A Trooper Galahad
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After the manner of the army, the garrison at Worth had ceased all outward sign of mourning by the time Barclay reached the post, and almost everybody was ready to devote himself or herself to the amelioration of his condition. Mrs. Frazier, with a motherly eye to business, had lost no time in urging upon her liege the propriety – indeed, the imperative necessity – of his riding out to meet the wounded officer and moving him at once under the shelter of their roof. Amanda could and should give up her room (she was only too glad to), and the girls could sleep together; then the mother and daughters would have sole charge of the nursing of this most eligible young man. What might not be accomplished by such a matron and such dear girls under such exceptional circumstances? Indeed, Frazier was given to understand that he must do it, for if Barclay was allowed to return to his own quarters right next door to the Winns' – and Mr. Winn away – who could say what couldn't be said? – what wouldn't be said? "Everybody knew that Laura Winn had been doing her best," said Mrs. Frazier, "to reset her nets and lure her whilom lover within the meshes," and this would give her opportunities immeasurable. Frazier had a sleepless night of it. He could not combat his wife's theories, though he would not admit the truth of all she asserted. "But," said he, "everybody will see through the scheme at a glance."
"I don't care if they do. I don't care what they say," said his energetic and strategic spouse. "The end justifies the means. Something must be done for the girls you've buried out here in this wilderness. As for Laura Winn, better a sneer at my precautions than a scandal for lack of them."
But Frazier remonstrated: "Barclay isn't the man to get mixed up in a scandal," said he.
"But Laura Winn wouldn't flinch at it," said she, "and it's the way the woman acts – not the man – that sets people talking;" wherein was Mrs. Frazier schooled beyond the sphere in which she moved. At her bidding, Frazier sent for young Brayton, who had marched back with the detachment not sent in chase, told him of Mrs. Frazier's benevolent plans for his captain's comfort, and suggested that such of Barclay's things as he might need be sent over beforehand, – "so as to have everything ready, you know."
The youngster looked embarrassed, said he would attend to it, but immediately sought Major Brooks, who was doing a good deal of resting at the time. "What am I to say to Colonel Frazier, sir?" he asked. "The colonel tells me Mrs. Frazier has a room all ready for Captain Barclay and wishes me to send over a lot of things, and I have a message from the captain saying he will probably arrive day after to-morrow and to have his room ready; and, he adds, in case any one plans to put him elsewhere, to decline in his name."
"Oh, wise young judge!" growled Brooks to himself. Every day was adding to his respect for Galahad.
"I can't decline the commanding officer's invitation, can I, sir?" asked Brayton, in conclusion.
"No, you can't with safety," said the major, "but I'll speak to Collabone – No," he added, abruptly, as he reflected that Mrs.Frazier might eventually hear of it, Collabone being a man who knew no guile and told everybody anything he knew. "No. You tell Collabone what the captain wishes, and let him fix it." And so between the three it was arranged, through the couriers at that time going back and forth every day, that Barclay should be notified of the honor in store for him. And notified he was, and gravely passed the letter over to ?sculapius Junior.
"Help me out of this, doctor, in some way," he said. "I wish to be nobody's guest." And so, when old Frazier did actually mount a horse and, with Amanda in a stylish habit beaming at his side, did actually ride forth – the first time he'd been in saddle in a year – and meet Barclay's ambulance full a thousand yards out from the post, and bade him thrice welcome to the room they had prepared for him, Barclay beamed back his thanks and appreciations, and bade the colonel believe he would never forget his kindness and Mrs. Frazier's, but that he had every possible comfort awaiting him at his own quarters, and could never consent to incommoding Mrs. Frazier or the young ladies. Indeed, the doctor had made other and very different plans for him, – as indeed the doctor had. And Frazier rode back vaguely relieved, yet crestfallen. He knew Barclay and the doctor were right. He knew he himself shrank from such throwing of his daughters at a fellow's head; and then he quailed at the thought of Mrs. Frazier's upbraidings, for she, honest woman, felt it a mother's duty to provide for her precious lambs, the more so because their father was so culpably indifferent, if not shamefully negligent.
A balked and angered woman was Mrs. Frazier at the captain's politely veiled refusal to come and be nursed and captured under her roof. Tartaric acid tinged the smiles of her innocent children the next few days, and if ever there was a time when it behooved Laura Winn to be on her guard and behave with the utmost reserve as regarded her next-door neighbor, it was here and now. She could have read the danger signal in the Fraziers' greeting at parade that very evening, as, most becomingly attired, she strolled languidly down the line at the side of ?sculapius Junior, who, after seeing his patient comfortably stowed in bed, came forth to find her on the piazza, full of sympathetic interest and eager to know what she could do or make or have made in the way of appetizing dainties for the sufferer. Nor did she let him free until he found refuge in the midst of the deeply interested group in front of the colonel's quarters.
