The garden over whose wall Brace had mysteriously vanished was apparently as deserted as the lane and plaza without. But its solitude was one of graceful shadow and restful loveliness. A tropical luxuriance, that had perpetuated itself year after year, until it was half suffocated in its own overgrowth and strangled with its own beauty, spread over a variegated expanse of starry flowers, shimmering leaves, and slender inextricable branches, pierced here and there by towering rigid cactus spikes or the curved plumes of palms. The repose of ages lay in its hushed groves, its drooping vines, its lifeless creepers; the dry dust of its decaying leaves and branches mingled with the living perfumes like the spiced embalmings of a forgotten past.
Nevertheless, this tranquillity, after a few moments, was singularly disturbed. There was no breeze stirring, and yet the long fronds of a large fan palm, that stood near the breach in the wall, began to move gently from right to left, like the arms of some graceful semaphore, and then as suddenly stopped. Almost at the same moment a white curtain, listlessly hanging from a canopied balcony of the Alcalde's house, began to exhibit a like rhythmical and regular agitation. Then everything was motionless again; an interval of perfect peace settled upon the garden. It was broken by the apparition of Brace under the balcony, and the black-veiled and flowered head of Dona Isabel from the curtain above.
"Hush! I am coming down!"
"You? But Dona Ursula!"
"There is no more Dona Ursula!"
"Well--your duenna, whoever she is!"
"There is no duenna!"
"Hush up your tongue, idiot boy!" (this in English.)
The little black head and the rose on top of it disappeared. Brace drew himself up against the wall and waited. The time seemed interminable. Impatiently looking up and down, he at last saw Dona Isabel at a distance, quietly and unconcernedly moving among the roses, and occasionally stooping as if to pick them. In an instant he was at her side.
"Let me help you," he said.
She opened her little brownish palm,--
"Look!" In her hand were a few leaves of some herb. "It is for you."
Brace seized and kissed the hand.
"Is it some love-test?"
"It is for what you call a julep-cocktail," she replied gravely. "He will remain in a glass with aguardiente; you shall drink him with a straw. My sister has said that ever where the Americans go they expect him to arrive."
"I prefer to take him straight," said Brace, laughing, as he nibbled a limp leaf bruised by the hand of the young girl. "He's pleasanter, and, on the whole, more wildly intoxicating this way! But what about your duenna? and how comes this blessed privilege of seeing you alone?"
Dona Isabel lifted her black eyes suddenly to Brace.
"You do not comprehend, then? Is it not, then, the custom of the Americans? Is it not, then, that there is no duenna in your country?"
"There are certainly no duennas in my country. But who has changed the custom here?"
"Is it not true that in your country any married woman shall duenna the young senorita?" continued Dona Isabel, without replying; "that any caballero and senorita shall see each other in the patio, and not under a balcony?--that they may speak with the lips, and not the fan?"
"Well--yes," said Brace.
"Then my brother has arranged it as so. He have much hear the Dona Barbara Brimmer when she make talk of these things frequently, and he is informed and impressed much. He will truly have that you will come of the corridor, and not the garden, for me, and that I shall have no duenna but the Dona Barbara. This does not make you happy, you American idiot boy!"
It did not. The thought of carrying on a flirtation under the fastidious Boston eye of Mrs. Brimmer, instead of under the discreet and mercenarily averted orbs of Dona Ursula, did not commend itself pleasantly to Brace.
"Oh, yes," he returned quickly. "We will go into the corridor, in the fashion of my country"--
"Yes," said Dona Isabel dubiously.
"AFTER we have walked in the garden in the fashion of YOURS. That's only fair, isn't it?"
"Yes," said Dona Isabel gravely; "that's what the Comandante will call 'internation-al courtesy.'"
The young man slipped his arm around the young diplomatist's waist, and they walked on in decorous silence under the orange-trees.
"It seems to me," said Brace presently, "that Mrs. Brimmer has a good deal to say up your way?"
"Ah, yes; but what will you? It is my brother who has love for her."
"But," said Brace, stopping suddenly, "doesn't he know that she has a husband living?"
Dona Isabel lifted her lashes in childlike wonder.
"Always! you idiot American boy. That is why. Ah, Mother of God! my brother is discreet. He is not a maniac, like you, to come after a silly muchacha like me."
The response which Brace saw fit to make to this statement elicited a sharp tap upon the knuckles from Dona Isabel.
