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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Crusade Of The Excelsior: A Novel - Part 2. Freed - Chapter 5. Clouds And Change
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The Crusade Of The Excelsior: A Novel - Part 2. Freed - Chapter 5. Clouds And Change Post by :imported_n/a Category :Long Stories Author :Bret Harte Date :May 2012 Read :3463

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The Crusade Of The Excelsior: A Novel - Part 2. Freed - Chapter 5. Clouds And Change


The earthquake shock, although the first experienced by the Americans, had been a yearly phenomenon to the people of Todos Santos, and was so slight as to leave little impression upon either the low adobe walls of the pueblo or the indolent population. "If it's a provision of Nature for shaking up these Rip Van Winkle Latin races now and then, it's a dead failure, as far as Todos Santos is concerned," Crosby had said, with a yawn. "Brace, who's got geology on the brain ever since he struck cinnabar ore, says he isn't sure the Injins ain't right when they believe that the Pacific Ocean used to roll straight up to the Presidio, and there wasn't any channel--and that reef of rocks was upheaved in their time. But what's the use of it? it never really waked them up." "Perhaps they're waiting for another kind of earthquake," Winslow had responded sententiously.

In six weeks it had been forgotten, except by three people--Miss Keene, James Hurlstone, and Padre Esteban. Since Hurlstone had parted with Miss Keene on that memorable afternoon he had apparently lapsed into his former reserve. Without seeming to avoid her timid advances, he met her seldom, and then only in the presence of the Padre or Mrs. Markham. Although uneasy at the deprivation of his society, his present shyness did not affect her as it had done at first: she knew it was no longer indifference; she even fancied she understood it from what had been her own feelings. If he no longer raised his eyes to hers as frankly as he had that day, she felt a more delicate pleasure in the consciousness of his lowered eyelids when they met, and the instinct that told her when his melancholy glance followed her unobserved. The sex of these lovers--if we may call them so who had never exchanged a word of love--seemed to be changed. It was Miss Keene who now sought him with a respectful and frank admiration; it was Hurlstone who now tried to avoid it with a feminine dread of reciprocal display. Once she had even adverted to the episode of the cross. They were standing under the arch of the refectory door, waiting for Padre Esteban, and looking towards the sea.

"Do you think we were ever in any real danger, down there, on the shore--that day?" she said timidly.

"No; not from the sea," he replied, looking at her with a half defiant resolution.

"From what then?" she asked, with a naivete that was yet a little conscious.

"Do you remember the children giving you their offerings that day?" he asked abruptly.

"I do," she replied, with smiling eyes.

"Well, it appears that it is the custom for the betrothed couples to come to the cross to exchange their vows. They mistook us for lovers."

All the instinctive delicacy of Miss Keene's womanhood resented the rude infelicity of this speech and the flippant manner of its utterance. She did not blush, but lifted her clear eyes calmly to his.

"It was an unfortunate mistake," she said coldly, "the more so as they were your pupils. Ah! here is Father Esteban," she added, with a marked tone of relief, as she crossed over to the priest's side.

When Father Esteban returned to the refectory that evening, Hurlstone was absent. When it grew later, becoming uneasy, the good Father sought him in the garden. At the end of the avenue of pear-trees there was a break in the sea-wall, and here, with his face to the sea, Hurlstone was leaning gloomily. Father Esteban's tread was noiseless, and he had laid his soft hand on the young man's shoulder before Hurlstone was aware of his presence. He started slightly, his gloomy eyes fell before the priest's.

"My son," said the old man gravely, "this must go on no longer."

"I don't understand you," Hurlstone replied coldly.

"Do not try to deceive yourself, nor me. Above all, do not try to deceive HER. Either you are or are not in love with this countrywoman of yours. If you are not, my respect for her and my friendship for you prompts me to save you both from a foolish intimacy that may ripen into a misplaced affection; if you are already in love with her"--

"I have never spoken a word of love to her!" interrupted Hurlstone quickly. "I have even tried to avoid her since"--

"Since you found that you loved her! Ah, foolish boy! and you think that because the lips speak not, the passions of the heart are stilled! Do you think your silence in her presence is not a protestation that she, even she, child as she is, can read, with the cunning of her sex?"

"Well--if I am in love with her, what then?" said Hurlstone doggedly. "It is no crime to love a pure and simple girl. Am I not free? You yourself, in yonder church, told me"--

"Silence, Diego," said the priest sternly. "Silence, before you utter the thought that shall disgrace you to speak and me to hear!"