This was Tuesday evening, and only Brooks, Blythe, and Brayton were permitted to intrude upon the invalid after the long hours' trundle over the prairie roads. On the morrow the paymaster was to take his ambulance, escort, and emptied safe on the back track to Crockett's, and Barclay was to be allowed to see Mrs. Blythe; but, for the night, rest and quiet were enjoined. In answer to his queries, he was told that the latest news reported Mullane, Winn, and Bralligan scouring the Apache range, while Captain Haight, with forty men, was patrolling towards the Bravo. The post was flush with money. Fuller's bar was doing a rousing business, and Lieutenant Trott, guarding the stores turned over by Winn, was wondering when and in what shape the money value of the stores not turned over was to be paid to him, for the time was past, Winn was far, far away, no package of money had come for him, and Mrs. Winn calmly said it was no affair of hers and she had no knowledge when or by what hand it would be forthcoming. It was conceded at Worth that, in view of the danger in which her husband stood, both afield and at home, more anxiety and less adornment would better have become the lady, as she outshone all other women present when the line of infantry officers broke ranks at dismissal of parade.
A week rolled by, a week little Jim Lawrence and other small boys long remembered for the good things they had to eat and drink; and now Galahad was sitting up again at his quarters, doing very well, said both doctors, so well that he could be out on the shaded piazza in a reclining chair, said Brayton, – but wouldn't, said Blythe, – and for good reasons, said the Fraziers feminine, "because then there'd be no dodging Laura Winn, if, indeed, he has succeeded thus far." True, he had not ventured outside his doors, and no one had seen her venture within them. True, Mrs. Frazier, Mrs. Blythe, and other motherly women had been to visit him, – Mrs. Frazier frequently, – and Mrs. Winn had been most particular in her daily inquiries, – "most persistent," said the Frazier girls. Those were days in which milk was a luxury in far-away Texas, but the delicate custards, whips, creams, and what the colonel's Hibernian orderly described as "floating Irelands," which that messenger bore with Mrs. Frazier's love, or Miss Frazier's compliments, or Miss 'Manda Frazier's regards and hopes that the captain was better this morning, could be numbered only by the passing days. What Mrs. Frazier was prepared to see or hear of was similar attention on the part of Mrs. Winn; but Mrs. Winn's attentions took a form more difficult to see, and, even in a frontier, old-time garrison, to hear of.
What Mrs. Frazier was not prepared to see was Mrs. Blythe in frequent confidential chat with the officer whom the colonel's wife chose to consider her own invalid. She had always fancied Mrs. Blythe before, but now she met her with that indescribable tone suggestive of unmerited yet meekly, womanfully borne injury, which is so superior to either explanation or resentment. Mrs. Winn was frequently on her piazza chatting with Mr. Brayton or Dr. "Funnybone," as the wits of the post had designated Collabone's right bower, "who has more brains in one head," said Collabone, "than the mess has in ten;" but she greeted Mrs. Frazier with an austere and distant dignity even more pronounced than Mrs. Frazier's manner to Mrs. Blythe, which plainly showed that Laura had not "been raised in the army for nothing," and that she had a will and temper and pluck that would brook no airs and tolerate no aspersions on Mrs. Frazier's part. Aspersions there had been, for her friend Mrs. Faulkner had not failed in that sisterly duty which so many women so reluctantly yet faithfully perform, and everything Mrs. and the Misses Frazier had even hinted, and some things they even hadn't, were duly conveyed to Laura's ears. She was angered at the Fraziers for daring to say such things, at Mrs. Faulkner for daring to repeat them, and at Barclay for daring to keep her beyond the possibility of their being true. Never before had she known what it was to strive for a look or word of admiration and to meet utter indifference. Yet those blue eyes of Barclay's had once fairly burned with passionate delight in her girlish beauty, and his words had trembled with their weight of love for her. No other woman, she believed, had yet come into his life and banished all memory of her; and, now that her beauty was but the riper for her years, she rebelled in her soul against the whisper that it could no longer move him.
