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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Crusade Of The Excelsior: A Novel - Part 2. Freed - Chapter 1. The Mourners At San Francisco
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The Crusade Of The Excelsior: A Novel - Part 2. Freed - Chapter 1. The Mourners At San Francisco Post by :hotspot Category :Long Stories Author :Bret Harte Date :May 2012 Read :3615

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The Crusade Of The Excelsior: A Novel - Part 2. Freed - Chapter 1. The Mourners At San Francisco

PART II. FREED
CHAPTER I. THE MOURNERS AT SAN FRANCISCO

The telegraph operator at the Golden Gate of San Francisco had long since given up hope of the Excelsior. During the months of September and October, 1854, stimulated by the promised reward, and often by the actual presence of her owners, he had shown zeal and hope in his scrutiny of the incoming ships. The gaunt arms of the semaphore at Fort Point, turned against the sunset sky, had regularly recorded the smallest vessel of the white-winged fleet which sought the portal of the bay during that eventful year of immigration; but the Excelsior was not amongst them. At the close of the year 1854 she was a tradition; by the end of January, 1855, she was forgotten. Had she been engulfed in her own element she could not have been more completely swallowed up than in the changes of that shore she never reached. Whatever interest or hope was still kept alive in solitary breasts the world never knew. By the significant irony of Fate, even the old-time semaphore that should have signaled her was abandoned and forgotten.

The mention of her name--albeit in a quiet, unconcerned voice--in the dress-circle of a San Francisco theatre, during the performance of a popular female star, was therefore so peculiar that it could only have come from the lips of some one personally interested in the lost vessel. Yet the speaker was a youngish, feminine-looking man of about thirty, notable for his beardlessness, in the crowded circle of bearded and moustachioed Californians, and had been one of the most absorbed of the enthusiastic audience. A weak smile of vacillating satisfaction and uneasiness played on his face during the plaudits of his fellow-admirers, as if he were alternately gratified and annoyed. It might have passed for a discriminating and truthful criticism of the performance, which was a classical burlesque, wherein the star displayed an unconventional frankness of shapely limbs and unrestrained gestures and glances; but he applauded the more dubious parts equally with the audience. He was evidently familiar with the performance, for a look of eager expectation greeted most of the "business." Either he had not come for the entire evening, or he did not wish to appear as if he had, as he sat on one of the back benches near the passage, and frequently changed his place. He was well, even foppishly, dressed for the period, and appeared to be familiarly known to the loungers in the passage as a man of some social popularity.

He had just been recognized by a man of apparently equal importance and distinction, who had quietly and unconsciously taken a seat by his side, and the recognition appeared equally unexpected and awkward. The new-comer was the older and more decorous-looking, with an added formality of manner and self-assertion that did not, however, conceal a certain habitual shrewdness of eye and lip. He wore a full beard, but the absence of a moustache left the upper half of his handsome and rather satirical mouth uncovered. His dress was less pronounced than his companion's, but of a type of older and more established gentility.

"I was a little late coming from the office to-night," said the younger man, with an embarrassed laugh, "and I thought I'd drop in here on my way home. Pretty rough outside, ain't it?"

"Yes, it's raining and blowing; so I thought I wouldn't go up to the plaza for a cab, but wait here for the first one that dropped a fare at the door, and take it on to the hotel."

"Hold on, and I'll go with you," said the young man carelessly. "I say, Brimmer," he added, after a pause, with a sudden assumption of larger gayety, "there's nothing mean about Belle Montgomery, eh? She's a whole team and the little dog under the wagon, ain't she? Deuced pretty woman!--no make-up there, eh?"

"She certainly is a fine woman," said Brimmer gravely, borrowing his companion's lorgnette. "By the way, Markham, do you usually keep an opera-glass in your office in case of an emergency like this?"

"I reckon it was forgotten in my overcoat pocket," said Markham, with an embarrassed smile.

"Left over from the last time," said Brimmer, rising from his seat. "Well, I'm going now--I suppose I'll have to try the plaza."

"Hold on a moment. She's coming on now--there she is!" He stopped, his anxious eyes fixed upon the stage. Brimmer turned at the same moment in no less interested absorption. A quick hush ran through the theatre; the men bent eagerly forward as the Queen of Olympus swept down to the footlights, and, with a ravishing smile, seemed to envelop the whole theatre in a gracious caress.

