The Three Partners by Bret Harte
The swaying, creaking, Boomville coach had at last reached the level ridge, and sank forward upon its springs with a sigh of relief and the slow precipitation of the red dust which had hung in clouds around it. The whole coach, inside and out, was covered with this impalpable powder; it had poured into the windows that gaped widely in the insufferable heat; it lay thick upon the novel read by the passenger who had for the third or fourth time during the ascent made a gutter of the half-opened book and blown the dust away in a single puff, like the smoke from a pistol. It lay in folds and creases over the yellow silk duster of the handsome woman on the back seat, and when she endeavored to shake it off enveloped her in a reddish nimbus. It grimed the handkerchiefs of others, and left sanguinary streaks on their mopped foreheads. But as the coach had slowly climbed the summit the sun was also sinking behind the Black Spur Range, and with its ultimate disappearance a delicious coolness spread itself like a wave across the ridge. The passengers drew a long breath, the reader closed his book, the lady lifted the edge of her veil and delicately wiped her forehead, over which a few damp tendrils of hair were clinging. Even a distinguished-looking man who had sat as impenetrable and remote as a statue in one of the front seats moved and turned his abstracted face to the window. His deeply tanned cheek and clearly cut features harmonized with the red dust that lay in the curves of his brown linen dust-cloak, and completed his resemblance to a bronze figure. Yet it was Demorest, changed only in coloring. Now, as five years ago, his abstraction had a certain quality which the most familiar stranger shrank from disturbing. But in the general relaxation of relief the novel-reader addressed him.
"Well, we ain't far from Boomville now, and it's all down-grade the rest of the way. I reckon you'll be as glad to get a 'wash up' and a 'shake' as the rest of us."
"I am afraid I won't have so early an opportunity," said Demorest, with a faint, grave smile, "for I get off at the cross-road to Heavy Tree Hill."
"Heavy Tree Hill!" repeated the other in surprise. "You ain't goin' to Heavy Tree Hill? Why, you might have gone there direct by railroad, and have been there four hours ago. You know there's a branch from the Divide Railroad goes there straight to the hotel at Hymettus."
"Where?" said Demorest, with a puzzled smile.
"Hymettus. That's the fancy name they've given to the watering- place on the slope. But I reckon you're a stranger here?"
"For five years," said Demorest. "I fancy I've heard of the railroad, although I prefer to go to Heavy Tree this way. But I never heard of a watering-place there before."
"Why, it's the biggest boom of the year. Folks that are tired of the fogs of 'Frisco and the heat of Sacramento all go there. It's four thousand feet up, with a hotel like Saratoga, dancing, and a band plays every night. And it all sprang out of the Divide Railroad and a crank named George Barker, who bought up some old Ditch property and ran a branch line along its levels, and made a junction with the Divide. You can come all the way from 'Frisco or Sacramento by rail. It's a mighty big thing!"
"Yet," said Demorest, with some animation, "you call the man who originated this success a crank. I should say he was a genius."
The other passenger shook his head. "All sheer nigger luck. He bought the Ditch plant afore there was a ghost of a chance for the Divide Railroad, just out o' pure d----d foolishness. He expected so little from it that he hadn't even got the agreement done in writin', and hadn't paid for it, when the Divide Railroad passed the legislature, as it never oughter done! For, you see, the blamedest cur'ous thing about the whole affair was that this 'straw' road of a Divide, all pure wildcat, was only gotten up to frighten the Pacific Railroad sharps into buying it up. And the road that nobody ever calculated would ever have a rail of it laid was pushed on as soon as folks knew that the Ditch plant had been bought up, for they thought there was a big thing behind it. Even the hotel was, at first, simply a kind of genteel alms-house that this yer Barker had built for broken-down miners!"
"Nevertheless," continued Demorest, smiling, "you admit that it is a great success?"
"Yes," said the other, a little irritated by some complacency in Demorest's smile, "but the success isn't his'n. Fools has ideas, and wise men profit by them, for that hotel now has Jim Stacy's bank behind it, and is even a kind of country branch of the Brook House in 'Frisco. Barker's out of it, I reckon. Anyhow, he couldn't run a hotel, for all that his wife--she that's one of the big 'Frisco swells now--used to help serve in her father's. No, sir, it's just a fool's luck, gettin' the first taste and leavin' the rest to others."
"I'm not sure that it's the worst kind of luck," returned Demorest, with persistent gravity; "and I suppose he's satisfied with it." But so heterodox an opinion only irritated his antagonist the more, especially as he noticed that the handsome woman in the back seat appeared to be interested in the conversation, and even sympathetic with Demorest. The man was in the main a good-natured fellow and loyal to his friends; but this did not preclude any virulent criticism of others, and for a moment he hated this bronze-faced stranger, and even saw blemishes in the handsome woman's beauty. "That may be your idea of an Eastern man," he said bluntly, "but I kin tell ye that Californy ain't run on those lines. No, sir." Nevertheless, his curiosity got the better of his ill humor, and as the coach at last pulled up at the cross-road for Demorest to descend he smiled affably at his departing companion.
"You allowed just now that you'd bin five years away. Whar mout ye have bin?"
"In Europe," said Demorest pleasantly.
"I reckoned ez much," returned his interrogator, smiling significantly at the other passengers. "But in what place?"
"Oh, many," said Demorest, smiling also.
"But what place war ye last livin' at?"
"Well," said Demorest, descending the steps, but lingering for a moment with his hand on the door of the coach, "oddly enough, now you remind me of it--at Hymettus!"
He closed the door, and the coach rolled on. The passenger reddened, glanced indignantly after the departing figure of Demorest and suspiciously at the others. The lady was looking from the window with a faint smile on her face.
"He might hev given me a civil answer," muttered the passenger, and resumed his novel.
When the coach drew up before Carter's Hotel the lady got down, and the curiosity of her susceptible companions was gratified to the extent of learning from the register that her name was Horncastle.
She was shown to a private sitting-room, which chanced to be the one which had belonged to Mrs. Barker in the days of her maidenhood, and was the sacred, impenetrable bower to which she retired when her daily duties of waiting upon her father's guests were over. But the breath of custom had passed through it since then, and but little remained of its former maiden glories, except a few schoolgirl crayon drawings on the wall and an unrecognizable portrait of herself in oil, done by a wandering artist and still preserved as a receipt for his unpaid bill. Of these facts Mrs. Horncastle knew nothing; she was evidently preoccupied, and after she had removed her outer duster and entered the room, she glanced at the clock on the mantel-shelf and threw herself with an air of resigned abstraction in an armchair in the corner. Her traveling- dress, although unostentatious, was tasteful and well-fitting; a slight pallor from her fatiguing journey, and, perhaps, from some absorbing thought, made her beauty still more striking. She gave even an air of elegance to the faded, worn adornments of the room, which it is to be feared it never possessed in Miss Kitty's occupancy. Again she glanced at the clock. There was a tap at the door.
The door opened to a Chinese servant bearing a piece of torn paper with a name written on it in lieu of a card.
