eBooks Cube
 
CHAPTER VI


The abrupt departure of George Kearney from Devil's Ford excited
but little interest in the community, and was soon forgotten. It
was generally attributed to differences between himself and his
partners on the question of further outlay of their earnings on
mining improvements--he and Philip Carr alone representing a
sanguine minority whose faith in the future of the mine accepted
any risks. It was alleged by some that he had sold out to his
brother; it was believed by others that he had simply gone to
Sacramento to borrow money on his share, in order to continue the
improvements on his own responsibility. The partners themselves
were uncommunicative; even Whiskey Dick, who since his remarkable
social elevation had become less oracular, much to his own
astonishment, contributed nothing to the gossip except a suggestion
that as the fiery temper of George Kearney brooked no opposition,
even from his brother, it was better they should separate before
the estrangement became serious.

Mr. Carr did not disguise his annoyance at the loss of his young
disciple and firm ally. But an unlucky allusion to his previous
remarks on Kearney's attentions to Jessie, and a querulous regret
that he had permitted a disruption of their social intimacy,
brought such an ominous and frigid opposition, not only from
Christie, but even the frivolous Jessie herself, that Carr sank
back in a crushed and terrified silence. "I only meant to say," he
stammered after a pause, in which he, however, resumed his
aggrieved manner, "that FAIRFAX seems to come here still, and HE is
not such a particular friend of mine."

"But she is--and has your interest entirely at heart," said Jessie,
stoutly, "and he only comes here to tell us how things are going on
at the works."

"And criticise your father, I suppose," said Mr. Carr, with an
attempt at jocularity that did not, however, disguise an irritated
suspiciousness. "He really seems to have supplanted ME as he has
poor Kearney in your estimation."

"Now, father," said Jessie, suddenly seizing him by the shoulders
in affected indignation, but really to conceal a certain
embarrassment that sprang quite as much from her sister's quietly
observant eye as her father's speech, "you promised to let this
ridiculous discussion drop. You will make me and Christie so
nervous that we will not dare to open the door to a visitor, until
he declares his innocence of any matrimonial intentions. You don't
want to give color to the gossip that agreement with your views
about the improvements is necessary to getting on with us."

"Who dares talk such rubbish?" said Carr, reddening; "is that the
kind of gossip that Fairfax brings here?"

"Hardly, when it's known that he don't quite agree with you, and
DOES come here. That's the best denial of the gossip."

Christie, who had of late loftily ignored these discussions, waited
until her father had taken his departure.

"Then that is the reason why you still see Mr. Munroe, after what
you said," she remarked quietly to Jessie.

Jessie, who would have liked to escape with her father, was obliged
to pause on the threshold of the door, with a pretty assumption of
blank forgetfulness in her blue eyes and lifted eyebrows.

"Said what? when?" she asked vacantly.

"When--when Mr. Kearney that day--in the woods--went away," said
Christie, faintly coloring.

"Oh! THAT day," said Jessie briskly; "the day he just gloved your
hand with kisses, and then fled wildly into the forest to conceal
his emotion."

"The day he behaved very foolishly," said Christie, with
reproachful calmness, that did not, however, prevent a suspicion of
indignant moisture in her eyes--"when you explained"--

"That it wasn't meant for ME," interrupted Jessie.

"That it was to you that MR. MUNROE'S attentions were directed.
And then we agreed that it was better to prevent any further
advances of this kind by avoiding any familiar relations with
either of them."

"Yes," said Jessie, "I remember; but you're not confounding my
seeing Fairfax occasionally now with that sort of thing. HE
doesn't kiss my hand like anything," she added, as if in abstract
reflection.

"Nor run away, either," suggested the trodden worm, turning.

There was an ominous silence.

"Do you know we are nearly out of coffee?" said Jessie choking, but
moving towards the door with Spartan-like calmness.

"Yes. And something must be done this very day about the washing,"
said Christie, with suppressed emotion, going towards the opposite
entrance.

Tears stood in each other's eyes with this terrible exchange of
domestic confidences. Nevertheless, after a moment's pause, they
deliberately turned again, and, facing each other with frightful
calmness, left the room by purposeless and deliberate exits other
than those they had contemplated--a crushing abnegation of self,
that, to some extent, relieved their surcharged feelings.

