Part III

Chapter II

Bret Harte

WHEN BRANT returned to his hotel there was an augmented respect in the voice of the clerk as he handed him a note with the remark that it had been left by Senator Boompointer’s coachman. He had no difficulty in recognizing Susy’s peculiarly Brobdingnagian school-girl hand.

“Kla’uns, I call it real mean! I believe you just hoped I wouldn’t know you. If you’re a bit like your old self you’ll come right off here—this very night! I’ve got a big party on—but we can talk somewhere between the acts! Haven’t I growed? Tell me! And my! what a gloomy swell the young brigadier is! The carriage will come for you—so you have no excuse.”

The effect of this childish note upon Brant was strangely out of proportion to its triviality. But then it was Susy’s very triviality—so expressive of her characteristic irresponsibility—which had always affected him at such moments. Again, as at Robles, he felt it react against his own ethics. Was she not right in her delightful materialism? Was she not happier than if she had been consistently true to Mrs. Peyton, to the convent, to the episode of her theatrical career, to Jim Hooker—even to himself? And did he conscientiously believe that Hooker or himself had suffered from her inconsistency? No! From all that he had heard, she was a suitable helpmate to the senator, in her social attractiveness, her charming ostentations, her engaging vanity that disarmed suspicion, and her lack of responsibility even in her partisanship. Nobody ever dared to hold the senator responsible for her promises, even while enjoying the fellowship of both, and it is said that the worthy man singularly profited by it. Looking upon the invitation as a possible distraction to his gloomy thoughts, Brant resolved to go.

The moon was high as the carriage whirled him out of the still stifling avenues towards the Soldiers’ Home—a sylvan suburb frequented by cabinet ministers and the President—where the good Senator had “decreed,” like Kubla Khan, “a stately pleasure dome,” to entertain his friends and partisans. As they approached the house, the trembling light like fireflies through the leaves, the warm silence broken only by a military band playing a drowsy waltz on the veranda, and the heavy odors of jessamine in the air, thrilled Brant with a sense of shame as he thought of his old comrades in the field. But this was presently dissipated by the uniforms that met him in the hall, with the presence of some of his distinguished superiors. At the head of the stairs, with a circling background of the shining crosses and ribbons of the diplomatic corps, stood Susy—her bare arms and neck glittering with diamonds, her face radiant with childlike vivacity. A significant pressure of her little glove as he made his bow seemed to be his only welcome, but a moment later she caught his arm. “You’ve yet to know him,” she said in a half whisper; “he thinks a good deal of himself—just like Jim. But he makes others believe it, and that’s where poor Jim slipped up.” She paused before the man thus characteristically disposed of, and presented Brant. It was the man he had seen before—material, capable, dogmatic. A glance from his shrewd eyes—accustomed to the weighing of men’s weaknesses and ambitions—and a few hurried phrases, apparently satisfied him that Brant was not just then important or available to him, and the two men, a moment later, drifted easily apart. Brant sauntered listlessly through the crowded rooms, half remorsefully conscious that he had taken some irrevocable step, and none the less assured by the presence of two or three reporters and correspondents who were dogging his steps, or the glance of two or three pretty women whose curiosity had evidently been aroused by the singular abstraction of this handsome, distinguished, but sardonic-looking officer. But the next moment he was genuinely moved.

A tall young woman had just glided into the centre of the room with an indolent yet supple gracefulness that seemed familiar to him. A change in her position suddenly revealed her face. It was Miss Faulkner. Previously he had known her only in the riding habit of Confederate gray which she had at first affected, or in the light muslin morning dress she had worn at Gray Oaks. It seemed to him, to-night, that the studied elegance of her full dress became her still more; that the pretty willfulness of her chin and shoulders was chastened and modified by the pearls round her fair throat. Suddenly their eyes met; her face paled visibly; he fancied that she almost leaned against her companion for support; then she met his glance again with a face into which the color had as suddenly rushed, but with eyes that seemed to be appealing to him even to the point of pain and fright. Brant was not conceited; he could see that the girl’s agitation was not the effect of any mere personal influence in his recognition, but of something else. He turned hastily away; when he looked around again she was gone.

