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- THE THREE PARTNERS - 30/36 -
must have heard the news at Boomville as quickly as he had, and, if so, would be on her way with Mrs. Horncastle; or she might be waiting for him--knowing, too, that he had heard the news--in fear and trembling. For it was Barker's custom to endow all those he cared for with his own sensitiveness, and it was not like him to reflect that the woman who had so recklessly speculated against his opinion would scarcely fear his reproaches in her defeat. In the fullness of his heart he telegraphed to her in case she had not yet left Boomville: "All right. Have heard news. Understand perfectly. Don't worry. Come to me." Then he left the hotel by the stable entrance in order to evade the guests who had congregated on the veranda, and made his way to a little wooded crest which he knew commanded a view of the two roads from Boomville. Here he determined to wait and intercept her before she reached the hotel. He knew that many of the guests were aware of his wife's speculations with Van Loo, and that he was her broker. He wished to spare her running the gauntlet of their curious stares and comments as she drove up alone. As he was climbing the slope the coach from Sacramento dashed past him on the road below, but he knew that it had changed horses at Boomville at four o'clock, and that his tired wife would not have availed herself of it at that hour, particularly as she could not have yet received the fateful news. He threw himself under a large pine, and watched the stagecoach disappear as it swept round into the courtyard of the hotel.
He sat there for some moments with his eyes bent upon the two forks of the red road that diverged below him, but which appeared to become whiter and more dazzling as he searched their distance. There was nothing to be seen except an occasional puff of dust which eventually revealed a horseman or a long trailing cloud out of which a solitary mule, one of a pack-train of six or eight, would momentarily emerge and be lost again. Then he suddenly heard his name called, and, looking up, saw Mrs. Horncastle, who had halted a few paces from him between two columns of the long-drawn aisle of pines.
In that mysterious half-light she seemed such a beautiful and goddess-like figure that his consciousness at first was unable to grasp anything else. She was always wonderfully well dressed, but the warmth and seclusion of this mountain morning had enabled her to wear a light gown of some delicate fabric which set off the grace of her figure, and even pardoned the rural coquetry of a silken sash around her still slender waist. An open white parasol thrown over her shoulder made a nimbus for her charming head and the thick coils of hair under her lace-edged hat. He had never seen her look so beautiful before. And that thought was so plainly in his frank face and eyes as he sprang to his feet that it brought a slight rise of color to her own cheek.
"I saw you climbing up here as I passed in the coach a few minutes ago," she said, with a smile, "and as soon as I had shaken the dust off I followed you."
"Where's Kitty?" he stammered.
The color faded from her face as it had come, and a shade of something like reproach crept into her dark eyes. And whatever it had been her purpose to say, or however carefully she might have prepared herself for this interview, she was evidently taken aback by the sudden directness of the inquiry. Barker saw this as quickly, and as quickly referred it to his own rudeness. His whole soul rushed in apology to his face as he said, "Oh, forgive me! I was anxious about Kitty; indeed, I had thought of coming again to Boomville, for you've heard the news, of course? Van Loo is a defaulter, and has run away with the poor child's money."
Mrs. Horncastle had heard the news at the hotel. She paused a moment to collect herself, and then said slowly and tentatively, with a watchful intensity in her eyes, "Mrs. Barker went, I think, to the Divide"--
But she was instantly interrupted by the eager Barker. "I see. I thought of that at once. She went directly to the company's offices to see if she could save anything from the wreck before she saw me. It was like her, poor girl! And you--you," he went on eagerly, his whole face beaming with gratitude,--"you, out of your goodness, came here to tell me." He held out both hands and took hers in his.
For a moment Mrs. Horncastle was speechless and vacillating. She had often noticed before that it was part of the irony of the creation of such a simple nature as Barker's that he was not only open to deceit, but absolutely seemed to invite it. Instead of making others franker, people were inclined to rebuke his credulity by restraint and equivocation on their own part. But the evasion thus offered to her, although only temporary, was a temptation she could not resist. And it prolonged an interview that a ruthless revelation of the truth might have shortened.
"She did not tell me she was going there," she replied still evasively; "and, indeed," she added, with a burst of candor still more dangerous, "I only learned it from the hotel clerk after she was gone. But I want to talk to you about her relations to Van Loo," she said, with a return of her former intensity of gaze, "and I thought we would be less subject to interruption here than at the hotel. Only I suppose everybody knows this place, and any of those flirting couples are likely to come here. Besides," she added, with a little half-hysterical laugh and a slight shiver, as she looked up at the high interlacing boughs above her head, "it's as public as the aisles of a church, and really one feels as if one were 'speaking out' in meeting. Isn't there some other spot a little more secluded, where we could sit down," she went on, as she poked her parasol into the usual black gunpowdery deposit of earth which mingled with the carpet of pine-needles beneath her feet, "and not get all sticky and dirty?"
