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DISSOLVED

"Wonderful, ja?" the placard bearer cried, blowing the odor of schnapps into Cooper's face. "But too long in coming. Too long!"

Livid, Cooper ripped the placard out of the man's hand. He broke the wooden slat to which it was tacked, then tore the card into pieces. Judith was pale.

Nearby spectators cursed Cooper. One or two began shoving. Orry moved beside his brother and shoved back. So did George, who jammed his face up to that of a man much taller.

"I'm a visitor to this city, but you'll have cause to remember me if you don't move along."

Orry laughed. For an instant the years had sloughed away and he had been watching and listening to young Cadet Hazard of West Point. The shovers moved on, and so did the German.

The air stank of powder, perfume, tobacco, overheated bodies. The sky shone with blue- and lemon-colored lights. No tune could be heard above the cannon fire, just occasional drumbeats and raucous horn notes.

"I don't think I've ever seen you this angry," Orry said to his older brother.

Cooper abruptly blocked the walk, confronting these four he loved; if any human beings would understand his piercing pain, they would.

"It's because I hate the position they've forced me into with their damned proclamation. All at once I don't know how I'm supposed to react. Where I'm supposed to place my loyalty. I hate feeling like a traitor to the state I've loved all my life. I hate being a traitor to the nation even more. The Union dissolved. For Christ's sake -"

"Cooper, your language," his wife whispered, unheard. " - a Main bled to create the Union! If the rest of you don't feel like you're being torn apart - wait. These fucking madmen don't know what they've done. To themselves, their sons, all of us. They don't know!"

Ashen, he spun and pushed on, silhouetted against the firestreaked night. The others followed closely. Brett tried to console Judith, who didn't shock easily but was speechless now. Orry was already experiencing some of the confusion Cooper had described.

George's head hurt from the cannon fire. He seemed to hear only the thunderous reports, not the jubilant shouting and the laughter. He thought of Mexico. It was easy to half close his eyes, squint at the fire-washed buildings, and imagine that Charleston was a city already at war.

Faces floated past Orry, faces distorted by flame and by passion. The glaring eyes, the gaping mouths, grew less human every moment. Raw emotion distorted an ordinary countenance into that of a gargoyle, and the transformation was duplicated on almost every face he saw.

Brett pressed against Orry and clutched his arm, clearly afraid of the people buffeting them. Cooper and Judith walked close behind, followed by George, a wary rear guard. No one paid attention to them now.

Orry saw three young swaggerers of the town jabbing an old Negro with their canes. Then they doused him with the contents of big, bowllike beer glasses brought from the bar of a hotel behind them. He saw a respected member of the Methodist church with the neck of a bottle protruding from his side pocket; the man clung to a black iron hitching post, puking into the street. He saw the wife of a Meeting Street jeweler leaning back in a dark doorway while a stranger fondled her. Excess was everywhere.

So were the slogans, shouted in his ear or waved on placards or silk banners produced, seemingly, overnight. Three men with an unfurled banner swept down the sidewalk. Orry had to duck and urge the others to do the same as the banner's message loomed: Southern Rights Shalt Not Be Trampled!

The banner passed over them, and Orry straightened. Almost at once he saw Huntoon, who was hurrying in the wake of the banner carriers.

"Orry. Good evening." Ashton's husband tipped his hat, conspicuously adorned with a blue cockade, one of dozens Orry had seen tonight. Huntoon's cravat was undone, the tail of his shirt hung from beneath his waistcoat - unusual for a fastidious man.

But this was an unusual night, and that showed in Huntoon's uncharacteristically broad smile. "Is the celebration to your taste?"

The question was directed at all five of them and carried a malicious edge. Chiefly for Cooper's benefit, Orry imagined. "Not really," he answered. "I hate to see good South Carolinians making fools of themselves."

Huntoon wouldn't be baited. "I'd say revelry is quite in order and excess completely excusable. We've declared our freedom to the world." His glance touched Brett. "Of course our new independence focuses attention on the Federal property in Charleston. The Customs House, the arsenal, the forts. We're organizing a group of commissioners who will approach Buchanan on the matter. Surrender of the property to the sovereign state of South Carolina is now mandatory."

George moved to Brett's side. "What if Old Buck doesn't see it that way?"

Huntoon smiled. "Then, sir, we shall resolve the question by other means."

He tipped his hat a second time and moved on, blending into a crowd of a hundred or so that spilled through the street chanting, "Southern rights! Southern rights! Southern rights!"

Brett watched Huntoon until he disappeared. Orry felt her hand constrict on his arm. "He said that about the forts because of Billy, didn't he?"

Cooper overheard. "I wouldn't doubt it. The milk of human kindness flows sparingly, if at all, in Mr. Huntoon."

They glimpsed him again on the other side of Meeting, fighting his way up the steps of the Mills House, then turning to survey the turbulent street from the top step. The lenses of his spectacles reflected flames leaping from a barrel on the curb. The eyes of a smiling demon, Orry thought. It was one more disturbing image on top of many.

He thought of Major Anderson out at Fort Moultrie. In Mexico he had known Anderson by sight and by reputation. A fine officer, conscientious and able. What must he be feeling? Where would his loyalty lie in the coming months? With the slaveholders of his native Kentucky or with the Army?

So many Americans - so many West Pointers - would be tested now; forced to decide where they stood. Orry could almost believe some malevolent power had taken charge of the world.

"As you suggested, Cooper, an historic moment," he said. "Let's go home."

Demoralized and silent, they did.

On the Battery, surrounded and crushed by sweaty, screaming revelers, Ashton found herself unexpectedly stirred. It was as if the mob created currents of power that surged into the ground and then back up her legs, to the very center of her. The secret arousal left her light-headed and short of breath.

As always, it wasn't the outpouring of patriotism that excited her but the larger significance, the main chance. The oaths, the howled threats and slogans, were the birth cries of a new nation. James predicted that other cotton states would follow South Carolina's example, and that very soon a new government would be organized. He would play a preeminent role. In a matter of weeks, a long-held dream could become a reality. Power would be hers for the taking.

Another burst of fireworks splashed her face with scarlet light. Star shells whined skyward and exploded over Sullivan's Island, briefly illuminating the ramparts of the fort. Her face wrenched.

Then, superimposed on an imaginary picture of Billy Hazard, she saw someone equally familiar, standing a few yards away.

"Forbes." Clutching her secession bonnet, she fought toward him. "Forbes!"

"Mrs. Huntoon," he said with that exaggerated courtesy he displayed when they met in public. He bowed. She smelled the bourbon on him, mingled with his male odor. It increased her excitement, but tonight wasn't a suitable occasion for that kind of indulgence.

"Forbes, it's urgent that we speak," she whispered. "Tomorrow - as soon as possible. Orry has cleared the way for Billy and my sister to be married. I can't abide that. I won't permit it."

A moment earlier Forbes LaMotte had looked drunkenly genial. Now his mouth took on the appearance of a sword cut across his face. More skyrockets went off, bells and cannon created a din. He had to lean close to hear what she said next.

"South Carolina has taken action. I think it's time we did, too."

His relaxed, sleepy smile returned. "Indeed it is," he murmured. "I am at your disposal."

On the morning of January 25, 1861, Captain Elkanah Bent arrived in New Orleans. He was hastening to the only real home he knew, Washington. He had arranged a transfer just in time. The situation in the country was critical and deteriorating more each day. He was sure the War Department was preparing promotion lists and reorganizing for impending conflict. Or they would be as soon as that doughface Buchanan vacated the White House.

Today Bent wore a new and expensive civilian outfit. He had purchased the clothes in Texas right after making his decision to stop over in New Orleans for twenty-four hours. He felt it wouldn't be prudent to flaunt his Army uniform in such a pro-Southern city. By reliable report, Louisiana would soon secede, joining the five other cotton states that had already left the Union. People up North were referring to those states as the Gulf Squadron. It had a military sound, belligerent. That pleased him.

Strolling up Bienville, he savored the fragrance of bitter coffee from a cafe. Good coffee was just one of the city's worldly delights he intended to sample during this brief visit.

He counted himself lucky to get out of Texas when he did. There, too, secession was inevitable, and those in charge of the Department of Texas were clearly sympathetic to the South. Old Davey Twiggs, department commander, and Bob Lee, who had returned from Virginia last year to resume command of the Second Cavalry, were just two potential traitors in a command riddled with them.

He had been fortunate to get out of Texas for other reasons. He had admittedly botched the attempt to eliminate Charles Main, and he was lucky to have escaped a court-martial. With war likely, there could be new opportunities to strike at the Mains and the Hazards. He'd see what the records in Washington revealed. The prospect took some of the sting out of his failure.

Bent had never satisfied himself about one question: Did Charles know the real reason for his enmity? By now it seemed very unlikely that he did not; Charles and that damnable Orry Main must have exchanged letters on the subject. Letters in which Bent's relationship with Orry and George Hazard had been revealed. If by some remote chance there had been no such correspondence, the secret would certainly come out the moment Charles returned home on leave.

Once the Mains knew of Bent's continuing appetite for revenge, the Hazards would undoubtedly learn of it, too. But he still saw one advantage for himself. The members of both families would surely assume that his desire would fade or vanish in the turbulence of war. That mistaken assumption would be their undoing.

As Bent read the national situation, hostilities couldn't be avoided. Charleston was the flash point. The day after Christmas, Anderson's little garrison had made secret preparations and, when night fell, had transferred by boat to Fort Sumter, spiking the guns left behind at Moultrie and burning the carriages. As a result, the palmetto flag was now flying over all the Federal property in and around Charleston, except for the fort Anderson was occupying in the center of the harbor.

Anderson's garrison was still being permitted to buy fresh meat and vegetables from Charleston markets. But state militiamen were pouring into the city. They were being put to work realigning the guns at Moultrie, Castle Pinckney, and Fort Johnson.

In Washington during the past weeks Old Buck had purged his cabinet of Southern influence and adopted a harder line. He refused to meet with the South Carolina commissioners who came to the capital to argue for the surrender of Fort Sumter, and he sent their memoranda to the files unread.

On January 9 the opposing forces had reeled to the brink. Buchanan had dispatched a chartered side-wheeler, Star of the West, to Charleston. The relief vessel carried food, ammunition, and 250 soldiers. She had crossed the bar, and then the cadets from The Citadel who were manning the harbor guns had opened fire.

Anderson's batteries did not return fire to defend the incoming ship. Hulled once, Star of the West immediately put out to sea again, and the incident was over - except in Washington, where wrangling continued between the government and yet another South Carolina delegation.

Just a few days ago, Davis and other senators from the Gulf Squadron had left the Capitol after delivering farewell speeches whose contrived sentimentality was designed to mask their treason. This very morning on the city dock Bent had heard that Davis and others would soon convene in Montgomery, Alabama, to form a new government.

How could that government fail to come to blows with Washington? Old Buck wouldn't be President much longer, and the new man, that queer fellow Lincoln, though soft on slavery, was uncompromising about preservation of the Union. War was coming. The future looked splendid.

In this fine frame of mind, Bent ascended a beautiful black iron stair and knocked at the door of an establishment that had been recommended to him by a gentleman he had met while traveling. When the door opened, he used an assumed name to introduce himself.

Two hours later, half dressed, he was dragged to the rooms of the proprietress by a huge, ferocious-looking Negro who shoved him into a plush chair, then blocked the door, awaiting the settlement of the dispute.

"One hundred dollars is outrageous!" Bent declared as he tucked in his shirt and buttoned his sleeves. Here was one place where the authority of his uniform might have served him.

Seated behind her magnificent desk, Madam Conti appeared relaxed and comfortable in her indigo silk robe with its pattern of embroidered peacocks. She was a large, solid woman, about sixty. Her stunning white hair was exquisitely arranged. Near her beringed hand, incense smoldered inside a tiny brass temple; Oriental objects had been the rage ever since Perry's squadron had sailed into Yedo Bay, Japan.

"Nevertheless, Monsieur Benton, one hundred dollars is what you must pay. A girl as young as Otille commands a premium price." The woman consulted a scrap of paper. "You also requested several, ah, special services. I can enumerate them for you - if they have slipped your mind. Did she not inform you of the extra charge?"

"She most certainly did not."

Madame Conti shrugged. "An oversight. It has no effect upon the price."

"I refuse to pay, goddamn it. I absolutely refuse."

Madame Conti greeted the outburst not with anger but with a tolerant smile. Looking past Bent, she said, "Whatever shall we do with him, Pomp?"

"Keep on treating him like a gentleman," the black rumbled. ''See if he might change his mind."

Bent's upper lip popped with sweat. He had heard the note of threat in the nigger's remarks. He struggled to maintain a courageous front. Madame Conti's smile didn't waver.

''Pour our visitor a little champagne. That might help."

"It will not," Bent said. She laughed and called for a second glass for herself.

Bent withheld another retort, attempting to plan his next move. Obviously he couldn't fight his way out of the bordello, nor did he intend to try. He let the situation drift a moment, accepting a glass of excellent French champagne from Pomp. He gulped it, then held the glass out to be refilled. Madame Conti gave the black man a nod of assent.

The champagne had a calming effect. Bent began to take notice of the elegant office. On walls of red-flocked wallpaper hung more than a dozen large paintings, all lit effectively by mantled gas jets. One huge canvas was a rollicking study of fur trappers on a river raft.

"That is my pride," the woman declared. "A Westerner named Bingham painted it."

Her pride was misplaced, Bent thought, downing more champagne. He eyed a portrait of a young woman hanging behind Madame Conti's left shoulder. The features of the beautiful, dark-haired creature were familiar somehow. But he couldn't place her.

Madame Conti noticed his interest. "Ah, you admire her? She worked here for a time many years ago. She was even more beautiful than my little Otille. And far more expensive."

Bitch, he thought. Wouldn't let him forget the bill, would she?

Then, abruptly, he knew where he had seen the exotic face in the painting. It was in one of Charles Main's family daguerreotypes.

No, just a moment. This woman, smiling her seductive painted smile, wasn't the same Creole beauty whose picture he had seen in Texas. The resemblance was strong but not exact. Sisters, perhaps?

"Who is she, Madame?"

Jeweled bracelets twinkled and clinked as the white-haired woman drank champagne. "I don't suppose it hurts to tell you. She was a poor girl who rose very high before she died. She left my employ to become the eminently respectable and respected wife of a rich New Orleans factor."

"The dusky cast of her skin is enchanting. The painter was inspired."

"Only by what he saw."

"You mean her skin was that way naturally?"

"Yes, Monsieur Benton."

"I'm fascinated. She creates a lovely romantic image -" He leaned forward slightly; a master schemer, he could be subtle when necessary. "How did her story end - if you know and wish to confide, Madame?"

She turned her chair, regarding the painted face with affection. "My dear girl had a daughter by her adoring husband after they married, but, alas, the beautiful mother died. In time, before he too succumbed, the loving father had to send the child far away to make a match. She looked as white as you or I, but some in this town knew her mother's background."

So that was the relationship; mother and daughter. Bent couldn't take his eyes from the painting.

"And they knew the child was not French or Spanish but octoroon. Years ago, attractive young women of mixed blood were favored creatures. No longer. The furor over slavery has seen to that. Today" - an expressive shrug, a melancholy smile - "being one-eighth Negro, however light the skin, is exactly the same as being all Negro - Monsieur Benton, what is wrong?"

Bent's hand had jerked, spilling champagne on her fine carpet. "An accident, Madame. My profound apologies."

He whipped out his kerchief, bending down to mop the rug, a difficult task because of his huge paunch.

The daughter of a nigger whore connected with that arrogant Main crowd? Obviously they didn't suspect; no woman with nigger blood would be permitted in a group portrait of plantation aristocrats. What a splendid piece of information! He didn't know how he'd use it, or when, but that he would use it he didn't doubt for a moment.

"Madame, you're quite right. The champagne has a soothing effect." His moist face beamed. "The services of the young lady were extremely satisfying, and I was wrong to quibble over the price. I'll pay in full. I'd even like to give her a handsome tip, if you'll permit it."

Madame Conti exchanged a look with the huge black man who for several minutes had been cleaning his nails with a long knife. At her faint signal, he slipped the knife out of sight.

"But of course," she said with a courteous nod.

A cold rain fell from the Texas sky. A dispirited Charles Main watched the last trunk being lifted and placed with others in the Army ambulance. The trunks belonged to Colonel Lee.

Five days ago, on February 8, Charles and two enlisted men had left Camp Cooper with urgent dispatches for the regimental commander. They had ridden 165 miles in foul weather and had arrived to find that Lee had been relieved and called back to Washington by direct order of General Scott. No doubt Scott wanted him to declare his intentions - and his loyalty.

Lee's departure was more evidence of the chaos spreading through the land. Although important border states such as Tennessee and Lee's own Virginia had not yet joined the secession movement, Texas had been out of the Union since the first of the month - against the pessimistic advice of Governor Houston.

During the hours Charles had been riding with the dispatches, a new Confederate government had been born in Alabama. Jefferson Davis was its provisional president, and its provisional constitution was already drafted.

President-elect Lincoln was traveling eastward from Illinois by train. He was forced to stop frequently along the way to make exhausting speeches to constituents. In Washington, Senator Crittenden had put forward desperate compromise proposals on slavery, but the effort had failed. With all the cotton-state members gone, it had been easy for the Senate to pass a measure admitting Kansas to the Union as a free state.

Meantime, Major Anderson's command remained huddled in Fort Sumter, ringed by strengthened batteries and South Carolina gunners itching for a scrap. Charles often wondered if Billy was still on duty at the fort. Anderson had sent several of his men to Washington with dispatches or requests for instructions. Perhaps Billy had been one of them. Charles hoped and prayed his friend would get out of the fort alive.

In Texas the frontier posts seethed with suspicion and rumors of impending takeovers by state military levies or the Texas Rangers. Although known to be a Southern sympathizer, General Twiggs had four times appealed to Washington for orders. Four times he had received vague and meaningless replies.

One story, authenticated by a San Antonio paper, seemed to typify the Army's state of turmoil. In January one of the Military Academy's most respected graduates, Pierre Beauregard, had been appointed superintendent. He had held the post less than a week and been removed because Louisiana's secession made him suspect. Men who had bled in Mexico, broken bread together, and shared hardships for years now regarded each other as potential enemies, capable of almost any treachery. It depressed Charles, who was still uncertain about his own decision and his own future.

Now he waited for Lee in the rain. Nine other officers were waiting with him. Finally the colonel appeared, wearing his talma and forage cap. One by one the officers stepped up to offer a salute and a word of good luck. The last to arrive, and the most junior, Charles was the last to speak.

"It has been an honor to serve with you, sir."

"Thank you, Lieutenant."

"I wish you a safe journey."

"I don't relish the circumstances that require me to undertake it. I do want to say this to you, however. You're a good officer. No matter what else changes, that won't."

"Thank you, sir."

Lee started away. Charles's inner confusion prompted him to disregard protocol. "Colonel?"

By the side of the ambulance, Lee turned about. "Yes?"

"Which way will you go, sir? North or South?"

Lee shook his head. "I could never bear arms against the United States. But what if it became necessary for me to carry a musket to defend my native Virginia? I had frankly hoped to avoid that kind of question. I thought President Buchanan might restore harmony between the sections by playing on love of country, but he failed. I thought the melting influence of Christianity might resolve the slave issue, but it hasn't. I've owned slaves, and my conscience has tried me because of it. The institution will wither. It should. As for secession, in my view it's nothing but revolution. Yet at this moment, men who are in most respects eminently decent have established a new government on the pillars of secession and slavery, and so I am unsure of the future and of my own reactions as well."

Lee's face looked haggard in the rain. "I'm certain of one thing only. No matter how each man or woman answers the question you asked, I think there will be but one result from what we've allowed the extremists to do to us. Heartbreak. Good-bye, Lieutenant."

He trudged to the front of the ambulance and climbed up beside the driver. The vehicle lurched forward through the mud and rapidly faded into the dreary distance.

Charles walked back to the stockade. Pondering his own confused state of mind, he could only conclude that Lee was right. North and South, both would suffer before this terrible business was done.

Two days later, in San Antonio, old Davey Twiggs surrendered all the Federal posts in Texas to state forces. Men loyal to the Union were urged to depart for the Guif ports and given assurance of safe conduct, though for how long no one was prepared to say.

Charles completed his journey from Fort Mason and arrived at Camp Cooper just an hour before its Union contingent was to pull out. The men were under the command of Captain Carpenter, First Infantry. Some were on horseback, some on foot.

Dirty and exhausted from long hours in the saddle, Charles watched the Ohioans from Company K ride out in a column of twos. One was Corporal Tannen, who had been a private in the skirmish at Lantzman's farm; Charles had pushed for his promotion. Tannen took note of those remaining behind, leaned out to the left, and spat.

"Any man who stays is unfit to wear Army blue." He said it loud enough for all to hear.

"What's that, Corporal?" Charles called.

Tannen returned his stare. "I said if you stay, you're a yellow traitor."

"I seem to have been robbed of my rank," Charles said as he flung off his bear-claw necklace, then his filthy and sweat-blackened hide shirt. Before anyone could react, he cocked his revolver and passed it to an Alabama trooper standing next to him.

"So no one interferes."

The Alabama boy grinned, nodded, and got a better grip on the gun. Charles approached Tannen's horse.

"You helped me once. I was grateful. But your remark cancels that."

Tannen looked down at him. "Good. Fuck you."

Charles reached for him. Tannen tried to lash Charles's face with his rein. Charles caught the rein and whipped it round and round the corporal's left wrist. The horse began to buck.

Tannen drew his saber. Charles twisted it away and flung it out of reach. Then he dragged the Ohioan from his saddle and pounded him until his nose looked like pulped berries. Breathing hard, he spoke to the others who were leaving.

"Pick him up if you want him. I'll kill the next one who calls me a traitor."

He removed his foot from the middle of Tannen's back and stood with his hands at his sides until Tannen was thrown belly down over a horse. Soon the Union men were gone.

An hour later, Charles wrote his resignation. Then he packed. Since there was no regular Army officer left to accept the resignation and report it to Washington, he hammered a nail into the door of his room in the barracks and impaled the paper on the nail. Within minutes he was bound for the Gulf.

Lee might ponder the philosophical subtleties, but his own future had been decided in a far simpler way. Ah, well. He had never been a deep man. Just a hell raiser and a horse soldier. The South might need someone like him as much as it needed philosophers.

He hated leaving Texas, which he had come to love. He thought slavery a foolish system and likely a dying one. But his blood called him home. He pushed his horse hard all the way to the coast.

I tell you there is afire. They have this day set a blazing torch

to the temple of constitutional

liberty, and, please God, we shall

have no more peace forever.

