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   Chapter 13 No.13

The Mystery of The Barranca By Herman Whitaker Characters: 17081

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Coming out from luncheon-at which Sebastien had presided with a grave courtesy which lifted the inn's humble fare of eggs, tortillas, and rice to epicurean heights-Seyd and Francesca came face to face with Tomas, her mozo, who had just ridden into the patio. At sight of his mistress the mozo's teeth flashed in the golden dusk under his sombrero, but he shook his head when she reached for the letter which he took out of his saddle bags.

"It is for the gringo se?or. The jefe did not know of your coming."

It was, of course, from Don Luis. Couched in terms massively dignified as his own reserve, it apologized for the floods as for some personal fault, and finished by placing hacienda San Nicolas at Seyd's service.

"So you will ride on with us," Francesca commented upon its content.

As Sebastien had gone to order fresh horses, there was no one but Seyd to observe her evident pleasure. But if he thrilled, yet he persisted, pleading that he intended to establish headquarters there at the inn and would be head over heels in business, freighting machinery and supplies in from the station.

He smiled at her further objection that he would hardly find the accommodations of the inn to his liking. "They are better than at the mine. If they prove too bad I shall run down to San Nicolas to beg a meal."

"Very well, se?or, we shall expect you."

Her little backward nod, riding away with Sebastien a few minutes later, reaffirmed it, but while Seyd bowed in acknowledgment his thought ran oppositely. Unaware how quickly circumstances would compel the visit, he formulated a hardy resolution. "Now, young man, no more sentimental fooling. It's you for work. The first thing is to get across to Billy."

When, however, he took counsel with his fat brown host concerning the hire of a dugout the latter held up pudgy hands in horror. Santissimo Trinidad! The very idea was madness! With the river running a mile wide at its narrowest? Not a peon would venture upon it! And under the inspiration of his belief that a live customer was to be preferred to even a drowned gringo he worked privately against Seyd's suicidal intention. So well did he scatter his pessimistic seed that when Seyd succeeded in finding a dugout he had to buy it outright; nor could he persuade a single peon to dare the flood.

It was while returning to the inn late in the day that he obtained his first glimpse of the river from a knoll which lifted him above the drowned jungle. Around wooded islands, which were usually dry hills, a waste of waters, thick and brown as chocolate, swept madly. Along the edge of the jungle it boiled in fat eddies which sucked and licked the trailing greenery. Farther out it was whipped into a yellow cream by the thrashing branches of uprooted trees, ceibas and cedars, huge as a church, which rolled and tumbled as their submerged limbs caught on the bottom. Everywhere it was studded with debris, trees and brush, whole acres of water lilies which here massed like a garden around a floating hut, there wreathed the carcass of some drowned beast.

In all the world there is nothing more melancholy than the voice of a flood. Its resurgent dirge stirs vague forebodings which root in the calamitous experience of the race. Standing there alone, with the call of rushing waters, patter of rain, and sough of a sad wind in his ears, Seyd was able to understand the peons' superstitious fear. Yet he remained undeterred. The water being far too deep for poling, he made a pair of oars and fitted wooden thole pins in the dugout that evening, and next morning put off by himself on the tangled breast of the flood with such food as he had been able to buy.

Once afloat, he found navigation even more precarious than the direst prophecy of his host. Now backwatering until an opening showed in a bristle of brush and water lilies, he would next almost crack his back in a supreme effort to cross the currents which ran like millraces between wooded islands. Once a quick spurt saved him from disastrous collision with a derelict log; and, dodging or running, he was kept so busy that Billy's sudden hail came as a surprise.

"Hello, Seyd! Got any decent grub? We've lived on frijoles straight for the last thirty days."

The monotonous diet, however, did not seem to have impaired Billy's customary cheerfulness. At the sight of eggs, honey, chickens, and bananas in the stern of the boat his freckles loomed like brown spots on a shining sun. Neither had misfortune affected his industry. Though-as Francesca feared-ten feet of water now covered the new foundation, he had immediately started another on a bench which rose fifty feet above the flood. And, now munching a tortilla rolled in honey, he led the way to where Calixto and Caliban, with half a dozen others, were hard at work. It was their first meeting since Seyd left for the States, and there was, of course, no end to the things each had to tell. Then, in reviewing the new work and planning for more, the day slipped rapidly away.

Indeed, afternoon was drawing on before Seyd pushed off again. He had intended to land as close as possible to the inn and have the dugout carried back upstream the following day. But he could not, of course, foresee the event which, a third of the way across, caused him to stop rowing and stare with all his eyes. For as he backwatered to avoid a huge ceiba that bore down upon him with a slow, leisurely roll he spied a patch of white amidst the branches, and as it drew closer this presently resolved into a drenched chemisette which clung to the limbs of a young girl.

