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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Ne'er-do-well - Chapter 23. A Plot And A Sacrifice
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The Ne'er-do-well - Chapter 23. A Plot And A Sacrifice Post by :ninja1023 Category :Long Stories Author :Rex Beach Date :May 2012 Read :2373

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The Ne'er-do-well - Chapter 23. A Plot And A Sacrifice

CHAPTER XXIII. A PLOT AND A SACRIFICE

Kirk never passed a more unpleasant night than the one which followed. In the morning he went straight to Runnels with the statement that he could take no part in the little testimonial they had intended to give Cortlandt.

"But it's too late now to back out. I saw him at the University Club last evening and fixed the date for Saturday night."

"Did you tell him I was in the affair?"

"Certainly. I said it was your idea. It affected him deeply, too. I never saw a chap so moved over a little thing."

Kirk thought quickly. Perhaps Edith had spoken rashly in her excitement, and her husband did not know her feelings after all. Perhaps he only suspected. In that case it would never do to withdraw. It would seem like a confession of guilt.

"If he has accepted, that ends it, I suppose," he said, finally.

"What has happened?" Runnels was watching him sharply.

"Nothing. I merely wish I hadn't entered into the arrangement, that's all. I've ordered a watch for him, too, and it's being engraved. I wanted to give him something to show my own personal gratitude for what he and his wife have done for me. Lord! It took a month's salary. I know it's a jay present, but there's nothing decent in these shops."

"Look here! I've wanted to say something to you for some time, though it's deuced hard to speak of such things. Maybe I have more moral scruples than some people, but--" Runnels stirred uncomfortably in his chair. "Steve Cortlandt has put us where we are--you understand, when I speak of him I include his wife, too. Well, I like him, Kirk, and I'd hate to see him made unhappy. If a chap loves a married woman, he ought to be man enough to forget it. Rotten way to express myself, of course--"

Kirk looked the speaker squarely in the eyes as he answered: "I don't understand what you're driving at. I haven't the least interest in any married man's affairs--never have had, in fact. I'm in love with Gertrudis Garavel, and I'm engaged to marry her."

"The devil!"

"It's a fact. I didn't know until last night that I'd been accepted."

"Then just forget what I said. I was going north on a south-bound track--I ran ahead of orders. I really do congratulate you, old man; Miss Garavel is--well, I won't try to do her justice--I had no idea. Please pardon me."

"Certainly! Now that it's settled I'm not going to let any grass grow under my feet."

"Why, say! Garavel is to be the next President! Jove! You ARE lucky! Cortlandt told me last night that the old fellow's candidacy was to be announced Saturday night at the big ball; that's how he came to accept our invitation. He said his work would be over by then and he'd be glad to join us after the dance. Well, well! Your future wife and father-in-law are to be his guests that night, I suppose you know."

"Then they have patched up a truce with Alfarez? I'm glad to hear that."

"It's all settled, I believe. This dance is a big special event. The American Minister and the various diplomatic gangs will be there, besides the prominent Spanish people. It's precisely the moment to launch the Garavel boom, and Cortlandt intends to do it. After it's over, our little crowd will have supper and thank him for what he has done for us. Oh, it will be a big night all around, won't it? Do you realize the skyrockety nature of your progress, young man? Lord! You take my breath."

"It does seem like a dream. I landed here with a button-hook for baggage, and now--Say, Runnels, her eyes are just like two big black pansies, and when she smiles you'll go off your trolley."

"Your promotion came just in time, didn't it? Talk about luck! We ought to hear from Washington before Saturday and know that our jobs are cinched. This uncertainty is fierce for me. You know I have a wife and kid, and it means a lot. When you give Cortlandt that watch you'll have to present him with a loving-cup from the rest of us. I think it's coming to him, don't you?"

"I--I'd rather you presented it."

