Perhaps also a certain anxiety arose out of the occasion. He was to be married to-morrow to the widow of his late partner, and the marriage, besides being an attractive one, would settle many business difficulties. He had been a fortunate man, but, like many more fortunate men, was not blind to the possibilities of a change of luck. The death of his partner in a successful business had at first seemed to betoken that change, but his successful, though hasty, courtship of the inexperienced widow had restored his chances without greatly shocking the decorum of a pioneer community. Nevertheless, he was not a contented man, and hardly a determined—although an energetic one.
A walk of a few moments brought him to the levee of the river,—a favored district, where his counting-house, with many others, was conveniently situated. In these early days only a few of these buildings could be said to be permanent,—fire and flood perpetually threatened them. They were merely temporary structures of wood, or in the case of Mr. Farendell’s office, a shell of corrugated iron, sheathing a one-storied wooden frame, more or less elaborate in its interior decorations. By the time he had reached it, the distant fire had increased. On his way he had met and recognized many of his business acquaintances hurrying thither,—some to save their own property, or to assist the imperfectly equipped volunteer fire department in their unselfish labors. It was probably Mr. Farendell’s peculiar preoccupation on that particular night which had prevented his joining in their brotherly zeal.
He unlocked the iron door, and lit the hanging lamp that was used in all-night sittings on steamer days. It revealed a smartly furnished office, with a high desk for his clerks, and a smaller one for himself in one corner. In the centre of the wall stood a large safe. This he also unlocked and took out a few important books, as well as a small drawer containing gold coin and dust to the amount of about five hundred dollars, the large balance having been deposited in bank on the previous day. The act was only precautionary, as he did not exhibit any haste in removing them to a place of safety, and remained meditatively absorbed in looking over a packet of papers taken from the same drawer. The closely shuttered building, almost hermetically sealed against light, and perhaps sound, prevented his observing the steadily increasing light of the conflagration, or hearing the nearer tumult of the firemen, and the invasion of his quiet district by other equally solicitous tenants. The papers seemed also to possess some importance, for, the stillness being suddenly broken by the turning of the handle of the heavy door he had just closed, and its opening with difficulty, his first act was to hurriedly conceal them, without apparently paying a thought to the exposed gold before him. And his expression and attitude in facing round towards the door was quite as much of nervous secretiveness as of indignation at the interruption.
Yet the intruder appeared, though singular, by no means formidable. He was a man slightly past the middle age, with a thin face, hollowed at the cheeks and temples as if by illness or asceticism, and a grayish beard that encircled his throat like a soiled worsted “comforter” below his clean-shaven chin and mouth. His manner was slow and methodical, and even when he shot the bolt of the door behind him, the act did not seem aggressive. Nevertheless Mr. Farendell half rose with his hand on his pistol-pocket, but the stranger merely lifted his own hand with a gesture of indifferent warning, and, drawing a chair towards him, dropped into it deliberately.
Mr. Farendell’s angry stare changed suddenly to one of surprised recognition. “Josh Scranton,” he said hesitatingly.
“I reckon,” responded the stranger slowly. “That’s the name I allus bore, and you called yourself Farendell. Well, we ain’t seen each other sens the spring o’ ’50, when ye left me lying nigh petered out with chills and fever on the Stanislaus River, and sold the claim that me and Duffy worked under our very feet, and skedaddled for ’Frisco!”
“I only exercised my right as principal owner, and to secure my advances,” began the late Mr. Farendell sharply.
But again the thin hand was raised, this time with a slow, scornful waiving of any explanations. “It ain’t that in partickler that I’ve kem to see ye for to-night,” said the stranger slowly, “nor it ain’t about your takin’ the name o’ ‘Farendell,’ that friend o’ yours who died on the passage here with ye, and whose papers ye borrowed! Nor it ain’t on account o’ that wife of yours ye left behind in Missouri, and whose letters you never answered. It’s them things all together—and suthin’ else!”
“What the d—l do you want, then?” said Farendell, with a desperate directness that was, however, a tacit confession of the truth of these accusations.
“Yer allowin’ that ye’ll get married tomorrow?” said Scranton slowly.
“Yes, and be d——d to you,” said Farendell fiercely.
“Yer not,” returned Scranton. “Not if I knows it. Yer goin’ to climb down. Yer goin’ to get up and get! Yer goin’ to step down and out! Yer goin’ to shut up your desk and your books and this hull consarn inside of an hour, and vamose the ranch. Arter an hour from now thar won’t be any Mr. Farendell, and no weddin’ to-morrow.”
“If that’s your game—perhaps you’d like to murder me at once?” said Farendell with a shifting eye, as his hand again moved towards his revolver.
But again the thin hand of the stranger was also lifted. “We ain’t in the business o’ murderin’ or bein’ murdered, or we might hev kem here together, me and Duffy. Now if anything happens to me Duffy will be left, and he’s got the proofs.”
Farendell seemed to recognize the fact with the same directness. “That’s it, is it?” he said bluntly. “Well, how much do you want? Only, I warn you that I haven’t much to give.”
