She bounded down the stairs and into the front parlor, for their house possessed the unheard-of luxury of a double drawing-room, albeit the second apartment contained a desk, and was occasionally used by Cissy’s father in private business interviews with anxious seekers of “advances” who shunned the publicity of the bank. Here she instantly flew into the arms of her bosom friend, Miss Piney Tibbs, a girl only a shade or two less pretty than herself, who, always more or less ill at ease in these splendors, was awaiting her impatiently. For Miss Tibbs was merely the daughter of the hotel-keeper; and although Tibbs was a Southerner, and had owned “his own niggers” in the States, she was of inferior position and a protegee of Cissy’s.
“Thank goodness you’ve come,” exclaimed Miss Tibbs, “for I’ve bin sittin’ here till I nigh took root. What kep’ ye?”
“How does it look?” responded Cissy, as a relevant reply.
The “it” referred to Cissy’s new hat, and to the young girl the coherence was perfectly plain. Miss Tibbs looked at “it” severely. It would not do for a protegee to be too complaisant.
“Hem! Must have cost a heap o’ money.”
“It did! Came from the best milliner in San Francisco.”
“Of course,” said Piney, with half assumed envy. “When your popper runs the bank and just wallows in gold!”
“Never mind, dear,” replied Cissy cheerfully. “So’ll your popper some day. I’m goin’ to get mine to let your popper into something—Ditch stocks and such. Yes! True, O King! Popper’ll do anything for me,” she added a little loftily.
Loyal as Piney was to her friend, she was by no means convinced of this. She knew the difference between the two men, and had a vivid recollection of hearing her own father express his opinion of Cissy’s respected parent as a “Gold Shark” and “Quartz Miner Crusher.” It did not, however, affect her friendship for Cissy. She only said, “Let’s come!” caught Cissy around the waist, pranced with her out into the veranda, and gasped, out of breath, “Where are we goin’ first?”
“Down Main Street,” said Cissy promptly.
“And let’s stop at Markham’s store. They’ve got some new things in from Sacramento,” added Piney.
“Country styles,” returned Cissy, with a supercilious air. “No! Besides, Markham’s head clerk is gettin’ too presumptuous. Just guess! He asked me, while I was buyin’ something, if I enjoyed the dance last Monday!”
“But you danced with him,” said the simple Piney, in astonishment.
“But not in his store among his customers,” said Cissy sapiently. “No! we’re going down Main Street past Secamps’. Those Secamp girls are sure to be at their windows, looking out. This hat will just turn ’em green—greener than ever.”
“You’re just horrid, Ciss!” said Piney, with admiration.
“And then,” continued Cissy, “we’ll just sail down past the new block to the parson’s and make a call.”
“Oh, I see,” said Piney archly. “It’ll be just about the time when the new engineer of the mill works has a clean shirt on, and is smoking his cigyar before the office.”
Cissy tossed her hat disdainfully. “Much anybody cares whether he’s there or not! I haven’t forgotten how he showed us over the mill the other day in a pair of overalls, just like a workman.”
“But they say he’s awfully smart and well educated, and needn’t work, and I’m sure it’s very nice of him to dress just like the other men when he’s with ’em,” urged Piney.
“Bah! That was just to show that he didn’t care what we thought of him, he’s that conceited! And it wasn’t respectful, considering one of the directors was there, all dressed up. Don’t tell me! You can see it in his eye, looking you over without blinking and then turning away as if he’d got enough of you. He makes me tired.”
Piney did not reply. The engineer had seemed to her to be a singularly attractive young man, yet she was equally impressed with Cissy’s superior condition, which could find flaws in such perfection. Following her friend down the steps of the veranda, they passed into the staring graveled walk of the new garden, only recently recovered from the wild wood, its accurate diamond and heart shaped beds of vivid green set in white quartz borders giving it the appearance of elaborately iced confectionery. A few steps further brought them to the road and the wooden “sidewalk” to Main Street, which carried civic improvements to the hillside, and Mr. Trixit’s very door. Turning down this thoroughfare, they stopped laughing, and otherwise assumed a conscious half artificial air; for it was the hour when Canada City lounged listlessly before its shops, its saloons, its offices and mills, or even held lazy meetings in the dust of the roadway, and the passage down the principal street of its two prettiest girls was an event to be viewed as if it were a civic procession. Hats flew off as they passed; place was freely given; impeding barrels and sacks were removed from the wooden pavement, and preoccupied indwellers hastily summoned to the front door to do homage to Cissy Trixit and Piney as they went by. Not but that Canada City, in the fierce and unregenerate days of its youth, had seen fairer and higher colored faces, more gayly bedizened, on its thoroughfares, but never anything so fresh and innocent. Men stood there all unconsciously, reverencing their absent mothers, sisters, and daughters, in their spontaneous homage to the pair, and seemed to feel the wholesome breath of their Eastern homes wafted from the freshly ironed skirts of these foolish virgins as they rustled by. I am afraid that neither Cissy nor Piney appreciated this feeling; few women did at that time; indeed, these young ladies assumed a slight air of hauteur.
“Really, they do stare so,” said Cissy, with eyes dilating with pleasurable emotion; “we’ll have to take the back street next time!”
Piney, proud in the glory reflected from Cissy, and in her own, answered, “We will—sure!”
There was only one interruption to this triumphal progress, and that was so slight as to be noticed by only one of the two girls. As they passed the new works at the mill, the new engineer, as Piney had foreseen, was leaning against the doorpost, smoking a pipe. He took his hat from his head and his pipe from his month as they approached, and greeted them with an easy “Good-afternoon,” yet with a glance that was quietly observant and tolerantly critical.
“There!” said Cissy, when they had passed, “didn’t I tell you? Did you ever see such conceit in your born days? I hope you did not look at him.”
Piney, conscious of having done so, and of having blushed under his scrutiny, nevertheless stoutly asserted that she had merely looked at him “to see who it was.” But Cissy was placated by passing the Secamps’ cottage, from whose window the three strapping daughters of John Secamp, lately an emigrant from Missouri, were, as Cissy had surmised, lightening the household duties by gazing at the—to them—unwonted wonders of the street. Whether their complexions, still bearing traces of the alkali dust and inefficient nourishment of the plains, took a more yellow tone from the spectacle of Cissy’s hat, I cannot say. Cissy thought they did; perhaps Piney was nearer the truth when she suggested that they were only “looking” to enable them to make a home-made copy of the hat next week.
Their progress forward and through the outskirts of the town was of the same triumphal character. Teamsters withheld their oaths and their uplifted whips as the two girls passed by; weary miners, toiling in ditches, looked up with a pleasure that was half reminiscent of their past; younger skylarkers stopped in their horse-play with half smiling, half apologetic faces; more ambitious riders on the highway urged their horses to greater speed under the girls’ inspiring eyes, and “Vaquero Billy,” charging them, full tilt, brought up his mustang on its haunches and rigid forelegs, with a sweeping bow of his sombrero, within a foot of their artfully simulated terror! In this way they at last reached the clearing in the forest, the church with its ostentatious spire, and the Reverend Mr. Windibrook’s dwelling, otherwise humorously known as “The Pastorage,” where Cissy intended to call.