"Not much! I can run trains, but I can't engineer social functions. You'll have to be spokesman. I suppose jobs and increased salaries and preferments, and all that, don't count for much with a young fellow who is engaged to the fabulous Miss Garavel, but with the Runnels family it's different. Meanwhile, let's just hold our thumbs till our promotions are ratified from headquarters. I need that position, and I'm dying of uneasiness."

The night had been as hard for Edith Cortlandt as it had been for Kirk, but during its sleepless hours she had reached a determination. She was not naturally revengeful, but it was characteristic of her that she could not endure failure. Action, not words or tears, was the natural outlet of her feelings. There was just one possible way of winning Kirk back, and if instead it ruined him she would be only undoing what she had mistakenly done. As soon after breakfast as she knew definitely that her husband had gone out, she telephoned to General Alfarez, making an appointment to call on him at eleven.

It was the first time she had ever gone to see him, for she was in the habit of bringing people to her, but this was no ordinary occasion, and she knew the crafty old Spaniard would be awaiting her with eagerness.

Her interview with him was short, however, and when she emerged from his house she ordered the coachman to drive directly to the Garavel Bank. This time she stayed longer, closeted with the proprietor. What she told him threw him into something like a panic. It seemed that Anibal Alfarez was by no means so well reconciled to the death of his political hopes as had been supposed. On the contrary, in spite of all that had been done to prevent it, he had been working secretly and had perfected the preliminaries of a coup which he intended to spring at the eleventh hour. Through Ramon, he had brought about an alliance with the outgoing Galleo, and intended to make the bitterest possible fight against Garavel. Such joining of forces meant serious trouble, and until the banker's position was materially strengthened it would be most unwise to announce his candidacy as had been planned. The General had worked with remarkable craftiness, according to Mrs. Cortlandt's account, and Galleo's grip upon the National Assembly was so strong as to threaten all their schemes. She did not go into minute details--there was no need, for the banker's fears took fire at the mere fact that Alfarez had revolted. He was dumfounded, appalled.

"But it was only last week that we were assured that all was well," he cried in despair.

She shrugged her shoulders. "One is privileged to change his mind overnight, I suppose. Politics is not a child's game."

"Oh, I am sorry I ever entertained the proposal. To be defeated now would do me immeasurable harm, not only in my pride, but in my business affairs. My affiliations with the government are of the closest--they must be, for me to live. To be a candidate, to make the fight, and to be beaten! What consideration will come to the firm of Garavel Hermanos, think you?"

"Not much, but you are not so deeply committed that you cannot withdraw."

This cool suggestion brought the expected outburst. "Rather than such a disgrace," cried Garavel, "I would go to certain defeat. One's pride is not for sale, madame. What has caused this so sudden change of sentiment?"

"Ramon is partly to blame. He is just as proud as you or as his father. When he heard of your daughter's engagement to our friend Anthony--"

"Ah! Now I see it all." His face darkened. "So, this is my reward for heeding your advice in regard to Gertrudis. She should have wed Ramon, as was intended, then I would have had a lever with which to lift his father from my path. Very well, then, there is no engagement with this Anthony. It may not be too late even yet to capture Ramon."

"The city is already talking about Gertrudis and Kirk."

"No word has been spoken, no promise given. There is not even an understanding. It is merely an old custom that has caused this report. He seemed a pleasant fellow, she had dreams, so--I yielded. But do you suppose I would allow my great ambition to be thwarted by the whim of a girl--to be upset by a stranger's smile? Bah! At their age I loved a dozen. I could not survive without them." He snapped his fingers. "You see now the truth of what I told you when we first spoke of my daughter. It is the older heads that must govern, always. I should have foreseen this effect, but Ramon was offended, and he said too little. Now, I admire his spirit; he is desperate; he will fight; he is no parrot to sit by and see his cage robbed. So much the better, since he is the pivot upon which this great affair revolves. You see what must be done?"

"Certainly."

"Come! We will see my friend Anibal at once."

But Mrs. Cortlandt checked him, saying, quietly:

"That is all right as far as it goes, but you forget the other young man."