“Wotever you’ve got, if it was millions, it ain’t enough to buy us up, and ye ought to know that by this time,” responded Scranton, with a momentary flash in his eyes. But the next moment his previous passionless deliberation returned, and leaning his arm on the desk of the man before him he picked up a paperweight carelessly and turned it over as he said slowly, “The fact is, Mr. Farendell, you’ve been making us, me and Duffy, tired. We’ve bin watchin’ you and your doin’s, lyin’ low and sayin’ nothin’, till we concluded that it was about time you handed in your checks and left the board. We ain’t wanted nothin’ of ye, we ain’t begrudged ye nothin’, but we’ve allowed that this yer thing must stop.”
“And what if I refuse?” said Farendell.
“Thar’ll be some cussin’ and a big row from you, I kalkilate—and maybe some fightin’ all round,” said Scranton dispassionately. “But it will be all the same in the end. The hull thing will come out, and you’ll hev to slide just the same. T’otherwise, ef ye slide out now, it’s without a row.”
“And do you suppose a business man like me can disappear without a fuss over it?” said Farendell angrily. “Are you mad?”
“I reckon the hole you’ll make kin be filled up,” said Scranton dryly. “But ef ye go now, you won’t be bothered by the fuss, while if you stay you’ll have to face the music, and go too!”
Farendell was silent. Possibly the truth of this had long since been borne upon him. No one but himself knew the incessant strain of these years of evasion and concealment, and how he often had been near to some such desperate culmination. The sacrifice offered to him was not, therefore, so great as it might have seemed. The knowledge of this might have given him a momentary superiority over his antagonist had Scranton’s motive been a purely selfish or malignant one, but as it was not, and as he may have had some instinctive idea of Farendell’s feeling also, it made his ultimatum appear the more passionless and fateful. And it was this quality which perhaps caused Farendell to burst out with desperate abruptness,—
“What in h-ll ever put you up to this!”
Scranton folded his arms upon Farendell’s desk, and slowly wiping his clean jaw with one hand, repeated deliberately, “Wall—I reckon I told ye that before! You’ve been making us—me and Duffy—tired!” He paused for a moment, and then, rising abruptly, with a careless gesture towards the uncovered tray of gold, said, “Come! ye kin take enuff o’ that to get away with; the less ye take, though, the less likely you’ll be to be followed!”
He went to the door, unlocked and opened it. A strange light, as of a lurid storm interspersed by sheet-like lightning, filled the outer darkness, and the silence was now broken by dull crashes and nearer cries and shouting. A few figures were also dimly flitting around the neighboring empty offices, some of which, like Farendell’s, had been entered by their now alarmed owners.
“You’ve got a good chance now,” continued Scranton; “ye couldn’t hev a better. It’s a big fire—a scorcher—and jest the time for a man to wipe himself out and not be missed. Make tracks where the crowd is thickest and whar ye’re likely to be seen, ez ef ye were helpin’! Ther’ ’ll be other men missed tomorrow beside you,” he added with grim significance; “but nobody’ll know that you was one who really got away.”
Where the imperturbable logic of the strange man might have failed, the noise, the tumult, the suggestion of swift-coming disaster, and the necessity for some immediate action of any kind, was convincing. Farendell hastily stuffed his pockets with gold and the papers he had found, and moved to the door. Already he fancied he felt the hot breath of the leaping conflagration beyond. “And you?” he said, turning suspiciously to Scranton.
“When you’re shut of this and clean off, I’ll fix things and leave too—but not before. I reckon,” he added grimly, with a glance at the sky, now streaming with sparks like a meteoric shower, “thar won’t be much left here in the morning.”
A few dull embers pattered on the iron roof of the low building and bounded off in ashes. Farendell cast a final glance around him, and then darted from the building. The iron door clanged behind him—he was gone.
Evidently not too soon, for the other buildings were already deserted by their would-be salvors, who had filled the streets with piles of books and valuables waiting to be carried away. Then occurred a terrible phenomenon, which had once before in such disasters paralyzed the efforts of the firemen. A large wooden warehouse in the centre of the block of offices, many hundred feet from the scene of active conflagration—which had hitherto remained intact—suddenly became enveloped in clouds of smoke, and without warning burst as suddenly from roof and upper story into vivid flame. There were eye-witnesses who declared that a stream of living fire seemed to leap upon it from the burning district, and connected the space between them with an arch of luminous heat. In another instant the whole district was involved in a whirlwind of smoke and flame, out of whose seething vortex the corrugated iron buildings occasionally showed their shriveling or glowing outlines. And then the fire swept on and away.