"Forgive me, Father Esteban," said the young man hurriedly, grasping both hands of the priest. "Forgive me--I am mad--distracted--but I swear to you I only meant"--

"Hush!" interrupted the priest more gently. "So; that will do." He stopped, drew out his snuff-box, rapped the lid, and took a pinch of snuff slowly. "We will not recur to that point. Then you have told her the story of your life?"

"No; but I will, She shall know all--everything--before I utter a word of love to her."

"Ah! bueno! muy bueno!" said the Padre, wiping his nose ostentatiously. "Ah! let me see! Then, when we have shown her that we cannot possibly marry her, we will begin to make love to her! Eh, eh! that is the American fashion. Ah, pardon!" he continued, in response to a gesture of protestation from Hurlstone; "I am wrong. It is when we have told her that we cannot marry her as a Protestant, that we will make love as a Catholic. Is that it?"

"Hear me," said Hurlstone passionately. "You have saved me from madness and, perhaps, death. Your care--your kindness--your teachings have given me life again. Don't blame me, Father Esteban, if, in casting off my old self, you have given me hopes of a new and fresher life--of"--

"A newer and fresher love, you would say," said the Padre, with a sad smile. "Be it so. You will at least do justice to the old priest, when you remember that he never pressed you to take vows that would have prevented this forever."

"I know it," said Hurlstone, taking the old man's hand. "And you will remember, too, that I was happy and contented before this came upon me. Tell me what I shall do. Be my guide--my friend, Father Esteban. Put me where I was a few months ago--before I learned to love her."

"Do you mean it, Diego?" said the old man, grasping his hand tightly, and fixing his eyes upon him.

"I do."

"Then listen to me, for it is my turn to speak. When, eight months ago, you sought the shelter of that blessed roof, it was for refuge from a woman that had cursed your life. It was given you. You would leave it now to commit an act that would bring another woman, as mad as yourself, clamoring at its doors for protection from YOU. For what you are proposing to this innocent girl is what you accepted from the older and wickeder woman. You have been cursed because a woman divided for you what was before God an indivisible right; and you, Diego, would now redivide that with another, whom you dare to say you LOVE! You would use the opportunity of her helplessness and loneliness here to convince her; you would tempt her with sympathy, for she is unhappy; with companionship, for she has no longer the world to choose from--with everything that should make her sacred from your pursuit."

"Enough," said Hurlstone hoarsely; "say no more. Only I implore you tell me what to do now to save her. I will--if you tell me to do it--leave her forever."

"Why should YOU go?" said the priest quietly. "HER absence will be sufficient."

"HER absence?" echoed Hurlstone.

"Hers alone. The conditions that brought YOU here are unchanged. You are still in need of an asylum from the world and the wife you have repudiated. Why should you abandon it? For the girl, there is no cause why she should remain--beyond yourself. She has a brother whom she loves--who wants her--who has the right to claim her at any time. She will go to him."

"But how?"

"That has been my secret, and will be my sacrifice to you, Diego, my son. I have foreseen all this; I have expected it from the day that girl sent you her woman's message, that was half a challenge, from her school--I have known it from the day you walked together on the sea-shore. I was blind before that--for I am weak in my way, too, and I had dreamed of other things. God has willed it otherwise." He paused, and returning the pressure of Hurlstone's hand, went on. "My secret and my sacrifice for you is this. For the last two hundred years the Church has had a secret and trusty messenger from the See at Guadalajara--in a ship that touches here for a few hours only every three years. Her arrival and departure is known only to myself and my brothers of the Council. By this wisdom and the provision of God, the integrity of the Holy Church and the conversion of the heathen have been maintained without interruption and interference. You know now, my son, why your comrades were placed under surveillance; why it was necessary that the people should believe in a political conspiracy among yourselves, rather than the facts as they existed, which might have bred a dangerous curiosity among them. I have given you our secret, Diego--that is but a part of my sacrifice. When that ship arrives, and she is expected daily, I will secretly place Miss Keene and her friend on board, with explanatory letters to the Archbishop, and she will be assisted to rejoin her brother. It will be against the wishes of the Council; but my will," continued the old man, with a gesture of imperiousness, "is the will of the Church, and the law that overrides all."

He had stopped, with a strange fire in his eyes. It still continued to burn as he went on rapidly,--

"You will understand the sacrifice I am making in telling you this, when you know that I could have done all that I propose without your leave or hindrance. Yes, Diego; I had but to stretch out my hand thus, and that foolish fire-brand of a heretic muchacha would have vanished from Todos Santos forever. I could have left you in your fool's paradise, and one morning you would have found her gone. I should have condoled with you, and consoled you, and you would have forgotten her as you did the other. I should not have hesitated; it is the right of the Church through all time to break through those carnal ties without heed of the suffering flesh, and I ought to have done so. This, and this alone, would have been worthy of Las Casas and Junipero Serra! But I am weak and old--I am no longer fit for His work. Far better that the ship which takes her away should bring back my successor and one more worthy Todos Santos than I."