Mrs. Horncastle took it, glanced at the name, and handed the paper back.
"There must be some mistake," she said. "it do not know Mr. Steptoe."
"No, but you know me all the same," said a voice from the doorway as a man entered, coolly took the Chinese servant by the elbows and thrust him into the passage, closing the door upon him. "Steptoe and Horncastle are the same man, only I prefer to call myself Steptoe here. And I see you're down on the register as 'Horncastle.' Well, it's plucky of you, and it's not a bad name to keep; you might be thankful that I have always left it to you. And if I call myself Steptoe here it's a good blind against any of your swell friends knowing you met your husband here."
In the half-scornful, half-resigned look she had given him when he entered there was no doubt that she recognized him as the man she had come to see. He had changed little in the five years that had elapsed since he entered the three partners' cabin at Heavy Tree Hill. His short hair and beard still clung to his head like curled moss or the crisp flocculence of Astrakhan. He was dressed more pretentiously, but still gave the same idea of vulgar strength. She listened to him without emotion, but said, with even a deepening of scorn in her manner:--
"What new shame is this?"
"Nothing new," he replied. "Only five years ago I was livin' over on the Bar at Heavy Tree Hill under the name of Steptoe, and folks here might recognize me. I was here when your particular friend, Jim Stacy, who only knew me as Steptoe, and doesn't know me as Horncastle, your husband,--for all he's bound up my property for you,--made his big strike with his two partners. I was in his cabin that very night, and drank his whiskey. Oh, I'm all right there! I left everything all right behind me--only it's just as well he doesn't know I'm Horncastle. And as the boy happened to be there with me"-- He stopped, and looked at her significantly.
The expression of her face changed. Eagerness, anxiety, and even fear came into it in turn, but always mingling with some scorn that dominated her. "The boy!" she said in a voice that had changed too; "well, what about him? You promised to tell me all,--all!"
"Where's the money?" he said. "Husband and wife are one, I know," he went on with a coarse laugh, "but I don't trust myself in these matters."
She took from a traveling-reticule that lay beside her a roll of notes and a chamois leather bag of coin, and laid them on the table before him. He examined both carefully.
"All right," he said. "I see you've got the checks made out 'to bearer.' Your head's level, Conny. Pity you and me can't agree."
"I went to the bank across the way as soon as I arrived," she said, with contemptuous directness. "I told them I was going over to Hymettus and might want money."
He dropped into a chair before her with his broad heavy hands upon his knees, and looked at her with an equal, though baser, contempt: for his was mingled with a certain pride of mastery and possession.
"And, of course, you'll go to Hymettus and cut a splurge as you always do. The beautiful Mrs. Horncastle! The helpless victim of a wretched, dissipated, disgraced, gambling husband. So dreadfully sad, you know, and so interesting! Could get a divorce from the brute if she wanted, but won't, on account of her religious scruples. And so while the brute is gambling, swindling, disgracing himself, and dodging a shot here and a lynch committee there, two or three hundred miles away, you're splurging round in first-class hotels and watering-places, doing the injured and abused, and run after by a lot of men who are ready to take my place, and, maybe, some of my reputation along with it."
"Stop!" she said suddenly, in a voice that made the glass chandelier ring. He had risen too, with a quick, uneasy glance towards the door. But her outbreak passed as suddenly, and sinking back into her chair, she said, with her previous scornful resignation, "Never mind. Go on. You know you're lying!"
He sat down again and looked at her critically. "Yes, as far as you're concerned I was lying! I know your style. But as you know, too, that I'd kill you and the first man I suspected, and there ain't a judge or a jury in all Californy that wouldn't let me go free for it, and even consider, too, that it had wiped off the whole slate agin me--it's to my credit!"
"I know what you men call chivalry," she said coldly, "but I did not come here to buy a knowledge of that. So now about the child?" she ended abruptly, leaning forward again with the same look of eager solicitude in her eyes.
"Well, about the child--our child--though, perhaps, I prefer to say my child," he began, with a certain brutal frankness. "I'll tell you. But first, I don't want you to talk about buying your information of me. If I haven't told you anything before, it's because I didn't think you oughter know. If I didn't trust the child to you, it's because I didn't think you could go shashaying about with a child that was three years old when I"--he stopped and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand--"made an honest woman of you--I think that's what they call it."
"But," she said eagerly, ignoring the insult, "I could have hidden it where no one but myself would have known it. I could have sent it to school and visited it as a relation."
"Yes," he said curtly, "like all women, and then blurted it out some day and made it worse."
"But," she said desperately, "even then, suppose I had been willing to take the shame of it! I have taken more!"
"But I didn't intend that you should," he said roughly.
"You are very careful of my reputation," she returned scornfully.
"Not by a d----d sight," he burst out; "but I care for his! I'm not goin' to let any man call him a bastard!"
Callous as she had become even under this last cruel blow, she could not but see something in his coarse eyes she had never seen before; could not but hear something in his brutal voice she had never heard before! Was it possible that somewhere in the depths of his sordid nature he had his own contemptible sense of honor? A hysterical feeling came over her hitherto passive disgust and scorn, but it disappeared with his next sentence in a haze of anxiety. "No!" he said hoarsely, "he had enough wrong done him already."
"What do you mean?" she said imploringly. "Or are you again lying? You said, four years ago, that he had 'got into trouble;' that was your excuse for keeping him from me. Or was that a lie, too?"
His manner changed and softened, but not for any pity for his companion, but rather from some change in his own feelings. "Oh, that," he said, with a rough laugh, "that was only a kind o' trouble any sassy kid like him was likely to get into. You ain't got no call to hear that, for," he added, with a momentary return to his previous manner, "the wrong that was done him is my lookout! You want to know what I did with him, how he's been looked arter, and where he is? You want the worth of your money. That's square enough. But first I want you to know, though you mayn't believe it, that every red cent you've given me to-night goes to him. And don't you forget it."
For all his vulgar frankness she knew he had lied to her many times before,--maliciously, wantonly, complacently, but never evasively; yet there was again that something in his manner which told her he was now telling the truth.
"Well," he began, settling himself back in his chair, "I told you I brought him to Heavy Tree Hill. After I left you I wasn't going to trust him to no school; he knew enough for me; but when I left those parts where nobody knew you, and got a little nearer 'Frisco, where people might have known us both, I thought it better not to travel round with a kid o' that size as his father. So I got a young fellow here to pass him off as his little brother, and look after him and board him; and I paid him a big price for it, too, you bet! You wouldn't think it was a man who's now swelling around here, the top o' the pile, that ever took money from a brute like me, and for such schoolmaster work, too; but he did, and his name was Van Loo, a clerk of the Ditch Company."
"Van Loo!" said the woman, with a movement of disgust; "That man!"
"What's the matter with Van Loo?" he said, with a coarse laugh, enjoying his wife's discomfiture. "He speaks French and Spanish, and you oughter hear the kid roll off the lingo he's got from him. He's got style, and knows how to dress, and you ought to see the kid bow and scrape, and how he carries himself. Now, Van Loo wasn't exactly my style, and I reckon I don't hanker after him much, but he served my purpose."
