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- ON THE FRONTIER - 10/26 -
squall, she watched it weather the island, and then turn its laboring but persistent course towards the open channel. A rent in the Indian-inky sky, that showed the narrowing portals of the Golden Gate beyond, revealed, as unexpectedly, the destination of the little craft, a tall ship that hitherto lay hidden in the mist of the Saucelito shore. As the distance lessened between boat and ship, they were again lost in the downward swoop of another squall. When it lifted, the ship was creeping under the headland towards the open sea, but the boat was gone. Mrs. Tucker in vain rubbed the pane with her handkerchief; it had vanished. Meanwhile the ship, as she neared the Gate, drew out from the protecting headland, stood outlined for a moment with spars and canvas hearsed in black against the lurid rent in the horizon, and then seemed to sink slowly into the heaving obscurity beyond. A sudden onset of rain against the windows obliterated the remaining prospect; the entrance of a servant completed the diversion.
"Captain Poindexter, ma'am!"
Mrs. Tucker lifted her pretty eyebrows interrogatively. Captain Poindexter was a legal friend of her husband, and had dined there frequently; nevertheless she asked: "Did you tell him Mr. Tucker was not at home?"
"Did he ask for ME?"
"Tell him I'll be down directly."
Mrs. Tucker's quiet face did not betray the fact that this second visitor was even less interesting than the first. In her heart she did not like Captain Poindexter. With a clever woman's instinct she had early detected the fact that he had a superior, stronger nature than her husband; as a loyal wife, she secretly resented the occasional unconscious exhibition of this fact on the part of his intimate friend in their familiar intercourse. Added to this slight jealousy, there was a certain moral antagonism between herself and the captain which none but themselves knew. They were both philosophers, but Mrs. Tucker's serene and languid optimism would not tolerate the compassionate and kind-hearted pessimisms of the lawyer. "Knowing what Jack Poindexter does of human nature," her husband had once said, "it's mighty fine in him to be so kind and forgiving. You ought to like him better, Belle." "And qualify myself to be forgiven," said the lady pertly. "I don't see what you're driving at, Belle; I give it up," had responded the puzzled husband. Mrs. Tucker kissed his high but foolish forehead tenderly, and said: "I'm glad you don't, dear."
Meanwhile her second visitor had, like the first, employed the interval in a critical survey of the glories of the new furniture, but with apparently more compassion than resentment in his manner. Once only had his expression changed. Over the fireplace hung a large photograph of Mr. Spencer Tucker. It was retouched, refined, and idealized in the highest style of that polite and diplomatic art. As Captain Poindexter looked upon the fringed hazel eyes, the drooping raven moustache, the clustering ringlets, and the Byronic full throat and turned-down collar of his friend, a smile of exhausted humorous tolerance and affectionate impatience curved his lips. "Well, you ARE a fool, aren't you?" he apostrophized it half-audibly.
He was standing before the picture as she entered. Even in the trying contiguity of that peerless work he would have been called a fine-looking man. As he advanced to greet her, it was evident that his military title was not one of the mere fanciful sobriquets of the locality. In his erect figure and the disciplined composure of limb and attitude there were still traces of the refined academic rigors of West Point. The pliant adaptability of Western civilization which enabled him, three years before, to leave the army and transfer his executive ability to the more profitable profession of the law, had loosed sash and shoulder-strap, but had not entirely removed the restraint of the one, or the bearing of the other.
"Spencer is in Sacramento," began Mrs. Tucker in languid explanation, after the first greetings were over.
