CHILDREN OF THE DESERT
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
BONNIE MAY. Illustrated by Reginald Birch. 12mo . . . . . . . . . . . . . net $1.35
CHILDREN OF THE DESERT
BY LOUIS DODGE
NEW YORK CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS 1917
Copyright, 1917, by CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS
Published March, 1917
TO THE FRIENDS OF EAGLE PASS AND PIEDRAS NEGRAS—IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS
PART PAGE I. Harboro and Sylvia 1 II. The Time Of Flame 65 III. Fectnor, The People's Advocate 99 IV. The Horse With The Golden Dapples 177 V. A Wind From The North 211 VI. The Guest-chamber 243 VII. Sylvia 273
HARBORO AND SYLVIA
CHILDREN OF THE DESERT
They were married in the little Episcopal church in Eagle Pass on a September day in the late eighties. The fact may be verified, I have no doubt, by any who will take the trouble to examine the records, for the toy-like place of worship still stands.
The church structure is not, perhaps, so small as my imagination presents it to me; but I cannot see it save with the desert as a background—the desert austere and illimitable. You reach the prim little front door by climbing a street which runs parallel with the Rio Grande, and the church is almost the last structure you will pass before you set forth into a No-Man's land of sage and cactus and yucca and mesquite lying under the blazing sun.
Harboro his name was. Of course, there was a Christian name, but he was known simply as Harboro from Piedras Negras to the City. She was Sylvia Little. Sylvia, people called her, both before and after her marriage. The Little might as well never have belonged to her.
Although neither Harboro nor Sylvia really belonged to Eagle Pass, the wedding was an event. Both had become familiar figures in the life of the town and were pretty well known. Their wedding drew a large and interested audience. (I think the theatrical phrase is justified, as perhaps will be seen.) Weddings were not common in the little border town, unless you counted the mating of young Mexicans, who were always made one by the priest in the adobe church closer to the river. Entertainment of any kind was scarce. But there were other and more significant reasons why people wanted to see the bride and the bridegroom, when Harboro gave his name to the woman of his choice.
The young people belonging to some sort of church guild had decorated the church, and special music had been prepared. And indeed when Harboro and Sylvia marched up the aisle to the strains of the Lohengrin march (the bridegroom characteristically trying to keep step, and Sylvia ignoring the music entirely), it was not much to be wondered at that people craned their necks to get the best possible view. For both Harboro and the woman were in a way extraordinary individuals.
Harboro was forty, and seemed in certain aspects older than that. He was a big man, well built, and handsome after a fashion. He was swarthy, with dark eyes which seemed to meditate, if not to dream. His hair was raven-black, and he wore a heavy mustache which stopped just short of being unduly conspicuous. It was said of him that he talked little, but that he listened keenly. By trade he was a railroad man.
He had been heard to remark on one occasion that he had begun as a brakeman, but there were rumors of adventurous days before he became a member of a train crew. It was said that he had gone prospecting into Mexico as a youth, and that he had spent years working at ends and odds of jobs about mines and smelters. Probably he had hoped to get into something in a big way.
However, he had finally turned to railroading, and in the course of uncertain events had become an engineer. It was a year or two after he had attained this position that he had been required to haul a special train from Torreon to Piedras Negras. The General Manager of the Mexican International Railroad was on that train, and he took occasion to talk to the engineer. The result pleased him mightily. In his engine clothes Harboro looked every inch a man. There was something clean and level about his personality which couldn't have been hid under a sarape. He stood shoulder to shoulder with the General Manager, making the latter look like a manikin, and talked about his work and the condition of the road and the rolling stock. He talked easily and listened intelligently. He was grave in an easy fashion. He took no liberties, cracked no jokes.
The General Manager got the idea that the big fellow would be a good man to stand shoulder to shoulder with in larger events than a special trip.
When he got back to headquarters he made a casual inquiry or two, and discovered that Harboro wrote an exceptionally good hand, and that he spelled correctly. He assumed that he was an educated man—though this impression may have been largely due to the fact that Harboro was keenly interested in a great variety of things, and had a good memory.
The General Manager waited for certain wheels to turn, and then he sent for Harboro and offered him a position as chief clerk in one of the headquarter departments.
Harboro accepted the position, and said "Thank you," and proved to be uncommonly competent.
The people of Piedras Negras took a liking to him; the women wanted to get acquainted with him. He was invited to places, and he accepted the invitations without either belittling or magnifying their importance. He got on rather well from the beginning.
The social affairs of Piedras Negras were sometimes on a fairly large scale. The General Manager had his winter residence there—a meticulously cultivated demain which lay like a blue spot in a cloudy sky. There were grass and palms and, immediately beyond, the vast desert. At night (on occasion) there were Chinese lanterns to add their cheerful note to pretty revelries, while the stars lay low and big over all the desert expanse. The General Manager's wife had prominent social affiliations, and she used to bring winter guests from the north and east—from Chicago and New York and Boston. There were balls and musicales, and a fine place for conversation out on the lawn, with Mexican servants to bring cigars and punch, and with Mexican fiddlers to play the national airs under a fig-covered band-stand.
