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Melanie Johnston lifted the front of her Maiden's Sigh Blue silk skirts, her lace-edged petticoat and crinoline, and set one satin-shod foot on the brass fender of the fireplace. As the warmth of the coal fire crept around her ankles and the calves of her legs, she shivered a little. It was bitterly cold outside. Though it was seldom that Natchez, Mississippi, felt the sting of sleet and snow, there was ice mixed with the rain pecking against the windows of the great house known as Monmouth. The inclement weather had not affected the ball given by Governor John Quitman, owner of that square, white-pillared mansion, however. Few wanted to miss the social event of the season or risk offending one of the most influential men in the state. Even from the seclusion of the ladies' upstairs retiring room, Melanie could hear the strains of a waltz and the buzz of excited voices.
It was surprising that she had this small bedchamber to herself, though not an unpleasant situation. She was tired of smiling and making polite conversation, of exchanging the same banal greetings with the same circle of friends and acquaintances that she had been seeing almost nightly for the past three months. The winter season had been a long one, made longer by her grandfather's stiff-necked determination to attend every affair to which he and his granddaughter were invited. He would allow no man an opportunity to say that he was sulking at home, afraid to face his detractors, hiding from the ugly rumors which floated around the town.
Melanie sighed, lifting a hand to her temple. The vicious lies concerning her grandfather's conduct during the late conflict with Mexico were vexing; morevexing still was the question of how to convince her grandfather that there was no direct physical action he could take to quell them. He had always been a man of deeds, of quick, decisive campaigns of action. A veteran of the War of 1812, the Seminole Indian Wars, and the War of Texas Independence, it was hard for him to find his former bright honor inexplicably tarnished in his old age. Some men who had marched away at the head of their volunteer troops had returned with barrels full of Mexican silver dollars which they had melted down for tea services, cutlery, and mellow-toned plantations bells. Melanie's grandfather, Colonel Ezell Johnston, had returned broken in health, trailing not a cloud of glory, but a vague, disquieting suspicion.
So deep was Melanie's absorption that she turned, startled, as the bedchamber door opened behind her.
"Melanie Johnston! Here is where you have been hiding. I have looked this big house up and down for you. Dom declares his heart is broken because you missed the mazurka you promised him, and are at this very minute missing the next-to-last waltz before supper. You must be the most unnatural fiancée alive to prefer being up here toasting your toes instead of downstairs in the ballroom in the arms of the man you love!"
Melanie could, when she wished, appear most imposing. She was no more than average height, but her soft, auburn hair, worn in a plaited crown high upon her head, gave her a look of regal stature. The classically beautiful lines of her face could set in a stern mold; the soft, gentian blue of her eyes could take on a look of unbelievable chill. Only the generous curves of her mouth, with its hint of repressed passion, remained unchanged.
"If Dom wanted me," she said, a frown between her brows, "he should have come after me himself, instead of sending his sister."
"Come himself? In here?" Chloe Clements asked with an inane giggle. "You must be mad. You know he would never dare! Besides, it is not at all the thing for a suitor, even a fiancé, to go about looking lovelorn, poking into empty rooms and searching behind the drapes for the girl who is to be his wife. It would make him a laughing stock."
"Something Dom would not like at all, would he?"
"Is that a slur upon my brother's character? Come now, Melanie, you know you would not like it if Dom began to play the passionate lover, trailing after you wherever you went, grabbing at you with hot hands, and breathing heavily down the neck of your gown. You would snub the poor dear unmercifully if he tried such a thing. Now I, on the other hand, get a thrill right down to the tips of my toes at the idea of a man staring at me with his soul in his eyes and doing his best to entice me into dark corners!"
An unwilling smile curved Melanie's mouth. "Yes, I'm sure you would."
"And if he was a forceful man, one who would sweep me up in his carriage and take me away with him, I know I would be too weak to resist. I would simply cling to him enthralled--Pray God I don't meet him tonight, however. Why is it that every time there is an important occasion I am afflicted with my monthly courses. It is maddening beyond endurance!"
