Under the cloudless heavens, under the starlit skies, blessing the grateful dew that cools the upland air and moistens the bunch-grass that has been bleaching all day in the fierce rays of the summer sun, a little column of infantry is swinging steadily southward. Long and toilsome has been the march; hot, dusty, and parching the day. Halts have been few and far between, and every man, from the colonel down, is coated with a gray mask of powdered alkali, the contribution of a two hours' tramp through Deadman's Canon just before the sun went down. Now, however, they are climbing the range. The morrow will bring them to the broad and beautiful valley of the Spirit Wolf, and there they must have news. Officers and men are footsore and weary, but no one begs for rest. Colonel Maynard, riding ahead on a sorry hack he picked up at the station two days' long march behind them, is eager to reach the springs at Forest Glade before ordering bivouac for the night. A week agone no one who saw him at Sablon would have thought the colonel fit for a march like this; but he seems rejuvenate. His head is high, his eye as bright, his bearing as full of spirit, as man's could possibly be at sixty, and the whole regiment cheered him when he caught the column at Omaha. A talk with Chester and Armitage seemed to have made a new man of him, and to-night he is full of an energy that inspires the entire command. Though they were farther away than many other troops ordered to the scene, the fact that their station was on the railway and that they could be sent by special trains to Omaha and thence to the West enabled them to begin their rescue-march ahead of all the other foot-troops and behind only the powerful command of cavalry that was whirled to the scene the moment the authorities woke up to the fact that it should have been sent in the first place. Old Maynard would give his very ears to get to Thornton's corral ahead of them, but the cavalry has thirty-six hours' start and four legs to two. Every moment he looks ahead expectant of tidings from the front that shall tell him the ——th were there and the remnant rescued. Even then, he knows, he and his long Springfields will be needed. The cavalry can fight their way in to the succor of the besieged, but once there will be themselves surrounded and too few in numbers to begin aggressive movements. He and his will indeed be welcome reinforcements; and so they trudge ahead.
The moon is up and it is nearly ten o'clock when high up on the rolling divide the springs are reached, and, barely waiting to quench their thirst in the cooling waters, the wearied men roll themselves in their blankets under the giant trees, and, guarded by a few outlying pickets, are soon asleep. Most of the officers have sprawled around a little fire and are burning their boot-leather thereat. The colonel, his adjutant, and the doctor are curled up under a tent-fly that serves by day as a wrap for the rations and cooking-kit they carry on pack-mule. Two company commanders,—the Alpha and Omega of the ten, as Major Sloat dubbed them,—the senior and junior in rank, Chester and Armitage by name, have rolled themselves in their blankets under another tent-fly and are chatting in low tones before dropping off to sleep. They have been inseparable on the journey thus far, and the colonel has had two or three long talks with them; but who knows what the morrow may bring forth? There is still much to settle.
One officer, he of the guard, is still afoot, and trudging about among the trees, looking after his sentries. Another officer, also alone, is sitting in silence smoking a pipe: it is Mr. Jerrold.
Cleared though he is of the charges originally brought against him in the minds of his colonel and Captain Chester, he has lost caste with his fellows and with them. Only two or three men have been made aware of the statement which acquitted him, but every one knows instinctively that he was saved by Nina Beaubien, and that in accepting his release at her hands he had put her to a cruel expense. Every man among his brother officers knows in some way that he has been acquitted of having compromised Alice Renwick's fair fame only by an alibi that correspondingly harmed another. The fact now generally known, that they were betrothed, and that the engagement was openly announced, made no difference. Without being able to analyze his conduct, the regiment was satisfied that it had been selfish and contemptible; and that was enough to warrant giving him the cold shoulder. He was quick to see and take the hint, and, in bitter distress of mind, to withdraw himself from their companionship. He had hoped and expected that his eagerness to go with them on the wild and sudden campaign would reinstate him in their good graces, but it failed utterly. "Any man would seek that," was the verdict of the informal council held by the officers. "He would have been a poltroon if he hadn't sought to go; but, while he isn't a poltroon, he has done a contemptible thing." And so it stood. Rollins had cut him dead, refused his hand, and denied him a chance to explain. "Tell him he can't explain," was the savage reply he sent by the adjutant, who consented to carry Jerrold's message in order that he might have fair play. "He knows, without explanation, the wrong he has done to more than one. I won't have anything to do with him."
Others avoided him, and only coldly spoke to him when speech was necessary. Chester treated him with marked aversion; the colonel would not look at him; only Armitage—his captain—had a decent word for him at any time, and even he was stern and cold. The most envied and careless of the entire command, the Adonis, the beau, the crack shot, the graceful leader in all garrison gayeties, the beautiful dancer, rider, tennis-player, the adored of so many sentimental women at Sibley, poor Jerrold had found his level, and his proud and sensitive though selfish heart was breaking.
Sitting alone under the trees, he had taken a sheet of paper from his pocket-case and was writing by the light of the rising moon. One letter was short and easily written, for with a few words he had brought it to a close, then folded and in a bold and vigorous hand addressed it. The other was far longer; and over this one, thinking deeply, erasing some words and pondering much over others, he spent a long hour. It was nearly midnight, and he was chilled to the heart, when he stiffly rose and took his way among the blanketed groups to the camp-fire around which so many of his wearied comrades were sleeping the sleep of the tired soldier. Here he tore to fragments and scattered in the embers some notes and letters that were in his pockets. They blazed up brightly, and by the glare he stood one moment studying young Rollins's smooth and placid features; then he looked around on the unconscious circle of bronzed and bearded faces. There were many types of soldier there,—men who had led brigades through the great war and gone back to the humble bars of the line-officer at its close; men who had led fierce charges against the swarming Indians in the rough old days of the first prairie railways; men who had won distinction and honorable mention in hard and trying frontier service; men who had their faults and foibles and weaknesses like other men, and were aggressive or compliant, strong-willed or yielding, overbearing or meek, as are their brethren in other walks of life; men who were simple of heart, single in purpose and ambition, diverse in characteristics, but unanimous in one trait,—no meanness could live among them; and Jerrold's heart sank within him, colder, lower, stonier than before, as he looked from face to face and cast up mentally the sum of each man's character. His hospitality had been boundless, his bounty lavish; one and all they had eaten of his loaf and drunk of his cup; but was there among them one who could say of him, "He is generous and I stand his friend"? Was there one of them, one of theirs, for whom he had ever denied himself a pleasure, great or small? He looked at poor old Gray, with his wrinkled, anxious face, and thought of his distress of mind. Only a few thousands—not three years' pay—had the veteran scraped and saved and stored away for his little girl, whose heart was aching with its first cruel sorrow,—his work, his undoing, his cursed, selfish greed for adulation, his reckless love of love. The morrow's battle, if it came, might leave her orphaned and alone, and, poor as it was, a father's pitying sympathy could not be her help with the coming year. Would Gray mourn him if the fortune of war made him the victim? Would any one of those averted faces look with pity and regret upon his stiffening form? Would there be any one on earth to whom his death would be a sorrow, but Nina? Would it even be a blow to her? She loved him wildly, he knew that; but would she did she but dream the truth? He knew her nature well. He knew how quickly such burning love could turn to fiercest hate when convinced that the object was utterly untrue. He had said nothing to her of the photograph, nothing at all of Alice except to protest time and again that his attentions to her were solely to win the good will of the colonel's family and of the colonel himself, so that he might be proof against the machinations of his foes. And yet had he not, that very night on which he crossed the stream and let her peril her name and honor for one stolen interview—had he not gone to her exultant welcome with a traitorous knowledge gnawing at his heart? That very night, before they parted at the colonel's door had he not lied to Alice Renwick?—had he not denied the story of his devotion to Miss Beaubien, and was not his practised eye watching eagerly the beautiful dark face for one sign that the news was welcome, and so precipitate the avowal trembling on his lips that it was her he madly loved,—not Nina? Though she hurriedly bade him good-night, though she was unprepared for any such announcement, he well knew that Alice Renwick's heart fluttered at the earnestness of his manner, and that he had indicated far more than he had said. Fear—not love—had drawn him to Nina Beaubien that night, and hope had centred on her more beautiful rival, when the discoveries of the night involved him in the first trembling symptoms of the downfall to come. And he was to have spent the morning with her, the woman to whom he had lied in word, while she to whom he had lied in word and deed was going from him, not to return until the german, and even then he planned treachery. He meant to lead with Alice Renwick and claim that it must be with the colonel's daughter because the ladies of the garrison were the givers. Then, he knew, Nina would not come at all, and, possibly, might quarrel with him on that ground. What could have been an easier solution of his troublous predicament? She would break their secret engagement; he would refuse all reconciliation, and be free to devote himself to Alice. But all these grave complications had arisen. Alice would not come. Nina wrote demanding that he should lead with her, and that he should meet her at St. Croix; and then came the crash. He owed his safety to her self-sacrifice, and now must give up all hope of Alice Renwick. He had accepted the announcement of their engagement. He could not do less, after all that had happened and the painful scene at their parting. And yet would it not be a blessing to her if he were killed? Even now in his self-abnegation and misery he did not fully realize how mean he was,—how mean he seemed to others. He resented in his heart what Sloat had said of him but the day before, little caring whether he heard it or not: "It would be a mercy to that poor girl if Jerrold were killed. He will break her heart with neglect, or drive her mad with jealousy, inside of a year." But the regiment seemed to agree with Sloat.