The young people from Eagle Pass used to go over when the General Manager's wife was giving one of her less formal affairs. They were rather refreshing types: the Texas type, with a good deal of freedom of action and speech, once they were drawn out, and with plenty of vigor. On these occasions Eagle Pass merged itself into the Mexican town, and went home late at night over the Rio Grande bridge, and regarded life as a romance.
These affairs and this variety of people interested Harboro. He was not to be drawn out, people soon discovered; but he liked to sit on the lawn and listen and take observations. He was not backward, but his tastes were simple. He was seemingly quite as much at ease in the presence of a Chicago poetess with a practised—a somewhat too practised—laugh or a fellow employee risen, like himself, to a point where society could see him.
In due course Eagle Pass gave an entertainment (at the Mesquite Club) and invited certain railroad officials and employees from the other side of the river. Harboro was included among those invited, and he put on correct evening dress, and rode over in a coach, and became a favorite in Eagle Pass. He seemed rather big and serious for complete assimilation, but he looked well with the club settings as a background, and his name appeared later in the week in the Eagle Pass Guide, in the list headed "among those present."
All of which he accepted without agitation, or without ceasing to be Harboro himself all over.
He did not meet Sylvia Little at the Mesquite Club. If you had known Sylvia and the Mesquite Club, you would laugh at so superfluous a statement. Eagle Pass was pleasantly democratic, socially, but it could not have been expected to stand for Sylvia.
People didn't know much about her (to her credit, at least) except that she was pretty. She was wonderfully pretty, and in a way which was all the more arresting when you came to consider her desert surroundings.
She had come, with her father, from San Antonio. They had taken a low, homely little house, standing under its mesquite-tree, close to the government reservation, where the flagstaff stood, and the cannon boomed at sundown, and the soldiers walked their posts. Back of the house there was a thicket of mesquites, and through this a path ran down to the river.
The first thing people mistrusted about Sylvia was her father. He had no visible means of support; and if his manner was amiable, his ways were furtive. He had a bias in favor of Mexican associates, and much of his time was spent down under the river bank, where a few small wine-shops and gambling establishments still existed in those days. There were also rumors of drinking and gambling orgies in the house under the mesquite-tree, and people said that many strange customers traversed that path through the mesquite, and entered Little's back door. They were soldiers and railroad men, and others of a type whose account in the bank of society nobody ever undertakes to balance. Sylvia was thought to be the torch which attracted them, and it was agreed that Sylvia's father knew how to persuade them to drink copiously of beverages which they paid for themselves, and to manipulate the cards to his own advantage in the games which were introduced after a sufficient number of drinks had been served.
Possibly a good deal of this was rumor rather than fact: an uncharitable interpretation of pleasures which were inelegant, certainly, but possibly not quite vicious. Still, it seemed to be pretty well established that up to the time of Sylvia's marriage her father never worked, and that he always had money—and this condition, on any frontier, is always regarded with mistrust.
Sylvia's prettiness was of a kind to make your heart bleed, everything considered. She was of a wistful type, with eager blue eyes, and lips which were habitually parted slightly—lips of a delicate fulness and color. Her hair was soft and brown, and her cheeks were of a faint, pearly rosiness. You would never have thought of her as what people of strictly categorical minds would call a bad woman. I think a wholly normal man must have looked upon her as a child looks at a heather-bell—gladly and gratefully, and with a pleased amazement. She was small and slight. Women of the majordomo type must have regarded her as still a child. Her breasts were little, her neck and shoulders delicate, and she had a trick of lifting her left hand to her heart when she was startled or regarded too shrewdly, as if she had some prescient consciousness of coming evil.
She was standing by her front gate when Harboro first saw her—and when she first saw Harboro. The front gate commanded an unobstructed view of the desert. It was near sundown, and far across the earth's floor, which looked somewhat like a wonderful mosaic of opals and jade at this hour, a Mexican goatherd was driving his flock. That was the only sign of life to be seen or felt, if you except the noise of locusts in the mesquite near by and the spasmodic progress of a horned toad in the sand outside Sylvia's gate.
Yet she was looking away to the vibrating horizon, still as hot as an oven, as yearningly as if at any moment a knight might ride over the rim of the desert to rescue her, or as if a brother were coming to put an end to the existence of a Bluebeard who, obviously, did not exist.
And then Harboro appeared—not in the distance, but close at hand. He was passing Sylvia's gate. He had a natural taste for geology, it seemed, and he had chosen this hour to walk out beyond Eagle Pass to examine the rock formations which had been cast up to the surface of the desert by prehistoric cataclysms.
He was close enough to Sylvia to touch her when her presence broke down his abstraction and drew his eyes away from whatever object they had been observing away on the horizon.
He stopped as if he had been startled. That was a natural result of Sylvia's appearance here in this withered place. She was so delicately, fragilely abloom. Her setting should have been some region south of the Caucasus. Her period should have been during the foundations of mythology. She would have made you think of Eve.
And because her hand went to her heart, and her lips parted tremulously, Harboro stopped. It was as if he felt he must make amends. Yet his words were the inevitable banalities.
