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A BLUE GRASS PENELOPE


CHAPTER I


She was barely twenty-three years old. It is probable that up to
that age, and the beginning of this episode, her life had been
uneventful. Born to the easy mediocrity of such compensating
extremes as a small farmhouse and large lands, a good position and
no society, in that vast grazing district of Kentucky known as the
"Blue Grass" region, all the possibilities of a Western American
girl's existence lay before her. A piano in the bare-walled house,
the latest patented mower in the limitless meadows, and a silk
dress sweeping the rough floor of the unpainted "meeting-house"
were already the promise of those possibilities. Beautiful she
was, but the power of that beauty was limited by being equally
shared with her few neighbors. There were small, narrow, arched
feet besides her own that trod the uncarpeted floors of outlying
log-cabins with equal grace and dignity; bright, clearly opened
eyes that were equally capable of looking unabashed upon princes
and potentates, as a few later did, and the heiress of the county
judge read her own beauty without envy in the frank glances and
unlowered crest of the blacksmith's daughter. Eventually she had
married the male of her species, a young stranger, who, as
schoolmaster in the nearest town, had utilized to some local extent
a scant capital of education. In obedience to the unwritten law of
the West, after the marriage was celebrated the doors of the
ancestral home cheerfully opened, and bride and bridegroom issued
forth, without regret and without sentiment, to seek the further
possibilities of a life beyond these already too familiar voices.
With their departure for California as Mr. and Mrs. Spencer Tucker,
the parental nest in the Blue Grass meadows knew them no more.

They submitted with equal cheerfulness to the privations and
excesses of their new conditions. Within three years the
schoolmaster developed into a lawyer and capitalist, the Blue Grass
bride supplying a grace and ease to these transitions that were all
her own. She softened the abruptness of sudden wealth, mitigated
the austerities of newly acquired power, and made the most glaring
incongruity picturesque. Only one thing seemed to limit their
progress in the region of these possibilities. They were
childless. It was as if they had exhausted the future in their own
youth, leaving little or nothing for another generation to do.


A southwesterly storm was beating against the dressing-room windows
of their new house in one of the hilly suburbs of San Francisco,
and threatening the unseasonable frivolity of the stucco
ornamentation of cornice and balcony. Mrs. Tucker had been called
from the contemplation of the dreary prospect without by the
arrival of a visitor. On entering the drawing-room she found him
engaged in a half-admiring, half-resentful examination of its new
furniture and hangings. Mrs. Tucker at once recognized Mr. Calhoun
Weaver, a former Blue Grass neighbor; with swift feminine intuition
she also felt that his slight antagonism was likely to be
transferred from her furniture to herself. Waiving it with the
lazy amiability of Southern indifference, she welcomed him by the
familiarity of a Christian name.

"I reckoned that mebbee you opined old Blue Grass friends wouldn't
naturally hitch on to them fancy doins," he said, glancing around
the apartment to avoid her clear eyes, as if resolutely setting
himself against the old charm of her manner as he had against the
more recent glory of her surroundings, "but I thought I'd just drop
in for the sake of old times."

"Why shouldn't you, Cal?" said Mrs. Tucker with a frank smile.

"Especially as I'm going up to Sacramento to-night with some
influential friends," he continued, with an ostentation calculated
to resist the assumption of her charms and her furniture. "Senator
Dyce of Kentucky, and his cousin Judge Briggs; perhaps you know
'em, or may be Spencer--I mean Mr. Tucker--does."

"I reckon," said Mrs. Tucker smiling; "but tell me something about
the boys and girls at Vineville, and about yourself. YOU'RE
looking well, and right smart too." She paused to give due
emphasis to this latter recognition of a huge gold chain with which
her visitor was somewhat ostentatiously trifling.

"I didn't know as you cared to hear anything about Blue Grass," he
returned, a little abashed. "I've been away from there some time
myself," he added, his uneasy vanity taking fresh alarm at the
faint suspicion of patronage on the part of his hostess. "They're
doin' well, though; perhaps as well as some others."

"And you're not married yet," continued Mrs. Tucker, oblivious of
the innuendo. "Ah, Cal," she added archly, "I am afraid you are as
fickle as ever. What poor girl in Vineville have you left pining?"

The simple face of the man before her flushed with foolish
gratification at this old-fashioned, ambiguous flattery. "Now look
yer, Belle," he said, chuckling, "if you're talking of old times
and you think I bear malice agin Spencer, why--"

But Mrs. Tucker interrupted what might have been an inopportune
sentimental retrospect with a finger of arch but languid warning.
"That will do! I'm dying to know all about it, and you must stay
to dinner and tell me. It's right mean you can't see Spencer too;
but he isn't back from Sacramento yet."

