FROM THE RANKS.
CAPT. CHARLES KING, U.S.A.,
AUTHOR OF "THE COLONEL'S DAUGHTER," "MARION'S FAITH," "KITTY'S CONQUEST," ETC., ETC.
J.B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY.
Copyright, 1887, by J.B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY.
FROM THE RANKS.
A strange thing had happened at the old fort during the still watches of the night. Even now, at nine in the morning, no one seemed to be in possession of the exact circumstances. The officer of the day was engaged in an investigation, and all that appeared to be generally known was the bald statement that the sentry on "Number Five" had fired at somebody or other about half after three; that he had fired by order of the officer of the day, who was on his post at the time; and that now he flatly refused to talk about the matter.
Garrison curiosity, it is perhaps needless to say, was rather stimulated than lulled by this announcement. An unusual number of officers were chatting about head-quarters when Colonel Maynard came over to his office. Several ladies, too, who had hitherto shown but languid interest in the morning music of the band, had taken the trouble to stroll down to the old quadrangle, ostensibly to see guard-mounting. Mrs. Maynard was almost always on her piazza at this time, and her lovely daughter was almost sure to be at the gate with two or three young fellows lounging about her. This morning, however, not a soul appeared in front of the colonel's quarters.
Guard-mounting at the fort was not held until nine o'clock, contrary to the somewhat general custom at other posts in our scattered army. Colonel Maynard had ideas of his own upon the subject, and it was his theory that everything worked more smoothly if he had finished a leisurely breakfast before beginning office-work of any kind, and neither the colonel nor his family cared to breakfast before eight o'clock. In view of the fact that Mrs. Maynard had borne that name but a very short time and that her knowledge of army life dated only from the month of May, the garrison was disposed to consider her entitled to much latitude of choice in such matters, even while it did say that she was old enough to be above bride-like sentiment. The womenfolk at the fort were of opinion that Mrs. Maynard was fifty. It must be conceded that she was over forty, also that this was her second entry into the bonds of matrimony.
That no one should now appear on the colonel's piazza was obviously a disappointment to several people. In some way or other most of the breakfast tables at the post had been enlivened by accounts of the mysterious shooting. The soldiers going the rounds with the "police-cart," the butcher and grocer and baker from town, the old milkwoman with her glistening cans, had all served as newsmongers from kitchen to kitchen, and the story that came in with the coffee to the lady of the house had lost nothing in bulk or bravery. The groups of officers chatting and smoking in front of head-quarters gained accessions every moment, while the ladies seemed more absorbed in chat and confidences than in the sweet music of the band.
What fairly exasperated some men was the fact that the old officer of the day was not out on the parade where he belonged. Only the new incumbent was standing there in statuesque pose as the band trooped along the line, and the fact that the colonel had sent out word that the ceremony would proceed without Captain Chester only served to add fuel to the flame of popular conjecture. It was known that the colonel was holding a consultation with closed doors with the old officer of the day, and never before since he came to the regiment had the colonel been known to look so pale and strange as when he glanced out for just one moment and called his orderly. The soldier sprang up, saluted, received his message, and, with every eye following him, sped off towards the old stone guard-house. In three minutes he was on his way back, accompanied by a corporal and private of the guard in full dress uniform.
"That's Leary,—the man who fired the shot," said Captain Wilton to his senior lieutenant, who stood by his side.
"Belongs to B Company, doesn't he?" queried the subaltern. "Seems to me I have heard Captain Armitage say he was one of his best men."
"Yes. He's been in the regiment as long as I can remember. What on earth can the colonel want him for? Near as I can learn, he only fired by Chester's order."
"And neither of them knows what he fired at."
It was perhaps ten minutes more before Private Leary came forth from the door-way of the colonel's office, nodded to the corporal, and, raising their white-gloved hands in salute to the group of officers, the two men tossed their rifles to the right shoulder and strode back to the guard.
Another moment, and the colonel himself opened his door and appeared in the hall-way. He stopped abruptly, turned back and spoke a few words in low tone, then hurried through the groups at the entrance, looking at no man, avoiding their glances, and giving faint and impatient return to the soldierly salutations that greeted him. The sweat was beaded on his forehead; his lips were white, and his face full of a trouble and dismay no man had ever seen there before. He spoke to no one, but walked rapidly homeward, entered, and closed the gate and door behind him.
For a moment there was silence in the group. Few men in the service were better loved and honored than the veteran soldier who commanded the ——th Infantry; and it was with genuine concern that his officers saw him so deeply and painfully affected,—for affected he certainly was. Never before had his cheery voice denied them a cordial "Good-morning, gentlemen." Never before had his blue eyes flinched. He had been their comrade and commander in years of frontier service, and his bachelor home had been the rendezvous of all genial spirits when in garrison. They had missed him sorely when he went abroad on long leave the previous year, and were almost indignant when they received the news that he had met his fate in Italy and would return married. "She" was the widow of a wealthy New-Yorker who had been dead some three years only, and, though over forty, did not look her years to masculine eyes when she reached the fort in May. After knowing her a week, the garrison had decided to a man that the colonel had done wisely. Mrs. Maynard was charming, courteous, handsome, and accomplished. Only among the women were there still a few who resented their colonel's capture; and some of these, oblivious of the fact that they had tempted him with relations of their own, were sententious and severe in their condemnation of second marriage; for the colonel, too, was indulging in a second experiment. Of his first, only one man in the regiment, besides the commander, could tell anything; and he, to the just indignation of almost everybody, would not discuss the subject. It was rumored that in the old days when Maynard was senior captain and Chester junior subaltern in their former regiment the two had very little in common. It was known that the first Mrs. Maynard, while still young and beautiful, had died abroad. It was hinted that the resignation of a dashing lieutenant of the regiment, which was synchronous with her departure for foreign shores, was demanded by his brother officers; but it was useless asking Captain Chester. He could not tell; and—wasn't it odd?—here was Chester again, the only man in the colonel's confidence in an hour of evident trouble.
"By Jove! what's gone wrong with the chief?" was the first exclamation from one of the older officers. "I never saw him look so broken."
As no explanation suggested itself, they began edging in towards the office. The door stood open; a hand-bell banged; a clerk darted in from the sergeant-major's rooms, and Captain Chester was revealed seated at the colonel's desk. This in itself was sufficient to induce several officers to stroll in and look inquiringly around. Captain Chester, merely nodding, went on with some writing at which he was engaged.
After a moment's awkward silence and uneasy glancing at one another, the party seemed to arrive at the conclusion that it was time to speak. The band had ceased, and the new guard had marched away behind its pealing bugles. Lieutenant Hall winked at his comrades, strolled hesitatingly over to the desk, balanced unsteadily on one leg, and, with his hands sticking in his trousers-pockets and his forage-cap swinging from protruding thumb and forefinger, cleared his throat, and, with marked lack of confidence, accosted his absorbed superior:
"Colonel gone home?"
"Didn't you see him?" was the uncompromising reply; and the captain did not deign to raise his head or eyes.
"Well—er—yes, I suppose I did," said Mr. Hall, shifting uncomfortably to his other leg, and prodding the floor with the toe of his boot.
"Then that wasn't what you wanted to know, I presume," said Captain Chester, signing his name with a vicious dab of the pen and bringing his fist down with a thump on the blotting-pad, while he wheeled around in his chair and looked squarely up into the perturbed features of the junior.
"No, it wasn't," answered Mr. Hall, in an injured tone, while an audible snicker at the door added to his sense of discomfort. "What I mainly wanted was to know could I go to town."
"That matter is easily arranged, Mr. Hall. All you have to do is to get out of that uncomfortable and unsoldierly position, stand in the attitude in which you are certainly more at home and infinitely more picturesque, proffer your request in respectful words, and there is no question as to the result."
"Oh! you're in command, then?" said Mr. Hall, slowly wriggling into the position of the soldier and flushing through his bronzed cheeks. "I thought the colonel might be only gone for a minute."
"The colonel may not be back for a week; but you be here for dress-parade all the same, and—Mr. Hall!" he called, as the young officer was turning away. The latter faced about again.
"Was Mr. Jerrold going with you to town?"
"Yes, sir. He was to drive me in his dog-cart, and it's over here now."
"Mr. Jerrold cannot go,—at least not until I have seen him."
"Why, captain, he got the colonel's permission at breakfast this morning."
"That is true, no doubt, Mr. Hall." And the captain dropped his sharp and captious manner, and his voice fell, as though in sympathy with the cloud that settled on his face. "I cannot explain matters just now. There are reasons why the permission is withdrawn for the time being. The adjutant will notify him." And Captain Chester turned to his desk again as the new officer of the day, guard-book in hand, entered to make his report.
"The usual orders, captain," said Chester, as he took the book from his hand and looked over the list of prisoners. Then, in bold and rapid strokes, he wrote across the page the customary certificate of the old officer of the day, winding up with this remark:
"He also inspected guard and visited sentries between 3 and 3.35 a.m. The firing at 3.30 a.m. was by his order."
Meantime, those officers who had entered and who had no immediate duty to perform were standing or seated around the room, but all observing profound silence. For a moment or two no sound was heard but the scratching of the captain's pen. Then, with some embarrassment and hesitancy, he laid it down and glanced around him.
"Has any one here anything to ask,—any business to transact?"
Two or three mentioned some routine matters that required the action of the post-commander, but did so reluctantly, as though they preferred to await the orders of the colonel himself. Captain Wilton, indeed, spoke his sentiments:
"I wanted to see Colonel Maynard about getting two men of my company relieved from extra duty; but, as he isn't here, I fancy I had better wait."
