Upon entrance, he found his superior striding up and down the room, a newspaper in his hand, and without preliminary word the general gave expression to his obvious anger.
“I would have you know, Colonel Brereton,” sternly he began, “that I am not the man to overlook disobedience of my orders, nor pass over, without a rebuke, such disrespect as you have shown me.”
“I do not deny that your Excellency has cause for complaint,” replied Jack, steadily; “and in acting as I did I was fully prepared for whatever results might flow from it, even the penalty of life itself; but, believe me, sir, my chief grief will ever be the having deceived you, and my real punishment can be inflicted by no court-martial you may order, but will be in the loss of your trust and esteem.”
“You speak in riddles, sir,” responded Washington, halting in his walk. “Cause for anger I have richly, for, as I told my whole family, any challenge they might send General Lee would, by the public, be ascribed to persecution. But you know as well as I that your duel with him is no offence to submit to a court-martial, and that you should pretend that I have any such recourse is adding insincerity to the original fault. You have—”
“That, sir, is a charge I indignantly deny,” interrupted Jack, warmly, “and I was referring—”
“No denial can justify your conduct, sir,” broke in Washington, wrathfully. “You have exposed me to the criticism and misapprehension of the public. By your disregard of my orders and my wishes, you have deservedly forfeited all right to my favour or my affection.”
“Your Excellency forgets—”
“I forget nothing,” thundered the general. “’T is you have forgotten the respect and obedience due me from all my family and—”
“Think you an aide is but a slave,” retorted Brereton, hotly, “and that he possesses no right of independent action? Nor did I conceive that your Excellency would ever judge me unheard. I did—”
“The case is too palpable for—”
“Yet misjudge me you have, for I did not challenge Lee because he had insulted you, but because he was shamefully persecuting the woman I love.”
Washington, who had resumed his angry pacing of the room, once again halted. “Explain your meaning, sir.”
“In your heat, your Excellency has clearly forgot the tale Miss Meredith’s letter told of General Lee’s conduct as regards herself and her father. With the feeling I bear for her, human nature could not brook such behaviour, and it was that for which I challenged him.”
The general stood silent for a moment, then said, “I have been too hasty in my action, Brereton, and have drawn a conclusion that was not justified. I owe you an apology for my words, and trust that this acknowledgment will end the misunderstanding.” He offered his hand, as he ended, to the aide.
“I thank your Excellency,” answered Jack, “for your prompt reparation, but before accepting it and taking your hand, sir, it is my painful necessity to tell you that I have fully merited all the anger you have expressed. Guiltless as I am of fault as regards General Lee, I have committed a far greater offence against you,—a wrong, sir, which, done with however much deliberation, has caused me unending pain and remorse.”