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The work which had called Clay to the mines kept him there for some time, and it was not until the third day after the arrival of the Langhams that he returned again to the Palms. On the afternoon when he climbed the hill to the bungalow he found the Langhams as he had left them, with the difference that King now occupied a place in the family circle. Clay was made so welcome, and especially so by King, that he felt rather ashamed of his sentiments toward him, and considered his three days of absence to be well repaid by the heartiness of their greeting.
"For myself,'' said Mr. Langham, "I don't believe you had anything to do at the mines at all. I think you went away just to show us how necessary you are. But if you want me to make a good report of our resident director on my return, you had better devote yourself less to the mines while you are here and more to us.'' Clay said he was glad to find that his duties were to be of so pleasant a nature, and asked them what they had seen and what they had done.
They told him they had been nowhere, but had waited for his return in order that he might act as their guide.
"Then you should see the city at once,'' said Clay, "and I will have the volante brought to the door, and we can all go in this afternoon. There is room for the four of you inside, and I can sit on the box-seat with the driver.''
"No,'' said King, "let Hope or me sit on the box-seat. Then we can practise our Spanish on the driver.''
"Not very well,'' Clay replied, "for the driver sits on the first horse, like a postilion. It's a sort of tandem without reins. Haven't you seen it yet? We consider the volante our proudest exhibit.'' So Clay ordered the volante to be brought out, and placed them facing each other in the open carriage, while he climbed to the box-seat, from which position of vantage he pointed out and explained the objects of interest they passed, after the manner of a professional guide. It was a warm, beautiful afternoon, and the clear mists of the atmosphere intensified the rich blue of the sky, and the brilliant colors of the houses, and the different shades of green of the trees and bushes that lined the highroad to the capital.
"To the right, as we descend,'' said Clay, speaking over his shoulder, "you see a tin house. It is the home of the resident director of the Olancho Mining Company (Limited), and of his able lieutenants, Mr. Theodore Langham and Mr. MacWilliams. The building on the extreme left is the round-house, in which Mr. MacWilliams stores his three locomotive engines, and in the far middle-distance is Mr. MacWilliams himself in the act of repairing a water-tank. He is the one in a suit of blue overalls, and as his language at such times is free, we will drive rapidly on and not embarrass him. Besides,'' added the engineer, with the happy laugh of a boy who had been treated to a holiday, "I am sure that I am not setting him the example of fixity to duty which he should expect from his chief.''
They passed between high hedges of Spanish bayonet, and came to mud cabins thatched with palm-leaves, and alive with naked, little brown-bodied children, who laughed and cheered to them as they passed.
"It's a very beautiful country for the pueblo,'' was Clay's comment. "Different parts of the same tree furnish them with food, shelter, and clothing, and the sun gives them fuel, and the Government changes so often that they can always dodge the tax- collector.''
From the mud cabins they came to more substantial one-story houses of adobe, with the walls painted in two distinct colors, blue, pink, or yellow, with red-tiled roofs, and the names with which they had been christened in bold black letters above the entrances. Then the carriage rattled over paved streets, and they drove between houses of two stories painted more decorously in pink and light blue, with wide-open windows, guarded by heavy bars of finely wrought iron and ornamented with scrollwork in stucco. The principal streets were given up to stores and cafe's, all wide open to the pavement and protected from the sun by brilliantly striped awnings, and gay with the national colors of Olancho in flags and streamers. In front of them sat officers in uniform, and the dark-skinned dandies of Valencia, in white duck suits and Panama hats, toying with tortoise shell canes, which could be converted, if the occasion demanded, into blades of Toledo steel. In the streets were priests and bare-legged mule drivers, and ragged ranchmen with red-caped cloaks hanging to their sandals, and negro women, with bare shoulders and long trains, vending lottery tickets and rolling huge cigars between their lips. It was an old story to Clay and King, but none of the others had seen a Spanish-American city before; they were familiar with the Far East and the Mediterranean, but not with the fierce, hot tropics of their sister continent, and so their eyes were wide open, and they kept calling continually to one another to notice some new place or figure.
They in their turn did not escape from notice or comment. The two sisters would have been conspicuous anywhere--in a queen's drawing-room or on an Indian reservation. Theirs was a type that the caballeros and senoritas did not know. With them dark hair was always associated with dark complexions, the rich duskiness of which was always vulgarized by a coat of powder, and this fair blending of pink and white skin under masses of black hair was strangely new, so that each of the few women who were to be met on the street turned to look after the carriage, while the American women admired their mantillas, and felt that the straw sailor-hats they wore had become heavy and unfeminine.