Whisking to the dressing table in one corner of the bedchamber, Chloe leaned forward to peer anxiously at her reflection in the oval mirror which surmounted it. She frowned and from the reticule that hung at her wrist took out a rice-powder paper, pressing it to the dark circles beneath her eyes.
It was difficult to like or dislike Chloe. Her laugh was annoying, her view of life was colored by the lurid French novels brought to her by her brother from New Orleans on his frequent trips downriver, and yet, she was so frank in her speech and manner, so unself-consciously selfish in her outlook, that she evoked an odd form of admiration. She was not pretty, her features being too small, and her blond hair too fine and flyaway. Still, she attracted attention, especially the masculine variety, with her large, hazel eyes set in a slant in her face, like a cat, and the proportions of her form, which were generous for someone of her small size.
"Why it should be considered such a terrible thing to paint I can't begin to imagine," Chloe mused, turning her face this way and that. "A little color to distract from this pallid complexion would be marvelous. I heard Governor Quitman brought his wife some of the red papers used by the Mexican women to color their cheeks and lips, but if she has made use of them, I have yet to see it."
"I'm sure Eliza Quitman has better things to think about."
"Dear Melanie, don't be so stuffy. What is the harm in improving on nature, especially when nature plays such dastardly tricks on females?" Without pausing, Chloe went on. "Speaking of that Mexican business, do you remember Roland Donavan?"
Melanie turned her head sharply to stare at the other girl. "Yes, of course. He was second in command of Johnston's Volunteers under my grandfather."
"So he was," Chloe agreed. "Silly of me, though I had the idea that you were away at that fancy finishing school when the troop was formed and marched away. Before that, Roland Donavan was not precisely one of the beaux sabres around the ballrooms of Natchez."
That much was true. Roland Donavan had never been the type to be welcomed with open arms by the concerned mamas of Natchez society. This was, apparently, just as he wanted it, since he had preferred a different sort of entertainment from the stiff formality current in the big houses upon the bluff above the Mississippi River. Fast horses, high stakes, strong liquor, flashy women, a penchant for all these and more could be laid at the door of the man under discussion. Melanie had never met him, but he was well known by reputation, and his name had come up often in her grandfather's reminiscences of the Mexican campaign.
"His father owns Cottonwood across the river on the Louisiana side, doesn't he?" Melanie inquired, clasping her hands at her waist as she straightened and turned from the fire. He not only owned it, he was in residence there, a damning circumstance. Many of Natchez's leading citizens held title to vast tracts of land in the Louisiana Delta country on the other side of the river; her own grandfather had owned a large tract before it had been sold to finance Johnston's Volunteers before the late war with Mexico. His home was in Natchez, however, since it was considered unfashionable and unhealthy to live on such holdings.
"That's the man," Chloe answered. "They say he has been in California for the two years since the war ended, making his fortune in the gold fields. Whether that is true or not, he is certainly home again now."
"Home? At Cottonwood?"
The other girl gave a quick shake of her head. "They say he doesn't get along with his father. He's staying here in Natchez at a hotel near the river. The River Rest, I think."
Near the river. That manner of giving the location was another way of saying the hotel was in the unsavory part of town, which lay between the foot of the high bluff on the bank of the river and the water's edge. Known as Natchez-Under-The-Hill, it was the province of river boatmen, cardsharps, drunkards, murderers, thieves, and women of easy virtue--the undesirables. It seemed fitting that the man they were speaking of should have taken up residence there.
"Why are you frowning so? Aren't you excited?" Chloe demanded.
"Why should I be?"
"Because there's a new bachelor on the scene, of course, and from all accounts, a rich one. He's a handsome devil of a man who has been to far places, done fantastic things, had great adventures--I saw him on the street this afternoon talking to Governor Quitman and nearly swooned away. I was certain the governor, since he is also a veteran of the war, would have invited one of the last three survivors of Johnston's Volunteers to the ball this evening. If he doesn't put in an appearance, I'm not sure I won't go into a decline from sheer disappointment!"
"Don't be silly," Melanie said, her tone sharp. "You don't think he will come?"
