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As Clarence Brant, President of the Robles Land Company, and husband of the rich widow of John Peyton, of the Robles Ranche, mingled with the outgoing audience of the Cosmopolitan Theatre, at San Francisco, he elicited the usual smiling nods and recognition due to his good looks and good fortune. But as he hurriedly slipped through the still lingering winter's rain into the smart coupe that was awaiting him, and gave the order Home, the word struck him with a peculiarly ironical significance.
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Published by Sovereign Classic
First published in 2016
Copyright © 2016 Sovereign
All Rights Reserved.
As Clarence Brant, President of the Robles Land Company, and husband of the rich widow of John Peyton, of the Robles Ranche, mingled with the outgoing audience of the Cosmopolitan Theatre, at San Francisco, he elicited the usual smiling nods and recognition due to his good looks and good fortune. But as he hurriedly slipped through the still lingering winter’s rain into the smart coupe that was awaiting him, and gave the order “Home,” the word struck him with a peculiarly ironical significance. His home was a handsome one, and lacked nothing in appointment and comfort, but he had gone to the theatre to evade its hollow loneliness. Nor was it because his wife was not there, for he had a miserable consciousness that her temporary absence had nothing to do with his homelessness. The distraction of the theatre over, that dull, vague, but aching sense of loneliness which was daily growing upon him returned with greater vigor.
He leaned back in the coupe and gloomily reflected.
He had been married scarcely a year, yet even in the illusions of the honeymoon the woman, older than himself, and the widow of his old patron, had half unconsciously reasserted herself, and slipped back into the domination of her old position. It was at first pleasant enough,—this half-maternal protectorate which is apt to mingle even with the affections of younger women,—and Clarence, in his easy, half-feminine intuition of the sex, yielded, as the strong are apt to yield, through the very consciousness of their own superiority. But this is a quality the weaker are not apt to recognize, and the woman who has once tasted equal power with her husband not only does not easily relegate it, but even makes its continuance a test of the affections. The usual triumphant feminine conclusion, “Then you no longer love me,” had in Clarence’s brief experience gone even further and reached its inscrutable climax, “Then I no longer love you,” although shown only in a momentary hardening of the eye and voice. And added to this was his sudden, but confused remembrance that he had seen that eye and heard that voice in marital altercation during Judge Peyton’s life, and that he himself, her boy partisan, had sympathized with her. Yet, strange to say, this had given him more pain than her occasional other reversions to the past—to her old suspicious of him when he was a youthful protege of her husband and a presumed suitor of her adopted daughter Susy. High natures are more apt to forgive wrong done to themselves than any abstract injustice. And her capricious tyranny over her dependents and servants, or an unreasoning enmity to a neighbor or friend, outraged his finer sense more than her own misconception of himself. Nor did he dream that this was a thing most women seldom understand, or, understanding, ever forgive.
The coupe rattled over the stones or swirled through the muddy pools of the main thoroughfares. Newspaper and telegraphic offices were still brilliantly lit, and crowds were gathered among the bulletin boards. He knew that news had arrived from Washington that evening of the first active outbreaks of secession, and that the city was breathless with excitement. Had he not just come from the theatre, where certain insignificant allusions in the play had been suddenly caught up and cheered or hissed by hitherto unknown partisans, to the dumb astonishment of a majority of the audience comfortably settled to money-getting and their own affairs alone? Had he not applauded, albeit half-scornfully, the pretty actress—his old playmate Susy—who had audaciously and all incongruously waved the American flag in their faces? Yes! he had known it; had lived for the last few weeks in an atmosphere electrically surcharged with it—and yet it had chiefly affected him in his personal homelessness. For his wife was a Southerner, a born slaveholder, and a secessionist, whose noted prejudices to the North had even outrun her late husband’s politics. At first the piquancy and recklessness of her opinionative speech amused him as part of her characteristic flavor, or as a lingering youthfulness which the maturer intellect always pardons. He had never taken her politics seriously—why should he? With her head on his shoulder he had listened to her extravagant diatribes against the North. He had forgiven her outrageous indictment of his caste and his associates for the sake of the imperious but handsome lips that uttered it. But when he was compelled to listen to her words echoed and repeated by her friends and family; when he found that with the clannishness of her race she had drawn closer to them in this controversy,—that she depended upon them for her intelligence and information rather than upon him,—he had awakened to the reality of his situation. He had borne the allusions of her brother, whose old scorn for his dependent childhood had been embittered by his sister’s marriage and was now scarcely concealed. Yet, while he had never altered his own political faith and social creed in this antagonistic atmosphere, he had often wondered, with his old conscientiousness and characteristic self-abnegation, whether his own political convictions were not merely a revulsion from his domestic tyranny and alien surroundings.