Wedded though she was to Harry Winn, loving him after the fashion of her shallow nature so long as there was no man at the post from whom she sought to exact homage, she had time and again within the year felt towards her husband a sense of injury. What business had he had to woo her if he was so poor? What right had he to subject her to the annoyance of dunning letters, of suggestive inquiries on the part of her neighbors? Why should she submit to parsimonious skimping and cheese-paring, to living with only one servant when several other women had two, to all the little shifts and meannesses poor Harry had declared to be necessary? It was his business to provide for her needs. Her father had always supported her in style; why couldn't Harry do the same? True, she knew when she married him he had nothing but his pay. He told her everything, but she had never taken thought for the morrow, though she had taken perhaps too much thought of what she should wear or eat or drink. Laura loved the good things of this life, and had been freely indulged throughout her petted girlhood; and now, in the days when every woman seemed turning against her, purse, cellar, and larder were empty and her husband gone on a stupid foray to the mountains. None could say when he would return, or what new sorrow would meet him then. Other men managed to earn money or make money somehow outside their pay. Why should she, whose tastes, she said, were so much more refined, be mated with one who could only spend?
There is a time when many a homely face becomes radiant with a beauty too deep for sallow skin or heavy features to hide, and when a really winsome face becomes well-nigh angelic; but, even as Laura Winn bent over her sleeping child or nestled the unconscious little one in her bosom, the sullen fire of discontent, thwarted ambition, and wounded self-love smouldered in her deep, slumberous eyes. There were hours now when Baby Winn was left to the scant care of the household nurse, while the mother took the air upon the piazza during the day or flitted about from parlor to parlor along the row at night. She was restless, nervous, as all could see. She frequently assailed Brayton with queries for news, always decorously asking first if couriers had come or were expected from the command afield, yet speedily coming back to the real object of her constant thoughts, the now much honored officer, her next-door neighbor. For three days after he was pronounced able to sit up she did not succeed in seeing him at all, though so many other and, it should be explained, much older women did; but that did not abate one whit her determination that he should speedily see her.
Just what her object was she herself could not have told. It was an instinct, an impulse, a whim, perhaps; but he who had been her lover and was rejected had dared to gaze into her face with eyes serene and untroubled, had met her but half-veiled references to old days with polite but positive indifference. She had nothing to ask of him, she told herself; she meant no disloyalty to Harry, no wrong of any kind. Not a bit of it! She had treated Barclay very badly. She had done him a wrong that was much greater in her own estimation than it was in that of any one of her neighbors, among whom the women, at least, considered the loss of his inamorata a blessing in disguise; but Laura fully believed that Barclay's heart must have been crushed in the depth of his woe, and that it was now her duty to make friends again, – perhaps in some way to console him; not, of course, in any way to which Harry could object, not, of course, in any way to which the post ought to object, but – well, even to herself, as has been said, she could not entirely and satisfactorily explain her motives; it was impossible, therefore, that she could hope to do so to anybody else; and yet she had dared to write to him. It was only a little note, and yet, with all its inconsistencies, it said so much:
"Dear Captain Barclay, – I cannot tell you my distress at hearing of your again being severely wounded, especially at a time when I had hoped to have you meet and better know my husband, but now in his distressing absence I, who more than any woman at this post am anxious to show my sympathy and sorrow, am practically helpless. Do tell me if there is anything I can do, – though I am sure I can't see what is left for me, with no cook or kitchen, and Mrs. Frazier and the Misses Frazier sending such loads of things. I really envy them and Mrs. Blythe the privilege of their years in going to see you personally, for am I not at least
"Your oldest friend, "L. W."
This ingenuous note was sent by Hannibal at an hour when the captain was alone, and when, had he been disposed, he might have hobbled to the door and answered in person; but hobble he did not, nor did he answer until after long thought. He received the little missive with surprise, read it without a tremor of hand or lip, but with something of shame and pity that overspread his face like a cloud. Was he only just beginning to know her, after all?
"Pray do not give my scratch a thought," he answered, in writing, late that afternoon, "and believe, my dear Mrs. Winn, that I have every comfort that one can possibly desire. Every one is most kind. I expect to be out with my men in a week, and shall be delighted to take the field and send Mr. Winn back to you forthwith.
And that was how, with polite but positive indifference, he had treated her reference to old times and old friends. Shallow as she was, Laura Winn was deep enough to see that he meant to hold himself far aloof from her. He could hardly have told her more plainly he would have none of her. He had even dared to say it would be a pleasure to go, that he might send her husband back to her arms. And this was the man she once thought she loved, the man who, she believed, adored her and would never outlive the passion of his sorrow at losing her!
Even now the foolish heart of the woman might have accepted its lesson; but it was time for friends again to come, and, as Laura expressed it, "pry and prod and preach," and that brought on a climax.
Mrs. Faulkner had dropped in and dropped out again, and Laura, who seemed forever going to the porch these days, followed and called her back.
