Mary's stratagem of taking off with Robert did not escape Maggy's notice. She smiled to herself when she remembered long years ago how she furtively slipped out of her father's house to meet Pat. She would never forget how her father had railed and shouted invectives at her when he found they had secretly married.
Robert and Mary's brief trip ended at the hotel dining room due to the intense cold. Here, Robert was introduced to the girl he had met that afternoon.
"Robert, this is my chum, Annie Gillis."
Annie's eyes sparkled. "I've already met your beau. In fact, I gave him directions to your house." She turned to Robert jokingly, "Mary and I aren't the socially elite; we're the poor of the poorest girls of Emerson. We have to work for a living."
Robert felt at ease; this girl was down to earth. “I can't see anything wrong with that. Where I come from, most unmarried girls help support their families. They must, shucks, most of the families are large."
Mary broke in. "Annie, can you spare the time to sit with us?"
"Sure. I'd love to. This place isn't exactly overrun with customers," she added, smiling. "Anyway, Mother isn't here yet, and she's 'sposed to help me serve supper. Let's sit by the window."
After Robert and Mary had removed their coats and were seated, Annie asked, "Have you heard the horrible news from Roseau Crossing?"
"No. What happened?" Mary questioned.
"A young Indian girl was attacked and strangled to death. The word just came in at noon. It's said she was badly abused. They think a white man did it, probably one of the railroad workers who winter in the shacks out there."
Mary felt her world spinning, her stomach contracted into a knot; then her whole body seemed to convulse. She could almost feel the blood leaving her face as a sickly feeling came over her. She found it hard to breathe and to stop her body's involuntary shuddering. In desperation she grasped the edge of the table fiercely.
Robert immediately sensed she was undergoing a sudden strain of some sort and was concerned. Covering her hands with his, he asked, "What's wrong, Mary? Are you ill?"
Mary's eyes darted to Robert and she forced herself to relax. Her suppressed fear of that terrible experience at Orillia had come back, compounded by the shame she would feel if Robert ever found out about the attack. The moment seemed to demand immediate action. Rising from the chair, she said, "We'd better get home; it's nearly supper time."
Casting a quick glance toward Annie, Robert could see the puzzled look on her face. Also, it was apparent that Annie was disappointed at their leaving so soon.
During the walk back to the house, Mary remained silent. After a few steps Robert put his arm around her waist and she leaned tightly against him. He had never before seen any sign of fear in her, but there was no doubt in his mind that Annie's news had brought unfeigned terror to Mary.
Patrick and Ian were already home when the young couple arrived and both seemed pleased at Robert's visit. Maggy immediately sensed that Mary seemed unduly subdued. She wondered if the couple had had a spat. Worried, she thought, whatever the trouble is, I hope she gets over it quickly. Minutes later, when Mary slipped upstairs, Maggy followed and cornered her in the bedroom.
"Have you two been fighting?"
Mary turned, her expression tense. "Oh, no, Mother." Tearfully she repeated Annie's news.
"Holy Jesus!" Maggy exploded. "That does it! Bloody creeps around here, too!" Then she took Mary into her arms, whispering softly, "You'll have to get a grip on yourself. It's not the end of the world. They'll find and punish that man.
Stepping back, she added, "Now, put it from your mind. Robert seems a capable man and he's worried about you. Why, even the boys can see things aren't right. Go downstairs now, and smile a lot."
Leading the way down the steps, she turned. "Let's get the table set and the men fed. I've made two apple pies for desert. Perhaps you can whip some of yesterday's cream for a topping. It's in the porch and shouldn't be sour yet."
Ian entertained them during supper with stories of his fur buying. At the mention of Susan Grant, Maggy and Patrick exchanged glances. Word of mouth had reached Maggy of Grant's two daughters and she knew the girls were Métis. She hoped the association would not hurt Ian, because mixed marriages were frowned upon by the gentry. Pat had expressed no opinion on the subject when she had brought it up, except to say, "I'd rather see love without marriage than marriage without love."
After eating the apple pie Robert hoped he didn't sound patronizing when he said, "I haven't felt this stuffed since leaving home. Why, even in the city of Winnipeg the meat is either boiled or fried to a crisp. This supper takes me back to my Mother's cooking."
