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THE RETURN OF THE EXCELSIOR.
Amazed and disconcerted, Hurlstone, nevertheless, retained his presence of mind.
"There must be some mistake," he said coolly; "I am certainly not the person you seem to be expecting."
"Were you not sent here by Winslow?" demanded Perkins.
"No. The person you are looking for is probably one I saw on the shore. He no doubt became alarmed at my approach, and has allowed me quite unwittingly to take his place in the boat."
Perkins examined Hurlstone keenly for a moment, stepped to the door, gave a brief order, and returned.
"Then, if you did not intend the honor of this visit for me," he resumed, with a smile, "may I ask, my dear fellow, whom you expected to meet, and on what ship? There are not so many at Todos Santos, if my memory serves me right, as to create confusion."
"I must decline to answer that question," said Hurlstone curtly.
The Senor smiled, with an accession of his old gentleness.
"My dear young friend," he said, "have you forgotten that on a far more important occasion to YOU, I showed no desire to pry into your secret?" Hurlstone made a movement of deprecation. "Nor have I any such desire now. But for the sake of our coming to an understanding as friends, let me answer the question for you. You are here, my dear fellow, as a messenger from the Mission of Todos Santos to the Ecclesiastical Commission from Guadalajara, whose ship touches here every three years. It is now due. You have mistaken this vessel for theirs."
Hurlstone remained silent.
"It is no secret," continued Senor Perkins blandly; "nor shall I pretend to conceal MY purpose here, which is on the invitation of certain distressed patriots of Todos Santos, to assist them in their deliverance from the effete tyranny of the Church and its Government. I have been fortunate enough to anticipate the arrival of your vessel, as you were fortunate enough to anticipate the arrival of my messenger. I am doubly fortunate, as it gives me the pleasure of your company this evening, and necessitates no further trouble than the return of the boat for the other gentleman--which has already gone. Doubtless you may know him."
"I must warn you again, Senor Perkins," said Hurlstone sternly, "that I have no connection with any political party; nor have I any sympathy with your purpose against the constituted authorities."
"I am willing to believe that you have no political affinities at all, my dear Mr. Hurlstone," returned Perkins, with unruffled composure, "and, consequently, we will not argue as to what is the constituted authority of Todos Santos. Perhaps to-morrow it may be on board THIS SHIP, and I may still have the pleasure of making you at home here!"
"Until then," said Hurlstone dryly, "at least you will allow me to repair my error by returning to the shore."
"For the moment I hardly think it would be wise," replied Perkins gently. "Allowing that you escaped the vigilance of my friends on the shore, whose suspicions you have aroused, and who might do you some injury, you would feel it your duty to inform those who sent you of the presence of my ship, and thus precipitate a collision between my friends and yours, which would be promotive of ill-feeling, and perhaps bloodshed. You know my peaceful disposition, Mr. Hurlstone; you can hardly expect me to countenance an act of folly that would be in violation of it."
"In other words, having decoyed me here on board your ship, you intend to detain me," said Hurlstone insultingly.
"'Decoy,'" said Perkins, in gentle deprecation, "'decoy' is hardly the word I expected from a gentleman who has been so unfortunate as to take, unsolicited and of his own free will, another person's place in a boat. But," he continued, assuming an easy argumentative attitude, "let us look at it from your view-point. Let us imagine that YOUR ship had anticipated mine, and that MY messenger had unwittingly gone on board of HER. What do you think they would have done to him?"
"They would have hung him at the yard-arm, as he deserved," said Hurlstone unflinchingly.
"You are wrong," said Perkins gently. "They would have given him the alternative of betraying his trust, and confessing everything--which he would probably have accepted. Pardon me!--this is no insinuation against you," he interrupted,--"but I regret to say that my experience with the effete Latin races of this continent has not inspired me with confidence in their loyalty to trust. Let me give you an instance," he continued, smiling: "the ship you are expecting is supposed to be an inviolable secret of the Church, but it is known to me--to my friends ashore--and even to you, my poor friend, a heretic! More than that, I am told that the Comandante, the Padre, and Alcalde are actually arranging to deport some of the American women by this vessel, which has been hitherto sacred to the emissaries of the Church alone. But you probably know this--it is doubtless part of your errand. I only mention it to convince you that I have certainly no need either to know your secrets, to hang you from the yard-arm if you refused to give them up, or to hold you as hostage for my messenger, who, as I have shown you, can take care of himself. I shall not ask you for that secret despatch you undoubtedly carry next your heart, because I don't want it. You are at liberty to keep it until you can deliver it, or drop it out of that port-hole into the sea--as you choose. But I hear the boat returning," continued Perkins, rising gently from his seat as the sound of oars came faintly alongside, "and no doubt with Winslow's messenger. I am sorry you won't let me bring you together. I dare say he knows all about you, and it really need not alter your opinions."