The Reverend Mr. Windibrook had been selected by his ecclesiastical superiors to minister to the spiritual wants of Canada City as being what was called a “hearty” man. Certainly, if considerable lung capacity, absence of reserve, and power of handshaking and back slapping were necessary to the redemption of Canada City, Mr. Windibrook’s ministration would have been successful. But, singularly enough, the rude miner was apt to resent this familiarity, and it is recorded that Isaac Wood, otherwise known as “Grizzly Woods,” once responded to a cheerful back slap from the reverend gentleman by an ostentatiously friendly hug which nearly dislocated the parson’s ribs. Perhaps Mr. Windibrook was more popular on account of his admiring enthusiasm of the prosperous money-getting members of his flock and a singular sympathy with their methods, and Mr. Trixit’s daring speculations were an especially delightful theme to him.
“Ah, Miss Trixit,” he said, as Cissy entered the little parlor, “and how is your dear father? Still startling the money market with his fearless speculations? This, brother Jones,” turning to a visitor, “is the daughter of our Napoleon of finance, Montagu Trixit. Only last week, in that deal in ‘the Comstock,’ he cleared fifty thousand dollars! Yes, sir,” repeating it with unction, “fifty—thousand—dollars!—in about two hours, and with a single stroke of the pen! I believe I am not overstating, Miss Trixit?” he added, appealing to Cissy with a portentous politeness that was as badly fitting as his previous “heartiness.”
Cissy colored slightly. “I don’t know,” she said simply. She was perfectly truthful. She knew nothing of her father’s business, except the vague reputation of his success.
Her modesty, however, produced a singular hilarity in Mr. Windibrook, and a playful push. “You don’t know? Ha, but I do. Yes, sir,”—to the visitor,—“I have reason to remember it. I called upon him the next day. I used, sir, the freedom of an old friend. ‘Trixit,’ I said, clapping my hand on his shoulder, ‘the Lord has been good to you. I congratulate you.’
“‘H’m!’ he said, without looking up. ‘What do you reckon those congratulations are worth?’
“Many a man, sir, who didn’t know his style, would have been staggered. But I knew my man. I looked him straight in the eye. ‘A new organ,’ I said, ‘and as good a one as Sacramento can turn out.’
“He took up a piece of paper, scrawled a few lines on it to his cashier, and said, ‘Will that do?’” Mr. Windibrook’s voice sank to a thrilling whisper. “It was an order for one thousand dollars! Fact, sir. That is the father of this young lady.”
“Ye had better luck than Bishop Briggs had with old Johnson, the Excelsior Bank president,” said the visitor, encouraged by Windibrook’s “heartiness” into a humorous retrospect. “Briggs goes to him for a subscription for a new fence round the buryin’-ground—the old one havin’ rotted away. ‘Ye don’t want no fence,’ sez Johnson, short like. ‘No fence round a buryin’-ground?’ sez Briggs, starin’. ‘No! Them as is in the buryin’-ground can’t get out, and them as isn’t don’t want to get in, nohow! So you kin just travel—I ain’t givin’ money away on uselessnesses!’ Ha! ha!”
A chill silence followed, which checked even Piney’s giggle. Mr. Windibrook evidently had no “heartiness” for non-subscribing humor. “There are those who can jest with sacred subjects,” he said ponderously, “but I have always found Mr. Trixit, though blunt, eminently practical. Your father is still away,” he added, shifting the conversation to Cissy, “hovering wherever he can extract the honey to store up for the provision of age. An industrious worker.”
“He’s still away,” said Cissy, feeling herself on safe ground, though she was not aware of her father’s entomological habits. “In San Francisco, I think.”
She was glad to get away from Mr. Windibrook’s “heartiness” and console herself with Mrs. Windibrook’s constitutional depression, which was partly the result of nervous dyspepsia and her husband’s boisterous cordiality. “I suppose, dear, you are dreadfully anxious about your father when he is away from home?” she said to Cissy, with a sympathetic sigh.
Cissy, conscious of never having felt a moment’s anxiety, and accustomed to his absences, replied naively, “Why?”
“Oh,” responded Mrs. Windibrook, “on account of his great business responsibilities, you know; so much depends upon him.”
Again Cissy did not comprehend; she could not understand why this masterful man, her father, who was equal to her own and, it seemed, everybody’s needs, had any responsibility, or was not as infallible and constant as the sunshine or the air she breathed. Without being his confidante, or even his associate, she had since her mother’s death no other experience; youthfully alive to the importance of their wealth, it seemed to her, however, only a natural result of being his daughter. She smiled vaguely and a little impatiently. They might have talked to her about herself; it was a little tiresome to always have to answer questions about her “popper.” Nevertheless, she availed herself of Mrs. Windibrook’s invitation to go into the garden and see the new summerhouse that had been put up among the pines, and gradually diverted her hostess’s conversation into gossip of the town. If it was somewhat lugubrious and hesitating, it was, however, a relief to Cissy, and bearing chiefly upon the vicissitudes of others, gave her the comforting glow of comparison.
Touching the complexion of the Secamp girls, Mrs. Windibrook attributed it to their great privations in the alkali desert. “One day,” continued Mrs. Windibrook, “when their father was ill with fever and ague, they drove the cattle twenty miles to water through that dreadful poisonous dust, and when they got there their lips were cracked and bleeding and their eyelids like burning knives, and Mamie Secamp’s hair, which used to be a beautiful brown like your own, my dear, was bleached into a rusty yellow.”
“And they will wear colors that don’t suit them,” said Cissy impatiently.
“Never mind, dear,” said Mrs. Windibrook ambiguously; “I suppose they will have their reward.”
Nor was the young engineer discussed in a lighter vein. “It pains me dreadfully to see that young man working with the common laborers and giving himself no rest, just because he says he wants to know exactly ‘how the thing is done’ and why the old works failed,” she remarked sadly. “When Mr. Windibrook knew he was the son of Judge Masterton and had rich relations, he wished, of course, to be civil, but somehow young Masterton and he didn’t ‘hit off.’ Indeed, Mr. Windibrook was told that he had declared that the prosperity of Canada City was only a mushroom growth, and it seems too shocking to repeat, dear, but they say he said that the new church—our church—was simply using the Almighty as a big bluff to the other towns. Of course, Mr. Windibrook couldn’t see him after that. Why, he even said your father ought to send you to school somewhere, and not let you grow up in this half civilized place.”
Strangely enough, Cissy did not hail this corroboration of her dislike to young Masterton with the liveliness one might have expected. Perhaps it was because Piney Tibbs was no longer present, having left Cissy at the parsonage and returned home. Still she enjoyed her visit after a fashion, romped with the younger Windibrooks and climbed a tree in the security of her sylvan seclusion and the promptings of her still healthy, girlish blood, and only came back to cake and tea and her new hat, which she had prudently hung up in the summer-house, as the afternoon was waning. When they returned to the house, they found that Mr. Windibrook had gone out with his visitor, and Cissy was spared the advertisement of a boisterous escort home, which he generally insisted upon. She gayly took leave of the infant Windibrook and his mother, sallied out into the empty road, and once more became conscious of her new hat.
