It was to satisfy himself that Randall McLean was that enviable somebody that he had sought this interview; and, though she had admitted nothing and he had not questioned, he had read in her tears and blushes a truth that only recently had she tremblingly admitted to herself. Now he saw his way clearly to the end.
But to Bayard the abrupt close of the murmured interview meant a possibility that filled him with double dismay. That one hope should be dashed to earth this morning was an evil sufficient unto the day. That it should be followed by the conviction that his daughter had utterly declined to consider this wealthy and most estimable gentleman as a suitor for her hand was a bitter, bitter disappointment; but that she should have refused Roswell Holmes, with all his advantages, because of Randall McLean—with what?—was more than he could bear.
Just as she was hurrying to her room, still weeping, he interposed.
"My little Nell!—my precious!" he cried, in tenderest tones, as he folded her in his arms. "Is it so hopeless as this? Is it possible that my little daughter's heart has been stolen away—right under my eyes—and I never saw it?"
For an answer she only clung to him, hiding her bonny face, weeping the more violently. Speak she could not.
"Nell! Nellie!" he pleaded, "try and tell me, dear. You don't know what it means to me! You don't know what fears your silence causes me! My child—tell me—that it isn't Mr. McLean."
No answer—only closer nestling; only added tears.
"Nell, my own little one! If you knew with what awful dread I waited! If you knew what this meant to me—to you—to us all! Speak to me, daughter. Tell me it isn't that unhappy young man."
And now, startled, shocked, she lifts her brimming eyes in wonderment to her father's face, gazing at him through the mist of tears.
"Why unhappy?" she almost gasps. "Why—why not Mr. McLean, papa?"
For a moment Bayard stands as though stunned. Then slowly relaxes the clasp of his arms and turns drearily away, covering his face with his hands.
"My God!" he moans. "This is retribution, this is punishment! Blinder than the veriest mole have I been through it all. Nellie!" he cries, turning suddenly toward her again as she stands there trembling at his melodramatic misery. "There is no engagement! There has been nothing said, has there? Tell me!"
"Not a word,—from me," she whispers low. "He sent me a little note yesterday through Jeannie. Indeed, you can see it, papa; but I have not answered. It doesn't ask anything."
"Then promise me no word shall go, my child! Promise me! I cannot tell you why just yet, but he is not the man to whom I could ever consent to give you. My child! my child! his name is clouded; his honor is tarnished; he stands accused of crime. Nellie—my God! you must hear it sooner or later."
But now she draws away from him and leans upon the balusters, looking into his face as though she doubted his sanity.
"Father!" she slowly speaks at length, "I could no more believe such a thing of him—than I could of you."
A quick, springy step is suddenly heard on the wooden walk without, the rattle of an infantry sword against the steps, an imperative rat-tat-tat at the door. Elinor speeds away to hide her flushed cheeks and tearful eyes in the solitude of her room. Bayard quickly composes his features to their conventional calm and recedes to the gloom of the library. Robert majestically stalks through the hall and opens the door.
"Dr. Bayard in?" asks the brusque voice of the adjutant. "Ah, doctor," continues that officer, marching straightway into the den, "Major Miller is at the gate and on his way to visit Mr. McLean. He begs that you will be present at the interview, as it is on a matter of much importance."
"Very well, Mr. Adjutant," answers Bayard, gravely, as though divining the solemn import of their errand. "I am at your service at once."
An odd despatch was that which went by the single wire of the military telegraph line to Fort Fetterman late that night. It was known that a small escort would leave that point early in the morning, going through with a staff-officer en route to join the field column now busily engaging the hostile Indians along the northern foot-hills of the Big Horn range. Major Miller asked the commanding officer at Fetterman to hold back a brace of horsemen to await the arrival of a courier just leaving Laramie, and bearing an important and confidential letter to the general commanding the department, who was with his troops in the field. It was over eighty miles by the river road; the night was dark and the skies overcast. There might be Indians along the route; there certainly were no soldiers, for, with the exception of eight or ten men, all of Captain Terry's troop were with him scouting on the north side of the Platte and over near the Sioux reservations. All the same, a single trooper, armed only with the revolver and unburdened by the usual blankets and field kit,—riding almost as light as a racer,—was to make the run and reach Fetterman the next afternoon.
This was the result of the interview with Lieutenant McLean, a conference at which were present Major and Mrs. Miller, Dr. Bayard, and the adjutant. Why Mrs. Miller, the wife of the commanding officer, should have been present in any capacity, it is not the province of the narrator to defend. She had been assiduously nursing and caring for the young officer in his weak and wounded condition. She had him where he could not escape her shrewd and relentless questionings. She was enabled to tell him much that Hatton had told her and a few things she certainly thought he had and therefore said he had. She was further enabled to tell him of the letters from Robinson and all they portended; of Mr. Holmes's loss and what she had seen in the mirror; of her own meeting with Miss Forrest in the darkness of the doctor's hall; of the registered letters sent away when everybody knew Mrs. Forrest hadn't a penny except the captain's pay, and that she had openly and repeatedly announced that her sister-in-law had now come to be a burden, too, having quarrelled with her relatives in the East. And so, little by little, she had drawn from McLean the story of Hatton's farewell words and the discovery of the card in the handkerchief. Then, fortified with this intelligence, and firmly convinced that she could not be mistaken in the guilt of her Majesty of Bedlam, Mrs. Miller reopened the subject and prodded the major into immediate action. She meant well. She intended no public exposure, no unnecessary disgrace. She merely wanted that Captain Forrest should come at once, compel his much-afflicted sister (for, of course, kleptomania was the sole explanation) to make restitution, and then remove her to some safe retreat in the distant East. Miller decided to see McLean at once, taking his adjutant to jot down the statements made, and Dr. Bayard because of his rank in the service and his professional connection with the officer in question. Mrs. Miller decided to be present because of McLean's great reluctance to tell what he knew and because she conceived it her duty to prompt him; and this was the quartet that swooped down upon the poor fellow in his defenceless condition late that sunshiny afternoon. No wonder his recovery was delayed!
The most stunned and bewildered man of the party while the painful interview was in progress was Dr. Bayard. He had gone in the confident expectation that McLean was to be confronted with the evidences of his guilt, and offered the chance of immediate resignation. His patient was sufficiently removed from the danger-line to enable him to sustain the shock, and he had not interposed. It was too late, therefore, to put an end to matters on that plea when to his horror-stricken ears was revealed the evidence against the woman who had so enthralled and piqued him. Miller led him away in a semi-dazed condition after the close of the conference, and then at last the doctor's vehement emotions found tongue.
"And all this time you have been suspecting that poor young fellow!" said the major, with a touch of reproach in his voice.
There was silence an instant. The doctor stopped short and leaned against the fence in front of the adjutant's quarters, his face purpling with wrath and indignation, his lips twitching, his hands clinched. Miller looked at him in amaze, and then came the outburst:
"Suspect him! By heaven, sir! What it was before is nothing to what I feel now! That in his depravity he should have stolen was bad enough; but that now, to cover his tracks, he should accuse and defame a defenceless woman is infamy! Look at his story, and tell me could anything be more pitiful and mendacious? Her handkerchief was found in his bureau the night of the robbery. Where is the handkerchief now? He burned it! He found a note on a card from her hidden in the handkerchief she had given Hatton to replace in the drawer. Where is the card? He burned it! He 'purposely destroyed all evidence against her.' A sham Quixote! Who found her handkerchief in his bureau? Who saw the burning? Who put the handkerchief in the drawer? Who told him of her confession? Who heard her beg that you should be delayed in your investigation? Who, in fact, is corroborating witness to everything and anything he alleges, but the man he believes, and I believe, you can never reach again. Hatton is failing rapidly."