When the sun again arose over the panic-stricken and devastated city, all personal incident and disaster was forgotten in the larger calamity. It was two or three days before the full particulars could be gathered—even while the dominant and resistless energy of the people was erecting new buildings upon the still-smoking ruins. It was only on the third day afterwards that James Farendell, on the deck of a coasting steamer, creeping out through the fogs of the Golden Gate, read the latest news in a San Francisco paper brought by the pilot. As he hurriedly comprehended the magnitude of the loss, which was far beyond his previous conception, he experienced a certain satisfaction in finding his position no worse materially than that of many of his fellow workers. They were ruined like himself; they must begin their life afresh—but then! Ah! there was still that terrible difference. He drew his breath quickly, and read on. Suddenly he stopped, transfixed by a later paragraph. For an instant he failed to grasp its full significance. Then he read it again, the words imprinting themselves on his senses with a slow deliberation that seemed to him as passionless as Scranton’s utterances on that fateful night.
“The loss of life, it is now feared, is much greater than at first imagined. To the list that has been already published we must add the name of James Farendell, the energetic contractor so well known to our citizens, who was missing the morning after the fire. His calcined remains were found this afternoon in the warped and twisted iron shell of his counting-house, the wooden frame having been reduced to charcoal in the intense heat. The unfortunate man seems to have gone there to remove his books and papers,—as was evidenced by the iron safe being found open,—but to have been caught and imprisoned in the building through the heat causing the metal sheathing to hermetically seal the doors and windows. He was seen by some neighbors to enter the building while the fire was still distant, and his remains were identified by his keys, which were found beneath him. A poignant interest is added to his untimely fate by the circumstance that he was to have been married on the following day to the widow of his late partner, and that he had, at the call of duty, that very evening left a dinner party given to celebrate the last day of his bachelorhood—or, as it has indeed proved, of his earthly existence. Two families are thus placed in mourning, and it is a singular sequel that by this untoward calamity the well-known firm of Farendell & Cutler may be said to have ceased to exist.”
Mr. Farendell started to his feet. But a lurch of the schooner as she rose on the long swell of the Pacific sent him staggering dizzily back to his seat, and checked his first wild impulse to return. He saw it all now,—the fire had avenged him by wiping out his persecutor, Scranton, but in the eyes of his contemporaries it had only erased him! He might return to refute the story in his own person, but the dead man’s partner still lived with his secret, and his own rehabilitation could only revive his former peril.
For the late Mr. Farendell had suffered some change of mind with his other mutations. He had been singularly lucky. The schooner in which he had escaped brought him to Acapulco, where, as a returning Californian, and a presumably successful one, his services and experience were eagerly sought by an English party engaged in developing certain disused Mexican mines. As the post, however, was perilously near the route of regular emigration, as soon as he had gained a sufficient sum he embarked with some goods to Callao, where he presently established himself in business, resuming his real name—the unambitious but indistinctive one of “Smith.” It is highly probable that this prudential act was also his first step towards rectitude. For whether the change was a question of moral ethics, or merely a superstitious essay in luck, he was thereafter strictly honest in business. He became prosperous. He had been sustained in his flight by the intention that, if he were successful elsewhere, he would endeavor to communicate with his abandoned fiancee, and ask her to join him, and share not his name but fortune in exile. But as he grew rich, the difficulties of carrying out this intention became more apparent; he was by no means certain of her loyalty surviving the deceit he had practiced and the revelation he would have to make; he was doubtful of the success of any story which at other times he would have glibly invented to take the place of truth. Already several months had elapsed since his supposed death; could he expect her to be less accessible to premature advances now than when she had been a widow? Perhaps this made him think of the wife he had deserted so long ago. He had been quite content to live without regret or affection, forgetting and forgotten, but in his present prosperity he felt there was some need of putting his domestic affairs into a more secure and legitimate shape, to avert any catastrophe like the last. Here at least would be no difficulty; husbands had deserted their wives before this in Californian emigration, and had been heard of only after they had made their fortune. Any plausible story would be accepted by her in the joy of his reappearance; or if, indeed, as he reflected with equal complacency, she was dead or divorced from him through his desertion—a sufficient cause in her own State—and re-married, he would at least be more secure. He began, without committing himself, by inquiry and anonymous correspondence. His wife, he learnt, had left Missouri for Sacramento only a month or two after his own disappearance from that place, and her address was unknown!
A complication so unlooked for disquieted him, and yet whetted his curiosity. The only person she might meet in California who could possibly identify him with the late Mr. Farendell was Duffy; he had often wondered if that mysterious partner of Scranton’s had been deceived with the others, or had ever suspected that the body discovered in the counting-house was Scranton’s. If not, he must have accepted the strange coincidence that Scranton had disappeared also the same night. In the first six months of his exile he had searched the Californian papers thoroughly, but had found no record of any doubt having been thrown on the accepted belief. It was these circumstances, and perhaps a vague fascination not unlike that which impels the malefactor to haunt the scene of his crime, that, at the end of four years, had brought him, a man of middle age and assured occupation and fortune, back to the city he had fled from.
