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   Chapter 14 No.14

The Mystery of The Barranca By Herman Whitaker Characters: 11173

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


For two weeks thereafter Seyd held fast to his work, suppressing with iron firmness successive vagrant impulses which urged a second visit to San Nicolas. Then having proved to himself his perfect indifference toward Francesca, he rode down one day-strictly on business-to ask Don Luis's assistance in obtaining more men and mules.

"I shall return this evening," he arranged with Conscience, starting out.

He had forgotten, however, to make allowance for the probable action of, in legal verbiage, the party of the second part, for upon his arrival he received from Francesca as stiff a lecture on his folly in leaving the other day in half-dried clothes as ever fell from the lips of an anxious mother. Upon it, too, Don Luis set the stamp of his heavy approval.

"One may do it in the high altitudes, se?or, but here in the tropics such carelessness leads to the fever. This time we shall not let you forth till properly fed and dried."

Now while a girl's acceptance of flowers, candy, and other favors may mean anything or nothing, no sooner does she begin to concern herself with a man's health and clothes than the affair becomes serious, for it clearly proves that she has been touched in the mother instinct, which forms the basis of woman's love. In his masculine ignorance of this fundamental truth, however, Seyd gave her solicitude a sisterly interpretation, and congratulated himself upon the fact that their acquaintance was established at last on such solid ground. Agreeing with himself that it would be the worst of taste for him to disturb a purely friendly relation with any reference to the squalid tragedy of his marriage, he continued silent.

It is to be feared, also, that several subsequent visits were based upon rather frivolous excuses. In the next month he carried down to San Nicolas the news of at least a dozen cases of destitution through the floods, and when, for some inexplicable cause, deliveries of his material at the railroad suddenly ceased he plunged head over heels into the relief work which had been instituted under Don Luis's direction. Sometimes alone, more often with Francesca and Tomas, he rode up and down the valley hunting out the sufferers. And it was on one of these journeys that the fates which dog insincerity laid bare his pretense.

It came-his awakening-a week or so after a sudden fall of the floods foretold the end of the rains. Though the river still ran wide of its banks, most of the ranches with intervening patches of jungle had come again to the surface; and, riding through one of the latter on his way to San Nicolas, Seyd overtook Francesca and Tomas.

"Is it not good to see the fields again?" she greeted him. "The crops will be late this year, but Don Luis says that the yield will be all the richer because of the flood. But the jungle! The poor jungle! It has been swept clean of shrubs and flowers."

It did look most forlorn. Shorn of its luxuriance, the orchids and wild flowers, and all the tide of vegetation which usually flowed everywhere in waves that rose and tossed a froth of green creepers into the tops of the tallest trees, the jungle was now a fat black marsh littered with bejucos which lay in twisted masses like drowned snakes. Edged with draggled grass, still others hung down from the trees, writhing darkly in the wind that had sprung up in the last hour. Taken in all, it was weird, gruesome, a fit setting for the tragedy that lay waiting for them amid the roots of a dead ceiba just ahead. Twisted back and forth by the storms of the last month, the tree now stood in a hole of mud, ripe and ready for the gust that snapped the rotten tap root just as Francesca was riding by.

Without noise the tree inclined, reaching out huge arms above her head. So silently it fell that Francesca never saw it at all, and Seyd, who was riding just behind her, received first warning from the sudden swing of a bejuco across his eyes. Leaning over his horse's neck, he lashed her beast across the quarters. Almost unseated by the wild forward plunge of her beast, the girl recovered her seat and looked back just in time to see him knocked out of the saddle. Had he been struck by one of the main branches, thick as a barrel, both he and his horse had surely been crushed down into the mud beyond need of other burial. But though he had gained almost from under, even a twig strikes a shrewd blow after describing a three-hundred-foot arc, and he lay in the mud under her eyes, white and still, with an ugly bruise showing across his brow.

"Tomas! Tomas! Ride thou for help!"

Crying it, she leaped from her horse, sank beside Seyd in the mud, and lifted his head into her lap. With water from a pool which was soaking her skirt she laved the bruise with one hand, intently studying his face; and when, some minutes later, he gave no sign of life, her dark anxious eyes blazed with a sudden passion of fear. Gathering his head in against her bosom, she rocked back and forth with passionate murmurs: "Oh, he is dead! He is killed-for me!" But though, if told of it, he would have sworn that such treatment would really have brought him back from the dead, he neither felt, saw, nor heard the soft cradling arms, burning black eyes, the broken murmurs in English and Spanish.

He did feel her lips when, stooping suddenly, she kissed the bruise, because it happened just as her lowered face hid the first quiver of his eyelids. Also he felt the unconscious embrace and saw the deep blush which told that she knew he had felt her kiss. But she did not try to avoid his ga

ze. From the midst of her blushes she answered it with the bravery of love, discovered and unafraid.

