"Kate," demanded Captain Jones, "what's that noise?"
"How should I know?" airily queried Kate.
"I heard a noise in the room above. This chimney carries every sound."
"Nonsense," jeered his sister. "Wayne, you've lived alone so long that you're getting spooky."
He turned to the other man. "Prescott, didn't you hear something?"
"Believe I did. It sounded like a cough."
"Well, what of it?" railed Kate. "Isn't poor Nora permitted to cough, if she is disposed to cough? She's in there doing the room for me. I'm going to try sleeping in there—isn't insomnia a fearful thing? But the fussiness of men!"
They were in the library over their coffee. Kate was peculiarly charming that night in one of the thin white gowns she wore so much, and which it seemed so fitting she should wear. She had been her gayest. Prescott was thinking he had never known any one who seemed to sparkle and bubble that way; and so easily and naturally, as though it came from an inner fount of perpetual action, and could more easily rise than be held down. And he was wondering why a girl who had so many of the attributes of a boy should be so much more fascinating than any mere girl. "There are two kinds of girl," he had heard an older officer once say. "There are girls, and then there is Katie Jones." He had condemned that as distinctly maudlin at the time, but recalled it to-night with less condemnation.
"Katie," exclaimed Wayne, after his sister had read aloud some one's engagement from the Army and Navy Register, and wondered vehemently how those two people ever expected to live together, "Nora's out on the side porch with Watts!"
"Do you disapprove of this affair between Nora and Watts?" Katie wanted to know, critically inspecting the design on her coffee spoon.
"I distinctly disapprove of having some one coughing in the room upstairs and not being satisfied who the some one is!"
She leaned forward, pointing her spoon at him earnestly. "Wayne, they say there are some excellent nerve specialists in Chicago. I'd advise you to take the night train. Take the rifle along, Wayne, and find out just what it's done to you."
"That's all very well! But if you'd been reading the papers lately you'd know that ideas of house-breaking are not necessarily neurasthenic."
"Dear Wayne, lover of maps and charts, let me take this pencil and make a little sketch for you. A is the chamber above. In that chamber is Nora. Nora coughs in parting. Then she parts. B is the back hall through which Nora walks. C is the back stairs which she treads. Watts being waiting, she treads—or is it kinder to say trips?—with good blithe speed. D is the side door and E the side porch. Now I ask you, oh master of engineering and weird mechanical and mathematical mysteries, what is to prevent Nora from getting from A to E in the interval of time between the coughing and the viewing?"
Prescott laughed, but Wayne only grunted and ominously eyed the chimney place.
"There!" he cried, triumphantly on his feet before his sister, as again came the faint but unmistakable little cough. "A little harder to make a map this time, isn't it? Talk about nerve specialists—!"
He started for the door, but Katie slipped in in front of him, and closed it.
"Don't go, Wayne," she said quietly; queerly, Prescott thought.
"Don't go? Kate, what's the matter with you? Now don't be foolish,
Katie," he admonished with the maddening patronage of the older brother.
"Open the door."
"I wish you wouldn't go," she sighed plaintively, arms outstretched against the door. "I do hope you won't insist on going. You'll frighten Ann."
"Ann," she repeated demurely.
"Ann who! Ann what! That's a nice way to speak of my friends! It's all very well to blow up the world, Wayne, but I think one should retain some of the civilities of life!"
"But I don't understand," murmured poor Wayne.
"No, of course not. Do you understand anything except things that nobody else wants to understand? Ann is not smokeless powder, so I presume you are not interested in her, but it seems to me you might tax your brain sufficiently to bear in mind that I told you she was coming!"
"I'm sorry," said Wayne humbly. "I don't seem able to recall a word about her."
"I scarcely expected you would," was the withering response.
"Tell me about her," Captain Prescott asked sympathetically. "I like girls better than guns. Has Ann another name? Do I know her?"
Katie was bending down inspecting a tear she had discovered at the bottom of her dress. "Oh yes, why yes, certainly, Ann has another name. Her name is Forrest. No, I think you do not know her. I don't know that Ann knows many army people. I knew her in Europe." Then, as they seemed waiting for more: "I am very fond of Ann."
She had resumed her seat and the critical examination of her coffee spoon. The men were silent, respecting the moment of tender contemplation of her fondness for Ann. "Ann is a dear girl," she volunteered at last.
"Having had it impressed upon me that I am such a duffer," Captain Jones began, a little haughtily, "I naturally hesitate to make many inquiries, but I cannot quite get it through my stupid and impossible head just why 'Ann' is hidden away in this mysterious manner."
"There's nothing mysterious about it," said Kate sharply. "Ann was tired."
"And why, if I may venture still another blundering question, was poor
Nora held responsible for a cough she never coughed?"
Once more Miss Jones surveyed the torn ruffle at the bottom of her skirt.
She seemed to be giving it serious consideration.
"I am glad that I do not live in the Mississippi Valley," was the remark she finally raised herself to make.
"One of Kate's greatest charms," Wayne informed Prescott, "is the emphasis and assurance with which she unfailingly produces the irrelevant. Now when you ask her if she likes Benedictine, don't be at all surprised to have her dreamily murmur: 'But why should oranges always be yellow?'"
"I am glad that I do not live in the Mississippi Valley," Kate went on, superiorly ignoring the observation, "because the joy of living seems to be at a very low ebb out here."
"Honestly now, do you get that?" he demanded of his friend.
"Ann and I had planned a beautiful surprise for you, Wayne."
"Thanks," said Wayne drily.
"To-night Ann was tired. She did not wish to come down to dinner. Of course, I might have told you: 'Ann is here.' To the orderly, West-Pointed mind, the well oiled, gun-constructing mind, I presume that would present itself as the thing to do. But Ann and I have a sense of the joy of living, a delight in the festive, in the—the bubbling wine of youth, you know. So we said, 'How beautiful to surprise dear Wayne.' In the morning Ann, refreshed by the long night's sleep, was to go out and gather roses. Wayne—"
"The roses don't bloom until next month," brutally interrupted Wayne.
"Of course, you would think of that! As we had planned it, Wayne, looking from his window was to see the beautiful girl—she is a beautiful girl—gathering dew-laden roses in the garden. Perhaps Captain Prescott, chancing at that very moment to look from his window, would see her too. It was to be a beautiful, a never-to-be-forgotten moment for you both."
"We humbly apologize," laughed Prescott.
"Hum!" grunted dear Wayne.