THE QUEEN OF BEDLAM.
STORY OF THE SIOUX WAR OF 1876.
CAPTAIN CHARLES KING, U.S.A.,
AUTHOR OF "THE COLONEL'S DAUGHTER," "MARION'S FAITH," "THE DESERTER," "FROM THE RANKS," ETC.
PHILADELPHIA: J. B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY. 1889.
Copyright, 1889, by J. B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY.
THE QUEEN OF BEDLAM.
A STORY OF FRONTIER ARMY LIFE.
The snow had gone from all the foot-hills and had long since disappeared in the broad river bottom. It was fast going from the neighboring mountains, too—both the streams told plainly of that, for while the Platte rolled along in great, swift surges under the Engineer Bridge, its smaller tributary—the "Larmie," as the soldiers called it—came brawling and foaming down its stony bed and sweeping around the back of the fort with a wild vehemence that made some of the denizens of the south end decidedly nervous. The rear windows of the commanding officer's house looked out upon a rushing torrent, and where the surgeon lived, at the south-west angle, the waters lashed against the shabby old board fence that had been built in by-gone days, partly to keep the children and chickens from tumbling into the stream when the water was high, partly to keep out marauding coyotes when the water was low. South and west the bare, gray-brown slopes shut out the horizon and limited the view. Eastward lay the broad, open valley beyond the confluence of the streams,—bare and level along the crumbling banks, bare and rolling along the line of the foot-hills. Northward the same brown ridges, were tumbled up like a mammoth wave a mile or so beyond the river, while between the northern limits of the garrison proper and the banks of the larger stream there lay a level "flat," patched here and there with underbrush, and streaked by a winding tangle of hoof- and wheel-tracks that crossed and re-crossed each other, yet led, one and all, to the distant bridge that spanned the stream, and thence bore away northward like the tines of a pitchfork, the one to the right going over the hills a three days' march to the Indian agencies up along the "Wakpa Schicha," the other leading more to the west around a rugged shoulder of bluff, and then stretching away due north for the head-waters of the Niobrara and the shelter of the jagged flanks of Rawhide Butte. Only in shadowy clusters up and down the stream was there anywhere sign of timber. Foliage, of course, there was none. Cottonwood and willow in favored nooks along the Platte were just beginning to shoot forth their tiny pea-green tendrils in answer to the caressing touch of the May-day sunshine. April had been a month of storm and bluster and huge, wanton wastes of snow, whirling and drifting down from the bleak range that veiled the valley of the Laramie from the rays of the westering sun; and any one who chose to stroll out from the fort and climb the gentle slope to the bluffs on that side, and to stand by the rude scaffolding whereon were bleaching the bones of some Dakota brave, could easily see the gleaming, glistening sides of the grand old peak, fully forty miles away,—all one sheen of frosty white that still defied the melting rays. Somebody was up there this very afternoon,—two somebodies. Their figures were blacked in silhouette against the sky close by the Indian scaffolding; but even at the distance one could see they were not Indian mourners. That was not a blanket which the tall, slender shape had just thrown about the slighter form. Mrs. Miller, the major's wife, who happened to be crossing the parade at the moment, knew very well that it was an officer's cape, and that Randall McLean had carefully wrapped it about Nellie Bayard lest the keen wind from the west, blowing freely over the ridges, should chill the young girl after her long spin across the prairie and up the heights.
A good-hearted woman was Mrs. Miller, and very much did she like the doctor's sweet and pretty daughter, very much better than she fancied the doctor himself, although, had she been pressed for a reason for her distrust of the senior medical attendant of the garrison, Mrs. Miller might have found it hard to give satisfactory answer. He was a widower, and "that made him interesting to some people," was her analysis of the situation. She really knew nothing more detrimental to his character, and yet she wished he had not lost his wife, and her wishes on this point were not entirely because of Elinor's motherless state. It was the first year the girl had spent in garrison since the death of that loving mother nearly a decade before. There were not lacking hearts full of sympathy and affection for the weeping little maiden when that sore affliction befell her. She had been taken to her mother's old home, reared and educated, and possibly over-indulged there, and sometimes gladdened by visits from her handsome and distinguished father. A marked man in his profession was Dr. Bayard, one of the "swells" of the medical corps of the army, and rapturously had he been loved by the beautiful and delicate woman whose heart he had won, somewhat to the sorrow of her people. They did not like the army, and liked it still less in the long years of separation that followed. Bayard was a man who in his earlier service had secured many a pleasant detail, and had been a society leader at Old Point Comfort, and Newport, and Boston Harbor, and now, in his advancing years and under an administration with which he had lost influence, he was taking his turn at frontier service, and heartily damning the fates that had landed him at Laramie. His dead wife's father was a man whose dictum was law in the political party in power. The doctor appealed to him to urge the Secretary of War to revoke the orders which consigned him to the isolation of a Wyoming post, but the old gentleman had heard more than one account of his widowed son-in-law's propensities and peccadilloes. It was his conviction that Newport was not the place for handsome Dr. Bayard; he rather delighted in the news that the doctor promptly sent him; but, though a power in politics, he was in some things no politician, for, when his son-in-law begged him to use his influence in his behalf, the old gentleman said no,—and told him why.
That gloomy November when Dr. Bayard left for the West he took his revenge on the old people, for he took his daughter with him.
It was a cruel, an almost savage blow, and one that was utterly unlooked for. Fond as he had been of Elinor's mother, and proud as he was of his pretty child, the doctor had been content to spend only occasional holidays with her. Every few months he came to visit them, or had her run down to New York for a brief tour among the shops, the theatres, and the picture-galleries. She was enthusiastically devoted to him, and thought no man on earth so grand, so handsome, so accomplished. She believed herself the most enviable of daughters as the child of so fond and indulgent a father. She gloried in the pride which he manifested in her success at school, in her budding beauty and graceful ways. She welcomed his coming with infinite delight, and was ever ready to drop any other project when papa's brief letters and telegrams summoned her to the city. Whatever their feeling toward the doctor, her grand-parents had never betrayed them to her or sought to undermine—or rather undeceive—her loyal devotion; but never had it occurred to them as a possibility that he would assert his paternal claim and bear away with him the idol of their hearts, the image of the cherished daughter he had won from them so many years before. Proud old judge and senator as he was, the grandfather had never been so sore stricken. He could not plead, could not humble himself to unbend and ask for mercy. For good and sufficient cause he had denied his son-in-law the boon that had been so confidently demanded, and in his chagrin and exasperation Dr. Bayard had taken his revenge. It was too late now to prepare their little Elinor for characteristics of which she had never dreamed, too late to warn her that her superb father was not the hero her fancy painted. In utter consternation, in wretchedness of spirit, the old couple saw her borne away, tearful at leaving them, yet blissful at being with papa, and going once more to the army, and they could only pray heaven to guard her and to comfort them.
But, if Dr. Bayard was incensed at being ordered to so distant a station as Laramie, in the first place, his discontent was greatly augmented with the coming of the new year. It was a crowded post when he and Elinor arrived in the early winter, but long before the snows had begun to disappear all the cavalry, and all but two companies of infantry there on duty, were ordered northward into the Sioux country, and his assistant was taken with the field column, leaving to the older man the unwelcome task of caring for the families of all the absentees as well as for the few men in the hospital. The sight of Dr. Bayard, dignified, handsome, elegant in dress and manner, tramping about in the deep snow around the laundresses' quarters was one that afforded rather too much malicious delight to a few of the denizens of the club-room at the store; but the contemplation of his own misfortunes was beginning to bring the doctor himself to a state of mind still less justifiable. All his life he had shunned the contemplation of poverty and distress. He was now for the first time seeing sickness and suffering in surroundings that had nothing of refinement, and he shrank, like the sensitive and selfish creature that he was, from such contamination.
It was hard news for Laramie when the telegraph flashed the tidings of the savage fight up among the snows in the Powder River country, but it was comfort to Dr. Bayard. He had begged for an assistant to replace the young surgeon who had been taken to the front, and his request was declined on the ground that the size of the present garrison did not warrant the detail of an additional medical officer. Bayard ground his teeth, and swore, when the paper came back to him, "Respectfully transmitted with attention invited to the endorsement of the medical director,—which is approved." He could have testified under oath now, so strong was his conviction, that his father-in-law, the surgeon-general of the army, and the medical director of the department were all in league to annoy and humiliate him to the verge of distraction—or resignation from the service. But the fight with Crazy Horse's band of Sioux brought unexpected aid and comfort to the doctor in greatly adding to his responsibilities; a large number of wounded and frozen soldiers were being brought in as fast as ambulance and travois could haul them, and now he was shrewd enough to know that an assistant would have to be sent, and he did not even ask. The young doctor who came back with the wounded was himself so badly frozen when only two days' march away that he could be of no further aid. Bayard went forward through the snow-drifts up the Platte to meet his new patients, saw them safely housed in hospital, and gave himself up to the devoted efforts in their behalf. The moment the assistant arrived he was given instructions to take entire charge of the soldiers' families and the "hangers on" of the post.
And now the 1st of May was come; many of the wounded were well enough to be hobbling around the fort in search of air and sunshine; many additional troops had passed Laramie on their way up to the front and many more were expected, but there still remained only the two infantry companies to "hold the fort." At the earliest intimation of trouble there had come back from the East, where he had been spending the first long leave he had enjoyed in some years of service, a stalwart young lieutenant by the name of McLean. Border warfare had no more charm for him than it had for any other soldier who remembered that it was one in which the Indian had everything to win and nothing to lose. He had seen not a little of it, with hard marching, scouting, and suffering, through winter's cold and summer's heat, in more than one campaign in the recent past. It was hard to give up the leave, but harder to have his regiment take the field without him. It was with a sense of having been defrauded in some measure, therefore, that he found himself retained at the fort, simply because his own company happened to be kept back on guard. The column had gone when he succeeded in reaching the post, and his chagrin was bitter when he found that, so far from following and overtaking them on the trail to the Big Horn, he was ordered to assume command of his company in the place of Captain Bruce, who, though present at the fort, was rapidly breaking down with rheumatic trouble that confined him to his quarters. McLean went to the major commanding, he also wrote to his colonel and telegraphed to the adjutant, but all to no purpose. There must be an officer with each company, even though it be only a post-guard, and it was his ill-luck to have to be the man.