LAWYER JAMES PETIGRU OF Charleston, during the celebration of secession DECEMBER 20, 1860

Sumter felt more like a prison every day.

Billy occupied a dank, brick-walled room in the officer's quarters along the gorge. The room was doubly dismal because it was dark most of the time. The garrison had almost used up the candles and matches Mrs. Doubleday had purchased in January, one day before she and the other garrison wives went North. Billy had one waxy stub left. He lit it for only a few minutes each day while he added a mark to his improvised calendar - vertical lines scraped into the wall with a fragment of brick. So far in February he had marked the wall twenty-one times.

He no longer saw Brett. He was not one of those detailed to travel over to the city every couple of days, there to purchase some salt pork and vegetables. This reprovisioning was carried out with the sufferance of Governor Pickens, at the urging of some prominent gentlemen of Charleston.

Some other gentlemen, equally prominent, hated the idea of the garrison's receiving food and mail, and said so frequently. One of Brett's letters informed Billy that Rhett of the Mercury was particularly strong about starving the garrison into surrender. Billy suspected the governor had the same objective and was merely pursuing it in a different way. Pickens had refused to permit the forty-three civilian masons and bricklayers to leave Fort Sumter. Presumably they would continue to devour provisions, thus hastening the day when Anderson would have to ask for terms. Several officers were outspoken in saying that the governor was bluffing, that he had no power to issue such an edict. Doubleday argued that the workmen could be dumped ashore in the dead of night if Anderson truly wanted to be rid of them. He didn't say it to Anderson's face, however, and the commandant, sensitive to the immense danger in any confrontation with local authorities, didn't push for a test of the question.

Brett reported that the provision detail marched to and from the Charleston market with loaded muskets. Crowds followed the soldiers, and now and again someone yelled Doubleday's name. He was the most hated man in the fort, a known Black Republican. If he ever set foot in the city, she predicted, he would be mobbed and hanged. So, like Billy, Doubleday remained a prisoner in the harbor.

Billy kept as busy as he could. When the masons under his command finished bricking up the unused windows in the second-tier casemates, Foster put them all to work on the main gate. A thick wall of stone was mortared into place on the inside, with just a single, iron-covered bolt hole left in the center. As soon as wall and bolt hole were done, Anderson ordered a twenty-four-pound howitzer moved up to cover the new, smaller entrance.

Everyone in the fort had fallen into a kind of stupor. Working hours were long; tension heightened normal tiredness. The toll was particularly heavy on Captains Seymour and Doubleday. They alternated as officers of the day and spent every other night awake.

The seriousness of the situation made the soldiers more candid, less concerned with protocol. This was demonstrated one afternoon when Doubleday and Billy watched from the parapet as a small schooner warped in to a wharf on Morris Island. The schooner was carrying railroad plate that would be spiked to the slanted timber face of a battery under construction on Cummings Point, little more than twelve hundred yards away.

"Look at that," Doubleday exclaimed. "We're giving them all the time in the world to place their guns and bring up their ammunition."

It was true. From Moultrie, now heavily fortified with cotton bales and sandbags, all the way around to Cummings Point, cannon menaced the harbor fort. Their state artillery crews practiced regularly. Right this moment Billy could see men scurrying around a dozen guns while above them strange flags with palmetto or pelican devices fluttered in the sunshine.

Like most others in the garrison, Billy found Major Anderson a decent, conscientious man - if rather old and pious. He felt compelled to respond to the implied criticism.

"If the major tried to stop it, he might plunge this whole country into a shooting war. I wouldn't want that responsibility, sir."

"Nor I," Doubleday snapped. "Believe me, I appreciate the dilemma, but it doesn't change the fact that hesitation deepens our danger."

"Do you think that peace conference will help matters?" Billy asked. The state of Virginia had issued the call for the conference, and ex-President Tyler had convened it at Willard's Hotel in Washington.

But some important states, including Michigan and California, had refused to send delegates.

Doubleday's answer to the question was blunt: "No. In my opinion we can't save the Union and slavery too." He thumped the parapet with his fist. "I wish the major would forget his orders for an hour and let us reduce those batteries. If we don't, we'll soon be surrounded by a ring of fire."

A ring of fire. An apt term, Billy thought as he watched stevedores continuing to unload the schooner's cargo. South Carolina guns were trained on Sumter from every direction except seaward. Wasn't it inevitable that someone, impetuously if not on direct order, would discharge one of those pieces at the fort and start a war?

Brett's next note confirmed the impending danger. War fever was running high in Charleston. Doubleday and others in the garrison assumed this was why President Davis moved forcefully to take over the Charleston batteries in the name of the new government. Davis also dispatched official Confederate emissaries to Washington to sue for a surrender of the disputed property.

It was from Anderson himself, a few nights later, that Billy heard one more surprising piece of news. "Davis is sending his own officer to command the batteries." The major sighed. "Beauregard."

They stood by one of the ten-inch columbiads on the barbette. Half of Sumter's forty-eight usable guns were mounted in the open, the other half in the casemates below. About fifty yards off the fort, the Nina was passing. She was one of the pair of guard steamers the state kept on constant patrol in the harbor. Sharpshooters at her stern recognized Anderson, hailed him, and flung mock salutes. The tall, hollow-eyed commander remained motionless.

''Captain Beauregard of Louisiana?" Billy said.

"Brigadier General Beauregard now. Confederate States of America. When I taught artillery at the Academy in thirty-six and thirty-seven, he was one of my best pupils. He was so good, I retained him as an assistant instructor after he graduated." The major's gaze drifted to the iron battery rapidly nearing completion on Cummings Point. "I expect we'll soon see a more professional placement of many of the guns."

Then Anderson swung to face his subordinate. Sunset light falling over Charleston's rooftops and steeples emphasized the lined look of his face. "But I've been meaning to inquire about your young lady, Lieutenant. Is she still in the city?"

"Yes, sir. I get a letter every day or so."

"The two of you still want to marry?"

"Very much, sir. But that doesn't appear practicable right now."

"Don't be too sure. As you know, Captain Foster doesn't wish to see you gentlemen from the engineers do line service" - all the engineering lieutenants had volunteered as officers of the guard, but Foster had vetoed the idea - "so when your work is finished, I shall keep your situation in mind."

Billy's hope soared. Yet at the same time he felt another pull. "That's good of you, sir, but I wouldn't want to leave if there were to be hostilities."

"There will be no hostilities," Anderson whispered. "None of which we initiate in any case. Can you imagine the catastrophic results if Americans were to open fire on other Americans? That kind of collision will not take place because of any action of mine, and I'm not ashamed to say I fall on my knees every night and beg God to help me keep that vow."

The contrast with Doubleday's simmering pugnacity was clear. Billy watched the sun fading from the roof peaks and turned his mind to the hope Anderson had held out. He hardly dared think about it because of the great possibility of disappointment.

Slowly he gazed around the harbor, picking out the various batteries on the sand and mud flats. He identified each in terms of its armament: columbiads, mortars, twenty-four- and thirty-two- and even forty-two-pounders.

A ring of fire. Waiting to be ignited by order or mischance. As the sun sank, he felt a renewed, almost overwhelming pessimism.

That same evening Orry stepped off a river schooner at the Mont Royal landing. Twenty minutes later he joined Charles in the library.

"What's the situation in Charleston?" the younger man asked as he poured two glasses of whiskey.

"Bad. Business is stagnating. The merchants are starting to squeal."

"Are people leaving?"

"On the contrary. The city's never seen so many tourists. But they're spending only what they must. The same goes for the home folk."

"Can't say it surprises me. Who wants to throw money away when civil war may erupt any minute, and two weeks from now bread could cost twenty dollars a loaf?"

With a smile that was more of a grimace, Charles sank back into a chair and flung one leg over the side. His homecoming had been pleasant for a day or two, but very quickly that sense of enjoyment had left him. He and Orry had discussed Elkanah Bent at some length, and although few new facts were added to what Charles already knew, he was once again depressed by the magnitude of the man's hate. Surely it would burn itself out if war erupted. In any case, he was reasonably certain their paths would never cross again.

Bent wasn't the only cause of his malaise. He missed the West and, to his surprise, no longer felt entirely at home in his native state. He didn't dare admit that he could think of but one antidote for his uneasiness: fighting.

"The news gets worse," Orry remarked after sipping from his glass. "There is a considerable amount of bad feeling about the new government. When forming it, Davis appears to have ignored South Carolina."

Charles digested that, then put the subject aside. He asked, "How is everyone at Tradd Street holding up?"

"Cooper's doing as well as can be expected, considering that the cargo ship is now a lost cause and part of his land has been commandeered for another iron battery."

"I gather it was a choice between consenting or facing the possibility of a mob burning down the yard. Judith and Brett are looking after Cooper, but he's pretty despondent. His worst fears have been realized.

"Did you see Ashton?"

"No. I'm told James is thick with Governor Pickens, and despite Montgomery's evident disdain for South Carolinians, they say James is maneuvering for a post there. Oh, and one more thing - I have it on good authority that all these war preparations have left the state dead broke."

"What about that seven-hundred-thousand-dollar loan' they're trying to place?"

"No takers."

"Well, maybe things'll veer back to normal somehow. Maybe the issue of the fort will be settled peaceably."

"President Davis has said he'll take Sumter by negotiation or he'll take it by force. Lincoln will be inaugurated in a couple of weeks - perhaps then we'll have some clue as to which it will be."

The two former soldiers stared at one another in the darkening library, neither in doubt about the outcome that was wanted by those who were in control of the state.

Some forty-eight hours later, Huntoon was standing at the rail of the guard steamer Nina. He held a plate of chicken salad in one hand, a glass of Tokay in the other.

A party of thirty gentlemen had come aboard for this sunset cruise to inspect the disputed fort. On the afterdeck a buffet had been spread beneath a striped awning. The food had been prepared by a select committee of ladies, of which Ashton had contrived to become a prominent member. Half a dozen slaves from as many households had been ordered out to staff the serving area.

The wind blew briskly from the northeast, promising a chilly February night. As Huntoon munched away, Nina completed a turn in the main ship channel and put in toward the city, white water purling off her paddles.

"You know, Governor," Huntoon remarked to the man standing next to him, "the lack of decisive action is becoming an irritant to many citizens."

"My hands are tied," Pickens retorted. "General Beauregard will be here soon, and as far as the interim is concerned, President Davis has let me know in unmistakable language that he is the one in charge, not I."

"Hmmm." Huntoon sipped his wine. "I thought the palmetto state seceded to preserve its sovereign rights. Have we already surrendered them to another central government?"

Pickens glanced over his shoulder, apprehensive about eavesdroppers. "I wouldn't speak so loudly - or so critically. Not if you still hope to earn yourself a place in Montgomery."

"I certainly do. It appears to me that men of principle and courage are sorely needed down there. We must force the issue."

"James, you're too precipitous," the governor began, but the younger man immediately interrupted.

"Nonsense, sir. If we don't act, others will. Yesterday I heard serious discussion of a new secession movement. Some influential planters in this state are talking of pulling away from the Davis government and petitioning Great Britain to make South Carolina a protectorate."

"That's preposterous," Pickens exclaimed, but his voice had a nervous note in it. And with good reason. Lately, his friend and colleague in secession, Bob Rhett, had heard rumors of a reconstruction plan that Stephen Douglas was promoting in a last-ditch effort to save the Union. The governor wanted no part of lunatic schemes to establish a British colony, but neither did he want reconciliation.

"We must act with restraint for a while longer. The Davis emissaries will fail in Washington. By then Beauregard will be in place, and we'll have our war."

"I do hope so," Huntoon murmured.

His attention was abruptly caught by the sight of an officer watching from Fort Sumter's terreplein. He recognized Billy Hazard. He lifted his wineglass to salute him.

The Yankee upstart nodded with inattentive casualness. Huntoon found the response offensive. We'll have our war, and you will be among its first casualties, he thought as the guard steamer chugged on toward the city piers.

The hand on Brett's arm was bruising. The voice had the high, flat accent of the up-country.

"Here, my lass, all I asked was directions to -"

"Ask someone else." She hauled off and drove the point of her shoe into the man's shinbone.

He swore and called her a name. The odor of his whiskey breath fumed around her as she tore from his grip and fled down Meeting Street. The man, a burly young fellow in soiled clothes and a broad-brimmed wool hat, lurched after her.

Impelled by fear, she ran swiftly in the February dusk. She dashed to the right, into Tradd Street. Her pursuer yelled something about Charleston whores but came no farther than the corner.

A moment later she risked a look back. The man was moving across Meeting, a passing shadow among others. She shuddered.

Charleston was swarming with visitors from all parts of the South. They had come to sightsee, to watch the fuses of practice shells sketch red lines in the night sky, to listen to street-corner Ciceros denounce the awkward ape from Illinois, to marvel at the precise drill of the Citadel cadets, and to murmur over the gaudy colors and designs of the uniforms of the state military units.

Most of the visitors were still spending very little. And a lot were riffraff, like the young man from whom she had just fled. He had accosted her as she was hurrying home from the public market, where she had given a hamper of cheese, bread, candles, and matches to the shopping detail from Fort Sumter.

There, too, she had faced a measure of danger. She could still see the venomous faces and hear the epithets as she passed the hamper to a corporal. Traitor was the mildest name she had been called; most of the names were filthy.

"Mr. Rhett and his crowd are always railing against the Northern mobo racy," she said to Judith after she was once more safe in the house. "I'd say we have our own mobo racy right here in Charleston."

"Feeling seems to run higher every day," Judith agreed. She reached out to tap her sturdy son's wrist. "Judah, don't play in the oyster stew."

But the boy continued to trail his spoon back and forth through the bowl. On the other side of the table, Marie-Louise fidgeted. "Mama, is Papa going to be gone again tonight?"

"Yes, he's very busy these days."

The eyes of Judith and Brett met briefly; both understood the lie just uttered. No business reasons compelled Cooper to linger on James Island after dark. Construction on the Star of Carolina had come to a halt weeks ago. Yet he went back to the yard day after day and stayed until midnight or later. Haggard and emaciated, he was behaving like some ghoulish spectator at the scene of a railway disaster, sifting through the wreckage in search of an explanation - as if explanation could undo the damage. Brett worried about her brother almost as much as she worried about Billy.

''Oh, you must see the New York Herald that Cooper brought home day before yesterday," Judith exclaimed. "There's a new play being performed there. It's all about Fort Sumter. The paper gives the name of the actor who's personating Lieutenant William Hazard."

"You mean the characters are named for real people?"

"I do. Anderson, Doubleday - they're all in it."

"Is that art or greed?"

"More the latter, I suspect," Judith replied.

Brett sighed. How bizarre the city and the nation had become in only a matter of weeks. Little by little Americans had gotten mired in a kind of genteel madness in which very little was unthinkable. Worst of all, the madness threatened the young man she loved. Everyone said there would be war the moment Lincoln was inaugurated. Beauregard would give the command to the batteries, and the eighty men at Sumter would be killed by cannon fire or by the bayonets and musket balls of storming parties.

She had nightmares about that, nightmares about attending Billy's funeral. She feared those dark dreams so much that she could hardly go to sleep these nights. Since leaving Mont Royal she had lost twelve pounds, and great circles of shadow ringed her eyes.

In the parlor she used sewing scissors to clip the item about the play. Two loud thuds in quick succession made her jump.

Mortars, she realized. The Mount Pleasant battery. She had gotten so she could identify the source of every practice round. She was not the only Charlestonian with that newfound talent.

As the booming echoes faded, she gave a small exclamation, discovering that as the mortars went off, the scissors had slipped. The point had pricked the fleshy part of her left palm, and she hadn't even felt it. She watched a brilliant crimson drop ooze out and trickle toward her wrist. Another drop formed.

The sight of blood, coming hard upon the artillery fire and following the drunken manhandling on the street and the cursing at the market, shattered her emotional defenses. "Billy," she whispered. Tears filled her eyes. "Billy."

She pressed the bloodied hand to her mouth and fought to control her fear.

"You mean their damn President had to sneak into Washington?"

"Yessir. He was wearin' cast-off clothes and so was his detective hireling, Pinkerton. They arrived on a sleeper in the middle of the night like common travelers. Like criminals!"

"Why'd Lincoln get off the regular train?"

"Feared a plot to assassinate him, they say. If I'd been close by, I might have lent a hand with - oh, evening, Mr. Main."

"Gentlemen."

With an expression of distaste, Cooper nodded at the men but did not tip his hat. The two were corporals in some state artillery unit that reported to the commander of the James Island forces, Major Evans.

Cooper had overheard the gloating conversation as he approached from the back of the shed the state authorities had constructed at the edge of his shipyard, having advised him in writing that the structure would be put up with or without his permission. Inside the shed stood a special ordnance furnace, its coals banked now. During a bombardment, the furnace would heat shot intended to start fires within Fort Sumter.

Churlish louts, Cooper thought as he stomped past the men and the shed. He coughed hard in the night damp. Out on Sumter a blue signal light was glowing. Looking at that, he wasn't forced to look at the keelson of the unfinished vessel. It sat there in the thickening mist, a mockery of all his dreams for the South. Well, he was no different from Brunei in that respect. The little engineer had seen his dream demolished, too.

Cooper noticed lights in a mortar battery farther down the shore. He decided not to continue walking in that direction. He squatted and let handfuls of sandy loam slip through his fingers as he stared seaward into the mist.

He was faced with a decision. Secretary of the Navy Mallory had telegraphed from Montgomery to say he was sending two members of the Committee on Naval Affairs to call on Cooper. They would arrive in the morning. He knew what they wanted.

His warehouse. His yard. His ships.

He thought their new government misguided, its cause tragic. Why, then, did he agonize for even one instant over how he would answer the visitors? He knew the answer to that, too.

He agonized because loyalty to his state was tugging at him like an ocean tide, tugging with a power he had never thought possible. He hated that, but he was unable to stop it.

He rose and tramped back toward the shot furnace. His stomach growled. He recalled he hadn't eaten since morning, when he had wolfed a slice of Judith's fine dark bread. He was uninterested in eating, uninterested in anything except the decision that had him stretched on an emotional rack. What should he do?

No, that wasn't precisely the question. Any man who professed to be sane should get out of the South while there was still time. He must rephrase it. What would he do?

He had only until morning to decide.

"Rex, what were you whispering about?" Ashton had been passing the pantry and had overheard the boy and the senior house man, Homer, conversing in a furtive, excited way.

The boy cringed away from his mistress. "Wasn't whisperin' about nothin', Miz Huntoon."

"Damn your nigger hide, I heard you. I distinctly heard the word Linkum."

Rex gulped. "Linkum? No, ma'am, I swear! Never -"

The pressure of Homer's dark brown hand on his arm stopped him in mid-sentence. Homer, in his forties and stooped from years of toil, gazed at the boy with resigned eyes. "Won't do no good to lie. Go harder with both of us if you keep on. Better just to swallow the medicine."

He turned to Ashton, signifying his readiness to do what he had recommended to the youngster. But Rex was rebellious.

"No, Homer, I won't -"

Homer's crushing grip on his wrist made him cry out. Ashton's breathing grew loud and raspy as she said, ''Take down your breeches, both of you."

Her hickory rod lay in its accustomed place in the kitchen. The cook and two house girls exchanged glances of alarm as the mistress rushed in, snatched the rod from the high shelf, and hurried out again.

Ashton felt compelled to nip this fascination with Lincoln before it grew to dangerous proportions. All over Charleston - all over the state, in fact - the slaves were stirring, whispering that one word - Linkum. Some who could read understood him to be the North's new ruler. Few of the rest knew much of anything about him, beyond the fact that he was a Black Republican. But their masters hated Black Republicans so violently that Linkum clearly had to be the Negro's friend.

In the pantry, Homer and Rex had dropped their trousers and faced the wall. Ashton ordered them to pull down their torn underdrawers as well. They were reluctant, but they obeyed. At the sight of the boy's sleek, muscled flanks, Ashton felt a little internal spasm.

"Five apiece," she said. "And if I ever again hear either of you utter the name of that rascally ape, you'll get ten - or more. Who will take the punishment first?"

Homer, calmly: "I will, ma'am."

Ashton's breasts felt tight within her dress. She was breathing fast. She saw Rex cast a swift, fearful look over his shoulder. "No, I think not," she murmured, and swung the rod.

The whack was loud as a shot in the pantry. Rex hadn't braced his palms on the wall firmly enough. His chin shot forward, and he got quite a bang. He yelped, then threw another look backward. A wild, resentful look; murderous, almost.

"Keep your eyes on the wall, nigger," Ashton said. She struck him with all the force she could muster.

Homer clenched his right hand, leaned his head forward, and closed his eyes.

Afterward, she felt as if she had passed through a torrential storm into more tranquil air. She retired to her room and there lay dozing pleasurably on a chaise. Her limbs had a languorous heaviness.

In her imagination she reexperienced the punishment. At first she pictured it exactly as it had happened, feeling many of the accompanying sensations. Then she varied the images; it was no longer a black boy and a black man she whipped, but a cringing, whining Billy Hazard.

She and Forbes LaMotte were frustrated because Billy was bottled up at Sumter, never allowed to come into the city. But with General Beauregard due to arrive at any moment, there might be a change. The earlier attempt to have Billy mauled and injured had been foolish, she realized now. Of course she would prefer to squash Billy personally but she and Forbes would be content if he died in the fort.

Unconsciously, her hands slipped down below her waist. Sweat stippled her upper lip and forehead. She shut her eyes and watched the screen of her imagination display a new picture: Billy amid fire and crumbling stone. The South Carolina batteries blew Sumter to pieces around him. Slowly he sank from sight. Breathing hard, she pressed herself.

Let it come, she thought. O Lord, let it come soon.

She moaned softly. A sudden movement of her body jerked the chaise two inches to one side.

The Georgian toppled over. Forbes LaMotte sidestepped to permit his victim to fall past his legs. The man landed face down in the sand of the alley. Overhead, thunder drummed in the dark clouds of a March afternoon.

Forbes flexed his bruised right hand, then adjusted his cravat. Behind him stood a slender, sallow young man wearing elegant clothes. He had let Forbes do most of the fighting.

Using his elbows, the Georgian attempted to rise. Forbes had knocked out three of his teeth. Blood and saliva coated his lips and chin. Gently Forbes lowered the sole of his shoe onto the man's head, then pushed. The man's face buried in the sand again.

Forbes reached inside his coat for a slim silver flask. He shook it. Half full. He uncorked it, put his head back, and gulped the rest. He tucked the flask into a roomy side pocket and glowered at the fourth man in the alley - another well-dressed Georgian who hunched against the wall of a shed, obviously frightened. The man had watched while Forbes kicked and pounded his companion into unconsciousness.

