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Two young men in officers' uniforms entered the smoker of a suburban train, and after the usual formalities of matches and cigarettes settled back to enjoy their ride out to Bryne Haven.
"What d'ye think of that girl I introduced you to the other night, Harry? Isn't she a pippin?" asked the second lieutenant taking a luxurious puff at his cigarette.
"I should say, Bobbie, she's some girl! Where d'ye pick her up? I certainly owe you one for a good time."
"Don't speak of it, Harry. Come on with me and try it again. I'm going to see her friend tonight and can get her over the 'phone any time. She's just nuts about you. What do you say? Shall I call her up?"
"Well, hardly tonight, Bob," said the first lieutenant thoughtfully, "she's a ripping fine girl and all that, of course, but the fact is, Bob, I've decided to marry Ruth Macdonald and I haven't much time left before I go over. I think I'll have to get things fixed up between us tonight, you see. Perhaps--later. But no. I guess that wouldn't do. Ruth's folks are rather fussy about such things. It might get out. No, Bob, I'll have to forego the pleasures you offer me this time."
The second lieutenant sat up and whistled:
"You've decided to marry Ruth Macdonald!" he ejaculated, staring. "But has Ruth Macdonald decided to marry you?"
"I hardly think there'll be any trouble on that score when I get ready to propose," smiled the first lieutenant complacently, as he lolled back in his seat. "You seem surprised," he added.
"Well, rather!" said the other officer dryly, still staring.
"What's there so surprising about that?" The first lieutenant was enjoying the sensation he wascreating. He knew that the second lieutenant had always been "sweet" on Ruth Macdonald.
"Well, you know, Harry, you're pretty rotten!" said the second lieutenant uneasily, a flush beginning to rise in his face. "I didn't think you'd have the nerve. She's a mighty fine girl, you know. She's--unusual!"
"Exactly. Didn't you suppose I would want a fine girl when I marry?"
"I don't believe you're really going to do it!" burst forth the second lieutenant. "In fact, I don't believe I'll let you do it if you try!"
"You couldn't stop me, Bob!" with an amiable sneer. "One word from you, young man, and I'd put your captain wise about where you were the last time you overstayed your leave and got away with it. You know I've got a pull with your captain. It never pays for the pot to call the kettle black."
The second lieutenant sat back sullenly with a deep red streaking his cheeks.
"You're no angel yourself, Bob, see?" went on the first lieutenant lying back in his seat in satisfied triumph, "and I'm going to marry Ruth Macdonald next week and get a ten days' leave! Put that in your pipe and smoke it!"
There ensued a long and pregnant silence. One glance at the second lieutenant showed that he was most effectually silenced.
The front door of the car slammed open and shut, and a tall slim officer with touches of silver about the edges of his dark hair, and a look of command in his keen eyes came crisply down the aisle. The two young lieutenants sat up with a jerk, and an undertone of oaths, and prepared to salute as he passed them. The captain gave them a quick searching glance as he saluted and went on to the next car.
The two jerked out salutes and settled back uneasily.
"That man gives me a pain!" said Harry Wainwright preparing to soothe his ruffled spirits by a fresh cigarette.
"He thinks he's so doggone good himself that he has to pry into other people's business and get them in wrong. It beats me how he ever got to be a captain--a prim old fossil like him!"
"It might puzzle some people to know how you got your commission, Harry. You're no fossil, of course, but you're no angel, either, and there are some things in your career that aren't exactly laid down in military manuals."
"Oh, my uncle Henry looked after my commission. It was a cinch! He thinks the sun rises and sets in me, and he had no idea how he perjured himself when he put me through. Why, I've got some of the biggest men in the country for my backers, and wouldn't they lie awake at night if they knew! Oh Boy! I thought I'd croak when I read some of those recommendations, they fairly gushed with praise. You'd have died laughing, Bob, if you had read them. They had such adjectives as 'estimable, moral, active, efficient,' and one went so far as to say that I was equally distinguished in college in scholarship and athletics! Some stretch of imagination, eh, what?"