"Tell to me," she said suddenly, "is not that a custom of your country?"
"No, insensate. To attend a married senora?"
"Ah, that is wrong," said Dona Isabel meditatively, moving the point of her tiny slipper on the gravel. "Then it is the young girl that shall come in the corridor and the married lady on the balcony?"
She ran swiftly down the avenue of palms to a small door at the back of the house, turned, blew a kiss over the edge of her fan to Brace, and disappeared. He hesitated a moment or two, then quickly rescaling the wall, dropped into the lane outside, followed it to the gateway of the casa, and entered the patio as Dona Isabel decorously advanced from a darkened passage to the corridor. Although the hour of siesta had passed, her sister, Miss Chubb, the Alcalde, and Mrs. Brimmer were still lounging here on sofas and hammocks.
It would have been difficult for a stranger at a first glance to discover the nationality of the ladies. Mrs. Brimmer and her friend Miss Chubb had entirely succumbed to the extreme dishabille of the Spanish toilet--not without a certain languid grace on the part of Mrs. Brimmer, whose easy contour lent itself to the stayless bodice; or a certain bashful, youthful naivete on the part of Miss Chubb, the rounded dazzling whiteness of whose neck and shoulders half pleased and half frightened her in her low, white, plain camisa--under the lace mantilla.
"It is SUCH a pleasure to see you again, Mr. Brace," said Mrs. Brimmer, languidly observing the young man through the sticks of her fan; "I was telling Don Ramon that I feared Dona Ursula had frightened you away. I told him that your experience of American society might have caused you to misinterpret the habitual reserve of the Castilian," she continued with the air of being already an alien of her own country, "and I should be only too happy to undertake the chaperoning of both these young ladies in their social relations with our friends. And how is dear Mr. Banks? and Mr. Crosby? whom I so seldom see now. I suppose, however, business has its superior attractions."
But Don Ramon, with impulsive gallantry, would not--nay, COULD not--for a moment tolerate a heresy so alarming. It was simply wildly impossible. For why? In the presence of Dona Barbara--it exists not in the heart of man!
"YOU cannot, of course, conceive it, Don Ramon," said Mrs. Brimmer, with an air of gentle suffering; "but I fear it is sadly true of the American gentlemen. They become too absorbed in their business. They forget their duty to our sex in their selfish devotion to affairs in which we are debarred from joining them, and yet they wonder that we prefer the society of men who are removed by birth, tradition, and position from this degrading kind of selfishness."
"But that was scarcely true of your own husband. HE was not only a successful man in business, but we can see that he was equally successful in his relations to at least one of the fastidious sex," said Brace, maliciously glancing at Don Ramon.
Mrs. Brimmer received the innuendo with invulnerable simplicity.
"Mr. Brimmer is, I am happy to say, NOT a business man. He entered into certain contracts having more or less of a political complexion, and carrying with them the genius but not the material results of trade. That he is not a business man--and a successful one--my position here at the present time is a sufficient proof," she said triumphantly. "And I must also protest," she added, with a faint sigh, "against Mr. Brimmer being spoken of in the past tense by anybody. It is painfully premature and ominous!"
She drew her mantilla across her shoulders with an expression of shocked sensitiveness which completed the humiliation of Brace and the subjugation of Don Ramon. But, unlike most of her sex, she was wise in the moment of victory. She cast a glance over her fan at Brace, and turned languidly to Dona Isabel.
"Mr. Brace must surely want some refreshment after his long ride. Why don't you seize this opportunity to show him the garden and let him select for himself the herbs he requires for that dreadful American drink; Miss Chubb and your sister will remain with me to receive the Comandante's secretary and the Doctor when they come."
"She's more than my match," whispered Brace to Dona Isabel, as they left the corridor together. "I give in. I don't understand her: she frightens me."
"That is of your conscience! It is that you would understand the Dona Leonor--your dear Miss Keene--better! Ah! silence, imbecile! this Dona Barbara is even as thou art--a talking parrot. She will have that the Comandante's secretary, Manuel, shall marry Mees Chubb, and that the Doctor shall marry my sister. But she knows not that Manuel--listen so that you shall get sick at your heart and swallow your moustachio!--that Manuel loves the beautiful Leonor, and that Leonor loves not him, but Don Diego; and that my sister loathes the little Doctor. And this Dona Barbara, that makes your liver white, would be a feeder of chickens with such barley as this! Ah! come along!"