"And this man knows"--she said, with a shudder.
"He knows Steptoe and the boy, but he don't know Horncastle nor you. Don't you be skeert. He's the last man in the world who would hanker to see me or the kid again, or would dare to say that he ever had! Lord! I'd like to see his fastidious mug if me and Eddy walked in upon him and his high-toned mother and sister some arternoon." He threw himself back and laughed a derisive, spasmodic, choking laugh, which was so far from being genial that it even seemed to indicate a lively appreciation of pain in others rather than of pleasure in himself. He had often laughed at her in the same way.
"And where is he now?" she said, with a compressed lip.
"At school. Where, I don't tell you. You know why. But he's looked after by me, and d----d well looked after, too."
She hesitated, composed her face with an effort, parted her lips, and looked out of the window into the gathering darkness. Then after a moment she said slowly, yet with a certain precision:--
"And his mother? Do you ever talk to him of her? Does--does he ever speak of me?"
"What do you think?" he said comfortably, changing his position in the chair, and trying to read her face in the shadow. "Come, now. You don't know, eh? Well--no! No! You understand. No! He's my friend--mine! He's stood by me through thick and thin. Run at my heels when everybody else fled me. Dodged vigilance committees with me, laid out in the brush with me with his hand in mine when the sheriff's deputies were huntin' me; shut his jaw close when, if he squealed, he'd have been called another victim of the brute Horncastle, and been as petted and canoodled as you."
It would have been difficult for any one but the woman who knew the man before her to have separated his brutish delight in paining her from another feeling she had never dreamt him capable of,--an intense and fierce pride in his affection for his child. And it was the more hopeless to her that it was not the mere sentiment of reciprocation, but the material instinct of paternity in its most animal form. And it seemed horrible to her that the only outcome of what had been her own wild, youthful passion for this brute was this love for the flesh of her flesh, for she was more and more conscious as he spoke that her yearning for the boy was the yearning of an equally dumb and unreasoning maternity. They had met again as animals--in fear, contempt, and anger of each other; but the animal had triumphed in both.
When she spoke again it was as the woman of the world,--the woman who had laughed two years ago at the irrepressible Barker. "It's a new thing," she said, languidly turning her rings on her fingers, "to see you in the role of a doting father. And may I ask how long you have had this amiable weakness, and how long it is to last?"
To her surprise and the keen retaliating delight of her sex, a conscious flush covered his face to the crisp edges of his black and matted beard. For a moment she hoped that he had lied. But, to her greater surprise, he stammered in equal frankness: "It's growed upon me for the last five years--ever since I was alone with him." He stopped, cleared his throat, and then, standing up before her, said in his former voice, but with a more settled and intense deliberation: "You wanter know how long it will last, do ye? Well, you know your special friend, Jim Stacy--the big millionaire--the great Jim of the Stock Exchange--the man that pinches the money market of Californy between his finger and thumb and makes it squeal in New York--the man who shakes the stock market when he sneezes? Well, it will go on until that man is a beggar; until he has to borrow a dime for his breakfast, and slump out of his lunch with a cent's worth of rat poison or a bullet in his head! It'll go on until his old partner--that softy George Barker--comes to the bottom of his d----d fool luck and is a penny-a-liner for the papers and a hanger-round at free lunches, and his scatter-brained wife runs away with another man! It'll go on until the high-toned Demorest, the last of those three little tin gods of Heavy Tree Hill, will have to climb down, and will know what I feel and what he's made me feel, and will wish himself in hell before he ever made the big strike on Heavy Tree! That's me! You hear me! I'm shoutin'! It'll last till then! It may be next week, next month, next year. But it'll come. And when it does come you'll see me and Eddy just waltzin' in and takin' the chief seats in the synagogue! And you'll have a free pass to the show!"
Either he was too intoxicated with his vengeful vision, or the shadows of the room had deepened, but he did not see the quick flush that had risen to his wife's face with this allusion to Barker, nor the after-settling of her handsome features into a dogged determination equal to his own. His blind fury against the three partners did not touch her curiosity; she was only struck with the evident depth of his emotion. He had never been a braggart; his hostility had always been lazy and cynical. Remembering this, she had a faint stirring of respect for the undoubted courage and consciousness of strength shown in this wild but single-handed crusade against wealth and power; rather, perhaps, it seemed to her to condone her own weakness in her youthful and inexplicable passion for him. No wonder she had submitted.
"Then you have nothing more to tell me?" she said after a pause, rising and going towards the mantel.
"You needn't light up for me," he returned, rising also. "I am going. Unless," he added, with his coarse laugh, "you think it wouldn't look well for Mrs. Horncastle to have been sitting in the dark with--a stranger!" He paused as she contemptuously put down the candlestick and threw the unlit match into the grate. "No, I've nothing more to tell. He's a fancy-looking pup. You'd take him for twenty-one, though he's only sixteen--clean-limbed and perfect--but for one thing"-- He stopped. He met her quick look of interrogation, however, with a lowering silence that, nevertheless, changed again as he surveyed her erect figure by the faint light of the window with a sardonic smile. "He favors you, I think, and in all but one thing, too."
"And that?" she queried coldly, as he seemed to hesitate.
"He ain't ashamed of me," he returned, with a laugh.
The door closed behind him; she heard his heavy step descend the creaking stairs; he was gone. She went to the window and threw it open, as if to get rid of the atmosphere charged with his presence,--a presence still so potent that she now knew that for the last five minutes she had been, to her horror, struggling against its magnetism. She even recoiled now at the thought of her child, as if, in these new confidences over it, it had revived the old intimacy in this link of their common flesh. She looked down from her window on the square shoulders, thick throat, and crisp matted hair of her husband as he vanished in the darkness, and drew a breath of freedom,--a freedom not so much from him as from her own weakness that he was bearing away with him into the exonerating night.
