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DEAR SLEIGHT (5)

2006-09-07 20:44

    V

    The elaborately untruthful account which Mr. Nott gave his daughter of de Ferrieres's sudden departure was more fortunate than his usual equivocations. While it disappointed and slightly mortified her, it did not seem to her inconsistent with what she already knew of him. "Said his doctor had ordered him to quit town under an hour, owing to a comin' attack of hay fever, and he had a friend from furrin parts waitin' him at the Springs, Rosey," explained Nott, hesitating between his desire to avoid his daughter's eyes and his wish to observe her countenance.

    "Was he worse?——I mean did he look badly, father?" inquired Rosey thoughtfully.

    "I reckon not exackly bad. Kinder looked ez if he mout be worse soon ef he didn't hump hisself."

    "Did you see him?——in his room?" asked Rosey anxiously. Upon the answer to this simple question depended the future confidential relations of father and daughter. If her father had himself detected the means by which his lodger existed, she felt that her own obligations to secrecy had been removed. But Mr. Nott's answer disposed of this vain hope. It was a response after his usual fashion to the question he IMAGINED she artfully wished to ask, i. e. if he had discovered their rendezvous of the previous night. This it was part of his peculiar delicacy to ignore. Yet his reply showed that he had been unconscious of the one miserable secret that he might have read easily.

    "I was there an hour or so——him and me alone——discussin' trade. I reckon he's got a good thing outer that curled horse hair, for I see he's got in an invoice o' cushions. I've stored 'em all in the forrard bulkhead until he sends for 'em, ez Mr. Renshaw hez taken the loft."

    But although Mr. Renshaw had taken the loft, he did not seem in haste to occupy it. He spent part of the morning in uneasily pacing his room, in occasional sallies into the street from which he purposelessly returned, and once or twice in distant and furtive contemplation of Rosey at work in the galley. This last observation was not unnoticed by the astute Nott, who at once conceiving that he was nourishing a secret and hopeless passion for Rosey, began to consider whether it was not his duty to warn the young man of her preoccupied affections. But Mr. Renshaw's final disappearance obliged him to withhold his confidence till morning.

    This time Mr. Renshaw left the ship with the evident determination of some settled purpose. He walked rapidly until he reached the countinghouse of Mr. Sleight, when he was at once shown into a private office. In a few moments Mr. Sleight, a brusque but passionless man, joined him.

    "Well," said Sleight, closing the door carefully. "What news?"

    "None," said Renshaw bluntly. "Look here, Sleight," he added, turning to him suddenly. "Let me out of this game. I don't like it."

    "Does that mean you've found nothing?" asked Sleight, sarcastically.

    "It means that I haven't looked for anything, and that I don't intend to without the full knowledge of that d——d fool who owns the ship." "You've changed your mind since you wrote that letter," said Sleight coolly, producing from a drawer the note already known to the reader. Renshaw mechanically extended his hand to take it. Mr. Sleight dropped the letter back into the drawer, which he quietly locked. The apparently simple act dyed Mr. Renshaw's cheek with color, but it vanished quickly, and with it any token of his previous embarrassment. He looked at Sleight with the convinced air of a resolute man who had at last taken a disagreeable step but was willing to stand by the consequences.

    "I HAVE changed my mind," he said coolly. "I found out that it was one thing to go down there as a skilled prospector might go to examine a mine that was to be valued according to his report of the indications, but that it was entirely another thing to go and play the spy in a poor devil's house in order to buy something he didn't know he was selling and wouldn't sell if he did."

    "And something that the man HE bought of didn't think of selling; something HE himself never paid for, and never expected to buy," sneered Sleight.

    "But something that WE expect to buy from our knowledge of all this, and it is that which makes all the difference."

    "But you knew all this before."

    "I never saw it in this light before! I never thought of it until I was living there face to face with the old fool I was intending to overreach. I never was SURE of it until this morning, when he actually turned out one of his lodgers that I might have the very room I required to play off our little game in comfortably. When he did that, I made up my mind to drop the whole thing, and I'm here to do it."

