Three Partners

Chapter VII

Bret Harte

THE SUN arose so brightly over Hymettus on the morning after the meeting of the three partners that it was small wonder that Barker’s impressionable nature quickly responded to it, and, without awakening the still sleeping child, he dressed hurriedly, and was the first to greet it in the keen air of the slope behind the hotel. To his pantheistic spirit it had always seemed as natural for him to early welcome his returning brothers of the woods and hills as to say good-morning to his fellow mortals. And, in the joy of seeing Black Spur rising again to his level in the distance before him, he doffed his hat to it with a return of his old boyish habit, laid his arm caressingly around the great girth of the nearest pine, clapped his hands to the scampering squirrels in his path, and whistled to the dipping jays. In this way he quite forgot the more serious affairs of the preceding night, or, rather, saw them only in the gilding of the morning, until, looking up, he perceived the tall figure of Demorest approaching him; and then it struck him with his first glance at his old partner’s face that his usual suave, gentle melancholy had been succeeded by a critical cynicism of look and a restrained bitterness of accent. Barker’s loyal heart smote him for his own selfishness; Demorest had been hard hit by the discovery of the forgery and Stacy’s concern in it, and had doubtless passed a restless night, while he (Barker) had forgotten all about it. “I thought of knocking at your door, as I passed,” he said, with sympathetic apology, “but I was afraid I might disturb you. Isn’t it glorious here? Quite like the old hill. Look at that lizard; he hasn’t moved since he first saw me. Do you remember the one who used to steal our sugar, and then stiffen himself into stone on the edge of the bowl until he looked like an ornamental handle to it?” he continued, rebounding again into spirits.

“Barker,” said Demorest abruptly, “what sort of woman is this Mrs. Van Loo, whose rooms I occupy?”

“Oh,” said Barker, with optimistic innocence, “a most proper woman, old chap. White-haired, well-dressed, with a little foreign accent and a still more foreign courtesy. Why, you don’t suppose we’d”—

“But what is she like?” said Demorest impatiently.

“Well,” said Barker thoughtfully, “she’s the kind of woman who might be Van Loo’s mother, I suppose.”

“You mean the mother of a forger and a swindler?” asked Demorest sharply.

“There are no mothers of swindlers and forgers,” said Barker gravely, “in the way you mean. It’s only those poor devils,” he said, pointing, nevertheless, with a certain admiration to a circling sparrow-hawk above him, “who have inherited instincts. What I mean is that she might be Van Loo’s mother, because he didn’t select her.”

“Where did she come from? and how long has she been here?” asked Demorest.

“She came from abroad, I believe. And she came here just after you left. Van Loo, after he became secretary of the Ditch Company, sent for her and her daughter to keep house for him. But you’ll see her to-day or to-morrow probably, when she returns. I’ll introduce you; she’ll be rather glad to meet some one from abroad, and all the more if he happens to be rich and distinguished, and eligible for her daughter.” He stopped suddenly in his smile, remembering Demorest’s lifelong secret. But to his surprise his companion’s face, instead of darkening as it was wont to do at any such allusion, brightened suddenly with a singular excitement as he answered dryly, “Ah well, if the girl is pretty, who knows!”

Indeed, his spirits seemed to have returned with strange vivacity as they walked back to the hotel, and he asked many other questions regarding Mrs. Van Loo and her daughter, and particularly if the daughter had also been abroad. When they reached the veranda they found a few early risers eagerly reading the Sacramento papers, which had just arrived, or, in little knots, discussing the news. Indeed, they would probably have stopped Barker and his companion had not Barker, anxious to relieve his friend’s curiosity, hurried with him at once to the manager’s office.

“Can you tell me exactly when you expect Mrs. Van Loo to return?” asked Barker quickly.

The manager with difficulty detached himself from the newspaper which he, too, was anxiously perusing, and said, with a peculiar smile, “Well no! she was to return to-day, but if you’re wanting to keep her rooms, I should say there wouldn’t be any trouble about it, as she’ll hardly be coming back here now. She’s rather high and mighty in style, I know, and a determined sort of critter, but I reckon she and her daughter wouldn’t care much to be waltzing round in public after what has happened.”

