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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Argonauts Of North Liberty - Part 2 - Chapter 5
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The Argonauts Of North Liberty - Part 2 - Chapter 5 Post by :aparent Category :Long Stories Author :Bret Harte Date :May 2012 Read :2669

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The Argonauts Of North Liberty - Part 2 - Chapter 5

PART II. CHAPTER V.

Demorest, now as self-possessed as his adversary, haughtily waved his hand towards the path. They walked on in silence, without even looking at each other, until they reached a small summer-house that stood in the angle of the wall. Demorest entered. "We cannot be heard here," he said curtly.

"And we can see what is going on. Good," said Blandford, coolly following him. The summer-house contained a bench and a table. Blandford seated himself on the bench. Demorest remained standing beside the table. There was a moment's silence.

"I came here with no desire to see you or avoid you," said Blandford, with cold indifference. "A few weeks ago I might perhaps have avoided you, for your own sake. But since then I have learned that among the many things I owe to--to your wife is the fact that five years ago she secretly DIVORCED ME, and that consequently my living presence could neither be a danger nor a menace to you. I see," he added, dryly, with a quick glance at Demorest's horror-stricken face, "that I was also told the truth when they said you were as ignorant of the divorce as I was."

He stopped, half in pity of his adversary's shame, half in surprise of his own calmness. Five years before, in the tumultuous consciousness of his wrongs, he would have scarcely trusted himself face to face with the cooler and more self-controlled Demorest. He wondered at and partly admired his own coolness now, in the presence of his enemy's confusion.

"As your mind is at rest on that point," he continued, sarcastically, "I don't suppose you care to know what became of ME when I left North Liberty. But as it happens to have something to do with my being here to-night, and is a part of my business with you, you'll have to listen to it. Sit down! Very well, then--stand up! It's your own house."

His half cynical, wholly contemptuous ignoring of the real issue between them was more crushing to Demorest than the keenest reproach or most tragic outburst. He did not lift his eyes as Blandford resumed in a dry, business-like way:

"When I came across the plains to California, I fell in with a man about my own age--an emigrant also. I suppose I looked and acted like a crazy fool through all the journey, for he satisfied himself that I had some secret reason for leaving the States, and suspected that I was, like himself--a criminal. I afterwards learned that he was an escaped thief and assassin. Well, he played upon me all the way here, for I didn't care to reveal my real trouble to him, lest it should get back to North liberty--" He interrupted himself with a sarcastic laugh. "Of course, you understand that all this while Joan was getting her divorce unknown to me, and you were marrying her--yet as I didn't know anything about it I let him compromise me to save her. But"--he stopped, his eye kindled, and, losing his self-control in what to Demorest seemed some incoherent passion, went on excitedly: "that man continued his persecution HERE--yes, HERE, in this very house, where I was a trusted and honored guest, and threatened to expose me to a pure, innocent, simple girl who had taken pity on me--unless I helped him in a conspiracy of cattle-stealers and road agents, of which he was chief. I was such a cursed sentimental fool then, that believing him capable of doing this, believing myself still the husband of that woman, your wife, and to spare that innocent girl the shame of thinking me a villain, I purchased his silence by consenting. May God curse me for it!"

He had started to his feet with flashing eyes, and the indication of an overmastering passion that to Demorest, absorbed only in the stupefying revelation of his wife's divorce and the horrible doubt it implied, seemed utterly vacant and unmeaning.

He had often dreamed of Blandford as standing before him, reproachful, indignant, and even desperate over his wife's unfaithfulness; but this insane folly and fury over some trivial wrong done to that plump, baby-faced, flirting Dona Rosita, crushed him by its unconscious but degrading obliteration of Joan and himself more than the most violent denunciation. Dazed and bewildered, yet with the instinct of a helpless man, he clung only to that part of Blandford's story which indicated that he had come there for Rosita, and not to separate him from Joan, and even turned to his former friend with a half-embarrassed gesture of apology as he stammered--

"Then it was YOU who were Rosita's lover, and you who have been here to see her. Forgive me, Ned--if I had only known it." He stopped and timidly extended his hand. But Blandford put it aside with a cold gesture and folded his arms.