"How could he have heard that?" asked Miller, with mingled wrath and stupefaction in his face,—wrath at the doctor's contemptuous disregard of all other opinions, and stupefaction at the suddenly presented view of the case.
"The attendant, sir, was down at the telegraph office when the news came in, and he had to tell McLean; the latter insisted on being told the truth. Weeks fears blood-poisoning, and if that has set in nothing can save him. Then where will be your evidence against this most foully wronged lady?"
"Hush!" exclaimed Miller, quickly, with a warning, sidelong glance toward Bedlam. "Come with me!" And, following his commander's look, the doctor saw, standing close together, leaning on the southern balustrade and gazing down upon them in evident interest and equally evident surprise, Fanny Forrest and Mr. Roswell Holmes. Silently he turned and accompanied the major until he reached his own gateway, and then stopped.
"I presume there is nothing further I can do just now, and, with your permission, sir, I will leave you. I want to think this all over."
"Do so, doctor. And, when you are ready, come and see me. Let me only say this to you: You have hardly known McLean at all. We have known him nearly five years, and he has ever been in our eyes the soul of honor and truth."
"The soul of honor and truth, sir, would not be writing love-letters and destroying the peace of mind of a young and innocent girl when all he has to offer her is a millstone of debt and a tarnished name." And with this parting-shot the doctor majestically turned away.
"So that's where the shoe pinches!" thought Miller, as he entered his quarters, where presently he was joined by his excited wife.
"He isn't half as prostrated as you thought he'd be," she instantly exclaimed, as she entered the room. "Of course it wouldn't be Mac if he were not greatly distressed, but I have promised him that not a word shall leak out until Captain Forrest gets here, and that then he is to see him himself. Isn't it dreadful about Mr. Hatton? Can nothing be done?"
"I am to see Bayard again by and by. This affair has completely unstrung him, for he is evidently deeply smitten; I never dreamed it had gone so far. Now that letter must be written to the general, and I am going to the office. You must not know a thing about it, or about this affair. Of course you will be besieged with questions." And so the major sallied forth.
Darkness was settling down. The sunset-gun had been fired just as they left McLean's. By this time the doctor should be entertaining his guest at dinner, and Miller wondered how even "Chesterfield" would rally to the occasion and preserve his suavity and courtliness after the shock of the last hour. But Miller had no idea that it was the last of three shocks that had assailed him in quick succession and with increasing severity that very day, and never dreamed of the gulf of distress in which poor Bayard was plunged. He had gone at once to his library and thrown himself in the easy-chair in an attitude of profound dejection, barely paying attention when Chloe entered to say that Miss Nellie begged to be excused from coming down to dinner, as she felt too ill. Then Robert entered to ask should he serve dinner or wait until Mr. Holmes came in. "Wait!" said Bayard, bluntly. But five minutes passed; the dinner would be overdone; so Robert slipped out in search of the truant, and Miller saw him going over to Bedlam. But the upper gallery was empty; Mr. Holmes and Miss Forrest had disappeared; the adjutant came striding up from the guard-house, and together the two officers turned away.
"Orderly," said the major, to the attendant soldier following at his heels, "find Sergeant Freeman, who is in charge of the cavalry detachment, and tell him I want him at once. Then go and get your supper."
Meantime, realizing that the dinner-hour was at hand, and knowing the punctilious ideas of his host, Mr. Holmes had somewhat abruptly bidden adieu to the young lady with whom he had been in such interesting conversation. "I must see you again about Hatton if possible, and just as soon as I have found out what this means. If all the four were together at McLean's room the mischief is probably done, but I'll see him at once unless it be forbidden." He was turning away without more words, when something in her deep, dark eyes seemed to detain him. He held forth his hand.
"Miss Forrest, I cannot tell you how I appreciate the honor you have done me in this confidence. It may be the means of my making more than one man happy. One word, where is Celestine now?"
"She should be in the dining-room, setting the table for tea. Good-by, then, till tattoo. See him if you can."
"Indeed I will," he answered, and bowing over the slender, richly-jewelled hand she so frankly placed in his, he slowly released it, and turned away.
"In the dining-room, is she?" muttered Holmes to himself, as he ran lightly through the hall and down the stairs. "If that was not Miss Celestine I saw this moment scurrying in from the direction of the wood-piles out yonder, I'm vastly mistaken, and she was talking with a soldier there. I saw the glint of the sunset on the brasses of his forage-cap. I thought they all had to be at retreat roll-call, but this fellow missed it."
Turning at the foot of the stairs, he strode to the rear door, and looked out through the side-light upon the unpicturesqueness of the yards, the coal- and wood-sheds, the rough, unpainted board fences; the dismantled gate, propped in most inebriate style against its bark-covered post, and clinging thereto with but a single hinge. At this half-closed aperture suddenly appeared the mulatto girl, stopped, turned, gave a quick glance at the various back windows of Bedlam, waved her hand to a dim, soldierly form just discernible in the twilight striding toward the northern end of the garrison, then she came scurrying to the door, and burst in, panting.
"Ah, Celestine! That you?" asked Holmes, pleasantly. "I thought to find you in the dining-room, and stopped to ask for a glass of water."
At sight of him the girl had almost recoiled, but his cheery voice reassured her.
"Laws, Mr. Holmes! I done thought 'twas a ghost," she laughed, but turned quickly from him as she spoke and hurried into the dining-room, filling a goblet with a trembling hand. He drank the water leisurely; thanked her, and strolled with his accustomed deliberation through the hall and out across the piazza, never appearing to notice her breathlessness or agitation. Once outside the steps, however, his deliberation was cast aside, and with rapid, nervous strides he hastened up the walk,—out past the old ordnance storehouse and the lighted windows of the trader's establishment, turned sharply to the west, and, sure enough, coming toward him was a brisk, dapper, slim-built little soldier in his snugly-fitting undress uniform. Holmes stopped short, whipped out his cigar-case and wind-matches, thrust a Partaga between his teeth, struck a light as the soldier passed him and the broad glare from the north window fell full upon the dapper shape and well-carried head. There was the natty forage-cap with the gleaming cross-sabres; there was the dark face, there the heavy brows, the glittering black eyes, the moustache and imperial, the close-curling hair, of the very man he had seen peeping into the parlor windows back of Mrs. Griffin's little post-office the night of his talk with Corporal Zook.
Ten minutes later and he was tapping at McLean's door. It was opened by the hospital attendant,—slowly and only a few inches.
"Can I see the lieutenant?" he asked.
"I am very sorry," whispered the man, mindful of the visitor's prodigality in the past and hopeful of future favors. "I have strict orders to admit nobody to-night until the doctor sees him again. The lieutenant isn't so well, sir, and Dr. Bayard had to administer sedatives before he left. I think he is sleeping just now, though he may only be trying to."
Holmes paused, reluctant and a little irresolute.
"Is there nothing I can do or say, sir, if he wakes?" asked the attendant.
"Can you give him a letter and say nothing about it to anybody?"
"Certainly I can,—if it's one that won't harm him."
"It will do him good, unless I'm mistaken; and he ought to have it to-night: he'll sleep better for it. I'll give it to you at tattoo.—Ah, Robert! I might have known you'd be in search of me and that I was delaying dinner. Say I'll be there instantly."
Meantime, Sergeant Freeman had reported to Major Miller as directed, and was standing attention, cap in hand, at that officer's desk, while the adjutant was scratching away across the room, his pen racing over the paper as he copied the despatch his commander had slowly and thoughtfully dictated.
"You say that Parsons is the best man to send, sergeant?"
"I don't say that, sir, exactly; but he's the lightest man in the troop and has the fastest horse now in the post. He could make it quicker than anybody else, but——"
"But what? Doesn't he want to go? Is he afraid?" asked the major, impatiently.
