"That will do, Carey. I see your relief is forming now."
As the officers walked away and Sloat silently plodded along beside his dark-browed senior, the latter turned to him:
"I should say that there was no way in which Mr. Jerrold could have gone townwards last night. Should not you?"
"He might have crossed the bridge while the third relief was on, and got a horse at the other side."
"He didn't do that, Sloat. I had already questioned the sentry on that relief. It was the third that I inspected and visited this morning."
"Well, how do you know he wanted to go to town? Why couldn't he have gone up the river, or out to the range? Perhaps there was a little game of 'draw' out at camp."
"There was no light in camp, much less a little game of draw, after eleven o'clock. You know well enough that there is nothing of that kind going on with Gaines in command. That isn't Jerrold's game, even if those fellows were bent on ruining their eyesight and nerve and spoiling the chance of getting the men on the division and army teams. I wish it were his game, instead of what it is!"
"Still, Chester, he may have been out in the country somewhere. You seem bent on the conviction he was up to mischief here, around this post. I won't ask you what you mean; but there's more than one way of getting to town if a man wants to very bad."
"How? Of course he can take a skiff and row down the river; but he'd never be back in time for reveille. There goes six o'clock, and I must get home and shave and think this over. Keep your own counsel, no matter who asks you. If you hear any questions or talk about shooting last night, you know nothing, heard nothing, and saw nothing."
"Shooting last night!" exclaimed Sloat, all agog with eagerness and excitement now. "Where was it? Who was it?"
But Chester turned a deaf ear upon him, and walked away. He wanted to see Rollins, and went straight home.
"Why didn't you tell me Miss Beaubien was out here last night?" was the question he asked as soon as he had entered the room where, all aglow from his cold bath, the youngster was dressing for breakfast. He colored vividly, then laughed.
"Well, you never gave me much chance to say anything, did you? You talked all the time, as I remember, and suddenly vanished and slammed the door. I would have told you had you asked me." But all the same it was evident for the first time that here was a subject Rollins was shy of mentioning.
"Did you go down and see them across sentry post?"
"Certainly. Jerrold asked me to. He said he had to take Miss Renwick home, and was too tired to come back,—was going to turn in. I was glad to do anything to be civil to the Suttons."
"Why, I'd like to know? They have never invited you to the house or shown you any attention whatever. You are not their style at all, Rollins, and I'm glad of it. It wasn't for their sake you stayed there until one o'clock instead of being here in bed. I wish—" and he looked wistfully, earnestly, at his favorite now, "I wish I could think it wasn't for the sake of Miss Beaubien's black eyes and aboriginal beauty."
"Look here, captain," said Rollins, with another rush of color to his face; "you don't seem to fancy Miss Beaubien, and—she's a friend of mine, and one I don't like to hear slightingly spoken of. You said a good deal last night that—well, wasn't pleasant to hear."
"I know it, Rollins. I beg your pardon. I didn't know then that you were more than slightly acquainted with her. I'm an old bat, and go out very little, but some things are pretty clear to my eyes, and—don't you be falling in love with Nina Beaubien. That is no match for you."
"I'm sure you never had a word to say against her father. The old colonel was a perfect type of the French gentleman, from all I hear."
"Yes, and her mother is as perfect a type of a Chippewa squaw, if she is only a half-breed and claims to be only a sixteenth. Rollins, there's Indian blood enough in Nina Beaubien's little finger to make me afraid of her. She is strong as death in love or hate, and you must have seen how she hung on Jerrold's every word all last winter. You must know she is not the girl to be lightly dropped now."
"She told me only a day or two ago they were the best of friends and had never been anything else," said Rollins, hotly.
"Has it gone that far, my boy? I had not thought it so bad, by any means. It's no use talking with a man who has lost his heart: his reason goes with it." And Chester turned away.
"You don't know anything about it," was all poor Rollins could think of as a suitable thing to shout after him; and it made no more impression than it deserved.
As has been said, Captain Chester had decided before seven o'clock that but one course lay open to him in the matter as now developed. Had Armitage been there he would have had an adviser, but there was no other man whose counsel he eared to seek. Old Captain Gray was as bitter against Jerrold as Chester himself, and with even better reason, for he knew well the cause of his little daughter's listless manner and tearful eyes. She had been all radiance and joy at the idea of coming to Sibley and being near the great cities, but not one happy look had he seen in her sweet and wistful face since the day of her arrival. Wilton, too, was another captain who disliked Jerrold; and Chester's rugged sense of fair play told him that it was not among the enemies of the young officer that he should now seek advice, but that if he had a friend among the older and wiser heads in the regiment it was due to him that that older and wiser head be given a chance to think a little for Jerrold's sake. And there was not one among the seniors whom he could call upon. As he ran over their names, Chester for the first time realized that his ex-subaltern had not a friend among the captains and senior officers now on duty at the fort. His indifference to duties, his airy foppishness, his conceit and self-sufficiency, had all served to create a feeling against him; and this had been intensified by his conduct since coming to Sibley. The youngsters still kept up jovial relations with and professed to like him, but among the seniors there were many men who had only a nod for him on meeting. Wilton had epitomized the situation by saying he "had no use for a masher," and poor old Gray had one day scowlingly referred to him as "the professional beauty."
In view of all this feeling, Chester would gladly have found some man to counsel further delay; but there was none. He felt that he must inform the colonel at once of the fact that Mr. Jerrold was absent from his quarters at the time of the firing, of his belief that it was Jerrold who struck him and sped past the sentry in the dark, and of his conviction that the sooner the young officer was called to account for his strange conduct the better. As to the episodes of the ladder, the lights, and the form at the dormer-window, he meant, for the present at least, to lock them in his heart.
But he forgot that others too must have heard those shots, and that others too would be making inquiries.
A lovely morning it was that beamed on Sibley and the broad and beautiful valley of the Cloudwater when once the sun got fairly above the moist horizon. Mist and vapor and heavy cloud all seemed swallowed up in the gathering, glowing warmth, as though the King of Day had risen athirst and drained the welcoming cup of nature. It must have rained at least a little during the darkness of the night, for dew there could have been none with skies so heavily overcast, and yet the short smooth turf on the parade, the leaves upon the little shade-trees around the quadrangle, and all the beautiful vines here on the trellis-work of the colonel's veranda, shone and sparkled in the radiant light. The roses in the little garden, and the old-fashioned morning-glory vines over at the east side, were all a-glitter in the flooding sunshine when the bugler came out from a glance at the clock in the adjutant's office and sounded "sick-call" to the indifferent ear of the garrison. Once each day, at 7.30 a.m., the doctor trudged across to the hospital and looked over the half-dozen "hopelessly healthy" but would-be invalids who wanted to get off guard duty or a morning at the range. Thanks to the searching examination to which every soldier must be subjected before he can enter the service of Uncle Sam, and to the disciplined order of the lives of the men at Sibley, maladies of any serious nature were almost unknown. It was a gloriously healthy post, as everybody admitted, and, to judge from the specimen of young-womanhood that came singing, "blithe and low," out among the roses this same joyous morning, exuberant physical well-being was not restricted to the men.
A fairer picture never did dark beauty present than Alice Renwick, as she bent among the bushes or reached high among the vines in search of her favorite flowers. Tall, slender, willowy, yet with exquisitely-rounded form; slim, dainty little hands and feet; graceful arms and wrists all revealed in the flowing sleeves of her snowy, web-like gown, fitting her and displaying her sinuous grace of form as gowns so seldom do to-day. And then her face!—a glorious picture of rich, ripe, tropical beauty, with its great, soulful, sunlit eyes, heavily shaded though they were with those wondrous lashes; beautiful, too, in contour as was the lithe body, and beautiful in every feature, even to the rare and dewy curve of her red lips, half opened as she sang. She was smiling to herself, as she crooned her soft, murmuring melody, and every little while the great dark eyes glanced over towards the shaded doors of Bachelors' Row. There was no one up to watch and tell: why should she not look thither, and even stand one moment peering under the veranda at a darkened window half-way down the row, as though impatient at the non-appearance of some familiar signal? How came the laggard late? How slept the knight while here his lady stood impatient? She twined the leaves and roses in a fragrant knot, ran lightly within and laid them on the snowy cloth beside the colonel's seat at table, came forth and plucked some more and fastened them, blushing, blissful, in the lace-fringed opening of her gown, through which, soft and creamy, shone the perfect neck.
"Daisy, tell my fortune, pray: He loves me not,—he loves me,"
she blithely sang, then, hurrying to the gate, shaded her eyes with the shapely hand and gazed intently. 'Twas nearing eight,—nearing breakfast-time. But some one was coming. Horrid! Captain Chester, of all men! Coming, of course, to see papa, and papa not yet down, and mamma had a headache and had decided not to come down at all, she would breakfast in her room. What girl on earth when looking and longing and waiting for the coming of a graceful youth of twenty-six would be anything but dismayed at the substitution therefor of a bulky, heavy-hearted captain of forty-six, no matter if he were still unmarried? And yet her smile was sweet and cordial.
"Why, good-morning, Captain Chester. I'm so glad to see you this bright day. Do come in and let me give you a rose. Papa will soon be down." And she opened the gate and held forth one long, slim hand. He took it slowly, as though in a dream, raising his forage-cap at the same time, yet making no reply. He was looking at her far more closely than he imagined. How fresh, how radiant, how fair and gracious and winning! Every item of her attire was so pure and white and spotless; every fold and curve of her gown seemed charged with subtile, delicate fragrance, as faint and sweet as the shy and modest wood-violet's. She noted his silence and his haggard eyes. She noted the intent gaze, and the color mounted straightway to her forehead.
"And have you no word of greeting for me?" she blithely laughed, striving to break through the awkwardness of his reserve, "or are you worn out with your night watch as officer of the day?"
He fairly started. Had she seen him, then? Did she know it was he who stood beneath her window, he who leaped in chase of that scoundrel, he who stole away with that heavy tell-tale ladder? and, knowing all this, could she stand there smiling in his face, the incarnation of maiden innocence and beauty? Impossible! Yet what could she mean?
