Chapter XIV.
 

When Mr. and Mrs. Craig entered the breakfast-room, they saw, to their surprise, General Abercrombie and his wife sitting in their usual places. They bowed to each other, as was their custom on meeting at the table.

The face of Mrs. Abercrombie was pale and her features pinched. She had the appearance of one who had been ill and was just recovering, or of one who had endured exhausting pain of mind or body. She arose from the table soon after Mr. and, Mrs. Craig made their appearance, and retired with her husband from the room.

"The general is all out of sorts this morning," remarked a lady as soon as they were gone.

"And so is Mrs. Abercrombie," said another. "Dissipation does not agree with them. They were at the grand party given last night by Mr. and Mrs. Birtwell. You were among the guests, Mrs. Craig?"

The lady addressed bowed her affirmative.

"A perfect jam, I suppose?"

"Yes."

"Who were there? But I needn't ask. All the world and his wife, of course, little bugs and big bugs. How was the entertainment?"

"Splendid! I never saw such a profusion of everything."

"Fools make feasts for wise men to eat," snapped out the sharp voice of a lady whose vinegar face gave little promise of enjoyment of any kind. Nobody thinks any more of them for it. Better have given the money to some charity. There's want and suffering enough about, Heaven knows,"

"I don't imagine that the charity fund has suffered anything in consequence of Mr. Birtwell's costly entertainment," replied Mr. Craig. "If the money spent for last night's feast had not gone to the wine-merchant and the caterer, it would have remained as it was."

The lady with the vinegar face said something about the Dives who have their good things here, adding, with a zest in her voice, that "Riches, thank God! can't be taken over to the other side, and your nabobs will be no better off after they die than the commonest beggars."

"That will depend on something more than the money-aspect of the case," said Mr. Craig. "And as to the cost of giving a feast, what would be extravagance in one might only be a liberal hospitality in another. Cake and ice cream for my friends might be as lavish an expenditure for me as Mr. Birtwell's banquet last night was for him, and as likely to set me among the beggars when I get over to the other side."

"Then you don't believe that God holds rich men to a strict account for the manner in which they spend the money he has placed in their hands? Are they not his almoners?"

"No more than poor men, and not to be held to any stricter accountability," was replied. "Mr. Birtwell does not sin against the poor when he lavishes his hundreds, or it may be thousands, of dollars in the preparation of a feast for his friends any more than you do when you buy a box of French candies to eat alone in your room or share with your visitors, maybe not so much."

There was a laugh at the expense of the vinegar-faced lady, who did not fail in a sharp retort which was more acid than convincing. The conversation then went back to General Abercrombie and his wife.

"Didn't she look dreadful?" remarked one of the company.

"And her manner toward the general was so singular."

"In what respect?" asked Mrs. Craig.

"She looked at him so strangely, so anxious and scared-like. I never knew him to be so silent. He's social and talkative, you know--such good company. But he hadn't a word to say this morning. Something has gone wrong between him and his wife. I wonder what it can be?"

But Mr. and Mrs. Craig, who were not of the gossiping kind, were disposed to keep their own counsel.

"I thought I heard some unusual noises in their room last night after they came home from the party," said a lady whose chamber was opposite theirs across the hall. "They seemed to be moving furniture about, and twice I thought I heard a scream. But then the storm was so high that one might easily have mistaken a wail of the wind for a cry of distress."

"A cry of distress! You didn't imagine that the general was maltreating his wife?"

"I intimated nothing of the kind," returned the lady.

"But what made you think about a cry of distress?"

"I merely said that I thought I heard a scream; and if you had been awake from twelve to one or two o'clock this morning, you would have thought the air full of wailing voices. The storm chafed about the roof and chimneys in a dreadful way. I never knew a wilder night."

"You saw the general at the party?" said one, addressing Mr. Craig.

"Yes, a few times. But there was a crowd in all the rooms, and the same people were not often thrown together."

"Nothing unusual about him? Hadn't been drinking too much?"

"Not when I observed him. But--" Mr. Craig hesitated a moment, and then went on: "But there's one thing has a strange look. They went in a carriage, I know, but walked home in all that dreadful storm."

"Walked home!" Several pairs of eyes and hands were upraised.

"Yes; they came to the door, white with snow, just as we got home."

"How strange! What could it have meant?"

"It meant," said one, "that their carriage disappointed them--nothing else, of course."

"That will hardly explain it. Such disappointments rarely, if ever, occur," was replied to this.

"Did you say anything to them, Mr. Craig?"

"My wife did, but received only a gruff response from the general. Mrs. Abercrombie made no reply, but, went hastily after her husband. There was something unusual in the manner of both."

While this conversation was going on General Abercrombie and his wife stood in the hall, she trying, but in vain, to persuade him not to go out. He said but little, answering her kindly, but with a marked decision of manner. Mrs. Abercrombie went up slowly to their room after he left her, walking as one who carried a heavy load. She looked ten years older than on the day previous.

No one saw her during the morning. At dinner-time their places were vacant at the table.

"Where are the general and his wife?" was asked as time passed and they did not make their appearance.

No one had seen either of them since breakfast.