Patrick wiped his lips, and then said slyly, "You should visit us more often, Robert. Maggy doesn't put herself out like this every day."
"Oh, Pat, shame!" Maggy tried to look modest, but her pride was evident.
While helping clear the table, Jerold brought up the subject of the next day.
"It'll be Christmas Eve tomorrow night, and I suppose you old folks will want to sleep all afternoon in preparation for the dance. But how about getting the horses out after breakfast and doing some skiing?"
Ian spoke up, "Sure would be fun, but dad has promised to go to Pembina with me. There's some land just west of town that's up for sale. Why don't you and Mike pull Mary and Robert on the skis?" He looked to his father. "We can team up a pair of the mules for the sleigh, can't we? I wouldn't trust the mules to pull skiers."
Jerold snorted. "Just try to tie a rope on Cain or Abel’s tail. Either would kick the heck out of you."
At breakfast the next morning Mary seemed recovered from her shock. She eagerly awaited Robert's arrival from the hotel. Keeping a watch from the kitchen, she saw him approach the house, then bypass it, going directly to the barn to assist Jerold who was forking hay into a bunk.
Early in the fall Patrick and Jerold had cut four narrow hardwood boards from a plank, smoothed the surfaces and steam bent one end of each into passable skis. By tying a lengthy rope to a horse's tail, the rider of the horse was able to tow a skier at a fast clip. At first Jerold and Mike rode the horses, but when the time came to change over, Mary was surprised to find Robert an accomplished horseman. He had been equally surprised that morning to find Mary wearing a pair of men's woolen trousers, also to find she rode astride, bareback, and expertly.
Helping Mary up after a fall from the skis, Robert carefully brushed the snow from her face and neck. Seizing the moment to plant a kiss on her nose, he asked, "Wherever did you learn to ride a horse?"
"Oh,Robert! How could I not learn to ride? I've had to put up with three brothers." She laughed merrily. "Why we've always had horses."
While Mike circled back with the horse to bring the rope end once again to her, Robert helped her to her feet. "You know, you're the first woman I've seen wearing trousers. You look kind of cute in them!"
During the morning's fun the wind had whipped loose long, glossy strands of Mary's hair, forcing her to stop frequently to retuck them under her toque. Robert found himself hard pressed to keep his distance. By noon all were exhausted and ravenously hungry. Amid joshing and laughter, they decided they were ready for dinner. Removing the ropes from the horses and coiling them over their shoulders, Jerold and Mike rode the animals back to the barn, leaving Robert and Mary to walk the last quarter mile. Putting his arm around Mary's waist, Robert mentioned his plan for the evening. "I stopped at Vance's livery after breakfast and reserved s sleigh for tonight. Lucky I did. Gosh, it was the last rig available. It seems quite a few people from Emerson are going to the fort ball."
Mary voiced her concern. "I don't know Kirby's plans, but he said he'd be here at seven this evening. I suppose he'll get a rig from the teamsters at the fort." She looked up at Robert. "It would only be fair for the three of us to ride together. Father and Mother could take the other sleigh. Would you mind?"
Robert felt secure in his relationship with Mary. "Yup, that's fair. I'll be at your house by seven; are you sure your folks are coming along?"
"Yes, Mother has made a new dress for the occasion. It's going to break her heart not being able to dance, but she'll enjoy the music and the people. She doesn't know many of the townspeople as I do. Teaching at the school has enabled me to meet many of the parents." She added reflectively, "A few are comparatively wealthy, but most are like us, just trying to get ahead." She ceased walking and gave him an impish grin. "Should I wash my face with snow to look more respectful?"
They suddenly clasped to kiss one another in a frenzied passion, letting go only after long moments.
"Maybe we'd better wash both our faces with snow." Robert studied her face soberly. They both broke into laughter. Turning away, she grasped his hand, forcing him into a run for the back door.
Robert and Kirby arrived almost simultaneously that evening, in time to catch Ian in the act of clearing the supper dishes from the table. The two actually appeared to like one another after they were introduced.
Ian smiled, "Jerold's turn at the dishes. He's stuck. I'm the entertainment until Mother and Mary come downstairs."
