A Ward of the Golden Gate by Bret Harte
The next morning Paul could not help noticing an increased and even exaggerated respect paid him by the hotel attendants. He was asked if his Excellency would he served with breakfast in a private room, and his condescension in selecting the public coffee-room struck the obsequious chamberlain, but did not prevent him from preceding Paul backwards to the table, and summoning a waiter to attend specially upon "milor." Surmising that George and the colonel might be in some way connected with this extravagance, he postponed an investigation till he should have seen them again. And, although he hardly dared to confess it to himself, the unexpected prospect of meeting Yerba again fully preoccupied his thoughts. He had believed that he would eventually see her in Europe, in some vague and indefinite way and hour: it had been in his mind when he started from California. That it would be so soon, and in such a simple and natural manner, he had never conceived.
"He had returned from his morning walk to the Brunnen, and was sitting idly in his room, when there was a knock at the door. It opened to a servant bearing a salver with a card. Paul lifted it with a slight tremor, not at the engraved name of "Maria Concepcion de Arguellos de la Yerba Buena," but at the remembered school-girl hand that had penciled underneath the words, "wishes the favor of an audience with his Excellency the Lord Lieutenant-Governor of the Californias."
Paul looked inquiringly at the servant. "The gnadige Fraulein was in her own salon. Would Excellency walk that way? It was but a step; in effect, the next apartment."
Paul followed him into the hall with wondering steps. The door of the next room was open, and disclosed a handsomely furnished salon. A tall graceful figure rose quickly from behind a writing-table, and advanced with outstretched hands and a frank yet mischievous smile. It was Yerba.
Standing there in a grayish hat, mantle, and traveling dress, all of one subdued yet alluring tone, she looked as beautiful as when he had last seen her--and yet--unlike. For a brief bitter moment his instincts revolted at this familiar yielding up in his fair countrywomen of all that was distinctively original in them to alien tastes and habits, and he resented the plastic yet characterless mobility which made Yerba's Parisian dress and European manner fit her so charmingly and yet express so little. For a brief critical moment he remembered the placid, unchanging simplicity of German, and the inflexible and ingrained reserve of English, girlhood, in opposition to this indistinctive cosmopolitan grace. But only for a moment. As soon as she spoke, a certain flavor of individuality seemed to return to her speech.
"Confess," she said, "it was a courageous thing for me to do. You might have been somebody else--a real Excellency--or heaven knows what! Or, what is worse in your new magnificence, you might have forgotten one of your oldest, most humble, but faithful subjects." She drew back and made him a mock ceremonious curtsy, that even in its charming exaggeration suggested to Paul, however, that she had already made it somewhere seriously.
"But what does it all mean?" he asked, smiling, feeling not only his doubts and uneasiness vanish, but even the years of separation melt away in her presence. "I know I went to bed last night a very humble individual, and yet I seem to awaken this morning a very exalted personage. Am I really Commander of the Faithful, or am I dreaming? Might I trouble you, as my predecessor Abou Hassan did Sweetlips, to bite my little finger?"
"Do you mean to say you have not seen the 'Auzeiger?'" she returned, taking a small German printed sheet from the table and pointing to a paragraph. Paul took the paper. Certainly there was the plain announcement among the arrivals of "His Excellency Paul Hathaway, Lord Lieutenant-Governor of the Californias." A light flashed upon him.
"This is George's work. He and Colonel Pendleton were here with me last night."
"Then you have seen the colonel already?" she said, with a scarcely perceptible alteration of expression, which, however, struck Paul.
"Yes. I met him at the theatre last evening." He was about to plunge into an animated description of the colonel's indignation, but checked himself, he knew not why. But he was thankful the next moment that he had.
"That accounts for everything," she said, lifting her pretty shoulders with a slight shrug of weariness. "I had to put a step to George's talking about me three months ago,--his extravagance is something too awful. And the colonel, who is completely in his hands,--trusting him for everything, even the language,--doesn't see it."
"But he is extravagant in the praise of his friends only, and you certainly justify all he can say."
She was taking off her hat, and stopped for a moment to look at him thoughtfully, with the soft tendrils of her hair clinging to her forehead. "Did the colonel talk much about me?"
"A great deal. In fact, I think we talked of nothing else. He has told me of your triumphs and your victims; of your various campaigns and your conquests. And yet I dare say he has not told me all--and I am dying to hear more."
She had laid down her hat and unloosed a large bow of her mantle, but stopped suddenly in the midst of it and sat down again.
"I wish you'd do something for me."
"You have only to name it."
"Well, drop all this kind of talk! Try to think of me as if I had just come from California--or, better, as if you had never known anything of me at all--and we met for the first time. You could, I dare say, make yourself very agreeable to such a young lady who was willing to be pleased--why not to me? I venture to say you have not ever troubled yourself about me since we last met. No--hear me through--why, then, should you wish to talk over what didn't concern you at the time? Promise me you will stop this reminiscent gossip, and I promise you I will not only not bore you with it, but take care that it is not intruded upon you by others. Make yourself pleasant to me by talking about yourself and your prospects--anything but me--and I will throw over those princes and barons that the colonel has raved about and devote myself to you while you are here. Does that suit your Excellency?" She had crossed her knees, and, with her hands clasped over them, and the toe of her small boot advanced beyond her skirt, leaned forward in the attitude he remembered to have seen her take in the summer- house at Rosario.
