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- THE CRUSADE OF THE EXCELSIOR - 30/44 -
flowers, shimmering leaves, and slender inextricable branches, pierced here and there by towering rigid cactus spikes or the curved plumes of palms. The repose of ages lay in its hushed groves, its drooping vines, its lifeless creepers; the dry dust of its decaying leaves and branches mingled with the living perfumes like the spiced embalmings of a forgotten past.
Nevertheless, this tranquillity, after a few moments, was singularly disturbed. There was no breeze stirring, and yet the long fronds of a large fan palm, that stood near the breach in the wall, began to move gently from right to left, like the arms of some graceful semaphore, and then as suddenly stopped. Almost at the same moment a white curtain, listlessly hanging from a canopied balcony of the Alcalde's house, began to exhibit a like rhythmical and regular agitation. Then everything was motionless again; an interval of perfect peace settled upon the garden. It was broken by the apparition of Brace under the balcony, and the black-veiled and flowered head of Dona Isabel from the curtain above.
"Hush! I am coming down!"
"You? But Dona Ursula!"
"There is no more Dona Ursula!"
"Well--your duenna, whoever she is!"
"There is no duenna!"
"Hush up your tongue, idiot boy!" (this in English.)
The little black head and the rose on top of it disappeared. Brace drew himself up against the wall and waited. The time seemed interminable. Impatiently looking up and down, he at last saw Dona Isabel at a distance, quietly and unconcernedly moving among the roses, and occasionally stooping as if to pick them. In an instant he was at her side.
"Let me help you," he said.
She opened her little brownish palm,--
"Look!" In her hand were a few leaves of some herb. "It is for you."
Brace seized and kissed the hand.
"Is it some love-test?"
"It is for what you call a julep-cocktail," she replied gravely. "He will remain in a glass with aguardiente; you shall drink him with a straw. My sister has said that ever where the Americans go they expect him to arrive."
"I prefer to take him straight," said Brace, laughing, as he nibbled a limp leaf bruised by the hand of the young girl. "He's pleasanter, and, on the whole, more wildly intoxicating this way! But what about your duenna? and how comes this blessed privilege of seeing you alone?"
Dona Isabel lifted her black eyes suddenly to Brace.
"You do not comprehend, then? Is it not, then, the custom of the Americans? Is it not, then, that there is no duenna in your country?"
"There are certainly no duennas in my country. But who has changed the custom here?"
"Is it not true that in your country any married woman shall duenna the young senorita?" continued Dona Isabel, without replying; "that any caballero and senorita shall see each other in the patio, and not under a balcony?--that they may speak with the lips, and not the fan?"
"Well--yes," said Brace.
"Then my brother has arranged it as so. He have much hear the Dona Barbara Brimmer when she make talk of these things frequently, and he is informed and impressed much. He will truly have that you will come of the corridor, and not the garden, for me, and that I shall have no duenna but the Dona Barbara. This does not make you happy, you American idiot boy!"
It did not. The thought of carrying on a flirtation under the fastidious Boston eye of Mrs. Brimmer, instead of under the discreet and mercenarily averted orbs of Dona Ursula, did not commend itself pleasantly to Brace.
"Oh, yes," he returned quickly. "We will go into the corridor, in the fashion of my country"--
"Yes," said Dona Isabel dubiously.
"AFTER we have walked in the garden in the fashion of YOURS. That's only fair, isn't it?"
"Yes," said Dona Isabel gravely; "that's what the Comandante will call 'internation-al courtesy.'"
The young man slipped his arm around the young diplomatist's waist, and they walked on in decorous silence under the orange-trees.
"It seems to me," said Brace presently, "that Mrs. Brimmer has a good deal to say up your way?"
"Ah, yes; but what will you? It is my brother who has love for her."
"But," said Brace, stopping suddenly, "doesn't he know that she has a husband living?"
Dona Isabel lifted her lashes in childlike wonder.
"Always! you idiot American boy. That is why. Ah, Mother of God! my brother is discreet. He is not a maniac, like you, to come after a silly muchacha like me."
The response which Brace saw fit to make to this statement elicited a sharp tap upon the knuckles from Dona Isabel.
"Tell to me," she said suddenly, "is not that a custom of your country?"
"No, insensate. To attend a married senora?"
"Ah, that is wrong," said Dona Isabel meditatively, moving the point of her tiny slipper on the gravel. "Then it is the young girl that shall come in the corridor and the married lady on the balcony?"
She ran swiftly down the avenue of palms to a small door at the back of the house, turned, blew a kiss over the edge of her fan to Brace, and disappeared. He hesitated a moment or two, then quickly rescaling the wall, dropped into the lane outside, followed it to the gateway of the casa, and entered the patio as Dona Isabel decorously advanced from a darkened passage to the corridor. Although the hour of siesta had passed, her sister, Miss Chubb, the Alcalde, and Mrs. Brimmer were still lounging here on sofas and hammocks.
It would have been difficult for a stranger at a first glance to discover the nationality of the ladies. Mrs. Brimmer and her friend Miss Chubb had entirely succumbed to the extreme dishabille of the Spanish toilet--not without a certain languid grace on the part of Mrs. Brimmer, whose easy contour lent itself to the stayless bodice; or a certain bashful, youthful naivete on the part of Miss Chubb, the rounded dazzling whiteness of whose neck and shoulders half pleased and half frightened her in her low, white, plain camisa--under the lace mantilla.
"It is SUCH a pleasure to see you again, Mr. Brace," said Mrs. Brimmer, languidly observing the young man through the sticks of her fan; "I was telling Don Ramon that I feared Dona Ursula had frightened you away. I told him that your experience of American society might have caused you to misinterpret the habitual reserve of the Castilian," she continued with the air of being already an alien of her own country, "and I should be only too happy to undertake the chaperoning of both these young ladies in their social relations with our friends. And how is dear Mr. Banks? and Mr. Crosby? whom I so seldom see now. I suppose, however, business has its superior attractions."
But Don Ramon, with impulsive gallantry, would not--nay, COULD not-- for a moment tolerate a heresy so alarming. It was simply wildly impossible. For why? In the presence of Dona Barbara--it exists not in the heart of man!
"YOU cannot, of course, conceive it, Don Ramon," said Mrs. Brimmer, with an air of gentle suffering; "but I fear it is sadly true of the American gentlemen. They become too absorbed in their business. They forget their duty to our sex in their selfish devotion to affairs in which we are debarred from joining them, and yet they wonder that we prefer the society of men who are removed by birth, tradition, and position from this degrading kind of selfishness."
"But that was scarcely true of your own husband. HE was not only a successful man in business, but we can see that he was equally successful in his relations to at least one of the fastidious sex," said Brace, maliciously glancing at Don Ramon.
Mrs. Brimmer received the innuendo with invulnerable simplicity.
"Mr. Brimmer is, I am happy to say, NOT a business man. He entered into certain contracts having more or less of a political
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