A slim brown thing under thirteen, terror had drained away every particle of her natural color, leaving her big dark eyes looming dead black in the pale gold mask of her face. Though she had seen Seyd first, the inborn humility of her subject race deterred her from making any outcry. She just sat perfectly still astride the thatched peak of a submerged hut which, caught in the branches, acted as an outrigger to keep the great tree on an even keel. Only her eyes expressed the pitiful appeal whose utter hopelessness was emphasized by flash of wonder when Seyd drove the dugout in among the branches.

Rising, then, she leaped into the bows, and, whether because the mass rode in a balance too delicate to endure the sudden change of weight or that a submerged branch happened to catch just then on some obstruction, the tree rolled heavily upon the dugout while Seyd was pulling his oars. Fortunately, the one heavy stroke had carried them out from under all but the thinner branches, and, though the dugout was capsized and forced under, it rose instantly, with Seyd and the girl clinging at each end. The hut on which she had been floating also emerged, and, working alongside, Seyd was able to right his craft and bale it out with his Stetson sombrero. A few yards away he recovered one oar, and, using it as a paddle, he tried to work across the flood.

By the time he had gained half the way, however, he was miles below the inn, and dusk found him floating on the wide lake which now covered the San Nicolas cane fields. Here, where the water ran more slowly, he made way faster toward the shore, and through a leaden dusk he presently made out red twinkles which grew, in another half hour, into the lights and fires of the hacienda. Soon his oar struck bottom, and, using it as a pole, he drove rapidly into a landing.

The night rains had already set in and they came down in sheets which soaked him to the skin and made of the girl, who had fallen asleep in the bows, a dim white nude. She had given him her simple history-how, of the five who were asleep in the hut when it was swept away by a cloudburst, she alone had survived. Utterly tired and exhausted, she did not awaken when he picked her up, and she lay quietly in his arms during the long sloppy tramp across the upland pastures. She was still asleep when, aroused by the baying of his dogs, Don Luis peered down from the upper patio upon their draggled figures.

"Hombres! hombres!" Looking up as his heavy bass boomed through the hacienda calling the mozos, Seyd caught a glimpse under the portal lantern of Francesca's face in its frame of dark hair through a glittering mist of rain. The next moment she came flying down the great stone stairs, followed by an irruption of brown maids.

"The ni?a! Oh, the poor ni?a!" Though she was wearing an evening dress of delicate white, she gathered the soaked child into her bosom, and, a c

enter of flying skirts and soft womanish exclamations, hurried her away to the upper regions.

In the longer time required for him to descend, Don Luis subdued his first astonishment, but it broke bonds again when Seyd explained his plight. "You crossed and recrossed the flood? Por Dios mio! I would never have dreamed that man could do it and live! You are wet to the skin. Come up at once."

"I had not expected-" Seyd began.

But the old man cut him off at once. "You gringos are difficult folk to please. Surely a dry bed in San Nicolas is to be preferred to a wet night on the river."

Nevertheless he was not displeased. Conferring with Francesca concerning a change of clothes after Seyd was safely bestowed in a bedroom, he expressed his secret admiration. "See you, an enormous ceiba rolls over and sends him and the canoa to the bottom, yet he speaks of it with shamed laughter as though of a fault. Also he would have borrowed a mozo and horse to travel back to the inn. What a man he would have made for the old wars!"

A charro suit, so close to Seyd's size as to be almost a fit, was the best that Francesca, after a voluble consultation with her maids, could offer in the way of change, and, though he experienced modest qualms at the sight of himself in tight trousers and short bolero jacket of soft leather gorgeously embroidered with silver, they undoubtedly brought out qualities of limb which were altogether lost in his usual clothing. If he could have seen the touch of admiration that softened the mischief in Francesca's dark eyes when he entered the living-room, his misgivings might have vanished. But the phenomenon occurred behind his back, and his recent vow against "sentimental fooling" did not prevent him from coloring at her whispered remark:

"You remind me of one Se?or Rosario."

Later, he was to spend considerable time trying to appease conscience with plausible explanations of his feeling, to set it down to relief that their adventure had brought her no trouble. But while relief may have entered in, it was principally due to the fact that she had chosen to retie the thread of their acquaintance just where it had been severed by Sebastien's intrusion. Yet, whatsoever its constituents, his pleasant embarrassment did not paralyze his tongue.

"I cannot return the compliment."