The shadows were already lengthening, and a cool breeze stirred the deep aisles of the pines on either side of the highway. One or two people passed her hurriedly, talking and gesticulating, evidently so preoccupied that they did not notice her. Again, a rapid horseman rode by without glancing round, overtook the pedestrians, exchanged a few hurried words with them, and then spurred swiftly away as one of them shouted after him, “There’s another dispatch confirming it.” A group of men talking by the roadside failed to look up as she passed. Cissy pouted slightly at this want of taste, which made some late election news or the report of a horse race more enthralling than her new hat and its owner. Even the toilers in the ditches had left their work, and were congregated around a man who was reading aloud from a widely margined “extra” of the “Canada City Press.” It seemed provoking, as she knew her cheeks were glowing from her romp, and was conscious that she was looking her best. However, the Secamps’ cottage was just before her, and the girls were sure to be on the lookout! She shook out her skirts and straightened her pretty little figure as she approached the house. But to her surprise, her coming had evidently been anticipated by them, and they were actually—and unexpectedly—awaiting her behind the low whitewashed garden palings! As she neared them they burst into a shrill, discordant laugh, so full of irony, gratified malice, and mean exaltation that Cissy was for a moment startled. But only for a moment; she had her father’s reckless audacity, and bore them down with a display of such pink cheeks and flashing eyes that their laughter was checked, and they remained open-mouthed as she swept by them.
Perhaps this incident prevented her from noticing another but more passive one. A group of men standing before the new mill—the same men who had so solicitously challenged her attention with their bows a couple of hours ago—turned as she approached and suddenly dispersed. It was not until this was repeated by another group that its oddity forced itself upon her still angry consciousness. Then the street seemed to be full of those excited preoccupied groups who melted away as she advanced. Only one man met her curious eyes,—the engineer,—yet she missed the usual critical smile with which he was wont to greet her, and he gave her a bow of such profound respect and gravity that for the first time she felt really uneasy. Was there something wrong with her hat? That dreadful, fateful hat! Was it too conspicuous? Did he think it was vulgar? She was eager to cross the street on the next block where there were large plate-glass windows which she and Piney—if Piney were only with her now!—had often used as mirrors.
But there was a great crowd on the next block, congregated around the bank,—her father’s bank! A vague terror, she knew not what, now began to creep over her. She would have turned into a side street, but mingled with her fear was a resolution not to show it,—not to even think of it,—to combat it as she had combated the horrid laugh of the Secamp girls, and she kept her way with a beating heart but erect head, without looking across the street.
There was another crowd before the newspaper office—also on the other side—and a bulletin board, but she would not try to read it. Only one idea was in her mind,—to reach home before any one should speak to her; for the last intelligible sound that had reached her was the laugh of the Secamp girls, and this was still ringing in her ears, seeming to voice the hidden strangeness of all she saw, and stirring her, as that had, with childish indignation. She kept on with unmoved face, however, and at last turned into the planked side-terrace,—a part of her father’s munificence,—and reached the symmetrical garden-beds and graveled walk. She ran up the steps of the veranda and entered the drawing-room through the open French window. Glancing around the familiar room, at her father’s closed desk, at the open piano with the piece of music she had been practicing that morning, the whole walk seemed only a foolish dream that had frightened her. She was Cissy Trixit, the daughter of the richest man in the town! This was her father’s house, the wonder of Canada City!
A ring at the front doorbell startled her; without waiting for the servant to answer it, she stepped out on the veranda, and saw a boy whom she recognized as a waiter at the hotel kept by Piney’s father. He was holding a note in his hand, and staring intently at the house and garden. Seeing Cissy, he transferred his stare to her. Snatching the note from him, she tore it open, and read in Piney’s well-known scrawl, “Dad won’t let me come to you now, dear, but I’ll try to slip out late to-night.” Why should she want to come? She had said nothing about coming now—and why should her father prevent her? Cissy crushed the note between her fingers, and faced the boy.
“What are you staring at—idiot?”
The boy grinned hysterically, a little frightened at Cissy’s straightened brows and snapping eyes.
“Get away! there’s no answer.”
The boy ran off, and Cissy returned to the drawing-room. Then it occurred to her that the servant had not answered the bell. She rang again furiously. There was no response. She called down the basement staircase, and heard only the echo of her voice in the depths. How still the house was! Were they all out,—Susan, Norah, the cook, the Chinaman, and the gardener? She ran down into the kitchen; the back door was open, the fires were burning, dishes were upon the table, but the kitchen was empty. Upon the floor lay a damp copy of the “extra.” She picked it up quickly. Several black headlines stared her in the face. “Enormous Defalcation!” “Montagu Trixit Absconded!” “50,000 Dollars Missing!” “Run on the Bank!”
She threw the paper through the open door as she would have hurled back the accusation from living lips. Then, in a revulsion of feeling lest any one should find her there, she ran upstairs and locked herself in her own room.
So that was what it all meant! All!—from the laugh of the Secamp girls to the turning away of the townspeople as she went by. Her father was a thief who had stolen money from the bank and run away leaving her alone to bear it! No! It was all a lie—a wicked, jealous lie! A foolish lie, for how could he steal money from his own bank? Cissy knew very little of her father—perhaps that was why she believed in him; she knew still less of business, but she knew that he did. She had often heard them say it—perhaps the very ones who now called him names. He! who had made Canada City what it was! He, who, Windibrook said, only to-day, had, like Moses, touched the rocks of the Canada with his magic wand of Finance, and streams of public credit and prosperity had gushed from it! She would never speak to them again! She would shut herself up here, dismiss all the servants but the Chinaman, and wait until her father returned.
There was a knock, and the entreating voice of Norah, the cook, outside the door. Cissy unlocked it and flung it open indignantly.
“Ah! It’s yourself, miss—and I never knew ye kem back till I met that gossoon of a hotel waiter in the street,” said the panting servant. “Sure it was only an hour ago while I was at me woorrck in the kitchen, and Jim rushes in and sez: ‘For the love of God, if iver ye want to see a blessed cint of the money ye put in the masther’s bank, off wid ye now and draw it out—for there’s a run on the bank!’”
“It was an infamous lie,” said Cissy fiercely.
“Sure, miss, how was oi to know? And if the masther has gone away, it’s ownly takin’ me money from the other divils down there that’s drawin’ it out and dividin’ it betwixt and between them.”
Cissy had a very vague idea of what a “run on the bank” meant, but Norah’s logic seemed to satisfy her feminine reason. She softened a little.
“Mr. Windibrook is in the parlor, miss, and a jintleman on the veranda,” continued Norah, encouraged.
Cissy started. “I’ll come down,” she said briefly.
Mr. Windibrook was waiting beside the piano, with his soft hat in one hand and a large white handkerchief in the other. He had confidently expected to find Cissy in tears, and was ready with boisterous condolement, but was a little taken aback as the young girl entered with a pale face, straightened brows, and eyes that shone with audacious rebellion. However, it was too late to change his attitude. “Ah, my young friend,” he said a little awkwardly, “we must not give way to our emotions, but try to recognize in our trials the benefits of a great lesson. But,” he added hurriedly, seeing her stand still silent but erect before him, “I see that you do!” He paused, coughed slightly, cast a glance at the veranda,—where Cissy now for the first time observed a man standing in an obviously assumed attitude of negligent abstraction,—moved towards the back room, and in a lower voice said, “A word with you in private.”
Without replying, Cissy followed him.
“If,” said Mr. Windibrook, with a sickly smile, “you are questioned regarding your father’s affairs, you may remember his peculiar and utterly unsolicited gift of a certain sum towards a new organ, to which I alluded to-day. You can say that he always expressed great liberality towards the church, and it was no surprise to you.”
Cissy only stared at him with dangerous eyes.
“Mrs. Windibrook,” continued the reverend gentleman in his highest, heartiest voice, albeit a little hurried, “wished me to say to you that until you heard from—your friends—she wanted you to come and stay with her. Do come! Do!”
Cissy, with her bright eyes fixed upon her visitor, said, “I shall stay here.”