"I can't be sure, naturally," Chloe said, slanting a quick glance at Melanie in the mirror, "but the night is young yet."
In a silken whirl of skirts, Melanie turned toward the door. Her grandfather and Roland Donavan must not meet, not here at the governor's house crowded with guests.
"Melanie, where are you going?" Chloe exclaimed.
Melanie, already hurrying down the wide hall with its turkey red carpet, did not answer.
At the top of the stairs she paused, clinging to the mahogany handrail. The great front doors were just opening in the entrance hall below her. A man in a dark green cape lined with beaver over his evening clothes was just handing his high-crowned beaver hat to the butler. The light of the brass chandelier overhead shone on the waves of his uncovered hair with a blue black gleam. His skin had the sun-bronzed look of an outdoorsman, and there were crinkled lines about his eyes, as though he were used to surveying great distances. He had the broad shoulders of a man who has known hard labor, and he was tall, topping the governor's butler, who was known to be six feet, by at least two inches.
Behind her Chloe, breathless from her pursuit, said, "I declare, Melanie, what came over you?"
At the sound of the other girl's voice, the man below them looked up, revealing eyes of a deep and startling green beneath craggy brows. In that instant, the name he had given the butler floated upward.
"Donavan, Roland Donavan."
"Yes, sir, Mr. Donavan," the butler said. "Come right in. We've been expecting you, sir."
With a determined lift of her chin, Melanie started down the stairs, leaving Chloe openmouthed behind her. "Mr. Donavan," she said, her voice raised in a tone that was both entreating and commanding. "May I speak to you for a moment?"
Roland Donavan paused in the act of unfastening his cape. A quizzical look tinged with appreciation leaped into his eyes as he watched her graceful descent. His surprise was understandable. Young ladies did not accost strange men, not even in the relative safety of a private home with scores of people within call. To do so left them open to the charge of being forward and pursuing, at the very least. He did not answer until she reached the level of his eyes, two steps above him.
"Certainly," he said, his deep voice pleasant, carefully noncommittal as he inclined his head in a slight bow. "Miss--?"
Melanie gave her name with a certain stiffness. If it meant anything to him, he gave no sign. A smile curved his firm mouth. "Is our conversation to be private?"
"If you please," Melanie answered. With some trepidation she took the arm he offered, then stood frowning in indecision. It was difficult to know where they could go to talk undisturbed. The parlor was filled with dancing couples, the library had been turned into a card room, where her grandfather, she hoped, was comfortably settled. In the dining room the servants were setting up the supper tables, putting the finishing touches to the evening repast. Upstairs was nothing but bedchambers, most strictly forbidden territory, even if Chloe was not barring the way, staring with fascinated horror at the two of them.
"Could--could we step outside?" Melanie asked, nervous apprehension making her voice abrupt.
Roland Donavan raised an eyebrow. "You will be chilled without a wrap."
"That doesn't matter. What I have to say will not take long." And when she was done, Mr. Donavan would be out of the house, the first step in his swift departure from Monmouth.
Bowing in acquiescence, he led her toward the front doors. The butler swung them open, and Melanie passed through, ignoring the Negro servant's scandalized expression.
The iron lantern which hung above the door had been extinguished by the wind, leaving the portico, with its massive pillars, in darkness. The rain made a spattering sound as it was blown in upon the brick floor. Melanie's skirts fluttered about her ankles in the cold wind, and gooseflesh rose on her bare arms. Now that she was alone with Roland Donavan, she began to doubt the wisdom of what she was doing. She could not think how to put her request to him. The direct course seemed bald, even insulting, but there appeared no other.
"Mr. Donavan, I am afraid that if you go inside tonight there will be trouble with my grandfather, Colonel Ezell Johnston. The right or wrongness of what is between the two of you does not concern me. My first thought is for my grandfather's health and well-being. For this reason I must ask you to leave this house, and return at another, less public time."
It was a moment before he answered, and then his voice came strong and sure from the dimness beside her. "I have no quarrel with your grandfather."
"That may be; I wouldn't know. But I do know that he has a grievance against you that is deep and abiding. Will you go, or will you not?"