Clay was very happy in picking out what was most characteristic and picturesque, and every street into which he directed the driver to take them seemed to possess some building or monument that was of peculiar interest. They did not know that he had mapped out this ride many times before, and was taking them over a route which he had already travelled with them in imagination. King knew what the capital would be like before he entered it, from his experience of other South American cities, but he acted as though it were all new to him, and allowed Clay to explain, and to give the reason for those features of the place that were unusual and characteristic. Clay noticed this and appealed to him from time to time, when he was in doubt; but the other only smiled back and shook his head, as much as to say, "This is your city; they would rather hear about it from you.''
Clay took them to the principal shops, where the two girls held whispered consultations over lace mantillas, which they had at once determined to adopt, and bought the gorgeous paper fans, covered with brilliant pictures of bull-fighters in suits of silver tinsel; and from these open stores he led them to a dingy little shop, where there was old silver and precious hand-painted fans of mother-of-pearl that had been pawned by families who had risked and lost all in some revolution; and then to another shop, where two old maiden ladies made a particularly good guava; and to tobacconists, where the men bought a few of the native cigars, which, as they were a monopoly of the Government, were as bad as Government monopolies always are.
Clay felt a sudden fondness for the city, so grateful was he to it for entertaining her as it did, and for putting its best front forward for her delectation. He wanted to thank some one for building the quaint old convent, with its yellow walls washed to an orange tint, and black in spots with dampness; and for the fountain covered with green moss that stood before its gate, and around which were gathered the girls and women of the neighborhood with red water-jars on their shoulders, and little donkeys buried under stacks of yellow sugar-cane, and the negro drivers of the city's green water-carts, and the blue wagons that carried the manufactured ice. Toward five o'clock they decided to spend the rest of the day in the city, and to telephone for the two boys to join them at La Venus, the great restaurant on the plaza, where Clay had invited them to dine.
He suggested that they should fill out the time meanwhile by a call on the President, and after a search for cards in various pocketbooks, they drove to the Government palace, which stood in an open square in the heart of the city.
As they arrived the President and his wife were leaving for their afternoon drive on the Alameda, the fashionable parade-ground of the city, and the state carriage and a squad of cavalry appeared from the side of the palace as the visitors drove up to the entrance. But at the sight of Clay, General Alvarez and his wife retreated to the house again and made them welcome. The President led the men into his reception-room and entertained them with champagne and cigarettes, not manufactured by his Government; and his wife, after first conducting the girls through the state drawing-room, where the late sunlight shone gloomily on strange old portraits of assassinated presidents and victorious generals, and garish yellow silk furniture, brought them to her own apartments, and gave them tea after a civilized fashion, and showed them how glad she was to see some one of her own world again.
During their short visit Madame Alvarez talked a greater part of the time herself, addressing what she said to Miss Langham, but looking at Hope. It was unusual for Hope to be singled out in this way when her sister was present, and both the sisters noticed it and spoke of it afterwards. They thought Madame Alvarez very beautiful and distinguished-looking, and she impressed them, even after that short knowledge of her, as a woman of great force of character.
"She was very well dressed for a Spanish woman,'' was Miss Langham's comment, later in the afternoon. "But everything she had on was just a year behind the fashions, or twelve steamer days behind, as Mr. MacWilliams puts it.''
"She reminded me,'' said Hope, "of a black panther I saw once in a circus.''
"Dear me!'' exclaimed the sister, "I don't see that at all. Why?''
Hope said she did not know why; she was not given to analyzing her impressions or offering reasons for them. "Because the panther looked so unhappy,'' she explained, doubtfully, "and restless; and he kept pacing up and down all the time, and hitting his head against the bars as he walked as though he liked the pain. Madame Alvarez seemed to me to be just like that--as though she were shut up somewhere and wanted to be free.''
When Madame Alvarez and the two sisters had joined the men, they all walked together to the terrace, and the visitors waited until the President and his wife should take their departure. Hope noticed, in advance of the escort of native cavalry, an auburn- haired, fair-skinned young man who was sitting an English saddle.