He noted that Kirby was wearing his dress uniform of blues with shoulder boards, while Robert was wearing a dark woolen suit with an ornate cravat. They made small talk until Patrick descended the stairs. He was fashionably dressed in a new wool Cheviot suit with a high collar and black tie. He had purchased the suit at Maggy's insistence, regretting the five dollars it had cost.
When the women were heard descending the stairs, the men arose in anticipation. Mary preceded Maggy, and for seconds Robert and Kirby seemed mesmerized. Smiling as she descended, Mary carefully held up the hem of her dress, and Robert quickly stepped forward to grasp her hand.
"You look gorgeous, Mary!" Then he looked up to Maggy, who followed. "You also, Mrs. McLaren!"
Kirby was spellbound for seconds, and then he stepped forward to take Mary's other hand, exclaiming, "You'll both be belles of the ball. We'll scarcely get to dance with either of you. We'd better fill your dance cards now!"
Maggy interrupted. "I'll not be dancing. I'll be sitting on the sideline watching you youngsters. Pat, I'll be watching you, too. Try to remember that you're married to me."
He bowed mockingly. "Yes, my dear." Turning to the others, he lamented, "It seems I have my orders."
Mary felt relieved. Obviously Robert and Kirby were not shocked by her dress as her father and mother had been when she first tried it on for their approval. It had been Ian and Jerold's comments that stilled her parents' objections. They were thrilled to see their sister dressed as an adult, a beautiful woman, and made no bones about it. After a time both Patrick and Maggy acknowledged her maturity and agreed that the dress did set off her loveliness.
Handing the borrowed pearl necklace to Robert, Mary turned her back to him. After the necklace was secure she took a sweater from her mother's hands and passed it to Kirby. She smiled as she faced him. "Will you try to get it over my head without mussing my hair?"
Stretching the neck of the sweater as widely as possible, Kirby slid it over her head and shoulders, smoothing it to her waist. He found it difficult to avoid lingering over the gleaming black ponytail that spread over her shoulders, falling to her waist. As it was, he was finally forced to ease her hair from under the sweater. He had never seen anything as alluring.
Robert interjected, "We've each brought a sleigh. Who rides with whom?"
"Let Pat drive your cutter," said Maggy. "I'll ride with him. You three ride together." Maggy knew of Mary's plan.
Mary smiled at her escorts. "If you are both so anxious to dance with me, you can match to see who gets the first dance. You two will probably be my only partners tonight, except for Father."
Kirby gallantly countered, "If I could only believe that!"
Within minutes they were loaded into the sleighs, with buffalo robes covering them to the waist. With Kirby's sleigh leading, they moved on the narrow snow-packed road toward St. Vincent. The teamsters at the fort had thoughtfully added sleigh bells to Kirby's team, enhancing the happy occasion. The nearly full moon cast a magic glow, hiding all of the nearest stars except Orion in the west.
Nearing the Red River, Kirby walked the team down the hill, across the ice, and up the Dakota side. Turning southeast toward the fort, they were joined by two other sleighs from Pembina; those fell into line behind Patrick and Maggy. The ringing of the small bells was accompanied by the hissing and scraping of the sleigh runners, seemingly magnified by the intense cold. Kirby kept them amused by anecdotes about the fort until he finally drew rein at the fort hospital. A heavily dressed corporal and two other enlisted men stepped from the doorway to greet Kirby.
"We'll take over the rigs, Lieutenant. We'll put the horses in the stable. They'll be ready for you when the shindig is over."
He thanked the men while Robert helped Mary from the sleigh. Then he suggested, "Why don't you two go inside? I'll be along with your Father and Mother.” Mary noted this thoughtful act, remembering it later.
While Mary and her mother retired to the room set aside for the ladies, Kirby moved the men to the punch bowl. Turning to Robert, he said, "I'll defer Mary to you for the first dance -- you've come such a long way. But I plan on seeing a lot of her in the future."
Robert smiled at him, "Don't be too sure. Things can happen, you know."
Kirby smiled wryly, and then began introducing Patrick and Robert to his fellow officers.
