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A KNIGHT-ERRANT OF THEFOOTHILLS (2)

2006-09-07 20:35

    II. Three days had passed. At the close of the third, Don Jose was seated in a cosy private apartment of the San Mateo Hotel, where they had halted for an arranged interview with his lawyer before reaching San Francisco. From his window he could see the surrounding park-like avenues of oaks and the level white high road, now and then clouded with the dust of passing teams. But his eyes were persistently fixed upon a small copy of the American Constitution before him. Suddenly there was a quick rap on his door, and before he could reply to it a man brusquely entered.

    Don Jose raised his head slowly, and recognized the landlord. But the intruder, apparently awed by the gentle, grave, and studious figure before him, fell back for an instant in an attitude of surly apology.

    "Enter freely, my good Jenkinson," said Don Jose, with a quiet courtesy that had all the effect of irony. "The apartment, such as it is, is at your disposition. It is even yours, as is the house."

    "Well, I'm darned if I know as it is," said the landlord, recovering himself roughly, "and that's jest what's the matter. Yer's that man of yours smashing things right and left in the bar- room and chuckin' my waiters through the window."

    "Softly, softly, good Jenkinson," said Don Jose, putting a mark in the pages of the volume before him. "It is necessary first that I should correct your speech. He is not my 'MAN,' which I comprehend to mean a slave, a hireling, a thing obnoxious to the great American nation which I admire and to which HE belongs. Therefore, good Jenkinson, say 'friend,' 'companion,' 'guide,' philosopher,' if you will. As to the rest, it is of no doubt as you relate. I myself have heard the breakings of glass and small dishes as I sit here; three times I have seen your waiters projected into the road with much violence and confusion. To myself I have then said, even as I say to you, good Jenkinson, 'Patience, patience, the end is not far.' In four hours," continued Don Jose, holding up four fingers, "he shall make a finish. Until then, not."

    "Well, I'm d——d," ejaculated Jenkinson, gasping for breath in his indignation.

    "Nay, excellent Jenkinson, not dam-ned but of a possibility dam-AGED. That I shall repay when he have make a finish."

    "But, darn it all," broke in the landlord angrily.

    "Ah," said Don Jose gravely, "you would be paid before! Good; for how much shall you value ALL you have in your bar?"

    Don Jose's imperturbability evidently shook the landlord's faith in the soundness of his own position. He looked at his guest critically and audaciously.

    "It cost me two hundred dollars to fit it up," he said curtly.

    Don Jose rose, and, taking a buckskin purse from his saddle-bag, counted out four slugs* and handed them to the stupefied Jenkinson. The next moment, however, his host recovered himself, and casting the slugs back on the little table, brought his fist down with an emphasis that made them dance.

    * Hexagonal gold pieces valued at $ each, issued by a private firm as coin in the early days. "But, look yer——suppose I want this thing stopped——you hear me-STOPPED——now." "That would be interfering with the liberty of the subject, my good Jenkinson——which God forbid!" said Don Jose calmly. "Moreover, it is the custom of the Americanos——a habit of my friend Roberto——a necessity of his existence——and so recognized of his friends. Patience and courage, Senor Jenkinson. Stay——ah, I comprehend! you have——of a possibility——a wife?"

    "No, I'm a widower," said Jenkinson sharply.

    "Then I congratulate you. My friend Roberto would have kissed her. It is also of his habit. Truly you have escaped much. I embrace you, Jenkinson."

    He threw his arms gravely around Jenkinson, in whose astounded face at last an expression of dry humor faintly dawned. After a moment's survey of Don Jose's impenetrable gravity, he coolly gathered up the gold coins, and saying that he would assess the damages and return the difference, he left the room as abruptly as he had entered it. But Don Jose was not destined to remain long in peaceful study of the American Constitution. He had barely taken up the book again and renewed his serious contemplation of its excellences when there was another knock at his door. This time, in obedience to his invitation to enter, the new visitor approached with more deliberation and a certain formality.