Mrs. Craig knew that Mrs. Abercrombie had not been out of her room all the morning, but she did not feel inclined to take part in the conversation, and so said nothing.

"I saw the general going into the Clarendon about two o'clock," said a gentleman. "He's dining with some friend, most probably."

"I hear," remarked another, "that he acted rather strangely at Mr. Birtwell's last night."

Every ear pricked up at this.

"How?" "In what way?" "Tell us about it," came in quick response to the speaker's words.

"I didn't get anything like a clear story. But there was some trouble about his wife."

"About his wife?" Faces looked eagerly down and across the table.

"What about his wife?" came from half a dozen lips.

"He thought some one too intimate with her, I believe. A brother officer, if I am not mistaken. Some old flame, perhaps. But I couldn't learn any of the particulars."

"Ah! That accounts for their singular conduct this morning. Was there much of a row?" This came from a thin-visaged young man with eye-glasses and a sparse, whitish moustache.

"I didn't say anything about a row," was the rather sharp reply. "I only said that I heard that the general had acted strangely, and that there had been some trouble about his wife."

"What was the trouble?" asked two or three anxious voices--anxious for some racy scandal.

"Couldn't learn any of the particulars, only that he took his wife from a gentleman's arm in a rude kind of way, and left the party."

"Oh! that accounts for their not coming home in a carriage," broke in one of the listeners.

"Perhaps so. But who said they didn't ride home?"

"Mr. Craig. He and Mrs. Craig saw them as they came to the door, covered with snow. They were walking."

"Oh, you were at the party, Mr. Craig? Did you see or hear anything about this affair?"

"Nothing," replied Mr. Craig. "If there had been any trouble, I should most likely have heard something of it."

"I had my information from a gentleman who was there," said the other.

"I don't question that," replied Mr. Craig. "A trifling incident but half understood will often give rise to exaggerated reports--so exaggerated that but little of the original truth remains in them. The general may have done something under the excitement of wine that gave color to the story now in circulation. I think that very possible. But I don't believe the affair to be half so bad as represented."

While this conversation was going on Mrs. Abercrombie sat alone in her room. She had walked the floor restlessly as the time drew near for the general's return, but after the hour went by, and there was no sign of his coming, all the life seemed to go out of her. She was sitting now, or rather crouching down, in a large cushioned chair, her face white and still and her eyes fixed in a kind of frightened stare.

Time passed, but she remained so motionless that but for her wide-open eyes you would have thought her asleep or dead.

No one intruded upon her during the brief afternoon; and when darkness shut in, she was still sitting where she had dropped down nerveless from mental pain. After it grew dark Mrs. Abercrombie arose, lighted the gas and drew the window curtains. She then moved about the room putting things in order. Next she changed her dress and gave some careful attention to her personal appearance. The cold pallor which had been on her face all the afternoon gave way to a faint tinge of color, her eyes lost their stony fixedness and became restless and alert. But the trouble did not go out of her face or eyes; it was only more active in expression, more eager and expectant.

After all the changes in her toilette had been made, Mrs. Abercrombie sat down again, waiting and listening. It was the general's usual time to come home from headquarters. How would he come? or would he come at all? These were the questions that agitated her soul. The sad, troubled humiliating, suffering past, how its records of sorrow and shame and fear kept unrolling themselves before her eyes! There was little if anything in these records to give hope or comfort. Ah! how many times had he fallen from his high estate of manhood, each time sinking lower and lower, and each time recovering himself from the fall with greater difficulty than before! He might never rise again. The chances were largely against him.

How the wretched woman longed for yet dreaded the return of her husband! If he had been drinking again, as she feared, there, was before her a night of anguish and terror--a night which might have for her no awaking in the world. But she had learned to dread some things more than death.

Time wore on until it was past the hour for General Abercrombie's return, and yet there was no sign of his coming. At last the loud clang of the supper-bell ringing through the halls gave her a sudden start. She clasped her hands across her forehead, while a look of anguish convulsed her face, then held them tightly against her heart and groaned aloud.

"God pity us both!" she cried, in a low, wailing voice, striking her hands together and lifting upward her eyes, that were full of the deepest anguish.

For a few moments her eyes were upraised. Then her head sunk forward upon her bosom, and she sat an image of helpless despair.

A knock at the door roused her. She started to her feet and opened it with nervous haste.

"A letter for you," said a servant.

She took it from his hand and shut and locked the door before examining the handwriting on the envelope. It was that of her husband. She tore it open with trembling hand and read:

"DEAR EDITH: An order requiring my presence in Washington to-morrow morning has just reached me, and I have only time to make the train. I shall be gone two or three days."

The deep flush which excitement had spread over the face of Mrs. Abercrombie faded off, and the deadly pallor returned. Her hands shook so that the letter dropped out of them and fell to the floor. Another groan as of a breaking heart sobbed through her lips as she threw herself in despairing abandonment across the bed and buried her face deep among the pillows.

She needed no interpreter to unfold the true meaning of that letter. Its unsteady and blotted words and its scrawled, uncertain signature told her too well of her husband's sad condition. His old enemy had stricken him down, his old strong, implacable enemy, always armed, always lying in wait for him, and always ready for the unguarded moment.