"You have a fine view here," he said.
"A fine view!" she echoed, a little incredulously. It was plain that she did not agree with him. "There is plenty of sun and air," she conceded after a pause.
He rested a heavy hand on the fence. When Harboro stopped you never had the feeling that some of his interests had gone on ahead and were beckoning to him. He was always all there, as if permanently.
He regarded her intently. Her voice had something of the quality of the Traeumerei in it, and it had affected him like a violin's vibrato, accompanying a death scene—or as a litany might have done, had he been a religious man.
"I suppose you find it too much the same, one day after another," he suggested, in response to that mournful quality in her voice. "You live here, then?"
She was looking across the desert. Where had the goatherd hidden himself? She nodded without bringing her glance to meet Harboro's.
"I know a good many of the Eagle Pass people. I've never seen you before."
"I thought you must be a stranger," she replied. She brought her glance to his face now and seemed to explore it affectionately, as one does a new book by a favorite author. "I've never seen you before, either."
"I've been to several entertainments at the Mesquite Club."
"Oh! ... the Mesquite Club. I've never been there."
He looked at her in his steadfast fashion for a moment, and then changed the subject. "You have rather more than your share of shade here. I had no idea there was such a pretty place in Eagle Pass." He glanced at the old mesquite-tree in the yard. It was really quite a tree.
"Yes," she assented. She added, somewhat falteringly: "But it seems dreadfully lonesome sometimes."
(I do not forget that path which led from Sylvia's back door down to the Rio Grande, nor the men who traversed it; yet I believe that she spoke from her heart, and that her words were essentially true.)
"Perhaps you're not altogether at home in Eagle Pass: I mean, this isn't really your home?"
"No. We came from San Antonio a year ago, my father and I."
His glance wandered up the brick walk to the cottage door, but if Sylvia perceived this and knew it for a hint, she did not respond.
Harboro thought of other possibilities. He turned toward the desert. "There, the sun's dipping down beyond that red ridge," he said. "It will be cooler now. Won't you walk with me?—I'm not going far."
She smiled happily. "I'd like to," she admitted.
And so Sylvia and Harboro walked together out toward the desert. It was, in fact, the beginning of a series of walks, all taken quite as informally and at about the same hour each day.
Some of the cruder minds of Eagle Pass made a sorry jest over the fact that nobody "gave the bride away" when she went to the altar—either then or during the brief period of courtship. Her father went to the wedding, of course; but he was not the kind of person you would expect to participate conspicuously in a ceremony of that sort. He was so decidedly of the black-sheep type that the people who assumed management of the affair considered it only fair to Sylvia (and to Harboro) to keep him in the background. Sylvia had never permitted Harboro to come to the house to see her. She had drawn a somewhat imaginary figure in lieu of a father to present to Harboro's mind's eye. Her father (she said) was not very well and was inclined to be disagreeable. He did not like the idea of his daughter getting married. She was all he had, and he was fearfully lonesome at times.
Harboro had accepted all this readily. He had asked no questions.
And so Little went to the wedding. He went early so that he could get a seat over against the wall, where he wouldn't be too conspicuous. He looked decidedly like an outsider, and, as a matter of fact, a good many people did not recognize him as Sylvia's father. He was probably regarded as a stranger who had drifted into the church to enjoy the familiar yet interesting spectacle of a man and a maid bound together by a rite which was the more interesting because it seemed so ephemeral, yet meant so much.
Several of the young women of Eagle Pass had aided Sylvia in getting ready to meet her husband-to-be at the altar. They were well-known girls, acting with the aid (and in the company) of their mothers. They did not admit even to one another what it was that separated Sylvia from their world. Perhaps they did not fully understand. They did know that Sylvia was not one of them; but they felt sorry for her, and they enjoyed the experience of arraying her as a bride and of constituting, for the moment, a pretty and irreproachable setting for her wistful person. They were somewhat excited, too. They had the feeling that they were helping to set a mouse-trap to catch a lion—or something like that.
And after the wedding Mr. and Mrs. Harboro emerged from the church into the clear night, under the stars, and went afoot in the direction of their new home—an attractive structure which Harboro had had erected on what was called the Quemado Road.
A good many of the guests looked after them, and then at each other, but of definite comment there was mighty little.
Sylvia's father went back to his house alone. He was not seen in the Maverick Bar that night, nor for quite a number of succeeding nights. He had never had any experiences in Eagle Pass which proved him to be a courageous man—or to lack courage; but in all probability a sensation akin to fear bothered him more or less during those first days and nights after his daughter had got married.
Perhaps it would have been better for Sylvia if he had brazened it out just at that time, for on the very night of the wedding there was talk in the Maverick Bar. Not open or general comment, certainly. The border folk were not loose of speech. But two young fellows whose social versatility included membership in the Mesquite Club, on the one side, and a free and easy acquaintance with habitues of the Maverick Bar on the other, sat over against the wall behind a card-table and spoke in lowered tones. They pretended to be interested in the usual movements of the place. Two or three cowboys from Thompson's ranch were "spending" and pressing their hospitality upon all and sundry. A group of soldiers from the post were present, and Jesus Mendoza, a Mexican who had accumulated a competency by corralling his inebriated fellow countrymen at election times, and knowing far more about the ticket they voted than they could ever have learned, was resting a spurred boot on the bar railing, and looking through dreamy eyes and his own cloud of cigarette smoke at the front door. Mendoza always created the impression of being interested in something that was about to happen, or somebody who was about to appear—but never in his immediate surroundings.