The sergeant flushed a little, as he promptly answered,—
"It isn't that, sir. He wants to go. There's no man in the troop, sir, that would be safe in saying he didn't want to go."
"Then why do you hesitate?"
"Because we don't know Parsons well, sir; he hasn't been with us more'n a year. He was Lieutenant Blunt's striker till the lieutenant was wounded, but Captain Terry had him returned to the troop because we were so short of men and had so much scouting to do. Then Parsons got into the office as company clerk, and that's where he is now, sir. He writes a fine hand and seemed to know all about papers."
"Where had he served before joining you?" asked the major.
"Nowhere, sir. He says he learned what he knows in the adjutant's office at St. Louis barracks, where they had the cavalry depot. He's been a barber, I think, on a Mississippi steamboat, but he can ride well."
"Well, let Parsons be the man. If he wants to go I see no reason why he shouldn't. Tell him to report here mounted and ready at tattoo."
But it was nearly ten o'clock before Parsons was ready,—a singular fact when it is remembered that he wanted to go,—and Mr. Holmes, who had stopped a moment to speak with Miss Forrest as the bugle ceased playing tattoo, found sufficient interest in their chat to detain him until just as the signal "Lights out" was ringing on the still night-air. Then a horse came trotting briskly into the garrison and over to the adjutant's office. Holmes caught a glimpse of the rider as he shot under the gallery and through the gleam from the lower windows. That face again!
Ten minutes afterward this inquisitive civilian was at the store, and, singling out one of half a dozen cowboys who were laughing and drinking at the bar, he beckoned him to come outside. The others followed, for the barkeeper, in obedience to post orders, was closing up his shop. Holmes led his silent follower beyond earshot of the loungers at the door-way.
"Did you see the soldier who rode past here just now?"
"Drake, I've picked you out for service that I can intrust to no one else. You've never failed me yet. Are you ready for a long ride to-night?"
"Anything you want, Mr. Holmes."
"That man's orders are to go with all speed to Fetterman and, after resting there twenty-four hours, to take it easily returning. He'll go there all right, I believe, but what he does there and after he leaves there I want to know, if you have to follow to Cheyenne. Here's fifty dollars. If he jumps the track and starts for the railway after quitting Fetterman, let him go; wire me from Chugwater, but don't lose track of him. I'll join you at Cheyenne or Laramie City, wherever he goes, and the moment you strike the settlements put the sheriff on his trail."
Three days slipped away without noticeable changes in the situation at Laramie. It was late on Tuesday evening when the courier rode away with his despatch, and on Wednesday afternoon the wire from Fetterman flashed the tidings of his safe arrival there and the prompt transmission of the packet in pursuit of the escort that had left for the north at morn. Miller breathed more freely, as did his good wife, as now the onus of this great source of distress would be shifted to other shoulders. "A family affair of much importance—no less than the more than probable connection of one of his household with a series of extensive thefts—demanded that Captain Forrest, if a possible thing, be sent hither at once," was the burden of the major's letter, and he knew that, if a possible thing, the general would find means of ordering the captain in on some duty which would give no inkling of the real nature of the ordeal awaiting him. Thursday afternoon, late, Parsons was to start on his return, would probably rest or camp at the deserted huts of the ranchmen at La Bonte, possibly at the "Lapperell," as the frontiersmen termed the little stream the French trappers had years before named La Prele, and should reach the fort some time Friday evening, though there was no hurry and he had full authority, if he saw fit, to rest his horse another night at Bull Bend or anywhere he pleased. No one in authority was giving that matter a thought, but it was exactly that matter that kept Roswell Holmes on the watch at Laramie when he would rather have gone away. To his keen eyes it was evident that, despite all Bayard's efforts to appear jovial and courteous as ever, he was in sore perplexity. Nellie, too, was again keeping her room, and Jeannie Bruce, with white face and red-rimmed eyes, was the only companion she really welcomed. Thursday night had come, and the letter he was to have handed in for McLean's benefit and peace of mind was still withheld. Any hour might enable him to speak positively, whereas now he could only theorize. Meantime, Mrs. Miller assured him that the young officer who "had been temporarily set back by the bad news from Mr. Hatton" was doing very well under the influence of better tidings. On Thursday morning a despatch from the stockade brought the welcome information from Dr. Weeks that Hatton's rugged constitution seemed proof against the enemy; he was gaining again.
Meantime, not a word did Miller, Bayard, or the adjutant breathe of that conference with McLean, and neither Mr. Holmes nor Miss Forrest could form the faintest idea of what had taken place. They had their theories and had frankly exchanged them, and what caused Mrs. Miller infinite amaze and the garrison a new excitement was this growing companionship between the Chicago millionaire and the "Queen of Bedlam." Thrice now had they been seen on the gallery tete-a-tete, and once, leaning on his arm, she had appeared on the walk. To the ladies there was no theory so popular as the one that she was setting her cap for him in good earnest now that Nellie Bayard was confined to her room; and when Mrs. Miller met him she longed to speak upon the subject. She could well-nigh thank any woman who could draw this formidable rival away and leave the ground to her wounded and deeply-smitten lieutenant; but could she see him becoming entangled in the toils of Miss Forrest, knowing what she did of that young woman's dreadful moral affliction? There was no way in which she could warn him. She had pledged her word to the major that not a whisper should escape, and though Mrs. Bruce had managed to derive from a conversation with her that Captain Forrest had been sent for, it was accomplished by that feminine device, now so successfully imitated by the so-called interviewers of the public press, of making assertions and hazarding suggestions which could not be truthfully denied. The lady longed to take Holmes into her confidence,—and could not; and Holmes longed to ask her what allegations had been made against McLean and how he had borne them,—yet dared not. Both to him and the Queen of Bedlam that was the explanation of the simultaneous gathering, at the quarters of the young officer, of the commandant, surgeon, and adjutant. Holmes boldly inquired of the doctor what had taken place, asserting that he was interested in McLean and wanted to help him, if he was in trouble; and in great embarrassment the doctor had begged to be excused from reply. He would not deny that McLean was in trouble,—in grave trouble,—but there was nothing tangible as yet. Nothing was to be said or done until—well, until he was much better and able to be about.
Friday afternoon came, warm, sunshiny, and delightful. At four o'clock the doctor's carriage—an open, easy, old-fashioned-looking affair—rolled out of the garrison with Nellie Bayard and Jeannie Bruce smiling on the back seat, while Bayard himself handled the reins. There was a vacant place beside him, and, just as he possibly expected, Miss Forrest came out on the gallery and waved her hand and smiled cordial greeting to the two girls. Instantly he reined in his eager horses, almost bringing them upon their haunches, and called up to her:
"This is the best piece of luck that has befallen me since I came to Laramie. I've caught you when you could not be engaged. Do come and join us, Miss Forrest! I'm taking my little invalid out for a drive in the sunshine, and it will do you, too, a world of good. Do come!"
But Miss Forrest's clear voice was heard in prompt and positive regret. It was impossible: she had an engagement that would occupy her a full hour, and while she thanked the doctor—thanked them all—for stopping for her, it could not be. "I am so glad to see you out again, Miss Nellie," she called. "Now, I shall hope to have you come and spend an hour with me over here."
The doctor could hardly conceal his chagrin. Again he begged. Again his offer was courteously but positively declined. Nellie gave but faint response to Miss Forrest's greetings. Jeannie Bruce looked fixedly away, and finally the horses received a sharp and most unnecessary touch of the lash, and went bounding away from "Bedlam" in a style that reflected small credit on the merits of the driver, and that nearly bruised the backs of his fair passengers.
Reclining half dressed, in a big easy-chair, Randall McLean heard the crash of the horses' hoofs and the whirr-r-r of the wheels on the gravelly road in front, and demanded of the attendant an account of the party.