“I don’t understand you,” said Demorest impatiently. “What has happened?”

“Haven’t you heard the news?” said the manager in surprise. “It’s in all the Sacramento papers. Van Loo is a defaulter—has hypothecated everything he had and skedaddled.”

Barker started. He was not thinking of the loss of his wife’s money—only of her disappointment and mortification over it. Poor girl! Perhaps she was also worrying over his resentment,—as if she did not know him! He would go to her at once at Boomville. Then he remembered that she was coming with Mrs. Horncastle, and might be already on her way here by rail or coach, and he would miss her. Demorest in the meantime had seized a paper, and was intently reading it.

“There’s bad news, too, for your friend, your old partner,” said the manager half sympathetically, half interrogatively. “There has been a drop out in everything the bank is carrying, and everybody is unloading. Two firms failed in ’Frisco yesterday that were carrying things for the bank, and have thrown everything back on it. There was an awful panic last night, and they say none of the big speculators know where they stand. Three of our best customers in the hotel rushed off to the bay this morning, but Stacy himself started before daylight, and got the through night express to stop for him on the Divide on signal. Shall I send any telegrams that may come to your room?”

Demorest knew that the manager suspected him of being interested in the bank, and understood the purport of the question. He answered, with calm surprise, that he was expecting no telegrams, and added, “But if Mrs. Van Loo returns I beg you to at once let me know,” and taking Barker’s arm he went in to breakfast. Seated by themselves, Demorest looked at his companion. “I’m afraid, Barker boy, that this thing is more serious to Jim than we expected last night, or than he cared to tell us. And you, old man, I fear are hurt a little by Van Loo’s flight. He had some money of your wife’s, hadn’t he?”

Barker, who knew that the bulk of Demorest’s fortune was in Stacy’s hands, was touched at this proof of his unselfish thought, and answered with equal unselfishness that he was concerned only by the fear of Mrs. Barker’s disappointment. “Why, Lord! Phil, whether she’s lost or saved her money it’s nothing to me. I gave it to her to do what she liked with it, but I’m afraid she’ll be worrying over what I think of it,—as if she did not know me! And I’m half a mind, if it were not for missing her, to go over to Boomville, where she’s stopping.”

“I thought you said she was in San Francisco?” said Demorest abstractedly.

Barker colored. “Yes,” he answered quickly. “But I’ve heard since that she stopped at Boomville on the way.”

“Then don’t let me keep you here,” returned Demorest. “For if Jim telegraphs to me I shall start for San Francisco at once, and I rather think he will. I did not like to say so before those panic-mongers outside who are stampeding everything; so run along, Barker boy, and ease your mind about the wife. We may have other things to think about soon.”

Thus adjured, Barker rose from his half-finished breakfast and slipped away. Yet he was not quite certain what to do. His wife must have heard the news at Boomville as quickly as he had, and, if so, would be on her way with Mrs. Horncastle; or she might be waiting for him—knowing, too, that he had heard the news—in fear and trembling. For it was Barker’s custom to endow all those he cared for with his own sensitiveness, and it was not like him to reflect that the woman who had so recklessly speculated against his opinion would scarcely fear his reproaches in her defeat. In the fullness of his heart he telegraphed to her in case she had not yet left Boomville: “All right. Have heard news. Understand perfectly. Don’t worry. Come to me.” Then he left the hotel by the stable entrance in order to evade the guests who had congregated on the veranda, and made his way to a little wooded crest which he knew commanded a view of the two roads from Boomville. Here he determined to wait and intercept her before she reached the hotel. He knew that many of the guests were aware of his wife’s speculations with Van Loo, and that he was her broker. He wished to spare her running the gauntlet of their curious stares and comments as she drove up alone. As he was climbing the slope the coach from Sacramento dashed past him on the road below, but he knew that it had changed horses at Boomville at four o’clock, and that his tired wife would not have availed herself of it at that hour, particularly as she could not have yet received the fateful news. He threw himself under a large pine, and watched the stagecoach disappear as it swept round into the courtyard of the hotel.