"Perfectly," he said.
"How long will you be here?"
"About three weeks: that, I believe, is the time allotted for my cure."
"Are you really ill," she said quietly, "or imagine yourself so?"
"It amounts to about the same thing. But my cure may not take so long," he added, fixing his bright eyes upon her.
She returned his gaze thoughtfully, and they remained looking at each other silently.
"Then you are stronger than you give yourself credit for. That is very often the case," she said quietly. "There," she added in another tone, "it is settled. You will come and go as you like, using this salon as your own. Stay, we can do something today. What do you say to a ride in the forest this afternoon? Milly isn't here yet, but it will be quite proper for you to accompany me on horseback, though, of course, we couldn't walk a hundred yards down the Allee together unless we were verlobt."
"But," said Paul, "you are expecting company this afternoon. Don Caesar--I mean Miss Briones and her brother are coming here to say good-by."
She regarded him curiously, but without emotion.
"Colonel Pendleton should have added that they were to remain here overnight as my guests," she said composedly. And of course we shall be back in time for dinner. But that is nothing to you. You have only to be ready at three o'clock. I will see that the horses are ordered. I often ride here, and the people know my tastes and habits. We will have a pleasant ride and a good long talk together, and I'll show you a ruin and a distant view of the villa where I have been staying." She held out her hand with a frank girlish smile, and even a girlish anticipation of pleasure in her brown eyes. He bent over her slim fingers for a moment, and withdrew.
When he was in his own room again, he was conscious only of a strong desire to avoid the colonel until after his ride with Yerba. He would keep his word so far as to abstain from allusion to her family or her past: indeed, he had his own opinion of its futility. But it would be strange if, with his past experience, he could not find some other way to determine her convictions or win her confidence during those two hours of companionship. He would accept her terms fairly; if she had any ulterior design in her advances, he would detect it; if she had the least concern for him, she could not continue long an artificial friendship. But he must not think of that!
By absenting himself from the hotel he managed to keep clear of Pendleton until the hour arrived. He was gratified to find Yerba in the simplest and most sensible of habits, as if she had already divined his tastes and had wished to avoid attracting undue attention. Nevertheless, it very prettily accented her tall graceful figure, and Paul, albeit, like most artistic admirers of the sex, not recognizing a woman on a horse as a particularly harmonious spectacle, was forced to admire her. Both rode well, and naturally--having been brought up in the same Western school-- the horses recognized it, and instinctively obeyed them, and their conversation had the easy deliberation and inflection of a tete-a- tete. Paul, in view of her previous hint, talked to her of himself and his fortunes, of which she appeared, however, to have some knowledge. His health had obliged him lately to abandon politics and office; he had been successful in some ventures, and had become a junior partner in a bank with foreign correspondence. She listened to him for some time with interest and attention, but at last her face became abstracted and thoughtful. "I wish I were a man!" she said suddenly.
Paul looked at her quickly. For the first time he detected in the ring of her voice something of the passionate quality he fancied he had always seen in her face.
"Except that it might give you better control of your horse, I don't see why," said Paul. "And I don't entirely believe you."
"Because no woman really wishes to be a man unless she is conscious of her failure as a woman."
"And how do you know I'm not?" she said, checking her horse and looking in his face. A quick conviction that she was on the point of some confession sprang into his mind, but unfortunately showed in his face. She beat back his eager look with a short laugh. "There, don't speak, and don't look like that. That remark was worthy the usual artless maiden's invitation to a compliment, wasn't it? Let us keep to the subject of yourself. Why, with your political influence, don't you get yourself appointed to some diplomatic position over here?"
"There are none in our service. You wouldn't want me to sink myself in some absurd social functions, which are called by that name, merely to become the envy and hatred of a few rich republicans, like your friends who haunt foreign courts?"
"That's not a pretty speech--but I suppose I invited that too. Don't apologize. I'd rather see you flare out like that than pay compliments. Yet I fancy you're a diplomatist, for all that."
"You did me the honor to believe I was one once, when I was simply the most palpable ass and bungler living," said Paul bitterly.
She was still sweetly silent, apparently preoccupied in smoothing out the mane of her walking horse. "Did I?" she said softly. He drew close beside her.
"How different the vegetation is here from what it is with us!" she said with nervous quickness, directing his attention to the grass road beneath them, without lifting her eyes. "I don't mean what is cultivated,--for I suppose it takes centuries to make the lawns they have in England,--but even here the blades of grass seem to press closer together, as if they were crowded or overpopulated, like the country; and this forest, which has been always wild and was a hunting park, has a blase look, as if it was already tired of the unchanging traditions and monotony around it. I think over there Nature affects and influences us: here, I fancy, it is itself affected by the people."
"I think a good deal of Nature comes over from America for that purpose," he said dryly.
"And I think you are breaking your promise--besides being a goose!" she retorted smartly. Nevertheless, for some occult reason they both seemed relieved by this exquisite witticism, and trotted on amicably together. When Paul lifted his eyes to hers he could see that they were suffused with a tender mischief, as of a reproving yet secretly admiring sister, and her strangely delicate complexion had taken on itself that faint Alpine glow that was more of an illumination than a color. "There," she said gayly, pointing with her whip as the wood opened upon a glade through which the parted trees showed a long blue curvature of distant hills, "you see that white thing lying like a snowdrift on the hills?"