"How did you know I had so long a vigil?" he asked, and the cold, strained tone, the half-averted eyes, the pallor of his face, all struck her at once. Instantly her manner changed:
"Oh, forgive me, captain. I see you are all worn out; and I'm keeping you here at the gate. Come to the piazza and sit down. I'll tell papa you are here, for I know you want to see him." And she tripped lightly away before he could reply, and rustled up the stairs. He could hear her light tap at the colonel's door, and her soft, clear, flute-like voice: "Papa, Captain Chester is here to see you."
Papa indeed! She spoke to him and of him as though he were her own. He treated her as though she were his flesh and blood,—as though he loved her devotedly. Even before she came had not they been prepared for this? Did not Mrs. Maynard tell them that Alice had become enthusiastically devoted to her step-father and considered him the most knightly and chivalric hero she had ever seen? He could hear the colonel's hearty and loving tone in reply, and then she came fluttering down again:
"Papa will be with you in five minutes, captain. But won't you let me give you some coffee? It's all ready, and you look so tired,—even ill."
"I have had a bad night," he answered, "but I'm growing old, and cannot stand sleeplessness as you young people seem to."
Was she faltering? He watched her eagerly, narrowly, almost wonderingly. Not a trace of confusion, not a sign of fear; and yet had he not seen her, and that other figure?
"I wish you could sleep as I do," was the prompt reply. "I was in the land of dreams ten minutes after my head touched the pillow, and mamma made me come home early last night because of our journey to-day. You know we are going down to visit Aunt Grace, Colonel Maynard's sister, at Lake Sablon, and mamma wanted me to be looking my freshest and best," she said, "and I never heard a thing till reveille."
His eyes, sad, penetrating, doubting,—yet self-doubting, too,—searched her very soul. Unflinchingly the dark orbs looked into his,—even pityingly; for she quickly spoke again:
"Captain, do come into the breakfast-room and have some coffee. You have not breakfasted, I'm sure."
He raised his hand as though to repel her offer,—even to put her aside. He must understand her. He could not be hoodwinked in this way.
"Pardon me, Miss Renwick, but did you hear nothing strange last night or early this morning? Were you not disturbed at all?"
"I? No, indeed!" True, her face had changed now, but there was no fear in her eyes. It was a look of apprehension, perhaps, of concern and curiosity mingled, for his tone betrayed that something had happened which caused him agitation.
"And you heard no shots fired?"
"Shots! No! Oh, Captain Chester! what does it mean? Who was shot? Tell me!"
And now, with paling face and wild apprehension in her eyes, she turned and gazed beyond him, past the vines and the shady veranda, across the sunshine of the parade and under the old piazza, searching that still closed and darkened window.
"Who?" she implored, her hands clasping nervously, her eyes returning eagerly to his face.
"It was not Mr. Jerrold," he answered, coldly. "He is unhurt, so far as shot is concerned."
"Then how is he hurt? Is he hurt at all?" she persisted; and then as she met his gaze her eyes fell, and the burning blush of maiden shame surged up to her forehead. She sank upon a seat and covered her face with her hands.
"I thought of Mr. Jerrold, naturally. He said he would be over early this morning," was all she could find to say.
"I have seen him, and presume he will come. To all appearances, he is the last man to suffer from last night's affair," he went on, relentlessly,—almost brutally,—but she never winced. "It is odd you did not hear the shots. I thought yours was the northwest room,—this one?" he indicated, pointing overhead.
"So it is, and I slept there all last night and heard nothing,—not a thing. Do tell me what the trouble was."
Then what was there for him to say? The colonel's footsteps were heard upon the stair, and the colonel, with extended hand and beaming face and cheery welcome, came forth from the open door-way:
"Welcome, Chester! I'm glad you've come just in time for breakfast. Mrs. Maynard won't be down. She slept badly last night, and is sleeping now. What was the firing last night? I did not hear it at the time, but the orderly and old Maria the cook were discussing it as I was shaving."
"It is that I came to see you about, colonel. I am the man to hold responsible."
"No prisoners got away, I hope?"
"No, sir. Nothing, I fear, that would seem to justify my action. I ordered Number Five to fire."
"Why, what on earth could have happened around there,—almost back of us?" said the colonel, in surprise.
"I do not know what had happened, or what was going to happen." And Chester paused a moment, and glanced towards the door through which Miss Renwick had retired as soon as the colonel arrived. The old soldier seemed to understand the glance. "She would not listen," he said, proudly.
"I know," explained Chester. "I think it best that no one but you should hear anything of the matter for the present until I have investigated further. It was nearly half-past three this morning as I got around here on Five's post, inspecting sentinels, and came suddenly in the darkness upon a man carrying a ladder on his shoulder. I ordered him to halt. The reply was a violent blow, and the ladder and I were dropped at the same instant, while the man sprang into space and darted off in the direction of Number Five. I followed quick as I could, heard the challenge and the cries of halt, and shouted to Leary to fire. He did, but missed his aim in the haste and darkness, and the man got safely away. Of course there is much talk and speculation about it around the post this morning, for several people heard the shots besides the guard, and, although I told Leary and others to say nothing, I know it is already generally known."
"Oh, well, come in to breakfast," said the colonel. "We'll talk it over there."
"Pardon me, sir, I cannot. I must get back home before guard-mount, and Rollins is probably waiting to see me now. I—I could not discuss it at the table, for there are some singular features about the matter."
"Why, in God's name, what?" asked the colonel, with sudden and deep anxiety.
"Well, sir, an officer of the garrison is placed in a compromising position by this affair, and cannot or will not explain."
"Mr. Jerrold, sir."
"Jerrold! Why, I got a note from him not ten minutes ago saying he had an engagement in town and asking permission to go before guard-mounting, if Mr. Hall was ready. Hall wanted to go with him, Jerrold wrote, but Hall has not applied for permission to leave the post."
"It is Jerrold who is compromised, colonel. I may be all wrong in my suspicions, all wrong in reporting the matter to you at all, but in my perplexity and distress I see no other way. Frankly, sir, the moment I caught sight of the man he looked like Jerrold; and two minutes after the shots were fired I inspected Jerrold's quarters. He was not there, though the lamps were burning very low in the bedroom, and his bed had not been occupied at all. When you see Leary, sir, he will tell you that he also thought it must be Mr. Jerrold."
"The young scapegrace!—been off to town, I suppose."
"Colonel," said Chester, quickly, "you—not I—must decide that. I went to his quarters after reveille, and he was then there, and resented my visit and questions, admitted that he had been out during the night, but refused to make any statement to me."
"Well, Chester, I will haul him up after breakfast. Possibly he had been up to the rifle-camp, or had driven to town after the doctor's party. Of course that must be stopped; but I'm glad you missed him. It, of course, staggers a man's judgment to be knocked down, but if you had killed him it might have been as serious for you as this knock-down blow will be for him. That is the worst phase of the matter. What could he have been thinking of? He must have been either drunk or mad; and he rarely drank. Oh, dear, dear, dear, but that's very bad,—very bad,—striking the officer of the day! Why, Chester, that's the worst thing that's happened in the regiment since I took command of it. It's about the worst thing that could have happened to us. Of course he must go in arrest. I'll see the adjutant right after breakfast. I'll be over early, Chester." And with grave and worried face the colonel bade him adieu.
As he turned away, Chester heard him saying again to himself, "About the worst thing he could have done!—the worst thing he could have done!" And the captain's heart sank within him. What would the colonel say when he knew how far, far worse was the foul wrong Mr. Jerrold had done to him and his?
Before guard-mounting—almost half an hour before his usual time for appearing at the office—Colonel Maynard hurried in to his desk, sent the orderly for Captain Chester, and then the clerks in the sergeant-major's room heard him close and lock the door. As the subject of the shooting was already under discussion among the men there assembled, this action on the part of the chief was considered highly significant. It was hardly five minutes before Chester came, looked surprised at finding the door locked, knocked, and was admitted.
The look on the haggard face at the desk, the dumb misery in the eyes, the wrath and horror in it all, carried him back twenty years to that gloomy morning in the casemates when the story was passed around that Captain Maynard had lost a wife and an intimate friend during the previous night. Chester saw at a glance that, despite his precautions, the blow had come, the truth been revealed at one fell swoop.
"Lock the door again, Chester, and come here. I have some questions to ask you."
The captain silently took the chair which was indicated by a wave of the colonel's hand, and waited. For a moment no word more was spoken. The old soldier, white and trembling strangely, reseated himself at the desk, and covered his face with his hands. Twice he drew them with feebly stroking movement over his eyes, as though to rally the stunned faculties and face the trying ordeal. Then a shiver passed through his frame, and with sudden lift of the head he fixed his gaze on Chester's face and launched the question,—
"Chester, is there any kindness to a man who has been through what I have in telling only half a tale, as you have done?"
The captain colored red. "I am at a loss to answer you, colonel," he said, after brief reflection. "You know far more than you did half an hour ago, and what I knew I could not bear to tell you as yet."
"My God! my God! Tell me all, and tell me at once. Here, man, if you need stimulant to your indignation and cannot speak without it, read this. I found it, open, among the rose-bushes in the garden, where she must have dropped it when out there with you. Read it. Tell me what it means; for, God knows, I can't believe such a thing of her."
He handed Chester a sheet of note-paper. It was moist and blurred on the first page, but the inner pages, though damp, were in good condition. The first, second, and third pages were closely covered in a bold, nervous hand that Chester knew well. It was Jerrold's writing, beyond a doubt, and Chester's face grew hot as he read, and his heart turned cold as stone when he finished the last hurried line.