"Not at all. Who are your men?—Have it done at once, Mr. Adjutant, and supply their places from my company, if need be. Now is there anything else?"
The group was apparently "nonplussed," as the adjutant afterwards put it, by such unlooked-for complaisance on the part of the usually crotchety senior captain. Still, no one offered to lead the others and leave the room. After a moment's nervous rapping with his knuckles on the desk, Captain Chester again abruptly spoke:
"Gentlemen, I am sorry to incommode you, but, if there be nothing more that you desire to see me about, I shall go on with some other matters, which—pardon me—do not require your presence."
At this very broad hint the party slowly found their legs, and with much wonderment and not a few resentful glances at their temporary commander the officers sauntered to the door-way. There, however, several stopped again, still reluctant to leave in the face of so pervading a mystery, for Wilton turned.
"Am I to understand that Colonel Maynard has left the post to be gone any length of time?" he asked.
"He has not yet gone. I do not know how long he will be gone or how soon he will start. For pressing personal reasons he has turned over the command to me; and, if he decide to remain away, of course some field-officer will be ordered to come to head-quarters. For a day or two you will have to worry along with me; but I shan't worry you more than I can help. I've got mystery and mischief enough here to keep me busy, God knows. Just ask Sloat to come back here to me, will you? And—Wilton, I did not mean to be abrupt with you. I'm all upset to-day. Mr. Adjutant, notify Mr. Jerrold at once that he must not leave the post until I have seen him. It is the colonel's last order. Tell him so."
The night before had been unusually dark. A thick veil of clouds overspread the heavens and hid the stars. Moon there was none, for the faint silver crescent that gleamed for a moment through the swift-sailing wisps of vapor had dropped beneath the horizon soon after tattoo, and the mournful strains of "taps," borne on the rising wind, seemed to signal "extinguish lights" to the entire firmament as well as to Fort Sibley. There was a dance of some kind at the quarters of one of the staff-officers living far up the row on the southern terrace. Chester heard the laughter and chat as the young officers and their convoy of matrons and maids came tripping homeward after midnight. He was a crusty old bachelor, to use his own description, and rarely ventured into these scenes of social gayety, and, besides, he was officer of the day, and it was a theory he was fond of expounding to juniors that when on guard no soldier should permit himself to be drawn from the scene of his duties. With his books and his pipe Chester whiled away the lonely hours of the early night, and wondered if the wind would blow up a rain or disperse the clouds entirely. Towards one o'clock a light, bounding footstep approached his door, and the portal flew open as a trim-built young fellow with laughing eyes and an air of exuberant health and spirits came briskly in. It was Rollins, the junior second lieutenant of the regiment, and Chester's own and only pet,—so said the envious others. He was barely a year out of leading-strings at the Point, and as full of hope and pluck and mischief as a colt. Moreover, he was frank and teachable, said Chester, and didn't come to him with the idea that he had nothing to learn and less to do. The boy won upon his gruff captain from the very start, and, to the incredulous delight of the whole regiment, within six months the old cynic had taken him into his heart and home, and Mr. Rollins occupied a pleasant room under Chester's roof-tree, and was the sole accredited sharer of the captain's mess. To a youngster just entering service, whose ambition it was to stick to business and make a record for zeal and efficiency, these were manifest advantages. There were men in the regiment to whom such close communion with a watchful senior would have been most embarrassing, and Mr. Rollins's predecessor as second lieutenant of Chester's company was one of these. Mr. Jerrold was a happy man when promotion took him from under the wing of "Crusty Jake" and landed him in Company B. More than that, it came just at a time when, after four years of loneliness and isolation at an up-river stockade, his new company and his old one, together with four others from the regiment, were ordered to join head-quarters and the band at the most delightful station in the Northwest. Here Mr. Rollins had reported for duty during the previous autumn, and here they were with troops of other arms of the service, enjoying the close proximity of all the good things of civilization.
Chester looked up with a quizzical smile as his "plebe" came in:
"Well, sir, how many dances had you with 'Sweet Alice, Ben Bolt'? Not many, I fancy, with Mr. Jerrold monopolizing everything, as usual. By gad! some good fellow could make a colossal fortune in buying that young man at my valuation and selling him at his own."
"Oh, come, now, captain," laughed Rollins, "Jerrold's no such slouch as you make him out. He's lazy, and he likes to spoon, and he puts up with a good deal of petting from the girls,—who wouldn't, if he could get it?—but he is jolly and big-hearted, and don't put on any airs,—with us, at least,—and the mess like him first-rate. 'Tain't his fault that he's handsome and a regular lady-killer. You must admit that he had a pretty tough four years of it up there at that cussed old Indian graveyard, and it's only natural he should enjoy getting here, where there are theatres and concerts and operas and dances and dinners—"
"Yes, dances and dinners and daughters,—all delightful, I know, but no excuse for a man's neglecting his manifest duty, as he is doing and has been ever since we got here. Any other time the colonel would have straightened him out; but no use trying it now, when both women in his household are as big fools about the man as anybody in town,—bigger, unless I'm a born idiot." And Chester rose excitedly.
"I suppose he had Miss Renwick pretty much to himself to-night?" he presently demanded, looking angrily and searchingly at his junior, as though half expecting him to dodge the question.
"Oh, yes. Why not? It's pretty evident she would rather dance and be with him than with any one else: so what can a fellow do? Of course we ask her to dance, and all that, and I think he wants us to; but I cannot help feeling rather a bore to her, even if she is only eighteen, and there are plenty of pleasant girls in the garrison who don't get any too much attention, now we're so near a big city, and I like to be with them."
"Yes, and it's the right thing for you to do, youngster. That's one trait I despise in Jerrold. When we were up there at the stockade two winters ago, and Captain Gray's little girl was there, he hung around her from morning till night, and the poor little thing fairly beamed and blossomed with delight. Look at her now, man! He don't go near her. He hasn't had the decency to take her a walk, a drive, or anything, since we got here. He began, from the moment we came, with that gang in town. He was simply devoted to Miss Beaubien until Alice Renwick came; then he dropped her like a hot brick. By the Eternal, Rollins, he hasn't gotten off with that old love yet, you mark my words. There's Indian blood in her veins, and a look in her eye that makes me wriggle, sometimes. I watched her last night at parade when she drove out here with that copper-faced old squaw, her mother. For all her French and Italian education and her years in New York and Paris, that girl's got a wild streak in her somewhere. She sat there watching him as the officers marched to the front, and then her, as he went up and joined Miss Renwick; and there was a gleam of her white teeth and a flash in her black eyes that made me think of the leap of a knife from the sheath. Not but what 'twould serve him right if she did play him some devil's trick. It's his own doing. Were any people out from town?" he suddenly asked.
"Yes, half a dozen or so," answered Mr. Rollins, who was pulling off his boots and inserting his feet into easy slippers, while old "Crusty" tramped excitedly up and down the floor. "Most of them stayed out here, I think. Only one team went back across the bridge."
"Whose was that?"
"The Suttons', I believe. Young Cub Sutton was out with his sister and another girl."
"There's another damned fool!" growled Chester. "That boy has ten thousand a year of his own, a beautiful home that will be his, a doting mother and sister, and everything wealth can buy, and yet, by gad! he's unhappy because he can't be a poor devil of a lieutenant, with nothing but drills, debts, and rifle-practice to enliven him. That's what brings him out here all the time. He'd swap places with you in a minute. Isn't he very thick with Jerrold?"
"Oh, yes, rather. Jerrold entertains him a good deal."
"Which is returned with compound interest, I'll bet you. Mr. Jerrold simply makes a convenience of him. He won't make love to his sister, because the poor, rich, unsophisticated girl is as ugly as she is ubiquitous. His majesty is fastidious, you see, and seeks only the caress of beauty, and while he lives there at the Suttons' when he goes to town, and dines and sleeps and smokes and wines there, and uses their box at the opera-house, and is courted and flattered by the old lady because dear Cubby worships the ground he walks on and poor Fanny Sutton thinks him adorable, he turns his back on the girl at every dance because she can't dance, and leaves her to you fellows who have a conscience and some idea of decency. He gives all his devotions to Nina Beaubien, who dances like a coryphee, and drops her when Alice Renwick comes with her glowing Spanish beauty. Oh, damn it, I'm an old fool to get worked up over it as I do, but you young fellows don't see what I see. You haven't seen what I've seen; and pray God you never may! That's where the shoe pinches, Rollins. It is what he reminds me of—not so much what he is, I suppose—that I get rabid about. He is for all the world like a man we had in the old regiment when you were in swaddling-clothes; and I never look at Mamie Gray's sad, white face that it doesn't bring back a girl I knew just then whose heart was broken by just such a shallow, selfish, adorable scoun—No, I won't use that word in speaking of Jerrold; but it's what I fear. Rollins, you call him generous. Well, so he is,—lavish, if you like, with his money and his hospitality here in the post. Money comes easily to him, and goes; but you boys misuse the term. I call him selfish to the core, because he can deny himself no luxury, no pleasure, though it may wring a woman's life—or, more than that, her honor—to give it him." The captain was tramping up and down the room now, as was his wont when excited; his face was flushed, and his hand clinched. He turned suddenly and faced the younger officer, who sat gazing uncomfortably at the rug in front of the fireplace.