"It's too bad somebody couldn't have told him," Blanchard, of the Eagle Pass bank, was saying to the other man behind the card-table. The conversation had begun by each asking the other why he wasn't up at the wedding.
"Yes," assented Dunwoodie, the other man. He was a young lawyer whose father had recently died in Belfast, leaving him money enough to quench a thirst which always flourished, but which never resulted in even partial disqualification, either for business or pleasure. "Yes, but Harboro is.... Say, Blanchard, did you ever know another chap like Harboro?"
"I can't say I know him very well."
"Of course—that's it. Nobody does. He won't let you."
"I don't see that, quite. I have an idea there just isn't much to know. His size and good looks mislead you. He doesn't say much, probably because he hasn't much to say. I've never thought of there being any mystery. His behavior in this affair proves that there isn't much of the right kind of stuff in him. He's had every chance. The railroad people pushed him right along into a good thing, and the women across the river—the best of them—were nice to him. I have an idea the—er—new Mrs. Harboro will recall some of us to a realization of a truth which we're rather proud of ignoring, down here on the river: I mean, that we've no business asking people about their antecedents."
Dunwoodie shook his head. "I figure it out differently. I think he's really a big chap. He won all the fellows over in the railroad offices—and he was pushed over the heads of some of them when he was given that chief clerkship. And then the way he's got of standing up to the General Manager and the other magnates. And you'll notice that if you ever ask him a question he'll give you an answer that sets you to thinking. He seems to work things out for himself. His mind doesn't just run along the channel of traditions. I like him all the better because he's not given to small talk. If there was anything worth while to talk about, I'll bet you'd always find him saying something worth while."
"You're right about his not being strong about traditions. There's the matter of his marriage. Maybe he knows all about Sylvia—and doesn't care. He must know about her."
"Don't make a mistake on that score. I've seen them together. He reveres her. You can imagine his wanting to spread a cloak for her at every step—as if she were too pure to come into contact with the earth."
"But good God, man! There's a path to her back door, worn there by fellows who would tremble like a colt in the presence of a lady."
Dunwoodie frowned whimsically. "Don't say a path. It must be just a trail—a more or less indistinct trail."
Blanchard looked almost excited. "It's a path, I tell you!"
And then both men laughed suddenly—though in Dunwoodie's laughter there was a note of deprecation and regret.
And so Harboro and Sylvia went home to the house on the Quemado Road without knowing that the town had washed its hands of them.
Harboro had made certain arrangements which were characteristic of him, perhaps, and which nobody knew anything about. For example, he had employed the most presentable Mexican woman he could find, to make the house homelike. He had taken a little sheaf of corn-husks away from her so that she could not make any cigarettes for a day or two, and he had read her a patient lecture upon ways and means of making a lot of furniture look as if it had some direct relationship with human needs and pleasures. And he had advised and aided her in the preparation of a wedding supper for two. He had ordered grapes from Parras, and figs—black figs, a little withered, and candied tunas. And there was a roast of beef with herbs and chili sauce, and enchalades.
The electric lights were turned on up-stairs and down when they entered the house, and Sylvia had an alarmed moment when she pictured a lot of guests waiting for them. But there proved to be nobody in the house but just they two and the old Mexican woman. Antonia, her name was.
Harboro took her by the hand and led her up-stairs to the door of her room. It didn't occur to him that Antonia might better have attended to this part of the welcoming. Antonia was busy, and she was not the sort of person to mother a bride, Harboro thought. She wouldn't have been asked to perform this task in any case. You would have thought that Harboro was dealing with a child rather than a woman—his wife. It seemed the most natural thing in the world for him to take complete charge of her from the beginning.
She uttered a little cry when she entered the bedroom. There by the bed was her trunk, which she had left at home. She hadn't known anything about its having been transferred from one house to the other.
"Who brought it?" she asked, startled.
"I sent for it," explained Harboro. "I knew you'd want it the first thing."
"You didn't go to the house?"
"Oh, no. I sent the expressman to the house and instructed him to ask for your things. I suppose he met your father. It's all right."
She looked at him curiously. There was a little furrow in her forehead. "Do you always do things—that way?" she asked.
He didn't appear to understand what she meant. He had other things on his mind. He stood away from her, by the door. "If I were you I'd take off that—harness," he said. "It makes you look like a picture—or a sacrifice. Do you know the old Aztec legends? It would be nicer for you to look just like a little woman now. Put on one of the dresses you wore when we walked together. How does that strike you?"
"Well, I will." She looked after him as if she were a little bewildered as he turned away, and closed the door. She heard him call back: "I'll see if there's anything I can do for Antonia. Supper will be ready when you come down."