The officer's eyes were blue and frank and attractive-looking, even as they then were fixed ahead of him with a military lack of expression; but he came to life very suddenly when the President called to him, and prodded his horse up to the steps and dismounted. He was introduced by Alvarez as "Captain Stuart of my household troops, late of the Gordon Highlanders. Captain Stuart,'' said the President, laying his hand affectionately on the younger man's epaulette, "takes care of my life and the safety of my home and family. He could have the command of the army if he wished; but no, he is fond of us, and he tells me we are in more need of protection from our friends at home than from our enemies on the frontier. Perhaps he knows best. I trust him, Mr. Langham,'' added the President, solemnly, "as I trust no other man in all this country.''
"I am very glad to meet Captain Stuart, I am sure,'' said Mr. Langham, smiling, and appreciating how the shyness of the Englishman must be suffering under the praises of the Spaniard. And Stuart was indeed so embarrassed that he flushed under his tan, and assured Clay, while shaking hands with them all, that he was delighted to make his acquaintance; at which the others laughed, and Stuart came to himself sufficiently to laugh with them, and to accept Clay's invitation to dine with them later.
They found the two boys waiting in the cafe' of the restaurant where they had arranged to meet, and they ascended the steps together to the table on the balcony that Clay had reserved for them.
The young engineer appeared at his best as host. The responsibility of seeing that a half-dozen others were amused and content sat well upon him; and as course followed course, and the wines changed, and the candles left the rest of the room in darkness and showed only the table and the faces around it, they all became rapidly more merry and the conversation intimately familiar.
Clay knew the kind of table-talk to which the Langhams were accustomed, and used the material around his table in such a way that the talk there was vastly different. From King he drew forth tales of the buried cities he had first explored, and then robbed of their ugliest idols. He urged MacWilliams to tell carefully edited stories of life along the Chagres before the Scandal came, and of the fastnesses of the Andes; and even Stuart grew braver and remembered "something of the same sort'' he had seen at Fort Nilt, in Upper Burma.
"Of course,'' was Clay's comment at the conclusion of one of these narratives, "being an Englishman, Stuart left out the point of the story, which was that he blew in the gates of the fort with a charge of dynamite. He got a D. S. O. for doing it.''
"Being an Englishman,'' said Hope, smiling encouragingly on the conscious Stuart, "he naturally would leave that out.''
Mr. Langham and his daughters formed an eager audience. They had never before met at one table three men who had known such experiences, and who spoke of them as though they must be as familiar in the lives of the others as in their own--men who spoiled in the telling stories that would have furnished incidents for melodramas, and who impressed their hearers more with what they left unsaid, and what was only suggested, than what in their view was the most important point.
The dinner came to an end at last, and Mr. Langham proposed that they should go down and walk with the people in the plaza; but his two daughters preferred to remain as spectators on the balcony, and Clay and Stuart stayed with them.
"At last!'' sighed Clay, under his breath, seating himself at Miss Langham's side as she sat leaning forward with her arms upon the railing and looking down into the plaza below. She made no sign at first that she had heard him, but as the voices of Stuart and Hope rose from the other end of the balcony she turned her head and asked, "Why at last?''
"Oh, you couldn't understand,'' laughed Clay. "You have not been looking forward to just one thing and then had it come true. It is the only thing that ever did come true to me, and I thought it never would.''
"You don't try to make me understand,'' said the girl, smiling, but without turning her eyes from the moving spectacle below her. Clay considered her challenge silently. He did not know just how much it might mean from her, and the smile robbed it of all serious intent; so he, too, turned and looked down into the great square below them, content, now that she was alone with him, to take his time.
At one end of the plaza the President's band was playing native waltzes that came throbbing through the trees and beating softly above the rustling skirts and clinking spurs of the senoritas and officers, sweeping by in two opposite circles around the edges of the tessellated pavements. Above the palms around the square arose the dim, white facade of the cathedral, with the bronze statue of Anduella, the liberator of Olancho, who answered with his upraised arm and cocked hat the cheers of an imaginary populace. Clay's had been an unobtrusive part in the evening's entertainment, but he saw that the others had been pleased, and felt a certain satisfaction in thinking that King himself could not have planned and carried out a dinner more admirable in every way. He was gratified that they should know him to be not altogether a barbarian. But what he best liked to remember was that whenever he had spoken she had listened, even when her eyes were turned away and she was pretending to listen to some one else. He tormented himself by wondering whether this was because he interested her only as a new and strange character, or whether she felt in some way how eagerly he was seeking her approbation. For the first time in his life he found himself considering what he was about to say, and he suited it for her possible liking. It was at least some satisfaction that she had, if only for the time being, singled him out as of especial interest, and he assured himself that the fault would be his if her interest failed. He no longer looked on himself as an outsider.