Nevertheless he felt filled with a vague irritation. Did she think him such a fool as to imperil her safety by openly recognizing her without her consent? Did she think that he would dare to presume upon the service she had done him? Or, more outrageous thought, had she heard of his disgrace, known its cause, and feared that he would drag her into a disclosure to save himself? No, no; she could not think that! She had perhaps regretted what she had done in a freak of girlish chivalry; she had returned to her old feelings and partisanship; she was only startled at meeting the single witness of her folly. Well, she need not fear! He would as studiously avoid her hereafter, and she should know it. And yet—yes, there was a “yet.” For he could not forget—indeed, in the past three weeks it had been more often before him than he cared to think—that she was the one human being who had been capable of a great act of self-sacrifice for him—her enemy, her accuser, the man who had scarcely treated her civilly. He was ashamed to remember now that this thought had occurred to him at the bedside of his wife—at the hour of her escape—even on the fatal slope on which he had been struck down. And now this fond illusion must go with the rest—the girl who had served him so loyally was ashamed of it! A bitter smile crossed his face.

“Well, I don’t wonder! Here are all the women asking me who is that good-looking Mephistopheles, with the burning eyes, who is prowling around my rooms as if searching for a victim. Why, you’re smiling for all the world like poor Jim when he used to do the Red Avenger.”

Susy’s voice—and illustration—recalled him to himself.

“Furious I may be,” he said with a gentler smile, although his eyes still glittered, “furious that I have to wait until the one woman I came to see—the one woman I have not seen for so long, while these puppets have been nightly dancing before her—can give me a few moments from them, to talk of the old days.”

In his reaction he was quite sincere, although he felt a slight sense of remorse as he saw the quick, faint color rise, as in those old days, even through the to-night’s powder of her cheek.

“That’s like the old Kla’uns,” she said, with a slight pressure of his arm, “but we will not have a chance to speak until later. When they are nearly all gone, you’ll take me to get a little refreshment, and we’ll have a chat in the conservatory. But you must drop that awfully wicked look and make yourself generally agreeable to those women until then.”

It was, perhaps, part of this reaction which enabled him to obey his hostess’ commands with a certain recklessness that, however, seemed to be in keeping with the previous Satanic reputation he had all unconsciously achieved. The women listened to the cynical flippancy of this good-looking soldier with an undisguised admiration which in turn excited curiosity and envy from his own sex. He saw the whispered questioning, the lifted eyebrows, scornful shrugging of shoulders—and knew that the story of his disgrace was in the air. But I fear this only excited him to further recklessness and triumph. Once he thought he recognized Miss Faulkner’s figure at a distance, and even fancied that she had been watching him; but he only redoubled his attentions to the fair woman beside him, and looked no more.

Yet he was glad when the guests began to drop off, the great rooms thinned, and Susy, appearing on the arm of her husband, coquettishly reminded him of his promise.

“For I want to talk to you of old times. General Brant,” she went on, turning explanatorily to Boompointer, “married my adopted mother in California—at Robles, a dear old place where I spent my earliest years. So, you see, we are sort of relations by marriage,” she added, with delightful naivete.

Hooker’s own vainglorious allusion to his relations to the man before him flashed across Brant’s mind, but it left now only a smile on his lips. He felt he had already become a part of the irresponsible comedy played around him. Why should he resist, or examine its ethics too closely? He offered his arm to Susy as they descended the stairs, but, instead of pausing in the supper-room, she simply passed through it with a significant pressure on his arm, and, drawing aside a muslin curtain, stepped into the moonlit conservatory. Behind the curtain there was a small rustic settee; without releasing his arm she sat down, so that when he dropped beside her, their hands met, and mutually clasped.

“Now, Kla’uns,” she said, with a slight, comfortable shiver as she nestled beside him, “it’s a little like your chair down at old Robles, isn’t it?—tell me! And to think it’s five years ago! But, Kla’uns, what’s the matter? You are changed,” she said, looking at his dark face in the moonlight, “or you have something to tell me.”

“I have.”

“And it’s something dreadful, I know!” she said, wrinkling her brows with a pretty terror. “Couldn’t you pretend you had told it to me, and let us go on just the same? Couldn’t you, Kla’uns? Tell me!”

“I am afraid I couldn’t,” he said, with a sad smile.

“Is it about yourself, Kla’uns? You know,” she went on with cheerful rapidity, “I know everything about you—I always did, you know—and I don’t care, and never did care, and it don’t, and never did, make the slightest difference to me. So don’t tell it, and waste time, Kla’uns.”

“It’s not about me, but about my wife!” he said slowly.

Her expression changed slightly

“Oh, her!” she said after a pause. Then, half-resignedly, “Go on, Kla’uns.”

He began. He had a dozen times rehearsed to himself his miserable story, always feeling it keenly, and even fearing that he might be carried away by emotion or morbid sentiment in telling it to another. But, to his astonishment, he found himself telling it practically, calmly, almost cynically, to his old playmate, repressing the half devotion and even tenderness that had governed him, from the time that his wife, disguised as the mulatto woman, had secretly watched him at his office, to the hour that he had passed through the lines. He withheld only the incident of Miss Faulkner’s complicity and sacrifice.

