The wall, the room, the park beyond, even the gray sky, seemed to fade away before her. She was standing once more at her attic window looking across the roofs and chimney stacks upward to the blue sky of Paris. Through a gap in the roofs she could see the chestnut-trees trilling in the little square; she could hear the swallows twittering in the leaden troughs of the gutter before her; the call of the chocolate vender or the cry of a gamin floated up to her from the street below, or the latest song of the cafe chantant was whistled by the blue-bloused workman on the scaffolding hard by. The breath of Paris, of youth, of blended work and play, of ambition, of joyous freedom, again filled her and mingled with the scent of the mignonette that used to stand on the old window-ledge.
"I am glad you like it. I have only just put it up."
It was the voice of Sir James—a voice that had regained a little of its naturalness—a calm, even lazy English voice—confident from the experience of years of respectful listeners. Yet it somehow jarred upon her nerves with its complacency and its utter incongruousness to her feelings. Nevertheless, the impulse to know more about the sketch was the stronger.
"Do you mean you have just bought it?" asked Helen. "It's not English?"
"No," said Sir James, gratified with his companion's interest. "I bought it in Paris just after the Commune."
"From the artist?" continued Helen, in a slightly constrained voice.
"No," said Sir James, "although I knew the poor chap well enough. You can easily see that he was once a painter of great promise. I rather think it was stolen from him while he was in hospital by those incendiary wretches. I recognized it, however, and bought for a few francs from them what I would have paid HIM a thousand for."
"In hospital?" repeated Helen dazedly.
"Yes," said Sir James. "The fact is it was the ending of the usual Bohemian artist's life. Though in this case the man was a real artist,—and I believe, by the way, was a countryman of yours."
"In hospital?" again repeated Helen. "Then he was poor?"
"Reckless, I should rather say; he threw himself into the fighting before Paris and was badly wounded. But it was all the result of the usual love affair—the girl, they say, ran off with the usual richer man. At all events, it ruined him for painting; he never did anything worth having afterwards."
"And now?" said Helen in the same unmoved voice.
Sir James shrugged his shoulders. "He disappeared. Probably he'll turn up some day on the London pavement—with chalks. That sketch, by the way, was one that had always attracted me to his studio—though he never would part with it. I rather fancy, don't you know, that the girl had something to do with it. It's a wonderfully realistic sketch, don't you see; and I shouldn't wonder if it was the girl herself who lived behind one of those queer little windows in the roof there."
"She did live there," said Helen in a low voice.
Sir James uttered a vague laugh. Helen looked around her. The duchess had quietly and unostentatiously passed into the library, and in full view, though out of hearing, was examining, with her glass to her eye, some books upon the shelves.
"I mean," said Helen, in a perfectly clear voice, "that the young girl did NOT run away from the painter, and that he had neither the right nor the cause to believe her faithless or attribute his misfortunes to her." She hesitated, not from any sense of her indiscretion, but to recover from a momentary doubt if the girl were really her own self—but only for a moment.
"Then you knew the painter, as I did?" he said in astonishment.
"Not as YOU did," responded Helen. She drew nearer the picture, and, pointing a slim finger to the canvas, said:—
"Do you see that small window with the mignonette?"
"That was MY room. His was opposite. He told me so when I first saw the sketch. I am the girl you speak of, for he knew no other, and I believe him to have been a truthful, honorable man."
"But what were you doing there? Surely you are joking?" said Sir James, with a forced smile.
"I was a poor pupil at the Conservatoire, and lived where I could afford to live."
"And the man was"—
"Major Ostrander was my friend. I even think I have a better right to call him that than you had."
Sir James coughed slightly and grasped the lapel of his coat. "Of course; I dare say; I had no idea of this, don't you know, when I spoke." He looked around him as if to evade a scene. "Ah! suppose we ask the duchess to look at the sketch; I don't think she's seen it." He began to move in the direction of the library.
"She had better wait," said Helen quietly.
"Until"—hesitated Helen smilingly.
"Until? I am afraid I don't understand," said Sir James stiffly, coloring with a slight suspicion.
"Until you have APOLOGIZED."
"Of course," said Sir James, with a half-hysteric laugh. "I do. You understand I only repeated a story that was told me, and had no idea of connecting YOU with it. I beg your pardon, I'm sure. I er—er—in fact," he added suddenly, the embarrassed smile fading from his face as he looked at her fixedly, "I remember now it must have been the concierge of the house, or the opposite one, who told me. He said it was a Russian who carried off that young girl. Of course it was some made-up story."
"I left Paris with the duchess," said Helen quietly, "before the war."
"Of course. And she knows all about your friendship with this man."
"I don't think she does. I haven't told her. Why should I?" returned Helen, raising her clear eyes to his.
"Really, I don't know," stammered Sir James. "But here she is. Of course if you prefer it, I won't say anything of this to her."
Helen gave him her first glance of genuine emotion; it happened, however, to be scorn.
"How odd!" she said, as the duchess leisurely approached them, her glass still in her eye. "Sir James, quite unconsciously, has just been showing me a sketch of my dear old mansarde in Paris. Look! That little window was my room. And, only think of it, Sir James bought it of an old friend of mine, who painted it from the opposite attic, where he lived. And quite unconsciously, too."
"How very singular!" said the duchess; "indeed, quite romantic!"
"Very!" said Sir James.
"Very!" said Helen.
The tone of their voices was so different that the duchess looked from one to the other.
"But that isn't all," said Helen with a smile, "Sir James actually fancied"—
"Will you excuse me for a moment?" said Sir James, interrupting, and turning hastily to the duchess with a forced smile and a somewhat heightened color. "I had forgotten that I had promised Lady Harriet to drive you over to Deep Hill after luncheon to meet that South American who has taken such a fancy to your place, and I must send to the stables."
As Sir James disappeared, the duchess turned to Helen. "I see what has happened, dear; don't mind me, for I frankly confess I shall now eat my luncheon less guiltily than I feared. But tell me, HOW did you refuse him?"
"I didn't refuse him," said Helen. "I only prevented his asking me."
Then Helen told her all,—everything except her first meeting with Ostrander at the restaurant. A true woman respects the pride of those she loves more even than her own, and while Helen felt that although that incident might somewhat condone her subsequent romantic passion in the duchess's eyes, she could not tell it.
The duchess listened in silence.
"Then you two incompetents have never seen each other since?" she asked.
"But you hope to?"
"I cannot speak for HIM," said Helen.
"And you have never written to him, and don't know whether he is alive or dead?"
"Then I have been nursing in my bosom for three years at one and the same time a brave, independent, matter-of-fact young person and the most idiotic, sentimental heroine that ever figured in a romantic opera or a country ballad." Helen did not reply. "Well, my dear," said the duchess after a pause, "I see that you are condemned to pass your days with me in some cheap hotel on the continent." Helen looked up wonderingly. "Yes," she continued, "I suppose I must now make up my mind to sell my place to this gilded South American, who has taken a fancy to it. But I am not going to spoil my day by seeing him NOW. No; we will excuse ourselves from going to Deep Hill to-day, and we will go back home quietly after luncheon. It will be a mercy to Sir James."
"But," said Helen earnestly, "I can go back to my old life, and earn my own living."
"Not if I can help it," said the duchess grimly. "Your independence has made you a charming companion to me, I admit; but I shall see that it does not again spoil your chances of marrying. Here comes Sir James. Really, my dear, I don't know which one of you looks the more relieved."
On their way back through the park Helen again urged the duchess to give up the idea of selling Hamley Court, and to consent to her taking up her old freedom and independence once more. "I shall never, never forget your loving kindness and protection," continued the young girl, tenderly. "You will let me come to you always when you want me; but you will let me also shape my life anew, and work for my living." The duchess turned her grave, half humorous face towards her. "That means you have determined to seek HIM. Well! Perhaps if you give up your other absurd idea of independence, I may assist you. And now I really believe, dear, that there is that dreadful South American," pointing to a figure that was crossing the lawn at Hamley Court, "hovering round like a vulture. Well, I can't see him to-day if he calls, but YOU may. By the way, they say he is not bad-looking, was a famous general in the South American War, and is rolling in money, and comes here on a secret mission from his government. But I forget—the rest of our life is to be devoted to seeking ANOTHER. And I begin to think I am not a good matchmaker."
Helen was in no mood for an interview with the stranger, whom, like the duchess, she was inclined to regard as a portent of fate and sacrifice. She knew her friend's straitened circumstances, which might make such a sacrifice necessary to insure a competency for her old age, and, as Helen feared also, a provision for herself. She knew the strange tenderness of this masculine woman, which had survived a husband's infidelities and a son's forgetfulness, to be given to her, and her heart sank at the prospect of separation, even while her pride demanded that she should return to her old life again. Then she wondered if the duchess was right; did she still cherish the hope of meeting Ostrander again? The tears she had kept back all that day asserted themselves as she flung open the library door and ran across the garden into the myrtle walk. "In hospital!" The words had been ringing in her ears though Sir James's complacent speech, through the oddly constrained luncheon, through the half-tender, half-masculine reasoning of her companion. He HAD loved her—he had suffered and perhaps thought her false. Suddenly she stopped. At the further end of the walk the ominous stranger whom she wished to avoid was standing looking towards the house.
How provoking! She glanced again; he was leaning against a tree and was obviously as preoccupied as she was herself. He was actually sketching the ivy-covered gable of the library. What presumption! And he was sketching with his left hand. A sudden thrill of superstition came over her. She moved eagerly forward for a better view of him. No! he had two arms!
But his quick eye had already caught sight of her, and before she could retreat she could see that he had thrown away his sketch-book and was hastening eagerly toward her. Amazed and confounded she would have flown, but her limbs suddenly refused their office, and as he at last came near her with the cry of "Helen!" upon his lips, she felt herself staggering, and was caught in his arms.