And so in all that little band of comrades he could call no man friend. One after another he looked upon the unconscious faces, cold and averted in the oblivion of sleep, but not more cold, not more distrustful, than when he had vainly sought among them one relenting glance in the early moonlight that battle eve in bivouac. He threw his arms upward, shook his head with hopeless gesture, then buried his face in the sleeves of his rough campaign overcoat and strode blindly from their midst.
Early in the morning, an hour before daybreak, the shivering out-post crouching in a hollow to the southward catch sight of two dim figures shooting suddenly up over a distant ridge,—horsemen, they know at a glance,—and these two come loping down the moonlit trail over which two nights before had marched the cavalry speeding to the rescue, over which in an hour the regiment itself must be on the move. Old campaigners are two of the picket, and they have been especially cautioned to be on the lookout for couriers coming back along the trail. They spring to their feet, in readiness to welcome or repel, as the sentry rings out his sharp and sudden challenge.
"Couriers from the corral," is the jubilant answer. "This Colonel Maynard's outfit?"
"Ay, ay, sonny," is the unmilitary but characteristic answer. "What's your news?"
"Got there in time, and saved what's left of 'em; but it's a hell-hole, and you fellows are wanted quick as you can come,—thirty miles ahead. Where's the colonel?"
The corporal of the guard goes back to the bivouac, leading the two arrivals. One is a scout, a plainsman born and bred, the other a sergeant of cavalry. They dismount in the timber and picket their horses, then follow on foot the lead of their companion of the guard. While the corporal and the scout proceed to the wagon-fly and fumble at the opening, the tall sergeant stands silently a little distance in their rear, and the occupants of a neighboring shelter—the counterpart of the colonel's—begin to stir, as though their light slumber had been broken by the smothered sound of footsteps. One of them sits up and peers out at the front, gazing earnestly at the tall figure standing easily there in the flickering light. Then he hails in low tones:
"That you, Mr. Jerrold? What is the matter?"
And the tall figure faces promptly towards the hailing voice. The spurred heels come together with a click, the gauntleted hand rises in soldierly salute to the broad brim of the scouting-hat, and a deep voice answers, respectfully,—
"It is not Mr. Jerrold, sir. It is Sergeant McLeod, ——th Cavalry, just in with despatches."
Armitage springs to his feet, sheds his shell of blankets, and steps forth into the glade with his eyes fixed eagerly on the shadowy form in front. He peers under the broad brim, as though striving to see the eyes and features of the tall dragoon.
"Did you get there in time?" he asks, half wondering whether that was really the question uppermost in his mind.
"In time to save the survivors, sir; but no attack will be made until the infantry get there."
"Were you not at Sibley last month?" asks the captain, quickly.
"Yes, sir,—with the competitors."
"You went back before your regimental team, did you not?"
"I—No, sir: I went back with them."
"You were relieved from duty at Sibley and ordered back before them, were you not?"
Even in the pallid light Armitage could see the hesitation, the flurry of surprise and distress, in the sergeant's face.
"Don't fear to tell me, man: I would rather hear it than any news you could give me. I would rather know you were not Sergeant McLeod than any fact you could tell. Speak low, man, but tell me here and now. Whatever motive you may have had for this disguise, whatever anger or sorrows in the past, you must sink them now to save the honor of the woman your madness has perilled. Answer me, for your sister's sake: are you not Fred Renwick?"
"Do you swear to me she is in danger?"
"By all that's sacred; and you ought to know it."
"I am Fred Renwick. Now what can I do?"
The sun is not an hour high, but the bivouac at the springs is far behind. With advance-guard and flankers well out, the regiment is tramping its way, full of eagerness and spirit. The men can hardly refrain from bursting into song, but, although at "route step," the fact that Indian scouts have already been sighted scurrying from bluff to bluff is sufficient to warn all hands to be silent and alert. Wilton with his company is on the dangerous flank, and guards it well. Armitage with Company B covers the advance, and his men are strung out in long skirmish-line across the trail wherever the ground is sufficiently open to admit of deployment. Where it is not, they spring ahead and explore every point where Indian may lurk, and render ambuscade of the main column impossible. With Armitage is McLeod, the cavalry sergeant who made the night ride with the scout who bore the despatches. The scout has galloped on towards the railway with news of the rescue, the sergeant guides the infantry reinforcement. Observant men have noted that Armitage and the sergeant have had a vast deal to say to each other during the chill hours of the early morn. Others have noted that at the first brief halt the captain rode back, called Colonel Maynard to one side, and spoke to him in low tones. The colonel was seen to start with astonishment. Then he said a few words to his second in command, and rode forward with Armitage to join the advance. When the regiment moved on again and the head of column hove in sight of the skirmishers, they saw that the colonel, Armitage, and the sergeant of cavalry were riding side by side, and that the officers were paying close attention to all the dragoon was saying. All were eager to hear the particulars of the condition of affairs at the corral, and all were disposed to be envious of the mounted captain who could ride alongside the one participant in the rescuing charge and get it all at first hand. The field-officers, of course, were mounted, but every line-officer marched afoot with his men, except that three horses had been picked up at the railway and impressed by the quartermaster in case of need, and these were assigned to the captains who happened to command the skirmishers and flankers.