"Now, sir," Forbes said in a slurred voice. "Shall we resume the discussion that necessitated this little disciplinary action? Let's see. When Mr. Smith and I ran into you and your fellow visitor on the Battery, you were loudly criticizing those of us who reside in Charleston. You said we presumed to speak for all the South."

The sallow young man, Preston Smith, stepped forward. "Presumed arrogantly. Those were his exact words."

Forbes blinked. "I remember."

Preston Smith's malicious eyes flicked to the terrified Georgian. Preston enjoyed a good muss, especially when others did the fighting. He hoped he could keep this one going.

"He also said we act as if being born in South Carolina confers a patent of nobility."

"Patent of nobility," Forbes repeated with a bleary nod. "That was the remark that riled me the worst." With the toe of his boot he nudged the fallen man. "I should say we proved there's something to it. You two gentlemen met your betters today."

Preston snickered. "I'm not sure he believes you, old friend."

Forbes gave an exaggerated sigh. "Why, no, I don't believe he does. We shall just have to impress the lesson upon him too."

He stepped over the fallen man and moved toward the other Georgian, who would have melted into the shed wall if that had been possible. The man glanced one way, then the other, and, just as Forbes reached for him, bolted.

At the sight of the man's flying coattails, Preston burst out laughing. "You'd better not stop till you get to Savannah, you ignorant cracker."

"Tell them your friend is missing in action," Forbes shouted.

The running Georgian cast one wild look backward, then disappeared. Forbes laughed so hard, tears came to his eyes.

Preston fastidiously dusted his knees and sleeves with his kerchief. "Damn me, I hate all these tourists," he declared as Forbes picked up his hat. The friends started down the alley in the other direction. "They think they can come here and say whatever they please."

"It's our duty to teach 'em otherwise. Blasted dry work, though. Join me in another drink?"

"But Forbes, it's barely two in the afternoon."

Forbes didn't like the implication of the remark. "What the hell does that mean?"

Preston withheld his answer. How could he tell his friend that he was imbibing too heavily? Of late, Forbes did almost nothing but celebrate South Carolina's independence in various barrooms around town. And drinking did little to improve Forbes's disposition. When he lacked a target such as the two Georgians, he sometimes turned on his friends. Preston saw the warning signals that this might be about to happen again and hastily invented an excuse.

"Why, it only means I'd be glad to but I can't - I'm supposed to be at Doll Fancher's salon at two. Come, let's find your carriage again. Then I'll go on."

"Don't need the carriage," Forbes snarled. "All I want is another drink."

The two walked on in silence while the rain clouds muttered and darkened above them. When Preston inadvertently stumbled and bumped his friend, Forbes pushed him away, hard.

Their route took them from the alley to Gibbes Street, then down Legare to the Battery, where they came upon a company of elderly men drilling with equally ancient muskets.

The home guard had been visible in Charleston for several weeks. It was an unofficial police force designed to intimidate the slaves and keep them docile in the event all young and able-bodied men were suddenly called to military service. Preston hailed one of the guardsmen, a gray-bearded relative of his, Uncle Nab Smith.

Forbes felt raindrops on his forehead. The first splashes quickly became a drizzle. The rain hid the dark hulk of Sumter out in the harbor.

Forbes's carriage and driver were waiting by the seawall. Preston helped his friend inside. Attempting to negotiate the small step, Forbes fell twice. Once he was seated on the wine-colored plush upholstery, he crooked a finger at Preston.

"Climb in and I'll drop you at Doll Fancher's."

"No, thank you, it's only a block. I'll be there by the time your boy turns this rig around."

Forbes's smile grew stiff. "Goddamn it, Preston, I said get in and -''

"I'll see you in a day or two," Preston interrupted, knowing better than to linger. In such a mood Forbes had once broken a seaman's back in a brawl in a waterfront saloon. Although Preston had provoked that particular altercation with several sarcastic remarks, he had been horrified by his friend's capacity for violence.

Preston left quickly. Forbes leaned back against the cushions as the rain intensified. He struggled to remember the date. Oh, yes. March third. Tomorrow in Washington that damned ape would be inaugurated.

"Where you want to go, Mist' LaMotte?" the driver called.

"I don't know. Drive up Meeting and I'll decide."

He was weary and bored. That was why he drank so heavily and started fights with tourists. His occasional assignations with Ashton no longer provided much satisfaction. Various local artillery units, eager to add the prestige of the LaMotte name to their roster, were begging him to accept a commission, but he had no interest in the offers. He hated discipline.

He was sufficiently lucid to realize that a peculiar simmering rage was loose within him. He knew his acquaintances recognized that fact. Even Preston, a vicious fighter when the odds were safely in his favor, stayed away from him a good part of the time. Clinging to the hand strap of the swaying carriage, Forbes wondered why he felt so angry and why brawling did little to relieve that anger.

Staring into the rain, he was driven to confront the answer. The one woman he had desired most had rejected him. He had never stopped hating Brett Main for favoring someone else. Paradoxically, he had never stopped wanting her, either.

He sat up suddenly, releasing the strap. Was the hurrying figure real or a figment of his imagination?

No, he wasn't that drunk. He thumped the roof and shouted over the chatter of the rain. "James, pull to the side." Then he leaned out the window and waved.

"Brett? Brett, over here!"

The moment she heard the voice, she recognized it. She turned to see Forbes stumble down from the carriage. He swept off his hat.

"Please permit me to drive you wherever you're going. A lady shouldn't walk in this weather."

That was obvious. But when setting out for the home of a seamstress several blocks away, Brett had assumed she could reach her destination before the shower started. Now the shower had become a downpour. She was getting soaked.

Surely it couldn't hurt to accept his assistance; he was, after all, a gentleman. Impulsively, she closed her dripping parasol and stepped toward the carriage.

She sank onto the plush cushions with a grateful sigh. Forbes closed the door behind her, took a seat opposite, and relayed the address of the seamstress to the Negro driver. The carriage lurched forward.

Forbes settled his hat on his knees. His smile had a sullen, almost angry quality, she realized with a sudden tight feeling in her stomach. His eyes were glassy. She began to regret her decision.

"Haven't seen you for an age, Brett. You look fetching, as always."

"You look fine yourself, Forbes." The words came with difficulty.

He pinched his waistcoat between thumb and forefinger. "Putting on weight, I'm afraid. I reckon that's what comes of spending so many hours in barrooms. Don't have much else to do. Nor much to think of besides you."

"Really, Forbes" - her laugh was uncomfortable, nervous - "we settled that a long time ago."

She glanced out the window on her side. They had gone only a block; the carriage was moving slowly. Good. She'd jump out if he grew boorish.

He watched her silently for a few seconds, his odd, sly smile heightening her tension. Abruptly, he dropped his hat on the cushion and heaved himself over next to her. The carriage springs creaked. His sudden movement somehow transmuted her fright to determination.

"I thought you were being courteous when you made your offer. Don't disillusion me."

"I can't be courteous. I care for you too damn much." He took hold of her wrist. "Brett -"

"Stop it," she said, not in a prudish way, but firmly.

"Afraid I can't do that, sweet." His thumb began to stroke back and forth over the inside of her wrist, just above the ruching on her muslin glove. "I can't keep you out of my mind five minutes, seems like. I would think you'd favor a man who cares for you that deeply."

With her left hand she reached for the handle of the door. "I have to get out."

He seized her shoulders, flinging her back against the wine-colored cushions. "Hell you do," he growled as he brought his mouth down on hers, hurting her.

Through his parted lips poured the smell of his breath, rancid as the fumes from a distillery. His right hand dropped to her bodice. Pinning her with his left side, he mauled her breast and breathed against her chin and throat.

"Jesus, I love you, Brett. Always have -"

"Let go of me!"

"No, damn it." He twisted onto his left hip, flung his right knee over her to pin her to the seat. The pressure of his fingers grew rougher. Through layers of cloth he hurt her nipple. Although she was terrified, she started to work her left hand out of the muslin glove.

"Brett, you don't belong with that sawed-off Yankee soldier. You need a man who's big enough in every respect to give you what a woman -''

With a shriek he jerked away. She had reached across and clawed his cheek. Three nail tracks bled.

It took him a moment to react. He touched his face, drew his hand away, and saw scarlet stains on the frilly cuff of his shirt. That sight focused his rage. Cursing, he again groped for her with both hands. She unfastened the door. It flapped open. Before she could leap out, he seized her right arm. She exclaimed softly, thinking he meant to do her injury. She leaned down, grasped her parasol from the floor, slashed at his head. Once, twice, three times -

"Mist' Forbes, what's wrong down there?"

The old driver guided the vehicle nearer the curb and reined to a halt. On the other side of Meeting, pedestrians gaped at the sight of a respectably dressed white woman struggling with a gentleman in his carriage. Brett was too frightened to worry about appearances. She hit Forbes again, then tore away from him and hurled herself out the door. She missed the step and sprawled in the muddy street.

"Ho, look out!" shouted a drayman, pulling his team aside at the last moment. Passing her with only inches to spare, the heavy wheels flung mud over her face and clothing.

She staggered to her feet, her hat falling off. The rain drenched her again. Forbes hung in the carriage doorway, looking like some demented goblin as he yelled:

"You goddamn bitch -"

She heard no more; she turned and ran.

Shaking, Forbes came to his senses. He realized men and women on the sidewalk were watching him. Someone mentioned his name. He flung himself back inside the carriage and jerked the door shut.

He leaned back, patted his cheek with his handkerchief. The sight of blood infuriated him all over again. He nearly punched a hole in the ceiling with his fist.

"Drive on!"

Fleeing the scene of his humiliation didn't help. He pulled out his flask, remembered it was empty, and hurled it out the window. He hated Brett more than ever. He wished he could throttle her to death, then row out to Sumter and shoot that Yankee son of a bitch she fancied.

Gradually, the sound of the rain and the motion of the carriage soothed him a little. He thought of Ashton, clung to her name and her image like a man clinging to a life preserver.

Ashton was on his side. Ashton would help him get revenge.

That night, hundreds of miles away, Stanley Hazard and Simon Cameron attended a reception for the President-elect.

Three railroad detectives provided by Mr. Pinkerton stood guard outside the doors of the private parlor at Willard's. Inside, cabinet members and guests mingled and talked softly. Lincoln had come down from his rooms a few minutes ago. Stanley had spoken with him. He was not impressed.

He left Lincoln cracking another joke and searched for his patron. He found Cameron in earnest conversation with Chase, the stiff, priggish secretary of the treasury. Of all the cabinet members, Chase was the most outspoken and perhaps the most unswerving on the need to free the Negroes. Stanley found the man's idealism offensive.

At last Cameron broke away and joined Stanley at the champagne bar. The boss looked powerful and important, Stanley thought. And well he might. Exactly as he had planned, Cameron had bargained his convention votes for the post of secretary of war in the new administration.

Cameron drank a little champagne, then tapped a bulge beneath his coat. "A friend passed me a summary of the inaugural address."

"What are the salient points?"

"About what you'd expect, given his past pronouncements.'' Cameron's voice was pitched low. His eyes kept moving, darting, to make certain no one wandered close enough to overhear. "He refuses to yield on disunion. Says it's unconstitutional and, ultimately, impossible. He'll continue to hold Sumter, but if there's to be war, the Confederacy will have to initiate it. Altogether" - again his eyes shifted, watching - "an undistinguished speech from an undistinguished man, not to say an inadequate one." Cameron murmured the last few words while bending his head to sip champagne.

Inadequate hardly described it, Stanley thought. Tomorrow General Scott would be stationing riflemen on the curbstones and rooftops along Pennsylvania Avenue, to guard against possible insurrection. A shameful beginning for what promised to be an inept administration. With a few exceptions, of course.

Cameron extended his glass for a refill. When he had it, he moved away from the bar, continuing, "But what do you think of the new President?"

Stanley glanced through the crowd to the ugly, angular profile. "A prairie buffoon. Any fellow who pokes you in the ribs and tells stories as coarse as his certainly can't amount to much."

"Precisely. In my opinion, that is the weakest man ever sent to the White House. But that's to our benefit. The power will then devolve to us." Suddenly animated, he signaled with his glass. "Seward, old friend! Just the man I want to see."

The boss rushed away. Soon he was arm in arm with the new secretary of state, whispering to him. Stanley consumed more champagne and basked in the reflected limelight. He was happy to be here, almost deliriously so.

He would have a post in Cameron's department. Isabel would be thrilled with Washington. For his part, Stanley was savoring the thought of power and of the chance to increase his wealth. Insiders always gained from their positions, the boss said. Stanley secretly hoped the rebels would go ahead and provoke war down at Charleston. If they did, the opportunities to make money would increase just that much more.

Early the next afternoon, Billy paced outside Major Anderson's office with his forage cap under his arm. He had to wait while the commandant finished a letter apologizing for a practice round that had slammed into the cotton bales at Fort Moultrie. With both the Sumter and South Carolina batteries being tested frequently, accidents were common. After each mishap, the offenders rushed an explanation to the other side. Most of the explanations were elaborately formal, but with accidental war a distinct possibility, Billy supposed too much apology was preferable to too little.

Hart, Anderson's orderly sergeant, appeared with the finished letter. "He'll see you now, sir," the noncom said as he hurried off down the dim, echoing passage.

Billy stepped into the commandant's office, another dingy brick cubicle lit by the stub of a candle. Anderson returned the younger officer's crisp salute with a slow, weary one. Then he pointed to a stool. "Rest yourself, Lieutenant. You won't be resting much during the next few days."

Anderson's fingers showed a tremor as he touched a fat pouch of oiled cloth. "I've written some new advices for General Scott. I'd like you to carry them."

"To Washington, sir?"

"Yes. I want the general to know that in my estimation penetrating the harbor defenses and reinforcing this garrison would now require a force of at least twenty thousand men. There are some other confidential communications in the pouch as well. Pack your kit and be ready in three hours."

Billy's mind reeled. To be released from this dark, oppressive place was what every man in the garrison wanted, though few admitted it. Would he have a chance to spend a little time with Brett before he left Charleston?

"I can be prepared sooner than that, sir."

Anderson shook his head. "Not necessary. Hart will be departing shortly to row over with my letter of apology to Captain Calhoun.

He will also call on Pickens at the Charleston Hotel, to obtain your clearance. Even with the governor's consent, a departure is a touchy business. I'm told that each time a boat puts out from our dock, bands of men swarm to the Battery. They hope it will be Doubleday coming over." After a curt, humorless laugh, Anderson added, "In any case, Hart won't be back for a while. You'll go at dusk or a little later."

"Yes, sir."

"And, Lieutenant-pack everything. Unlike some of the couriers I've dispatched to Washington, you won't be returning." "Sir?"

Pale, Billy stared at his commanding officer. This was crushing news; he would be leaving Brett in a city that might be ravaged by war at any hour. Knowing that, why did the major have a queer half smile on his haggard face? Was Anderson losing his grip?

The major quickly explained. "You are on leave until tomorrow evening, at which time I shall expect you to board a northbound train. Hart has prepared your orders to that effect. You could use the intervening hours to call on your young lady. If you can get a message to her promptly, you might even have sufficient time to marry her. Hart's willing to deliver such a message if you can write it in the next ten minutes."

Billy was speechless. He could hardly believe his good fortune, Anderson noticed.

"Don't look so stunned, Lieutenant. Someone must go. Why not you? I sent Lieutenant Meade home to see his ailing mother in Virginia - this is a much happier set of orders. I do realize I'm treading in the province of your superior, the chief of engineers, but I expect he'll forgive me when I explain the circumstances."

Anderson's gaze grew somber again. "Even with clearance from the governor, you may have trouble getting through the city. That's why I'm keeping you here till it's almost dark."

Billy decided it was time to stop questioning his luck and start capitalizing on it. "Sir, if the schooner could take me to the C.S.C. pier above the Customs House, I could have Cooper Main meet me with a closed carriage. He could drive me to Tradd Street, and Brett and I could slip out of Charleston before daylight."

"You don't want to be married at Main's house?"

"I think it would be safer to travel up to Mont Royal. There's a railway flag stop not far from the plantation."

"Well, whatever you decide, getting through the city will be the hard part. I urge you to keep your revolver fully loaded at all times.''

Billy saluted and pivoted, leaving the commandant staring at the candle with melancholy eyes.

At the boat landing, Anderson shook his hand. ''You're an excellent officer, Lieutenant Hazard. With a few more years of experience, you'll be an outstanding one. Give my regards to your bride."

"Sir, I will. I can't thank you enough -"

"Yes, you can. Get that pouch to Scott. I want him to understand the hazards if he should attempt to storm the bar with a few hundred men in longboats." Anderson's voice grew husky with strain. "I repeat what I have said before. If this country's to be plunged into a bloodbath, the responsibility will be Washington's, not ours."

He stepped back, fading into darkness. "Please get aboard, sir," a voice called from the deck of the little schooner. Billy could just glimpse a face above the binnacle light.

He hurried down the steps while the slack sails flapped in the night wind. An ominous sound, somehow.

"Thank the Lord I was home when Anderson's orderly arrived," Cooper said as Billy jumped to the C.S.C. pier. "Judith's waiting in the carriage."

"Where's Brett?"

"At the house. She wanted to come along, but Judith urged her to stay and pack. She doesn't have all that much time to assemble her trousseau - we'll be on the road well before sunrise. I have already sent a man to Mont Royal. Orry's to have the rector present tomorrow afternoon at one sharp."

"When does the train leave?"

"A little over three hours later. Half past four."

They carried on the conversation as they strode rapidly toward the head of the pier where the carriage was waiting. The fast pace matched Billy's heartbeat. In spite of his tension, he felt exhilarated, happy for the first time in months.

"Thank you, Gerd," Cooper said to a stout man who handed him the reins. "I'll drive, Billy. Stay well back from the window. There's always a small crowd loitering at the Customs House, and those buttons on your uniform shine like lanterns."

He was straining to keep his tone light, but Billy could hear an anxious note. Cooper slipped as he mounted the spokes of the front wheel. He grimaced, then completed his climb, saying, "Sometimes not owning slaves is damned inconvenient. You must do everything for yourself. No wonder the institution's lasted."

Billy managed a chuckle as he opened the door on the left side. Judith was seated on the right. He greeted her, at the same time touching the leather dispatch case slung over his left shoulder. The catch was still secure.

Cooper hawed and started the carriage. By the light of a lantern on the warehouse gable, Billy saw tears on Judith's cheek. "What's the matter?" he exclaimed.

"Nothing, nothing." She smiled and cried at the same time. "I'm a ninny to carry on so, but I can't help it. In these times there are so few reasons to be joyful, but this is one." A sniff, a firm shake of her head. "I do apologize."

"Don't. I feel the same way."

"Look sharp," Cooper called. "Larger crowd than usual tonight."

Billy shifted his saber so that he could move more easily. Then he eased his revolver partway out of the holster. Ahead, on the right, men were laughing and talking boisterously. Suddenly one of them shouted, "You, there. Hold up."

Billy's stomach knotted as he felt the carriage slow down. Cooper swore an exasperated oath.

The voices of the men grew louder. Billy hitched over to the center of the seat, the darkest part of the carriage. Obliquely through the right-hand window he could glimpse the front of the Customs House, once Federal property.

The carriage swayed to a stop. Judith held her breath. "State your name and business," said a rough voice.

"My name is Main, I'm a citizen of Charleston, and my business is my own. I'll thank you to release my horse and stand aside."

"He looks all right, Sam," another man said. The first speaker grumbled something. Billy heard movement outside.

Judith clutched his arm. "Get down! They're coming to look in."

Just as she whispered, Cooper applied the whip. But the carriage didn't move. "Let go of the horse," Cooper demanded. At the same time a coarse face appeared in the right window. The man jumped on the step. The lanterns on the Customs House lit up the carriage interior. The man clung to the window frame, eyes rounding.

"Sojer in here!"

A loud outcry followed. "Is it Doubleday?" Pushing and shoving, others appeared at the window. Billy pulled his revolver.

Simultaneously, someone ordered Cooper to climb down. The reply was the whack of a whip against flesh. An unseen man let out a shriek. Cooper yelled like a teamster and lashed the horse.

The carriage lurched into motion. Meantime the man on the step had levered the door open and was struggling to work himself around it and thus inside. The man's right hand still gripped the bottom of the open window. Billy leaned across Judith and rapped the man's knuckles with the gun barrel.

The man's fingers spasmed, but he held on. Billy shoved his left boot against the door and pushed. The door swung outward. The man dropped from sight.

Upraised fists and glaring eyes went by in a blur. Then Cooper raced the carriage into the darkness beyond the Customs House. He turned right, recklessly fast. Billy was struggling to catch the door and close it. He almost fell out headfirst before he was successful.

A moment later he leaned back and rested his revolver on his leg, gasping for breath.

"You were very quick," Judith said by way of a compliment.

"Had to be. Didn't want to miss my own wedding."

But his smile was forced. His heart was still hammering, and he'd be a long while forgetting the bloodthirsty look of the faces outside the carriage. They told him again how deep and dark the schism had become.

The sight of Brett drove away all his grim thoughts. Left alone in the parlor - Cooper had quietly shut the doors - the two young people hugged and kissed for five minutes.

He had almost forgotten how fragrant her hair could be, how sweet her mouth tasted, how firm and strong her bosom felt when she pressed against him. Finally, gasping and laughing, they sank to a settee, holding hands.

"I wish we could be married tonight," she said. "I know I won't sleep a wink just anticipating tomorrow."

Reluctantly, he said, "I won't be coming back to Charleston. Are you certain you're willing to go north?"

The enormous significance of his question registered on her for the first time. Uncertainty came, then fear. It would be hard to live in the midst of Yankees, away from her family.

But she loved him. Nothing else mattered.

"I'd go anywhere with you," she said, murmuring against his cheek. "Anywhere."

Shortly after ten that night, Cooper paid a short visit to the house on East Battery. As Ashton listened to him speak, she maintained her composure only with great effort. After Cooper left, she hurried to the study to relay the news to Huntoon.

He flung down the brief he had been studying. "I really don't fancy attending the wedding of a damn Yankee."

"James, she's my sister. We're going."

Before he could argue, she picked up her skirts and rushed out. She stopped in the hall, pressed her palms to her cheeks, and struggled to organize her thoughts. By this time tomorrow, if no one interfered, Billy and her sister would be gone for good. She had only this one chance.

But one was all she needed.

Smiling faintly, she moved on. At the desk where she kept the household accounts, she wrote a note to Forbes, telling him to ride upriver early in the morning. She said he could take a helper if he wished, but it had to be someone trustworthy. He was to wait at Resolute for further word.