Meantime the material prosperity of Devil's Ford increased, if a
prosperity based upon no visible foundation but the confidences and
hopes of its inhabitants could be called material. Few, if any,
stopped to consider that the improvements, buildings, and business
were simply the outlay of capital brought from elsewhere, and as
yet the settlement or town, as it was now called, had neither
produced nor exported capital of itself equal to half the amount
expended. It was true that some land was cultivated on the further
slope, some mills erected and lumber furnished from the
inexhaustible forest; but the consumers were the inhabitants
themselves, who paid for their produce in borrowed capital or
unlimited credit. It was never discovered that while all roads led
to Devil's Ford, Devil's Ford led to nowhere. The difficulties
overcome in getting things into the settlement were never
surmounted for getting things out of it. The lumber was
practically valueless for export to other settlements across the
mountain roads, which were equally rich in timber. The theory so
enthusiastically held by the original locators, that Devil's Ford
was a vast sink that had, through ages, exhausted and absorbed the
trickling wealth of the adjacent hills and valleys, was suffering
an ironical corroboration.

One morning it was known that work was stopped at the Devil's Ford
Ditch--temporarily only, it was alleged, and many of the old
workmen simply had their labor for the present transferred to
excavating the river banks, and the collection of vast heaps of
"pay gravel." Specimens from these mounds, taken from different
localities, and at different levels, were sent to San Francisco for
more rigid assay and analysis. It was believed that this would
establish the fact of the permanent richness of the drifts, and not
only justify past expenditure, but a renewed outlay of credit and
capital. The suspension of engineering work gave Mr. Carr an
opportunity to visit San Francisco on general business of the mine,
which could not, however, prevent him from arranging further
combinations with capital. His two daughters accompanied him. It
offered an admirable opportunity for a shopping expedition, a
change of scene, and a peaceful solution of their perplexing and
anomalous social relations with Devil's Ford. In the first flush
of gratitude to their father for this opportune holiday, something
of harmony had been restored to the family circle that had of late
been shaken by discord.

But their sanguine hopes of enjoyment were not entirely fulfilled.
Both Jessie and Christie were obliged to confess to a certain
disappointment in the aspect of the civilization they were now
reentering. They at first attributed it to the change in their own
habits during the last three months, and their having become
barbarous and countrified in their seclusion. Certainly in the
matter of dress they were behind the fashions as revealed in
Montgomery Street. But when the brief solace afforded them by the
modiste and dressmaker was past, there seemed little else to be
gained. They missed at first, I fear, the chivalrous and loyal
devotion that had only amused them at Devil's Ford, and were the
more inclined, I think, to distrust the conscious and more
civilized gallantry of the better dressed and more carefully
presented men they met. For it must be admitted that, for obvious
reasons, their criticisms were at first confined to the sex they
had been most in contact with. They could not help noticing that
the men were more eager, annoyingly feverish, and self-asserting in
their superior elegance and external show than their old associates
were in their frank, unrestrained habits. It seemed to them that
the five millionaires of Devil's Ford, in their radical simplicity
and thoroughness, were perhaps nearer the type of true
gentlemanhood than these citizens who imitated a civilization they
were unable yet to reach.

The women simply frightened them, as being, even more than the men,
demonstrative and excessive in their fine looks, their fine
dresses, their extravagant demand for excitement. In less than a
week they found themselves regretting--not the new villa on the
slope of Devil's Ford, which even in its own bizarre fashion was
exceeded by the barbarous ostentation of the villas and private
houses around them--but the double cabin under the trees, which now
seemed to them almost aristocratic in its grave simplicity and
abstention. In the mysterious forests of masts that thronged the
city's quays they recalled the straight shafts of the pines on
Devil's slopes, only to miss the sedate repose and infinite calm
that used to environ them. In the feverish, pulsating life of the
young metropolis they often stopped oppressed, giddy, and choking;
the roar of the streets and thoroughfares was meaningless to them,
except to revive strange memories of the deep, unvarying monotone
of the evening wind over their humbler roof on the Sierran
hillside. Civic bred and nurtured as they were, the recurrence of
these sensations perplexed and alarmed them.

"It seems so perfectly ridiculous," said Jessie, "for us to feel as
out of place here as that Pike County servant girl in Sacramento
who had never seen a steamboat before; do you know, I quite had a
turn the other day at seeing a man on the Stockton wharf in a red
shirt, with a rifle on his shoulder."