"I think," he said slowly, "that I require something more by way of explanation before I answer that."
Melanie made an impatient gesture. "There isn't time."
He shifted, moving nearer. It was an instant before she realized his purpose; he was blocking the cold wind from her with his wide shoulders. With swift, economical movements, he stripped off his cape and placed it about her as he answered. "I believe if you want me to do as you ask, there will have to be time."
"Really, Mr. Donavan," Melanie began, reaching up to push the cape away. But his hands closed warm and firm about her upper arms, holding it in place. For a brief instant she was aware of the heat of his body, the smell of starched linen, and the fresh aroma of some spice-scented soap. Her senses were assailed by the attraction of a strong male personality. It was ridiculous, yet she felt suddenly vulnerable and a little frightened. A tremor not caused entirely by the cold night ran over her, and she hurried into speech.
"Since my grandfather's return from Mexico he has been the victim of innuendos, of rumors hinting that he cooperated with the Mexican government during his imprisonment, that he promised to use his influence with men like Governor Quitman to persuade them to adopt a hands-off policy toward Mexican lands. In return, it is said, he was given lenient treatment and an early release from his confinement. My grandfather contends that you, Captain Roland Donavan, as the officer with whom he had had the most contention, the officer who had most often questioned his military strategy and his disciplinary methods, are the person responsible for these foul accusations."
"I see," the man beside her said as she came to an abrupt halt. The timbre of his voice was low, with a troubled sound. He let his hands slip from her shoulders.
"Do you deny it?" she asked. She tried to see his face in the black, windswept darkness but could discern no more than the grim outline of his features. She was surprised that he did not plead his absence of the past year and a half or more as proof of his innocence. It would not have weighed with her, of course. Though the rumors had been rife in Natchez during that time, they seemed to have originated in Mexico before the war ended.
"What difference would it make if I did deny it, since Colonel Johnston believes it?"
The bitterness of that statement was plain. Melanie wasted no time trying to decipher the meaning. "Then you will go?"
"I have waited a long time to be invited within the walls of Monmouth. It will take some persuasion out of the ordinary to make me give up the treat."
"You don't call the necessity of avoiding facing my grandfather over the barrel of a dueling pistol out of the ordinary?"
"It is, of course, and I would prefer not to do it. Still it might be easier than turning tail and leaving such lovely company."
"If you are trying to be complimentary--"
"No, at least that was not my whole meaning. What I was trying to do was suggest some form of--compensation for the sacrifice you are asking of me."
"Compensation? What do you mean?"
"My carriage is only a few steps from here. If you will go for a drive with me, I will gladly leave your grandfather to enjoy the governor's hospitality undisturbed."
"You must be mad!" To go with him, unchaperoned, in the darkness of midnight, would be enough to blacken her good name, brand her a loose woman for the rest of her life.
"I assure you I was never more sane."
Again that trace of bitterness, and yet, she had the impression that he was smiling, taking quiet pleasure in the dilemma in which he had placed her, waiting for her answer with confidence. Abruptly, the perfect reply came to her.
"I can't," she said. "If I went with you, it would be my fiancé you had to face instead of my grandfather."
He went still at the name. He knew it, of course. How could he help it when Dom, with her grandfather and himself, were all that was left of Johnston's Volunteers? At last he spoke, "I haven't seen Dom since my return; still I doubt that he would begrudge me a few minutes of your company--for old times' sake."
There was something in his voice, a tone, a shading of irony, that she did not understand. She did know that the initiative had been taken out of her hands, however, and she did not like it. She was saved from the necessity of making a reply by the eruption of loud voices inside the house. Suddenly the tall, double front doors were thrown open.
That voice, trembling with rage and concern, was well known. To refuse to answer would be worse than useless. Melanie drew a deep breath, "Here, grandpa," she said.
Colonel Ezell Johnston, though in his late sixties, had retained the upright military bearing that had been his as a young man. The shock of hair that grew back from a broad forehead and the full goatee that he wore were both a silvery gray, as were his eyes under wiry white brows. His face was contorted in a frown as he strode from the house. In his hand he carried a slender malacca cane, and crowding at his heels was a number of other people, among them Chloe, her brother Dom, and their host, Governor Quitman.