He stopped, his eyes dimmed, he buried his face in his hands.

"You have done right, Father Esteban," said Hurlstone, gently putting his arm round the priest's shoulders, "and I swear to you your secret is as safe as if you had never revealed it to me. Perhaps," he added, with a sigh, "I should have been happier if I had not known it--if she had passed out of my life as mysteriously as she had entered it; but you will try to accept my sacrifice as some return for yours. I shall see her no more."

"But will you swear it?" said the priest eagerly. "Will you swear that you will not even seek her to say farewell; for in that moment the wretched girl may shake your resolution?"

"I shall not see her," repeated the young man slowly.

"But if she asks an interview," persisted the priest, "on the pretense of having your advice?"

"She will not," returned Hurlstone, with a half bitter recollection of their last parting. "You do not know her pride."

"Perhaps," said the priest musingly. "But I have YOUR word, Diego. And now let us return to the Mission, for there is much to prepare, and you shall assist me."

Meantime, Hurlstone was only half right in his estimate of Miss Keene's feelings, although the result was the same. The first shock to her delicacy in his abrupt speech had been succeeded by a renewal of her uneasiness concerning his past life or history. While she would, in her unselfish attachment for him, have undoubtingly accepted any explanation he might have chosen to give her, his continued reserve and avoidance of her left full scope to her imaginings. Rejecting any hypothesis of his history except that of some unfortunate love episode, she began to think that perhaps he still loved this nameless woman. Had anything occurred to renew his affection? It was impossible, in their isolated condition, that he would hear from her. But perhaps the priest might have been a confidant of his past, and had recalled the old affection in rivalry of her? Or had she herself been unfortunate through any idle word to reopen the wound? Had there been any suggestion?--she checked herself suddenly at a thought that benumbed and chilled her!--perhaps that happy hour at the cross might have reminded him of some episode with another? That was the real significance of his rude speech. With this first taste of the poison of jealousy upon her virgin lips, she seized the cup and drank it eagerly. Ah, well--he should keep his blissful recollections of the past undisturbed by her. Perhaps he might even see--though SHE had no past--that her present life might be as disturbing to him! She recalled, with a foolish pleasure, his solitary faint sneer at the devotion of the Commander's Secretary. Why shouldn't she, hereafter, encourage that devotion as well as that sneer from this complacently beloved Mr. Hurlstone? Why should he be so assured of her past? The fair and gentle reader who may be shocked at this revelation of Eleanor Keene's character will remember that she has not been recorded as an angel in these pages--but as a very human, honest, inexperienced girl, for the first time struggling with the most diplomatic, Machiavellian, and hypocritical of all the passions.

In pursuance of this new resolution, she determined to accept an invitation from Mrs. Markham to accompany her and the Commander to a reception at the Alcalde's house--the happy Secretary being of the party. Mrs. Markham, who was under promise to the Comandante not to reveal his plan for the escape of herself and Miss Keene until the arrival of the expected transport, had paid little attention to the late vagaries of her friend, and had contented herself by once saying, with a marked emphasis, that the more free they kept themselves from any entanglements with other people, the more prepared they would be for A CHANGE.

"Perhaps it's just as well not to be too free, even with those Jesuits over at the Mission. Your brother, you know, might not like it."

"THOSE JESUITS!" repeated Miss Keene indignantly. "Father Esteban, to begin with, is a Franciscan, and Mr. Hurlstone is as orthodox as you or I."

"Don't be too sure of that, my dear," returned Mrs. Markham sententiously. "Heaven only knows what disguises they assume. Why, Hurlstone and the priest are already as thick as two peas; and you can't make me believe they didn't know of each other before we came here. He was the first one ashore, you remember, before the mutiny; and where did he turn up?--at the Mission, of course! And have you forgotten that sleepwalking affair--all Jesuitical! Why, poor dear Markham used to say we were surrounded by ramifications of that society--everywhere. The very waiter at your hotel table might belong to the Order."

The hour of the siesta was just past, and the corridor and gardens of the Alcalde's house were grouped with friends and acquaintances as the party from the Presidio entered. Mrs. Brimmer, who had apparently effected a temporary compromise with her late instincts of propriety, was still doing the honors of the Alcalde's house, and had once more assumed the Mexican dishabille, even to the slight exposure of her small feet, stockingless, in white satin slippers. The presence of the Comandante and his Secretary guaranteed the two ladies of their party a reception at least faultless in form and respect, whatever may have been the secret feelings of the hostess and her friends. The Alcalde received Mrs. Markham and Miss Keene with unruffled courtesy, and conducted them to the place of honor beside him.

