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Under the Andes(Chapter3)

2006-09-07 21:21

  Chapter III. A Modern Marana.

  My journey westward was an eventful one; but this is not a "History of Tom Jones," and I shall refrain from detail. Denver I reached at last, after a week's stop-over in Kansas City. It was a delightful adventure——but it had nothing to do with the story.

  I left the train at the Rocky Mountain city about the middle of the afternoon. And now, what to do? I think I am not a fool, but I certainly lack the training of a detective, and I felt perfectly rudderless and helpless as I ordered the taxi-driver to take me to the Alcazar Hotel.

  I was by no means sure that Harry had come to Denver. He was traveling with a bundle of animated caprice, a creature who would have hauled him off the train at Rahway, New Jersey, if she had happened to take a fancy to the place. At the moment, I reflected, they might be driving along Michigan Boulevard, or attending a matinee at the Willis Wood, or sipping mint juleps at the Planters'.

  Even if they were in Denver, how was I to find them? I keenly regretted the week I had lost. I was sure that Harry would avoid any chance of publicity and would probably shun the big hotels. And Denver is not a village.

  It was the beauty of Le Mire that saved me. Indeed, I might have foreseen that; and I have but poorly portrayed the force of her unmatchable fascination unless you have realized that she was a woman who could pass nowhere without being seen; and, seen, remembered.

  I made inquiries of the manager of the hotel, of course, but was brought up sharply when he asked me the names of my friends for whom I was asking. I got out of it somehow, some foolish evasion or other, and regarded my task as more difficult than ever.

  That same evening I dined at the home of my cousin, Hovey Stafford, who had come West some years before on account of weak lungs, and stayed because he liked it. I met his wife that evening for the first time; she may be introduced with the observation that if she was his reason for remaining in the provinces, never did man have a better one.

  We were on the veranda with our after-dinner cigars. I was congratulating Hovey on the felicity of his choice and jocularly sympathizing with his wife.

  "Yes," said my cousin, with a sigh, "I never regretted it till last week. It will never be the same again."

  Mrs. Hovey looked at him with supreme disdain.

  "I suppose you mean Senora Ramal," said she scornfully.

  Her husband, feigning the utmost woe, nodded mournfully; whereupon she began humming the air of the Chanson du Colonel, and was stopped by a smothering kiss.

  "And who is the Senora Ramal?" I asked.

  "The most beautiful woman in the world," said Mrs. Hovey.

  This from a woman who was herself beautiful! Amazing! I suppose my face betrayed my thought.

  "It isn't charity," she smiled. "Like John Holden, I have seen fire-balloons by the hundred, I have seen the moon, and——then I saw no more fire-balloons."

  "But who is she?"

  Hovey explained. "She is the wife of Senor Ramal. They came here some ten days ago, with letters to one or two of the best families, and that's all we know about them. The senora is an entrancing mixture of Cleopatra, Sappho, Helen of Troy, and the devil. She had the town by the ears in twenty-four hours, and you wouldn't wonder at it if you saw her."

  Already I felt that I knew, but I wanted to make sure.

  "Byron has described her," I suggested, "in Childe Harold."

  "Hardly," said Hovey. "No midnight beauty for hers, thank you. Her hair is the most perfect gold. Her eyes are green; her skin remarkably fair. What she may be is unknowable, but she certainly is not Spanish; and, odder still, the senor himself fits the name no better."

  But I thought it needless to ask for a description of Harry; for I had no doubt of the identity of Senor Ramal and his wife. I pondered over the name, and suddenly realized that it was merely "Lamar" spelled backward!

  The discovery removed the last remaining shadow of doubt.

  I asked in a tone of assumed indifference for their hotel, expressing a desire to meet them——and was informed by Hovey that they had left Denver two days previously, nor did he know where they had gone.

  Thus did I face another obstacle. But I was on the track; and the perfume of a woman's beauty is the strongest scent in the world as well as the sweetest. I thanked my cousin for a pleasant evening——though he did not know the extent of my debt to him——and declined his urgent invitation to have my luggage brought to his home.

