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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Crusade Of The Excelsior: A Novel - Part 2. Freed - Chapter 6. A More Important Arrival
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The Crusade Of The Excelsior: A Novel - Part 2. Freed - Chapter 6. A More Important Arrival Post by :miniJV.com Category :Long Stories Author :Bret Harte Date :May 2012 Read :1555

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The Crusade Of The Excelsior: A Novel - Part 2. Freed - Chapter 6. A More Important Arrival

PART II. FREED
CHAPTER VI. A MORE IMPORTANT ARRIVAL


The Commander was the first to recover his presence of mind. Taking the despatch from the hands of the unlooked-for husband of the woman he loved, he opened it with an immovable face and habitual precision. Then, turning with a military salute to the strangers, he bade them join him in half an hour at the Presidio; and, bowing gravely to the assembled company, stepped from the corridor. But Mrs. Markham was before him, stopped him with a gesture, and turned to her husband.

"James Markham--where's your hand?"

Markham, embarrassed but subjugated, disengaged it timidly from his wife's waist.

"Give it to that gentleman--for a gentleman he is, from the crown of his head to the soles of his boots! There! Shake his hand! You don't get such a chance every day. You can thank him again, later."

As the two men's hands parted, after this perfunctory grasp, and the Commander passed on, she turned again to her husband.

"Now, James, I am ready to hear all about it. Perhaps you'll tell me where you HAVE been?"

There was a moment of embarrassing silence. The Doctor and Secretary had discreetly withdrawn; the Alcalde, after a brief introduction to Mr. Brimmer, and an incomprehensible glance from the wife, had retired with a colorless face. Dona Isabel had lingered last to blow a kiss across her fan to Eleanor Keene that half mischievously included her brother. The Americans were alone.

Thus appealed to, Mr. Markham hastily began his story. But, as he progressed, a slight incoherency was noticeable: he occasionally contradicted himself, and was obliged to be sustained, supplemented, and, at times, corrected, by Keene and Brimmer. Substantially, it appeared that they had come from San Francisco to Mazatlan, and, through the influence of Mr. Brimmer on the Mexican authorities, their party, with an escort of dragoons, had been transported across the gulf and landed on the opposite shore, where they had made a forced march across the desert to Todos Santos. Literally interpreted, however, by the nervous Markham, it would seem that they had conceived this expedition long ago, and yet had difficulties because they only thought of it the day before the steamer sailed; that they had embarked for the isthmus of Nicaragua, and yet had stopped at Mazatlan; that their information was complete in San Francisco, and only picked up at Mazatlan; that "friends"--sometimes contradictorily known as "he" and "she"--had overpowering influence with the Mexican Government, and alone had helped them, and yet that they were utterly dependent upon the efforts of Senor Perkins, who had compromised matters with the Mexican Government and everybody.

"Do you mean to say, James Markham, that you've seen Perkins, and it was he who told you we were here?"

"No--not HIM exactly."

"Let me explain," said Mr. Brimmer hastily. "It appears," he corrected his haste with practical businesslike precision, "that the filibuster Perkins, after debarking you here, and taking the Excelsior to Quinquinambo, actually established the Quinquinambo Government, and got Mexico and the other confederacies to recognize its independence. Quinquinambo behaved very handsomely, and not only allowed the Mexican Government indemnity for breaking the neutrality of Todos Santos by the seizure, but even compromised with our own Government their claim to confiscate the Excelsior for treaty violation, and paid half the value of the vessel, besides giving information to Mexico and Washington of your whereabouts. We consequently represent a joint commission from both countries to settle the matter and arrange for your return."

"But what I want to know is this: Is it to Senor Perkins that we ought to be thankful for seeing you here at all?" asked Mrs. Markham impatiently.

"No, no--not that, exactly," stammered Markham. "Oh, come now, Susannah"--

"No," said Richard Keene earnestly; "by Jove! some thanks ought to go to Belle Montgomery"--He checked himself in sudden consternation.

There was a chilly silence. Even Miss Keene looked anxiously at her brother, as the voice of Mrs. Brimmer for the first time broke the silence.

"May we be permitted to know who is this person to whom we owe so great an obligation?"

"Certainly," said Brimmer, "She was--as I have already intimated--a friend; possibly, you know," he added, turning lightly to his companions, as if to corroborate an impression that had just struck him, "perhaps a--a--a sweetheart of the Senor Perkins."

"And how was she so interested in us, pray?" said Mrs. Markham.