"You know, 'pon my word, Brimmer, she's a very superior woman," gasped Markham excitedly, when the goddess had temporarily withdrawn. "These fellows here," he said, indicating the audience contemptuously, "don't know her,--think she's all that sort of thing, you know,--and come here just to LOOK at her. But she's very accomplished--in fact, a kind of literary woman. Writes devilish good poetry--only took up the stage on account of domestic trouble: drunken husband that beat her--regular affecting story, you know. These sap-headed fools don't, of course, know THAT. No, sir; she's a remarkable woman! I say, Brimmer, look here! I"--he hesitated, and then went on more boldly, as if he had formed a sudden resolution. "What have you got to do to-night?"

Brimmer, who had been lost in abstraction, started slightly, and said,--

"I--oh! I've got an appointment with Keene. You know he's off by the steamer--day after to-morrow?"

"What! He's not going off on that wild-goose chase, after all? Why, the man's got Excelsior on the brain!" He stopped as he looked at Brimmer's cold face, and suddenly colored. "I mean his plan--his idea's all nonsense--you know that!"

"I certainly don't agree with him," began Brimmer gravely; "but"--

"The idea," interrupted Markham, encouraged by Brimmer's beginning, "of his knocking around the Gulf of California, and getting up an expedition to go inland, just because a mail-steamer saw a barque like the Excelsior off Mazatlan last August. As if the Excelsior wouldn't have gone into Mazatlan if it had been her! I tell you what it is, Brimmer: it's mighty rough on you and me, and it ain't the square thing at all--after all we've done, and the money we've spent, and the nights we've sat up over the Excelsior--to have this young fellow Keene always putting up the bluff of his lost sister on us! His lost sister, indeed! as if WE hadn't any feelings."

The two men looked at each other, and each felt it incumbent to look down and sigh deeply--not hypocritically, but perfunctorily, as over a past grief, although anger had been the dominant expression of the speaker.

"I was about to remark," said Brimmer practically, "that the insurance on the Excelsior having been paid, her loss is a matter of commercial record; and that, in a business point of view, this plan of Keene's ain't worth looking at. As a private matter of our own feelings--purely domestic--there's no question but that we must sympathize with him, although he refuses to let us join in the expenses."

"Oh, as to that," said Markham hurriedly, "I told him to draw on me for a thousand dollars last time I saw him. No, sir; it ain't that. What gets me is this darned nagging and simpering around, and opening old sores, and putting on sentimental style, and doing the bereaved business generally. I reckon he'd be even horrified to see you and me here--though it was just a chance with both of us."

"I think not," said Brimmer dryly. "He knows Miss Montgomery already. They're going by the same steamer."

Markham looked up quickly.

"Impossible! She's going by the other line to Panama; that is"--he hesitated--"I heard it from the agent."

"She's changed her mind, so Keene says," returned Brimmer. "She's going by way of Nicaragua. He stops at San Juan to reconnoitre the coast up to Mazatlan. Good-night. It's no use waiting here for a cab any longer, I'm off."

"Hold on!" said Markham, struggling out of a sudden uneasy reflection. "I say, Brimmer," he resumed, with an enforced smile, which he tried to make playful, "your engagement with Keene won't keep you long. What do you say to having a little supper with Miss Montgomery, eh?--perfectly proper, you know--at our hotel? Just a few friends, eh?"

Brimmer's eyes and lips slightly contracted.

"I believe I am already invited," he said quietly. "Keene asked me. In fact, that's the appointment. Strange he didn't speak of you," he added dryly.

"I suppose it's some later arrangement," Markham replied, with feigned carelessness. "Do you know her?"

"Slightly."

"You didn't say so!"

"You didn't ask me," said Brimmer. "She came to consult me about South American affairs. It seems that filibuster General Leonidas, alias Perkins, whose little game we stopped by that Peruvian contract, actually landed in Quinquinambo and established a government. It seems she knows him, has a great admiration for him as a Liberator, as she calls him. I think they correspond!"