He sat there for some moments with his eyes bent upon the two forks of the red road that diverged below him, but which appeared to become whiter and more dazzling as he searched their distance. There was nothing to be seen except an occasional puff of dust which eventually revealed a horseman or a long trailing cloud out of which a solitary mule, one of a pack-train of six or eight, would momentarily emerge and be lost again. Then he suddenly heard his name called, and, looking up, saw Mrs. Horncastle, who had halted a few paces from him between two columns of the long-drawn aisle of pines.

In that mysterious half-light she seemed such a beautiful and goddess-like figure that his consciousness at first was unable to grasp anything else. She was always wonderfully well dressed, but the warmth and seclusion of this mountain morning had enabled her to wear a light gown of some delicate fabric which set off the grace of her figure, and even pardoned the rural coquetry of a silken sash around her still slender waist. An open white parasol thrown over her shoulder made a nimbus for her charming head and the thick coils of hair under her lace-edged hat. He had never seen her look so beautiful before. And that thought was so plainly in his frank face and eyes as he sprang to his feet that it brought a slight rise of color to her own cheek.

“I saw you climbing up here as I passed in the coach a few minutes ago,” she said, with a smile, “and as soon as I had shaken the dust off I followed you.”

“Where’s Kitty?” he stammered.

The color faded from her face as it had come, and a shade of something like reproach crept into her dark eyes. And whatever it had been her purpose to say, or however carefully she might have prepared herself for this interview, she was evidently taken aback by the sudden directness of the inquiry. Barker saw this as quickly, and as quickly referred it to his own rudeness. His whole soul rushed in apology to his face as he said, “Oh, forgive me! I was anxious about Kitty; indeed, I had thought of coming again to Boomville, for you’ve heard the news, of course? Van Loo is a defaulter, and has run away with the poor child’s money.”

Mrs. Horncastle had heard the news at the hotel. She paused a moment to collect herself, and then said slowly and tentatively, with a watchful intensity in her eyes, “Mrs. Barker went, I think, to the Divide”—

But she was instantly interrupted by the eager Barker. “I see. I thought of that at once. She went directly to the company’s offices to see if she could save anything from the wreck before she saw me. It was like her, poor girl! And you—you,” he went on eagerly, his whole face beaming with gratitude,—“you, out of your goodness, came here to tell me.” He held out both hands and took hers in his.

For a moment Mrs. Horncastle was speechless and vacillating. She had often noticed before that it was part of the irony of the creation of such a simple nature as Barker’s that he was not only open to deceit, but absolutely seemed to invite it. Instead of making others franker, people were inclined to rebuke his credulity by restraint and equivocation on their own part. But the evasion thus offered to her, although only temporary, was a temptation she could not resist. And it prolonged an interview that a ruthless revelation of the truth might have shortened.

“She did not tell me she was going there,” she replied still evasively; “and, indeed,” she added, with a burst of candor still more dangerous, “I only learned it from the hotel clerk after she was gone. But I want to talk to you about her relations to Van Loo,” she said, with a return of her former intensity of gaze, “and I thought we would be less subject to interruption here than at the hotel. Only I suppose everybody knows this place, and any of those flirting couples are likely to come here. Besides,” she added, with a little half-hysterical laugh and a slight shiver, as she looked up at the high interlacing boughs above her head, “it’s as public as the aisles of a church, and really one feels as if one were ‘speaking out’ in meeting. Isn’t there some other spot a little more secluded, where we could sit down,” she went on, as she poked her parasol into the usual black gunpowdery deposit of earth which mingled with the carpet of pine-needles beneath her feet, “and not get all sticky and dirty?”

Barker’s eyes sparkled. “I know every foot of this hill, Mrs. Horncastle,” he said, “and if you will follow me I’ll take you to one of the loveliest nooks you ever dreamed of. It’s an old Indian spring now forgotten, and I think known only to me and the birds. It’s not more than ten minutes from here; only”—he hesitated as he caught sight of the smart French bronze buckled shoe and silken ankle which Mrs. Horncastle’s gathering up of her dainty skirts around her had disclosed—“it may be a little rough and dusty going to your feet.”