The arrival of the Doctor and the Comandante's secretary created another diversion, and the pairing off of the two couples indicated by Dona Isabel for a stroll in the garden, which was now beginning to recover from the still heat of mid-day. This left Don Ramon and Mrs. Brimmer alone in the corridor; Mrs. Brimmer's indefinite languor, generally accepted as some vague aristocratic condition of mind and body, not permitting her to join them.
There was a moment of dangerous silence; the voices of the young people were growing fainter in the distance. Mrs. Brimmer's eyes, in the shadow of her fan, were becoming faintly phosphorescent. Don Ramon's melancholy face, which had grown graver in the last few moments, approached nearer to her own.
"You are unhappy, Dona Barbara. The coming of this young cavalier, your countryman, revives your anxiety for your home. You are thinking of this husband who comes not. Is it not so?"
"I am thinking," said Mrs. Brimmer, with a sudden revulsion of solid Boston middle-class propriety, shown as much in the dry New England asperity of voice that stung even through her drawling of the Castilian speech, as in anything she said,--"I am thinking that, unless Mr. Brimmer comes soon, I and Miss Chubb shall have to abandon the hospitality of your house, Don Ramon. Without looking upon myself as a widow, or as indefinitely separated from Mr. Brimmer, the few words let fall by Mr. Brace show me what might be the feelings of my countrymen on the subject. However charming and considerate your hospitality has been--and I do not deny that it has been MOST grateful to ME--I feel I cannot continue to accept it in those equivocal circumstances. I am speaking to a gentleman who, with the instincts and chivalrous obligations of his order, must sympathize with my own delicacy in coming to this conclusion, and who will not take advantage of my confession that I do it with pain."
She spoke with a dry alacrity and precision so unlike her usual languor and the suggestions of the costume, and even the fan she still kept shading her faintly glowing eyes, that the man before her was more troubled by her manner than her words, which he had but imperfectly understood.
"You will leave here--this house?" he stammered.
"It is necessary," she returned.
"But you shall listen to me first!" he said hurriedly. "Hear me, Dona Barbara--I have a secret--I will to you confess"--
"You must confess nothing," said Mrs. Brimmer, dropping her feet from the hammock, and sitting up primly, "I mean--nothing I may not hear."
The Alcalde cast a look upon her at once blank and imploring.
"Ah, but you will hear," he said, after a pause. "There is a ship coming here. In two weeks she will arrive. None know it but myself, the Comandante, and the Padre. It is a secret of the Government. She will come at night; she will depart in the morning, and no one else shall know. It has ever been that she brings no one to Todos Santos, that she takes no one from Todos Santos. That is the law. But I swear to you that she shall take you, your children, and your friend to Acapulco in secret, where you will be free. You will join your husband; you will be happy. I will remain, and I will die."
It would have been impossible for any woman but Mrs. Brimmer to have regarded the childlike earnestness and melancholy simplicity of this grown-up man without a pang. Even this superior woman experienced a sensible awkwardness as she slipped from the hammock and regained an upright position.
"Of course," she, began, "your offer is exceedingly generous; and although I should not, perhaps, take a step of this kind without the sanction of Mr. Brimmer, and am not sure that he would not regard it as rash and premature, I will talk it over with Miss Chubb, for whom I am partially responsible. Nothing," she continued, with a sudden access of feeling, "would induce me, for any selfish consideration, to take any step that would imperil the future of that child, towards whom I feel as a sister." A slight suffusion glistened under her pretty brown lashes. "If anything should happen to her, I would never forgive myself; if I should be the unfortunate means of severing any ties that SHE may have formed, I could never look her in the face again. Of course, I can well understand that our presence here must be onerous to you, and that you naturally look forward to any sacrifice--even that of the interests of your country, and the defiance of its laws--to relieve you from a position so embarrassing as yours has become. I only trust, however, that the ill effects you allude to as likely to occur to yourself after our departure may be exaggerated by your sensitive nature. It would be an obligation added to the many that we owe you, which Mr. Brimmer would naturally find he could not return--and that, I can safely say, he would not hear of for a single moment."
