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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Crusade Of The Excelsior: A Novel - Part 2. Freed - Chapter 4. A Gleam Of Sunshine
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The Crusade Of The Excelsior: A Novel - Part 2. Freed - Chapter 4. A Gleam Of Sunshine Post by :jarmacy Category :Long Stories Author :Bret Harte Date :May 2012 Read :2370

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The Crusade Of The Excelsior: A Novel - Part 2. Freed - Chapter 4. A Gleam Of Sunshine

PART II. FREED
CHAPTER IV. A GLEAM OF SUNSHINE

While these various passions had been kindled by her compatriots in the peaceful ashes of Todos Santos, Eleanor Keene had moved among them indifferently and, at times, unconsciously. The stranding of her young life on that unknown shore had not drawn her towards her fellow-exiles, and the circumstances which afterwards separated her from daily contact with them completed the social estrangement. She found herself more in sympathy with the natives, to whom she had shown no familiarity, than with her own people, who had mixed with them more or less contemptuously. She found the naivete of Dona Isabel more amusing than the doubtful simplicity of that married ingenue Mrs. Brimmer, although she still met the young girl's advances with a certain reserve. She found herself often pained by the practical brusqueness with which Mrs. Markham put aside the Comandante's delicate attentions, and she was moved with a strange pity for his childlike trustfulness, which she knew was hopeless. As the months passed, on the few occasions that she still met the Excelsior's passengers she was surprised to find how they had faded from her memory, and to discover in them the existence of qualities that made her wonder how she could have ever been familiar with them. She reproached herself with this fickleness; she wondered if she would have felt thus if they had completed their voyage to San Francisco together; and she recalled, with a sad smile, the enthusiastic plans they had formed during the passage to perpetuate their fellowship by anniversaries and festivals. But she, at last, succumbed, and finally accepted their open alienation as preferable to the growing awkwardness of their chance encounters.

For a few weeks following the flight of Captain Bunker and her acceptance of the hospitality and protection of the Council, she became despondent. The courage that had sustained her, and the energy she had shown in the first days of their abandonment, suddenly gave way, for no apparent reason. She bitterly regretted the brother whom she scarcely remembered; she imagined his suspense and anguish on her account, and suffered for both; she felt the dumb pain of homesickness for a home she had never known. Her loneliness became intolerable. Her condition at last affected Mrs. Markham, whose own idleness had been beguiled by writing to her husband an exhaustive account of her captivity, which had finally swelled to a volume on Todos Santos, its resources, inhabitants, and customs. "Good heavens!" she said, "you must do something, child, to occupy your mind--if it is only a flirtation with that conceited Secretary." But this terrible alternative was happily not required. The Comandante had still retained as part of the old patriarchal government of the Mission the Presidio school, for the primary instruction of the children of the soldiers,--dependants of the garrison. Miss Keene, fascinated by several little pairs of beady black eyes that had looked up trustingly to hers from the playground on the glacis, offered to teach English to the Comandante's flock. The offer was submitted to the spiritual head of Todos Santos, and full permission given by Padre Esteban to the fair heretic. Singing was added to the Instruction, and in a few months the fame of the gracious Dona Leonor's pupils stirred to emulation even the boy choristers of the Mission.

Her relations with James Hurlstone during this interval were at first marked by a strange and unreasoning reserve. Whether she resented the singular coalition forced upon them by the Council and felt the awkwardness of their unintentional imposture when they met, she did not know, but she generally avoided his society. This was not difficult, as he himself had shown no desire to intrude his confidences upon her; and even in her shyness she could not help thinking that if he had treated the situation lightly or humorously--as she felt sure Mr. Brace or Mr. Crosby would have done--it would have been less awkward and unpleasant. But his gloomy reserve seemed to the high-spirited girl to color their innocent partnership with the darkness of conspiracy.

"If your conscience troubles you, Mr. Hurlstone, in regard to the wretched infatuation of those people," she had once said, "undeceive them, if you can, and I will assist you. And don't let that affair of Captain Bunker worry you either. I have already confessed to the Comandante that he escaped through my carelessness."

"You could not have done otherwise without sacrificing the poor Secretary, who must have helped you," Hurlstone returned quietly.

Miss Keene bit her lip and dropped the subject. At their next meeting Hurlstone himself resumed it.

