Two nights after McLean had been brought home and was lying in a somewhat feverish condition, the major commanding came in and softly tapped at the door of the front room. Hatton was seated at the table reading by the light of the Argand, and he arose at once and tiptoed to see who was there.
"Oh! Come in, major," he said, in a low tone, throwing open the door. "Come in."
"Is McLean asleep?" whispered the major. "I—I don't want to disturb him. I only wanted to inquire."
"Not asleep, sir, but lying in a sort of doze. Weeks is trying to fight off fever."
"I know; I understand. It may be several days before he'll be well enough to—to talk, won't it?" and the major gazed keenly into Hatton's eyes, and Hatton plainly saw the trouble in his commander's face.
"I fear it may, sir. Weeks says he must be kept quiet and free from worry of any kind."
The major paused, irresolute. He took off his forage-cap and mopped his brow with his handkerchief, then stood there twisting the cap in his hands. He looked down the dim hall-way, then through the crack of the door, then down at his boots, and all the time Hatton stood there holding wide open the door, yet hoping and praying he would not come in. Something told the lieutenant that the matter so plainly worrying the commanding officer was one neither he nor McLean could speak of if it could possibly be helped.
But Miller was in sore trouble, and he could not stand alone.
"Hatton!" he muttered, impulsively, "is the nurse there? Can you come out with me? I—I have heard something that gives me a world of concern, something I must ask you about. I can't talk of it here. Sick men's ears are sometimes far more acute than those of their sound and healthy brothers. Can you come now?"
"I am alone with Mac just now, sir. I sent the attendant down to the post-office and the store. He had been cooped up all day, and was grateful for a little fresh air. When he returns——" and Hatton stopped vaguely. He knew it might be an hour before the man got back. That would give him time to think.
"Well. That will have to do. Come to my quarters then, and, if a lot of women are there, you—you say you want to see me about something,—anything,—and I'll come out. I don't want them to dream I'm investigating anything." And here the major stopped uneasily and glanced up-stairs; then looked inquiringly at Hatton. "Who's up there?" he asked.
"No one, sir, to my knowledge. Blunt's door is closed and he is sleeping. Weeks was there not ten minutes since, and stopped to see me on the way down. Why do you ask?"
"Why, I thought I heard something,—a woman's dress and light footfall. I even thought I saw a shadow at the head of the stairs."
Hatton's heart gave a great thump, and he felt his face glowing under his commander's gaze, but he answered steadily.
"It is possible, sir. Mrs. Post and Miss Forrest both have been coming along the upper gallery frequently, bringing things to both Blunt and McLean. Mrs. Post comes over to inquire every hour or so, and they tiptoe in and out as light as a kitten. Shall I run up and see?"
"Oh, no,—no! If that's the explanation, it is simple enough. No, I'm all upset. I—I fancied there was some one listening. Come to me as soon as you can, Hatton. By the way, have you heard from Mr. Holmes?"
"No, sir. He was called suddenly to the ranch, and I presume he is there."
"I know, I know. But did he see McLean before he left?"
"See him! Yes, sir; but that's about all he could do. McLean was in no condition to receive visitors, and Weeks hustled him out somewhat unceremoniously."
"Well. That's all, just now. I'll expect you soon after tattoo."
"Very good, sir."
And then the major went away, closing the hall-door after him. Hatton stood there a moment as though rooted to the spot, his brow moistening with beads of sweat that seemed starting from every pore. Despite his secrecy, then, despite McLean's destruction of the evidence of her visit the night of the disappearance of their property, despite their determination to shield the sister of an absent comrade from suspicion, or disgrace, in some way the story must have gotten around. Possibly there were other thefts of which he knew nothing, in which suspicion had pointed to her. Possibly the vague confessions, implicating no one, which he had made to Mrs. Miller, taken in connection with events of which he had no knowledge, had proved sufficient to weave a chain of circumstantial evidence about her; and now the commanding officer was aroused, and was coming down on him, and poor Mac yonder, for full details of their losses and their knowledge of the affair. He would give anything to secure the postponement of that dreaded interview until he could talk over matters with his comrade, but when would that be a possibility? Just as soon as the attendant returned, he must go to his commander, and either make a clean breast of it or refuse to utter a word. What course would he ask or expect of a comrade if it were his, Hatton's, sister, who was here alone and defenceless? By heaven, McLean was right! They must shield her, so far as shield of theirs could serve, until Forrest himself could come to be her adviser and protector.
Then he, too, stopped, listened, and looked up the stairs. Then he, too, started, but with a start to which the major's sudden turn was a mere languid gesture. Hardly could he believe his eyes; hardly could he trust his reeling senses, but it was she,—Fanny Forrest,—not standing at the head of the stairs, but coming swiftly down upon him, her finger at her lips, her other hand gathering her skirts so that they should make as little rustle as possible as she swooped quickly down the stairs. Another instant, and she was at his side, her eyes gleaming like fiery coals, her face burning, her lips firm, set, and determined. He was too much startled to speak. It was she who broke the silence, in words clear-cut and distinct yet soft and low.
"Mr. Hatton, I saw your major coming here. I have heard within two days more than you know. I know why he wishes to see you to-night, and—yes, I listened. There is more at stake than you dream of. Now, I hasten to you; there is no time to explain,—no time to answer questions. If you would save a friend from wrong or ruin, don't go near Major Miller to-night. I adjure you, find some excuse. I'll find one for you, if it is only to delay that attendant; but mark what I say, don't go near Major Miller to-night, or tell him what you know until Mr. Holmes returns. I—I've sent for him. Will you promise?"
"Promise!" he utters, slowly, a dazed look in his eyes. "Good God, Miss Forrest! I would do anything in my power for Captain Forrest's sister, and for him; but if—if this thing is known, what can my silence avail?"
"Never mind Captain Forrest or Captain Forrest's sister! This is vital! Do you promise? It is only for a day. Mr. Holmes will be here in twenty-four hours."
"What can his coming or going—pardon me! but I'm at a loss to see how he is in any way concerned."
A manly step was heard on the porch without. She turned a glance of terror at the hall-door and flew to spring the latch, but the step went on toward the south hall.
"It is the doctor," she said, falteringly. "He is going to our quarters, and I must hurry back the way I came. Mr. Hatton, tell no one I came to you here; and, as for the rest, I implore you to be guided by what I say. One thing more,"—she whipped from her pocket a white silk handkerchief. "Put this back among his,—not on top, but anywhere among them otherwise."
And, thrusting the soft fabric into his hand, without another word she flew up the old wooden stairs, her skirts rushing and "swishing" over the floor, her slippered feet twinkling over the rickety flight, light as kittens, swift as terriers; and in an instant she was through the upper hall, out on the gallery, and beyond sight and hearing. A few moments, dazed and confounded, Hatton stood there gazing vacantly after her. Then he thought he heard McLean's voice, and entering found him propped on his elbow, a queer look on his face.
"Hat, there are spooks in this old rookery. I could have sworn I heard a woman's dress and a woman's footfalls on those creaking stairs just now. Has any one been in here?"
"N—no one, Mac."
"Gad! I'm not dreaming. It sounded just as it did the night—the night that thing happened. You know, Hat."
Just at tattoo that evening Mrs. Miller was smitten with a sudden desire to go over and see Nellie Bayard. The child hadn't been out of the house, she explained, since "the Grays" started for the fray down the Platte, taking Randall McLean with them. She longed to see her and learn from her lips how matters were going at home. She wondered if Nellie knew how her father was devoting himself to the Forrests; she wondered if the gentle and obedient daughter would not rebel at the idea of such a possibility as his becoming seriously attached to Miss Forrest. She had indulged the major in one very plain and startling dissertation on the subject of that young woman, from the effects of which he was still suffering; but, worst of all, her motherly heart longed to acquire, through Nellie's words, looks, or actions, some idea as to whether she really cared for her pet among all the lieutenants. Of course Nellie liked—but did she love him? Of McLean's deep-rooted regard for the shy and sensitive little maiden, Mrs. Miller had not the shadow of a doubt. Nellie had no one, she argued, to be a mother to her in this troublesome time, and yet she was beginning to feel a species of jealousy in the knowledge that the Bruces and the Gordons and other good garrison people—maid and matron—had been seen going continually to and from the doctor's quarters. Mrs. Miller thought she had a prior claim on the confidences of the doctor's pretty daughter, and did not relish it that others should possibly be before her. Oddly enough there was no one calling on this night of nights; the major had been out, ostensibly to attend to business at the office, but something told her he was seeking information as to the array of circumstances pointing to the fact that there was further evidence against Miss Forrest.
The bugles were sounding the call through the stillness of the early summer night, though at Laramie summer seemed yet far away, when she heard him coming heavily up the steps to the piazza. Well the good lady knew by the very cadence of his footfalls just what mood possessed him. It was slow, draggy, spiritless to-night; and, though he had almost angrily and contemptuously checked her when she began the story of these later revelations, her heart yearned over him now. She went down to him, as he sat there looking drearily out at the twinkling lights across the parade.