A few days at one of the new hotels convinced him thoroughly that he was in no danger of recognition, and gave him the assurance to take rooms more in keeping with his circumstances and his own frankly avowed position as the head of a South American house. A cautious acquaintance—through the agency of his banker—with a few business men gave him some occupation, and the fact of his South American letters being addressed to Don Diego Smith gave a foreign flavor to his individuality, which his tanned face and dark beard had materially helped. A stronger test convinced him how complete was the obliteration of his former identity. One day at the bank he was startled at being introduced by the manager to a man whom he at once recognized as a former business acquaintance. But the shock was his alone; the formal approach and unfamiliar manner of the man showed that he had failed to recognize even a resemblance. But would he equally escape detection by his wife if he met her as accidentally,—an encounter not to be thought of until he knew something more of her? He became more cautious in going to public places, but luckily for him the proportion of women to men was still small in California, and they were more observed than observing.
A month elapsed; in that time he had thoroughly exhausted the local Directories in his cautious researches among the “Smiths,” for in his fear of precipitating a premature disclosure he had given up his former anonymous advertising. And there was a certain occupation in this personal quest that filled his business time. He was in no hurry. He had a singular faith that he would eventually discover her whereabouts, be able to make all necessary inquiries into her conduct and habits, and perhaps even enjoy a brief season of unsuspected personal observation before revealing himself. And this faith was as singularly rewarded.
Having occasion to get his watch repaired one day he entered a large jeweler’s shop, and while waiting its examination his attention was attracted by an ordinary old-fashioned daguerreotype case in the form of a heart-shaped locket lying on the counter with other articles left for repairs. Something in its appearance touched a chord in his memory; he lifted the half-opened case and saw a much faded daguerreotype portrait of himself taken in Missouri before he left in the Californian emigration. He recognized it at once as one he had given to his wife; the faded likeness was so little like his present self that he boldly examined it and asked the jeweler one or two questions. The man was communicative. Yes, it was an old-fashioned affair which had been left for repairs a few days ago by a lady whose name and address, written by herself, were on the card tied to it.
Mr. James Smith had by this time fully controlled the emotion he felt as he recognized his wife’s name and handwriting, and knew that at last the clue was found! He laid down the case carelessly, gave the final directions for the repairs of his watch, and left the shop. The address, of which he had taken a mental note, was, to his surprise, very near his own lodgings; but he went straight home. Here a few inquiries of his janitor elicited the information that the building indicated in the address was a large one of furnished apartments and offices like his own, and that the “Mrs. Smith” must be simply the housekeeper of the landlord, whose name appeared in the Directory, but not her own. Yet he waited until evening before he ventured to reconnoitre the premises; with the possession of his clue came a slight cooling of his ardor and extreme caution in his further proceedings. The house—a reconstructed wooden building—offered no external indication of the rooms she occupied in the uniformly curtained windows that front the street. Yet he felt an odd and pleasurable excitement in passing once or twice before those walls that hid the goal of his quest. As yet he had not seen her, and there was naturally the added zest of expectation. He noticed that there was a new building opposite, with vacant offices to let. A project suddenly occurred to him, which by morning he had fully matured. He hired a front room in the first floor of the new building, had it hurriedly furnished as a private office, and on the second morning of his discovery was installed behind his desk at the window commanding a full view of the opposite house. There was nothing strange in the South American capitalist selecting a private office in so popular a locality.
Two or three days elapsed without any result from his espionage. He came to know by sight the various tenants, the two Chinese servants, and the solitary Irish housemaid, but as yet had no glimpse of the housekeeper. She evidently led a secluded life among her duties; it occurred to him that perhaps she went out, possibly to market, earlier than he came, or later, after he had left the office. In this belief he arrived one morning after an early walk in a smart spring shower, the lingering straggler of the winter rains. There were few people astir, yet he had been preceded for two or three blocks by a tall woman whose umbrella partly concealed her head and shoulders from view. He had noticed, however, even in his abstraction, that she walked well, and managed the lifting of her skirt over her trim ankles and well-booted feet with some grace and cleverness. Yet it was only on her unexpectedly turning the corner of his own street that he became interested. She continued on until within a few doors of his office, when she stopped to give an order to a tradesman, who was just taking down his shutters. He heard her voice distinctly; in the quick emotion it gave him he brushed hurriedly past her without lifting his eyes. Gaining his own doorway he rushed upstairs to his office, hastily unlocked it, and ran to the window. The lady was already crossing the street. He saw her pause before the door of the opposite house, open it with a latchkey, and caught a full view of her profile in the single moment that she turned to furl her umbrella and enter. It was his wife’s voice he had heard; it was his wife’s face that he had seen in profile.
Yet she was changed from the lanky young schoolgirl he had wedded ten years ago, or, at least, compared to what his recollection of her had been. Had he ever seen her as she really was? Surely somewhere in that timid, freckled, half-grown bride he had known in the first year of their marriage the germ of this self-possessed, matured woman was hidden. There was the tone of her voice; he had never recalled it before as a lover might, yet now it touched him; her profile he certainly remembered, but not with the feeling it now produced in him. Would he have ever abandoned her had she been like that? Or had he changed, and was this no longer his old self?—perhaps even a self she would never recognize again? James Smith had the superstitions of a gambler, and that vague idea of fate that comes to weak men; a sudden fright seized him, and he half withdrew from the window lest she should observe him, recognize him, and by some act precipitate that fate.