"I hope you don't allow that absurd decree of the Council to disturb you; I imagine they're quite convinced of their folly. I know that the Padre is; and I know that he thinks you've earned a right to the gratitude of the Council in your gracious task at the Presidio school that is far beyond any fancied political service."

"I really haven't thought about it at all," said Miss Keene coolly. "I thought it was YOU who were annoyed."

"I? not at all," returned Hurlstone quickly. "I have been able to assist the Padre in arranging the ecclesiastical archives of the church, and in suggesting some improvement in codifying the ordinances of the last forty years. No; I believe I'm earning my living here, and I fancy they think so."

"Then it isn't THAT that troubles you?" said Miss Keene carelessly, but glancing at him under the shade of her lashes.

"No," he said coldly, turning away.

Yet unsatisfactory as these brief interviews were, they revived in Miss Keene the sympathizing curiosity and interest she had always felt for this singular man, and which had been only held in abeyance at the beginning of their exile; in fact, she found herself thinking of him more during the interval when they seldom saw each other, and apparently had few interests in common, than when they were together on the Excelsior. Gradually she slipped into three successive phases of feeling towards him, each of them marked with an equal degree of peril to her peace of mind. She began with a profound interest in the mystery of his secluded habits, his strange abstraction, and a recognition of the evident superiority of a nature capable of such deep feeling--uninfluenced by those baser distractions which occupied Brace, Crosby, and Winslow. This phase passed into a settled conviction that some woman was at the root of his trouble, and responsible for it. With an instinctive distrust of her own sex, she was satisfied that it must be either a misplaced or unworthy attachment, and that the unknown woman was to blame. This second phase--which hovered between compassion and resentment--suddenly changed to the latter--the third phase of her feelings. Miss Keene became convinced that Mr. Hurlstone had a settled aversion to HERSELF. Why and wherefore, she did not attempt to reason, yet she was satisfied that from the first he disliked her. His studious reserve on the Excelsior, compared with the attentions of the others, ought then to have convinced her of the fact; and there was no doubt now that his present discontent could be traced to the unfortunate circumstances that brought them together. Having given herself up to that idea, she vacillated between a strong impulse to inform him that she knew his real feelings and an equally strong instinct to avoid him hereafter entirely. The result was a feeble compromise. On the ground that Mr. Hurlstone could "scarcely be expected to admire her inferior performances," she declined to invite him with Father Esteban to listen to her pupils. Father Esteban took a huge pinch of snuff, examined Miss Keene attentively, and smiled a sad smile. The next day he begged Hurlstone to take a volume of old music to Miss Keene with his compliments. Hurlstone did so, and for some reason exerted himself to be agreeable. As he made no allusion to her rudeness, she presumed he did not know of it, and speedily forgot it herself. When he suggested a return visit to the boy choir, with whom he occasionally practiced, she blushed and feared she had scarcely the time. But she came with Mrs. Markham, some consciousness, and a visible color!

And then, almost without her knowing how or why, and entirely unexpected and unheralded, came a day so strangely and unconsciously happy, so innocently sweet and joyous, that it seemed as if all the other days of her exile had only gone before to create it, and as if it--and it alone--were a sufficient reason for her being there. A day full of gentle intimations, laughing suggestions, childlike surprises and awakenings; a day delicious for the very incompleteness of its vague happiness. And this remarkable day was simply marked in Mrs. Markham's diary as follows:--"Went with E. to Indian village; met Padre and J. H. J. H. actually left shell and crawled on beach with E. E. chatty."

The day itself had been singularly quiet and gracious, even for that rare climate of balmy days and recuperating nights. At times the slight breath of the sea which usually stirred the morning air of Todos Santos was suspended, and a hush of expectation seemed to arrest land and water. When Miss Keene and Mrs. Markham left the Presidio, the tide was low, and their way lay along the beach past the Mission walls. A walk of two or three miles brought them to the Indian village--properly a suburban quarter of Todos Santos--a collection of adobe huts and rudely cultivated fields. Padre Esteban and Mr. Hurlstone were awaiting them in the palm-thatched veranda of a more pretentious cabin, that served as a school-room. "This is Don Diego's design," said the Padre, beaming with a certain paternal pride on Hurlstone, "built by himself and helped by the heathen; but look you: my gentleman is not satisfied with it, and wishes now to bring his flock to the Mission school, and have them mingle with the pure-blooded races on an equality. That is the revolutionary idea of this sans culotte reformer," continued the good Father, shaking his yellow finger with gentle archness at the young man. "Ah, we shall yet have a revolution in Todos Santos unless you ladies take him in hand. He has already brought the half-breeds over to his side, and those heathens follow him like dumb cattle anywhere. There, take him away and scold him, Dona Leonor, while I speak to the Senora Markham of the work that her good heart and skillful fingers may do for my poor muchachos."

