The Desert and The Sown by Mary Hallock Foote
XIV. Kind Inquiries
The colonel's drawing-room was as hot as usual the first hour after dinner, and as usual it was full of kindly participant neighbors who had dropped in to repeat their congratulations on the good news, now almost a week old. Mrs. Bogardus had not come down, and, though asked after by all, the talk was noticeably freer for her absence.
Mrs. Creve, in response to a telegram from her brother, had arrived from Fort Sherman on the day before, prepared for anything, from frozen feet to a wedding. She had spent the afternoon in town doing errands for Moya, and being late for dinner had not changed her dress. There never was such a "natural" person as aunt Annie. At present she was addressing the company at large, as if they were all her promising children.
"Nobody talks about their star in these days. I used to have a star. I forget which it was. I know it was a pretty lucky one. Now I trust in Providence and the major and wear thick shoes." She exhibited the shoes, a particularly large and sensible kind which she imported from the East. Everybody laughed and longed to embrace her. "Has Moya got a star?" she asked seriously.
"The whole galaxy!" a male voice replied. "Doesn't the luck prove it?"
"Moya has got a 'temperament,'" said Doctor Fleming, the Post surgeon. "That's as good as having a star. You know there are persons who attract misfortune just as sickly children catch all the diseases that are going. I knew that boy was sure to be found. Anything of Moya's would be."
"So you think it was Moya's 'temperament' that pulled him out of the snow?" said the colonel, wheeling his chair into the discussion.
"How about Mr. Winslow's temperament? I prefer to leave a little of the credit to him," said Moya sweetly.
A young officer, who had been suffering in the corner by the fire, jumped to his feet and bowed, then blushed and sat down again, regretting his rashness. Moya continued to look at him with steadfast friendliness. Winslow had led the rescue that brought her lover home. A glow of sympathy united these friends and neighbors; the air was electrical and full of emotion.
"I suppose no date has been fixed for the wedding?" Mrs. Dawson, on the divan, murmured to Mrs. Creve. The latter smiled a non-committal assent.
"I should think they would just put the doctor aside and be married anyhow. My husband says he ought to go to a warmer climate at once."
"My dear, a young man can't be married in his dressing-gown and slippers!"
"No! It's not as bad as that?"
"Well, not quite. He's up and dressed and walks about, but he doesn't come down to his meals,--he can eat so very little at a time, and it tires him to sit through a dinner. It isn't one of those ravenous recoveries. It went too far with him for that."
"His mother was perfectly magnificent through it all, they say."
"Have you seen much of Mrs. Bogardus?"
"No; we left them alone, poor things, when the pinch came. But I used to see her walking the porch, up and down, up and down. Moya would go off on the hills. They couldn't walk together! That was after Miss Chrissy went home. Her mother took her back, you know, and then returned alone. Perfectly heroic! They say she dressed every evening for dinner as carefully as if she were in New York, and led the conversation. She used to make Moya read aloud to her--history, novels--anything to pretend they were not thinking. The strain must have begun before any of us knew. The colonel kept it so quiet. What is the dear man doing with your bonnet?"
The colonel had plucked his sister's walking-hat, a pert piece of millinery froward in feathers, from the trunk of the headless Victory, where she had reposed it in her haste before dinner.
"Mustn't be disrespectful to the household Lar," he kindly reminded her.
"Where am I to put my hats, then? I shall wear them on my head and come down to breakfast in them. Moya, dear, will you please rescue my hat? Put it anywhere, dear,--under your chair. There is not really a place in this house to put a thing. A wedding that goes off on time is bad enough, but one that hangs on from month to month--and doesn't even take care of its clothes! Forgive me, dear! The clothes are very pretty. I open a bureau-drawer to put away my middle-aged bonnet--a puff of violets! A pile of something white, and, behold, a wedding veil! There isn't a hook in the closet that doesn't say, 'Standing-room only,' and the standing-room is all stood on by a regiment of new shoes."
"My dear woman, go light on our sore spots. We are only just out of the woods."
"Isn't it bad to coddle your sore spots, Doctor? Like a saddle-gall, ride them down!" Mrs. Creve and Dr. Fleming exchanged a friendly smile on the strength of this nonsense. On the doctor's side it covered a suspicion: "'The lady, methinks, protests too much'!" The colonel, too, was restless, and Moya's sweet color came and went. She appeared to be listening for steps or sounds from some other part of the house.