    "And let somebody else take the responsibility——with the percentage-unless you've also felt it your duty to warn Nott too," said Sleight with a sneer.

    "You only dare say that to me, Sleight," said Renshaw quietly, "because you have in that drawer an equal evidence of my folly and my confidence; but if you are wise you will not presume too far on either. Let us see how we stand. Through the yarn of a drunken captain and a mutinous sailor you became aware of an unclaimed shipment of treasure, concealed in an unknown ship that entered this harbor. You are enabled, through me, to corroborate some facts and identify the ship. You proposed to me, as a speculation, to identify the treasure if possible before you purchased the ship. I accepted the offer without consideration; on consideration I now decline it, but without prejudice or loss to any one but myself. As to your insinuation I need not remind you that my presence here to-day refutes it. I would not require your permission to make a much better bargain with a good natured fool like Nott than I could with you. Or if I did not care for the business I could have warned the girl——"

    "The girl——what girl?"

    Renshaw bit his lip but answered boldly, "The old man's daughter——a poor girl——whom this act would rob as well as her father."

    Sleight looked at his companion attentively. "You might have said so at first, and let up on this camp-meetin' exhortation. Well then——admitting you've got the old man and the young girl on the same string, and that you've played it pretty low down in the short time you've been there——I suppose, Dick Renshaw, I've got to see your bluff. Well, how much is it! What's the figure you and she have settled on?"

    For an instant Mr. Sleight was in physical danger. But before he had finished speaking Renshaw's quick sense of the ludicrous had so far overcome his first indignation as to enable him even to admire the perfect moral insensibility of his companion. As he rose and walked towards the door, he half wondered that he had ever treated the affair seriously. With a smile he replied:

    "Far from bluffing, Sleight, I am throwing my cards on the table. Consider that I've passed out. Let some other man take my hand. Rake down the pot if you like, old man, I leave for Sacramento to- night. Adios."

    When the door had closed behind him Mr. Sleight summoned his clerk.

    "Is that petition for grading Pontiac Street ready?"

    "I've seen the largest property holders, sir; they're only waiting for you to sign first." Mr. Sleight paused and then affixed his signature to the paper his clerk laid before him. "Get the other names and send it up at once."

    "If Mr. Nott doesn't sign, sir?"

    "No matter. He will be assessed all the same." Mr. Sleight took up his hat.

    "The Lascar seaman that was here the other day has been wanting to see you, sir. I said you were busy."

    Mr. Sleight put down his hat. "Send him up."

    Nevertheless Mr. Sleight sat down and at once abstracted himself so completely as to be apparently in utter oblivion of the man who entered. He was lithe and Indian-looking; bearing in dress and manner the careless slouch without the easy frankness of a sailor.

    "Well!" said Sleight without looking up.

    "I was only wantin' to know ef you had any news for me, boss?"

    "News?" echoed Sleight as if absently; "news of what?"

    "That little matter of the Pontiac we talked about, boss," returned the Lascar with an uneasy servility in the whites of his teeth and eyes.

    "Oh," said Sleight, "that's played out. It's a regular fraud. It's an old forecastle yarn, my man, that you can't reel off in the cabin."

    The sailor's face darkened.

    "The man who was looking into it has thrown the whole thing up. I tell you it's played out!" repeated Sleight, without raising his head.

    "It's true, boss——every word," said the Lascar, with an appealing insinuation that seemed to struggle hard with savage earnestness. "You can swear me, boss; I wouldn't lie to a gentleman like you. Your man hasn't half looked, or else——it must be there, or——"

    "That's just it," said Sleight slowly; "who's to know that your friends haven't been there already?——that seems to have been your style."

    "But no one knew it but me, until I told you, I swear to God. I ain't lying, boss, and I ain't drunk. Say——don't give it up, boss. That man of yours likely don't believe it, because he don't know anything about it. I DO——I could find it."