Neither could he. With Rosa, the pretty peona, this young lady in foamy white had nothing in common, and Rosa would have certainly felt out of place amidst the luxurious appointments of the room. Ample in all its dimensions, the furnishings had evidently been selected from the garnered treasures of several generations, with such taste, however, that the unmatched pieces made a harmonious whole. The old hangings which excluded the damp night, the old rugs on the mahogany floor, and old furniture lent each other countenance, melted into a rich design. Even the grand piano, undoubtedly the latest addition, was taking the tone of age. Only the bookcases which flanked the great fireplace displayed a modern note, for in them fine editions of English classics crowded the novels and plays of Cervantes and Lope Felix de Vega, Daudet, Flaubert, Anatole France, De Maupassant, competed for room with Spanish and English translations of the modern Russians.

"Her taste," Seyd had summed the room. "Your books?" he asked, with a nod at these astonishing shelves.

"Yes, no one else reads them." She added, with smiling directness: "Or could understand. If the dear mother read French, oh, what a bonfire we should have!"

"And you like them-the Frenchmen?"

"Some-in some things." Her brows arching in the effort for clear expression, she went on: "They know life, and one cannot but enjoy their beautiful style. But"-the delicate penciling drew even finer-"they see only with the eye. They are brilliant-as diamonds, and just as hard, cold. They analyze, dissect, probe life, take it apart, then forget to put it together. Love they see only as passion devoid of sympathy, affection, friendship. Their art is of the senses, their refinement-of manner. Under the veneer they are gross and hard."

To his astonishment she had expressed his own feeling for French literature, and, intensely curious, he went on probing her with questions, in his interest forgetting both his clothes and hunger till Don Luis interrupted.

"Lindita, the se?or cannot live on words. The girls are calling dinner."

But after the meal-which was set out with silver, glass, napery, all of the finest, and served by brown maids who moved in and out with the soft stealth of bare feet-they went at their talk again, gleaning in fields of common knowledge while Don Luis alternately smoked and dozed by the fire.

It was a revelation for Seyd, and while he watched the play of feeling over her face, the flow of her soft color, the swift moods of the arched brows, and the lighting and lowering of dark eyes in unison with the change of her talk, his hardy resolution of yesterday-already sapped by his present luxurious comfort-underwent further disintegration.

"After all," he thought, "why shouldn't I run down and see them occasionally?"

Following Don Luis to his bedroom, he arrived at this conclusion, and in his argument with Conscience he reaffirmed it with even greater force. "After all the old man's kindness it would be blackly ungrateful to flout his hospitality."

"No reason why you should," Conscience conceded, but added the unpleasant rider, "providing you don't sail under false colors."

"Of course!" Seyd here grew quite huffy with Conscience. "I always intended to let her know I was married-not that it is necessary. I'm not so conceited as to think that she feels the slightest personal interest in me."

If it were really sincere his belief might have been shaken, could he have reviewed a little scene that was being enacted at that very moment across the patio. After the waif from the floods had been bathed and fed she was put to bed on a couch in Francesca's own room, and, aroused by the brilliant sheen of wax candles on the dresser, she lay and watched with eyes of awe the young lady at her toilet. In her simple sight the dresser, with its big French mirror and gleaming silver appointments, doubtless appeared as the altar before which was being accomplished the marvelous transmutation of a woman into the exact semblance of those angels of light pictured on the stained windows of the church of Chilpancin. From the plaiting of the dark cloud of hair into a thick cable, to the final assumption of filmy white, she remained quiet as a mouse. Francesca had risen to blow out the candles before a small voice rose behind her.

"He said you were beautiful. Could he but see thee now!"

After a sudden start Francesca moved over to the couch and collapsed beside it in a white heap.

"Awake, ni?a? What is this? He said I was beautiful? Who?"

"The gringo se?or. When I began to cry for my mother and little Pedro that was drowned with her in the flood he said for me to take comfort, that he was going to place me with the most beautiful se?orita in all Guerrero-one that would be kinder to me than my mother."

"And that I will be." Drawing her close, Francesca kissed the small gold face. "But did he really say-No, you shall tell me all about it from the very beginning."

While the tale was proceeding in soft lisping Spanish Francesca's eyes eloquently illustrated its varied course. But their wide horror, moist pity at the drowning of the poor brown mother, suspense until Seyd and the child had climbed back into the dugout, merged in a soft glow at the repetition of his promise. "'The most beautiful se?orita in all Guerrero?' Then he could not have meant me."

"Si." The girl emphatically nodded. "Also he said you would take me into your service."

"And so I will. I shall have thee trained for my own little maid. I shall call thee Roberta, after him, and every night it will be thy duty to speak for him in thy prayers. Are they said?"

"Si, se?orita. I said them to the big girl, Rosa, but I will say one now for him-with thee."

Could Seyd have heard the soft voice following Francesca's gentle promptings he would undoubtedly have suffered another onslaught from Conscience. As it was, just to prove his disinterestedness he rose at dawn. Leaving a note of thanks on the table, he went out on a hunt for peons and mules to haul the dugout back to the inn, and, having found them, went sternly on about his business.

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