"Or the family washing on a hedge."
"As you please. Well, that is the villa."
"And you were very happy there?" said Paul, watching her girlishly animated face.
"Yes; and as you don't ask questions, I'll tell you why. There is one of the sweetest old ladies there that I ever met--the perfection of old-time courtliness with all the motherishness of a German woman. She was very kind to me, and, as she had no daughter of her own, I think she treated me as if I was one. At least, I can imagine how one would feel to her, and what a woman like that could make of any girl. You laugh, Mr. Hathaway, you don't understand--but you don't know what an advantage it would be to a girl to have a mother like that, and know that she could fall back on her and hold her own against anybody. She's equipped from the start, instead of being handicapped. It's all very well to talk about the value of money. It can give you everything but one thing--the power to do without it."
"I think its purchasing value would include even the gnadige Frau," said Paul, who had laughed only to hide the uneasiness that Yerba's approach to the tabooed subject had revived in him. She shook her head; then, recovering her tone of gentle banter, said, "There-- I've made a confession. If the colonel talks to you again about my conquests, you will know that at present my affections are centred on the Baron's mother. I admit it's a strong point in his--in anybody's--favor, who can show an unblemished maternal pedigree. What a pity it is you are an orphan, like myself, Mr. Hathaway! For I fancy your mother must have been a very perfect woman. A great deal of her tact and propriety has descended to you. Only it would have been nicer if she had given it to you, like pocket money, as occasion required--which you might have shared with me-- than leaving it to you in one thumping legacy."
It was impossible to tell how far the playfulness of her brown eyes suggested any ulterior meaning, for as Paul again eagerly drew towards her, she sent her horse into a rapid canter before him. When he was at her side again, she said, "There is still the ruin to see on our way home. It is just off here to the right. But if you wish to go over it we will have to dismount at the foot of the slope and walk up. It hasn't any story or legend that I know of; I looked over the guide-book to cram for it before you came, but there was nothing. So you can invent what you like."
They dismounted at the beginning of a gentle acclivity, where an ancient wagon-road, now grass-grown, rose smooth as a glacis. Tying their horses to two moplike bushes, they climbed the slope hand in hand like children. There were a few winding broken steps, part of a fallen archway, a few feet of vaulted corridor, a sudden breach--the sky beyond--and that was all! Not all; for before them, overlooked at first, lay a chasm covering half an acre, in which the whole of the original edifice--tower turrets, walls, and battlements--had been apparently cast, inextricably mixed and mingled at different depths and angles, with here and there, like mushrooms from a dust-heap, a score of trees upspringing.
"This is not Time--but gunpowder," said Paul, leaning over a parapet of the wall and gazing at the abyss, with a slight grimace.
"It don't look very romantic, certainly," said Yerba. "I only saw it from the road before. I'm dreadfully sorry," she added, with mock penitence. "I suppose, however, something must have happened here."
"There may have been nobody in the house at the time," said Paul gravely. "The family may have been at the baths."
They stood close together, their elbows resting upon the broken wall, and almost touching. Beyond the abyss and darker forest they could see the more vivid green and regular lines of the plane-trees of Strudle Bad, the glitter of a spire, or the flash of a dome. From the abyss itself arose a cool odor of moist green leaves, the scent of some unseen blossoms, and around the baking vines on the hot wall the hum of apparently taskless and disappointed bees. There was nobody in sight in the forest road, no one working in the bordering fields, and no suggestion of the present. There might have been three or four centuries between them and Strudle Bad.
"The legend of this place," said Paul, glancing at the long brown lashes and oval outline of the cheek so near his own, "is simple, yet affecting. A cruel, remorseless, but fascinating Hexie was once loved by a simple shepherd. He had never dared to syllable his hopeless affection, or claim from her a syllabled--perhaps I should say a one-syllabled--reply. He had followed her from remote lands, dumbly worshiping her, building in his foolish brain an air- castle of happiness, which by reason of her magic power she could always see plainly in his eyes. And one day, beguiling him in the depths of the forest, she led him to a fair-seeming castle, and, bidding him enter its portals, offered to show him a realization of his dream. But, lo! even as he entered the stately corridor it seemed to crumble away before him, and disclosed a hideous abyss beyond, in which the whole of that goodly palace lay in heaped and tangled ruins--the fitting symbol of his wrecked and shattered hopes."
She drew back a little way from him, but still holding on to the top of the broken wall with one slim gauntleted hand, and swung herself to one side, while she surveyed him with smiling, parted lips and conscious eyelids. He promptly covered her hand with his own, but she did not seem to notice it.
"That is not the story," she said, in a faint voice that even her struggling sauciness could not make steadier. "The true story is called 'The Legend of the Goose-Girl of Strudle Bad, and the enterprising Gosling.' There was once a goose-girl of the plain who tried honestly to drive her geese to market, but one eccentric and willful gosling-- Mr. Hathaway! Stop--please--I beg you let me go!"