    A silence followed. Mr. Sleight remained completely absorbed in his papers for some moments. Then glancing at the Lascar, he took his pen, wrote a hurried note, folded it, addressed it, and, holding it between his fingers, leaned back in his chair.

    "If you choose to take this note to my man, he may give it another show. Mind, I don't say that he WILL. He's going to Sacramento to-night, but you could go down there and find him before he starts. He's got a room there, I believe. While you're waiting for him, you might keep your eyes open to satisfy yourself."

    "Ay, ay, sir," said the sailor, eagerly endeavoring to catch the eye of his employer. But Mr. Sleight looked straight before him, and he turned to go.

    "The Sacramento boat goes at nine," said Mr. Sleight quietly. This time their glances met, and the Lascar's eye glistened with subtle intelligence. The next moment he was gone, and Mr. Sleight again became absorbed in his papers.

    Meanwhile Renshaw was making his way back to the Pontiac with that light-hearted optimism that had characterized his parting with Sleight. It was this quality of his nature, fostered perhaps by the easy civilization in which he moved, that had originally drawn him into relations with the man he had just quitted; a quality that had been troubled and darkened by those relations, yet, when they were broken, at once returned. It consequently did not occur to him that he had only selfishly compromised with the difficulty; it seemed to him enough that he had withdrawn from a compact he thought dishonorable; he was not called upon to betray his partner in that compact merely to benefit others. He had been willing to incur suspicion and loss to reinstate himself in his self-respect, more he could not do without justifying that suspicion. The view taken by Sleight was, after all, that which most business men would take——which even the unbusiness-like Nott would take——which the girl herself might be tempted to listen to. Clearly he could do nothing but abandon the Pontiac and her owner to the fate he could not in honor avert. And even that fate was problematical. It did not follow that the treasure was still concealed in the Pontiac, nor that Nott would be willing to sell her. He would make some excuse to Nott——he smiled to think he would probably be classed in the long line of absconding tenants——he would say good-by to Rosey, and leave for Sacramento that night. He ascended the stairs to the gangway with a freer breast than when he first entered the ship. Mr. Nott was evidently absent, and after a quick glance at the half-open cabin door, Renshaw turned towards the galley. But Miss Rosey was not in her accustomed haunt, and with a feeling of disappointment, which seemed inconsistent with so slight a cause, he crossed the deck impatiently and entered his room. He was about to close the door when the prolonged rustle of a trailing skirt in the passage attracted his attention. The sound was so unlike that made by any garment worn by Rosey that he remained motionless, with his hand on the door. The sound approached nearer, and the next moment a white veiled figure with a trailing skirt slowly swept past the room. Renshaw's pulses halted for an instant in half superstitious awe. As the apparition glided on and vanished in the cabin door he could only see that it was the form of a beautiful and graceful woman——but nothing more. Bewildered and curious, he forgot himself so far as to follow it, and impulsively entered the cabin. The figure turned, uttered a little cry, threw the veil aside, and showed the half troubled, half blushing face of Rosey.

    "I——beg——your pardon," stammered Renshaw; "I didn't know it was you."

    "I was trying on some things," said Rosey, recovering her composure and pointing to an open trunk that seemed to contain a theatrical wardrobe——"some things father gave me long ago. I wanted to see if there was anything I could use. I thought I was all alone in the ship, but fancying I heard a noise forward I came out to see what it was. I suppose it must have been you."

    She raised her clear eyes to his, with a slight touch of womanly reserve that was so incompatible with any vulgar vanity or girlish coquetry that he became the more embarrassed. Her dress, too, of a slightly antique shape, rich but simple, seemed to reveal and accent a certain repose of gentlewomanliness, that he was now wishing to believe he had always noticed. Conscious of a superiority in her that now seemed to change their relations completely, he alone remained silent, awkward, and embarrassed before the girl who had taken care of his room, and who cooked in the galley! What he had thoughtlessly considered a merely vulgar business intrigue against her stupid father, now to his extravagant fancy assumed the proportions of a sacrilege to herself.

