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- Tomaso's Fortune and Other Stories - 5/41 -
magnificent inducement to return to active service. That comrade had smilingly answered that he held cards of another suite. Miss Cheyne likewise appeared to hold another suite, and the American felt vaguely that the dealer of life's cards seemed somehow to have passed him by.
He daily urged the young doctor to allow him to leave his bed, "if only," he pleaded with his twisted smile, "to sit in a chair by the window." At last he gained his point, and sat, watch in hand, awaiting the arrival of Miss Cheyne's daily visitor. To the end of his life Matthew Whittaker believed that some instinct guided him at this time. He had only spoken with his nurse and the doctor, and had refrained from making inquiries of either respecting the lady whose hospitality he enjoyed. He had now carefully recalled all that the dead driver of the diligencia had told him, and had dismissed half of it as mere gossip. Beyond the fact that Miss Cheyne's aunt, Mrs. Dorchester, acted as her companion, he knew nothing. But he had surmised, from remarks dropped by the young lady herself, that her mother had been a Spaniard; hence the uncle from whom she had inherited this estate. He also had reason to believe that Miss Cheyne's mother had brought her up in the older faith.
He reflected on these matters, and smiled half cynically at the magnitude of his own interest in Miss Cheyne as he sat at the open window. He had not long to wait before the clatter of horse's feet on the hard road became audible. The house stood back from the high-road in the midst of terraced olive groves, and was entirely surrounded by a grove of cypress and ilex trees. The visitor, whose advent was doubtless awaited with as keen an impatience by another within the red stone house, now leisurely approached beneath the avenue of evergreen oak. Whittaker got painfully upon his feet, and stood, half concealed by the curtain. He was conscious of a singular lack of surprise when he recognized the face of the horseman as one that he had already seen, though, when he came in a flash of thought to reflect upon it, this among all he knew was the last face that he could have expected to see in that place.
He sat down quite coolly and mechanically, thinking and acting as men think and act, by instinct, in a crisis. He seemed to be obeying some pre-ordained plan.
The horseman was dark and clean-shaven--the happy possessor of one of those handsome Andalusian faces which are in themselves a passport in a world that in its old age still persists in judging by appearance. Whittaker scrupulously withdrew from the window. He had no desire to overhear their conversation. But his eyes were fierce with a sudden anger. The very attitude of the new-comer--his respectful, and yet patronizing, manner of removing his hat--clearly showed that he was a lover, perhaps a favoured one. And the American, who, with all his knowledge of the world, knew so little of women, stood in the middle of the room wrapt in thought. It seemed hardly possible that a woman of Miss Cheyne's intelligence, a woman no longer in the first flush of girlhood, should fail to perceive the obvious. He did not know that so far as her vanity is concerned a woman does not grow older, by the passage of years, but younger--that she will often, for the sake of a little admiration, accept the careless patronage of a man, knowing well that his one good quality is the skill with which he flatters her. He was not aware that Miss Cheyne was distinctly handicapped, and that her judgment was warped by the fact that she had by some chance or another reached to years of discretion without ever having had a lover.
Whittaker was not an impulsive man, although as prompt in action as he was quick to make a decision. He was a citizen of that new country where an old chivalry still survives. His sense of chivalry was also intensified by the fact, already stated, that he knew but little of that sex which is at the moment making a superficial stir in the world.
"If the harm is done, a day more will make it no worse, I reckon," he said reflectively. He would not listen to what they said, though he could have heard easily enough, had he so desired. He watched Miss Cheyne and her lover, however, as they slowly walked the length of the garden--she, holding a fan in the Spanish fashion, to shield her face from the setting sun; the man, hat in hand, and carrying himself with a sort of respectful grandeur, characteristic of his race. At the end of the garden they paused, and Whittaker smiled cynically at the sight of the man's dark eyes as he looked at Miss Cheyne. He was apparently asking for something, and she at last yielded, giving him slowly, almost shyly, a few violets that she had worn in her belt. Whittaker gave a curt laugh, but his eyes were by no means mirthful.