"You have forgotten all you ever knew of me, Demorest! I am not in the habit of making clandestine appointments with helpless women whose natural protectors I dare not face. I have never pursued an innocent girl to the house I dared not enter. When I found that I could not honorably retain Dona Rosita's affection, I fled her roof. When I believed that even if I broke with this scoundrel--as I did--I was still legally if not morally tied to your wife, and could not marry Rosita, I left her never to return. And I tore my heart out to do it."

The tears were standing in his eyes. Demorest regarded him again with vacant wonder. Tears!--not for Joan's unfaithfulness to him--but for this silly girl's transitory sentimentalism. It was horrible!

And yet what was Joan to Blandford now? Why should he weep for the woman who had never loved him--whom he loved no longer? The woman who had deceived him--who had deceived them BOTH. Yes! for Joan must have suspected that Blandford was living to have sought her secret divorce--and yet she had never told him--him--the man for whom she got it. Ah! he must not forget THAT! It was to marry him that she had taken that step. It was perhaps a foolish caution--a mistaken reservation; but it was the folly--the mistake of a loving woman. He hugged this belief the closer, albeit he was conscious at the same time of following Blandford's story of his alienated affection with a feeling of wonder and envy.

"And what was the result of this touching sacrifice?" continued Blandford, trying to resume his former cynical indifference. "I'll tell you. This scoundrel set himself about to supplant me. Taking advantage of my absence, his knowledge that her affection for me was heightened by the mystery of my life, and trusting to profit by a personal resemblance he is said to bear to me, he began to haunt her. Lately he has grown bolder, and he dared even to communicate with her here. For it is he," he continued, again giving way to his passion, "this dog, this sneaking coward, who visits the place unknown to you, and thinks to entrap the poor girl through her memory of me. And it is he that I came here to prevent, to expose--if necessary to kill! Don't misunderstand me. I have made myself a deputy of the law for that purpose. I've a warrant in my pocket, and I shall take him, this mongrel, half-breed Cherokee Bob, by fair means or foul!"

The energy and presence of his passion was so infectious that it momentarily swept away Demorest's doubts of the past. "And I will help you, before God, Blandford," he said eagerly. "And Joan shall, too. She will find out from Rosita how far--"

"Thank you," interrupted Blandford, dryly; "but your wife has already interfered in this matter, to my cost. It is to her, I believe, I owe this wretch's following Rosita here. She already knows this man--has met him twice in San Francisco; he even boasts of YOUR jealousy. You know best how far he lied."

But Demorest had braced himself against the chill sensation that had begun to creep over him as Blandford spoke. He nerved himself and said, proudly, "I forbade her knowing him on account of his reputation solely. I have no reason to believe she has ever even wished to disobey me."

A smile of scorn that had kindled in Blandford's eyes, darkened with a swift shadow of compassion as he glanced at Demorest's hard, ashen face. He held out his hand with a sudden impulse. "Enough, I accept your offer, and shall put it to the test this very night. I know--if you do not--that Rosita is to leave here for Los Osos an hour from now in a private carriage, which your wife has ordered especially for her. The same information tells me that this villain and another of his gang will be in wait for the carriage three miles out of the pueblo to attack it and carry off the young girl."

"Are you mad!" said Demorest, in unfeigned amazement. "Do you believe them capable of attacking a private carriage and carrying off a solitary, defenceless woman? Come, Blandford, this is a school-girl romance--not an act of mercenary highwaymen--least of all Cherokee Bob and his gang. This is some madness of Rosita's, surely," he continued with a forced laugh.

"Does this mean that you think better of your promise?" asked Blandford, dryly.