And yet, three weeks after his return, Mr. McLean was by no means the disgusted and unhappy subaltern he declared himself, and it was a fact patent to all the garrison that Nellie Bayard was the source of comfort which reconciled him to the situation.
The fort was crowded with officers' families at the time. A large force had been maintained here during the winter, and when the troops took the field in March the ladies and children remained,—a sacred charge for Major Miller and his two companies of "foot." Not only was this the case, but such was the threatening and truculent bearing of all the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians remaining at the agency on White River to the north-east, that a few of the officers on duty at Fort Robinson (the post established there to overlook and overawe (?) the savages) had sent their families back to Laramie under escort, and those gentle refugees were received and housed and welcomed with a hospitality and warmth that one never sees outside the army. Every set of officers' quarters, therefore, was crowded to its full capacity, and a thing that never before had happened in the chronicles of the old frontier post was now a matter of course. Even "Bedlam," the ramshackle, two-story frame rookery, once sacred to the bachelor element, had now two families quartered therein, and one of these comprised the wife, maiden sister, and three children of Captain Forrest, of the cavalry,—"refugees from Robinson." For several days after their arrival they had been housed under Major Miller's roof,—all the other quarters, except Dr. Bayard's, being crowded,—and Nellie Bayard had begged her father to invite Mrs., Miss, and the little Forrests to make his house their home. The doctor willingly accorded her permission to invite Miss Forrest, but drew the line at her unattractive sister-in-law and the more than unattractive trio of youngsters. Before she had known Miss Forrest three days, however, Nellie Bayard felt less eagerness to ask her to be her guest, and Mrs. Miller, as kind and generous a soul as ever lived, had gone so far as to say to her, "Don't."
And yet it seemed so unkind, so utterly lacking in hospitality or courtesy. After his second call at the commanding officer's, and a sprightly chat with this beaming, bright-eyed, vivacious young woman, Dr. Bayard had rather pointedly inquired,—
"Nellie, dear, I thought you were to invite Miss Forrest to pay you a visit; have you done so?"
"No, papa," was the hesitating answer. "I did mean to—but—don't you expect Dr. and Mrs. Graham early next week? You know you'll have to ask them."
"Oh, I know that, child, but the house is big. There are two spare rooms, and even if we had to take in more, you two might share your room awhile, might you not?"
"We might, papa dear; but—I'm afraid I don't like her. That is, she doesn't attract me as she did at first. I thought her charming then."
"Tut, tut, tut! Why, what on earth's the matter with my little woman?" asked the doctor, bending down over her as they were walking home. "It isn't like you, Nell, to be censorious. What's she been doing?—making eyes at young McLean?"
He might have judged better than that, had he reflected an instant. He never yet had thought of his daughter except as a mere child, and he did not mean for an instant to intimate that her growing interest in the young lieutenant was anything more than a "school-girl" fancy. She was old enough, however, to take his thoughtless speech au serieux, and it hurt her.
"Papa!" was her one, indignant word of remonstrance. She would not even defend herself against such accusation.
"I know!—I understand—I didn't mean it except as the merest joke, my child," he hurriedly interposed. "I thought you'd laugh at the idea."
But she would not speak of it, and he quickly sought to change the subject, never even asking other reason for her apparent aversion to Miss Forrest. It was true that the speedy coming of Dr. and Mrs. Graham would make it necessary that he should open his doors to an officer of his own corps and profession.
For a few days, however, that thoughtless speech seemed to rankle in his gentle daughter's soul. Never before had she known hesitancy or embarrassment in her daily, hourly chat with that fondly loved father. Now there was a topic that she could not approach. Hitherto she used to tell him all about her walks and talks with Mr. McLean. That young gentleman, indeed, had accompanied them the evening they went to the major's to call upon the latest arrival among the refugees, but now she shrank from mentioning either Miss Forrest or him. For several days after that talk it seemed as though she avoided not only the subjects, but the two persons themselves. At least both of them would have sworn to the latter part of the statement, and McLean was at his wit's end to account for it.
Meantime, there being nowhere else to go, the Forrests had moved into "Bedlam" in the same hall-way with the family of Lieutenant Post, also refugees from Robinson; but while the Posts occupied rooms on the lower floor, the Forrests took the four chambers overhead. Two young cavalry officers were the occupants up to the outbreak of the campaign, but all their furniture and "traps" were summarily moved over to the quartermaster's storehouse by order of the commanding officer,—and one trip of one wagon did the entire job,—for the emergency was one that called for action, and Major Miller was a man to meet it. The Forrests and the Posts, therefore, were now sole occupants of the south end of "Bedlam," and Lieutenant McLean's two rooms were on the ground-floor of the north end. The hall-ways ran entirely through from east to west, giving on the west side into court-yards separated from each other by a high board fence and completely enclosed by one of similar make. On the east side, fronting the roadway, were broad verandas on both first and second floors, and these were common property of the occupants of both halls. By the rear or west door they could not pass from one hall to the other, on account of the intervening fence. By the east door the veranda on either story formed a convenient thoroughfare. McLean occupied the two rooms on the north side of this hall, and a brother infantryman, also a bachelor, occupied the two above him. The opposite rooms on both floors were the garrison homes of married officers now in the fields with their commands, and their doors were kept locked by the quartermaster. The Forrests and Posts, with the Bedouin-like ease of long experience on the frontier, had established a dining-room in common on the ground-floor of the south end, and the temporary kitchen was knocked up in the back yard. The south division, therefore, contained a lively colony of women and children; the north halls, only empty rooms and two lone bachelors.
This very May-day afternoon on which our story opens, as Lieutenant McLean and Miss Bayard started forth on their stroll, Miss Forrest, with a shawl hugged woman-fashion around her shapely form, was taking a constitutional up and down the upper gallery. She came to the railing and bent down, beaming, smiling, and kissing her hand to them,—and a winsome smile she had,—then, as they passed out along the walk by the old ordnance storehouse, she stood for a time looking after them.
That night, just after dusk, when Mr. McLean came bounding up the front steps, intent on getting an album from his quarters, and then returning to Mrs. Miller's, where he was spending the evening, he was surprised to find the lamp extinguished. All was darkness as he opened the front door. So, too, on the second floor there was no light in the hall, and yet he could have sworn that both lamps were burning when he went out at eight o'clock, half an hour before. In his own room, the front one, however, the very opposite was the case. He had turned the lamp low the last thing before starting, and closed the front of his standing desk, turning the key in the lock. He always did these things when leaving his quarters at night. Now the hanging lamp was throwing a steady light all over the simple, soldier room, and the desk was wide open.
The rear room, his bedchamber, was dark as usual, and his first thought was for his papers. These were in their pigeon-holes, undisturbed. Two drawers had been pulled open; one was now half closed, while the other remained with almost its full length, lying, tipped out, upon the shelving desk. It was filled with Lynchburg tobacco, a bright-colored, fragrant brand much affected by pipe-smokers at that time, and an idea occurred to him. He stepped out into the hall and shouted up the stairs,—
"Hat!—O-o-o, Hatton! You been here?"
Mr. McLean shook his head in perplexity. He and his comrade, Lieutenant Hatton, were intimates who smoked many a pipe together out of that same drawer. He had many a time bidden the latter to come in and help himself whenever he wanted to. Bachelor doors are always open in the army, and the desk key was generally in the lock. Still it was not like Hatton to leave things in disorder behind him, even if he were to take McLean at his word. No! It wasn't Hatton, unless something very unforeseen had suddenly called him away. Stepping quickly back into the room he felt a draught of cool air, and saw that the portiere that hung between the two rooms was bulging slightly toward him. Instantly he stepped into his bedroom, where all was dark, struck a match, and saw, the moment its flash illumined surrounding objects, that the one door he generally kept locked was now ajar. It led into the hall, and thither strode McLean. Up to this instant not a sound had he heard. Now, fairly flying up the old, creaky stairs, light as kittens', quick as terriers', yet stealthy, almost noiseless, he distinctly heard slippered footfalls. They whirled at the head of the stairs, and flashed through the hall-way overhead and out on the front veranda, and he, instead of pursuing, stood stone still, rooted to the floor, his heart beating hard, his hands clinching in amaze. What stunned him was the fact that with the footfalls went the swish of dainty silken skirts.
It was full ten minutes before Mr. McLean reissued from his quarters on his return to the major's house. In the mean time he had searched his desk and summed up his losses. They amounted to mere trifles—a few postage-stamps and perhaps five dollars in currency—which happened to be lying in the drawer above his tobacco receptacle. "Lucky I hadn't got my April pay yet!" thought he. There were some handsome sleeve-buttons and a scarf-pin or two in another drawer, but these had not been touched,—the pilferer had been interrupted too soon. Some letters and notes that were lying in the lower pigeon-holes had evidently been objects of scrutiny, but were still there—so far as he had time to count. He had left a jolly little gathering at the Millers', and he was eager to return; he had left them only at Mrs. Miller's urgent request that he should bring over his "scrap-book," in which he had a miscellaneous assortment of photographs of army friends and army scenes, of autographs, doggerel rhymes, and newspaper clippings, such as "Spelling Tests" and "Feats in Pronunciation," and a quantity of others containing varied and useful information. It was a great standby and resource of his, and had helped to while away many an evening on the frontier. Now, Mrs. Miller had been telling Nellie Bayard about it, and was eager that she should see it. The major, too, and several ladies present, all united in the request and enjoined upon him to hurry back. As "Bedlam" lay but a hundred yards away, there was no reason why he should not have returned in five minutes, but it was fifteen when he reappeared, and was, as became the only young man in the room, the immediate centre of combined question and invective.