"Thank God," he said. "Then she HAS let you come to me!"
She disengaged herself slowly and dazedly from him and stood looking at him with wondering eyes. He was bronzed and worn; there was the second arm: but still it was HE. And with the love, which she now knew he had felt, looking from his honest eyes!
"SHE has let me come!" she repeated vacantly. "Whom do you mean?"
"Yes." He stopped suddenly, gazing at her blank face, while his own grew ashy white. "Helen! For God's sake tell me! You have not accepted him?"
"I have accepted no one," she stammered, with a faint color rising to her cheeks. "I do not understand you."
A look of relief came over him. "But," he said amazedly, "has not the duchess told you how I happen to be here? How, when you disappeared from Paris long ago—with my ambition crushed, and nothing left to me but my old trade of the fighter—I joined a secret expedition to help the Chilian revolutionists? How I, who might have starved as a painter, gained distinction as a partisan general, and was rewarded with an envoyship in Europe? How I came to Paris to seek you? How I found that even the picture—your picture, Helen—had been sold. How, in tracing it here, I met the duchess at Deep Hill, and learning you were with her, in a moment of impulse told her my whole story. How she told me that though she was your best friend, you had never spoken of me, and how she begged me not to spoil your chance of a good match by revealing myself, and so awakening a past—which she believed you had forgotten. How she implored me at least to let her make a fair test of your affections and your memory, and until then to keep away from you—and to spare you, Helen; and for your sake, I consented. Surely she has told this, NOW!"
"Not a word," said Helen blankly.
"Then you mean to say that if I had not haunted the park to-day, in the hope of seeing you, believing that as you would not recognize me with this artificial arm, I should not break my promise to her,—you would not have known I was even living."
"No!—yes!—stay!" A smile broke over her pale face and left it rosy. "I see it all now. Oh, Philip, don't you understand? She wanted only to try us!"
There was a silence in the lonely wood, broken only by the trills of a frightened bird whose retreat was invaded.
"Not now! Please! Wait! Come with me!"
The next moment she had seized Philip's left hand, and, dragging him with her, was flying down the walk towards the house. But as they neared the garden door it suddenly opened on the duchess, with her glasses to her eyes, smiling.
The General Don Felipe Ostrander did not buy Hamley Court, but he and his wife were always welcome guests there. And Sir James, as became an English gentleman,—amazed though he was at Philip's singular return, and more singular incognito,—afterwards gallantly presented Philip's wife with Philip's first picture.
THE JUDGMENT OF BOLINAS PLAIN
The wind was getting up on the Bolinas Plain. It had started the fine alkaline dust along the level stage road, so that even that faint track, the only break in the monotony of the landscape, seemed fainter than ever. But the dust cloud was otherwise a relief; it took the semblance of distant woods where there was no timber, of moving teams where there was no life. And as Sue Beasley, standing in the doorway of One Spring House that afternoon, shading her sandy lashes with her small red hand, glanced along the desolate track, even HER eyes, trained to the dreary prospect, were once or twice deceived.
It was a man's voice from within. Sue took no notice of it, but remained with her hand shading her eyes.
"Sue! Wot yer yawpin' at thar?"
"Yawpin'" would seem to have been the local expression for her abstraction, since, without turning her head, she answered slowly and languidly: "Reckoned I see'd som' un on the stage road. But 'tain't nothin' nor nobody."
Both voices had in their accents and delivery something of the sadness and infinite protraction of the plain. But the woman's had a musical possibility in its long-drawn cadence, while the man's was only monotonous and wearying. And as she turned back into the room again, and confronted her companion, there was the like difference in their appearance. Ira Beasley, her husband, had suffered from the combined effects of indolence, carelessness, misadventure, and disease. Two of his fingers had been cut off by a scythe, his thumb and part of his left ear had been blown away by an overcharged gun; his knees were crippled by rheumatism, and one foot was lame from ingrowing nails,—deviations that, however, did not tend to correct the original angularities of his frame. His wife, on the other hand, had a pretty figure, which still retained—they were childless—the rounded freshness of maidenhood. Her features were irregular, yet not without a certain piquancy of outline; her hair had the two shades sometimes seen in imperfect blondes, and her complexion the sallowness of combined exposure and alkaline assimilation.
She had lived there since, an angular girl of fifteen, she had been awkwardly helped by Ira from the tail-board of the emigrant wagon in which her mother had died two weeks before, and which was making its first halt on the Californian plains, before Ira's door. On the second day of their halt Ira had tried to kiss her while she was drawing water, and had received the contents of the bucket instead,—the girl knowing her own value. On the third day Ira had some conversation with her father regarding locations and stock. On the fourth day this conversation was continued in the presence of the girl; on the fifth day the three walked to Parson Davies' house, four miles away, where Ira and Sue were married. The romance of a week had taken place within the confines of her present view from the doorway; the episode of her life might have been shut in in that last sweep of her sandy lashes.
Nevertheless, at that moment some instinct, she knew not what, impelled her when her husband left the room to put down the dish she was washing, and, with the towel lapped over her bare pretty arms, to lean once more against the doorpost, lazily looking down the plain. A cylindrical cloud of dust trailing its tattered skirt along the stage road suddenly assaulted the house, and for an instant enveloped it. As it whirled away again something emerged, or rather dropped from its skirts behind the little cluster of low bushes which encircled the "One Spring." It was a man.
"Thar! I knew it was suthin'," she began aloud, but the words somehow died upon her lips. Then she turned and walked towards the inner door, wherein her husband had disappeared,—but here stopped again irresolutely. Then she suddenly walked through the outer door into the road and made directly for the spring. The figure of a man crouching, covered with dust, half rose from the bushes when she reached them. She was not frightened, for he seemed utterly exhausted, and there was a singular mixture of shame, hesitation, and entreaty in his broken voice as he gasped out:—
"Look here!—I say! hide me somewhere, won't you? Just for a little. You see—the fact is—I'm chased! They're hunting me now,—they're just behind me. Anywhere will do till they go by! Tell you all about it another time. Quick! Please do!"
In all this there was nothing dramatic nor even startling to her. Nor did there seem to be any present danger impending to the man. He did not look like a horse-thief nor a criminal. And he had tried to laugh, half-apologetically, half-bitterly,—the consciousness of a man who had to ask help of a woman at such a moment.
She gave a quick glance towards the house. He followed her eyes, and said hurriedly: "Don't tell on me. Don't let any one see me. I'm trusting you.
"Come," she said suddenly. "Get on THIS side."
He understood her, and slipped to her side, half-creeping, half-crouching like a dog behind her skirts, but keeping her figure between him and the house as she moved deliberately towards the barn, scarce fifty yards away. When she reached it she opened the half-door quickly, said: "In there—at the top—among the hay"—closed it, and was turning away, when there came a faint rapping from within. She opened the door again impatiently; the man said hastily: "Wanted to tell you—it was a man who insulted a WOMAN! I went for him, you see—and"—
But she shut the door sharply. The fugitive had made a blunder. The importation of her own uncertain sex into the explanation did not help him. She kept on towards the house, however, without the least trace of excitement or agitation in her manner, entered the front door again, walked quietly to the door of the inner room, glanced in, saw that her husband was absorbed in splicing a riata, and had evidently not missed her, and returned quietly to her dish-washing. With this singular difference: a few moments before she had seemed inattentive and careless of what she was doing, as if from some abstraction; now, when she was actually abstracted, her movements were mechanically perfect and deliberate. She carefully held up a dish and examined it minutely for cracks, rubbing it cautiously with the towel, but seeing all the while only the man she had left in the barn. A few moments elapsed. Then there came another rush of wind around the house, a drifting cloud of dust before the door, the clatter of hoofs, and a quick shout.
Her husband reached the door, from the inner room, almost as quickly as she did. They both saw in the road two armed mounted men—one of whom Ira recognized as the sheriff's deputy.
"Has anybody been here, just now?" he asked sharply.
"Seen anybody go by?" he continued.
"No. What's up?"
"One of them circus jumpers stabbed Hal Dudley over the table in Dolores monte shop last night, and got away this morning. We hunted him into the plain and lost him somewhere in this d——d dust."
"Why, Sue reckoned she saw suthin' just now," said Ira, with a flash of recollection. "Didn't ye, Sue?"
"Why the h-ll didn't she say it before?—I beg your pardon, ma'am; didn't see you; you'll excuse haste."
Both the men's hats were in their hands, embarrassed yet gratified smiles on their faces, as Sue came forward. There was the faintest of color in her sallow cheek, a keen brilliancy in her eyes; she looked singularly pretty. Even Ira felt a slight antenuptial stirring through his monotonously wedded years.
The young woman walked out, folding the towel around her red hands and forearms—leaving the rounded whiteness of bared elbow and upper arm in charming contrast—and looked gravely past the admiring figures that nearly touched her own. "It was somewhar over thar," she said lazily, pointing up the road in the opposite direction to the barn, "but I ain't sure it WAS any one."
"Then he'd already PASSED the house afore you saw him?" said the deputy.
"I reckon—if it WAS him," returned Sue.
"He must have got on," said the deputy; "but then he runs like a deer; it's his trade."
The two men were delighted at this divine simplicity. "A man who runs, jumps, climbs—and all that sort, in the circus."
"But isn't he runnin', jumpin', and climbin' away from ye now?" she continued with adorable naivete.
The deputy smiled, but straightened in the saddle. "We're bound to come up with him afore he reaches Lowville; and between that and this house it's a dead level, where a gopher couldn't leave his hole without your spottin' him a mile off! Good-by!" The words were addressed to Ira, but the parting glance was directed to the pretty wife as the two men galloped away.
An odd uneasiness at this sudden revelation of his wife's prettiness and its evident effect upon his visitors came over Ira. It resulted in his addressing the empty space before his door with, "Well, ye won't ketch much if ye go on yawpin' and dawdlin' with women-folks like this;" and he was unreasonably delighted at the pretty assent of disdain and scorn which sparkled in his wife's eyes as she added:—
"Not much, I reckon!"