She added a few more lines of explanation, closed and waxed the sheet, then ran to the kitchen with the note and a pass.

"Rex, take this to Mr. Forbes LaMotte. Try his room on Gibbes. If he isn't there, go to the saloon bar of the Mills House. The barman often knows Mr. LaMotte's whereabouts. Don't give up, and don't come back until this is safely in his hands."

Cowed by the whipping he had received, Rex nodded and kept nodding until she finished her instructions. But as the boy slipped down the stairs to the back door, his eyes shone with a dull rage that expressed his hunger to pay her back.

Cooper's crowded carriage reached Mont Royal late in the morning. The March sun was mild, the cloudless sky that soft, pure shade of blue that Brett believed to be unique to Carolina. Would she ever see it again?

The children scrambled out the moment the carriage stopped. Cousin Charles ruffled Judah's hair affectionately, then took Marie-Louise by her waist, lifting her and whirling her around. She clung to his neck, squealing delightedly.

Judith followed Brett out of the carriage. Billy came next, feeling hot and awkward in the new broadcloth suit obtained from a German tailor Cooper had awakened at midnight. Billy was startled to see Charles in full uniform, buttons polished, saber hanging from his sash.

The friends embraced. "Why in the world are you all dressed up?" Billy wanted to know.

Charles grinned. "I'm dressed up in your honor, Bunk. I figured that if one officer asked another to be his best man, the best man should look the part. Truth is, I miss the uniform. The Army, too."

Orry emerged from the house, his somber appearance enhanced by the long, dark coat he wore. To the noisy group on the piazza he announced, "The Reverend Saxton will be here at half past twelve. I told him to come early. He's such a toper, I figured he'd want a stiff drink to see him through the ceremony."

Laughter. Cooper hauled down a small leather trunk in which Billy had packed his revolver, his uniform, and the leather dispatch case. Cooper thumped the trunk on the ground beside Brett's and wiped his forehead with his sleeve. Brett said to Orry, "How's Mother?"

"About the same. I explained three times that you were being married. Each time she professed to understand, but I know she didn't."

Judah jumped up and down, pointing. "Someone's coming."

Sure enough, rolling up the lane between the great trees, a carriage could be seen in a dust cloud. "That's Ashton," Brett said - without great enthusiasm, Billy observed.

With a jingle of traces and another billow of dust, the carriage braked behind Cooper's. From the driver's seat, Homer regarded the white people impassively, while Rex sprang down to open the door for Ashton and her husband.

Huntoon's congratulations were clearly perfunctory. Ashton darted from Brett to Billy, hugging each in turn and treating them to blazingly sweet smiles.

"Oh, I'm so happy for you and Brett. I can say that with complete sincerity, being married myself."

Her eyes flashed like polished gems. Billy couldn't tell how she really felt, but remembering past intimacies, he reddened as she pressed her cheek to his. Then she puckered her lips and gave him a loud, smacking kiss. Cooper noticed Homer gazing down at his mistress with sullen eyes. He wondered at the reason.

Charles scraped a match on one of the white pillars. It left a mark, to Orry's visible displeasure. Billy pointed to the long green cigar Charles held between clenched teeth.

"When did you take up my brother's habit?"

"Since I came home. Have to fill the time somehow. I'd rather be fighting, but I reckon you can't have everything."

It was a clumsy attempt at humor, ill timed and inappropriate, both to the occasion and to the background of essentially tragic events in Charleston. The remark was greeted by complete silence. Charles blushed and busied himself with generating smoke from the ten-inch-long Havana.

"Come on, you two," Ashton trilled. She took Billy's arm with her right hand, Brett's with her left. "Aren't you simply famished? I am. Surely there's something in the house - " Orry nodded. "Oh, isn't this an exciting day? Such memorable things are going to happen to both of you!"

And with that she swept them inside.

Charles lingered after the others had gone. He was embarrassed by his gaffe and curious about the high color in Ashton's face. She seemed genuinely happy about her sister's marriage. Why, then, did he have a troubling feeling?

A feeling that she was giving a performance.

The heat of the day bathed Madeline with drowsy warmth. She had just come from the kitchen, where she had seen to the preparation of spiced ham for dinner. The kitchen girls said the weather was fine and rather cool. If that was true, why was she sweltering?

Justin chided her for complaining of being hot. In the last few years heat bothered her as it never had before. She wondered whether some internal change was responsible. But she felt too lazy, too sleepy, to think about the question for very long.

Drifting along Resolute's downstairs piazza with no particular destination in mind, she tried to recall her husband's whereabouts. Oh, yes. He had tramped into the fields with his old musketoon for some target practice. Justin took his service with the Ashley Guards very seriously. He predicted with great glee that in a matter of weeks he'd be shooting in earnest.

"- time is it?"

"Almost one. She should be sending another message in an hour or so."

Three feet away from one of the open windows of the study, Madeline stopped to listen. It took her several seconds to recall the identities of the speakers: Justin's nephew Forbes and his unpleasant, rail-thin friend Preston Smith. Both had arrived unexpectedly on horseback at mid-morning. Why Forbes had not ridden another ten miles up the Ashley to his father's plantation he had failed to explain. Madeline received few explanations for anything anymore. She was treated as an object, a fixture. She was usually too spent and indifferent to care.

Now, however, a raw note of urgency in the voices pricked through the dull mental state in which she seemed to drift perpetually. Forbes had used the word she. Why would a woman be sending him a message at Resolute? To arrange an assignation, perhaps?

She rejected that possibility as soon as she heard him ask, "The pistols ready?"

"Yes."

"You filled the powder flask?"

"I did. We'll have to be mighty careful with the powder. Wouldn't want to pour too much in one of those guns."

"Damn right."

Both young men laughed, a cheerless sound, almost brutal. Like a tiny ticking clock, fear began to pulse in Madeline's mind.

She deliberately blinked several times. This needed her attention. Her full attention. She shifted her weight to her left foot. The boards beneath her creaked.

"Forbes, I heard something."

"Where?"

"Not sure. Might have been outside."

"I didn't hear a thing."

"You weren't paying attention."

"All right, go look if you're scared," Forbes said with a sneer. Dizzy, Madeline pressed sweating palms against the white siding. Sunlight through festoons of Spanish moss laid a shifting pattern of shadow on her pale, wasted face.

"Oh, never mind," Preston grumbled, shamed. "Probably just one of the niggers."

Madeline almost swooned with relief. She pushed away from the wall. Gathering her skirts as quietly as she could, she hurried toward the end of the piazza - away from the open windows. The conspiratorial voices speaking of messages and loaded guns had succeeded in piercing her lethargy. She must try to stay alert to learn more. It was no easy task. Languorous indifference was lapping at her mind again.

She fought it as she slipped into the house by a side entrance. She must not let down. Something was afoot at Resolute. Something peculiar and - if she could believe what she heard in those voices - something sinister as well.

Charles gave Billy an envelope.

"Train tickets to the - to Washington. I almost said capital. But it's only your capital now. Old habits break mighty hard."

Billy tucked the envelope into his pocket. Charles held out a small velvet box. "You'll need this, too."

Billy pressed the catch, then reddened. "My Lord, I completely forgot about a ring."

"Orry figured you might, with everything so rushed." Charles prepared to light another mammoth cigar. "Wish I had a few of these to send to George. Don't know if he's man enough to smoke 'em, though."

Billy laughed. Orry opened the library door and looked in. "If the groom and best man are ready, we'd better start. The rector's already consumed three glasses of sherry. One more and he won't be able to read the prayer book."

"Oh, you look just lovely," Ashton said with a clap of her hands.

Brett was fussing in front of a pier glass. She plumped up one of the dolman sleeves of her new dress of dark orange silk. "I'm so glad I could be here to stand up with you," Ashton went on. "I'm so grateful you asked me."

Brett hurried to the older girl, took her hands, and felt affection flowing between them. "You're my sister. I wouldn't want anyone else. But I'm the one who should say thank you. I know how you felt about Billy once upon a time."

''That was just a silly infatuation.'' Ashton pulled away, then turned her back. Her voice rose slightly. "I have the man I want. James is a wonderful, considerate husband. He -"

Orry's impatient call drifted up the stairs. Brett rushed to the bed for her bouquet of dried flowers. "We'd better go."

"What time does your train leave the flag stop?"

"I think Billy said four-thirty. Why?"

"I want Homer to drive the two of you there in our carriage."

"Ashton, that isn't neces -"

"Hush," Ashton interrupted, composed again. "I'll have it no other way. Our carriage is ever so much more comfortable than Cooper's old rattletrap. Besides, Cooper doesn't have a coachman, It's disgraceful to see a member of the Main family doing nigger work -"

Bombarding her sister with words, Ashton urged her out of the door. "You run downstairs, and I'll be there in a jiffy. I just want to find Homer, so everything will be ready."

It was Rex, not Homer, whom Ashton sought after she slipped down the back stairs. She ordered the boy to race to Resolute on foot, with instructions to deliver her message to no one but Forbes LaMotte. She reinforced the order by digging her nails into Rex's thin brown forearm until she saw pain in his eyes. The nigger had been uppity ever since the whipping. She knew he was just itching to get even. If she kept him scared, he wouldn't dare.

She wrote a pass and shooed Rex out through the pantry. Then she patted her carefully done hair, fixed a sweet smile on her face, and glided to the front of the house to participate in the last happy moment of Billy Hazard's life.

"And now, you may kiss the bride."

After this pronouncement, the Reverend Mr. Saxton exhaled in a way that carried sherry fumes to those seated nearby. Clarissa pressed her palms together like a delighted child. She had watched the ceremony with great interest, even though it involved strangers.

Behind her, Marie-Louise uttered a dreamy sigh, then murmured, "Oh, wasn't it lovely?"

"It's as close as you'll ever get to the altar," her brother Judah said with a leer. "You're ugly as a fence post."

The girl kicked his shin. "And you're mean as a snake."

From behind, Cooper flicked each on the ear with the tip of his index finger, then induced silence with a fatherly scowl.

Brett had heard scarcely a word of the reading from the prayer book. When they had to kneel, it had been necessary for Billy to give her a gentle nudge. She knew the ceremony was sacred and important, but her heart was beating too fast for concentration. In a couple of hours she would be leaving the land of her childhood to be a wife in a strange, even hostile country. The prospect was terrifying - until the moment she gazed into her husband's eyes, so full of love and reassurance.

He put his arms around her. She felt his strength flood into her. With Billy beside her, she could suffer through the worst the North could offer. She would hide whatever longing or fear she felt and build a fine future for both of them.

Kissing him, she made that silent vow.

Orry had chosen to sit in the third and last row of chairs, fearful of how he might react during the ceremony. Fortunately, he remained dry-eyed, although he felt the churn of powerful emotions.

He thought of Madeline. Of old age and the days passing in lonely procession. He thought of the crisis at Sumter. Even a year ago it would have been inconceivable to imagine that an American family like the Mains would be living under a new flag.

Perhaps he was prey to so much turmoil because any wedding was a watershed. A joyous occasion, yet a marking of profound change from the way things had been. He was determined to emphasize the happy aspect. He kissed his sister's cheek and congratulated her warmly after the ceremony.

"I hope you mean that," she said, nestling against Billy, who held her protectively, one arm around her waist. "I'd like to think this marriage will help keep our families close, no matter what happens."

Orry looked at the bridegroom. A handsome, competent young man, brother of his best friend. Yet this same young man with the broad, almost bemused smile normally wore not a fine broadcloth wedding suit but a uniform. "I'd like to think so, too," Orry declared, trying to conceal the doubt suddenly engulfing him. "Come on, now - into the dining room while the wine is still cold."

He shepherded them out. They passed Ashton, who clung to the arm of her bored, fretful husband. Ashton stared at the newlyweds with an intense gaze that fortunately went unnoticed.

In the foyer at Resolute, Forbes listened to Rex's message, then sent him to the kitchen to claim a reward of some hot cornbread. Justin strolled out of the study with Preston Smith. The sleeves of Justin's silk shirt bore signs of his tramp through the fields - bits of leaf and twig. Preston had a large saddlebag slung over one shoulder.

Both men glanced at Forbes, who nodded and said, "Four-thirty."

Preston looked past his friend to an ormolu clock standing on a fine fruitwood chest, just below the old saber on the wall. "Then we have plenty of time."

"But I'd just as soon saddle up and leave now. I don't want to risk missing them."

"Nor I," Preston agreed with a sly smile.

Justin smiled too. He swaggered to the wall, moistened the ball of this thumb, and wiped away some speck only he could see on the nicked blade. The sun through the fanlight flooded the wall around the weapon, setting it afire.

"Boys, I wish you well," Justin said as he drew his thumb back and forth along the blade. "You'll be performing a public service by killing young Mr. Hazard. There'll be one less officer in the Yankee army. It'll be a fine comeuppance for that Mont Royal crowd, too."

"My sentiments exactly." Forbes grinned, but his eyes were hard.

"I'll be waiting for news of your success," Justin called as they tramped out. Giving a pleased sigh, he started back to the study. After he had taken only a few steps, he was distracted by a faint noise at the head of the staircase. When he spoke, his voice was unexpectedly hoarse.

"What the devil are you doing up there, Madeline?"

It was obvious what she was doing. She was listening.

Standing in the deep afternoon shadow, she clutched the stair rail tightly. Then she descended two steps with more than her usual animation, he thought. Sudden anxiety touched him. Had the recent doses of laudanum through some mischance been too weak?

She clung to the banister with white hands, coming down another step, and another. The black silk of her bodice rose and fell in a way that suggested great effort. Her shadow-circled eyes brimmed with disgust.

The situation called for a firm stand. He marched to the center of the foyer, planted his boots wide apart, and hooked his thumbs over his belt. "Eavesdropping on our guests, were you?" The question carried an unmistakable threat.

"Not intentionally. I" - her voice strengthened - "I was on my way to the sewing room. What were you talking about, Justin? Who are they going to kill?"

"No one."

"I heard the name Hazard."

"Just your imagination. Get back to your room."

"No."

She came down two more steps, then closed her eyes and caught her breath. Her pale forehead glistened with little sparkles of perspiration. He realized she was still struggling against the effects of the drug.

"No," she repeated. "Not until you explain. Surely I misunderstood. You can't be sending your own nephew out to murder someone."

Panic engulfed him then. He blurted, "You stupid slut, get back to your room. Now!"

Again Madeline shook her head, gathering her strength to continue her slow, labored descent of the stairs. "I'm leaving," she said.

It took her the better part of ten seconds to negotiate the next two risers. He knew then that he had been foolish to panic. She was too weak to do anything about what she had overheard. He managed to relax a little and let his amusement show.

"Oh? To go where?"

"That" - she rubbed her forehead with a handkerchief crushed in her left hand - "is my affair."

Her mind had grasped the sense of desperate urgency a moment after Justin had spoken the name Hazard. Now she heard hoof beats echoing down the lane as she reached the bottom of the stairs. Fear renewed her strength, helping to overcome the terrifying lethargy. She stumbled toward the front door. Justin sidestepped, blocking her.

"Please let me pass."

"I forbid you to leave this house."

At the end of the sentence his voice cracked and grew strident. That was the final proof that the plotting was altogether real. Someone at Mont Royal was to be slain. She didn't know the reason, but she knew she must prevent it - if she could.

She started around her husband. He fisted his hand, moved deliberately to her left, and smashed her in the side of the head. With a cry, she sprawled on the floor.

Lying there, she stared dazedly up at him for a time that, to her, seemed endless. Then, gasping, she put her hands beneath her, regained her feet, and once more moved on across the foyer.

Justin struck her again. This time the back of her head hit a corner of the fruitwood chest, a sharp, hurting blow. Her outcry was loud. She rose on one knee, desperately striving to move.

A door opened. Two black faces peered from the rear hall as Justin loomed over her. "If you insist on behaving like a stubborn animal, you'll be treated like one." He kicked her hard under her left breast.

Madeline recoiled back against the chest again. The chest hit the wall and rattled the saber. The ormolu clock tipped over, rolled off, and shattered. She lay gasping, fighting for breath, while her eyes watered and everything blurred.

Justin swung around and strode across the foyer. "Goddamn you, what are you staring at? Close that door or I'll flay you."

The terrified slaves disappeared. Madeline's vision cleared a little. She fumbled for a grip on the edge of the chest and then, by force of will, dragged herself up.

Justin turned, saw her on her feet, and swore. She heard the staccato drumming of his foot heels behind her as he charged, spewing filthy curses. With an agonizing effort, she snatched the saber from its pegs, whirled, and slashed.

The nicked edge opened his face from his left brow to the midpoint of his jaw. For a second, pink meat showed beneath the separated skin. Then blood began to leak, spilling down his cheek and spattering his silk shirt.

He pressed his hand to the wound. "You fucking whore!" With his other hand outstretched, he lunged toward her.

She flung the saber away and instinctively swayed out of his way.

His momentum carried him on. He struck the wall headfirst, like some actor in a low farce, and slowly sank to his knees. He rested his bleeding face on the chest and moaned.

Two other slaves hovered outside, attracted by the noise. Madeline recognized one of them. "Ezekiel, come with me. I need the buggy." She gestured to the second black. "See to Mr. LaMotte."

Two minutes later she was whipping the buggy down the lane toward the river road.

"Young. He said young."

The buggy's left rear wheel slammed into a deep hole, almost throwing her off the seat. She fought to keep the vehicle from careening into the ditch as it flashed by the Six Oaks. The open air had sharpened her senses and cleared her head somewhat. She had just remembered her husband's reference to young Mr. Hazard. She took that to mean George's brother was the intended victim. He must have left the fort in Charleston harbor, but where was he now?

Light-dappled trees streamed by in a blur. Wind beat at her face. What a prize fool she had been to stay with Justin for so long. For months and months, her will to resist had been sapped by a puzzling exhaustion. Before that, it was her misguided sense of honor that had kept her at Resolute.

But there was no honor in the man to whom she had been brokered in marriage, nor in most of his family. Until this afternoon, however, she hadn't realized how degraded they were.

She had paused at the head of the staircase, looked down, and discovered Forbes receiving a whispered message from the young slave. The boy didn't live at Resolute, so obviously he had been sent from somewhere else. Sent with a message Forbes was anxious to receive.

Then Justin had strolled into sight with young Smith. She had at first believed she was listening to the planning of some prank. In a few moments the cruel words and facial expressions told her the reference to killing was meant literally.

Now she hoped she might find young Mr. Hazard at Mont Royal. Failing that, she prayed he could be located, warned in time. Orry would know what to do. Oh, God, she should have left Justin and married Orry long ago.

The cooling rush of air continued to invigorate her body and her mind. The pins and shell combs that fastened her hair had all worked loose, and the long, black strands began to trail out behind her. Lather was already showing on the wild-eyed gelding that propelled the buggy at breakneck speed.

She felt an immense, exultant sense of release. She would never go back to Resolute. Never go back to Justin -

And damn the consequences.

Shortly before three, the family gathered to wave good-bye to the newlyweds. Billy wanted to leave early enough for a leisurely ride to the little woodland way station.

It was a perfect afternoon for a wedding trip, Charles thought as he lit another cigar. Mild March sunshine slanted through the mossy oak trees, and the air was rich with the smell of wet earth. The low-country spring was coming on. Damn if he didn't feel like riding down to Charleston and finding a girl.

He helped Homer lift and tie trunks and portmanteaus on top of Huntoon's carriage. During this, Brett and Billy said their farewells to the family members, Ashton standing aside to be last. "Oh, I do wish you both Godspeed and much happiness. A long life, too," she added. Sunshine flashed in her dark eyes as she hugged her sister.

"Thank you, Ashton," Billy said. He shook her hand in an awkward way. In fact, Charles thought awkward the perfect word to describe Billy's behavior with Ashton all afternoon. Well, no wonder; Billy had been infatuated with her for a good long time. In Charles's opinion, his friend had wound up with the better girl. Ashton had drive and brains, but a mean streak, too.

"Bison" - Billy stepped up to Charles and extended his hand - "take care of yourself especially if things heat up at Sumter."

"Sure will try." Their clasp was firm and long. "You keep in touch. 'Course, I know you won't be able to do it right away. Other things occupy a man who's just married."

"I'm sure counting on that."

They both laughed. Brett had just finished embracing her mother one final time. She wiped away a tear and said teasingly, "That sounds wicked."

Charles grinned. "You're right, but we need a smidgen of smut in these festivities. The bridegroom didn't get a proper bachelor dinner."

"Lucky to get a proper wedding trip in times like these," Orry said in his dour way.

Clarissa continued to smile and blink like a child who was bewildered but determined to be pleasant in spite of it. Some of the house servants had slipped outside to join the leave-taking, so there was a crowd applauding and calling encouragement as Billy helped his new wife into the carriage.

He leaned out and waved. So did Brett. Sunshine glowed on her tears. Homer shook the reins over the back of the team. As the carriage pulled away, everyone waved and shouted more farewells. Charles drew his saber and gave the newlyweds a formal salute just for the devil of it.

Peering past the blade in front of his nose, he noticed Ashton dabbing her eyes with a hanky in one hand while she waved with the other. Just as he lowered his sword to sheathe it, he caught one full view of her face - a smug smile, lasting no more than a few seconds and unnoticed by the others, all of them watching the carriage rattling down the lane through slanting rays of light.

Charles's neck prickled. He stepped back so that a pillar hid him from Ashton. No matter what she had told the newlyweds a moment ago, she surely did not look as if she wished them well. What in the world was going on?

Something odd, for certain. Perhaps he'd get a clue if he kept his eyes open and didn't drink too much.

He asked Cuffey to bring him a glass of champagne. Then he unfastened the collar of his uniform and sprawled in a rocker in a cool patch of shadow. He rocked slowly, alone and content to be. Sipping and rocking, he finished the champagne before his patience was rewarded. A black boy appeared at the corner of the house, dusty and out of breath. "Homer be here, sir?"

"No, he left with the carriage. He'll be back presently."

It took Charles a moment to place the youngster. Rex, that was his name; Ashton's other servant. Where had he been? His faded blue flannel shirt was dark with sweat, as if he had run a long way.

Avoiding Charles's eyes, the boy hunkered down on the far side of a pillar. Charles distinctly recalled saying a few words to Homer during the eating and drinking after the ceremony. Rex had been nowhere in sight. Puzzling.

Charles raised his head in response to noise and a dust cloud in the lane. The sound of racing hooves and buggy wheels quickly grew louder. He jumped to his feet when he spied the vehicle's haggard, frightened-looking driver.

"Madeline," he called, tossing aside his cigar as he ran into the drive. A moment later he seized the bridle of her exhausted horse, then helped her down. He started to release her waist, but she clung to him.