    He was a young man of apparently the same age as Don Jose, handsomely dressed, and of a quiet self-possession and gravity almost equal to his host's.

    "I believe I am addressing Don Jose Sepulvida," he said with a familiar yet courteous inclination of his handsome head. Don Jose, who had risen in marked contrast to his reception of his former guest, answered,-

    "You are truly making to him a great honor."

    "Well, you're going it blind as far as I'M concerned certainly," said the young man, with a slight smile, "for you don't know ME."

    "Pardon, my friend," said Don Jose gently, "in this book, this great Testament of your glorious nation, I have read that you are all equal, one not above, one not below the other. I salute in you the Nation! It is enough!"

    "Thank you," returned the stranger, with a face that, saving the faintest twinkle in the corner of his dark eyes, was as immovable as his host's, "but for the purposes of my business I had better say I am Jack Hamlin, a gambler, and am just now dealing faro in the Florida saloon round the corner."

    He paused carelessly, as if to allow Don Jose the protest he did not make, and then continued,-

    "The matter is this. One of your vaqueros, who is, however, an American, was round there an hour ago bucking against faro, and put up and LOST, not only the mare he was riding, but a horse which I have just learned is yours. Now we reckon, over there, that we can make enough money playing a square game, without being obliged to take property from a howling drunkard, to say nothing of it not belonging to him, and I've come here, Don Jose, to say that if you'll send over and bring away your man and your horse, you can have 'em both."

    "If I have comprehended, honest Hamlin," said Don Jose slowly, "this Roberto, who was my vaquero and is my brother, has approached this faro game by himself unsolicited?"

    "He certainly didn't seem shy of it," said Mr. Hamlin with equal gravity. "To the best of my knowledge he looked as if he'd been there before."

    "And if he had won, excellent Hamlin, you would have given him the equal of his mare and horse?"

    "A hundred dollars for each, yes, certainly."

    "Then I see not why I should send for the property which is truly no longer mine, nor for my brother who will amuse himself after the fashion of his country in the company of so honorable a caballero as yourself? Stay! oh imbecile that I am. I have not remembered. You would possibly say that he has no longer of horses! Play him; play him, admirable yet prudent Hamlin. I have two thousand horses! Of a surety he cannot exhaust them in four hours. Therefore play him, trust to me for recompensa, and have no fear."

    A quick flush covered the stranger's cheek, and his eyebrows momentarily contracted. He walked carelessly to the window, however, glanced out, and then turned to Don Jose.

    "May I ask, then," he said with almost sepulchral gravity, "is anybody taking care of you?"

    "Truly," returned Don Jose cautiously, "there is my brother and friend Roberto."

    "Ah! Roberto, certainly," said Mr. Hamlin profoundly.

    "Why do you ask, considerate friend?"

    "Oh! I only thought, with your kind of opinions, you must often feel lonely in California. Good-bye." He shook Don Jose's hand heartily, took up his hat, inclined his head with graceful seriousness, and passed out of the room. In the hall he met the landlord.

    "Well," said Jenkinson, with a smile half anxious, half insinuating, "you saw him? What do you think of him?"

    Mr. Hamlin paused and regarded Jenkinson with a calmly contemplative air, as if he were trying to remember first who he was, and secondly why he should speak to him at all. "Think of whom?" he repeated carelessly.

    "Why him——you know——Don Jose."

    "I did not see anything the matter with him," returned Hamlin with frigid simplicity.

    "What? nothing queer?"

    "Well, no——except that he's a guest in YOUR house," said Hamlin with great cheerfulness. "But then, as you keep a hotel, you can't help occasionally admitting a——gentleman."

    Mr. Jenkinson smiled the uneasy smile of a man who knew that his interlocutor's playfulness occasionally extended to the use of a derringer, in which he was singularly prompt and proficient, and Mr. Hamlin, equally conscious of that knowledge on the part of his companion, descended the staircase composedly.