“But,” said Mr. Windibrook impatiently, “you cannot. That man you see on the veranda is the sheriff’s officer. The house and all that it contains are in the hands of the law.”
Cissy’s face whitened in proportion as her eyes grew darker, but she said stoutly, “I shall stay here till my popper tells me to go.”
“Till your popper tells you to go!” repeated Mr. Windibrook harshly, dropping his heartiness and his handkerchief in a burst of unguarded temper. “Your papa is a thief escaping from justice, you foolish girl; a disgraced felon, who dare not show his face again in Canada City; and you are lucky, yes! lucky, miss, if you do not share his disgrace!”
“And you’re a wicked, wicked liar!” said Cissy, clinching her little fists at her side and edging towards him with a sidelong bantam-like movement as she advanced her freckled cheek close to his with an effrontery so like her absconding father that he recoiled before it. “And a mean, double-faced hypocrite, too! Didn’t you always praise him? Didn’t you call him a Napoleon, and a—Moses? Didn’t you say he was the making of Canada City? Didn’t you get him to raise your salary, and start a subscription for your new house? Oh, you—you—stinking beast!”
Here the stranger on the veranda, still gazing abstractedly at the landscape, gave a low and apparently unconscious murmur, as if enraptured with the view. Mr. Windibrook, recalled to an attempt at dignity, took up his hat and handkerchief. “When you have remembered yourself and your position, Miss Trixit,” he said loftily, “the offer I have made you”—
“I despise it! I’d sooner stay in the woods with the grizzlies and rattlesnakes?” said Cissy pantingly. “Go and leave me alone! Do you hear?” She stamped her little foot. “Are you listening? Go!”
Mr. Windibrook promptly retreated through the door and down the steps into the garden, at which the stranger on the veranda reluctantly tore himself away from the landscape and slowly entered the parlor through the open French window. Here, however, he became equally absorbed and abstracted in the condition of his beard, carefully stroking his shaven cheek and lips and pulling his goatee.
After a pause he turned to the angry Cissy, standing by the piano, radiant with glowing cheeks and flashing eyes, and said slowly, “I reckon you gave the parson as good as he sent. It kinder settles a man to hear the frozen truth about himself sometimes, and you’ve helped old Shadbelly considerably on the way towards salvation. But he was right about one thing, Miss Trixit. The house is in the hands of the law. I’m representing it as deputy sheriff. Mebbe you might remember me—Jake Poole—when your father was addressing the last Citizen’s meeting, sittin’ next to him on the platform—I’m in possession. It isn’t a job I’m hankerin’ much arter; I’d a lief rather hunt hoss thieves or track down road agents than this kind o’ fancy, underhand work. So you’ll excuse me, miss, if I ain’t got the style.” He paused, rubbed his chin thoughtfully, and then said slowly and with great deliberation: “Ef there’s any little thing here, miss,—any keepsakes or such trifles ez you keer for in partickler, things you wouldn’t like strangers to have,—you just make a little pile of ’em and drop ’em down somewhere outside the back door. There ain’t no inventory taken nor sealin’ up of anythin’ done just yet, though I have to see there ain’t anythin’ disturbed. But I kalkilate to walk out on that veranda for a spell and look at the landscape.” He paused again, and said, with a sigh of satisfaction, “It’s a mighty pooty view out thar; it just takes me every time.”
As he turned and walked out through the French window, Cissy did not for a moment comprehend him; then, strangely enough, his act of rude courtesy for the first time awakened her to the full sense of the situation. This house, her father’s house, was no longer hers! If her father should never return, she wanted nothing from it, nothing! She gripped her beating heart with the little hand she had clinched so valiantly a moment ago. Suddenly her hand dropped. Some one had glided noiselessly into the back room; a figure in a blue blouse; a Chinaman, their house servant, Ah Fe. He cast a furtive glance at the stranger on the veranda, and then beckoned to her stealthily. She came towards him wonderingly, when he suddenly whipped a note from his sleeve, and with a dexterous movement slipped it into her fingers. She tore it open. A single glance showed her a small key inclosed in a line of her father’s handwriting. Drawing quickly back into the corner, she read as follows: “If this reaches you in time, take from the second drawer of my desk an envelope marked ‘Private Contracts’ and give it to the bearer.” There was neither signature nor address.
Putting her finger to her lips, she cast a quick glance at the absorbed figure on the veranda and stepped before the desk. She fitted the key to the drawer and opened it rapidly but noiselessly. There lay the envelope, and among other ticketed papers a small roll of greenbacks—such as her father often kept there. It was his money; she did not scruple to take it with the envelope. Handing the latter to the Chinaman, who made it instantly disappear up his sleeve like a conjurer’s act, she signed him to follow her into the hall.
“Who gave you that note, Ah Fe?” she whispered breathlessly.
“Who gave it to him?”
“And to him?”
“Yes—heap Chinaman—allee same as gang.”
“You mean it passed from one Chinaman’s hand to another?”
“Why didn’t the first Chinaman who got it bring it here?”
“S’pose Mellikan man want to catchee lettel. He spotty Chinaman. He follee Chinaman. Chinaman passee lettel nex’ Chinaman. He no get. Mellikan man no habe got. Sabe?”
“Then this package will go back the same way?”
“And who will you give it to now?”
“Allee same man blingee me lettel. Hop Li—who makee washee.”
An idea here struck Cissy which made her heart jump and her cheeks flame. Ah Fe gazed at her with an infantile smile of admiration.
“How far did that letter come?” she asked, with eager questioning eyes.
“Lettee me see him,” said Ah Fe.
Cissy handed him the missive; he examined closely some half-a-dozen Chinese characters that were scrawled along the length of the outer fold, and which she had innocently supposed were a part of the markings of the rice paper on which the note was written.
“Heap Chinaman velly much walkee—longee way! S’pose you look.” He pointed through the open front door to the prospect beyond. It was a familiar one to Cissy,—the long Canada, the crest on crest of serried pines, and beyond the dim snow-line. Ah Fe’s brown finger seemed to linger there.
“In the snow,” she whispered, her cheek whitening like that dim line, but her eyes sparkling like the sunshine over it.
“Allee same, John,” said Ah Fe plaintively.
“Ah Fe,” whispered Cissy, “take me with you to Hop Li.”
“No good,” said Ah Fe stolidly. “Hop Li, he givee this”—he indicated the envelope in his sleeve—“to next Chinaman. He no go. S’pose you go with me, Hop Li—you no makee nothing—allee same, makee foolee!”
“I know; but you just take me there. Do!”
The young girl was irresistible. Ah Fe’s face relaxed. “Allee litee!” he said, with a resigned smile.
“You wait here a moment,” said Cissy, brightening. She flew up the staircase. In a few minutes she was back again. She had exchanged her smart rose-sprigged chintz for a pathetic little blue-checked frock of her school-days; the fateful hat had given way to a brown straw “flat,” bent like a frame around her charming face. All the girlishness, and indeed a certain honest boyishness of her nature, seemed to have come out in her glowing, freckled cheek, brilliant, audacious eyes, and the quick stride which brought her to Ah Fe’s side.
“Now let’s go,” she said, “out the back way and down the side streets.” She paused, cast a glance through the drawing-room at the contemplative figure of the sheriff’s deputy on the veranda, and then passed out of the house forever.