It seemed to her that his conduct was very strange for a lover. He was so entirely matter-of-fact. Yet everything about him seemed to be made up of kindness—to radiate comfort. She had never known any other man like this, she reflected. And then an unfamiliar light dawned upon her. She had had lovers before, certainly; but she realized now, with a deep and strange sensation, that she had never really been loved until Harboro came.
She had some difficulty in getting out of her wedding-finery. There was a momentary temptation to call for help. But she thought better of this, and in the end she came down-stairs like a girl, in a light, clinging dress of Chinese silk, with a girdle and tassel at the waist, and a red ribbon woven into the throat. You might have thought she was seventeen or eighteen. As a matter of fact, she was only twenty-two.
Harboro met her and kissed her, and led her to the table. He had a forceful manner. He was hungry, and it seemed that his efficiency extended to a knowledge of how a dinner should be served.
He took his seat at the end of the table where the roast was, and the carving implements. At Sylvia's place there was a percolator, and the coffee-cups, and the sugar and cream.
Antonia, wizened and dark, came and went silently. To the people of her race a wedding means a fiesta, a village hubbub, a dance, and varying degrees of drunkenness. She was not herself in this house of a wedding supper for two, and a prosaic attitude toward the one event in life when money ought to be spent freely, even in the face of impending bankruptcy.
But Harboro speedily set her at ease. They were there to eat their supper—that was all there was to it. He wasn't drinking toasts, or making love. He seemed thoroughly contented; and it didn't occur to him, clearly, that there was any occasion for making a noise or simulating an excitement which he did not feel.
Antonia regarded him furtively, from over his shoulder, as she waited for Sylvia's plate with its portion of the roast. He was a strange hombre. Well, she had known big, quiet men before. They were like rocks. It was all very well for a woman if she stood behind such a man for protection as long as she remained quiet; but Heaven help her if she ever undertook to beat him with her fists. She would only break her hands and accomplish nothing else whatever.
Sylvia was not in a mood, seemingly, to eat very heartily; but Harboro thought he understood that, and he made allowances. He did not urge her, unless reassuring tones and comfortable topics may be said to consist of urging.
He regarded her with bright eyes when she poured the coffee; and when her hands trembled he busied himself with trifles so that he would not seem to notice. He produced a cigar and cut the end off with his penknife, and lit it deliberately.
Only once—just before they got up from the table—did he assume the role of lover. He turned to Antonia, and with an air of pride and contentment, asked the old woman, in her own language:
"Isn't she a beautiful child?"
Sylvia was startled by his manner of speaking Spanish. Everybody along the border spoke the language a little; but Harboro's wasn't the canteen Spanish of most border Americans. Accent and enunciation were singularly nice and distinct. His mustache bristled rather fiercely over one or two of the words.
Antonia thought very highly of the "child," she admitted. She was bonisima, and other superlatives.
And then Harboro's manner became rather brisk again. "Come, I want to show you the house," he said, addressing his wife.
He had taken a great deal of pride in the planning and construction of the house. There was a young Englishman in one of the shops—a draftsman—who had studied architecture in a London office, and who might have been a successful architect but for a downfall which had converted him, overnight, into a remittance-man and a fairly competent employee of the Mexican International. And this man and Harboro had put their heads together and considered the local needs and difficulties, and had finally planned a house which would withstand northers and lesser sand-storms, and the long afternoons' blazing sun, to the best advantage. A little garden had been planned, too. There was hydrant water in the yard. And there was a balcony, looking to the west, over the garden.
She preceded him up-stairs.
"First I want to show you your own room," said Harboro. "What do you call it? I mean the room in which the lady of the house sits and is contented."
I can't imagine what there was in this description which gave Sylvia a hint as to his meaning, but she said:
And Harboro answered promptly: "That's it!"
The boudoir was at the front of the house, up-stairs, overlooking the Quemado Road. It made Sylvia's eyes glisten. It contained a piano, and a rather tiny divan in russet leather, and maple-wood furniture, and electric fixtures which made you think of little mediaeval lanterns. But the bride looked at these things somewhat as if she were inspecting a picture, painted in bold strokes: as if they would become obscure if she went too close—as if they couldn't possibly be hers to be at home among.
It did not appear that Harboro was beginning to feel the absence of a spontaneous acceptance on the part of his wife. Perhaps he was rather full of his own pleasure just then.
They closed the door of the boudoir behind them after they had completed their inspection, and at another door Harboro paused impressively.
"This," he said, pushing the door open wide, "is the guest-chamber."
It would have been small wonder if Sylvia had felt suddenly cold as she crossed that threshold. Certainly she seemed a little strange as she stood with her back to Harboro and aimlessly took in the capacious bed and the few other simple articles.
"The guest-chamber?" she echoed presently, turning toward him.
"We'll have guests occasionally—after a while. Friends of yours from San Antonio, perhaps, or fellows I've known all the way from here to the City. We shouldn't want them to go to a hotel, should we? I mean, if they were people we really cared for?"
"I hadn't thought," she answered.