  On my way to the hotel I was struck by a sudden thought: Senor Ramal could not be my brother or my cousin would have recognized him! But I immediately reflected that the two had not seen each other for some ten years, at which time Harry had been a mere boy.

  The following morning, with little difficulty, I ascertained the fact that the Ramals had departed——at least ostensibly——for Colorado Springs.

  I followed. That same evening, when I registered at the Antlers Hotel, a few minutes before the dinner hour, I turned over two pages of the book, and there before me was the entry, "Senor and Senora Ramal, Paris." It was in Harry's handwriting.

  After dinner——a most excellent dinner, with melons from La Junta and trout from the mountain streams——I descended on the hotel clerk with questions. He was most obliging——a sharp, pleasant fellow, with prominent ears and a Rocky Mountain twang.

  "Senor and Senora Ramal? Most assuredly, sir. They have been here several days. No, they are not now in the hotel. They left this afternoon for Manitou, to take dinner there, and are going to make the night trip up the Peak."

  An idea immediately suggested itself to me. They would, of course, return to the hotel in the morning. All I had to do was to sit down and wait for them; but that would have been dull sport. My idea was better.

  I sought out the hotel's wardrobe——there is nothing the Antlers will not do for you——and clothed myself in khaki, leggings, and boots. Then I ordered a car and set out for Manitou, at the foot of the mountain.

  By ten o'clock I was mounted on a donkey, headed for the top, after having been informed by a guide that "the man and the beautiful lady" had departed an hour previous.

  Having made the ascent twice before, I needed no guide. So I decided; but I regretted the decision. Three times I lost the path; once I came perilously near descending on the village below——well, without hesitation. It was well after midnight when I passed the Half-way House, and I urged my donkey forward with a continual rat-a-tat-tat of well-directed kicks in the effort to make my goal.

  You who have experienced the philosophical calm and superb indifference of the Pike's Peak donkey may imagine the vocabulary I used on this occasion——I dare not print it. Nor did his speed increase.

  I was, in fact, a quarter of an hour late. I was still several hundred yards from the summit when the sun's first rays shot through the thin atmosphere, creating colorful riot among the clouds below, and I stopped, holding my breath in awe.

  There is no art nor poetry in that wonderful sight; it is glorious war. The sun charges forth in a vast flame of inconceivable brilliance; you can almost hear the shout of victory. He who made the universe is no artist; too often He forgets restraint, and blinds us.

  I turned, almost regretting that I had come, for I had been put out of tune with my task. Then I mounted the donkey and slowly traversed the few remaining yards to the Peak.

  There, seated in the dazzling sunshine on the edge of a huge boulder near the eastern precipice, were the two I sought.

  Le Mire's head was turned from me as she sat gazing silently at the tumbling, gorgeous mass of clouds that seemed almost to be resting on her lap; Harry was looking at her. And such a look!

  There was no rival even in nature that could conquer Le Mire; never, I believe, did woman achieve a more notable victory than hers of that morning. I watched them for several minutes before I moved or spoke; and never once did Harry's eyes leave her face.

  Then I advanced a step, calling his name; and they turned and caught sight of me.

  "Paul!" cried Harry, leaping to his feet; then he stopped short and stared at me half defiantly, half curiously, moving close to Le Mire and placing his hand on her shoulder like a child clinging to a toy.

  His companion had not moved, except to turn her head; but after the first swift shadow of surprise her face brightened with a smile of welcome, for all the world as though this were a morning call in her boudoir.

  "Senor and Senora Ramal, I believe?" said I with a smile, crossing to them with an exaggerated bow.

  I could see Harry cocking his ear to catch the tone of my first words, and when he heard their friendliness a grin overspread his face. He took his hand from Le Mire's shoulder and held it out to me.

  "How did you come here? How did you find us?"

  "You forgot to provide Le Mire with a veil," said I by way of answer.