"The doctor, sir, and the two young ladies—out for a drive."
McLean was silent for a moment. Mrs. Miller had gone home some time before on household cares intent, and the doctor was by this time out of the garrison. It left the patient master of the situation.
"Get this chair out on the gallery," he presently said, as he slowly raised himself to his feet and leaned for support against the table. "Put a robe and pillow in it. Then come back and help me out."
The soldier demurred and would have argued, but Mr. McLean silenced him, and presently, in his best blue fatigue-coat and with a white silk handkerchief around his neck and his fatigue-cap tilted over one eye, the young officer, leaning on the attendant's arm, slowly made his way into the open air and was soon comfortably ensconced in the big arm-chair again. Several men of his company, smoking on the piazza of the quarters across the parade, arose, put away their pipes, and came over to stand attention and salute their popular lieutenant, and to say how glad they were to see him able to sit up again. It touched McLean's sad and lonely heart to see the pleasure and the trust and faith in their brown, honest faces, and the tears came welling up to his eyes as he held out his hand, calling them by name to step up on the gallery where he could see them better and give each man a cordial though feeble response to the hearty pressure of their brawny hands. Then he bade the attendant, after a little chat about Mr. Hatton's condition and the more hopeful news, to take them in and give them a drink of Monongahela; but Corporal Stein promptly declined: he wouldn't have it thought they came with that hope, when their sole wish was to congratulate their young officer; and, though one or two of them, not so sensitive as the corporal, doubtless took him to task at a later moment, they one and all upheld him now. They would not go in and drink, but presently returned to their barracks, comforted with the reflection that they had done the proper thing.
Meantime, Miss Forrest had seen their approach, and, hearing the voices on the lower gallery, readily divined that Mr. McLean must be sitting up and taking the air. Five minutes after the men were gone, and as that young gentleman was wondering about what time the carriage would return, he heard a quick, light footstep along the wooden floor, the rustle of feminine skirts, and almost before he could turn, the cordial, musical voice of the Queen of Bedlam:
"Mr. McLean, how rejoiced I am to see you sitting up! This is simply delightful."
For an instant he knew not what to say—how to greet her. Heavens! what thoughts of that gloomy council went surging through his brain. He tried to speak, tried to conceal his grievous embarrassment, but his gaunt face flushed painfully and the thin hand he extended in acknowledgment of hers was cold as ice. The nurse promptly brought a chair, set it close by the side of the big arm-chair; then as promptly vanished, as she gracefully thanked him and took it. This was a contingency that had not occurred to McLean for an instant. His whole idea had been to be where he could see Nellie's face, possibly receive a smile and bow, possibly a joyous word or two on her return. He had been able for the time being to forget all about Miss Forrest and the part he had been compelled to play in surrounding her with that web of evidence and suspicion, and now, at this most inopportune moment, here stood this gracious and graceful girl smiling at his side.
For a few moments more it was she who did most of the talking; Hatton, Captain Terry's Grays, and the fight down the Platte furnishing her with abundant material for blithe comment and congratulations. His constraint and solemnity of mien she attributed to physical suffering combined with distress of mind over the charges she believed to have been laid at his door; and, while avoiding all mention of that subject, it was her earnest desire to show him by every trick of woman's infinite variety and shade of manner that she had nothing but admiration for his soldierly conduct, and trust and friendship for him in his troubles. Poor Mac was but vague, unresponsive, and embarrassed in his acknowledgments, and then—she noted how his eyes were constantly wandering away up the road, and, with woman's quick intuition, divined that he was out there for no other purpose than to watch for the return of the doctor's carriage.
Presently it came in sight, driving rapidly, and, recalling everything that she had heard from Mr. Holmes in their recent talks of the doctor's distrust and antipathy toward McLean, Miss Forrest quickly arose and stepped to the end of the gallery. She had determined that the young soldier should not be balked in so modest a hope as that of seeing and being seen by the girl he loved. She felt assured that unless he was signalled or checked in some way the doctor would drive by "full tilt," and, with the quickness of thought, she had formed her plan. The sight of Fanny Forrest, standing at the north end of the gallery and holding aloft her white palm in the exact gesture of the Indian and frontiersman signalling "stop," was enough to make him bring the powerful team back on their haunches directly in front of the steps, and, before a word could be said in explanation, there, flushing feebly, was Randall McLean, striving to lift himself from his nest of robes and pillows, and salute the lady of his heart.
Lachlan stepped quickly forward from the hall and, with him on one side and Miss Forrest smiling on the other, McLean was half lifted to the railing, where he could look right into the bonnie face he longed to see. Nellie Bayard, sitting nearest him, flushed crimson at the first glimpse at the tall, gaunt figure, and her little hand tightly closed beneath the lap-robe on the sturdier fingers of Miss Bruce. A joyous light danced only one instant in her eyes, and died out as quickly as the flush upon her cheek at sight of Miss Forrest's supporting arm. Was this, then, the engagement which prevented her acceptance of the doctor's offer? Was this the way in which the hero of her girlish dreams should be restored to her,—with that bewilderingly handsome and fascinating New York girl at his side, almost possessively supporting and exhibiting him? The sight had stung the doctor too, and the same idea about the engagement seemed to flash through his head.
"This will never do, Mr. McLean," he sternly spoke, "you are in no condition to venture out; I'll be over to see you in a minute. Get back to your room as quick as you can." And with these words he whipped up his team again, and the carriage flashed away. Nellie had not spoken a word.
For a moment they stood there stunned. McLean gazed bitterly after the retreating vehicle a moment, then turned with questioning eyes to his silent companion. She, too, was gazing fixedly after the doctor's little party, her color fluttering, her eyes glowing, and her white teeth setting firmly. Then impulsively she turned to him:
"This is all my fault, all my stupidity, Mr. McLean; I might have known. Forgive me for the sake of my good intentions, and depend upon it, good shall yet come of this, for now I have a crow to pick with Dr. Bayard, and I mean to see him before he sees you. Are you going in,—at once?"
"Yes. There's nothing else to do," he answered, wearily, hopelessly, wretchedly, as he slowly turned away.
"Mr. McLean!" she exclaimed, with sudden and irrepressible excitement of manner. "Stop!—one moment only. There's something I must say to you. Lachlan, please step inside the hall," she hurriedly continued. "I'll call you in plenty of time before the doctor can get here. Now, Mr. McLean, listen! I know something of your trouble. I know something of the toils by which you have been surrounded, and how unjustly you have been treated; but let me tell you that the very man you have most feared is the man of all others who stands your steadfast friend. Look! He's coming now. Coming fast, too—from the telegraph office. I almost know what it is he brings. One more thing I must say while yet there is time. I could not help seeing how your heart was bound up in Nellie Bayard. Nay, don't turn away in such despair. I read her better than you do, and I know you better than you think. I tell you brighter days are near. Keep up a brave heart, Mr. McLean. Remember your name; remember 'The race of Clan Gillian—the fearless and free.' I tell you that were I a man I could envy you the truth I read in Nellie Bayard's eyes. All is coming out well, and there's my hand and my heart full of good wishes with it."
He took it wonderingly, silently. Good heavens! Was this the woman who, through his testimony, stood accused of degrading crimes? Was it possible that she could have been the criminal, and yet at the very time could write those mysterious words upon the hidden card—proffering aid and friendship? What manner of woman was this now quivering with excitement at his side, her glowing eyes fastened on the rapidly advancing form of Roswell Holmes? What meant she by speaking of the man he most feared as his most steadfast friend?
Just as Major and Mrs. Miller with Dr. Bayard stepped upon the broad gallery of Bedlam at its southern end and stopped in embarrassment at sight of the group at the other, Mr. Holmes had bounded up the steps and, placing in her hand a telegraphic despatch, held forth his own to Randall McLean.