"Madeline, you look scared to death. What's wrong?" She gazed up at the tall young officer, her expression confused. She struggled to collect herself. All at once she noticed Rex sitting tensely against the pillar. Observations began to connect.

"I saw that boy at Resolute just a little while ago. I'm sure of it." By then Rex had raced down the piazza and out of sight.

The motion of the carriage was soothing, the mood it created euphoric. Shadows of pines and water oaks flickered on the cushions opposite them, projected there by the light falling through roadside groves. Billy held Brett in the curve of his left arm.

"Happy?" he asked.

She sighed. "Blissfully. I never thought we'd reach this moment."

"I never thought Orry would allow us to reach it."

"It was your brother who melted him, you know."

Billy chuckled. "The old grads say that if you get through West Point, the place will influence your life forever - in ways you can't imagine when you're a cadet. I finally believe it."

Brett thought a moment. "How long do you expect you'll be detained in Washington?"

"No way of telling. It could be days, weeks, or even -"

"Horsemen coming, Lieutenant Hazard."

Homer's voice turned Billy toward the open window. The slave didn't sound alarmed. Yet the mere fact that he had alerted his passengers suggested something unusual about the riders. Billy could hear them off the left rear quarter of the carriage. The hoofs thudded on woodland earth. They were approaching through the trees. Peculiar.

"Who is it?" Brett asked.

Billy leaned out the window. Dust clouds speared with sunlight spread behind the carriage. Two dim figures, centaurlike, loomed in that dust, but he could discern no details until the horses stretched into a gallop. Out of the dust came the riders. Billy's hand clenched on the sill of the window.

"An old friend of yours. That LaMotte fellow."

Even then Brett acted more puzzled than worried. Forbes spurred ahead. His companion, a skinny fellow, finely dressed and about his own age, was close behind. Brett leaned from the other window.

"Why, that's old Preston Smith. What in the world are the two of them doing on this twopenny road?"

Billy had a suspicion they weren't riding for the sport of it. And they weren't out here in search of company; the carriage hadn't passed a human habitation for several miles. A rider appeared on either side of the carriage.

"Homer, pull up," Forbes yelled. He had a big smile on his face, but it struck Billy as false. Forbes gestured in a commanding way. "I said pull up!"

Looking worried, the driver tugged on the reins and shifted his foot to the brake lever. The carriage swayed as it stopped. All around it dust rose slowly, like a curtain. The branches of overhanging trees reached down to brush the luggage lashed on top. At this point the road narrowed to little more than parallel dirt tracks with a high crown of weeds between.

Preston Smith coughed, then put away the kerchief he had been holding to nose and mouth. Forbes rode around the back of the coach to Billy's side. He kicked his left leg up onto his saddle and rested his elbow on the inside of his knee. Brett leaned across her husband.

"It's quite a surprise to see you way out here, Forbes."

Dust lay all over Forbes's hair, lightening it several shades. He appeared relaxed and friendly. Yet Billy distrusted that impression; there was an odd glint in his eyes. Billy thought of his service revolver. It was packed away up on top. Damnation.

"Had to pay my respects," Forbes replied. "You know my friend Preston Smith, I believe."

With a cool nod, Brett said, "Yes, we've met."

"No, sir,'' Forbes went on. "I couldn't let the bride and bridegroom leave without offering a word of congratulations." His smile glowed. "I know you'll forgive me if I don't say the best man won."

Below the window, out of his line of sight, Brett clutched her husband's knee. Billy's heart beat faster. He voiced the thought that had occurred to both of them.

"LaMotte, how did you know we were married?"

Smith patted his skittish horse. "Oh, we just heard it somewhere. I don't believe I've had the honor, sir. You are Lieutenant Hazard?"

His tone said meeting Billy was anything but an honor. Billy stared him down. "That's right."

"Preston Smith. Your servant."

Smith's smile was contemptuous. All at once Billy didn't believe this encounter had happened by accident. He glimpsed the jaws of a trap.

Homer cleared his throat. "We'd best not tarry or we'll miss the train, Lieutenant."

Forbes looked at the black man. "Bound for the passenger stop, are you?"

Homer didn't blink. "Yes, sir, and I believe we'll mosey along."

"Nigger, you aren't going anywhere till I give you leave."

Angry, Billy said, "Drive on, Homer." From the corner of his eye he saw Smith lean backward, reach down to a saddlebag, and bring up a huge brass-chased flintlock dueling pistol. It was swiftly, almost effortlessly, done. Smith smiled as he pointed the gun at Homer.

"You touch those reins and there'll be nigger blood all over this road."

"We don't mean to be quarrelsome," Forbes said, his grin bigger than ever. "But we rode a piece to pay our respects, and we mean to do it. Now, Mr. Yankee Soldier, you climb down from that coach and out from behind your wife's skirts so I can congratulate you proper.''

Brett's hand tightened again. "Billy, don't."

But anger was running high in him. He pushed her hand away, kicked the door open, and stepped to the ground.

Forbes sighed. "No, sir, I just can't say the best man won. Although it does appear you'll be on top for a while, if you catch my meaning."

Billy reddened. Smith laughed, a kind of whinnying. As a great snowy egret went sailing over the tops of the pines, Billy took a step toward Forbes's horse.

"Watch what you say in front of my wife."

Forbes and his friend exchanged quick, pleased looks. "Why, Mr. Hazard, that sounds suspiciously like a threat. I consider a threat to be a personal insult. Or did I perchance misinterpret you?"

"Billy, come on," Brett called. "Don't waste your time on these bloody-minded fools."

Forbes turned his smile on her. "You know, sweet, I still confess a fondness for you - even though that tongue of yours sometimes transforms you into a first-class fishwife. Bet you even hump like one."

"LaMotte, you son of a bitch, get off that horse!"

Tossing his head and laughing, Forbes maneuvered his mount out of the path of Billy's lunge. Then he slid to the ground, smoothed his palms over the hair at his temples, and strolled forward.

"I don't believe I misinterpreted that remark, sir. You insulted me."

With a grave nod, Smith said, "He surely did."

Forbes stood gazing down at Billy, who was almost a full head shorter. "I ask for satisfaction, sir."

Homer watched in consternation as Brett leaped from the carriage. "Walk away from him, Billy. Don't you see he came here to bait you? I don't know how he found out we were leaving, but don't play his game."

Eyes warily fixed on his adversary, Billy responded with a small shake of his head. "Stay out of this, Brett. LaMotte -"

"I said," Forbes interrupted, "I demand satisfaction." His hand swept up, then whipsawed across Billy's face. The open-palm slap resounded loudly. "Right here and right now," Forbes finished, his charming smile settling in place again.

"Damn you," Brett burst out. "I knew you were jealous, but I didn't know it had driven you crazy. How long have you been planning this?"

"A long time, I won't deny that. But it's the fairest and most honorable way for me to settle my differences with Mr. Hazard. Preston is carrying a spare pistol in his saddlebag. He'll act as my second. For yours" - his glance jumped from Billy to the carriage - "reckon you'll have to serve, Homer. I'd say it's fitting for a Yankee to have a nigger second."

Brett's voice was cracking from strain. "You mustn't do this, Billy."

"Please be quiet," he cut in. He took her shoulders, then led her around the coach to the other side. Bending close, he whispered, "I've got to fight him. Can't you see he came chasing after us so he could kill me? If we try to leave, he'll find some pretext to shoot me outright. This way -"

He swallowed. Perspiration had gathered on his chin. A drop fell suddenly, darkening his lapel like a bloodstain.

"At least I have a chance."

She shook her head, gently at first, then harder. Tears welled in her eyes. Billy squeezed her arm and walked back to the far side of the carriage. She heard him say:

"All right, LaMotte. Let's use that field over there, by the marsh."

"Your servant, sir," Forbes said, and bowed.

Billy stripped off his coat, cravat, and waistcoat. He flung them over the spines of a yucca plant growing near the drooping fronds of a wild palm. Homer approached, but Billy waved him back.

"Stay with Brett. I can do this by myself."

"Why, certainly, it's simple enough," Smith agreed as he summoned the duelists into the sunshine at the center of an open stretch of bermuda grass that was seething softly in the wind.

Smith held out his hands. In each lay a dueling pistol. A matched pair, Billy noted, further proof the roadside meeting was not accidental. Men simply didn't go for an afternoon's gallop packing such pistols in their saddlebags.

"I will load these with powder and ball in plain view of both you gentlemen. Then, starting back to back, you will take ten paces at my command. After the tenth you may turn and fire at will. Any questions?"

"No," Forbes said, rolling up one sleeve, then the other.

"Get on with it," Billy said.

Mocking him with another bow, Smith knelt in the grass, opened his saddlebag, and drew out two powder flasks, one about a third the size of the other. From the larger flask he poured propellant powder down the muzzle of the first pistol. After he seated the ball and a cloth patch, he primed the frizzen with the finer-grained powder from the small flask.

He handed the gun to Forbes, who gave it a cursory inspection and nodded. Forbes seemed more interested in watching his friend steady the second pistol between his legs, muzzle uppermost.

Billy saw Smith reach for the large flask again. Forbes cleared his throat. Billy turned toward him.

"You don't object to a man pissing before he fights, do you?" Billy shook his head. "Then perhaps you'll be kind enough to hold this till I come back."

He was already extending his pistol. Billy had to take it, and as a consequence he didn't see Smith shift the position of the flask over the muzzle of the gun he was loading. Most of the propellant powder spilled into the thick grass.

It had been well planned and accomplished in a twinkling. Forbes's distracting query had drawn Billy's attention at the proper moment; the maneuver with the powder had gone unnoticed. All anyone saw was Smith crouching, the pistol partially obscured by his knee and the waving grass.

Smith finished seating the second ball, primed the pistol, and said, "There." He rose and held the heavy gun, which now contained too little powder to propel the ball with anything like its designed muzzle velocity. It was in no way a lethal weapon.

At the spot where Smith had crouched down, Billy noticed a few powder grains speckling the grass. He thought of asking that the pistols be exchanged but quickly squashed his suspicion. Not even a jealous suitor would stoop so low as to tamper with weapons used in an affair of honor.

Forbes returned. Billy handed him the first pistol. Smith extended the second gun. "Thank you," Billy said, and took it.

Smith cleared his throat. "Gentlemen, shall we commence?"

"Is Billy Hazard here?" Madeline asked. About five minutes had passed since her arrival at Mont Royal. Charles had helped her inside to the library and sent for Orry, who stood with his back against the closed doors, a stricken expression on his face.

"He left," Charles told her. "With Brett. They're going to catch a northbound train at the flag stop. They were married two hours ago."

"Married," Madeline repeated in a dazed way. "That must have something to do with it."

"With what?" Orry said.

His voice was sharper than he intended, but he was being battered by emotion: joy that sprang from her unexpected arrival, grief that wrenched him when he looked at her poor, wasted face. She had lost even more weight, but something far worse had happened to her, although he didn't know what it was.

"Forbes," she whispered. "Forbes and his friend Preston Smith. They left Resolute just before I did. I overheard them speaking to Justin about - about killing Billy. Someone from here must have brought word that he and Brett were leaving."

Charles bit down on the stub of the cigar, which had gone out. "Could it be the boy you saw outside?"

"I don't know." Madeline's eyes had acquired a queer, glassy fix. "It must be."

"Which boy are you talking about?" Orry wanted to know.

Charles's expression was bleak now, forbidding. "Ashton's boy, Rex. I'll find him."

He crossed to the door. Orry passed him, striding to Madeline. "You're certain they were talking about harming Billy?" Charles stopped at the door, awaiting her answer.

"The word I heard was killing." She fought an impulse to weep; she couldn't seem to control herself. "Killing."

Orry scowled. "By Christ, I'll speak to Justin about -"

"There's no time," Madeline cried. "And Justin doesn't matter anymore. I've left him."

Orry stared, not understanding.

"Left him," she said again. "I'm never going back to -" Before she could finish, she pitched forward in a faint.

She fell against Orry's chest and drove him a step backward, but he managed to catch her and hold her up. "Send someone to help me with her," he exclaimed to Charles.

Charles nodded, a thunderous look on his face as he left.

"Ashton, where's your boy?"

His cousin glanced from the silver tea service. She had been about to pour cups for herself and Clarissa in the parlor.

"Do you mean Rex?"

"I do. Where is he?"

Charles's stark eyes drove the smile from her face. "Outside, I reckon. Whatever is making you so cross?"

She was dissembling desperately; she had heard the buggy arrive just as she and her mother sat down. From the window she had observed Madeline, dirty and ugly as a witch, being helped inside. She hadn't dared poke her nose out of the parlor for fear something had gone wrong.

Charles didn't answer her question. As he stalked out, his boots slammed the floor so hard it shook.

With a bright, interested smile, Clarissa said, "I didn't recognize that young man. Is he a visitor?"

"He's your nephew. Mama!"

Her tone brought tears to Clarissa's eyes. Ashton rubbed her cheek with quick little motions. "I'm sorry I burst out like that. I've developed the most violent headache all at once -"

"Perhaps the tea will help."

"Yes. Yes, perhaps."

Her hand shook as she attempted to pour. She missed the cup and nearly dropped the pot. "Oh, damn."

The profanity brought a gasp from Clarissa. Ashton slammed the pot back on the tray. Then she leaped up and paced back and forth. Charles was onto something. Definitely onto something. If she appeared too curious, she might incriminate herself - yet did she dare leave him alone with Rex? The boy was just itching to do her ill.

For a minute or so she was wracked by indecision. Finally she dashed out of the room without a word of explanation. Clarissa folded a napkin and began to wipe up the tea the young woman had spilled.

So nervous, that girl. Clarissa tried hard to recall her name but could not.

On the kitchen porch, Charles crouched over Rex, one palm resting against the gray cypress siding next to the boy's ear. He had found Rex gnawing a chunk of salt pork, and before the boy could scramble away, Charles had squatted down and cowed him with that forbidding hand against the wall.

"Rex, I won't stand for lies, do you understand?"

Desperate dark eyes swept the lawn beyond Charles's shoulder. The boy knew he was caught. In a small voice he said, "Yessir."

"You ran all the way to Resolute and back, didn't you?"

Rex bit his lower lip. Scowling, Charles leaned closer.

"Rex -"

Faintly: "Yes."

"Who did you speak to over there?"

Another hesitation. "Mist' LaMotte."

"Justin LaMotte?"

Rex scratched his head. "No. Mist' Forbes. I was tole -"

He stopped. Charles prodded:

"Who told you? I want you to say the name of the person who sent you to Resolute." He already knew it, of course; once he had gotten past his initial surprise and disgust, the plot was all too transparent and believable. He took his hand away from the wall and touched Rex's arm gently.

"I promise that if you tell me, no harm will come to you."

The boy struggled with that, studied Charles, and was at last persuaded. Abruptly, a peculiar smile jerked his mouth. But Charles was losing patience.

"Damn it, boy, we haven't time for this. I want to hear you say -''

"Rex? There you are. I've been searching everywhere."

Charles stood up and turned to see Ashton running toward them.

Breathless, she reached the kitchen porch. "Come along, you imp. I need you this instant."

"I need an answer from him first," Charles said.

"But Charles" - a pretty pout, but he thought he detected fear behind it - "I must get ready to drive home."

"You can't go until Homer comes back with the carriage." Heavy irony then. "If we can believe Madeline, that may take a while."

"Madeline LaMotte? You mean to say she's here?"

"You watched me help her across the veranda. I saw you trying to hide behind the window curtain."

Scarlet rose in Ashton's cheeks. She stammered in uncharacteristic confusion. Charles seized the moment to turn to the boy.

"I'm waiting, Rex. Who sent you to Resolute with the message that Billy and his new wife had left for the train?"

Ashton saw the trap closing. Pretense was useless, but her instinct for self-preservation was strong. She thrust by Cousin Charles, raising her right fist upward. "Rex, you keep your mouth shut if you know what's good for you - oh."

The boy stared at the fist trembling near his face. Charles had blocked its descent by seizing Ashton's wrist. The boy's eyes grew large, and Ashton felt sick. She knew what Rex was thinking about: the whipping.

"She did."

His words had a spitting, stinging sound. Charles sighed and let go of his cousin. She rubbed her wrist.

"What on earth's he talking about? I don't have the slightest -"

"Stop it," Charles broke in. "Madeline told Orry and me everything she overheard at Resolute. Lying won't help you anymore. Or threatening this boy, either." He squeezed Rex's shoulder. "Better get out of here."

Rex ran.

Charles watched a transformation take place on Ashton's face then. Her cheeks grew livid, and her smiling pretension disappeared. He could hardly believe what he saw. In a soft, wrathful voice, he said:

"My God - it's true. You want your own brother-in-law hurt or killed."

Her silence and her defiant eyes affirmed it. He wasted no time on recriminations. Clutching his saber, he ran like a madman for the stable.

Ashton took a step after him and screamed at the disappearing figure: "It won't do any good. You're already too late. Too late."

"One," Smith called in a loud voice. The duelists started to walk in opposite directions, eyes straight ahead, pistols at their sides. "Two." The wind tossed the grass and ruffled shining water in the marsh.

Sweat ran down Billy's neck, soaking the collar of his fine wedding shirt.

To clear his mind of distractions, he fixed his gaze on a low branch of live oak directly in front of him. He examined the feel of the dueling pistol in his hand, thought of how he must raise and fire it.

"Three."

Brett's hands were clenched so tightly her forearms ached. She stood by the carriage, wondering how this terrible moment had come to them. Who had told Forbes where they were? It was nearly impossible for him to have come to this particular road by accident.

"Four."

Homer was standing about six feet to the right of Brett. As the duelists separated, he saw a glance of understanding flash between young LaMotte and his second. Homer had picked up a gray stone about three inches in diameter and now began to drop it nervously from one hand to the other, thinking, Something sure isn't right about this business.

"Five."

To Brett's left, Preston Smith stood by the horses he and Forbes had ridden. He wanted to stay close to his saddlebag in case things didn't go precisely as planned. He glanced down at his right boot, reassured by the bulge of the special pocket sewn on the outside. Then his eye flicked past Brett to Homer, who was perspiring and passing a rock from hand to hand. They had nothing to fear from a frightened nigger. A feeling of satisfaction flooded over Smith, a feeling so intense he nearly missed the next count.

"Six."

Billy's vision blurred. A panicky feeling tightened his gut and dried his throat. He wanted a last look at Brett. Thoughts went screaming through his brain at incredible speed:

Why should you look at her?

You'll see her again.

Maybe you won't.

How did they find us?

A noise intruded at the edge of his awareness, a pounding, soft and steady. He had never known his heart to sound that way.

"Seven."

Homer knew what he had seen in the sly look that flickered between the friends. He knew what he smelled here in the sunshine. They had plotted young Hazard's murder, those two. He didn't know how or why, but he was positive it was true. The thought of what was coming sickened him so badly that he turned to the coach and leaned on the front wheel, his hand closing tight around the stone.

"Eight."

Brett, too, misinterpreted the drumming sound for a moment. Then she realized she was hearing a horse coming swiftly along the road from Mont Royal. Over the noise of hoofs, a man was shouting.

Smith heard it also. One of the horses he was holding shied and whinnied. That obscured part of the shout:

"- Billy, watch -"

Brett's eyes flew wide. "That's Charles."

"Nine," Smith called.

Forbes turned around, his confidence melting. He didn't need to look at sallow, frightened Smith to know the horseman signaled the undoing of their plan. Billy had stopped responding to the count. He stood watching the road in an expectant way. Rage and desperation took possession of Forbes. He had a clear shot at the back of Billy's head -

Smith had forgotten to call ten. No matter. Forbes raised his arm shoulder-high and leveled the gun.

Homer was aware of the penalty for attacking a white man, but he couldn't stand by and see murder done. He flung his right arm back, then forward.

Smith didn't exactly understand what the black man was doing, but he recognized it as threatening. He yelled and bowled past Brett. As he ran, he reached toward his right boot.

The stone went sailing toward Forbes as he squeezed the trigger. Brett saw that the stone would miss by a yard or more. But it did its work anyway, arcing into Forbes's field of vision and causing him to jerk his head to the left. His pistol arm jerked too. An explosion - a puff of smoke -

The stone thumped into the wind-whipped grass. Forbes's jaw dropped. Billy turned around, staring at his adversary.

Smith had knocked Brett against the carriage as he passed. She straightened; Billy was unhurt. The mounted man was in sight. "Charles!" she cried. The word was muffled by a guttural scream.

She spun around, flung a hand to her lips. Smith's face was a grimacing mask as he grunted and pulled his right hand back. Out of Homer's stomach came the blade of the bowie knife Smith had snatched from his boot.

"Oh." Homer stared at the torn and bloodied front of his shirt. "Oh," he said again in surprise and pain as he started to topple sideways. Smith shoved with his free hand to help him along. Homer died as he fell.

Belatedly, Billy realized a ball had buzzed past his ear. Except for the distraction of the rock Homer had thrown, the ball would probably have hit him.

Charles reined his sweat-covered horse. He was still in uniform. His saber sheath banged his leg as he started to dismount. Billy wrenched his eyes back to Forbes - Forbes who had fired before the final count. Tried to shoot him in the back. Shaking with anger, Billy lifted the dueling pistol and took aim. He touched the hair trigger. There was a flash at the frizzen - a crack that seemed somehow small and flat.

Forbes hadn't changed position by so much as one inch. Billy had aimed for the center of his breastbone. How could the ball have missed such a large, stationary target?

Then, some ten paces away on a patch of bare earth, something dark caught his eye. He stalked toward it, watched it define itself to lead-colored metal. The ball. The ball from his pistol, lying there spent -

He recalled Smith's crouching while he loaded the weapons, recalled spotting spilled powder. They had carefully planned to short the charge in his pistol. He swore an oath and flung his gun into the grass.

"Forbes!"

Forbes spun in response to the shout from Smith, who threw his bowie knife by the tip, flipping it end over end. Forbes let the knife land in the grass near his feet, then snatched it up. He shifted the knife to his left hand. Then, out of his right boot, he snaked a second one, identical in design but unbloodied and two inches longer.

The sun struck silver flashes from his hands as he sidestepped toward Billy. "Sorry your shot missed." Forbes uttered a crazy kind of laugh. "Bet you're a whole lot sorrier."

"I didn't miss. The ball never came close to you. It's lying right over there in that bare place. There wasn't a full charge of powder in my gun."

"Smart fucking Yankee, aren't you?"

Wind lifted Forbes's hair, then pasted it against his sweaty forehead.

Empty-handed, Billy backed away. One step, then another. Forbes came on, scuttling sideways like a crab.

