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   Chapter 18 PLOTS AND COUNTERPLOTS

The Delafield Affair By Florence Finch Kelly Characters: 23107

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Fourth of July was at hand, and Lucy Bancroft made ready for their stay at the Socorro Springs ranch with a resolve in her heart. Some time during their two days' visit she would tell Curtis Conrad the truth about her father. Of course, many people would be there, and the superintendent would be busy, but she expected to see a good deal of him-he was sure to show her much attention-and it would not be hard to find the few minutes of privacy in which to impart the secret. She was quite sure that the knowledge would bring to a harmless end his long quest of vengeance, and that at once he would cease his pursuit of Delafield. But she was equally sure that he would no longer love her or be friendly with her father. "He can't respect either of us after that," she mused. "He'll feel toward us just as he does toward Mr. Baxter; and I can't blame him, for we're worse than Mr. Baxter is." Her heart pleaded eagerly for a little period of grace in which to feel his love and live it, to take delight in his favor and admiration. She need not tell him at the outset.

While Lucy was considering and deciding upon her action, on the morning before the Fourth, Mrs. Ned Castleton was saying to her husband in the privacy of the great, empty plain across which they were taking an early gallop:

"I know why Lena was so willing to come down here with Turner and us. You'd never guess, Ned."

"Of course I couldn't, Francisquita. So you'll have to tell me."

"I know I shall have to, for you'd never discover it yourself, until too late to do anything about it. She didn't come because she wanted to see the place,-though she's never been here before, you know,-nor because she thought it would be something unusual to do, nor because she cares any more about Turner's affairs than she did last year, nor even because she wanted to keep track of me, nor because-"

"Never mind the didn'ts, Fanny! Let's skip ahead to why she did."

"That's just like you, Ned. You never can understand what a flavor it gives to something that really is to consider first all the things that it isn't."

"Well, you've had the flavor, now you can give me the fact. I've wondered myself why she was so gracious about coming with us."

"Yes; wasn't it surprising? It puzzled me so that I couldn't give up thinking about it until I solved the mystery."

"And aren't you going to let me into the secret?"

"Of course I am, Ned; that's what I'm doing right now! I studied about it on the way here, and I managed to find out a lot of things it wasn't. But I didn't discover what it was till after we reached the ranch."

"Well, what did you find out then?"

"Why, Ned, I'm telling you just as fast as I can! Although I think I know Lena pretty well, and am quite accustomed to her doing things that nobody else would think of, really, Ned, I was so surprised at this freak that you could have knocked me down with a feather!"

Ned Castleton looked caressingly at the slender, graceful figure of his wife, erect upon her horse, and smiled broadly. "Fanny, I'm in that condition right now, from unassuaged curiosity. Please knock me down with a feather and then go on and tell me this deep, dark secret."

She tickled his cheek with her quirt. "Why, Ned, I've been telling you all about it for the last five minutes, but you won't understand what I mean. It's all because she's immensely taken with your handsome superintendent, and she's deeply interested in the cattle business because she wants him to explain it to her!"

Castleton gave an incredulous laugh. "Nonsense, Francisquita! You are a clever woman, my dear, especially when it comes to divining what your dearly beloved sister-in-law is planning to do year after next. But you two women do get most remarkable notions about each other sometimes."

Mrs. Castleton shrugged her shoulders, tapped her horse, and bounded ahead. They raced for a mile before she allowed him to regain his place at her side. "Granting that you're right, Francisquita," he said, "what makes you think so?"

"Why, Ned, it's perfectly plain. I've seen Lena pave the way for too many flirtations not to know exactly what she's doing now. And she's preparing to have a perfectly furious affair with Mr. Conrad."

Castleton kept discreet silence for some moments and studied the horizon. When he turned again to his wife he asked, "Well, dear, what are you going to do about it?"