"One thing you said I don't understand," she began, and Mrs. Faulkner's pretty face showed plainly there had been something of a storm.
"I said this, Laura," her friend responded, permitting her to go no further, but turning at the step and looking up into her indignant eyes. "You do yourself injury by showing such concern about Captain Barclay. Everybody says so, and it's all wasted as far as he's concerned. He never notices your messages in any way."
It was galling to feel herself censured or criticised, but Mrs. Winn was becoming used to that. It was worse than galling to be told that her whilom lover now turned from her almost with contempt. She could bear it that they should say that Galahad Barclay was again circling within danger of her fascinations and would speedily find himself powerless to resist. She could not bear it that they should declare him dead to her. The anger ablaze in her eyes and flushing her cheeks was something even Mrs. Faulkner had never seen before. It was as though she had roused some almost tigerish trait. For a moment Laura stood glaring at her visitor, one hand nervously clutching at the balcony rail, the other at the snugly buttoned bodice of her dark gown. At that instant the door of Barclay's quarters opened and the sound of glad voices preceded but a second or two the appearance of feminine drapery at the threshold. Mrs. Brooks came backing into view, chatting volubly with some one still invisible. Mrs. Frazier came sidling after, and then as they reached the open air the deep tones of their invalid host were heard mingling with the lighter, shriller, if not exactly silvery accents of his visitors. One glance they threw towards the young matron at the opposite end of the piazza, and then it seemed as though Mrs. Frazier promptly precipitated herself into the doorway again, as though to block it against Barclay's possible egress. "Determined not to let him see me, nor me him," were the unspoken words that flashed through Laura's thoughts. Some devil of mischief seemed to whisper in her ear, for when Mrs. Faulkner turned again, there stood her hostess holding forth for her inspection a little note addressed to Mrs. H. H. Winn in a hand Mrs. Faulkner recognized at once as that of Barclay. With an icy sneer the irate lady spoke:
"You think he doesn't write. This came only an hour ago."
Not five minutes later Mrs. Frazier turned to Mrs. Faulkner and asked, "What was Laura Winn showing you? – a letter?"
Mrs. Blythe was passing at the moment, Ada Lawrence, a tall, pallid slip of a girl, in her first black dress, walking sadly at her side. Mrs. Faulkner nodded assent to the question, but glanced significantly at the passers-by, on their way seemingly to the house the elders had just left. Mrs. Blythe bowed courteously and smiled, but the smile was one of those half-hearted attempts that seemed to wither instantly at Mrs. Frazier's solemn and distant salutation.
"Now what's that woman taking Ada Lawrence there for?" was Mrs. Frazier's query the instant the two were out of earshot, and for the moment she forgot the letter and the significant glance in Mrs. Faulkner's eyes. But Mrs. Brooks had not, and no sooner had the door of Barclay's quarters opened and swallowed up the new callers than the major's wife turned back to it.
"You don't mean a letter from —him?" she asked, with a nod of the head at Barclay's quarters.
"I didn't mean to say anything about it," said Mrs. Faulkner, with proper hesitation, "but you seem to know as much as I do, and she made no secret of it whatever. Indeed, I don't know that there's anything in it that anybody mightn't see."
"I think she has no business whatever receiving letters now that her husband's away – nor any other time, for that matter," said Mrs. Frazier, hotly; "and I mean to tell her so; and I'm astonished at him."
"For heaven's sake don't tell her I let it out!" exclaimed Mrs. Faulkner. "You've just got to say you saw it away from his door."
"Well, I think the sooner Mr. Harry Winn gets back the better it will be for this garrison, and I'll say so to Colonel Frazier this very night," exclaimed the colonel's wife, bristling with proper indignation. "And he'll come back, if we have to send couriers to order him."
But no courier was needed to summon Lieutenant Winn. Two days later, fast as jaded horse could carry him, followed by a single orderly, he was coming, full of hope and pluck and enthusiasm, the bearer of tidings that meant so much to him, that might be of such weight in the removal of some portion, at least, of the serious stoppages against his pay. Away out in the Apache mountains, where the remnants of the Friday gang seemed to have scattered into little squads of two or three, one party had been trailed and chased to its hole, a wild nook in the rocks, and there in brief, bloody fight two more of the gang bit the dust in reaching that height of outlaw ambition, "dying with their boots on." Others were wounded and captured, and still another, neither wounded nor combatant, but a trembling skulker, was dragged out from a cleft in among the boulders and kicked into the presence of the commanding officer by a burly Irishman who would have lost the bliss of a dozen pay-day sprees rather than that one achievement, for the skulking captive was Marsden, and Marsden was English.
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