"You shouldn't have messed with Brett. Shouldn't have set foot in South Carolina. Reckon they'll send you home in a sack, but I guarantee your kin won't want to open it and look at you."

He moved the right-hand knife in a small circle, then started the same kind of motion with the left one. '' Not after I fix up your face.''

Billy retreated again. He decided to make a dash to the nearest tree, try to tear off a limb before one of those knives -

''Billy."

The voice wrenched his attention toward the carriage. Smith had disappeared. Charles had reached Brett; his collar was unfastened, his light blue trousers dirty. His face was wrathful as he pitched his saber into the field.

Billy stepped to the right so that the sword would land between him and Forbes. As the saber tumbled, Smith jumped into sight at the rear of the carriage. He had sneaked past Homer's corpse and around behind the vehicle. He dashed for the saddlebag on his horse. The saber landed much nearer Billy than Forbes. Billy ran to get it.

Smith pulled a four-barrel derringer out of the saddlebag. Charles saw him, cursed, and lunged. Smith took four running steps into the field. He emptied all four barrels at Billy. After the last popping explosion, Billy felt a ball hit him. He groaned in pain and staggered forward.

Charles caught Smith from behind, spun him around, ripped the empty derringer out of his hand, and smashed him with a right fist, then a crossing left. Clumsy blows but powerful ones. Smith grunted; red mucus fountained from his nose.

Billy had fallen. Blood stained the left sleeve of his shirt above his elbow. On his stomach, he pushed up with both hands. Pain flashed through his left arm. His hand refused to support him.

Silver stars of light twinkled a couple of feet in front of him. He groped for the hilt of the saber, then nearly dropped the weapon as he lurched to his feet. A shadow lengthened in the grass. Billy flung himself to one side. Forbes's right-hand knife missed him by no more than two inches.

Pain drained his energy and muddled his mind. All he could do was retreat, parry, try to collect himself. Forbes's sweating, grinning face loomed huge, his eyes blazing with an obsession to kill.

Billy defended himself by instinct. All of the fine, planned moves he had learned at West Point slipped away in a haze of fright and throbbing pain. Forbes slashed with his left-hand knife. Billy blocked it with the saber, then tried to push Forbes away. He lacked the strength.

Forbes chuckled deep in his throat. "Got you now, Yankee." He bored in, knives slashing, turning, confusing Billy with their glittering motion. Billy parried air. Forbes laughed and came on, confident again.

Once more Billy retreated, trying to organize an attack. He was too weak from the loss of blood he could feel streaming hot beneath his shirt. It had reached his wrist, dripped from his cuff.

Brett called something, but he didn't dare turn. He stumbled over heavy, exposed roots and was suddenly backed tight against the huge trunk of a tree. Forbes's eyes widened with delight. He stabbed for Billy's face with the right-hand bowie knife.

Billy wrenched his left shoulder forward. The knife throbbed in the tree. Rather than trying to free it, Forbes struck with the second one. Billy wrenched the other way. The knife ripped his shirt, raked his ribs, and buried itself two inches in the trunk.

Forbes was standing very close now, realizing each stab had missed. With a desperate look he reached past Billy with both hands and started to pull the knives loose. Billy knew it was his last chance. He lifted his knee, drove it into Forbes's stomach. Forbes gasped and staggered back two steps. With a little maneuvering room, Billy rammed the saber into Forbes and thrust until he felt the point scrape against the backbone.

Forbes collapsed face down. The impact drove the hilt against his chest. The point of the saber suddenly tore through the back of his shirt and jutted into the light.

Shaking, Billy turned away. The pain in his arm wasn't half so bad as the spasm of sickness that emptied his stomach while he leaned against the tree.

Brett gave a ragged little cry and rushed toward her husband. Charles called, "Bring him back here so I can look at that wound." Then he turned his attention to Smith. He dragged Forbes's crony up by the collar and pushed him against the carriage. Smith held his crotch, tears on his cheeks. Charles shook him.

"Stop caterwauling and listen! Once upon a time I fixed your kinsman Whitney, and I can do the same for you. Fact is, I'd like to. But I reckon we've spilled enough blood. So you get out of here before I change my mind."

Whimpering, Smith staggered toward his horse.

"On foot," Charles said. "I'll keep the animals."

Without a backward look, Smith lurched into the road. An impulse seized Charles; he shied a pebble at the hobbling man. Smith yelped, grabbed his neck, and broke into a run.

Charles's smile faded as he looked at Ashton's dead slave, then toward the spot where Forbes's body lay hidden by the long grass, its place marked by the saber sticking into the sunshine. Flies swarmed on the bloody point.

Billy staggered to the carriage with his right arm around Brett and his left hanging limp and bloody at his side. "They trumped up a duel," he gasped, and then in a couple of sentences described the treachery with the pistol and how he had discovered it.

"Bastards," Charles growled. He tore Billy's sleeve and examined the wound. "Passed right through the fleshy part, looks like. Lot more blood than damage. Brett, give me some long pieces of petticoat. I'll tie it off."

She turned her back and raised her skirt. Charles tilted his head to study the angle of the sun. "We'll have to skedaddle to make that train. Are you up to it?"

"You're damn right we are," Billy said. "I want to get out of this benighted place."

"Can't say I blame you," Charles murmured.

"I never realized Forbes was so crazy and vicious," Brett said over her shoulder as more cloth tore. "How did you find us in time?"

"Madeline LaMotte overheard Forbes and Preston talking at Resolute. Talking about you. After they left, she drove to Mont Royal to warn us. I saddled up and took the road I knew you'd taken."

"But - how did Forbes know we were leaving just now? Or that we were going to the train?"

Charles accepted the lacy strips Brett handed him. He began to wrap them around the upper part of Billy's arm. Billy clenched his teeth. His color was improving.

"Not certain about that," Charles hedged, concentrating on what he was doing so as to avoid his cousin's eyes. "I'll ask some questions when I take Homer's body back to the plantation. Meantime, you two climb in the carriage. And hang on tight to each other. I'm going to go like hell the rest of the way."

Charles was as good as his word, driving to the flag stop at reckless speed. The train was heard whistling in the south as the carriage swayed to a stop. Charles dashed across the track to the cypress shed, flung back the lid of the box, and ran the flag up the pine pole. By the time he finished, the cowcatcher was in sight.

Over the hiss of steam and the clang of the bell, Billy tried to speak. "I don't know how to say -"

"Don't bother. All in the line of duty. One Academy man looking out for another."

"But you let go of your commission."

"That doesn't mean West Point will let go of me." Charles was surprised, even irked, to find himself so close to tears. All the shocks of the afternoon had probably conspired to cause that.

He hid his feelings as best he could, rushing to unload the luggage and place it on the platform. As the train slowed, the freight and mail cars passed. Then came faces behind dusty windows, faces whose bland passivity disappeared the instant they saw the bedraggled threesome - the soldier, the girl, and the young man with his coat draped over his shoulders and traces of blood showing on his bandaged arm.

Brett threw her arms around Charles's neck. "Oh, Cousin - thank you. Explain to all of them."

"I will. You climb aboard," he added with a glance at the impatient conductor.

Billy followed her. Standing on the second step from the bottom, he gazed down at his friend. They clasped right hands.

"Don't have any idea when we'll see each other, Bison."

The realization hit hard. "No, I don't either."

"You take care."

"You do the same. A safe journey to you and your wife."

"Thank you. We'll meet again."

"I know."

Charles harbored doubts. With all the trouble in the country, their only future meeting place might be a battlefield. With each of them on a different side.

Damnation, don't think that way and spoil everything. It's been a rough enough day already. He managed the old reckless smile, lifted his hand, and stood waving as the train chugged off.

Some passengers had come out to the platform of the last coach. As the coach went by, Charles heard an obscenity. Something flew past his face. He looked down to find a gob of spittle on the front of his uniform. "Shit," he said.

He didn't stay angry for long. His smile came back, and from the shadows at trackside he called out mockingly to whoever had spat on his Federal uniform.

"Done like a true Southerner."

Rubbing his eyes, he trudged across the track toward the carriage. The train disappeared down a natural tunnel in the pines. He felt its last vibrations as he stepped off the rail.

He wished he could drink himself insensible. But he was summoned back to the red field, and to Mont Royal, by unfinished business.

''I know moon-rise, I know star-rise, Lay this body down -"

The words of the old Gullah hymn came clearly through the windows of the dark library. The slaves were singing for Homer, whom Charles had brought back in the carriage. He had left Forbes for the cormorants to pick. Compassion had its limits.

"That's how it happened, nearly as I can piece it together," Charles was saying. "They meant to murder Billy."

He put his cigar back in his mouth and stretched his long legs in front of his chair. Orry lingered in the corner, his shadow falling on the old uniform. "Couple your account with what Madeline told us, and it becomes conclusive. God above, Charles, I had no idea they hated him that much."

"Brett said almost the same thing before she left. Jealousy played a big part, I reckon. How is Madeline?"

"She was fine when I spoke to her an hour ago. I trust she went back to sleep."

"LaMotte is probably searching for her."

Orry nodded. "That's something else I must attend to this evening. But first things first." He sounded stern. "Have you seen Ashton since you returned?"

"Saw her right as I drove up. She wanted to take charge of Homer's remains. I said no and she disappeared."

Orry strode to the candle-lit foyer. Cuffey jumped up from the stool where he had been dozing. "Find Mrs. Huntoon and her husband," Orry said. "Tell them I want them in the library. At once."

Cuffey hurried away. Charles turned so that he could observe his cousin. By the glow of the foyer candles, he saw the set look of Orry's expression.

"Help me light some lamps, Charles. When I tell them, I want to see their miserable faces."

Major Anderson continued to return the vastly superior fire of Beauregard's guns until late on the afternoon of the twelfth, Friday. But the situation of the garrison was hopeless, and he and every other man in the fort knew it.

By some miracle, no one had died during the thirteen-hour bombardment. Anderson reckoned it was only a matter of time, however. He was thinking of asking for terms, particularly the right to give a formal military salute to the flag flying over the fort, the Stars and Stripes, before he ordered it lowered for the last time.

Up at Mont Royal, Orry was packing a small carpetbag with a razor, strop, soap, some shirts, and underdrawers. He threw the carpetbag into the carriage along with the satchel of money. The satchel was closed by a small, cheap lock, the key for which reposed in his watch pocket. The lock could be easily forced, but he figured he would attract less notice with two ordinary valises - one held in his hand, the other gripped between body and arm - than he would with one bag and a bulging money belt.

Madeline kissed him and tried to hide tears of anxiety. She knew the risk he was taking, traveling north just now, but she said nothing.

Not so Charles, who had reluctantly agreed to take him to the flag stop in the carriage.

"You shouldn't go, Orry. You owe him nothing." ''I owe him my life. Drive." He slammed the carriage door behind him.

Clarissa slipped up beside Madeline, whom she didn't recognize, and waved cheerfully to the departing stranger. Madeline wondered if she would ever see him again.

On Sunday a freight derailment in North Carolina blocked the northbound line and delayed Orry's train six hours. Passengers in the first-class coach talked of little besides the Sumter crisis. From the accents and the sentiments he heard, Orry judged most of the speakers to be Southern. A few hundred miles north that situation would reverse. He would need to be very careful about what he said, and to whom.

At twilight the track was cleared and the train chugged on. Soon they stopped at a station in a small piedmont town. The ticket agent was gesturing and shouting in the dusk.

"Sumter's fallen. Anderson pulled out. Word just flashed over the telegraph."

Cheering filled the coach. The vendor hawking day-old newspapers in the aisle gave Orry a suspicious stare when he didn't join in. Orry stared right back and the vendor moved on. It seemed there was no escape from the suspicion and enmity swirling through the land.

Next morning, in Petersburg, he left the train for a meal in the depot. He took the money satchel with him and placed it carefully between his feet under the table. The flyblown dining room raised echoes of a similar stop in Baltimore two years ago. This time, however, Orry encountered no hostility; people were too busy discussing yesterday's events in South Carolina. Several times he heard the word victory. Most of the customers agreed that Virginia's departure from the Union was inevitable now that a blow had been struck.

Shaking his head, he quickly finished his beef hash and corn grits. Then he bought a paper. When the train left Petersburg, a paunchy, well-dressed man sat down next to him. Orry paid no attention. He was immersed in the telegraphic dispatches on the front page. The day before, Sunday, Anderson had formally surrendered the fort in Charleston harbor. Ironically, it was during preparations for the ceremony that the first life had been lost.

According to estimates in the paper, four to five thousand rounds had been exchanged during the bombardment. There had been no casualties, but the shelling had started fires throughout the fort. Some had still been smoldering yesterday. Flying sparks had ignited a pile of cannon cartridges. The explosion had instantly killed one of Anderson's artillerists and wounded five others.

First blood, Orry said to himself. He was convinced there would be more, much more.

The Federal commander had been allowed to salute his flag before striking it and leading his men to waiting longboats. The boats carried the soldiers out past the bar to a Federal relief flotilla that had proved to be something more than a rumor - the ships had arrived offshore during the bombardment. Soon the chartered liner Baltic and her accompanying warships were steaming northward, in defeat. Orry doubted it would be long before the Lincoln government reacted.

When he finished reading, he fell into conversation with the fat man, who intoduced himself as Mr. Cobb of Petersburg, a commercial traveler.

"British needles and the finest sewing threads," Cobb explained in his soft Virginia voice. "Distributed only to the best mercantile establishments. Heaven knows what will become of my trade with all this trouble. I take it you are also a Southerner?"

Orry nodded. "From South Carolina."

"How far are you going?"

"Into Pennsylvania."

"Permit me to offer a word of advice. I was in Philadelphia last week, and I had a difficult time. I might go so far as to say it was extremely difficult. Southerners are too easily identified by their speech. At one point I felt my life might be in jeopardy. I am not traveling beyond Washington on this trip, but even so I have taken precautions."

His plump finger ticked against his lapel, where Orry saw a rosette of red, white, and blue ribbon.

"I suggest you do the same, sir. Any store carrying notions can supply you with the materials for a Union rosette."

"Thanks for the suggestion," Orry said, although he had already rejected it. He did not believe wholeheartedly in the cause of the South. But neither would he wear the colors of the other side.

The only part of Washington he saw was a railway terminal. Army officers and civilian families thronged the platforms and waiting rooms. Most of the officers were arriving; most of the families were leaving. Southerners, he presumed, homeward-bound after resignation from a post with the government or the military.

That Monday evening, by the smoky light of depot lamps, he watched the country take its next lurching step toward widespread war. A sweating man in shirt-sleeves chalked news bulletins on a blackboard. One said President Lincoln had declared the existence of an insurrection and called for seventy-five thousand volunteers to bear arms for three months.

Applause swept the small crowd standing in front of the board. Orry turned to go to his train. The crowd pressed forward, shouting approval of the President and cursing the South. He found he couldn't move.

"Excuse me."

No one budged. Three men close by gave him hard scrutiny. He wished he'd brought a pistol on the trip.

"What did you say, mister?" one man asked.

Orry knew he should speak as few words as possible. But he resented that restriction, and so ignored it.

"I said I'd like to get through, if you have no objection."

"Why, this here's a Southron gent," a second man growled. Immediately, onlookers pressed Orry from all sides; most, it seemed to him, were sweaty men with stubbled faces and hostile eyes. They blocked him in front and on both flanks. Beside his back, he could hear ugly-sounding whispers spreading. His mouth went dry.

The crowd jostled him. There was barely room for him to slip the money satchel up beneath his right arm and clamp it there. Hands plucked at the satchel. Voices overlapped.

"What you got in that bag, reb?"

"Val'ables, I bet."

"Let's see."

Immediately the cry was taken up. "Let's see. Let's see!"

Panic started a ringing in his ears. He felt the satchel start to slip. He deliberately reached across the front of his coat. The man whose hand was on the satchel gasped at the sudden move.

"If simple courtesy won't persuade you to let me through, gentlemen, I'll have to resort to other means."

Orry slid his fingers under his left lapel. The man holding the satchel let go. "Watch it, lads. He's armed."

Those close by abruptly lost their enthusiasm for baiting him. He kept his hand beneath his lapel as one man, then others, shuffled backward to open an aisle. It wasn't easy to carry the bag with only the pressure of his upper arm, but he managed. He walked quickly along the aisle, feeling his furious heartbeat against the palm of his hand.

Free of the crowd, he hurried away. A couple of men shouted obscenities. He didn't look back.

He tried to sleep on the train but he was too shaken. He sat with the money satchel clamped between his feet. Next morning in Philadelphia, he located a large dry-goods store and purchased a small pair of scissors, needle, thread, and pieces of ribbon in three colors. From the ribbon, with patience and the aid of a ruddy woman behind the serving counter of a restaurant, he fashioned a rosette.

The woman seemed happy, even proud to help him. "You from Virginia?" she asked in recognition of his accent. "Lot of anti-slavery feeling in certain parts of the state, they say."

He merely smiled. Any suspicion she felt disappeared as she fastened the rosette to his lapel.

Orry reached Lehigh Station late on Tuesday, April 16. The town had grown larger; a new borough, consisting of a few dozen hovels and cheap houses, South Station, sprawled along the opposite bank of the river. In the depot, a man with a paste brush was posting a bill on the wall by the yellow light of a lantern. Orry saw that it was a recruiting notice, urging men to join a volunteer regiment being organized in response to President Lincoln's call.

He passed out of the light, but not before he was noticed by several loungers in front of the Station House. How could they help but notice a tall, bony man with dusty clothes, two bags, and only one hand to take care of them? Orry hoped the rosette was visible.

As he walked by the hotel, he heard one lounger say, "Queer duck. Anybody know him?"

The others said no. One remarked, "Looks a little like old Abe, don't he?"

"Could be his brother." The speaker left the hotel porch and ran after Orry. "Want a hack, mister? Only ten cents to any point in town."

Orry raised his eyebrows in a questioning way, at the same time nodding at the lights of Belvedere on the hilltop.

"The Hazard place?" The townsman fingered his chin; anyone visiting the only millionaire in Lehigh Station must be well off himself. "That's a nickel more."

Orry agreed with a nod. The open buggy ascended the steep hill. Suddenly a thin, fiery-white line appeared in the black sky above Belvedere. The streak of light fell toward the earth at an angle close to perpendicular. It vanished a moment after Orry realized it was a shooting star.

Scents of the warm springtime were quickly diluted by the fumes of the mill. Hazard Iron's three furnaces cast a deep red light over nearby hillsides. Smoke billowed from each furnace, and the breeze bore the pounding rhythm of steam engines. A menacing sound, somehow.

Panic seized Orry as the driver deposited him in front of the mansion. He hadn't thought to telegraph ahead. What if George had gone off somewhere?

An eager boy, breathless from running, answered the door. He was taller than his father and less stocky, but the resemblance was unmistakable.

"William, don't you recognize me?" Orry removed his hat and smiled. The appearance of that smile in the middle of his tangled beard gave him a less forbidding look. William's wariness vanished. He whirled around.

"Pa? Pa, come here. Wait'll you see who's at the door.'' He stepped aside. "Come in, Mr. Main."

"Thank you, William." Orry entered and William took his bags. "You're tall as a tree. How old are you now?"

"Thirteen." Then he added, "Almost."

Orry shook his head and walked into the dazzle of the lower hall. He heard a door open, then close on the second-floor landing. He didn't bother to look up there because George was striding out of the dining room, his shirt-sleeves rolled above his elbows and his ever-present cigar in hand.

"Stick? Godamighty, I don't believe this."

He rushed forward. Constance came from the kitchen, equally astonished. George bobbed up and down on his toes, delighted as a little boy. "What the devil are you doing in Pennsylvania? And what's that?"

Orry glanced down at his lapel. "I had to wear it to get through the enemy lines."

George and Constance smiled at the little joke, but memories of larger events soon returned with crushing force. That showed when Constance hugged him and said:

"It's so wonderful to see you. Isn't the news from Sumter simply terrible?"

"Terrible," he agreed. "George, I came about a matter of business."

Once more George looked surprised. "I shouldn't think there's much business being done anywhere right now. I keep wondering how secession will affect mundane things: Bank transactions. Postal deliveries - ah, but we needn't stand here discussing that. Are you hungry? We just finished supper. A couple of fine roast ducklings. There's plenty left."

"A little food would be welcome."

"Then come along. My God, I can't believe you're here. It's like old times."

Constance put her arm around her tall son. She smiled again as the men walked toward the dining room. Orry did wish it could be like old times, but all he had seen on his journey told him the wish was an idle one. Never again would there be a day like that in 1842 when the two of them had stood at the rail of the Hudson River steamer with their hopes and illusions still intact.

They were old men now. Gray men. George's hair was streaked generously with it. And they had somehow let their world be pushed into the chasm of war. The knowledge robbed the reunion of joy. Grim-faced, he followed George and his cigar to the dining room.

While Orry ate, they exchanged items of news. Billy had reached Washington safely with his new wife. "And with a slight wound," George added. "Billy didn't go into details, but I gather there was an altercation with a former suitor of Brett's."

"Yes." Orry said no more.

"He's been promised a few days' leave. I'm expecting the two of them here at any time."

"I'd like to see them, but I can't wait. Things are chaotic at home."

"Chaotic everywhere," Constance said with a sigh.

George nodded glumly. "They say Virginia will secede tomorrow or the next day. She'll pull most of the fence-sitters with her. All the border states may go. Feelings are running high" - he pointed his cigar at the rosette - "as you must have discovered."

Orry finished his coffee, less weary now. But he had experienced no lifting of his spirits. He was glad to be with his old friend, yet he continued to feel this might be their last meeting for a long time.

After a silence, Constance spoke with obvious reluctance:

"Virgilia has come home."

Orry almost dropped his cup. "From where?"

"That," George growled, "we do not ask."

"Is she here this evening?"

George nodded, and Orry recalled the sound of a door's opening and closing upstairs as he arrived. Had Virgilia seen him?

Well, it didn't matter. Even though he had taken some elementary precautions down in the town, he really hadn't planned to make this visit a secret one.

"The poor creature's destitute - "Constance began.

"It's her own doing," George snapped. "I don't want to talk about it." His wife looked away. To Orry he said, "Now, what kind of business could be important enough to bring you all the way up here? Don't tell me Cooper's ready to launch the big ship."

"I wish that were the case. I don't think she'll ever leave the ways. That's why I came and why I brought the satchel I left in the hall. It contains six hundred and fifty thousand dollars. I'm sorry there isn't more, but I could only raise that much."

"Raise? Raise how?"

"Never mind. I didn't want your investment capital tied up in the South and subject to confiscation. You didn't loan it to us for that purpose."