In the midst of this gloomy retrospect the coupe stopped with a jerk before his own house. The door was quickly opened by a servant, who appeared to be awaiting him.
“Some one to see you in the library, sir,” said the man, “and”—He hesitated and looked towards the coupe.
“Well?” said Clarence impatiently.
“He said, sir, as how you were not to send away the carriage.”
“Indeed, and who is it?” demanded Clarence sharply.
“Mr. Hooker. He said I was to say Jim Hooker.”
The momentary annoyance in Clarence’s face changed to a look of reflective curiosity.
“He said he knew you were at the theatre, and he would wait until you came home,” continued the man, dubiously watching his master’s face. “He don’t know you’ve come in, sir, and—and I can easily get rid of him.”
“No matter now. I’ll see him, and,” added Clarence, with a faint smile, “let the carriage wait.”
Yet, as he turned towards the library he was by no means certain that an interview with the old associate of his boyhood under Judge Peyton’s guardianship would divert his mind. Yet he let no trace of his doubts nor of his past gloom show in his face as he entered the room.
Mr. Hooker was apparently examining the elegant furniture and luxurious accommodation with his usual resentful enviousness. Clarence had got a “soft thing.” That it was more or less the result of his “artfulness,” and that he was unduly “puffed up” by it, was, in Hooker’s characteristic reasoning, equally clear. As his host smilingly advanced with outstretched hand, Mr. Hooker’s efforts to assume a proper abstraction of manner and contemptuous indifference to Clarence’s surroundings which should wound his vanity ended in his lolling back at full length in the chair with his eyes on the ceiling. But, remembering suddenly that he was really the bearer of a message to Clarence, it struck him that his supine position was, from a theatrical view-point, infelicitous. In his experiences of the stage he had never delivered a message in that way. He rose awkwardly to his feet.
“It was so good of you to wait,” said Clarence courteously.
“Saw you in the theatre,” said Hooker brusquely. “Third row in parquet. Susy said it was you, and had suthin’ to say to you. Suthin’ you ought to know,” he continued, with a slight return of his old mystery of manner which Clarence so well remembered. “You saw HER—she fetched the house with that flag business, eh? She knows which way the cat is going to jump, you bet. I tell you, for all the blowing of these secessionists, the Union’s goin’ to pay! Yes, sir!” He stopped, glanced round the handsome room, and added darkly, “Mebbee better than this.”
With the memory of Hooker’s characteristic fondness for mystery still in his mind, Clarence overlooked the innuendo, and said smilingly,—
“Why didn’t you bring Mrs. Hooker here? I should have been honored with her company.”
Mr. Hooker frowned slightly at this seeming levity.
“Never goes out after a performance. Nervous exhaustion. Left her at our rooms in Market Street. We can drive there in ten minutes. That’s why I asked to have the carriage wait.”
Clarence hesitated. Without caring in the least to renew the acquaintance of his old playmate and sweetheart, a meeting that night in some vague way suggested to him a providential diversion. Nor was he deceived by any gravity in the message. With his remembrance of Susy’s theatrical tendencies, he was quite prepared for any capricious futile extravagance.
“You are sure we will not disturb her?” he said politely.
Clarence led the way to the carriage. If Mr. Hooker expected him during the journey to try to divine the purport of Susy’s message he was disappointed. His companion did not allude to it. Possibly looking upon it as a combined theatrical performance, Clarence preferred to wait for Susy as the better actor. The carriage rolled rapidly through the now deserted streets, and at last, under the directions of Mr. Hooker, who was leaning half out of the window, it drew up at a middle-class restaurant, above whose still lit and steaming windows were some ostentatiously public apartments, accessible from a side entrance. As they ascended the staircase together, it became evident that Mr. Hooker was scarcely more at his ease in the character of host than he had been as guest. He stared gloomily at a descending visitor, grunted audibly at a waiter in the passage, and stopped before a door, where a recently deposited tray displayed the half-eaten carcase of a fowl, an empty champagne bottle, two half-filled glasses, and a faded bouquet. The whole passage was redolent with a singular blending of damp cooking, stale cigarette smoke, and patchouli.