"One moment," said Hurlstone, stunned, yet incredulous of Perkins's revelations. "You said that both the Comandante and Alcalde had arranged to send away certain ladies--are you not mistaken?"
"I think not," said Perkins quietly, looking over a pile of papers on the table before him. "Yes, here it is," he continued, reading from a memorandum: "'Don Ramon Ramirez arranged with Pepe for the secret carrying off of Dona Barbara Brimmer.' Why, that was six weeks ago, and here we have the Comandante suborning one Marcia, a dragoon, to abduct Mrs. Markham--by Jove, my old friend!--and Dona Leonor--our beauty, was she not? Yes, here it is: in black and white. Read it, if you like,--and pardon me for one moment, while I receive this unlucky messenger."
Left to himself, Hurlstone barely glanced at the memorandum, which seemed to be the rough minutes of some society. He believed Perkins; but was it possible that the Padre could be ignorant of the designs of his fellow-councilors? And if he were not--if he had long before been in complicity with them for the removal of Eleanor, might he not also have duped him, Hurlstone, and sent him on this mission as a mere blind; and--more infamously--perhaps even thus decoyed him on board the wrong ship? No--it was impossible! His honest blood quickly flew to his cheek at that momentary disloyal suspicion.
Nevertheless, the Senor's bland revelations filled him with vague uneasiness. SHE was safe with her brother now; but what if he and the other Americans were engaged in this ridiculous conspiracy, this pot-house rebellion that Father Esteban had spoken of, and which he had always treated with such contempt? It seemed strange that Perkins had said nothing of the arrival of the relieving party from the Gulf, and its probable effect on the malcontents. Did he know it? or was the news now being brought by this messenger whom he, Hurlstone, had supplanted? If so, when and how had Perkins received the intelligence that brought him to Todos Santos? The young man could scarcely repress a bitter smile as he remembered the accepted idea of Todos Santos' inviolability--that inaccessible port that had within six weeks secretly summoned Perkins to its assistance! And it was there he believed himself secure! What security had he at all? Might not this strange, unimpassioned, omniscient man already know HIS secret as he had known the others'?
The interview of Perkins with the messenger in the next cabin was a long one, and apparently a stormy one on the part of the newcomer. Hurlstone could hear his excited foreign voice, shrill with the small vehemence of a shallow character; but there was no change in the slow, measured tones of the Senor. He listlessly began to turn over the papers on the table. Presently he paused. He had taken up a sheet of paper on which Senor Perkins had evidently been essaying some composition in verse. It seemed to have been of a lugubrious character. The titular line at the top of the page, "Dirge," had been crossed out for the substituted "In Memoriam." He read carelessly:
"O Muse unmet--but not unwept-- I seek thy sacred haunt in vain. Too late, alas! the tryst is kept-- We may not meet again!
"I sought thee 'midst the orange bloom, To find that thou hadst grasped the palm Of martyr, and the silent tomb Had hid thee in its calm.
"By fever racked, thou languishest On Nicaragua's"--
Hurlstone threw the paper aside. Although he had not forgotten the Senor's reputation for sentimental extravagance, and on another occasion might have laughed at it, there was something so monstrous in this hysterical, morbid composition of the man who was even then contemplating bloodshed and crime, that he was disgusted. Like most sentimental egotists, Hurlstone was exceedingly intolerant of that quality in others, and he turned for relief to his own thoughts of Eleanor Keene and his own unfortunate passion. HE could not have written poetry at such a moment!
But the cabin-door opened, and Senor Perkins appeared. Whatever might have been the excited condition of his unknown visitor, the Senor's round, clean-shaven face was smiling and undisturbed by emotion. As his eye fell on the page of manuscript Hurlstone had just cast down, a slight shadow crossed his beneficent expanse of forehead, and deepened in his soft dark eyes; but the next moment it was chased away by his quick recurring smile. Even thus transient and superficial was his feeling, thought Hurlstone.
"I have some news for you," said Perkins affably, "which may alter your decision about returning. My friends ashore," he continued, "judging from the ingenuous specimen which has just visited me, are more remarkable for their temporary zeal and spasmodic devotion than for prudent reserve or lasting discretion. They have submitted a list to me of those whom they consider dangerous to Mexican liberty, and whom they are desirous of hanging. I regret to say that the list is illogical, and the request inopportune. Our friend Mr. Banks is put down as an ally of the Government and an objectionable business rival of that eminent patriot and well-known drover, Senor Martinez, who just called upon me. Mr. Crosby's humor is considered subversive of a proper respect for all patriotism; but I cannot understand why they have added YOUR name as especially 'dangerous.'"