Perhaps this had something to do with an excited meeting of the directors of the New Mill, to whose discussions Dick Masterton, the engineer, had been hurriedly summoned. When the president told him that he had been selected to undertake the difficult and delicate mission of discovering the whereabouts of Montagu Trixit, and, if possible, procuring an interview with him, he was amazed. What had the New Mill, which had always kept itself aloof from the bank and its methods, to do with the disgraced manager? He was still more astonished when the president added bluntly:—
“Trixit holds securities of ours for money advanced to the mill by himself privately. They do not appear on the books, but if he chooses to declare them as assets of the bank, it’s a bad thing for us. If he is bold enough to keep them, he may be willing to make some arrangement with us to carry them on. If he has got away or committed suicide, as some say, it’s for you to find the whereabouts of the securities and get them. He is said to have been last seen near the Summit. You understand our position?”
Masterton did, with suppressed disgust. But he was young, and there was the thrill of adventure in this. “I will go,” he said quietly.
“We thought you would. You must take the up stage to-night. Come again and get your final instructions. By the way, you might get some information at Trixit’s house. You—er—er—are acquainted with his daughter, I think?”
“Which makes it quite impossible for me to seek her for such a purpose,” said Masterton coldly.
A few hours later he was on the coach. As they cleared the outskirts of the town, they passed two Chinamen plodding sturdily along in the dust of the highway.
“I never knew those chaps get so high up, but they seem to understand the cold,” he remarked.
The driver looked up, and ejaculated his disgust and his tobacco juice at the same moment.
“I reckon they’re everywhar in Californy whar you want ’em and whar you don’t; you take my word for it, afore long Californy will hev to reckon that she ginerally don’t want ’em, ef a white man has to live here. With a race tied up together in a language ye can’t understand, ways that no feller knows,—from their prayin’ to devils, swappin’ their wives, and havin’ their bones sent back to Chiny,—wot are ye goin’ to do, and where are ye? Wot are ye goin’ to make outer men that look so much alike ye can’t tell ’em apart; that think alike and act alike, and never in ways that ye kin catch on to! Fellers knotted together in some underhand secret way o’ communicatin’ with each other, so that ef ye kick a Chinaman up here on the Summit, another Chinaman will squeal in the valley! And the way they do it just gets me! Look yer! I’ll tell ye somethin’ that happened, that’s gospel truth! Some of the boys that reckoned to hev some fun with the Chinee gang over at Cedar Camp started out one afternoon to raid ’em. They groped along through the woods whar nobody could see ’em, kalkilatin’ to come down with a rush on the camp, over two miles away. And nobody did see ’em, only one Chinaman wot they met a mile from the camp, burnin’ punk to his joss or devil, and he scooted away just in the contrary direction. Well, sir, when they waltzed into that camp, darn my skin! ef there was a Chinaman there, or as much as a grain of rice to grab! Somebody had warned ’em! Well! this sort o’ got the boys, and they set about discoverin’ how it was done. One of ’em noticed that there was some of them bits of tissue paper slips that they toss around at funerals lyin’ along the road near the camp, and another remembered that the Chinaman they met on the hill tossed a lot of that paper in the air afore he scooted. Well, sir, the wind carried just enough of that paper straight down the hill into that camp ten minutes afore they could get there, to give them Chinamen warnin’—whatever it was! Fact! Why, I’ve seen ’em stringin’ along the road just like them fellers we passed just now, and then stop all of a suddent like hounds off the scent, jabber among themselves, and start off in a different direction”—
“Just what they’re doing now! By thunder!” interrupted another passenger, who was looking through the rolled-up curtain at his side.
All the passengers turned by one accord and looked out. The file of Chinamen under observation had indeed turned, and was even then moving rapidly away at right angles from the road.
“Got some signal, you bet!” said the driver; “some yeller paper or piece o’ joss stick in the road. What?”
The remark was addressed to the passenger who had just placed his finger on his lip, and indicated a stolid-looking Chinaman, overlooked before, who was sitting in the back or “steerage” seat.
“Oh, he be darned!” said the driver impatiently. “He is no account; he’s only the laundryman from Rocky Canyon. I’m talkin’ of the coolie gang.”
But here the conversation flagged, and the air growing keener, the flaps of the leather side curtains were battened down. Masterton gave himself up to conflicting reflections. The information that he had gathered was meagre and unsatisfactory, and he could only trust to luck and circumstance to fulfill his mission. The first glow of adventure having passed, he was uneasily conscious that the mission was not to his taste. The pretty, flushed but defiant face of Cissy that afternoon haunted him; he had not known the immediate cause of it, but made no doubt that she had already heard the news of her father’s disgrace when he met her. He regretted now that he hadn’t spoken to her, if only a few formal words of sympathy. He had always been half tenderly amused at her frank conceit and her “airs,”—the innocent, undisguised pride of the country belle, so different from the hard aplomb of the city girl! And now the foolish little moth, dancing in the sunshine of prosperity, had felt the chill of winter in its pretty wings. The contempt he had for the father had hitherto shown itself in tolerant pity for the daughter, so proud of her father’s position and what it brought her. In the revelation that his own directors had availed themselves of that father’s methods, and the ignoble character of his present mission, he felt a stirring of self-reproach. What would become of her? Of course, frivolous as she was, she would not feel the keenness of this misfortune like another, nor yet rise superior to it. She would succumb for the present, to revive another season in a dimmer glory elsewhere. His critical, cynical observation of her had determined that any filial affection she might have would be merged and lost in the greater deprivation of her position.
A sudden darkening of the landscape below, and a singular opaque whitening of the air around them, aroused him from his thoughts. The driver drew up the collar of his overcoat and laid his whip smartly over the backs of his cattle. The air grew gradually darker, until suddenly it seemed to disintegrate into invisible gritty particles that swept through the wagon. Presently these particles became heavier, more perceptible, and polished like small shot, and a keen wind drove them stingingly into the faces of the passengers, or insidiously into their pockets, collars, or the folds of their clothes. The snow forced itself through the smallest crevice.
“We’ll get over this when once we’ve passed the bend; the road seems to dip beyond,” said Masterton cheerfully from his seat beside the driver.
The driver gave him a single scornful look, and turned to the passenger who occupied the seat on the other side of him. “I don’t like the look o’ things down there, but ef we are stuck, we’ll have to strike out for the next station.”
“But,” said Masterton, as the wind volleyed the sharp snow pellets in their faces and the leaders were scarcely distinguishable through the smoke-like discharges, “it can’t be worse than here.”
The driver did not speak, but the other passenger craned over his back, and said explanatorily:—
“I reckon ye don’t know these storms; this kind o’ dry snow don’t stick and don’t clog. Look!”
Indeed, between the volleys, Masterton could see that the road was perfectly bare and wind-swept, and except slight drifts and banks beside outlying bushes and shrubs,—which even then were again blown away before his eyes,—the level landscape was unclothed and unchanged. Where these mysterious snow pellets went to puzzled and confused him; they seemed to vanish, as they had appeared, into the air about them.
“I’d make a straight rush for the next station,” said the other passenger confidently to the driver. “If we’re stuck, we’re that much on the way; if we turn back now, we’ll have to take the grade anyway when the storm’s over, and neither you nor I know when that’ll be. It may be only a squall just now, but it’s gettin’ rather late in the season. Just pitch in and drive all ye know.”