But Mrs. Horncastle pointed out that she had already irretrievably ruined her shoes and stockings in climbing up to him,—although Barker could really distinguish no diminution of their freshness,—and that she might as well go on. Whereat they both passed down the long aisle of slope to a little hollow of manzanita, which again opened to a view of Black Spur, but left the hotel hidden.

“What time did Kitty go?” began Barker eagerly, when they were half down the slope.

But here Mrs. Horncastle’s foot slipped upon the glassy pine-needles, and not only stopped an answer, but obliged Barker to give all his attention to keep his companion from falling again until they reached the open. Then came the plunge through the manzanita thicket, then a cool wade through waist-deep ferns, and then they emerged, holding each other’s hand, breathless and panting before the spring.

It did not belie his enthusiastic description. A triangular hollow, niched in a shelf of the mountain-side, narrowed to a point from which the overflow of the spring percolated through a fringe of alder, to fall in what seemed from the valley to be a green furrow down the whole length of the mountain-side. Overhung by pines above, which met and mingled with the willows that everywhere fringed it, it made the one cooling shade in the whole basking expanse of the mountain, and yet was penetrated throughout by the intoxicating spice of the heated pines. Flowering reeds and long lush grasses drew a magic circle round an open bowl-like pool in the centre, that was always replenished to the slow murmur of an unseen rivulet that trickled from a white-quartz cavern in the mountain-side like a vein opened in its flank. Shadows of timid wings crossed it, quick rustlings disturbed the reeds, but nothing more. It was silent, but breathing; it was hidden to everything but the sky and the illimitable distance.

They threaded their way around it on the spongy carpet, covered by delicate lace-like vines that seemed to caress rather than trammel their moving feet, until they reached an open space before the pool. It was cushioned and matted with disintegrated pine bark, and here they sat down. Mrs. Horncastle furled her parasol and laid it aside; raised both hands to the back of her head and took two hat-pins out, which she placed in her smiling mouth; removed her hat, stuck the hat-pins in it, and handed it to Barker, who gently placed it on the top of a tall reed, where during the rest of that momentous meeting it swung and drooped like a flower; removed her gloves slowly; drank still smilingly and gratefully nearly a wineglassful of the water which Barker brought her in the green twisted chalice of a lily leaf; looked the picture of happiness, and then burst into tears.

Barker was astounded, dismayed, even terror-stricken. Mrs. Horncastle crying! Mrs. Horncastle, the imperious, the collected, the coldly critical, the cynical, smiling woman of the world, actually crying! Other women might cry—Kitty had cried often—but Mrs. Horncastle! Yet, there she was, sobbing; actually sobbing like a schoolgirl, her beautiful shoulders rising and falling with her grief; crying unmistakably through her long white fingers, through a lace pocket-handkerchief which she had hurriedly produced and shaken from behind her like a conjurer’s trick; her beautiful eyes a thousand times more lustrous for the sparkling beads that brimmed her lashes and welled over like the pool before her.

“Don’t mind me,” she murmured behind her handkerchief. “It’s very foolish, I know. I was nervous—worried, I suppose; I’ll be better in a moment. Don’t notice me, please.”

But Barker had drawn beside her and was trying, after the fashion of his sex, to take her handkerchief away in apparently the firm belief that this action would stop her tears. “But tell me what it is. Do Mrs. Horncastle, please,” he pleaded in his boyish fashion. “Is it anything I can do? Only say the word; only tell me something!

But he had succeeded in partially removing the handkerchief, and so caught a glimpse of her wet eyes, in which a faint smile struggled out like sunshine through rain. But they clouded again, although she didn’t cry, and her breath came and went with the action of a sob, and her hands still remained against her flushed face.

“I was only going to talk to you of Kitty” (sob)—“but I suppose I’m weak” (sob)—“and such a fool” (sob) “and I got to thinking of myself and my own sorrows when I ought to be thinking only of you and Kitty.”

“Never mind Kitty,” said Barker impulsively. “Tell me about yourself—your own sorrows. I am a brute to have bothered you about her at such a moment; and now until you have told me what is paining you so I shall not let you speak of her.” He was perfectly sincere. What were Kitty’s possible and easy tears over the loss of her money to the unknown agony that could wrench a sob from a woman like this? “Dear Mrs. Horncastle,” he went on as breathlessly, “think of me now not as Kitty’s husband, but as your true friend. Yes, as your best and truest friend, and speak to me as you would speak to him.”