"That's the kind of official trash we have to pay taxes to keep up," said Ira, who somehow felt that if public policy was not amenable to private sentiment there was no value in free government. Mrs. Beasley, however, complacently resumed her dish-washing, and Ira returned to his riata in the adjoining room. For quite an interval there was no sound but the occasional click of a dish laid upon its pile, with fingers that, however, were firm and untremulous. Presently Sue's low voice was heard.
"Wonder if that deputy caught anything yet. I've a good mind to meander up the road and see."
But the question brought Ira to the door with a slight return of his former uneasiness. He had no idea of subjecting his wife to another admiring interview. "I reckon I'll go myself," he said dubiously; "YOU'D better stay and look after the house."
Her eyes brightened as she carried a pile of plates to the dresser; it was possible she had foreseen this compromise. "Yes," she said cheerfully, "you could go farther than me."
Ira reflected. He could also send them about their business if they thought of returning. He lifted his hat from the floor, took his rifle down carefully from its pegs, and slouched out into the road. Sue watched him until he was well away, then flew to the back door, stopping only an instant to look at her face in a small mirror on the wall,—yet without noticing her new prettiness,—then ran to the barn. Casting a backward glance at the diminishing figure of her husband in the distance, she threw open the door and shut it quickly behind her. At first the abrupt change from the dazzling outer plain to the deep shadows of the barn bewildered her. She saw before her a bucket half filled with dirty water, and a quantity of wet straw littering the floor; then lifting her eyes to the hay-loft, she detected the figure of the fugitive, unclothed from the waist upward, emerging from the loose hay in which he had evidently been drying himself. Whether it was the excitement of his perilous situation, or whether the perfect symmetry of his bared bust and arms—unlike anything she had ever seen before—clothed him with the cold ideality of a statue, she could not say, but she felt no shock of modesty; while the man, accustomed to the public half-exposure in tights and spangles, was more conscious of detected unreadiness than of shame.
"Gettin' the dust off me," he said, in hurried explanation; "be down in a second." Indeed, in another moment he had resumed his shirt and flannel coat, and swung himself to the floor with a like grace and dexterity, that was to her the revelation of a descending god. She found herself face to face with him,—his features cleansed of dirt and grime, his hair plastered in wet curls on his low forehead. It was a face of cheap adornment, not uncommon in his profession—unintelligent, unrefined, and even unheroic; but she did not know that. Overcoming a sudden timidity, she nevertheless told him briefly and concisely of the arrival and departure of his pursuers.
His low forehead wrinkled. "Thar's no getting away until they come back," he said without looking at her. "Could ye keep me in here to-night?"
"Yes," she returned simply, as if the idea had already occurred to her; "but you must lie low in the loft."
"And could you"—he hesitated, and went on with a forced smile—"you see, I've eaten nothing since last night. Could you"—
"I'll bring you something," she said quickly, nodding her head.
"And if you had"—he went on more hesitatingly, glancing down at his travel-torn and frayed garments—"anything like a coat, or any other clothing? It would disguise me also, you see, and put 'em off the track."
She nodded her head again rapidly: she had thought of that too; there was a pair of doeskin trousers and a velvet jacket left by a Mexican vaquero who had bought stock from them two years ago. Practical as she was, a sudden conviction that he would look well in the velvet jacket helped her resolve.
"Did they say"—he said, with his forced smile and uneasy glance—"did they—tell you anything about me?"
"Yes," she said abstractedly, gazing at him.
"You see," he began hurriedly, "I'll tell you how it was."
"No, don't!" she said quickly. She meant it. She wanted no facts to stand between her and this single romance of her life. "I must go and get the things," she added, turning away, "before he gets back."
"Who's HE?" asked the man.
She was about to reply, "My husband," but without knowing why stopped and said, "Mr. Beasley," and then ran off quickly to the house.
She found the vaquero's clothes, took some provisions, filled a flask of whiskey in the cupboard, and ran back with them, her mouth expanded to a vague smile, and pulsating like a schoolgirl. She even repressed with difficulty the ejaculation "There!" as she handed them to him. He thanked her, but with eyes fixed and fascinated by the provisions. She understood it with a new sense of delicacy, and saying, "I'll come again when he gets back," ran off and returned to the house, leaving him alone to his repast.
Meantime her husband, lounging lazily along the high road, had precipitated the catastrophe he wished to avoid. For his slouching figure, silhouetted against the horizon on that monotonous level, had been the only one detected by the deputy sheriff and the constable, his companion, and they had charged down within fifty yards of him before they discovered their mistake. They were not slow in making this an excuse for abandoning their quest as far as Lowville: in fact, after quitting the distraction of Mrs. Beasley's presence they had, without in the least suspecting the actual truth, become doubtful if the fugitive had proceeded so far. He might at that moment be snugly ensconced behind some low wire-grass ridge, watching their own clearly defined figures, and waiting only for the night to evade them. The Beasley house seemed a proper place of operation in beating up the field. Ira's cold reception of the suggestion was duly disposed of by the deputy. "I have the RIGHT, ye know," he said, with a grim pleasantry, "to summon ye as my posse to aid and assist me in carrying out the law; but I ain't the man to be rough on my friends, and I reckon it will do jest as well if I 'requisition' your house." The dreadful recollection that the deputy had the power to detail him and the constable to scour the plain while he remained behind in company with Sue stopped Ira's further objections. Yet, if he could only get rid of her while the deputy was in the house,—but then his nearest neighbor was five miles away! There was nothing left for him to do but to return with the men and watch his wife keenly. Strange to say, there was a certain stimulus in this which stirred his monotonous pulses and was not without a vague pleasure. There is a revelation to some natures in newly awakened jealousy that is a reincarnation of love.
As they came into the house a slight circumstance, which an hour ago would have scarcely touched his sluggish sensibilities, now appeared to corroborate his fear. His wife had changed her cuffs and collar, taken off her rough apron, and evidently redressed her hair. This, with the enhanced brightness of her eyes, which he had before noticed, convinced him that it was due to the visit of the deputy. There was no doubt that the official was equally attracted and fascinated by her prettiness, and although her acceptance of his return was certainly not a cordial one, there was a kind of demure restraint and over-consciousness in her manner that might be coquetry. Ira had vaguely observed this quality in other young women, but had never experienced it in his brief courtship. There had been no rivalry, no sexual diplomacy nor insincerity in his capture of the motherless girl who had leaped from the tail-board of her father's wagon almost into his arms, and no man had since come between them. The idea that Sue should care for any other than himself had been simply inconceivable to his placid, matter-of-fact nature. That their sacrament was final he had never doubted. If his two cows, bought with his own money or reared by him, should suddenly have developed an inclination to give milk to a neighbor, he would not have been more astonished. But THEY could have been brought back with a rope, and without a heart throb.
Passion of this kind, which in a less sincere society restricts its expression to innuendo or forced politeness, left the rustic Ira only dumb and lethargic. He moved slowly and abstractedly around the room, accenting his slight lameness more than ever, or dropped helplessly into a chair, where he sat, inanely conscious of the contiguity of his wife and the deputy, and stupidly expectant of—he knew not what. The atmosphere of the little house seemed to him charged with some unwholesome electricity. It kindled his wife's eyes, stimulating the deputy and his follower to coarse playfulness, enthralled his own limbs to the convulsive tightening of his fingers around the rungs of his chair. Yet he managed to cling to his idea of keeping his wife occupied, and of preventing any eyeshot between her and her guests, or the indulgence of dangerously flippant conversation, by ordering her to bring some refreshment. "What's gone o' the whiskey bottle?" he said, after fumbling in the cupboard.
Mrs. Beasley did not blench. She only gave her head a slight toss. "Ef you men can't get along with the coffee and flapjacks I'm going to give ye, made with my own hands, ye kin just toddle right along to the first bar, and order your tangle-foot there. Ef it's a barkeeper you're looking for, and not a lady, say so!"
The novel audacity of this speech, and the fact that it suggested that preoccupation he hoped for, relieved Ira for a moment, while it enchanted the guests as a stroke of coquettish fascination. Mrs. Beasley triumphantly disappeared in the kitchen, slipped off her cuffs and set to work, and in a few moments emerged with a tray bearing the cakes and steaming coffee. As neither she nor her husband ate anything (possibly owing to an equal preoccupation) the guests were obliged to confine their attentions to the repast before them. The sun, too, was already nearing the horizon, and although its nearly level beams acted like a powerful search-light over the stretching plain, twilight would soon put an end to the quest. Yet they lingered. Ira now foresaw a new difficulty: the cows were to be brought up and fodder taken from the barn; to do this he would be obliged to leave his wife and the deputy together. I do not know if Mrs. Beasley divined his perplexity, but she carelessly offered to perform that evening function herself. Ira's heart leaped and sank again as the deputy gallantly proposed to assist her. But here rustic simplicity seemed to be equal to the occasion. "Ef I propose to do Ira's work," said Mrs. Beasley, with provocative archness, "it's because I reckon he'll do more good helpin' you catch your man than you'll do helpin' ME! So clear out, both of ye!" A feminine audacity that recalled the deputy to himself, and left him no choice but to accept Ira's aid. I do not know whether Mrs. Beasley felt a pang of conscience as her husband arose gratefully and limped after the deputy; I only know that she stood looking at them from the door, smiling and triumphant.
Then she slipped out of the back door again, and ran swiftly to the barn, fastening on her clean cuffs and collar as she ran. The fugitive was anxiously awaiting her, with a slight touch of brusqueness in his eagerness.
"Thought you were never coming!" he said.