As Eleanor Keene, slightly flushed and beautiful in her unwonted nervous excitement, took her seat, a flutter went around the corridor, and, with the single exception of Dona Isabel, an almost imperceptible drawing together of the other ladies, in offensive alliance. Miss Keene had never abandoned her own style of dress; and that afternoon her delicate and closely-fitting white muslin, gathered in at the waist with a broad blue belt of ribbon, seemed to accentuate somewhat unflatteringly the tropical neglige of Mrs. Brimmer and Miss Chubb. Brace, who was in attendance, with Crosby, on the two Ramirez girls, could not help being uneasily conscious of this, in addition to the awkwardness of meeting Miss Keene after the transfer of his affections elsewhere. Nor was his embarrassment relieved by Crosby's confidences to him, in a half audible whisper,--

"I say, old man, after all, the regular straight-out American style lays over all their foreign flops and fandoodles. I wonder what old Brimmer would say to his wife's full-dress nightgown--eh?"

But at this moment the long-drawn, slightly stridulous utterances of Mrs. Brimmer rose through the other greetings like a lazy east wind.

"I shall never forgive the Commander for making the Presidio so attractive to you, dear Miss Keene, that you cannot really find time to see your own countrymen. Though, of course, you're not to blame for not coming to see two frights as we must look--not having been educated to be able to do up our dresses in that faultless style--and perhaps not having the entire control over an establishment like you; yet, I suppose that, even if the Alcalde did give us carte blanche of the laundry HERE, we couldn't do it, unaided even by Mrs. Markham. Yes, dear; you must let me compliment you on your skill, and the way you make things last. As for me and Miss Chubb, we've only found our things fit to be given away to the poor of the Mission. But I suppose even that charity would look as shabby to you as our clothes, in comparison with the really good missionary work you and Mr. Hurlstone--or is it Mr. Brace?--I always confound your admirers, my dear--are doing now. At least, so says that good Father Esteban."

But with the exception of the Alcalde and Miss Chubb, Mrs. Brimmer's words fell on unheeding ears, and Miss Keene did not prejudice the triumph of her own superior attractions by seeming to notice Mrs. Brimmer's innuendo. She answered briefly, and entered into lively conversation with Crosby and the Secretary, holding the hand of Dona Isabel in her own, as if to assure her that she was guiltless of any design against her former admirer. This was quite unnecessary, as the gentle Isabel, after bidding Brace, with a rap on the knuckles, to "go and play," contented herself with curling up like a kitten beside Miss Keene, and left that gentleman to wander somewhat aimlessly in the patio.

Nevertheless, Miss Keene, whose eyes and ears were nervously alert, and who had indulged a faint hope of meeting Padre Esteban and hearing news of Hurlstone, glanced from time to time towards the entrance of the patio. A singular presentiment that some outcome of this present visit would determine her relations with Hurlstone had already possessed her. Consequently she was conscious, before it had attracted the attention of the others, of some vague stirring in the plaza beyond. Suddenly the clatter of hoofs was heard before the gateway. There was a moment's pause of dismounting, a gruff order given in Spanish, and the next moment three strangers entered the patio.

They were dressed in red shirts, their white trousers tucked in high boots, and wore slouched hats. They were so travel-stained, dusty, and unshaven, that their features were barely distinguishable. One, who appeared to be the spokesman of the party, cast a perfunctory glance around the corridor, and, in fluent Spanish, began with the mechanical air of a man repeating some formula,--

"We are the bearers of a despatch to the Comandante of Todos Santos from the Governor of Mazatlan. The officer and the escort who came with us are outside the gate. We have been told that the Comandante is in this house. The case is urgent, or we would not intrude"--

He was stopped by the voice of Mrs. Markham from the corridor. "Well, I don't understand Spanish much--I may be a fool, or crazy, or perhaps both--but if that isn't James Markham's VOICE, I'll bet a cooky!"

The three strangers turned quickly toward the corridor. The next moment the youngest of their party advanced eagerly towards Miss Keene, who had arisen with a half frightened joy, and with the cry of "Why, it's Nell!" ran towards her. The third man came slowly forward as Mrs. Brimmer slipped hastily from the hammock and stood erect.

"In the name of goodness, Barbara," said Mr. Brimmer, closing upon her, in a slow, portentous whisper, "where ARE your stockings?"

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