"Come, major," she said, addressing him, as was a fancy of hers at times, by the formal army title instead of the Christian name. "Come; I'm going over to the doctor's to see how Nellie is to-night; and, not that I need an escort, I want your company. A glass of his old Madeira will do you good, and he is always so glad to offer it. You are blue to-night, and so am I. Come."
He resisted faintly. Hatton might be along any moment, and he had an appointment with him, he said; but she speedily settled that by calling the orderly, and telling him, should Mr. Hatton call, to come over at once to Dr. Bayard's and let the major know. Then her obedient lord had no further objections to urge, and he, too, had bethought him of the doctor's Madeira and those incomparable Regalia Britannicas. Nowhere in Wyoming were there cigars to match Bayard's, and it was easy to persuade himself that he could so much better deliberate on the matter in hand over the fragrance of the soothing Havana. Robert threw open the door in hospitable Virginian style at sight of the commandant and his wife, ushered them into the parlor, sent the maid up-stairs to inquire if Miss Elinor could see Mrs. Miller; and then, true to his Southern training, reappeared in the parlor with a decanter of wine and some flaky "Angels' food" upon a silver salver. The doctor had gone to the hospital, he explained, but would soon return. Then he vanished. Miller smacked his lips over the Madeira, and smilingly admitted to his better half that he believed there were some things on which "her head was leveller than his."
For a reply she pointed to the hall-way.
"Come here just one moment. I want you to see where I stood, and how I could view what was going on at the hat-rack out there."
Silently he stood by her side, glanced at the mirror, and noted the reflection therein.
"It was just there his beautiful fur coat was hanging,—and the money in its pocket," she said.
Then came the message from aloft, that, if Mrs. Miller would step up-stairs, Miss Bayard would be glad to see her,—Miss Bruce was already there; and so the major was left alone. He sat some five minutes looking over an album or two, poured out and drank another glass of wine, and bethought him that Bayard had told him if ever he felt like smoking to go right into his study and help himself. Now was the very time. A dozen strides brought him to the broad-topped library-table littered with books, pamphlets, papers of all kinds, and among them the inviting-looking brown box. Another moment, and, ensconced in the big easy-chair, with a fragrant Regalia between his lips and a late New York paper in his hand, the major was forgetting the perplexities of the day. The reading-lamp he found lighted threw a bright glow upon the paper in his hand, but left the apartment in darkness. Out in the kitchen he could faintly hear the voices of the domestics and the sound of crockery and glass in process of cleaning, above-stairs the murmur of softer tongues. All in the front part of the house on the first floor was silent. Presently, out on the parade the bugler began to sound the signal, "taps," to extinguish lights, and at the same moment Miller heard the click of the latch at the front door. There had been no footsteps that he could hear, and he thought he might be mistaken. He listened intently, and presently click, click, it went again. Odd, thought Miller. That is not the way a man enters his own house, nor does it sound like the way an honest man enters any one else's. Click, click, again, louder and more forcibly now. Some one was plainly trying to open that door without attracting the attention of the occupants. What if now he should be able to surprise the prowler? What if this should, indeed, prove to be some one bent on larceny or worse? Now was an excellent time. The doctor was known to be away,—over at the hospital. Miss Bayard was known to be up-stairs, confined to her room. Very probably the thief had watched the movements of the post surgeon, knew he would be detained some time, and—there were all those pretty nicknacks in the parlor. There was that handsome silver in the dining-room (it was always in the doctor's strong box under the bed at night). What more likely than that now was the time selected by some sharp sneak-thief in the garrison to slink through the shadows of the night to the doctor's quarters, slip in the front way while the servants were all chattering and laughing in the kitchen in the rear, and make off with his plunder? It was an inspiration. Miller's heart fairly bounded at the thought. If the thief could enter now, he could have entered before,—the night of the dinner. By Jove! Did he not recall that sudden gust of cold air that swept from the hall in the midst of the doctor's story? Click, click, snap! At it again, and no mistake this time. Quickly and on tiptoe the major stole toward the hall where he could see the front door. It was his hope, his belief now, that the thief would speedily effect an entrance; and from the darkness of his lair the major could see and identify him, let him in, follow him on tiptoe to the dining-room, there seize and confound him in the very act, and so, fastening the crime on some one guilty man, dispel at once and for all the cloud of suspicion that hovered over a woman's fair fame. Click, click, again. What was the matter? Would the stubborn lock not yield? or was this a 'prentice hand, and his tools unsuited to the job? In his wild impatience he could have rushed to the door and hurled it open, but that would have only spoiled the game. He could have caught his prowler, but proved nothing. No, patience! patience! A burst of jolly Ethiopian laughter from the distant kitchen drowned for a moment other sounds and possibly unnerved the operator at the door. Did he hear quick, light footsteps hurrying away? There was a broad "stoop" there, quite a wide veranda in fact, since the unsightly wooden storm-door had been removed. For an instant he certainly thought he heard scurrying footfalls. Not the steps themselves, but the creak of the dry woodwork underneath them. He listened intently another moment, but the attempt had apparently been abandoned.
Then—there it was again. Surely he heard a light footfall on the steps,—on the piazza itself. He could bear the suspense no longer, and, springing into the hall where the hanging lamp shed its broad glare over every object, hurled open the door,—and recoiled in mingling agony and horror. God of heaven! There stood Fanny Forrest!
"Major Miller!" she gasped, affrighted at his vehemence and the ghastly look with which he greeted her. "How—how you startled me! Why, what has happened? where were you going in such—why, major—what is the matter?" and now there was something imperious in the demand.
For all answer he could only pass his hand over his quivering face in a dazed, dumb sort of way a moment. Then, rallying suddenly, he stepped forward, giving his head a shake and striving to be cool and calm.
"You are more startled than I, Miss Forrest. I never thought to find you at that door."
"And why not me? I have not seen Nellie since her illness, and came over at taps to inquire if she would not receive me a moment."
"Why—why didn't you ring?" he hoarsely asked.
"Ring! What opportunity had I? My foot had hardly touched the piazza before the door opened in my face and revealed you looking—well, pardon me, Major Miller—as if you had suddenly encountered a ghost."
"Do you mean you have only just come?" he asked.
"And you saw no one? There was no one here as you came in the gate?"
"Not a soul,—stop a minute though,—there was something——"
"Pray, what are you talking about, Major Miller, and to whom are you talking?" queried the voice of his better half at this very instant; and before he could respond there came through the gate-way and up the steps the debonair, portly doctor.
"What!" exclaimed Bayard. "Miss Forrest! Ah, you truant, we've been wondering where you were, your sister and I. Ah, major!—Mrs. Miller. Why, this is delightful! Now indeed am I welcome home! Come right into my parlor, said the—but I'm no spider. Come, Miss Forrest, I know you want to see my little girl,—I left Jeannie Bruce with her. Major, you and I want a glass of Madeira and Mrs. Miller to bless the occasion, and then we all want some music, don't we? Come in, and welcome."
And so, half urging, half pushing, half leading, the doctor swept his trio of visitors into the parlor. Despite her start at Miller's appearance at the door, despite his preoccupation and gloom, which several glasses of the doctor's good wine failed to dissipate, Miss Forrest remained after a brief visit to the invalid up-stairs and, saying that she had promised Nellie, sang to them witchingly again and again.
But that night, despatches flashed in from Fetterman that gave the major another turn. The telegraph operator himself came running up with the message just as the party at the doctor's (considerably augmented by this time by new-comers drawn thither by Miss Forrest's voice) was breaking up for the night. Indians had appeared in great numbers along the North Platte, threatening the road connecting the two posts, and a train had been attacked and burned midway between them. Terry and his hard-worked Grays were ready in an hour to take the trail, but there were no young gallants to ride forth this time. Hatton, indeed, offered his services, but was told he could not be spared. Morning brought tidings that the war-parties were seen only seven miles away at sunrise; and in the presence of the common foe the major, for the time being, put aside the matter weighing so heavily on his mind, but not for a moment could he forget her startled face as he threw open that door. It was time indeed to look the situation squarely through and through. It might be necessary to send for Forrest.
Another day brought with it a strong column of cavalry hastening up from the railway at Cheyenne, and these troops were to be fully provided with rations and ammunition before setting forth toward the Black Hills, whither they were ordered. It was bustle and business for everybody. The major said no more to Hatton on the subject of the interrupted interview; but on the second day, as McLean was lying languidly in his bed, listening to the sounds of hoofs and heels without, and bemoaning his fate that he was to be bedridden here when such stirring times were ahead, his soldier servant came noiselessly to ask the lieutenant's permission to step out a little while to see some friends in the cavalry. The attendant was seated in the front room, so the permission was readily granted.
"Is there anything the lieutenant wants, sir, before I go?"
"Nothing except a handkerchief. Give me one of those silk ones in this corner of the drawer. They are softer."
The man handed the topmost of the pile, and went noiselessly away. McLean shook it open, and a card dropped out upon the coverlet. Surprised, he picked it up and slowly read it, perplexity and then symptoms of annoyance showing plainly in his face. Twice—thrice he read it through. Then, stowing it under his pillow, he began to think.