Francisquita Castleton was half Mexican, and on her mother's side could trace descent through a long line of dons back to a valiant governor and captain-general of the province who had done great deeds nearly two hundred years before. Her heritage had dowered her well with the instinctive coquetry, the supple, unconscious grace, the feminine, artless art that are the birthright of the women of Spanish blood. All of it was in the movement of her arm, the turn of her neck, and the poise of her head as she raised her veil and lifted her face toward her husband. Her voice was as soft as velvet and as caressing as an infant's palm as she exclaimed:

"Do anything? I? Why, Ned Castleton, how you surprise me! Why should I interfere with Lena's whims?"

Castleton laughed. "Ask me something easy, Fanny! I'm sure I don't know why you should, but I've noticed that Lena's plans sometimes shrivel up like a stuck balloon. Of course, it may be mere chance."

"No, Ned; it isn't chance at all. It's only because Lena doesn't plan carefully enough."

He took time for reflection. "I say, Francisquita," he presently broke out, "if you're right about this-and I must admit you don't often miss it about Lena-it may be a serious matter."

"Of course I'm right, Ned. You'll soon see for yourself just how things are going. You know Lena likes admiration and she likes having her own way and she dearly loves making Turner jealous and she's positively unhappy if every man in sight isn't prancing along in her train. Mr. Conrad is a fine-looking young man, and he made a very good appearance when she saw him in San Francisco last year. I suppose she thought he didn't yield to her fascinations as he should, so she decided to come down here and gather him in. She knows she'll be awfully bored unless she can make her flirtation with him-well-ardent enough to keep her interested. I know enough about Lena to see that she's planning to have an affair that will keep her and Turner and Mr. Conrad simply sizzling as long as we stay."

Castleton gave a long, low whistle. "Turner gets more jealous with every flirtation Lena has, and this whim of hers may prove serious. Conrad is the best superintendent this ranch ever had, and we want to keep him. But if Turner gets jealous he'll have to go-and mighty quick, too. And if he doesn't promptly succumb to Lena's fascinations-well, she's just vain enough to carry some story about him to Turner, so that we'd have to let him out for the sake of peace. We can't afford to lose Conrad, Fanny. I'll propose to Turner that we cut our stay short and go the day after the Fourth. We'll have to be here for the barbecue, of course."

"Really, Ned, that's just like a man! Don't you know Lena can't be managed that way? She'd suspect at once that I was at the bottom of it and wanted to get her away from here, and then nothing could induce her to go. And you know, Ned, she always winds Turner around her finger as if he were a piece of silk. I can't understand why American wives take so much pleasure in managing their husbands; we Mexican women don't care to do that sort of thing." It was a prim little figure that pronounced the last sentence-save for the coquettish turn of the head and a melting glance of dark eyes that flashed for a moment upon her husband.

He bent toward her a lover's face. "But you know how to manage just the same, Francisquita, mi corazon. Can't you think of some way to head Lena off and get her away before she does any mischief?"

Francisquita turned a contemplative eye upon the forest of crimson-flowered cactus through which they were riding. "Well, I don't know that I can do anything-still, Lena's methods are always so-broad! I suppose I might try, if you'd like me to. It might have some effect if I stepped in right away-you wouldn't mind it, would you, Ned?-and did a little flirting with Mr. Conrad on my own account; not very much, you know; but I could manage to keep him busy about things-oh, you understand!-just make it pleasant for him to be with me. Really, Ned, Lena hasn't much chance if I start even with her; we've tried it before-you remember-I told you all about it at the time-and I think she'll quit right away and want to go home, or somewhere, as soon as she sees what I'm doing."

Castleton laughed aloud. "And poor Conrad! What's to become of him in the midst of all these sighs and glances?"

She threw him a smiling glance, and broke into a little, low laugh. "Oh, he won't mind! He's no silly! And he doesn't care anything about the ladies, anyway."

"But suppose, Fanny," her husband teased, "that he should prefer Lena's methods after all, and cast himself at her feet instead of yours?"