"Rollins, some day I may tell you a story that I've kept to myself all these years. You won't wonder at my feeling as I do about these goings-on of your friend Jerrold when you hear it all, but it was just such a man as he who ruined one woman, broke the heart of another, and took the sunshine out of the life of two men from that day to this. One of them was your colonel, the other your captain. Now go to bed. I'm going out." And, throwing down his pipe, regardless of the scattering sparks and ashes, Captain Chester strode into the hall-way, picked up the first forage-cap he laid hands on, and banged himself out of the front door.
Mr. Rollins remained for some moments in the same attitude, still gazing abstractedly at the rug, and listening to the nervous tramp of his senior officer on the piazza without. Then he slowly and thoughtfully went to his room, where his perturbed spirit was soon soothed in sleep. His conscience being clear and his health perfect, there were no deep cares to keep him tossing on a restless pillow.
To Chester, however, sleep was impossible: he tramped the piazza a full hour before he felt placid enough to go and inspect his guard. The sentries were calling three o'clock, and the wind had died away, as he started on his round. Dark as was the night, he carried no lantern. The main garrison was well lighted by lamps, and the road circling the old fort was broad, smooth, and bordered by a stone coping wall where it skirted the precipitous descent into the river-bottom. As he passed down the plank walk west of the quadrangle wherein lay the old barracks and the stone quarters of the commanding officer and the low one-storied row of bachelor dens, he could not help noting the silence and peace of the night. Not a light was visible at any window as he strode down the line. The challenge of the sentry at the old stone tower sounded unnecessarily sharp and loud, and his response of "Officer of the day" was lower than usual, as though rebuking the unseemly outcry. The guard came scrambling out and formed hurriedly to receive him, but the captain's inspection was of the briefest kind. Barely glancing along the prison corridor to see that the bars were in place, he turned back into the night, and made for the line of posts along the river-bank. The sentry at the high bridge across the gorge, and the next one, well around to the southeast flank, were successively visited and briefly questioned as to their instructions, and then the captain plodded sturdily on until he came to the sharp bend around the outermost angle of the fort and found himself passing behind the quarters of the commanding officer, a substantial two-storied stone house with mansard roof and dormer-windows. The road in the rear was some ten feet below the level of the parade inside the quadrangle, and consequently, as the house faced the parade, what was the ground-floor from that front became the second story at the rear. The kitchen, store-room, and servants' rooms were on this lower stage, and opened upon the road; an outer stairway ran up to the centre door at the back, but at the east and west flanks of the house the stone walls stood without port or window except those above the eaves,—the dormers. Light and air in abundance streamed through the broad Venetian windows north and south when light and air were needed. This night, as usual, all was tightly closed below, all darkness aloft as he glanced up at the dormers high above his head. As he did so, his foot struck a sudden and sturdy obstacle; he stumbled and pitched heavily forward, and found himself sprawling at full length upon a ladder lying on the ground almost in the middle of the roadway.
"Damn those painters!" he growled between his set teeth. "They leave their infernal man-traps around in the very hope of catching me, I believe. Now, who but a painter would have left a ladder in such a place as this?"
Rising ruefully and rubbing a bruised knee with his hand, he limped painfully ahead a few steps, until he came to the side-wall of the colonel's house. Here a plank walk passed from the roadway along the western wall until almost on a line with the front piazza, where by a flight of steps it was carried up to the level of the parade. Here he paused a moment to dust off his clothes and rearrange his belt and sword. He stood leaning against the wall and facing the gray stone gable end of the row of old-fashioned quarters that bounded the parade upon the southwest. All was still darkness and silence.
"Confound this sword!" he muttered again: "the thing made rattle and racket enough to wake the dead. Wonder if I disturbed anybody at the colonel's."
As though in answer to his suggestion, there suddenly appeared, high on the blank wall before him, the reflection of a faint light. Had a little night-lamp been turned on in the front room of the upper story? The gleam came from the north window on the side: he saw plainly the shadow of the pretty lace curtains, looped loosely back. Then the shade was gently raised, and there was for an instant the silhouette of a slender hand and wrist, the shadow of a lace-bordered sleeve. Then the light receded, as though carried back across the room, waned, as though slowly extinguished, and the last shadows showed the curtains still looped back, the rolling shade still raised.
"I thought so," he growled. "One tumble like that is enough to wake the Seven Sleepers, let alone a love-sick girl who is probably dreaming over Jerrold's parting words. She is spirited and blue-blooded enough to have more sense, too, that same superb brunette. Ah, Miss Alice, I wonder if you think that fellow's love worth having. It is two hours since he left you,—more than that,—and here you are awake yet,—cannot sleep,—want more air, and have to come and raise your shade. No such warm night, either." These were his reflections as he picked up his offending sword and, more slowly and cautiously now, groped his way along the western terrace. He passed the row of bachelor quarters, and was well out beyond the limits of the fort before he came upon the next sentry,—"Number Five,"—and recognized, in the stern "Who comes there?" and the sharp rattle of the bayonet as it dropped to the charge, the well-known challenge of Private Leary, one of the oldest and most reliable soldiers in the regiment.
"All right on your post, Leary?" he asked, after having given the countersign.
"All right, I think, sor; though if the captain had asked me that half an hour ago I'd not have said so. It was so dark I couldn't see me hand afore me face, sor; but about half-past two I was walkin' very slow down back of the quarters, whin just close by Loot'nant Jerrold's back gate I seen somethin' movin', and as I come softly along it riz up, an' sure I thought 'twas the loot'nant himself, whin he seemed to catch sight o' me or hear me, and he backed inside the gate an' shut it. I was sure 'twas he, he was so tall and slim like, an' so I niver said a word until I got to thinkin' over it, and then I couldn't spake. Sure if it had been the loot'nant he wouldn't have backed away from a sintry; he'd 'a' come out bold and given the countersign; but I didn't think o' that. It looked like him in the dark, an' 'twas his quarters, an' I thought it was him, until I thought ag'in, and then, sor, I wint back and searched the yard; but there was no one there."
"Hm! Odd thing that, Leary! Why didn't you challenge at first?"
"Sure, sor, he lept inside the fince quick as iver we set eyes on each other. He was bendin' down, and I thought it was one of the hound pups when I first sighted him."
"And he hasn't been around since?"
"No, sor, nor nobody, till the officer of the day came along."
Chester walked away puzzled. Sibley was a most quiet and orderly garrison. Night prowlers had never been heard from, especially over here at the south and southwest fronts. The enlisted men going to or from town passed across the big, high bridge or went at once to their own quarters on the east and north. This southwestern terrace behind the bachelors' row was the most secluded spot on the whole post,—so much so that when a fire broke out there among the fuel-heaps one sharp winter's night a year agone it had wellnigh enveloped the whole line before its existence was discovered. Indeed, not until after this occurrence was a sentry posted on that front at all; and, once ordered there, he had so little to do and was so comparatively sure to be undisturbed that the old soldiers eagerly sought the post in preference to any other, and were given it as a peace privilege. For months, relief after relief tramped around the fort and found the terrace post as humdrum and silent as an empty church; but this night "Number Five" leaped suddenly into notoriety.
Instead of going home, Chester kept on across the plateau and took a long walk on the northern side of the reservation, where the quarter-master's stables and corrals were placed. He was affected by a strange unrest. His talk with Rollins had roused the memories of years long gone by,—of days when he, too, was young and full of hope and faith, ay, full of love,—all lavished on one fair girl who knew it well, but gently, almost entreatingly, repelled him. Her heart was wrapped up in another, the Adonis of his day in the gay old seaboard garrison. She was a soldier's child, barrack-born, simply taught, knowing little of the vice and temptations, the follies and the frauds, of the whirling life of civilization. A good and gentle mother had reared her and been called hence. Her father, an officer whose sabre-arm was left at Molino del Rey, and whose heart was crushed when the loving wife was taken from him, turned to the child who so resembled her, and centred there all his remaining love and life. He welcomed Chester to his home, and tacitly favored his suit, but in his blindness never saw how a few moonlit strolls on the old moss-grown parapet, a few evening dances in the casemates with handsome, wooing, winning Will Forrester, had done their work. She gave him all the wild, enthusiastic, worshipping love of her girlish heart just about the time Captain and Mrs. Maynard came back from leave, and then he grew cold and negligent there, but lived at Maynard's fireside; and one day there came a sensation,—a tragedy,—and Mrs. Maynard went away, and died abroad, and a shocked and broken-hearted girl hid her face from all and pined at home, and Mr. Forrester's resignation was sent from—no one knew just where, and no one would have cared to know, except Maynard. He would have followed him, pistol in hand, but Forrester gave him no chance. Years afterwards Chester again sought her and offered her his love and his name. It was useless, she told him, sadly. She lived only for her father now, and would never leave him till he died, and then—she prayed she might go too. Memories like this will come up at such times in these same "still watches of the night." Chester was in a moody frame of mind when about half an hour later he came back past the guard-house. The sergeant was standing near the lighted entrance, and the captain called him:
"There's a ladder lying back of the colonel's quarters on the roadway. Some of those painters left it, I suppose. It's a wonder some of the reliefs have not broken their necks over it going around to-night. Let the next one pick it up and move it out of the way. Hasn't it been reported?"
"Not to me, sir. Corporal Schreiber has command of this relief, and he has said nothing about it. Here he is, sir."
"Didn't you see it or stumble over it when posting your relief, corporal?" asked Chester.
"No indeed, sir. I—I think the captain must have been mistaken in thinking it a ladder. We would surely have struck it if it had been."
"No mistake at all, corporal. I lifted it. It is a long, heavy ladder,—over twenty feet, I should say."