"Read it aloud!" was all he said, and eagerly she obeyed:
"CHUGWATER, Friday, 4 P.M.
"ROSWELL HOLMES, ESQ., Fort Laramie.—Parsons streaking it for Cheyenne. Has plenty money. Close at his heels.
Whatever sensation or suppressed mystery may have existed at the post prior to the receipt of the brief despatch announcing that the soldier, Parsons, had "bolted," it was all as nothing compared with the excitements of the week that followed. Miller's first impulse, when Mr. Holmes placed the brown scrap of paper in his hands, was to inquire how it happened that a civilian should concern himself with the movements of his men, either in or out of garrison, but something in the expression of Miss Forrest's face as she walked calmly past him on the way to her room, and in the kindling eyes of this popular and respected gentleman gave him decided pause.
"There is a matter behind all this which I ought to know, is there not?" was therefore his quiet inquiry; and when Mr. Holmes assured him that there was, and the two went off together arm in arm, leaving Mrs. Miller to wonder what it all could mean, and to go in and upbraid her pet lieutenant for venturing from his room when still so weak, it was soon evident to more eyes than those of Dr. Bayard that something of unusual interest was indeed brewing, and that the ordinarily genial and jovial major was powerfully moved. In ten minutes the two men were at the telegraph office and the operator was "calling" Cheyenne. An hour later, after another brief and earnest talk with Miss Forrest on the upper gallery of "Bedlam," Mr. Holmes's travelling wagon rolled into the garrison and away he went. At midnight he was changing horses at "The Chug." The next day he was at Cheyenne and wired the major from that point. Two days more and he was heard from at Denver, and then there was silence.
At the end of the week Private Parsons, of Terry's Grays, who had been carried for three or four successive mornings as "on detached service," then as "absent without leave," was formally accounted for as "deserted," and it began to be whispered about the garrison that grave and decidedly sensational reasons attended his sudden disappearance. Dr. Bayard had a long and private interview with the commanding officer, who showed him a letter received from Mr. Holmes, and went home to Nellie with a dazed look on his distinguished face. The sight of Randall McLean, seated on the front piazza, and in blithe conversation with that young lady and her friend Miss Bruce, for an instant caused him to halt short at his own gate, but, mastering whatever emotion possessed him, the doctor marched straight up to that rapidly recuperating officer, who was trying to find his feet and show due respect to the master of the house, and, bidding him keep his seat, bent over and took his hand and confused him more than a little by the unexpected and really inexplicable warmth of his greeting.
McLean, who had been accustomed to constraint and coldness of manner on the part of the post surgeon, was at a loss to account for the sudden change. Nellie, whose sweet eyes had marked with no little uneasiness her father's hurried coming, flushed with relief and shy delight at this unlooked-for welcome; and Jeannie Bruce, to use her own expression when telling of it afterward, was "all taken aback." She and Mrs. Miller had between them planned that Mr. McLean should walk over with the latter, early in the afternoon, just as though out for a little airing and to try his legs after their unaccustomed rest. Nellie and Miss Bruce were to happen out on the piazza at the moment (and the details of this portion of the plan were left to the ingenuity of "Bonnie Jean" herself, who well knew that it must be accomplished without a germ of suspicion on the part of her shy and sensitive little friend), and McLean was to be escorted in by Mrs. Miller, who was presently to leave, promising to come back for him in a few moments. Then, when the ice was broken and Nellie was beginning to feel more at ease after the mysterious estrangement and this sudden reappearance of her old friend, Jean, too, was to be called away and the pair be left alone. Arch plotters that these women are! They had chosen the hour when the doctor almost invariably took his siesta, and both ladies had warned their friends on no account to select that opportunity to rush over and congratulate the lieutenant on his convalescence,—a thing the Gordon girls would have been sure to do. Miss Bruce had gone so far as to ask Mrs. Miller if she did not think it might be well to "post" Miss Forrest, who had been almost daily seen conversing with Mr. McLean since he began to sit out on the gallery again; but Mrs. Miller promptly replied that there was no need to tell Miss Forrest anything. "She has more sense than all of the rest of us put together," were the surprising words of the reply, "as I have excellent reasons to know."
What could have happened to so radically change Mrs. Miller's estimate of and regard for the "Queen of Bedlam?" was Jean Bruce's natural question of her mother that night, and Mrs. Bruce was in a quandary how to answer and not betray the secret that had been confided to her. From having avoided and distrusted Miss Fanny Forrest, it was now noticeable to the entire garrison that Mrs. Miller was exerting herself to be more than civil.
It was too late to change the plan of the afternoon's campaign when the major's orderly came around to Dr. Bayard's with the compliments of the commanding officer and a request that the doctor join him at his quarters as soon as possible. Although he was gone nearly an hour, he returned before McLean had been with the girls more than a quarter of that time, and changed their apprehension into wonderment and secret joy by the extreme—almost oppressive—courtesy of manner to his unbidden guest.
"It was just as though he was trying to make amends for something," said Miss Bruce, in telling of it afterward. Be that as it may, it is certain that after urging McLean to take a good rest where he was and to come again and "sun himself" on their piazza, and being unaccountably cordial in his monologue (for the younger officer hardly knew how to express himself under the circumstances), the doctor finally vanished. Jeannie Bruce was so utterly "taken aback" by it all that for some minutes she totally forgot her part in the little drama. Then, suddenly recalling the role she was to play, despite the appeal and protest and dismay in Elinor's pleading eyes, Miss Bruce, too, sped away and the two were left alone. From the south end of the gallery at Bedlam Miss Forrest looked smilingly upon the scene and would fain have rewarded Bonnie Jean by blowing a kiss to her, but Jeannie's eyes were focussed on a little party of horsemen just dismounting in front of the commanding officer's. They might bring news from the cantonment,—perhaps a little note from her own particular hero, Mr. Hatton.
Nearing them she recognized the leader as a sergeant of Captain Terry's troop, and knew well from the trim appearance of the men and their smooth-shaven cheeks and chins that they were just setting forth, not just returning from the field. The adjutant came hurrying down the steps of the major's quarters just as she reached the gate, and raised his forage-cap at sight of her.
"You can start at once, sergeant," she heard him say. "Now remember: to-morrow evening will be time enough for you to land your party at Fort Russell. Report on arrival to the commanding officer, and permit none of your men to go into Cheyenne until he sends you. Then you are to return here with whatever may be intrusted to your care."
She was not at all surprised on reaching home to find her mother and Mrs. Miller watching with eager eyes the departure of the cavalrymen. McLean and Nellie Bayard saw it too, and it gave them something to talk about a whole hour that afternoon, and paved the way for another talk the next day—and the next.
That night, in quick succession, the telegraph brought four despatches to Laramie. As in duty bound, the messenger went first to the commanding officer, who held out his hand for all four and was surprised at being accorded only two. "These are for Miss Forrest, sir," said the messenger. The major broke the envelope of his own, glanced at the first, and snapped his fingers with delight and exultation.
"They've got him, Lizzie!" he chuckled to his eager helpmate. Then he tore open the other. The glad look vanished in an instant; the light of hope, relief, and satisfaction fled from his eyes and the color from his cheeks. "My God!" he muttered, as his hand fell by his side.
"What is it, dear?" she queried, anxiously.
"Forrest is coming—post-haste. Will be here to-morrow night. Now she's got to be told."
"Then, as it is all my fault, I must be the one," was the reply.
But even as they were discussing the matter, irresolute, distressed, there was a ring at the bell; and in a moment who should enter the parlor, holding in her hand those fateful telegrams, but Miss Forrest herself? She came straight toward them—smiling, and Mrs. Miller and her half-dazed major arose to greet her.