She shrugged her shoulders and turned toward him with a smile trembling at the corners of her mouth. "Oh, in that case he would quite deserve to lose his position."

"But what about me? Should I deserve to lose him?"

She tapped her horse and darted ahead, throwing back a laughing retort: "Of course you would, for not having married a more attractive wife!"

Later in the day Mrs. Ned Castleton was busily engaged with Curtis Conrad and his brother Homer in the grove of cottonwoods across the road from the ranch house, showing them where to hang the last of the Japanese lanterns. Many people had already arrived and were scattered through the grove, or were wandering about the corral. Others were in the stockade behind the house, where Red Jack, Nosey Ike, and José Gonzalez were quartering the steer for the barbecue, and Hank Peters and Texas Bill were heaping wood on the fire where it was to be roasted. In the grove long tables had been made of planks and a floor laid for dancing. The lanterns hung in festoons around the platform and depended from the branches of the trees. Conrad saw Bancroft, Lucy, and Miss Dent driving up, and went to meet them.

Mrs. Ned Castleton beckoned to her husband. "I'm sure Lena is going to do something perfectly outrageous," she said softly as they went to greet the arrivals, "something that will fairly knock us off our feet. She has looked so indifferent and so innocent all day and has been so sweet to me that I'm expecting a thunder clap every minute. I hope it won't be anything disgraceful."

It was one of Mrs. Ned's important occupations, and she considered it her chief duty, for the sake, as she often told her husband, "of preserving at least a shred of the Castleton reputation," to discover the daring whims of her sister-in-law and nip them in the bud before they were ready to blossom upon the world. Francisquita knew also that Mrs. Turner enjoyed saying and doing audacious things, quite as much because they shocked Mrs. Ned as because they gave her a piquant vogue in San Francisco society. "I wonder what it is going to be," she repeated in a whisper to her husband as they came back with Conrad and the Bancroft party and went in search of Mrs. Turner. They found her sitting beside one of the tables, the centre of a group of men. Lucy, looking with interest, saw a large, golden-haired woman in a blue linen gown, that fitted per

fectly her well corseted figure, and a blue picture hat, that matched the hue of her eyes. Her complexion of exquisite fairness and delicacy of coloring, and features of perfect regularity and proportion, made Lucy own to herself that she deserved her reputation as "the beautiful Mrs. Castleton."

"What are we going to do all the rest of the day?" Mrs. Turner presently said, hiding a little yawn behind diamond-decked fingers. "It isn't three o'clock yet, and it seems as if it ought to be the day after to-morrow. Let's go in the house and play I'm a barber. Mr. Conrad, will you let me shave you?"

A thrill of shocked astonishment went through the group. Lucy dropped her eyes and felt her cheeks burn and Miss Dent turned uneasily away. Some of the men looked at one another and grinned; others caught their breath and avoided their neighbors' eyes. Conrad masked a moment's hesitation with a gay laugh.

"I would, with pleasure, Mrs. Castleton, if I had time; but just now I'm pretty busy. Here's a lot of fellows with nothing to do, who'll be delighted to help you amuse yourself."

Mrs. Castleton glanced up at the men with a confiding smile. "I believe it's really because he's afraid; and he needn't be, for I do it very well-don't I, Ned?" Her brother-in-law gave gallant, if vague, confirmation, and she went on: "And he knows, for I shave him every time he comes to our house. But there's too much wind out here, it would dry the lather too quickly; let's go in the house." She rose, and one of the men hastened to open her sunshade, another picked up her fan, a third her handkerchief, and the statuesque blue figure with its group of satellites left the grove.

"What does it mean, Fanny? Is this a new fad?" Ned Castleton asked his wife. "I never heard of it before, and she took my breath away when she told those people she always shaved me."

"You backed her up splendidly, Ned; and I think you'd better go in now and let her shave you along with the others."

"Fanny! I'd as soon allow her to black my boots!"