She went to the window and looked out; but the gray sands, pallid under the night sky, did not afford a soothing picture. She turned to Harboro almost as if she were a stranger to him. "Have you many friends?" she asked.
"Oh, no!—not enough to get in my way, you know. I've never had much of a chance for friendships—not for a good many years. But I ought to have a better chance now. I've thought you'd be able to help me in that way."
She did not linger in the room, and Harboro got the idea that she did not like to think of their sharing their home with outsiders. He understood that, too. "Of course we're going to be by ourselves for a long time to come. There shall not be any guests until you feel you'd like to have them." Then, as her eyes still harbored a shadow, he exclaimed gaily: "We'll pretend that we haven't any guest-chamber at all!" And taking a bunch of keys from his pocket he locked the door with a decisive movement.
On the way down the hall they passed their bedroom. "This room you've seen," he said, "our room. But you have not seen the balcony yet."
He was plainly confident that the balcony would make a pleasant impression upon her. He opened yet another door, and they stepped out under the night sky.
The thing had been planned with certain poetic or romantic values in mind. Standing on the balcony you were looking toward the Rio Grande—and Mexico. And you seemed pretty high. There was the dull silver of the river, and the line of lights along the bridge, and beyond the huddled, dark structures of Piedras Negras. You might have imagined yourself on the deck of a Mediterranean steamer, looking at a town in Algeria or Tunis. And beyond, under the low-hanging stars, was the Mexican desert—a blank page, with only here and there the obscurity of a garden, or a hacienda, or a mere speck which would be a lonely casa built of earth.
"Do you like it?" he asked. He had seated himself with a sigh of contentment. His outstretched arms lay along the back of the settee, and he was looking at her eagerly.
Yes, she said, it was nice.... "It is strange that he should be thinking of the view just now," she was saying to herself. A painful turmoil raged within her; but outwardly she was so calm that Harboro was puzzled. To him, too, that view became a negative thing for the moment. "I suspect that house down under the mesquite-tree was a bit shabby," he was thinking. "She's oppressed by so many new things." He gave her time to find her bearings. That was a thing she would do better by being left alone.
And out of the chaos in Sylvia's mind there came the clear realization that Harboro was not living for the moment, but that he was looking forward, planning for a lifetime, and not for a swift, passing storm of passion. There was something static in his nature; there was a stability in the house he had provided and furnished. Her experiences with him were not to be like a flame: sanctioned, yet in all other respects like other experiences she had had in the past.
The silence between them had become uncomfortable—inappropriate; and Harboro put a gentle arm about her and drew her closer to him. "Sit down by me," he said.
He was dismayed by the result of that persuasive movement. The hand he had taken into his trembled, and she would not yield to the pressure of his arm. She hung her head as if desolate memories were crowding between him and her, and he saw that moisture glistened in her eyes.
"Eh?" he inquired huskily, "you're not afraid of me?"
She allowed him to draw her closer, and he felt the negative movement of her head as it lay on his shoulder; but he knew that she was afraid, though he did not gauge the quality of her fear. "You mustn't be afraid, you know." He continued the pressure of his arm until she seemed to relax wholly against him. He felt a delicious sense of conquest over her by sympathy and gentleness. He was eager for that moment to pass, though he held it precious and knew that it would never return again. Then he felt her body tremble as it lay against his.
"That won't do!" he chided gently. "Look!" He stood her on her feet before him, and took her arms at the elbows, pinioning them carefully to her sides. Then he slowly lifted her above him, so that he had to raise his face to look into hers. The act was performed as if it were a rite.
"You mean ... I am helpless?" She checked the manifestation of grief as abruptly as a child does when its mind has been swiftly diverted.
"God bless me, no! I mean anything but that. That's just what I don't mean. I mean that you're to have all the help you want—that you're to look to me for your strength, that you are to put your burdens on me." He placed her on the seat beside him and took one of her hands in both his. "There, now, we'll talk. You see, we're one, you and I. That isn't just a saying of the preachers. It's a fact. I couldn't harm you without harming myself. Don't you see that? Nobody could harm you without harming me, too."
He did not notice that her hand stiffened in his at those words.
"When we've been together awhile we'll both realize in wonderful ways what it means really to be united. When you've laid your head on my shoulder a great many times, or against my heart, the very blood in my veins will be the blood in your veins. I can't explain it. It goes beyond physiology. We'll belong to each other so completely that wherever you go I shall be with you, and when I go to work I shall have only to put my hand on my breast to touch you. I'll get my strength from you, and it shall be yours again in return. There, those are things which will come to us little by little. But you must never be afraid."
I would rather not even try to surmise what was in Sylvia's mind when, following those words of his, she swiftly took his face in her hands with unsuspected strength and hungrily kissed him. But Harboro read no dark meaning into the caress. It seemed to him the natural thing for her to do.