"I must see you, if only for a moment, before you leave. Do not let this alarm you, for the more I think the more I am convinced it is only a bluff, but Captain Chester discovered my absence early this morning when spying around as usual, and now he claims to have knowledge of our secret. Even if he was on the terrace when I got back, it was too dark for him to recognize me, and it seems impossible that he can have got any real clue. He suspects, perhaps, and thinks to force me to confession; but I would guard your name with my life. Be wary. Act as though there were nothing on earth between us, and if we cannot meet until then I will be at the depot with the others to see you off, and will then have a letter ready with full particulars and instructions. It will be in the first thing I hand to you. Hide it until you can safely read it. Your mother must not be allowed a glimmer of suspicion, and then you are safe. As for me, even Chester cannot make the colonel turn against me now. My jealous one, my fiery sweetheart, do you not realize now that I was wise in showing her so much attention? A thousand kisses. Come what may, they cannot rob us of the past. HOWARD.
"I fear you heard and were alarmed by the shots just after I left you. All was quiet when I got home."
It was some seconds before Chester could control himself sufficiently to speak. "I wish to God the bullet had gone through his heart!" he said.
"It has gone through mine,—through mine! This will kill her mother. Chester," cried the colonel, springing suddenly to his feet, "she must not know it. She must not dream of it. I tell you it would stretch her in the dust, dead, for she loves that child with all her strength, with all her being, I believe, for it is two mother-loves in one. She had a son, older than Alice by several years, her first-born,—her glory, he was,—but the boy inherited the father's passionate and impulsive nature. He loved a girl utterly beneath him, and would have married her when he was only twenty. There is no question that he loved her well, for he refused to give her up, no matter what his father threatened. They tried to buy her off, and she scorned them. Then they had a letter written, while he was sent abroad under pretence that he should have his will if he came back in a year unchanged. By Jove, it seems she was as much in love as he, and it broke her heart. She went off and died somewhere, and he came back ahead of time because her letters had ceased, and found it all out. There was an awful scene. He cursed them both,—father and mother,—and left her senseless at his feet; and from that day to this they never heard of him, never could get the faintest report. It broke Renwick,—killed him, I guess, for he died in two years; and as for the mother, you would not think that a woman so apparently full of life and health was in desperate danger. She had some organic trouble with the heart years ago, they tell her, and this experience has developed it so that now any great emotion or sudden shock is perilous. Do you not see how doubly fearful this comes to us? Chester, I have weathered one awful storm, but I'm old and broken now. This—this beats me. Tell me what to do."
The captain was silent a few moments. He was thinking intently.
"Does she know you have that letter?" he asked.
Maynard shook his head: "I looked back as I came away. She was in the parlor, singing softly to herself, at the very moment I picked it up, lying open as it was right there among the roses, the first words staring me in the face. I meant not to read it,—never dreamed it was for her,—and had turned over the page to look for the superscription. There was none, but there I saw the signature and that postscript about the shots. That startled me, and I read it here just before you came, and then could account for your conduct,—something I could not do before. God of heaven! would any man believe it of her? It is incredible! Chester, tell me everything you know now,—even everything you suspect. I must see my way clear."
And then the captain, with halting and reluctant tongue, told his story: how he had stumbled on the ladder back of the colonel's quarters and learned from Number Five that some one had been prowling back of Bachelors' Row; how he returned there afterwards, found the ladder at the side-wall, and saw the tall form issue from her window; how he had given chase and been knocked breathless, and of his suspicions, and Leary's, as to the identity of the stranger.
The colonel bowed his head still deeper, and groaned aloud. But he had still other questions to ask.
"Did you see—any one else at the window?"
"Not while he was there."
"At any time, then,—before or after?" And the colonel's eyes would take no denial.
"I saw," faltered Chester, "nobody. The shade was pulled up while I was standing there, after I had tripped on the ladder. I supposed the noise of my stumble had awakened her."
"And was that all? Did you see nothing more?"
"Colonel, I did see, afterwards, a woman's hand and arm closing the shade."
"My God! And she told me she slept the night through,—never waked or heard a sound!"
"Did you hear nothing yourself, colonel?"
"Nothing. When she came home from the party she stopped a moment, saying something to him at the door, then came into the library and kissed me good-night. I shut up the house and went to bed about half-past twelve, and her door was closed when I went to our room."
"So there were two closed doors, yours and hers, and the broad hall between you?"
"Certainly. We have the doors open all night that lead into the rear rooms, and their windows. This gives us abundant air. Alice always has the hall door closed at night."
"And Mrs. Maynard,—was she asleep?"
"No. Mrs. Maynard was lying awake, and seemed a little restless and disturbed. Some of the women had been giving her some hints about Jerrold and fretting her. You know she took a strange fancy to him at the start. It was simply because he reminded her so strongly of the boy she had lost. She told me so. But after a little she began to discover traits in him she did not like, and then his growing intimacy with Alice worried her. She would have put a stop to the doctor's party,—to her going with him, I mean,—but the engagement was made some days ago. Two or three days since, she warned Alice not to trust him, she says; and it is really as much on this as any other account that we decided to get her away, off to see her aunt Grace. Oh, God! how blind we are! how blind we are!" And poor old Maynard bowed his head and almost groaned aloud.
Chester rose, and, in his characteristic way, began tramping nervously up and down. There was a knock at the door. "The adjutant's compliments, and 'twas time for guard-mount. Would the colonel wish to see him before he went out?" asked the orderly.
"I ought to go, sir," said Chester. "I am old officer of the day, and there will be just time for me to get into full uniform."
"Let them go on without you," said Maynard. "I cannot spare you now. Send word to that effect. Now,—now about this man,—this Jerrold. What is the best thing we can do?—of course I know what he most deserves;—but what is the best thing under all the circumstances? Of course my wife and Alice will leave to-day. She was still sleeping when I left, and, pray God, is not dreaming of this. It was nearly two before she closed her eyes last night; and I, too, slept badly. You have seen him. What does he say?"
"Denies everything,—anything,—challenges me to prove that he was absent from his house more than five minutes,—indeed, I could not, for he may have come in just after I left,—and pretended utter ignorance of my meaning when I accused him of striking me before I ordered the sentry to fire. Of course it is all useless now. When I confront him with this letter he must give in. Then let him resign and get away as quietly as possible before the end of the week. No one need know the causes. Of course shooting is what he deserves; but shooting demands explanation. It is better for your name, hers, and all, that he should be allowed to live than that the truth were suspected, as it would be if he were killed. Indeed, sir, if I were you I would take them to Sablon, keep them away for a fortnight, and leave him to me. It may be even judicious to let him go on with all his duties as though nothing had happened, as though he had simply been absent from reveille, and let the whole matter drop like that until all remark and curiosity is lulled; then you can send her back to Europe or the East,—time enough to decide on that; but I will privately tell him he must quit the service in six months, and show him why. It isn't the way it ought to be settled; it probably isn't the way Armitage would do it; but it is the best thing that occurs to me. One thing is certain: you and they ought to get away at once, and he should not be permitted to see her again. I can run the post a few days and explain matters after you go."
The colonel sat in wretched silence a few moments; then he arose:
"If it were not for her danger,—her heart,—I would never drop the matter here,—never! I would see it through to the bitter end. But you are probably right as to the prudent course to take. I'll get them away on the noon train: he thinks they do not start until later. Now I must go and face it. My God, Chester! could you look at that child and realize it? Even now, even now, sir, I believe—I believe, someway—somehow—she is innocent."
"God grant it, sir!"
And then the colonel left the office, avoiding, as has been told, a word with any man. Chester buttoned the tell-tale letter in an inner pocket, after having first folded the sheet lengthwise and then enclosed it in a long official envelope. The officers, wondering at the colonel's distraught appearance, had come thronging in, hoping for information, and then had gone, unsatisfied and disgusted, practically turned out by their crabbed senior captain. The ladies, after chatting aimlessly about the quadrangle for half an hour, had decided that Mrs. Maynard must be ill, and, while most of them awaited the result, two of their number went to the colonel's house and rang at the bell. A servant appeared: "Mrs. Maynard wasn't very well this morning, and was breakfasting in her room, and Miss Alice was with her, if the ladies would please excuse them." And so the emissaries returned unsuccessful. Then, too, as we have seen, despite his good intention of keeping matters hushed as much as possible, Chester's nervous irritability had got the better of him, and he had made damaging admissions to Wilton of the existence of a cause of worriment and perplexity, and this Wilton told without compunction. And then there was another excitement, that set all tongues wagging. Every man had heard what Chester said, that Mr. Jerrold must not quit the garrison until he had first come and seen the temporary commanding officer, and Hall had speedily carried the news to his friend.
"Are you ready to go?" asked Mr. Jerrold, who was lacing his boots in the rear room.
"No. I've got to go and get into 'cits' first."
"All right. Go, and be lively! I'll wait for you at Murphy's, beyond the bridge, provided you say nothing about it."
"You don't mean you are going against orders?"
"Going? Of course I am. I've got old Maynard's permission, and if Chester means to revoke it he's got to get his adjutant here inside of ten seconds. What you tell me isn't official. I'm off now!"
And when the adjutant returned to Captain Chester it was with the information that he was too late: Mr. Jerrold's dog-cart had crossed the bridge five minutes earlier.
Perhaps an hour later the colonel sent for Chester, and the captain went to his house. The old soldier was pacing slowly up and down the parlor floor.
"I wanted you a moment. A singular thing has happened. You know that 'Directoire' cabinet photo of Alice? My wife always kept it on her dressing-table, and this morning it's gone. That frame—the silver filigree thing—was found behind a sofa-pillow in Alice's room, and she declares she has no idea how it got there. Chester, is there any new significance in this?"
The captain bowed assent.
"What is it?"
"That photograph was seen by Major Sloat in Jerrold's bureau-drawer at reveille this morning."
And such was the situation at Sibley the August day the colonel took his wife and her lovely daughter to visit Aunt Grace at Lake Sablon.