"But if she wants to, Ned! And I don't think she'd hurt you much, because she's been practising on their butler for a month-so her maid told mine, though I'd forgotten all about it. As Turner's brother I really think you ought to go in and seem to join in the fun, so it won't look quite so bad."

"If Lena doesn't care about the looks of it, why should I, or you?"

"But you ought to care on Turner's account. It would be dear of you, Ned, if you would go in, for Turner's sake, and lend your countenance to the affair."

"My countenance, Francisquita, but not my face. Since you're so anxious, dear, I'll go in and chaperon this shaving party if you'll tell me the real reason why you want me to do it. Is it a bargain?"

She leaned toward him with a delighted little chuckle. "Don't you see, Ned, that if you go in and I stay out she'll think that I'm keeping Mr. Conrad out-of-doors, and she will be so angry about it that it will make her nervous, so she will cut their faces dreadfully, and that will make her freak such a failure that she'll have to drop it. Do go along, Ned; for I'm going to keep your manager busy for the next two hours. And, by the way, dear, if you should come out and not see me anywhere, it's likely to be because he's asked me to drive to the post-office with him."

She sauntered through the grove toward the pond where a group of people had gathered under a big tree. She knew that Curtis was there, with the Bancrofts. Her cousin Juan-"Johnny"-Martinez was with them, and so was Dellmey Baxter. Dan Tillinghurst leaned against the tree, and beside him were Emerson Mead and his young wife, from Las Plumas. Judge Harlan and Colonel Whittaker, the former with his wife and the latter with his daughter, had also come from Las Plumas, where a political peace of unusual length and stability enabled them to leave town at the same time, and together.

Mrs. Castleton came smiling down the hill and joined in the general talk. But in five minutes the assemblage had broken into little groups of two or three, of which she, her cousin, and Conrad made one. She sent Martinez to do some small service for Miss Whittaker, and began to tell Curtis that she feared there were not lanterns enough. Would he come and look at them? As they went back to the grove she suggested that they might get paper bags from the store at White Rock, fill each half full of sand, put a candle in it, and set them in rows wherever there was room for them. She had often seen her native town illuminated in this way on festa nights, and the effect was really very beautiful. He thought it a good idea and asked if she would mind driving over to White Rock with him to help select the best sizes and colors. Five minutes later Lucy watched them driving away. "I saw how Mrs. Castleton was man?uvring," she thought with an angry throb of the heart. "But it doesn't matter the least bit. I can have quite as good a time with anybody else."

Presently she seemed greatly pleased when Homer Conrad asked if she and Miss Dent would like to see the horses. They made the round of the stables, and went to see the angora goats in their enclosure beyond the corral, and the dog kennels, and the chicken yard. They walked across the alfalfa field, and amused themselves in the prairie dog village on the hillside beyond. Lucy was so interested in everything, and said so many bright and pleasant things, and was so vivacious, and looked so pretty with her dimples and her color coming and going and her big brown eyes sparkling, that Homer thought her quite the nicest, jolliest girl he had seen in a long time. He was much like his brother in build, though less sinewy and a trifle fleshier in body; while in manner he was slower and less eager and alert. His eyes showed the same bright blue tint, but their expression was mild and trustful, while his brother's had always a dauntless look, as if challenging the world. His face was of the same general type, but the features were not so strongly marked, although he had the same firm mouth and strong chin. His countenance gave the impression of a character phlegmatic but forceful.

That evening Lucy told Miss Dent that she liked Don Homer very much, adding, "And he's been more polite and pleasant to us this afternoon than Mr. Conrad himself." Mrs. Ned Castleton had applied the Spanish title to the younger Conrad to distinguish him from his brother, and the rest had followed her example. Louise was secretly pleased at this dissatisfaction with Curtis, for her aversion to him was so great that she disliked even to see them together. But she reminded the girl that with so many people there he could not pay much attention to special ones. Lucy tossed her head and replied, "He had plenty of time for Mrs. Ned Castleton."