Grateful as a tete-a-tete with his old neighbor in her more
prosperous surroundings would have been, if only for the sake of
later gossiping about it, he felt it would be inconsistent with his
pride and his assumption of present business. More than that, he
was uneasily conscious that in Mrs. Tucker's simple and unaffected
manner there was a greater superiority than he had ever noticed
during their previous acquaintance. He would have felt kinder to
her had she shown any "airs and graces," which he could have
commented upon and forgiven. He stammered some vague excuse of
preoccupation, yet lingered in the hope of saying something which,
if not aggressively unpleasant, might at least transfer to her
indolent serenity some of his own irritation. "I reckon," he said,
as he moved hesitatingly towards the door, "that Spencer has made
himself easy and secure in them business risks he's taking. That
'ere Alameda ditch affair they're talking so much about is a mighty
big thing, rather TOO big if it ever got to falling back on him.
But I suppose he's accustomed to take risks?"

"Of course he is," said Mrs. Tucker gayly. "He married ME."

The visitor smiled feebly, but was not equal to the opportunity
offered for gallant repudiation. "But suppose you ain't accustomed
to risks?"

"Why not? I married HIM," said Mrs. Tucker.

Mr. Calhoun Weaver was human, and succumbed to this last charming
audacity. He broke into a noisy but genuine laugh, shook Mrs.
Tucker's hand with effusion, said, "Now that's regular Blue Grass
and no mistake!" and retreated under cover of his hilarity. In the
hall he made a rallying stand to repeat confidentially to the
servant who had overheard them: "Blue Grass, all over, you bet your
life," and, opening the door, was apparently swallowed up in the
tempest.

Mrs. Tucker's smile kept her lips until she had returned to her
room, and even then languidly shone in her eyes for some minutes
after, as she gazed abstractedly from her window on the storm-
tossed bay in the distance. Perhaps some girlish vision of the
peaceful Blue Glass plain momentarily usurped the prospect; but it
is to be doubted if there was much romance in that retrospect, or
that it was more interesting to her than the positive and sharply
cut outlines of the practical life she now held. Howbeit she soon
forgot this fancy in lazily watching a boat that, in the teeth of
the gale, was beating round Alcatraz Island. Although at times a
mere blank speck on the gray waste of foam, a closer scrutiny
showed it to be one of those lateen-rigged Italian fishing boats
that so often flecked the distant bay. Lost in the sudden
darkening of rain, or reappearing beneath the lifted curtain of the
squall, she watched it weather the island, and then turn its
laboring but persistent course towards the open channel. A rent in
the Indian-inky sky, that showed the narrowing portals of the
Golden Gate beyond, revealed, as unexpectedly, the destination of
the little craft, a tall ship that hitherto lay hidden in the mist
of the Saucelito shore. As the distance lessened between boat and
ship, they were again lost in the downward swoop of another squall.
When it lifted, the ship was creeping under the headland towards
the open sea, but the boat was gone. Mrs. Tucker in vain rubbed
the pane with her handkerchief; it had vanished. Meanwhile the
ship, as she neared the Gate, drew out from the protecting
headland, stood outlined for a moment with spars and canvas hearsed
in black against the lurid rent in the horizon, and then seemed to
sink slowly into the heaving obscurity beyond. A sudden onset of
rain against the windows obliterated the remaining prospect; the
entrance of a servant completed the diversion.

"Captain Poindexter, ma'am!"

Mrs. Tucker lifted her pretty eyebrows interrogatively. Captain
Poindexter was a legal friend of her husband, and had dined there
frequently; nevertheless she asked: "Did you tell him Mr. Tucker
was not at home?"

"Yes, 'm."

"Did he ask for ME?"

"Yes, 'm."

"Tell him I'll be down directly."

Mrs. Tucker's quiet face did not betray the fact that this second
visitor was even less interesting than the first. In her heart she
did not like Captain Poindexter. With a clever woman's instinct
she had early detected the fact that he had a superior, stronger
nature than her husband; as a loyal wife, she secretly resented the
occasional unconscious exhibition of this fact on the part of his
intimate friend in their familiar intercourse. Added to this
slight jealousy, there was a certain moral antagonism between
herself and the captain which none but themselves knew. They were
both philosophers, but Mrs. Tucker's serene and languid optimism
would not tolerate the compassionate and kind-hearted pessimisms of
the lawyer. "Knowing what Jack Poindexter does of human nature,"
her husband had once said, "it's mighty fine in him to be so kind
and forgiving. You ought to like him better, Belle." "And qualify
myself to be forgiven," said the lady pertly. "I don't see what
you're driving at, Belle; I give it up," had responded the puzzled
husband. Mrs. Tucker kissed his high but foolish forehead
tenderly, and said: "I'm glad you don't, dear."