"What could have kept you so long?" "Where on earth have you been?" "Were it anybody but Mr. McLean, I would say he had gone down to the club-room for a drink," etc. Nellie Bayard alone was silent. The question that occurred to her was finally asked by Mrs. Miller,—
"Why, Mr. McLean, how white you look! Have you seen a ghost?"
"No," he answered, laughing nervously. "I've seen nothing. It is dark as Erebus outside, and I ran into something I couldn't see at all,—something too tangible for a ghost."
"Who was it or what was it?"
"That's what I'm dying to know. I was out in the very middle of the parade, and this something was scurrying over toward Gordon's quarters as I was coming here. We ran slap into each other. I sang out, 'Halloo! Beg pardon,' and began hunting for the book that was knocked out from under my arm, and this figure just whizzed right on,—never answered at all."
"Odd!" said the major. "Some one of the men, do you think? been over paying a visit to a sweetheart in some kitchen of the opposite quarters?"
"Well, no," answered McLean, coloring and hesitating. "It might have been some sweetheart going over to visit the east side and taking a short cut across the parade. It wasn't a man."
"Oh! That's it, of course," chimed in Mrs. Brenham at once. "The Johnsons have a girl—Winnie they call her—who is perpetually gadding about, and I warrant it was she. Come! Let us see the scrap-book."
And so the party returned to the business of the evening and were soon absorbed in the pages of McLean's collection. He had many a question to answer, and was kept from the seat he longed to take, by Nellie Bayard's side. Where three or four women are gathered together over an album of photographs or a scrap-book of which he is the owner, no man need hope to escape for so much as an instant. Yet she was watching him and wondering at what she saw,—the effort it cost him to pay attention to their simplest question—the evident distraction that had seized upon him.
By and by tattoo sounded. The major went out with McLean to receive the reports, and when they returned Mr. Hatton came too.
"Where have you been, Mr. Hatton?" asked Mrs. Miller. "We've been looking for you all the evening, and wouldn't have a bite or a glass of wine until you came in."
"Over at the Gordons'. They are having a little gathering too, mostly of the refugees,—regular hen convention. I was the only man there for over an hour."
"Who all were there?" inquired the hostess—her Southern birth and her woman's interest in the goings-on of the garrison manifesting themselves at one and the same time.
"Oh, about a dozen, all told," answered Mr. Hatton. "Mrs. Bruce and Jeannie, Mrs. Forrest, Mrs. Post, the Gordon girls, Mrs. Wells, and finally Miss Forrest. The little parlor was packed like a ration-can by nine o'clock, and I was glad to slip away at first call."
"A likely statement in view of the fact that Jeannie Bruce was there."
"Fact, though!" answered Hatton, with a knowing look on his handsome face. He did not want to say it was because Jeannie Bruce went home at "first call" and that he escorted her.
McLean would be sure to understand that point, however, thought Mr. Hatton to himself, and to obviate the possibility of his mischievously suggesting that solution of the matter it might be well to tip him a wink. Looking around in search of his chum, Mr. Hatton was surprised at the odd and wretched expression on McLean's face. The tall young subaltern had seated himself at last by Nellie Bayard's side, but instead of devoting himself to her, as was to have been expected, he was staring with white face at Hatton and drinking in every word.
"Why, what's the matter, old man? You look all struck of a heap!" exclaimed Hatton, in genuine concern.
"Mr. McLean encountered a spook on his way over here," laughed the major, seeing that McLean, in embarrassment, knew not how to reply. "He ran afoul of a flying Dutchwoman out on the parade in the dark, and was mystified because she would not stop and chat with him."
"What nonsense, major!" sharply interposed his better half. "You know we settled it long ago that that must have been the Johnsons' Winnie on one of her gad-abouts. Why do you add to the mischief?"
"Hm!" responded her lord in a broad grin. "Coming from a woman, that is a stinger. Can't a fellow have a little fun at McLean's expense without being accused of scattering scandal?"
"You are only too ready to accuse one of us of starting malicious stories," replied his wife, with honest indignation. "It might be as well for you to consider the possible effect of your own words."
"What possible effect—ill effect, that is—could my remark have had even if repeated?" demanded the major in amusement.
"Well, never you mind now; I'm glad we all understand one another here at any rate," answered Mrs. Miller, earnestly. "Now let us have peace and a truce to the spook story. Mrs. Taylor, now won't you sing?"
"Really, Mrs. Miller, I ought not to stay another moment. I left the nurse in charge of my babies, and I know perfectly well that by this time she is out at the back gate flirting with Sergeant Murray. Indeed, Mr. McLean, I do wish you would confine that altogether-too-utterly-attractive young man to the limits of the barracks. He's at our gate morn, noon, and night, and whenever he's there my Maggie is there too, and the children might scream themselves hoarse and she never hear. Why, I'm a perfect slave! I can't go anywhere. It's just do for those precious babies from dawn till midnight. I might as well have no nurse at all. Oh, no, indeed, Mrs. Miller. I must go this minute. Indeed I must. But, Mr. Hatton, how did it happen that Miss Forrest only came in late?"
"More than I know, Mrs. Taylor. She said she was unable to come earlier on account of letters or something. I didn't pay much attention. You see there were six women around me already. I've never known the bliss of being an undoubted belle until this spring."
"Then I suppose, too, she stopped to dress. You know Fanny Forrest has such beautiful dresses, Mrs. Miller, and she's hardly had a chance to show one of them since she got here. What did she wear this evening, Mr. Hatton?"
"'Pon my soul, I don't know. It was a dress, of course, blue or green—or something."
"Yes—something, undoubtedly; but what was it like? Did it——?"
"The idea of asking me to describe a woman's dress! Why, I don't know a poplin from a polonaise, though I suppose there's a distinction of some kind. All I know is that this one shimmered and had things all over it like No. 12 shot or Sioux moccasin beads, and it swished and rustled as she walked through the hall and up the stairs."
"Oh, I know,—that long silk princesse—electric blue—that came from New York last October and——Beg pardon. What?"
"Not you, Mrs. Taylor. Go on!" said Mrs. Miller, pleasantly. "Mr. Hatton's servant has just called for him at the door. Wants to see him a moment." And Hatton left the parlor with the major at his heels.
An hour later, after seeing Nellie Bayard home, and striving in vain to be like his actual self, Mr. McLean hurried to his quarters. Just as he expected, Hatton was standing in front of the open fireplace puffing furiously at a chunky little brierwood pipe. He looked up from under his heavy eyebrows as McLean came in, but said nothing. The occupant of the room filled and lighted his own particular "cutty," and threw himself into an easy chair, first divesting himself of the handsome uniform "blouse" he had worn during the evening, and getting into an easy old shooting-jacket. Then through a cloud of fragrant smoke the two men looked silently at each other. It was Hatton who spoke first:
"What's up, Hatton?"
"Missed anything to-night?"
"Nothing to speak of," answered McLean, coloring. He had the hatred of his race for the faintest equivocation.
"Well, I have, and I thought you might have been visited likewise. My bureau and dressing-case have been ransacked and I'm out a good two hundred dollars' worth.
"The devil you say!"
"Have you lost nothing?"
"Five dollars or so,—as I said, nothing I wanted to mention."
"A woman's reason, Mac."
"How do you know a woman's the reason?" asked McLean, almost fiercely, as he started from the chair. He had only imperfectly heard his friend's muttered words.
"I don't!—and that isn't what I said," replied Hatton, coolly. "But see here,—now we've got down to it," and he stopped to emit two or three voluminous puffs of smoke from under his thick moustache. "It would appear that the thief went through the next-door premises despite the presence of nurses and servants and children,—and then dropped some of his plunder here. Eh?" and he held forth a dainty handkerchief.
McLean took it, his hands trembling, and a creeping, chilling sensation running through his fingers. It was of finest fabric, sheer and soft and very simply embroidered. It was without, rather than with, surprise lie found the letters "F. F." in one corner. He raised it, and, not knowing what to say for the moment, sat there inhaling the delicate fragrance that hung about the white folds.
"Where'd you find it?" he finally asked.
"Just at the foot of your bureau, Mac. It was lying there when I came in, half an hour ago."
"Then it's mine to dispose of at least," said McLean, as he rose promptly from his chair, stepped quickly to the fireplace, and tossed the dainty toy among the flames. The next instant the last vestige of it was swept from sight, and the two men stood looking quietly into each other's eyes.
The compact little post of Fort Laramie looked hardly big enough to contain its population two days afterward when, under the influence of a warm sunshine and the sweet music of the band, all the women and children seemed to have gathered around the parade. Guard-mounting was just over, and the adjutant had ordered the musicians to stop and play a few airs in honor of its being the first morning on which it was warm enough for the men to appear without overcoats and the women without their furs. The little quadrangle, surrounded as it was by quarters and houses of every conceivable pattern except that which was modern and ornamental, was all alive with romping children and with sauntering groups of ladies chatting with the few cavaliers who happened to be available. A small battalion of infantry had marched up from the nearest railway-station at Cheyenne, a good hundred miles away, and pitched its tents on the flat to the north of the post, and this brought a few visiting officers into the enclosure; otherwise, except old Bruce, there would have been no man to talk to, as Hatton and McLean were "marching on" and "marching off" guard respectively, and the surgeon, adjutant, and quartermaster were all engaged in the old head-quarters office with Major Miller.