“And she got away, after having kicked you out of your place, Kla’uns?” said Susy, when he had ended.

Clarence stiffened beside her. But he felt he had gone too far to quarrel with his confidante.

“She went away. I honestly believe we shall never meet again, or I should not be telling you this!”

“Kla’uns,” she said lightly, taking his hand again, “don’t you believe it! She won’t let you go. You’re one of those men that a woman, when she’s once hooked on to, won’t let go of, even when she believes she no longer loves him, or meets bigger and better men. I reckon it’s because you’re so different from other men; maybe there are so many different things about you to hook on to, and you don’t slip off as easily as the others. Now, if you were like old Peyton, her first husband, or like poor Jim, or even my Boompointer, you’d be all right! No, my boy, all we can do is to try to keep her from getting at you here. I reckon she won’t trust herself in Washington again in a hurry.”

“But I cannot stay here; my career is in the field.”

“Your career is alongside o’ me, honey—and Boompointer. But nearer me. We’ll fix all that. I heard something about your being in disgrace, but the story was that you were sweet on some secesh girl down there, and neglected your business, Kla’uns. But, Lordy! to think it was only your own wife! Never mind; we’ll straighten that out. We’ve had worse jobs than that on. Why, there was that commissary who was buying up dead horses at one end of the field, and selling them to the Government for mess beef at the other; and there was that general who wouldn’t make an attack when it rained; and the other general—you know who I mean, Kla’uns—who wouldn’t invade the State where his sister lived; but we straightened them out, somehow, and they were a heap worse than you. We’ll get you a position in the war department here, one of the bureau offices, where you keep your rank and your uniform—you don’t look bad in it, Kla’uns—on better pay. And you’ll come and see me, and we’ll talk over old times.”

Brant felt his heart turn sick within him. But he was at her mercy now! He said, with an effort,—

“But I’ve told you that my career—nay, my life—now is in the field.”

“Don’t you be a fool, Kla’uns, and leave it there! You have done your work of fighting—mighty good fighting, too,—and everybody knows it. You’ve earned a change. Let others take your place.”

He shuddered, as he remembered that his wife had made the same appeal. Was he a fool then, and these two women—so totally unlike in everything—right in this?

“Come, Kla’uns,” said Susy, relapsing again against his shoulder. “Now talk to me! You don’t say what you think of me, of my home, of my furniture, of my position—even of him! Tell me!”

“I find you well, prosperous, and happy,” he said, with a faint smile.

“Is that all? And how do I look?”

She turned her still youthful, mischievous face towards him in the moonlight. The witchery of her blue eyes was still there as of old, the same frank irresponsibility beamed from them; her parted lips seemed to give him back the breath of his youth. He started, but she did not.

“Susy, dear!”

It was her husband’s voice.

“I quite forgot,” the Senator went on, as he drew the curtain aside, “that you are engaged with a friend; but Miss Faulkner is waiting to say good-night, and I volunteered to find you.”

“Tell her to wait a moment,” said Susy, with an impatience that was as undisguised as it was without embarrassment or confusion.

But Miss Faulkner, unconsciously following Mr. Boompointer, was already upon them. For a moment the whole four were silent, although perfectly composed. Senator Boompointer, unconscious of any infelicity in his interruption, was calmly waiting. Clarence, opposed suddenly to the young girl whom he believed was avoiding his recognition, rose, coldly imperturbable. Miss Faulkner, looking taller and more erect in the long folds of her satin cloak, neither paled nor blushed, as she regarded Susy and Brant with a smile of well-bred apology.

“I expect to leave Washington to-morrow, and may not be able to call again,” she said, “or I would not have so particularly pressed a leave-taking upon you.”

“I was talking with my old friend, General Brant,” said Susy, more by way of introduction than apology.

Brant bowed. For an instant the clear eyes of Miss Faulkner slipped icily across his as she made him an old-fashioned Southern courtesy, and, taking Susy’s arm, she left the room. Brant did not linger, but took leave of his host almost in the same breath. At the front door a well-appointed carriage of one of the Legations had just rolled into waiting. He looked back; he saw Miss Faulkner, erect and looking like a bride in her gauzy draperies, descending the stairs before the waiting servants. He felt his heart beat strangely. He hesitated, recalled himself with an effort, hurriedly stepped from the porch into the path, as he heard the carriage door close behind him in the distance, and then felt the dust from her horse’s hoofs rise around him as she drove past him and away.

Clarence - Contents    |     Part III - Chapter III

Back    |    Words Home    |    Bret Harte Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback