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CHAPTER IV


As Mrs. Tucker, erect, white, and rigid, drove away from the
tienda, it seemed to her to sink again into the monotonous plain,
with all its horrible realities. Except that there was now a new
and heart-breaking significance to the solitude and loneliness of
the landscape, all that had passed might have been a dream. But as
the blood came back to her cheek, and little by little her tingling
consciousness returned, it seemed as if her life had been the
dream, and this last scene the awakening reality. With eyes
smarting with the moisture of shame, the scarlet blood at times
dyeing her very neck and temples, she muffled her lowered crest in
her shawl and bent over the reins. Bit by bit she recalled, in
Poindexter's mysterious caution and strange allusions, the
corroboration of her husband's shame and her own disgrace. This
was why she was brought hither--the deserted wife, and abandoned
confederate! The mocking glitter of the concave vault above her,
scoured by the incessant wind, the cold stare of the shining pools
beyond, the hard outlines of the Coast Range, and the jarring
accompaniment of her horse's hoofs and rattling buggy wheels
alternately goaded and distracted her. She found herself repeating
"No! no! no!" with the dogged reiteration of fever. She scarcely
knew when or how she reached the hacienda. She was only conscious
that as she entered the patio the dusty solitude that had before
filled her with unrest now came to her like balm. A benumbing
peace seemed to fall from the crumbling walls; the peace of utter
seclusion, isolation, oblivion, death! Nevertheless, an hour
later, when the jingle of spurs and bridle were again heard in the
road, she started to her feet with bent brows and a kindling eye,
and confronted Captain Poindexter in the corridor.

"I would not have intruded upon you so soon again," he said
gravely, "but I thought I might perhaps spare you a repetition of
the scene of this morning. Hear me out, please," he added, with a
gentle, half-deprecating gesture, as she lifted the beautiful scorn
of her eyes to his. "I have just heard that your neighbor, Don
Jose Santierra, of Los Gatos, is on his way to this house. He once
claimed this land, and hated your husband, who bought of the rival
claimant, whose grant was confirmed. I tell you this," he added,
slightly flushing as Mrs. Tucker turned impatiently away, "only to
show you that legally he has no rights, and you need not see him
unless you choose. I could not stop his coming without perhaps
doing you more harm than good; but when he does come, my presence
under this roof as your legal counsel will enable you to refer him
to me." He stopped. She was pacing the corridor with short,
impatient steps, her arms dropped, and her hands clasped rigidly
before her. "Have I your permission to stay?"

She suddenly stopped in her walk, approached him rapidly, and
fixing her eyes on his, said,--

"Do I know ALL, now--everything?"

He could only reply that she had not yet told him what she had
heard.

"Well," she said scornfully, "that my husband has been cruelly
imposed upon--imposed upon by some wretched woman, who has made him
sacrifice his property, his friends, his honor--everything but me?"

"Everything but whom?" gasped Poindexter.

"But ME!"

Poindexter gazed at the sky, the air, the deserted corridor, the
stones of the patio itself, and then at the inexplicable woman
before him. Then he said gravely, "I think you know everything."

"Then if my husband has left me all he could--this property," she
went on rapidly, twisting her handkerchief between her fingers, "I
can do with it what I like, can't I?"

"You certainly can."

"Then sell it," she said, with passionate vehemence. "Sell it--
all! everything! And sell these." She darted into her bedroom,
and returned with the diamond rings she had torn from her fingers
and ears when she entered the house. "Sell them for anything
they'll bring, only sell them at once."

"But for what?" asked Poindexter, with demure lips but twinkling
eyes.

"To pay the debts that this--this--woman has led him into; to
return the money she has stolen!" she went on rapidly, "to keep him
from sharing her infamy! Can't you understand?"

"But, my dear madam," began Poindexter, "even if this could be
done--"

"Don't tell me 'if it could'--it MUST be done. Do you think I
could sleep under this roof, propped up by the timbers of that
ruined tienda? Do you think I could wear those diamonds again,
while that termagant shop-woman can say that her money bought them?
No. If you are my husband's friend you will do this--for--for his
sake." She stopped, locked and interlocked her cold fingers before
her, and said, hesitating and mechanically, "You meant well,
Captain Poindexter, in bringing me here, I know! You must not
think that I blame you for it, or for the miserable result of it
that you have just witnessed. But if I have gained anything by it,
for God's sake let me reap it quickly, that I may give it to these
people and go! I have a friend who can aid me to get to my husband
or to my home in Kentucky, where Spencer will yet find me, I know.
I want nothing more." She stopped again. With another woman the
pause would have been one of tears. But she kept her head above
the flood that filled her heart, and the clear eyes fixed upon
Poindexter, albeit pained, were undimmed.

