A PRIZE STORY
Everybody was at Crab Orchard springs, that favorite resort in the ante-bellum days. What though the main rooms were cramped and stuffy, or that the straggling cottages across the grassy lawn were mere shells. It was a place thoroughly rural, thoroughly enjoyable. Merely to ramble along the winding saw-dust walks to the deep embowered springs, was a sufficient augury of improved health. It was the one daily excitement to crowd up to the long platform and see the stage come in, bringing high and low, the rich and moderate liver. The luggage was light, Saratoga trunks being unknown quantities, and no gowns were brought except those of the crushable kind that did duty at ten-pins, fishing, walking, dancing, and not least, driving, for the gravel turnpikes were fine.
Across the wide street was Bachelors’ Row, where were installed hunters and hounds from the Southland, rich cotton and sugar planters, sporting men and their sable attendants. Here the candles burned all night, and there were loud whispers of games in vogue not as innocent as those listed on the tempting advertising circulars of the Springs. This sunny, summer life was of the dolce far niente sort, given up to idle pleasure, and quite out of the way of the tragic happenings of romance. Yet a mystery had managed to creep into this Arcadian realm, a thing not at first tangible, but getting to be an acknowledged first-class secret as the days went by.
Egbert Mason had been nearer the carriage than the rest of the sunset crowd when the stage rolled up, followed by the close, luxurious-looking vehicle so rarely seen in those parts. He declared he caught a glimpse of a being, exquisitely beautiful among the two or three closely wrapped and veiled women who descended from the carriage; and the young men were on the qui vive some hours later to see the new comers enter the ball room. But they did not appear either that night, or any other night. They kept their cottage rooms closely, sitting out only in the rear, and were waited upon by the two black servants they had brought. Various were the conjectures about them, and vague stories soon took shape. The hotel register told only their names: Mrs. Glencarron, Mrs. Hamilton and daughter, from Mississippi. The daughter was an invalid, and this was all that could be drawn from the faithful blacks. The girls pouted, and mamas looked unutterables when their curiosity found no relief; while the men were wisely silent, though equally diligent in fruitless investigation.
It was past midnight, and the lights were out, when the ominous cry of “fire!” sounded through the grounds, striking terror to the visitors thus suddenly startled from their sleep, and emptying the cottages of their half-clad occupants by one accord. A glance at the crackling flames showed that Bachelors’ Row was on fire and doomed. Men from the distant village were soon on the spot with buckets, and amid frightened cries, confused questions, and a general hurrying, scurrying of feet, a few had presence of mind to cover the main building with wet blankets, lest the trees now snapping and hissing might drop a blazing brand and the whole place go down.