But no man had the faintest idea what manner of story that tall sergeant was telling. It would have been of interest to every soldier in the command, but to no one so much so as to the two who were his absorbed listeners. Armitage, before their early march, had frankly and briefly set before him his suspicions as to the case, and the trouble in which Miss Renwick was involved. No time was to be lost. Any moment might find them plunged in fierce battle; and who could foretell the results?—who could say what might happen to prevent this her vindication ever reaching the ears of her accusers? Some men wondered why it was that Colonel Maynard sent his compliments to Captain Chester and begged that at the next halt he would join him. The halt did not come for a long hour, and when it did come it was very brief, but Chester received another message, and went forward to find his colonel sitting in a little grove with the cavalryman, while the orderly held their horses a short space away. Armitage had gone forward to his advance, and Chester showed no surprise at the sight of the sergeant seated side by side with the colonel and in confidential converse with him. There was a quaint, sly twinkle in Maynard's eyes as he greeted his old friend.
"Chester," said he, "I want you to be better acquainted with my step-son, Mr. Renwick. He has an apology to make to you."
The tall soldier had risen the instant he caught sight of the newcomer, and even at the half-playful tone of the colonel would relax in no degree his soldierly sense of the proprieties. He stood erect and held his hand at the salute, only very slowly lowering it to take the one so frankly extended him by the captain, who, however, was grave and quiet.
"I have suspected as much since daybreak," he said; "and no man is gladder to know it is you than I am."
"You would have known it before, sir, had I had the faintest idea of the danger in which my foolhardiness had involved my sister. The colonel has told you of my story. I have told him and Captain Armitage what led to my mad freak at Sibley; and, while I have much to make amends for, I want to apologize for the blow I gave you that night on the terrace. I was far more scared than you were, sir."
"I think we can afford to forgive him, Chester. He knocked us both out," said the colonel.
Chester bowed gravely. "That was the easiest part of the affair to forgive," he said, "and it is hardly for me, I presume, to be the only one to blame the sergeant for the trouble that has involved us all, especially your household, colonel."
"It was expensive masquerading, to say the least," replied the colonel; "but he never realized the consequences until Armitage told him to-day. You must hear his story in brief, Chester. It is needful that three or four of us know it, so that some may be left to set things right at Sibley. God grant us all safe return!" he added, piously, and with deep emotion. "I can far better appreciate our home and happiness than I could a month ago. Now, Renwick, tell the captain what you have told us."
And briefly it was told: how in his youthful fury he had sworn never again to set foot within the door of the father and mother who had so wronged the poor girl he loved with boyish fervor; how he called down the vengeance of heaven upon them in his frenzy and distress; how he had sworn never again to set eyes on their faces. "May God strike me dead if ever I return to this roof until she is avenged! May He deal with you as you have dealt with her!" was the curse that flew from his wild lips, and with that he left them, stunned. He went West, was soon penniless, and, caring not what he did, seeking change, adventure, anything to take him out of his past, he enlisted in the cavalry, and was speedily drafted to the ——th, which was just starting forth on a stirring summer campaign. He was a fine horseman, a fine shot, a man who instantly attracted the notice of his officers: the campaign was full of danger, adventure, rapid and constant marching, and before he knew it or dreamed it possible he had become deeply interested in his new life. Only in the monotony of a month or two in garrison that winter did the service seem intolerable. His comrades were rough, in the main, but thoroughly good-hearted, and he soon won their esteem. The spring sent them again into the field; another stirring campaign, and here he won his stripes, and words of praise from the lips of a veteran general officer, as well as the promise of future reward; and then the love of soldierly deeds and the thirst for soldierly renown took firm hold in his breast. He began to turn towards the mother and father who had been wrapped up in his future,—who loved him so devotedly. He was forgetting his early and passionate love, and the bitter sorrow of her death was losing fast its poignant power to steel him against his kindred. He knew they could not but be proud of the record he had made in the ranks of the gallant ——th, and then he shrank and shivered when he recalled the dreadful words of his curse. He had made up his mind to write, implore pardon for his hideous and unfilial language, and invoke their interest in his career, when, returning to Fort Raines for supplies, he picked up a New York paper in the reading-room and read the announcement of his father's death, "whose health had been broken ever since the disappearance of his only son, two years before." The memory of his malediction had, indeed, come home to him, and he fell, stricken by a sudden and unaccountable blow. It seemed as though his heart had given one wild leap, then stopped forever. Things did not go so well after this. He brooded over his words, and believed that an avenging God had launched the bolt that killed the father as punishment to the stubborn and recreant son. He then bethought him of his mother, of pretty Alice, who had loved him so as a little girl. He could not bring himself to write, but through inquiries he learned that the house was closed and that they had gone abroad. He plodded on in his duties a trying year: then came more lively field-work and reviving interest. He was forgetting entirely the sting of his first great sorrow, and mourning gravely the gulf he had placed 'twixt him and his. He thought time and again of his cruel words, and something began to whisper to him he must see that mother again at once, kiss her hand, and implore her forgiveness, or she, too, would be stricken suddenly. He saved up his money, hoping that after the summer's rifle-work at Sibley he might get a furlough and go East; and the night he arrived at the fort, tired with his long railway-journey and panting after a long and difficult climb up-hill, his mother's face swam suddenly before his eyes, and he felt himself going down. When they brought him to, he heard that the ladies were Mrs. Maynard and her daughter Miss Renwick,—his own mother, remarried, his own Alice, a grown young woman. This was, indeed, news to put him in a flutter and spoil his shooting. He realized at once that the gulf was wider than ever. How could he go to her now, the wife of a colonel, and he an enlisted man? Like other soldiers, he forgot that the line of demarcation was one of discipline, not of sympathy. He did not realize what any soldier among his officers would gladly have told him, that he was most worthy to reveal himself now,—a non-commissioned officer whose record was an honor to himself and to his regiment, a soldier of whom officers and comrades alike were proud. He never dreamed—indeed, how few there are who do!—that a man of his character, standing, and ability is honored and respected by the very men whom the customs of the service require him to speak with only when spoken to. He supposed that only as Fred Renwick could he extend his hand to one of their number, whereas it was under his soldier name he won their trust and admiration, and it was as Sergeant McLeod the officers of the ——th were backing him for a commission that would make him what they deemed him fit to be,—their equal. Unable to penetrate the armor of reserve and discipline which separates the officer from the rank and file, he never imagined that the colonel would have been the first to welcome him had he known the truth. He believed that now his last chance of seeing his mother was gone until that coveted commission was won. Then came another blow: the doctor told him that with his heart-trouble he could never pass the physical examination: he could not hope for preferment, then, and must see her as he was, and see her secretly and alone. Then came blow after blow. His shooting had failed, so had that of others of his regiment, and he was ordered to return in charge of the party early on the morrow. The order reached him late in the evening, and before breakfast-time on the following day he was directed to start with his party for town, thence by rail to his distant post. That night, in desperation, he made his plan. Twice before he had strolled down to the post and with yearning eyes had studied every feature of the colonel's house. He dared ask no questions of servants or of the men in garrison, but he learned enough to know which rooms were theirs, and he had noted that the windows were always open. If he could only see their loved faces, kneel and kiss his mother's hand, pray God to forgive him, he could go away believing that he had undone the spell and revoked the malediction of his early youth. It was hazardous, but worth the danger. He could go in peace and sin no more towards mother, at least; and then if she mourned and missed him, could he not find it out some day and make himself known to her after his discharge? He slipped out of camp, leaving his boots behind, and wearing his light Apache moccasins and flannel shirt and trousers. Danger to himself he had no great fear of. If by any chance mother or sister should wake, he had but to stretch forth his hand and say, "It is only I,—Fred." Danger to them he never dreamed of.