Barker's eyes sparkled. "I know every foot of this hill, Mrs. Horncastle," he said, "and if you will follow me I'll take you to one of the loveliest nooks you ever dreamed of. It's an old Indian spring now forgotten, and I think known only to me and the birds. It's not more than ten minutes from here; only"--he hesitated as he caught sight of the smart French bronze buckled shoe and silken ankle which Mrs. Horncastle's gathering up of her dainty skirts around her had disclosed--"it may be a little rough and dusty going to your feet."
But Mrs. Horncastle pointed out that she had already irretrievably ruined her shoes and stockings in climbing up to him,--although Barker could really distinguish no diminution of their freshness,-- and that she might as well go on. Whereat they both passed down the long aisle of slope to a little hollow of manzanita, which again opened to a view of Black Spur, but left the hotel hidden.
"What time did Kitty go?" began Barker eagerly, when they were half down the slope.
But here Mrs. Horncastle's foot slipped upon the glassy pine- needles, and not only stopped an answer, but obliged Barker to give all his attention to keep his companion from falling again until they reached the open. Then came the plunge through the manzanita thicket, then a cool wade through waist-deep ferns, and then they emerged, holding each other's hand, breathless and panting before the spring.
It did not belie his enthusiastic description. A triangular hollow, niched in a shelf of the mountain-side, narrowed to a point from which the overflow of the spring percolated through a fringe of alder, to fall in what seemed from the valley to be a green furrow down the whole length of the mountain-side. Overhung by pines above, which met and mingled with the willows that everywhere fringed it, it made the one cooling shade in the whole basking expanse of the mountain, and yet was penetrated throughout by the intoxicating spice of the heated pines. Flowering reeds and long lush grasses drew a magic circle round an open bowl-like pool in the centre, that was always replenished to the slow murmur of an unseen rivulet that trickled from a white-quartz cavern in the mountain-side like a vein opened in its flank. Shadows of timid wings crossed it, quick rustlings disturbed the reeds, but nothing more. It was silent, but breathing; it was hidden to everything but the sky and the illimitable distance.
They threaded their way around it on the spongy carpet, covered by delicate lace-like vines that seemed to caress rather than trammel their moving feet, until they reached an open space before the pool. It was cushioned and matted with disintegrated pine bark, and here they sat down. Mrs. Horncastle furled her parasol and laid it aside; raised both hands to the back of her head and took two hat-pins out, which she placed in her smiling mouth; removed her hat, stuck the hat-pins in it, and handed it to Barker, who gently placed it on the top of a tall reed, where during the rest of that momentous meeting it swung and drooped like a flower; removed her gloves slowly; drank still smilingly and gratefully nearly a wineglassful of the water which Barker brought her in the green twisted chalice of a lily leaf; looked the picture of happiness, and then burst into tears.
Barker was astounded, dismayed, even terror-stricken. Mrs. Horncastle crying! Mrs. Horncastle, the imperious, the collected, the coldly critical, the cynical, smiling woman of the world, actually crying! Other women might cry--Kitty had cried often--but Mrs. Horncastle! Yet, there she was, sobbing; actually sobbing like a schoolgirl, her beautiful shoulders rising and falling with her grief; crying unmistakably through her long white fingers, through a lace pocket-handkerchief which she had hurriedly produced and shaken from behind her like a conjurer's trick; her beautiful eyes a thousand times more lustrous for the sparkling beads that brimmed her lashes and welled over like the pool before her.
"Don't mind me," she murmured behind her handkerchief. "It's very foolish, I know. I was nervous--worried, I suppose; I'll be better in a moment. Don't notice me, please."
But Barker had drawn beside her and was trying, after the fashion of his sex, to take her handkerchief away in apparently the firm belief that this action would stop her tears. "But tell me what it is. Do Mrs. Horncastle, please," he pleaded in his boyish fashion. "Is it anything I can do? Only say the word; only tell me SOMETHING!"
But he had succeeded in partially removing the handkerchief, and so caught a glimpse of her wet eyes, in which a faint smile struggled out like sunshine through rain. But they clouded again, although she didn't cry, and her breath came and went with the action of a sob, and her hands still remained against her flushed face.
"I was only going to talk to you of Kitty" (sob)--"but I suppose I'm weak" (sob)--"and such a fool" (sob) "and I got to thinking of myself and my own sorrows when I ought to be thinking only of you and Kitty."
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