"I said I was at your service," said Demorest, reproachfully.

"Then hear my plan to prevent it, and yet take that dog in the act," said Blandford. "But we must first wait here till the last moment to ascertain if he makes any signal to show that his plan is altered, or that he has discovered he is watched." He turned, and in his preoccupation laid his hand for an instant upon Demorest's shoulder with the absent familiarity of old days. Unconscious as the action was, it thrilled them both--from its very unconsciousness--and impelled them to throw themselves into the new alliance with such feverish and excited activity in order to preclude any dangerous alien reflection, that when they rose a few moments later and cautiously left the garden arm-in-arm through the outer gates, no one would have believed they had ever been estranged, least of all the clever woman who had separated them.

It was nearly nine o'clock when the two friends, accompanied by the sheriff of the county, left San Buenaventura turnpike and turned into a thicket of alders to wait the coming of the carriage they were to henceforth follow cautiously and unseen in a parallel trail to the main road. The moon had risen, and with it the long withheld wind that now swept over the distant stretch of gleaming road and partly veiled it at times with flying dust unchecked by any dew from the clear cold sky. Demorest shivered even with his ready hand on his revolver. Suddenly the sheriff uttered an exclamation of disgust.

"Blasted if thar ain't some one in the road between us and their ambush."

"It's one of their gang--scouting. Lie close."

"Scout be darned. Look at him bucking round there in the dust. He can't even ride! It's some blasted greenhorn taking a pasear on a hoss for the first time. Damnation! he's ruined everything. They'll take the alarm."

"I'll push on and clear him out," said Blandford, excitedly. "Even if they're off, I may yet get a shot at the Cherokee."

"Quick then," said Demorest, "for here comes the carriage." He pointed to a dark spot on the road occasionally emerging from the driven dust clouds.

In another moment Blandford was at the heels of the awkward horseman, who wheeled clumsily at his approach and revealed the lank figure of Ezekiel Corwin!

"You here!" said Blandford, in stupefied fury.

"Wa'al, yes, squire," said Ezekiel lazily, in spite of his uneasy seat. "I kalkilated ef there was suthin' goin' on, I'd like to see it."

"You cursed prying fool! you've spoiled all. There!" he shouted despairingly, as the quick clatter of hoofs rang from the arroyo behind them, "there they go! That's your work, blockhead! Out of my way, or by God--" but the sentence was left unfinished as, joined by the sheriff, who had galloped up at the sound of the robbers' flight, he darted past the unconcerned Ezekiel. Demorest would have followed, but Blandford, with a warning cry to him to remain and protect the carriage, halted him at the side of Corwin as the vehicle now rapidly approached.

But Ezekiel was before him even then, and as the driver pulled up, that inquiring man tumbled from his horse, ran to the door and opened it. Demorest rode up, glanced into the carriage, and fell back in blank amazement.

It was his wife who was sitting there alone, pale, erect, and beautiful. By some illusion of the moonlight, her face and figure, covered with soft white wrappings for a journey, looked as he remembered to have seen her the first night they had met in the Boston train. The picture was completed by the traveling bag and rug that lay on the seat before her. Another terrible foreboding seized him; his brain reeled. Was he going mad?

"Joan!" he stammered. "You? What is the meaning of this?"

Ezekiel whom but for his dazed condition he might have seen violently contorting his features in Joan's face, presumably in equal astonishment--broke into a series of discordant chuckles.

"Wa'al, ef that ain't Deacon Salisbury's darter all over. Ha! Here are ye two men folks makin' no end o' fuss to save that Mexican gal with pistols and ambushes and plots and counterplots, and yer's Joan Salisbury shows ye the way ha'ow to do it. And so, ma'am, you succeeded in fixin' it up with Dona Rosita to take her place and just sell them robbers cheap! Wa'al, ma'am, yer sold this yer party, too--for"--he advanced his face close to hers--"I never let on a word, though I knew it, and although they nearly knocked me off my hoss in their fuss and fury. Ha! ha! They wanted to know what I was doin' here, he-he! Tell 'em, Joan, tell 'em."