She shut the window and sank down in her chair again, but in the encompassing and compassionate obscurity of the room. And this was the man she had loved and for whom she had wrecked her young life! Or was it love? and, if not, how was she better than he? Worse; for he was more loyal to that passion that had brought them together and its responsibilities than she was. She had suffered the perils and pangs of maternity, and yet had only the mere animal yearning for her offspring, while he had taken over the toil and duty, and even the devotion, of parentage himself. But then she remembered also how he had fascinated her--a simple schoolgirl--by his sheer domineering strength, and how the objections of her parents to this coarse and common man had forced her into a clandestine intimacy that ended in her complete subjection to him. She remembered the birth of an infant whose concealment from her parents and friends was compassed by his low cunning; she remembered the late atonement of marriage preferred by the man she had already begun to loathe and fear, and who she now believed was eager only for her inheritance. She remembered her abject compliance through the greater fear of the world, the stormy scenes that followed their ill-omened union, her final abandonment of her husband, and the efforts of her friends and family who had rescued the last of her property from him. She was glad she remembered it; she dwelt upon it, upon his cruelty, his coarseness and vulgarity, until she saw, as she honestly believed, the hidden springs of his affection for their child. It was his child in nature, however it might have favored her in looks; it was his own brutal self he was worshiping in his brutal progeny. How else could it have ignored her--its own mother? She never doubted the truth of what he had told her--she had seen it in his own triumphant eyes. And yet she would have made a kind mother; she remembered with a smile and a slight rising of color the affection of Barker's baby for her; she remembered with a deepening of that color the thrill of satisfaction she had felt in her husband's fulmination against Mrs. Barker, and, more than all, she felt in his blind and foolish hatred of Barker himself a delicious condonation of the strange feeling that had sprung up in her heart for Barker's simple, straightforward nature. How could he understand, how could they understand (by the plural she meant Mrs. Barker and Horncastle), a character so innately noble. In her strange attraction towards him she had felt a charming sense of what she believed was a superior and even matronly protection; in the utter isolation of her life now--and with her husband's foolish abuse of him ringing in her ears--it seemed a sacred duty. She had lost a son. Providence had sent her an ideal friend to replace him. And this was quite consistent, too, with a faint smile that began to play about her mouth as she recalled some instances of Barker's delightful and irresistible youthfulness.
There was a clatter of hoofs and the sound of many voices from the street. Mrs. Horncastle knew it was the down coach changing horses; it would be off again in a few moments, and, no doubt, bearing her husband away with it. A new feeling of relief came over her as she at last heard the warning "All aboard!" and the great vehicle clattered and rolled into the darkness, trailing its burning lights across her walls and ceiling. But now she heard steps on the staircase, a pause before her room, a whisper of voices, the opening of the door, the rustle of a skirt, and a little feminine cry of protest as a man apparently tried to follow the figure into the room. "No, no! I tell you no!" remonstrated the woman's voice in a hurried whisper. "It won't do. Everybody knows me here. You must not come in now. You must wait to be announced by the servant. Hush! Go!"
There was a slight struggle, the sound of a kiss, and the woman succeeded in finally shutting the door. Then she walked slowly, but with a certain familiarity towards the mantel, struck a match and lit the candle. The light shone upon the bright eyes and slightly flushed face of Mrs. Barker. But the motionless woman in the chair had recognized her voice and the voice of her companion at once. And then their eyes met.
Mrs. Barker drew back, but did not utter a cry. Mrs. Horncastle, with eyes even brighter than her companion's, smiled. The red deepened in Mrs. Barker's cheek.
"This is my room!" she said indignantly, with a sweeping gesture around the walls.
"I should judge so," said Mrs. Horncastle, following the gesture; "but," she added quietly, "they put me into it. It appears, however, they did not expect you."
Mrs. Barker saw her mistake. "No, no," she said apologetically, "of course not." Then she added, with nervous volubility, sitting down and tugging at her gloves, "You see, I just ran down from Marysville to take a look at my father's old house on my way to Hymettus. I hope I haven't disturbed you. Perhaps," she said, with sudden eagerness, "you were asleep when I came in!"
"No," said Mrs. Horncastle, "I was not sleeping nor dreaming. I heard you come in."
"Some of these men are such idiots," said Mrs. Barker, with a half- hysterical laugh. "They seem to think if a woman accepts the least courtesy from them they've a right to be familiar. But I fancy that fellow was a little astonished when I shut the door in his face."
"I fancy he was," returned Mrs. Horncastle dryly. "But I shouldn't call Mr. Van Loo an idiot. He has the reputation of being a cautious business man."
Mrs. Barker bit her lip. Her companion had been recognized. She rose with a slight flirt of her skirt. "I suppose I must go and get a room; there was nobody in the office when I came. Everything is badly managed here since my father took away the best servants to Hymettus." She moved with affected carelessness towards the door, when Mrs. Horncastle, without rising from her seat, said:--
"Why not stay here?"
Mrs. Barker brightened for a moment. "Oh," she said, with polite deprecation, "I couldn't think of turning you out."
"I don't intend you shall," said Mrs. Horncastle. "We will stay here together until you go with me to Hymettus, or until Mr. Van Loo leaves the hotel. He will hardly attempt to come in here again if I remain."
Mrs. Barker, with a half-laugh, sat down irresolutely. Mrs. Horncastle gazed at her curiously; she was evidently a novice in this sort of thing. But, strange to say,--and I leave the ethics of this for the sex to settle,--the fact did not soften Mrs. Horncastle's heart, nor in the least qualify her attitude towards the younger woman. After an awkward pause Mrs. Barker rose again. "Well, it's very good of you, and--and---I'll just run out and wash my hands and get the dust off me, and come back."
"No, Mrs. Barker," said Mrs. Horncastle, rising and approaching her, "you will first wash your hands of this Mr. Van Loo, and get some of the dust of the rendezvous off you before you do anything else. You can do it by simply telling him, should you meet him in the hall, that I was sitting here when he came in, and heard everything! Depend upon it, he won't trouble you again."
But Mrs. Barker, though inexperienced in love, was a good fighter. The best of the sex are. She dropped into the rocking-chair, and began rocking backwards and forwards while still tugging at her gloves, and said, in a gradually warming voice, "I certainly shall not magnify Mr. Van Loo's silliness to that importance. And I have yet to learn what you mean by talking about a rendezvous! And I want to know," she continued, suddenly stopping her rocking and tilting the rockers impertinently behind her, as, with her elbows squared on the chair arms, she tilted her own face defiantly up into Mrs. Horncastle's, "how a woman in your position--who doesn't live with her husband--dares to talk to me!"
There was a lull before the storm. Mrs. Horncastle approached nearer, and, laying her hand on the back of the chair, leaned over her, and, with a white face and a metallic ring in her voice, said: "It is just because I am a woman in my position that I do! It is because I don't live with my husband that I can tell you what it will be when you no longer live with yours--which will be the inevitable result of what you are now doing. It is because I was in this position that the very man who is pursuing you, because he thinks you are discontented with your husband, once thought he could pursue me because I had left mine. You are here with him alone, without the knowledge of your husband; call it folly, caprice, vanity, or what you like, it can have but one end--to put you in my place at last, to be considered the fair game afterwards for any man who may succeed him. You can test him and the truth of what I say by telling him now that I heard all."
"Suppose he doesn't care what you have heard," said Mrs. Barker sharply. "Suppose he says nobody would believe you, if 'telling' is your game. Suppose he is a friend of my husband and he thinks him a much better guardian of my reputation than a woman like you. Suppose he should be the first one to tell my husband of the foul slander invented by you!"