By lingering beyond the usual hour for his departure he saw her again, and had even a full view of her face as she crossed the street. The years had certainly improved her; he wondered with a certain nervousness if she would think they had done the same for him. The complacency with which he had at first contemplated her probable joy at recovering him had become seriously shaken since he had seen her; a woman as well preserved and good-looking as that, holding a certain responsible and, no doubt, lucrative position, must have many admirers and be independent. He longed to tell her now of his fortune, and yet shrank from the test its exposure implied. He waited for her return until darkness had gathered, and then went back to his lodgings a little chagrined and ill at ease. It was rather late for her to be out alone! After all, what did he know of her habits or associations? He recalled the freedom of Californian life, and the old scandals relating to the lapses of many women who had previously led blameless lives in the Atlantic States. Clearly it behooved him to be cautious. Yet he walked late that night before the house again, eager to see if she had returned, and with whom? He was restricted in his eagerness by the fear of detection, but he gathered very little knowledge of her habits; singularly enough nobody seemed to care. A little piqued at this, he began to wonder if he were not thinking too much of this woman to whom he still hesitated to reveal himself. Nevertheless, he found himself that night again wandering around the house, and even watching with some anxiety the shadow which he believed to be hers on the window-blind of the room where he had by discreet inquiry located her. Whether his memory was stimulated by his quest he never knew, but presently he was able to recall step by step and incident by incident his early courtship of her and the brief days of their married life. He even remembered the day she accepted him, and even dwelt upon it with a sentimental thrill that he probably never felt at the time, and it was a distinct feature of his extraordinary state of mind and its concentration upon this particular subject that he presently began to look upon himself as the abandoned and deserted conjugal partner, and to nurse a feeling of deep injury at her hands! The fact that he was thinking of her, and she, probably, contented with her lot, was undisturbed by any memory of him, seemed to him a logical deduction of his superior affection.
It was, therefore, quite as much in the attitude of a reproachful and avenging husband as of a merely curious one that, one afternoon, seeing her issue from her house at an early hour, he slipped down the stairs and began to follow her at a secure distance. She turned into the principal thoroughfare, and presently made one of the crowd who were entering a popular place of amusement where there was an afternoon performance. So complete was his selfish hallucination, that he smiled bitterly at this proof of heartless indifference, and even so far overcame his previous caution as to actually brush by her somewhat rudely as he entered the building at the same moment. He was conscious that she lifted her eyes a little impatiently to the face of the awkward stranger; he was equally, but more bitterly, conscious that she had not recognized him! He dropped into a seat behind her; she did not look at him again with even a sense of disturbance; the momentary contact had evidently left no impression upon her. She glanced casually at her neighbors on either side, and presently became absorbed in the performance. When it was over she rose, and on her way out recognized and exchanged a few words with one or two acquaintances. Again he heard her familiar voice, almost at his elbow, raised with no more consciousness of her contiguity to him than if he were a mere ghost. The thought struck him for the first time with a hideous and appalling significance. What was he but a ghost to her—to every one! A man dead, buried, and forgotten! His vanity and self-complacency vanished before this crushing realization of the hopelessness of his existence. Dazed and bewildered, he mingled blindly and blunderingly with the departing crowd, tossed here and there as if he were an invisible presence, stumbling over the impeding skirts of women with a vague apology they heeded not, and which seemed in his frightened ears as hollow as a voice from the grave.
When he at last reached the street he did not look back, but wandered abstractedly through by-streets in the falling rain, scarcely realizing where he was, until he found himself drenched through, with his closed umbrella in his tremulous hand, standing at the half-submerged levee beside the overflowed river. Here again he realized how completely he had been absorbed and concentrated in his search for his wife during the last three weeks; he had never been on the levee since his arrival. He had taken no note of the excitement of the citizens over the alarming reports of terrible floods in the mountains, and the daily and hourly fear that they experienced of disastrous inundation from the surcharged river. He had never thought of it, yet he had read of it, and even talked, and yet now for the first time in his selfish, blind absorption was certain of it. He stood still for some time, watching doggedly the enormous yellow stream laboring with its burden and drift from many a mountain town and camp, moving steadily and fatefully towards the distant bay, and still more distant and inevitable ocean. For a few moments it vaguely fascinated and diverted him; then it as vaguely lent itself to his one dominant, haunting thought. Yes, it was pointing him the only way out,—the path to the distant ocean and utter forgetfulness again!
The chill of his saturated clothing brought him to himself once more, he turned and hurried home. He went tiredly to his bedroom, and while changing his garments there came a knock at the door. It was the porter to say that a lady had called, and was waiting for him in the sitting-room. She had not given her name.