"There is such a ladder back there, captain," said the sergeant, "but it always hangs on the fence just behind the young officers' quarters,—Bachelors' Row, sir, I mean."
"And that ladder was there an hour ago when I went my rounds," said the corporal, earnestly. "I had my hurricane-lamp, sir, and saw it on the fence plainly. And there was nothing behind the colonel's at that hour."
Chester turned away, thoughtful and silent. Without a word he walked straight into the quadrangle, past the low line of stone buildings, the offices of the adjutant and quartermaster, the home of the sergeant-major, the club and billiard-room, past the long, piazza-shaded row of bachelor quarters, and came upon the plank walk at the corner of the colonel's fence. Ten more steps, and he stood stock-still at the head of the flight of wooden stairs.
There, dimly visible against the southern sky, its base on the plank walk below him, its top resting upon the eaves midway between the dormer-window and the roof of the piazza, so that one could step easily from it into the one or on to the other, was the very ladder that half an hour before was lying on the ground behind the house.
His heart stood still. He seemed powerless to move,—even to think. Then a slight noise roused him, and with every nerve tingling he crouched ready for a spring. With quick, agile movements, noiseless as a cat, sinuous and stealthy as a serpent, the dark figure of a man issued from Alice Renwick's chamber window and came gliding down.
One second more, and, almost as noiselessly, he reached the ground, then quickly raised and turned the ladder, stepped with it to the edge of the roadway, and peered around the angle as though to see that no sentry was in sight, then vanished with his burden around the corner. Another second, and down the steps went Chester, three at a bound, tip-toeing it in pursuit. Ten seconds brought him close to the culprit,—a tall, slender shadow.
"You villain! Halt!"
Down went the ladder on the dusty road. The hand that Chester had clinched upon the broad shoulder was hurled aside. There was a sudden whirl, a lightning blow that took the captain full in the chest and staggered him back upon the treacherous and entangling rungs, and, ere he could recover himself, the noiseless stranger had fairly whizzed into space and vanished in the darkness up the road. Chester sprang in pursuit. He heard the startled challenge of the sentry, and then Leary's excited "Halt, I say! Halt!" and then he shouted,—
"Fire on him, Leary! Bring him down!"
Bang went the ready rifle with sharp, sullen roar that woke the echoes across the valley. Bang again, as Leary sent a second shot after the first. Then, as the captain came panting to the spot, they followed up the road. No sign of the runner. Attracted by the shots, the sergeant of the guard and one or two men, lantern-bearing, came running to the scene. Excitedly they searched up and down the road in mingled hope and dread of finding the body of the marauder, or some clue or trace. Nothing! Whoever he was, the fleet runner had vanished and made good his escape.
"Who could it have been, sir?" asked the sergeant of the officer of the day. "Surely none of the men ever come round this way."
"I don't know, sergeant; I don't know. Just take your lamp and see if there is anything visible down there among the rocks. He may have been hit and leaped the wall.—Do you think you hit him, Leary?"
"I can't say, sor. He came by me like a flash. I had just a second's look at him, and—Sure I niver saw such runnin'."
"Could you see his face?" asked Chester, in a low tone, as the other men moved away to search the rocks.
"Not his face, sor. 'Twas too dark."
"Was there—did he look like anybody you knew, or had seen?—anybody in the command?"
"Well, sor, not among the men, that is. There's none so tall and slim both, and so light. Sure he must 'a' worn gums, sor. You couldn't hear the whisper of a footfall."
"But whom did he seem to resemble?"
"Well, if the captain will forgive me, sor, it's unwillin' I am to say the worrd, but there's no one that tall and light and slim here, sor, but Loot'nant Jerrold. Sure it couldn't be him, sor."
"Leary, will you promise me something on your word as a man?"
"I will, sor."
"Say not one word of this matter to any one, except I tell you, or you have to, before a court."
"I promise, sor."
"And I believe you. Tell the sergeant I will soon be back."
With that he turned and walked down the road until once more he came to the plank crossing and the passage-way between the colonel's and Bachelors' Row. Here again he stopped short, and waited with bated breath and scarcely-beating heart. The faint light he had seen before again illumined the room and cast its gleam upon the old gray wall. Even as he gazed, there came silently to the window a tall, white-robed form, and a slender white hand seized and lowered the shade, noiselessly. Then, as before, the light faded away; but—she was awake.
Waiting one moment in silence, Captain Chester then sprang up the wooden steps and passed under the piazza which ran the length of the bachelor quarters. Half-way down the row he turned sharply to his left, opened the green-painted door, and stood in a little dark hall-way. Taking his match-box from his pocket, he struck a light, and by its glare quickly read the card upon the first door-way to his right:
"MR. HOWARD F. JERROLD,
"——th Infantry, U.S.A."
Opening this door, he bolted straight through the little parlor to the bedroom in the rear. A dim light was burning on the mantel. The bed was unruffled, untouched, and Mr. Jerrold was not there.
Five minutes afterwards, Captain Chester, all alone, had laboriously and cautiously dragged the ladder from the side to the rear of the colonel's house, stretched it in the roadway where he had first stumbled upon it, then returned to the searching-party on "Number Five."
"Send two men to put that ladder back," he ordered. "It is where I told you,—on the road behind the colonel's."
When Mrs. Maynard came to Sibley in May and the officers with their wives were making their welcoming call, she had with motherly pride and pleasure yielded to their constant importunities and shown to one party after another an album of photographs,—likenesses of her only daughter. There were little cartes de visite representing her in long dresses and baby-caps; quaint little pictures of a chubby-faced, chubby-legged infant a few months older; charming studies of a little girl with great black eyes and delicate features; then of a tall, slender slip of a maiden, decidedly foreign-looking; then of a sweet and pensive face, with great dark eyes, long, beautiful curling lashes, and very heavy, low-arched brows, exquisitely moulded mouth and chin, and most luxuriant dark hair; then others, still older, in every variety of dress,—even in fancy costume, such as the girl had worn at fair or masquerade. These and others still had Mrs. Maynard shown them, with repressed pride and pleasure and with sweet acknowledgment of their enthusiastic praises. Alice still tarried in the East, visiting relatives whom she had not seen since her father's death three years earlier, and, long before she came to join her mother at Sibley and to enter upon the life she so eagerly looked forward to, "'way out in the West, you know, with officers and soldiers and the band, and buffalo and Indians all around you," there was not an officer or an officer's wife who had not delightedly examined that album. There was still another picture, but that one had been shown to only a chosen few just one week after her daughter's arrival, and rather an absurd scene had occurred, in which that most estimable officer, Lieutenant Sloat, had figured as the hero. A more simple-minded, well-intentioned fellow than Sloat there did not live. He was so full of kindness and good nature and readiness to do anything for anybody that it never seemed to occur to him that everybody on earth was not just as ready to be equally accommodating. He was a perpetual source of delight to the colonel, and one of the most loyal and devoted of subalterns, despite the fact that his locks were long silvered with the frosts of years and that he had fought through the war of the rebellion and risen to the rank of a field-officer in Maynard's old brigade. The most temperate of men, ordinarily, the colonel had one anniversary he loved to celebrate, and Sloat was his stand-by when the 3d of July came round, just as he had been at his shoulder at that supreme moment when, heedless of the fearful sweep of shell and canister through their shattered ranks, Pickett's heroic Virginians breasted the slope of Cemetery Hill and surged over the low stone wall into Cushing's guns. Hard, stubborn fighting had Maynard's men to do that day, and for serene courage and determination no man had beaten Sloat. Both officers had bullet-hole mementos to carry from that field; both had won their brevets for conspicuous gallantry, and Sloat was a happy and grateful man when, years afterwards, his old commander secured him a lieutenancy in the regular service. He was the colonel's henchman, although he never had brains enough to win a place on the regimental staff, and when Mrs. Maynard came he overwhelmed her with cumbrous compliments and incessant calls. He was, to his confident belief, her chosen and accepted knight for full two days after her arrival. Then Jerrold came back from a brief absence, and, as in duty bound, went to pay his respects to his colonel's wife; and that night there had been a singular scene. Mrs. Maynard had stopped suddenly in her laughing chat with two ladies, had started from her seat, wildly staring at the tall, slender subaltern who entered the gateway, and then fell back in her chair, fairly swooning as he made his bow.
Sloat had rushed into the house to call the colonel and get some water, while Mr. Jerrold stood paralyzed at so strange a reception of his first call. Mrs. Maynard revived presently, explained that it was her heart, or the heat, or something, and the ladies on their way home decided that it was possibly the heart, it was certainly not the heat, it was unquestionably something, and that something was Mr. Jerrold, for she never took her eyes off him during the entire evening, and seemed unable to shake off the fascination. Next day Jerrold dined there, and from that time on he was a daily visitor. Every one noted Mrs. Maynard's strong interest in him, but no one could account for it. She was old enough to be his mother, said the garrison; but not until Alice Renwick came did another consideration appear: he was singularly like the daughter. Both were tall, lithe, slender; both had dark, lustrous eyes, dark, though almost perfect, skin, exquisitely-chiselled features, and slender, shapely hands and feet. Alice was "the picture of her father," said Mrs. Maynard, and Mr. Renwick had lived all his life in New York; while Mr. Jerrold was of an old Southern family, and his mother a Cuban beauty who was the toast of the New Orleans clubs not many years before the war.