Stuart's voice arose from the farther end of the balcony, where the white figure of Hope showed dimly in the darkness.
"They are talking about you over there,'' said Miss Langham, turning toward him.
"Well, I don't mind,'' answered Clay, "as long as they talk about me--over there.''
Miss Langham shook her head. "You are very frank and audacious,'' she replied, doubtfully, "but it is rather pleasant as a change.''
"I don't call that audacious, to say I don't want to be interrupted when I am talking to you. Aren't the men you meet generally audacious?'' he asked. "I can see why not--though,'' he continued, "you awe them.''
"I can't think that's a nice way to affect people,'' protested Miss Langham, after a pause. "I don't awe you, do I?''
"Oh, you affect me in many different ways,'' returned Clay, cheerfully. "Sometimes I am very much afraid of you, and then again my feelings are only those of unlimited admiration.''
"There, again, what did I tell you?'' said Miss Langham.
"Well, I can't help doing that,'' said Clay. "That is one of the few privileges that is left to a man in my position--it doesn't matter what I say. That is the advantage of being of no account and hopelessly detrimental. The eligible men of the world, you see, have to be so very careful. A Prime Minister, for instance, can't talk as he wishes, and call names if he wants to, or write letters, even. Whatever he says is so important, because he says it, that he must be very discreet. I am so unimportant that no one minds what I say, and so I say it. It's the only comfort I have.''
"Are you in the habit of going around the world saying whatever you choose to every woman you happen to--to--'' Miss Langham hesitated.
"To admire very much,'' suggested Clay.
"To meet,'' corrected Miss Langham. "Because, if you are, it is a very dangerous and selfish practice, and I think your theory of non-responsibility is a very wicked one.''
"Well, I wouldn't say it to a child,'' mused Clay, "but to one who must have heard it before--''
"And who, you think, would like to hear it again, perhaps,'' interrupted Miss Langham.
"No, not at all,'' said Clay. "I don't say it to give her pleasure, but because it gives me pleasure to say what I think.''
"If we are to continue good friends, Mr. Clay,'' said Miss Langham, in decisive tones, "we must keep our relationship on more of a social and less of a personal basis. It was all very well that first night I met you,'' she went on, in a kindly tone.
"You rushed in then and by a sort of tour de force made me think a great deal about myself and also about you. Your stories of cherished photographs and distant devotion and all that were very interesting; but now we are to be together a great deal, and if we are to talk about ourselves all the time, I for one shall grow very tired of it. As a matter of fact you don't know what your feelings are concerning me, and until you do we will talk less about them and more about the things you are certain of. When are you going to take us to the mines, for instance, and who was Anduella, the Liberator of Olancho, on that pedestal over there? Now, isn't that much more instructive?''
Clay smiled grimly and made no answer, but sat with knitted brows looking out across the trees of the plaza. His face was so serious and he was apparently giving such earnest consideration to what she had said that Miss Langham felt an uneasy sense of remorse. And, moreover, the young man's profile, as he sat looking away from her, was very fine, and the head on his broad shoulders was as well-modelled as the head of an Athenian statue.
Miss Langham was not insensible to beauty of any sort, and she regarded the profile with perplexity and with a softening spirit.
"You understand,'' she said, gently, being quite certain that she did not understand this new order of young man herself. "You are not offended with me?'' she asked.
Clay turned and frowned, and then smiled in a puzzled way and stretched out his hand toward the equestrian statue in the plaza.
"Andulla or Anduella, the Treaty-Maker, as they call him, was born in 1700,'' he said; "he was a most picturesque sort of a chap, and freed this country from the yoke of Spain. One of the stories they tell of him gives you a good idea of his character.'' And so, without any change of expression or reference to what had just passed between them, Clay continued through the remainder of their stay on the balcony to discourse in humorous, graphic phrases on the history of Olancho, its heroes, and its revolutions, the buccaneers and pirates of the old days, and the concession-hunters and filibusters of the present. It was some time before Miss Langham was able to give him her full attention, for she was considering whether he could be so foolish as to have taken offence at what she said, and whether he would speak of it again, and in wondering whether a personal basis for conversation was not, after all, more entertaining than anecdotes of the victories and heroism of dead and buried Spaniards.
"That Captain Stuart,'' said Hope to her sister, as they drove home together through the moonlight, "I like him very much. He seems to have such a simple idea of what is right and good. It is like a child talking. Why, I am really much older than he is in everything but years--why is that?''