    But the day had darkened gradually into night, and Don Jose was at last compelled to put aside his volume. The sound of a large bell rung violently along the hall and passages admonished him that the American dinner was ready, and although the viands and the mode of cooking were not entirely to his fancy, he had, in his grave enthusiasm for the national habits, attended the table d'hote regularly with Roberto. On reaching the lower hall he was informed that his henchman had early succumbed to the potency of his libations, and had already been carried by two men to bed. Receiving this information with his usual stoical composure, he entered the dining-room, but was surprised to find that a separate table had been prepared for him by the landlord, and that a rude attempt had been made to serve him with his own native dishes.

    "Senores y Senoritas," said Don Jose, turning from it and with grave politeness addressing the assembled company, "if I seem to- day to partake alone and in a reserved fashion of certain viands that have been prepared for me, it is truly from no lack of courtesy to your distinguished company, but rather, I protest, to avoid the appearance of greater discourtesy to our excellent Jenkinson, who has taken some pains and trouble to comport his establishment to what he conceives to be my desires. Wherefore, my friends, in God's name fall to, the same as if I were not present, and grace be with you."

    A few stared at the tall, gentle, melancholy figure with some astonishment; a few whispered to their neighbors; but when, at the conclusion of his repast, Don Jose arose and again saluted the company, one or two stood up and smilingly returned the courtesy, and Polly Jenkinson, the landlord's youngest daughter, to the great delight of her companions, blew him a kiss.

    After visiting the vaquero in his room, and with his own hand applying some native ointment to the various contusions and scratches which recorded the late engagements of the unconscious Roberto, Don Jose placed a gold coin in the hands of the Irish chamber-maid, and bidding her look after the sleeper, he threw his serape over his shoulders and passed into the road. The loungers on the veranda gazed at him curiously, yet half acknowledged his usual serious salutation, and made way for him with a certain respect. Avoiding the few narrow streets of the little town, he pursued his way meditatively along the highroad, returning to the hotel after an hour's ramble, as the evening stage-coach had deposited its passengers and departed.

    "There's a lady waiting to see you upstairs," said the landlord with a peculiar smile. "She rather allowed it wasn't the proper thing to see you alone, or she wasn't quite ekal to it, I reckon, for she got my Polly to stand by her."

    "Your Polly, good Jenkinson?" said Don Jose interrogatively.

    "My darter, Don Jose."

    "Ah, truly! I am twice blessed," said Don Jose, gravely ascending the staircase.

    On entering the room he perceived a tall, large-featured woman with an extraordinary quantity of blond hair parted on one side of her broad forehead, sitting upon the sofa. Beside her sat Polly Jenkinson, her fresh, honest, and rather pretty face beaming with delighted expectation and mischief. Don Jose saluted them with a formal courtesy, which, however, had no trace of the fact that he really did not remember anything of them.

    "I called," said the large-featured woman with a voice equally pronounced, "in reference to a request from you, which, though perhaps unconventional in the extreme, I have been able to meet by the intervention of this young lady's company. My name on this card may not be familiar to you——but I am 'Dorothy Dewdrop.'"

    A slight movement of abstraction and surprise passed over Don Jose's face, but as quickly vanished as he advanced towards her and gracefully raised the tips of her fingers to his lips. "Have I then, at last, the privilege of beholding that most distressed and deeply injured of women! Or is it but a dream!"