Putting the tray aside with his foot, Mr. Hooker opened the door hesitatingly and peered into the room, muttered a few indistinct words, which were followed by a rapid rustling of skirts, and then, with his hand still on the door-knob, turning to Clarence, who had discreetly halted on the threshold, flung the door open theatrically and bade him enter.
“She is somewhere in the suite,” he added, with a large wave of the hand towards a door that was still oscillating. “Be here in a minit.”
Clarence took in the apartment with a quiet glance. Its furniture had the frayed and discolored splendors of a public parlor which had been privately used and maltreated; there were stains in the large medallioned carpet; the gilded veneer had been chipped from a heavy centre table, showing the rough, white deal beneath, which gave it the appearance of a stage “property;” the walls, paneled with gilt-framed mirrors, reflected every domestic detail or private relaxation with shameless publicity. A damp waterproof, shawl, and open newspaper were lying across the once brilliant sofa; a powder-puff, a plate of fruit, and a play-book were on the centre table, and on the marble-topped sideboard was Mr. Hooker’s second-best hat, with a soiled collar, evidently but lately exchanged for the one he had on, peeping over its brim. The whole apartment seemed to mingle the furtive disclosures of the dressing-room with the open ostentations of the stage, with even a slight suggestion of the auditorium in a few scattered programmes on the floor and chairs.
The inner door opened again with a slight theatrical start, and Susy, in an elaborate dressing-gown, moved languidly into the room. She apparently had not had time to change her underskirt, for there was the dust of the stage on its delicate lace edging, as she threw herself into an armchair and crossed her pretty slippered feet before her. Her face was pale, its pallor incautiously increased by powder; and as Clarence looked at its still youthful, charming outline, he was not perhaps sorry that the exquisite pink and white skin beneath, which he had once kissed, was hidden from that awakened recollection. Yet there was little trace of the girlish Susy in the pretty, but prematurely jaded, actress before him, and he felt momentarily relieved. It was her youth and freshness appealing to his own youth and imagination that he had loved—not HER. Yet as she greeted him with a slight exaggeration of glance, voice, and manner, he remembered that even as a girl she was an actress.
Nothing of this, however, was in his voice and manner as he gently thanked her for the opportunity of meeting her again. And he was frank, for the diversion he had expected he had found; he even was conscious of thinking more kindly of his wife who had supplanted her.
“I told Jim he must fetch you if he had to carry you,” she said, striking the palm of her hand with her fan, and glancing at her husband. “I reckon he guessed WHY, though I didn’t tell him—I don’t tell Jim EVERYTHING.”
Here Jim rose, and looking at his watch, “guessed he’d run over to the Lick House and get some cigars.” If he was acting upon some hint from his wife, his simulation was so badly done that Clarence felt his first sense of uneasiness. But as Hooker closed the door awkwardly and unostentatiously behind him, Clarence smilingly said he had waited to hear the message from her own lips.
“Jim only knows what he’s heard outside: the talk of men, you know,—and he hears a good deal of that—more, perhaps, than YOU do. It was that which put me up to finding out the truth. And I didn’t rest till I did. I’m not to be fooled, Clarence,—you don’t mind my calling you Clarence now we’re both married and done for,—and I’m not the kind to be fooled by anybody from the Cow counties—and that’s the Robles Ranche. I’m a Southern woman myself from Missouri, but I’m for the Union first, last, and all the time, and I call myself a match for any lazy, dawdling, lash-swinging slaveholder and slaveholderess—whether they’re mixed blood, Heaven only knows, or what—or their friends or relations, or the dirty half-Spanish grandees and their mixed half-nigger peons who truckle to them. You bet!”