Demorest gazed from one to another with a troubled face, yet one on which a faint relief was breaking.

"What does he mean, Joan? Speak," he said, almost imploringly.

Joan, whose color was slightly returning, drew herself up with her old cold Puritan precision.

"After the scene you made this morning, Richard, when you chose to accuse your wife of unfaithfulness to her friend, her guest, and even your reputation, I resolved to go myself with Dona Rosita to Los Osos and explain the matter to her father. Some rumor of the ridiculous farce I have just witnessed reached us through Ezekiel, and frightened the poor girl so that she declined--and properly, too to face the hoax which you and some nameless impersonator of a disgraced fugitive have gotten up for purposes of your own! I wish you joy of your work! If the play is over now, I presume I may be allowed to proceed on my journey?"

"Not yet," said Demorest slowly, with a face over which the chasing doubts had at last settled in a grayish pallor. "Believe what you like, misunderstand me if you will, laugh at the danger you perhaps comprehend better than I do, but upon this road, wherever or to whatever it was leading you--to-night you go no further!"

"Then I suppose I may return home," she said coldly. "Ezekiel will accompany me back to protect me from--robbers. Come, Ezekiel. Mr. Demorest and his friends can be safely trusted to take care of--your horse."

And as the grinning Ezekiel sprang into the carriage beside her, she pulled up the glass in the fateful and set face of her once trusting husband; the carriage turned and drove off, leaving him like a statue in the road.

*****

The bell of the North Liberty Second Presbyterian Church had just ceased ringing. But in the last five years it had rung out the bass viol and harmonium, and rung in an organ and choir; and the old austere interior had been subjected at the hands of the rising generation to an invasion of youthful warmth and color. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the choir itself, where the bright spring sunshine, piercing a newly-opened stained-glass window, picked out the new spring bonnet of Mrs. Demorest and settled upon it during the singing of the hymn. Perhaps that was the reason why a few eyes were curiously directed in that direction, and that even the minister himself strayed from the precise path of doctrine to allude with ecclesiastical vagueness to certain shining examples of the Christian virtues that were "again in our midst." The shrewd face and white eyelashes of Ezekiel Corwin, junior partner in the firm of Dilworth & Dusenberry, of San Francisco, were momentarily raised towards the choir, and then relapsed into an expression of fatigued self-righteousness.

When the service was over a few worshipers lingered near the choir staircase, mindful of the spring bonnet.

"It looks quite nat'ral," said Deacon Fairchild, "ter see Joan Salisbury attendin' the ministration of the Word agin. And I ain't sorry she didn't bring that second husband of hers with her. It kinder looks like old times--afore Edward Blandford was gathered to the Lord."

"That's so," replied his auditor meekly, "and they do say ez ha'ow Demorest got more powerful worldly and unregenerate in that heathen country, and that Joan ez a professin' Christian had to leave him. I've heerd tell thet he'd got mixed up, out thar, with some half-breed outlaw, of the name o' Johnson, ez hez a purty, high-flyin' Mexican wife. It was fort'nit for Joan that she found a friend in grace in Brother Corwin to look arter her share in the property and bring her back tu hum."

"She's lookin' peart," said Sister Bradley, "though to my mind that bonnet savors still o' heathen vanities."

"Et's the new idees--crept in with that organ," groaned Deacon Fairchild; "but--sho--thar she comes."

She shone for an instant--a charming vision--out of the shadow of the choir stairs, and then glided primly into the street.

The old sexton, still in waiting with his hand on the half-closed door, paused and looked after her with a troubled brow. A singular and utterly incomprehensible recollection and resemblance had just crossed his mind.


(THE END)
Bret Harte's book: Argonauts of North Liberty

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