In the big red omnibus that was slowly toiling over the dusty road several passengers were making their way from the railway-station to the hotel at Lake Sablon. Two of them were women of mature years, whose dress and bearing betokened lives of ease and comfort; another was a lovely brunette of less than twenty, the daughter, evidently, of one of these ladies, and an object of loving pride to both. These three seemed at home in their surroundings, and were absorbed in the packet of letters and papers they had just received at the station. It was evident that they were not new arrivals, as were the other passengers, who studied them with the half-envious feelings with which new-comers at a summer resort are apt to regard those who seem to have been long established there, and who gathered from the scraps of conversation that they had merely been over to say good-by to friends leaving on the very train which brought in the rest of what we good Americans term "the 'bus-load." There were women among the newly-arrived who inspected the dark girl with that calm, unflinching, impertinent scrutiny and half-audibly whispered comment which, had they been of the opposite sex, would have warranted their being kicked out of the conveyance, but which was ignored by the fair object and her friends as completely as were the commentators themselves. There were one or two men in the omnibus who might readily have been forgiven an admiring glance or two at so bright a vision of girlish beauty as was Miss Renwick this August afternoon, and they had looked; but the one who most attracted the notice of Mrs. Maynard and Aunt Grace—a tall, stalwart, distinguished-looking party in gray travelling-dress—had taken his seat close to the door and was deep in the morning's paper before they were fairly away from the station.
Laying down the letter she had just finished reading, Mrs. Maynard glanced at her daughter, who was still engaged in one of her own, and evidently with deep interest.
"From Fort Sibley, Alice?"
"Yes, mamma, all three,—Miss Craven, Mrs. Hoyt, and—Mr. Jerrold. Would you like to see it?" And, with rising color, she held forth the one in her hand.
"Not now," was the answer, with a smile that told of confidence and gratification both. "It is about the german, I suppose?"
"Yes. He thinks it outrageous that we should not be there,—says it is to be the prettiest ever given at the fort, and that Mrs. Hoyt and Mrs. Craven, who are the managers for the ladies, had asked him to lead. He wants to know if we cannot possibly come."
"Are you not very eager to go, Alice? I should be," said Aunt Grace, with sympathetic interest.
"Yes, I am," answered Miss Renwick, reflectively. "It had been arranged that it should come off next week, when, as was supposed, we would be home after this visit. It cannot be postponed, of course, because it is given in honor of all the officers who are gathered there for the rifle-competition, and that will be all over and done with to-day, and they cannot stay beyond Tuesday next. We must give it up, auntie," and she looked up smilingly, "and you have made it so lovely for me here that I can do it without a sigh. Think of that!—an army german!—and Fanny Craven says the favors are to be simply lovely. Yes, I did want to go, but papa said he felt unequal to it the moment he got back from Chicago, day before yesterday, and he certainly does not look at all well: so that ended it, and I wrote at once to Mrs. Hoyt. This is her answer now."
"What does she say?"
"Oh, it is very kind of her: she wants me to come and be her guest if the colonel is too ill to come and mamma will not leave him. She says Mr. Hoyt will come down and escort me. But I would not like to go without mamma," and the big dark eyes looked up wistfully, "and I know she does not care to urge papa when he seems so indisposed to going."
Mrs. Maynard's eyes were anxious and troubled now. She turned to her sister-in-law:
"Do you think he seems any better, Grace? I do not."
"It is hard to say. He was so nervously anxious to get away to see the general the very day you arrived here that there was not a moment in which I could ask him about himself; and since his return he has avoided all mention of it beyond saying it is nothing but indigestion and he would be all right in a few days. I never knew him to suffer in that way in my life. Is there any regimental matter that can be troubling him?" she asked, in lower tone.
"Nothing of any consequence whatever. Of course the officers feel chagrined over their defeat in the rifle-match. They had expected to stand very high, but Mr. Jerrold's shooting was unexpectedly below the average, and it threw their team behind. But the colonel didn't make the faintest allusion to it. That hasn't worried him anywhere near as much as it has the others, I should judge."
"I do not think it was all Mr. Jerrold's fault, mamma," said Miss Renwick, with gentle reproach and a very becoming flush. "I'm going to stand up for him, because I think they all blame him for other men's poor work. He was not the only one on our team whose shooting was below former scores."
"They claim that none fell so far below their expectations as he, Alice. You know I am no judge of such matters, but Mr. Hoyt and Captain Gray both write the colonel that Mr. Jerrold had been taking no care of himself whatever and was entirely out of form."
"In any event I'm glad the cavalry did no better," was Miss Renwick's loyal response. "You remember the evening we rode out to the range and Captain Gray said that there was the man who would win the first prize from Mr. Jerrold,—that tall cavalry sergeant who fainted away,—Sergeant McLeod; don't you remember, mother? Well, he did not even get a place, and Mr. Jerrold beat him easily."
Something in her mother's eyes warned her to be guarded, and, in that indefinable but unerring system of feminine telegraphy, called her attention to the man sitting by the door. Looking quickly to her right, Miss Renwick saw that he was intently regarding her. At the mention of Fort Sibley the stranger had lowered his paper, revealing a bronzed face clean-shaven except for the thick blonde moustache, and a pair of clear, steady, searching blue eyes under heavy brows and lashes, and these eyes were very deliberately yet respectfully fixed upon her own; nor were they withdrawn in proper confusion when detected. It was Miss Renwick whose eyes gave up the contest and returned in some sense of defeat to her mother's face.
"What letters have you for the colonel?" asked Mrs. Maynard, coming au secours.
"Three,—two of them from his devoted henchman Captain Chester, who writes by every mail, I should imagine; and these he will go off into some secluded nook with and come back looking blue and worried. Then here's another, forwarded from Sibley, too. I do not know this hand. Perhaps it is from Captain Armitage, who, they say, is to come back next month. Poor Mr. Jerrold!"
"Why poor Mr. Jerrold?" asked Aunt Grace, with laughing interest, as she noted the expression on her niece's pretty face.
"Because he can't bear Captain Armitage, and—"
"Now, Alice!" said her mother, reprovingly. "You must not take his view of the captain at all. Remember what the colonel said of him—"
"Mother dear," protested Alice, laughing, "I have no doubt Captain Armitage is the paragon of a soldier, but he is unquestionably a most unpleasant and ungentlemanly person in his conduct to the young officers. Mr. Hall has told me the same thing. I declare, I don't see how they can speak to him at all, he has been so harsh and discourteous and unjust." The color was rising in earnest now, but a warning glance in her mother's eye seemed to check further words. There was an instant's silence. Then Aunt Grace remarked,—
"Alice, your next-door neighbor has vanished. I think your vehemence has frightened him."
Surely enough, the big, blue-eyed man in tweeds had disappeared. During this brief controversy he had quickly and noiselessly let himself out of the open door, swung lightly to the ground, and was out of sight among the trees.
"Why, what a strange proceeding!" said Aunt Grace again. "We are fully a mile and a half from the hotel, and he means to walk it in this glaring sun."
Evidently he did. The driver reined up at the moment in response to a suggestion from some one in a forward seat, and there suddenly appeared by the wayside, striding out from the shelter of the sumachs, the athletic figure of the stranger.
"Go ahead!" he called, in a deep chest-voice that had an unmistakable ring to it,—the tone that one so readily recognizes in men accustomed to prompt action and command. "I'm going across lots." And, swinging his heavy stick, with quick, elastic steps and erect carriage the man in gray plunged into a wood-path and was gone.
"Alice," said Aunt Grace, again, "that man is an officer, I'm sure, and you have driven him into exile and lonely wandering. I've seen so much of them when visiting my brother in the old days before my marriage that even in civilian dress it is easy to tell some of them. Just look at that back, and those shoulders! He has been a soldier all his life. Horrors! suppose it should be Captain Armitage himself!"
Miss Renwick looked genuinely distressed, as well as vexed. Certainly no officer but Captain Armitage would have had reason to leave the stage. Certainly officers and their families occasionally visited Sablon in the summer-time, but Captain Armitage could hardly be here. There was comforting assurance in the very note she held in her hand.
"It cannot be," she said, "because Mr. Jerrold writes that they have just heard from him at Sibley. He is still at the sea-shore, and will not return for a month. Mr. Jerrold says he implored Captain Chester to let him have three days' leave to come down here and have a sail and a picnic with us, and was told that it would be out of the question."
"Did he tell you any other news?" asked Mrs. Maynard, looking up from her letter again,—"anything about the german?"
"He says he thinks it a shame we are to be away and—well, read it yourself." And she placed it in her mother's hands, the dark eyes seriously, anxiously studying her face as she read. Presently Mrs. Maynard laid it down and looked again into her own, then, pointing to a certain passage with her finger, handed it to her daughter.
"Men were deceivers ever," she said, laughing, yet oracularly significant.
And Alice Renwick could not quite control the start with which she read,—
"Mr. Jerrold is to lead with his old love, Nina Beaubien. They make a capital pair, and she, of course, will be radiant—with Alice out of the way."
"That is something Mr. Jerrold failed to mention, is it not?"
Miss Renwick's cheeks were flushed, and the dark eyes were filled with sudden pain, as she answered,—
"I did not know she was there. She was to have gone to the Lakes the same day we left."
"She did go, Alice," said her mother, quietly, "but it was only for a brief visit, it seems."
The colonel was not at their cottage when the omnibus reached the lake. Over at the hotel were the usual number of loungers gathered to see the new arrivals, and Alice presently caught sight of the colonel coming through the park. If anything, he looked more listless and dispirited than he had before they left. She ran down the steps to meet him, smiling brightly up into his worn and haggard face.
"Are you feeling a little brighter, papa? Here are letters for you."
He took them wearily, barely glancing at the superscriptions.
"I had hoped for something more," he said, and passed on into the little frame house which was his sister's summer home. "Is your mother here?" he asked, looking back as he entered the door.
"In the north room, with Aunt Grace, papa," she answered; and then once more and with graver face she began to read Mr. Jerrold's letter. It was a careful study she was making of it this time, and not altogether a pleasant one. Aunt Grace came out and made some laughing remark at seeing her still so occupied. She looked up, pluckily smiling despite a sense of wounded pride, and answered,—
"I am only convincing myself that it was purely on general principles that Mr. Jerrold seemed so anxious I should be there. He never wanted me to lead with him at all." All the same it stung, and Aunt Grace saw and knew it, and longed to take her to her heart and comfort her; but it was better so. She was finding him out unaided.