George frowned, glanced at his wife and then back to his friend. "Perhaps we should discuss this in the library."

"Come, Billy," Constance said, patting her son as she rose.

"Billy." Orry smiled. "You call him that?"

She nodded. "When George's brother is home, he's Big Billy and this is Little Billy. It's confusing sometimes, but we like it."

William pulled a face. "Not all of us like it."

"He's right," Constance said, teasing her son by keeping a straight face. "Stanley claims it's undignified."

"That is why we like it," George said as he stood up. Orry laughed, spontaneously and hard. For a moment he could almost imagine the old times had returned.

"You say Billy's wound is healing satisfactorily?" Orry asked as George shut the doors and turned up the light.

"So I'm informed. He and Brett are happy even if the country isn't." He rummaged for glasses and a decanter. "I think we need some whiskey."

He poured two stiff drinks without asking whether Orry cared for one. Same old Stump, Orry thought. In charge of every situation.

"No, it isn't at all happy," Orry agreed as he took the whiskey. He drank half of it in three gulps. The warmth exploded in his stomach, soothing him a little. He fished for the key and unlocked the satchel he had brought from the hall. He opened it to show the large-denomination bills. "As I told you - that's the reason I brought this."

George picked up one banded bundle, struck speechless for a moment. Then he said softly:

"It's a very honorable act, Orry."

"The money's yours. I think you deserve it more than the Montgomery government. Which, by the way, has been established with men of solid and conservative bent in charge."

"So I noticed. Jeff Davis. Alec Stephens of Georgia -"

"The South Carolina crowd, including our mutual friend Young Hotspur" - at Orry's reference to Huntoon, George grimaced - "was virtually ignored. They aren't pleased."

"Why were they left out?"

"I'm not sure. I would suspect the conservatives thought them too extreme. Feared they'd detract from the respectability of the new government. In any case, I didn't think you'd want your money confiscated by men whose principles aren't exactly compatible with yours."

George threw him a quizzical look. "Are they compatible with yours?"

"I'm goddamned if I know anymore, Stump."

He slumped into a chair. His friend snapped the satchel shut, then seated himself next to the library table where the meteorite still rested. Almost without thought, George picked up the dark brown cone as he said, "Well, my assertion stands. You did an exceptionally honorable thing."

Embarrassed, Orry saluted his friend with his glass. Then his melancholy smile faded, and he pointed to the rough-textured object in George's hand.

"Is that the same one you found in the hills above the Academy?"

"Yes."

"I thought so. I remember some of what you said about it. Something about star iron having the power to destroy families, wealth, governments - the whole established order of things. I do believe we're about to see that opinion tested. You spoke of honor. There's damned little of it among individuals and even less" - his voice was low now, sardonic - "a flash or two every century? - among nations and political parties and groups crusading for their holy causes. But if war gets started soon, factories like yours will be responsible for eradicating even the little bit of honor that's left. Cooper's known it for a long time. He tried to make us listen. We refused. If there's to be a war, and it appears there is, it'll be the kind of new, total war Mahan predicted. Annihilating not just troops of the line but everything."

He shook his head. His exhaustion, and the whiskey consumed so quickly, produced an odd, light-headed state in which thoughts flowed freely, as did the words to express them. "And what are the South's resources for that kind of struggle? A vision of the future which is beginning to look pathetically outdated. Our rhetoric. Our slogans. And our soldiers."

"Southern officers are the cream of the Army, don't forget."

"Aye," Orry said, nodding. "And carrying out their orders will be a lot of tough farmers who can fight like the very devil, even though they never heard of Mahan or Jomini or, ironically, owned a single slave. But what are they up against? Your numbers. Your millions and millions of clerks and mechanics. Your infernal factories." The next was barely audible. "A new kind of war -"

Orry was silent a moment. Finally he went on, "Regardless of how it comes out - regardless of which side dictates the terms and which side accepts them - we'll all be the losers. We abdicated, George. We let the lunatics reign."

He flung his head back and poured the rest of the whiskey down his throat with a single gesture. After a moment he closed his eyes and shuddered. Slowly and with great care, George replaced the meteorite on the table and stared at it.

Orry opened his eyes. He thought he heard a distant tumult. George stirred. "Yes, the lunatics reign. But what could we have done?"

"I'm not sure. Cooper was always cautioning us with Burke." He struggled to remember and quote correctly. " 'When bad men combine, the good must associate, else they will fall one by one -' "

On his feet suddenly, he reached for the whiskey. "I don't know what the hell we could have done, but I know we didn't ask the question soon enough or forcefully enough. Or often enough."

He poured, drank two-thirds of a glass. George pondered what his friend had said. Then he too shook his head. "That's such a simple answer. Maybe too simple. The problem's incomprehensibly tangled. Sometimes I think one man is such a puny thing. How can he change anything when there are great forces stirring? Forces he doesn't understand or even recognize?"

Orry's reply was the same depressing truth he had admitted a few moments earlier. "I'm not sure. But if great forces and events aren't entirely accidental, they must be created and shaped by men. Created and shaped by positive action and by lack of it, too. I think we had a chance. I think we threw it away."

Inexplicably, his voice broke on the last words. He felt tears in his eyes. Tears of pain, of failure, frustration, and despair - he was damned if he knew all their wellsprings. For one blinding moment the friends stared at each other, stripped of every emotion save their realization of culpability and the fear it generated now that the slogan-chanting mobs were abroad in the North and the South. Abroad and marching steadfastly toward Mahan's new apocalypse -

Mob. The word, and certain noises, shattered Orry's dark reverie. He turned toward a window. He heard voices outside. Not a large crowd, but a ferocious one.

George frowned. "Sounds like a bunch of town roughnecks. What do you suppose they want?"

He reached for the velvet curtains. The sudden crash of the door spun him around.

"Virgilia!"

The moment Orry saw her, he knew why the mob had come.

Outside, the tumult increased. George pointed to the window, his voice mingling shock and rage. "Are you responsible for that, Virgilia?"

Her smile was sufficient answer.

"How the hell did they get here?" he demanded.

A rock smashed one of the windows. The heavy drapes kept the glass from flying, though it tinkled loudly on the floor beneath the curtain's gold fringe. Orry thought he heard someone shout the word traitor. He brushed his hand across his mouth.

"I sent one of the servants to the hotel." Virgilia looked at Orry "Right after I saw him step through the front door."

"In the name of God - why?"

Orry could have answered George's question. And he was barely able to contain the revulsion the sight of Virgilia produced. She was only a few years his senior, but she looked twenty years older than that. Her print dress, faded from many washings, fit too tightly; she had gained at least fifteen pounds. But the weight was only one sign of a continuing deterioration. Her complexion was pasty, her eyes sunken. Wisps of hair straggled to her shoulders, and when she turned to answer her brother, Orry saw dirt on her neck.

"Because he's a traitor," she whispered. "A Southerner and a traitor. He murdered Grady."

"He had nothing to do with Grady's death. You've taken leave of your -''

"Murdered him," she repeated, her eyes on Orry again. Those eyes glowed with a hatred so intense, it was almost a physical force. "You did it, you and your kind."

George shouted at her. "The Federal troops killed Grady!" But she was beyond the reach of reason, and it was then Orry knew what it was that she had brought into the room. It was more than the odor of stale clothes or unclean flesh. It was the stink of death.

"I sent for those men," she said to him. "I hope they kill you."

Suddenly, like a bolting animal, she ran at the draperies hiding the broken window. "He's in here!" she screamed. George leaped after her, grabbed her arm, and flung her backward.

She fell, landing hard on hands and knees. Without warning, she began to sob, great, mindless bellows of pain. Her unpinned hair hung like a curtain on both sides of her drooping head. Mercifully, it hid her madwoman's face.

George eyed the drapes she had almost reached and opened. He pitched his voice low. "There is a local freight eastbound at eleven o'clock. I think it would be advisable for your own safety -"

"I agree," Orry cut in. "I'll go now. I don't want to endanger your family. I'll slip out the back way."

"The hell you will. They probably have someone watching there. You leave this to me."

George started toward the hall. Virgilia struggled to her feet. George turned back to look at her. "Virgilia -"

He was too overcome to continue. But he didn't need words. His eyes and his reddening face conveyed his feelings. She backed away from him, and he strode on to the front hall.

There, Constance, the two children, and half a dozen servants were anxiously watching the main door. Firelight shimmered on the fanlight above. The men outside had torches. Orry saw the door handle shake, but someone inside had been alert enough to shoot the bolt when the mob arrived.

"Who are those men?" Constance asked her husband. "What are they doing here?"

''They want Orry. It' s Virgilia's doing. Take the children upstairs.''

"Virgilia? Oh, dear God, George -"

"Take them upstairs! The rest of you, clear the hall." To Orry: "Wait here a moment." As the servants scattered and Constance hurried the youngsters away, George disappeared into a wardrobe closet beneath the staircase.

He reappeared, struggling into his coat. On the lapel Orry noticed a patriotic rosette, smaller and much neater than his own. Over George's arm hung a military-issue gun belt. From the holster he plucked an 1847-model Colt repeater.

He flung the belt on a chair and quickly examined the gun. "I keep it loaded and handy in that closet because I've had a few surprise callers - employees I've discharged, that sort of thing -"

He twirled the cylinder, then turned toward the front door. A stone crashed through the fanlight, spilling glass over a wide area. "Dishonorable sons of bitches," George growled. "Follow me."

His short, stocky legs carried him straight toward the door, which he unlocked with no hesitation. Orry was right behind, frightened yet oddly delighted, too. The years had rolled away, and they were in battle again - George in the lead, as usual.

George flung the door open with what Orry thought was calculated bravado. It had no effect on the mob that surged up the steps of Belvedere, shouting and cursing. Orry counted twelve to fifteen men armed with rocks and cudgels. "There's the damned Southerner," one screamed as Orry followed George onto the porch. "There's the traitor.''

Another man shook a smoking torch. "We want him."

George's shoulders were thrown back. He looked pugnacious and powerful as he raised the Colt repeater and extended his arm. With the muzzle pointed at the forehead of the man who had just spoken, he thumb-cocked the gun.

"Take him. I guarantee you and a few others won't survive the attempt."

Orry stepped to the left of his friend, within a couple of feet of the men crowding the steps. He thought he recognized two of the loungers from the hotel.

"Let's rush him," someone else yelled.

George pointed the Colt at the shouter. "Come on. It's an old military axiom. The one who gives the order leads the charge."

"Damn it, Hazard," another man exclaimed, "he's a Southron. A palmetto-state man. All we want to do is show him what we think of disunionists - traitors."

"This gentleman's no traitor. We graduated in the same West Point class, then went all the way to Mexico City with General Scott. My friend fought for this country just as hard as I did, and that empty sleeve shows you the reward he got. I know most of you. I don't want the death of a single one of you on my hands. But if you mean to harm an honorable man like this, you'll have to remove me first."

The noise level dropped. Orry saw eyes shift from George's gun to other parts of the porch. Some in the crowd were estimating how they might flank the pair and thus overcome them. A couple of men slipped away from the back of the mob, but George quickly covered them.

"The first to move will be the first to fall."

The two men held still. Five seconds became ten. Fifteen -

"We can take them" a voice growled. But there was no response. Orry's heart was pounding. It could go either way -

"Hell," someone said. "It ain't worth gettin' killed."

"That shows good sense," George said, still with a feisty tone. "If that's the attitude of the rest of you, you're free to move. Just make sure you move away from the porch, down the hill and off my property." He paused, then stunned them by shouting in his best West Point voice, "Get going!"

They responded to the command and the threat of the Colt. By ones and twos they shuffled away, leaving only a few oaths in their wake.

A minute went by. Another. Orry and George stayed on the porch, alert in case the mob's mood changed again. Finally George lowered the Colt and slumped against a pillar.

"Close," he said softly. "But we're not out of the woods yet. Fetch your valise while I send someone for the buggy. The sooner we get you on a train, the better."

Orry didn't argue.

One servant drove, another rode astride the buggy horse. Each man carried a gun, as did George. He had already started a search for the servant who had taken Virgilia's message to the mob. The man would be sent packing.

George and Orry were still shaken by the confrontation. George sat in preoccupied silence as the buggy bumped its way down the hill. Presently Orry said, "What are you thinking about?"

"These foul times. We might have prevented all this if we'd responded with the best that's in us. Instead, we seem to have responded with the worst. I wonder if we're capable of anything else."

Silence again. Orry tried to lighten the moment by telling his friend what he'd had no chance to tell him before - that Madeline was with him at last and would remain. When the future was a little less cloudy, they planned to consult a lawyer and obtain a divorce for her.

"That's fine, splendid," George murmured as the buggy passed some outlying houses. His eyes, ceaselessly moving, swept shadowed stoops, yellow-lit windows, then the street. Abruptly he leaned forward. Ahead, silhouetted against the lamps of the hotel and depot, four men had stepped into the street to await the buggy.

"Look sharp, you two," George called to his men.

Panting, Virgilia ran along the path that led over the hill behind Belvedere. She didn't dare flee into town; George had gone in that direction.

Brambles snagged her skirt and slashed her hands, which were clasped tightly around the handle of a huge, bulging carpetbag. She was a strong woman, but even so she could barely carry the bag, which gave off clanking sounds each time it bumped her leg.

She had returned to the mansion once too often. She knew that now. Never again would she set foot in Lehigh Station.

And why should she? She hated the whole family. Pompous little George and priggish Stanley, their wives, their precious white-skinned children. They understood nothing of the struggle taking place in the world. They pretended to be in sympathy with it, but they had no real appreciation of its hardships and cruelties. They were pampered hypocrites, the lot of them.

Her loud, rapid breathing sounded like sobbing. Suddenly she stumbled, fell. But she never once let go of the carpetbag.

She regained her feet and hurried on. No one was pursuing her, but she labored up the steep hillside as if the opposite was true. When George had looked at her, too overcome to speak, she had known she must run.

Her shoulders and upper arms already ached horribly. She had stuffed too many things into the carpetbag before leaving the house: candlesticks, silver, garments from Constance's wardrobe, and several of her most valuable pieces of jewelry - items Virgilia could readily sell to obtain money to live.

She didn't consider it stealing, only payment of what was rightfully hers. George and Stanley had always demeaned her because she was a woman. Their scorn had grown worse when she took a black lover. One day, she vowed as she panted her way to the hilltop, she'd pay them. She'd pay them all.

The buggy rolled on toward the waiting men. They remained in the middle of the street. George touched the driver's arm.

"Don't stop, and don't go around them. Hand me your gun."

The driver gave George his Colt. The only sounds for about half a minute were the clopping of hooves and the faint squeak of a rear axle. George held his breath and raised the two guns so that they could be clearly seen.

When the muzzle of the horse was within a yard of the silent men, they stepped aside.

In the dim light, Orry recognized two who had been in the mob at Belvedere. One of them spat on the street while staring straight at him. But Orry was past all anger, too spent to react. The buggy rolled on.

"Made it!" George exclaimed with a tense smile.

They waited almost an hour inside the depot, with the two servants on watch outside. Nothing further was seen of the troublemakers.

George now seemed as exhausted as his friend. Their conversation was fitful. Orry brought up Elkanah Bent, but George immediately dismissed the subject with a weary wave. Now that war had come, he said, there were far worse things to fear than one deranged officer. Billy had been warned, George intended to put Bent out of mind permanently, and that was that.

Silence ensued. Like George, Orry too wondered how they had come to such a point of crisis in the country. Where had they failed? What had they left undone? Some solutions had been proposed but never seriously considered. The plan of compensated emancipation put forth by Emerson and others. Resettlement of freed slaves in Liberia so as not to flood the industrial North with cheap labor. Had there been even a faint hope of those ideas being implemented? Would Garrison and Virgilia have consented? Or Calhoun and Ashton's husband? He didn't know. He never would.

The rails lit up as the locomotive loomed. The station agent had flagged the freight. George accompanied Orry to the spot on the platform where the caboose was likely to stop.

"Special passenger,'' George explained to a pair of puzzled brakemen. He pressed money into their hands. He was about to bid his friend good-bye when his eye lit on Orry's crudely made rosette. "Just a minute."

He unfastened the rosette and tossed it away. Then he took off his own and pinned it on Orry's lapel.

"You might as well wear one that looks genuine. I'll be damned if I want to be responsible for them lynching you in Maryland."

They embraced. Orry boarded the train.

Orry reached Philadelphia the next morning. He left for Washington at four in the afternoon. A hard rain was falling. He sat with his forehead against the wet window, almost like a man in a trance. One memory, one image, sustained him now: Madeline.

Presently, after darkness fell, the train jerked to a halt. Lamps burned on a rickety platform. By their light he saw a northbound train standing on the other track. Passengers were crowding the platform, taking the opportunity to escape the smoky cars for a little while. Those around Orry got up to do the same. He felt no inclination to move.

"Where are we?" he asked a conductor.

"Relay House."

"Why are both trains stopped?"

"To pick up passengers from a local from the east shore. There'll be some people going north, some going south."

"That's fitting," Orry said. The conductor looked at him as if he were unbalanced.

Staring into the rain, Orry suddenly spied familiar faces. He jumped up, took three long strides down the aisle. Then, abruptly, he halted.

Bending to peer through another window, he studied his sister and her husband. Would he compromise the young couple or create danger for them if he spoke to them? Billy was in uniform.

He let out an oath. For a second he had started to think like the mob: If you're a Southerner, you're a traitor. He walked quickly to the head of the car.

Rain struck his face as he worked his way across the platform. "Brett? Billy?"

Surprise and confusion registered on the faces of the young couple when they recognized him. A few people gave him suspicious looks, but his rosette reassured them.

"What in the world are you doing here?" Brett exclaimed.

"Going home. I paid a visit to Lehigh Station. George said he was expecting you any time."

"I'm on leave," Billy said. "After that, everything's pretty uncertain."

"How's your arm?"

"Fine. No permanent damage." He circled Brett's waist and held her. "Those two or three hours after the wedding seem more like a bad dream than anything else. To this day I'm not sure why all of it happened."

"Nor I," Brett added. Orry still didn't know whether he'd ever be able to tell her of Ashton's involvement.

She noticed his rosette. "Where did you get that? You haven't undergone some miraculous conversion, have you?"

"Not quite. George gave it to me. To get me through enemy lines, you might say."

The east-shore local was chugging in. Passengers got off and rushed for the other trains with their luggage. "How is George?'' Brett asked.

"Good as ever."

She touched him gently. "How are you?"

"Better than I ever expected to be. I reckon you don't know Madeline LaMotte left her husband. She's staying at Mont Royal. We've been - friends for years."

Brett showed no surprise. Instead, she smiled. "I suspected something like that. Oh, there's so much to ask you, Orry - I can't think of a quarter of it."

A conductor from the northbound train called impatiently, "All aboard, please. We're half an hour late as it is."

Brett flung her arms around her brother's neck. "When will we see you again?"

"Not for a while, I expect. I don't think even Mr. Lincoln or Mr. Davis knows what's going to happen next. Whatever it is - even if there's fighting - I want the Hazards and the Mains to keep their ties unbroken. There are few things in the world that matter as much as friendship and love. They're both very fragile. We must preserve them till these times pass."

"I promise we will," she said, all at once crying.

"Here's the strongest bond yet." Billy lifted her left hand to display her wedding ring.

Orry nodded. "I finally realized that. It's the reason I changed my mind about the marriage."

"I'm glad you did," Billy said, smiling.

"Boooard!" the conductor cried. His colleague on Orry's train repeated the cry. The northbound conductor jumped to the steps of a coach and waved to the engineer. The noise - steam, bells, voices - instantly increased.

Billy and his brother-in-law shook hands. Orry hurried back to his car. Steam billowed up, hiding the platform that had become deserted within a space of seconds. The engine on the northbound track lurched, and soon both trains were pulling away in opposite directions, leaving the little island of light behind as they gathered speed in the vast dark.

In Washington, Orry again changed trains, this time to an express. Just before it departed, four men got aboard, young men in civilian clothes struggling with a great assortment of valises and parcels. From their posture and the way they moved, Orry knew they were soldiers. Southern soldiers going home.

They took seats two rows behind him. He listened to their conversation. Would Lincoln and Jeff Davis send armies into the field? Would the trains soon stop running? Would new currency be printed in Montgomery? Their questions were innumerable, answers nonexistent.

The rain slacked to a drizzle. Chugging slowly through the seedy capital district, the train crossed some of the sloughs and vacant lots so common there. In one weed-grown field Orry saw a military unit drilling. There were a few lanterns scattered here and there, but the dark figures were discernible chiefly because of a faraway light source, indefinable except as a bright, ghostly glow. He saw rows of bayonets on musket barrels; for an instant while he watched, one bayonet glittered like a star.

The militia was marching and counter-marching in the rain because Washington was vulnerable now. Just across the river was Virginia, the country of the enemy.

Where was Lee? Where were some of Orry's old comrades from Mexico? Little Mac McClellan, whom he had envied but never liked. Jackson, who had gone off to teach cadets at the Virginia Military Institute. Breezy George Pickett, such a good soldier and so seldom serious. How he'd love to see some of them again.

But not on a red field. Not if opposing generals arranged the reunion. Men who had been almost as close as brothers at the Academy might at this very moment be planning campaigns to annihilate one another. It was unthinkable, and it had happened.

He saw it all summed up in the blind marching of that nameless unit, a vision of gaunt shapes, sharp shiny steel, dim lamps flaring in the rain. The war machine was rolling. God help us all, he thought.

A light rain was falling on Tradd Street that night. Cooper wrote a letter he had been thinking about for some time. When he finished, he went searching for his wife. He found Judith just coming down from settling the children in bed. With war fever sweeping the state, Judah and Marie-Louise tended to become overly excited and stay up too late.

Without preamble, Cooper announced his decision. Judith's response was a moment of stunned silence. Then:

"Do you mean it?"

"I've already signed the letter to the gentlemen who called on me. I'll send it to Montgomery tomorrow. After the first of May, all the assets of the Carolina Shipping Company, including our vessels, belong to the Navy Department."

She shook her head as she sat down. "How can you make that decision, believing as you do?"

"Neutrality is the coward's way out. We either support the war or move north. I think secession's wrong, and the institution that brought it about is even worse. I think we'll be punished. Crushed. And yet'' - a troubled look, a gesture - "I feel a loyalty, Judith."

She looked skeptical. He drew a breath. "There's one other part of my discussion with the committee members that I didn't tell you about. They asked me to go to London as an agent for the department."

''London? Why?"

"Because they know the Confederacy can't survive without food and manufactured goods supplied by others. Mr. Lincoln knows it too. Blockade is a weapon the Yankees will surely use against us. When it happens, there must be counter-strokes. A ship like the Star of Carolina -"

"What are you talking about?" Judith exclaimed, angered and upset. "She'll never get off the ways!"