The driver laid his lash on the horses, and for a few moments the heavy vehicle dashed forward in violent conflict with the storm. At times the elastic hickory framework of its domed leather roof swayed and bent like the ribs of an umbrella; at times it seemed as if it would be lifted bodily off; at times the whole interior of the vehicle was filled with a thin smoke by drifts through every cranny. But presently, to Masterton’s great relief, the interminable level seemed to end, and between the whitened blasts he could see that the road was descending. Again the horses were urged forward, and at last he could feel that the vehicle began to add the momentum of its descent to its conflict with the storm. The blasts grew less violent, or became only the natural resistance of the air to their dominant rush. With the cessation of the snow volleys and the clearing of the atmosphere, the road became more strongly defined as it plunged downward to a terrace on the mountain flank, several hundred feet below. Presently they came again upon a thicker growth of bushes, and here and there a solitary fir. The wind died away; the cold seemed to be less bitter. Masterton, in his relief, glanced smilingly at his companions on the box, but the driver’s mouth was compressed as he urged his team forward, and the other passenger looked hardly less anxious. They were now upon the level terrace, and the storm apparently spending its fury high up and behind them. But in spite of the clearing of the air, he could not but notice that it was singularly dark. What was more singular, the darkness seemed to have risen from below, and to flow in upon them as they descended. A curtain of profound obscurity, darker even than the mountain wall at their side, shut out the horizon and the valley below. But for the temperature, Masterton would have thought a thunderstorm was closing in upon them. An odd feeling of uneasiness crept over him.
A few fitful gusts now came from the obscurity; one of them was accompanied by what seemed a flight of small startled birds crossing the road ahead of them. A second larger and more sustained flight showed his astonished eyes that they were white, and each bird an enormous flake of snow! For an instant the air was filled with these disks, shreds, patches,—two or three clinging together,—like the downfall shaken from a tree, striking the leather roof and sides with a dull thud, spattering the road into which they descended with large rosettes that melted away only to be followed by hundreds more that stuck and stayed. In five minutes the ground was white with it, the long road gleaming out ahead in the darkness; the roof and sides of the wagon were overlaid with it as with a coating of plaster of Paris; the harness of the horses, and even the reins, stood out over their steaming backs like white trappings. In five minutes more the steaming backs themselves were blanketed with it; the arms and legs of the outside passengers pinioned to the seats with it, and the arms of the driver kept free only by incessant motion. It was no longer snowing; it was “snowballing;” it was an avalanche out of the slopes of the sky. The exhausted horses floundered in it; the clogging wheels dragged in it; the vehicle at last plunged into a billow of it—and stopped.
The bewildered and half blinded passengers hurried out into the road to assist the driver to unship the wheels and fit the steel runners in their axles. But it was too late! By the time the heavy wagon was converted into a sledge, it was deeply imbedded in wet and clinging snow. The narrow, long-handled shovels borrowed from the prospectors’ kits were powerless before this heavy, half liquid impediment. At last the driver, with an oath, relinquished the attempt, and, unhitching his horses, collected the passengers and led them forward by a narrower and more sheltered trail toward the next stations now scarce a mile away. The led horses broke a path before them, the snow fell less heavily, but it was nearly an hour before the straggling procession reached the house, and the snow-coated and exhausted passengers huddled and steamed round the red-hot stove in the bar-room. The driver had vanished with his team into the shed; Masterton’s fellow passenger on the box-seat, after a few whispered words to the landlord, also disappeared.
“I see you’ve got Jake Poole with you,” said one of the bar-room loungers to Masterton, indicating the passenger who had just left. “I reckon he’s here on the same fool business.”
Masterton looked his surprise and mystification.
“Jake Poole, the deputy sheriff,” repeated the other. “I reckon he’s here pretendin’ to hunt for Montagu Trixit like the San Francisco detectives that kem up yesterday.”
Masterton with difficulty repressed a start. He had heard of Poole, but did not know him by sight. “I don’t think I understand,” he said coolly.
“I reckon you’re a stranger in these parts,” returned the lounger, looking at Masterton curiously. “Ef you warn’t, ye’d know that about the last man San Francisco or Canada City wanted to ketch is Monty Trixit! He knows too much and they know it. But they’ve got to keep up a show chase—a kind o’ cirkis-ridin’—up here to satisfy the stockholders. You bet that Jake Poole hez got his orders—they might kill him to shut his mouth, ef they got an excuse—and he made a fight—but he ain’t no such fool. No, sir! Why, the sickest man you ever saw was that director that kem up here with a detective when he found that Monty hadn’t left the State.”
“Then he is hiding about here?” said Masterton, with assumed calmness.
The man paused, lowered his voice, and said: “I wouldn’t swear he wasn’t a mile from whar we’re talkin’ now. Why, they do allow that he’s taken a drink at this very bar since the news came!—and that thar’s a hoss kept handy in the stable already saddled just to tempt him ef he was inclined to scoot.”
“That’s only a bluff to start him goin’ so that they kin shoot him in his tracks,” said a bystander.
“That ain’t no good ef he has, as they say he has, papers stowed away with a friend that would frighten some mighty partickler men out o’ their boots,” returned the first speaker. “But he’s got his spies too, and thar ain’t a man that crosses the Divide as ain’t spotted by them. The officers brag about havin’ put a cordon around the district, and yet they’ve just found out that he managed to send a telegraphic dispatch from Black Rock station right under their noses. Why, only an hour or so arter the detectives and the news arrived here, thar kem along one o’ them emigrant teams from Pike, and the driver said that a smart-lookin’ chap in store-clothes had come out of an old prospector’s cabin up thar on the rise about a mile away and asked for a newspaper. And the description the teamster gave just fitted Trixit to a T. Well, the information was give so public like that the detectives had to make a rush over thar, and b’gosh! although thar wasn’t a soul passed them but a file of Chinese coolies, when they got thar they found nothin’,—nothin’ but them Chinamen cookin’ their rice by the roadside.”
Masterton smiled carelessly, and walked to the window, as if intent upon the still falling snow. But he had at once grasped the situation that seemed now almost providential for his inexperience and his mission. The man he was seeking was within his possible reach, if the story he had heard was true. The detectives would not be likely to interfere with his plans, for he was the only man who really wished to meet the fugitive. The presence of Poole made him uneasy, though he had never met the man before. Was it barely possible that he was on the same mission on behalf of others? If what he heard was true, there might be others equally involved with the absconding manager. But then the spies—how could the deputy sheriff elude them, and how could he?
He was turning impatiently away from the window when his eye caught sight of a straggling file of Chinamen breasting the storm on their way up the hill. A sudden idea seized him. Perhaps they were the spies in question. He remembered the driver’s story. A sudden flash of intuition made him now understand the singular way the file of coolies which they met had diverted their course after passing the wagon. They had recognized the deputy on the box. Stay!—there was another Chinaman in the coach; he might have given them the signal. He glanced hurriedly around the room for him; he was gone. Perhaps he had already joined the file he had just seen. His only hope was to follow them—but how? and how to do it quietly? The afternoon was waning; it would be three or four hours before the down coach would arrive, from which the driver expected assistance. Now, if ever, was his opportunity.
He made his way through the back door, and found himself among the straw and chips of the stable-yard and woodshed. Still uncertain what to do, he mechanically passed before the long shed which served as temporary stalls for the steaming wagon horses. At the further end, to his surprise, was a tethered mustang ready saddled and bridled—the opportune horse left for the fugitive, according to the lounger’s story. Masterton cast a quick glance around the stable; it was deserted by all save the feeding animals.