She breathlessly explained, and showed him through the half-opened door the figures of the three men slowly spreading and diverging over the plain, like the nearly level sun-rays they were following. The sunlight fell also on her panting bosom, her electrified sandy hair, her red, half-opened mouth, and short and freckled upper lip. The relieved fugitive turned from the three remoter figures to the one beside him, and saw, for the first time, that it was fair. At which he smiled, and her face flushed and was irradiated.
Then they fell to talk,—he grateful, boastful,—as the distant figures grew dim; she quickly assenting, but following his expression rather than his words, with her own girlish face and brightening eyes. But what he said, or how he explained his position, with what speciousness he dwelt upon himself, his wrongs, and his manifold manly virtues, is not necessary for us to know, nor was it, indeed, for her to understand. Enough for her that she felt she had found the one man of all the world, and that she was at that moment protecting him against all the world! He was the unexpected, spontaneous gift to her, the companion her childhood had never known, the lover she had never dreamed of, even the child of her unsatisfied maternal yearnings. If she could not comprehend all his selfish incoherences, she felt it was her own fault; if she could not follow his ignorant assumptions, she knew it was SHE who was deficient; if she could not translate his coarse speech, it was because it was the language of a larger world from which she had been excluded. To this world belonged the beautiful limbs she gazed on,—a very different world from that which had produced the rheumatic deformities and useless mayhem of her husband, or the provincially foppish garments of the deputy. Sitting in the hayloft together, where she had mounted for greater security, they forgot themselves in his monologue of cheap vaporing, broken only by her assenting smiles and her half-checked sighs. The sharp spices of the heated pine-shingles over their heads and the fragrance of the clover-scented hay filled the close air around them. The sun was falling with the wind, but they heeded it not; until the usual fateful premonition struck the woman, and saying "I must go now," she only half-unconsciously precipitated the end. For, as she rose, he caught first her hand and then her waist, and attempted to raise the face that was suddenly bending down as if seeking to hide itself in the hay. It was a brief struggle, ending in a submission as sudden, and their lips met in a kiss, so eager that it might have been impending for days instead of minutes.
"Oh, Sue! where are ye?"
It was her husband's voice, out of a darkness that they only then realized. The man threw her aside with a roughness that momentarily shocked her above any sense of surprise or shame: SHE would have confronted her husband in his arms,—glorified and translated,—had he but kept her there. Yet she answered, with a quiet, level voice that astonished her lover, "Here! I'm just coming down!" and walked coolly to the ladder. Looking over, and seeing her husband with the deputy standing in the barnyard, she quickly returned, put her finger to her lips, made a gesture for her companion to conceal himself in the hay again, and was turning away, when, perhaps shamed by her superior calmness, he grasped her hand tightly and whispered, "Come again tonight, dear; do!" She hesitated, raised her hand suddenly to her lips, and then quickly disengaging it, slipped down the ladder.
"Ye haven't done much work yet as I kin see," said Ira wearily. "Whitey and Red Tip [the cows] are hangin' over the corral, just waitin'."
"The yellow hen we reckoned was lost is sittin' in the hayloft, and mustn't be disturbed," said Mrs. Beasley, with decision; "and ye'll have to take the hay from the stack to-night. And," with an arch glance at the deputy, "as I don't see that you two have done much either, you're just in time to help fodder down."
Setting the three men to work with the same bright audacity, the task was soon completed—particularly as the deputy found no opportunity for exclusive dalliance with Mrs. Beasley. She shut the barn door herself, and led the way to the house, learning incidentally that the deputy had abandoned the chase, was to occupy a "shake-down" on the kitchen-floor that night with the constable, and depart at daybreak. The gloom of her husband's face had settled into a look of heavy resignation and alternate glances of watchfulness, which only seemed to inspire her with renewed vivacity. But the cooking of supper withdrew her disturbing presence for a time from the room, and gave him some relief. When the meal was ready he sought further surcease from trouble in copious draughts of whiskey, which she produced from a new bottle, and even pressed upon the deputy in mischievous contrition for her previous inhospitality.
"Now I know that it wasn't whiskey only ye came for, I'll show you that Sue Beasley is no slouch of a barkeeper either," she said.
Then, rolling her sleeves above her pretty arms, she mixed a cocktail in such delightful imitation of the fashionable barkeeper's dexterity that her guests were convulsed with admiration. Even Ira was struck with this revelation of a youthfulness that five years of household care had checked, but never yet subdued. He had forgotten that he had married a child. Only once, when she glanced at the cheap clock on the mantel, had he noticed another change, more remarkable still from its very inconsistency with her burst of youthful spirits. It was another face that he saw,—older and matured with an intensity of abstraction that struck a chill to his heart. It was not HIS Sue that was standing there, but another Sue, wrought, as it seemed to his morbid extravagance, by some one else's hand.
Yet there was another interval of relief when his wife, declaring she was tired, and even jocosely confessing to some effect of the liquor she had pretended to taste, went early to bed. The deputy, not finding the gloomy company of the husband to his taste, presently ensconced himself on the floor, before the kitchen fire, in the blankets that she had provided. The constable followed his example. In a few moments the house was silent and sleeping, save for Ira sitting alone, with his head sunk on his chest and his hands gripping the arms of his chair before the dying embers of his hearth.
He was trying, with the alternate quickness and inaction of an inexperienced intellect and an imagination morbidly awakened, to grasp the situation before him. The common sense that had hitherto governed his life told him that the deputy would go to-morrow, and that there was nothing in his wife's conduct to show that her coquetry and aberration would not pass as easily. But it recurred to him that she had never shown this coquetry or aberration to HIM during their own brief courtship,—that she had never looked or acted like this before. If this was love, she had never known it; if it was only "women's ways," as he had heard men say, and so dangerously attractive, why had she not shown it to him? He remembered that matter-of-fact wedding, the bride without timidity, without blushes, without expectation beyond the transference of her home to his. Would it have been different with another man?—with the deputy, who had called this color and animation to her face? What did it all mean? Were all married people like this? There were the Westons, their neighbors,—was Mrs. Weston like Sue? But he remembered that Mrs. Weston had run away with Mr. Weston from her father's house. It was what they called "a love match." Would Sue have run away with him? Would she now run away with—?
The candle was guttering as he rose with a fierce start—his first impulse of anger—from the table. He took another gulp of whiskey. It tasted like water; its fire was quenched in the greater heat of his blood. He would go to bed. Here a new and indefinable timidity took possession of him; he remembered the strange look in his wife's face. It seemed suddenly as if the influence of the sleeping stranger in the next room had not only isolated her from him, but would make his presence in her bedroom an intrusion on their hidden secrets. He had to pass the open door of the kitchen. The head of the unconscious deputy was close to Ira's heavy boot. He had only to lift his heel to crush that ruddy, good-looking, complacent face. He hurried past him, up the creaking stairs. His wife lay still on one side of the bed, apparently asleep, her face half-hidden in her loosened, fluffy hair. It was well; for in the vague shyness and restraint that was beginning to take possession of him he felt he could not have spoken to her, or, if he had, it would have been only to voice the horrible, unformulated things that seemed to choke him. He crept softly to the opposite side of the bed, and began to undress. As he pulled off his boots and stockings, his eye fell upon his bare, malformed feet. This caused him to look at his maimed hand, to rise, drag himself across the floor to the mirror, and gaze upon his lacerated ear. She, this prettily formed woman lying there, must have seen it often; she must have known all these years that he was not like other men,—not like the deputy, with his tight riding-boots, his soft hand, and the diamond that sparkled vulgarly on his fat little finger. A cold sweat broke over him. He drew on his stockings again, lifted the outer counterpane, and, half undressed, crept under it, wrapping its corner around his maimed hand, as if to hide it from the light. Yet he felt that he saw things dimly; there was a moisture on his cheeks and eyelids he could not account for; it must be the whiskey "coming out."
His wife lay very still; she scarcely seemed to breathe. What if she should never breathe again, but die as the old Sue he knew, the lanky girl he had married, unchanged and uncontaminated? It would be better than this. Yet at the same moment the picture was before him of her pretty simulation of the barkeeper, of her white bared arms and laughing eyes, all so new, so fresh to him! He tried to listen to the slow ticking of the clock, the occasional stirring of air through the house, and the movement, like a deep sigh, which was the regular, inarticulate speech of the lonely plain beyond, and quite distinct from the evening breeze. He had heard it often, but, like so many things he had learned that day, he never seemed to have caught its meaning before. Then, perhaps, it was his supine position, perhaps some cumulative effect of the whiskey he had taken, but all this presently became confused and whirling. Out of its gyrations he tried to grasp something, to hear voices that called him to "wake," and in the midst of it he fell into a profound sleep.
The clock ticked, the wind sighed, the woman at his side lay motionless for many minutes.
Then the deputy on the kitchen floor rolled over with an appalling snort, struggled, stretched himself, and awoke. A healthy animal, he had shaken off the fumes of liquor with a dry tongue and a thirst for water and fresh air. He raised his knees and rubbed his eyes. The water bucket was missing from the corner. Well, he knew where the spring was, and a turn out of the close and stifling kitchen would do him good. He yawned, put on his boots softly, opened the back door, and stepped out. Everything was dark, but above and around him, to the very level of his feet, all apparently pricked with bright stars. The bulk of the barn rose dimly before him on the right, to the left was the spring. He reached it, drank, dipped his head and hands in it, and arose refreshed. The dry, wholesome breath that blew over this flat disk around him, rimmed with stars, did the rest. He began to saunter slowly back, the only reminiscence of his evening's potations being the figure he recalled of his pretty hostess, with bare arms and lifted glasses, imitating the barkeeper. A complacent smile straightened his yellow mustache. How she kept glancing at him and watching him, the little witch! Ha! no wonder! What could she find in the surly, slinking, stupid brute yonder? (The gentleman here alluded to was his host.) But the deputy had not been without a certain provincial success with the fair. He was true to most men, and fearless to all. One may not be too hard upon him at this moment of his life.