She was still studying over portions of that ingenious letter, when the rustle of her aunt's gown indicated that she was rising. She saw her move towards the steps, heard a quick, firm tread upon the narrow planking, and glanced up in surprise. There, uncovering his close-cropped head, stood the tall stranger, looking placidly up as he addressed Aunt Grace:
"Pardon me, can I see Colonel Maynard?"
"He is at home. Pray come up and take a chair. I will let him know. I—I felt sure you must be some friend of his when I saw you in the stage," said the good lady, with manifest and apologetic uneasiness.
"Yes," responded the stranger, as he quickly ascended the steps and bowed before her, smiling quietly the while. "Let me introduce myself. I am Captain Armitage, of the colonel's regiment."
"There! I knew it!" was Aunt Grace's response, as with both hands uplifted in tragic despair she gave one horror-stricken glance at Alice and rushed into the house.
There was a moment's silence; then, with burning cheeks, but with brave eyes that looked frankly into his, Alice Renwick arose, came straight up to him, and held out her pretty hand.
"Captain Armitage, I beg your pardon."
He took the extended hand and gazed earnestly into her face, while a kind—almost merry—smile lighted up his own.
"Have the boys given me such an uncanny reputation as all that?" he asked; and then, as though tickled with the comicality of the situation, he began to laugh. "What ogres some of us old soldiers do become in the course of years! Do you know, young lady, I might never have suspected what a brute I was if it had not been for you? What a blessed thing it was the colonel did not tell you I was coming! You would never have given me this true insight into my character."
But she saw nothing to laugh at, and would not laugh. Her lovely face was still burning with blushes and dismay and full of trouble.
"I do not look upon it lightly at all," she said. "It was unpardonable in me to—to—"
"To take so effective and convincing a method of telling a man of his grievous sins! Not a bit of it. I like a girl who has the courage to stand up for her friends. I shall congratulate Jerrold and Hall both when I get back, lucky fellows that they are!" And evidently Captain Armitage was deriving altogether too much jolly entertainment from her awkwardness. She rallied and strove to put an end to it.
"Indeed, Captain Armitage, I do think the young officers sorely need friends and advocates at times. I never would have knowingly spoken to you of your personal responsibilities in the woes of Mr. Jerrold and Mr. Hall, but since I have done so unwittingly I may as well define my position, especially as you are so good-natured with it all." And here, it must be admitted, Miss Renwick's beautiful eyes were shyly lifted to his in a most telling way. Once there, they looked squarely into the clear blue depths of his, and never flinched. "It seemed to me several times at Sibley that the young officers deserved more consideration and courtesy than their captains accorded them. It was not you alone that I heard of."
"I am profoundly gratified to learn that somebody else is a brute," he answered, trying to look grave, but with that irrepressible merriment twitching at the corners of his mouth and giving sudden gleams of his firm white teeth through the thick moustache. "You are come to us just in time, Miss Renwick, and if you will let me come and tell you all my sorrows the next time the colonel pitches into me for something wrong in B Company, I'll give you full permission to overhaul me for everything or anything I say and do to the youngsters. Is it a bargain?" And he held out his big, firm hand.
"I think you are—very different from what I heard," was all her answer, as she looked up in his eyes, twinkling as they were with fun. "Oh, we are to shake hands on it as a bargain? Is that it? Very well, then."
When Captain Armitage left the cottage that night he did not go at once to his own room. Brief as was the conversation he had enjoyed with Miss Renwick, it was all that Fate vouchsafed him for that date at least. The entire party went to tea together at the hotel, but immediately thereafter the colonel carried Armitage away, and for two long hours they were closeted over some letters that had come from Sibley, and when the conference broke up and the wondering ladies saw the two men come forth it was late,—almost ten o'clock,—and the captain did not venture beyond the threshold of the sitting-room. He bowed and bade them a somewhat ceremonious good-night. His eyes rested—lingered—on Miss Renwick's uplifted face, and it was the picture he took with him into the stillness of the summer night.
The colonel accompanied him to the steps, and rested his hand upon the broad gray shoulder.
"God only knows how I have needed you, Armitage. This trouble has nearly crushed me, and it seemed as though I were utterly alone. I had the haunting fear that it was only weakness on my part and my love for my wife that made me stand out against Chester's propositions. He can only see guilt and conviction in every new phase of the case, and, though you see how he tries to spare me, his letters give no hope of any other conclusion."
Armitage pondered a moment before he answered. Then he slowly spoke:
"Chester has lived a lonely and an unhappy life. His first experience after graduation was that wretched affair of which you have told me. Of course I knew much of the particulars before, but not all. I respect Chester as a soldier and a gentleman, and I like him and trust him as a friend; but, Colonel Maynard, in a matter of such vital importance as this, and one of such delicacy, I distrust, not his motives, but his judgment. All his life, practically, he has been brooding over the sorrow that came to him when your trouble came to you, and his mind is grooved: he believes he sees mystery and intrigue in matters that others might explain in an instant."
"But think of all the array of evidence he has."
"Enough, and more than enough, I admit, to warrant everything he has thought or said of the man; but—"
"He simply puts it this way. If he be guilty, can she be less? Is it possible, Armitage, that you are unconvinced?"
"Certainly I am unconvinced. The matter has not yet been sifted. As I understand it, you have forbidden his confronting Jerrold with the proofs of his rascality until I get there. Admitting the evidence of the ladder, the picture, and the form at the window,—ay, the letter, too,—I am yet to be convinced of one thing. You must remember that his judgment is biassed by his early experiences. He fancies, that no woman is proof against such fascinations as Jerrold's."
"And your belief?"
"Is that some women—many women—are utterly above such a possibility."
Old Maynard wrung his comrade's hand. "You make me hope in spite of myself,—my past experiences,—my very senses, Armitage. I have leaned on you so many years that I missed you sorely when this trial came. If you had been there, things might not have taken this shape. He looks upon Chester—and it's one thing Chester hasn't forgiven in him—as a meddling old granny; you remember the time he so spoke of him last year; but he holds you in respect, or is afraid of you,—which in a man of his calibre is about the same thing. It may not be too late for you to act. Then when he is disposed of once and for all, I can know what must be done—where she is concerned."
"And under no circumstances can you question Mrs. Maynard?"
"No! no! If she suspected anything of this it would kill her. In any event, she must have no suspicion of it now."
"But does she not ask? Has she no theory about the missing photograph? Surely she must marvel over its disappearance."
"She does; at least, she did; but—I'm ashamed to own it, Armitage—we had to quiet her natural suspicions in some way, and I told her that it was my doing,—that I took it to tease Alice, put the photograph in the drawer of my desk, and hid the frame behind her sofa-pillow. Chester knows of the arrangement, and we had settled that when the picture was recovered from Mr. Jerrold he would send it to me."
Armitage was silent. A frown settled on his forehead, and it was evident that the statement was far from welcome to him. Presently he held forth his hand.
"Well, good-night, sir. I must go and have a quiet think over this. I hope you will rest well. You need it, colonel."
But Maynard only shook his head. His heart was too troubled for rest of any kind. He stood gazing out towards the park, where the tall figure of his ex-adjutant had disappeared among the trees. He heard the low-toned, pleasant chat of the ladies in the sitting-room, but he was in no mood to join them. He wished that Armitage had not gone, he felt such strength and comparative hope in his presence; but it was plain that even Armitage was confounded by the array of facts and circumstances that he had so painfully and slowly communicated to him. The colonel went drearily back to the room in which they had had their long conference. His wife and sister both hailed him as he passed the sitting-room door, and urged him to come and join them,—they wanted to ask about Captain Armitage, with whom it was evident they were much impressed; but he answered that he had some letters to put away, and he must attend first to that.
Among those that had been shown to the captain, mainly letters from Chester telling of the daily events at the fort and of his surveillance in the case of Jerrold, was one which Alice had brought him two days before. This had seemed to him of unusual importance, as the others contained nothing that tended to throw new light on the case. It said,—
"I am glad you have telegraphed for Armitage, and heartily approve your decision to lay the whole case before him. I presume he can reach you by Sunday, and that by Tuesday he will be here at the fort and ready to act. This will be a great relief to me, for, do what I could to allay it, there is no concealing the fact that much speculation and gossip is afloat concerning the events of that unhappy night. Leary declares he has been close-mouthed; the other men on guard know absolutely nothing, and Captain Wilton is the only officer to whom in my distress of mind I betrayed that there was a mystery, and he has pledged himself to me to say nothing. Sloat, too, has an inkling, and a big one, that Jerrold is the suspected party; but I never dreamed that anything had been seen or heard which in the faintest way connected your household with the matter, until yesterday. Then Leary admitted to me that two women, Mrs. Clifford's cook and the doctor's nursery-maid, had asked him whether it wasn't Lieutenant Jerrold he fired at, and if it was true that he was trying to get in at the colonel's back door. Twice Mrs. Clifford has asked me very significant questions, and three times to-day have officers made remarks to me that indicated their knowledge of the existence of some grave trouble. What makes matters worse is that Jerrold, when twitted about his absence from reveille, loses his temper and gets confused. There came near being a quarrel between him and Rollins at the mess a day or two since. He was saying that the reason he slept through roll-call was the fact that he had been kept up very late at the doctor's party, and Rollins happened to come in at the moment and blurted out that if he was up at all it must have been after he left the party, and reminded him that he had left before midnight with Miss Renwick. This completely staggered Jerrold, who grew confused and tried to cover it with a display of anger. Now, two weeks ago Rollins was most friendly to Jerrold and stood up for him when I assailed him, but ever since that night he has had no word to say for him. When Jerrold played wrathful and accused Rollins of mixing in other men's business, Rollins bounced up to him like a young bull-terrier, and I believe there would have been a row had not Sloat and Hoyt promptly interfered. Jerrold apologized, and Rollins accepted the apology, but has avoided him ever since,—won't speak of him to me, now that I have reason to want to draw him out. As soon as Armitage gets here he can do what I cannot,—find out just what and who is suspected and talked about.