He was new to adventures of this kind, or he would probably have weighed the possibilities and consequences. He was ordinarily a thoughtful, reflective man, but like most men of intellect, he was also imaginative and superstitious, and this crowning accident of the providential situation in which he found himself was superior to his logic. There would also be a grim irony in his taking this horse for such a purpose. He again looked and listened. There was no one within sight or hearing. He untied the rope from the bit-ring, leaped into the saddle, and emerged cautiously from the shed. The wet snow muffled the sound of the horse’s hoofs. Moving round to the rear of the stable so as to bring it between himself and the station, he clapped his heels into the mustang’s flanks and dashed into the open.
At first he was confused and bewildered by the half hidden boulders and snow-shrouded bushes that beset the broken ground, and dazzled by the still driving storm. But he knew that they would also divert attention from his flight, and beyond, he could now see a white slope slowly rising before him, near whose crest a few dark spots were crawling in file, like Alpine climbers. They were the Chinamen he was seeking. He had reasoned that when they discovered they were followed they would, in the absence of any chance of signaling through the storm, detach one of their number to give the alarm. Him he would follow. He felt his revolver safe on his hip; he would use it only if necessary to intimidate the spies.
For some moments his ascent through the wet snow was slow and difficult, but as he advanced, he felt a change of temperature corresponding to that he had experienced that afternoon on the wagon coming down. The air grew keener, the snow drier and finer. He kept a sharp lookout for the moving figures, and scanned the horizon for some indication of the prospector’s deserted hut. Suddenly the line of figures he was watching seemed to be broken, and then gathered together as a group. Had they detected him? Evidently they had, for, as he had expected, one of them had been detached, and was now moving at right angles from the party towards the right. With a thrill of excitement he urged his horse forward; the group was far to the left, and he was nearing the solitary figure. But to his astonishment, as he approached the top of the slope he now observed another figure, as far to the left of the group as he was to the right, and that figure he could see, even at that distance, was not a Chinaman. He halted for a better observation; for an instant he thought it might be the fugitive himself, but as quickly he recognized it was another man—the deputy. It was he whom the Chinaman had discovered; it was he who had caused the diversion and the dispatch of the vedette to warn the fugitive. His own figure had evidently not yet been detected. His heart beat high with hope; he again dashed forward after the flying messenger, who was undoubtedly seeking the prospector’s ruined hut and—Trixit.
But it was no easy matter. At this elevation the snow had formed a crust, over which the single Chinaman—a lithe young figure—skimmed like a skater, while Masterton’s horse crashed though it into unexpected depths. Again, the runner could deviate by a shorter cut, while the horseman was condemned to the one half obliterated trail. The only thing in Masterton’s favor, however, was that he was steadily increasing his distance from the group and the deputy sheriff, and so cutting off their connection with the messenger. But the trail grew more and more indistinct as it neared the summit, until at last it utterly vanished. Still he kept up his speed toward the active little figure—which now seemed to be that of a mere boy—skimming over the frozen snow. Twice a stumble and flounder of the mustang through the broken crust ought to have warned him of his recklessness, but now a distinct glimpse of a low, blackened shanty, the prospector’s ruined hut, toward which the messenger was making, made him forget all else. The distance was lessening between them; he could see the long pigtail of the fugitive standing out from his bent head, when suddenly his horse plunged forward and downward. In an awful instant of suspense and twilight, such as he might have seen in a dream, he felt himself pitched headlong into suffocating depths, followed by a shock, the crushing weight and steaming flank of his horse across his shoulder, utter darkness, and—merciful unconsciousness.
How long he lay there thus he never knew. With his returning consciousness came this strange twilight again,—the twilight of a dream. He was sitting in the new church at Canada City, as he had sat the first Sunday of his arrival there, gazing at the pretty face of Cissy Trixit in the pew opposite him, and wondering who she was. Again he saw the startled, awakened light that came into her adorable eyes, the faint blush that suffused her cheek as she met his inquiring gaze, and the conscious, half conceited, half girlish toss of her little head as she turned her eyes away, and then a file of brown Chinamen, muttering some harsh, uncouth gibberish, interposed between them. This was followed by what seemed to be the crashing in of the church roof, a stifling heat succeeded by a long, deadly chill. But he knew that this last was all a dream, and he tried to struggle to his feet to see Cissy’s face again,—a reality that he felt would take him out of this horrible trance,—and he called to her across the pew and heard her sweet voice again in answer, and then a wave of unconsciousness once more submerged him.
He came back to life with a sharp tingling of his whole frame as if pierced with a thousand needles. He knew he was being rubbed, and in his attempts to throw his torturers aside, he saw faintly by the light of a flickering fire that they were Chinamen, and he was lying on the floor of a rude hut. With his first movements they ceased, and, wrapping him like a mummy in warm blankets, dragged him out of the heap of loose snow with which they had been rubbing him, toward the fire that glowed upon the large adobe hearth. The stinging pain was succeeded by a warm glow; a pleasant languor, which made even thought a burden, came over him, and yet his perceptions were keenly alive to his surroundings. He heard the Chinamen mutter something and then depart, leaving him alone. But presently he was aware of another figure that had entered, and was now sitting with its back to him at a rude table, roughly extemporized from a packing-box, apparently engaged in writing. It was a small Chinaman, evidently the one he had chased! The events of the past few hours—his mission, his intentions, and every incident of the pursuit—flashed back upon him. Where was he? What was he doing here? Had Trixit escaped him?
In his exhausted state he was unable to formulate a question which even then he doubted if the Chinaman could understand. So he simply watched him lazily, and with a certain kind of fascination, until he should finish his writing and turn round. His long pigtail, which seemed ridiculously disproportionate to his size,—the pigtail which he remembered had streamed into the air in his flight,—had partly escaped from the discovered hat under which it had been coiled. But what was singular, it was not the wiry black pigtail of his Mongolian fellows, but soft and silky, and as the firelight played upon it, it seemed of a shining chestnut brown! It was like—like—he stopped—was he dreaming again? A long sigh escaped him.
The figure instantly turned. He started. It was Cissy Trixit! There was no mistaking that charming, sensitive face, glowing with health and excitement, albeit showing here and there the mark of the pigment with which it had been stained, now hurriedly washed off. A little of it had run into the corners of her eyelids, and enhanced the brilliancy of her eyes.
He found his tongue with an effort. “What are you doing here?” he asked with a faint voice, and a fainter attempt to smile.
“That’s what I might ask about you,” she said pertly, but with a slight touch of scorn; “but I guess I know as well as I do about the others. I came here to see my father,” she added defiantly.
“And you are the—the—one—I chased?”
“Yes; and I’d have outrun you easily, even with your horse to help you,” she said proudly, “only I turned back when you went down into that prospector’s hole with your horse and his broken neck atop of you.”
He groaned slightly, but more from shame than pain. The young girl took up a glass of whiskey ready on the table and brought it to him. “Take that; it will fetch you all right in a moment. Popper says no bones are broken.”
Masterton waived the proffered glass. “Your father—is he here?” he asked hurriedly, recalling his mission.
“Not now; he’s gone to the station—to—fetch—my clothes,” she said, with a little laugh.
“To the station?” repeated Masterton, bewildered.
“Yes,” she replied, “to the station. Of course you don’t know the news,” she added, with an air of girlish importance. “They’ve stopped all proceedings against him, and he’s as free as you are.”
Masterton tried to rise, but another groan escaped him. He was really in pain. Cissy’s bright eyes softened. She knelt beside him, her soft breath fanning his hair, and lifted him gently to a sitting position.
