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CHAPTER IV


The afternoon did not, however, bring their expected visitors. It
brought, instead, a brief note by the hands of Whiskey Dick from
Fairfax, apologizing for some business that kept him and George
Kearney from accompanying the ladies. It added that the horses
were at the disposal of themselves and any escort they might
select, if they would kindly give the message to Whiskey Dick.

The two girls looked at each other awkwardly; Jessie did not
attempt to conceal a slight pout.

"It looks as if they were anticipating us," she said, with a half-
forced smile. "I wonder, now, if there really has been any gossip?
But no! They wouldn't have stopped for that, unless--" She looked
curiously at her sister.

"Unless what?" repeated Christie; "you are horribly mysterious this
morning."

"Am I? It's nothing. But they're wanting an answer. Of course
you'll decline."

"And intimate we only care for their company! No! We'll say we're
sorry they can't come, and--accept their horses. We can do without
an escort, we two."

"Capital!" said Jessie, clapping her hands. "We'll show them--"

"We'll show them nothing," interrupted Christie decidedly. "In our
place there's only the one thing to do. Where is this--Whiskey
Dick?"

"In the parlor."

"The parlor!" echoed Christie. "Whiskey Dick? What--is he--"

"Yes; he's all right," said Jessie confidently. "He's been here
before, but he stayed in the hall; he was so shy. I don't think
you saw him."

"I should think not--Whiskey Dick!"

"Oh, you can call him Mr. Hall, if you like," said Jessie,
laughing. "His real name is Dick Hall. If you want to be funny,
you can say Alky Hall, as the others do."

Christie's only reply to this levity was a look of superior
resignation as she crossed the hall and entered the parlor.

Then ensued one of those surprising, mystifying, and utterly
inexplicable changes that leave the masculine being so helpless in
the hands of his feminine master. Before Christie opened the door
her face underwent a rapid transformation: the gentle glow of a
refined woman's welcome suddenly beamed in her interested eyes; the
impulsive courtesy of an expectant hostess eagerly seizing a long-
looked-for opportunity broke in a smile upon her lips as she swept
across the room, and stopped with her two white outstretched hands
before Whiskey Dick.

It needed only the extravagant contrast presented by that gentleman
to complete the tableau. Attired in a suit of shining black
alpaca, the visitor had evidently prepared himself with some care
for a possible interview. He was seated by the French window
opening upon the veranda, as if to secure a retreat in case of an
emergency. Scrupulously washed and shaven, some of the soap
appeared to have lingered in his eyes and inflamed the lids, even
while it lent a sleek and shining lustre, not unlike his coat, to
his smooth black hair. Nevertheless, leaning back in his chair, he
had allowed a large white handkerchief to depend gracefully from
his fingers--a pose at once suggesting easy and elegant langour.

"How kind of you to give me an opportunity to make up for my
misfortune when you last called! I was so sorry to have missed
you. But it was entirely my fault! You were hurried, I think--you
conversed with others in the hall--you--"

She stopped to assist him to pick up the handkerchief that had
fallen, and the Panama hat that had rolled from his lap towards the
window when he had started suddenly to his feet at the apparition
of grace and beauty. As he still nervously retained the two hands
he had grasped, this would have been a difficult feat, even had he
not endeavored at the same moment, by a backward furtive kick, to
propel the hat out of the window, at which she laughingly broke
from his grasp and flew to the rescue.

"Don't mind it, miss," he said hurriedly. "It is not worth your
demeaning yourself to touch it. Leave it outside thar, miss. I
wouldn't have toted it in, anyhow, if some of those high-falutin'
fellows hadn't allowed, the other night, ez it were the reg'lar
thing to do; as if, miss, any gentleman kalkilated to ever put on
his hat in the house afore a lady!"

But Christie had already possessed herself of the unlucky object,
and had placed it upon the table. This compelled Whiskey Dick to
rise again, and as an act of careless good breeding to drop his
handkerchief in it. He then leaned one elbow upon the piano, and,
crossing one foot over the other, remained standing in an attitude
he remembered to have seen in the pages of an illustrated paper as
portraying the hero in some drawing-room scene. It was easy and
effective, but seemed to be more favorable to revery than
conversation. Indeed, he remembered that he had forgotten to
consult the letterpress as to which it represented.

"I see you agree with me, that politeness is quite a matter of
intention," said Christie, "and not of mere fashion and rules.
Now, for instance," she continued, with a dazzling smile, "I
suppose, according to the rules, I ought to give you a note to Mr.
Munroe, accepting his offer. That is all that is required; but it
seems so much nicer, don't you think, to tell it to YOU for HIM,
and have the pleasure of your company and a little chat at the same
time."