"But this would require time," said Poindexter, with a smile of
compassionate explanation; "you could not sell now, nobody would
buy. You are safe to hold this property while you are in actual
possession, but you are not strong enough to guarantee it to
another. There may still be litigation; your husband has other
creditors than these people you have talked with. But while nobody
could oust you--the wife who would have the sympathies of judge and
jury--it might be a different case with any one who derived title
from you. Any purchaser would know that you could not sell, or if
you did, it would be at a ridiculous sacrifice."

She listened to him abstractedly, walked to the end of the
corridor, returned, and without looking up, said,--

"I suppose you know her?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"This woman. You have seen her?"

"Never, to my knowledge."

"And you are his friend! That's strange." She raised her eyes to
his. "Well," she continued impatiently, "who is she? and what is
she? You know that surely?"

"I know no more of her than what I have said," said Poindexter.
"She is a notorious woman."

The swift color came to Mrs. Tucker's face as if the epithet had
been applied to herself. "I suppose," she said in a dry voice, as
if she were asking a business question, but with an eye that showed
her rising anger,--"I suppose there is some law by which creatures
of this kind can be followed and brought to justice--some law that
would keep innocent people from suffering for their crimes?"

"I am afraid," said Poindexter, "that arresting her would hardly
help these people over in the tienda."

"I am not speaking of them," responded Mrs. Tucker, with a sudden
sublime contempt for the people whose cause she had espoused: "I am
talking of my husband."

Poindexter bit his lip. "You'd hardly think of bringing back the
strongest witness against him," he said bluntly.

Mrs. Tucker dropped her eyes and was silent. A sudden shame
suffused Poindexter's cheek; he felt as if he had struck that woman
a blow. "I beg your pardon," he said hastily, "I am talking like a
lawyer to a lawyer." He would have taken any other woman by the
hand in the honest fullness of his apology, but something
restrained him here. He only looked down gently on her lowered
lashes, and repeated his question if he should remain during the
coming interview with Don Jose: "I must beg you to determine
quickly," he added, "for I already hear him entering the gate."

"Stay," said Mrs. Tucker, as the ringing of spurs and clatter of
hoofs came from the corral. "One moment." She looked up suddenly,
and said, "How long had he known her?" But before he could reply
there was a step in the doorway, and the figure of Don Jose
Santierra emerged from the archway.

He was a man slightly past middle age, fair and well shaven,
wearing a black broadcloth serape, the deeply embroidered opening
of which formed a collar of silver rays around his neck, while a
row of silver buttons down the side seams of his riding trousers,
and silver spurs, completed his singular equipment. Mrs. Tucker's
swift feminine glance took in these details, as well as the deep
salutation, more formal than the exuberant frontier politeness she
was accustomed to, with which he greeted her. It was enough to
arrest her first impulse to retreat. She hesitated and stopped as
Poindexter stepped forward, partly interposing between them,
acknowledging Don Jose's distant recognition of himself with an
ironical accession of his usual humorous tolerance. The Spaniard
did not seem to notice it, but remained gravely silent before Mrs.
Tucker, gazing at her with an expression of intent and unconscious
absorption.

"You are quite right, Don Jose," said Poindexter, with ironical
concern, "it is Mrs. Tucker. Your eyes do NOT deceive you. She
will be glad to do the honors of her house," he continued, with a
simulation of appealing to her, "unless you visit her on business,
when I need not say I shall be only too happy, to attend you, as
before."

Don Jose, with a slight lifting of the eyebrows, allowed himself to
become conscious of the lawyer's meaning. "It is not of business
that I come to kiss the Senora's hand to-day," he replied, with a
melancholy softness; "it is as her neighbor, to put myself at her
disposition. Ah! the what have we here for a lady?" he continued,
raising his eyes in deprecation of the surroundings; "a house of
nothing, a place of winds and dry bones, without refreshments, or
satisfaction, or delicacy. The Senora will not refuse to make us
proud this day to send her of that which we have in our poor home
at Los Gatos, to make her more complete. Of what shall it be? Let
her make choice. Or if she would commemorate this day by accepting
of our hospitality at Los Gatos, until she shall arrange herself
the more to receive us here, we shall have too much honor."

"The Senora would only find it the more difficult to return to this
humble roof again, after once leaving it for Don Jose's hospitality,"
said Poindexter, with a demure glance at Mrs. Tucker. But the
innuendo seemed to lapse equally unheeded by his fair client and
the stranger. Raising her eyes with a certain timid dignity which
Don Jose's presence seemed to have called out, she addressed herself
to him.