His blood had stirred quickly at the mention of the Robles Ranche, but the rest of Susy’s speech was too much in the vein of her old extravagance to touch him seriously. He found himself only considering how strange it was that the old petulance and impulsiveness of her girlhood were actually bringing back with them her pink cheeks and brilliant eyes.
“You surely didn’t ask Jim to bring me here,” he said smilingly, “to tell me that Mrs. Peyton”—he corrected himself hastily as a malicious sparkle came into Susy’s blue eyes—”that my wife was a Southern woman, and probably sympathized with her class? Well, I don’t know that I should blame her for that any more than she should blame me for being a Northern man and a Unionist.”
“And she doesn’t blame you?” asked Susy sneeringly.
The color came slightly to Clarence’s cheek, but before he could reply the actress added,—
“No, she prefers to use you!”
“I don’t think I understand you,” said Clarence, rising coldly.
“No, you don’t understand HER!” retorted Susy sharply. “Look here, Clarence Brant, you’re right; I didn’t ask you here to tell you—what you and everybody knows—that your wife is a Southerner. I didn’t ask you here to tell you what everybody suspects—that she turns you round her little finger. But I did ask you here to tell you what nobody, not even you, suspects—but what I know!—and that is that she’s a TRAITOR—and more, a SPY!—and that I’ve only got to say the word, or send that man Jim to say the word, to have her dragged out of her Copperhead den at Robles Ranche and shut up in Fort Alcatraz this very night!”
Still with the pink glowing in her rounding cheek, and eyes snapping like splintered sapphires, she rose to her feet, with her pretty shoulders lifted, her small hands and white teeth both tightly clenched, and took a step towards him. Even in her attitude there was a reminiscence of her willful childhood, although still blended with the provincial actress whom he had seen on the stage only an hour ago. Thoroughly alarmed at her threat, in his efforts to conceal his feelings he was not above a weak retaliation. Stepping back, he affected to regard her with a critical admiration that was only half simulated, and said with a smile,—
“Very well done—but you have forgotten the flag.”
She did not flinch. Rather accepting the sarcasm as a tribute to her art, she went on with increasing exaggeration: “No, it is YOU who have forgotten the flag—forgotten your country, your people, your manhood—everything for that high-toned, double-dyed old spy and traitress! For while you are standing here, your wife is gathering under her roof at Robles a gang of spies and traitors like herself—secession leaders and their bloated, drunken ‘chivalry’! Yes, you may smile your superior smile, but I tell you, Clarence Brant, that with all your smartness and book learning you know no more of what goes on around you than a child. But others do! This conspiracy is known to the government, the Federal officers have been warned; General Sumner has been sent out here—and his first act was to change the command at Fort Alcatraz, and send your wife’s Southern friend—Captain Pinckney—to the right about! Yes—everything is known but ONE thing, and that is WHERE and HOW this precious crew meet! That I alone know, and that I’ve told you!”
“And I suppose,” said Clarence, with an unchanged smile, “that this valuable information came from your husband—my old friend, Jim Hooker?”
“No,” she answered sharply, “it comes from Cencho—one of your own peons—who is more true to you and the old Rancho than YOU have ever been. He saw what was going on, and came to me, to warn you!”
“But why not to me directly?” asked Clarence, with affected incredulity.
“Ask him!” she said viciously. “Perhaps he didn’t want to warn the master against the mistress. Perhaps he thought WE are still friends. Perhaps”—she hesitated with a lower voice and a forced smile—”perhaps he used to see us together in the old times.”
“Very likely,” said Clarence quietly. “And for the sake of those old times, Susy,” he went on, with a singular gentleness that was quite distinct from his paling face and set eyes, “I am going to forget all that you have just said of me and mine, in all the old willfulness and impatience that I see you still keep—with all your old prettiness.” He took his hat from the table and gravely held out his hand.
She was frightened for a moment with his impassive abstraction. In the old days she had known it—had believed it was his dogged “obstinacy”—but she knew the hopelessness of opposing it. Yet with feminine persistency she again threw herself against it, as against a wall.
“You don’t believe me! Well, go and see for yourself. They are at Robles NOW. If you catch the early morning stage at Santa Clara you will come upon them before they disperse. Dare you try it?”