"And you wanted to go and speak to him?" said Christie, with a sad
smile.

"No, that's just it; I felt awfully hurt and injured that he did
not come up and speak to ME! I wonder if we got any fever or that
sort of thing up there; it makes one quite superstitious."

Christie did not reply; more than once before she had felt that
inexplicable misgiving. It had sometimes seemed to her that she
had never been quite herself since that memorable night when she
had slipped out of their sleeping-cabin, and stood alone in the
gracious and commanding presence of the woods and hills. In the
solitude of night, with the hum of the great city rising below her--
at times even in theatres or crowded assemblies of men and women--
she forgot herself, and again stood in the weird brilliancy of that
moonlight night in mute worship at the foot of that slowly-rising
mystic altar of piled terraces, hanging forests, and lifted
plateaus that climbed forever to the lonely skies. Again she felt
before her the expanding and opening arms of the protecting woods.
Had they really closed upon her in some pantheistic embrace that
made her a part of them? Had she been baptized in that moonlight
as a child of the great forest? It was easy to believe in the
myths of the poets of an idyllic life under those trees, where,
free from conventional restrictions, one loved and was loved. If
she, with her own worldly experience, could think of this now, why
might not George Kearney have thought? . . . She stopped, and
found herself blushing even in the darkness. As the thought and
blush were the usual sequel of her reflections, it is to be feared
that they may have been at times the impelling cause.

Mr. Carr, however, made up for his daughters' want of sympathy with
metropolitan life. To their astonishment, he not only plunged into
the fashionable gayeties and amusements of the town, but in dress
and manner assumed the role of a leader of society. The invariable
answer to their half-humorous comment was the necessities of the
mine, and the policy of frequenting the company of capitalists, to
enlist their support and confidence. There was something in this
so unlike their father, that what at any other time they would have
hailed as a relief to his habitual abstraction now half alarmed
them. Yet he was not dissipated--he did not drink nor gamble.
There certainly did not seem any harm in his frequenting the
society of ladies, with a gallantry that appeared to be forced and
a pleasure that to their critical eyes was certainly apocryphal.
He did not drag his daughters into the mixed society of that
period; he did not press upon them the company of those he most
frequented, and whose accepted position in that little world of
fashion was considered equal to their own. When Jessie strongly
objected to the pronounced manners of a certain widow, whose actual
present wealth and pecuniary influence condoned for a more
uncertain prehistoric past, Mr. Carr did not urge a further
acquaintance. "As long as you're not thinking of marrying again,
papa," Jessie had said finally, "I don't see the necessity of our
knowing her." "But suppose I were," had replied Mr. Carr with
affected humor. "Then you certainly wouldn't care for any one like
her," his daughter had responded triumphantly. Mr. Carr smiled,
and dropped the subject, but it is probable that his daughters'
want of sympathy with his acquaintances did not in the least
interfere with his social prestige. A gentleman in all his
relations and under all circumstances, even his cold scientific
abstraction was provocative; rich men envied his lofty ignorance of
the smaller details of money-making, even while they mistrusted his
judgment. A man still well preserved, and free from weakening
vices, he was a dangerous rival to younger and faster San
Francisco, in the eyes of the sex, who knew how to value a repose
they did not themselves possess.

Suddenly Mr. Carr announced his intention of proceeding to
Sacramento, on further business of the mine, leaving his two
daughters in the family of a wealthy friend until he should return
for them. He opposed their ready suggestion to return to Devil's
Ford with a new and unnecessary inflexibility: he even met their
compromise to accompany him to Sacramento with equal decision.

"You will be only in my way," he said curtly. "Enjoy yourselves
here while you can."

Thus left to themselves, they tried to accept his advice. Possibly
some slight reaction to their previous disappointment may have
already set in; perhaps they felt any distraction to be a relief to
their anxiety about their father. They went out more; they
frequented concerts and parties; they accepted, with their host and
his family, an invitation to one of those opulent and barbaric
entertainments with which a noted San Francisco millionaire
distracted his rare moments of reflection in his gorgeous palace on
the hills. Here they could at least be once more in the country
they loved, albeit of a milder and less heroic type, and a little
degraded by the overlapping tinsel and scattered spangles of the
palace.