"Mr. Jerrold, of course, avoids me. He has been attending strictly to his duty, and is evidently confounded that I did not press the matter of his going to town as he did the day I forbade it. Mr. Hoyt's being too late to see him personally gave me sufficient grounds on which to excuse it; but he seems to understand that something is impending, and is looking nervous and harassed. He has not renewed his request for leave of absence to run down to Sablon. I told him curtly it was out of the question."
The colonel took a few strides up and down the room. It had come, then. The good name of those he loved was already besmirched by garrison gossip, and he knew that nothing but heroic measures could ever silence scandal. Impulse and the innate sense of "fight" urged him to go at once to the scene, leaving his wife and her fair daughter here under his sister's roof; but Armitage and common sense said no. He had placed his burden on those broad gray shoulders, and, though ill content to wait, he felt that he was bound. Stowing away the letters, too nervous to sleep, too worried to talk, he stole from the cottage, and, with hands clasped behind his back, with low-bowed head he strolled forth into the broad vista of moonlit road.
There were bright lights still burning at the hotel, and gay voices came floating through the summer air. The piano, too, was thrumming a waltz in the parlor, and two or three couples were throwing embracing, slowly-twirling shadows on the windows. Over in the bar-and billiard-rooms the click of the balls and the refreshing rattle of cracked ice told suggestively of the occupation of the inmates. Keeping on beyond these distracting sounds, he slowly climbed a long, gradual ascent to the "bench," or plateau above the wooded point on which were grouped the glistening white buildings of the pretty summer resort, and, having reached the crest, turned silently to gaze at the beauty of the scene,—at the broad, flawless bosom of a summer lake all sheen and silver from the unclouded moon. Far to the southeast it wound among the bold and rock-ribbed bluffs rising from the forest growth at their base to shorn and rounded summits. Miles away to the southward twinkled the lights of one busy little town; others gleamed and sparkled over towards the northern shore, close under the pole-star; while directly opposite frowned a massive wall of palisaded rock, that threw, deep and heavy and far from shore, its long reflection in the mirror of water. There was not a breath of air stirring in the heavens, not a ripple on the face of the waters beneath, save where, close under the bold headland down on the other side, the signal-lights, white and crimson and green, creeping slowly along in the shadows, revealed one of the packets ploughing her steady way to the great marts below. Nearer at hand, just shaving the long strip of sandy, wooded point that jutted far out into the lake, a broad raft of timber, pushed by a hard-working, black-funnelled stern-wheeler, was slowly forging its way to the outlet of the lake, its shadowy edge sprinkled here and there with little sparks of lurid red,—the pilot-lights that gave warning of its slow and silent coming. Far down along the southern shore, under that black bluff-line, close to the silver water-edge, a glowing meteor seemed whirling through the night, and the low, distant rumble told of the "Atlantic Express" thundering on its journey. Here, along with him on the level plateau, were other roomy cottages, some dark, some still sending forth a guiding ray; while long lines of white-washed fence gleamed ghostly in the moonlight and were finally lost in the shadow of the great bluff that abruptly shut in the entire point and plateau and shut out all further sight of lake or land in that direction. Far beneath he could hear the soft plash upon the sandy shore of the little wavelets that came sweeping in the wake of the raft-boat and spending their tiny strength upon the strand; far down on the hotel point he could still hear the soft melody of the waltz; he remembered how the band used to play that same air, and wondered why it was he used to like it; it jarred him now. Presently the distant crack of a whip and the low rumble of wheels were heard: the omnibus coming back from the station with passengers from the night train. He was in no mood to see any one. He turned away and walked northward along the edge of the bench, towards the deep shadow of the great shoulder of the bluff, and presently he came to a long flight of wooden stairs, leading from the plateau down to the hotel, and here he stopped and seated himself awhile. He did not want to go home yet. He wanted to be by himself,—to think and brood over his trouble. He saw the omnibus go round the bend and roll up to the hotel door-way with its load of pleasure-seekers, and heard the joyous welcome with which some of their number were received by waiting friends, but life had little of joy to him this night. He longed to go away,—anywhere, anywhere, could he only leave this haunting misery behind. He was so proud of his regiment; he had been so happy in bringing home to it his accomplished and gracious wife; he had been so joyous in planning for the lovely times Alice was to have,—the social successes, the girlish triumphs, the garrison gayeties of which she was to be the queen,—and now, so very, very soon, all had turned to ashes and desolation! She was so beautiful, so sweet, winning, graceful. Oh, God! could it be that one so gifted could possibly be so base? He rose in nervous misery and clinched his hands high in air, then sat down again with hiding, hopeless face, rocking to and fro as sways a man in mortal pain. It was long before he rallied and again wearily arose. Most of the lights were gone; silence had settled down upon the sleeping point; he was chilled with the night air and the dew, and stiff and heavy as he tried to walk. Down at the foot of the stairs he could see the night-watchman making his rounds. He did not want to explain matters and talk with him: he would go around. There was a steep pathway down into the ravine that gave into the lake just beyond his sister's cottage, and this he sought and followed, moving slowly and painfully, but finally reaching the grassy level of the pathway that connected the cottages with the wood-road up the bluff. Trees and shrubbery were thick on both sides, and the path was shaded. He turned to his right, and came down until once more he was in sight of the white walls of the hotel standing out there on the point, until close at hand he could see the light of his own cottage glimmering like faithful beacon through the trees; and then he stopped short.
A tall, slender figure—a man in dark, snug-fitting clothing—was creeping stealthily up to the cottage window.
The colonel held his breath: his heart thumped violently: he waited,—watched. He saw the dark figure reach the blinds; he saw them slowly, softly turned, and the faint light gleaming from within; he saw the figure peering in between the slats, and then—God! was it possible?—a low voice, a man's voice, whispering or hoarsely murmuring a name: he heard a sudden movement within the room, as though the occupant had heard and were replying, "Coming." His blood froze: it was not Alice's room: it was his,—his and hers—his wife's,—and that was surely her step approaching the window. Yes, the blind was quickly opened. A white-robed figure stood at the casement. He could see, hear, bear no more: with one mad rush he sprang from his lair and hurled himself upon the shadowy stranger.
"You hound! who are you?"
But 'twas no shadow that he grasped. A muscular arm was round him in a trice, a brawny hand at his throat, a twisting, sinewy leg was curled in his, and he went reeling back upon the springy turf, stunned and wellnigh breathless.
When he could regain his feet and reach the casement the stranger had vanished; but Mrs. Maynard lay there on the floor within, a white and senseless heap.
Perhaps it was as well for all parties that Frank Armitage concluded that he must have another whiff of tobacco that night as an incentive to the "think" he had promised himself. He had strolled through the park to the grove of trees out on the point and seated himself in the shadows. Here his reflections were speedily interrupted by the animated flirtations of a few couples who, tiring of the dance, came out into the coolness of the night and the seclusion of the grove, where their murmured words and soft laughter soon gave the captain's nerves a strain they could not bear. He broke cover and betook himself to the very edge of the stone retaining wall out on the point.
He wanted to think calmly and dispassionately; he meant to weigh all he had read and heard and form his estimate of the gravity of the case before going to bed. He meant to be impartial,—to judge her as he would judge any other woman so compromised; but for the life of him he could not. He bore with him the mute image of her lovely face, with its clear, truthful, trustful dark eyes. He saw her as she stood before him on the little porch when they shook hands on their laughing—or his laughing—compact, for she would not laugh. How perfect she was!—her radiant beauty, her uplifted eyes, so full of their self-reproach and regret at the speech she had made at his expense! How exquisite was the grace of her slender, rounded form as she stood there before him, one slim hand half shyly extended to meet the cordial clasp of his own! He wanted to judge and be just; but that image dismayed him. How could he look on this picture and then—on that,—the one portrayed in the chain of circumstantial evidence which the colonel had laid before him? It was monstrous! it was treason to womanhood! One look in her eyes, superb in their innocence, was too much for his determined impartiality. Armitage gave himself a mental kick for what he termed his imbecility, and went back to the hotel.
"It's no use," he muttered. "I'm a slave of the weed, and can't be philosophic without my pipe."
Up to his little box of a room he climbed, found his pipe-case and tobacco-pouch, and in five minutes was strolling out to the point once more, when he came suddenly upon the night-watchman,—a personage of whose functions and authority he was entirely ignorant. The man eyed him narrowly, and essayed to speak. Not knowing him, and desiring to be alone, Armitage pushed past, and was surprised to find that a hand was on his shoulder and the man at his side before he had gone a rod.
"Beg pardon, sir," said the watchman, gruffly, "but I don't know you. Are you stopping at the hotel?"
"I am," said Armitage, coolly, taking his pipe from his lips and blowing a cloud over his other shoulder. "And who may you be?"
"I am the watchman; and I do not remember seeing you come to-day."
"Nevertheless I did."
"On what train, sir?"
"This afternoon's up-train."
"You certainly were not on the omnibus when it got here."
"Very true. I walked over from beyond the school-house."
"You must excuse me, sir. I did not think of that; and the manager requires me to know everybody. Is this Major Armitage?"
"Armitage is my name, but I'm not a major."
"Yes, sir; I'm glad to be set right. And the other gentleman,—him as was inquiring for Colonel Maynard to-night? He's in the army, too, but his name don't seem to be on the book. He only came in on the late train."
"Another man to see Colonel Maynard?" asked the captain, with sudden interest. "Just come in, you say. I'm sure I've no idea. What was he like?"
"I don't know, sir. At first I thought you was him. The driver told me he brought a gentleman over who asked some questions about Colonel Maynard, but he didn't get aboard at the depot, and he didn't come down to the hotel,—got off somewhere up there on the bench, and Jim didn't see him."