The closed door prevented the servant from seeing the extraordinary effect produced by this simple announcement upon the tenant. For one instant James Smith remained spellbound in his chair. It was characteristic of his weak nature and singular prepossession that he passed in an instant from the extreme of doubt to the extreme of certainty and conviction. It was his wife! She had recognized him in that moment of encounter at the entertainment; had found his address, and had followed him here! He dressed himself with feverish haste, not, however, without a certain care of his appearance and some selection of apparel, and quickly forecast the forthcoming interview in his mind. For the pendulum had swung back; Mr. James Smith was once more the self-satisfied, selfcomplacent, and discreetly cautious husband that he had been at the beginning of his quest, perhaps with a certain sense of grievance superadded. He should require the fullest explanations and guarantees before committing himself,—indeed, her present call might be an advance that it would be necessary for him to check. He even pictured her pleading at his feet; a very little stronger effort of his Alnaschar imagination would have made him reject her like the fatuous Persian glass peddler.
He opened the door of the sitting-room deliberately, and walked in with a certain formal precision. But the figure of a woman arose from the sofa, and with a slight outcry, half playful, half hysterical, threw herself upon his breast with the single exclamation, “Jim!” He started back from the double shock. For the woman was not his wife! A woman extravagantly dressed, still young, but bearing, even through her artificially heightened color, a face worn with excitement, excess, and premature age. Yet a face that as he disengaged himself from her arms grew upon him with a terrible recognition, a face that he had once thought pretty, inexperienced, and innocent,—the face of the widow of his former partner, Cutler, the woman he was to have married on the day he fled. The bitter revulsion of feeling and astonishment was evidently visible in his face, for she, too, drew back for a moment as they separated. But she had evidently been prepared, if not pathetically inured to such experiences. She dropped into a chair again with a dry laugh, and a hard metallic voice, as she said,—
“Well, it’s you, anyway—and you can’t get out of it.”
As he still stared at her, in her inconsistent finery, draggled and wet by the storm, at her limp ribbons and ostentatious jewelry, she continued, in the same hard voice,—
“I thought I spotted you once or twice before; but you took no notice of me, and I reckoned I was mistaken. But this afternoon at the Temple of Music”—
“Where?” said James Smith harshly.
“At the Temple—the San Francisco Troupe performance—where you brushed by me, and I heard your voice saying, ‘Beg pardon!’ I says, ‘That’s Jim Farendell.’”
“Farendell!” burst out James Smith, half in simulated astonishment, half in real alarm.
“Well! Smith, then, if you like better,” said the woman impatiently; “though it’s about the sickest and most played-out dodge of a name you could have pitched upon. James Smith, Don Diego Smith!” she repeated, with a hysteric laugh. “Why, it beats the nigger minstrels all hollow! Well, when I saw you there, I said, ‘That’s Jim Farendell, or his twin brother;’ I didn’t say ‘his ghost,’ mind you; for, from the beginning, even before I knew it all, I never took any stock in that fool yarn about your burnt bones being found in your office.”
“Knew all, knew what?” demanded the man, with a bravado which he nevertheless felt was hopeless.
She rose, crossed the room, and, standing before him, placed one hand upon her hip as she looked at him with half-pitying effrontery.
“Look here, Jim,” she began slowly, “do you know what you’re doing? Well, you’re making me tired!” In spite of himself, a halfsuperstitious thrill went through him as her words and attitude recalled the dead Scranton. “Do you suppose that I don’t know that you ran away the night of the fire? Do you suppose that I don’t know that you were next to ruined that night, and that you took that opportunity of skedaddling out of the country with all the money you had left, and leaving folks to imagine you were burnt up with the books you had falsified and the accounts you had doctored! It was a mean thing for you to do to me, Jim, for I loved you then, and would have been fool enough to run off with you if you’d told me all, and not left me to find out that you had lost my money—every cent Cutler had left me in the business—with the rest.”
With the fatuousness of a weak man cornered, he clung to unimportant details. “But the body was believed to be mine by every one,” he stammered angrily. “My papers and books were burnt,—there was no evidence.”
“And why was there not?” she said witheringly, staring doggedly in his face. “Because I stopped it! Because when I knew those bones and rags shut up in that office weren’t yours, and was beginning to make a row about it, a strange man came to me and said they were the remains of a friend of his who knew your bankruptcy and had come that night to warn you,—a man whom you had half ruined once, a man who had probably lost his life in helping you away. He said if I went on making a fuss he’d come out with the whole truth—how you were a thief and a forger, and”—she stopped.
“And what else?” he asked desperately, dreading to hear his wife’s name next fall from her lips.
“And that—as it could be proved that his friend knew your secrets,” she went on in a frightened, embarrassed voice, “you might be accused of making away with him.”
For a moment James Smith was appalled; he had never thought of this. As in all his past villainy he was too cowardly to contemplate murder, he was frightened at the mere accusation of it. “But,” he stammered, forgetful of all save this new terror, “he knew I wouldn’t be such a fool, for the man himself told me Duffy had the papers, and killing him wouldn’t have helped me.”
Mrs. Cutler stared at him a moment searchingly, and then turned wearily away. “Well,” she said, sinking into her chair again, “he said if I’d shut my mouth he’d shut his—and—I did. And this,” she added, throwing her hands from her lap, a gesture half of reproach and half of contempt,—“this is what I get for it.”