    It certainly was not, as far as concerned the substantial person of the woman before him, who, however, seemed somewhat uneasy under his words as well as the demure scrutiny of Miss Jenkinson. "I thought you might have forgotten," she said with slight acerbity, "that you desired an interview with the authoress of"-

    "Pardon," interrupted Don Jose, standing before her in an attitude of the deepest sympathizing dejection, "I had not forgotten. It is now three weeks since I have read in the journal 'Golden Gate' the eloquent and touching poem of your sufferings, and your aspirations, and your miscomprehensions by those you love. I remember as yesterday that you have said, that cruel fate have linked you to a soulless state——that——but I speak not well your own beautiful language——you are in tears at evenfall 'because that you are not understood of others, and that your soul recoiled from iron bonds, until, as in a dream, you sought succor and release in some true Knight of equal plight.'"

    "I am told," said the large-featured woman with some satisfaction, "that the poem to which you allude has been generally admired."

    "Admired! Senora," said Don Jose, with still darker sympathy, "it is not the word; it is FELT. I have felt it. When I read those words of distress, I am touched of compassion! I have said, This woman, so disconsolate, so oppressed, must be relieved, protected! I have wrote to you, at the 'Golden Gate,' to see me here."

    "And I have come, as you perceive," said the poetess, rising with a slight smile of constraint; "and emboldened by your appreciation, I have brought a few trifles thrown off"- "Pardon, unhappy Senora," interrupted Don Jose, lifting his hand deprecatingly without relaxing his melancholy precision, "but to a cavalier further evidence is not required——and I have not yet make finish. I have not content myself to WRITE to you. I have sent my trusty friend Roberto to inquire at the 'Golden Gate' of your condition. I have found there, most unhappy and persecuted friend—— that with truly angelic forbearance you have not told ALL——that you are MARRIED, and that of a necessity it is your husband that is cold and soulless and unsympathizing-and all that you describe."

    "Sir!" said the poetess, rising in angry consternation.

    "I have written to him," continued Don Jose, with unheeding gravity; "have appealed to him as a friend, I have conjured him as a caballero, I have threatened him even as a champion of the Right, I have said to him, in effect——that this must not be as it is. I have informed him that I have made an appointment with you even at this house, and I challenged him to meet you here——in this room—— even at this instant, and, with God's help, we should make good our charges against him. It is yet early; I have allowed time for the lateness of the stage and the fact that he will come by another conveyance. Therefore, O Dona Dewdrop, tremble not like thy namesake as it were on the leaf of apprehension and expectancy. I, Don Jose, am here to protect thee. I will take these charges"—— gently withdrawing the manuscripts from her astonished grasp—— "though even, as I related to thee before, I want them not, yet we will together confront him with them and make them good against him."

    "Are you mad?" demanded the lady in almost stentorious accents, "or is this an unmanly hoax?" Suddenly she stopped in undeniable consternation. "Good heavens," she muttered, "if Abner should believe this. He is SUCH a fool! He has lately been queer and jealous. Oh dear!" she said, turning to Polly Jenkinson with the first indication of feminine weakness, "Is he telling the truth? is he crazy? what shall I do?"

    Polly Jenkinson, who had witnessed the interview with the intensest enjoyment, now rose equal to the occasion.

    "You have made a mistake," she said, uplifting her demure blue eyes to Don Jose's dark and melancholy gaze. "This lady is a POETESS! The sufferings she depicts, the sorrows she feels, are in the IMAGINATION, in

    her fancy only."

    "Ah!" said Don Jose gloomily; "then it is all false."

    "No," said Polly quickly, "only they are not her OWN, you know. They are somebody elses. She only describes them for another, don't you see?"

    "And who, then, is this unhappy one?" asked the Don quickly.

    "Well——a——friend," stammered Polly, hesitatingly.

    "A friend!" repeated Don Jose. "Ah, I see, of possibility a dear one, even," he continued, gazing with tender melancholy into the untroubled cerulean depths of Polly's eyes, "even, but no, child, it could not be! THOU art too young."

    "Ah," said Polly, with an extraordinary gulp and a fierce nudge of the poetess, "but it WAS me."

    "You, Senorita," repeated Don Jose, falling back in an attitude of mingled admiration and pity. "You, the child of Jenkinson!"