Dr. Weeks came in before a great while to renew the dressing on his wound, and asked him if he had not been talking too much.
"I haven't been talking at all. Why do you ask?"
"Pulse a little quicker than it was. What have you been doing?"
"Nothing—to speak of. What is there to do but read and think?"
"You mustn't get to fretting because you can't go out with every expedition, Mac. We all know you'd like it, but you can't have your pie and eat it. You can't get shot in one fight and expect to get into the next. If you'll keep quiet here, I think I can put you in saddle again in a month,—much quicker than I can poor Blunt; but you must be patient, especially now that you'll miss Hatton. He goes out with the train-guard to-night."
"Hatton! To-night?" exclaimed the invalid.
"There you go again, Mac! What a bundle of tow you are, to be sure; I might just as soon touch a match to a magazine."
"Doctor, tell Hatton I want him,—must see him before he goes."
"Confound it, man, I told him to keep away. Why do you want him?"
"Because I must see him. You'll have a crazy man on your hands if you don't." And Weeks decided it best to let this headstrong Highlander have his way.
That night, in his field-dress and all ready to start, Hatton gently came to his comrade's bed-side.
"What is it, old man?" he asked. "Weeks told me first to slip away without saying good-by,—I'll only be gone a week,—and then hunted me up and said you wanted to see me."
McLean looked out in the front room.
"Send that man away for a while," he said.
"Now for it," groaned Hatton, between his teeth. "Something new, and he's got hold of it. How in heaven am I to keep my story to myself?"
Obediently at a word from Hatton, the hospital attendant took his cap and stepped outside. Then McLean put forth his hand and took that of the senior lieutenant.
"Hat, you and I have been good friends, haven't we?"
"I've something to ask you. Something I must know. You remember the night we burned that handkerchief?"
"I should say so."
"Have you ever seen—have you ever known of her ever being in here—or around here since?"
"Tell me, Hat."
"I can't tell you, Mac. There's been the devil to pay. Some other things stolen. Miller's got hold of it, and, old man, I'm thankful I'm going, for I'd have to tell what we know."
"Great God! and Forrest two weeks' march away,—least count! See here, Hat! To-day I found something among my handkerchiefs—in a missing one that was returned. Do you know how it got there?"
"Yes," slowly. "She herself gave it to me and asked me to put it there."
"You don't mean it! How could she, without exciting more suspicion? She must have known it would only make you connect her with what had happened here."
"Mac,—old man; it's no use! I can't keep it back from you. Why! She was reckless of anything I might think. It has gone far beyond suspicion. It is certainty. She was on the watch the night Miller came here for me. It was her dress—her steps you heard in the hall. It may be kleptomania,—God knows; but whatever it is, she threw off all disguise. She listened to Miller's orders that I should come to him at tattoo; and then, the moment he was gone, down she flew to where I stood there at the door, and implored me, Mac, as I would save her from disgrace and ruin not to go—not to tell him."
"And she was not out of her mind?"
"She is as sane as you or I, Mac, except on that one thing."
For several days after Hatton's sudden departure Lieutenant McLean was worse. High fever had set in, and Dr. Weeks hardly knew how to account for it. Mrs. Miller, kind soul, had begged to be allowed to come over and help nurse him, and was more than perplexed when, having easily obtained the approval of the post surgeon, she was met by a most embarrassed but earnest negative on the part of his assistant. As Weeks was in charge of the case, Dr. Bayard's sense of professional etiquette would not permit of his opposing his junior in the matter, but did not prevent his expressing himself as surprised and annoyed at what he termed a slight to the wife of the commanding officer. The lady herself could not refrain from telling her husband and making some trenchant criticisms at the expense of the younger physician; and, as a result of her remarks, Old Miller decided to do a thing to which, hitherto, he had always declared himself averse,—namely, to require of his surgical staff a defence of their policy in the matter. He would not do this formally or officially, but he meant to ask Dr. Bayard at once what possible objection there could be to Mrs. Miller's looking in on the young officer and doing what she could to promote his comfort. She was welcome to go to Blunt's bedside, she told him, and Mr. Blunt's wounds were of a more severe character than those of the young infantryman, whom she was virtually forbidden to see.
Miller's honest heart was filled full of perplexities and cares at this time, and the best of men are apt to be a trifle irritable under such conditions. His brow was moody and his step more energetic than usual, as he sallied forth in search of his senior surgeon, this bright sunshiny morning. No one was on the Bayards' piazza, but the front door was open, and, hearing subdued voices in the parlor, he ventured to step inside and tap at the inner door which also stood ajar. It was at once thrown wide open by Janet Bruce, whose bonnie face lighted up with pleasure at sight of him; she had always been a favorite of his from the days when she was a romping maid in short dresses.
"Why, Major Miller! Come right in. Nellie will be so glad to see you."
"What! Is Nellie here?" he asked, and stepping into the parlor, the gloom vanishing from his face at sight of those smiling eyes, he marched over to the sofa where Elinor lay, holding forth to him a white and fragile hand.
"Why, bless your heart, little lady! I'm rejoiced to see you down-stairs again," he cheerily said. "We've all been in the dumps ever since you were taken ill and remanded to bed. And now I suppose you and Janet here have been condoling with each other. With McLean invalided and Hatton on the war-path, I fear me you two young women have been indulging in tears. Hah! Blushing? Well, well, I only wish I were Mac or Hatton either. Enviable fellows, both of them, to have two such pretty girls in mourning for their mishaps. But all the same, don't you lose your hearts to those boys; neither of 'em is worth it." And the major chuckled at the idea of being quizzical and arch.
"Indeed, Major Miller," retorted Miss Bruce, with reddening cheeks and spirited mien. "We're not in mourning at all, though I'm not a whit ashamed of my anxiety about our friends; but as for calling them boys, Mr. Hatton is ten years older than you were when you were married,—Mrs. Miller told me so,—and Mr. McLean has been too many years in the service to be spoken of disparagingly. Have you heard how he is this morning?" she asked, with a sudden change from rebuke to anxious inquiry, flashing a quick glance at his half-averted face as she questioned.
"Not for two hours. I had hoped to find Dr. Bayard here. Do you know where he is, Miss Nellie?"
"He said he was going to the hospital, major," was the hesitant reply, "but I think he stopped at Bedlam,—at Mrs. Forrest's, perhaps."
"Ah—yes, I remember. Mrs. Forrest does not get well rapidly. Has Miss Forrest been over to see you since you came down-stairs?"
"She called, but papa had desired me to keep very quiet. Janet was reading to me, and she went to the door and saw her."
The major decided to press the question no further. Something in the manner of both girls told him the subject was hardly congenial. He remained a few moments chatting with them, and noted with paternal solicitude the languor and lack of interest in Nellie Bayard's drooping eyes and the unmistakable signs of anxiety and trouble in her sweet face. "My wife is right," he muttered to himself; "she always is, in such things at least,"—for with masculine perversity he could not vouchsafe a sweeping verdict as to a woman's infallibility. "There is small chance here for Holmes," he mentally added. "I only wish young McLean were out of his troubles." And the doctor's hearty voice was heard without, and the tread of feet, and the next moment Bayard was in the hall-way eagerly welcoming a visitor. Miller saw the glance that passed between the girls and the instant cloud of distress that overspread Nellie's face. It was Roswell Holmes again.
"Why! When did you get back?" exclaimed the major, rising. "We had no idea of this. I supposed you would go direct to Cheyenne from the ranch."
"It was my intention, major," answered Mr. Holmes, with grave courtesy, "but letters I received made it preferable that I should come back here, and the doctor kindly gives me an abiding-place. Excuse me," and he passed the major by and went on and bent over the sofa and took Miss Bayard's hand and greeted her with tender intonation in every word, even while he bowed pleasantly to Miss Bruce.
"Quite a surprise, wasn't it?" asked Dr. Bayard from the door-way. "Major, I'm glad to see you here this morning, and no doubt Nellie welcomed you, though she isn't able to play the hostess just yet. We'll have her up and about in a day or two, though. Holmes, old fellow, you can safely hang your traps in the hall now. I've had that latch tinkered up since the night—the night of the dinner. Whoever opened it that night will get fooled on it the next time he tries. I had quite a row with Robert about it, and the conceit was taken out of him not a little."
"Why, how was this, doctor?" asked Miller, with immediate interest. "I had not heard. Are there—have there been any new developments?" And lowering his voice as he asked, the major drew the post surgeon into the hall-way.
"Nothing of consequence, major. Of course we all felt uncomfortable when it was known that Holmes had lost a porte-monnaie from his overcoat-pocket as it hung here on the rack that night. Though he protests there was nothing in it, the thing might have been serious. You remember you thought the hall-door had been opened during our dinner. I believe I was telling some story or other at the time,—bad habit of mine,—and we sent Robert out to look. He came back and said it was tight shut, and couldn't have been open, because he had fixed it so that the latch could not be turned from outside. But Holmes showed us next day that it could be."
"Then you think it had been tampered with,—that some garrison sneak-thief had got in?"