Hurlstone made a gesture of contempt.
"I suppose they pay me the respect of considering me a friend of the old priest. So be it! I hope they will let the responsibility fall on me alone."
"The Padre is already proscribed as one of the Council," said Senor Perkins quietly.
"Do you mean to say," said Hurlstone impetuously, "that you will permit a hair of that innocent old man's head to be harmed by those wretches?"
"You are generous but hasty, my friend," said Senor Perkins, in gentle deprecation. "Allow me to put your question in another way. Ask me if I intend to perpetuate the Catholic Church in Todos Santos by adding another martyr to its roll, and I will tell you--No! I need not say that I am equally opposed to any proceedings against Banks, Crosby, and yourself, for diplomatic reasons, apart from the kindly memories of our old associations on this ship. I have therefore been obliged to return to the excellent Martinez his little list, with the remark that I should hold HIM personally responsible if any of you are molested. There is, however, no danger. Messrs. Banks and Crosby are with the other Americans, whom we have guaranteed to protect, at the Mission, in the care of your friend the Padre. You are surprised! Equally so was the Padre. Had you delayed your departure an hour you would have met them, and I should have been debarred the pleasure of your company.
"By to-morrow," continued Perkins, placing the tips of his fingers together reflectively, "the Government of Todos Santos will have changed hands, and without bloodshed. You look incredulous! My dear young friend, it has been a part of my professional pride to show the world that these revolutions can be accomplished as peacefully as our own changes of administration. But for a few infelicitous accidents, this would have been the case of the late liberation of Quinquinambo. The only risk run is to myself--the leader, and that is as it should be. But all this personal explanation is, doubtless, uninteresting to you, my young friend. I meant only to say that, if you prefer not to remain here, you can accompany me when I leave the ship at nine o'clock with a small reconnoitring party, and I will give you safe escort back to your friends at the Mission."
This amicable proposition produced a sudden revulsion of feeling in Hurlstone. To return to those people from whom he was fleeing, in what was scarcely yet a serious emergency, was not to be thought of! Yet, where could he go? How could he be near enough to assist HER without again openly casting his lot among them? And would they not consider his return an act of cowardice? He could not restrain a gesture of irritation as he rose impatiently to his feet.
"You are agitated, my dear fellow. It is not unworthy of your youth; but, believe me, it is unnecessary," said Perkins, in his most soothing manner. "Sit down. You have an hour yet to make your decision. If you prefer to remain, you will accompany the ship to Todos Santos and join me."
"I don't comprehend you," interrupted Hurlstone suspiciously.
"I forgot," said Perkins, with a bland smile, "that you are unaware of our plan of campaign. After communicating with the insurgents, I land here with a small force to assist them. I do this to anticipate any action and prevent the interference of the Mexican coaster, now due, which always touches here through ignorance of the channel leading to the Bay of Todos Santos and the Presidio. I then send the Excelsior, that does know the channel, to Todos Santos, to appear before the Presidio, take the enemy in flank, and cooperate with us. The arrival of the Excelsior there is the last move of this little game, if I may so call it: it is 'checkmate to the King,' the clerical Government of Todos Santos."
A little impressed, in spite of himself, with the calm forethought and masterful security of the Senor, Hurlstone thanked him with a greater show of respect than he had hitherto evinced. The Senor looked gratified, but unfortunately placed that respect the next moment in peril.
"You were possibly glancing over these verses," he said, with a hesitating and almost awkward diffidence, indicating the manuscript Hurlstone had just thrown aside. "It is merely the first rough draft of a little tribute I had begun to a charming friend. I sometimes," he interpolated, with an apologetic smile, "trifle with the Muse. Perhaps I ought not to use the word 'trifle' in connection with a composition of a threnodial and dirge-like character," he continued deprecatingly. "Certainly not in the presence of a gentleman as accomplished and educated as yourself, to whom recreation of this kind is undoubtedly familiar. My occupations have been, unfortunately, of a nature not favorable to the indulgence of verse. As a college man yourself, my dear sir, you will probably forgive the lucubrations of an old graduate of William and Mary's, who has forgotten his 'ars poetica.' The verses you have possibly glanced at are crude, I am aware, and perhaps show the difficulty of expressing at once the dictates of the heart and the brain. They refer to a dear friend now at peace. You have perhaps, in happier and more careless hours, heard me speak of Mrs. Euphemia M'Corkle, of Illinois?"