    "Yes, yes," joined in the poetess hurriedly; "but that isn't going to stop the consequences of your wretched blunder. My husband will be furious, and will be here at any moment. Good gracious! what is that?"

    The violent slamming of a distant door at that instant, the sounds of quick scuffling on the staircase, and the uplifting of an irate voice had reached her ears and thrown her back in the arms of Polly Jenkinson. Even the young girl herself turned an anxious gaze towards the door. Don Jose alone was unmoved.

    "Possess yourselves in peace, Senoritas," he said calmly. "We have here only the characteristic convalescence of my friend and brother, the excellent Roberto. He will ever recover himself from drink with violence, even as he precipitates himself into it with fury. He has been prematurely awakened. I will discover the cause."

    With an elaborate bow to the frightened women, he left the room. Scarcely had the door closed when the poetess turned quickly to Polly. "The man's a stark staring lunatic, but, thank Heaven, Abner will see it at once. And now let's get away while we can. To think," she said, snatching up her scattered manuscripts, "that THAT was all the beast wanted." "I'm sure he's very gentle and kind," said Polly, recovering her dimples with a demure pout; "but stop, he's coming back."

    It was indeed Don Jose re-entering the room with the composure of a relieved and self-satisfied mind. "It is even as I said, Senora," he began, taking the poetess's hand,——"and MORE. You are SAVED!"

    As the women only stared at each other, he gravely folded his arms and continued: "I will explain. For the instant I have not remember that, in imitation of your own delicacy, I have given to your husband in my letter, not the name of myself, but, as a mere Don Fulano, the name of my brother Roberto——'Bucking Bob.' Your husband have this moment arrive! Penetrating the bedroom of the excellent Roberto, he has indiscreetly seize him in his bed, without explanation, without introduction, without fear! The excellent Roberto, ever ready for such distractions, have respond! In a word, to use the language of the good Jenkinson——our host, our father-who was present, he have 'wiped the floor with your husband,' and have even carried him down the staircase to the street. Believe me, he will not return. You are free!"

    "Fool! Idiot! Crazy beast!" said the poetess, dashing past him and out of the door. "You shall pay for this!"

    Don Jose did not change his imperturbable and melancholy calm. "And now, little one," he said, dropping on one knee before the half-frightened Polly, "child of Jenkinson, now that thy perhaps too excitable sponsor has, in a poet's caprice, abandoned thee for some newer fantasy, confide in me thy distress, to me, thy Knight, and tell the story of thy sorrows."

    "But," said Polly, rising to her feet and struggling between a laugh and a cry. "I haven't any sorrows. Oh dear! don't you see, it's only her FANCY to make me seem so. There's nothing the matter with me."

    "Nothing the matter," repeated Don Jose slowly. "You have no distress? You want no succor, no relief, no protector? This, then, is but another delusion!" he said, rising sadly.

    "Yes, no——that is——oh, my gracious goodness!" said Polly, hopelessly divided between a sense of the ridiculous and some strange attraction in the dark, gentle eyes that were fixed upon her half reproachfully. "You don't understand."

    Don Jose replied only with a melancholy smile, and then going to the door, opened it with a bowed head and respectful courtesy. At the act, Polly plucked up courage again, and with it a slight dash of her old audacity.

    "I'm sure I'm very sorry that I ain't got any love sorrows," she said demurely. "And I suppose it's very dreadful in me not to have been raving and broken-hearted over somebody or other as that woman has said. Only," she waited till she had gained the secure vantage of the threshold, "I never knew a gentleman to OBJECT to it before!"

    With this Parthian arrow from her blue eyes she slipped into the passage and vanished through the door of the opposite parlor. For an instant Don Jose remained motionless and reflecting. Then, recovering himself with grave precision, he deliberately picked up his narrow black gloves from the table, drew them on, took his hat in his hand, and solemnly striding across the passage, entered the door that had just closed behind her.

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