Finally left alone, Patrick appraised the dancing area of the long hospital barracks in the adjoining room. It had been cleared of cots and, even now, the orchestra was grouping their music stands and chairs at one end. He judged there were already at least fifty people present in the larger room, a preponderance of men, most gathered around the punch bowl. Many of the ladies were still in the so-called powder room.
Three massive wood stoves heated the two rooms set aside for the soiree, and the light came from wall-mounted kerosene reflector lamps spaced evenly along the sides. Patrick noted additional lamps had been hung centrally to augment the lighting. Numerous chairs and makeshift benches had been placed along the walls, and the room was decorated with colored bunting.
Mary was apprehensive when she entered the dressing room reserved for the ladies. She found it crowded with chattering women engaged in changing clothes or putting final touches to their faces or coiffures. Her fears faded after Maggy helped her remove her coat and sweater. In a twinkling she was the center of attention. Compliments came thick and fast. One elderly woman graciously reached out to touch her shoulder and tease. "Dear girl, please leave a few of the young blades for we old hens."
Using a wide yellow ribbon, Maggy bunched Mary's hair upright, then combed it back over her shoulders. The glossy mane extended nearly to her waist. When her daughter stood, Maggy noted envious glances from the younger set.
Mary was unaware that other girls took offense because of her natural charm. Many older women resented her youth and beauty, even though she was less socially advantaged than they. Without realizing it at the time, they felt awed and envious. They wanted to feel sorry for this poor Irish-Scots girl, but how could they? She possessed every quality they themselves desired.
Mary sucked in a deep breath as she and her mother entered the ballroom together. Although nervous, she felt like a queen about to make an entrance. Her dress of shimmering yellow silk was seductive, cut low in the bosom, tapering snugly to a slender waistline, then hugging her buttocks and thighs. From the knees the circular skirt fell until the full hemline brushed the floor, occasionally covering the tips of her yellow silk slippers. Her hair cascaded over her shoulders with the tight silk topknot decorated on each side with Maggy's jeweled combs. The short double row of pearls hung over her amply displayed bosom; her arms were covered to the elbows with matching silk yellow gloves.
For seconds there was a total silence, causing her to blush with embarrassment. Then Kirby, shaken, finally said, "Robert, why don't you get everyone a cocktail while I round up some chairs for us?" He turned to Patrick and Maggy. "Please help yourselves to the hors d'oeuvres."
As several of the younger men began to gather around Mary, both Kirby and Robert hurried to her side as if to ward off competition. Taking Mary's hand, Robert advised, "Kirby has allowed me the first dance. We can share your card."
At that moment Patrick approached. Overhearing the remark, he smiled. "Since my Maggy is unable to dance this evening, I think it only fair that I have the first dance with my daughter." He bowed mockingly to Robert and Kirby. "You two can argue over the future sets." His eyes teased.
Several officers surrounded Mary, appealing for dances, but were interrupted by the approach of Kirby's commander, Captain Collins. Kirby immediately introduced Mary and Robert to the captain, who, after the introduction, seemed only interested in Mary. "My dear, I'm afraid we didn't expect anyone as exotic or beautiful as you to grace our ball." Turning to Kirby, he said sternly, "Lieutenant, you've been holding out on us. Wherever did you find this lovely lass?"
Mary felt free to speak. "I'm from Emerson, Sir, but my family will be moving to Minnesota soon."
Seeing her father and mother close by, she beckoned to them. "Captain Collins, may I introduce my Father and Mother? This is my Mother, Maggy McLaren, and my Father, Patrick." After the men shook hands, the captain led her father and mother toward the punch bowl. Mary suddenly found herself in the midst of several clamoring men.
Confused, she turned to Kirby. "What are the dances? How many are planned for the evening?"
"Usually they'll waltz for a couple of hours, and then some sets of square dancing, then lunch. After that, the dance livens up and continues until the party breaks up."
She smiled at him. "Why don't you and Robert share the waltzes, and I'll dance the square dances with these other gentlemen?"
Kirby shot a glance at Robert, who answered, "Sounds fair to me!"
Within seconds Mary's dance card was filled, and Patrick, having seated Maggy, claimed her for the grand march.