Poor Sloat! He did not fancy Jerrold, and was as jealous as so unselfish a mortal could be of the immediate ascendency the young fellow established in the colonel's household. It was bad enough before Alice joined them; after that it was wellnigh unbearable. Then came the 3d-of-July dinner and the colonel's one annual jollification. No man ever heard of Sloat's being intoxicated; he rarely drank at all; but this evening the reminiscences of the day, the generous wine, the unaccustomed elegance of all his surroundings, due to Mrs. Maynard's taste and supervision, and the influence of Alice Kenwick's exquisite beauty, had fairly carried him away.
They were chatting in the parlor, while Miss Renwick was entertaining some young-lady friends from town and listening to the band on the parade. Sloat was expatiating on her grace and beauty and going over the album for the twentieth time, when the colonel, with a twinkling eye, remarked to Mrs. Maynard,—
"I think you ought to show Major[A] Sloat the 'Directoire' picture, my dear."
"Alice would never forgive me," said madame, laughing; "though I consider it the most beautiful we have of her."
"Oh, where is it?" "Oh, do let us see it, Mrs. Maynard!" was the chorus of exclamations from the few ladies present. "Oh, I insist on seeing it, madame," was Sloat's characteristic contribution to the clamor.
"I want you to understand it," said Mrs. Maynard, pleased, but still hesitating. "We are very daft about Alice at home, you know, and it's quite a wonder she has not been utterly spoiled by her aunts and uncles; but this picture was a specialty. An artist friend of ours fairly made us have it taken in the wedding-dress worn by her grandmother. You know the Josephine Beauharnais 'Directoire' style that was worn in seventeen ninety-something. Her neck and shoulders are lovely, and that was why we consented. I went, and so did the artist, and we posed her, and the photograph is simply perfect of her face, and neck too, but when Alice saw it she blushed furiously and forbade my having them finished. Afterwards, though, she yielded when her aunt Kate and I begged so hard and promised that none should be given away, and so just half a dozen were finished. Indeed, the dress is by no means as decollete as many girls wear theirs at dinner now in New York; but poor Alice was scandalized when she saw it last month, and she never would let me put one in the album."
"Oh, do go and get it, Mrs. Maynard!" pleaded the ladies. "Oh, please let me see it, Mrs. Maynard!" added Sloat; and at last the mother-pride prevailed. Mrs. Maynard rustled up-stairs, and presently returned holding in her hands a delicate silver frame in filigree-work, a quaint foreign affair, and enclosed therein was a cabinet photograph en vignette,—the head, neck, and shoulders of a beautiful girl; and the dainty, diminutive, what-there-was-of-it waist of the old-fashioned gown, sashed almost immediately under the exquisite bust, revealed quite materially the cause of Alice Renwick's blushes. But a more beautiful portrait was never photographed. The women fairly gasped with delight and envy. Sloat could not restrain his impatience to get it in his own hands, and finally he grasped it and then eyed it in rapture. It was two minutes before he spoke a word, while the colonel sat laughing at his worshipping gaze. Mrs. Maynard somewhat uneasily stretched forth her hand, and the other ladies impatiently strove to regain possession.
"Come, Major Sloat, you've surely had it long enough. We want it again."
"Never!" said Sloat, with melodramatic intensity. "Never! This is my ideal of perfection,—of divinity in woman. I will bear it home with me, set it above my fireside, and adore it day and night."
"Nonsense, Major Sloat!" said Mrs. Maynard, laughing, yet far from being at her ease. "Come, I must take it back. Alice may be in any minute now, and if she knew I had betrayed her she would never forgive me. Come, surrender!" And she strove to take it from him.
But Sloat was in one of his utterly asinine moods. He would have been perfectly willing to give any sum he possessed for so perfect a picture as this. He never dreamed that there were good and sufficient reasons why no man should have it. He so loved and honored his colonel that he was ready to lay down his life for any of his household. In laying claim to this picture he honestly believed that it was the highest proof he could give of his admiration and devotion. A tame surrender now meant that his protestations were empty words. "Therefore," argued Sloat, "I must stand firm."
"Madame," said he, "I'd die first." And with that he began backing to the door.
Alarmed now, Mrs. Maynard sprang after him, and the little major leaped upon a chair, his face aglow, jolly, rubicund, beaming with bliss and triumph. She looked up, almost wringing her hands, and turned half appealingly to the colonel, who was laughing heartily on the sofa, never dreaming Sloat could be in earnest.
"Here, I'll give you back the frame: I don't want that," said Sloat, and began fumbling at the back of the photograph. This was too much for the ladies. They, too, rushed to the rescue. One of them sprang to and shut the door, the other seized and violently shook the back of his chair, and Sloat leaped to the floor, still clinging to his prize, and laughing as though he had never had so much entertainment in his life. The long Venetian windows opened upon the piazza, and towards the nearest one he retreated, holding aloft the precious gage and waving off the attacking party with the other hand. He was within a yard of the blinds, when they were suddenly thrown open, a tall, slender form stepped quickly in, one hand seized the uplifted wrist, the other the picture, and in far less time than it takes to tell it Mr. Jerrold had wrenched it away and, with quiet bow, restored it to its rightful owner.
"Oh, I say, now, Jerrold, that's downright unhandsome of you!" gasped Sloat. "I'd have been on my way home with it."
"Shut up, you fool!" was the sharp, hissing whisper. "Wait till I go home, if you want to talk about it." And, as quickly as he came, Mr. Jerrold slipped out again upon the piazza.
Of course the story was told with varied comment all over the post. Several officers were injudicious enough to chaff the old subaltern about it, and—he was a little sore-headed the next day, anyway—the usually placid Sloat grew the more indignant at Jerrold. He decided to go and upbraid him; and, as ill luck would have it, they met before noon on the steps of the club-room.
"I want to say to you, Mr. Jerrold, that from an officer of your age to one of mine I think your conduct last night a piece of impertinence."
"I had a perfect right to do what I did," replied Jerrold, coolly. "You were taking a most unwarrantable liberty in trying to carry off that picture."
"How did you know what it was? You had never seen it!"
"There's where you are mistaken, Mr. Sloat" (and Jerrold purposely and exasperatingly refused to recognize the customary brevet): "I had seen it,—frequently."
Two officers were standing by, and one of them turned sharply and faced Jerrold as he spoke. It was his former company commander. Jerrold noted the symptom, and flushed, but set his teeth doggedly.
"Why, Mr. Jerrold! Mrs. Maynard said she never showed that to any one," said Sloat, in much surprise. "You heard her, did you not, Captain Chester?"
"I did, certainly," was the reply.
"All the same, I repeat what I've said," was Jerrold's sullen answer. "I have seen it frequently, and, what's more—" He suddenly stopped.
"Well, what's more?" said Sloat, suggestively.
"Never mind. I don't care to talk of the matter," replied Jerrold, and started to walk away.
But Sloat was angry, nettled, jealous. He had meant to show his intense loyalty and admiration for everything that was his colonel's, and had been snubbed and called a fool by an officer many years, though not so many "files," his junior. He never had liked him, and now there was an air of conscious superiority about Jerrold that fairly exasperated him. He angrily followed and called to him to stop, but Jerrold walked on. Captain Chester stood still and watched them. The little man had almost to run before he overtook the tall one. They were out of earshot when he finally did so. There were a few words on both sides. Then Jerrold shifted his light cane into his left hand, and Chester started forward, half expecting a fracas. To his astonishment, the two officers shook hands and parted.
"Well," said he, as Sloat came back with an angry yet bewildered face, "I'm glad you shook hands. I almost feared a row, and was just going to stop it. So he apologized, did he?"
"No, nothing like it."
"Then what did you mean by shaking hands?"
"That's nothing—never you mind," said Sloat, confusedly. "I haven't forgiven him, by a good deal. The man's conceit is enough to disgust anything—but a woman, I suppose," he finished, ruefully.
"Well, it's none of my business, Sloat, but pardon my saying I don't see what there was to bring about the apparent reconciliation. That hand-shake meant something."
"Oh, well—damn it! we had some words, and he—or I—Well, there's a bet, and we shook hands on it."
"Seems to me that's pretty serious business, Sloat,—a bet following such a talk as you two have had. I hope—"
"Well, captain," interrupted Sloat, "I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't been mad as blazes; but I made it, and must stick to it,—that's all."
"You wouldn't mind telling me what it was, I suppose?"
"I can't; and that ends it."
Captain Chester found food for much thought and speculation over this incident. So far as he was concerned, the abrupt remark of Sloat by no means ended it. In his distrust of Jerrold, he too had taken alarm at the very substantial intimacy to which that young man was welcomed at the colonel's quarters. Prior to his marriage old Maynard had not liked him at all, but it was mainly because he had been so negligent of his duties and so determined a beau in city society after his arrival at Sibley. He had, indeed, threatened to have him transferred to a company still on frontier service if he did not reform; but then the rifle-practice season began, and Jerrold was a capital shot and sure to be on the list of competitors for the Department team, so what was the use? He would be ordered in for the rifle-camp anyway, and so the colonel decided to keep him at head-quarters. This was in the summer of the year gone by. Then came the colonel's long leave, his visit to Europe, his meeting with his old friend, now the widow of the lamented Renwick, their delightful winter together in Italy, his courtship, her consent, their marriage and return to America. When Maynard came back to Sibley and the old regiment, he was so jolly and content that every man was welcomed at his house, and it was really a source of pride and pleasure to him that his accomplished wife should find any of his young officers so thoroughly agreeable as she pronounced Mr. Jerrold. Others were soldierly, courteous, well bred, but he had the air of a foreign court about him, she privately informed her lord; and it seems, indeed, that in days gone by Mr. Jerrold's father had spent many years in France and Spain, once as his country's representative near the throne. Though the father died long before the boy was out of his knickerbockers, he had left the impress of his grand manner, and Jerrold, to women of any age, was at once a courtier and a knight. But the colonel never saw how her eyes followed the tall young officer time and again. There were women who soon noted it, and one of them said it was such a yearning, longing look. Was Mrs. Maynard really happy? they asked each other. Did she really want to see Alice mate with him, the handsome, the dangerous, the selfish fellow they knew him to be? If not, could anything be more imprudent than that they should be thrown together as they were being, day after day? Had Alice wealth of her own? If not, did the mother know that nothing would tempt Howard Jerrold into an alliance with a dowerless daughter? These, and many more, were questions that came up every day. The garrison could talk of little else; and Alice Renwick had been there just three weeks, and was the acknowledged Queen of Hearts at Sibley, when the rifle-competitions began again, and a great array of officers and men from all over the Northwest came to the post by every train, and their canvas tents dotted the broad prairie to the north.