"Where's Jim?" said Armitage. "Come with me, watchman. I want to interview him."
Together they walked over to the barn, which the driver was just locking up after making everything secure for the night.
"Who was it inquiring for Colonel Maynard?" asked Armitage.
"I don't know, sir," was the slow answer. "There was a man got aboard as I was coming across the common there in the village at the station. There were several passengers from the train, and some baggage: so he may have started ahead on foot but afterwards concluded to ride. As soon as I saw him get in I reined up and asked where he was going; he had no baggage nor nuthin', and my orders are not to haul anybody except people of the hotel: so he came right forward through the 'bus and took the seat behind me and said 'twas all right, he was going to the hotel; and he passed up a half-dollar. I told him that I couldn't take the money,—that 'bus-fares were paid at the office,—and drove ahead. Then he handed me a cigar, and pretty soon he asked me if there were many people, and who had the cottages; and when I told him, he asked which was Colonel Maynard's, but he didn't say he knew him, and the next thing I knew was when we got here to the hotel he wasn't in the 'bus. He must have stepped back through all those passengers and slipped off up there on the bench. He was in it when we passed the little brown church up on the hill."
"What was he like?"
"I couldn't see him plain. He stepped out from behind a tree as we drove through the common, and came right into the 'bus. It was dark in there, and all I know is he was tall and had on dark clothes. Some of the people inside must have seen him better; but they are all gone to bed, I suppose."
"I will go over to the hotel and inquire, anyway," said Armitage, and did so. The lights were turned down, and no one was there, but he could hear voices chatting in quiet tones on the broad, sheltered veranda without, and, going thither, found three or four men enjoying a quiet smoke. Armitage was a man of action. He stepped at once to the group:
"Pardon me, gentlemen, but did any of you come over in the omnibus from the station to-night?"
"I did, sir," replied one of the party, removing his cigar and twitching off the ashes with his little finger, then looking up with the air of a man expectant of question.
"The watchman tells me a man came over who was making inquiries for Colonel Maynard. May I ask if you saw or heard of such a person?"
"A gentleman got in soon after we left the station, and when the driver hailed him he went forward and took a seat near him. They had some conversation, but I did not hear it. I only know that he got out again a little while before we reached the hotel."
"Could you see him, and describe him? I am a friend of Colonel Maynard's, an officer of his regiment,—which will account for my inquiry."
"Well, yes, sir. I noticed he was very tall and slim, was dressed in dark clothes, and wore a dark slouched hat well down over his forehead. He was what I would call a military-looking man, for I noticed his walk as he got off; but he wore big spectacles,—blue or brown glass, I should say,—and had a heavy beard."
"Which way did he go when he left the 'bus?"
"He walked northward along the road at the edge of the bluff, right up towards the cottages on the upper level," was the answer.
Armitage thanked him for his courtesy, explained that he had left the colonel only a short time before and that he was then expecting no visitor, and if one had come it was perhaps necessary that he should be hunted up and brought to the hotel. Then he left the porch and walked hurriedly through the park towards its northernmost limit. There to his left stood the broad roadway along which, nestling under shelter of the bluff, was ranged the line of cottages, some two-storied, with balconies and verandas, others low, single-storied affairs with a broad hall-way in the middle of each and rooms on both north and south sides. Farthermost north on the row, almost hidden in the trees, and nearest the ravine, stood Aunt Grace's cottage, where were domiciled the colonel's household. It was in the big bay-windowed north room that he and the colonel had had their long conference earlier in the evening. The south room, nearly opposite, was used as their parlor and sitting-room. Aunt Grace and Miss Renwick slept in the little front rooms north and south of the hall-way, and the lights in their rooms were extinguished; so, too, was that in the parlor. All was darkness on the south and east. All was silence and peace as Armitage approached; but just as he reached the shadow of the stunted oak-tree growing in front of the house his ears were startled by an agonized cry, a woman's half-stifled shriek. He bounded up the steps, seized the knob of the door and threw his weight against it. It was firmly bolted within. Loud he thundered on the panels. "'Tis I,—Armitage!" he called. He heard the quick patter of little feet; the bolt was slid, and he rushed in, almost stumbling against a trembling, terror-stricken, yet welcoming white-robed form,—Alice Renwick, barefooted, with her glorious wealth of hair tumbling in dark luxuriance all down over the dainty night-dress,—Alice Renwick, with pallid face and wild imploring eyes.
"What is wrong?" he asked, in haste.
"It's mother,—her room,—and it's locked, and she won't answer," was the gasping reply.
Armitage sprang to the rear of the hall, leaned one second against the opposite wall, sent his foot with mighty impulse and muscled impact against the opposing lock, and the door flew open with a crash. The next instant Alice was bending over her senseless mother, and the captain was giving a hand in much bewilderment to the panting colonel, who was striving to clamber in at the window. The ministrations of Aunt Grace and Alice were speedily sufficient to restore Mrs. Maynard. A teaspoonful of brandy administered by the colonel's trembling hand helped matters materially. Then he turned to Armitage.
"Come outside," he said.
Once again in the moonlight the two men faced each other.
"Armitage, can you get a horse?"
"Certainly. What then?"
"Go to the station, get men, if possible, and head this fellow off. He was here again to-night, and it was not Alice he called, but my—but Mrs. Maynard. I saw him; I grappled with him right here at the bay-window where she met him, and he hurled me to grass as though I'd been a child. I want a horse! I want that man to-night. How did he get away from Sibley?"
"Do you mean—do you think it was Jerrold?"
"Good God, yes! Who else could it be? Disguised, of course, and bearded; but the figure, the carriage, were just the same, and he came to this window,—to her window,—and called, and she answered. My God, Armitage, think of it!"
"Come with me, colonel. You are all unstrung," was the captain's answer as he led his broken friend away. At the front door he stopped one moment, then ran up the steps and into the hall, where he tapped lightly at the casement.
"What is it?" was the low response from an invisible source.
"The watchman is here now. I will send him around to the window to keep guard until our return. The colonel is a little upset by the shock, and I want to attend to him. We are going to the hotel a moment before I bring him home. You are not afraid to have him leave you?"
"Not now, captain."
"Is Mrs. Maynard better?"
"Yes. She hardly seems to know what has happened. Indeed, none of us do. What was it?"
"A tramp, looking for something to eat, tried to open the blinds, and the colonel was out here and made a jump at him. They had a scuffle in the shrubbery, and the tramp got away. It frightened your mother: that's the sum of it, I think."
"Is papa hurt?"
"No: a little bruised and shaken, and mad as a hornet. I think perhaps I'll get him quieted down and sleepy in a few minutes, if you and Mrs. Maynard will be content to let him stay with me. I can talk almost any man drowsy."
"Mamma seems to worry for fear he is hurt."
"Assure her solemnly that he hasn't a scratch. He is simply fighting mad, and I'm going to try and find the tramp. Does Mrs. Maynard remember how he looked?"
"She could not see the face at all. She heard some one at the shutters, and a voice, and supposed of course it was papa, and threw open the blind."
"Oh, I see. That's all, Miss Alice. I'll go back to the colonel. Good-night!" And Armitage went forth with a lighter step.
"One sensation knocked endwise, colonel. I have it on the best of authority that Mrs. Maynard so fearlessly went to the window in answer to the voice and noise at the shutters simply because she knew you were out there somewhere and she supposed it was you. How simple these mysteries become when a little daylight is let in on them, after all! Come, I'm going to take you over to my room for a stiff glass of grog, and then after his trampship while you go back to bed."
"Armitage, you seem to make very light of this night's doings. What is easier than to connect it all with the trouble at Sibley?"
"Nothing was ever more easily explained than this thing, colonel, and all I want now is a chance to get that tramp. Then I'll go to Sibley; and 'pon my word I believe that mystery can be made as commonplace a piece of petty larceny as this was of vagrancy. Come."
But when Armitage left the colonel at a later hour and sought his own room for a brief rest he was in no such buoyant mood. A night-search for a tramp in the dense thickets among the bluffs and woods of Sablon could hardly be successful. It was useless to make the attempt. He slept but little during the cool August night, and early in the morning mounted a horse and trotted over to the railway-station.
"Has any train gone northward since last night?" he inquired at the office.
"None that stop here," was the answer. "The first train up comes along at 11.56."
"I want to send a despatch to Fort Sibley and get an answer without delay. Can you work it for me?"
The agent nodded, and pushed over a package of blanks. Armitage wrote rapidly as follows:
"Commanding Fort Sibley.
"Is Jerrold there? Tell him I will arrive Tuesday. Answer.
It was along towards nine o'clock when the return message came clicking in on the wires, was written out, and handed to the tall soldier with the tired blue eyes.
He read, started, crushed the paper in his hand, and turned from the office. The answer was significant:
"Lieutenant Jerrold left Sibley yesterday afternoon. Not yet returned. Absent without leave this morning.
Nature never vouchsafed to wearied man a lovelier day of rest than the still Sunday on which Frank Armitage rode slowly back from the station. The soft, mellow tone of the church-bell, tolling the summons for morning service, floated out from the brown tower, and was echoed back from the rocky cliff glistening in the August sunshine on the northern bluff. Groups of villagers hung about the steps of the little sanctuary and gazed with mild curiosity at the arriving parties from the cottages and the hotel. The big red omnibus came up with a load of worshippers, and farther away, down the vista of the road, Armitage could see others on foot and in carriages, all wending their way to church. He was in no mood to meet them. The story that he had been out pursuing a tramp during the night was pretty thoroughly circulated by this time, he felt assured, and every one would connect his early ride to the station, in some way, with the adventure that the grooms, hostlers, cooks, and kitchen-maids had all been dilating upon ever since daybreak. He dreaded to meet the curious glances of the women, and the questions of the few men whom he had taken so far into his confidence as to ask about the mysterious person who came over in the stage with them. He reined up his horse, and then, seeing a little pathway leading into the thick wood to his right, he turned in thither and followed it some fifty yards among bordering treasures of coreopsis and golden-rod and wild luxuriance of vine and foliage. Dismounting in the shade, he threw the reins over his arm and let his horse crop the juicy grasses, while he seated himself on a little stump and fell to thinking again. He could hear the reverent voices of one or two visitors strolling about among the peaceful, flower-decked graves behind the little church and only a short stone's-throw away through the shrubbery. He could hear the low, solemn voluntary of the organ, and presently the glad outburst of young voices in the opening hymn, but he knew that belated ones would still be coming to church, and he would not come forth from his covert until all were out of the way. Then, too, he was glad of a little longer time to think: he did not want to tell the colonel the result of his morning investigations.