After alternately dancing with Robert and Kirby, Mary was having mixed feelings. She loved Robert, yet she felt she owed more to Kirby than she had shown. She had accepted him as naturally as a brother, yet she knew he wanted more. Do I really know him? What if I hadn't met Robert first? Why, I might have fallen in love with him.
She enjoyed each waltz, luxuriating in Robert's closeness, for he held her tightly. She noted that he was becoming a bit indiscreet and broke his close embrace. She blamed it on the punch bowl.
Kirby's dancing was a change. He held back from her, looking down directly into her eyes, his form and rhythm perfect. He whirled her around the floor, making her almost breathless. His accomplished leading encouraged many of the couples to cease dancing to watch. Mary wondered, do they teach dancing at the military academy or has he sisters? She had never asked.
Over Kirby's shoulder she glanced at her father and mother. Her mother's dark hair had not a spot of gray and was upturned at the ears with the curls her father admired. Their smiles and looks at each other bore out their love. She knew they were enjoying the ball.
The first dance following the waltzes was a Virginia reel and the caller formed the dancers in groups of six. The following dance was a jig, and she was paired with Lieutenant Kirkpatrick, an Irisher, as accomplished at jigging as she. Their skill was applauded enthusiastically.
When the square dancing began, the music became almost wild. "Darling Nellie Grey" was called, with "Form ladies left and gents right; bow low to your partner-here we go!" Mary's cheeks became flushed and her eyes sparkled. She was almost overwhelmed with cut-in partners, nearly all of whom offered invitations to future events. She shrugged them off with smiles. The tunes were all old familiars: "Old Joe Clark," "Turkey in the Straw," "Buffalo Gal" and others.
Mary would remember this night as one of her happiest -- a night when she danced until her feet felt dead. Even among the smartly dressed and most courteous of the officers there was the strong smell of whiskey. She gave little heed, knowing most were away from their homelands and loved ones. She also knew of the so-called hog-houses1 of Pembina and Emerson, and that some of her dance partners probably patronized those places. There was little other entertainment for the military.
After his initial dance with Mary, Patrick sat with Maggy, occasionally visiting the punch bowl to refill his cup. He suspected, rightfully, that the punch had been spiked, as the crowd seemed overly gregarious, especially the ones who hung close to the huge bowl.
Maggy had her suspicions. "Pat, no more punch for me. One cup was enough. It has something in it that almost makes me want to dance." She nudged him, "I guess it's all right for you, though. After all, it's Christmas Eve, and you can sleep in tomorrow morning."
From his chair Patrick watched his daughter flit from man to man. She was beautiful. Her dance card had been filled from the first instant she had entered the room, and now two or more men were attempting to cut out a rival.
Patrick's relationship with Maggy was as firm as ever. She was not a jealous woman and he had never given her reason to be. Their marriage was still as sparkling as it had been from the start. She was strong-willed, but thank the Lord, true blue.
He thought of the presents he had hidden in the barn. Ian should have them in the house by now. A new rocker for Maggy, a violin for Jerold, and the toboggan for Mike.
It was nearly 2:00 a.m. when the band played "After the Ball was Over." While Robert and Mary shared the final dance, Kirby slipped on his overcoat to arrange for their transportation home. During his previous dance with Mary, she had suggested, "Kirby, it seems foolish for you to take us back to Emerson. Why don't you remain here? Robert and I can crowd in with my folks."
He shook his head. "I brought you, and I'm taking you home." He smiled and looked intently into her eyes. "If I have to share with Robert, I will, but under protest!"
Walking across to the stable, he found men already hooking individual horses and teams to sleighs. Recognizing his borrowed horses inside the huge barn, he untied them and led them outside to the cutter. Backing them into place, he hooked up the neck yoke, then the traces to the doubletree. His frustration in having to sacrifice the last dance to Robert played on his conscience; he found he was talking aloud to himself while he bridled up.
One of the teamsters approached. "Who you talking to, Lieutenant?"
"The horses, I guess."
"Best you visit Rosie's in town for a girl, lest you fall in love with the horses. You sure got it bad for that filly from Emerson."
"I'm hoping she'll marry me, but I have tough competition. He's not Army, and probably makes twice the money I do." He felt abashed. Lordy, the word of my interest in Mary must be rumored about; else this man is mighty perceptive.