Hurlstone remembered indistinctly to have heard, even in his reserved exclusiveness on the Excelsior, the current badinage of the passengers concerning Senor Perkins' extravagant adulation of this unknown poetess. As a part of the staple monotonous humor of the voyage, it had only disgusted him. With a feeling that he was unconsciously sharing the burlesque relief of the passengers, he said, with a polite attempt at interest,
"Then the lady is--no more?"
"If that term can be applied to one whose work is immortal," corrected Senor Perkins gently. "All that was finite of this gifted woman was lately forwarded by Adams's Express Company from San Juan, to receive sepulture among her kindred at Keokuk, Iowa."
"Did she say she was from that place?" asked Hurlstone, with half automatic interest.
"The Consul says she gave that request to the priest."
"Then you were not with her when she died?" said Hurlstone absently.
"I was NEVER with her, neither then nor before," returned Senor Perkins gravely. Seeing Hurlstone's momentary surprise, he went on, "The late Mrs. M'Corkle and I never met--we were personally unknown to each other. You may have observed the epithet 'unmet' in the first line of the first stanza; you will then understand that the privation of actual contact with this magnetic soul would naturally impart more difficulty into elegiac expression."
"Then you never really saw the lady you admire?" said Hurlstone vacantly.
"Never. The story is a romantic one," said Perkins, with a smile that was half complacent and yet half embarrassed. "May I tell it to you? Thanks. Some three years ago I contributed some verses to the columns of a Western paper edited by a friend of mine. The subject chosen was my favorite one, 'The Liberation of Mankind,' in which I may possibly have expressed myself with some poetic fervor on a theme so dear to my heart. I may remark without vanity, that it received high encomiums--perhaps at some more opportune moment you may be induced to cast your eyes over a copy I still retain--but no praise touched me as deeply as a tribute in verse in another journal from a gifted unknown, who signed herself 'Euphemia.' The subject of the poem, which was dedicated to myself, was on the liberation of women--from--er--I may say certain domestic shackles; treated perhaps vaguely, but with grace and vigor. I replied a week later in a larger poem, recording more fully my theories and aspirations regarding a struggling Central American confederacy, addressed to 'Euphemia.' She rejoined with equal elaboration and detail, referring to a more definite form of tyranny in the relations of marriage, and alluding with some feeling to uncongenial experiences of her own. An instinct of natural delicacy, veiled under the hyperbole of 'want of space,' prevented my editorial friend from encouraging the repetition of this charming interchange of thought and feeling. But I procured the fair stranger's address; we began a correspondence, at once imaginative and sympathetic in expression, if not always poetical in form. I was called to South America by the Macedonian cry of 'Quinquinambo!' I still corresponded with her. When I returned to Quinquinambo I received letters from her, dated from San Francisco. I feel that my words could only fail, my dear Hurlstone, to convey to you the strength and support I derived from those impassioned breathings of aid and sympathy at that time. Enough for me to confess that it was mainly due to the deep womanly interest that SHE took in the fortunes of the passengers of the Excelsior that I gave the Mexican authorities early notice of their whereabouts. But, pardon me,"--he stopped hesitatingly, with a slight flush, as he noticed the utterly inattentive face and attitude of Hurlstone,--"I am boring you. I am forgetting that this is only important to myself," he added, with a sigh. "I only intended to ask your advice in regard to the disposition of certain manuscripts and effects of hers, which are unconnected with our acquaintance. I thought, perhaps, I might entrust them to your delicacy and consideration. They are here, if you choose to look them over; and here is also what I believe to be a daguerreotype of the lady herself, but in which I fail to recognize her soul and genius."
He laid a bundle of letters and a morocco case on the table with a carelessness that was intended to hide a slight shade of disappointment in his face--and rose.
"I beg your pardon," said Hurlstone, in confused and remorseful apology; "but I frankly confess that my thoughts WERE preoccupied. Pray forgive me. If you will leave these papers with me, I promise to devote myself to them another time."
"As you please," said the Senor, with a slight return of his old affability. "But don't bore yourself now. Let us go on deck."
He passed out of the cabin as Hurlstone glanced, half mechanically, at the package before him. Suddenly his cheek reddened; he stopped, looked hurriedly at the retreating form of Perkins, and picked up a manuscript from the packet. It was in his wife's handwriting. A sudden idea flashed across his mind, and seemed to illuminate the obscure monotony of the story he had just heard. He turned hurriedly to the morocco case, and opened it with trembling fingers. It was a daguerreotype, faded and silvered; but the features were those of his wife!
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