“You will be my friend?” she said suddenly and passionately, grasping his hand, “my best and truest friend? and if I tell you all,—everything, you will not cast me from you and hate me?”

Barker felt the same thrill from her warm hand slowly possess his whole being as it had the evening before, but this time he was prepared and answered the grasp and her eyes together as he said breathlessly, “I will be—I am your friend.”

She withdrew her hand and passed it over her eyes. After a moment she caught his hand again, and, holding it tightly as if she feared he might fly from her, bit her lip, and then slowly, without looking at him, said, “I lied to you about myself and Kitty that night; I did not come with her. I came alone and secretly to Boomville to see—to see the man who is my husband.”

“Your husband!” said Barker in surprise. He had believed, with the rest of the world, that there had been no communication between them for years. Yet so intense was his interest in her that he did not notice that this revelation was leaving now no excuse for his wife’s presence at Boomville.

Mrs. Horncastle went on with dogged bitterness, “Yes, my husband. I went to him to beg and bribe him to let me see my child. Yes, my child,” she said frantically, tightening her hold upon his hand, “for I lied to you when I once told you I had none. I had a child, and, more than that, a child who at his birth I did not dare to openly claim.”

She stopped breathlessly, stared at his face with her former intensity as if she would pluck the thought that followed from his brain. But he only moved closer to her, passed his arm over her shoulders with a movement so natural and protecting that it had a certain dignity in it, and, looking down upon her bent head with eyes brimming with sympathy, whispered, “Poor, poor child!”

Whereat Mrs. Horncastle again burst into tears. And then, with her head half drawn towards his shoulder, she told him all,—all that had passed between her and her husband,—even all that they had then but hinted at. It was as if she felt she could now, for the first time, voice all these terrible memories of the past which had come back to her last night when her husband had left her. She concealed nothing, she veiled nothing; there were intervals when her tears no longer flowed, and a cruel hardness and return of her old imperiousness of voice and manner took their place, as if she was doing a rigid penance and took a bitter satisfaction in laying bare her whole soul to him. “I never had a friend,” she whispered; “there were women who persecuted me with their jealous sneers; there were men who persecuted me with their selfish affections. When I first saw you, you seemed something so apart and different from all other men that, although I scarcely knew you, I wanted to tell you, even then, all that I have told you now. I wanted you to be my friend; something told me that you could,—that you could separate me from my past; that you could tell me what to do; that you could make me think as you thought, see life as you saw it, and trust always to some goodness in people as you did. And in this faith I thought that you would understand me now, and even forgive me all.”

She made a slight movement as if to disengage his arm, and, possibly, to look into his eyes, which she knew instinctively were bent upon her downcast head. But he only held her the more tightly until her cheek was close against his breast. “What could I do?” she murmured. “A man in sorrow and trouble may go to a woman for sympathy and support and the world will not gainsay or misunderstand him. But a woman—weaker, more helpless, credulous, ignorant, and craving for light—must not in her agony go to a man for succor and sympathy.”

“Why should she not?” burst out Barker passionately, releasing her in his attempt to gaze into her face. “What man dare refuse her?”

“Not that,” she said slowly, but with still averted eyes, “but because the world would say she loved him.”

“And what should she care for the opinion of a world that stands aside and lets her suffer? Why should she heed its wretched babble?” he went on in flashing indignation.

“Because,” she said faintly, lifting her moist eyes and moist and parted lips towards him,—“because it would be true!

There was a silence so profound that even the spring seemed to withhold its song as their eyes and lips met. When the spring recommenced its murmur, and they could hear the droning of a bee above them and the rustling of the reed, she was murmuring, too, with her face against his breast: “You did not think it strange that I should follow you—that I should risk everything to tell you what I have told you before I told you anything else? You will never hate me for it, George?”

There was another silence still more prolonged, and when he looked again into the flushed face and glistening eyes he was saying, “I have always loved you. I know now I loved you from the first, from the day when I leaned over you to take little Sta from your lap and saw your tenderness for him in your eyes. I could have kissed you then, dearest, as I do now.”