    "You've had your revenge, Miss Nott, for the fright I once gave you," he said a little uneasily, "for you quite startled me just now as you passed. I began to think the Pontiac was haunted. I thought you were a ghost. I don't know why such a ghost should FRIGHTEN anybody," he went on with a desperate attempt to recover his position by gallantry. "Let me see-that's Donna Elvira's dress——is it not?"

    "I don't think that was the poor woman's name," said Rosey simply; "she died of yellow fever at New Orleans as Signora somebody."

    Her ignorance seemed to Mr. Renshaw so plainly to partake more of the nun than the provincial that he hesitated to explain to her that he meant the heroine of an opera.

    "It seems dreadful to put on the poor thing's clothes, doesn't it?" she added.

    Mr. Renshaw's eyes showed so plainly that he thought otherwise, that she drew a little austerely towards the door of her state- room.

    "I must change these things before any one comes," she said dryly.

    "That means I must go, I suppose. But couldn't you let me wait here or in the gangway until then, Miss Nott? I am going away to- night, and I mayn't see you again." He had not intended to say this, but it slipped from his embarrassed tongue. She stopped with her hand on the door.

    "You are going away?"

    "I——think——I must leave to-night. I have some important business in Sacramento."

    She raised her frank eyes to his. The unmistakable look of disappointment that he saw in them gave his heart a sudden throb and sent the quick blood to his cheeks.

    "It's too bad," she said, abstractedly. "Nobody ever seems to stay here long. Captain Bower promised to tell me all about the ship and he went away the second week. The photographer left before he finished the picture of the Pontiac; Monsieur de Ferrieres has only just gone, and now YOU are going."

    "Perhaps, unlike them, I have finished my season of usefulness here," he replied, with a bitterness he would have recalled the next moment. But Rosey, with a faint sigh, saying, "I won't be long," entered the state-room and closed the door behind her.

    Renshaw bit his lip and pulled at the long silken threads of his moustache until they smarted. Why had he not gone at once? Why was it necessary to say he might not see her again——and if he had said it, why should he add anything more? What was he waiting for now? To endeavor to prove to her that he really bore no resemblance to Captain Bower, the photographer, the crazy Frenchman de Ferrieres? Or would he be forced to tell her that he was running away from a conspiracy to defraud her father-merely for something to say? Was there ever such folly? Rosey was "not long," as she had said, but he was beginning to pace the narrow cabin impatiently when the door opened and she returned.

    She had resumed her ordinary calico gown, but such was the impression left upon Renshaw's fancy that she seemed to wear it with a new grace. At any other time he might have recognized the change as due to a new corset, which strict veracity compels me to record Rosey had adopted for the first time that morning. Howbeit, her slight coquetry seemed to have passed, for she closed the open trunk with a return of her old listless air, and sitting on it rested her elbows on her knees and her oval chin in her hands.

    "I wish you would do me a favor," she said after a reflective pause.

    "Let me know what it is and it shall be done," replied Renshaw quickly.

    "If you should come across Monsieur de Ferrieres, or hear of him, I wish you would let me know. He was very poorly when he left here, and I should like to know if he was better. He didn't say where he was going. At least, he didn't tell father; but I fancy he and father don't agree."

    "I shall be very glad of having even THAT opportunity of making you remember me, Miss Nott," returned Renshaw with a faint smile; "I don't suppose either that it would be very difficult to get news of your friend-everybody seems to know him."

    "But not as I did," said Rosey with an abstracted little sigh.

    Mr. Renshaw opened his brown eyes upon her. Was he mistaken? was this romantic girl only a little coquette playing her provincial airs on him?

    "You say he and your father didn't agree? That means, I suppose, that

    YOU and he agreed?——and that was the result."

    "I don't think father knew anything about it," said Rosey simply.

    Mr. Renshaw rose. And this was what he had been waiting to hear! "Perhaps," he said grimly, "you would also like news of the photographer and Captain Bower, or did your father agree with them better?"