For an instant Mrs. Horncastle was taken aback by the audacity of the woman before her. She knew the simple confidence and boyish trust of Barker in his wife in spite of their sometimes strained relations, and she knew how difficult it would be to shake it. And she had no idea of betraying Mrs. Barker's secret to him, though she had made this scene in his interest. She had wished to save Mrs. Barker from a compromising situation, even if there was a certain vindictiveness in her exposing her to herself. Yet she knew it was quite possible now, if Mrs. Barker had immediate access to her husband, that she would convince him of her perfect innocence. Nevertheless, she had still great confidence in Van Loo's fear of scandal and his utter unmanliness. She knew he was not in love with Mrs. Barker, and this puzzled her when she considered the evident risk he was running now. Her face, however, betrayed nothing. She drew back from Mrs. Barker, and, with an indifferent and graceful gesture towards the door, said, as she leaned against the mantel, "Go, then, and see this much-abused gentleman, and then go together with him and make peace with your husband--even on those terms. If I have saved you from the consequences of your folly I shall be willing to bear even his blame."
"Whatever I do," said Mrs. Barker, rising hotly, "I shall not stay here any longer to be insulted." She flounced out of the room and swept down the staircase into the office. Here she found an overworked clerk, and with crimson cheeks and flashing eyes wanted to know why in her own father's hotel she had found her own sitting-room engaged, and had been obliged to wait half an hour before she could be shown into a decent apartment to remove her hat and cloak in; and how it was that even the gentleman who had kindly escorted her had evidently been unable to procure her any assistance. She said this in a somewhat high voice, which might have reached the ears of that gentleman had he been in the vicinity. But he was not, and she was forced to meet the somewhat dazed apologies of the clerk alone, and to accompany the chambermaid to a room only a few paces distant from the one she had quitted. Here she hastily removed her outer duster and hat, washed her hands, and consulted her excited face in the mirror, with the door ajar and an ear sensitively attuned to any step in the corridor. But all this was effected so rapidly that she was at last obliged to sit down in a chair near the half-opened door, and wait. She waited five minutes--ten--but still no footstep. Then she went out into the corridor and listened, and then, smoothing her face, she slipped downstairs, past the door of that hateful room, and reappeared before the clerk with a smiling but somewhat pale and languid face. She had found the room very comfortable, but it was doubtful whether she would stay over night or go on to Hymettus. Had anybody been inquiring for her? She expected to meet friends. No! And her escort--the gentleman who came with her--was possibly in the billiard-room or the bar?
"Oh no! He was gone," said the clerk.
"Gone!" echoed Mrs. Barker. "Impossible! He was--he was here only a moment ago."
The clerk rang a bell sharply. The stableman appeared.
"That tall, smooth-faced man, in a high hat, who came with the lady," said the clerk severely and concisely,--"didn't you tell me he was gone?"
"Yes, sir," said the stableman.
"Are you sure?" interrupted Mrs. Barker, with a dazzling smile that, however, masked a sudden tightening round her heart.
"Quite sure, miss," said the stableman, "for he was in the yard when Steptoe came, after missing the coach. He wanted a buggy to take him over to the Divide. We hadn't one, so he went over to the other stables, and he didn't come back, so I reckon he's gone. I remember it, because Steptoe came by a minute after he'd gone, in another buggy, and as he was going to the Divide, too, I wondered why the gentleman hadn't gone with him."
"And he left no message for me? He said nothing?" asked Mrs. Barker, quite breathless, but still smiling.
"He said nothin' to me but 'Isn't that Steptoe over there?' when Steptoe came in. And I remember he said it kinder suddent--as if he was reminded o' suthin' he'd forgot; and then he asked for a buggy. Ye see, miss," added the man, with a certain rough consideration for her disappointment, "that's mebbe why he clean forgot to leave a message."
Mrs. Barker turned away, and ascended the stairs. Selfishness is quick to recognize selfishness, and she saw in a flash the reason of Van Loo's abandonment of her. Some fear of discovery had alarmed him; perhaps Steptoe knew her husband; perhaps he had heard of Mrs. Horncastle's possession of the sitting-room; perhaps--for she had not seen him since their playful struggle at the door--he had recognized the woman who was there, and the selfish coward had run away. Yes; Mrs. Horncastle was right: she had been only a miserable dupe.
Her cheeks blazed as she entered the room she had just quitted, and threw herself in a chair by the window. She bit her lip as she remembered how for the last three months she had been slowly yielding to Van Loo's cautious but insinuating solicitation, from a flirtation in the San Francisco hotel to a clandestine meeting in the street; from a ride in the suburbs to a supper in a fast restaurant after the theatre. Other women did it who were fashionable and rich, as Van Loo had pointed out to her. Other fashionable women also gambled in stocks, and had their private broker in a "Charley" or a "Jack." Why should not Mrs. Barker have business with a "Paul" Van Loo, particularly as this fast craze permitted secret meetings?--for business of this kind could not be conducted in public, and permitted the fair gambler to call at private offices without fear and without reproach. Mrs. Barker's vanity, Mrs. Barker's love of ceremony and form, Mrs. Barker's snobbishness, were flattered by the attentions of this polished gentleman with a foreign name, which even had the flavor of nobility, who never picked up her fan and handed it to her without bowing, and always rose when she entered the room. Mrs. Barker's scant schoolgirl knowledge was touched by this gentleman, who spoke French fluently, and delicately explained to her the libretto of a risky opera bouffe. And now she had finally yielded to a meeting out of San Francisco--and an ostensible visit--still as a speculator--to one or two mining districts--with her broker. This was the boldest of her steps--an original idea of the fashionable Van Loo--which, no doubt, in time would become a craze, too. But it was a long step--and there was a streak of rustic decorum in Mrs. Barker's nature--the instinct that made Kitty Carter keep a perfectly secluded and distinct sitting-room in the days when she served her father's guests--that now had impelled her to make it a proviso that the first step of her journey should be from her old home in her father's hotel. It was this instinct of the proprieties that had revived in her suddenly at the door of the old sitting-room.
Then a new phase of the situation flashed upon her. It was hard for her vanity to accept Van Loo's desertion as voluntary and final. What if that hateful woman had lured him away by some trick or artfully designed message? She was capable of such meanness to insure the fulfillment of her prophecy. Or, more dreadful thought, what if she had some hold on his affections--she had said that he had pursued her; or, more infamous still, there were some secret understanding between them, and that she--Mrs. Barker--was the dupe of them both! What was she doing in the hotel at such a moment? What was her story of going to Hymettus but a lie as transparent as her own? The tortures of jealousy, which is as often the incentive as it is the result of passion, began to rack her. She had probably yet known no real passion for this man; but with the thought of his abandoning her, and the conception of his faithlessness, came the wish to hold and keep him that was dangerously near it. What if he were even then in that room, the room where she had said she would not stay to be insulted, and they, thus secured against her intrusion, were laughing at her now? She half rose at the thought, but a sound of a horse's hoofs in the stable-yard arrested her. She ran to the window which gave upon it, and, crouching down beside it, listened eagerly. The clatter of hoofs ceased; the stableman was talking to some one; suddenly she heard the stableman say, "Mrs. Barker is here." Her heart leaped,--Van Loo had returned.
But here the voice of the other man which she had not yet heard arose for the first time clear and distinct. "Are you quite sure? I didn't know she left San Francisco."
The room reeled around her. The voice was George Barker's, her husband! "Very well," he continued. "You needn't put up my horse for the night. I may take her back a little later in the buggy."