“And,” she said, when she had gained her smiling breath again, “you will always remember, George, that you told me this before I told you anything of her.”

Her? Of whom, dearest?” he asked, leaning over her tenderly.

“Of Kitty—of your wife,” she said impatiently, as she drew back shyly with her former intense gaze.

He did not seem to grasp her meaning, but said gravely, “Let us not talk of her now. Later we shall have much to say of her. For,” he added quietly, “you know I must tell her all.”

The color faded from her cheek. “Tell her all!” she repeated vacantly; then suddenly she turned upon him eagerly, and said, “But what if she is gone?”

“Gone?” he repeated.

“Yes; gone. What if she has run away with Van Loo? What if she has disgraced you and her child?”

“What do you mean?” he said, seizing both her hands and gazing at her fixedly.

“I mean,” she said, with a half-frightened eagerness, “that she has already gone with Van Loo. George! George!” she burst out suddenly and passionately, falling upon her knees before him, “do you think that I would have followed you here and told you what I did if I thought that she had now the slightest claim upon your love or honor? Don’t you understand me? I came to tell you of her flight to Boomville with that man; how I accidentally intercepted them there; how I tried to save her from him, and even lied to you to try to save her from your indignation; but how she deceived me as she has you, and even escaped and joined her lover while you were with me. I came to tell you that and nothing more, George, I swear it. But when you were kind to me and pitied me, I was mad—wild! I wanted to win you first out of your own love. I wanted you to respond to mine before you knew your wife was faithless. Yet I would have saved her if I could. Listen, George! A moment more before you speak!”

Then she hurriedly told him all; the whole story of his wife’s dishonor, from her entrance into the sitting-room with Van Loo, her later appeal for concealment from her husband’s unexpected presence, to the use she made of that concealment to fly with her lover. She spared no detail, and even repeated the insult Mrs. Barker had cast upon her with the triumphant reproach that her husband would not believe her. “Perhaps,” she added bitterly, “you may not believe me now. I could even stand that from you, George, if it could make you happier; but you would still have to believe it from others. The people at the Boomville Hotel saw them leave it together.”

“I do believe you,” he said slowly, but with downcast eyes, “and if I did not love you before you told me this I could love you now for the part you have taken; but”—He stopped.

“You love her still,” she burst out, “and I might have known it. Perhaps,” she went on distractedly, “you love her the more that you have lost her. It is the way of men—and women.”

“If I had loved her truly,” said Barker, lifting his frank eyes to hers, “I could not have touched your lips. I could not even have wished to—as I did three years ago—as I did last night. Then I feared it was my weakness, now I know it was my love. I have thought of it ever since, even while waiting my wife’s return here, knowing that I did not and never could have loved her. But for that very reason I must try to save her for her own sake, if I cannot save her for mine; and if I fail, dearest, it shall not be said that we climbed to happiness over her back bent with the burden of her shame. If I loved you and told you so, thinking her still guiltless and innocent, how could I profit now by her fault?”

Mrs. Horncastle saw too late her mistake. “Then you would take her back?” she said frenziedly.

“To my home—which is hers—yes. To my heart—no. She never was there.”

“And I,” said Mrs. Horncastle, with a quivering lip,—“where do I go when you have settled this? Back to my past again? Back to my husbandless, childless life?”

She was turning away, but Barker caught her in his arms again. “No!” he said, his whole face suddenly radiating with hope and youthful enthusiasm. “No! Kitty will help us; we will tell her all. You do not know her, dearest, as I do—how good and kind she is, in spite of all. We will appeal to her; she will devise some means by which, without the scandal of a divorce, she and I may be separated. She will take dear little Sta with her—it is only right, poor girl; but she will let me come and see him. She will be a sister to us, dearest. Courage! All will come right yet. Trust to me.”