While many of the ladies were seated in the sunshine on the piazzas, and even "Bedlam" was so ornamented, there were several who were strolling up and down the board and gravel walks, and of these Fanny Forrest was certainly the most striking in appearance. She was tall, stately in carriage, and beautifully formed. Her head was carried proudly and her features were regular and fine. "But for that hardness of expression she might be a tearing beauty," was the comment of more than one woman who knew and envied her; but that expression certainly existed and to her constant detriment. All manner of conjectures had been started to account for her somewhat defiant air and that hard, set look that so rarely left her face except when she smiled and strove to please. No one really knew much about her. Captain Forrest, her brother, was one of the popular men of his regiment, who years before had become enamoured of and would marry the namby-pamby though pretty daughter of the old post chaplain. She happened to be the only young lady in the big garrison of McPherson, one of those long winters just after the War of the Rebellion, and Forrest was susceptible. Her prettiness had soon faded, and there was no other attraction to eke it out; but her husband was big-hearted and gentle, and he strove hard not to let her see he thought her changed. Still, she was a querulous, peevish woman by this time, poor girl, and her numerous olive-branches had been more than a stronger woman could have managed. Forrest's house was not the jolliest in the garrison, and he was given to drifting away as a consequence; but the previous summer there came to him news that took him suddenly Eastward. He was gone a month, and when he returned he brought his tall, handsome, stylish sister with him, and it was given out that she was to make her home with him henceforth,—unless, as said the gossips, some other man claimed her. Some other man did,—two some others, in fact, and "a very pretty quarrel as it stood" was only nipped in the bud by the prompt action of the commanding officer at Fort Robinson that very winter. Two young officers had speedily fallen in love with her, and in so doing had fallen out with each other. It was almost a fight, and would have been but for the colonel commanding; and yet it was all absurd, for she turned both of them adrift. Of her past she would not speak, and no one cared to question Forrest. She had been living at her uncle's in New York, was all that any one knew, and finally that had to be changed. She had come out with her bronzed and soldierly brother, and was his guest now; it was evident that there was deep affection between them; it was theorized by the ladies at Robinson that she had had some unlucky love-affair, and this was the more believed after she threw over the two devotees aforementioned. All manner of that alluring bait which women so well know how to use when inviting confidence was thrown to her from time to time, but she refused it and intimacies of any kind, and only one thing saved her from being ostracized by the garrison sisterhood,—her dresses. "She must have had abundant means at some time," said the ladies, "for her dresses are just lovely, and all her clothes are just the same way, very stylish in make and most expensive in material." No woman could quite break friendship with one who had such a mine of fabulous interest in her three Saratogas. Nevertheless, all the letters from Robinson to Laramie, in speaking of her, said she was "worth seeing, but—not attractive." "If anything," wrote one woman, "she is actually repellant in manner to half the ladies in the garrison." This was her status until late that spring, and then came another story,—a queer one, but only Mrs. Bruce received it, and she showed the letter to her husband, who bade her to burn it and say no word of its contents. Ere long another came,—to Mrs. Miller this time,—and spoke of the odd losses sustained by young officers in the garrison. Mr. French, who lived under the same roof with the Forrests, had been robbed twice. No clue to the perpetrator. Then came the spring outbreak of the Sioux, the rush to join Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, the news of the sharp fight late in March, and the situation at Robinson became alarming. April brought the refugees to Laramie, and here, among others, were the Forrests and the Posts.
And now Miss Forrest was strolling placidly up and down the walk and entirely monopolizing the attention of a tall, fine-looking soldier who had met her for the first time only the previous evening and was evidently eager to resume his place at her side. It was hardly fair to the other women, and they were not slow to remark upon the fact.
"One thing is certain," said Mrs. Gordon, "if I were Nellie Bayard I would not want to have her for a step-mother, and the doctor has been simply devoted to her for the last three days."
"Yes, he seems decidedly smitten, Mrs. Gordon; but did we not hear that Dr. Bayard was always doing the devoted to some woman,—a young one preferred?" asked her next-door neighbor, who had just dropped in for a moment's chat.
"Mrs. Miller certainly told me so; it was his reputation in the East, and very possibly he is attracted now by such an undeniably stylish and handsome girl. She can't be so very young, either. Look at those lines under her eyes."
"Yes, and when she turns her head her neck shows it; the throat is getting stringy. Here comes the doctor from the office now. I warrant he passes every other woman and goes straight to her."
"Then it will be 'good-by, Mr. Mayhew,' to her present escort, I warrant you in return. Fanny Forrest has no use for subalterns except as fun to pass away the time."
"Yet she made eyes at Mr. McLean all that first day she was at the Millers'. I think that is really the reason Mrs. Miller cannot bear her. She won't speak of her if she can help it. Now watch the doctor."
There were perhaps half a dozen ladies in the party at the moment, and all eyes were fastened on the tall and distinguished form of Dr. Bayard as he strode across the parade, his handsome, portly figure showing to excellent advantage in his snug-fitting uniform. They saw him bare his head and bow with courtier-like grace to Miss Forrest and again to her escort as he stopped and extended his hand. Then, after a few words, he again bowed as gracefully as before and passed on in the direction of the hospital.
"Certainly the most elegant man in manner and bearing we have seen at Laramie for I don't know when," said Mrs. Gordon. "I don't wonder Nellie worships him."
"She thinks her father simply perfect," was Mrs. Wells's reply. "I dread to think what it will cost her when disillusion comes, as come it must. Why! Who is that he is talking with now?"
At the north-west corner of the quadrangle, just beyond "Bedlam," the doctor had encountered a stoutly-built man who wore an overcoat of handsome beaver fur thrown wide open over the chest in deference to the spring-like mildness of the morning, and who carried a travelling-bag of leather in one hand. After a moment of apparently cordial chat the two men walked rapidly southward along the gravel path, all eyes from all the piazzas upon them as they came, and, passing one or two groups of ladies, entered the gateway at the doctor's quarters, where Nellie Bayard with "the Gordon girls" happened to be seated on the veranda. Mrs. Gordon and Mrs. Wells arose from their chairs and gazed across the parade, in their very natural curiosity to see what was going on "over at the doctor's." They saw the stranger raise his cap, and bow low over the hand that Nellie extended to him, and then make a bobbing obeisance to each of the Gordon girls as he was presented to them. Then he took a chair by Miss Bayard's side, while the servant came out and relieved him of his overcoat and bag, and the Gordon girls were seen saying adieu. Nellie followed them to the gate, but they evidently felt that the stranger had not come to see them, and that it was time to leave. The ladies on the home piazza awaited their coming with no little impatience, and Mrs. Gordon was prepared to administer a sharp maternal reproof when they were seen to stop in answer to hails from the groups they passed en route. Everybody wanted to know who the fur-coated stranger was, and their progress homeward from the south-west angle was, therefore, nothing short of "running the gauntlet" of interrogations. Possibly in anticipation of the displeasure awaiting her, the elder maiden of the two strove to "cut across lots" when she came near the south-eastern corner, whereat, facing north, stood the big house of the commanding officer; but Mrs. Miller was too experienced a hand, and bore down upon the pair in sudden swoop from her piazza to the front gate, and they had to stop and surrender their information.
As a consequence, every woman along that side of Laramie knew before Mesdames Gordon and Wells that Roswell Holmes, of Chicago, the "wealthy mine-owner and cattle-grower," had just arrived in his own conveyance from Cheyenne, and had been invited to put up at the doctor's quarters during his stay at the fort.
"Think of it!" exclaimed Mrs. Gordon, "a bachelor, only thirty-eight, and worth a million. No wonder Dr. Bayard seized him!"
"The doctor knew him before, mother," put in her daughter. "Nellie wasn't introduced at all. He came right up and told her how glad he was to see her again,—he looked it, too."
"They knew him in Chicago,—met him there on the way out," said the younger. "I heard the doctor say so. Now, look! Here come Fanny Forrest and Mr. Mayhew, and she wants to know who the stranger is; if she doesn't she's the first person I've met who didn't ask."
But Miss Forrest proved an exception to the rule, so far as questions were concerned, at least. She stopped in front of the gate, looking beamingly up at the group on the piazza.
"Mrs. Gordon," she said, "Mr. Mayhew has invited me to walk down to the camp of the battalion, and, as I haven't been outside the limits of the post since we came, I should like to go. They are to have inspection in 'field kits' in half an hour. Don't you want to come with the girls? He says there are half a dozen young gentlemen down there who are eager to see them——"
"Oh, mamma, do!" implored both girls in a breath.
"Why, I hardly know, Miss Forrest," answered Mrs. Gordon, hesitatingly. "Cannot Mrs. Forrest go?"
"Ruth is never ready to go anywhere," answered Miss Forrest, half laughingly, yet with a certain rueful emphasis. "She is a slave to her babies, and as for Celestine, the nurse, she is no help to her whatever."
"Of course you girls must have a 'matron,'" said Mrs. Gordon. "How long will you be there, Mr. Mayhew?"
"Oh, just about half an hour or so, Mrs. Gordon. Then inspection will be over, and we fellows can all come back with you. It's just for the walk, you know, and the pleasure it will give a raft of second lieutenants." (Mr. Mayhew was a first lieutenant of one year's standing.) "They'll bless me for bringing them down."
"Do let the girls go with us, Mrs. Gordon, and if you are too busy I'll see Ruth at once. I can make Celestine stay home and look after the children, though she cannot; and here come Mr. Hatton and Mr. McLean. One of them, at least, will be glad to join us," said Miss Forrest, with the confidence of handsome womanhood. "Perhaps both of them. No. They are turning off across the parade. Call them, Mr. Mayhew. Let no guilty man escape."