"I suppose I may be taken into official confidences to-night; may I not, major?" she said, gayly. "Mr. Holmes has probably wired us news which we can exchange. I congratulate you on the recovery of your deserter, and you can rejoice with me in the recovery of my diamonds."
"Your diamonds!" exclaimed the major and his good wife in a breath. "When—how were they taken? Why did you not tell us?"
"They were taken from my room—from my locked trunk—the night of Dr. Bayard's dinner,—the same night that his porte-monnaie and his beautiful amethyst set were stolen from Mr. Holmes. I did not tell any one at first, because of Mrs. Forrest's prostrated condition, and because at first I suspected her servant Celestine and thought I could force her into restoring them without letting poor Ruth know anything about it. Then I couldn't speak of it, for the next discovery I made simply stunned me and made me ill. Then, finally, I told Mr. Holmes, and he took the matter in charge. You have heard from my brother, too?" she asked eagerly. "I am rejoiced at his coming, for it will do her a world of good, and she is wild with excitement and happiness now. How was it all managed, major? He wrote to me a fortnight ago that with the prospect of incessant fighting before them it was impossible for him to ask for leave of absence, and begging me to help Ruth in every way in my power and save her from worry of any kind. You see how I was placed. And now, all of a sudden, he is virtually ordered in, he wires me, and can attribute it to nothing but dangerous illness on her part. Did you get it for him? I know you did."
Miller and his wife looked at her, then at one another in dumb amaze. What could he say? How could he force himself to tell this brave and spirited and self-sacrificing girl of the cloud of suspicion with which she had been enveloped!
"Tell me about the diamonds," gasped Mrs. Miller to gain time. "Were they valuable? Though of course they must have been. Everything of yours is so beautiful and—well, I must say it all now—costly."
"They were a present from my uncle, Mr. Courtlandt," she answered, simply. "I valued them more than anything I had. The trunk was entered by false keys, and the diamonds were taken out of their locked case and spirited away. My first suspicion attached to Celestine and her soldier friend. They had been aroused before at Robinson. Then came this stunning surprise in my discovery next day, and a week of great indecision and distress. Now, of course, the inspiration of the villany is captured, though more than ever do I suspect Celestine as being confederate, or possibly principal actor. She has been utterly daft the last four days and constantly haunting the post-office for a letter that never comes."
"She will be wild enough when she knows the truth," said Miller, hoarsely. "The scoundrel had a wife in Denver, where he was finally tracked and jailed. It was she who offered the diamonds in pawn. They did not manage things well, and should have waited, for he had over two hundred dollars,—must have had,—for you and Mr. Holmes were not the only losers here."
"Who were the others?" she quickly asked.
"Mr. Hatton and Mr. McLean."
"Mr. McLean! Oh, the shame of it!" Miss Forrest paced rapidly up and down the parlor floor, her eyes flashing, her cheeks flushed, her hands nervously twisting the filmy handkerchief she carried. Her excitement was something utterly foreign to her, and neither Miller nor his wife could understand it. Suddenly, as though by uncontrollable impulse, she stopped before and faced them.
"Major Miller!" she exclaimed, "I must tell you something. I had made up my mind to do it yesterday. It will not add to my faint popularity here, but I respect you and Mrs. Miller. I know you are his friends, and I want your advice. How am I to make amends to Mr. McLean? What am I to say to him? Do you know that for a few days of idiocy I was made to believe that you suspected him of the thefts? and it was his handkerchief I found on the floor behind my trunk. What will the man think of me? And yet I must tell him. I cannot sit by him day after day, see him, speak with him, and have my heart hammering out the words, 'He thinks you are his friend, and you thought him to be a thief.'"
It was more than Miller could stand. "Miss Forrest! Miss Forrest!" he exclaimed, as his wife sank into an easy-chair and hid her face in her hands. "You cover me with shame and confusion. Never in my life have I heard of so extraordinary a complication as this has been! never have I been so worried and distressed! My dear young lady, try and hear me patiently. You have been far more sinned against than sinning. A few hours ago Dr. Bayard—he who led you in your suspicions, for he told me so—left here crushed and humbled to find that he had been so blind and unjust. But I would gladly exchange places with him, for I've been worse. I've been weak enough to be made to look with other's eyes and not my own. McLean was indeed involved in grave suspicion, but nothing as compared with that which surrounded another,—a woman who was entitled to our utmost sympathy and protection because her natural protector was in the field far from her side,—a woman who did find friends and protectors in my young officers,—McLean and Hatton,—God bless 'em for it! for they stoutly refused to tell a thing until it was dragged from them by official inquiry, and then they had burned every tangible piece of evidence against her. She was at Robinson last winter, and money and valuables were constantly disappearing. Silken skirts were heard trailing in dark hall-ways at night; her form was seen in the room of the plundered officers. The stories followed her to Laramie. The night McLean and Hatton were robbed her silken skirts were heard trailing up the north hall of Bedlam and her feet scurrying over the gallery. Her handkerchief was found at McLean's bureau, and, while they were all waiting for her at Mrs. Gordon's, McLean himself collided with a feminine shape in the darkness out on the parade, and it slipped away without a word as though fearing detection. The night of the robbery at Bayard's she was alone up-stairs. Another night she was seen entering the hall-way without ringing the bell or knocking at the door. Another evening I, who was in the Bayards' library, listened for ten minutes to some one who was striving to pick the lock and make a secret entrance while Elinor was confined to her room and the doctor was known to be a quarter of a mile away at the hospital. At last, wearying of waiting for the thief to effect an entrance and permit of my seeing him or her in the hall, I sprang out upon the piazza and found—you. Then that night I strove to see Hatton and wring from him his knowledge of what had been going on in Bedlam. You implored him not to go. You, unwittingly, made him and, through him, McLean believe it was your own trouble you sought to conceal; and, though I thank God I was utterly mistaken, utterly wrong in my belief, I crave your forgiveness, Miss Forrest. It was I who urged that your brother be sent here at once, though the general believes it was on Mrs. Forrest's account, that he might put an end to these peculations and restore what property could be recovered from you,—you who have suffered a loss far greater than all the others put together and never said a word about it."
And poor Miller, who had never made so long a speech in his life before, turned chokingly away. Then Mrs. Miller spoke, and Miss Forrest's dilated eyes were turned slowly from the major's bulky shape to the matronly form upon the sofa and the woe-begone face that appeared from behind the handkerchief. Miss Forrest's cheeks had paled and her lips were parted. She had seized and was leaning upon the back of a chair, but not one word had she spoken. As Mrs. Miller's voice was heard, it seemed as though a slight contraction of the muscles brought about a decided frown upon her white forehead, but she listened in utter silence.
"Indeed, Miss Forrest, you musn't blame the major too much. He wouldn't have listened to a word against you—if—if it hadn't been for me. I was all at fault. But I couldn't have believed a word against you had it not been for those letters from Robinson. They—they——"
And here Mrs. Miller had recourse to her handkerchief, and Miss Forrest stretched forth her hand as though to urge her say no more. There was intense silence in the parlor a moment. Then through the open windows came the sudden sound of a scuffle, a woman's shriek, a sudden fall, voluble curses and ravings in Celestine's familiar tones, and the rush of many feet toward Bedlam.
Seizing his cap and hurrying thither, the major pushed his way through an excited group on the lower gallery. The sergeant of the guard, lantern in hand, was wonderingly contemplating the Scotch "striker" Lachlan, who firmly clung to the wrist of the struggling, swearing girl, despite her adjurations to let her go. Other men from the quarters were clustered around them, hardly knowing what to say, for Lachlan contented himself with the single word "thief!" and never relaxed his grasp until the major bade him do so, but instantly renewed it as his prisoner attempted to spring away. McLean came limping to the scene from the direction of the doctor's quarters just as Miss Forrest, too, appeared, and him Lachlan addressed:
"I found her rummaging in the bureau, sir."