Eleanor Keene lifted her beautiful eyes to Hurlstone with an artless tribute in their depths that brought the blood faintly into his cheek. She was not thinking of the priest's admonishing words; she was thinking of the quiet, unselfish work that this gloomy misanthrope had been doing while his companions had been engaged in lower aims and listless pleasures, and while she herself had been aimlessly fretting and diverting herself. What were her few hours of applauded instruction with the pretty Murillo-like children of the Fort compared to his silent and unrecognized labor! Yet even at this moment an uneasy doubt crossed her mind.

"I suppose Mrs. Brimmer and Miss Chubb interest themselves greatly in your--in the Padre's charities?"

The first playful smile she had seen on Hurlstone's face lightened in his eyes and lips, and was becoming.

"I am afraid my barbarians are too low and too near home for Mrs. Brimmer's missionary zeal. She and Miss Chubb patronize the Mexican school with cast-off dresses, old bonnets retrimmed, flannel petticoats, some old novels and books of poetry--of which the Padre makes an auto-da-fe--and their own patronizing presence on fete days. Providence has given them the vague impression that leprosy and contagious skin-disease are a peculiarity of the southern aborigine, and they have left me severely alone."

"I wish you would prevail upon the Padre to let ME help you," said Miss Keene, looking down.

"But you already have the Commander's chickens--which you are bringing up as swans, by the way," said Hurlstone mischievously. "You wouldn't surely abandon the nest again?"

"You are laughing at me," said Miss Keene, putting on a slight pout to hide the vague pleasure that Hurlstone's gayer manner was giving her. "But, really, I've been thinking that the Presidio children are altogether too pretty and picturesque for me, and that I enjoy them too much to do them any good. It's like playing with them, you know!"

Hurlstone laughed, but suddenly looking down upon her face he was struck with its youthfulness. She had always impressed him before--through her reserve and independence--as older, and more matured in character. He did not know how lately she was finding her lost youth as he asked her, quite abruptly, if she ever had any little brothers and sisters.

The answer to this question involved the simple story of Miss Keene's life, which she gave with naive detail. She told him of her early childhood, and the brother who was only an indistinct memory; of her school days, and her friendships up to the moment of her first step into the great world that was so strangely arrested at Todos Santos. He was touched with the almost pathetic blankness of this virgin page. Encouraged by his attention, and perhaps feeling a sympathy she had lately been longing for, she confessed to him the thousand little things which she had reserved from even Mrs. Markham during her first apathetic weeks at Todos Santos.

"I'm sure I should have been much happier if I had had any one to talk to," she added, looking up into his face with a naivete of faint reproach; "it's very different for men, you know. They can always distract themselves with something. Although," she continued hesitatingly, "I've sometimes thought YOU would have been happier if you had had somebody to tell your troubles to--I don't mean the Padre; for, good as he is, he is a foreigner, you know, and wouldn't look upon things as WE do--but some one in sympathy with you."

She stopped, alarmed at the change of expression in his face. A quick flush had crossed his cheek; for an instant he had looked suspiciously into her questioning eyes. But the next moment the idea of his quietly selecting this simple, unsophisticated girl as the confidant of his miserable marriage, and the desperation that had brought him there, struck him as being irresistibly ludicrous and he smiled. It was the first time that the habitual morbid intensity of his thoughts on that one subject had ever been disturbed by reaction; it was the first time that a clear ray of reason had pierced the gloom in which he had enwrapped it. Seeing him smile, the young girl smiled too. Then they smiled together vaguely and sympathetically, as over some unspoken confidence. But, unknown and unsuspected by himself, that smile had completed his emancipation and triumph. The next moment, when he sought with a conscientious sigh to reenter his old mood, he was half shocked to find it gone. Whatever gradual influence--the outcome of these few months of rest and repose--may have already been at work to dissipate his clouded fancy, he was only vaguely conscious that the laughing breath of the young girl had blown it away forever.