It was a three days' fete; the style and choice of amusements left
to the guests, and an equal and active participation by no means
necessary or indispensable. Consequently, when Christie and Jessie
Carr proposed a ride through the adjacent canyon on the second
morning, they had no difficulty in finding horses in the well-
furnished stables of their opulent entertainers, nor cavaliers
among the other guests, who were too happy to find favor in the
eyes of the two pretty girls who were supposed to be abnormally
fastidious and refined. Christie's escort was a good-natured young
banker, shrewd enough to avoid demonstrative attentions, and lucky
enough to interest her during the ride with his clear and half-
humorous reflections on some of the business speculations of the
day. If his ideas were occasionally too clever, and not always
consistent with a high sense of honor, she was none the less
interested to know the ethics of that world of speculation into
which her father had plunged, and the more convinced, with mingled
sense of pride and anxiety, that his still dominant gentlemanhood
would prevent his coping with it on equal terms. Nor could she
help contrasting the conversation of the sharp-witted man at her
side with what she still remembered of the vague, touching, boyish
enthusiasm of the millionaires of Devil's Ford. Had her escort
guessed the result of this contrast, he would hardly have been as
gratified as he was with the grave attention of her beautiful eyes.

The fascination of a gracious day and the leafy solitude of the
canyon led them to prolong their ride beyond the proposed limit,
and it became necessary towards sunset for them to seek some
shorter cut home.

"There's a vaquero in yonder field," said Christie's escort, who
was riding with her a little in advance of the others, "and those
fellows know every trail that a horse can follow. I'll ride on,
intercept him, and try my Spanish on him. If I miss him, as he's
galloping on, you might try your hand on him yourself. He'll
understand your eyes, Miss Carr, in any language."

As he dashed away, to cover his first audacity of compliment,
Christie lifted the eyes thus apostrophized to the opposite field.
The vaquero, who was chasing some cattle, was evidently too
preoccupied to heed the shouts of her companion, and wheeling round
suddenly to intercept one of the deviating fugitives, permitted
Christie's escort to dash past him before that gentleman could rein
in his excited steed. This brought the vaquero directly in her
path. Perceiving her, he threw his horse back on its haunches, to
prevent a collision. Christie rode up to him, suddenly uttered a
cry, and halted. For before her, sunburnt in cheek and throat,
darker in the free growth of moustache and curling hair, clad in
the coarse, picturesque finery of his class, undisguised only in
his boyish beauty, sat George Kearney.

The blood, that had forsaken her astonished face, rushed as quickly
back. His eyes, which had suddenly sparkled with an electrical
glow, sank before hers. His hand dropped, and his cheek flushed
with a dark embarrassment.

"You here, Mr. Kearney? How strange!--but how glad I am to meet
you again!"

She tried to smile; her voice trembled, and her little hand shook
as she extended it to him.

He raised his dark eyes quickly, and impulsively urged his horse to
her side. But, as if suddenly awakening to the reality of the
situation, he glanced at her hurriedly, down at his barbaric
finery, and threw a searching look towards her escort.

In an instant Christie saw the infelicity of her position, and its
dangers. The words of Whiskey Dick, "He wouldn't stand that,"
flashed across her mind. There was no time to lose. The banker
had already gained control over his horse, and was approaching
them, all unconscious of the fixed stare with which George was
regarding him. Christie hastily seized the hand which he had
allowed to fall at his side, and said quickly:--

"Will you ride with me a little way, Mr. Kearney?"

He turned the same searching look upon her. She met it clearly and
steadily; he even thought reproachfully.

"Do!" she said hurriedly. "I ask it as a favor. I want to speak
to you. Jessie and I are here alone. Father is away. YOU are one
of our oldest friends."

He hesitated. She turned to the astonished young banker, who rode up.

"I have just met an old friend. Will you please ride back as
quickly as you can, and tell Jessie that Mr. Kearney is here, and
ask her to join us?"

She watched her dazed escort, still speechless from the spectacle
of the fastidious Miss Carr tete-a-tete with a common Mexican
vaquero, gallop off in the direction of the canyon, and then turned
to George.

"Now take me home, the shortest way, as quick as you can."

"Home?" echoed George.

"I mean to Mr. Prince's house. Quick! before they can come up to
us."

He mechanically put spurs to his horse; she followed. They
presently struck into a trail that soon diverged again into a
disused logging track through the woods.

"This is the short cut to Prince's, by two miles," he said, as they
entered the woods.