For as he was passing the house he stopped suddenly. Above the dry, dusty, herbal odors of the plain, above the scent of the new-mown hay within the barn, there was distinctly another fragrance,—the smell of a pipe. But where? Was it his host who had risen to take the outer air? Then it suddenly flashed upon him that Beasley did NOT smoke, nor the constable either. The smell seemed to come from the barn. Had he followed out the train of ideas thus awakened, all might have been well; but at this moment his attention was arrested by a far more exciting incident to him,—the draped and hooded figure of Mrs. Beasley was just emerging from the house. He halted instantly in the shadow, and held his breath as she glided quickly across the intervening space and disappeared in the half-opened door of the barn. Did she know he was there? A keen thrill passed over him; his mouth broadened into a breathless smile. It was his last! for, as he glided forward to the door, the starry heavens broke into a thousand brilliant fragments around him, the earth gave way beneath his feet, and he fell forward with half his skull shot away.
Where he fell there he lay without an outcry, with only one movement,—the curved and grasping fingers of the fighter's hand towards his guarded hip. Where he fell there he lay dead, his face downwards, his good right arm still curved around across his back. Nothing of him moved but his blood,—broadening slowly round him in vivid color, and then sluggishly thickening and darkening until it stopped too, and sank into the earth, a dull brown stain. For an instant the stillness of death followed the echoless report, then there was a quick and feverish rustling within the barn, the hurried opening of a window in the loft, scurrying footsteps, another interval of silence, and then out of the farther darkness the sounds of horse-hoofs in the muffled dust of the road. But not a sound or movement in the sleeping house beyond.
The stars at last paled slowly, the horizon lines came back,—a thin streak of opal fire. A solitary bird twittered in the bush beside the spring. Then the back door of the house opened, and the constable came forth, half-awakened and apologetic, and with the bewildered haste of a belated man. His eyes were level, looking for his missing leader as he went on, until at last he stumbled and fell over the now cold and rigid body. He scrambled to his feet again, cast a hurried glance around him,—at the half-opened door of the barn, at the floor littered with trampled hay. In one corner lay the ragged blouse and trousers of the fugitive, which the constable instantly recognized. He went back to the house, and reappeared in a few moments with Ira, white, stupefied, and hopelessly bewildered; clear only in his statement that his wife had just fainted at the news of the catastrophe, and was equally helpless in her own room. The constable—a man of narrow ideas but quick action—saw it all. The mystery was plain without further evidence. The deputy had been awakened by the prowling of the fugitive around the house in search of a horse. Sallying out, they had met, and Ira's gun, which stood in the kitchen, and which the deputy had seized, had been wrested from him and used with fatal effect at arm's length, and the now double assassin had escaped on the sheriff's horse, which was missing. Turning the body over to the trembling Ira, he saddled his horse and galloped to Lowville for assistance.
These facts were fully established at the hurried inquest which met that day. There was no need to go behind the evidence of the constable, the only companion of the murdered man and first discoverer of the body. The fact that he, on the ground floor, had slept through the struggle and the report, made the obliviousness of the couple in the room above a rational sequence. The dazed Ira was set aside, after half a dozen contemptuous questions; the chivalry of a Californian jury excused the attendance of a frightened and hysterical woman confined to her room. By noon they had departed with the body, and the long afternoon shadows settled over the lonely plain and silent house. At nightfall Ira appeared at the door, and stood for some moments scanning the plain; he was seen later by two packers, who had glanced furtively at the scene of the late tragedy, sitting outside his doorway, a mere shadow in the darkness; and a mounted patrol later in the night saw a light in the bedroom window where the invalid Mrs. Beasley was confined. But no one saw her afterwards. Later, Ira explained that she had gone to visit a relative until her health was restored. Having few friends and fewer neighbors, she was not missed; and even the constable, the sole surviving guest who had enjoyed her brief eminence of archness and beauty that fatal night, had quite forgotten her in his vengeful quest of the murderer. So that people became accustomed to see this lonely man working in the fields by day, or at nightfall gazing fixedly from his doorway. At the end of three months he was known as the recluse or "hermit" of Bolinas Plain; in the rapid history-making of that epoch it was forgotten that he had ever been anything else.
But Justice, which in those days was apt to nod over the affairs of the average citizen, was keenly awake to offenses against its own officers; and it chanced that the constable, one day walking through the streets of Marysville, recognized the murderer and apprehended him. He was removed to Lowville. Here, probably through some modest doubt of the ability of the County Court, which the constable represented, to deal with purely circumstantial evidence, he was not above dropping a hint to the local Vigilance Committee, who, singularly enough, in spite of his resistance, got possession of the prisoner. It was the rainy season, and business was slack; the citizens of Lowville were thus enabled to give so notorious a case their fullest consideration, and to assist cheerfully at the ultimate hanging of the prisoner, which seemed to be a foregone conclusion.
But herein they were mistaken. For when the constable had given his evidence, already known to the county, there was a disturbance in the fringe of humanity that lined the walls of the assembly room where the committee was sitting, and the hermit of Bolinas Plain limped painfully into the room. He had evidently walked there: he was soaked with rain and plastered with mud; he was exhausted and inarticulate. But as he staggered to the witness-bench, and elbowed the constable aside, he arrested the attention of every one. A few laughed, but were promptly silenced by the court. It was a reflection upon its only virtue,—sincerity.
"Do you know the prisoner?" asked the judge.
Ira Beasley glanced at the pale face of the acrobat, and shook his head.
"Never saw him before," he said faintly.
"Then what are you doing here?" demanded the judge sternly.
Ira collected himself with evident effort, and rose to his halting feet. First he moistened his dry lips, then he said, slowly and distinctly, "Because I killed the deputy of Bolinas."
With the thrill which ran through the crowded room, and the relief that seemed to come upon him with that utterance, he gained strength and even a certain dignity.
"I killed him," he went on, turning his head slowly around the circle of eager auditors with the rigidity of a wax figure, "because he made love to my wife. I killed him because he wanted to run away with her. I killed him because I found him waiting for her at the door of the barn at the dead o' night, when she'd got outer bed to jine him. He hadn't no gun. He hadn't no fight. I killed him in his tracks. That man," pointing to the prisoner, "wasn't in it at all." He stopped, loosened his collar, and, baring his rugged throat below his disfigured ear, said: "Now take me out and hang me!"
"What proof have we of this? Where's your wife? Does she corroborate it?"
A slight tremor ran over him.
"She ran away that night, and never came back again. Perhaps," he added slowly, "because she loved him and couldn't bear me; perhaps, as I've sometimes allowed to myself, gentlemen, it was because she didn't want to bear evidence agin me."
In the silence that followed the prisoner was heard speaking to one that was near him. Then he rose. All the audacity and confidence that the husband had lacked were in HIS voice. Nay, there was even a certain chivalry in his manner which, for the moment, the rascal really believed.
"It's true!" he said. "After I stole the horse to get away, I found that woman running wild down the road, cryin' and sobbin'. At first I thought she'd done the shooting. It was a risky thing for me to do, gentlemen; but I took her up on the horse and got her away to Lowville. It was that much dead weight agin my chances, but I took it. She was a woman and—I ain't a dog!"
He was so exalted and sublimated by his fiction that for the first time the jury was impressed in his favor. And when Ira Beasley limped across the room, and, extending his maimed hand to the prisoner, said, "Shake!" there was another dead silence.
It was broken by the voice of the judge addressing the constable.
"What do you know of the deputy's attentions to Mrs. Beasley? Were they enough to justify the husband's jealousy? Did he make love to her?"
The constable hesitated. He was a narrow man, with a crude sense of the principles rather than the methods of justice. He remembered the deputy's admiration; he now remembered, even more strongly, the object of that admiration, simulating with her pretty arms the gestures of the barkeeper, and the delight it gave them. He was loyal to his dead leader, but he looked up and down, and then said, slowly and half-defiantly: "Well, judge, he was a MAN."
Everybody laughed. That the strongest and most magic of all human passions should always awake levity in any public presentment of or allusion to it was one of the inconsistencies of human nature which even a lynch judge had to admit. He made no attempt to control the tittering of the court, for he felt that the element of tragedy was no longer there. The foreman of the jury arose and whispered to the judge amid another silence. Then the judge spoke:—
"The prisoner and his witness are both discharged. The prisoner to leave the town within twenty-four hours; the witness to be conducted to his own house at the expense of, and with the thanks of, the Committee."
They say that one afternoon, when a low mist of rain had settled over the sodden Bolinas Plain, a haggard, bedraggled, and worn-out woman stepped down from a common "freighting wagon" before the doorway where Beasley still sat; that, coming forward, he caught her in his arms and called her "Sue;" and they say that they lived happily together ever afterwards. But they say—and this requires some corroboration—that much of that happiness was due to Mrs. Beasley's keeping forever in her husband's mind her own heroic sacrifice in disappearing as a witness against him, her own forgiveness of his fruitless crime, and the gratitude he owed to the fugitive.
THE STRANGE EXPERIENCE OF ALKALI DICK
He was a "cowboy." A reckless and dashing rider, yet mindful of his horse's needs; good-humored by nature, but quick in quarrel; independent of circumstance, yet shy and sensitive of opinion; abstemious by education and general habit, yet intemperate in amusement; self-centred, yet possessed of a childish vanity,—taken altogether, a characteristic product of the Western plains, which he never should have left.
But reckless adventure after adventure had brought him into difficulties, from which there was only one equally adventurous escape: he joined a company of Indians engaged by Buffalo Bill to simulate before civilized communities the sports and customs of the uncivilized. In divers Christian arenas of the nineteenth century he rode as a northern barbarian of the first might have disported before the Roman populace, but harmlessly, of his own free will, and of some little profit to himself. He threw his lasso under the curious eyes of languid men and women of the world, eager for some new sensation, with admiring plaudits from them and a half contemptuous egotism of his own. But outside of the arena he was lonely, lost, and impatient for excitement.
