry; and it was echoed not only at the door, but around the house, where the rest of the men had drawn a cordon ready to waylay any one who sought to escape. Death to the Judge! And the Judge was loved by that woman and would be mourned by her till--But a voice is speaking, a voice from out that great house, and it asks what is wanted and what the meaning is of these threats of death.
And the captain answers short and sharp:
"The Ku-Klux commands but never explains. What it commands now is for Judge Hawkins to come forth. If he shrinks or delays his house will be entered and burnt; but if he will come out and meet like a man what awaits him, his house shall go free and his family remain unmolested."
"And what is it that awaits him?" pursued the voice.
"Four bullets from four unerring rifles," returned the captain.
"It is well; he will come forth," cried the voice, and then in a huskier tone: "Let me kiss the woman I love. I will not keep you long."
And the captain answered nothing, only counted out clearly and steadily, "One--two--three," up to a hundred, then he paused, turned, and lifted his hand; when instantly our four rifles rose, and at the same moment the door, with a faint grating sound I shall never forget, slowly opened and the firm, unshrinking figure of the Judge appeared.
We did not delay. One simultaneous burst of fire, one loud quick crack, and his figure fell before our eyes. A sound, a cry from within, then all was still, and the captain, mounting his horse, gave one quick whistle and galloped away. We followed him, but I was the last to mount, and did not follow long; for at the flash of those guns I had seen a smile cross our victim's lip, and my heart was on fire, and I could not rest till I had found my way back to that open doorway and the figure lying within it.
There it was, and behind it a house empty as my heart has been since that day. A man's dress covering a woman's form--and over the motionless, perfect features, that same smile which I had seen in the room beyond and again in the quick glare of the rifles.
I had harbored no evil thought concerning her, but when I beheld that smile now sealed and fixed upon her lips, I found the soul I had never known I possessed until that day.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
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