And then Miss Forrest's quiet voice was heard as soon as the major's orders to bring a gag had silenced the loud protestations and accusations of the negress.
"It is as we supposed, major. That is the skirt of an old silk I gave her last winter."
An hour later Celestine was locked in a room at the laundress's quarters, where stout "Mrs. Sergeant Flynn" organized an Amazon guard of heroines, who, like herself, had followed the drum for many a year; who assured the major the prisoner would never escape from their clutches, and whose motto appeared to be, "Put none but Irishwomen on guard to-night."
Confessions, of various sorts, were the order of the day at Laramie during the week that followed this important arrest, and then the fortnight of accusation was at an end. Parsons, the deserter, led off the day after his return to the post under escort of the little squad sent down from Terry's troop to meet him at Cheyenne. He was stubborn and silent at first, but when told by the corporal of the guard that Celestine had "gone back on him the moment she heard he had a wife at Denver, and had more than given him away," he concluded that it was time to deny some of the accusations heaped upon his head by the furious victim of his wiles. The girl had indeed obeyed his beck and will, and shielded him even in the days of suspense that followed his desertion; but no word can describe the rage of her jealousy, the fury of her hate, the recklessness of her tongue when she found that he had used her only as a tool to enrich another woman,—his lawful wife. Parsons told his story to an interested audience as though he had rather enjoyed the celebrity he had acquired, and Major Miller, Dr. Bayard, Captain Forrest, and Mr. Roswell Holmes were his most attentive listeners. He had been a corporal in the Marine Corps at the Washington Navy-Yard, and had seen Dr. Bayard many a time. Reduced to the ranks for some offence, he had become an officer's servant, and was employed at the mess-room, where Bayard must have seen him frequently, as the doctor rarely missed their festivities at the barracks. Here his peculations began and were discovered. He deserted and got to St. Louis, where he began to "barber" on a boat; got married and into more trouble; fled to Denver and found people's wits too sharp for him; so, leaving his wife to support herself as best she could, he ran up to Cheyenne and enlisted in the cavalry. Doors and windows, desks and trunks, were found lying open everywhere at Robinson; Celestine was speedily induced to learn the business, and proved an adept. He warned her she would be suspected, but she laughed and said she knew how to hoodwink folks. They kept up their partnership at Laramie, he receiving and hiding the valuables she brought him; but he was sure the doctor had recognized him; he knew there was danger, and he was determined to slip away the first chance that came, especially after securing the diamonds. The Fetterman despatch gave him the longed-for opportunity. Celestine was quieted by the promise that, as soon as the thing had blown over and he was safe, he would get word to her where to join him, send her plenty of money, and then they would be married and live happily ever after. On the way back from Fetterman he stopped at an abandoned hut near Bull Bend, where he had hidden his plunder on the way up, stowed the money and jewels in his saddle-bags, then pushed for Hunton's on the Chug; got safely by in the night, rode his horse hard to Lodge Pole Creek, where he left him at a ranch and secured the loan of another. Then keeping well to the west of Fort Russell and never going near Cheyenne, he crossed the Union Pacific and made his way to Denver. But there, to his dismay, the "Rocky Mountain" detective officials were on the watch for him, and every precaution had been vain. He was captured; Miss Forrest's diamonds, Mr. Holmes's amethysts, and Mr. Hatton's pins were found secreted in his possession, though most of the money was gone,—gambling,—and that was all. He never knew that Mr. Holmes had tracked him all the way and rolled up a volume of evidence against him.
Celestine, tiger-cat that she was, had at first filled the air with shrieks of rage and loud accusations, first against Lachlan and then Miss Forrest, but the Irish laundresses only jeered at her; and, when the deserter was fairly back in the garrison and the circumstances of his capture were made known, taunted her with having been victimized by a man who had a wife to share the profits of her plundering. Once made to realize that this was truth, she no longer sought to conceal anything. She seemed bent only on heaping up vengeance upon him. 'Twas he who corrupted her; he who taught her to steal; he who showed her how to pick locks; he who told her to wear Miss Forrest's silk skirts and steal her handkerchiefs and leave them where they would be found; he who let her in to the doctor's the night of the dinner and stole the porte-monnaie from the fur coat while she went up-stairs and took the amethysts from Mr. Holmes's room. She wasn't afraid. If any one came all she had to do was to say she had returned for something she had lost when accompanying Miss Forrest. 'Twas he who told her to take some of McLean's handkerchiefs and drop one in Mr. Holmes's room where he would be sure to get it, "'cause Dr. Bayard wanted to get rid of Mr. McLean and would believe nothing against Miss Forrest;" 'twas he who tried to pick that latch again and get in and steal the doctor's silver, but was interrupted by Miss Forrest's coming, and had just time to slink away on tiptoe around the corner of the house; 'twas he who gave her keys to open Miss Forrest's trunk and showed her how to pick the lock of the little box that held her diamonds, and he who bade her lose one of McLean's handkerchiefs behind the trunk. Oh, yes! She was ready to swear fire, murder, and treason against him—her scoundrelly deceiver. In one short day this precious pair had succeeded in saddling each other with the iniquities of the garrison for a month back, and all other suspicions were at an end.
But there was still another feather in Mr. Holmes's cap. He had known these Denver detectives for years and had placed much valuable business in their hands. He had munificently rewarded every man who had been efficient in the present chase and capture; had had the pleasure of restoring to Miss Forrest in a new case and well-repaired setting the diamonds of which she had been despoiled, and then he sought McLean.
"Did you ever get a little card I left in your drawer one night while I was here with Mr. Hatton?" he asked.
McLean looked up in eager interest. "A card?—yes, but never dreamed it was from you. Indeed I thought—I was told—it came from an entirely different source, and it has puzzled me more than words can tell you."
"It was perhaps a piece of officiousness on my part, but we were in a peculiar state just then with all these thefts going on. I stowed it in one of your handkerchiefs while Hatton was out. What did you do with it!"
"Burned it—long ago. I couldn't understand at all. It said that one who had been as hard pressed as I was—pecuniarily, I supposed—wanted to be my friend, and——"
"Yes, that's about it! I suppose you couldn't see your way clear to accepting help from me——"
"I didn't know it was your card or your writing. No initials appeared. The card was otherwise blank, and Hatton and I—well—there's no sense in telling the absurdity of our beliefs at that time. We were all at sea."
"Let all that pass," said Holmes, with a grave smile on his face. "The man that hasn't been a fool in one way or another in this garrison during the last month or so is not on my list of acquaintances, and I think I know myself. What I want now is a description of Sergeant Marsland. One of my Denver friends thinks he has spotted him as a swell gambler down at El Paso."
And so, that night, a full pen-picture of the lamented commissary-sergeant was wired to Denver. Two days later a special detective was speeding southward; and though Roswell Holmes had left Fort Laramie and gone about his other affairs long before the result was known, and long before the slow-moving wheels of Wyoming and military justice had rolled the two later culprits before the courts, it was his name that came up for renewed applause and enthusiastic praise when the telegraph brought to the commanding officer the news that a "rich haul!" had been made on the far-away Texan frontier. Marsland and over one thousand dollars had been gathered in at "one fell swoop."