Obediently Lieutenant Mayhew shouted to the two young officers who had just come forth from the presence of the major commanding. Both were in undress uniform and sword-belts; both had caught sight of the tall girl at the Gordons' gate at the same instant, and, had any one disposed to be critical been looking on, that somebody would have been justified in saying they "sheered off" the very next instant so as not to pass her by within speaking distance. Mrs. Miller, sitting where she could see the whole affair, was struck by the sudden change in their line of direction, and watched them in no little curiosity as they halted in recognition of Mayhew's call.
"What is it, Mayhew?" sung out Hatton.
"Come over here a minute, you and McLean. I have a scheme to unfold."
"Can't; I'm officer of the day."
"Well, you come, McLean. Miss Forrest wants to speak with you."
"Mac, there's no way out of it," growled Hatton between his set teeth; "you've got to go."
"Be at the house in ten minutes, then. I'll join you there," said McLean, glancing over his shoulders at his comrade as he started across the springy turf to obey the summons. "What is it, Miss Forrest?" he inquired. "Good-morning Mrs. Gordon—Mrs. Wells—everybody," he continued, as, with forage-cap in hand, he made his obeisance to the various ladies of the party.
"I want you to prove how we Bedlamites stand by one another by placing yourself under my orders for a whole hour. You have no duty or engagement, have you?"
McLean would have given—he knew not what—to be able to say he had; but this rencontre was something utterly unlooked for. He could easily have pleaded letters, or company duty, but evasion was a trick he could not brook. "I have none," he quietly answered.
"Then, for the honor of Bedlam, offer your services to these young ladies and be their escort down to camp, where they are dying to go."
"Why, Fanny Forrest! how dare you?" gasped Kate Gordon, the elder.
"Indeed, Miss Forrest, I will not have a detailed escort," indignantly protested Jeannie, the younger.
"What illimitable effrontery!" was the muttered comment of Mrs. Wells, while poor Mrs. Gordon hardly knew what to say or do in her amaze and annoyance. McLean himself had flushed crimson under the combined influence of embarrassment and the recollection of the long talk he and Hatton had had but two nights before. Mayhew, too, could hardly control his surprise, but he declared afterward, when the matter came up for comment down at camp, that he would "give a heap to have that man McLean's self-possession," for with hardly an instant's delay the latter's voice was heard above the voluble protests of the two young ladies,—cordial, kindly, even entreating.
"I should like it, of all things. I want to run down and see the First in the new field rig. Do let the girls go with me, Mrs. Gordon. Come, Miss Kate; come, Miss Jeannie. I'll leave my sword at my quarters as we go."
"Didn't I tell you, Mr. Mayhew?" said Miss Forrest, with heightened color and a confident smile as she took his arm. "It is something to be a queen, if it's only the queen of Bedlam."
And though, rather than create a scene, Mrs. Gordon and her daughters joined the party, and Mrs. Wells and Miss Bruce decided to go, it was noticed then and referred to afterward that Mr. McLean never so much as looked at Miss Forrest or noticed her in any way at the time of this occurrence. It was hardly night before the story had gone all over the garrison, and added to Miss Forrest's growing unpopularity; and it was kind-hearted Mrs. Miller herself who exclaimed, on hearing the details in the inevitably exaggerated form in which all such narrative must travel, "I declare! the title she has assumed seems to fit her,—Queen of Bedlam, indeed!"
The doctor was giving a little dinner in honor of his friend Mr. Holmes. Two days now had that gentleman been in garrison, where his advent had created more of a flutter than the coming of an inspector-general. He had a large cattle-range farther to the south, beyond the Chugwater and comparatively removed from the scene of Indian hostility and depredation; but such had become the laxity of discipline on the part of the bureau officials, or such was their dread of their turbulent charges at the reservations, that, from time to time, marauding parties of young warriors had been raiding from the agencies during the month of April, crossing the Platte River and dashing down on the outskirts of the great cattle-herds south of Scott's Bluffs and in the valleys of Horsehead and Bear Creeks. One party had even dared to attack the ranches far up the Chugwater Valley at the crossing of the Cheyenne road; another had ridden all around Fort Laramie, fording the Platte above and below; and several of them had made away with dozens of head of cattle bearing the well-known brand of Mr. Holmes of Chicago. It was to see what could be done toward preventing the recurrence of this sort of thing that brought Mr. Holmes to Laramie. At least he said so, but there were ladies in the garrison who were quick to determine that something worth more to him than a few hundred head of cattle had prompted him to take that dangerous ride up from the railway. "He would never have thought it worth while," said Mrs. Wells after a day of quiet observation, "had Nellie Bayard not been here."
Another thing to give color to this theory was the fact that, yielding to the importunities of Major Miller and his frequent telegraphic reports of Indian dashes on the neighboring ranches, the division commander had ordered a troop of cavalry back from patrol duty around the reservation, and "The Grays" had marched in the very night before. A scouting party of an officer and twenty troopers rode forth that morning with orders to look over the Chugwater and the intervening country around Eagle's Nest. If Mr. Holmes were in a hurry to get back to business, here was excellent opportunity of driving half the way to Cheyenne under escort. But Mr. Holmes, who had been somewhat emphatic in his announcement that he could only stay one day, was apparently well content with his comfortable quarters under the doctor's roof. He might now stay longer, he said, for while up in that part of the country he might just as well look over some mines in the Black Hills, provided there were a chance of getting thither alive. Except for heavily guarded trains, all communication was at an end between the scattered settlements of the Hills and the posts along the Platte and the Union Pacific Railway. The Indians swarmed out from the reservations, attacking everything that appeared along the road, and sometimes capturing the entire "outfit"; after plundering and scalping their victims they built lively fires of the wagons, and cheerfully roasted alive such of their prisoners as had the ill-luck not to be killed in the first place. The road to the Black Hills, either from Sidney or by way of Fort Laramie, was lined with the ashes of burned wagons, and, in lieu of mile-posts, was staked with little, rude, unpainted crosses, each marking the grave of some victim of this savage warfare; and Mr. Holmes was quite right in his theory that it would be far safer and pleasanter to stay at Laramie until some big party went up to the Hills. The doctor was most hospitable in his pressing invitation for him to make his house a home just as long as it might please him. Nellie was glad to win her beloved father's praise by doing what she could to make the army homestead attractive to his guest; the guest himself was courteous, well-bred and cordial in manner, readily winning friends all over the garrison; and the only man to whom his protracted visit became a matter of serious disquietude was poor Randall McLean. With a lover's intuition he saw that the wealthy Chicagoan was deeply interested in sweet Nellie Bayard, and that her father eagerly favored the suit.
Up to the hour of Mr. Holmes's arrival, there was not a day on which the young fellow had not enjoyed a walk or one or more delightful chats with the doctor's pretty daughter. He had no rivals; there were at the moment no other bachelor officers at the post, with the exception of Hatton, who, besides having a chivalrous disposition not to cut in where his comrade was interested, was popularly supposed to be the peculiar property of Miss Janet Bruce.
Now, however, since Mr. Holmes had taken up his abode under the AEsculapian vine and fig-tree, McLean found it simply impossible to see the lady of his love except in general company. The Chicago capitalist, despite his thirty-eight years, was rarely out of reach of the little pink ear, and, though courteous and unobtrusive, it was patent to McLean that he meant no other man should charm it with a lover's wooing until his own substantial claims had had full consideration. No matter at what hour the lieutenant called, there was Roswell Holmes in the parlor; and, when he sought to engage her for a walk, it so happened that papa and Mr. Holmes had arranged to go calling at that very time, and papa had expressed his wish that she should go too. It began to look very ominous before the end of that second day, and when the evening of the dinner came Mr. McLean was decidedly low in his mind. He was not even invited.
Now there was nothing in this circumstance to which he should have attached any importance whatever. Army quarters are small at best, and a dining-room on the frontier big enough to accommodate a dozen people was in those days a decided rarity. The doctor, after consultation with Nellie and with the presiding goddess in the kitchen, had decided upon ten as the proper number to be seated at his table. There would then be no crowding, and all might go off without confusion. Very proud was the doctor of some precious old family plate and some more modern and even more beautiful china with which he adorned his table on state occasions. He wanted to make an impression on his wealthy guest, and this was an opportunity not to be neglected. He gave much thought, too, to the composition of his party. The commanding officer and his wife must, of course, be invited. Captain and Mrs. Bruce he decided upon because they were people of much travel and, for army folks, remarkably well read and informed. They would reflect credit on his entertainment. The adjutant and his wife were also bidden as being guests who would grace his board. But he did not invite even his own junior and assistant, Dr. Weeks. "I can explain all that, Nellie. He won't mind," he said, "and besides, if Holmes can stay till the end of the week, I'll give another and have all the youngsters." She had brightened up at that, for her heart misgave her a little at the thought of her most loyal friends being left out in the cold. Then she looked very grave again when his next words were spoken. "And now, dear, we want one more lady to make our party complete, and no one will do as well as Miss Forrest."
Poor Nellie! She knew not what to say. Her father was, of course, cognizant of the growing dislike to that strange girl, and had pooh-poohed some of the stories that had been brought to his ears. There was not a woman in the officers' quarters whom she would not rather have invited, yet from the very first she felt in the depths of her soul that Miss Forrest would be her father's choice. One timid little suggestion she made in favor of Janet Bruce, since her parents were to be of the party; but the doctor promptly scouted it.
"Why, daughter, she's barely seventeen, a girl who would not be in society at all anywhere in civilization;" and with a sigh Nellie abandoned the point. "Besides," said the doctor as a clincher, "I want this a 'swell' affair; just think how much Miss Forrest's taste in dress will help out."