The perilous point passed, unconsciously to both of them, they fell into freer conversation, tacitly avoiding the subject of Mr. Hurlstone's past reserve only as being less interesting. Hurlstone did not return Miss Keene's confidences--not because he wished to deceive her, but that he preferred to entertain her; while she did not care to know his secret now that it no longer affected their sympathy in other things. It was a pleasant, innocent selfishness, that, however, led them along, step by step, to more uncertain and difficult ground.

In their idle, happy walk they had strayed towards the beach, and had come upon a large stone cross with its base half hidden in sand, and covered with small tenacious, sweet-scented creepers, bearing a pale lilac blossom that exhaled a mingled odor of sea and shore. Hurlstone pointed out the cross as one of the earliest outposts of the Church on the edge of the unclaimed heathen wilderness. It was hung with strings of gaudy shells and feathers, which Hurlstone explained were votive offerings in which their pagan superstitions still mingled with their new faith.

"I don't like to worry that good old Padre," he continued, with a light smile, "but I'm afraid that they prefer this cross to the chapel for certain heathenish reasons of their own. I am quite sure that they still hold some obscure rites here under the good Father's very nose, and that, in the guise of this emblem of our universal faith, they worship some deity we have no knowledge of."

"It's a shame," said Miss Keene quickly.

To her surprise, Hurlstone did not appear so shocked as she, in her belief of his religious sympathy with the Padre, had imagined.

"They're a harmless race," he said carelessly. "The place is much frequented by the children--especially the young girls; a good many of these offerings came from them."

The better to examine these quaint tributes, Miss Keene had thrown herself, with an impulsive, girlish abandonment, on the mound by the cross, and Hurlstone sat down beside her. Their eyes met in an innocent pleasure of each other's company. She thought him very handsome in the dark, half official Mexican dress that necessity alone had obliged him to assume, and much more distinguished-looking than his companions in their extravagant foppery; he thought her beauty more youthful and artless than he had imagined it to be, and with his older and graver experiences felt a certain protecting superiority that was pleasant and reassuring.

Nevertheless, seated so near each other, they were very quiet. Hurlstone could not tell whether it was the sea or the flowers, but the dress of the young girl seemed to exhale some subtle perfume of her own freshness that half took away his breath. She had scraped up a handful of sand, and was allowing it to escape through her slim fingers in a slender rain on the ground. He was watching the operation with what he began to fear was fatuous imbecility.

"Miss Keene?--I beg your pardon"--

"Mr. Hurlstone?--Excuse me, you were saying"--

They had both spoken at the same moment, and smiled forgivingly at each other. Hurlstone gallantly insisted upon the precedence of her thought--the scamp had doubted the coherency of his own.

"I used to think," she began--"you won't be angry, will you?"

"Decidedly not."

"I used to think you had an idea of becoming a priest."

"Why?"

"Because--you are sure you won't be angry--because I thought you hated women!"

"Father Esteban is a priest," said Hurlstone, with a faint smile, "and you know he thinks kindly of your sex."

"Yes; but perhaps HIS life was never spoiled by some wicked woman like--like yours."

For an instant he gazed intently into her eyes.

"Who told you that?"

"No one."

She was evidently speaking the absolute truth. There was no deceit or suppression in her clear gaze; if anything, only the faintest look of wonder at his astonishment. And he--this jealously guarded secret, the curse of his whole wretched life, had been guessed by this simple girl, without comment, without reserve, without horror! And there had been no scene, no convulsion of Nature, no tragedy; he had not thrown himself into yonder sea; she had not fled from him shrinking, but was sitting there opposite to him in gentle smiling expectation, the golden light of Todos Santos around them, a bit of bright ribbon shining in her dark hair, and he, miserable, outcast, and recluse, had not even changed his position, but was looking up without tremulousness or excitement, and smiling, too.

He raised himself suddenly on his knee.

"And what if it were all true?" he demanded.

"I should be very sorry for you, and glad it were all over now," she said softly.

A faint pink flush covered her cheek the next moment, as if she had suddenly become aware of another meaning in her speech, and she turned her head hastily towards the village. To her relief she discerned that a number of Indian children had approached them from behind and had halted a few paces from the cross. Their hands were full of flowers and shells as they stood hesitatingly watching the couple.

"They are some of the school-children," said Hurlstone, in answer to her inquiring look; "but I can't understand why they come here so openly."

"Oh, don't scold them!" said Eleanor, forgetting her previous orthodox protest; "let us go away, and pretend we don't notice them."