"Well, you see, she had an idea that a former husband was on board of the Excelsior."

He stopped suddenly, remembering from the astonished faces of Keene and Markham that the secret was not known to them, while they, impressed with the belief that the story was a sudden invention of Brimmer's, with difficulty preserved their composure. But the women were quick to notice their confusion, and promptly disbelieved Brimmer's explanation.

"Well, as there's no Mister Montgomery here, she's probably mistaken," said Mrs. Markham, with decision, "though it strikes ME that she's very likely had the same delusion on board of some other ship. Come along, James; perhaps after you've had a bath and some clean clothes, you may come out a little more like the man I once knew. I don't know how Mrs. Brimmer feels, but I feel more as if I required to be introduced to you--than your friend's friend, Mrs. Montgomery. At any rate, try and look and behave a little more decent when you go over to the Presidio."

With these words she dragged him away. Mr. Brimmer, after a futile attempt to appear at his ease, promptly effected the usual marital diversion of carrying the war into the enemy's camp.

"For heaven's sake, Barbara," he said, with ostentatious indignation, "go and dress yourself properly. Had you neither money nor credit to purchase clothes? I declare I didn't know you at first; and when I did, I was shocked; before Mrs. Markham, too!"

"Mrs. Markham, I fear, has quite enough to occupy her now," said Mrs. Brimmer shortly, as she turned away, with hysterically moist eyes, leaving her husband to follow her.

Oblivious of this comedy, Richard Keene and Eleanor had already wandered back, hand in hand, to their days of childhood. But even in the joy that filled the young girl's heart in the presence of her only kinsman, there was a strange reservation. The meeting that she had looked forward to with eager longing had brought all she expected; more than that, it seemed to have been providentially anticipated at the moment of her greatest need, and yet it was incomplete. She was ashamed that after the first recognition, a wild desire to run to Hurlstone and tell HIM her happiness was her only thought. She was shocked that the bright joyous face of this handsome lovable boy could not shut out the melancholy austere features of Hurlstone, which seemed to rise reproachfully between them. When, for the third and fourth time, they had recounted their past history, exchanged their confidences and feelings, Dick, passing his arm around his sister's waist, looked down smilingly in her eyes.

"And so, after all, little Nell, everybody has been good to you, and you have been happy!"

"Everybody has been kind to me, Dick, far kinder than I deserved. Even if I had really been the great lady that little Dona Isabel thought I was, or the important person the Commander believed me to be, I couldn't have been treated more kindly. I have met with nothing but respect and attention. I have been very happy, Dick, very happy."

And with a little cry she threw herself on her brother's neck and burst into a childlike flood of inconsistent tears.

Meantime the news of the arrival of the relief-party had penetrated even the peaceful cloisters of the Mission, and Father Esteban had been summoned in haste to the Council. He returned with an eager face to Hurlstone, who had been anxiously awaiting him. When the Padre had imparted the full particulars of the event to his companion, he added gravely,--

"You see, my son, how Providence, which has protected you since you first claimed the Church's sanctuary, has again interfered to spare me the sacrifice of using the power of the Church in purely mundane passions. I weekly accept the rebuke of His better-ordained ways, and you, Diego, may comfort yourself that this girl is restored directly to her brother's care, without any deviousness of plan or human responsibility. You do not speak, my son!" continued the priest anxiously; "can it be possible that, in the face of this gracious approval of Providence to your resolution, you are regretting it?"

The young man replied, with a half reproachful gesture:

"Do you, then, think me still so weak? No, Father Esteban; I have steeled myself against my selfishness for her sake. I could have resigned her to the escape you had planned, believing her happier for it, and ignorant of the real condition of the man she had learnt to--to--pity. But," he added, turning suddenly and almost rudely upon the priest, "do you know the meaning of this irruption of the outer world to ME? Do you reflect that these men probably know my miserable story?--that, as one of the passengers of the Excelsior, they will be obliged to seek me and to restore me," he added, with a bitter laugh, "to MY home, MY kindred--to the world I loathe?"

"But you need not follow them. Remain here."

"Here!--with the door thrown open to any talebearer OR PERHAPS TO MY WIFE HERSELF? Never! Hear me, Father," he went on hurriedly: "these men have come from San Francisco--have been to Mazatlan. Can you believe that it is possible that they have never heard of this woman's search for me? No! The quest of hate is as strong as the quest of love, and more merciless to the hunted."