"What is the meaning of this?" the Colonel demanded, his voice shaking with anger. "It isn't enough that you have ruined my good name, you scoundrel; must you ruin my granddaughter as well?!"
"No, grandpa, it was not like that at all," Melanie tried to explain. "Don't upset yourself. It's not worth it."
"Melanie is right," the governor said, stepping to the forefront of the crowd. "I'm not certain what the problem is, Colonel, but this is neither the time nor the place to settle it."
The colonel ignored both his granddaughter's plea and the governor's suggestion of caution before their fast-gathering audience. "Well, what have you to say for yourself, you misbegotten cur? That I should live to see the day when a man like you, Captain Roland Donavan, should be invited to a decent house! Will you answer to me for your conduct, both past and present, or shall I take my cane to you here and now."
"Grandpa!" Melanie cried, stepping forward to lay a restraining hand on his arm. It was promptly shaken off.
At that moment the butler appeared in the doorway carrying a branch of candles. In their wavering light, Roland Donavan looked a little pale under the deep bronze of his skin. He spoke with deliberation. "I was not aware that I had injured you in any way, at any time, sir."
"Weren't you? Damn your impudence! I take leave to doubt it, but regardless, you will give me satisfaction."
"I am sorry, sir, but I could not meet a man twice my age."
Even to Melanie's ears, there was a strange note in the younger man's voice. It was not fear, nor was it guilt precisely, and yet, it seemed to carry some consciousness of responsibility.
"You will either meet me on the field of honor or take your whipping here and now like the dirt-dealing dog that you are." Raising his cane, Colonel Johnston struck Roland Donavan a blow across the face.
As a gasp went up from the onlookers, blood began to trickle from a cut on the younger man's cheekbone made by the ferrule of the colonel's cane. Roland lifted a hand to his face, then stared down at the blood that came away on his fingers. His voice was quiet as he spoke. "I ask those present to bear witness that this quarrel was forced upon me."
"I'm sure they will be glad to do it for my sake," the colonel snapped. "Name your seconds."
"Oh, grandpa, no," Melanie whispered, all too aware of the trembling that shook the old man's frail frame.
Roland Donavan flicked his gaze over the crowd gathered in the doorway, coming to rest on Dominic. For a long moment it appeared he meant to ask his former comrade in arms to act for him. There was an intent look in his eyes as he stared at Melanie's fiancé.
Dom shifted, his face tightening as his gaze came to rest on the cape still hanging about Melanie's shoulders. It almost appeared he was reluctant to meet the hard stare of the other man.
A muscle grew taut in Roland Donavan's jaw. He gave an abrupt nod in Colonel Johnston's direction. "My seconds will call upon you as soon as possible."
"Make it tonight," the colonel grunted. "I would like to get this over by breakfast in the morning. Dom, I know I can count on you to support me, and also you, John?"
Governor John Quitman frowned. "Dueling is illegal in this state; I would prefer to have nothing to do with it. However, I cannot refuse to see that the meeting is fair and equal."
"I knew I could count on you," the colonel stated with satisfaction before he turned back to Roland. "Have your friends meet with the governor and Clements as soon as you can arrange your business."
Once more the younger man inclined his head. "As you please." Without another word, he turned and strode toward the steps.
"Sir!" the butler called. "Your hat."
"And this," Melanie added, slipping his cape from her shoulders. She handed it to the butler to be passed over also.
Roland Donavan paused at the top of the steps, his cape on his arm and his hat in his hand. For a tense moment his eyes, as hard as emeralds, held Melanie's blue gaze. In their depths was self-censure, and something more, a hint of the pain of the outcast.
With a quick indrawn breath, Melanie turned away, stepping back to her grandfather's side. She did not look back as Roland Donavan plunged into the rainswept night. The sound of his footsteps on the gravel drive echoed long in the stillness under the portico.