"She's a wonderful woman, by jingo, Brimmer! I'd like to hear whom she don't know," said Markham, beaming with a patronizing vanity. "There's you, and there's that filibuster, and old Governor Pico, that she's just snatched bald-headed--I mean, you know, that he recognizes her worth, don't you see? Not like this cattle you see here."

"Are you coming with me?" said Brimmer, gravely buttoning up his coat, as if encasing himself in a panoply of impervious respectability.

"I'll join you at the hotel," said Markham hurriedly. "There's a man over there in the parquet that I want to say a word to; don't wait for me."

With a slight inclination of the head Mr. Brimmer passed out into the lobby, erect, self-possessed, and impeccable. One or two of his commercial colleagues of maturer age, who were loitering leisurely by the wall, unwilling to compromise themselves by actually sitting down, took heart of grace at this correct apparition. Brimmer nodded to them coolly, as if on 'Change, and made his way out of the theatre. He had scarcely taken a few steps before a furious onset of wind and rain drove him into a doorway for shelter. At the same moment a slouching figure, with a turned-up coat-collar, slipped past him and disappeared in a passage at his right. Partly hidden by his lowered umbrella, Mr. Brimmer himself escaped notice, but he instantly recognized his late companion, Markham. As he resumed his way up the street he glanced into the passage. Halfway down, a light flashed upon the legend "Stage Entrance." Quincy Brimmer, with a faint smile, passed on to his hotel.

It was striking half-past eleven when Mr. Brimmer again issued from his room in the Oriental and passed down a long corridor. Pausing a moment before a side hall that opened from it, he cast a rapid look up and down the corridor, and then knocked hastily at a door. It was opened sharply by a lady's maid, who fell back respectfully before Mr. Brimmer's all-correct presence.

Half reclining on a sofa in the parlor of an elaborate suite of apartments was the woman whom Mr. Brimmer had a few hours before beheld on the stage of the theatre. Lifting her eyes languidly from a book that lay ostentatiously on her lap, she beckoned her visitor to approach. She was a woman still young, whose statuesque beauty had but slightly suffered from cosmetics, late hours, and the habitual indulgence of certain hysterical emotions that were not only inconsistent with the classical suggestions of her figure, but had left traces not unlike the grosser excitement of alcoholic stimulation. She looked like a tinted statue whose slight mutations through stress of time and weather had been unwisely repaired by freshness of color.

"I am such a creature of nerves," she said, raising a superb neck and extending a goddess-like arm, "that I am always perfectly exhausted after the performance. I fly, as you see, to my first love--poetry--as soon as Rosina has changed my dress. It is not generally known--but I don't mind telling YOU--that I often nerve myself for the effort of acting by reading some well-remembered passage from my favorite poets, as I stand by the wings. I quaff, as one might say, a single draught of the Pierian spring before I go on."

The exact relations between the humorous "walk round," in which Miss Montgomery usually made her first entrance, and the volume of Byron she held in her hand, did not trouble Mr. Brimmer so much as the beautiful arm with which she emphasized it. Neither did it strike him that the distinguishing indications of a poetic exaltation were at all unlike the effects of a grosser stimulant known as "Champagne cocktail" on the less sensitive organization of her colleagues. Touched by her melancholy but fascinating smile, he said gallantly that he had observed no sign of exhaustion, or want of power in her performance that evening.

"Then you were there!" she said, fixing her eyes upon him with an expression of mournful gratitude. "You actually left your business and the calls of public duty to see the poor mountebank perform her nightly task."

"I was there with a friend of yours," answered Brimmer soberly, "who actually asked me to the supper to which Mr. Keene had already invited me, and which YOU had been kind enough to suggest to me a week ago."

"True, I had forgotten," said Miss Montgomery, with a large goddess-like indifference that was more effective with the man before her than the most elaborate explanation. "You don't mind them--do you?--for we are all friends together. My position, you know," she added sadly, "prevents my always following my own inclinations or preferences. Poor Markham, I fear the world does not do justice to his gentle, impressible nature. I sympathize with him deeply; we have both had our afflictions, we have both--lost. Good heavens!" she exclaimed, with a sudden exaggerated start of horror, "what have I done? Forgive my want of tact, dear friend; I had forgotten, wretched being that I am, that YOU, too"--

She caught his hand in both hers, and bowed her head over it as if unable to finish her sentence.