Garavel paused in his heavy strides across the room.

"Eh? How so? Gertrudis will not marry this Anthony."

"Perhaps she loves him."

"Love is a fancy, a something seen through a distant haze, an illusion which vanishes with the sun. In a month, a year, she will have forgotten; but with me it is different. This is my life's climax; there will be no other. I am a Garavel; I have looked into the future and I cannot turn back. I think also of Panama herself. There are great issues at stake."

"But how will you handle Anthony?"

Garavel looked at her blankly. "He is in my way. He is ended! Is not that all?"

"I am glad you are practical; so many of you Latin-Americans are absurdly romantic."

"And why should I not be practical? I am a business man. I love but two things, madame--no, three: my daughter, my success, and-- my country. By this course I will serve all three."

"Since you take this view of it, I am sure that with Ramon's help we can dissuade Don Anibal from his course. The General is sensible, and doesn't want a fight any more than you do. If your daughter will consent--"

"My dear lady, give yourself no uneasiness. She does not know the meaning of rebellion. If necessary--but there is not the slightest question. It is done."

"Then let me look up Ramon. He and I will approach the General together." She gave him her neatly gloved hand. "Things are never so bad as they seem."

"And I thank you for your promptness, which alone, perhaps, has saved our hopes and our ambitions." He escorted his caller to her carriage, then hurriedly returned to his office.

That afternoon Kirk received a formal communication from the banker which filled him with dismay. It ran:


MY DEAR MR. ANTHONY,--To my extreme distress, I hear a rumor that Gertrudis is to become your wife. I assure you that neither she nor I blame you in the least for this unfortunate report; but since busy tongues will wag upon the slightest excuse, we feel it best that no further occasion for gossip should be given, I am sure you will co-operate with us.

Sincerely and respectfully, your friend, ANDRES GARAVEL.


A sense of betrayal crept over him as he read. What the letter signified, beyond the fact that Mr. Garavel had changed his mind, he could not make out, and he resolved to go at once and demand an explanation. But at the bank he was told that the proprietor had gone home, and he drove to the house only to learn that Senor Garavel and his daughter had left for Las Savannas not half an hour before. So, back through the city he urged his driver, across the bridge, and out along the country road.

Darkness had settled when he returned, raging at the trickery that had been practised upon him. If they thought to gain their point by sending him on wildgoose chases like this, they were greatly mistaken. He proposed to have Chiquita now, if he had to burst his way to her through barred doors. Never in all his easy, careless life had anything of moment been denied him, never had he felt such bitterness of thwarted longing. Reared in a way to foster a disregard of all restraint and a contempt for other people's rights, he was in a fitting mood for any reckless project, and the mere thought that they should undertake to coerce an Anthony filled him with grim amusement. He had yielded to their left- handed customs out of courtesy; it was time now to show his strength.

What folly he might have committed it is hard to tell, but he was prevented from putting any extravagant plan into operation by a message from the girl herself.

As he dismissed his coachman and turned toward his quarters, Stephanie came to him out of the shadows.

"I have been waiting," she said.

"Where is Chiquita? Tell me quickly."

"She is at the house. She wants to see you."

"Of course she does. I knew this wasn't any of her doing. I've been hunting everywhere for her."

"At nine o'clock she will be in the Plaza. You know the dark place across from the church?"

"I'll be there."

"If we do not come, wait."

"Certainly. But, Stephanie, tell me what it is all about?"

The black woman shook her head. "She is sick," she said, in a harsh voice, "that is all I know. I have never seen her act so." From her expression Kirk fancied that she held him responsible for her mistress's sufferings.

"Now, don't be angry with me," he made haste to say. "I'm sick, too, and you're the only friend we have. You love her, don't you? Well, so do I. and I'm going to make her happy in spite of her father and all the rest. Run along now, I won't keep you waiting to-night."

Long before the appointed time he was at the place of meeting, but scarcely had the city chimes rung out nine when he saw two women emerge from the dark side-street next the Garavel mansion and come swiftly toward him.