“Whatever I do,” he returned smilingly, “I shall always be grateful to you for giving me this opportunity of seeing you again AS YOU WERE. Make my excuses to your husband. Good-night.”
But he had already closed the door behind him. His face did not relax its expression nor change as he looked again at the tray with its broken viands before the door, the worn, stained hall carpet, or the waiter who shuffled past him. He was apparently as critically conscious of them and of the close odors of the hall, and the atmosphere of listless decay and faded extravagance around him, as before the interview. But if the woman he had just parted from had watched him she would have supposed he still utterly disbelieved her story. Yet he was conscious that all that he saw was a part of his degradation, for he had believed every word she had uttered. Through all her extravagance, envy, and revengefulness he saw the central truth—that he had been deceived—not by his wife, but by himself! He had suspected all this before. This was what had been really troubling him—this was what he had put aside, rather than his faith, not in her, but in his ideal. He remembered letters that had passed between her and Captain Pinckney—letters that she had openly sent to notorious Southern leaders; her nervous anxiety to remain at the Rancho; the innuendoes and significant glances of friends which he had put aside—as he had this woman’s message! Susy had told him nothing new of his wife—but the truth of HIMSELF! And the revelation came from people who he was conscious were the inferiors of himself and his wife. To an independent, proud, and self-made man it was the culminating stroke.
In the same abstracted voice he told the coachman to drive home. The return seemed interminable—though he never shifted his position. Yet when he drew up at his own door and looked at his watch he found he had been absent only half an hour. Only half an hour! As he entered the house he turned with the same abstraction towards a mirror in the hall, as if he expected to see some outward and visible change in himself in that time. Dismissing his servants to bed, he went into his dressing-room, completely changed his attire, put on a pair of long riding-boots, and throwing a serape over his shoulders, paused a moment, took a pair of small “Derringer” pistols from a box, put them in his pockets, and then slipped cautiously down the staircase. A lack of confidence in his own domestics had invaded him for the first time. The lights were out. He silently opened the door and was in the street.
He walked hastily a few squares to a livery stable whose proprietor he knew. His first inquiry was for one “Redskin,” a particular horse; the second for its proprietor. Happily both were in. The proprietor asked no question of a customer of Clarence’s condition. The horse, half Spanish, powerful and irascible, was quickly saddled. As Clarence mounted, the man in an impulse of sociability said,—
“Saw you at the theatre to-night, sir.”
“Ah,” returned Clarence, quietly gathering up the reins.
“Rather a smart trick of that woman with the flag,” he went on tentatively. Then, with a possible doubt of his customer’s politics, he added with a forced smile, “I reckon it’s all party fuss, though; there ain’t any real danger.”
But fast as Clarence might ride the words lingered in his ears. He saw through the man’s hesitation; he, too, had probably heard that Clarence Brant weakly sympathized with his wife’s sentiments, and dared not speak fully. And he understood the cowardly suggestion that there was “no real danger.” It had been Clarence’s one fallacy. He had believed the public excitement was only a temporary outbreak of partisan feeling, soon to subside. Even now he was conscious that he was less doubtful of the integrity of the Union than of his own household. It was not the devotion of the patriot, but the indignation of an outraged husband, that was spurring him on.
He knew that if he reached Woodville by five o’clock he could get ferried across the bay at the Embarcadero, and catch the down coach to Fair Plains, whence he could ride to the Rancho. As the coach did not connect directly with San Francisco, the chance of his surprising them was greater. Once clear of the city outskirts, he bullied Redskin into irascible speed, and plunged into the rainy darkness of the highroad. The way was familiar. For a while he was content to feel the buffeting, caused by his rapid pace, of wind and rain against his depressed head and shoulders in a sheer brutal sense of opposition and power, or to relieve his pent-up excitement by dashing through overflowed gullies in the road or across the quaggy, sodden edges of meadowland, until he had controlled Redskin’s rebellious extravagance into a long steady stride. Then he raised his head and straightened himself on the saddle, to think. But to no purpose. He had no plan; everything would depend upon the situation; the thought of forestalling any action of the conspirators, by warning or calling in the aid of the authorities, for an instant crossed his mind, but was as instantly dismissed. He had but an instinct—to see with his own eyes what his reason told him was true. Day was breaking through drifting scud and pewter-colored clouds as he reached Woodville ferry, checkered with splashes of the soil and the spume of his horse, from whose neck and flanks the sweat rolled like lather. Yet he was not conscious how intent had been his purpose until he felt a sudden instinctive shock on seeing that the ferryboat was gone. For an instant his wonderful self-possession abandoned him; he could only gaze vacantly at the leaden-colored bay, without a thought or expedient. But in another moment he saw that the boat was returning from the distance. Had he lost his only chance? He glanced hurriedly at his watch; he had come more quickly than he imagined; there would still be time. He beckoned impatiently to the ferryman; the boat—a ship’s pinnace, with two men in it—crept in with exasperating slowness. At last the two rowers suddenly leaped ashore.