One lovely evening in August, just before the practice began, Colonel Maynard took his wife to drive out and see the camp. Mr. Jerrold and Alice Renwick followed on horseback. The carriage was surrounded as it halted near the range, and half a score of officers, old and young, were chatting with Mrs. Maynard, while others gathered about the lovely girl who sat there in the saddle. There came marching up from the railway a small squad of soldiers, competitors arriving from the far West. Among them—apparently their senior non-commissioned officer—was a tall cavalry sergeant, superbly built, and with a bronzed and bearded and swarthy face that seemed to tell of years of campaigning over mountain and prairie. They were all men of perfect physique, all in the neat, soldierly fatigue-dress of the regular service, some wearing the spotless white stripes of the infantry, others the less artistic and equally destructible yellow of the cavalry. Their swinging stride, erect carriage, and clear and handsome eyes all spoke of the perfection of health and soldierly development. Curious glances were turned to them as they advanced, and Miss Renwick, catching sight of the party, exclaimed,—
"Oh, who are these? And what a tall soldier that sergeant is!"
"That sergeant, Miss Renwick," said a slow, deliberate voice, "is the man I believe will knock Mr. Jerrold out of the first prize. That is Sergeant McLeod."
As though he heard his name pronounced, the tall cavalryman glanced for the first time at the group, brought his rifle to the carry as if about to salute, and was just stepping upon the roadside, where he came in full view of the occupants of the carriage, when a sudden pallor shot across his face, and he plunged heavily forward and went down like a shot. Sympathetic officers and comrades surrounded the prostrate form in an instant. The colonel himself sprang from his carriage and joined the group; a blanket was quickly brought from a neighboring tent, and the sergeant was borne thither and laid upon a cot. A surgeon felt his pulse and looked inquiringly around:
"Any of you cavalrymen know him well? Has he been affected this way before?"
A young corporal who had been bending anxiously over the sergeant straightened up and saluted:
"I know him well, sir, and have been with him five years. He's only had one sick spell in all that time,—'twas just like this,—and then he told me he'd been sunstruck once."
"This is no case of sunstroke," said the doctor. "It looks more like the heart. How long ago was the attack you speak of?"
"Three years ago last April, sir. I remember it because we'd just got into Fort Raines after a long scout. He'd been the solidest man in the troop all through the cold and storm and snow we had in the mountains, and we were in the reading-room, and he'd picked up a newspaper and was reading while the rest of us were talking and laughing, and, first thing we knew, he was down on the floor, just like he was to-night."
"Hm!" said the surgeon. "Yes. That's plenty, steward. Give him that. Raise his head a little, corporal. Now he'll come round all right."
Driving homeward that night, Colonel Maynard musingly remarked,—
"Did you see that splendid fellow who fainted away?"
"No," answered his wife, "you all gathered about him so quickly and carried him away. I could not even catch a glimpse of him. But he had recovered, had he not?"
"Yes. Still, I was thinking what a singular fact it is that occasionally a man slips through the surgeon's examinations with such a malady as this. Now, here is one of the finest athletes and shots in the whole army, a man who has been through some hard service and stirring fights, has won a tip-top name for himself and was on the highroad to a commission, and yet this will block him effectually."
"Why, what is the trouble?"
"Some affection of the heart. Why! Halloo! Stop, driver! Orderly, jump down and run back there. Mrs. Maynard has dropped her fan.—What was it, dear?" he asked, anxiously. "You started; and you are white, and trembling."
"I—I don't know, colonel. Let us go home. It will be over in a minute. Where are Alice and Mr. Jerrold? Call them, please. She must not be out riding after dark."
But they were not in sight; and it was considerably after dark when they reached the fort. Mr. Jerrold explained that his horse had picked up a stone and he had had to walk him all the way.
There was no sleep for Captain Chester the rest of the night. He went home, threw off his sword-belt, and seated himself in a big easy-chair before his fireplace, deep in thought. Once or twice he arose and paced restlessly up and down the room, as he had done in his excited talk with Rollins some few hours before. Then he was simply angry and argumentative,—or declamatory. Now he had settled down into a very different frame of mind. He seemed awed,—stunned,—crushed. He had all the bearing and mien of one who, having defiantly predicted a calamity, was thunderstruck by the verification of his prophecy. In all his determined arraignment of Mr. Jerrold, in all the harsh things he had said and thought of him, he had never imagined any such depth of scoundrelism as the revelations of the night foreshadowed. Chester differed from many of his brotherhood: there was no room for rejoicing in his heart that the worst he had ever said of Jerrold was unequal to the apparent truth. He took no comfort to his soul that those who called him cynical, crabbed, unjust, even malicious, would now be compelled to admit he was right in his estimate. Like the best of us, Chester could not ordinarily say "Vade retro" to the temptation to think, if not to say, "Didn't I tell you so?" when in every-day affairs his oft-disputed views were proved well founded. But in the face of such a catastrophe as now appeared engulfing the fair fame of his regiment and the honor of those whom his colonel held dear, Chester could feel only dismay and grief. What was his duty in the light of the discoveries he had made? To the best of his belief, he was the only man in the garrison who had evidence of Jerrold's absence from his own quarters and of the presence of some one at her window. He had taken prompt measures to prevent its being suspected by others. He purposely sent his guards to search along the cliff in the opposite direction while he went to Jerrold's room and thence back to remove the tell-tale ladder. Should he tell any one until he had confronted Jerrold with the evidences of his guilt, and, wringing from him his resignation, send him far from the post before handing it in? Time and again he wished Frank Armitage were here. The youngest captain in the regiment, Armitage had been for years its adjutant and deep in the confidence of Colonel Maynard. He was a thorough soldier, a strong, self-reliant, courageous man, and one for whom Chester had ever felt a warm esteem. Armitage was on leave of absence, however,—had been away some time on account of family matters, and would not return, it was known, until he had effected the removal of his mother and sister to the new home he had purchased for them in the distant East. It was to his company that Jerrold had been promoted, and there was friction from the very week that the handsome subaltern joined.
Armitage had long before "taken his measure," and was in no wise pleased that so lukewarm a soldier should have come to him as senior subaltern. They had a very plain talk, for Armitage was straightforward as a dart, and then, as Jerrold showed occasional lapses, the captain shut down on some of his most cherished privileges, and, to the indignation of society, the failure of Mr. Jerrold to appear at one or two gatherings where he was confidently expected was speedily laid at his captain's door. The recent death of his father kept Armitage from appearing in public, and, as neither he nor the major (who commanded the regiment while Maynard was abroad) vouchsafed the faintest explanation, society was allowed to form its own conclusions, and did,—to the effect that Mr. Jerrold was a wronged and persecuted man. It was just as the Maynards arrived at Sibley that Armitage departed on his leave, and, to his unspeakable bliss, Mr. Jerrold succeeded to the command of his company. This fact, coupled with the charming relations which were straightway established with the colonel's family, placed him in a position of independence and gave him opportunities he had never known before. It was speedily evident that he was neglecting his military duties,—that Company B was running down much faster than Armitage had built it up,—and yet no man felt like speaking of it to the colonel, who saw it only occasionally on dress-parade. Chester had just about determined to write to Armitage himself and suggest his speedy return, when this eventful night arrived. Now he fully made up his mind that it must be done at once, and had seated himself at his desk, when the roar of the sunrise gun and the blare of the bugles warned him that reveille had come and he must again go to his guard. Before he returned to his quarters another complication, even more embarrassing, had arisen, and the letter to Armitage was postponed.
He had received the "present" of his guard and verified the presence of all his prisoners, when he saw Major Sloat still standing out in the middle of the parade, where the adjutant usually received the reports of the roll-calls. Several company officers, having made their reports, were scurrying back to quarters for another snooze before breakfast-time or to get their cup of coffee before going out to the range. Chester strolled over towards him.
"What's the matter, Sloat?"
"Nothing much. The colonel told me to receive the reveille reports for Hoyt this week. He's on general court-martial."
"Yes, I know all that. I mean, what are you waiting for?"
"Mr. Jerrold again. There's no report from his company."
"Have you sent to wake him?"
"No; I'll go myself, and do it thoroughly, too." And the little major turned sharply away and walked direct to the low range of bachelor quarters, dove under the piazza, and into the green door-way.