He had caught her in his arms--the one encircling her waist, the other hand still grasping hers. She struggled, half laughing; yielded for a breathless moment as his lips brushed her cheek, and-- threw him off. "There!" she said, "that will do: the story was not illustrated."
"But, Yerba," he said, with passionate eagerness, "hear me--it is all God's truth.--I love you!"
She drew back farther, shaking the dust of the wall from the folds of her habit. Then, with a lower voice and a paler cheek, as if his lips had sent her blood and utterance back to her heart, she said, "Come, let us go."
"But not until you've heard me, Yerba."
"Well, then--I believe you--there!" she said, looking at him.
"You believe me?" he repeated eagerly, attempting to take her hand again.
She drew back still farther. "Yes," she said, "or I shouldn't be here now. There! that must suffice you. And if you wish me still to believe you, you will not speak of this again while we are out together. Come, let us go back to the horses."
He looked at her with all his soul. She was pale, but composed, and--he could see--determined. He followed her without a word. She accepted his hand to support her again down the slope without embarrassment or reminiscent emotion. The whole scene through which she had just passed might have been buried in the abyss and ruins behind her. As she placed her foot in his hand to remount, and for a moment rested her weight on his shoulder, her brown eyes met his frankly and without a tremor.
Nor was she content with this. As Paul at first rode on silently, his heart filled with unsatisfied yearning, she rallied him mischievously. Was it kind in him on this, their first day together, to sulk in this fashion? Was it a promise for their future excursions? Did he intend to carry this lugubrious visage through the Allee and up to the courtyard of the hotel to proclaim his sentimental condition to the world? At least, she trusted he would not show it to Milly, who might remember that this was only the second time they had met each other. There was something so sweetly reasonable in this, and withal not without a certain hopefulness for the future, to say nothing of the half-mischievous, half-reproachful smile that accompanied it, that Paul exerted himself, and eventually recovered his lost gayety. When they at last drew up in the courtyard, with the flush of youth and exercise in their faces, Paul felt he was the object of envy to the loungers, and of fresh gossip to Strudle Bad. It struck him less pleasantly that two dark faces, which had been previously regarding him in the gloom of the corridor and vanished as he approached, reappeared some moments later in Yerba's salon as Don Caesar and Dona Anna, with a benignly different expression. Dona Anna especially greeted him with so much of the ostentatious archness of a confident and forgiving woman to a momentarily recreant lover, that he felt absurdly embarrassed in Yerba's presence. He was thinking how he could excuse himself, when he noticed a beautiful basket of flowers on the table and a tiny note bearing a baron's crest. Yerba had put it aside with--as it seemed to him at the moment--an almost too pronounced indifference--and an indifference that was strongly contrasted to Dona Anna's eagerly expressed enthusiasm over the offering, and her ultimate supplications to Paul and her brother to admire its beauties and the wonderful taste of the donor.
All this seemed so incongruous with Paul's feelings, and above all with the recollection of his scene with Yerba, that he excused himself from dining with the party, alleging an engagement with his old fellow-traveler the German officer, whose acquaintance he had renewed. Yerba did not press him; he even fancied she looked relieved. Colonel Pendleton was coming; Paul was not loath, in his present frame of mind, to dispense with his company. A conviction that the colonel's counsel was not the best guide for Yerba, and that in some vague way their interests were antagonistic, had begun to force itself upon him. He had no intention of being disloyal to her old guardian, but he felt that Pendleton had not been frank with him since his return from Rosario. Had he ever been so with her? He sometimes doubted his disclaimer.
He was lucky in finding the General disengaged, and together they dined at a restaurant and spent the evening at the Kursaal. Later, at the Residenz Club, the General leaned over his beer-glass and smilingly addressed his companion.
"So I hear you, too, are a conquest of the beautiful South American."
For an instant Paul, recognizing only Dona Anna under that epithet, looked puzzled.
"Come, my friend," said the General regarding him with some amusement, "I am an older man than you, yet I hardly think I could have ridden out with such a goddess without becoming her slave."
Paul felt his face flush in spite of himself. "Ah! you mean Miss Arguello," he said hurriedly, his color increasing at his own mention of that name as if he were imposing it upon his honest companion. "She is an old acquaintance of mine--from my own State-- California."
"Ah, so," said the General, lifting his eyebrows in profound apology. "A thousand pardons."
"Surely," said Paul, with a desperate attempt to recover his equanimity, "you ought to know our geography better."
"So, I am wrong. But still the name--Arguello--surely that is not American? Still, they say she has no accent, and does not look like a Mexican."
For an instant Paul was superstitiously struck with the fatal infelicity of Yerba's selection of a foreign name, that now seemed only to invite that comment and criticism which she should have avoided. Nor could he explain it at length to the General without assisting and accenting the deception, which he was always hoping in some vague way to bring to an end. He was sorry he had corrected the General; he was furious that he had allowed himself to be confused.