An ingenious attempt to "paint the town red" did not commend itself as a spectacle to the householders who lived in the vicinity of Earl's Court, London, and Alkali Dick was haled before a respectable magistrate by a serious policeman, and fined as if he had been only a drunken coster. A later attempt at Paris to "incarnadine" the neighborhood of the Champs de Mars, and "round up" a number of boulevardiers, met with a more disastrous result,—the gleam of steel from mounted gendarmes, and a mandate to his employers.
So it came that one night, after the conclusion of the performance, Alkali Dick rode out of the corral gate of the Hippodrome with his last week's salary in his pocket and an imprecation on his lips. He had shaken the sawdust of the sham arena from his high, tight-fitting boots; he would shake off the white dust of France, and the effeminate soil of all Europe also, and embark at once for his own country and the Far West!
A more practical and experienced man would have sold his horse at the nearest market and taken train to Havre, but Alkali Dick felt himself incomplete on terra firma without his mustang,—it would be hard enough to part from it on embarking,—and he had determined to ride to the seaport.
The spectacle of a lithe horseman, clad in a Rembrandt sombrero, velvet jacket, turnover collar, almost Van Dyke in its proportions, white trousers and high boots, with long curling hair falling over his shoulders, and a pointed beard and mustache, was a picturesque one, but still not a novelty to the late-supping Parisians who looked up under the midnight gas as he passed, and only recognized one of those men whom Paris had agreed to designate as "Booflo-bils," going home.
At three o'clock he pulled up at a wayside cabaret, preferring it to the publicity of a larger hotel, and lay there till morning. The slight consternation of the cabaret-keeper and his wife over this long-haired phantom, with glittering, deep-set eyes, was soothed by a royally-flung gold coin, and a few words of French slang picked up in the arena, which, with the name of Havre, comprised Dick's whole knowledge of the language. But he was touched with their ready and intelligent comprehension of his needs, and their genial if not so comprehensive loquacity. Luckily for his quick temper, he did not know that they had taken him for a traveling quack-doctor going to the Fair of Yvetot, and that madame had been on the point of asking him for a magic balsam to prevent migraine.
He was up betimes and away, giving a wide berth to the larger towns; taking byways and cut-offs, yet always with the Western pathfinder's instinct, even among these alien, poplar-haunted plains, low-banked willow-fringed rivers, and cloverless meadows. The white sun shining everywhere,—on dazzling arbors, summer-houses, and trellises; on light green vines and delicate pea-rows; on the white trousers, jackets, and shoes of smart shopkeepers or holiday makers; on the white headdresses of nurses and the white-winged caps of the Sisters of St. Vincent,—all this grew monotonous to this native of still more monotonous wastes. The long, black shadows of short, blue-skirted, sabotted women and short, blue-bloused, sabotted men slowly working in the fields, with slow oxen, or still slower heavy Norman horses; the same horses gayly bedecked, dragging slowly not only heavy wagons, but their own apparently more monstrous weight over the white road, fretted his nervous Western energy, and made him impatient to get on.
At the close of the second day he found some relief on entering a trackless wood,—not the usual formal avenue of equidistant trees, leading to nowhere, and stopping upon the open field,—but apparently a genuine forest as wild as one of his own "oak bottoms." Gnarled roots and twisted branches flung themselves across his path; his mustang's hoofs sank in deep pits of moss and last year's withered leaves; trailing vines caught his heavy-stirruped feet, or brushed his broad sombrero; the vista before him seemed only to endlessly repeat the same sylvan glade; he was in fancy once more in the primeval Western forest, and encompassed by its vast, dim silences. He did not know that he had in fact only penetrated an ancient park which in former days resounded to the winding fanfare of the chase, and was still, on stated occasions, swept over by accurately green-coated Parisians and green-plumed Dianes, who had come down by train! To him it meant only unfettered and unlimited freedom.
He rose in his stirrups, and sent a characteristic yell ringing down the dim aisles before him. But, alas! at the same moment, his mustang, accustomed to the firmer grip of the prairie, in lashing out, stepped upon a slimy root, and fell heavily, rolling over his clinging and still unlodged rider. For a few moments both lay still. Then Dick extricated himself with an oath, rose giddily, dragged up his horse,—who, after the fashion of his race, was meekly succumbing to his reclining position,—and then became aware that the unfortunate beast was badly sprained in the shoulder, and temporarily lame. The sudden recollection that he was some miles from the road, and that the sun was sinking, concentrated his scattered faculties. The prospect of sleeping out in that summer woodland was nothing to the pioneer-bred Dick; he could make his horse and himself comfortable anywhere—but he was delaying his arrival at Havre. He must regain the high road,—or some wayside inn. He glanced around him; the westering sun was a guide for his general direction; the road must follow it north or south; he would find a "clearing" somewhere. But here Dick was mistaken; there seemed no interruption of, no encroachment upon this sylvan tract, as in his western woods. There was no track or trail to be found; he missed even the ordinary woodland signs that denoted the path of animals to water. For the park, from the time a Northern Duke had first alienated it from the virgin forest, had been rigidly preserved.
Suddenly, rising apparently from the ground before him, he saw the high roof-ridges and tourelles of a long, irregular, gloomy building. A few steps further showed him that it lay in a cup-like depression of the forest, and that it was still a long descent from where he had wandered to where it stood in the gathering darkness. His mustang was moving with great difficulty; he uncoiled his lariat from the saddle-horn, and, selecting the most open space, tied one end to the trunk of a large tree,—the forty feet of horsehair rope giving the animal a sufficient degree of grazing freedom.
Then he strode more quickly down the forest side towards the building, which now revealed its austere proportions, though Dick could see that they were mitigated by a strange, formal flower-garden, with quaint statues and fountains. There were grim black allees of clipped trees, a curiously wrought iron gate, and twisted iron espaliers. On one side the edifice was supported by a great stone terrace, which seemed to him as broad as a Parisian boulevard. Yet everywhere it appeared sleeping in the desertion and silence of the summer twilight. The evening breeze swayed the lace curtains at the tall windows, but nothing else moved. To the unsophisticated Western man it looked like a scene on the stage.
His progress was, however, presently checked by the first sight of preservation he had met in the forest,—a thick hedge, which interfered between him and a sloping lawn beyond. It was up to his waist, yet he began to break his way through it, when suddenly he was arrested by the sound of voices. Before him, on the lawn, a man and woman, evidently servants, were slowly advancing, peering into the shadows of the wood which he had just left. He could not understand what they were saying, but he was about to speak and indicate by signs his desire to find the road when the woman, turning towards her companion, caught sight of his face and shoulders above the hedge. To his surprise and consternation, he saw the color drop out of her fresh cheeks, her round eyes fix in their sockets, and with a despairing shriek she turned and fled towards the house. The man turned at his companion's cry, gave the same horrified glance at Dick's face, uttered a hoarse "Sacre!" crossed himself violently, and fled also.
Amazed, indignant, and for the first time in his life humiliated, Dick gazed speechlessly after them. The man, of course, was a sneaking coward; but the woman was rather pretty. It had not been Dick's experience to have women run from him! Should he follow them, knock the silly fellow's head against a tree, and demand an explanation? Alas, he knew not the language! They had already reached the house and disappeared in one of the offices. Well! let them go—for a mean "lowdown" pair of country bumpkins:—HE wanted no favors from them!
He turned back angrily into the forest to seek his unlucky beast. The gurgle of water fell on his ear; hard by was a spring, where at least he could water the mustang. He stooped to examine it; there was yet light enough in the sunset sky to throw back from that little mirror the reflection of his thin, oval face, his long, curling hair, and his pointed beard and mustache. Yes! this was his face,—the face that many women in Paris had agreed was romantic and picturesque. Had those wretched greenhorns never seen a real man before? Were they idiots, or insane? A sudden recollection of the silence and seclusion of the building suggested certainly an asylum,—but where were the keepers?
It was getting darker in the wood; he made haste to recover his horse, to drag it to the spring, and there bathe its shoulder in the water mixed with whiskey taken from his flask. His saddle-bag contained enough bread and meat for his own supper; he would camp for the night where he was, and with the first light of dawn make his way back through the wood whence he came. As the light slowly faded from the wood he rolled himself in his saddle-blanket and lay down.
But not to sleep. His strange position, the accident to his horse, an unusual irritation over the incident of the frightened servants,—trivial as it might have been to any other man,—and, above all, an increasing childish curiosity, kept him awake and restless. Presently he could see also that it was growing lighter beyond the edge of the wood, and that the rays of a young crescent moon, while it plunged the forest into darkness and impassable shadow, evidently was illuminating the hollow below. He threw aside his blanket, and made his way to the hedge again. He was right; he could see the quaint, formal lines of the old garden more distinctly,—the broad terrace, the queer, dark bulk of the house, with lights now gleaming from a few of its open windows.
Before one of these windows opening on the terrace was a small, white, draped table with fruits, cups, and glasses, and two or three chairs. As he gazed curiously at these new signs of life and occupation, he became aware of a regular and monotonous tap upon the stone flags of the terrace. Suddenly he saw three figures slowly turn the corner of the terrace at the further end of the building, and walk towards the table. The central figure was that of an elderly woman, yet tall and stately of carriage, walking with a stick, whose regular tap he had heard, supported on the one side by an elderly Cure in black soutaine, and on the other by a tall and slender girl in white.
They walked leisurely to the other end of the terrace, as if performing a regular exercise, and returned, stopping before the open French window; where, after remaining in conversation a few moments, the elderly lady and her ecclesiastical companion entered. The young girl sauntered slowly to the steps of the terrace, and leaning against a huge vase as she looked over the garden, seemed lost in contemplation. Her face was turned towards the wood, but in quite another direction from where he stood.