In another moment she had swept down the passage, and burst into the other room. Mrs. Horncastle was sitting by the table with a book in her hand. She started as the half-maddened woman closed the door, locked it behind her, and cast herself on her knees at her feet.
"My husband is here," she gasped. "What shall I do? In heaven's name help me!"
"Is Van Loo still here?" said Mrs. Horncastle quickly.
"No; gone. He went when I came."
Mrs. Horncastle caught her hand and looked intently into her frightened face. "Then what have you to fear from your husband?" she said abruptly.
"You don't understand. He didn't know I was here. He thought me in San Francisco."
"Does he know it now?"
"Yes. I heard the stableman tell him. Couldn't you say I came here with you; that we were here together; that it was just a little freak of ours? Oh, do!"
Mrs. Horncastle thought a moment. "Yes," she said, "we'll see him here together."
"Oh no! no!" said Mrs. Barker suddenly, clinging to her dress and looking fearfully towards the door. "I couldn't, couldn't see him now. Say I'm sick, tired out, gone to my room."
"But you'll have to see him later," said Mrs. Horncastle wonderingly.
"Yes, but he may go first. I heard him tell them not to put up his horse."
"Good!" said Mrs. Horncastle suddenly. "Go to your room and lock the door, and I'll come to you later. Stop! Would Mr. Barker be likely to disturb you if I told him you would like to be alone?"
"No, he never does. I often tell him that."
Mrs. Horncastle smiled faintly. "Come, quick, then," she said, "for he may come here first."
Opening the door she passed into the half-dark and empty hall. "Now run!" She heard the quick rustle of Mrs. Barker's skirt die away in the distance, the opening and shutting of a door--silence-- and then turned back into her own room.
She was none too soon. Presently she heard Barker's voice saying, "Thank you, I can find the way," his still buoyant step on the staircase, and then saw his brown curls rising above the railing. The light streaming through the open door of the sitting room into the half-lit hall had partially dazzled him, and, already bewildered, he was still more dazzled at the unexpected apparition of the smiling face and bright eyes of Mrs. Horncastle standing in the doorway.
"You have fairly caught us," she said, with charming composure; "but I had half a mind to let you wander round the hotel a little longer. Come in." Barker followed her in mechanically, and she closed the door. "Now, sit down," she said gayly, "and tell me how you knew we were here, and what you mean by surprising us at this hour."
Barker's ready color always rose on meeting Mrs. Horncastle, for whom he entertained a respectful admiration, not without some fear of her worldly superiority. He flushed, bowed, and stared somewhat blankly around the room, at the familiar walls, at the chair from which Mrs. Horncastle had just risen, and finally at his wife's glove, which Mrs. Horncastle had a moment before ostentatiously thrown on the table. Seeing which she pounced upon it with assumed archness, and pretended to conceal it.
"I had no idea my wife was here," he said at last, "and I was quite surprised when the man told me, for she had not written to me about it." As his face was brightening, she for the first time noticed that his frank gray eyes had an abstracted look, and there was a faint line of contraction on his youthful forehead. "Still less," he added, "did I look for the pleasure of meeting you. For I only came here to inquire about my old partner, Demorest, who arrived from Europe a few days ago, and who should have reached Hymettus early this afternoon. But now I hear he came all the way by coach instead of by rail, and got off at the cross-road, and we must have passed each other on the different trails. So my journey would have gone for nothing, only that I now shall have the pleasure of going back with you and Kitty. It will be a lovely drive by moonlight."
Relieved by this revelation, it was easy work for Mrs. Horncastle to launch out into a playful, tantalizing, witty--but, I grieve to say, entirely imaginative--account of her escapade with Mrs. Barker. How, left alone at the San Francisco hotel while their gentlemen friends were enjoying themselves at Hymettus, they resolved upon a little trip, partly for the purpose of looking into some small investments of their own, and partly for the fun of the thing. What funny experiences they had! How, in particular, one horrid inquisitive, vulgar wretch had been boring a European fellow passenger who was going to Hymettus, finally asking him where he had come from last, and when he answered "Hymettus," thought the man was insulting him--
"But," interrupted the laughing Barker, "that passenger may have been Demorest, who has just come from Greece, and surely Kitty would have recognized him."
Mrs. Horncastle instantly saw her blunder, and not only retrieved it, but turned it to account. Ah, yes! but by that time poor Kitty, unused to long journeys and the heat, was utterly fagged out, was asleep, and perfectly unrecognizable in veils and dusters on the back seat of the coach. And this brought her to the point-- which was, that she was sorry to say, on arriving, the poor child was nearly wild with a headache from fatigue and had gone to bed, and she had promised not to disturb her.
The undisguised amusement, mingled with relief, that had overspread Barker's face during this lively recital might have pricked the conscience of Mrs. Horncastle, but for some reason I fear it did not. But it emboldened her to go on. "I said I promised her that I would see she wasn't disturbed; but, of course, now that you, her husband, have come, if"--
"Not for worlds," interrupted Barker earnestly. "I know poor Kitty's headaches, and I never disturb her, poor child, except when I'm thoughtless." And here one of the most thoughtful men in the world in his sensitive consideration of others beamed at her with such frank and wonderful eyes that the arch hypocrite before him with difficulty suppressed a hysterical desire to laugh, and felt the conscious blood flush her to the root of her hair. "You know," he went on, with a sigh, half of relief and half of reminiscence, "that I often think I'm a great bother to a clear-headed, sensible girl like Kitty. She knows people so much better than I do. She's wonderfully equipped for the world, and, you see, I'm only 'lucky,' as everybody says, and I dare say part of my luck was to have got her. I'm very glad she's a friend of yours, you know, for somehow I fancied always that you were not interested in her, or that you didn't understand each other until now. It's odd that nice women don't always like nice women, isn't it? I'm glad she was with you; I was quite startled to learn she was here, and couldn't make it out. I thought at first she might have got anxious about our little Sta, who is with me and the nurse at Hymettus. But I'm glad it was only a lark. I shouldn't wonder," he added, with a laugh, "although she always declares she isn't one of those 'doting, idiotic mothers,' that she found it a little dull without the boy, for all she thought it was better for me to take him somewhere for a change of air."
The situation was becoming more difficult for Mrs. Horncastle than she had conceived. There had been a certain excitement in its first direct appeal to her tact and courage, and even, she believed, an unselfish desire to save the relations between husband and wife if she could. But she had not calculated upon his unconscious revelations, nor upon their effect upon herself. She had concluded to believe that Kitty had, in a moment of folly, lent herself to this hare-brained escapade, but it now might be possible that it had been deliberately planned. Kitty had sent her husband and child away three weeks before. Had she told the whole truth? How long had this been going on? And if the soulless Van Loo had deserted her now, was it not, perhaps, the miserable ending of an intrigue rather than its beginning? Had she been as great a dupe of this woman as the husband before her? A new and double consciousness came over her that for a moment prevented her from meeting his honest eyes. She felt the shame of being an accomplice mingled with a fierce joy at the idea of a climax that might separate him from his wife forever.