More frightened than touched by the woman’s desperation, James Smith stammered a vague apologetic disclaimer, even while he was loathing with a revulsion new to him her draggled finery, her still more faded beauty, and the half-distinct consciousness of guilt that linked her to him. But she waved it away, a weary gesture that again reminded him of the dead Scranton.
“Of course I ain’t what I was, but who’s to blame for it? When you left me alone without a cent, face to face with a lie, I had to do something. I wasn’t brought up to work; I like good clothes, and you know it better than anybody. I ain’t one of your stage heroines that go out as dependants and governesses and die of consumption, but I thought,” she went on with a shrill, hysterical laugh, more painful than the weariness which inevitably followed it, “I thought I might train myself to do it, on the stage! and I joined Barker’s Company. They said I had a face and figure for the stage; that face and figure wore out before I had anything more to show, and I wasn’t big enough to make better terms with the manager. They kept me nearly a year doing chambermaids and fairy queens the other side of the footlights, where I saw you today. Then I kicked! I suppose I might have married some fool for his money, but I was soft enough to think you might be sending for me when you were safe. You seem to be mighty comfortable here,” she continued, with a bitter glance around his handsomely furnished room, “as ‘Don Diego Smith.’ I reckon skedaddling pays better than staying behind.”
“I have only been here a few weeks,” he said hurriedly. “I never knew what had become of you, or that you were still here”—
“Or you wouldn’t have come,” she interrupted, with a bitter laugh. “Speak out, Jim.”
“If there—is anything—I can do—for you,” he stammered, “I’m sure”—
“Anything you can do?” she repeated, slowly and scornfully. “Anything you can do now? Yes!” she screamed, suddenly rising, crossing the room, and grasping his arms convulsively. “Yes! Take me away from here—anywhere—at once! Look, Jim,” she went on feverishly, “let bygones be bygones—I won’t peach! I won’t tell on you—though I had it in my heart when you gave me the go-by just now! I’ll do anything you say—go to your farthest hiding-place—work for you—only take me out of this cursed place.”
Her passionate pleading stung even through his selfishness and loathing. He thought of his wife’s indifference! Yes, he might be driven to this, and at least he must secure the only witness against his previous misconduct. “We will see,” he said soothingly, gently loosening her hands. “We must talk it over.” He stopped as his old suspiciousness returned. “But you must have some friends,” he said searchingly, “some one who has helped you.”
“None! Only one—he helped me at first,” she hesitated—“Duffy.”
“Duffy!” said James Smith, recoiling.
“Yes, when he had to tell me all,” she said in half-frightened tones, “he was sorry for me. Listen, Jim! He was a square man, for all he was devoted to his partner—and you can’t blame him for that. I think he helped me because I was alone; for nothing else, Jim. I swear it! He helped me from time to time. Maybe he might have wanted to marry me if he had not been waiting for another woman that he loved, a married woman that had been deserted years ago by her husband, just as you might have deserted me if we’d been married that day. He helped her and paid for her journey here to seek her husband, and set her up in business.”
“What are you talking about—what woman?” stammered James Smith, with a strange presentiment creeping over him.
“A Mrs. Smith. Yes,” she said quickly, as he started, “not a sham name like yours, but really and truly Smith—that was her husband’s name! I’m not lying, Jim,” she went on, evidently mistaking the cause of the sudden contraction of the man’s face. “I didn’t invent her nor her name; there is such a woman, and Duffy loves her—and her only, and he never, never was anything more than a friend to me. I swear it!”
The room seemed to swim around him. She was staring at him, but he could see in her vacant eyes that she had no conception of his secret, nor knew the extent of her revelation. Duffy had not dared to tell all! He burst into a coarse laugh. “What matters Duffy or the silly woman he’d try to steal away from other men.”
“But he didn’t try to steal her, and she’s only silly because she wants to be true to her husband while he lives. She told Duffy she’d never marry him until she saw her husband’s dead face. More fool she,” she added bitterly.
“Until she saw her husband’s dead face,” was all that James Smith heard of this speech. His wife’s faithfulness through years of desertion, her long waiting and truthfulness, even the bitter commentary of the equally injured woman before him, were to him as nothing to what that single sentence conjured up. He laughed again, but this time strangely and vacantly. “Enough of this Duffy and his intrusion in my affairs until I’m able to settle my account with him. Come,” he added brusquely, “if we are going to cut out of this at once I’ve got much to do. Come here again to-morrow, early. This Duffy—does he live here?”
“No. In Marysville.”
“Good! Come early to-morrow.”
As she seemed to hesitate, he opened a drawer of his table and took out a handful of gold, and handed it to her. She glanced at it for a moment with a strange expression, put it mechanically in her pocket, and then looking up at him said, with a forced laugh, “I suppose that means I am to clear out?”
“Until to-morrow,” he said shortly.
“If the Sacramento don’t sweep us away before then,” she interrupted, with a reckless laugh; “the river’s broken through the levee—a clear sweep in two places. Where I live the water’s up to the doorstep. They say it’s going to be the biggest flood yet. You’re all right here; you’re on higher ground.”