Happily his companion had misinterpreted his annoyance, and with impulsive German friendship threw himself into what he believed to be Paul's feelings. "Donnerwetter! Your beautiful countrywoman is made the subject of curiosity just because that stupid baron is persistent in his serious attentions. That is quite enough, my good friend, to make Klatschen here among those animals who do not understand the freedom of an American girl, or that an heiress may have something else to do with her money than to expend it on the Baron's mortgages. But"--he stopped, and his simple, honest face assumed an air of profound and sagacious cunning--"I am glad to talk about it with you, who of course are perfectly familiar with the affair. I shall now be able to know what to say. My word, my friend, has some weight here, and I shall use it. And now you shall tell me who is our lovely friend, and who were her parents and her kindred in her own home. Her associates here, you possibly know, are an impossible colonel and his never-before-approached valet, with some South American Indian planters, and, I believe, a pork-butcher's daughter. But of them--it makes nothing. Tell me of her people."
With his kindly serious face within a few inches of Paul's, and sympathizing curiosity beaming from his pince-nez, he obliged the wretched and conscience-stricken Hathaway to respond with a detailed account of Yerba's parentage as projected by herself and indorsed by Colonel Pendleton. He dwelt somewhat particularly on the romantic character of the Trust, hoping to draw the General's attention away from the question of relationship, but he was chagrined to find that the honest warrior evidently confounded the Trust with some eleemosynary institution and sympathetically glossed it over. "Of course," he said, "the Mexican Minister at Berlin would know all about the Arguello family: so there would be no question there."
Paul was not sorry when the time came to take leave of his friend; but once again in the clear moonlight and fresh, balmy air of the Allee, he forgot the unpleasantness of the interview. He found himself thinking only of his ride with Yerba. Well! he had told her that he loved her. She knew it now, and although she had forbidden him to speak further, she had not wholly rejected it. It must be her morbid consciousness of the mystery of her birth that withheld a return of her affections,--some half-knowledge, perhaps, that she would not divulge, yet that kept her unduly sensitive of accepting his love. He was satisfied there was no entanglement; her heart was virgin. He even dared to hope that she had always cared for him. It was for him to remove all obstacles--to prevail upon her to leave this place and return to America with him as her husband, the guardian of her good name, and the custodian of her secret. At times the strains of a dreamy German waltz, played in the distance, brought back to him the brief moment that his arm had encircled her waist by the crumbling wall, and his pulses grew languid, only to leap firmer the next moment with more desperate resolve. He would win her, come what may! He could never have been in earnest before: he loathed and hated himself for his previous passive acquiescence to her fate. He had been a weak tool of the colonel's from the first: he was even now handicapped by a preposterous promise he had given him! Yes, she was right to hesitate--to question his ability to make her happy! He had found her here, surrounded by stupidity and cupidity--to give it no other name--so patent that she was the common gossip, and had offered nothing but a boyish declaration! As he strode into the hotel that night it was well that he did not meet the unfortunate colonel on the staircase!
It was very late, although there was still visible a light in Yerba's salon, shining on her balcony, which extended before and included his own window. From time to time he could hear the murmur of voices. It was too late to avail himself of the invitation to join them, even if his frame of mind had permitted it. He was too nervous and excited to go to bed, and, without lighting his candle, he opened the French window that gave upon the balcony, drew a chair in the recess behind the curtain, and gazed upon the night. It was very quiet; the moon was high, the square was sleeping in a trance of checkered shadows, like a gigantic chessboard, with black foreshortened trees for pawns. The click of a cavalry sabre, the sound of a footfall on the pavement of the distant Konigsstrasse, were distinctly audible; a far-off railway whistle was startling in its abruptness. In the midst of this calm the opening of the door of the salon, with the sudden uplifting of voices in the hall, told Paul that Yerba's guests were leaving. He heard Dona Anna's arch accents--arch even to Colonel Pendleton's monotonous baritone!--Milly's high, rapid utterances, the suave falsetto of Don Caesar, and her voice, he thought a trifle wearied,--the sound of retiring footsteps, and all was still again.
So still that the rhythmic beat of the distant waltz returned to him, with a distinctiveness that he could idly follow. He thought of Rosario and the rose-breath of the open windows with a strange longing, and remembered the half-stifled sweetness of her happy voice rising with it from the veranda. Why had he ever let it pass from him then and waft its fragrance elsewhere? Why-- What was that?
The slight turning of a latch! The creaking of the French window of the salon, and somebody had slipped softly half out on the balcony. His heart stopped beating. From his position in the recess of his own window, with his back to the partition of the salon, he could see nothing. Yet he did not dare to move. For with the quickened senses of a lover he felt the diffused and perfumed aura of her presence, of her garments, of her flesh, flow in upon him through the open window, and possess his whole breathless being! It was she! Like him, perhaps, longing to enjoy the perfect night--like him, perhaps, thinking of--
"So you ar-range to get rid of me--ha! lik thees? To tur-rn me off from your heels like a dog who have follow you--but without a word-- without a--a--thanks--without a 'ope! Ah!--we have ser-rved you-- me and my sister; we are the or-range dry--now we can go! Like the old shoe, we are to be flung away! Good! But I am here again--you see. I shall speak, and you shall hear-r."
Don Caesar's voice--alone with her! Paul gripped his chair and sat upright.
"Stop! Stay where you are! How dared you return here?" It was Yerba's voice, on the balcony, low and distinct.
"Shut the window! I shall speak with you what you will not the world to hear."
"I prefer to keep where I am, since you have crept into this room like a thief!"