"Well, that's what Holmes says and what Robert stoutly maintains, though you can't see a scratch or a mark or anything to indicate that such means had been used. No, major," and the doctor shook his head ominiously. "I—I have another theory, but it's one too shadowy, too unsubstantial to speak of. It is nothing but suspicion."
And Miller would not ask him what it was. Well knowing how the doctor had been devoting himself to Miss Forrest, it was with nothing short of amaze that the old soldier now heard him speak. After all his wife had told him, whom could Bayard mean but the Queen of Bedlam?
Abruptly the major changed the subject, even while thinking how in his own experience he had had recent opportunity to realize the truth of what the doctor said. Somebody had indeed "got fooled on that latch" the night he sat there in the dim light of the doctor's library,—somebody who evidently expected to enter as readily as before, and had worked ineffectually for several minutes before abandoning the attempt, and then only to be caught in the act and unblushingly to repudiate the same.
"Bayard," said the major, "I am the last man to interfere in the details of my subordinates' management of affairs, but there's a matter I want to ask you about while we are out here. What is the reason Dr. Weeks refuses to let Mrs. Miller go in and see McLean? She has been always very fond of him, and naturally wants to be of service now. Of course, if there be any good and sufficient reason, I've nothing to say, but I think I've a right to know."
Bayard hesitated a moment. "Come out here on the piazza, major," he presently said. "I don't want them to hear in the parlor." And together the two officers walked over to the wooden railing and stood there looking at each other. It was evident to the post commander in an instant that what his surgeon had to tell was something of no little importance and something, furthermore, that he shrank from mentioning. Bayard's eyes fell before the major's earnest and troubled gaze; he was plainly studying how to put his information fairly and without prejudice. Suddenly he looked up.
"First, while we are on the subject, let me finish about this latch business, major. It is not entirely—entirely irrelevant to the other matter. You see I had to tell Robert why we made such particular inquiries about the door. Now the boy has been with me for years, and came to me with a most unblemished character. Why, he was body-servant for the adjutant and quartermaster of the First Artillery in the lively old days at Fort Hamilton, and had unlimited opportunities for peculation; but those gentlemen said he was simply above suspicion. But he is sensitive, and it worried him fearfully lest Mr. Holmes should think he or some of his assistants in the kitchen had been searching those pockets. Now it was simply on his account—to convince him it was somebody from outside that surreptitiously entered the hall while we were all at dinner—that Holmes took the trouble to test the latch, and with a little bit of stiff wire he showed us how Robert's device could be circumvented."
"And Holmes has no doubt it was so accomplished?" asked the major, tentatively.
Bayard looked embarrassed. "I cannot say just what he does think, major, because he utterly refuses to speak of it. He said it was absurd to make such an ado about nothing, and declared he would be seriously annoyed if I pursued the subject."
"But you admit you have a theory of your own?" and Miller keenly eyed his medical officer as though striving to read beneath that smooth and polished surface.
"I have what might be called an hypothesis, a vague theory, and a suspicion that would be entirely intangible but for one or two little things that have recently come to my knowledge."
"And those little things point to an inmate of the garrison, do they not?" asked Miller, with as much nonchalance as he could assume.
"I fear so," was the doctor's answer. "But you asked why Mrs. Miller was urged not to come to Mr. McLean's room just yet; that is the way Weeks put it to me when I overhauled him, which I did at the moment the matter came to my ears. Rest assured I was quite as ready to take umbrage at his action,—more so, rather, than you could have been. But, major, could you have heard his explanation, you yourself would have been the first to say no one but his physician should be allowed to stay there. Weeks even sent the hospital nurse away, and sat up with him all night himself."
"Has he been delirious?"
"Yes, and in his delirium he has been talking of things that have completely stampeded poor Weeks. Of course he could not give me the faintest inkling of what they were, and I would not ask; but they were of such a character that they should be treated as sacred confidences, and Weeks said to me that no court-martial could drag them from his lips. He would resign first. It was for fear his patient might continue the subject in her presence that Weeks begged Mrs. Miller not to think of coming to nurse him yet awhile. He assures me that the moment the fever subsides he will be glad to have her aid, for he looks worn-out now. Were not his reasons cogent?"
Miller bowed his head. "I had not thought of this," he said; "Mrs. Miller will be as sorry as I am to hear of it, and, of course, she will appreciate the reasons. Did Weeks tell you when this delirium began?"
"The night after Hatton left, or, rather, very early in the morning of the next day. He had been alarmed at McLean's symptoms during the evening, and ordered the nurse to wake him if he saw any indications of delirium. The man came to him at three in the morning and said the lieutenant was wild. Weeks went over at once,—and ten minutes after he got there he sent the attendant away, and shut himself up with his patient."
The major pondered a moment. "Is the man close-mouthed? Do you think he could have heard much of anything before he was sent away?"
"I know very little about him. He is a member of Captain Bruce's company and very much attached to the lieutenant; so I infer from what Weeks tells me. Even if he had heard anything that ought not to leak out, it is not likely this particular man would betray it; he would say nothing that might ever harm McLean."
"Well, no! Not McLean, perhaps. Very possibly he might not know how it would harm him to have his ravings repeated. I was thinking—I could not help thinking—that Mac had been talking about—these recent thefts in garrison."
"And there have been more than this one at our house?" asked the doctor, with concern and surprise mingled in his handsome face.
"Yes, two or three more, I regret to say, but I have not full particulars yet and cannot speak of them."
Bayard clasped his hands with one of the melodramatic gestures so peculiar to him.
"My God!" he muttered. "It was bad enough as I supposed it, but I had no idea it had come to such a pass as this."
"Bayard," said the major, after a moment of earnest thought, "this is a matter that must be handled with the utmost care and circumspection. Not a vestige of suspicion must be permitted to circulate if we can prevent it. I have strictly enjoined secrecy upon my—my informant, and I desire you to regard this talk as confidential. Tell Weeks I appreciate and sustain him in this caution and thank him for his efforts to stifle any possible scandal. Poor Mac! The youngster would be horror-stricken if he knew what secrets he had been blabbing."
"His troubles must have been weighing on his mind a long time," said the doctor, "and yet I never suspected it. I don't know that I ever saw a blither young fellow until about the time the finding of that board of survey was announced. He didn't seem to expect that at all."
"Well,—neither did I. Of course, technically it had to go against him, but we never dreamed it would result in stoppage of his pay."
"And yet his funds were all right, I'm told," said the doctor, musingly. "One would suppose that if he had any tendencies that way they would have cropped out when he had so much public money passing through his hands."
"Tendencies what way, doctor? I don't follow you."
"Why, in the way these—these little thefts and his delirious utterances would seem to indicate," said Bayard, hesitatingly.
Miller fairly sprang up from the rail on which he was leaning, his eyes distended with wonderment and pain.
"In God's name, Bayard, what are you talking about?" he gasped.
"About this sad case of McLean's, major, as I supposed you were."
"You don't mean that your theory involves him? You don't mean it—it is of himself, of his connection with these thefts, that he has been telling in his delirium?"
"Why, Major Miller, I supposed of course you understood—I—I, of course, accuse nobody, but of whom could he have been talking about but himself? That was certainly my understanding of it."
For one moment the old major stood there looking into the staff-officer's eyes,—amaze, consternation, distress, all mingled in his florid, weather-beaten face. Then without a word he turned and stumbled away down the steps and hurried from the gate. The trim, spruce orderly, standing on the walk without, raised his gloved hand in salute and stood attention as the commanding officer passed him, then "fell in" ten paces behind and followed in his tracks. But for once in his life the major neither saw nor returned a soldier's respectful salutation.
The fever had left him, and Randall McLean, very white and "peaked" looking, was sitting propped up in bed and enjoying the wine-jelly Mrs. Miller had brought with her own hands. She had hoped to find him in better spirits, and was distressed to see how downcast and listless he was. Just what evil spell had fallen upon the garrison Mrs. Miller could not explain. The major for two or three days had been utterly unlike himself, and would give her no good reason. The cavalry battalion that had reached the post and gone into camp down on the flats to the north was almost ready to push on toward the Black Hills, and though she had twice reminded him that he ought at least to invite the field and staff officers to dinner, her usually social spouse had declined, saying he felt utterly unequal to it. The lethargy and gloom at post "head-quarters" seemed to pervade the entire garrison. Nobody felt like doing anything to dispel it. The band played blithely enough at guard-mounting and again in the sunshiny afternoons, but nobody came out and danced on the broad piazzas as used to be the way at Laramie. Nellie Bayard was beginning to sit out on the veranda in a big easy-chair with Janet Bruce as her constant companion, and the Gordon girls, those indomitably jolly creatures, as occasional visitors; but as Miss Kate, the elder, expressed herself, "Laramie is nothing but one big hospital now. The women and children are the only able-bodied men in it." Nellie was kind and civil, and tried to be cordial to them, but they were "smart" enough to see she had no heart for rattling small talk and crisp comments on matters and things at the post, and much preferred to be left alone to her undisturbed confidential chats with "Bonnie Jean." Blunt was slowly mending, and Dr. Weeks was having a little rest after an anxious week, when his services were demanded for another patient in Bedlam,—no less a person than the queen herself.