"I said one like her. Designed to carry heavy armament. Designed for war. A commerce raider. She would roam the earth and do inestimable damage to Yankee shipping." He glanced at his wife from under his eyebrows. "Because of my experience here in Charleston, the department wants me to investigate the possibility of constructing such a vessel in Britain."

"That means we'd have to take the children."

"And be prepared to stay a year, perhaps more." "Oh, Cooper, how can we? The cause is wrong!" "If not already lost," he said with a nod. A flaming vision of Hazard Iron floated in his thoughts. "Still, even though I can't explain my reasons fully or adequately, I feel I must go. No, let me be completely truthful. I want to go."

Again she searched his face. "All right. I detest the idea, and I fail to understand your logic - if there is any. But you know I'd never desert you. I suggest you book steamer passage."

"I already have. We leave from Savannah a week from Friday." He took her in his arms and held her while she cried. Next morning, at the yard on James Island, he saw to the erection of a tall iron pole. When the pulleys and halyards were in place, he watched two of his men unfold a huge flag. It consisted of three broad bars running horizontally; the top and bottom ones were red, the center one white. A field of deep blue in the upper left held a circle of seven white stars.

He was struck by the resemblance between the new flag and that of the nation the seceding states had left. Even while we trumpet our independence, we can't bring ourselves to cut all the cords, he thought as the Stars and Bars rode up the pole, caught the wind, and spread against the sky.

Early next day, on a primitive road in south-central Alabama, a closed carriage bumped toward Montgomery. A dozen trunks and valises crowded the boot and the top. Rex was driving. Inside, Huntoon labored at a polished-oak lap desk. He had finally been summoned to take a minor governmental post, which satisfied him for the moment. Both his post and his influence would not remain minor for long. At that he had been more fortunate than many of the other leaders of South Carolina. Bob Rhett, for example, had been rejected as a candidate for president of the Confederate States because he was perceived as too extreme.

Huntoon was willing to take certain risks to establish himself. All during the final tiresome leg of their journey, from Columbus, Georgia, to Montgomery, he had been writing a memorial to the Confederate Congress. The thrust of it was an attack on the conservatism of the Confederacy's provisional constitution. In language and scope, it was remarkably close to the old Constitution, except that slavery was protected. But, rather remarkably, the new constitution prohibited the African slave trade. That provision definitely had to be changed.

Huntoon's memorial also called for the new confederation to name itself the United States of America, thus demonstrating to the world that it represented the one true constitutional government on the continent. He argued that the Yankees were the ones who had perverted the principles of the Founding Fathers.

At the moment he was stuck on the conclusion. He had written, "We must prove that an aristocracy can govern better than a mob," but he could go no further. Perhaps it was the sight of his wife that distracted him and barred the smooth flow of words.

Ashton was leaning against the interior wall, gazing out the window at the pleasant cotton fields through which the road twisted and dipped. Despite dust and the general disarray produced by travel, she looked extremely fetching, Huntoon thought. He felt a physical response and recalled that it had been more than a month since he had been permitted to enjoy intimate relations. She didn't seem to need that from their marriage any longer.

He cleared his throat. "My dear? I've run aground. Perhaps you can help me frame a felicitous conclusion."

He held out the last of several closely written sheets. Pouting, she batted it away.

"I'm not interested in all that silly jibber-jabber, Jamie."

Under the desk his rigidity wilted. From his expression, she decided she had stung him a little too hard. She leaned over to allow him to feel her tightly bound breast against his sleeve.

"Montgomery will be a wonderful experience for us. What matters isn't the verbiage, the philosophy, but the power we - you can accumulate and use. We waited a long time for this opportunity. We mustn't fritter it away on useless exercises."

She had grown excited; the thought of power always had that effect. If her husband didn't climb as high or as swiftly as she thought he should, there would certainly be others in Montgomery worthy of her consideration. In Montgomery or Richmond, she amended silently; there was already widespread talk about the capital soon being moved out of the cotton belt to Virginia.

The conversation, as well as a long period of self-denial following Forbes's untimely death, had built tension within Ashton. Even if she didn't like her husband very much, he could be used to relieve it.

"Jamie, Jamie - put that silly paper away. Can't you see I've been missing your company terribly?''

"You have? I hardly noticed."

His cynicism was only a momentary pose. With a touch of her hand, she brought him to impatient tumidity. Ashton was a little surprised at the suddenness and intensity of her own desire.

He forced her over against the opposite seat, one hand constricting on her breasts, one groping up her leg beneath her skirts. Dreadful, crude man, she thought. But he would serve. She closed her eyes and imagined a gala ball at which she was presented to President Davis, who was utterly charmed by her intelligence and beauty.

As the coach labored on, Rex scratched his head and leaned out to one side. He was intensely curious about the cause of so many loud creaks and cries from within. But, alas, the angle was wrong; he couldn't see a thing.

That same night, Elkanah Bent stood at the bar in Willard's Hotel.

He was sipping whiskey while he totted up figures on a scrap of paper.

He was pleased by the final sum. After paying the tailor's bill for his new uniforms, he would have just enough left to lease the small flat he had found. Many good houses and apartments had become available in Washington recently; scores of traitorous officers and bureaucrats were fleeing home to the South.

It behooved him to occupy better quarters than a hotel room. His influential friends had secured him a brevet to full colonel, a promotion not at all unusual for a career officer in these days of frenzied preparation for war. Bent only hoped the war would last longer than a few months. Some predicted it would not. General Scott made frequent reference to "the fatal incapacity of the Southerners for agreeing or working together." He said it would adversely affect military performance.

Well, time enough to worry about that. Tonight he wanted to celebrate. A fine meal, then an hour's companionship. He would need to make credit arrangements for the latter, however. He knew one sordid black brothel where it was possible.

He was exalted by thoughts of the coming conflict. Blood would run. Thousands and thousands would die. He rejoiced at this long-overdue chance to display his skills and earn the reputation - the glory - he knew to be his just portion.

And along the way he might be able to settle some old scores.

He would never get over botching the attempt in Texas. And now that damned Charles Main had defected to the South like so many other dishonorable soldiers whose actions made them deserving of a firing squad. But war had a curious way of twisting fates and fortunes. Who knew but what this one might bring him an opportunity to strike directly at the Mains. He mustn't forget they were somehow connected with a woman attempting to pass herself off as white, a woman who was not only a nigger but the offspring of a New Orleans whore.

As for Billy Hazard, surely he would be able to keep track of him. The young engineering officer was remaining on active duty. Bent had already ascertained that at the adjutant general's office. He'd get the lot of them, both families. He believed that because of another conviction he held - neither the Mains nor the Hazards would suspect that his desire for revenge could survive in the chaos that was surely ahead. Their stupidity was his trump card.

He finished his whiskey and called for another. He admired his uniform in the mirror behind the bar. He became aware of two men next to him who were engaged in loud conversation. One was arguing that a reconstruction plan should be prepared and publicized immediately, to encourage the South to return to the fold.

Bent slammed his glass on the bar. "If you believe that, sir, you belong on the other side of the Potomac."

The man was eager to debate. "I take issue, sir. The Lord Jesus Christ Himself stated that mercy -''

"No mercy," Bent interrupted. "No quarter. Never."

A few listeners cheered. The argumentative man took note of the unpopularity of his view and said no more.

Bent preened in front of the mirror. What a splendid day this had been. A man was lucky to live in a time of war.

War. Was there a sweeter, more delicious word in all of the English language? He felt so fine that he left a whole twenty-five cents for the barman.

He strutted out of the hotel, enjoying one of his favorite thoughts. Bent and Bonaparte began with the same letter. It was not a trivial coincidence. By God, no. It had immense historical significance. Before long the world would appreciate that.

A few days later, in the Blue Ridge foothills near Harpers Ferry, Virgilia visited Grady's unmarked grave.

It was a sweet, warm April afternoon. She had driven from the railway station in a hired buggy, which she had pulled to the side of the dirt road at the foot of a low hill covered with maples. She had tied the horse to a branch, walked halfway up, and dropped to her knees beside a mound surrounded by trees.

"Oh, Grady. Grady."

She fell forward on the new grass covering the mound. She had dug the grave, filled it, and piled up the earth with her own hands. In the confusion just prior to Brown's capture, she had crept into Harpers Ferry, located Grady's body, and hidden it. Not long afterward, one of the other conspirators, a Negro woman, had helped her move it here, where no one would dig it up and desecrate it.

Brown was gone now, his dream of a glorious revolt dying with him on the gallows. Grady was gone too. But their blood-price had bought a great gift: the war. Fighting had not yet started, but she was convinced it soon would. She reveled in the thought as she lay with her thighs and breasts crushed against the mound, as if it were Grady's living flesh.

She imagined rows and rows of Southern corpses with heads gone, stumps of arms gushing blood, holes where the genitals had been. She moaned and trembled as she thought of the coming epiphany of her cause. There would be work for her, bloody work others were too scrupulous or fainthearted to perform.

But she would perform it. She would answer the call of her own hatred of those who enslaved others, those who enslaved beautiful black men. She had left her family, insufferable moralizing prigs, forever. She had cut herself off from humanity and now lived solely for her memories and one companion:

Death, who was her friend and God's righteous instrument.

At Mont Royal, shadows seemed longer, the spring nights darker, than ever before. Orry had no interest in planting and husbanding a rice crop, nor had he any confidence in Jeff Davis's announced plan to use cotton to win European recognition of the Confederacy. In his opinion, Davis was a damn fool. The European market was glutted with cotton. Who would care if the South withheld its crop?

A strange impulse for change was stirring in Orry these days. He was restless in the familiar rooms, the old grooves. Only Madeline's presence and the easy way she fitted herself into his life made existence bearable.

Confusion and doubt seemed to be his lot. One night, sleepless, he went browsing in the library. He pulled out a volume he hadn't looked at in years. It was Notes on the State of Virginia, the only book ever written by Thomas Jefferson.

He hitched up his nightshirt and sat down to read awhile. Presently he reached a line that leaped out because it had been underscored with a pen. Three words, Amen and amen, had been inked on the margin beside it. The line read:

"Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever."

Jefferson, a Southerner and a slave owner, had been writing about slavery. What confounded Orry was the marginal notation. He had studied enough old plantation ledgers to recognize the handwriting, it was his father's.

The three words suggested that Tillet, so staunch a defender of slavery in public, had actually harbored doubts about it. Doubts he had kept hidden all his life. The old sinner, Orry thought with a surge of sympathy. Well, what decent man wouldn't harbor doubts - especially now that the consequences were so cruelly apparent?

Encountering Tillet's doubts only enhanced his own, which were profound. They embraced both the history of the Mains and that of every man who lived by, and therefore tolerated, the peculiar institution. Ever after, Orry regretted that he had given in to the impulse to take that particular book off the shelf.

A few minutes after sunrise one misty morning, Orry and Charles went riding on the plantation. Pale clouds stirred around them as they galloped, phantom men on phantom horses in a landscape of gray shot through with smoky orange. Beneath the layers of mist, the flooded fields shone like polished metal.

A file of slaves trudging along a check bank loomed on the right. The driver turned to offer a laconic salute to the master. But even at a distance, Orry detected a certain mockery in the black man's bearing, a certain resentment on his face.

Soon a swirl of mist hid the spectral column of men. But other parties of workmen were out that morning, and Orry realized he had been riding among them without taking note of their presence. They simply existed, like trunk gates or the kitchen building. They were items of property.

He thought again of Jefferson's book. Items of property. That was it, wasn't it? The reason the North, the world, perhaps even the Lord Himself, was calling the South to judgment -

"Wade Hampton's raising a mounted legion," Charles called suddenly. "I'm reporting for duty in two weeks."

"I didn't know."

"I was only notified yesterday. I'm tired of waiting and fretting. I want to do what I was trained to do." He leaped his horse over a ditch. His hair, badly in need of barbering, bobbed and danced at the nape of his neck. "It should be a glorious fight."

The remark made Orry realize how great a gulf separated them. It was caused by more than a difference in their ages. Even after seeing action in Texas, Charles hadn't lost his love of brawling.

Orry didn't want his silence interpreted as agreement. "Glorious?" he called back. "I think not. Not this time."

But Charles was already cropping his horse for greater speed, and he was laughing with such joy of life he never heard the dour voice behind him. Hair streaming, he went galloping toward the misty sunrise, the perfect picture of a cavalier.

Next day Orry received a letter from the state government. He hid it until evening, when he could discuss it with Madeline in the warmth of their bed.

"They asked me to consider a commission. Possibly a brigadier's. Apparently the lack of an arm is no handicap at that rank, and they claim my former service makes me invaluable. Invaluable - imagine that."

He laughed, but there was scant humor in it. Then: "Do you know, Madeline, years ago John Calhoun said West Point men would lead great armies? I don't suppose he imagined they would lead them against each other.''

After a moment she said, "How do you feel about the proposal?"

He lay back and stroked her hair. "It's tempting, but I'd hate to leave you here alone."

"I'm not afraid of Justin."

"It isn't Justin who worries me. Have you noticed how some of the plantation people are behaving? They've gotten lazy. A few have an almost arrogant glint in their eye. This very afternoon I caught Cuffey whispering with another house man. I heard the name 'Linkum.' "

She assured him she would be fine if he chose to leave. He thanked her, but he knew his decision would spring from something far more elemental. His land, Main land, was threatened now. Would he or would he not defend it?

"I'll show you the letter in the morning," he said. "I do believe I'll have to give them a favorable answer."

"I almost knew you'd do that when the call came."

The call. The words touched off bursts of memory, the strongest of them aural. The old, nearly forgotten drums were beating again, summoning him, demanding that he answer.

"How would you feel if I accepted a commission?"

She kissed his mouth. "I'd regret it." Another kiss. "And be proud." A third, still longer and sweeter. "And wait for you to come back to me at the first possible moment."

Her arms clasped him tightly. He didn't think he'd ever been so happy. She whispered to him:

"I love you too much to lose you, my darling. If you go away, I'll pray such prayers God can't help but send you back safe and sound."

Stanley's crony, Boss Cameron, had secured a post for him in the capital. Washington was already showing signs of turning into a warren of profiteers, influence peddlers, and political hacks. But old, plodding Stanley was invigorated by the new challenge, and Isabel looked forward to an exciting social adventure. Stanley and his wife had already closed their house and enrolled their boys in a fashionable Washington school. At fourteen, the twins were undisciplined ruffians. Their absence would be welcomed by the entire town of Lehigh Station.

Up in Rhode Island, a violent storm destroyed a large section of roof at Fairlawn. George received the news by telegraph and decided to leave by train the next day to assess the damage. Constance said she wanted to go with him. She needed a holiday; she was peeved at the world and inexcusably short-tempered with William and Patricia. Brett and Billy promised to look after the children, since Billy hoped to be at Belvedere a few more days before returning to duty.

That night, after a lengthy meeting he had called in his office at Hazard's, George found himself unable to sleep. By eleven-thirty he was in the library, a full tumbler of whiskey before him on the polished table, six inches to the right of the rough brown object he had treasured for so many years.

He stared at the meteorite a long time, finding himself less proud of his trade, less certain of its worth, than in the past. He saw all the destructive uses to which star iron had been put throughout the centuries, and to which it would soon be put again. He finally drank the whiskey around three in the morning, and extinguished the lamp and climbed to his bedroom and the warmth of his wife's slumbering form, but even then he failed to find rest.

Newport had a dead, abandoned look under gray skies. George and Constance felt strange staying in the great house all by themselves. Yet at the same time they relished their unfamiliar privacy.

On the afternoon of their first full day at Fairlawn, George met for an hour with the building contractor who would repair the roof. Then he and Constance went for a walk along the deserted beach. White combers were breaking. The sky had a vast, wintry look unsuited to springtime. She kept her arm in his, eager for the sense of contact.

"You never told me the reason for the night meeting, George."

"Nothing secret about it. I called in all the foremen and told them we were placing the factory on a twenty-four-hour production schedule. We're already receiving orders from the War Department. No doubt Stanley will see that we get many more. We're liable to come out of this richer than ever."

"At the price of a certain number of dead bodies.''

He frowned. "Yes, I suppose that's true."

He stopped and turned toward her. He had to get something into the open. "Stanley says Washington wants all the Academy men it can find."

"For the Army?"

"Or government posts."

She looked at him steadily. "Do you want to serve?"

"Want isn't quite the right word. Somewhere, in some fashion" - he took a breath; it was far from the happiest admission he had ever made, yet there was relief in saying it - "I feel I must."

She started to cry, but immediately fought back the tears and squared her shoulders. "It's your decision, darling." She took his arm again. "Could we go back to the house now? I feel a sudden and quite uncontrollable urge to make love."

Despite her smile, he still saw a glint of tears. He cast an eye at the scraggly underbrush visible behind large boulders up at the edge of the beach.

"What's the matter with right there?" He managed an impish smile, then kissed the tip of her nose. ''Unless, of course, you deem yourself too conservative, Mrs. Hazard."

"George" - a pause, a teasing look - "did you ever do this sort of thing before we were married? At West Point, for instance? You seem to fall into it quite naturally."

"I have no comment."

She thought again. "What if we're seen?"

"By whom? There isn't another soul for miles."

"It's rather chilly."

"I'll keep you warm."

"Do you really think we dare?"

"Of course. Wartime has a disastrous effect on convention. People know they might not get a second chance."

She saw that his jest hid something somber. There was no humor in his eyes. She clasped his hand tightly. They turned their backs on the lifeless sky and ran toward the rocks.

At Belvedere, Billy and Brett went in to supper together. Billy suggested they go walking afterward because the spring night was so fine. They both understood that there was a second, unstated reason; the passing hours had released an increasing poignancy. Late that afternoon he had received a telegraph message: orders to return to Washington the following morning. The thought of his imminent departure depressed Brett and ruined her appetite.

Toward the end of the meal, there was a commotion. A sudden light suffused the twilight sky beyond the dining-room windows. As Billy, Brett, and two serving girls rushed to look outside, a distant shudder shook the house to its foundation. One of the girls gasped. A groom came running excitedly into the room, exclaiming that a shooting star had blazed bright as noon, then disappeared in the next valley.

The meteor striking the earth would account for the concussion they had all felt. The unnerved man spoke of the many shooting stars seen above the valley of late. He trembled and whispered something about God's fury coming to the land.

Brett took those remarks with outward calm, yet the strange light and the tremor heightened her uneasy state as she and Billy set out for the hilltop overlooking the three brick furnaces of Hazard Iron. It was a splendid evening, cloudless and warm. Thousands of stars were visible, breathtakingly bright from horizon to zenith, except where their glow was muted by phosphorescent light veils.

A peculiar acrid odor came drifting over the top of the hill they were climbing. The smell was borne on a thin, nearly invisible smoke. "What's burning?" she asked as they reached the summit, both slightly out of breath. They stood surrounded by thick clumps of laurel, the blooms white in the darkness.

Billy sniffed. "Don't know but it doesn't seem far away. Just down there. Wait here; I'll go see."

He scrambled down through more of the laurel. The blowing smoke thickened somewhat, and the strange, scorched odor increased. He felt the crater before he saw it; the heat washed against his face. Finally, with the help of the starlight, he perceived it - a pit nearly twelve feet across, black in the side of the hill. He could not see the meteorite itself, but he knew it was there.

"Nothing to fret about," he said when he returned to the crest. "The shooting star, or a piece of it, struck the hill."

She sheltered in his arms, trying to conceal her anxiety and her sense of isolation. Of course George and Constance always did their best to make her feel at home. She enjoyed the company of their children, and caring for them gave her something to do. Yet she had not really adapted to life in Pennsylvania, to the valley, its people, or their ways. The psalmist said the Lord protected the stranger, but she wasn't sure about that.

And now she could no longer contain her feelings.

"Billy, I'm frightened."

"Of the war?"

"Yes, and frightened of your leaving. I'm frightened of not knowing where you are or whether you're safe. I'm frightened of the townspeople and the way some of them look at me accusingly because I'm a Southerner. I'm frightened of everything. I'm so ashamed to admit that, but I can't help it!"

Her voice sounded faint, lacking the strength he always expected from her. Well, he was just as scared as she was. He had no idea where the Army would post him.

He did have a fair idea of what sort of duty lay in store, though. Engineers tore down the trees, prepared the roads, and built the pontoon bridges on which great armies advanced. Engineers went ahead of all the regular troops and were usually first within range of enemy guns.

"Everything's so uncertain," she was murmuring. "There's so much hate, so much joy at the prospect of killing. Sometimes I hardly see how any of us can survive."

"If we love each other enough, we can survive anything. So can our families. So can the country."

"Do you honestly believe that?"

"Yes, I do. Once when I was feeling low, George helped me by doing this." He broke off a sprig of laurel and put it in her hand. "The laurel thrives where other plants die. Mother always believed our family's like the laurel, and I expect yours is too. Strong enough, because there are a lot of us who love each other to live through anything."

She looked at the sprig with its small white flower, then tucked it into a pocket of her dress "Thank you."

When he bent to kiss her face, he tasted her tears; but her voice did sound stronger.

"As soon as I know where I'll be stationed, and if it's possible to send for you, I will. We'll get through this all right."

She turned, kissed him again. "Oh, I love you, Billy Hazard."

"I love you, Brett. That's why we'll get through."

After another long kiss, she turned once more and rested comfortably with her back against his chest. They watched the stars while the spring wind gusted across the summit of the hill. The laurel tossed and murmured. Billy had spoken his hope, not his certainty. He knew full well the hope was fragile.

The darkness proved fragile, too. They faced away from the sprawl of Hazard Iron, but even so they soon grew conscious of its light all around them, a strengthening red glow that seemed to tinge the whole river valley. The lamps of the town grew dim behind it; some faded altogether.

Billy didn't want to look around or even acknowledge the existence of the factory, but it was unavoidable. The sanguinary glare from the three furnaces washed out the stars. He heard men shouting, working through the night in the smoke and the fire, to the earsplitting sound of steam engines strained to the limit.

He shut his eyes a moment. It didn't help. Scarlet light flowed over his wife's hair and shoulders. The vagaries of the wind surrounded them with smoke and fumes from the mill. The valley and the world seemed to fill with the noise of the great machinery hammering on, turning out the first of tons of iron for armor, for the Union, for war. The wind blended the smoke from Hazard's with that from the hillside where the meteorite had fallen, burning away the laurel as if it had never been.

Slavery brings the judgment of heaven upon a country. As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this.


PSALM 88 | The Scorpio Illusion | GEORGE MASON OF VIRGINIA, 1787