He refrained from rushing out to meet them, but when they were close to his place of concealment he stepped forward, with Chiquita's name upon his lips and his arms outstretched. She drew away.

"No, no, senor!" she cried. "I sent for you because there was no other way--that is all. My father would not let you come to the house. You will not think me bold?"

"Of course not."

"I could not let you go until you knew the truth. You do not-- believe it was my fault?"

"I don't know what to believe, because I don't know what has happened. All I know is that I got a note from your father. But that won't make me let you go."

She clung desperately to the Bajan woman as if afraid to trust herself near him. "Wait--wait," she said, "until you have heard it all."

Never had she appeared so beautiful as now, with her face white, her bosom heaving, as the half-light dimly revealed.

"No matter what it is, I'll never give you up," he declared, stubbornly.

"Ah! I feared you would say those very words; but you must do it, just the same. It will be hard for us both, I know--but--" She choked and shook her head as the words refused to come.

Stephanie laid a great copper hand soothingly upon her shoulder, and growled at Kirk in a hoarse, accusing voice:

"You see?"

"Tell me first why I must give you up?"

"Because, in spite of all, I am to marry Ramon," Gertrudis said, wretchedly.

"Who said so?"

"My father. He has forbidden me to think of you, and ordered that I marry Ramon. Sick or well, living or dead, I must marry him."

"I'm hanged if you do!"

"It is those miserable politics again. If I do not obey, my father cannot be President, do you see?" Pausing an instant to master her agitation, she hurried on. "To be President means a great deal to him and to our family; it is the greatest honor that has ever come to a Garavel. Senor Alfarez is terribly angry that I refused to marry his son, to whom since I was a little child I have been engaged. Ramon also is furious; he threatened to kill himself. So, it comes to this then: if I will not bind myself to the agreement, Senor Alfarez will contest the election--I do not know how you say those things--but my father will be defeated--perhaps he will be humbled. Many other terrible things which I cannot understand will happen also. If I agree, then there will be no opposition to his plans. He will be President, and I will be a grand lady."

"I won't stand for it. They're making you a sacrifice, that's all. What kind of a father is it who would sell his daughter--"

"No, no! You do not understand. He is proud, he cannot accept defeat, he would rather give his life than be humiliated. Furthermore--he wishes me to marry Ramon, and so that ends it." Her lips were trembling as she peered up at him to see if he really understood.

"Let them rave, dear. What does it matter who is President? What does anything matter to you and me?"

"He says I am too young to know my own mind, and--perhaps that is true, Senor Antonio; perhaps I shall soon forget you and learn to love Ramon as he loves me, I do not know--"

In spite of the pathetic quaver in her voice, Kirk cried with jealous bitterness:

"You don't seem to object very strongly; you seem to care about as much for Alfarez as you do for me. Is that it?"

"Yes, senor," she said, bravely.

"You are lying!" declared Stephanie, suddenly.

The girl burst into a perfect torrent of weeping that shamed him. Then, without any invitation, she flung herself recklessly into his arms and lay there, trembling, palpitating like an imprisoned bird. "Forgive me, dear," he exclaimed, softly. "I knew better all the time. You mustn't think of doing what they ask; I won't allow it." His own heart-beats were shaking him, and he hardly knew what he was saying. The sight of her grief maddened him. It was as if they had taken advantage of his helpless little maid to hurt her maliciously, and his indignation blazed forth. She looked up with eyes gleaming through her tears and said, brokenly:

"Senor, I love you truly. You see, I cannot lie."

Her breath intoxicated him, and he bent his head to kiss her, but Stephanie tore her roughly from his arms. The woman showed the strength of a man, and her vulture-like face was working fiercely as she cried:

"No! She is mine! She is mine! She is a good girl."

"Stephanie! She loves me, don't you see?"

"No, no!" The black woman drew the girl into the shelter of her own arms.