In view of the fact that Dr. Bayard was the recognized family physician and had been and was still assiduously attending Mrs. Forrest, it was considered nothing short of an intentional slight on the young lady's part that she should send for Weeks. It was Mrs. Post who came over to Blunt's door when she knew the junior doctor was there, and asked him to come with her and see Miss Forrest. For two days the latter had been confined to her room refusing to see any physician, and declaring that in Mrs. Post's ministrations she found all the physic she needed, but now the time seemed to have come when medical aid was really necessary. Dr. Bayard's face, when he was told by Mrs. Post that Weeks was summoned and in attendance, was a study worth seeing. It was not a serious ailment at all, said Mrs. Post. Miss Forrest had caught cold and neglected it, and now the cold had developed into fever, and she had been persuaded to keep in bed for a day or two.
But Mrs. Miller was puzzled over still another matter. The evening of the day Mr. Holmes so unexpectedly reappeared at Laramie, he and Miss Forrest met on the board-walk near "Bedlam," had a few moments' conversation there just before gun-fire at retreat, and then, to the surprise of many lookers-on, she was observed to take his proffered arm, and for over half an hour they strolled around the deserted parade talking earnestly together. It was the hour when most of the garrison families were in the dining-rooms, at dinner or tea as might be the custom of the household; but more than one good lady found it necessary to pop up from the table and go to the front window to see if Mr. Holmes and Miss Forrest were still walking and talking together. It was the morning after this mysterious consultation that the cold developed; and those kindly spirits who had promptly decided that the handsome but penniless New York girl was setting her cap to cut out Nellie Bayard with the Chicago millionaire were balked in their hopes of seeing further developments by the circumstance of her keeping her room and not again meeting Mr. Holmes, who, after two or three days' visit, departed as suddenly and unexpectedly as he came. The presence of a large battalion of cavalry had the effect of warning the Indians away from the neighborhood and made travel again comparatively safe.
And now, having patted up his pillows and settled him carefully back upon them, Mrs. Miller had begun the attempt of cheering her "pet lieutenant," as the major had called him. First she strove to rouse his interest by detailing the terms in which Captain Terry had officially commended his gallantry and zeal in the fight down at Royall's Ford; but he had heard it all before through Dr. Weeks, and, though appreciative, he did not beam with the comfort she expected. Then she tried to tell him of Major Miller's warm-hearted and commendatory endorsement in forwarding Terry's report; but he had heard of that too; the adjutant had told him about it, and there was nothing new in it. What did it amount to, after all? said Mac to himself. What good result can follow? No matter how zealously a fellow may serve in the field,—no matter what dangers he may encounter, hardships he may endure, wounds he may receive, Indians he may kill or capture,—in this blessed republican land of ours the principle is too well established that promotion in the line goes only by seniority, and to the staff—like kissing—mainly by favor. Not even a "brevet," he well knew, could be won by daring conduct in action against savage foes; and, to sum the matter up in a few words, the men who stood the best chance for advancement in the army were those who studiously avoided excitement of any kind, especially that to be found in Western campaigns. They all understood this thing at Laramie just as well as he did, and therefore appreciated his soldierly conduct for what it was really worth.
"But the major thinks it may be the means of removing that stoppage against your pay, Mr. McLean," said Mrs. Miller. "Surely the general will do something to secure recognition or reward."
"I fear not, Mrs. Miller," was the doleful answer; "that is just about the last thing this government of ours is apt to do; what I've got before me is the prospect of having to live for a year or more on 'board wages,' and see my pay raked in month after month to make up for the stealings of a rascal too sharp for any of us even to suspect. It would be hard at any time, but—it's rough now, and no mistake." And poor Mac turned his head away as he spoke.
There was silence a moment. The womanly heart was touched at his despair and suffering, yet impotent to cheer him. Suddenly she bent over him as he lay there, so white and weary looking.
"Mac, don't, don't worry so. I can't bear to see you troubled. I know—I can't help knowing—what's the matter; and indeed,—indeed I think you have cause to hope rather than despair. Did you know he had gone away again?"
"Yes. Weeks told me."
"She cares nothing whatever for him. Janet Bruce is with her all the time, Mac, and she told me she almost shrank from him. Now, if he were simply her father's friend, she could not but like him. Everybody likes him, Mac, and I have reason to know what a considerate and thorough gentleman he is. But it is because he has attempted to be more that she has turned against him, and Janet says she knows he has seen it and made up his mind to accept it as final. The last two days of his visit he avoided her all the time, only conversed with her when they were unavoidably thrown together, and was then simply bright and laughing and friendly. Janet says that Nellie seemed inexpressibly relieved by the change in his manner. Come, old fellow, cheer up and get well, and let us have you out in the sunshine a day or two, and then we'll see if a few long talks with her won't help matters. She's a child yet, and almost too young to fall in love with anybody. You know she has seen next to nothing of the world."
"That is just what stings and torments me so, Mrs. Miller," answered McLean, with unexpected energy. "That is what weighs upon my heart and soul. She has seen very little of the world. She is young, inexperienced, and motherless. Her father does not like me, and I know it, and simply because he saw my deep interest in her, and, having other views, he was determined to break it off in the bud. What possible right have I—poor, friendless, utterly without position or influence, saddled with this mountain of uncontracted debt—to seek to win such a girl as she for my wife? What have I to offer but misfortune and trouble? No, Mrs. Miller, it is all useless. If I have stood between her and such a future as he could offer her, God forgive me. I did not know the millstone that was to be hung about my neck. I did not dream of his existence. I just drifted in, and now I could pray heaven she hasn't."
Again he turned away, with something very like a sob in his weak voice, and buried his face in his arm.
"Mac," she persisted, "I'm not going to sit here and see you accusing yourself of wrong-doing in this way. Let me tell you that if she does care for you, and I believe she does, Nellie Bayard would rather be your wife in one room and a kitchen than live in opulence in New York or Chicago. What's more, she would wait for you loyally, faithfully, until you were thoroughly on your feet again, with this debt paid and a little laid by. As for Dr. Bayard's plans for her, he is worldly enough, of course, to seek such wealth as Roswell Holmes's for his daughter; but the man himself is changing his mind. You should have seen him devoting himself to Miss Forrest out here one evening. Now, there's a girl who would appreciate his money and spend it for him like a duchess."
But McLean was silent.
"Did you get to know her at all well?" asked Mrs. Miller presently.
"Very slightly indeed."
"And yet, living in the same building with her, as you and Mr. Hatton did, I fancied you would see her quite frequently."
"I didn't. I believe Hat did."
"Yes—his rooms being up-stairs, and opening on that gallery where she used to promenade so much, it was natural that he should see more of her. It worried Jeannie Bruce not a little. I never knew whether she cared for Mr. Hatton or not until Miss Forrest took to parading up and down in front of his rooms."
"Hat says she never came as far as his window. She turned about before she reached the hall-door always."
"Tell me, Mac. Do you think Mr. Hatton liked her?"
McLean's pale face flushed a little. He felt that questions were trembling on her lips which he did not wish to answer, and the one thing he could not do was equivocate.
"I'd rather you'd wait and ask him," he finally said.
"Oh! I don't mean as he likes Janet Bruce; what I meant was—well, you or he or both of you—did you feel that you—well—trusted her?"
McLean fairly squirmed in his nest under the sheets. This was just the drift he had dreaded. How he wished Weeks would come in and tell her they were talking too much and would be sure to throw him into a fever again, but no Weeks was to be had; he had gone home for a rest, and probably would not appear again until afternoon. He glanced uneasily into the front room.
"No! The hospital attendant is not there, Mac. I sent him off on an errand. You need not be afraid of his hearing,—and, besides, he has heard you talk about her. I thought you ought to know."
"Has heard me talk about her,—Miss Forrest? What on earth do you mean, Mrs. Miller?" And now he had turned toward her, his face filled with anxiety and alarm.
"Don't worry, Mac. I found it out instantly. You know he is a married man, and his wife has been my laundress for over five years. You talked about her when you were delirious,—not very much,—nothing—nothing I did not already know; but Dr. Weeks turned him away and took care of you from the moment Lachlan went for him and told him you were talking wild, and of course his wife wormed out of him why he was not needed for two days, and, little by little, what you had said. Luckily she came right to me, and I put a stopper on her tongue."
"My God! My God! What have I done?" moaned McLean, as he threw his arm over his eyes. "What did I say? What have I revealed, Mrs. Miller? I must know."
"Nothing; again I assure you, nothing that we—that is—I—did not already have good cause to suspect and know. It came to me from Robinson, Mac, before you dreamed of anything of the kind, so you are in no wise responsible. She must have a mania, there's no other explanation for it; but we're going to keep it all quiet. No one is to know until Captain Forrest gets back at the end of the campaign. Then he will be told, and restitution be made. But isn't it dreadful?"
For all answer McLean would only shake his head. He was stunned—horrified at thought of the wild revelation he had made. He could not bear to speak of it. Yet now he felt that he must know how much he had let fall.
"It is the last time that fellow Lachlan shall enter this room," he muttered between his teeth. "I'll have Weeks send him back to his company this very day."