The two laughed loudly over this.
"And the best of it is," continued the first lieutenant, "the poor boob believed it was all true!"
"But your college records, Harry, how could they get around those? Or didn't they look you up?"
"Oh, mother fixed that all up. She sent the college a good fat check to establish a new scholarship or something."
"Lucky dog!" sighed his friend. "Now I'm just the other way. I never try to put anything over but I get caught, and nobody ever tried to cover up my tracks for me when I got gay!"
"You worry too much, Bobby, and you never take a chance. Now I--"
The front door of the car opened and shut with a slam, and a tall young fellow with a finely cut face and wearing workman's clothes entered. He gave one quick glance down the car as though he was searching for someone, and came on down the aisle. The sight of him stopped the boast on young Wainwright's tongue, and an angry flush grew, and rolled up from the top of his immaculate olive-drab collar to his close, military hair-cut.
Slowly, deliberately, John Cameron walked down the aisle of the car looking keenly from side to side, scanning each face alertly, until his eyes lighted on the two young officers. At Bob Wetherill he merely glanced knowingly, but he fixed his eyes on young Wainwright with a steady, amused, contemptuous gaze as he came toward him; a gaze so noticeable that it could not fail to arrest the attention of any who were looking; and he finished the affront with a lingering turn of his head as he passed by, and a slight accentuation of the amusement as he finally lifted his gaze and passed on out of the rear door of the car. Those who were sitting in the seats near the door might have heard the words: "And they killed such men as Lincoln!" muttered laughingly as the door slammed shut behind him.
Lieutenant Wainwright uttered a low oath of imprecation and flung his half spent cigarette on the floor angrily:
"Did you see that, Bob?" he complained furiously, "If I don't get that fellow!"
"I certainly did! Are you going to stand for that? What's eating him, anyway? Has he got it in for you again? But he isn't a very easy fellow to get, you know. He has the reputation--"
"Oh, I know! Yes, I guess anyhow I know!"
"Oh, I see! Licked you, too, once, did he?" laughed Wetherill, "what had you been up to?"
"Oh, having some fun with his girl! At least I suppose she must have been his girl the way he carried on about it. He said he didn't know her, but of course that was all bluff. Then, too, I called his father a name he didn't like and he lit into me again. Good night! I thought that was the end of little Harry! I was sick for a week after he got through with me. He certainly is some brute. Of course, I didn't realize what I was up against at first or I'd have got the upper hand right away. I could have, you know! I've been trained! But I didn't want to hurt the fellow and get into the papers. You see, the circumstances were peculiar just then--"
"I see! You'd just applied for Officer's Training Camp?"
"Exactly, and you know you never can tell what rumor a person like that can start. He's keen enough to see the advantage, of course, and follow it up. Oh, he's got one coming to him all right!"
"Yes, he's keen all right. That's the trouble. It's hard to get him."
"Well, just wait. I've got him now. If I don't make him bite the dust! Ye gods! When I think of the way he looks at me every time he sees me I could skin him alive!"
"I fancy he'd be rather slippery to skin. I wouldn't like to try it, Harry!"
"Well, but wait till you see where I've got him! He's in the draft. He goes next week. And they're sending all those men to our camp! He'll be a private, of course, and he'll have to salute me! Won't that gall him?"
"He won't do it! I know him, and he won't do it!"
"I'll take care that he does it all right! I'll put myself in his way and make him do it. And if he refuses I'll report him and get him in the guard house. See? I can, you know. Then I guess he'll smile out of the other side of his mouth!"
"He won't likely be in your company."
"That doesn't make any difference. I can get him into trouble if he isn't, but I'll try to work it that he is if I can. I've got 'pull,' you know, and I know how to 'work' my superiors!" he swaggered.
"That isn't very good policy," advised the other, "I've heard of men picking off officers they didn't like when it came to battle."
"I'll take good care that he's in front of me on all such occasions!"