Harboro adopted the plan, immediately after his marriage, of walking to his work in the morning and back to his home in the evening. It was only a matter of a mile or so, and if you kept out of the sun of midday, it was a pleasant enough form of exercise. Indeed, in the morning it was the sort of thing a man of varied experiences might have been expected to enjoy: the walk through Eagle Pass, with a glimpse of the Dolch hotel bus going to meet the early train from Spofford Junction, and a friendly greeting from an occasional merchant, and then the breezy passage across the Rio Grande bridge, spanning the meandering waters which never bore vessels of any sort to the far-off sea, and finally the negotiation of the narrow street in Piedras Negras, past the plaza and the bull-ring, and countless little wine-shops, and the market, with its attractively displayed fruits and vegetables from nobody knew where.
But it is not to be denied that his practice of making this journey to and fro afoot was not without its prejudicial result. The people of quality of either side of the river rarely ever set foot on the bridge, or on those malodorous streets of Piedras Negras which lay near the river. Such people employed a cochero and drove, quite in the European style, when business or pleasure drew them from their homes. There was an almost continuous stream of peones on the bridge in the mornings and evenings: silent, furtive people, watched closely by the customs guard, whose duties required him on occasion to examine a suspicious-appearing Mexican with decidedly indelicate thoroughness. And all this did not tend to make the bridge a popular promenade.
But Harboro was not squeamish, nor did he entertain slavish thoughts of how people would feel over a disregarded custom. He liked simplicity, and moreover he felt the need of exercise now that his work kept him inactive most of the time. He was at an age when men take on flesh easily.
Nevertheless, people weren't favorably impressed when they looked down from their old-fashioned equipages on their ride between the two republics, and caught a glimpse of the chief clerk marching along the bridge railing—often, as likely as not, in company with some chance laborer or wanderer, whose garb clearly indicated his lowly estate.
And when, finally, Harboro persuaded Sylvia to accompany him on one of these walks of his, the limits of his eccentricity were thought to have been reached. Indeed, not a few people, who might have been induced to forget that his marriage had been a scandalous one, were inclined for the first time to condemn him utterly when he required the two towns to contemplate him in company with the woman he had married, both of them running counter to all the conventions.
The reason for this trip of Harboro's and Sylvia's was that Harboro wanted Sylvia to have a new dress for a special occasion.
It happened that two or three weeks after his marriage Harboro came upon an interesting bit of intelligence in the Eagle Pass Guide, the town's weekly newspaper. It was a Saturday afternoon (the day of the paper's publication), and Harboro had gone up to the balcony overlooking the garden. He had carried the newspaper with him. He did not expect to find anything in the chronicles of local happenings, past or prospective, that would interest him. But there was always a department of railroad news—consisting mainly of personal items—which had for him the quality of a letter from home.
Sylvia was down-stairs at work in the dining-room, directing the efforts of old Antonia. Perhaps I should say that she was extraordinarily happy. I doubt very much if she had come to contemplate the married state through Harboro's eyes; but she seemed to have feared that an avalanche would fall—and none had fallen. Harboro had manifested an unswerving gentleness toward her, and she had begun to "let down," as swimmers say, with confidence in her ability to find bottom and attain the shore.
When at length she went up to the balcony to tell Harboro that supper was ready, she stood arrested by the pleasantly purposeful expression in his eyes. She had learned, rather creditably, to anticipate him.
"You are to have a new dress," he announced.
"I see here"—he tapped the paper on his knee—"that they're getting ready for their first dance of the winter at the Mesquite Club."
She forgot herself. "But we're not invited!" she said, frankly incredulous.
"Why no, not yet. But we shall be. Why shouldn't we be?"
Her hand went to her heart in the old wistful way. "I don't know ... I just thought we shouldn't be. Those affairs are for ... I've never thought they would invite me to one of their dances."
"Nonsense! They've invited me. Now they'll invite us. I suppose the best milliners are across the river, aren't they?"
She seemed unwilling to meet his eyes. "I believe some women get their dresses made over there, and wear them back to this side—so they needn't pay any duty. That is, if they're to be handsome dresses."
"Well, this is going to be a handsome dress."
She seemed pleased, undeniably; yet she changed the subject with evident relief. "Antonia will be cross if we don't go right down. And you must remember to praise the enchalades. She's tried with them ever so hard." This wasn't an affectation on Sylvia's part. She was a good-hearted girl.
"It's to be a handsome dress," repeated Harboro an hour later, when they had returned to the balcony. It was dusk now, and little tapers of light were beginning to burn here and there in the desert: small, open fires where Mexican women were cooking their suppers of dried goat's meat and frijoles.
Said Sylvia: "If only.... Does it matter so much to you that they should invite us?"
"It matters to me on your account. Such things are yours by right. You wouldn't be happy always with me alone. We must think of the future."
Sylvia took his hand and stroked it thoughtfully. There were moments when she hungered for a bit of the comedy of life: laughter and other youthful noises. The Mexican bailes and their humble feasts were delightful; and the song of the violins, and the odor of smoke, and the innocent rivalries, and the night air. But the Mesquite Club....
"If only we could go on the way we are," she said finally, with a sigh of contentment—and regret.