"A thief! Good!" He broke out in Spanish, and, as if no longer fearful of being overheard, had evidently drawn nearer to the window. "A thief. Ha! muy bueno--but it is not I, you understand-- I, Caesar Briones, who am the thief! No! It is that swaggering espadachin--that fanfarron of a Colonel Pendleton--that pattern of an official, Mr. Hathaway--that most beautiful heiress of the Californias, Miss Arguello--that are thieves! Yes--of a name--Miss Arguello--of a name! The name of Arguello!"
Paul rose to his feet.
"Ah, so! You start--you turn pale--you flash your eyes, senora, but you think you have deceived me all these years. You think I did not see your game at Rosario--yes, even when that foolish Castro muchacha first put that idea in your head. Who furnished you the facts you wanted? I--Mother of God! Such facts!--I, who knew the Arguello pedigree--I, who know it was as impossible for you to be a daughter of them as--what? let me think--as--as it is impossible for you to be the wife of that baron whom you would deceive with the rest! Ah, yes; it was a high flight for you, Mees--Mees--Dona Fulana--a noble game for you to bring down!"
Why did she not speak? What was she doing? If she had but uttered a single word of protest, of angry dismissal, Paul would have flown to her side. It could not be the paralysis of personal fear: the balcony was wide; she could easily pass to the end; she could even see his open window.
"Why did I do this? Because I loved you, senora--and you knew it! Ah! you can turn your face away now; you can pretend to misunderstand me, as you did a moment ago; you can part from me now like a mere acquaintance--but it was not always so! No, it was you who brought me here; your eyes that smiled into mine--and drove home the colonel's request that I and my sister should accompany you. God! I was weak then! You smile, senora; you think you have succeeded--you and your pompous colonel and your clever governor! You think you have compromised me, and perjured me, because of this. You are wrong! You think I dare not speak to this puppet of a baron, and that I have no proofs. You are wrong!"
"And even if you can produce them, what care I?" said Yerba unexpectedly, yet in a voice so free from excitement and passion that the weariness which Paul had at first noticed seemed to be the only dominant tone. "Suppose you prove that I am not an Arguello. Good! you have yet to show that a connection with any of your race would be anything but a disgrace."
"Ah! you defy me, little one! Caramba! Listen, then! You do not know all! When you thought I was only helping you to fabricate your claim to the Arguellos' name, I was finding out who you really were! Ah! It was not so difficult as you fondly hope, senora. We were not all brutes and fools in the early days, though we stood aside to let your people run their vulgar course. It was your hired bully--your respected guardian--this dog of an espadachin, who let out a hint of the secret--with a prick of his blade--and a scandal. One of my peon women was a servant at the convent when you were a child, and recognized the woman who put you there and came to see you as a friend. She overheard the Mother Superior say it was your mother, and saw a necklace that was left for you to wear. Ah! you begin to believe! When I had put this and that together I found that Pepita could not identify you with the child that she had seen. But you, senora, you yourself supplied the missing proof! Yes! you supplied it with the necklace that you wore that evening at Rosario, when you wished to do honor to this young Hathaway--the guardian who had always thrown you off! Ah!-- you now suspect why, perhaps! It was your mother's necklace that you wore, and you said so! That night I sent the good Pepita to identify it; to watch through the window from the garden when you were wearing it; to make it sure as the Creed. I sent her to your room late that night when you had changed your dress, that she might examine it among your jewels. And she did and will swear-- look you!--swear that it is the one given you as a child by the woman at the convent, who was your mother! And who was that woman-- eh? Who was the mother of the Arguello de la Yerba Buena?--who this noble ancestress?"
"Excuse me--but perhaps you are not aware that you are raising your voice in a lady's drawing-room, and that although you are speaking a language no one here understands, you are disturbing the hotel."
It was Paul, quiet, pale in the moonlight, erect on the balcony before the window. As Yerba, with a start, retreated quickly into the room, Don Caesar stepped forward angrily and suspiciously towards the window. He had his hand reached forward towards the handle as if to close the swinging sash against the intruder, when in an instant he was seized by Paul, tightly locked in a desperate grip, and whirled out on the balcony. Before he could gain breath to utter a cry, Hathaway had passed his right arm around the Mexican's throat, effectively stopping his utterance, and, with a supreme effort of strength, dragged him along the wall, falling with him into the open window of his own room. As he did so, to his inexpressible relief he heard the sash closed and the bolt drawn of the salon window, and regained his feet, collected, quiet, and triumphant.
"I am sorry," he said, coolly dusting his clothes, "to have been obliged to change the scene of this discussion so roughly, but you will observe that you can speak more freely here, and that any altercation we may have in this room will be less likely to attract comment."
"Assassin!" said Don Caesar chokingly, as he struggled to his feet.
"Thank you. Relieve your feelings as much as you like here; in fact, if you would speak a little louder you would oblige me. The guests are beginning to be awake," continued Paul, with a wicked smile, indicating the noise of an opening door and footsteps in the passage, "and are now able to locate without difficulty the scene of the disturbance."
Briones apparently understood his meaning and the success of his stratagem. "You think you have saved her from disgrace," he said, with a livid smile, in a lower tone and a desperate attempt to imitate Paul's coolness. "For the present--ah--yees! perhaps in this hotel and this evening. But you have not stop my mouth for-- a--to-morrow--and the whole world, Mr. Hathaway."