Luckily he did not notice it, but with a continued sense of relief threw himself back in his chair, and glancing familiarly round the walls broke into his youthful laugh. "Lord! how I remember this room in the old days. It was Kitty's own private sitting-room, you know, and I used to think it looked just as fresh and pretty as she. I used to think her crayon drawing wonderful, and still more wonderful that she should have that unnecessary talent when it was quite enough for her to be just 'Kitty.' You know, don't you, how you feel at those times when you're quite happy in being inferior"-- He stopped a moment with a sudden recollection that Mrs. Horncastle's marriage had been notoriously unhappy. "I mean," he went on with a shy little laugh and an innocent attempt at gallantry which the very directness of his simple nature made atrociously obvious,--"I mean what you've made lots of young fellows feel. There used to be a picture of Colonel Brigg on the mantelpiece, in full uniform, and signed by himself 'for Kitty;' and Lord! how jealous I was of it, for Kitty never took presents from gentlemen, and nobody even was allowed in here, though she helped her father all over the hotel. She was awfully strict in those days," he interpolated, with a thoughtful look and a half-sigh; "but then she wasn't married. I proposed to her in this very room! Lord! I remember how frightened I was." He stopped for an instant, and then said with a certain timidity, "Do you mind my telling you something about it?"
Mrs. Horncastle was hardly prepared to hear these ingenuous domestic details, but she smiled vaguely, although she could not suppress a somewhat impatient movement with her hands. Even Barker noticed it, but to her surprise moved a little nearer to her, and in a half-entreating way said, "I hope I don't bore you, but it's something confidential. Do you know that she first refused me?"
Mrs. Horncastle smiled, but could not resist a slight toss of her head. "I believe they all do when they are sure of a man."
"No!" said Barker eagerly, "you don't understand. I proposed to her because I thought I was rich. In a foolish moment I thought I had discovered that some old stocks I had had acquired a fabulous value. She believed it, too, but because she thought I was now a rich man and she only a poor girl--a mere servant to her father's guests--she refused me. Refused me because she thought I might regret it in the future, because she would not have it said that she had taken advantage of my proposal only when I was rich enough to make it."
"Well?" said Mrs. Horncastle incredulously, gazing straight before her; "and then?"
"In about an hour I discovered my error, that my stocks were worthless, that I was still a poor man. I thought it only honest to return to her and tell her, even though I had no hope. And then she pitied me, and cried, and accepted me. I tell it to you as her friend." He drew a little nearer and quite fraternally laid his hand upon her own. "I know you won't betray me, though you may think it wrong for me to have told it; but I wanted you to know how good she was and true."
For a moment Mrs. Horncastle was amazed and discomfited, although she saw, with the inscrutable instinct of her sex, no inconsistency between the Kitty of those days and the Kitty now shamefully hiding from her husband in the same hotel. No doubt Kitty had some good reason for her chivalrous act. But she could see the unmistakable effect of that act upon the more logically reasoning husband, and that it might lead him to be more merciful to the later wrong. And there was a keener irony that his first movement of unconscious kindliness towards her was the outcome of his affection for his undeserving wife.
"You said just now she was more practical than you," she said dryly. "Apart from this evidence of it, what other reasons have you for thinking so? Do you refer to her independence or her dealings in the stock market?" she added, with a laugh.
"No," said Barker seriously, "for I do not think her quite practical there; indeed, I'm afraid she is about as bad as I am. But I'm glad you have spoken, for I can now talk confidentially with you, and as you and she are both in the same ventures, perhaps she will feel less compunction in hearing from you--as your own opinion--what I have to tell you than if I spoke to her myself. I am afraid she trusts implicitly to Van Loo's judgment as her broker. I believe he is strictly honorable, but the general opinion of his business insight is not high. They--perhaps I ought to say he--have been at least so unlucky that they might have learned prudence. The loss of twenty thousand dollars in three months"--
"Twenty thousand!" echoed Mrs. Horncastle.
"Yes. Why, you knew that; it was in the mine you and she visited; or, perhaps," he added hastily, as he flushed at his indiscretion, "she didn't tell you that."
But Mrs. Horncastle as hastily said, "Yes--yes--of course, only I had forgotten the amount;" and he continued:--
"That loss would have frightened any man; but you women are more daring. Only Van Loo ought to have withdrawn. Don't you think so? Of course I couldn't say anything to him without seeming to condemn my own wife; I couldn't say anything to her because it's her own money."
"I didn't know that Mrs. Barker had any money of her own," said Mrs. Horncastle.
"Well, I gave it to her," said Barker, with sublime simplicity, "and that would make it all the worse for me to speak about it."
Mrs. Horncastle was silent. A new theory flashed upon her which seemed to reconcile all the previous inconsistencies of the situation. Van Loo, under the guise of a lover, was really possessing himself of Mrs. Barker's money. This accounted for the risks he was running in this escapade, which were so incongruous to the rascal's nature. He was calculating that the scandal of an intrigue would relieve him of the perils of criminal defalcation. It was compatible with Kitty's innocence, though it did not relieve her vanity of the part it played in this despicable comedy of passion. All that Mrs. Horncastle thought of now was the effect of its eventful revelation upon the man before her. Of course, he would overlook his wife's trustfulness and business ignorance--it would seem so like his own unselfish faith! That was the fault of all unselfish goodness; it even took the color of adjacent evil, without altering the nature of either. Mrs. Horncastle set her teeth tightly together, but her beautiful mouth smiled upon Barker, though her eyes were bent upon the tablecloth before her.
"I shall do all I can to impress your views upon her," she said at last, "though I fear they will have little weight if given as my own. And you overrate my general influence with her."
Her handsome head drooped in such a thoughtful humility that Barker instinctively drew nearer to her. Besides, she had not lifted her dark lashes for some moments, and he had the still youthful habit of looking frankly into the eyes of those he addressed.
"No," he said eagerly; "how could I? She could not help but love you and do as you would wish. I can't tell you how glad and relieved I am to find that you and she have become such friends. You know I always thought you beautiful, I always thought you so clever--I was even a little frightened of you; but I never until now knew you were so good. No, stop! Yes, I did know it. Do you remember once in San Francisco, when I found you with Sta in your lap in the drawing-room? I knew it then. You tried to make me think it was a whim--the fancy of a bored and worried woman. But I knew better. And I knew what you were thinking then. Shall I tell you?"
As her eyes were still cast down, although her mouth was still smiling, in his endeavors to look into them his face was quite near hers. He fancied that it bore the look she had worn once before.
"You were thinking," he said in a voice which had grown suddenly quite hesitating and tremulous,--he did not know why,--"that the poor little baby was quite friendless and alone. You were pitying it--you know you were--because there was no one to give it the loving care that was its due, and because it was intrusted to that hired nurse in that great hotel. You were thinking how you would love it if it were yours, and how cruel it was that Love was sent without an object to waste itself upon. You were: I saw it in your face."