There was something so gentle, refined, and graceful in her figure, yet dominated by a girlish youthfulness of movement and gesture, that Alkali Dick was singularly interested. He had probably never seen an ingenue before; he had certainly never come in contact with a girl of that caste and seclusion in his brief Parisian experience. He was sorely tempted to leave his hedge and try to obtain a nearer view of her. There was a fringe of lilac bushes running from the garden up the slope; if he could gain their shadows, he could descend into the garden. What he should do after his arrival he had not thought; but he had one idea—he knew not why—that if he ventured to speak to her he would not be met with the abrupt rustic terror he had experienced at the hands of the servants. SHE was not of that kind! He crept through the hedge, reached the lilacs, and began the descent softly and securely in the shadow. But at the same moment she arose, called in a youthful voice towards the open window, and began to descend the steps. A half-expostulating reply came from the window, but the young girl answered it with the laughing, capricious confidence of a spoiled child, and continued her way into the garden. Here she paused a moment and hung over a rose-tree, from which she gathered a flower, afterwards thrust into her belt. Dick paused, too, half-crouching, half-leaning over a lichen-stained, cracked stone pedestal from which the statue had long been overthrown and forgotten.
To his surprise, however, the young girl, following the path to the lilacs, began leisurely to ascend the hill, swaying from side to side with a youthful movement, and swinging the long stalk of a lily at her side. In another moment he would be discovered! Dick was frightened; his confidence of the moment before had all gone; he would fly,—and yet, an exquisite and fearful joy kept him motionless. She was approaching him, full and clear in the moonlight. He could see the grace of her delicate figure in the simple white frock drawn at the waist with broad satin ribbon, and its love-knots of pale blue ribbons on her shoulders; he could see the coils of her brown hair, the pale, olive tint of her oval cheek, the delicate, swelling nostril of her straight, clear-cut nose; he could even smell the lily she carried in her little hand. Then, suddenly, she lifted her long lashes, and her large gray eyes met his.
Alas! the same look of vacant horror came into her eyes, and fixed and dilated their clear pupils. But she uttered no outcry,—there was something in her blood that checked it; something that even gave a dignity to her recoiling figure, and made Dick flush with admiration. She put her hand to her side, as if the shock of the exertion of her ascent had set her heart to beating, but she did not faint. Then her fixed look gave way to one of infinite sadness, pity, and pathetic appeal. Her lips were parted; they seemed to be moving, apparently in prayer. At last her voice came, wonderingly, timidly, tenderly: "Mon Dieu! c'est donc vous? Ici? C'est vous que Marie a crue voir! Que venez-vous faire ici, Armand de Fontonelles? Repondez!"
Alas, not a word was comprehensible to Dick; nor could he think of a word to say in reply. He made an uncouth, half-irritated, half-despairing gesture towards the wood he had quitted, as if to indicate his helpless horse, but he knew it was meaningless to the frightened yet exalted girl before him. Her little hand crept to her breast and clutched a rosary within the folds of her dress, as her soft voice again arose, low but appealingly:
"Vous souffrez! Ah, mon Dieu! Peuton vous secourir? Moi-meme—mes prieres pourraient elles interceder pour vous? Je supplierai le ciel de prendre en pitie l'ame de mon ancetre. Monsieur le Cure est la,—je lui parlerai. Lui et ma mere vous viendront en aide."
She clasped her hands appealingly before him.
Dick stood bewildered, hopeless, mystified; he had not understood a word; he could not say a word. For an instant he had a wild idea of seizing her hand and leading her to his helpless horse, and then came what he believed was his salvation,—a sudden flash of recollection that he had seen the word he wanted, the one word that would explain all, in a placarded notice at the Cirque of a bracelet that had been LOST,—yes, the single word "PERDU." He made a step towards her, and in a voice almost as faint as her own, stammered, "PERDU!"
With a little cry, that was more like a sigh than an outcry, the girl's arms fell to her side; she took a step backwards, reeled, and fainted away.
Dick caught her as she fell. What had he said!—but, more than all, what should he do now? He could not leave her alone and helpless,—yet how could he justify another disconcerting intrusion? He touched her hands; they were cold and lifeless; her eyes were half closed; her face as pale and drooping as her lily. Well, he must brave the worst now, and carry her to the house, even at the risk of meeting the others and terrifying them as he had her. He caught her up,—he scarcely felt her weight against his breast and shoulder,—and ran hurriedly down the slope to the terrace, which was still deserted. If he had time to place her on some bench beside the window within their reach, he might still fly undiscovered! But as he panted up the steps of the terrace with his burden, he saw that the French window was still open, but the light seemed to have been extinguished. It would be safer for her if he could place her INSIDE the house,—if he but dared to enter. He was desperate, and he dared!
He found himself alone, in a long salon of rich but faded white and gold hangings, lit at the further end by two tall candles on either side of the high marble mantel, whose rays, however, scarcely reached the window where he had entered. He laid his burden on a high-backed sofa. In so doing, the rose fell from her belt. He picked it up, put it in his breast, and turned to go. But he was arrested by a voice from the terrace:—
It was the voice of the elderly lady, who, with the Cure at her side, had just appeared from the rear of the house, and from the further end of the terrace was looking towards the garden in search of the young girl. His escape in that way was cut off. To add to his dismay, the young girl, perhaps roused by her mother's voice, was beginning to show signs of recovering consciousness. Dick looked quickly around him. There was an open door, opposite the window, leading to a hall which, no doubt, offered some exit on the other side of the house. It was his only remaining chance! He darted through it, closed it behind him, and found himself at the end of a long hall or picture-gallery, strangely illuminated through high windows, reaching nearly to the roof, by the moon, which on that side of the building threw nearly level bars of light and shadows across the floor and the quaint portraits on the wall.
But to his delight he could see at the other end a narrow, lance-shaped open postern door showing the moonlit pavement without—evidently the door through which the mother and the Cure had just passed out. He ran rapidly towards it. As he did so he heard the hurried ringing of bells and voices in the room he had quitted—the young girl had evidently been discovered—and this would give him time. He had nearly reached the door, when he stopped suddenly—his blood chilled with awe! It was his turn to be terrified—he was standing, apparently, before HIMSELF!
His first recovering thought was that it was a mirror—so accurately was every line and detail of his face and figure reflected. But a second scrutiny showed some discrepancies of costume, and he saw it was a panelled portrait on the wall. It was of a man of his own age, height, beard, complexion, and features, with long curls like his own, falling over a lace Van Dyke collar, which, however, again simulated the appearance of his own hunting-shirt. The broad-brimmed hat in the picture, whose drooping plume was lost in shadow, was scarcely different from Dick's sombrero. But the likeness of the face to Dick was marvelous—convincing! As he gazed at it, the wicked black eyes seemed to flash and kindle at his own,—its lip curled with Dick's own sardonic humor!
He was recalled to himself by a step in the gallery. It was the Cure who had entered hastily, evidently in search of one of the servants. Partly because it was a man and not a woman, partly from a feeling of bravado—and partly from a strange sense, excited by the picture, that he had some claim to be there, he turned and faced the pale priest with a slight dash of impatient devilry that would have done credit to the portrait. But he was sorry for it the next moment!
The priest, looking up suddenly, discovered what seemed to him to be the portrait standing before its own frame and glaring at him. Throwing up his hands with an averted head and an "EXORCIS—!" he wheeled and scuffled away. Dick seized the opportunity, darted through the narrow door on to the rear terrace, and ran, under cover of the shadow of the house, to the steps into the garden. Luckily for him, this new and unexpected diversion occupied the inmates too much with what was going on in the house to give them time to search outside. Dick reached the lilac hedge, tore up the hill, and in a few moments threw himself, panting, on his blanket. In the single look he had cast behind, he had seen that the half-dark salon was now brilliantly lighted—where no doubt the whole terrified household was now assembled. He had no fear of being followed; since his confrontation with his own likeness in the mysterious portrait, he understood everything. The apparently supernatural character of his visitation was made plain; his ruffled vanity was soothed—his vindication was complete. He laughed to himself and rolled about, until in his suppressed merriment the rose fell from his bosom, and—he stopped! Its freshness and fragrance recalled the innocent young girl he had frightened. He remembered her gentle, pleading voice, and his cheek flushed. Well, he had done the best he could in bringing her back to the house—at the risk of being taken for a burglar—and she was safe now! If that stupid French parson didn't know the difference between a living man and a dead and painted one, it wasn't his fault. But he fell asleep with the rose in his fingers.
He was awake at the first streak of dawn. He again bathed his horse's shoulder, saddled, but did not mount him, as the beast, although better, was still stiff, and Dick wished to spare him for the journey to still distant Havre, although he had determined to lie over that night at the first wayside inn. Luckily for him, the disturbance at the chateau had not extended to the forest, for Dick had to lead his horse slowly and could not have escaped; but no suspicion of external intrusion seemed to have been awakened, and the woodland was, evidently, seldom invaded.
By dint of laying his course by the sun and the exercise of a little woodcraft, in the course of two hours he heard the creaking of a hay-cart, and knew that he was near a traveled road. But to his discomfiture he presently came to a high wall, which had evidently guarded this portion of the woods from the public. Time, however, had made frequent breaches in the stones; these had been roughly filled in with a rude abatis of logs and treetops pointing towards the road. But as these were mainly designed to prevent intrusion into the park rather than egress from it, Dick had no difficulty in rolling them aside and emerging at last with his limping steed upon the white high-road. The creaking cart had passed; it was yet early for traffic, and Dick presently came upon a wine-shop, a bakery, a blacksmith's shop, laundry, and a somewhat pretentious cafe and hotel in a broader space which marked the junction of another road.