Strong and athletic, despite his slender frame, he easily lifted the ladder from Jerrold's fence, and, dodging the sentry when he spied him at the gate, finally took it down back of the colonel's and raised it to a rear window. By the strangest chance the window was closed, and he could not budge it. Then he heard the challenge of a sentry around on the east front, and had just time to slip down and lower the ladder when he heard the rattle of a sword and knew it must be the officer of the day. There was no time to carry off the ladder. He left it lying where it was, and sprang down the steps towards the station. Soon he heard Number Five challenge, and knew the officer had passed on: he waited some time, but nothing occurred to indicate that the ladder was discovered, and then, plucking up courage and with a muttered prayer for guidance and protection, he stole up-hill again, raised the ladder to the west wall, noiselessly ascended, peered in Alice's window and could see a faint night-light burning in the hall beyond, but that all was darkness there, stole around on the roof of the piazza to the hall window, stepped noiselessly upon the sill, climbed over the lowered sash, and found himself midway between the rooms. He could hear the colonel's placid snoring and the regular breathing of the other sleepers. No time was to be lost. Shading the little night-lamp with one hand, he entered the open door, stole to the bedside, took one long look at his mother's face, knelt, breathed upon, but barely brushed with his trembling lips, the queenly white hand that lay upon the coverlet, poured forth one brief prayer to God for protection and blessing for her and forgiveness for him, retraced his steps, and caught sight of the lovely picture of Alice in the Directoire costume. He longed for it and could not resist. She had grown so beautiful, so exquisite. He took it, frame and all, carried it into her room, slipped the card from its place and hid it inside the breast of his shirt, stowed the frame away behind her sofa-pillow, then looked long at the lovely picture she herself made, lying there sleeping sweetly and peacefully amid the white drapings of her dainty bed. Then 'twas time to go. He put the lamp back in the hall, passed through her room, out at her window, and down the ladder, and had it well on the way back to the hooks on Jerrold's fence when seized and challenged by the officer of the day. Mad terror possessed him then. He struck blindly, dashed off in panicky flight, paid no heed to sentry's cry or whistling missile, but tore like a racer up the path and never slackened speed till Sibley was far behind.
When morning came, the order that they should go was temporarily suspended: some prisoners were sent to a neighboring military prison, and he was placed in charge, and on his return from this duty learned that the colonel's family had gone to Sablon. The next thing there was some strange talk that worried him,—a story that one of the men who had a sweetheart who was second girl at Mrs. Hoyt's brought out to camp,—a story that there was an officer who was too much in love with Alice to keep away from the house even after the colonel so ordered, and that he was prowling around the other night and the colonel ordered Leary to shoot him,—Leary, who was on post on Number Five. He felt sure that something was wrong,—felt sure that it was due to his night visit,—and his first impulse was to find his mother and confide the truth to her. He longed to see her again, and if harm had been done, to make himself known and explain everything. Having no duties to detain him, he got a pass to visit town and permission to be gone a day or more. On Saturday evening he ran down to Sablon, drove over, as Captain Armitage had already told them, and, peering in his mother's room, saw her, still up, though in her nightdress. He never dreamed of the colonel's being out and watching. He had "scouted" all those trees, and no one was nigh. Then he softly called; she heard, and was coming to him, when again came fierce attack: he had all a soldier's reverence for the person of the colonel, and would never have harmed him had he known 'twas he: it was the night watchman that had grappled with him, he supposed, and he had no compunctions in sending him to grass. Then he fled again, knowing that he had only made bad worse, walked all that night to the station next north of Sablon,—a big town where the early morning train always stopped,—and by ten on Sunday morning he was in uniform again and off with his regimental comrades under orders to haste to their station,—there was trouble with the Indians at Spirit Rock and the ——th were held in readiness. From beneath his scouting-shirt he drew a flat packet, an Indian case, which he carefully unrolled, and there in its folds of wrappings was the lovely Directoire photograph.
Whose, then, was the one that Sloat had seen in Jerrold's room? It was this that Armitage had gone forward to determine, and he found his sad-eyed lieutenant with the skirmishers.
"Jerrold," said he, with softened manner, "a strange thing is brought to light this morning, and I lose no time in telling you. The man who was seen at Maynard's quarters, coming from Miss Renwick's room, was her own brother and the colonel's step-son. He was the man who took the photograph from Mrs. Maynard's room, and has proved it this very day,—this very hour." Jerrold glanced up in sudden surprise. "He is with us now, and only one thing remains, which you can clear up. We are going into action, and I may not get through, nor you, nor—who knows who? Will you tell us now how you came by your copy of that photograph?"
For answer Jerrold fumbled in his pocket a moment and drew forth two letters:
"I wrote these last night, and it was my intention to see that you had them before it grew very hot. One is addressed to you, the other to Miss Beaubien. You had better take them now," he said, wearily. "There may be no time to talk after this. Send hers after it's over, and don't read yours until then."
"Why, I don't understand this, exactly," said Armitage, puzzled. "Can't you tell me about the picture?"
"No. I promised not to while I lived; but it's the simplest matter in the world, and no one at the colonel's had any hand in it. They never saw this one that I got to show Sloat. It is burned now. I said 'twas given me. That was hardly the truth. I have paid for it dearly enough."
"And this note explains it?"
"Yes. You can read it to-morrow."
And the morrow has come. Down in a deep and bluff-shadowed valley, hung all around with picturesque crags and pine-crested heights, under a cloudless September sun whose warmth is tempered by the mountain-breeze, a thousand rough-looking, bronzed and bearded and powder-blackened men are resting after battle.
Here and there on distant ridge and point the cavalry vedettes keep vigilant watch, against surprise or renewed attack. Down along the banks of a clear, purling stream a sentry paces slowly by the brown line of rifles, swivel-stacked in the sunshine. Men by the dozen are washing their blistered feet and grimy hands and faces in the cool, refreshing water; men by the dozen lie soundly sleeping, some in the broad glare, some in the shade of the little clump of willows, all heedless of the pestering swarms of flies. Out on the broad, grassy slopes, side-lined and watched by keen-eyed guards, the herds of cavalry horses are quietly grazing, forgetful of the wild excitement of yester-even. Every now and then some one of them lifts his head, pricks up his ears, and snorts and stamps suspiciously as he sniffs at the puffs of smoke that come drifting up the valley from the fires a mile away. The waking men, too, bestow an occasional comment on the odor which greets their nostrils. Down-stream where the fires are burning are the blackened remnants of a wagon-train: tires, bolts, and axles are lying about, but all wood-work is in smouldering ashes; so, too, is all that remains of several hundred-weight of stores and supplies destined originally to nourish the Indians, but, by them, diverted to feed the fire.
There is a big circle of seething flame and rolling smoke here, too,—a malodorous neighborhood, around which fatigue-parties are working with averted heads; and among them some surly and unwilling Indians, driven to labor at the muzzle of threatening revolver or carbine, aid in dragging to the flames carcass after carcass of horse and mule, and in gathering together and throwing on the pyre an array of miscellaneous soldier garments, blouses, shirts, and trousers, all more or less hacked and blood-stained,—all of no more use to mortal wearer.
Out on the southern slopes, just where a ravine crowded with wild-rose bushes opens into the valley, more than half the command is gathered, formed in rectangular lines about a number of shallow, elongated pits, in each of which there lies the stiffening form of a comrade who but yesterday joined in the battle-cheer that burst upon the valley with the setting sun. Silent and reverent they stand in their rough campaign garb. The escort of infantry "rests on arms;" the others bow their uncovered heads, and it is the voice of the veteran colonel that, in accents trembling with sympathy and emotion, renders the last tribute to fallen comrades and lifts to heaven the prayers for the dead. Then see! The mourning groups break away from the southern side; the brown rifles of the escort are lifted in air; the listening rocks resound to the sudden ring of the flashing volley; the soft, low, wailing good-by of the trumpets goes floating up the vale, and soon the burial-parties are left alone to cover the once familiar faces with the earth to which the soldier must return, and the comrades who are left, foot and dragoon, come marching, silent, back to camp.