Certainly his judgment was warranted by her appearance the evening of the dinner, when, the last guest to arrive, Fanny Forrest came rustling down the stairs and into the brightly lighted parlor. It had begun to rain just before sunset, and she had brought Celestine with her to hold the umbrella over her while her own jewelled hands gathered those costly skirts about her under the folds of the gossamer that enveloped her from head to feet. The girl, a bright, intelligent mulattress, followed her mistress upstairs to the room set apart for the use of the ladies, and was busy removing her wraps when Nellie ran up to inquire if she could be of any assistance.
"Thank you heartily, Nellie," was the cordial answer. "How simply exquisite you look to-night!" and Miss Forrest's winsome smile was brighter than ever as she bent her head to kiss the reluctant cheek that seemed to pale under her touch. "No, run back to your guests. Celestine will put me to rights in a minute, and I'll be down in a jiffy; don't wait."
And so Nellie returned to the parlor, and in a moment Celestine came down and passed out at the front door, and then Miss Forrest's light footfalls could be heard aloft as the guests grouped themselves about the parlor,—the men in their full-dress uniforms, except, of course, their civilian friend,—the ladies in their most becoming dinner toilet. Despite her growing unpopularity every eye was turned (with eagerness on the part of the women and Dr. Bayard) when Miss Forrest's silken skirts came sweeping down the stairs. Her entree was a triumph.
"Thought you said her neck showed her age," whispered the major to his better half. "Why, her neck and arms are superb!" a speech that cost him metaphorical salt in his coffee for the next three days. The doctor stepped forward in his most graceful manner to meet and welcome her. Captain Bruce could not refrain from hobbling up and saying a word of admiration; even Mr. Holmes fixed his dark eyes upon her in unmistakable approval, and spoke a few courteous words before he turned back to Nellie's side; and Mrs. Miller unlimbered her eye-glasses, mounted them on her prominent nose, gazed long and earnestly at the self-possessed young woman who was the centre of the group, and then looked for sympathy to Mrs. Bruce—and found it. Never in her life had Fanny Forrest looked better than she did that night. Her eyes, her color, her smiles were radiance itself; her mobile lips curved over teeth as white and gleaming as crystalled snow. Her bare neck and arms, beautifully moulded, were set off to wonderful advantage by the dress she wore,—a marvellous gown of rich, rare, lustrous black silk, that fell from her rounded hips in sweeping folds that the women could not sufficiently admire, while their eyes gloated over the wealth of gold with which the entire front from the bosom to the very hem of the skirt was heavily embroidered. An aigrette of gold shone in the dark masses of her hair, but not a vestige of gold or gems appeared either at her throat or in her ears. In her jewelled hand she carried a fan of black silk, gold embroidered like her dress, and the tiny slippers that peeped from the hem of her robe were of the same material and embroidered in a miniature of the same pattern.
"Fort Laramie never saw anything handsomer than that toilet," whispered Mrs. Bruce to the major's wife at the earliest opportunity; and the latter, kind soul, was sufficiently melted by the sight to think of her neighbors and say, "How I wish Mrs. Jordan and Mrs. Wells were here to see it!"
The dinner went off merrily as chimes a marriage-bell. The doctor was in his element when presiding at a well-appointed table; his cook was one whom he had had at Newport and Boston Harbor, and a very reliable servitor as such characters go; his wines were, some of them, gifts from wealthy and aristocratic patients whom he had managed to serve in the days when the sunshine of official favor illumined his daily life; he had a fund of anecdote and table talk; his guests were responsive and full of appreciation of the entertainment provided for them. Nellie, in her shy maidenhood, was a lovely picture at the head of his board; and Holmes, who sat at her left, was evidently more impressed than ever. A son-in-law like that, rich, manly, and educated, a leader of affairs in the city where he made his home,—the very thought lent inspiration to the doctor's life. If the judges and the senators of the East had turned their backs upon him, here he could find new power and influence among the active sons of the young and vigorous West. What a pity! What a pity! he thought, that the general commanding the division were not here. He was coming, they all knew, and might be along any day. Now, if he had only arrived in time to be one of the guests this bright evening, who can say what the effect might not have been?
It must have been just before tattoo—after they had been at the table a full hour, and tongues were loosened by the doctor's good wine, and laughter and jest and merry talk were going round—that Mrs. Miller, sitting at the doctor's right as became the lady of the commanding officer, was surprised to see the hall-door, which had been closed throughout the evening, swing very slowly a few inches inward. At the same moment the lace curtains that hung about the archway leading into the parlor swayed noiselessly toward her and then settled back to their normal position. Presently the major, who was at Miss Bayard's right, and with his back close to the hall-door, began to fidget and look uneasily about. The doctor was just telling a very good story at the moment and she could not bear to interrupt him, but after the laughter and applause had subsided she came to her husband's rescue.
"The major is keenly susceptible to colds, doctor, and I see he is fidgeting a bit. Would you mind having that door shut?"
"Which door, Mrs. Miller? Most assuredly. I thought it was closed. Here, Robert," he called to his colored servant, "go and see if the front door is shut. The wind sometimes proves too much for these quartermaster's latches," he said, apologetically. "Was it shut?" he asked, as Robert returned with an injured air as of one who had been sent on a wild-goose chase.
"Perfectly tight, sir. Ain't been open dis evenin' since Miss Forrest done got yere," was Robert's prompt reply. "I sprung de latch myself to keep it from floppin' open as it sometimes does."
"All right. Never mind. You feel no draft now, do you, major?"
"Not a particle. It was all fancy, probably." And the laughter and talk began again.
Later that long-remembered evening, as they sat around a blazing log fire, for the night had been made chilly by the rain, there was much mirth and chatter and gayety. Miss Forrest developed a new trait to make her envied. She sang with infinite spirit and a great deal of taste. Nellie's piano had known no such performer in the Western wilderness as the brilliant young woman in the lovely black silk, whose fingers went flashing over the keys, and whose voice came carolling forth in rich and wonderful notes. It was a contralto, or at least a deep mezzo, and the songs she sung were well adapted to its low and feeling tones. Mr. Holmes stood over her much of the time as she played, and applauded heartily when she had sung. "I did not expect to find such a nightingale in the wilderness," he said.
"You were looking for a very different object, were you not?" said she, raising her dark eyes to his in deep scrutiny, then dropping them quickly until the lashes swept her cheek.
"Possibly," he replied, with calm gravity. "I had several objects in view, but I rejoice in a visit that has enabled me to hear so cultured a vocalist. I wonder no one spoke of your singing before, Miss Forrest."
"Cease to wonder, Mr. Holmes. It is the first time I have seen a piano in six months or more. We had none at Robinson, and I would have felt little like singing if there had been one."
"May I ask where you studied music?"
"You may. It is evident that, like most people I know in civilization, you are surprised to hear of accomplishments of any kind other than shooting and riding in the army."
Holmes laughed merrily. "You are loyal to the comrades of your adoption, Miss Forrest, and yet they tell me your frontier life began less than a year ago."
"True; but I like the men I've met here, and might like the women if they would let me. As yet, however, we do not seem to agree, thanks to an unfortunate propensity of mine for saying what happens to be uppermost in my mind at the moment; possibly for other good and equally sufficient reasons. You asked where I studied music? Mainly in New York and Munich."
"You have been abroad, then?"
"Years; as companion to an invalid aunt, thanks to whom I saw very little of foreign countries, and but for whom I would have seen nothing."
"You changed the subject abruptly, a moment ago, Miss Forrest. You were speaking of your relations with the ladies here. Forgive me if I refer to it, for I was interested in what you told me. Surely a woman as gifted as you are can never lack friends among her own sex. Have you never sought to win Miss Bayard, for instance?"
There was a moment's pause. Then she looked full up into his face, her fingers rippling over the keys as she spoke.
"Mr. Holmes, has it never occurred to you that in friendship, as in love, a girl of Nellie Bayard's age would prefer some one much nearer her own years?"
He drew slowly back from the piano and stood at his full height.
"The doctor is calling us to the dining-room, Miss Forrest; may I offer my arm?" was his only reply, and she arose and went with him.
They found the entire party grouped about the table, which was now decked with a great punch-bowl of beautiful workmanship. A present, the doctor explained with evident pride, from Baron Wallewski, of the Russian Legation at Washington, whom he had had the honor of pulling through a siege of insomnia two years before. It was more than anything else to display the beauty of this costly gift that he had called them once more around his board, but, since they were there, he would beg them to fill their glasses with a punch of his own composition,—"there's not a headache in a Heidelberg tun of it,"—and pledged with them the health of the distinguished donor.
A ring came at the front door as Robert was standing, tray in hand, at his master's elbow. "Say I'm engaged, if any one inquires for me," said Bayard, and launched forth into some reminiscence of the days when he and Wallewski and Bodisco and others of that ilk were at Old Point Comfort for a week together. Robert, returning from the front hall, stood in silence, like the well-trained menial he was, until his master finished his narration and the guests had sipped the toast. It was a performance of some minutes' duration, and at last the doctor turned.
"Who was it?" he said.
"Mr. McLean, sah."
"Wanted to see me."
"No, sah. The commanding officer, sah. He wouldn't come in; he's standing in the hall yet, sah. Said s'cuse him, but 'twas mos' impawtant."
Major Miller instantly set down his punch-glass, and strode out through the parlor into the front hall. It was a season of incessant rumors and alarms, and the party could not forbear listening.
"Halloo, McLean! What's up?" they heard him say.