Later in the evening Miss Cheyne came into his room.
"You have had a visitor," he said, in the course of their usual conversation.
"Yes," she answered frankly; and Whittaker reflected that, at all events, she knew her own mind.
He said nothing further upon that subject, but later he referred to a topic which he had hitherto scrupulously avoided. He had passed his life among a class of men who were not in the habit of growing voluble respecting themselves.
"I think you take me for an Englishman," he said. "I am not. I am an American."
"Indeed! You have no accent," replied Miss Cheyne; and, despite that other suite of cards that she held, she looked at him speculatively. She was, in a way, interested in him.
"I have lived abroad a great deal, the last few years in Cuba." And his quick eyes flashed across her face. She was not interested in Cuba, at all events, and evidently knew nothing of that distressful island. When she left him, he stood looking at the closed door reflectively.
"It will be for to-morrow," he said to himself, with his short laugh.
The next morning the doctor paid his usual visit, and Whittaker handed him an envelope.
"I am leaving this evening," he said, "and I shall leave in your debt."
The doctor, who was a young man and a Spanish gentleman, slipped the envelope into his pocket.
"Thank you," he said. "The debt is mine. You are not fit to be moved yet; but it is as you like."
"Will you order me a carriage to be here at five o'clock this evening?"
"I will do as you like."
"And omit to mention it to my hostess. You understand my position here, and my fear of outstaying a most courteous welcome?"
"I understand," said the doctor, and departed.
At four o'clock Whittaker had packed his portmanteau. He took up his position at the window and waited. Before long he heard the sound of a horse's feet. Miss Cheyne's visitor presently appeared, and swung off his hat with the usual deferential pride. The horse was led away. The usual murmured conversation followed. Whittaker rose and walked to the door. He paused on the threshold, and looked slowly round the room as if conscious then that the moment was to be one of the indelible memories of his life.
On the stairs he needed the support of the balustrade. When he reached the verandah his face was colourless, with shining eyes. Miss Cheyne was sitting with her back turned towards him, but her companion saw him at once and rose to his feet, lifting his hat with a politely inquiring air. From long habit acquired among a naturally polite people, Whittaker returned the salutation.
"You do not recognise me, Senor?" he said, in English.
And the other shook his head, still polite and rather surprised.
"I was known in Cuba by the name of Mateo."
The Spaniard's handsome, sunburnt face slowly turned to the colour of ashes. His eyes looked into Whittaker's, not in anger, but with a pathetic mingling of reproach and despair.
"What is the meaning of this?" said Miss Cheyne, alert, and rising, characteristically, to the emergency of the moment.
Whittaker bit his lip and looked at the Spaniard, who seemed to be dazed.
"You had better go," he said, almost gently.
"What is the meaning of this?" repeated Miss Cheyne, looking from one to the other. Then she turned to Whittaker, by what instinct she never knew. "Who is this gentleman?" she asked, angrily. "What have you against him?"
Whittaker, still biting his lip, looked hard at her. Then he made a gesture with his two hands, which was more eloquent than a thousand words; for it seemed to convey to the two persons who breathlessly awaited his words that he found himself in a position that was intolerable.
"I knew him in Cuba," he said slowly. "I have nothing against him, Miss Cheyne; but the man is a priest."
* * *
"There, Senorita--I have made it myself."
The proprietor of the Venta of the Moor's Mill set down upon the table in front of the inn a cracked dish containing an omelette. It was not a bad omelette, though not quite innocent of wood-ash, perhaps, and somewhat ill-shapen. The man laughed gaily and drew himself up. So handsome a man could surely be forgiven a broken omelette and some charcoal, if only for the sake of his gay blue eyes, his curling brown hair, and his devil-may-care air of prosperity. He looked at the Senorita and laughed in the manner of a man who had never yet failed to "get on" with women. He folded his arms with fine, open gestures, and stood looking with approving nods upon his own handiwork. He was without the shadow of the trailing vine which runs riot over bamboo trelliswork in front of
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