"Well," said Paul, looking at him critically, "I don't know about that. Of course, there's the equal chance that you may kill me-- but that's a question for to-morrow, too."
The Mexican cast a quick glance at the door and window. Paul, as if carelessly, changed the key of the former from one pocket to the other, and stepped before the window.
"So this is a plot to murder me! Have a care! You are not in your own brigand California!"
"If you think so, alarm the house. They will find us quarreling, and you will only precipitate matters by receiving the insult that will make you fight--before them."
"I am r-ready, sir, when and where you will," said Briones, with a swaggering air but a shifting, furtive eye. "Open--a--the door."
"Pardon me. We will leave this room together in an hour for the station. We will board the night express that will take us in three hours beyond the frontier, where we can each find a friend."
"But my affairs here--my sister--I must see her."
"You shall write a note to her at that table, saying that important business--a dispatch--has called you away, and we will leave it with the porter to be delivered in the morning. Or--I do not restrict you--you can say what you like, provided she don't get it until we have left."
"And you make of me a prisoner, sir?"
"No; a visitor, Don Caesar--a visitor whose conversation is so interesting that I am forced to detain him to hear more. You can pass the time pleasantly by finishing the story I was obliged to interrupt a moment ago. Do you know this mother of Miss Yerba, of whom you spoke?"
"That's m--my affair."
"That means you don't know her. If you did, you'd have had her within call. And, as she is the only person who is able to say that Miss Yerba is not an Arguello, you have been very remiss."
"Ah, bah! I am not one of your--a--lawyers."
"No; or you would know that, with no better evidence than you have, you might be sued for slander."
"Ah! Why does not Miss Yerba sue, then?"
"Because she probably expects that somebody will shoot you."
"As you for instance?"
"And if you do not--eh?--you have not stop my mouth, but your own. And if you do, you help her to marry the Baron, your rival. You are not wise, friend Hathaway."
"May I remind you that you have not yet written to your sister, and you may prefer to do it carefully and deliberately?"
Don Caesar arose with a vindictive glance at Paul, and pulled a chair before the table, as the latter placed pen, ink, and paper before him. "Take your time," he added, folding his arms and walking towards the window. "Say what you like, and don't let my presence restrain you."
The Mexican began to write furiously, then spasmodically, then slowly and reluctantly. "I war-r-n you, I shall expose all," he said suddenly.
"As you please."
"And shall say that if I disappear, you are my murderer--you understand--my murderer!"
"Don't consult me on a question of epithets, but go on."
Don Caesar recommenced his writing with a malign smile. There was a sudden sharp rap at the door.
Don Caesar leaped to his feet, grasped his papers, and rushed to the door; but Paul was before him. "Who is there?" he demanded.
At the sound of the colonel's voice Don Caesar fell back. Paul opened the door, admitted the tall figure of the colonel, and was about to turn the key again. But Pendleton lifted his hand in grim deprecation.
"That will do, Mr. Hathaway. I know all. But I wish to speak with Briones elsewhere, alone."
"Excuse me, Colonel Pendleton," said Paul firmly, "but I have the prior claim. Words have passed between this gentleman and myself which we are now on our way to the station and the frontier to settle. If you are willing to accompany us, I shall give you every opportunity to converse with him alone, and arrange whatever business you may have with him, provided it does not interfere with mine."
"My business," said Pendleton, "is of a personal nature, that will not interfere with any claim of yours that Mr. Briones may choose to admit, but is of a private quality that must be transacted between us now." His face was pale, and his voice, although steady and self-controlled, had that same strange suggestion of sudden age in it which Paul had before noticed. Whether Don Caesar detected it, or whether he had some other instinctive appreciation of greater security, Paul could not tell. He seemed to recover his swagger again, as he said,--
"I shall hear what Colonel Pendleton has to say first. But I shall hold myself in readiness to meet you afterwards--you shall not fear, sir!"
Paul remained looking from the one to the other without speaking. It was Don Caesar who returned his glance boldly and defiantly, Colonel Pendleton who, with thin white fingers pulling his moustache, evaded it. Then Paul unlocked the door, and said slowly, "In five minutes I leave this house for the station. I shall wait there until the train arrives. If this gentleman does not join me, I shall be better able to understand all this and take measures accordingly."
"And I tell to you, Meester Hathaway, sir," said Don Caesar, striking an attitude in the doorway, "you shall do as I please-- Caramba!--and shall beg"--
"Hold your tongue, sir--or, by the Eternal!"--burst out Pendleton suddenly, bringing down his thin hand on the Mexican's shoulder. He stopped as suddenly. "Gentlemen, this is childish. Go, sir!" to Don Caesar, pointing with a gaunt white finger into the darkened hall. "I will follow you. Mr. Hathaway, as an older man, and one who has seen a good deal of foolish altercation, I regret, sir, deeply regret, to be a witness to this belligerent quality in a law-maker and a public man; and I must deprecate, sir--deprecate, your demand on that gentleman for what, in the folly of youth, you are pleased to call personal satisfaction."