"A courier just in from the cavalry, sir. They've had a sharp fight over in the Chug Valley, north of Hunton's. Two men killed and Lieutenant Blunt wounded. The Indians went by way of Eagle's Nest, and will try to recross the Platte below us. Captain Terry is saddling up the Grays now, and sent me to tell you. May I go with him, sir?"
"I'll be down at once. Certainly, you may go. Terry has no lieutenant for duty otherwise." The major reappeared an instant in the parlor, whither by this time all the party had hastily moved uttering exclamations of dismay and anxiety, for Blunt was a young officer beloved by every one. "You'll excuse me, doctor. I must start the troop out in pursuit at once," said Miller; and then, followed by his adjutant, he plunged forth into the darkness. When Nellie Bayard, with white cheeks, peeped timidly into the hall it was empty. McLean had gone without a look or word for her.
"By Jove, doctor, this sort of thing makes my pulses jump," exclaimed Mr. Holmes the moment the major had gone. "Can't I go and see the start? I'd like to offer a prize to the troop—or something."
"Of course you can. I'll go, too. We'll all go. I know the ladies want to. Run up and get your wraps, though it isn't raining now." And the ladies, one and all, scurried away up the stairs.
A moment later Mr. Holmes was slipping into his beaver overcoat that had been hanging in the hall. Then he began fumbling in the pockets, first one and then another. He tried the outside, then threw it open and thrust his hand into those within the broad lapels, a look of bewilderment coming over his face.
"What's the matter?" asked the doctor. "Want another cigar? Here, man! There are plenty in the dining-room; let me get you one."
"No, no! It isn't that! I've smoked enough. Wait a moment." And again he thrust his hands deep in the pockets. "Hold on till I run up to my room," he continued, and darted lightly up the stairs. The ladies were all fluttering down again and were grouped in the lower hall as he came back, laughing, but with an odd, white look about his face.
"Holmes! Something's the matter. What have you lost? What's been taken?"
"Nothing—nothing of any consequence. Come on. Let us hurry after the major, or we'll miss the fun. Mrs. Miller, permit me," and he offered his arm to the major's wife, who stood nearest the door.
"No, but I insist on knowing what is missing, Holmes. It is my right to know," called the doctor, as he struggled into his army overcoat.
"Nothing but a cigar-case and an old pocket-book. I've mislaid them somewhere and there's no time to look. Come on."
"Mr. Holmes," said Mrs. Miller in a low tone, "I have abundant reason for asking and—no! Tell me. Where was that pocket-book and how much money was there in it?"
"In my overcoat-pocket, at sunset. Probably one hundred dollars or so. I never carry much in that way. You will not speak of it, Mrs. Miller?"
"To my husband I must, and this very night. You do not dream what trouble we are in, with a thief in our very midst."
"Some of the servants, I suppose," he said, carelessly.
But to his surprise she only bowed her head and was silent a moment, then muttered rather than spoke the words,—
"God knows. I only hope so!"
"What a trump that young fellow McLean seems to be, doctor," said Mr. Holmes, reflectively, late that night as the two men were smoking a final cigar together.
"Oh, he's not a bad lot by any means," was the reply. "Good deal of a boy, you know. Has no experience of life. Doesn't know anything, in fact, except what professional knowledge he picked up at the Point. You can't expect anything else of an infantry subaltern whose army life has been spent out in this God-forsaken country."
"Why do you always run down this country, doctor? It's a glorious country, a magnificent country. I declare I hate the clatter and racket and rush of Chicago more and more every time I go back to it."
"That's all very well. You are unmarried, and can come and go as you please. If you were a man of family and compelled as I am to bring up a daughter in these barbaric wilds, or even to live here at all,—a man of my tastes and antecedents,—you'd curse the fates that landed you in the army. Still, I would not mind it so much if it were not for Nellie. It is galling to me to think of her having to spend so much of her fair young life in these garrison associations. Who is there here, except possibly Miss Forrest, who, by birth, education, and social position, is fit to be an intimate or friend? What opportunities has a girl of her—pardon my egotism—parentage in such a mill as this?"
Holmes almost choked over his cigar. He bent impulsively forward as though to speak, but gulped back his words, shook his head, and began puffing vigorously once more. He felt that the time had not yet come. He knew that with her he was making no progress whatever. She had been cordial, sweet, kind, as befitted her father's daughter to her father's guest; but this day, as though her woman's wit were fathoming the secret of his heart, a suspicion of reserve and distance had been creeping into her manner and deepening toward night. Then he recalled Miss Forrest's trenchant words; he remembered the white face that came back from the peep into the empty hall. Was McLean the man "nearer her own years" who had already found a lodgement in her heart? He had come back full of admiration for the young soldier whose pluck and ambition had prompted him to beg for service on a probably dangerous expedition, a pursuit of the band that had wounded his comrade and killed two of his men. He wanted to know more of him.
"Speaking of young McLean, who is he? The name is one of the best."
"Oh, he's only distantly related to the main line, I fancy. The country is full of them, but only a few belong to the McLeans. Of course, I suppose they all hail from the old Highland clan, but even there the line of demarcation between chieftain and gillie of the same name was broad as the border itself. If the young fellow had money or influence he'd come out well enough, provided he could travel a year or so. He needs polish, savoir-faire, and he can't travel because he's in debt and hasn't a penny in the world."
"How in debt? One would suppose a young fellow of his appearance could live on his pay, unless he drank or gambled. I rather fancied he wasn't given to that sort of thing."
"Oh, it isn't that; he's steady enough. The trouble with McLean is some commissary stores that were made away with by his sergeant when he was 'acting' here last winter. He could hardly help it, I suppose: the sergeant was an expert thief and hid his stealings completely, and made a very pretty penny selling bacon and flour and sugar and coffee to these Black Hills outfits going up the last year or so. When the regimental quartermaster got back and the stores were turned over to him, the sergeant promptly skipped, and McLean was found short about six hundred dollars' worth. They had a board of survey last winter, and the orders in the case were only finally issued a few weeks ago just as he returned from leave. He's got to make it all up out of his pay,—he has nothing else."
"Isn't that pretty rough on the youngster?"
"Yes, perhaps, but it's business. He won't have such confidence in human nature again. If that sergeant were back here I could account for the disappearance of your porte-monnaie by a surer hypothesis than that you lost it or dropped it. Are you sure you dropped it?"
"Well, no, I can't be sure," said Holmes, knocking the ashes off his cigar, "but it could have so happened, very easily. I was talking earnestly all the way home from the store, where we stopped coming back from stables, you remember, and I'm getting absent-minded at times. Besides, how else could it have gone, supposing it to have been in the pocket of the overcoat when I hung it in the hall just before dressing for dinner? You have had Robert years."
"He has been with me over seven years, and came to me with a high character from the old First Artillery. I never heard of his being even suspected of dishonesty."
"He is the only man who has been in the hall to-night. No one could have come in from the front while we were at dinner."
"No one without our knowledge. The door has a queer sort of latch or lock. Sometimes in high winds it would let go and blow open, but some servant who had lived here before we came put Robert up to a way of catching it that proved very effective. No; nobody was in the hall except McLean, and of course that is out of the question. Besides, he had not time. He was only there half a minute or so."
Mr. Holmes bowed without speaking. He remembered perfectly, however, that it was nearer five minutes that Mr. McLean had to wait there while the doctor was finishing that confounded story. Nevertheless, as the doctor said, that was out of the question.
"Oh, no!" he broke in hurriedly, "I cannot think any one here could have taken it. It will turn up somewhere among my other traps to-night, or else I've dropped it. Don't think of it, doctor; that distresses me far worse than the loss. Suppose we turn in now, and I'll look around my room once more."
Half an hour later the doctor tapped softly at his guest's door.
"Found it?" he asked.
"No, not yet; going to bed," was the answer, accompanied by an ostentatious yawn. "Good-night, doctor."
Mr. Holmes had indeed found no pocket-book. The discovery he made was far less welcome. An amethyst pin with sleeve-buttons to match, a piece of personal property that he highly valued, had disappeared from his dressing-case. There were three pairs of sleepless eyes in the doctor's quarters when the sentries were shouting the call of "Half-past twelve o'clock." Nellie Bayard, in her dainty little white room, was whispering over a tear-stained pillow her prayer for the safety of Randall McLean, who was riding post-haste down the swollen Platte. Dr. Bayard, too excited to go to bed, had thrown himself on a sofa and was plotting for the future and planning an alliance for his fair daughter that would mean power and position for himself. And Mr. Holmes was sitting with darkened face at his bedside, gazing blankly at the handkerchief he had picked up on the floor just in front of the bureau, a handkerchief embroidered in one corner with the letters R. McL.
* * * * *
Over at the major's quarters were other sleepless eyes. It was late, nearly midnight, when the commanding officer finished dictating his telegraphic despatches to department head-quarters, and when he reached his home Mrs. Miller was still sitting up for him. A faithful and devoted spouse she was,—something of the Peggy O'Dowd order, and prone at times to order him about with scant ceremony, but quickly resentful of any slight from other sources. She could not bear that any man or woman should suppose for an instant that her major was not the embodiment of every attribute that became a soldier and a man. She stood between him and the knowledge of many a little garrison squabble or scandal rather than have him annoyed by tales that were of no consequence; but now she had that to tell that concerned the honor and welfare of the whole command, and she felt that he must know at once.
"Major," she said to him when once they had gained the seclusion of the marital chamber, "has Captain Bruce ever said anything further to you about that story from Robinson last winter?"
"N-nothing much," answered Miller, who dreaded that something more of the same kind was coming, and would gladly have avoided the subject.
"I know that he bade Mrs. Bruce destroy the letter she got and say no more about it," pursued Mrs. Miller, "but she and I are very old friends, as you know, and she could not well avoid telling me that after I told her of the letter I got. Now, it was bad enough that these things should have occurred there, and that suspicion should have attached to some one in Captain Forrest's household; but things are worse than ever now. Have you seen Mr. Hatton to-day?"