  Harry looked at me, then at his companion. "Of course," he agreed——"of course. By Jove! that was stupid of us."

  Whereupon Le Mire laughed with such frank enjoyment of the boy's simplicity that I couldn't help but join her.

  "And now," said Harry, "I suppose you want to know——"

  "I want to know nothing——at present," I interrupted. "It's nearly six o'clock, and since ten last night I've been on top of the most perfectly imbecile donkey ever devised by nature. I want breakfast."

  Velvet lids were upraised from Le Mire's eyes. "Here?" she queried.

  I pointed to the place——extreme charity might give it the title of inn——where smoke was rising from a tin chimney.

  Soon we were seated inside with a pot of steaming black coffee before us. Harry was bubbling over with gaiety and good will, evidently occasioned by my unexpected friendliness, while Le Mire sat for the most part silent. It was easy to see that she was more than a little disturbed by my arrival, which surprised me.

  I gazed at her with real wonder and increasing admiration. It was six in the morning; she had had no sleep, and had just finished a most fatiguing journey of some eight hours; but I had never seen her so beautiful.

  Our host approached, and I turned to him:

  "What have you?"

  There was pity in his glance.

  "Aigs," said he, with an air of finality.

  "Ah!" said Le Mire. "I want them——let's see——au beurre noire, if you please."

  The man looked at her and uttered the single word: "Fried."

  "Fried?" said she doubtfully.

  "Only fried," was the inexorable answer. "How many?"

  Le Mire turned to me, and I explained. Then she turned again to the surly host with a smile that must have caused him to regret his gruffness.

  "Well, then, fr-r-ied!" said she, rolling the "r" deliciously. "And you may bring me five, if you please."

  It appeared that I was not the only hungry one. We ate leisurely and smoked more leisurely still, and started on our return journey a little before eight o'clock.

  It was late in the afternoon when we arrived at the Antlers. The trip was accomplished without accident, but Le Mire was thoroughly exhausted and Harry was anything but fresh. That is the worst of mountain climbing: the exaltation at the summit hardly pays you for the reaction at the foot. We entered the broad portico with frank sighs of relief.

  I said something about joining them at dinner and left for my own rooms.

  At dinner that evening Harry was in high spirits and took great delight in everything that was said, both witty and dull, while Le Mire positively sparkled.

  She made her impression; not a man in the well-filled room but sent his tribute of admiring glances as she sat seemingly unconscious of all but Harry and myself. That is always agreeable; a man owes something to the woman who carries a room for him.

  I had intended to have a talk with Harry after dinner, but I postponed it; the morning would assuredly be better. There was dancing in the salon, but we were all too tired to take advantage of it; and after listening to one or two numbers, during which Le Mire was kept busy turning aside the importunities of would-be partners, we said good night and sought our beds.

  It was late the next morning when the precious pair joined me in the garden, and when we went in for breakfast we found the dining-room quite empty. We did not enjoy it as on the morning previous; the cuisine was of the kind usually——and in this case justly——described as "superior," but we did not have the same edge on our appetite.

  We were not very talkative; I myself was almost taciturn, having before me the necessity of coming to an understanding with Harry, a task which I was far from relishing. But there were certain things I must know.

  "What do you say to a ride down the valley?" said Harry. "They have excellent horses here; I tried one of 'em the other day."

  "I trust that they bear no resemblance to my donkey," said I with feeling.

  "Ugh!" said Le Mire with a shudder. "Never shall I forget that ride. Besides," she added, turning to Harry, "this morning I would be in the way. Don't you know that your brother has a thousand things to say to you? He wants to scold you; you must remember that you are a very bad boy."

  And she sent me a glance half defiant, half indifferent, which plainly said: "If I fight you, I shall win; but I really care very little about it one way or the other."

  After breakfast she went to her room——to have her hair dressed, she said——and I led Harry to a secluded corner of the magnificent grounds surrounding the hotel. During the walk we were both silent: Harry, I suppose, was wondering what I was going to say, while I was trying to make up my own mind.