But as she was about to rise to her feet the hesitation of the little creatures ended in a sudden advance of the whole body, and before she comprehended what they were doing they had pressed the whole of their floral tributes in her lap. The color rose again quickly to her laughing face as she looked at Hurlstone.

"Do you usually get up this pretty surprise for visitors?" she said hesitatingly.

"I assure you I have nothing to do with it," he answered, with frank amazement; "it's quite spontaneous. And look--they are even decorating ME."

It was true; they had thrown a half dozen strings of shells on Hurlstone's unresisting shoulders, and, unheeding the few words he laughingly addressed them in their own dialect, they ran off a few paces, and remained standing, as if gravely contemplating their work. Suddenly, with a little outcry of terror, they turned, fled wildly past them, and disappeared in the bushes.

Miss Keene and Hurlstone rose at the same moment, but the young girl, taking a step forward, suddenly staggered, and was obliged to clasp one of the arms of the cross to keep herself from falling. Hurlstone sprang to her side.

"Are you ill?" he asked hurriedly. "You are quite white. What is the matter?"

A smile crossed her colorless face.

"I am certainly very giddy; everything seems to tremble."

"Perhaps it is the flowers," he said anxiously. "Their heavy perfume in this close air affects you. Throw them away, for Heaven's sake!"

But she clutched them tighter to her heart as she leaned for a moment, pale yet smiling, against the cross.

"No, no!" she said earnestly; "it was not that. But the children were frightened, and their alarm terrified me. There, it is over now."

She let him help her to her seat again as he glanced hurriedly around him. It must have been sympathy with her, for he was conscious of a slight vertigo himself. The air was very close and still. Even the pleasant murmur of the waves had ceased.

"How very low the tide is!" said Eleanor Keene, resting her elbow on her knees and her round chin upon her hand. "I wonder if that could have frightened those dear little midgets?" The tide, in fact, had left the shore quite bare and muddy for nearly a quarter of a mile to seaward.

Hurlstone arose, with grave eyes, but a voice that was unchanged.

"Suppose we inquire? Lean on my arm, and we'll go up the hill towards the Mission garden. Bring your flowers with you."

The color had quite returned to her cheek as she leant on his proffered arm. Yet perhaps she was really weaker than she knew, for he felt the soft pressure of her hand and the gentle abandonment of her figure against his own as they moved on. But for some preoccupying thought, he might have yielded more completely to the pleasure of that innocent contact and have drawn her closer towards him; yet they moved steadily on, he contenting himself from time to time with a hurried glance at the downcast fringes of the eyes beside him. Presently he stopped, his attention disturbed by what appeared to be the fluttering of a black-winged, red-crested bird, in the bushes before him. The next moment he discovered it to be the rose-covered head of Dona Isabel, who was running towards them. Eleanor withdrew her arm from Hurlstone's.

"Ah, imbecile!" said Dona Isabel, pouncing upon Eleanor Keene like an affectionate panther. "They have said you were on the seashore, and I fly for you as a bird. Tell to me quick," she whispered, hastily putting her own little brown ear against Miss Keene's mouth, "immediatamente, are you much happy?"

"Where is Mr. Brace?" said Miss Keene, trying to effect a diversion, as she laughed and struggled to get free from her tormentor.

"He, the idiot boy! Naturally, when he is for use, he comes not. But as a maniac--ever! I would that I have him no more. You will to me presently give your--brother! I have since to-day a presentimiento that him I shall love! Ah!"

She pressed her little brown fist, still tightly clutching her fan, against her low bodice, as if already transfixed with a secret and absorbing passion.

"Well, you shall have Dick then," said Miss Keene, laughing; "but was it for THAT you were seeking me?"

"Mother of God! you know not then what has happened? You are a blind--a deaf--to but one thing all the time? Ah!" she said quickly, unfolding her fan and modestly diving her little head behind it, "I have ashamed for you, Miss Keene."

"But WHAT has happened?" said Hurlstone, interposing to relieve his companion. "We fancied something"--

"Something! he says something!--ah, that something was a temblor! An earthquake! The earth has shaken himself. Look!"

She pointed with her fan to the shore, where the sea had suddenly returned in a turbulence of foam and billows that was breaking over the base of the cross they had just quitted.

Miss Keene drew a quick sigh. Dona Isabel had ducked again modestly behind her fan, but this time dragging with her other arm Miss Keene's head down to share its discreet shadow as she whispered,--

"And--infatuated one!--you two never noticed it!"

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