Noticing that Robert's rented rig was ready, he beckoned to the enlisted man who was holding the lines. The man stepped to the seat and followed Kirby's cutter to the hospital door.
It was nearly 3:00 a.m. when they arrived back in Emerson. Ian and Jerold were still up, anxious to share the excitement of the Christmas gifts. Entering the back door, Maggy exclaimed when she saw Ian and Jerold's gift of the table and six new kitchen chairs. After she hugged each boy, Patrick led her to the living room to see the rocking chair he had selected for her. Slipping off her coat, she sat cautiously in the chair to try its action. As Patrick watched apprehensively, she nodded. "It fits just right and I'm staying here until someone makes me a cup of coffee."
"I will be the one," Jerold smiled. "I'll make a big pot, enough for everyone. Hey, Ian, why don't you start handing out the presents from under the tree?"
The first present was passed to Mary who exclaimed over the silver-backed comb, brush and mirror set from her father and mother. She was thrilled over the colorful silk scarf from Ian. While Patrick went upstairs to get Ian's hidden present, Robert handed Mary a small package. Excitedly, she opened it to find a delicate bracelet of gold filigree. Slipping it on her wrist she proudly displayed it to all. "Oh, Robert, thank you. It's beautiful!"
Kirby smiled at her enthusiasm but said nothing.
Patrick returned with a long, narrow package wrapped in oiled paper. Handing it to Ian, he smiled. "It's from the entire family. Now you can provide the meat for the table."
Ian let out a low whistle when he opened the package. It was a new Winchester 44-40 repeater.
Kirby examined the gun with interest. "Ian, it's a better weapon than the 45-70 Springfields we have at the fort. Of course, it doesn't have the range, but it's faster." He added, almost apologetically, "It seems our Army is always thirty years behind the time when it comes to ordnance."
Ian smiled as he re-wrapped the gun in the oiled paper. "Thank you everyone! I don't know where the money came from, but I know it cost plenty. Now Jerold and I can hunt along the river. There are plenty of deer there."
Jerold was thrilled with his violin and handled it gingerly. "Gosh, there are even instructions with it. I hope I can learn to play it half as well as Grandpa."
"Just learn to play a jig for me." Mary laughed.
Finished with his coffee, Kirby stood to gather his coat and hat. "If I stay any longer, the team will get chilled. Hopefully, I'll get over to see you all tomorrow afternoon. Now I've got to get back in time for reveille." He glanced at the clock and grinned wryly. "Shucks, I've got almost three hours to go."
"Don't forget you're invited to supper." Maggy's decisive tone made it almost sound like a command.
Jerold and Mike were up at dawn to open more gifts, but it was almost noon before the rest of the family straggled to the breakfast table. When Maggy asked Ian his plans for the day, he was evasive, saying only that he had to go to St. Vincent. As he left the house to saddle his horse, Maggy questioned Patrick, "Did you see the look on his face?"
"That I did, Maggy. The lad's in love. He's gone to see that girl."
"Pat, she's part Indian." At Pat's reproachful glance, Maggy felt a twinge of guilt. She attempted to ease her conscience by saying, "While speaking with the women last night, it was mentioned that the two Grant girls are attending school in Pembina. It seems the professor there says they are both gifted." She added grudgingly, "Oh well, maybe it will all work out for the best." Secretly, she determined to meet the girl and judge for herself.
Shortly after the noon dishes were washed, Mary slipped on her coat and announced that she was going to the hotel to visit Annie Gillis.
A second feeling of trepidation came over Maggy – first Ian and now Mary. Instinct told her that it wasn't Annie that Mary planned to visit. She attempted to ease her mind by saying, "Come back early, and bring Robert. Supper will be at six. Kirby should be here by then."
On the way to the hotel Mary questioned her desire to see Robert. When he had held her close last evening, she felt a giddy sensation. Her thoughts were disrupted by the realization that something in her coat pocket was bumping her thigh. Removing her mitten, she discovered a tissue-wrapped object with an attached card. The card had only her name. Stopping, she removed the paper to find a small velvet case. Inside was a gold pin-on watch with her first name engraved on the back. She realized that Kirby must have slipped it into her pocket last evening while they were in the sleigh. Yes, it must have been he; he was sitting to my right. She puzzled, why didn't he just give it to me? What was his purpose in slipping it into my pocket? She felt a sudden regret when she remembered the smile on Kirby's face at her display of Robert's gift. Was it because Kirby feared his gift might be construed as too ostentatious? It was obviously an expensive watch.