She suddenly lifted her eyes and looked full into his with a look that held and possessed him. For a moment his whole soul seemed to tremble on the verge of their lustrous depths, and he drew back dizzy and frightened. What he saw there he never clearly knew; but, whatever it was, it seemed to suddenly change his relations to her, to the room, to his wife, to the world without. It was a glimpse of a world of which he knew nothing. He had looked frankly and admiringly into the eyes of other pretty women; he had even gazed into her own before, but never with this feeling. A sudden sense that what he had seen there he had himself evoked, that it was an answer to some question he had scarcely yet formulated, and that they were both now linked by an understanding and consciousness that was irretrievable, came over him. He rose awkwardly and went to the window. She rose also, but more leisurely and easily, moved one of the books on the table, smoothed out her skirts, and changed her seat to a little sofa. It is the woman who always comes out of these crucial moments unruffled.
"I suppose you will be glad to see your friend Mr. Demorest when you go back," she said pleasantly; "for of course he will be at Hymettus awaiting you."
He turned eagerly, as he always did at the name. But even then he felt that Demorest was no longer of such importance to him. He felt, too, that he was not yet quite sure of his voice or even what to say. As he hesitated she went on half playfully: "It seems hard that you had to come all the way here on such a bootless errand. You haven't even seen your wife yet."
The mention of his wife recalled him to himself, oddly enough, when Demorest's name had failed. But very differently. Out of his whirling consciousness came the instinctive feeling that he could not see her now. He turned, crossed the room, sat down on the sofa beside Mrs. Horncastle, and without, however, looking at her, said, with his eyes on the floor, "No; and I've been thinking that it's hardly worth while to disturb her so early to-morrow as I should have to go. So I think it's a good deal better to let her have a good night's rest, remain here quietly with you to-morrow until the stage leaves, and that both of you come over together. My horse is still saddled, and I will be back at Hymettus before Demorest has gone to bed."
He was obliged to look up at her as he rose. Mrs. Horncastle was sitting erect, beautiful and dazzling as even he had never seen her before. For his resolution had suddenly lifted a great weight from her shoulders,--the dangerous meeting of husband and wife the next morning, and its results, whatever they might be, had been quietly averted. She felt, too, a half-frightened joy even in the constrained manner in which he had imparted his determination. That frankness which even she had sometimes found so crushing was gone.
"I really think you are quite right," she said, rising also, "and, besides, you see, it will give me a chance to talk to her as you wished."
"To talk to her as I wished?" echoed Barker abstractedly.
"Yes, about Van Loo, you know," said Mrs. Horncastle, smiling.
"Oh, certainly--about Van Loo, of course," he returned hurriedly.
"And then," said Mrs. Horncastle brightly, "I'll tell her. Stay!" she interrupted herself hurriedly. "Why need I say anything about your having been here at all? It might only annoy her, as you yourself suggest." She stopped breathlessly with parted lips.
"Why, indeed?" said Barker vaguely. Yet all this was so unlike his usual truthfulness that he slightly hesitated.
"Besides," continued Mrs. Horncastle, noticing it, "you know you can always tell her later, if necessary." And she added with a charming mischievousness, "As she didn't tell you she was coming, I really don't see why you are bound to tell her that you were here."
The sophistry pleased Barker, even though it put him into a certain retaliating attitude towards his wife which he was not aware of feeling. But, as Mrs. Horncastle put it, it was only a playful attitude.
"Certainly," he said. "Don't say anything about it."
He moved to the door with his soft, broad-brimmed hat swinging between his fingers. She noticed for the first time that he looked taller in his long black serape and riding-boots, and, oddly enough, much more like the hero of an amorous tryst than Van Loo. "I know," she said brightly, "you are eager to get back to your old friend, and it would be selfish for me to try to keep you longer. You have had a stupid evening, but you have made it pleasant to me by telling me what you thought of me. And before you go I want you to believe that I shall try to keep that good opinion." She spoke frankly in contrast to the slight worldly constraint of Barker's manner; it seemed as if they had changed characters. And then she extended her hand.
With a low bow, and without looking up, he took it. Again their pulses seemed to leap together with one accord and the same mysterious understanding. He could not tell if he had unconsciously pressed her hand or if she had returned the pressure. But when their hands unclasped it seemed as if it were the division of one flesh and spirit.
She remained standing by the open door until his footsteps passed down the staircase. Then she suddenly closed and locked the door with an instinct that Mrs. Barker might at once return now that he was gone, and she wished to be a moment alone to recover herself. But she presently opened it again and listened. There was a noise in the courtyard, but it sounded like the rattle of wheels more than the clatter of a horseman. Then she was overcome--a sudden sense of pity for the unfortunate woman still hiding from her husband--and felt a momentary chivalrous exaltation of spirit. Certainly she had done "good" to that wretched "Kitty;" perhaps she had earned the epithet that Barker had applied to her. Perhaps that was the meaning of all this happiness to her, and the result was to be only the happiness and reconciliation of the wife and husband. This was to be her reward. I grieve to say that the tears had come into her beautiful eyes at this satisfactory conclusion, but she dashed them away and ran out into the hall. It was quite dark, but there was a faint glimmer on the opposite wall as if the door of Mrs. Barker's bedroom were ajar to an eager listener. She flew towards the glimmer, and pushed the door open: the room was empty. Empty of Mrs. Barker, empty of her dressing- box, her reticule and shawl. She was gone.
Still, Mrs. Horncastle lingered; the woman might have got frightened and retreated to some further room at the opening of the door and the coming out of her husband. She walked along the passage, calling her name softly. She even penetrated the dreary, half-lit public parlor, expecting to find her crouching there. Then a sudden wild idea took possession of her: the miserable wife had repented of her act and of her concealment, and had crept downstairs to await her husband in the office. She had told him some new lie, had begged him to take her with him, and Barker, of course, had assented. Yes, she now knew why she had heard the rattling wheels instead of the clattering hoofs she had listened for. They had gone together, as he first proposed, in the buggy.
She ran swiftly down the stairs and entered the office. The overworked clerk was busy and querulously curt. These women were always asking such idiotic questions. Yes, Mr. Barker had just gone.
"With Mrs. Barker in the buggy?" asked Mrs. Horncastle.
"No, as he came--on horseback. Mrs. Barker left half an hour ago."
This was apparently too much for the long-suffering clerk. He lifted his eyes to the ceiling, and then, with painful precision, and accenting every word with his pencil on the desk before him, said deliberately, "Mrs. George Barker--left--here--with her-- escort--the--man she--was--always--asking--for--in--the--buggy--at exactly--9.35." And he plunged into his work again.
Mrs. Horncastle turned, ran up the staircase, re-entered the sitting-room, and slamming the door behind her, halted in the centre of the room, panting, erect, beautiful, and menacing. And she was alone in this empty room--this deserted hotel. From this very room her husband had left her with a brutality on his lips. From this room the fool and liar she had tried to warn had gone to her ruin with a swindling hypocrite. And from this room the only man in the world she ever cared for had gone forth bewildered, wronged, and abused, and she knew now she could have kept and comforted him.