A sudden nudge from his companion made him look up, and there looking sharply down at him, was the returning captain, and behind him walked John Cameron still with that amused smile on his face. It was plain that they had both heard his boast. His face crimsoned and he jerked out a tardy salute, as the two passed on leaving him muttering imprecations under his breath.
When the front door slammed behind the two Wainwright spoke in a low shaken growl:
"Now what in thunder is that Captain La Rue going on to Bryne Haven for? I thought, of course, he got off at Spring Heights. That's where his mother lives. I'll bet he is going up to see Ruth Macdonald! You know they're related. If he is, that knocks my plans all into a cocked hat. I'd have to sit at attention all the evening, and I couldn't propose with that cad around!"
"Better put it off then and come with me," soothed his friend. "Athalie Britt will help you forget your troubles all right, and there's plenty of time. You'll get another leave soon."
"How the dickens did John Cameron come to be on speaking terms with Captain La Rue, I'd like to know?" mused Wainwright, paying no heed to his friend.
"H'm! That does complicate matters for you some, doesn't it? Captain La Rue is down at your camp, isn't he? Why, I suppose Cameron knew him up at college, perhaps. Cap used to come up from the university every week last winter to lecture at college."
Wainwright muttered a chain of choice expletives known only to men of his kind.
"Forget it!" encouraged his friend slapping him vigorously on the shoulder as the train drew into Bryne Haven. "Come off that grouch and get busy! You're on leave, man! If you can't visit one woman there's plenty more, and time enough to get married, too, before you go to France. Marriage is only an incident, anyway. Why make such a fuss about it?"
By the fitful glare of the station lights they could see that Cameron was walking with the captain just ahead of them in the attitude of familiar converse. The sight did not put Wainwright into a better humor.
At the great gate of the Macdonald estate Cameron and La Rue parted. They could hear the last words of their conversation as La Rue swung into the wide driveway and Cameron started on up the street:
"I'll attend to it the first thing in the morning, Cameron, and I'm glad you spoke to me about it! I don't see any reason why it shouldn't go through! I shall be personally gratified if we can make the arrangement. Good-night and good luck to you!"
The two young officers halted at a discreet distance until John Cameron had turned off to the right and walked away into the darkness. The captain's quick step could be heard crunching along the gravel drive to the Macdonald house.
"Well, I guess that about settles me for the night, Bobbie!" sighed Wainwright. "Come on, let's pass the time away somehow. I'll stop at the drug store to 'phone and make a date with Ruth for tomorrow morning. Wonder where I can get a car to take her out? No, I don't want to go in her car because she always wants to run it herself. When you're proposing to a woman you don't want her to be absorbed in running a car. See?"
"I don't know. I haven't so much experience in that line as you have, Harry, but I should think it might be inconvenient," laughed the other.
They went back to the station. A few minutes later Wainwright emerged from the telephone booth in the drug store with a lugubrious expression.
"Doggone my luck! She's promised to go to church with that smug cousin of hers, and she's busy all the rest of the day. But she's promised to give me next Saturday if I can get off!" His face brightened with the thought.
"I guess I can make it. If I can't do anything else I'll tell 'em I'm going to be married, and then I can make her rush things through, perhaps. Girls are game for that sort of thing just now; it's in the air, these war marriages. By George, I'm not sure but that's the best way to work it after all. She's the kind of a girl that would do almost anything to help you out of a fix that way, and I'll just tell her I had to say that to get off and that I'll be court-martialed if they find out it wasn't so. How about it?"
"I don't know, Harry. It's all right, of course, if you can get away with it, but Ruth's a pretty bright girl and has a will of her own, you know. But now, come on. It's getting late. What do you say if we get up a party and run down to Atlantic City over Sunday, now that you're free? I know those two girls would be tickled to death to go, especially Athalie. She's a Westerner, you know, and has never seen the ocean."
"All right, come on, only you must promise there won't be any scrapes that will get me into the papers and blow back to Bryne Haven. You know there's a lot of Bryne Haven people go to Atlantic City this time of year and I'm not going to have any stories started. I'm going to marry Ruth Macdonald!"
"All right. Come on."