As he moved with dignity out of the room, Paul remained blankly staring after him. Was it all a dream?--or was this Colonel Pendleton the duelist? Had the old man gone crazy, or was he merely acting to veil some wild purpose? His sudden arrival showed that Yerba must have sent for him and told him of Don Caesar's threats; would he be wild enough to attempt to strangle the man in some remote room or in the darkness of the passage? He stepped softly into the hall: he could still hear the double tread of the two men: they had reached the staircase--they were descending! He heard the drowsy accents of the night porter and the swinging of the door--they were in the street!
Wherever they were going, or for what purpose, he must be at the station, as he had warned them he would be. He hastily threw a few things into his valise, and prepared to follow them. When he went downstairs he informed the porter that owing to an urgent call of business he should try to catch the through express at three o'clock, but they must retain his room and luggage until they heard from him. He remembered Don Caesar's letter. Had either of the gentlemen, his friends who had just gone out, left a letter or message? No, Excellency; the gentlemen were talking earnestly--he believed, in the South American language--and had not spoken to him.
Perhaps it was this that reminded Paul, as he crossed the square again, that he had made no preparation for any possible fatal issue to himself in this adventure. She would know it, however, and why he had undertaken it. He tried to think that perhaps some interest in himself had prompted her to send the colonel to him. Yet, mingled with this was an odd sense of a certain ridiculousness in his position: there was the absurdity of his prospective antagonist being even now in confidential consultation with his own friend and ally, whose functions he had usurped, and in whose interests he was about to risk his life. And as he walked away through the silent streets, the conviction more than once was forced upon him that he was going to an appointment that would not be kept.
He reached the station some ten minutes before the train was due. Two or three half-drowsy, wrapped-up passengers were already on the platform; but neither Don Caesar nor Colonel Pendleton was among them. He explored the waiting-rooms and even the half-lit buffet, but with no better success. Telling the Bahnhof Inspector that his passage was only contingent upon the arrival of one or two companions, and describing them minutely to prevent mistakes, he began gloomily to pace before the ticket-office. Five minutes passed--the number of passengers did not increase; ten minutes; a distant shriek--the hoarse inquiry of the inspector--had the Herr's companions yet gekommt? the sudden glare of a Cyclopean eye in the darkness, the ongliding of the long-jointed and gleaming spotted serpent, the train--a hurried glance around the platform, one or two guttural orders, the slamming of doors, the remounting of black uniformed figures like caryatides along the marchepieds, a puff of vapor, and the train had come and gone without them.
Yet he would give his adversary fifteen minutes more to allow for accident or delay, or the possible arrival of the colonel with an explanation, and recommenced his gloomy pacing, as the Bahnhof sank back into half-lit repose. At the end of five minutes there was another shriek. Paul turned quickly to the inspector. Ah, then, there was another train? No; it was only the up express for Basle, going the other way and stopping at the Nord Station, half a mile away. It would not stop here, but the Herr would see it pass in a few moments at full speed.
It came presently, with a prolonged despairing shriek, out of the darkness; a flash, a rush and roar at his side, a plunge into the darkness again with the same despairing cry; a flutter of something white from one of the windows, like a loosened curtain, that at last seemed to detach itself, and, after a wild attempt to follow, suddenly soared aloft, whirled over and over, dropped, and drifted slowly, slantwise, to the ground.
The inspector had seen it, ran down the line, and picked it up. Then he returned with it to Paul with a look of sympathizing concern. It was a lady's handkerchief, evidently some signal waved to the well-born Herr, who was the only passenger on the platform. So, possibly, it might be from his friends, who by some stupid mischance had gone to the wrong station, and--Gott im Himmel!--it was hideously stupid, yet possible, got on the wrong train!
The Herr, a little pale, but composed, thought it was possible. No; he would not telegraph to the next station--not yet--he would inquire.
He walked quickly away, reaching the hotel breathlessly, yet in a space that seemed all too brief for his disconnected thought. There were signs of animation in the hall, and an empty carriage was just reentering the courtyard. The hall-porter met him with demonstrative concern and apology. Ah! if he had only understood his Excellency better, he could have saved him all this trouble. Evidently his Excellency was going with the Arguello party, who had ordered a carriage, doubtless, for the same important journey, an hour before, yet had left only a few moments after his Excellency, and his Excellency, it would appear, had gone to the wrong station.
Paul pushed hurriedly past the man and ascended to his room. Both windows were open, and in the faint moonlight he could see that something white was pinned to his pillow. With nervous fingers he relit his candles, and found it was a note in Yerba's handwriting. As he opened it, a tiny spray of the vine that had grown on the crumbling wall fell at his feet. He picked it up, pressed it to his lips, and read, with dim eyes, as follows:--
"You know now why I spoke to you as I did to-day, and why the other half of this precious spray is the only memory I care to carry with me out of this crumbling ruin of all my hopes. You were right, Paul: my taking you there was an omen--not to you, who can never be anything but proud, beloved, and true--but to me of all the shame and misery. Thank you for all you have done--for all you would do, my friend, and don't think me ungrateful, only because I am unworthy of it. Try to forgive me, but don't forget me, even if you must hate me. Perhaps, if you knew all--you might still love a little the poor girl to whom you have already given the only name she can ever take from you--Yerba Buena!