"I've seen him, of course, but he didn't say anything on—on such a subject."
"Now, I don't want you to blame Mr. Hatton, major. You must remember that he has always said that I was like a mother to him because I nursed him through the mountain fever, and he has always confided in me ever since; but the other night while he was at the Gordons', the same night he came here after tattoo, somebody went to his room and stole from his trunk over one hundred and fifty dollars in greenbacks and a beautiful scarf-pin that his brother gave him."
"And he did not report it to me?" asked the major, impetuously.
"He did not then, though he meant to, because Mr. McLean induced him to promise not to, because——"
"Well, because what? What reason could young McLean assign that could justify his concealing such a matter from the commanding officer?"
"Because he said it was cruel to allow a woman to be suspected, when she had no man in the garrison—husband, brother, or father—to take her part."
"A woman! What? some servant?"
"Worse than that, major,—Miss Forrest."
Bang! dropped the heavy boot the major had just pulled from his foot, and, one boot off and the other boot on, he started up and stood staring at his wife in blank amaze.
"Listen, dear," she said, "heaven knows it is no pleasure to tell it. She was seen, so my letter said, in the quarters of the officer who was robbed at Red Cloud, the night he was officer of the day. They lived, you know, in the same building. The night Mr. Hatton's trunk was opened she came very late to the Gordons'. Very probably it was she with whom Mr. McLean collided out on the parade, though I hushed you summarily when you began to joke about it, and Mr. Hatton hints that McLean could tell more if he would, but he has firmly set his lips against saying a word. However, that was before to-night. Now for something even worse, because it has happened to a guest within our gates. Mr. Holmes's porte-monnaie with over one hundred dollars was taken from his overcoat-pocket as it hung in the hall to-night, and I saw her go out there while you were having your after-dinner smoke. I saw her go out there and stand by the hat-rack and pretend to be patting and admiring that beautiful fur. My back was turned, but the mirror over the mantel showed it."
"How do you know he lost it?"
"He told me confidentially that he was sure it was taken from his pocket, but he is trying to make the doctor believe he lost it through his own carelessness."
"Seems to me you have confidential relations all around, Eliza; what more has been imparted to you as a secret?"
"Nothing," answered Mrs. Miller, paying no attention whatever to the first portion of the remark; "I have heard quite enough, combined with what we all know, to make me feel that either crime or kleptomania is going on, and the 'Queen of Bedlam' is at the bottom of it."
"What is it that 'we all know?'"
"That she dresses in most extravagant style; that she has suddenly had to quit her uncle's roof, where she lived for years, and come out here to be a burden on her brother, who has nothing but his pay, unless you count an invalid wife and a riotous young brood as assets. She is strange, odd, insolent, and defiant in manner. Shuns all friendship, and refuses to tell anybody what was the cause of her leaving New York as she did. One thing more,—she has sent two registered letters from here within the last three days——"
"Now, how do you know that?" burst in the major, an angry light in his eyes.
"Well, my dear, don't fly off at a tangent. It is a perfectly natural thing to speak of. Hardly anybody ever sends registered letters."
"That's not so; there are dozens sent by the officers and men after every pay-day."
"I mean hardly any women, major. I'm not talking of the men. Hardly any woman ever sends a registered letter, and so when she sent two it was not at all strange that Mrs. Griffin should speak of it to the steward's wife, and she told Mrs. Gordon's Sally, and so it came to me."
"Oh, yes. I'll be bound it reached you sooner or later," said the major wrathfully. "I'm d-blessed if anything goes on at this or any other post you women don't get hold of and knock out of shape. I shall tell Griffin that his position as postmaster won't be worth the powder to blow him into the middle of the Platte if that wife of his doesn't hold her tongue. No, I won't listen to any more of it to-night, anyway. I want to think over what you have told me."
* * * * *
And over at Bedlam there were lights still burning at one o'clock. One of them shone from Mr. Hatton's room at the north end of the second floor. He was officer of the day, and that accounted for it. The other beamed from the corner window at the south, and a tall, graceful, womanly form, wrapped in a heavy shawl, was leaning against the wooden pillar on the veranda. A beautiful face was upturned to the few stars that peeped through the rifts of clouds that angrily swept the heavens. Then, as one jewelled hand clasped the railing, the other encircled the cold, white, wooden post, and in another moment the shapely head was bowed upon it, and great sobs shook the slender figure. There was the sudden rattle of an infantry sword at the other end of the piazza, and Mr. Hatton, striding forth from the hall-way, was startled to see a dim, feminine form spring from the shadows at the southern side and rush with sweeping skirts into the shelter of the Forrests' hall-way.
"I thought I heard some one crying out here," he muttered, "and supposed it was Mrs. Forrest. She's always in tears now that the captain is up in the Indian country. But who would have thought of Miss Forrest?"
An anxious day was that that followed the departure of Captain Terry and his "grays" on their midnight ride down the Platte. The river was so high and swollen that it was certain that the Indians could have forded it only among the rocks and shoals up at Bull Bend, a day's march to the north-west, and that in getting back with their plunder to the shelter of their reservation there was only one point below Laramie where they could recross without having to swim, and that was full twenty-five miles down stream. As particulars began to come in of the fight with Blunt's little detachment the previous day, the major waxed more and more wrathful. It would seem that there were at least fifty well-armed and perfectly-mounted warriors in the party, many of them having extra ponies with them, either to carry the spoil or to serve as change-mounts when their own chargers tired. It was next to impossible that such a force should get away from the reservation without it being a matter of common talk among the old men and squaws, and so coming to the ears of the agent, whose duty it was to notify the military authorities at once. But in this case no warning whatever had been given. The settlers in the Chugwater Valley had no signal of their coming, and two hapless "freighters," toiling up with ranch supplies from Cheyenne, were pounced upon in plain view of Hunton's, murdered and scalped and mutilated just before Blunt and his little command reached the scene. Despite the grave disparity in numbers, Blunt had galloped in to the attack, and found himself and his troopers in a hornet's nest from which nothing but his nerve and coolness had extricated them. Most of his horses were killed in the fight that followed, for Blunt promptly dismounted his men and disposed them in a circle around their wounded comrades, and thereby managed to "stand off" the Indians, despite their frequent dashes and incessant fire. After some hours of siege-work the savages had given it up and gone whooping off up the valley, and were next heard of shooting into the stage-station at Eagle's Nest. If he only had a hundred cavalry, thought Miller, he could head them off and prevent their return to the reservation, where, once they crossed the lines, they were perfectly safe and could not be touched. All told, however, Terry could only take with him some thirty men, and he was glad indeed to have McLean as a volunteer.
It was about noon when the ambulances came in from the Chugwater, bringing Mr. Blunt and the other wounded. The assistant surgeon of the post had ridden out with them at midnight, soon after the receipt of the news; and now, while the soldiers were taken to the post hospital and comfortably established there, Mr. Blunt was carried up-stairs in the north hall of "Bedlam" and stowed away in the room opposite Hatton's. Mrs. Forrest, poor lady, nearly went into hysterics as the young soldier was lifted out of the ambulance. Day and night her soul was tortured with the dread that at any moment news might come that her husband was either killed or wounded,—and in the art of borrowing trouble she was more than an adept. Her lamentations were so loud and voluble that Miss Forrest quietly but very positively took her by the arms and marched her off the piazza into her own room, where Celestine was "trotting" the baby to sleep and nodding on the verge of a nap on her own account. The first thing Mrs. Forrest did was to whisk the half-drowsing infant out of her attendant's arms, clasp it frantically to her breast, and then go parading up and down the room weeping over the wondering little face, speedily bringing on a wailing accompaniment to her own mournful plaint. It was more than Miss Forrest could stand.
"For mercy's sake, Ruth, don't drive that baby distracted! If you cannot control your own tears, have some consideration for the children. There!" she added, despairingly, "now you've started Maud and Vickie, and if, between the four of you, poor Mr. Blunt is not made mad by night-time, he has no nerves at all." And as she spoke the hall-way resounded with the melodious howl of the two elder children, who, coming in from play on the prairie and hearing the maternal weepings, probably thought it no less than filial on their part to swell the chorus. Miss Forrest made a rush for the door:
"Maud! Vickie! Stop this noise instantly. Don't you know poor Mr. Blunt is lying in the next hall, badly wounded and very sick?"
"Well, marmar's crying," sobbed Maud, with unanswerable logic; while Victoria, after stuttering enunciation of the words, "I'm crying because he's going to die," wound up with sudden declaration of rights by saying she didn't care whether auntie liked it or not, she'd cry all she wanted to; and, taking a fresh start, the six-year-old maiden howled afresh.
It was too much for Miss Forrest's scant patience. Seizing the little innocents in no gentle grasp, she lugged them down into the vacant dining-room on the south side of the lower hall, turned the key in the door, and bade them make themselves comfortable there until she chose to let them out. If they must howl, there was the place where they would be least likely to disturb the sufferer at the other end of the building. After which unwarrantable piece of assumption of authority she returned to her unhappy sister-in-law.
"I declare, Fanny, you have absolutely no heart at all," sobbed that lachrymose lady, as she mingled tears and sniffles with fruitless efforts to hush her infant.
"Wh—what have you done with my children?"
"Shut them up in the dining-room until they stop their noises," answered Miss Forrest, calmly.
"You have no right whatever to punish my babies," indignantly protested Mrs. Forrest (and every mother will agree with her). "You are always interfering with them, and I shall write to Captain Forrest this very day and complain of it."
"I wouldn't if I were you, Ruth, because yesterday your complaint was that I never took any notice of them, no matter what they did."