Meanwhile her second visitor had, like the first, employed the
interval in a critical survey of the glories of the new furniture,
but with apparently more compassion than resentment in his manner.
Once only had his expression changed. Over the fireplace hung a
large photograph of Mr. Spencer Tucker. It was retouched, refined,
and idealized in the highest style of that polite and diplomatic
art. As Captain Poindexter looked upon the fringed hazel eyes, the
drooping raven moustache, the clustering ringlets, and the Byronic
full throat and turned-down collar of his friend, a smile of
exhausted humorous tolerance and affectionate impatience curved his
lips. "Well, you ARE a fool, aren't you?" he apostrophized it
half-audibly.

He was standing before the picture as she entered. Even in the
trying contiguity of that peerless work he would have been called a
fine-looking man. As he advanced to greet her, it was evident that
his military title was not one of the mere fanciful sobriquets of
the locality. In his erect figure and the disciplined composure of
limb and attitude there were still traces of the refined academic
rigors of West Point. The pliant adaptability of Western
civilization which enabled him, three years before, to leave the
army and transfer his executive ability to the more profitable
profession of the law, had loosed sash and shoulder-strap, but had
not entirely removed the restraint of the one, or the bearing of
the other.

"Spencer is in Sacramento," began Mrs. Tucker in languid
explanation, after the first greetings were over.

"I knew he was not here," replied Captain Poindexter gently, as he
drew the proffered chair towards her, "but this is business that
concerns you both." He stopped and glanced upwards at the picture.
"I suppose you know nothing of his business? Of course not," he
added reassuringly, "nothing, absolutely nothing, certainly." He
said this so kindly, and yet so positively, as if to promptly
dispose of that question before going further, that she assented
mechanically. "Well, then, he's taken some big risks in the way of
business, and--well, things have gone bad with him, you know. Very
bad! Really, they couldn't be worse! Of course it was dreadfully
rash and all that," he went on, as if commenting upon the amusing
waywardness of a child; "but the result is the usual smash-up of
everything, money, credit, and all!" He laughed and added: "Yes,
he's got cut off--mules and baggage regularly routed and dispersed!
I'm in earnest." He raised his eyebrows and frowned slightly, as
if to deprecate any corresponding hilarity on the part of Mrs.
Tucker, or any attempt to make TOO light of the subject, and then
rising, placed his hands behind his back, beamed half-humorously
upon her from beneath her husband's picture, and repeated: "That's
so."

Mrs. Tucker instinctively knew that he spoke the truth, and that it
was impossible for him to convey it in any other than his natural
manner; but between the shock and the singular influence of that
manner she could at first only say, "You don't mean it!" fully
conscious of the utter inanity of the remark, and that it seemed
scarcely less cold-blooded than his own.

Poindexter, still smiling, nodded.

She arose with an effort. She had recovered from the first shock,
and pride lent her a determined calmness that more than equaled
Poindexter's easy philosophy.

"Where is he?" she asked.

"At sea, and I hope by this time where he can not be found or
followed."

Was her momentary glimpse of the outgoing ship a coincidence, or
only a vision? She was confused and giddy, but, mastering her
weakness, she managed to continue in a lower voice:

"You have no message for me from him? He told you nothing to tell
me?"

"Nothing, absolutely nothing," replied Poindexter. "It was as much
as he could do, I reckon, to get fairly away before the crash
came."

"Then you did not see him go?"

"Well, no," said Poindexter. "I'd hardly have managed things in
this way." He checked himself and added, with a forgiving smile,
"But he was the best judge of what he needed, of course."

"I suppose I will hear from him," she said quietly, "as soon as he
is safe. He must have had enough else to think about, poor
fellow."

She said this so naturally and quietly that Poindexter was
deceived. He had no idea that the collected woman before him was
thinking only of solitude and darkness, of her own room, and madly
longing to be there. He said, "Yes, I dare say," in quite another
voice, and glanced at the picture. But as she remained standing,
he continued more earnestly, "I didn't come here to tell you what
you might read in the newspapers to-morrow morning, and what
everybody might tell you. Before that time I want you to do
something to save a fragment of your property from the ruin; do you
understand? I want you to make a rally, and bring off something in
good order."

"For him?" said Mrs. Tucker, with brightening eyes.

"Well, yes, of course--if you like--but as if for yourself. Do you
know the Rancho de los Cuervos?"

"I do."

"It's almost the only bit of real property your husband hasn't
sold, mortgaged, or pledged. Why it was exempt, or whether only
forgotten, I can't say."

"I'll tell you why," said Mrs. Tucker, with a slight return of
color. "It was the first land we ever bought, and Spencer always
said it should be mine and he would build a new house on it."