The cold rain still fell when Colonel Johnston left his mansion known as Greenlea for the dueling field outside of town. Melanie was awake in that predawn hour to help her grandfather into his greatcoat, hand him the rosewood box containing his matched pistols, kiss his cheek, and watch as he bowled away down the drive. Dom, along with the governor and the best doctor in Natchez, had come to fetch him in a closed carriage. The presence of the latter man, though a requirement under the Code Duello, did nothing to allay the fear that gripped Melanie.
Wrapped in a mantua cloak of gray velvet, she paced the veranda overlooking the river, stopping now and then to stare with unseeing eyes out over the mist- and rain-shrouded water. Her grandfather was all that she had. Her mother and father had been killed in a steamboat explosion when she was small--a tragedy of boiling steam and quick-spreading fire from which she had only escaped by the grace of God and the strong arms of her nurse. Her grandmother, the only gentle influence in her life that she could remember, had died when she was thirteen. If she lost the colonel, she would be alone.
Images of that proud old man lying bloodied on a sodden field passed across her mind's eye. She saw him maimed, crippled, reduced to living out his days as an invalid. How he would hate that! His fierce pride was such a burning thing that it would consume him; he would be dead in a matter of weeks.
There was another fear that haunted her, that her grandfather would not be satisfied by a mere show of blood from his opponent. If he should be fortunate enough to get off the first shot, he would aim to kill. If he succeeded, would his conscience allow him to rest? He had killed men before in the heat of battle, but never in cold blood, never on the so-called field of honor.
And what of Roland Donavan? Did he deserve to die? Had he committed the indiscretions of which he was accused? Even if he had, wasn't death too high a penalty to pay?
No, no, she must not think that. She was being disloyal to her grandfather, and he deserved no less than her full allegiance. What did she care for the death of a man she scarcely knew? It was her grandfather who was in the most deadly danger, meeting a younger man, a hard, proven soldier. She must bear no thought for any other.
So vivid were her fears, so tightly drawn her nerves, that she felt little except numb apprehension when at last the closed carriage turned into the drive. Its approach was slow, the coachman carefully avoiding the water-filled potholes in the drive. By that time the rain had stopped and a watery sun began to show its face among the trees. Her grandfather should have been hanging out the window, urging the driver to greater speed, anxious for the breakfast that he had ordered for his seconds and himself from the Greenlea kitchen. He was not. The plodding progress of the carriage could mean only one thing.
Dom met her at the front steps. The light of the pale sun touched his blond hair and glinted gold on his unshaven cheeks. His hazel eyes, so like those of his sister, were somber as they searched her face. "Don't look so, Melanie, my darling. He is not dead. Donavan deloped, giving the colonel the first shot. You'll be glad to know that your grandfather drew blood."
Melanie gave a small shake of her head. "I don't understand," she said, her blue gaze going past him to where John Quitman and the doctor were lifting the limp form of her grandfather from the carriage.
"I am afraid your grandfather was not satisfied with the hole he put in Donavan. He grabbed my pistol and shot again. Fortunately, he missed, since there had been no agreement on a second round and it is a damning breach of the code to shoot an injured man, especially one who has deloped. It would have been no less than murder! At any rate, your grandfather was--not himself. When he was refused another pistol he was so enraged he had to be restrained. There was a scuffle. In his overwrought condition his heart failed him."
There was no time for more. From the house came the servants; the colonel's manservant and butler of thirty years, Cicero, Melanie's maid Glory, the parlor and upstairs maids, even the cook and the stablehands. The exclamations, the cries of grief, the efforts to help carry the sick man into the house created a confusion only Melanie could untangle.
Cicero and the other men put her grandfather to bed. Then while the doctor sat at his side, Dom and the governor settled their nerves in the colonel's study with a glass of his fine Napoleon brandy.
The minutes ticked past; one hour; two. The figure on the bed did not move, but neither did the faint rise and fall of his chest cease. At last the physician got to his feet. Melanie, rising from her seat on the opposite side of the tester bed, followed him to the door. Clasping her hands together tightly at her waist, she raised her blue eyes to his kindly gaze.
"Tell me, doctor, what must I do to make him well?"