"I knew he was not here," replied Captain Poindexter gently, as he drew the proffered chair towards her, "but this is business that concerns you both." He stopped and glanced upwards at the picture. "I suppose you know nothing of his business? Of course not," he added reassuringly, "nothing, absolutely nothing, certainly." He said this so kindly, and yet so positively, as if to promptly dispose of that question before going further, that she assented mechanically. "Well, then, he's taken some big risks in the way of business, and--well, things have gone bad with him, you know. Very bad! Really, they couldn't be worse! Of course it was dreadfully rash and all that," he went on, as if commenting upon the amusing waywardness of a child; "but the result is the usual smash-up of everything, money, credit, and all!" He laughed and added: "Yes, he's got cut off--mules and baggage regularly routed and dispersed! I'm in earnest." He raised his eyebrows and frowned slightly, as if to deprecate any corresponding hilarity on the part of Mrs. Tucker, or any attempt to make TOO light of the subject, and then rising, placed his hands behind his back, beamed half-humorously upon her from beneath her husband's picture, and repeated: "That's so."
Mrs. Tucker instinctively knew that he spoke the truth, and that it was impossible for him to convey it in any other than his natural manner; but between the shock and the singular influence of that manner she could at first only say, "You don't mean it!" fully conscious of the utter inanity of the remark, and that it seemed scarcely less cold-blooded than his own.
Poindexter, still smiling, nodded.
She arose with an effort. She had recovered from the first shock, and pride lent her a determined calmness that more than equaled Poindexter's easy philosophy.
"Where is he?" she asked.
"At sea, and I hope by this time where he can not be found or followed."
Was her momentary glimpse of the outgoing ship a coincidence, or only a vision? She was confused and giddy, but, mastering her weakness, she managed to continue in a lower voice:
"You have no message for me from him? He told you nothing to tell me?"
"Nothing, absolutely nothing," replied Poindexter. "It was as much as he could do, I reckon, to get fairly away before the crash came."
"Then you did not see him go?"
"Well, no," said Poindexter. "I'd hardly have managed things in this way." He checked himself and added, with a forgiving smile, "But he was the best judge of what he needed, of course."
"I suppose I will hear from him," she said quietly, "as soon as he is safe. He must have had enough else to think about, poor fellow."
She said this so naturally and quietly that Poindexter was deceived. He had no idea that the collected woman before him was thinking only of solitude and darkness, of her own room, and madly longing to be there. He said, "Yes, I dare say," in quite another voice, and glanced at the picture. But as she remained standing, he continued more earnestly, "I didn't come here to tell you what you might read in the newspapers to-morrow morning, and what everybody might tell you. Before that time I want you to do something to save a fragment of your property from the ruin; do you understand? I want you to make a rally, and bring off something in good order."
"For him?" said Mrs. Tucker, with brightening eyes.
"Well, yes, of course--if you like--but as if for yourself. Do you know the Rancho de los Cuervos?"
"It's almost the only bit of real property your husband hasn't sold, mortgaged, or pledged. Why it was exempt, or whether only forgotten, I can't say."
"I'll tell you why," said Mrs. Tucker, with a slight return of color. "It was the first land we ever bought, and Spencer always said it should be mine and he would build a new house on it."
Captain Poindexter smiled and nodded at the picture. "Oh, he did say that, did he? Well, THAT'S evidence. But you see he never gave you the deed, and by sunrise to-morrow his creditors will attach it--unless--"
"Unless--" repeated Mrs. Tucker, with kindling eyes.
"Unless," continued Captain Poindexter, "they happen to find YOU in possession."
"I'll go," said Mrs. Tucker.
"Of course you will," returned Poindexter, pleasantly; "only, as it's a big contract to take, suppose we see how you can fill it. It's forty miles to Los Cuervos, and you can't trust yourself to steamboat or stage-coach. The steamboat left an hour ago."
"If I had only known this then!" ejaculated Mrs. Tucker.
"I knew it, but you had company then," said Poindexter, with ironical gallantry, "and I wouldn't disturb you." Without saying how he knew it, he continued, "In the stage-coach you might be recognized. You must go in a private conveyance and alone; even I can not go with you, for I must go on before and meet you there. Can you drive forty miles?"
Mrs. Tucker lifted up her abstracted pretty lids. "I once drove fifty--at home," she returned simply.
"Good! and I dare say you did it then for fun. Do it now for something real and personal, as we lawyers say. You will have relays and a plan of the road. It's rough weather for a pasear, but all the better for that. You'll have less company on the
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