The men all rose now as Mrs. Bogardus entered; one or two of the ladies rose also, compelled by something in her look certainly not intended. She was careful to greet everybody; she even crossed the room and gave her hand to Lieutenant Winslow, whom she had not seen since the night of his return. The doctor she casually passed over with a bow; they had met before that day. It was in the mind of each person present not of the family, and excepting the doctor, to ask her: 'How is your son this evening?' But for some reason the inquiry did not come off.
The company began suddenly to feel itself de trop. Mrs. Dawson, who had come under the doctor's escort, glanced at him, awaiting the moment when it would do to make the first move.
"I hear you lost a patient from the hospital yesterday?" said Lieutenant Winslow, at the doctor's side.
"From, did you say? That's right! He was to have been operated on to-day." The doctor shrugged his shoulders.
"Two broken ribs. One grown fast to the lung."
"He just walked out. Said I had ordered him to have fresh air. There was a new hall-boy, a greenhorn."
"He can't go far in that shape, can he?"
"Oh, there's no telling. The constitution of those men is beyond anything. You can't kill him. He'll suffer of course, suffer like an animal, and die like one--away from the herd. Maybe not this time, though."
"Was he afraid of the operation?"
"I can't say. He did not seem to be either afraid or anxious for help. Not used to being helped. He would be taken to the Sisters' Hospital. Wouldn't come up here as the guest of the Post, not a bit! I believe from the first he meant to give us the slip, and take his chance in his own way."
"Did you hear,"--Mrs. Creve spoke up from the opposite side of the room under that hypnotic influence by which a dangerous topic spreads,--"did you hear about the poor guide who ran away from the hospital to escape from our wicked doctor here? What a reputation you must have, Doctor!"
"All talk, my dear; town gossip," said the colonel. "You gave him his discharge, didn't you, Doctor?" The colonel looked hard at the medical officer; he had prepared the way for a statement suited to a mixed company, including ladies. But Doctor Fleming stated things usually to suit himself.
"There was a man who left the Sisters' Hospital rather informally yesterday. I won't say he is not just as well off to-day as if he had stayed."
"Who was it? Was it our man, father?"
"The doctor has more than one patient at the hospital." Colonel Middleton looked reproachfully at the doctor, who continued to put aside as childish these clumsy subterfuges. "I think you ladies frightened him away with your attentions. He knew he was under heavy liabilities for all your flowers and fancy cookery."
"Attentions! Are we going to let him die on the road somewhere?" cried Moya.
"Miss Moya?" Lieutenant Winslow spoke up with a mixture of embarrassment and resolution to be heard, though every voice in the room conspired against him. "Those men are a big fraternity. They have their outfitting places where they put in for repairs. Packer John had his blankets sent to the Green Meadow corral. They know him there. They say he had money at one of the stores. They all have a little money cached here and there. And they can't get lost, you know!"
Moya's eyes shone with a suspicious brightness.
"'When the forest shall mislead me; When the night and morning lie.'"
She turned her swimming eyes upon Paul's mother, who would be sure to remember the quotation.
Mrs. Bogardus remained perfectly still, her lips slightly parted. She grew very pale. Then she rose and walked quickly to the door.
"Just a breath of cold air!" she panted. The doctor, Moya, and Mrs. Creve had followed her into the hall. Moya placed herself on the settle beside her and leaned to support her, but she sat back rigidly with her eyes closed. Mrs. Creve looked on in quiet concern. "Let me take you into the study, Mrs. Bogardus!" the doctor commanded. "A glass of water, Moya, please."
"How is she? What is it? Can we do anything?" The company crowded around Mrs. Creve on her return to the drawing-room. She glanced at her brother. There was no clue there. He stood looking embarrassed and mystified. "It is only the warm welcome we give our friends," she said aloud, smiling calmly. "Mrs. Bogardus found the room too hot. I think I should have succumbed myself but for that little recess in the hall."
The colonel attacked his fire. He thought he was being played with. Things were not right in the house, and no one, not the doctor, or even Annie, was frank with him. His kind face flushed as he straightened up to bid his guests good-night.