And when the old regiment begins its homeward journey, leaving the well-won field to the fast-arriving commands and bidding hearty soldier farewell to the cavalry comrades whose friendship they gained in the front of a savage foe, the company that was the first to land its fire in the fight goes back with diminished numbers and under command of its second lieutenant. Alas, poor Jerrold!
There is a solemn little group around the camp-fire the night before they go. Frank Armitage, flat on his back, with a rifle-bullet through his thigh, but taking things very coolly for all that, is having a quiet conference with his colonel. Such of the wounded of the entire command as are well enough to travel by easy stages to the railway go with Maynard and the regiment in the morning, and Sergeant McLeod, with his sabre-arm in a sling, is one of these. But the captain of Company B must wait until the surgeons can lift him along in an ambulance and all fear of fever has subsided. To the colonel and Chester he hands the note which is all that is left to comfort poor Nina Beaubien. To them he reads aloud the note addressed to himself:
"You are right in saying that the matter of my possession of that photograph should be explained. I seek no longer to palliate my action. In making that puppyish bet with Sloat I did believe that I could induce Miss Renwick or her mother to let me have a copy; but I was refused so positively that I knew it was useless. This simply added to my desire to have one. The photographer was the same that took the pictures and furnished the albums for our class at graduation, and I, more than any one, had been instrumental in getting the order for him against very active opposition. He had always professed the greatest gratitude to me and a willingness to do anything for me. I wrote to him in strict confidence, told him of the intimate and close relations existing between the colonel's family and me, told him I wanted it to enlarge and present to her mother on her approaching birthday, and promised him that I would never reveal how I came by the picture so long as I lived; and he sent me one,—just in time. Have I not paid heavily for my sin?"
No one spoke for a moment. Chester was the first to break the silence:
"Poor fellow! He kept his word to the photographer; but what was it worth to a woman?"
There had been a week of wild anxiety and excitement at Sibley. It was known through the columns of the press that the regiment had hurried forward from the railway the instant it reached the Colorado trail, that it could not hope to get through to the valley of the Spirit Wolf without a fight, and that the moment it succeeded in joining hands with the cavalry already there a vigorous attack would be made on the Indians. The news of the rescue of the survivors of Thornton's command came first, and with it the tidings that Maynard and his regiment were met only thirty miles from the scene and were pushing forward. The next news came two days later, and a wail went up even while men were shaking hands and rejoicing over the gallant fight that had been made, and women were weeping for joy and thanking God that those whom they held dearest were safe. It was down among the wives of the sergeants and other veterans that the blow struck hardest at Sibley; for the stricken officers were unmarried men, while among the rank and file there were several who never came back to the little ones who bore their name. Company B had suffered most, for the Indians had charged fiercely on its deployed but steadfast line. Armitage almost choked and broke down when telling the colonel about it that night as he lay under the willows: "It was the first smile I had seen on his face since I got back,—that with which he looked up in my eyes and whispered good-by,—and died,—just after we drove them back. My turn came later." Old Sloat, too, "had his customary crack," as he expressed it,—a shot through the wrist that made him hop and swear savagely until some of the men got to laughing at the comical figure he cut, and then he turned and damned them with hearty good will, and seemed all oblivious of the bullets that went zipping past his frosting head. Young Rollins, to his inexpressible pride and comfort, had a bullet-hole through his scouting-hat and another through his shoulder-strap that raised a big welt on the white skin beneath, but, to the detriment of promotion, no captain was killed, and Jerrold gave the only file.
The one question at Sibley was, "What will Nina Beaubien do?"
She did nothing. She would see nobody from the instant the news came. She had hardly slept at night,—was always awake at dawn and out at the gate to get the earliest copy of the morning papers; but the news reached them at nightfall, and when some of the ladies from the fort drove in to offer their sympathy and condolence in the morning, and to make tender inquiry, the answer at the door was that Miss Nina saw nobody, that her mother alone was with her, and that "she was very still." And so it went for some days. Then there came the return of the command to Sibley; and hundreds of people went up from town to see the six companies of the fort garrison march up the winding road amid the thunder of welcome from the guns of the light battery and the exultant strains of the band. Mrs. Maynard and Alice were the only ladies of the circle who were not there: a son and brother had joined them, after long absence, at Aunt Grace's cottage at Sablon, was the explanation, and the colonel would bring them home in a few days, after he had attended to some important matters at the fort. In the first place, Chester had to see to it that the tongue of scandal was slit, so far as the colonel's household was concerned, and all good people notified that no such thing had happened as was popularly supposed (and "everybody" received the announcement with the remark that she knew all along it couldn't be so), and that a grievous and absurd but most mortifying blunder had been made. It was a most unpleasant ghost to "down," the shadow of that scandal, for it would come up to the surface of garrison chat at all manner of confidential moments; but no man or woman could safely speak of it to Chester. It was gradually assumed that he was the man who had done all the blundering and that he was supersensitive on the subject.
There was another thing never satisfactorily explained to some of the garrison people, and that was Nina Beaubien's strange conduct. In less than a week she was seen on the street in colors,—brilliant colors,—when it was known she had ordered deep mourning, and then she suddenly disappeared and went with her silent old mother abroad. To this day no woman in society understands it, for when she came back, long, long afterwards, it was a subject on which she would never speak. There were one or two who ventured to ask, and the answer was, "For reasons that concern me alone." But it took no great power of mental vision to see that her heart wore black for him forever.
His letter explained it all. She had received it with a paroxysm of passionate grief and joy, kissed it, covered it with wildest caresses before she began to read, and then, little by little, as the words unfolded before her staring eyes, turned cold as stone:
"It is my last night of life, Nina, and I am glad 'tis so. Proud and sensitive as I am, the knowledge that every man in my regiment has turned from me,—that I have not a friend among them,—that there is no longer a place for me in their midst,—more than all, that I deserve their contempt,—has broken my heart. We will be in battle before the setting of another sun. Any man who seeks death in Indian fight can find it easily enough, and I can compel their respect in spite of themselves. They will not recognize me, living, as one of them; but dying on the field, they have to place me on their roll of honor.
"But now I turn to you. What have I been,—what am I,—to have won such love as yours? May God in heaven forgive me for my past! All too late I hate and despise the man I have been,—the man whom you loved. One last act of justice remains. If I died without it you would mourn me faithfully, tenderly, lovingly, for years, but if I tell the truth you will see the utter unworthiness of the man, and your love will turn to contempt. It is hard to do this, knowing that in doing it I kill the only genuine regret and dry the only tear that would bless my memory; but it is the one sacrifice I can make to complete my self-humiliation, and it is the one thing that is left me that will free you. It will sting at first, but, like the surgeon's knife, its cut is mercy. Nina, the very night I came to you on the bluffs, the very night you perilled your honor to have that parting interview, I went to you with a lie on my lips. I had told her we were nothing to each other,—you and I. More than that, I was seeking her love; I hoped I could win her; and had she loved me I would have turned from you to make her my wife. Nina, I loved Alice Renwick. Good-by. Don't mourn for me after this."