“Ye might have come before, with the other passenger. We don’t reckon to run lightnin’ trips on this ferry.”
But Clarence was himself again. “Twenty dollars for two more oars in that boat,” he said quietly, “and fifty if you get me over in time to catch the down stage.”
The man glanced at Clarence’s eyes. “Run up and rouse out Jake and Sam,” he said to the other boatman; then more leisurely, gazing at his customer’s travel-stained equipment, he said, “There must have been a heap o’ passengers got left by last night’s boat. You’re the second man that took this route in a hurry.”
At any other time the coincidence might have struck Clarence. But he only answered curtly, “Unless we are under way in ten minutes you will find I am NOT the second man, and that our bargain’s off.”
But here two men emerged from the shanty beside the ferryhouse, and tumbled sleepily into the boat. Clarence seized an extra pair of sculls that were standing against the shed, and threw them into the stern. “I don’t mind taking a hand myself for exercise,” he said quietly.
The ferryman glanced again at Clarence’s travel-worn figure and determined eyes with mingled approval and surprise. He lingered a moment with his oars lifted, looking at his passenger. “It ain’t no business o’ mine, young man,” he said deliberately, “but I reckon you understand me when I say that I’ve just taken another man over there.”
“I do,” said Clarence impatiently.
“And you still want to go?”
“Certainly,” replied Clarence, with a cold stare, taking up his oars.
The man shrugged his shoulders, bent himself for the stroke, and the boat sprung forward. The others rowed strongly and rapidly, the tough ashen blades springing like steel from the water, the heavy boat seeming to leap in successive bounds until they were fairly beyond the curving inshore current and clearing the placid, misty surface of the bay. Clarence did not speak, but bent abstractedly over his oar; the ferryman and his crew rowed in equal panting silence; a few startled ducks whirred before them, but dropped again to rest. In half an hour they were at the Embarcadero. The time was fairly up. Clarence’s eyes were eagerly bent for the first appearance of the stage-coach around the little promontory; the ferryman was as eagerly scanning the bare, empty street of the still sleeping settlement.
“I don’t see him anywhere,” said the ferryman with a glance, half of astonishment and half of curiosity, at his solitary passenger.
“See whom?” asked Clarence carelessly, as he handed the man his promised fee.
“The other man I ferried over to catch the stage. He must have gone on without waiting. You’re in luck, young fellow!”
“I don’t understand you,” said Clarence impatiently. “What has your previous passenger to do with me?”
“Well, I reckon you know best. He’s the kind of man, gin’rally speaking, that other men, in a pow’ful hurry, don’t care to meet—and, az a rule, don’t FOLLER arter. It’s gin’rally the other way.”
“What do you mean?” inquired Clarence sternly. “Of whom are you speaking?”
“The Chief of Police of San Francisco!”
The laugh that instinctively broke from Clarence’s lips was so sincere and unaffected that the man was disconcerted, and at last joined in it, a little shamefacedly. The grotesque blunder of being taken as a fugitive from justice relieved Clarence’s mind from its acute tension,—he was momentarily diverted,—and it was not until the boatman had departed, and he was again alone, that it seemed to have any collateral significance. Then an uneasy recollection of Susy’s threat that she had the power to put his wife in Fort Alcatraz came across him. Could she have already warned the municipal authorities and this man? But he quickly remembered that any action from such a warning could only have been taken by the United States Marshal, and not by a civic official, and dismissed the idea.
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