Captain Poindexter smiled and nodded at the picture. "Oh, he did
say that, did he? Well, THAT'S evidence. But you see he never
gave you the deed, and by sunrise to-morrow his creditors will
attach it--unless--"

"Unless--" repeated Mrs. Tucker, with kindling eyes.

"Unless," continued Captain Poindexter, "they happen to find YOU in
possession."

"I'll go," said Mrs. Tucker.

"Of course you will," returned Poindexter, pleasantly; "only, as
it's a big contract to take, suppose we see how you can fill it.
It's forty miles to Los Cuervos, and you can't trust yourself to
steamboat or stage-coach. The steamboat left an hour ago."

"If I had only known this then!" ejaculated Mrs. Tucker.

"I knew it, but you had company then," said Poindexter, with
ironical gallantry, "and I wouldn't disturb you." Without saying
how he knew it, he continued, "In the stage-coach you might be
recognized. You must go in a private conveyance and alone; even I
can not go with you, for I must go on before and meet you there.
Can you drive forty miles?"

Mrs. Tucker lifted up her abstracted pretty lids. "I once drove
fifty--at home," she returned simply.

"Good! and I dare say you did it then for fun. Do it now for
something real and personal, as we lawyers say. You will have
relays and a plan of the road. It's rough weather for a pasear,
but all the better for that. You'll have less company on the
road."

"How soon can I go?" she asked.

"The sooner the better. I've arranged everything for you already,"
he continued with a laugh. "Come now, that's a compliment to you,
isn't it?" He smiled a moment in her steadfast, earnest face, and
then said, more gravely, "You'll do. Now listen."

He then carefully detailed his plan. There was so little of
excitement or mystery in their manner that the servant, who
returned to light the gas, never knew that the ruin and bankruptcy
of the house was being told before her, or that its mistress was
planning her secret flight.

"Good afternoon; I will see you to-morrow then," said Poindexter,
raising his eyes to hers as the servant opened the door for him.

"Good afternoon," repeated Mrs. Tucker quietly answering his look.
"You need not light the gas in my room, Mary," she continued in the
same tone of voice as the door closed upon him; "I shall lie down
for a few moments, and then I may run over to the Robinsons for the
evening."

She regained her room composedly. The longing desire to bury her
head in her pillow and "think out" her position had gone. She did
not apostrophize her fate, she did not weep; few real women do in
the access of calamity, or when there is anything else to be done.
She felt that she knew it all; she believed she had sounded the
profoundest depths of the disaster, and seemed already so old in
her experience that she almost fancied she had been prepared for
it. Perhaps she did not fully appreciate it; to a life like hers
it was only an incident, the mere turning of a page of the
illimitable book of youth; the breaking up of what she now felt had
become a monotony. In fact, she was not quite sure she had ever
been satisfied with their present success. Had it brought her all
she expected? She wanted to say this to her husband, not only to
comfort him, poor fellow, but that they might come to a better
understanding of life in the future. She was not perhaps different
from other loving women who, believing in this unattainable goal of
matrimony, have sought it in the various episodes of fortune or
reverses, in the bearing of children, or the loss of friends. In
her childless experience there was no other life that had taken
root in her circumstances and might suffer transplantation; only
she and her husband could lose or profit by the change. The
"perfect" understanding would come under other conditions than
these.

She would have gone superstitiously to the window to gaze in the
direction of the vanished ship, but another instinct restrained
her. She would put aside all yearning for him until she had done
something to help him, and earned the confidence he seemed to have
withheld. Perhaps it was pride--perhaps she never really believed
his exodus was distant or complete.

With a full knowledge that to-morrow the various ornaments and
pretty trifles around her would be in the hands of the law, she
gathered only a few necessaries for her flight and some familiar
personal trinkets. I am constrained to say that this self-
abnegation was more fastidious than moral. She had no more idea of
the ethics of bankruptcy than any other charming woman; she simply
did not like to take with her any contagious memory of the chapter
of the life just closing. She glanced around the home she was
leaving without a lingering regret; there was no sentiment of
tradition or custom that might be destroyed; her roots lay too near
the surface to suffer from dislocation; the happiness of her
childless union had depended upon no domestic centre, nor was its
flame sacred to any local hearthstone. It was without a sigh that,
when night had fully fallen, she slipped unnoticed down the
staircase. At the door of the drawing-room she paused and then
entered with the first guilty feeling of shame she had known that
evening. Looking stealthily around she mounted a chair before her
husband's picture, kissed the irreproachable moustache hurriedly,
said, "You foolish darling, you!" and slipped out again. With this
touching indorsement of the views of a rival philosopher, she
closed the door softly and left her home forever.




On the Frontier by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
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