To begin with: the watchman, the driver, and the two men whom he had questioned were all of an opinion as to the character of the stranger: "he was a military man." The passengers described his voice as that of a man of education and social position; the driver and passengers declared his walk and carriage to be that of a soldier: he was taller, they said, than the tall, stalwart Saxon captain, but by no means so heavily built. As to age, they could not tell: his beard was black and curly,—no gray hairs; his movements were quick and elastic; but his eyes were hidden by those colored glasses, and his forehead by the slouch of that broad-brimmed felt hat.
At the station, while awaiting the answer to his despatch, Armitage had questioned the agent as to whether any man of that description had arrived by the night train from the north. He had seen none, he said, but there was Larsen over at the post-office store, who came down on that train; perhaps he could tell. Oddly enough, Mr. Larsen recalled just such a party,—tall, slim, dark, dark-bearded, with blue glasses and dark hat and clothes,—but he was bound for Lakeville, the station beyond, and he remained in the car when he, Larsen, got off. Larsen remembered the man well, because he sat in the rear corner of the smoker and had nothing to say to anybody, but kept reading a newspaper; and the way he came to take note of him was that while standing with two friends at that end of the car they happened to be right around the man. The Saturday evening train from the city is always crowded with people from the river towns who have been up to market or the matinees, and even the smoker was filled with standing men until they got some thirty miles down. Larsen wanted to light a fresh cigar, and offered one to each of his friends: then it was found they had no matches, and one of them, who had been drinking a little and felt jovial, turned to the dark stranger and asked him for a light, and the man, without speaking, handed out a little silver match-box. It was just then that the conductor came along, and Larsen saw his ticket. It was a "round trip" to Lakeville: he was evidently going there for a visit, and therefore, said Larsen, he didn't get off at Sablon Station, which was six miles above.
But Armitage knew better. It was evident that he had quietly slipped out on the platform of the car after the regular passengers had got out of the way, and let himself off into the darkness on the side opposite the station. Thence he had an open and unimpeded walk of a few hundred yards until he reached the common, and then, when overtaken by the hotel omnibus, he could jump aboard and ride. There was only one road, only one way over to the hotel, and he could not miss it. There was no doubt now that, whoever he was, the night visitor had come down on the evening train from the city; and his return ticket would indicate that he meant to go back the way he came. It was half-past ten when that train arrived. It was nearly midnight when the man appeared at the cottage window. It was after two when Armitage gave up the search and went to bed. It was possible for the man to have walked to Lakeville, six miles south, and reached the station there in abundant time to take the up-train which passed Sablon, without stopping, a little before daybreak. If he took that train, and if he was Jerrold, he would have been in the city before seven, and could have been at Fort Sibley before or by eight o'clock. But Chester's despatch showed clearly that at 8.30—the hour for signing the company morning reports—Mr. Jerrold was not at his post. Was he still in the neighborhood and waiting for the noon train? If so, could he be confronted on the cars and accused of his crime? He looked at his watch; it was nearly eleven, and he must push on to the hotel before that hour, report to the colonel, then hasten back to the station. He sprang to his feet, and was just about to mount, when a vision of white and scarlet came suddenly into view. There, within twenty feet of him, making her dainty way through the shrubbery from the direction of the church, sunshine and shadow alternately flitting across her lovely face and form, Alice Renwick stepped forth into the pathway, and, shading her eyes with her hand, gazed along the leafy lane towards the road, as though expectant of another's coming. Then, attracted by the beauty of the golden-rod, she bent and busied herself with gathering in the yellow sprays. Armitage, with one foot in the stirrup, stood stock-still, half in surprise, half stunned by a sudden and painful thought. Could it be that she was there in hopes of meeting—any one?
He retook his foot from the stirrup, and, relaxing the rein, still stood gazing at her over his horse's back. That placid quadruped, whose years had been spent in these pleasant by-ways and were too many to warrant an exhibition of coltish surprise, promptly lowered his head and resumed his occupation of grass-nibbling, making a little crunching noise which Miss Renwick might have heard, but apparently did not. She was singing very softly to herself,—
"Daisy, tell my fortune, pray: He loves me not,—he loves me."
And still Armitage stood and gazed, while she, absorbed in her pleasant task, still pulled and plucked at the golden-rod. In all his life no "vision of fair women" had been to him fair and sacred and exquisite as this. Down to the tip of her arched and slender foot, peeping from beneath the broidered hem of her snowy skirt, she stood the lady born and bred, and his eyes looked on and worshipped her,—worshipped, yet questioned, Why came she here? Absorbed, he released his hold on the rein, and Dobbin, nothing loath, reached with his long, lean neck for further herbage, and stepped in among the trees. Still stood his negligent master, fascinated in his study of the lovely, graceful girl. Again she raised her head and looked northward along the winding, shaded wood-path. A few yards away were other great clusters of the wild flowers she loved, more sun-kissed golden-rod, and, with a little murmur of delight, gathering her dainty skirts in one hand, she flitted up the pathway like an unconscious humming-bird garnering the sweets from every blossom. A little farther on the pathway bent among the trees, and she would be hidden from his sight; but still he stood and studied her every movement, drank in the soft, cooing melody of her voice as she sang, and then there came a sweet, solemn strain from the brown, sunlit walls just visible through the trees, and reverent voices and the resonant chords of the organ thrilled through the listening woods the glorious anthem of the church militant.
At the first notes she lifted up her queenly head and stood, listening and appreciative. Then he saw her rounded throat swelling like a bird's, and the rich, full tones of her voice rang out through the welcoming sunshine, and the fluttering wrens, and proud red-breasted robins, and rival song-queens, the brown-winged thrushes,—even the impudent shrieking jays,—seemed to hush and listen. Dobbin, fairly astonished, lifted up his hollow-eyed head and looked amazedly at the white songstress whose scarlet sash and neck-ribbons gleamed in such vivid contrast to the foliage about her. A wondering little "cotton-tail" rabbit, shy and wild as a hawk, came darting through the bushes into the sunshiny patchwork on the path, and then, uptilted and with quivering ears and nostrils and wide-staring eyes, stood paralyzed with helpless amaze, ignoring the tall man in gray as did the singer herself. Richer, rounder, fuller grew the melody, as, abandoning herself to the impulse of the sacred hour, she joined with all her girlish heart in the words of praise and thanksgiving,—in the glad and triumphant chorus of the Te Deum. From beginning to end she sang, now ringing and exultant, now soft and plaintive, following the solemn words of the ritual,—sweet and low and suppliant in the petition, "We therefore pray Thee help Thy servants whom Thou hast redeemed with Thy precious blood," confident and exulting in the declaration, "Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ," and then rich with fearless trust and faith in the thrilling climax, "Let me never be confounded." Armitage listened as one in a trance. From the depth of her heart the girl had joined her glorious voice to the chorus of praise and adoration, and now that all was stilled once more her head had fallen forward on her bosom, her hands, laden with golden-rod, were joined together: it seemed as though she were lost in prayer.
And this was the girl, this the pure, God-worshipping, God-fearing woman, who for one black instant he had dared to fancy had come here expectant of a meeting with the man whose aim had been frustrated but the night before! He could have thrown himself at her feet and implored her pardon. He did step forth, and then, hat in hand, baring his proud Saxon head as his forefathers would have uncovered to their monarch, he waited until she lifted up her eyes and saw him, and knew by the look in his frank face that he had stood by, a mute listener to her unstudied devotions. A lovely flush rose to her very temples, and her eyes drooped their pallid lids until the long lashes swept the crimson of her cheeks.
"Have you been here, captain? I never saw you," was her fluttering question.
"I rode in here on my way back from the station, not caring to meet all the good people going to church. I felt like an outcast."
"I, too, am a recreant to-day. It is the first time I have missed service in a long while. Mamma felt too unstrung to come, and I had given up the idea, but both she and Aunt Grace urged me. I was too late for the omnibus, and walked up, and then I would not go in because service was begun, and I wanted to be home again before noon. I cannot bear to be late at church, or to leave it until everything is over, but I can't be away from mother so long to-day. Shall we walk that way now?"
"In a minute. I must find my horse. He is in here somewhere. Tell me how the colonel is feeling, and Mrs. Maynard."
"Both very nervous and worried, though I see nothing extraordinary in the adventure. We read of poor hungry tramps everywhere, and they rarely do harm."
"I wonder a little at your venturing here in the wood-paths, after what occurred last night."
"Why, Captain Armitage, no one would harm me here, so close to the church. Indeed, I never thought of such a thing until you mentioned it. Did you discover anything about the man?"
"Nothing definite; but I must be at the station again to meet the up-train, and have to see the colonel meantime. Let me find Dobbin, or whatever they call this venerable relic I'm riding, and then I'll escort you home."
But Dobbin had strayed deeper into the wood. It was some minutes before the captain could find and catch him. The rich melody of sacred music was again thrilling through the perfumed woods, the glad sunshine was pouring its warmth and blessing over all the earth, glinting on bluff and brake and palisaded cliff, the birds were all singing their rivalling psaltery, and Nature seemed pouring forth its homage to the Creator and Preserver of all on this His holy day, when Frank Armitage once more reached the bowered lane where, fairest, sweetest sight of all, his lady stood waiting him. She turned to him as she heard the hoof-beat on the turf, and smiled.