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   Chapter 21 No.21

The Mystery of The Barranca By Herman Whitaker Characters: 13191

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Fifteen miles away along the rim Francesca and Sebastien had just reined in. On a bare knoll close to the trail which led down to El Quiss three peons were building a beacon of dry wood around a core of hay, and while Sebastien talked with them the girl looked out over the valley.

Ever since, in a burst of anger at Seyd's message, she confirmed her conditional promise she had lived in a fever of feeling which precluded clear thought. In the same way that a sufferer from toothache anticipates with almost revengeful pleasure the wrench of the extraction she had looked forward to marriage as though it were to bring the end of her pain. Not until the words that made her a wife fell like a chill on her fever did she perceive the illusion. Riding along the trail, the consequences had presented themselves, and they grew with every mile until they filled her mind with horror. She had shrunk in fear and revulsion when Sebastien offered the ordinary courtesies of the road. When he buttoned his own big rain capote around her she trembled under his hands. Again, when her beast slipped and he threw his arm round her to lift her out of the saddle, she uttered a nervous cry, and, though he released her at once, she shuddered under her cloak. Yet, with all her pain, when she gazed out over the storm-beaten valley her old passion for nature asserted itself through her agony.

Along the Barranca the south wind herded great fleecy clouds. There they piled themselves up in shadowy hills, there they rolled and tumbled like thistledown in a breeze, and again cascaded down to lower levels to dissolve with muttering thunder in slaty sheets of rain. One minute the vapors filled the Barranca, flowing, a ghostly river, between the towering walls. The next a sudden rent in the veil permitted a fleeting glimpse of the trail falling like a yellow snake with myriad writhings into the treetops thousands of feet below. Enormous in scale, the scene was rendered more impressive by the roll of low thunders and flash of pale lightnings amidst leaden writhing shapes. Watching it, Francesca was forgetful until, through a sudden rift, she caught the distant pink flash of the El Quiss walls. Then she shivered, and she was still trembling when, turning from the peons, Sebastien spoke.

"It is one of a chain of beacons they are building up and down the valley to warn the people if the gringo dam should burst." Noticing her shiver, he added: "You are cold, querida? Let us ride on."

His usual stern gravity had given place in the last few hours to a look soft, pleasant, and very human. If she had looked into his eyes she might have read there both sympathy and understanding. But softness in him just then merely added to her fear. Following downhill, too, she watched him closely with dark, frightened eyes. In the past his strong face and lithe figure had aroused in her a certain admiration, but now they inspired revulsion. A lost spirit descending into Hades could not have battled more fiercely than did she descending the interminable staircases, and the struggle left her so pale and exhausted that Sebastien remarked upon it when they rode out at last on the valley floor.

"You are tired? We shall soon be there."

That started her again upon a conflict which continued all the way across the pastures to the hacienda gates and reached its climax when she entered her room-not the one she had occupied before, but that which had chambered before her the line of wives and mothers which began with the Aztec bride of Flores Rocha, the conquistador. In that long line the room may have harbored a bride fully as unhappy, but none more mutinous than its present occupant.

"The se?ora is fatigued. She will have the meal served in her room." Sebastien's quiet order had dispersed the brown maids who flocked about her like cooing pigeons with greetings and offers of service. Unaware that he would observe it himself, she sprang out of her chair and ran a few steps toward the barred window when a tap sounded upon her door. In her relief when it proved to be only Roberta, she pulled the child in to her bosom.

"It is thee, ni?a! Oh! I had thought-what is this?"

Her sudden flush betrayed her recognition of Seyd's writing on the package the girl held out. In the few seconds she stood hesitating her changing expression revealed the struggle between her misery and her sense of wifely honor. The issue was not long in doubt, for, suddenly murmuring "'Twill do no harm to read it," she ripped off the cover.

While she read the blush faded. At the end her low distressed cry, "Francesca, see what thy hasty pride has done! A little patience would have saved thy happiness and his!" told of the deep impression. Sinking into a chair, she was beginning to read it again when the door trembled under a heavier rap.

Thrusting the letter into her bosom, she leaped up, under the urge of the same wild instinct to escape, retreated toward the window, and so stood, with Roberta tightly held against her skirts. Seconds passed before she managed a tremulous "Enter!" and the face she turned to Sebastien presented such a passion of fear, revulsion, and despair that he stopped and stood gazing at her from the door. If surprised, his look, however, was still kind. He even smiled. Not until, retreating as he came forward, she stopped only with her back against the wall, Roberta still between them, did his smile give way to sudden dark offense.

"Are you ill?" He spoke sharply. "Or is this the usual way of a bride? If I were a tiger and you alone in the jungle 'twould be impossible to show more fear."

"I wish you were!" The confession burst out of her miserable fear. "'Twere preferable a thousand times! Oh, why did I do it-commit this great wrong? Love is, can be, the only cause for marriage, but in my hasty pride I sought only revenge-on him. Oh, 'twas a sin-a sin against you, Sebastien, who have always been so kind. Somewhere there must have been a woman who would have borne you children out of her love. And now-I have not only sealed my own misery, but also yours. For, though I do not, never can love you, I am-your wife."

To repeat, it came out of her in a wild burst, without consideration. But with the last word she looked her apprehension. He, however, took it quietly. Already the flash of offense had faded. Only the measured tone betrayed restraint.