Brimmer, who had been utterly mystified and amazed at this picture of Markham's disconsolate attitude to the world, and particularly to the woman before him, was completely finished by this later tribute to his own affliction. His usually composed features, however, easily took upon themselves a graver cast as he kept, and pressed, the warm hands in his own.

"Fool that I was," continued Miss Montgomery; "in thinking of poor Markham's childlike, open grief, I forgot the deeper sorrow that the more manly heart experiences under an exterior that seems cold and impassible. Yes," she said, raising her languid eyes to Brimmer, "I ought to have felt the throb of that volcano under its mask of snow. You have taught me a lesson."

Withdrawing her hands hastily, as if the volcano had shown some signs of activity, she leaned back on the sofa again.

"You are not yet reconciled to Mr. Keene's expedition, then?" she asked languidly.

"I believe that everything has been already done," said Brimmer, somewhat stiffly; "all sources of sensible inquiry have been exhausted by me. But I envy Keene the eminently practical advantages his impractical journey gives him," he added, arresting himself, gallantly; "he goes with you."

"Truly!" said Miss Montgomery, with the melancholy abstraction of a stage soliloquy. "Beyond obeying the dictates of his brotherly affection, he gains no real advantage in learning whether his sister is alive or dead. The surety of her death would not make him freer than he is now--freer to absolutely follow the dictates of a new affection; free to make his own life again. It is a sister, not a wife, he seeks."

Mr. Brimmer's forehead slightly contracted. He leaned back a little more rigidly in his chair, and fixed a critical, half supercilious look upon her. She did not seem to notice his almost impertinent scrutiny, but sat silent, with her eyes bent on the carpet, in gloomy abstraction.

"Can you keep a secret?" she said, as if with a sudden resolution.

"Yes," said Brimmer briefly, without changing his look.

"You know I am a married woman. You have heard the story of my wrongs?"

"I have heard them," said Brimmer dryly.

"Well, the husband who abused and deserted me was, I have reason to believe, a passenger on the Excelsior."

"M'Corkle!--impossible. There was no such name on the passenger list."

"M'Corkle!" repeated Miss Montgomery, with a dissonant tone in her voice and a slight flash in her eyes. "What are you thinking of? There never was a Mr. M'Corkle; it was one of my noms de plume. And where did YOU hear it?"

"I beg your pardon, I must have got it from the press notices of your book of poetry. I knew that Montgomery was only a stage name, and as it was necessary that I should have another in making the business investments you were good enough to charge me with, I used what I thought was your real name. It can be changed, or you can sign M'Corkle."

"Let it go," said Miss Montgomery, resuming her former manner. "What matters? I wish there was no such thing as business. Well," she resumed, after a pause, "my husband's name is Hurlstone."

"But there was no Hurlstone on the passenger list either," said Brimmer. "I knew them all, and their friends."

"Not in the list from the States; but if he came on board at Callao, you wouldn't have known it. I knew that he arrived there on the Osprey a few days before the Excelsior sailed."

Mr. Brimmer's eyes changed their expression.

"And you want to find him?"

"No," she said, with an actress's gesture. "I want to know the truth. I want to know if I am still tied to this man, or if I am free to follow the dictates of my own conscience,--to make my life anew,--to become--you see I am not ashamed to say it--to become the honest wife of some honest man."

"A divorce would suit your purpose equally," said Brimmer coldly. "It can be easily obtained."

"A divorce! Do you know what that means to a woman in my profession? It is a badge of shame,--a certificate of disgrace,--an advertisement to every miserable wretch who follows me with his advances that I have no longer the sanctity of girlhood, nor the protection of a wife."