Putting questions behind her, she returned the watch to her pocket as she approached the hotel. Sudden caution dictated that she draw her coat collar and scarf closely about her face as she entered the lobby. She knew she must pass several men lounging there.
Entering the narrow hallway, she stopped at Robert's door. Then a feeling of uneasiness and guilt came and she delayed knocking. Finally, gathering courage, she rapped lightly. Bed springs squeaked and Robert's voice came. "Just a moment."
When the door opened, it was apparent he had just pulled on his trousers, and from his mussed appearance it was also apparent that he had been napping. Breaking into a smile, he took her hand, gently tugging her into the room. He closed the door with his foot.
"You shouldn't be here, you know." His voice was low. For seconds she thought he would scold her. Then he broke into a smile as he unwound her scarf and began unbuttoning her coat.
"We'll have to sit on the bed. There are no chairs."
Robert put his arm around her waist, pressing her toward the bed. Seating himself, he pulled her onto his lap, reaching out with his hand to turn her face toward his. Any sense of alarm or danger she felt disappeared magically in the next few moments. He smoothed her hair back and began kissing her repeatedly. It was as if nothing else on earth existed except their love. She tensed once as part of her wanted to rebel against this love, yet physical awareness overcame her and she pressed to him.
Their bodies had that mutual attraction of youth, almost the substance of fantasy. She drove her face at him fiercely, hugging his face to hers wildly. Sliding her from his lap, he laid her gently onto the bed, and then unbuttoned her blouse. Shamelessly, she released her skirt and raised herself, aiding him as he slid her chemise over her head. His lips came to her bared breasts. Her arms clutched him wildly and she arched her breasts tightly against his face, her abandonment complete. "Oh, Robert, I love you! I can hardly wait until we are married."
He marveled at her incredible passion as he rose over her. Then came a thundering clap as the door of the room swung open and struck the inside wall.
"Oh, my goodness! I'm sorry I intruded!" A silky smile appeared on the unwanted guest's face. He hesitated for long moments, staring at them wide-eyed, before finally stepping into the room to grasp the door handle and pull it shut behind him.
As the door closed, Mary jumped to the floor and gathered her clothes. She suddenly felt cheap and sick.
Robert grasped her arm. "I'm sorry, Mary. I don't know who that was. Surely he won't say anything."
She was shaking, suddenly terror-stricken. "Yes, and now he knows. Every time I see him in the future he will know, and I will know. God! I feel cheap and used!"
"Don't say that! If anyone is cheap, it's me. I should never have let you into my room."
She dressed silently, putting on her coat and scarf. When she kissed him goodbye, her cheeks were wet. The short distance through the hotel lobby seemed like miles. She pulled her scarf tightly around her face, fully aware of the looks of appraisal from the men there. She knew the intruder's voice must have carried back to them when he opened Robert's door.
She was thankful the house was empty when she arrived home. She sat by the stove in the living room, but the heat from the stove did nothing to warm her. She felt drained of strength, but determined not to shed any tears. What she and Robert had nearly done she would never again allow to happen until they were married. Closing her eyes, she hugged herself, imagining she was still in Robert's arms. She needed that passion, tenderness and love. If only he was there to reassure her and tell her they would be married, but he had not even offered to dress and escort her home. His lack of support made her feel dirty. She hadn't known anyone could feel so sick without dying. The knot in her stomach seemed to be loosening and tightening. Rising, she went upstairs to her bedroom. Dropping on the bed, she put her face to the pillow and wept.
1 - HOG HOUSE or HOG RANCH is a term that was used...for combination saloons/dance halls/brothels serving military outposts in the 19th century. A limited number of women were permitted association with the daily workings of the camp, and most camp followers (prostitutes) were excluded from the post proper. Reportedly, the name came from the fact that they sometimes lodged at the nearby slaughterhouse that also served the military establishment. From Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work