"But if that were so, foolish boy, she would have accompanied them."

"You are wrong! It would have been enough for her to have sent my exposure by them--to have driven me from this refuge."

"This is but futile fancy, Diego," said Father Esteban, with a simulated assurance he was far from feeling. "Nothing has yet been said--nothing may be said. Wait, my child."

"Wait!" he echoed bitterly. "Ay, wait until the poor girl shall hear--perhaps from her brother's lips--the story of my marriage as bandied about by others; wait for her to know that the man who would have made her love him was another's, and unworthy of her respect? No! it is I who must leave this place, and at once."

"YOU?" echoed the Padre. "How?"

"By the same means you would have used for her departure. I must take her place in that ship you are expecting. You will give ME letters to your friends. Perhaps, when this is over, I may return--if I still live."

Padre Esteban became thoughtful.

"You will not refuse me?" said the young man, taking the Padre's hand. "It is for the best, believe me. I will remain secret here until then. You will invent some excuse--illness, or what you like--to keep them from penetrating here. Above all, to spare me from the misery of ever reading my secret in her face."

Father Esteban remained still absorbed in thought.

"You will take a letter from me to the Archbishop, and put yourself under his care?" he asked at last, after a long pause. "You will promise me that?"

"I do!"

"Then we shall see what can be done. They talk, those Americanos," continued the priest, "of making their way up the coast to Punta St. Jago, where the ship they have already sent for to take them away can approach the shore; and the Comandante has orders to furnish them escort and transport to that point. It is a foolish indiscretion of the Government, and I warrant without the sanction of the Church. Already there is curiosity, discontent, and wild talk among the people. Ah! thou sayest truly, my son," said the old man, gloomily; "the doors of Todos Santos are open. The Comandante will speed these heretics quickly on their way; but the doors by which they came and whence they go will never close again. But God's will be done! And if the open doors bring thee back, my son, I shall not question His will!"

It would seem, however, as if Hurlstone's fears had been groundless. For in the excitement of the succeeding days, and the mingling of the party from San Antonio with the new-comers, the recluse had been forgotten. So habitual, had been his isolation from the others, that, except for the words of praise and gratitude hesitatingly dropped by Miss Keene to her brother, his name was not mentioned, and it might have been possible for the relieving party to have left him behind--unnoticed. Mr. Brimmer, for domestic reasons, was quite willing to allow the episode of Miss Montgomery's connection with their expedition to drop for the present. Her name was only recalled once by Miss Keene. When Dick had professed a sudden and violent admiration for the coquettish Dona Isabel, Eleanor had looked up in her brother's face with a half troubled air.

"Who was this queer Montgomery woman, Dick?" she said.

Dick laughed--a frank, reassuring, heart-free laugh.

"Perfectly stunning, Nell. Such a figure in tights! You ought to have seen her dance--my!"

"Hush! I dare say she was horrid!"

"Not at all! She wasn't such a bad fellow, if you left out her poetry and gush, which I didn't go in for much,--though the other fellows"--he stopped, from a sudden sense of loyalty to Brimmer and Markham. "No; you see, Nell, she was regularly ridiculously struck after that man Perkins,--whom she'd never seen,--a kind of schoolgirl worship for a pirate. You know how you women go in for those fellows with a mystery about 'em."

"No, I don't!" said Miss Keene sharply, with a slight rise of color; "and I don't see what that's got to do with you and her."

"Everything! She was in correspondence with Perkins, and knows about the Excelsior affair, and wants to help him get out of it with clean hands, don't you see! That's why she made up to us. There, Nell; she ain't your style, of course; but you owe a heap to her for giving us points as to where you were. But that's all over now; she left us at Mazatlan, and went on to Nicaragua to meet Perkins somewhere there--for the fellow has always got some Central American revolution on hand, it appears. Until they garrote or shoot him some day, he'll go on in the liberating business forever."

"Then there wasn't any Mr. Montgomery, of course?" said Eleanor.

"Oh, Mr. Montgomery," said Dick, hesitating. "Well, you see, Nell, I think that, knowing how correct and all that sort of thing Brimmer is, she sort of invented the husband to make her interest look more proper."

"It's shameful!" said Miss Keene indignantly.

"Come, Nell; one would think you had a personal dislike to her. Let her go; she won't trouble you--nor, I reckon, ANYBODY, much longer."

"What do you mean, Dick?"