"I suppose it's because we always talk before you as though you were a grown-up person,'' said her sister. "But I agree with you about Captain Stuart; only, why is he down here? If he is a gentleman, why is he not in his own army? Was he forced to leave it?''
"Oh, he seems to have a very good position here,'' said Mr. Langham. "In England, at his age, he would be only a second- lieutenant. Don't you remember what the President said, that he would trust him with the command of his army? That's certainly a responsible position, and it shows great confidence in him.''
"Not so great, it seems to me,'' said King, carelessly, "as he is showing him in making him the guardian of his hearth and home. Did you hear what he said to-day? 'He guards my home and my family.' I don't think a man's home and family are among the things he can afford to leave to the protection of stray English subalterns. From all I hear, it would be better if President Alvarez did less plotting and protected his own house himself.''
"The young man did not strike me as the sort of person,'' said Mr. Langham, warmly, "who would be likely to break his word to the man who is feeding him and sheltering him, and whose uniform he wears. I don't think the President's home is in any danger from within. Madame Alvarez--''
Clay turned suddenly in his place on the box-seat of the carriage, where he had been sitting, a silent, misty statue in the moonlight, and peered down on those in the carriage below him.
"Madame Alvarez needs no protection, as you were about to say, Mr. Langham,'' he interrupted, quickly. "Those who know her could say nothing against her, and those who do not know her would not so far forget themselves as to dare to do it. Have you noticed the effect of the moonlight on the walls of the convent?'' he continued, gently. "It makes them quite white.''
"No,'' exclaimed Mr. Langham and King, hurriedly, as they both turned and gazed with absorbing interest at the convent on the hills above them.
Before the sisters went to sleep that night Hope came to the door of her sister's room and watched Alice admiringly as she sat before the mirror brushing out her hair.
"I think it's going to be fine down here; don't you, Alice?'' she asked. "Everything is so different from what it is at home, and so beautiful, and I like the men we've met. Isn't that Mr. MacWilliams funny--and he is so tough. And Captain Stuart--it is a pity he's shy. The only thing he seems to be able to talk about is Mr. Clay. He worships Mr. Clay!''
"Yes,'' assented her sister, "I noticed on the balcony that you seemed to have found some way to make him speak.''
"Well, that was it. He likes to talk about Mr. Clay, and I wanted to listen. Oh! he is a fine man. He has done more exciting things--''
"Who? Captain Stuart?''
"No--Mr. Clay. He's been in three real wars and about a dozen little ones, and he's built thousands of miles of railroads, I don't know how many thousands, but Captain Stuart knows; and he built the highest bridge in Peru. It swings in the air across a chasm, and it rocks when the wind blows. And the German Emperor made him a Baron.''
"I don't know. I couldn't understand. It was something about plans for fortifications. He, Mr. Clay, put up a fort in the harbor of Rio Janeiro during a revolution, and the officers on a German man-of-war saw it and copied the plans, and the Germans built one just like it, only larger, on the Baltic, and when the Emperor found out whose design it was, he sent Mr. Clay the order of something-or-other, and made him a Baron.''
"Really,'' exclaimed the elder sister, "isn't he afraid that some one will marry him for his title?''
"Oh, well, you can laugh, but I think it's pretty fine, and so does Ted,'' added Hope, with the air of one who propounds a final argument.
"Oh, I beg your pardon,'' laughed Alice. "If Ted approves we must all go down and worship.''
"And father, too,'' continued Hope. "He said he thought Mr. Clay was one of the most remarkable men for his years that he had ever met.''
Miss Langham's eyes were hidden by the masses of her black hair that she had shaken over her face, and she said nothing.
"And I liked the way he shut Reggie King up too,'' continued Hope, stoutly, "when he and father were talking that way about Madame Alvarez.''
"Yes, upon my word,'' exclaimed her sister, impatiently tossing her hair back over her shoulders. "I really cannot see that Madame Alvarez is in need of any champion. I thought Mr. Clay made it very much worse by rushing in the way he did. Why should he take it upon himself to correct a man as old as my father?''
"I suppose because Madame Alvarez is a friend of his,'' Hope answered.
"My dear child, a beautiful woman can always find some man to take her part,'' said Miss Langham. "But I've no doubt,'' she added, rising and kissing her sister good-night, "that he is all that your Captain Stuart thinks him; but he is not going to keep us awake any longer, is he, even if he does show such gallant interest in old ladies?''
"Old ladies!'' exclaimed Hope in amazement.
But her sister only laughed and waved her out of the room, and Hope walked away frowning in much perplexity.
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