There was tragic emotion in her voice, there were tears in her eyes. Mr. Brimmer, gazing at her with what he firmly thought to be absolute and incisive penetration, did not believe either. But like most practical analysts of the half-motived sex, he was only half right. The emotion and the tears were as real as anything else in the woman under criticism, notwithstanding that they were not as real as they would have been in the man who criticised. He, however, did her full justice on a point where most men and all women misjudged her: he believed that, through instinct and calculation, she had been materially faithful to her husband; that this large goddess-like physique had all the impeccability of a goddess; that the hysterical dissipation in which she indulged herself was purely mental, and usurped and preoccupied all other emotions. In this public exposition of her beauty there was no sense of shame, for there was no sense of the passion it evoked. And he was right. But there he should have stopped. Unfortunately, his masculine logic forced him to supply a reason for her coldness in the existence of some more absorbing passion. He believed her ambitious and calculating: she was neither. He believed she might have made him an admirable copartner and practical helpmeet: he was wrong.

"You know my secret now," she continued. "You know why I am anxious to know my fate. You understand now why I sympathize with"--she stopped, and made a half contemptuous gesture--"with these men Markham and Keene. THEY do not know it; perhaps they prefer to listen to their own vanity--that's the way of most men; but you do know it, and you have no excuse for misjudging me, or undeceiving them." She stopped and looked at the clock. "They will be here in five minutes; do you wish them to find you already here?"

"It is as YOU wish," stammered Brimmer, completely losing his self-possession.

"I have no wish," she said, with a sublime gesture of indifference. "If you wait you can entertain them here, while Rosina is dressing me in the next room. We sup in the larger room across the hall."

As she disappeared, Quincy Brimmer rose irresolutely from his seat and checked a half uttered exclamation. Then he turned nervously to the parlor-door. What a senseless idiot he had become! He had never for an instant conceived the idea of making this preliminary confidential visit known to the others; he had no wish to suggest the appearance of an assignation with the woman, who, rightly or wrongly, was notorious; he had nothing to gain by this voluntary assumption of a compromising attitude; yet here he was, he--Mr. Brimmer--with the appearance of being installed in her parlor, receiving her visitors, and dispensing her courtesies. Only a man recklessly in love would be guilty of such an indiscretion--even Markham's feebleness had never reached this absurdity. In the midst of his uneasiness there was a knock at the door; he opened it himself nervously and sharply. Markham's self-satisfied face drew back in alarm and embarrassment at the unexpected apparition. The sight restored Brimmer's coolness and satirical self-possession.

"I--I--didn't know you were here," stammered Markham. "I left Keene in your room."

"Then why didn't you bring him along with you?" said Brimmer maliciously. "Go and fetch him."

"Yes; but he said you were to meet him there," continued Markham, glancing around the empty room with a slight expression of relief.

"My watch was twenty minutes fast, and I had given him up," said Brimmer, with mendacious effrontery. "Miss Montgomery is dressing. You can bring him here before she returns."

Markham flew uneasily down the corridor and quickly returned with a handsome young fellow of five-and-twenty, whose frank face was beaming with excitement and youthful energy. The two elder men could not help regarding him with a mingled feeling of envy and compassion.

"Did you tell Brimmer yet?" said Keene, with animation.

"I haven't had time," hesitated Markham. "The fact is, Brimmer, I think of going with Keene on this expedition."

"Indeed!" said Brimmer superciliously.

"Yes," said Markham, coloring slightly. "You see, we've got news. Tell him, Dick."

"The Storm Cloud got in yesterday from Valparaiso and Central American ports," said Keene, with glowing cheeks. "I boarded her, as usual, last night, for information. The mate says there is a story of a man picked up crazy, in an open fishing-boat, somewhere off the peninsula, and brought into hospital at San Juan last August. He recovered enough lately to tell his story and claim to be Captain Bunker of the Excelsior, whose crew mutinied and ran her ashore in a fog. But the boat in which he was picked up was a Mexican fishing-boat, and there was something revolutionary and political about the story, so that the authorities detained him. The consul has just been informed of the circumstances, and has taken the matter in hand."

"It's a queer story," said Brimmer, gazing from the one to the other, "and I will look into it also to-morrow. If it is true," he added slowly, "I will go with you."

Richard Keene extended his hand impulsively to his two elders.

"You'll excuse me for saying it, Brimmer--and you, too, Markham--but this is just what I've been looking forward to. Not but what I'd have found Nell without your assistance; but you see, boys, it DID look mighty mean in me to make more fuss about a sister than you would for your wives! But now that it's all settled"--

"We'll go to supper," said Miss Montgomery theatrically, appearing at the door. "Dick will give me his arm."

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