"It is so-we are husband and wife. But do not let that fact disturb you. Did you think me so much of a beast as to believe that I would take you stone-cold! Neither need you griev

e over your sin in marrying without love, for I took you on those terms. I knew very well that you were falling to me through anger. My only fear was that it might cool before you were placed forever beyond the gringo's reach. But now that is accomplished, have no fear, we stand as we were. You are still Francesca, to be wooed with a larger license, but still to be wooed and won to my love."

"Oh, you are-as always-kind!" A little of the terror had died out of her face, and if she had never received Seyd's letter, had lacked the reassurance that lay warm in her breast, his generosity might have prevailed. Pitifully, she was going on, "I am sorry-" but he interrupted.

"Let us have none of that. Pity is the last thing I ask of you. The issue between us lies clearly-can be settled only one way." His dark eyes lighting, he went on after a pause: "It needs not for me to remind you of the birth of my love, for it reaches back beyond your memory. When you were still a lovely child I gleaned a fallen eyelash from your dress and carried it for years-ay, until it was displaced by a stolen curl clipped while you slept by the maid I bribed. With you my love grew-grew with you from that lovely girl into a beautiful woman. The place which your foot had trod was, for me, the only holy ground. You were my church, the only one I ever believed in, the only one that gained my prayers. For me you and you alone held the keys of heaven, and be sure that now that they have passed through your own act into my hands I shall never rest till they have opened for me the doors."

"You will always have my liking and respect-"

He cut her off again. "Idle words-they are not enough. And you owe me one thing-your willingness to help. I shall try hard, harder than I have ever done, to win you, but without that my efforts will be in vain. And remember-for your own sake-if you do not help me it may be that you yourself will reap the pain. The immortality of love is the wild talk of poets. One cannot love a statue. The eye tires at last of the most beautiful marble, goes roving after warm flesh. So take care that you do not awake too late to find yourself unloved, pining for the affection you once rejected."

Through all he had maintained his dark calm, speaking quietly with a touch of sadness. Yet, the stronger for its suppression, vibrant feeling pulsed in the appeal. Had Francesca still been smarting under the lash of hurt pride he might have caught her on a second reaction. For she was moved. Pity and distress governed her answer.

"Oh, I feel wretchedly ungrateful. But what can I do? I cannot-oh, give me time?"

"All that you need, querida. You are to have your own time and terms. Now listen! I am going away."

He smiled a little grimly at her start of relief. "So very glad? Then I am sorry it will not be for longer. I shall be back in a few days. Word came to the administrador yesterday that the gringo dam is greatly endangered by warm rains that have added the volcano's snows to the flood. A hundred feet deep, the waters are pouring down the Barranca de Tigres, and if they once top it the dam will go." He uttered a bitter oath. "A curse on it! If it were not that the wave would sweep the valley clean I would send one to hasten the end with a charge of powder. But that must wait for the dry season. I go now with every man and mule I can muster to raise and strengthen it. Signal beacons such as we saw at the trail head have been built all along the rim, and, if the dam goes, smoke by day or fire by night will flash timely warning. But if you are timid-San Nicolas stands on higher ground. If you would prefer to return-"

"No! no!" Her fervent gratitude prompted her to attempt some return. "I shall stay here-to care for our people."

He smiled at the "our." "Spoken like a Rocha. You never lacked courage, Francesca, but be careful. At the first signal leave everything, fly with the people up to the hills. If it should happen that the place is spared you can come back again. If not, follow the upper trail down to San Nicolas."

Her fright had now altogether faded. While he was giving a few last instructions a touch of anxiety diluted her brimming thankfulness. But when he went out without having attempted anything more intimate than his usual bow, this vanished. And his restraint gained him more ground. Walking to the window which overlooked the patio, which was now thronged with a motley mixture of peons, mule-drivers, and serving women, she watched him mount and ride away at the head of the mule train. Looking backward from the great gates, he saw and answered the wave of her hand. But it was too far for him to catch either her wistful expression or pitiful murmur "If it had not been-"

Inside her bodice Seyd's letter crackled under her hand. The blush with which she withdrew it indicated a doubt that his letter had a right to further tenancy in that warm nest. Roberta had followed Sebastien out to watch his departure. After placing the letter on the table she sat, one oval cheek propped on her hand, her dark head drooping over it like a tired flower. Once she made to pick it up, then snatched back her hand as though from a flame.

"No! no! It would be wrong-after his kindness." After a few minutes' further musing she added: "'Tis now of the past. By your hand was it put there, Francesca. Now remains only to make a finish."

Taking a match from a tray at her elbow, she lit the letter and threw it, all flaming, to the center of the tiled floor. While its pages withered her face quivered in sympathy, and when suddenly a single line stood blackly out in the expiring glow-"I love you-shall always love you!"-her breath came in a sudden sob.

Rising, she gathered the ashes into a small tray, carried them across the room to the little altar that stood against the wall-an action significant as it was conscious. Kneeling, she bowed her head in her hands. She remained there a full hour, and when she rose no one of the ten generations of women whose soft knees had worn a depression in the tiles was ever animated by a more honest sense of duty. The face she turned to little Roberta, who came bursting in a few minutes later, was quiet and serene.

"Oh, se?orita!" In her excitement the child gave her the maiden title. "Pancho, the administrador, will have you come at once. Smoke is rising northward along the rim. Also there comes a horseman at full speed." Lowering her voice, she added: "Pancho showed him to me through Don Sebastien's far-seeing glasses. It is the se?or Seyd."

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