06 February, 2019

Dixie's Land 5.3

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[Continuing chapter 5]

“Captain Stewart. How lovely of you to come see me!” Pauline Martin stepped back from the door she’d just opened, and with a sinuous gesture of her finger invited him inside.

Stewart felt a shiver move through him. The knowledge that General Magruder did not want him here only made the excitement he felt seem more vital.

Miss Martin wore a purple dress of some shiny material. Her shoulders were bare. When he touched her, the skin felt like silk, but with some powerful force pulsing through it. The heat seemed to course into, and then through, him.

She had just tilted back her head for him to kiss her when shouting from outside her dressing-room door caused Stewart to slip on a pool of blood that had suddenly appeared there. He fell to the ground, to see Sergeant Fitzgerald’s head staring at him. “Wake up, boy,” the sergeant said.
* * * *
Stewart’s first thought on opening his eyes was that the regiment was being mustered for an early march. It wasn’t until he found himself on the floor, wrapped in his bed-linen, that he realized where he was.

He remembered the dream he’d been having. It had been so easy to touch her in his dream—what was the matter with the waking Charles Stewart? Tonight he had actually spoken to her, walked with her—and yet, when by her expression and her words she had invited him to go further, he had withdrawn in confusion. Pity she’s not a Federal regiment, he imagined Patton saying. You’d have no trouble advancing on her then.

The shouting that had wakened him was coming closer to his room. Cursing silently, he groped for the night-stand, then fumbled for flint and steel. By the time he had a candle lit, the voices were on his floor and approaching his door. Wrapping a dressing-gown around him, he opened his door. The first face he was able to discern in the crowd approaching him along the hall belonged to his superior, General Magruder. The general had both his staff officer and his aide-de-camp with him—and there was Mr. Benjamin behind him, and his subordinates too.

That explained the noise they were making. Must have been some party, Stewart thought. Another look at the general’s face, though, convinced him that whatever General Magruder and his party had been up to, it hadn’t been recreational. The general’s face was deathly white. His eyes were wide and shifted constantly, as though trying to locate a hidden threat.

“Captain Stewart,” Mr. Benjamin said on seeing Stewart in the doorway. “I’ve heard from the Canadians that you saw the explosion of that riverboat this afternoon. Yesterday afternoon, I should say now.”

“I did, sir. Captain Patton and I helped with the injured.”

“Commendable, Captain. I’m also told that you believe the explosion to have been deliberate, and aimed at least in part at the Confederacy.”

Where had Benjamin heard that? Patton, Stewart thought. The boy would never learn to keep his mouth shut. “A planter from Mississippi was among the dead, sir,” he said, carefully. “The boat wasn’t supposed to be carrying Confederate citizens or goods, but I’ve learned the boat’s captain was engaged in smuggling goods and money between New Orleans and the Confederacy. I wondered if someone knew that and decided to target the boat.”

“That’s … interesting. A bit of a stretch, perhaps, but an interesting conclusion nonetheless. I think that we should consider Captain Stewart’s point very carefully before we speak again with the Canadian authorities, gentlemen.”

The others didn’t look happy, but they murmured agreement nonetheless. General Magruder said nothing, and Stewart couldn’t even be sure that the man had heard any of the conversation. “May I ask what’s going on, sir? The general doesn’t look well. Has he taken ill?”

“Would that he had,” Benjamin said. “A case of dyspepsia brought on by too much Creole food we could deal with.” The commissioner shook his head. “But it’s not that simple, Captain Stewart.

“Tonight, someone fired a shot at General Magruder and came within inches of killing him.”

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