  "I suppose," he began abruptly, "you are going to tell me I have acted like a fool. Go ahead; the sooner it's over the better."

  "Nothing of the sort," said I, glad that he had opened it.

  He stopped short, demanding to know what I meant.

  "Of course," I continued, "Le Mire is a most amazing prize. Not exactly my style perhaps, but there are few men in the world who wouldn't envy you. I congratulate you.

  "But there were two things I feared for several reasons——Le Mire's fascination, your own youth and impulsive recklessness, and the rather curious mode of your departure. I feared first and most that you would marry her; second, that you would achieve odium and publicity for our name."

  Harry was regarding me with a smile which had in it very little of amusement; it held a tinge of bitterness.

  "And so," he burst out suddenly, "you were afraid I would marry her! Well, I would. The last time I asked her"——again the smile——"was this morning."

  "And——"

  "She won't have me."

  "Bah!" I concealed my surprise, for I had really not thought it possible that the lad could be such a fool. "What's her game, Harry?"

  "Game the deuce! I tell you she won't have me."

  "You have asked her?"

  "A thousand times. I've begged her on my knees. Offered her——anything."

  "And she refuses?"

  "Positively."

  "Refuses?"

  "With thanks."

  I stared at him for a moment in silence. Then I said: "Go and get her and bring her here. I'll find out what she wants," and sat down on a bench to wait. Harry departed for the hotel without a word.

  In a few minutes he returned with Le Mire. I rose and proffered her a seat on the bench, which she accepted with a smile, and Harry sat down at her side. I stood in front of them.

  "Le Mire," said I, and I believe I frowned, "my brother tells me that you have been offered the name of Lamar in marriage."

  "I have thanked him for it," said she with a smile.

  "And declined it."

  "And——declined it," she agreed.

  "Well," said I, "I am not a man of half measures, as you will soon see, Le Mire. Besides, I appreciate your power. On the day," I continued with slow precision——"on the day that you give me a contract to adhere to that refusal you may have my check for one million dollars."

  She surprised me; I admit it. I had expected a burst of anger, with a touch of assumed hauteur; the surrender to follow, for I had made the stake high. But as I stood looking down at her, waiting for the flash of her eye, I was greeted by a burst of laughter——the frank laughter of genuine mirth. Then she spoke:

  "Oh, you Americans! You are so funny! A million dollars! It is impossible that I should be angry after such a compliment. Besides, you are so funny! Do you not know Le Mire? Am I not a princess if I desire it——tomorrow——today? Bah! There is the world——is it not mine? Mrs. Lamar? Ugh! Pardon me, my friend, but it is an ugly name.

  "You know my ancestors? De L'Enclos, Montalais, Maintenon, La Marana! They were happy——in their way——and they were great. I must do nothing unworthy of them. Set your mind at rest, Mr. Lamar; but, really, you should have known better——you who have seen the world and Le Mire in Paris! And now our amusement is perhaps ended? Now we must return to that awful New York? Voila!"

  Indeed I had not understood her. And how could I? There is only one such woman in a generation; sometimes none, for nature is sparing of her favorites. By pure luck she sat before me, this twentieth-century Marana, and I acknowledged her presence with a deep bow of apology and admiration.

  "If you will forgive me, madame," I said, "I will——not attempt to make reparation, for my words were not meant for you. Consider them unspoken. As for our amusement, why need it end? Surely, we can forget? I see plainly I am not a St. Evremond, but neither am I a fool. My brother pleases you——well, there he is. As for myself, I shall either stay to take care of you two children, or I shall return to New York, as you desire."

  Le Mire looked at me uncertainly for a moment, then turned to Harry and with a fluttering gesture took his hand in her own and patted it gaily. Then she laughed the happy laugh of a child as she said:

  "Then it is well! And, monsieur, you are less an American than I thought. By all means, stay——we shall be so jolly! Will we not, my little friend?"

  Harry nodded, smiling at her. But there was a troubled look in his face.

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