"No, don't blame Lachlan. The poor fellow meant no harm. He only told it as evidence of the extremity of your delirium. He does not dream the truth with regard to her, though I fear his wife does. Why, Mac, if they had not come away from Robinson when they did, the whole post would have been in an uproar. Things were disappearing all the time,—money and valuables,—and since they left there it has all stopped, but has begun here. You and Mr. Hatton are not the only losers. Mr. Holmes confessed to me that his porte-monnaie had been stolen from his fur overcoat the night we were there at the doctor's, and I saw her standing by it, patting it and pretending to admire it; and I know that she has been sending registered letters away, and that bills are constantly coming to her from the East. Mrs. Griffin told me so. And then Mr. Hatton—well, you know he has confided in me in ever so many things—he told me a good deal before he went away. No, indeed, Mac. It isn't that you have revealed anything I did not know. It is only that I felt you ought to be told of it."
But McLean could not be comforted. "Who else knows of this?" he presently asked.
"I have told the major. We had talked it all over before your illness. Mrs. Bruce knows, for she too gets letters from Robinson. And perhaps there are one or two who suspect, but that is all. Mr. Hatton is the one who knows most about it all, and has most reason to believe in her guilt. When did you become convinced?"
"I don't know,—that night Hatton told me, I suppose,—the night the major came to see me, and Hatton begged off. You know about it?"
"The major told me he had gone to see you about some evidence you had; Mr. Hatton met him at the door and explained that you were asleep. Was that the night you mean, Mr. McLean? Was that the night that you became convinced that she was the thief?"
"That was the night."
"But what happened then to convince you? I ought to know. It is far better that I should know than have this cruel half belief."
"I—Mrs. Miller, forgive me, but it is a matter I cannot speak of. Hatton and I 'shook hands' on it we would say nothing to any one of our knowledge, and I cannot speak of it. Wait until he returns. He ought to be back to-morrow. You know he only went with the guard to the stockade up on Sage Creek. It's only three days' march. If he will tell you, well and good; but I will not say anything more,—just now, at any rate."
There came a quick step along the wooden piazza without, a tap at the door, and Dr. Weeks peered in. Glancing over her shoulder, Mrs. Miller saw that his face was white,—that he was beckoning to her; and she presently arose and went into the front room. She heard hoof-beats passing the house at a rapid trot. She heard hurrying feet and excited voices, and then the young doctor stretched forth his hand at the door-way and led her into the hall.
"Stay with McLean as much as you can, and keep this from him if possible. A courier is just in who got through, God knows how, during the night. Hatton and his party were corralled yesterday beyond Rawhide Butte. Several of them are killed already. The cavalry start at once, and I go with them."
For a man who prided himself on the ease and self-possession which made him so distinguished a feature in society, Dr. Bayard could not but confess to himself that the sudden orders which sent his assistant away left him in a somewhat embarrassing position. The care of Weeks's patients now devolved upon the senior, and among these patients was one who much needed his attention, but whom he shrank from seeing,—Randall McLean,—and another whom he greatly desired to attend, but who shrank from seeing him,—Miss Forrest.
Mrs. Miller was still at the bedside of the former when Dr. Bayard nerved himself to make the necessary call. To his great relief, the young soldier had fallen into a fitful doze and was unconscious of his presence. Mrs. Miller, in low tones, described his condition; and the doctor was content to go without other examination, though he left directions with the attendant as to what was to be done when the patient awaked. Next he repaired to Mrs. Forrest's rooms, and was measurably soothed and flattered by her appreciative reception. He bade her pay no attention to the rumors rushing through the post, and dinned into her affrighted ears by Celestine, as to the probable fate of Hatton and his little command. He pointed out to her, as he had to other ladies whom he had been summoned to attend that gruesome afternoon, that it was not the first time Mr. Hatton had been "corralled" by the Sioux, and that he had always successfully kept them at respectful distance, and his own command under cover, until the rescuers in shape of cavalry could reach the scene. It is true that in this instance the attack seemed to have been fierce and sudden, and the courier gave the names of two men who were killed instantly; but, said he, as that attack was repelled, and Hatton lost no time in getting his men into a little hollow, he believed and Major Miller believed that they could "stand off" the Indians indefinitely. The cavalry would certainly reach them early in the morning, and that would be the end of it. Forty-two hours wasn't very long compared with other sieges those infantrymen had sustained in escorting trains through the Indian country, if they only had water for their wounded, all would go well. There was the main trouble, said the doctor. What with the Niobrara and the Rawhide and the little streams running into them, and the spring at Box Elder, close to the road, there was so much water along the route that possibly they had neglected to fill the barrel on their wagon and the canteen carried by each man. If that were the case, and the Indians had surrounded them some distance from any spring or stream, then the wounded might, indeed, have to suffer a day or so, but he anticipated nothing worse. He had talked it all over with Miller before setting forth on his rounds, and knew just what to say. Most women were reassured and rendered hopeful, but Mrs. Forrest's spirits were at low ebb and she required consolation in double allowance. Bayard lingered with her, nothing loath, hoping that Miss Forrest might come into the family sitting-room to hear his version of affairs at the front. Even after Mrs. Forrest was talked out, and the font of her ready tears was nearly pumped dry, he held his ground, examining Maud's and Vickie's juvenile tongues and dandling baby Hal to that youngster's keen delight. But no one came along the hall whose step sounded like hers, and at last his patience gave out.
"And how is Miss Forrest this afternoon?" he asked.
"Still confined to her room and bed, doctor, but she says she means to get up and dress this evening. Now, do you think it prudent for her to go out in the night air?"
"On general principles, Mrs. Forrest," answered the doctor, slowly and impressively, "I should say no, but I have no knowledge of the merits of this case. You will remember that my services were virtually declined by the young lady in favor of those of the assistant."
"I know, doctor, I know. Fanny is simply the most incomprehensible creature I ever met. I cannot understand her at all, and it's useless for me to talk to her. I told her that you were the family physician, and pointed out to her that a simple regard for the proprieties ought to show her how much better it would be to call you instead of a gentleman so much younger; but she pays no attention to anything I say. She never has."
Bayard winced not a little at the invidious comparison on the score of age, but, now that the subject was opened, he desired to "prospect" a little. There was another view to be taken, and one far more flattering to his amour propre. Probably, in the coyness of a woman who had recognized the lover in his looks and language, Miss Forrest had tacitly admitted his claim to be regarded as such by summoning another, not a lover, to attend her professionally. If this hypothesis proved correct he would have some grounds for hope. Two things, however, he greatly desired to know before taking the plunge. First, was it possible that Mr. Courtlandt proposed leaving her a lump of his large fortune? Second, was it possible that she had already given her heart to another? He well knew that on neither point would Miss Forrest be confidential with so weak a vessel as her sister-in-law; but, on the other hand,—and the doctor reasoned well,—he felt sure that, in order to reconcile her to having Fanny as an inmate of their household, Captain Forrest had been compelled to tell her why he had withdrawn his sister from such luxurious surroundings in New York and brought her to share his humble fare as a soldier on the far frontier. He had heard from a dozen sources how Forrest had almost painfully truckled to his querulous wife; always pleading, explaining, conciliating; always fearful of saying or doing, or leaving unsaid or undone, something, the doing or neglecting of which was sure to wound her sensitive soul and bring on a flood of tears and reproaches. "If she were my wife," said blunt old Bruce, "I'd pack her off home to that doting father she's always prating about, and I'd keep her there until she arrived at years of discretion. It is simply pitiful to see a big, stalwart, soldierly fellow like Forrest led around by the nose like a ringed bull by that ridiculous and lackadaisical creature." Beyond doubt there would have been far more happiness all around if Forrest had firmly set down his foot and refused to be longer the victim of her whims and caprices. There would doubtless have been a few days of sore lamentation and despairing appeals to be restored to her father's arms (where she was not at all wanted, that estimable ecclesiastic having only recently taken thereto a successor to her sainted mother); but in the end she would have respected him far more and been happier in obeying him. Like many another husband, poor Forrest was at times conscious of his duty in the case; but, like most others, shrank from the ordeal. Bruce himself, so savagely critical of the weakness of other spouses, was notoriously subservient to the wishes of Mrs. Bruce; but she never had to resort to tears to accomplish her object, and was thoroughly in unison with her husband in his condemnation of Forrest's weakness. "Poor, poor fellow!" she was saying to herself this very day. "With such a fool for a wife and such a—such a sharper for a sister!"
So confident was Bayard of his ground that he had decided, days since, on his plan of attack. He would not ask direct questions, for her husband had doubtless pledged her to secrecy. He would delicately but unhesitatingly speak of Miss Forrest as though he had full knowledge of her past, and he felt assured that he could read in the patient's face, even in the unlikely event of her silence, whether or no his theories were correct. Besides, he had ventured an inquiry or two of an old New York associate and club-fellow, a man who had known the Courtlandts well.