"You are very kind and considerate, Mister Santierra, and I thank
you. I know that my husband"--she let the clear beauty of her
translucent eyes rest full on both men--"would thank you too. But
I shall not be here long enough to accept your kindness in this
house or in your own. I have but one desire and object now. It is
to dispose of this property, and indeed all I possess, to pay the
debt of my husband. It is in your power, perhaps, to help me. I
am told that you wish to possess Los Cuervos," she went on, equally
oblivious of the consciousness that appeared in Don Jose's face,
and a humorous perplexity on the brow of Poindexter. "If you can
arrange it with Mr. Poindexter, you will find me a liberal vendor.
That much you can do, and I know you will believe I shall be
grateful. You can do no more, unless it be to say to your friends
that Mrs. Belle Tucker remains here only for that purpose, and to
carry out what she knows to be the wishes of her husband." She
paused, bent her pretty crest, dropped a quaint curtsey to the
superior age, the silver braid, and the gentlemanly bearing of Don
Jose, and with the passing sunshine of a smile disappeared from the
corridor.

The two men remained silent for a moment, Don Jose gazing
abstractedly on the door through which she had vanished, until
Poindexter, with a return of his tolerant smile, said, "You have
heard the views of Mrs. Tucker. You know the situation as well as
she does."

"Ah, yes; possibly better."

Poindexter darted a quick glance at the grave, sallow face of Don
Jose, but detecting no unusual significance in his manner,
continued, "As you see, she leaves this matter in my hands. Let us
talk like business men. Have you any idea of purchasing this
property?"

"Of purchasing, ah, no."

Poindexter bent his brows, but quickly relaxed them with a smile of
humorous forgiveness. "If you have any other idea, Don Jose, I
ought to warn you, as Mrs. Tucker's lawyer, that she is in legal
possession here, and that nothing but her own act can change that
position."

"Ah, so."

Irritated at the shrug which accompanied this, Poindexter continued
haughtily, "If I am to understand, you have nothing to say--"

"To say, ah, yes, possibly. But"--he glanced toward the door of
Mrs. Tucker's room--"not here." He stopped, appeared to recall
himself, and with an apologetic smile and a studied but graceful
gesture of invitation, he motioned to the gateway, and said, "Will
you ride?"

"What can the fellow be up to?" muttered Poindexter, as with an
assenting nod he proceeded to remount his horse. "If he wasn't an
old hidalgo, I'd mistrust him. No matter! here goes!"

The Don also remounted his half-broken mustang; they proceeded in
solemn silence through the corral, and side by side emerged on the
open plain. Poindexter glanced around; no other being was in
sight. It was not until the lonely hacienda had also sunk behind
them that Don Jose broke the silence.

"You say just now we shall speak as business men. I say no, Don
Marco; I will not. I shall speak, we shall speak, as gentlemen."

"Go on," said Poindexter, who was beginning to be amused.

"I say just now I will not purchase the rancho from the Senora.
And why? Look you, Don Marco;" he reined in his horse, thrust his
hand under his serape, and drew out a folded document: "this is
why."

With a smile, Poindexter took the paper from his hand and opened
it. But the smile faded from his lips as he read. With blazing
eyes he spurred his horse beside the Spaniard, almost unseating
him, and said sternly, "What does this mean?"

"What does it mean?" repeated Don Jose, with equally flashing eyes,
"I'll tell you. It means that your client, this man Spencer
Tucker, is a Judas, a traitor! It means that he gave Los Cuervos
to his mistress a year ago, and that she sold it to me--to me, you
hear!--ME, Jose Santierra, the day before she left! It means that
the coyote of a Spencer, the thief, who bought these lands of a
thief, and gave them to a thief, has tricked you all. Look," he
said, rising in his saddle, holding the paper like a baton, and
defining with a sweep of his arm the whole level plain, "all these
lands were once mine, they are mine again to-day. Do I want to
purchase Los Cuervos? you ask, for you will speak of the BUSINESS.
Well, listen. I HAVE purchased Los Cuervos, and here is the deed."

"But it has never been recorded," said Poindexter, with a
carelessness he was far from feeling.

"Of a verity, no. Do you wish that I should record it?" asked Don
Jose, with a return of his simple gravity.

Poindexter bit his lip. "You said we were to talk like gentlemen,"
he returned. "Do you think you have come into possession of this
alleged deed like a gentleman?"

Don Jose shrugged his shoulders. "I found it tossed in the lap of
a harlot. I bought it for a song. Eh, what would you?"

"Would you sell it again for a song?" asked Poindexter.

"Ah! what is this?" said Don Jose, lifting his iron-gray brows;
"but a moment ago we would sell everything, for any money. Now we
would buy. Is it so?"

"One moment, Don Jose," said Poindexter, with a baleful light in
his dark eyes. "Do I understand that you are the ally of Spencer
Tucker and his mistress, that you intend to turn this doubly
betrayed wife from the only roof she has to cover her?"