Directly before it, however, to his consternation, were the massive, but timeworn, iron gates of a park, which Dick did not doubt was the one in which he had spent the previous night. But it was impossible to go further in his present plight, and he boldly approached the restaurant. As he was preparing to make his usual explanatory signs, to his great delight he was addressed in a quaint, broken English, mixed with forgotten American slang, by the white-trousered, black-alpaca coated proprietor. More than that—he was a Social Democrat and an enthusiastic lover of America—had he not been to "Bos-town" and New York, and penetrated as far west as "Booflo," and had much pleasure in that beautiful and free country? Yes! it was a "go-a-'ed" country—you "bet-your-lif'." One had reason to say so: there was your electricity—your street cars—your "steambots"—ah! such steambots—and your "r-rail-r-roads." Ah! observe! compare your r-rail-r-roads and the buffet of the Pullman with the line from Paris, for example—and where is one? Nowhere! Actually, positively, without doubt, nowhere!
Later, at an appetizing breakfast—at which, to Dick's great satisfaction, the good man had permitted and congratulated himself to sit at table with a free-born American—he was even more loquacious. For what then, he would ask, was this incompetence, this imbecility, of France? He would tell. It was the vile corruption of Paris, the grasping of capital and companies, the fatal influence of the still clinging noblesse, and the insidious Jesuitical power of the priests. As for example, Monsieur "the Booflo-bil" had doubtless noticed the great gates of the park before the cafe? It was the preserve,—the hunting-park of one of the old grand seigneurs, still kept up by his descendants, the Comtes de Fontonelles—hundreds of acres that had never been tilled, and kept as wild waste wilderness,—kept for a day's pleasure in a year! And, look you! the peasants starving around its walls in their small garden patches and pinched farms! And the present Comte de Fontonelles cascading gold on his mistresses in Paris; and the Comtesse, his mother, and her daughter living there to feed and fatten and pension a brood of plotting, black-cowled priests. Ah, bah! where was your Republican France, then? But a time would come. The "Booflo-bil" had, without doubt, noticed, as he came along the road, the breaches in the wall of the park?
Dick, with a slight dry reserve, "reckoned that he had."
"They were made by the scythes and pitchforks of the peasants in the Revolution of '93, when the count was emigre, as one says with reason 'skedadelle,' to England. Let them look the next time that they burn not the chateau,—'bet your lif'!'"
"The chateau," said Dick, with affected carelessness. "Wot's the blamed thing like?"
It was an old affair,—with armor and a picture-gallery,—and bricabrac. He had never seen it. Not even as a boy,—it was kept very secluded then. As a man—you understand—he could not ask the favor. The Comtes de Fontonelles and himself were not friends. The family did not like a cafe near their sacred gates,—where had stood only the huts of their retainers. The American would observe that he had not called it "Cafe de Chateau," nor "Cafe de Fontonelles,"—the gold of California would not induce him. Why did he remain there? Naturally, to goad them! It was a principle, one understood. To GOAD them and hold them in check! One kept a cafe,—why not? One had one's principles,—one's conviction,—that was another thing! That was the kind of "'air-pin"—was it not?—that HE, Gustav Ribaud, was like!
Yet for all his truculent socialism, he was quick, obliging, and charmingly attentive to Dick and his needs. As to Dick's horse, he should have the best veterinary surgeon—there was an incomparable one in the person of the blacksmith—see to him, and if it were an affair of days, and Dick must go, he himself would be glad to purchase the beast, his saddle, and accoutrements. It was an affair of business,—an advertisement for the cafe! He would ride the horse himself before the gates of the park. It would please his customers. Ha! he had learned a trick or two in free America.
Dick's first act had been to shave off his characteristic beard and mustache, and even to submit his long curls to the village barber's shears, while a straw hat, which he bought to take the place of his slouched sombrero, completed his transformation. His host saw in the change only the natural preparation of a voyager, but Dick had really made the sacrifice, not from fear of detection, for he had recovered his old swaggering audacity, but from a quick distaste he had taken to his resemblance to the portrait. He was too genuine a Westerner, and too vain a man, to feel flattered at his resemblance to an aristocratic bully, as he believed the ancestral De Fontonelles to be. Even his momentary sensation as he faced the Cure in the picture-gallery was more from a vague sense that liberties had been taken with his, Dick's, personality, than that he had borrowed anything from the portrait.
But he was not so clear about the young girl. Her tender, appealing voice, although he knew it had been addressed only to a vision, still thrilled his fancy. The pluck that had made her withstand her fear so long—until he had uttered that dreadful word—still excited his admiration. His curiosity to know what mistake he had made—for he knew it must have been some frightful blunder—was all the more keen, as he had no chance to rectify it. What a brute she must have thought him—or DID she really think him a brute even then?—for her look was one more of despair and pity! Yet she would remember him only by that last word, and never know that he had risked insult and ejection from her friends to carry her to her place of safety. He could not bear to go across the seas carrying the pale, unsatisfied face of that gentle girl ever before his eyes! A sense of delicacy—new to Dick, but always the accompaniment of deep feeling—kept him from even hinting his story to his host, though he knew—perhaps BECAUSE he knew—that it would gratify his enmity to the family. A sudden thought struck Dick. He knew her house, and her name. He would write her a note. Somebody would be sure to translate it for her.
He borrowed pen, ink, and paper, and in the clean solitude of his fresh chintz bedroom, indited the following letter:—
DEAR MISS FONTONELLES,—Please excuse me for having skeert you. I hadn't any call to do it, I never reckoned to do it—it was all jest my derned luck; I only reckoned to tell you I was lost—in them blamed woods—don't you remember?—"lost"—PERDOO!—and then you up and fainted! I wouldn't have come into your garden, only, you see, I'd just skeered by accident two of your helps, reg'lar softies, and I wanted to explain. I reckon they allowed I was that man that that picture in the hall was painted after. I reckon they took ME for him—see? But he ain't MY style, nohow, and I never saw the picture at all until after I'd toted you, when you fainted, up to your house, or I'd have made my kalkilations and acted according. I'd have laid low in the woods, and got away without skeerin' you. You see what I mean? It was mighty mean of me, I suppose, to have tetched you at all, without saying, "Excuse me, miss," and toted you out of the garden and up the steps into your own parlor without asking your leave. But the whole thing tumbled so suddent. And it didn't seem the square thing for me to lite out and leave you lying there on the grass. That's why! I'm sorry I skeert that old preacher, but he came upon me in the picture hall so suddent, that it was a mighty close call, I tell you, to get off without a shindy. Please forgive me, Miss Fontonelles. When you get this, I shall be going back home to America, but you might write to me at Denver City, saying you're all right. I liked your style; I liked your grit in standing up to me in the garden until you had your say, when you thought I was the Lord knows what—though I never understood a word you got off—not knowing French. But it's all the same now. Say! I've got your rose!
Yours very respectfully,
Dick folded the epistle and put it in his pocket. He would post it himself on the morning before he left. When he came downstairs he found his indefatigable host awaiting him, with the report of the veterinary blacksmith. There was nothing seriously wrong with the mustang, but it would be unfit to travel for several days. The landlord repeated his former offer. Dick, whose money was pretty well exhausted, was fain to accept, reflecting that SHE had never seen the mustang and would not recognize it. But he drew the line at the sombrero, to which his host had taken a great fancy. He had worn it before HER!
Later in the evening Dick was sitting on the low veranda of the cafe, overlooking the white road. A round white table was beside him, his feet were on the railing, but his eyes were resting beyond on the high, mouldy iron gates of the mysterious park. What he was thinking of did not matter, but he was a little impatient at the sudden appearance of his host—whom he had evaded during the afternoon—at his side. The man's manner was full of bursting loquacity and mysterious levity.
Truly, it was a good hour when Dick had arrived at Fontonelles,—"just in time." He could see now what a world of imbeciles was France. What stupid ignorance ruled, what low cunning and low tact could achieve,—in effect, what jugglers and mountebanks, hypocritical priests and licentious and lying noblesse went to make up existing society. Ah, there had been a fine excitement, a regular coup d'theatre at Fontonelles,—the chateau yonder; here at the village, where the news was brought by frightened grooms and silly women! He had been in the thick of it all the afternoon! He had examined it,—interrogated them like a juge d'instruction,—winnowed it, sifted it. And what was it all? An attempt by these wretched priests and noblesse to revive in the nineteenth century—the age of electricity and Pullman cars—a miserable mediaeval legend of an apparition, a miracle! Yes; one is asked to believe that at the chateau yonder was seen last night three times the apparition of Armand de Fontonelles!
Dick started. "Armand de Fontonelles!" He remembered that she had repeated that name.
"Who's he?" he demanded abruptly.
"The first Comte de Fontonelles! When monsieur knows that the first comte has been dead three hundred years, he will see the imbecility of the affair!"
"Wot did he come back for?" growled Dick.
"Ah! it was a legend. Consider its artfulness! The Comte Armand had been a hard liver, a dissipated scoundrel, a reckless beast, but a mighty hunter of the stag. It was said that on one of these occasions he had been warned by the apparition of St. Hubert; but he had laughed,—for, observe, HE always jeered at the priests too; hence this story!—and had declared that the flaming cross seen between the horns of the sacred stag was only the torch of a poacher, and he would shoot it! Good! the body of the comte, dead, but without a wound, was found in the wood the next day, with his discharged arquebus in his hand. The Archbishop of Rouen refused his body the rites of the Church until a number of masses were said every year and—paid for! One understands! one sees their 'little game;' the count now appears,—he is in purgatory! More masses,—more money! There you are. Bah! One understands, too, that the affair takes place, not in a cafe like this,—not in a public place,—but at a chateau of the noblesse, and is seen by—the proprietor checked the characters on his fingers—TWO retainers; one young demoiselle of the noblesse, daughter of the chatelaine herself; and, my faith, it goes without saying, by a fat priest, the Cure! In effect, two interested ones! And the priest,—his lie is magnificent! Superb! For he saw the comte in the picture-gallery,—in effect, stepping into his frame!"