"We must not judge Miss Forrest harshly, dear lady," he soothingly remarked, after a moment of deep thought and apparent hesitation. "I confess that I felt a little aggrieved at first when she saw fit to summon Dr. Weeks despite the fact that I was in the house as your physician two or three times a day; but, after thinking it all over, her motives were apparent and—quite natural. You probably did not know that I was well acquainted with Mr. Courtlandt, did you?"
"No! were you?" asked Mrs. Forrest, with dilating eyes. "And Fanny knew,—and did not tell me——"
"Yes. We were members of the same club, and I used to see a great deal of him before coming West." It was very long before, and it was only seeing, but Bayard did not care to explain this. He wished to convey the idea that his acquaintance with the old gentleman had been recent and confidential, and he succeeded.
"How strange that you should be here—where she is. I'm sure Captain Forrest has no idea of it, doctor. Did—did you ever speak with her about—the Courtlandts?"
"Yes, once. Of course she did not care to talk of the matter at first. It was only when she found that I knew Mr. Courtlandt so well, that she became at all communicative."
"And did she talk of her affair—of Mr. Courtlandt—the younger one I mean?"
"My dear Mrs. Forrest! We could hardly expect a young lady to be communicative on such a topic as that. Of course there were some things I could not help knowing, and that is why I say we ought not to judge her harshly now. Her experience of last year was not calculated to make a girl look upon the world with kindlier eyes, and the contrast between the life she leads now and that she led under her kinsman's roof is enough to dishearten any woman."
"I'm sure I do everything I possibly can to make her content and happy," impetuously exclaimed Mrs. Forrest. "And it's all her own fault if she isn't. She—she needn't have come at all. Mr. Courtlandt told her and told Captain Forrest that it should make no difference; but she is self-willed and obstinate, and nothing would do but she must quit his roof forever and come to be a burden on her brother, who has quite enough to stagger under already." ("Hum!" thought Bayard at this juncture, "how little she realizes the truth of that assertion!") "Mr. Courtlandt had been devoted to her from her childhood, had lavished everything on her, had educated her, sent her abroad, provided for her in every way, and—she rewarded him by taking this silly prejudice against his son, whom she ought to have had sense enough to know he expected her to marry."
Bayard's pulse gave a leap, but his fine face made no sign. Professional imperturbability alone expressed itself. She paused one instant for breath. Then it occurred to her that perhaps she was broadly trenching on forbidden ground and revealing that which her husband had bidden her keep inviolate. Bayard read her like an open book, and promptly took the initiative before she could question.
"And yet, Mrs. Forrest, would you have had her—a woman of such superior attainments and character—would your husband have had her marry a man to whom she could not look up?—whose character and, pardon me, whose habits were so, let us say, unsettled?"
"Then she ought to have left before. I know she says she never dreamed of its being her uncle's plan or hope,—never dreamed that the young man was in earnest. It was all nonsense to say she couldn't marry a man whom she did not look up to and respect. He is only a year younger than she is, and lots of girls marry men younger than themselves,—especially when such a fortune was involved. Why! Mr. Courtlandt would have left them everything he had in the world, if she would only have consented."
"But women form their own ideals, dear lady, and she may have had a man in view whom she did look up to, honor, and love. Is not that a reasonable theory?" And the doctor's eyes, full of sympathy and deference, watched his impulsive patient narrowly withal. How well he knew her! She fell instantly into the trap.
"But she hadn't! I could forgive her easily if that were so, but she told the captain it was purely and simply that she could not and would not marry Philip Courtlandt or any man like him."
"But I fancied from what—from various circumstances—that the young man was very dissipated—dangerously so, in fact. Would you counsel your sister to marry such a man?"
"Well, why not? He has been wild, I know. My husband looked into the whole case, and, of course, he sustains her. Phil Courtlandt had to go into a retreat once, but I believe it was because she treated him so. His father was sure that she could reform and make a man of him, and he almost implored her to take pity on his gray hairs and save his boy. I tell you I think it was sheer ingratitude. Even if she couldn't have reformed him, there would have been all that money." And Mrs. Forrest sighed pathetically at thought of the thousands her hard-headed, hard-hearted sister had refused. Bayard, congratulating himself on his success thus far, had still another point on which he desired information,—a vital point.
"What seems so bad about the whole matter," he said, after a sympathetic echo of the lady's sigh, "is the disappointment of old Mr. Courtlandt. No doubt, despite their cousinship, this has long been his cherished scheme; and it must make him—at least I do not wonder that it makes him a trifle bitter against her."
"Why, doctor, that is one of the queerest things to me! One would suppose that any girl of ordinary gratitude would try and repay and appreciate such devotion as has been lavished on her. She simply repels people who try to be loving to her. I'm sure I've tried every way in my power. Of course, at first he was very bitter and said some severe things,—at least she so told Captain Forrest,—but she has no right to treasure them up against him. He said he had reared and educated and cherished her purposely to be the salvation of his wayward son, and, as she would not have the son, he said she could not live under his roof. Then he had always given her a liberal allowance, besides paying the most extraordinary bills, and she hurt him fearfully—I know she did—by refusing to accept it afterward. He has sent it to her even here, and she almost hurls it back at him,—and here are Maud and Vickie without a decent dress to their names," wailed Mrs. Forrest in somewhat irrelevant conclusion, and the tears welled again from her weary eyes.
Bayard was again silent a moment, waiting for his patient to recover her composure and her tongue. It was comfort to think that, at least, Mr. Courtlandt's munificence was still a fact. But how about the future?
"Anything that might tend to widen the breach between them would, of course, be deplorable," he presently said; "but I infer, from the fact that he continues to send her allowance to her, that he will be apt to provide liberally for her in his will."
"He would do anything for her, I've no doubt, despite her ingratitude; but she has told Captain Forrest that after what has passed she cannot and will not accept a penny from him. Now what can one say to a girl like that?"
And this question the doctor could not answer. After a few moments' thought, he arose as if to go.
"I am heartily glad to know that she is so much better this afternoon. These are anxious days for us all, and it is not to be wondered at that so many of our ladies are prostrated. Will you kindly say to her that I called to inquire after her, and am rejoiced to think we will soon be able to welcome her out again? And, Mrs. Forrest, you might say to her that it would gladden my little girl if she would come over and sit with her or sing to her. Elinor has been very low-spirited to-day, owing, no doubt, to the fact that Jeannie Bruce has been in tears much of the time since Hatton left. Good-afternoon, Mrs. Forrest. Good-by, little ones." And the courtly doctor took his leave.
As he descended the stairs with characteristic deliberation and dignity, Celestine came forth from the dining-room and met him at the foot of the stairs.
"Mr. Holmes is come, doctor," she said, showing her white teeth. "Specks he'll be glad to find Miss Nellie sittin' up again. T'warn't no use 'n Miss Fanny t' try to catch him, 'n' I told her so when she was writin' to him. He's out yahnder along with Major Miller now."
And though the doctor frowned majestically and strode by the gabbling hussy without a word, it gave him an uncomfortable start to hear her words. What had happened that Fanny Forrest should be writing now to Roswell Holmes? This was something to be looked into.
It was nearly two days before authentic news came in from the Niobrara, where Hatton's little command had been "corralled." Just as at first reported, the Indians in overwhelming numbers had suddenly charged down upon the detachment from behind a ridge that lay full half a mile to the east of the road; while others, crouching in a dry watercourse, had picked off the leading soldiers,—the two men thrown out to the front to scout the trail and secure the main body against surprise. Hatton, all told, had only twenty men, and the fall of the two far in the advance had for an instant flurried their comrades back at the wagons. There was no time to run these lumbering vehicles, empty though they were, into the familiar, old "prairie fort," in square or circle; but, while some of the teamsters sprang from their saddles and took refuge under their wagons, others seized their arms and joined the soldiers in a sharp fire upon the charging and yelling warriors, with the usual effect of compelling them to veer and wheel and scamper away, still keeping up a lively fusillade of their own. One mule team and wagon went tearing off full tilt across the prairie pursued by a score of jeering, laughing, and exultant braves, and was finally "rounded up" and captured by them a mile away to the west; and Hatton had promptly availed himself of the episode to make a rush with his entire party for a little hillock three hundred yards east of the road. He had marked the spot before and knew its possibilities for defence, and there in less than five minutes he had his men sheltered in an oval "dip" along the crest and yet commanding the approaches in every direction. From here they not only successfully "stood off" every attack until dark, but prevented the Indians reaching the bodies of the slain and securing the coveted trophy of their scalps, and covered the teamsters who were sent down to unhitch and secure the mules. When night came a half-breed scout slipped away with news of the "corral," and Hatton found that two of his men were severely wounded and that few of them had any water in their canteens. The river was full six miles to the south. Neither stream nor spring was close at hand, and with characteristic improvidence the teamsters had failed to fill their water-barrels at the stockade before starting. "What was the use, with the Niobrara only a few hours' march away?" Bitterly did Hatton reproach himself for his neglect in having left so important a matter to the men themselves, but there was no sense in fretting over the past. Something had to be done at once to provide water for the morrow's siege. They heard the exultant whoops of the savages, who, under cover of the darkness, had crept out and succeeded in scalping the two dead soldiers. They knew that very soon the Indians would be crawling out to the wagons in an attempt to run them away or fire them. Hatton himself ventured down to examine the water-barrels, and found not more than half a barrel of dirty, brackish, ill-flavored fluid in all. The darkness grew black and impenetrable. Heavy clouds overspread the heavens, and a moaning wind crept out of the mountain-passes of the Big Horn range and came sweeping down across the treeless prairie. Every now and then they could hear the galloping beat of pony-hoofs, and knew that they were closely invested in their hillock citadel, and at last, about ten o'clock, a sergeant who had been sent with a couple of men to see what was going on at the wagons, came running back breathless. The wagons were gone! Every one of them had been run off by the Indians under cover of the wind and darkness; and presently, half a mile over to the south-east, a glare of flame arose, and the white tops became for a moment visible, and dancing, capering naked forms around them, and then the cotton duck attracted the eager, fiery tongues, and in another moment the flames seemed to leap high in the air, but the performers in the aboriginal ballet scurried for shelter. The soldiers sighted their rifles for nine hundred yards, and the little hill blazed and sputtered half a minute with a rapid discharge that sent leaden messengers whistling through the burning wagon-covers and humming about the ears of the revellers.
