Colonel Leonidas Talbot and Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire at the head of their scanty band were just passing. They took off their hats, and swept a low bow to the great chief who sat silently on his white horse within a few yards of them. Then, side by side, they rode upon the shaking bridge, followed by Langdon, St. Clair and their brave comrades, and disappeared, where the bridge disappeared, in the rain and mist.
“Brave men!” murmured Lee.
Harry, always watching his commander-in-chief, saw now for the first time signs of fatigue and nervousness. The tremendous strain was wearing him down. But while the rain still poured and ran in streams from his gray hair and gray beard, the rear guard of the Army of Northern Virginia passed upon the bridge, and Stuart, all his plumes bedraggled, rode up to his chief, a smoking cup of coffee in his hand.
“Drink this, General, won’t you?” he said.
He seized it, drank all of the coffee eagerly, and then handing back the cup, said:
“I never before in my life drank anything that refreshed me so much.”
Then he, with his staff, Stuart and some other generals rode over the bridge, disappearing in their turn into the darkness and mist that had swallowed up the others, but emerging, as the others had done, into the safety of the Southern shore.
Meade and his generals had held a council the night before but nearly all the officers advised against attack. This night he made up his mind to move against Lee anyhow, and was ready at dawn, only to find the whole Southern army gone.
Harry, when the dawn had fully come, was sent farther away toward the ford to see if the remainder of the troops had passed, and, when he returned with the welcome news, the rain had ceased to fall. The army was rapidly drying itself in the brilliant sunshine, and marched leisurely on. He felt an immense relief. He knew that a great crisis had been passed, and, if the Northern armies ever reached Richmond, it would be a long and sanguinary road. Meade might get across and attack, but his advantage was gone.
The same spirit of relief pervaded the ranks, and the men sang their battle songs. There had been some fighting at one or two of the fords, but it did not amount to much, and no enemy hung on their rear. But no stop was made by the staff until noon, when a fire was made and food was cooked. Then Harry was notified that he and Dalton were to start that night with dispatches for Richmond. They were to ride through dangerous country, until they reached a point on the railroad, wholly within the Southern lines, when they would take a train for the Confederate capital.
They were glad to go. They felt sure that no great battles would be fought while they were gone. Neither army seemed to be in a mood for further fighting just yet, and they longed for a sight of the little city that was the heart of the Confederacy. They were tired of the rifle and march, of cannon and battles. They wished to be a while where civilized life went on, to hear the bells of churches and to see the faces of women.