She seemed to utter these sentences abstractedly, disconnectedly, as if to gain time. He made an impatient gesture.
“All right, I’m going,” she said, compressing her lips slowly to keep them from trembling. “You haven’t forgotten anything?” As he turned half angrily towards her she added, hurriedly and bitterly, “Anything—for to-morrow?”
She opened the door and passed out. He listened until the trail of her wet skirt had descended the stairs, and the street door had closed behind her. Then he went back to his table and began collecting his papers and putting them away in his trunks, which he packed feverishly, yet with a set and determined face. He wrote one or two letters, which he sealed and left upon his table. He then went to his bedroom and deliberately shaved off his disguising beard. Had he not been so preoccupied in one thought, he might have been conscious of loud voices in the street and a hurrying of feet on the wet sidewalk. But he was possessed by only one idea. He must see his wife that evening! How, he knew not yet, but the way would appear when he had reached his office in the building opposite hers. Three hours had elapsed before he had finished his preparations. On going downstairs he stopped to give some directions to the porter, but his room was empty; passing into the street he was surprised to find it quite deserted, and the shops closed; even a drinking saloon at the corner was quite empty. He turned the corner of the street, and began the slight descent towards his office. To his amazement the lower end of the street, which was crossed by the thoroughfare which was his destination, was blocked by a crowd of people. As he hurried forward to join them he suddenly saw, moving down that thoroughfare, what appeared to his startled eyes to be the smokestacks of some small, flatbottomed steamer. He rubbed his eyes; it was no illusion, for the next moment he had reached the crowd, who were standing half a block away from the thoroughfare, and on the edge of a lagoon of yellow water, whose main current was the thoroughfare he was seeking, and between whose houses, submerged to their first stories, a steamboat was really paddling. Other boats and rafts were adrift on its sluggish waters, and a boatman had just landed a passenger in the backwater of the lower half of the street on which he stood with the crowd.
Possessed of his one idea, he fought his way desperately to the water edge and the boat, and demanded a passage to his office. The boatman hesitated, but James Smith promptly offered him double the value of his craft. The act was not deemed singular in that extravagant epoch, and the sympathizing crowd cheered his solitary departure, as he declined even the services of the boatman. The next moment he was off in mid-stream of the thoroughfare, paddling his boat with a desperate but inexperienced hand until he reached his office, which he entered by the window. The building, which was new and of brick, showed very little damage from the flood, but in far different case was the one opposite, on which his eyes were eagerly bent, and whose cheap and insecure foundations he could see the flood was already undermining. There were boats around the house, and men hurriedly removing trunks and valuables, but the one figure he expected to see was not there. He tied his own boat to the window; there was evidently no chance of an interview now, but if she were leaving there would be still the chance of following her and knowing her destination. As he gazed she suddenly appeared at a window, and was helped by a boatman into a flat-bottomed barge containing trunks and furniture. She was evidently the last to leave. The other boats put off at once, and none too soon; for there was a warning cry, a quick swerving of the barge, and the end of the dwelling slowly dropped into the flood, seeming to sink on its knees like a stricken ox. A great undulation of yellow water swept across the street, inundating his office through the open window and half swamping his boat beside it. At the same time he could see that the current had changed and increased in volume and velocity, and, from the cries and warning of the boatmen, he knew that the river had burst its banks at its upper bend. He had barely time to leap into his boat and cast it off before there was a foot of water on his floor.
But the new current was carrying the boats away from the higher level, which they had been eagerly seeking, and towards the channel of the swollen river. The barge was first to feel its influence, and was hurried towards the river against the strongest efforts of its boatmen. One by one the other and smaller boats contrived to get into the slack water of crossing streets, and one was swamped before his eyes. But James Smith kept only the barge in view. His difficulty in following it was increased by his inexperience in managing a boat, and the quantity of drift which now charged the current. Trees torn by their roots from some upland bank; sheds, logs, timber, and the bloated carcasses of cattle choked the stream. All the ruin worked by the flood seemed to be compressed in this disastrous current. Once or twice he narrowly escaped collision with a heavy beam or the bed of some farmer’s wagon. Once he was swamped by a tree, and righted his frail boat while clinging to its branches.
And then those who watched him from the barge and shore said afterwards that a great apathy seemed to fall upon him. He no longer attempted to guide the boat or struggle with the drift, but sat in the stern with intent forward gaze and motionless paddles. Once they strove to warn him, called to him to make an effort to reach the barge, and did what they could, in spite of their own peril, to alter their course and help him. But he neither answered nor heeded them. And then suddenly a great log that they had just escaped seemed to rise up under the keel of his boat, and it was gone. After a moment his face and head appeared above the current, and so close to the stern of the barge that there was a slight cry from the woman in it, but the next moment, and before the boatman could reach him, he was drawn under it and disappeared. They lay on their oars eagerly watching, but the body of James Smith was sucked under the barge, and, in the mid-channel of the great river, was carried out towards the distant sea.