"That's it, that's just it, Miss Carr; you've hit it in the centre
this time," said Whiskey Dick, now quite convinced that his
attitude was not intended for eloquence, and shifting back to his
own seat, hat and all; "that's tantamount to what I said to the
boys just now. 'You want an excuse,' sez I, 'for not goin' out
with the young ladies. So, accorden' to rules, you writes a letter
allowin' buzziness and that sorter thing detains you. But wot's
the facts? You're a gentleman, and as gentlemen you and George
comes to the opinion that you're rather playin' it for all it's
worth in this yer house, you know--comin' here night and day, off
and on, reg'lar sociable and fam'ly like, and makin' people talk
about things they ain't any call to talk about, and, what's a
darned sight more, YOU FELLOWS ain't got any right YET to allow 'em
to talk about, d'ye see?" he paused, out of breath.

It was Miss Christie's turn to move about. In changing her seat to
the piano-stool, so as to be nearer her visitor, she brushed down
some loose music, which Whiskey Dick hastened to pick up.

"Pray don't mind it," she said, "pray don't, really--let it be--"
But Whiskey Dick, feeling himself on safe ground in this attention,
persisted to the bitter end of a disintegrated and well-worn
"Travatore." "So that is what Mr. Munroe said," she remarked
quietly.

"Not just then, in course, but it's what's bin on his mind and in
his talk for days off and on," returned Dick, with a knowing smile
and a nod of mysterious confidence. "Bless your soul, Miss Carr,
folks like you and me don't need to have them things explained.
That's what I said to him, sez I. 'Don't send no note, but just go
up there and hev it out fair and square, and say what you do mean.'
But they would hev the note, and I kalkilated to bring it. But
when I set my eyes on you, and heard you express yourself as you
did just now, I sez to myself, sez I, 'Dick, yer's a young lady,
and a fash'nable lady at that, ez don't go foolin' round on rules
and etiketts'--excuse my freedom, Miss Carr--'and you and her, sez
I, 'kin just discuss this yer matter in a sociable, off-hand,
fash'nable way.' They're a good lot o' boys, Miss Carr, a square
lot--white men all of 'em; but they're a little soft and green, may
be, from livin' in these yer pine woods along o' the other sap.
They just worship the ground you and your sister tread on--certain!
of course! of course!" he added hurriedly, recognizing Christie's
half-conscious, deprecating gesture with more exaggerated
deprecation. "I understand. But what I wanter say is that they'd
be willin' to be that ground, and lie down and let you walk over
them--so to speak, Miss Carr, so to speak--if it would keep the hem
of your gown from gettin' soiled in the mud o' the camp. But it
wouldn't do for them to make a reg'lar curderoy road o' themselves
for the houl camp to trapse over, on the mere chance of your some
time passin' that way, would it now?"

"Won't you let me offer you some refreshment, Mr. Hall?" said
Christie, rising, with a slight color. "I'm really ashamed of my
forgetfulness again, but I'm afraid it's partly YOUR fault for
entertaining me to the exclusion of yourself. No, thank you, let
me fetch it for you."

She turned to a handsome sideboard near the door, and presently
faced him again with a decanter of whiskey and a glass in her hand,
and a return of the bewitching smile she had worn on entering.

"But perhaps you don't take whiskey?" suggested the arch deceiver,
with a sudden affected but pretty perplexity of eye, brow, and
lips.

For the first time in his life Whiskey Dick hesitated between two
forms of intoxication. But he was still nervous and uneasy; habit
triumphed, and he took the whiskey. He, however, wiped his lips
with a slight wave of his handkerchief, to support a certain easy
elegance which he firmly believed relieved the act of any vulgar
quality.

"Yes, ma'am," he continued, after an exhilarated pause. "Ez I said
afore, this yer's a matter you and me can discuss after the fashion
o' society. My idea is that these yer boys should kinder let up on
you and Miss Jessie for a while, and do a little more permiskus
attention round the Ford. There's one or two families yer with
grown-up gals ez oughter be squared; that is--the boys mighter put
in a few fancy touches among them--kinder take 'em buggy riding--or
to church--once in a while--just to take the pizen outer their
tongues, and make a kind o' bluff to the parents, d'ye see? That
would sorter divert their own minds; and even if it didn't, it
would kinder get 'em accustomed agin to the old style and their own
kind. I want to warn ye agin an idea that might occur to you in a
giniral way. I don't say you hev the idea, but it's kind o'
nat'ral you might be thinkin' of it some time, and I thought I'd
warn you agin it."

"I think we understand each other too well to differ much, Mr.
Hall," said Christie, still smiling; "but what is the idea?"

The delicate compliment to their confidential relations and the
slight stimulus of liquor had tremulously exalted Whiskey Dick.
Affecting to look cautiously out of the window and around the room,
he ventured to draw nearer the young woman with a half-paternal,
half-timid familiarity.

"It might have occurred to you," he said, laying his handkerchief
as if to veil mere vulgar contact, on Christie's shoulder, "that it
would be a good thing on YOUR side to invite down some of your
high-toned gentlemen friends from 'Frisco to visit you and escort
you round. It seems quite nat'ral like, and I don't say it ain't,
but--the boys wouldn't stand for it."