Hardly knowing how to explain his action, Chester quickly followed, and in less than a minute was standing in the self-same parlor which, by the light of a flickering match, he had searched two hours before. Here he halted and listened, while Sloat pushed on into the bedroom and was heard vehemently apostrophizing some sleeper:
"Does the government pay you for this sort of thing, I want to know? Get up, Jerrold! This is the second time you've cut reveille in ten days. Get up, I say!" And the major was vigorously shaking at something, for the bed creaked and groaned.
"Wake up! I say, I'm blowed if I'm going to get up here day after day and have you sleeping. Wake, Nicodemus! Wake, you snoozing, snoring, open-mouthed masher. Come, now; I mean it."
A drowsy, disgusted yawn and stretch finally rewarded his efforts. Mr. Jerrold at last opened his eyes, rolled over, yawned sulkily again, and tried to evade his persecutor, but to no purpose. Like a little terrier, Sloat hung on to him and worried and shook.
"Oh, don't! damn it, don't!" growled the victim. "What do you want, anyway? Has that infernal reveille gone?"
"Yes, and you're absent again, and no report from B Company. By the holy poker, if you don't turn out and get it and report to me on the parade I'll spot the whole gang absent, and then no matinee for you to-day, my buck. Come, out with you! I mean it. Hall says you and he have an engagement in town; and 'pon my soul I'll bust it if you don't come out."
And so, growling and complaining, and yet half laughing, Adonis rolled from his couch and began to get into his clothes. Chester's blood ran cold, then boiled. Think of a man who could laugh like that,—and remember! When, how, had he returned to the house? Listen!
"Confound you, Sloat, I wouldn't rout you out in this shabby way. Why couldn't you let a man sleep? I'm tired half to death."
"What have you done to tire you? Slept all yesterday afternoon, and danced perhaps a dozen times at the doctor's last night. You've had more sleep than I've had, begad! You took Miss Renwick home before 'twas over, and mean it was of you, too, with all the fellows that wanted to dance with her."
"That wasn't my fault: Mrs. Maynard made her promise to be home at twelve. You old cackler, that's what sticks in your crop yet. You are persecuting me because they like me so much better than they do you," he went on, laughingly now. "Come, now, Sloat, confess, it is all because you're jealous. You couldn't have that picture, and I could."
Chester fairly started. He had urgent need to see this young gallant,—he was staying for that purpose,—but should he listen to further talk like this? Too late to move, for Sloat's answer came like a shot:
"I bet you you never could!"
"But didn't I tell you I had?—a week ago?"
"Ay, but I didn't believe it. You couldn't show it!"
"Pshaw, man! Look here. Stop, though! Remember, on your honor, you never tell."
"On my honor, of course."
A drawer was opened. Chester heard a gulp of dismay, of genuine astonishment and conviction mixed, as Sloat muttered some half-articulate words and then came into the front room. Jerrold followed, caught sight of Chester, and stopped short, with sudden and angry change of color.
"I did not know you were here," he said.
"It was to find where you were that I came," was the quiet answer.
There was a moment's silence. Sloat turned and looked at the two men in utter surprise. Up to this time he had considered Jerrold's absence from reveille as a mere dereliction of duty which was ascribable to the laziness and indifference of the young officer. So far as lay in his power, he meant to make him attend more strictly to business, and had therefore come to his quarters and stirred him up. But there was no thought of any serious trouble in his mind. His talk had all been roughly good-humored until—until that bet was mentioned, and then it became earnest. Now, as he glanced from one man to the other, he saw in an instant that something new—something of unusual gravity—was impending. Chester, buttoned to the throat in his dark uniform, accurately gloved and belted, with pale, set, almost haggard face, was standing by the centre-table under the drop-light. Jerrold, only half dressed, his feet thrust into slippers, his fingers nervously working at the studs of his dainty white shirt, had stopped short at his bedroom door, and, with features that grew paler every second and a dark scowl on his brow, was glowering at Chester.
"Since when has it been the duty of the officer of the day to come around and hunt up officers who don't happen to be out at reveille?" he asked.
"It is not your absence from reveille I want explained, Mr. Jerrold," was the cold and deliberate answer. "I wanted you at 3.30 this morning, and you were not and had not been here."
An unmistakable start and shock; a quick, nervous, hunted glance around the room, so cold and pallid in the early light of the August morning; a clutch of Jerrold's slim brown hand at the bared throat. But he rallied gamely, strode a step forward, and looked his superior full in the face. Sloat marked the effort with which he cleared away the huskiness that seemed to clog his larynx, but admired the spunk with which the young officer returned the senior's shot:
"What is your authority here, I would like to know? What business has the officer of the day to want me or any other man not on guard? Captain Chester, you seem to forget that I am no longer your second lieutenant, and that I am a company commander like yourself. Do you come by Colonel Maynard's order to search my quarters and question me? If so, say so at once; if not, get out." And Jerrold's face was growing black with wrath, and his big lustrous eyes were wide awake now and fairly snapping.
Chester leaned upon the table and deliberated a moment. He stood there coldly, distrustfully eying the excited lieutenant, then turned to Sloat:
"I will be responsible for the roll-call of Company B this morning, Sloat. I have a matter of grave importance to bring up to this—this gentleman, and it is of a private nature. Will you let me see him alone?"
"Sloat," said Jerrold, "don't go yet. I want you to stay. These are my quarters, and I recognize your right to come here in search of me, since I was not at reveille; but I want a witness here to bear me out. I'm too amazed yet—too confounded by this intrusion of Captain Chester's to grasp the situation. I never heard of such a thing as this. Explain it, if you can."
"Mr. Jerrold, what I have to ask or say to you concerns you alone. It is not an official matter. It is as man to man I want to see you, alone and at once. Now will you let Major Sloat retire?"
Silence for a moment. The angry flush on Jerrold's face was dying away, and in its place an ashen pallor was spreading from throat to brow; his lips were twitching ominously. Sloat looked in consternation at the sudden change.
"Shall I go?" he finally asked.
Jerrold looked long, fixedly, searchingly in the set face of the officer of the day, breathing hard and heavily. What he saw there Sloat could not imagine. At last his hand dropped by his side; he made a little motion with it, a slight wave towards the door, and again dropped it nervously. His lips seemed to frame the word "Go," but he never glanced at the man whom a moment before he so masterfully bade to stay; and Sloat, sorely puzzled, left the room.
Not until his footsteps had died out of hearing did Chester speak:
"How soon can you leave the post?"
"I don't understand you."
"How soon can you pack up what you need to take and—get away?"
"Get away where? What on earth do you mean?"
"You must know what I mean! You must know that after last night's work you quit the service at once and forever."
"I don't know anything of the kind; and I defy you to prove the faintest thing." But Jerrold's fingers were twitching, and his eyes had lost their light.
"Do you suppose I did not recognize you?" asked Chester.
"When?—where?" gulped Jerrold.
"When I seized you and you struck me!"
"I never struck you. I don't know what you mean."
"My God, man, let us end this useless fencing. The evidence I have of your last night's scoundrelism would break the strongest record. For the regiment's sake,—for the colonel's sake,—let us have no public scandal. It's awful enough as the thing stands. Write your resignation, give it to me, and leave,—before breakfast if you can."
"I've done nothing to resign for. You know perfectly well I haven't."
"Do you mean that such a crime—that a woman's ruin and disgrace—isn't enough to drive you from the service?" asked Chester, tingling in every nerve and longing to clinch the shapely, swelling throat in his clutching fingers. "God of heaven, Jerrold! are you dead to all sense of decency?"
"Captain Chester, I won't be bullied this way. I may not be immaculate, but no man on earth shall talk to me like this! I deny your insinuations. I've done nothing to warrant your words, even if—if you did come sneaking around here last night and find me absent. You can't prove a thing. You——"
"What! When I saw you,—almost caught you! By heaven! I wish the sentry had killed you then and there. I never dreamed of such hardihood."
"You've done nothing but dream. By Jove, I believe you're sleepwalking yet. What on earth do you mean by catching and killing me? 'Pon my soul I reckon you're crazy, Captain Chester." And color was gradually coming back again to Jerrold's face, and confidence to his tone.
"Enough of this, Mr. Jerrold. Knowing what you and I both know, do you refuse to hand me your resignation?"
"Of course I do."
"Do you mean to deny to me where I saw you last night?"
"I deny your right to question me. I deny anything,—everything. I believe you simply thought you had a clue and could make me tell. Suppose I was out last night. I don't believe you know the faintest thing about it."
"Do you want me to report the whole thing to the colonel?"
"Of course I don't. Naturally, I want him to know nothing about my being out of quarters; and it's a thing that no officer would think of reporting another for. You'll only win the contempt of every gentleman in the regiment if you do it. What good will it do you?—Keep me from going to town for a few days, I suppose. What earthly business is it of yours, anyway?"
"Jerrold, I can stand this no longer. I ought to shoot you in your tracks, I believe. You've brought ruin and misery to the home of my warmest friend, and dishonor to the whole service, and you talk of two or three days' stoppage from going to town. If I can't bring you to your senses, by God! the colonel shall." And he wheeled and left the room.
For a moment Jerrold stood stunned and silent. It was useless to attempt reply. The captain was far down the walk when he sprang to the door to call him again. Then, hurrying back to the bedroom, he hastily dressed, muttering angrily and anxiously to himself as he did so. He was thinking deeply, too, and every movement betrayed nervousness and trouble. Returning to the front door, he gazed out upon the parade, then took his forage-cap and walked rapidly down towards the adjutant's office. The orderly bugler was tilted up in a chair, leaning half asleep against the whitewashed front, but his was a weasel nap, for he sprang up and saluted as the young officer approached.