Evening came, and with it a huge white moon that poured upon earth and air and sky a flood of silvery white radiance in which the illuminations at the ranch shone with a mellow, golden glow. Mrs. Ned Castleton sat on the edge of the porch, her guitar in her lap, looking with satisfaction at the rows of paper bags, each containing a lighted candle in its bed of sand, set thickly upon the window-sills, the adobe walls, and the tables in the grove. They were not only effective, but they had enabled her to keep Curtis Conrad out of the hands of her sister-in-law the entire afternoon. Mrs. Turner had only just gone across to the grove, in the belief, subtly engendered by Francisquita, that the superintendent was to be found there, where most of the company had gathered and the dancing was about to begin. She knew, however, that he was overseeing the stowing of some cases of beer in the ice house in the back-yard. And she had not forgotten that when he was at their house in San Francisco he had been much pleased by her rendering of Spanish airs on the guitar. "He doesn't need to appear in the grove," she thought, "until Lena has had time to engage several dances." She began to play "La Golondrina," and as the sweetly plaintive notes rose higher, Lucy, looking houseward, saw a tall figure vault the wall around the grass plot and disappear in the shadows of the porch, whence came the strains of Mrs. Ned's guitar. A little later she saw them come across the road together, and at once became deeply interested in the talk of Don Homer, her partner, as they made their way to the dancing floor. Lucy danced twice with him, once with Martinez, and once with Emerson Mead before she made it possible for Curtis to speak with her. She knew he had been hovering near more than once, but she would not see him, and appeared always to be gayly interested with her partner.

She gave him only one dance during the evening. But, noting his movements, she had seen with much bitterness of heart that he danced frequently with Mrs. Ned Castleton. She began to wonder, with chill doubt in her breast, if she had deceived herself in thinking he cared for her. She had expected to see so much of him; and yet, except for the first half-hour after their arrival, he seemed to have ignored her. She began to realize that she had depended much on her belief in his love when she resolved to tell him the secret of her father's identity. She still had confidence that her words would turn him from his purpose-but it was going to be a hard thing to do!

"Mrs. Ned is just amusing herself," she thought angrily. "She ought to be ashamed-married woman flirting like that! Well-he's not the only one!" And before the evening was over Homer Conrad had neither eyes nor ears for any one but Lucy Bancroft.

The house was given over to the ladies for the night. The men had a blanket apiece, and all the wide out-doors in which to couch themselves. Some climbed to the flat adobe roof of the house, or to the brush thatch of the stables, while others declared the ground in the grove good enough for them. It was decided by unanimous outcry that the dancing platform should be turned over to Dellmey Baxter and Johnny Martinez, the opposing candidates for Congress.

First they all went trooping, each with his blanket stringing over his shoulder, to the kitchen door, where Conrad and the two Castletons dispensed nightcaps of varied concoction. The women heard them talking, story-telling, laughing, and now and then singing a snatch from some rollicking song. When the last light disappeared from within the house, a group of men began singing "Good-Night, Ladies." A round of vigorous applause from the darkened windows rewarded them, and they went on with "Annie Laurie," "Comin' through the Rye," and "How Can I Bear to Leave Thee." Johnny Martinez sang a Spanish love song in a falsetto voice, and received much applause from within.

The men sang their way along the windows, up one side of the long, rambling house, across the front, and down the other side. They climbed to the roof, and serenaded the men who were trying to sleep there, varying the line or two of song accorded to each with much chaffing and guying. When the last straggling half-dozen of singers finally went off to seek their own resting-places in the grove, they marched in single file round and round the dancing floor, where Baxter and Martinez had already stretched themselves, and sang in a solemn croak: "John Brown had one little, two little Indian boys; one went to Congress, the other stayed at home."

When peace settled at last over the Socorro Springs ranch house it was near the dawn of another day.

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