In spite of her self-possession, Christie's eyes suddenly darkened,
and she involuntarily drew herself up. But Whiskey Dick, guiltily
attributing the movement to his own indiscreet gesture, said,
"Excuse me, miss," recovered himself by lightly dusting her
shoulder with his handkerchief, as if to remove the impression, and
her smile returned.

"They wouldn't stand for it," said Dick, "and there'd be some
shooting! Not afore you, miss--not afore you, in course! But
they'd adjourn to the woods some morning with them city folks, and
hev it out with rifles at a hundred yards. Or, seein' ez they're
city folks, the boys would do the square thing with pistols at
twelve paces. They're good boys, as I said afore; but they're
quick and tetchy--George, being the youngest, nat'rally is the
tetchiest. You know how it is, Miss Carr; his pretty, gal-like
face and little moustaches haz cost him half a dozen scrimmages
already. He'z had a fight for every hair that's growed in his
moustache since he kem here."

"Say no more, Mr. Hall!" said Christie, rising and pressing her
hands lightly on Dick's tremulous fingers. "If I ever had any such
idea, I should abandon it now; you are quite right in this as in
your other opinions. I shall never cease to be thankful to Mr.
Munroe and Mr. Kearney that they intrusted this delicate matter to
your hands."

"Well," said the gratified and reddening visitor, "it ain't perhaps
the square thing to them or myself to say that they reckoned to
have me discuss their delicate affairs for them, but--"

"I understand," interrupted Christie. "They simply gave you the
letter as a friend. It was my good fortune to find you a
sympathizing and liberal man of the world." The delighted Dick,
with conscious vanity beaming from every feature of his shining
face, lightly waved the compliment aside with his handkerchief, as
she continued, "But I am forgetting the message. We accept the
horses. Of course we COULD do without an escort; but forgive my
speaking so frankly, are YOU engaged this afternoon?"

"Excuse me, miss, I don't take--" stammered Dick, scarcely
believing his ears.

"Could you give us your company as an escort?" repeated Christie
with a smile.

Was he awake or dreaming, or was this some trick of liquor in his
often distorted fancy? He, Whiskey Dick! the butt of his friends,
the chartered oracle of the barrooms, even in whose wretched vanity
there was always the haunting suspicion that he was despised and
scorned; he, who had dared so much in speech, and achieved so
little in fact! he, whose habitual weakness had even led him into
the wildest indiscretion here; he--now offered a reward for that
indiscretion! He, Whiskey Dick, the solicited escort of these two
beautiful and peerless girls! What would they say at the Ford?
What would his friends think? It would be all over the Ford the
next day. His past would be vindicated, his future secured. He
grew erect at the thought. It was almost in other voice, and with
no trace of his previous exaggeration, that he said, "With
pleasure."

"Then, if you will bring the horses at once, we shall be ready when
you return."

In another instant he had vanished, as if afraid to trust the
reality of his good fortune to the dangers of delay. At the end of
half an hour he reappeared, leading the two horses, himself mounted
on a half-broken mustang. A pair of large, jingling silver spurs
and a stiff sombrero, borrowed with the mustang from some
mysterious source, were donned to do honor to the occasion.

The young girls were not yet ready, but he was shown by the Chinese
servant into the parlor to wait for them. The decanter of whiskey
and glasses were still invitingly there. He was hot, trembling,
and flushed with triumph. He walked to the table and laid his hand
on the decanter, when an odd thought flashed upon him. He would
not drink this time. No, it should not be said that he, the
selected escort of the elite of Devil's Ford, had to fill himself
up with whiskey before they started. The boys might turn to each
other in their astonishment, as he proudly passed with his fair
companions, and say, "It's Whiskey Dick," but he'd be d----d if they
should add, "and full as ever." No, sir! Nor when he was riding
beside these real ladies, and leaning over them at some
confidential moment, should they even know it from his breath!
No. . . . Yet a thimbleful, taken straight, only a thimbleful,
wouldn't be much, and might help to pull him together. He again
reached his trembling hand for the decanter, hesitated, and then,
turning his back upon it, resolutely walked to the open window.
Almost at the same instant he found himself face to face with
Christie on the veranda.

She looked into his bloodshot eyes, and cast a swift glance at the
decanter.

"Won't you take something before you go?" she said sweetly.

"I--reckon--not, jest now," stammered Whiskey Dick, with a heroic
effort.

"You're right," said Christie. "I see you are like me. It's too
hot for anything fiery. Come with me."

She led him into the dining-room, and pouring out a glass of iced
tea handed it to him. Poor Dick was not prepared for this terrible
culmination. Whiskey Dick and iced tea! But under pretence of
seeing if it was properly flavored, Christie raised it to her own
lips.

"Try it, to please me."

He drained the goblet.

"Now, then," said Christie gayly, "let's find Jessie, and be off!"




Devil's Ford by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
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