While speaking, she had unconsciously laid aside her fan, lifted her mantilla from her head with both hands, and, drawing it around her shoulders and under her lifted chin, had crossed it over her bosom with a certain prim, automatic gesture, as if it had been the starched kerchief of some remote Puritan ancestress. With her arms still unconsciously crossed, she stooped rigidly, picked up her fan with three fingers, as if it had been a prayer-book, and, with a slight inclination of her bared head, with its accurately parted brown hair, passed slowly out of the corridor.
Astounded, bewildered, yet conscious of some vague wound, Don Ramon remained motionless, staring after her straight, retreating figure. Unable to follow closely either the meaning of her words or the logic of her reasoning, he nevertheless comprehended the sudden change in her manner, her voice, and the frigid resurrection of a nature he had neither known nor suspected. He looked blankly at the collapsed hammock, as if he expected to find in its depths those sinuous graces, languid fascinations, and the soft, half sensuous contour cast off by this vanishing figure of propriety.
In the eight months of their enforced intimacy and platonic seclusion he had learned to love this naive, insinuating woman, whose frank simplicity seemed equal to his own, without thought of reserve, secrecy, or deceit. He had gradually been led to think of the absent husband with what he believed to be her own feelings--as of some impalpable, fleshless ancestor from whose remote presence she derived power, wealth, and importance, but to whom she owed only respect and certain obligations of honor equal to his own. He had never heard her speak of her husband with love, with sympathy, with fellowship, with regret. She had barely spoken of him at all, and then rather as an attractive factor in her own fascinations than a bar to a free indulgence in them. He was as little in her way as--his children. With what grace she had adapted herself to his--Don Ramon's--life--she who frankly confessed she had no sympathy with her husband's! With what languid enthusiasm she had taken up the customs of HIS country, while deploring the habits of her own! With what goddess-like indifference she had borne this interval of waiting! And yet this woman--who had seemed the embodiment of romance--had received the announcement of his sacrifice--the only revelation he allowed himself to make of his hopeless passion--with the frigidity of a duenna! Had he wounded her in some other unknown way? Was she mortified that he had not first declared his passion--he who had never dared to speak to her of love before? Perhaps she even doubted it! In his ignorance of the world he had, perhaps, committed some grave offense! He should not have let her go! He should have questioned, implored her--thrown himself at her feet! Was it too late yet?
He passed hurriedly into the formal little drawing-room, whose bizarre coloring was still darkened by the closed blinds and dropped awnings that had shut out the heat of day. She was not there. He passed the open door of her room; it was empty. At the end of the passage a faint light stole from a door opening into the garden that was still ajar. She must have passed out that way. He opened it, and stepped out into the garden.
The sound of voices beside a ruined fountain a hundred yards away indicated the vicinity of the party; but a single glance showed him that she was not among them. So much the better--he would find her alone. Cautiously slipping beside the wall of the house, under the shadow of a creeper, he gained the long avenue without attracting attention. She was not there. Had she effectively evaded contact with the others by leaving the garden through the little gate in the wall that entered the Mission enclosure? It was partly open, as if some one had just passed through. He followed, took a few steps, and stopped abruptly. In the shadow of one of the old pear-trees a man and woman were standing. An impulse of wild jealousy seized him; he was about to leap forward, but the next moment the measured voice of the Comandante, addressing Mrs. Markham, fell upon his ear. He drew back with a sudden flush upon his face. The Comandante of Todos Santos, in grave, earnest accents, was actually offering to Mrs. Markham the same proposal that he, Don Ramon, had made to Mrs. Brimmer but a moment ago!
"No one," said the Comandante sententiously, "will know it but myself. You will leave the ship at Acapulco; you will rejoin your husband in good time; you will be happy, my child; you will forget the old man who drags out the few years of loneliness still left to him in Todos Santos."
Forgetting himself, Don Ramon leaned breathlessly forward to hear Mrs. Markham's reply. Would she answer the Comandante as Dona Barbara had answered HIM? Her words rose distinctly in the evening air.
"You're a gentleman, Don Miguel Briones; and the least respect I can show a man of your kind is not to pretend that I don't understand the sacrifice you're making. I shall always remember it as about the biggest compliment I ever received, and the biggest risk that any man--except one--ever ran for me. But as the man who ran that bigger risk isn't here to speak for himself, and generally trusts his wife, Susan Markham, to speak for him--it's all the same as if HE thanked you. There's my hand, Don Miguel: shake it. Well--if you prefer it--kiss it then. There--don't be a fool--but let's go back to Miss Keene."