They were having a family conclave at Sablon. The furlough granted Sergeant McLeod on account of wound received in action with hostile Indians would soon expire, and the question was, should he ask an extension, apply for a discharge, or go back and rejoin his troop? It was a matter on which there was much diversity of opinion. Mrs. Maynard should naturally be permitted first choice, and to her wish there was every reason for according deep and tender consideration. No words can tell of the rapture of that reunion with her long-lost son. It was a scene over which the colonel could never ponder without deep emotion. The telegrams and letters by which he carefully prepared her for Frederick's coming were all insufficient. She knew well that her boy must have greatly changed and matured, but when this tall, bronzed, bearded, stalwart man sprang from the old red omnibus and threw his one serviceable arm around her trembling form, the mother was utterly overcome. Alice left them alone together a full hour before even she intruded, and little by little, as the days went by and Mrs. Maynard realized that it was really her Fred who was whistling about, the cottage or booming trooper songs in his great basso profundo, and glorying in his regiment and the cavalry life he had led, a wonderful content and joy shone in her handsome face. It was not until the colonel announced that it was about time for them to think of going back to Sibley that the cloud came. Fred said he couldn't go.
In fact, the colonel himself had been worrying a little over it. As Fred Renwick, the tall distinguished young man in civilian costume, he would be welcome anywhere; but, though his garb was that of the sovereign citizen so long as his furlough lasted, there were but two weeks more of it left, and officially he was nothing more nor less than Sergeant McLeod, Troop B, ——th Cavalry, and there was no precedent for a colonel's entertaining as an honored guest and social equal one of the enlisted men of the army. He rather hoped that Fred would yield to his mother's entreaties and apply for a discharge. His wound and the latent trouble with his heart would probably render it an easy matter to obtain; and yet he was ashamed of himself for the feeling.
Then there was Alice. It was hardly to be supposed that so very high bred a young woman would relish the idea of being seen around Fort Sibley on the arm of her brother the sergeant; but, wonderful to relate, Miss Alice took a radically different view of the whole situation. So far from wishing Fred out of the army, she importuned him day after day until he got out his best uniform, with its resplendent chevrons and stripes of vivid yellow, and the yellow helmet-cords, though they were but humble worsted, and when he came forth in that dress, with the bronze medal on his left breast and the sharpshooter's silver cross, his tall athletic figure showing to such advantage, his dark, Southern, manly features so enhanced by contrast with his yellow facings, she clapped her hands with a cry of delight and sprang into his one available arm and threw her own about his neck and kissed him again and again. Even mamma had to admit he looked astonishingly well; but Alice declared she would never thereafter be reconciled to seeing him in anything but a cavalry uniform. The colonel found her not at all of her mother's way of thinking. She saw no reason why Fred should leave the service. Other sergeants had won their commissions every year: why not he? Even if it were some time in coming, was there shame or degradation in being a cavalry sergeant? Not a bit of it! Fred himself was loath to quit. He was getting a little homesick, too,—homesick for the boundless life and space and air of the broad frontier,—homesick for the rapid movement and vigorous hours in the saddle and on the scout. His arm was healing, and such a delight of a letter had come from his captain, telling him that the adjutant had just been to see him about the new staff of the regiment. The gallant sergeant-major, a young Prussian of marked ability, had been killed early in the campaign; the vacancy must soon be filled, and the colonel and the adjutant both thought at once of Sergeant McLeod. "I won't stand in your way, sergeant," wrote his troop commander, "but you know that old Ryan is to be discharged at the end of his sixth enlistment the 10th of next month; there is no man I would sooner see in his place as first sergeant of my troop than yourself, and I hate to lose you; but, as it will be for the gain and the good of the whole regiment, you ought to accept the adjutant's offer. All the men rejoice to hear you are recovering so fast, and all will be glad to see Sergeant McLeod back again."
Even Mrs. Maynard could not but see the pride and comfort this letter gave her son. Her own longing was to have him established in some business in the East; but he said frankly he had no taste for it, and would only pine for the old life in the saddle. There were other reasons, too, said he, why he felt that he could not go back to New York, and his voice trembled, and Mrs. Maynard said no more. It was the sole allusion he had made to the old, old sorrow, but it was plain that the recovery was incomplete. The colonel and the doctor at Sibley believed that Fred could be carried past the medical board by a little management, and everything began to look as though he would have his way. All they were waiting for, said the colonel, was to hear from Armitage. He was still at Fort Russell with the head-quarters and several troops of the ——th Cavalry: his wound was too severe for him to travel farther for weeks to come, but he could write, and he had been consulted. They were sitting under the broad piazza at Sablon, looking out at the lovely, placid lake, and talking it over among themselves.
"I have always leaned on Armitage ever since I first came to the regiment and found him adjutant," said the colonel. "I always found his judgment clear; but since our last experience I have begun to look upon him as infallible."
Alice Renwick's face took on a flood of crimson as she sat there by her brother's side, silent and attentive. Only within the week that followed their return—the colonel's and her brother's—had the story of the strange complication been revealed to them. Twice had she heard from Fred's lips the story of Frank Armitage's greeting that frosty morning at the springs. Time and again had she made her mother go over the colonel's account of the confidence and faith he had expressed in there being a simple explanation of the whole mystery, and of his indignant refusal to attach one moment's suspicion to her. Shocked, stunned, outraged as she felt at the mere fact that such a story had gained an instant's credence in garrison circles, she was overwhelmed by the weight of circumstantial evidence that had been arrayed against her. Only little by little did her mother reveal it to her. Only after several days did Fred repeat the story of his night adventure and his theft of her picture, of his narrow escape, and of his subsequent visit to the cottage. Only gradually had her mother revealed to her the circumstances of Jerrold's wager with Sloat, and the direful consequences; of his double absences the very nights on which Fred had made his visits; of the suspicions that resulted, the accusations, and his refusal to explain and clear her name. Mrs. Maynard felt vaguely relieved to see how slight an impression the young man had made on her daughter's heart. Alice seemed but little surprised to hear of the engagement to Nina Beaubien, of her rush to his rescue, and their romantic parting. The tragedy of his death hushed all further talk on that subject. There was one on which she could not hear enough, and that was about the man who had been most instrumental in the rescue of her name and honor. Alice had only tender sorrow and no reproach for her step-father when, after her mother told her the story of his sad experience twenty years before, she related his distress of mind and suspicion when he read Jerrold's letter. It was then that Alice said, "And against that piece of evidence no man, I suppose, would hold me guiltless."
"You are wrong, dear," was her mother's answer. "It was powerless to move Captain Armitage. He scouted the idea of your guilt from the moment he set eyes on you, and never rested until he had overturned the last atom of evidence. Even I had to explain," said her mother "simply to confirm his theory of the light Captain Chester had seen and the shadows and the form at the window. It was just exactly as Armitage reasoned it out. I was wretched and wakeful, sleeping but fitfully, that night. I arose and took some bromide about three o'clock and soon afterwards heard a fall, or a noise like one. I thought of you and got up and went in your room, and all was quiet there, but it seemed close and warm: so I raised your shade, and then left both your door and mine open and went back to bed. I dozed away presently, and then woke feeling all startled again,—don't you know?—the sensation one experiences when aroused from sleep, certain that there has been a strange and startling noise, and yet unable to tell what it was? I lay still a moment, but the colonel slept through it all, and I wondered at it. I knew there had been a shot, or something, but could not bear to disturb him. At last I got up again and went to your room to be sure you were all right, and you were sleeping soundly still; but a breeze was beginning to blow and flap your shade to and fro, so I drew it and went out, taking my lamp with me this time and softly closing your door behind me. See how it all seemed to fit in with everything else that had happened. It took a man with a will of his own and an unshaken faith in woman to stand firm against such evidence."