Fifteen minutes later, Hatton resolved on a bold move. Mounting his wounded men on mules, and leading his little party, soldiers, teamsters, and quadrupeds, he slipped away from the hillock, and, keeping well to the east of the road, groped through the darkness back to the high range overlooking the valleys of "Old Woman's Fork" of the South Cheyenne and Hat Creek to the eastward; and morning found him bivouacked at a little spring not ten miles from the stockade. Thither, of course, the Indians trailed and followed at daybreak. There again they attacked and besieged and were repulsed, again and again; and there at dawn on the second day, after an all-night march, the trumpets of the cavalry rang the signal of rescue, and the charging troopers sent the Sioux whirling in scattered bands over the bold and beautiful upland. The little detachment was safe, but its brave commander was prostrate with a rifle-bullet through the thigh and another in the shoulder. Dr. Weeks declared it impossible to attempt to move him back to Laramie; and in a litter made with lariats and saddle-blankets the men carried their wounded leader back to the stockade at the head of Sage Creek, and there, wrote Weeks, he might have to remain a month, and there, unless otherwise ordered, the other wounded men would remain with him, Weeks himself attending them in his improvised field-hospital.
Major Miller and Dr. Bayard, after brief consultation, had decided that the young surgeon's ideas were sound. The stockade was well guarded and provisioned. Medical and surgical supplies were promptly forwarded under strong cavalry escort, and that same day the entire cavalry battalion struck its tents and moved away northward over the route Hatton had taken. Once more was Laramie left with only a handful of men and hardly a company officer for duty.
Old Bruce turned out, despite his rheumatics, and announced that he was game for any garrison service under the circumstances. Roswell Holmes, who had stowed a box of wine and several boxes of cigars in the supply-wagons, with his compliments to Dr. Weeks and his patients, and who had remained at Laramie instead of going to the front solely because of an odd turn in local events, now declared that he must be considered a brevet second lieutenant, and besought Dr. Bayard's permission to visit his patient, Mr. McLean, to solicit the loan of his uniforms, sword, etc. Major Miller laughed gleefully at the idea, and all the garrison was beginning to pluck up heart again, for Hatton's wounds were pronounced not dangerous, though painful, and all the infantry people were proud of the way he and McLean had upheld the honor of their corps. Jeannie Bruce and Elinor had had long hours of who knows what delicious confidence and tearful exchange of sympathy. McLean was reported doing very well; Blunt was improving; Miss Forrest was taking the air on the gallery. Everybody seemed in better spirits, despite a certain constraint and mystery that overhung the garrison,—everybody, with one exception—Dr. Bayard.
"Mr. McLean is improving so rapidly that he is able to sit up already and will need his uniform himself," was his response to Holmes's laughing suggestion, but both Major Miller and the gentleman addressed looked at the speaker in surprise. One might have hazarded the assertion that it was a matter of regret to the post surgeon that his patient was on the mend. Miller eyed him narrowly. Ever since the strange conversation held with the doctor, the post commander had become almost distrustful of his motives. What could he mean by intimating that McLean was the guilty party in these recent mysterious larcenies? What could have put such ideas into his head? For the first time in several days the major was tempted to reopen the subject which he had practically forbidden his wife to mention again. He longed to know what she would say or think if she knew that the surgeon was trying to divert suspicion from Miss Forrest to the wounded and unsuspecting officer. Now that the cavalry had gone out to the front and more troops were marching up from the railway, all anxiety as to his immediate surroundings was dispelled, and the major could not avoid drifting back to the strange complications in which two of the prominent people of his military bailiwick were involved. He had taken a great liking to Mr. Holmes, and had striven to open the way for that gentleman in case he had the faintest inclination to speak of his losses; but, though the civilian instantly saw what the simple-minded old soldier was aiming at, he changed the subject, and it presently became plain to the commander that he would not speak about the matter at all. Miller could not well seek his advice without telling of the other thefts of which he believed Mr. Holmes to know nothing, and yet he felt that as commanding officer it was his duty to say to the visitor how much he regretted the occurrence and how earnestly he was striving to discover the offender. But Holmes would not give him a chance. He was doing a little ferreting on his own account.
As for the doctor, two things had conspired to make him blue and unhappy. Miss Forrest was up and out on her gallery, as has been said, but was never in her sister's room when the doctor called; declined his professional services with courteous thanks and the assurance that no physician was necessary, yet begged to be excused when he sent a message by Celestine asking if she would not see him. Then he wrote her a note, and, remembering her antipathy to the mulatto girl, he sent it by Robert, charging him to take it to her door if she was not in the sitting-room, but to deliver it in person and wait for an answer. Robert found her promenading with Mrs. Post on the upper gallery, and people who had been saying that Mrs. Post had nothing to do with her at Robinson were surprised at the growing intimacy between them now. Robert presented the note with a grave and courtly Virginia bow, then withdrew to a little distance and respectfully awaited her answer. Over at the Gordons' a group of ladies, old and young, watched the scene with curious and speculative eyes. Everybody knew that Miss Forrest had declined to see Dr. Bayard during her illness. Everybody had noted that, while the entire feminine element of the garrison flocked to inquire for Nellie in her invalid state, nobody went to see Fanny Forrest. Now, what could this strange girl be doing with letters from "Dr. Chesterfield"? Even Mrs. Post watched her narrowly as she hurriedly read the lines of the doctor's elegant missive. Her eyes seemed to dilate, her color heightened and a little frown set itself darkly on her brow; but she looked up brightly after a moment's thought, and spoke kindly and pleasantly to the waiting messenger,—
"There is no answer, at least not now, Robert. Thank the doctor and tell him I am very much better."
And so, empty-handed, he returned to his master, who waited expectant in his study. The message was almost an affront,—such was his pride and self-esteem; and for nearly an hour he sat there pondering over the strange characteristics of the girl who, despite the story of her poverty and dependence, had so fascinated him. It cut him to the quick that she should so avoid him, when he knew well that between her and Mr. Holmes there had been an exchange of notes. Mr. Holmes had seen fit to preserve a mysterious silence as to this significant circumstance, and finally, apparently by appointment, Mr. Holmes had called at Bedlam the evening after his arrival, and had enjoyed a long and uninterrupted conversation with Miss Forrest out on the upper gallery. Now what did this portend? It was Celestine who gave him this very interesting information as he entered the lower hall, and, despite his repellant mien, that enterprising domestic was sufficiently a judge of character to venture on a low and confidential tone of voice in addressing him. He had scowled malignantly at her and had bidden her hold her peace as he passed her by, but Celestine was in no wise dismayed. She knew her man. It was on his return from his visit that he sent his note, and then, in the gloom and silence of his library, pondered over the palpable rebuff. Over across the hall he could hear the soft voices of his daughter and her now intimate friend Jean. They were cooing and murmuring together in some girlish confidences which he was in no mood to appreciate, and with which he could feel no sympathy whatever. Then in came Holmes from the sunshine of the parade; and he heard him cheerily enter the parlor, and in hearty, cordial tones announce that he had just come from Mr. McLean's room, that that young gentleman was doing finely, and would be able to sit out on the piazza in a day or two, and that Mrs. Miller was nursing him like a mother. For a time the chat went blithely on, Jeannie Bruce and Holmes being the principals, and then came a message which called that young lassie homeward.
Presently Bayard heard the manly voice growing deeper and softer. The words were indistinguishable, but there was no misjudging the tone, such was the tremor of tenderness of every syllable. Faint, far between, and monosyllabic were Nellie's replies, but soon the father knew she was answering through her tears. It did not last long. Holmes came to the hall, turned and spoke once more to her,—no touch of reproach, no tinge of pleading, but with a ring of manly sympathy and protecting care in every word; Bayard could not but hear one sentence: "It makes me only more firmly your friend, little girl,—and his, too." And then he strode forth into the breeze and sunshine again, and no man who met him knew that he had tempted his fate and lost. Something had told him, days before, that Miss Forrest's words were prophetic,—Nellie Bayard would prefer one nearer her own years.