"Where did Major Sloat go, orderly?" was the hurried question.
"Over towards the stables, sir. Him and Captain Chester was here together, and they're just gone."
"Run over to the quarters of B Company and tell Merrick I want him right away. Tell him to come to my quarters." And thither Mr. Jerrold returned, seated himself at his desk, wrote several lines of a note, tore it into fragments, began again, wrote another which seemed not entirely satisfactory, and was in the midst of a third when there came a quick step and a knock at the door. Opening the shutters, he glanced out of the window. A gust of wind sent some of the papers whirling and flying, and the bedroom door banged shut, but not before some few half-sheets of paper had fluttered out upon the parade, where other little flurries of the morning breeze sent them sailing over towards the colonel's quarters. Anxious only for the coming of Merrick and no one else, Mr. Jerrold no sooner saw who was at the front door than he closed the shutters, called, "Come in!" and a short, squat, wiry little man, dressed in the fatigue-uniform of the infantry, stood at the door-way to the hall.
"Come in here, Merrick," said the lieutenant, and Merrick came.
"How much is it you owe me now?—thirty-odd dollars, I think?"
"I believe it is, lieutenant," answered the man, with shifting eyes and general uneasiness of mien.
"You are not ready to pay it, I suppose; and you got it from me when we left Fort Raines, to help you out of that scrape there."
The soldier looked down and made no answer.
"Merrick, I want a note taken to town at once. I want you to take it and get it to its address before eight o'clock. I want you to say no word to a soul. Here's ten dollars. Hire old Murphy's horse across the river and go. If you are put in the guard-house when you get back, don't say a word; if you are tried by garrison court for crossing the bridge or absence without leave, plead guilty, make no defence, and I'll pay you double your fine and let you off the thirty dollars. But if you fail me, or tell a soul of your errand, I'll write to—you know who, at Raines. Do you understand, and agree?"
"I do. Yessir."
"Go and get ready, and be here in ten minutes."
Meantime, Captain Chester had followed Sloat to the adjutant's office. He was boiling over with indignation which he hardly knew how to control. He found the gray-moustached subaltern tramping in great perplexity up and down the room, and the instant he entered was greeted with the inquiry,—
"What's gone wrong? What's Jerrold been doing?"
"Don't ask me any questions, Sloat, but answer. It is a matter of honor. What was your bet with Jerrold?"
"I oughtn't to tell that, Chester. Surely it cannot be a matter mixed up with this."
"I can't explain, Sloat. What I ask is unavoidable. Tell me about that bet."
"Why, he was so superior and airy, you know, and was trying to make me feel that he was so much more intimate with them all at the colonel's, and that he could have that picture for the mere asking; and I got mad, and bet him he never could."
"Was that the day you shook hands on it?"
"And that was her picture—the picture, then—he showed you this morning."
"Chester, you heard the conversation: you were there: you know that I'm on honor not to tell."
"Yes, I know. That's quite enough."
Before seven o'clock that same morning Captain Chester had come to the conclusion that only one course was left open for him. After the brief talk with Sloat at the office he had increased the perplexity and distress of that easily-muddled soldier by requesting his company in a brief visit to the stables and corrals. A "square" and reliable old veteran was the quartermaster sergeant who had charge of those establishments; Chester had known him for years, and his fidelity and honesty were matters the officers of his former regiment could not too highly commend. When Sergeant Parks made an official statement there was no shaking its solidity. He slept in a little box of a house close by the entrance to the main stable, in which were kept the private horses of several of the officers, and among them Mr. Jerrold's; and it was his boast that, day or night, no horse left that stable without his knowledge. The old man was superintending the morning labors of the stable-hands, and looked up in surprise at so early a visit from the officer of the day.
"Were you here all last night, sergeant?" was Chester's abrupt question.
"Certainly, sir, and up until one o'clock or more."
"Were any horses out during the night,—any officers' horses, I mean?"
"No, sir, not one."
"I thought possibly some officers might have driven or ridden to town."
"No, sir. The only horses that crossed this threshold going out last night were Mr. Sutton's team from town. They were put up here until near one o'clock, and then the doctor sent over for them. I locked up right after that, and can swear nothing else went out."
Chester entered the stable and looked curiously around. Presently his eye lighted on a tall, rangy bay horse that was being groomed in a wide stall near the door-way.
"That's Mr. Jerrold's Roderick, isn't it?"
"Yes, sir. He's fresh as a daisy, too,—hasn't been out for three days,—and Mr. Jerrold's going to drive the dog-cart this morning."
Chester turned away.
"Sloat," said he, as they left the stable, "if Mr. Jerrold was away from the post last night,—and you heard me say he was out of his quarters,—could he have gone any way except afoot, after what you heard Parks say?"
"Gone in the Suttons' outfit, I suppose," was Sloat's cautious answer.
"In which event he would have been seen by the sentry at the bridge, would he not?"
"Ought to have been, certainly."
"Then we'll go back to the guard-house." And, wonderingly and uncomfortably, Sloat followed. He had long since begun to wish he had held his peace and said nothing about the confounded roll-call. He hated rows of any kind. He didn't like Jerrold, but he would have crawled ventre a terre across the wide parade sooner than see a scandal in the regiment he loved; and it was becoming apparent to his sluggish faculties that it was no mere matter of absence from quarters that was involving Jerrold. Chester was all aflame over that picture-business, he remembered, and the whole drift of his present investigation was to prove that Jerrold was not absent from the post, but absent only from his quarters. If so, where had he spent his time until nearly four? Sloat's heart was heavy with vague apprehension. He knew that Jerrold had borne Alice Renwick away from the party at an unusually early hour for such things to break up. He knew that he and others had protested against such desertion, but she declared it could not be helped. He remembered another thing,—a matter that he thought of at the time, only from another point of view. It now seemed to have significance bearing on this very matter; for Chester suddenly asked,—
"Wasn't it rather odd that Miss Beaubien was not here at the dance? She has never missed one, seems to me, since Jerrold began spooning with her last year."
"Why, she was here."
"She was? Are you sure? Rollins never spoke of it; and we had been talking of her. I inferred from what he said that she was not there at all. And I saw her drive homeward with her mother right after parade: so it didn't occur to me that she could have come out again, all that distance, in time for the dance. Singular! Why shouldn't Rollins have told me?"
Sloat grinned: a dreary sort of smile it was, too. "You go into society so seldom you don't see these things. I've more than half suspected Rollins of being quite ready to admire Miss Beaubien himself; and since Jerrold dropped her he has had plenty of opportunity."
"Great guns! I never thought of it! If I'd known she was to be there I'd have gone myself last night. How did she behave to Miss Renwick?"
"Why, sweet and smiling, and chipper as you please. If anything, I think Miss Renwick was cold and distant to her. I couldn't make it out at all."
"And did Jerrold dance with her?"
"Once, I think, and they had a talk out on the piazza,—just a minute. I happened to be at the door, and couldn't help seeing it; and what got me was this: Mr. Hall came out with Miss Renwick on his arm; they were chatting and laughing as they passed me, but the moment she caught sight of Jerrold and Miss Beaubien she stopped, and said, 'I think I won't stay out here; it's too chilly,' or something like it, and went right in; and then Jerrold dropped Miss Beaubien and went after her. He just handed the young lady over to me, saying he was engaged for next dance, and skipped."
"How did she like that? Wasn't she furious?"
"No. That's another thing that got me. She smiled after him, all sweetness, and—well, she did say, 'I count upon you,—you'll be there,' and he nodded. Oh, she was bright as a button after that."
"What did she mean?—be 'where,' do you suppose? Sloat, this all means more to me, and to us all, than I can explain."
"I don't know. I can't imagine."
"Was it to see her again that night?"
"I don't know at all. If it was, he fooled her, for he never went near her again. Rollins put her in the carriage."
"Whose? Did she come out with the Suttons?"
"Why, certainly. I thought you knew that."
"And neither old Madame Beaubien nor Mrs. Sutton with them? What was the old squaw thinking of?"
By this time they had neared the guard-house, where several of the men were seated awaiting the call for the next relief. All arose at the shout of the sentry on Number One, turning out the guard for the officer of the day. Chester made hurried and impatient acknowledgment of the salute, and called to the sergeant to send him the sentry who was at the bridge at one o'clock. It turned out to be a young soldier who had enlisted at the post only six months before and was already known as one of the most intelligent and promising candidates for a corporalship in the garrison.
"Were you on duty at the bridge at one o'clock, Carey?" asked the captain.
"I was, sir. My relief went on at 11.45 and came off at 1.45."
"What persons passed your post during that time?"
"There was a squad or two of men coming back from town on pass. I halted them, sir, and Corporal Murray came down and passed them in."
"I don't mean coming from town. Who went the other way?"
"Only one carriage, sir,—Mr. Sutton's."
"Could you see who were in it?"
"Certainly, sir: it was right under the lamp-post this end of the bridge that I stood when I challenged. Lieutenant Rollins answered for them and passed them out. He was sitting beside Mr. Sutton as they drove up, then jumped out and gave me the countersign and bade them good-night right there."
"Rollins again," thought Chester. "Why did he keep this from me?"
"Who were in the carriage?" he asked.
"Mr. Sutton, sir, on the front seat, driving, and two young ladies on the back seat."
"Not a soul, sir. I could see in it plain as day. One lady was Miss Sutton, and the other Miss Beaubien. I know I was surprised at seeing the latter, because she drove home in her own carriage last evening right after parade. I was on post there at that hour too, sir. The second relief is on from 5.45 to 7.45."