And, though Alice Renwick was silent, she appreciated the fact none the less. Day after day she clung to her stalwart brother's side. She had ceased to ask questions about Captain Armitage and the strange greeting after the first day or two, but, oddly enough, she could never let him talk long of any subject but that campaign, of his ride with the captain to the front, of the long talk they had had, and the stirring fight and the magnificent way in which Armitage had handled his long skirmish-line. He was enthusiastic in his praise of the tall Saxon captain. He soon noted how silent and absorbed she sat when he was the theme of discourse; he incidentally mentioned little things "he" had said about "her" that morning, and marked how her color rose and her eyes flashed quick, joyful, questioning glance at his face, then fell in maiden shyness. He had speedily gauged the cause of that strange excitement displayed by Armitage at seeing him the morning he rode in with the scout. Now he was gauging, with infinite delight, the other side of the question. The brother-like, he began to twit and tease her; and that was the last of the confidences.
All the same it was an eager group that surrounded the colonel the evening he came down with the captain's letter. "It settles the thing in my mind. We'll go back to Sibley to-morrow; and as for you, Sergeant-Major Fred, your name has gone in for a commission, and I've no doubt a very deserving sergeant will be spoiled in making a very good-for-nothing second lieutenant. Get you back to your regiment, sir, and call on Captain Armitage as soon as you reach Fort Russell, and tell him you are much obliged. He has been blowing your trumpet for you there; and, as some of those cavalrymen have sense enough to appreciate the opinion of such a soldier as my ex-adjutant,—some of them, mind you: I don't admit that all cavalrymen have sense enough to keep them out of perpetual trouble,—you came in for a hearty endorsement, and you'll probably be up before the next board for examination. Go and bone your Constitution, and the Rule of Three, and who was the father of Zebedee's children, and the order of the Ptolemies and the Seleucidae, and other such things that they'll be sure to ask you as indispensable to the mental outfit of an Indian-fighter." It was evident that the colonel was in joyous mood. But Alice was silent. She wanted to hear the letter. He would have handed it to Frederick, but both Mrs. Maynard and Aunt Grace clamored to hear it read aloud: so he cleared his throat and began:
"MY DEAR COLONEL,—
"Fred's chances for a commission are good, as the enclosed papers will show you; but even were this not the case I would have but one thing to say in answer to your letter: he should go back to his troop.
"Whatever our friends and fellow-citizens may think on the subject, I hold that the profession of the soldier is to the full as honorable as any in civil life; and it is liable at any moment to be more useful. I do not mean the officer alone. I say, and mean, the soldier. As for me, I would rather be first sergeant of my troop or company, or sergeant-major of my regiment, than any lieutenant in it except the adjutant. Hope of promotion is all that can make a subaltern's life endurable, but the staff-sergeant or the first sergeant, honored and respected by his officers, decorated for bravery by Congress, and looked up to by his comrades, is a king among men. The pay has nothing to do with it. I say to Renwick, 'Come back as soon as your wound will let you,' and I envy him the welcome that will be his.
"As for me, I am even more eager to get back to you all; but things look very dubious. The doctors shake their heads at anything under a month, and say I'll be lucky if I eat my Thanksgiving dinner with you. If trying to get well is going to help, October shall not be done with before B Company will report me present again.
"I need not tell you, my dear old friend, how I rejoice with you in your—hum and haw and this is all about something else," goes on the colonel, in malignant disregard of the longing looks in the eyes of three women, all of whom are eager to hear the rest of it, and one of whom wouldn't say so for worlds. "Write to me often. Remember me warmly to the ladies of your household. I fear Miss Alice would despise this wild, open prairie-country; there is no golden-rod here, and I so often see her as—hum and hum and all that sort of talk of no interest to anybody," says he, with a quizzical look over his "bows" at the lovely face and form bending forward with forgetful eagerness to hear how "he so often sees her." And there is a great bunch of golden-rod in her lap now, and a vivid blush on her cheek. The colonel is waxing as frivolous as Fred, and quite as great a tease.
And then October comes, and Fred has gone, and the colonel and his household are back at Sibley, where the garrison is enraptured at seeing them, and where the women precipitate themselves upon them in tumultuous welcome. If Alice cannot quite make up her mind to return the kisses, and shrinks slightly from the rapturous embrace of some of the younger and more impulsive of the sisterhood,—if Mrs. Maynard is a trifle more distant and stately than was the case before they went away,—the garrison does not resent it. The ladies don't wonder they feel indignant at the way people behaved and talked; and each lady is sure that the behavior and the talk were all somebody else's; not by any possible chance could it be laid at the door of the speaker. And Alice is the reigning belle beyond dispute, though there is only subdued gayety at the fort, for the memory of their losses at the Spirit Wolf is still fresh in the minds of the regiment. But no man alludes to the events of the black August night, no woman is permitted to address either Mrs. Maynard or her daughter on the subject. There are some who seek to be confidential and who cautiously feel their way for an opening, but the mental sparring is vain: there is an indefinable something that tells the intruder, "Thus far, and no farther." Mrs. Maynard is courteous, cordial, and hospitable, Alice sweet and gracious and sympathetic, even, but confidential never.
And then Captain Armitage, late in the month, comes home on crutches, and his men give him a welcome that makes the rafters ring, and he rejoices in it and thanks them from his heart; but there is a welcome his eyes plead for that would mean to him far more than any other. How wistfully he studies her face! How unmistakable is the love and worship in every tone! How quickly the garrison sees it all, and how mad the garrison is to see whether or not 'tis welcome to her! But Alice Renwick is no maiden to be lightly won. The very thought that the garrison had so easily given her over to Jerrold is enough to mantle her cheek with indignant protest. She accepts his attentions, as she does those of the younger officers, with consummate grace. She shows no preference, will grant no favors. She makes fair distribution of her dances at the hops at the fort and the parties in town. There are young civilians who begin to be devoted in society and to come out to the fort on every possible opportunity, and these, too, she welcomes with laughing grace and cordiality. She is a glowing, radiant, gorgeous beauty this cool autumn, and she rides and drives and dances, and, the women say, flirts, and looks handsomer every day, and poor Armitage is beginning to look very grave and depressed. "He wooes and wins not," is the cry. His wound has almost healed, so far as the thigh is concerned, and his crutches are discarded, but his heart is bleeding, and it tells on his general condition. The doctors say he ought to be getting well faster, and so they tell Miss Renwick,—at least somebody does; but still she relents not, and it is something beyond the garrison's power of conjecture to decide what the result will be. Into her pretty white-and-yellow room no one penetrates except at her invitation, even when the garrison ladies are spending the day at the colonel's; and even if they did there would be no visible sign by which they could judge whether his flowers were treasured or his picture honored above others. Into her brave and beautiful nature none can gaze and say with any confidence either "she loves" or "she loves not." Winter comes, with biting cold and blinding snow, and still there is no sign. The joyous holidays, the glad New Year, are almost at hand, and still there is no symptom of surrender. No one dreams of the depth and reverence and gratitude and loyalty and strength of the love that is burning in her heart until, all of a sudden, in the most unexpected and astonishing way, it bursts forth in sight of all.