"I'm sorry, my dear girl, there is little you can do. The human heart is a mysterious organ. It may fail once, then pick up its beat, heal itself, and continue for another twenty years, or it may fail once, twice, and stop altogether. Your grandfather is no longer young; this is something you must face. I understand he has been under great strain lately, then this insane duel--Well, no need to belabor the point. We must hope that in his weakened condition he does not contract pneumonia from his soaking while he lay on the field. That would be fatal. I'm sorry that I can't give you more hope, but I am paying you the compliment, my dear, of telling you the exact truth."
"Yes, I appreciate that," Melanie whispered. "Thank you." Her face like a pale mask, she turned back into the sick room.
The governor came to express his sympathy and make his adieus. Still shaking his head and apologizing for his part in the affair, he left the house with the doctor.
Dom stayed behind. He sat with Melanie at her grandfather's side for a time, though it soon became obvious that the figure lying so still upon the sheets made him uneasy. To ease the strain, Melanie spoke at last.
"So Donavan deloped. That means he admits his guilt, doesn't it?"
Dom frowned. "It might," he agreed. "On the other hand, it could also mean that he refused to pit his skill against a man of your grandfather's age."
"If he did not intend to fight, why did he accept the challenge?"
"It was that or be branded a coward, something that can certainly not be said of a man who stands rock still and lets another man take potshots at him."
"You don't think he was to blame for the rumors then?"
Dom looked away. "I couldn't say."
"Why can't you?" Melanie insisted. "You were a lieutenant in Johnston's Volunteers. You marched with Donavan; you were in the same prison with him and with my grandfather. You must have some idea of the cause of the stories."
"I--am afraid not," Dom said, though he still would not meet her eyes, staring at his interlaced fingers dangling between his knees. "I do know there was friction between the two of them from the time they left Mississippi. Captain Donavan was an admirer of General Zachary Taylor, our commanding officer for the Mexican campaign; the colonel was not. Your grandfather was a follower of the strict Prussian military school; he believed in forced marches, scant rations which forced the men to live off the land they were passing through, fighting in formation, and strict discipline. Captain Donavan, on the other hand, saw the men under his command as his friends and neighbors, fellow comrades in arms. The colonel accused him of encouraging them to treat the expedition like some kind of hunting trip, with a certain basic cooperation, but at the final showdown, every man for himself. They really went at it hammer and tongs a few times, though not before the men, of course. What really put the fat in the fire, I think, was Donavan's insistence that it was your grandfather's fault that the Volunteers were captured."
"What do you mean?" Melanie asked, a frown between her eyes.
"The colonel thought General Taylor was moving too slowly, failing to pursue the enemy when he had them on the run after a decisive battle. The old man thought that if his troop went all out to chase down the retreating Mexicans, the rest of the regiment would follow, regardless of the general's orders. He was wrong. We were drawn into a trap and cut to pieces, except for the seven of us who were taken prisoners."
Melanie nodded. Only three men had come back, her grandfather, Dom, and Captain Roland Donavan. The others had died either of their wounds or of heat and dysentery and strange tropical fevers. There were only three who knew what had happened in that hot and squalid place. And of those three, one was dying, one was injured.
"The wound my grandfather gave Donavan, was it serious?"
Dom shook his head. "A flesh wound in the arm on the left side. Six inches over and he would have been a dead man."
Her gaze moving to her grandfather, who was lying like an image made of yellow wax, Melanie said suddenly, "I wish he had been."
Dom so obviously wanted to do the correct thing, to be the iron support and bulwark of comfort to the woman who was to be his wife. It was a pity that the atmosphere of the sick room made him so uncomfortable. His jittery attempts to hold her hand or to enfold her soothingly in his arms began to wear on Melanie's nerves. Every time she reached for a basin or a damp cloth, he was there before her, whisking the basin from her reach to hold it for her, squeezing the cloth and leaving it too wet. He anticipated her every move to the point where he only narrowly avoided colliding with her at every turn in his efforts to be of service. At last she could stand no more and sent him away.