"I mean she has regularly exhausted and burnt herself out with her hysterics and excitements, and the drugs she's taken to subdue them--to say nothing of the Panama fever she got last spring. If she don't go regularly crazy at last she'll have another attack of fever, hanging round the isthmus waiting for Perkins."

Meanwhile, undisturbed by excitement or intrusion of the outer world, the days had passed quietly at the Mission. But one evening, at twilight, a swift-footed, lightly-clad Indian glided into the sacristy as if he had slipped from the outlying fog, and almost immediately as quietly glided away again and disappeared. The next moment Father Esteban's gaunt and agitated face appeared at Hurlstone's door.

"My son, God has been merciful, and cut short your probation. The signal of the ship has just been made. Her boat will be waiting on the beach two leagues from here an hour hence. Are you ready? and are you still resolved?"

"I am," said Hurlstone, rising. "I have been prepared since you first assented."

The old man's lips quivered slightly, and the great brown hand laid upon the table trembled for an instant; with a strong effort he recovered himself, and said hurriedly,--

"Concho's mule is saddled and ready for you at the foot of the garden. You will follow the beach a league beyond the Indians' cross. In the boat will await you the trusty messenger of the Church. You will say to him, 'Guadalajara,' and give him these letters. One is to the captain. You will require no other introduction." He laid the papers on the table, and, turning to Hurlstone, lifted his tremulous hands in the air. "And now, my son, may the grace of God"--

He faltered and stopped, his uplifted arms falling helplessly on Hurlstone's shoulders. For an instant the young man supported him in his arms, then placed him gently in the chair he had just quitted, and for the first time in their intimacy dropped upon his knee before him. The old man, with a faint smile, placed his hand upon his companion's head. A breathless pause followed; Father Esteban's lips moved silently. Suddenly the young man rose, pressed his lips hurriedly to the Father's hand, and passed out into the night.

The moon was already suffusing the dropping veil of fog above him with that nebulous, mysterious radiance he had noticed the first night he had approached the Mission. When he reached the cross he dismounted, and gathering a few of the sweet-scented blossoms that crept around its base, placed them in his breast. Then, remounting, he continued his way until he came to the spot designated by Concho as a fitting place to leave his tethered mule. This done, he proceeded on foot about a mile further along the hard, wet sand, his eyes fixed on the narrow strip of water and shore before him that was yet uninvaded by the fog on either side.

The misty, nebulous light, the strange silence, broken only by the occasional low hurried whisper of some spent wave that sent its film of spume across his path, or filled his footprints behind him, possessed him with vague presentiments and imaginings. At times he fancied he heard voices at his side; at times indistinct figures loomed through the mist before him. At last what seemed to be his own shadow faintly impinged upon the mist at one side impressed him so strongly that he stopped; the apparition stopped too. Continuing a few hundred paces further, he stopped again; but this time the ghostly figure passed on, and convinced him that it was no shadow, but some one actually following him. With an angry challenge he advanced towards it. It quickly retreated inland, and was lost. Irritated and suspicious he turned back towards the water, and was amazed to see before him, not twenty yards away, the object of his quest--a boat, with two men in it, kept in position by the occasional lazy dip of an oar. In the pursuit of his mysterious shadow he had evidently overlooked it. As his own figure emerged from the fog, the boat pulled towards him. The priest's password was upon his lips, when he perceived that the TWO men were common foreign sailors; the messenger of the Church was evidently not there. Could it have been he who had haunted him? He paused irresolutely. "Is there none other coming?" he asked. The two men looked at each other. One said, "Quien sabe!" and shrugged his shoulders. Hurlstone without further hesitation leaped aboard.

The same dull wall of vapor--at times thickening to an almost impenetrable barrier, and again half suffocating him in its soft embrace--which he had breasted on the night he swam ashore, carried back his thoughts to that time, now so remote and unreal. And when, after a few moments' silent rowing, the boat approached a black hulk that seemed to have started forward out of the gloom to meet them, his vague recollection began to take a more definite form. As he climbed up the companion-ladder and boarded the vessel, an inexplicable memory came over him. A petty officer on the gangway advanced silently and ushered him, half dazed and bewildered, into the cabin. He glanced hurriedly around: the door of a state-room opened, and disclosed the indomitable and affable Senor Perkins! A slight expression of surprise, however, crossed the features of the Liberator of Quinquinambo as he advanced with outstretched hand.

"This is really a surprise, my dear fellow! I had no idea that YOU were in this affair. But I am delighted to welcome you once more to the Excelsior!"

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