“Oh, I’ve done it before,” she laughed, as she read his wonder, with his gratitude, in his eyes. “The horse was already stiff, and you were nearly so, by the time I came up to you and got”—she laughed again—“the other Chinaman to help me pull you out of that hole.”
“I know I owe you my life,” he said, his face flushing.
“It was lucky I was there,” she returned naively; “perhaps lucky you were chasing me.”
“I’m afraid that of the many who would run after you I should be the least lucky,” he said, with an attempt to laugh that did not, however, conceal his mortification; “but I assure you that I only wished to have an interview with your father,—a business interview, perhaps as much in his interest as my own.”
The old look of audacity came back to her face. “I guess that’s what they all came here for, except one, but it didn’t keep them from believing and saying he was a thief behind his back. Yet they all wanted his—confidence,” she added bitterly.
Masterton felt that his burning cheeks were confessing the truth of this. “You excepted one,” he said hesitatingly.
“Yes—the deputy sheriff. He came to help me.”
“Yes, me!” A coquettish little toss of her head added to his confusion. “He threw up his job just to follow me, without my knowing it, to see that I didn’t come to any harm. He saw me only once, too, at the house when he came to take possession. He said he thought I was ‘clear grit’ to risk everything to find father, and he said he saw it in me when he was there; that’s how he guessed where I was gone when I ran away, and followed me.”
“He was as right as he was lucky,” said Masterton gravely. “But how did you get here?”
She slipped down on the floor beside him with an unconscious movement that her masculine garments only made the more quaintly girlish, and, clasping her knee with both hands, looked at the fire as she rocked herself slightly backward and forward as she spoke.
“It will shock a proper man like you, I know,” she began demurely, “but I came alone, with only a Chinaman to guide me. I got these clothes from our laundryman, so that I shouldn’t attract attention. I would have got a Chinese lady’s dress, but I couldn’t walk in their shoes,”—she looked down at her little feet encased in wooden sandals,—“and I had a long way to walk. But even if I didn’t look quite right to Chinamen, no white man was able to detect the difference. You passed me twice in the stage, and you didn’t know me. I traveled night and day, most of the time walking, and being passed along from one Chinaman to another, or, when we were alone, being slung on a pole between two coolies like a bale of goods. I ate what they could give me, for I dared not go into a shop or a restaurant; I couldn’t shut my eyes in their dens, so I stayed awake all night. Yet I got ahead of you and the sheriff,—though I didn’t know at the time what you were after,” she added presently.
He was overcome with wondering admiration of her courage, and of self-reproach at his own short-sightedness. This was the girl he had looked upon as a spoiled village beauty, satisfied with her small triumphs and provincial elevation, and vacant of all other purpose. Here was she—the all-unconscious heroine—and he her critic helpless at her feet! It was not a cheerful reflection, and yet he took a certain delight in his expiation. Perhaps he had half believed in her without knowing it. What could he do or say? I regret to say he dodged the question meanly.
“And you think your disguise escaped detection?” he said, looking markedly at her escaped braid of hair.
She followed his eyes rather than his words, half pettishly caught up the loosened braid, swiftly coiled it around the top of her head, and, clapping the weather-beaten and battered conical hat back again upon it, defiantly said: “Yes! Everybody isn’t as critical as you are, and even you wouldn’t be—of a Chinaman!”
He had never seen her except when she was arrayed with the full intention to affect the beholders and perfectly conscious of her attractions; he was utterly unprepared for this complete ignoring of adornment now, albeit he was for the first time aware how her real prettiness made it unnecessary. She looked fully as charming in this grotesque head-covering as she had in that paragon of fashion, the new hat, which had excited his tolerant amusement.
“I’m afraid I’m a very poor critic,” he said bluntly. “I never conceived that this sort of thing was at all to your taste.”
“I came to see my father because I wanted to,” she said, with equal bluntness.
“And I came to see him though I didn’t want to,” he said, with a cynical laugh.
She turned, and fixed her brown eyes inquiringly upon him.
“Why did you come, then?”
“I was ordered by my directors.”
“Then you did not believe he was a thief?” she asked, her eyes softening.
“It would ill become me to accuse your father or my directors,” he answered diplomatically.
She was quick enough to detect the suggestion of moral superiority in his tone, but woman enough to forgive it. “You’re no friend of Windibrook,” she said, “I know.”
“I am not,” he replied frankly.
“If you would like to see my popper, I can manage it,” she said hesitatingly. “He’ll do anything for me,” she added, with a touch of her old pride.
“Who could blame him?” returned Masterton gravely. “But if he is a free man now, and able to go where he likes, and to see whom he likes, he may not care to give an audience to a mere messenger.”
“You wait and let me see him first,” said the girl quickly. Then, as the sound of sleigh-bells came from the road outside, she added, “Here he is. I’ll get your clothes; they are out here drying by the fire in the shed.” She disappeared through a back door, and returned presently bearing his dried garments. “Dress yourself while I take popper into the shed,” she said quickly, and ran out into the road.
Masterton dressed himself with difficulty. Although circulation was now restored, and he felt a glow through his warmed clothes, he had been sorely bruised and shaken by his fall. He had scarcely finished dressing when Montagu Trixit entered from the shed. Masterton looked at him with a new interest and a respect he had never felt before. There certainly was little of the daughter in this keen-faced, resolute-lipped man, though his brown eyes, like hers, had the same frank, steadfast audacity. With a business brevity that was hurried but not unkindly, he hoped Masterton had fully recovered.
“Thanks to your daughter, I’m all right now,” said Masterton. “I need not tell you that I believe I owe my life to her energy and courage, for I think you have experienced what she can do in that way. But you have had the advantage of those who have only enjoyed her social acquaintance in knowing all the time what she was capable of,” he added significantly.
“She is a good girl,” said Trixit briefly, yet with a slight rise in color on his dark, sallow cheek, and a sudden wavering of his steadfast eyes. “She tells me you have a message from your directors. I think I know what it is, but we won’t discuss it now. As I am going directly to Sacramento, I shall not see them, but I will give you an answer to take to them when we reach the station. I am going to give you a lift there when my daughter is ready. And here she is.”
It was the old Cissy that stepped into the room, dressed as she was when she left her father’s house two days before. Oddly enough, he fancied that something of her old conscious manner had returned with her clothes, and as he stepped with her into the back seat of the covered sleigh in waiting, he could not help saying, “I really think I understand you better in your other clothes.”
A slight blush mounted to Cissy’s cheek, but her eyes were still audacious. “All the same, I don’t think you’d like to walk down Main Street with me in that rig, although you once thought nothing of taking me over your old mill in your blue blouse and overalls.” And having apparently greatly relieved her proud little heart by this enigmatic statement, she grew so chatty and confidential that the young man was satisfied that he had been in love with her from the first!
When they reached the station, Trixit drew him aside. Taking an envelope marked “Private Contracts” from his pocket, he opened it and displayed some papers. “These are the securities. Tell your directors that you have seen them safe in my hands, and that no one else has seen them. Tell them that if they will send me their renewed notes, dated from to-day, to Sacramento within the next three days, I will return the securities. That is my message.”
The young man bowed. But before the coach started he managed to draw near to Cissy. “You are not returning to Canada City,” he said.
The young girl made a gesture of indignation. “No! I am never going there again. I go with my popper to Sacramento.”
“Then I suppose I must say ‘good-by.’”
The girl looked at him in surprise. “Popper says you are coming to Sacramento in three days!”
He looked at her fixedly. She returned his glance audaciously, steadfastly.
“You are,” she said, in her low but distinct voice.
And he did.