As they were still galloping, without exchanging a word, Christie
began to slacken her speed; George did the same. They were safe
from intrusion at the present, even if the others had found the
short cut. Christie, bold and self-reliant a moment ago, suddenly
found herself growing weak and embarrassed. What had she done?

She checked her horse suddenly.

"Perhaps we had better wait for them," she said timidly.

George had not raised his eyes to hers.

"You said you wanted to hurry home," he replied gently, passing his
hand along his mustang's velvety neck, "and--and you had something
to say to me."

"Certainly," she answered, with a faint laugh. "I'm so astonished
at meeting you here. I'm quite bewildered. You are living here;
you have forsaken us to buy a ranche?" she continued, looking at
him attentively.

His brow colored slightly.

"No, I'm living here, but I have bought no ranche. I'm only a
hired man on somebody else's ranche, to look after the cattle."

He saw her beautiful eyes fill with astonishment and--something
else. His brow cleared; he went on, with his old boyish laugh:

"No, Miss Carr. The fact is, I'm dead broke. I've lost everything
since I saw you last. But as I know how to ride, and I'm not
afraid of work, I manage to keep along."

"You have lost money in--in the mines?" said Christie suddenly.

"No"--he replied quickly, evading her eyes. "My brother has my
interest, you know. I've been foolish on my own account solely.
You know I'm rather inclined to that sort of thing. But as long as
my folly don't affect others, I can stand it."

"But it may affect others--and THEY may not think of it as folly--"
She stopped short, confused by his brightening color and eyes. "I
mean-- Oh, Mr. Kearney, I want you to be frank with me. I know
nothing of business, but I know there has been trouble about the
mine at Devil's Ford. Tell me honestly, has my father anything to
do with it? If I thought that through any imprudence of his, you
had suffered--if I believed that you could trace any misfortune of
yours to him--to US--I should never forgive myself"--she stopped
and flashed a single look at him--"I should never forgive YOU for
abandoning us."

The look of pain which had at first shown itself in his face, which
never concealed anything, passed, and a quick smile followed her
feminine anticlimax.

"Miss Carr," he said, with boyish eagerness, "if any man suggested
to me that your father wasn't the brightest and best of his kind--
too wise and clever for the fools about him to understand--I'd--I'd
shoot him."

Confused by his ready and gracious disclaimer of what she had NOT
intended to say, there was nothing left for her but to rush upon
what she really intended to say, with what she felt was shameful
precipitation.

"One word more, Mr. Kearney," she began, looking down, but feeling
the color come to her face as she spoke. "When you spoke to me the
day you left, you must have thought me hard and cruel. When I tell
you that I thought you were alluding to Jessie and some feeling you
had for her--"

"For Jessie!" echoed George.

"You will understand that--that--"

"That what?" said George, drawing nearer to her.

"That I was only speaking as she might have spoken had you talked
to her of me," added Christie hurriedly, slightly backing her horse
away from him.

But this was not so easy, as George was the better rider, and by an
imperceptible movement of his wrist and foot had glued his horse to
her side. "He will go now," she had thought, but he didn't.

"We must ride on," she suggested faintly.

"No," he said with a sudden dropping of his boyish manner and a
slight lifting of his head. "We must ride together no further,
Miss Carr. I must go back to the work I am hired to do, and you
must go on with your party, whom I hear coming. But when we part
here you must bid me good-by--not as Jessie's sister--but as
Christie--the one--the only woman that I love, or that I ever have
loved."

He held out his hand. With the recollection of their previous
parting, she tremblingly advanced her own. He took it, but did not
raise it to his lips. And it was she who found herself half
confusedly retaining his hand in hers, until she dropped it with a
blush.

"Then is this the reason you give for deserting us as you have
deserted Devil's Ford?" she said coldly.

He lifted his eyes to her with a strange smile, and said, "Yes,"
wheeled his horse, and disappeared in the forest.

He had left her thus abruptly once before, kissed, blushing, and
indignant. He was leaving her now, unkissed, but white and
indignant. Yet she was so self-possessed when the party joined
her, that the singular rencontre and her explanation of the
stranger's sudden departure excited no further comment. Only
Jessie managed to whisper in her ear,--

"I hope you are satisfied now that it wasn't me he meant?"

"Not at all," said Christie coldly.




Devil's Ford by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
Nabou.com: the big site