They had been down skating on the slough, a number of the youngsters and the daughters of the garrison. Rollins was there, doing the devoted to Mamie Gray, and already there were gossips whispering that she would soon forget she ever knew such a beau as Jerrold in the new-found happiness of another one; Hall was there with the doctor's pretty daughter, and Mrs. Hoyt was matronizing the party, which would, of course, have been incomplete without Alice. She had been skating hand in hand with a devoted young subaltern in the artillery, and poor Armitage, whose leg was unequal to skating, had been ruefully admiring the scene. He had persuaded Sloat to go out and walk with him, and Sloat went; but the hollow mockery of the whole thing became apparent to him after they had been watching the skaters awhile, and he got chilled and wanted Armitage to push ahead. The captain said he believed his leg was too stiff for further tramping and would be the better for a rest; and Sloat left him.
Heavens! how beautiful she was, with her sparkling eyes and radiant color, glowing with the graceful exercise! He sat there on an old log, watching the skaters as they flew by him, and striving to keep up an impartial interest, or an appearance of it, for the other girls. But the red sun was going down, and twilight was on them all of a sudden, and he could see nothing but that face and form. He closed his eyes a moment to shut out the too eager glare of the glowing disk taking its last fierce peep at them over the western bluffs, and as he closed them the same vision came back,—the picture that had haunted his every living, dreaming moment since the beautiful August Sunday in the woodland lane at Sablon. With undying love, with changeless passion, his life was given over to the fair, slender maiden he had seen in all the glory of the sunshine and the golden-rod, standing with uplifted head, with all her soul shining in her beautiful eyes and thrilling in her voice. Both worshipping and worshipped was Alice Renwick as she sang her hymn of praise in unison with the swelling chorus that floated through the trees from the little brown church upon the hill. From that day she was Queen Alice in every thought, and he her loyal, faithful knight for weal or woe.
Boom went the sunset gun far up on the parade above them. 'Twas dinner-time, and the skaters were compelled to give up their pastime. Armitage set his teeth at the entirely too devotional attitude of the artilleryman as he slowly and lingeringly removed her skates, and turned away in that utterly helpless frame of mind which will overtake the strongest men on similar occasions. He had been sitting too long in the cold, and was chilled through and stiff, and his wounded leg seemed numb. Leaning heavily on his stout stick, he began slowly and painfully the ascent to the railway, and chose for the purpose a winding path that was far less steep, though considerably longer, than the sharp climb the girls and their escorts made so light of. One after another the glowing faces of the fair skaters appeared above the embankment, and their gallants carefully convoyed them across the icy and slippery track to the wooden platform beyond. Armitage, toiling slowly up his pathway, heard their blithe laughter, and thought with no little bitterness that it was a case of "out of sight out of mind" with him, as with better men. What sense was there in his long devotion to her? Why stand between her and the far more natural choice of a lover nearer her years? "Like unto like" was Nature's law. It was flying in the face of Providence to expect to win the love of one so young and fair, when others so young and comely craved it. The sweat was beaded on his forehead as he neared the top and came in sight of the platform. Yes, they had no thought for him. Already Mrs. Hoyt was half-way up the wooden stairs, and the others were scattered more or less between that point and the platform at the station. Far down at the south end paced the fur-clad sentry. There it was an easy step from the track to the boards, and there, with much laughter but no difficulty, the young officers had lifted their fair charges to the walk. All were chatting gayly as they turned away to take the wooden causeway from the station to the stairs, and Miss Renwick was among the foremost at the point where it left the platform. Here, however, she glanced back and then about her, and then, bending down, began fumbling at the buttons of her boot.
"Oh, permit me, Miss Renwick," said her eager escort. "I will button it."
"Thanks, no. Please don't wait, good people. I'll be with you in an instant."
And so the other girls, absorbed in talk with their respective gallants, passed her by, and then Alice Renwick again stood erect and looked anxiously but quickly back.
"Captain Armitage is not in sight, and we ought not to leave him. He may not find it easy to climb to that platform," she said.
"Armitage? Oh, he'll come on all right," answered the batteryman, with easy assurance. "Maybe he has gone round by the road. Even if he hasn't, I've seen him make that in one jump many a time. He's an active old buffer for his years."
"But his wound may prove too much for that jump now. Ah there he comes," she answered, with evident relief; and just at the moment, too, the forage-cap of the tall soldier rose slowly into view some distance up the track, and he came walking slowly down on the sharp curve towards the platform, the same sharp curve continuing on out of sight behind him,—behind the high and rocky bluff.
"He's taken the long way up," said the gunner. "Well, shall we go on?"
"Not yet," she said, with eyes that were glowing strangely and a voice that trembled. Her cheeks, too, were paling. "Mr. Stuart, I'm sure I heard the roar of a train echoed back from the other side."
"Nonsense, Miss Renwick! There's no train either way for two hours yet."
But she had begun to edge her way back toward the platform, and he could not but follow. Looking across the intervening space,—a rocky hollow twenty feet in depth,—he could see that the captain had reached the platform and was seeking for a good place to step up; then that he lifted his right foot and placed it on the planking and with his cane and the stiff and wounded left leg strove to push himself on. Had there been a hand to help him, all would have been easy enough; but there was none, and the plan would not work. Absorbed in his efforts, he could not see Stuart; he did not see that Miss Renwick had left her companions and was retracing her steps to get back to the platform. He heard a sudden dull roar from the rocks across the stream; then a sharp, shrill whistle just around the bluff. My God! a train, and that man there, alone, helpless, deserted! Stuart gave a shout of agony: "Back! Roll back over the bank!" Armitage glanced around; determined; gave one mighty effort; the iron-ferruled stick slipped on the icy track, and down he went, prone between the glistening rails, even as the black vomiting monster came thundering round the bend. He had struck his head upon the iron, and was stunned, not senseless, but scrambled to his hands and knees and strove to crawl away. Even as he did so he heard a shriek of anguish in his ears, and with one wild leap Alice Renwick came flying from the platform in the very face of advancing death, and the next instant, her arm clasped about his neck, his strong arms tightly clasping her, they were lying side by side, bruised, stunned, but safe, in a welcoming snow-drift half-way down the hither bank.
When Stuart reached the scene, as soon as the engine and some wrecking-cars had thundered by, he looked down upon a picture that dispelled any lingering doubt in his mind. Armitage, clasping Queen Alice to his heart, was half rising from the blessed mantlet of the snow, and she, her head upon his broad shoulder, was smiling faintly up into his face: then the glorious eyes closed in a death-like swoon.
* * * * *
Fort Sibley had its share of sensations that eventful year. Its crowning triumph in the one that followed was the wedding in the early spring. Of all the lovely women there assembled, the bride by common consent stood unrivalled,—Queen Alice indeed. There was some difference of opinion among authorities as to who was really the finest-looking and most soldierly among the throng of officers in the conventional full-dress uniform: many there were who gave the palm to the tall, dark, slender lieutenant of cavalry who wore his shoulder-knots for the first time on this occasion, and who, for a man from the ranks, seemed consummately at home in the manifold and trying duties of a groomsman. Mrs. Maynard, leaning on his arm at a later hour and looking up rapturously in his bronzed features, had no divided opinion. While others had by no means so readily forgotten or forgiven the mad freak that so nearly involved them all in wretched misunderstanding, she had nothing but rejoicing in his whole career. Proud of the gallant officer who had won the daughter whom she loved so tenderly, she still believes, in the depths of the boundless mother-love, that no man can quite surpass her soldier son.
[Footnote A: By act of Congress, officers may be addressed by the title of the highest rank held by them in the volunteer service during the war. The colonel always punctiliously so addressed his friend and subordinate, although in the army his grade was simply that of first lieutenant.]