"Well, if it's not anything serious, you think. But you'll be sure to let us know?" said Mrs. Dawson. "Well, good-night, Mrs. Creve. Good-night, Colonel! You'll say good-night to Moya? Do let us know if there is anything we can do."
Dr. Fleming was in the hall looking for his cape. The colonel touched him on the shoulder. "Don't be in a hurry, Doctor. Mrs. Dawson will excuse you."
"I don't think you need me any more to-night. Moya is with Mrs. Bogardus. She is not ill. The room was a little close."
"Never mind the room! Come in here. I want a word with you."
The doctor laughed oddly, and obeyed.
"Annie, you needn't leave us."
"Why, thank you, dear boy! It's awfully good of you," Annie mocked him. "But I must go and relieve Moya."
"I don't believe you are wanted in there," said Doctor Fleming.
"It's more than obvious that I'm not in here."
"Oh, do sit down," said the teased colonel.
The fire sulked and smoked a trifle with its brands apart. Doctor Fleming leaned forward upon his knees and regarded it thoughtfully. The colonel sat fondling the tongs. In a deep chair Mrs. Creve lay back and shaded her face with the end of her lace scarf. By her manner she might have been alone in the room, yet she was keenly observant of the men, for she felt that developments were taking place.
"What is the matter with your patient upstairs, Doctor?" the colonel began his cross-examination. Doctor Fleming raised his eyebrows.
"He's had nothing to eat to speak of for six weeks, at an altitude"--
"Yes; we know all that. But he's twenty-four years old. They made an easy trip back, and he has been here a week, nearly. He's not as strong as he was when they brought him in, is he?"
"That was excitement. You have to allow for the reaction. He has had a shock to the entire system,--nerves, digestion,--must give him time. Very nervous temperament too much controlled."
"Make it as you like. But I'm disappointed in his rallying powers, unless you are keeping something back. A boy with the grit to do what he did, and stand it as he did--why isn't he standing it better now?"
"We are all suffering from reaction, I think," said Mrs. Creve diplomatically; "and we show it by making too much of little things. Tom, we oughtn't to keep the doctor up here talking nonsense. He wants to go to bed."
"I'm not talking nonsense," said the doctor. "I should be if I pretended there was anything mysterious about that boy's case upstairs. He has had a tremendous experience, say what you will; and it's pulled him down nervously, and every other way. He isn't ready or able to talk of it yet. And he knows as soon as he comes down there'll be forty people waiting to congratulate him and ask him how it was. I don't wonder he fights shy. If he could take his bride by the hand and walk out of the house with her I believe he could start to-morrow; but if there must be a wedding and a lot of fuss"--
Mrs. Creve nodded her head approvingly. The three had risen and stood around the hearth, while the colonel put the brands delicately together with the skill of an old campaigner. The flames breathed again.
"I don't offer this as a professional opinion," said the doctor. "But a case like his is not a disease, it's a condition"--
"Of the mind, perhaps?" the colonel added significantly. He glanced at Mrs. Creve. "You've thought about that, Doctor? The letter his mother consulted you about?"
"Have you been worrying about that, Colonel? Why didn't you say so? There is nothing in it whatever. Why, it's so plain a case the other way--any one can see where the animus comes from!"
"Now you are getting mysterious, and I'm going to bed!" said Mrs. Creve.
"No; we're coming to the point now," said the colonel.
"What is it you want Bogardus to do?" asked Doctor Fleming. "Want him to get up and walk out of the house as my patient did at the hospital? Dare say he could do it, but what then? Will you let me speak out, Colonel? No regard to anybody's feelings? Now, this may be gossip, but I think it has a bearing on the case upstairs. I'm going to have it off my mind anyhow! When Mrs. Bogardus came to see the guide,--Packer John,--day before yesterday, was it?--he asked to see her alone. Said he had something particular to say to her about her son. We thought it a queer start, but she was willing to humor him. Well, she wasn't in there above ten minutes, but in that time something passed between them that hit her very hard, no doubt of that! Now, Bogardus holds his tongue like a gentleman as to what happened in the woods. He doesn't mention his comrades' names. And the packer has disappeared; so he can't be questioned. Seems to me a little bird told me there was an attachment between one of those Bowen boys and Miss Christine?