"Oh, I am wicked," Gertrudis said. "I love you, Keerk--yes, I love you very dearly, but my father--he refuses--I must obey--he has the right, and I must do as he wishes."

"Come with me now. We'll be married to-night," he urged; but she only clung to Stephanie more closely, as if to hold herself from falling.

"You are very sweet to me," she said, with piteous tenderness, "and I shall never forget the honor; but you see I cannot. This is more to my father than his life; it is the same to all our family, and I must do my duty. I will pray for strength to keep from loving you, senor, and some day, perhaps, the dear God will hear. You must do likewise, and pray also for me to have courage, I could not let you go away thinking this was my doing, so I sent for you. No, one must obey one's people, for they are wise--and good. But one should be honest."

The tears were stealing down her cheeks, and she thrilled to his pleadings as to some wondrous music, yet she was like adamant, and all his lover's desperation could not shake her. It was strange to see this slender, timid slip of a girl so melting and yet so cruelly firm. He appealed to Stephanie, but she was as unresponsive as a bronze image. Seeing that his urging only made matters worse, he said, more gently:

"You are exalted now with the spirit of self-sacrifice, but later you will see that I am right. I am not discouraged. A thousand things may happen. Who knows what to-morrow may bring? Let's wait and see if we can't find a way out. Now that I know you love me, I have the courage to face anything, and I am going to win you, Chiquita. I have never lost in all my life, and I don't intend to begin now. I'll see your father in the morning, and I'll be here again, to-morrow night--"

But at this Gertrudis cried out: "No, no! I cannot meet you again in this manner." And Stephanie nodded her agreement.

"Then I'll see you the next night, that is Saturday. You are coming to the big ball at the Tivoli with him and the Cortlandts-- I must see you then, so make sure to be there, and meanwhile don't give up."

"Oh, there is no hope."

"There is always hope. I'll think of something."

"We must go," said the Barbadian woman, warningly.

"Yes, yes! It is of no avail to resist," came the girl's choking voice. She stretched out her little hand, and then, looking up at him, said, uncertainly: "I--may never speak with you again alone, senor, and I must pray to--cease loving you; but will you--kiss me once so that I may never forget?"

He breathed a tender exclamation and took her gently to his breast, while the negress stood by scowling and muttering.

The memory of that long, breathless moment lived with him for years. Strangely enough, at the touch of her lips he felt his courage forsake him--it ran out like water. He became weak, fearful, despairing, as if it were his life that was ebbing away. And the pang when she drew herself from him was like a bayonet- thrust. Even when she and Stephanie had melted into the shadows, he stood motionless under the spell of that caress, its ecstasy still suffusing him.

He found himself following slowly in the direction they had taken in the hope of catching just one more glimpse of her, but as he emerged from the darkness of the park he paused. There across the street, in the little open shrine set in the corner of the great cathedral, she was kneeling before the shining figure of the Madonna. The candle-glow that illumined the holy image and shone out so hopefully against the gloom showed her crouched close before the altar, her dark head bowed in uttermost dejection. Outside, and barely revealed, stood the tall, gaunt Bajan woman, silent, watchful, and forbidding.

With a painful grip at his throat Kirk watched until the girl rose and hurried away into the shadows. Then he, too, turned and made his way up the street, but he went slowly, unseeingly, as if he had beheld a vision.

For the first time in his life he was a prey to fear. A thousand panics clamored at him, his mind began working with the exaggerated speed of a person in dire peril. Once more, as upon that night when he had first called at her father's house, he turned abruptly at the corner to stare at her window, and again he surprised a figure skulking after him. Without a moment's hesitation he made after it at a run, but the fellow dodged into the Plaza and disappeared among the shrubbery. Not caring to pursue the chase into those lurking shadows Kirk desisted, certain only of one thing--that he was not Allan who was trailing him. He recalled the oft-repeated threats of Ramon Alfarez, and returned to his quarters by way of the lighted thoroughfares.

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