    "No," said Rosey quietly. She remained silent for a moment, and lifting her lashes said, "Father always seemed to agree with YOU, and that——" she hesitated.

    "That's why YOU don't."

    "I didn't say that," said Rosey with an incongruous increase of coldness and color. "I only meant to say it was that which makes it seem so hard you should go now."

    Notwithstanding his previous determination Renshaw found himself sitting down again. Confused and pleased, wishing he had said more——or less——he said nothing, and Rosey was forced to continue.

    "It's strange, isn't it——but father was urging me this morning to make a visit to some friends at the old Ranch. I didn't want to go. I like it much better here."

    "But you cannot bury yourself here forever, Miss Nott," said Renshaw with a sudden burst of honest enthusiasm. "Sooner or later you will be forced to go where you will be properly appreciated, where you will be admired and courted, where your slightest wish will be law. Believe me, without flattery, you don't know your own power."

    "It doesn't seem strong enough to keep even the little I like here," said Rosey with a slight glistening of the eyes. "But," she added hastily, "you don't know how much the dear old ship is to me. It's the only home I think I ever had."

    "But the Ranch?" said Renshaw.

    "The Ranch seemed to be only the old wagon halted in the road. It was a very little improvement on outdoors," said Rosey with a little shiver. "But this is so cozy and snug and yet so strange and foreign. Do you know I think I began to understand why I like it so since you taught me so much about ships and voyages. Before that I only learned from books. Books deceive you, I think, more than people do. Don't you think so?"

    She evidently did not notice the quick flush that covered his cheeks and apparently dazzled his troubled eyelid for she went on confidentially.

    "I was thinking of you yesterday. I was sitting by the galley door, looking forward. You remember the first day I saw you when you startled me by coming up out of the hatch?"

    "I wish you wouldn't think of that," said Renshaw, with more earnestness than he would have made apparent.

    "I don't want to either," said Rosey, gravely, "for I've had a strange fancy about it. I saw once when I was younger, a picture in a print shop in Montgomery Street that haunted me. I think it was called 'The Pirate.' There was a number of wicked-looking sailors lying around the deck, and coming out of a hatch was one figure with his hands on the deck and a cutlass in his mouth."

    "Thank you," said Renshaw.

    "You don't understand. He was horrid-looking, not at all like you. I never thought of HIM when I first saw you; but the other day I thought how dreadful it would have been if some one like him and not like you had come up then. That made me nervous sometimes of being alone. I think father is too. He often goes about stealthily at night, as if he was watching for something."

    Renshaw's face grew suddenly dark. Could it be possible that Sleight had always suspected him, and set spies to watch——or was he guilty of some double intrigue?

    "He thinks," continued Rosey with a faint smile, "that some one is looking around the ship, and talks of setting bear-traps. I hope you're not mad, Mr. Renshaw," she added, suddenly catching sight of his changed expression, "at my foolishness in saying you reminded me of the pirate. I meant nothing."

    "I know you're incapable of meaning anything but good to anybody, Miss Nott, perhaps to me more than I deserve," said Renshaw with a sudden burst of feeling. "I wish——I wish——you would do ME a favor. YOU asked me one just now." He had taken her hand. It seemed so like a mere illustration of his earnestness, that she did not withdraw it. "Your father tells you everything. If he has any offer to dispose of the ship, will you write to me at once before anything is concluded?" He winced a little——the sentence of Sleight, "What's the figure you and she have settled upon?" flashed across his mind. He scarcely noticed that Rosey had withdrawn her hand coldly.

    "Perhaps you had better speak to father, as it is HIS business. Besides, I shall not be here. I shall be at the Ranch."

    "But you said you didn't want to go?"

    "I've changed my mind," said Rosey listlessly. "I shall go to- night."

    She rose as if to indicate that the interview was ended. With an overpowering instinct that his whole future happiness depended upon his next act, he made a step towards her, with eager outstretched hands. But she slightly lifted her own with a warning gesture, "I hear father coming-you will have a chance to talk BUSINESS with him," she said, and vanished into her state-room.

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