An hysterical laugh came to Mrs. Horncastle’s lips and then stopped. For as she looked up at him in his supreme hopefulness, his divine confidence in himself and others—at his handsome face beaming with love and happiness, and his clear gray eyes glittering with an almost spiritual prescience—she, woman of the world and bitter experience, and perfectly cognizant of her own and Kitty’s possibilities, was, nevertheless, completely carried away by her lover’s optimism. For of all optimism that of love is the most convincing. Dear boy!—for he was but a boy in experience—only his love for her could work this magic. So she gave him kiss for kiss, largely believing, largely hoping, that Mrs. Barker was in love with Van Loo and would not return. And in this hope an invincible belief in the folly of her own sex soothed and sustained her.

“We must go now, dearest,” said Barker, pointing to the sun already near the meridian. Three hours had fled, they knew not how. “I will bring you back to the hill again, but there we had better separate, you taking your way alone to the hotel as you came, and I will go a little way on the road to the Divide and return later. Keep your own counsel about Kitty for her sake and ours; perhaps no one else may know the truth yet.” With a farewell kiss they plunged again hand in hand through the cool bracken and again through the hot manzanita bushes, and so parted on the hilltop, as they had never parted before, leaving their whole world behind them.

Barker walked slowly along the road under the flickering shade of wayside sycamore, his sensitive face also alternating with his thought in lights and shadows. Presently there crept towards him out of the distance a halting, vacillating, deviating buggy, trailing a cloud of dust after it like a broken wing. As it came nearer he could see that the horse was spent and exhausted, and that the buggy’s sole occupant—a woman—was equally exhausted in her monotonous attempt to urge it forward with whip and reins that rose and fell at intervals with feeble reiteration. Then he stepped out of the shadow and stood in the middle of the sunlit road to await it. For he recognized his wife.

The buggy came nearer. And then the most exquisite pang he had ever felt before at his wife’s hands shot through him. For as she recognized him she made a wild but impotent attempt to dash past him, and then as suddenly pulled up in the ditch.

He went up to her. She was dirty, she was disheveled, she was haggard, she was plain. There were rings of dust round her tear-swept eyes and smudges of dust-dried perspiration over her fair cheek. He thought of the beauty, freshness, and elegance of the woman he had just left, and an infinite pity swept the soul of this weak-minded gentleman. He ran towards her, and tenderly lifting her in her shame-stained garments from the buggy, said hurriedly, “I know it all, poor Kitty! You heard the news of Van Loo’s flight, and you ran over to the Divide to try and save some of your money. Why didn’t you wait? Why didn’t you tell me?”

There was no mistaking the reality of his words, the genuine pity and tenderness of his action; but the woman saw before her only the familiar dupe of her life, and felt an infinite relief mingled with a certain contempt for his weakness and anger at her previous fears of him.

“You might have driven over, then, yourself,” she said in a high, querulous voice, “if you knew it so well, and have spared me this horrid, dirty, filthy, hopeless expedition, for I have not saved anything—there! And I have had all this disgusting bother!”

For an instant he was sorely tempted to lift his eyes to her face, but he checked himself; then he gently took her dust-coat from her shoulders and shook it out, wiped the dust from her face and eyes with his own handkerchief, held her hat and blew the dust from it with a vivid memory of performing the same service for Mrs. Horncastle only an hour before, while she arranged her hair; and then, lifting her again into the buggy, said quietly, as he took his seat beside her and grasped the reins:—

“I will drive you to the hotel by way of the stables, and you can go at once to your room and change your clothes. You are tired, you are nervous and worried, and want rest. Don’t tell me anything now until you feel quite yourself again.”

He whipped up the horse, who, recognizing another hand at the reins, lunged forward in a final effort, and in a few minutes they were at the hotel.

As Mrs. Horncastle sat at luncheon in the great dining-room, a little pale and abstracted, she saw Mrs. Barker sweep confidently into the room, fresh, rosy, and in a new and ravishing toilette. With a swift glance of conscious power towards the other guests she walked towards Mrs. Horncastle. “Ah, here you are, dear,” she said in a voice that could easily reach all ears, “and you’ve arrived only a little before me, after all. And I’ve had such an awful drive to the Divide! And only think! poor George telegraphed to me at Boomville not to worry, and his dispatch has only just come back here.”

And with a glance of complacency she laid Barker’s gentle and forgiving dispatch before the astonished Mrs. Horncastle.

Three Partners - Contents    |     Chapter VIII

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