"Now we, who know what brutes brute fear will make of men, are not going to deny that those boys behaved badly. There are some things that can't be acknowledged among men, you know, if there is a hole to crawl out of. Cowardice is one of them. Well then, they lied, that's the whole of it. The little boys lied. They wrote Mrs. Bogardus a long letter from Lemhi,"--the doctor was reviewing now for Mrs. Creve's benefit,--"when they first got out. They probably judged, by the time they had had, that Paul and the packer would never tell their own story. Very well: it couldn't hurt Paul, it might be the saving of them, if they could show that something had queered him in the woods. They asked his mother if she had heard of the effects of altitude upon highly sensitive organizations. They recounted some instances--I will mention them later. One of the boys is a lawyer, isn't he? They are a pair of ingenious youths. Bogardus, they claim, avoided them almost from the time they entered the woods,--almost lived with the packer, behaved like a crank about the shooting. Whereas they had gone there to kill things, he made it a personal matter whenever they pursued this intention in a natural and undisguised manner. He had pangs, like a girl, when the creatures expired. He hated the carcases, the blood--forgive me, Mrs. Creve. In short, he called the whole business butchery."
"Do you make that a sign of lunacy?" Mrs. Creve flung in.
"I am quoting, you know." The doctor smiled indulgently. "They declare that they offered--even begged--to stay behind with him, one of them, at least, but he rejected their company in a manner so unpleasant that they saw it would only be courting a quarrel to remain. And so, treating him perforce like a child or a lunatic pro tem., and having but little time to decide in, they cut loose and hurried back for help. This is the tale, composed on reflection. They said nothing of this to Winslow--to save publicity, of course! Mrs. Bogardus's lips are doubly sealed, for her son's sake and for the sake of the young scamp who is to be her son, by and by! I saw she winced at my opinion, which I gave her plainly--brutally, perhaps. And she asked me particularly to say nothing, which I am particularly not doing.
"This, I think, you will find is the bitter drop in the cup of rejoicing upstairs. And they are swallowing it in silence, those two, for the sake of the little girl and the old friends in New York. Of course she has kept from Paul that last shot in the back from those sweet boys! The packer had some unruly testimony he was bursting with, which he had sense enough to keep for her alone, and she doesn't want the case to spread. It is singular how a man in his condition could get out of the way as suddenly as he did. You might think he'd been taken up in a cloud."
"Doctor, what do you mean by such an insinuation as that?"
"Colonel, have I insinuated anything? Did I say she had oiled the wheels of his departure?"
"Come, come! You go too far!"
"Not at all. That's your own construction. I merely say that I am not concerned about that man's disappearance. I think he'll be looked after, as a valuable witness should be."
"Well," the colonel grumbled uneasily, "I don't like mysteries myself, and I don't like family quarrels nor skeletons at the feasts of old friends. But I suppose there must be a drop in every cup. What were your altitude cases, Doctor?"
"The same old ones; poor Addison, you know. All those stories they tell an Easterner. As I pointed out to Mrs. Bogardus, in every case there was some predisposing cause. Addison had been too long in the mountains, and he was frightfully overworked; short of company officers. He came to me about an insect he said had got into his ear; buzzed, and bothered him day and night. The story got to the men's quarters. They joked about the colonel's 'bug.' I knew it was no joke. I condemned him for duty, but the Sioux were out. They thought at Washington no one but Addison could handle an Indian campaign. He was on the ground, too. So they sent him up higher where it was dry, with a thousand men in his hands. I knew he'd be a madman or a dead man in a month! There were a good many of the dead! By Jove! The boys who took his orders and loved the old fellow and knew he was sending them to their death! Well for him that he'll never know."
"The 'altitude of heartbreak,'" sighed Mrs. Creve. The phrase was her own, for many a reason deeply known unto herself, but she gave it the effect of a quotation before the men.
"Then you think there is no 'altitude' in ours?"
"No; nor 'heartbreak' either," said the doctor, helping himself to one of the colonel's cigars. "But I don't say there isn't enough to keep a woman awake nights, and to make those young men avoid the sight of each other for a time. Thanks, I won't smoke now. I'm going to take a look at Mrs. Bogardus as I go out."