"Ah, I comprehend not. You heard her say she wished to go.
Perhaps it may please ME to distribute largess to these cattle
yonder, I do not say no. More she does not ask. But YOU, Don
Marco, of whom are you advocate? You abandon your client's
mistress for the wife, is it so?"

"What I may do you will learn hereafter," said Poindexter, who had
regained his composure, suddenly reining up his horse. "As our
paths seem likely to diverge, they had better begin now. Good
morning."

"Patience, my friend, patience! Ah, blessed St. Anthony, what
these Americans are! Listen. For what YOU shall do, I do not
inquire. The question is to me what I"--he emphasized the pronoun
by tapping himself on the breast--"I, Jose Santierra, will do.
Well, I shall tell you. To-day, nothing. To-morrow, nothing. For
a week, for a month, nothing! After, we shall see."

Poindexter paused thoughtfully. "Will you give your word, Don
Jose, that you will not press the claim for a month?"

"Truly, on one condition. Observe! I do not ask you for an equal
promise, that you will not take this time to defend yourself." He
shrugged his shoulders. "No! It is only this. You shall promise
that during that time the Senora Tucker shall remain ignorant of
this document."

Poindexter hesitated a moment. "I promise," he said at last.

"Good. Adios, Don Marco."

"Adios, Don Jose."

The Spaniard put spurs to his mustang and galloped off in the
direction of Los Gatos. The lawyer remained for a moment gazing on
his retreating but victorious figure. For the first time the old
look of humorous toleration with which Mr. Poindexter was in the
habit of regarding all human infirmity gave way to something like
bitterness. "I might have guessed it," he said, with a slight rise
of color. "He's an old fool; and she--well, perhaps it's all the
better for her!" He glanced backwards almost tenderly in the
direction of Los Cuervos, and then turned his head towards the
embarcadero.

As the afternoon wore on, a creaking, antiquated ox-cart arrived at
Los Cuervos, bearing several articles of furniture, and some
tasteful ornaments from Los Gatos, at the same time that a young
Mexican girl mysteriously appeared in the kitchen, as a temporary
assistant to the decrepit Concha. These were both clearly
attributable to Don Jose, whose visit was not so remote but that
these delicate attentions might have been already projected before
Mrs. Tucker had declined them, and she could not, without marked
discourtesy, return them now. She did not wish to seem
discourteous; she would like to have been more civil to this old
gentleman, who still retained the evidences of a picturesque and
decorous past, and a repose so different from the life that was
perplexing her. Reflecting that if he bought the estate these
things would be ready to his hand, and with a woman's instinct
recognizing their value in setting off the house to other
purchasers' eyes, she took a pleasure in tastefully arranging them,
and even found herself speculating how she might have enjoyed them
herself had she been able to keep possession of the property.
After all, it would not have been so lonely if refined and gentle
neighbors, like this old man, would have sympathized with her; she
had an instinctive feeling that, in their own hopeless decay and
hereditary unfitness for this new civilization, they would have
been more tolerant of her husband's failure than his own kind. She
could not believe that Don Jose really hated her husband for buying
of the successful claimant, as there was no other legal title.
Allowing herself to become interested in the guileless gossip of
the new handmaiden, proud of her broken English, she was drawn into
a sympathy with the grave simplicity of Don Jose's character, a
relic of that true nobility which placed this descendant of the
Castilians and the daughter of a free people on the same level.

In this way the second day of her occupancy of Los Cuervos closed,
with dumb clouds along the gray horizon, and the paroxysms of
hysterical wind growing fainter and fainter outside the walls; with
the moon rising after nightfall, and losing itself in silent and
mysterious confidences with drifting scud. She went to bed early,
but woke past midnight, hearing, as she thought, her own name
called. The impression was so strong upon her that she rose, and,
hastily enwrapping herself, went to the dark embrasures of the
oven-shaped windows, and looked out. The dwarfed oak beside the
window was still dropping from a past shower, but the level waste
of marsh and meadow beyond seemed to advance and recede with the
coming and going of the moon. Again she heard her name called, and
this time in accents so strangely familiar that with a slight cry
she ran into the corridor, crossed the patio, and reached the open
gate. The darkness that had, even in this brief interval, again
fallen upon the prospect she tried in vain to pierce with eye and
voice. A blank silence followed. Then the veil was suddenly
withdrawn; the vast plain, stretching from the mountain to the sea,
shone as clearly as in the light of day; the moving current of the
channel glittered like black pearls, the stagnant pools like molten
lead; but not a sign of life nor motion broke the monotony of the
broad expanse. She must have surely dreamed it. A chill wind
drove her back to the house again; she entered her bedroom, and in
half an hour she was in a peaceful sleep.




On the Frontier by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
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