Then came July, its blazing sunshine tempered by the snow-cooled breezes from the mountain-peaks, and its starry nights made drowsy and soothing by the softer melody of the swift-rushing Laramie. The roar and fury of the May torrents were gone and with them the clouds and storms of human jealousies and suspicions. The crowded garrison had undergone a valuable experience. The social circle of the post had learned a lesson as to the fallibility of feminine and masculine—judgment. Bruce was slyly ridiculing Miller because of his surrender to the views and theories of his better half, and, even while resenting verbally the fact that he had been excluded from all participation in the momentous affairs of the early summer, was known to be devoutly thankful in his innermost heart that he had not been drawn into the snarl. Bruce was hand in glove with Captain Forrest now, who, having set his house in order and silenced the querulous complaints of his wife at the loss of Celestine, was eager to get back to his troop. Between Forrest and McLean, too, there had sprung up a feeling of cordial friendship. Forrest had heard from his sister's lips the story of how he and Hatton had burned her handkerchief and striven in every way to shield her in his absence, and the cavalryman's heart warmed to them more than he could express. To Miller and McLean he told the story of his sister's differences with her uncle, pretty much in effect as Mrs. Forrest told the doctor. It was Courtlandt's son she would not marry because of his repeated lapses into inebriety, and Courtlandt's bounty she would no longer accept since she could not take the son. The registered letters she had mailed contained the remittances the sorrowful old man persisted in sending her and she persisted in returning. Dr. Bayard, too, had shown vast cordiality to the stalwart cavalry brother, but Forrest seemed to share his sister's views, and only moderately responded.
Poor Bayard! Again and again did he curse the cruel fates that had exiled him to this outlying, barbarous, incomprehensible community. Again and again did he bemoan the blunders he had made. In the eclaircissement that followed the arrest of Celestine and Parsons he had striven to pose as the champion of Miss Forrest and to redouble his devotions. There was no doubt of his devotion: the grandiose old beau was completely fascinated by the brilliancy, daring, and self-control of that indomitable Queen of Bedlam. After the first shock and a few hours of solitude, in which she refused to see or talk with anybody, Miss Forrest had emerged from her room in readiness to welcome her brother on his arrival, and no one in all that garrison could detect the faintest sign of resentment or discomposure in her manner. If anything, she was rather more approachable to people she could not fancy than at any time before, and, now that the Bruces and Gordons and Johnsons and everybody seemed in mad competition to see who could be most cordial and friendly with her, it speedily became apparent that it was their offishness, not hers, that had kept them asunder earlier in her visit. Mrs. Post had found her out, she proudly asserted, just as soon as she came to live under the same roof with her, and it was now her privilege to claim precedence over the others of the large sisterhood. But all this sudden popularity of the young lady in question was no great comfort to Bayard, who found it almost impossible to see her alone. She would gladly have gone to spend hours with Elinor, who was still far from strong, for "her Majesty," as she was often playfully referred to, was disposed to be very fond of that sweet-faced child; but Elinor seemed to shrink from her a little. She feared that her father had really fallen deeply in love again, and if so who could resist him? She admired Miss Forrest and could be very fond of her, but not as a second mother. Another matter that stood in the way of going thither was the fact that Bayard seemed to track her everywhere, and the situation was becoming unendurable. One night, at last, he dropped in at the Millers' when she was there, and promptly, when she retired, offered to escort her home. She thanked him, took his arm, walked slowly with him to the south hall of Bedlam, and there bid him adieu. No one knows just what was talked of on that eventful walk, but it was the last he ever sought with her, and for weeks Bayard was a moody, miserable man. All Laramie swore he had proposed and had been rejected, but no one could positively tell.
Elinor redoubled her loving ways from that time, and strove to cheer and gladden him, but he was almost repellant. There was only one thing, he declared to her, that made him wretched, and that was her attachment to Mr. McLean. If she would only be sensible, and see how absurd that was, he could smile again, but that was a matter in which his little girl had decided as her mother had decided before her. Poor Bayard! To revenge himself on his father- and mother-in-law he had wrested this sweet child from their arms and brought her hither, only to see her won away in turn, and, by all that was horrible, by an army lieutenant. He had to admit that McLean was a gentleman, a splendid officer, without a vice or a meanness, and, now that the stolen stores were replaced by their money value, without a debt in the world; but he was poor,—he was nothing, in fact, but what he himself had been when he won Elinor's mother. McLean had spoken to him manfully and asked his consent, but he rebuffed him, saying she was a mere child. McLean declared he would wait any reasonable time, but claimed the privilege of visiting her as a suitor, and this he would have refused, and for a few days did refuse, until her pallor and tearful eyes so upbraided him that he gave up in despair. Meantime she had poured out her heart to the loving grandparents at home, and they took her part, and, almost to her surprise, actually welcomed the news that she had a lover. The judge wrote to Bayard (the first time he had so honored him since their difference the previous winter), saying he knew "the stock" well and expressing his hearty approval of Nellie's choice. As to her future, he said, that was his business. It made no difference to him whether Mr. McLean was rich or poor. That matter was one he could settle to suit himself. It was a comfort to know she "had given her heart to a steadfast, loyal, and honest man." And so, having stirred up his son-in-law and made him wince to his heart's content, the old statesman bade him stand no longer in the way, but tell the young gentleman that he, too, would be glad to know him; and this letter, that evening, "old Chesterfield" placed in his daughter's hand and then magnanimously gave her his blessing. It was not to be shown to McLean, said the doctor, but he did not tell her why. He was afraid the young fellow would read between the lines and see what the judge was driving at when he spoke of the loyalty and honesty of Nellie's lover.
Heavens! What billing and cooing there was at Laramie all that late summer and autumn! How Jeannie Bruce blushed and bloomed when the ambulance finally landed Mr. Hatton at her side, and he took his limping but blissful daily walk in her society! How Nellie Bayard's soft cheeks grew rounder and rosier as the autumn wore away, and how her sweet eyes softened and glowed as they gazed up into the manly face of the young soldier whom she was just beginning to learn (very shyly and hesitatingly yet, and only when none but he could hear) to call "Randall." Rapturous confidences were those in which she and Jeannie Bruce daily engaged. Blissful were the glances with which they rewarded Miss Forrest for her warm and cordial congratulations. Delightful were the hours they presently began to spend with her; and dismal, dismal was the old frontier post when October came and those three young women with appropriate escort were spirited away together: Elinor to spend the winter with her grandparents and make who knows what elaborate preparations for the military wedding which was to come off in the following May; Jeannie Bruce to pay her a long visit and indulge in similar, though far less lavish, shopping on her own account; and Miss Forrest to return to the roof of old Mr. Courtlandt, who begged it as a solace to his declining years and fast-failing health. The doctor, McLean, and Hatton went with the party as far as Cheyenne and saw them, with their friends Major and Mrs. Stannard, of the cavalry, safely aboard the train for Omaha, and then with solemn visages returned to the desolation of their post to worry through the winter as best they could. Telegrams from Omaha and Chicago told of the safe and happy flight of the eastward travellers, and soon the letters began to come. "What do you think?" wrote both the younger girls, "who do you suppose was at Chicago to meet us but Mr. Holmes?"
"All's well that ends well!" quoth Mr. Hatton, one evening soon after, as he blew a cloud of "Lynchburg sun-cured" tobacco-smoke across the top of the old Argand and tossed McLean a Cheyenne paper. "Celestine has gone to the penitentiary, and here's the sentence of the court in the case of Marsland and Parsons,—five years apiece." "All's well that ends well!" for those were glad and hopeful and happy hearts, as the long, long winter wore away and another May-day came around; and the sunshine danced on the snow crests of the grand old peak; and the foaming Laramie again tossed high its brawling surges; and the south wind swept away the few remaining drifts, searching them out in the depths of the bare ravines and bringing to light tender little tufts of green—the baby buffalo-grass: and one day there came a wild surprise, and the ladies swarmed to Mrs. Miller's for confirmation of the news that went from lip to lip,—the news that "her Majesty" had indeed at last surrendered, and that Roswell Holmes had wooed and won "The Queen of Bedlam."