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 sérieux, 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 portière 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."