His relief at being dismissed to return to his lawyer's office in Natchez was so transparent she was exasperated with him all over again. Not that she needed his help; she had Cicero and Glory to take over her vigil while she ate a few mouthfuls or bathed and changed her clothing. She could not bear to be away more than a few minutes at a time, however.
The first long day passed and then another. On the morning of the third day came a rattling sound in her grandfather's chest that could mean only one thing. Pneumonia. By mid-afternoon he was tossing in the delirium of fever, complaining of the heat and of fleas. It was as if in some distant corner of his mind he was reliving his incarceration in a Mexican prison. Try as she might, Melanie could not quiet him, though she fought his flailing arms and twisting body until tears of exhaustion and sympathy rolled down her cheeks. There was nothing to be done. The doctor, when sent for, came, shook his head, and went away again.
Toward evening, he finally grew quiet. It was dinner time; Melanie was trying to spoon a little broth between his slack lips when he suddenly opened his eyes.
"Melanie," he whispered, focusing on her face with difficulty.
In her haste and numb weariness, Melanie slopped some of the broth from the bowl as she set it to one side. It did not matter. She ignored the greasy stain on her gown as she leaned over her grandfather. "Grandpa, I'm here," she said, picking up his hot, bony hand, holding it between both of hers.
"My sweet child," he began, then stopped to cough as fluid bubbled in his throat. Melanie supported him as best she could, her own lungs aching with the need to breathe for him. When the racking spasms had come to an end, he lay weakly upon his pillow, one hand pressed to his chest as though it pained him. "Melanie," he tried again. "You are--all I have left. Everything else--is gone. My son, my wife, my--honor."
"No, no, grandpa, don't talk so."
"Must--must tell you. I tried to wipe away the stain on my name--but I failed. If only my aim had been true."
Once more a fit of coughing cut off his words. When it was over there was a blue tinge to his lips and his eyes were filled with tears of effort.
"Don't try to talk, grandpa," Melanie pleaded. "You must rest."
"How can I rest--while Donavan lives to go on sullying my name, and yours, Melanie, and yours?"
"Oh, grandpa," Melanie whispered.
"Yes--yes, and yours. You are the last of the Johnstons. Soon, soon I will be gone--and you will be alone. You will need a man to take care of you, but how can you go to--to Dom? How can you ask him to take you when your family honor has been besmirched? It cannot be, it need not be."
"What are you saying, grandpa? I don't understand."
"You--you can cleanse the stain. I taught you to load a pistol, to shoot. You were--a good student. You are young. You will not fail as I did. You can rid the world of the man who destroyed my character. You can kill Donavan!"
Melanie shook her head. "Oh, no. I couldn't!"
"You could," her grandfather insisted, his watery eyes wild, imploring. He turned his hand to catch her wrist with a fevered grip. "You must--for me. How can I rest else?"
"Promise me! Promise me you will--"
Again the coughing caught him, and he threw himself back and forth on the bed, struggling for breath. "Promise me," he wheezed, his face deathly pale. Tears trickled down his face, running slowly through the creases put there by age and stalwart, yet hard, living.
He had always been such a strong man. It was terrible to see him come to this, so ill and weak, obsessed by a single idea that robbed him of dignity and peace. He was dying, she knew that, and there was so little she could do to prevent it or ease his passing.
He gave her wrist a small shake, searching the pure lines of her face with wide, beseeching eyes. "Promise me, Melanie, promise," he breathed, his voice no more than a husky whistle in his throat.
The man who was the cause of her grandfather's illness was strong and healthy. Did he deserve to live to see the contented old age he had denied her grandfather? Did he?
"I--I promise, grandpa," she whispered.
The old man gave a trembling sigh and fell back on his pillows. He lay with his eyes closed, breathing as though done with some desperate fight. Now and then a cough would shake his body and a froth appear on his lips. Before an hour had passed, a spasm so strong racked him that he sat up straight in bed clawing at his throat. Abruptly he clutched at his chest and fell back to lie still, his eyes wide and staring.
"Grandpa!" Melanie cried, leaning over him, but she knew there would not be an answer.