"Querido, I had thought thee dead."

In the wonder of it, the foolish, tender wonder, Seyd, on his part, forgot all else. Perhaps the delicate brain plexuses which govern memory were still stunned, leaving his mind clean as a new slate till some stimulus should presently rewrite upon it the pretty, common face of his wife. Conscious only of this new bursting love, he reached up at her murmur and pulled her face down to his. Then it came, the stimulus. With the powerful association of some other kiss, the moist clinging of her lips started the wheels of memory, but, remembering, he did not desist. For simultaneously there had burst upon him a vision of love, rounded and complete, with the perfect fullness which satisfies every instinct and need. Already he had felt that at every point her personality met and complemented his, and in the fullness of the realization his whole being rose in rebellion against that other tie. He was kissing her with furious abandon when she suddenly broke away.

"Oh, I wonder if he saw us?"

Looking quickly up, he saw Tomas returning through the trees. "I don't know," he reassured her, "but I'll find out. If he did-just leave him to me."

After Tomas, but at a safe distance, came three peons whom he had called from the nearest rancho, also a mozo who had been sent out from the meson to overtake and deliver a letter to Seyd.

"If you'll permit me?" he asked. But his head still swam; and when he tried to read it the angular chirography danced under his eyes, describing such curious antics that he was driven at last to ask her aid.

It was from Peters, the station agent, and announced the arrival of a consignment of American provisions; and, as Billy had been condemned to straight Mexican diet for the last two weeks, the news called for Seyd's instant return. While the soft voice was reciting its content he oscillated between mixed feelings of chagrin and relief, for after its long sleep outraged Conscience was now working overtime. He felt like a hypocrite when she spoke.

"You are still weak. You must not go."

"I'm afraid that I shall have to."

"But suppose that you are taken ill on the way?"

"The mozo will be with me-anyway, I'm all right."

Though she looked disappointed, she gave way when he explained Billy's need; the more readily, perhaps, because she felt within her the stirrings of the feminine instinct to hide and brood over her new happiness all alone. The feeling even formed her speech. "The poor se?or Thornton! He must be very lonely over there all by himself, and he must be fed. I shall not mind-for a few days. You have given me-so much to think about. But then-you will come?"

He groaned inwardly at the thought of that which their next meeting entailed, and had it been possible he would have preferred to make open confession there and then. As it was not, he let her ride away with her own clear happiness undimmed, unconscious of the stab inflicted by her last tender whisper.

"Surely I shall come," he had answered; and, after mounting his horse, he sat and watched her ride away among the trees. When, with a parting wave, she disappeared, his sun went out, yet through his bitter feeling he remembered his promise.

"Tomas!" He called the mozo back. Ignorant of just how much the fellow had seen, he tried him out with the Spanish proverb, "'The saints are good to the blind.'"

At the sight of the five-peso note in Seyd's hand the mozo's white teeth flashed in a knowing grin. "Si, se?or," he answered in kind, "neither do flies enter a closed mouth." And, pocketing the note, he galloped after his mistress, leaving Seyd to go his own way.

It was not pleasant, either, the path that Seyd pursued the next few days. Going back to the inn, following the mules out to and back from the railroad, crossing and recrossing the river with Billy's supplies, fits of rebellion alternated with moods of black self reproach.

"If you had declared yourself in the beginning she would never have given you a second thought."

Up to the moment when he turned his horse's head once more toward San Nicolas, a few days later, this formed the text of his musings; and if he winced when the gold of the hacienda walls broke along the green foothills it was not in pity for himself. If it would have freed her from pain he would have hugged his own with the savage exultance of a flagellant. But too well he knew that in these things there is no vicarious atonement, and the face that he carried into the San Nicolas patio was so grim and sad that it provoked Don Luis's comment.

"Se?or, you are sick? Before she left Francesca told us of the accident. 'Tis plain that you are not yet recovered."

"Before she-left?"

Out of feeling in which surprise and relief struggled with bitter disappointment Seyd's question issued. At Don Luis's answer despair rolled over all.

"Si, se?or. She is gone to Europe-for a year."

Through his amazement and despair Seyd felt the justice of the stroke. As yet, however, the smart was too keen for submission. In open mutiny once more against the scheme of things, he repeated the phrase, "Gone? To Europe?"

"Si," Don Luis nodded. "Our kinswoman, the se?ora Rocha, mother of Sebastien, has been ailing for a great while, and now goes to Europe for special doctoring. As she speaks only our own tongue, she could not journey alone, and, like the good girl that she is, Francesca consented to accompany her."

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