Harboro insisted upon her going across the river with him the next day, a Sunday. It was now late in October, but you wouldn't have realized it unless you had looked at the calendar. The sun was warm—rather too warm. The air was extraordinarily clear. It was an election year and the town had been somewhat disorderly the night before. Harboro and Sylvia had heard the noises from their balcony: singing, first, and then shouting. And later drunken Mexicans had ridden past the house and on out the Quemado Road. A Mexican who is the embodiment of taciturnity when afoot, will become a howling organism when he is mounted.
Harboro had telephoned to see if an appointment could be made—to a madame somebody whose professional card he had found in the Guide. And he had been assured that monsieur would be very welcome on a Sunday.
Sylvia was glad that it was not on a weekday, and that it was in the forenoon, when she would be required to make her first public appearance with her husband. The town would be practically deserted, save by a few better-class young men who might be idling about the drug-store. They wouldn't know her, and if they did, they would behave circumspectly. Strangely enough, it was Sylvia's conviction that men are nearly all good creatures.
As it fell out it was Harboro and not Sylvia who was destined to be humiliated that day—a fact which may not seem strange to the discerning.
They had got as far as the middle of the Rio Grande bridge without experiencing anything which marred the general effect of a stage set for a Passion Play—but with the actors missing; and then they saw a carriage approaching from the Mexican side.
Harboro knew the horses. They were the General Manager's. And presently he recognized the coachman. The horses were moving at a walk, very slowly; but at length Harboro recognized the General Manager's wife, reclining under a white silk sunshade and listening to the vivacious chatter of a young woman by her side. They would be coming over to attend the services in the Episcopal church in Eagle Pass, Harboro realized. Then he recognized the young woman, too. He had met her at one of the affairs to which he had been invited. He recalled her as a girl whose voice was too high-pitched for a reposeful effect, and who created the impression that she looked upon the social life of the border as a rather amusing adventure.
You might have supposed that they considered themselves the sole occupants of the world as they advanced, perched on their high seat; and this, Harboro realized, was the true fashionable air. It was an instinct rather than a pose, he believed, and he was pondering that problem in psychology which has to do with the fact that when people ride or drive they appear to have a different mental organism from those who walk.
Then something happened. The carriage was now almost at hand, and Harboro saw the coachman turn his head slightly, as if to hear better. Then he leaned forward and rattled the whip in its place, and the horses set off at a sharp trot. There was a rule against trotting on the bridge, but there are people everywhere who are not required to observe rules.
Harboro paused, ready to lift his hat. He liked the General Manager's wife. But the occupants of the carriage passed without seeing him. And Harboro got the impression that there was something determined in the casual air with which the two women looked straight before them. He got an odd feeling that the most finely tempered steel of all lies underneath the delicate golden filigree of social custom and laws.
He was rather pleased at a conclusion which came to him: people of that kind really did see, then. They only pretended not to see. And then he felt the blood pumping through the veins in his neck.
"What is it?" asked Sylvia, with that directness which Harboro comprehended and respected.
"Why, those ladies ... they didn't seem quite the type you'd expect to see here, did they?"
"Oh, there's every type here," she replied lightly. She turned her eyes away from Harboro. There was something in his face which troubled her. She could not bear to see him with that expression of wounded sensibilities and rebellious pride in his eyes. And she had understood everything.
She did not break in upon his thoughts soon. She would have liked to divert his mind, but she felt like a culprit who realizes that words are often betrayers.
And so they walked in silence up that narrow bit of street which connects the bridge with Piedras Negras, and leads you under the balcony of what used to be the American Consul's house, and on past the cuartel, where the imprisoned soldiers are kept. Here, of course, the street broadens and skirts the plaza where the band plays of an evening, and where the town promenades round and round the little square of palms and fountains, under the stars. You may remember that a little farther on, on one side of the plaza, there is the immense church which has been building for a century, more or less, and which is still incomplete.
There were a few miserable-looking soldiers, with shapeless, colorless uniforms, loitering in front of the cuartel as Harboro and Sylvia passed.
The indefinably sinister character of the building affected Sylvia. "What is it?" she asked.
"It's where the republic keeps a body of its soldiers," explained Harboro. "They're inside—locked up."
They were both glad to sit down on one of the plaza benches for a few minutes; they did so by a common impulse, without speaking.
"It's the first time I ever thought of prisoners having what you'd call an honorable profession," Sylvia said slowly. She gazed at the immense, low structure with troubled eyes. Flags fluttered from the ramparts at intervals, but they seemed oddly lacking in gallantry or vitality.
"It's a barbarous custom," said Harboro shortly. He was still thinking of that incident on the bridge.
"And yet ... you might think of them as happy, living that way."
"Good gracious! Happy?"
"They needn't care about how they are to be provided for—and they have their duties."
"But they're prisoners, Sylvia!"
"Yes, prisoners.... Aren't we all prisoners, somehow? I've sometimes thought that none of us can do just what we'd like to do, or come or go freely. We think we're free, as oxen in a treadmill think of themselves as being free, I suppose. We think we're climbing a long hill, and that we'll get to the top after a while. But at sundown the gate is opened and the oxen are released. They've never really gotten anywhere."
He turned to her with the stanch optimism she had grown accustomed to in him. "A pagan doctrine, that," he said spiritedly.
"A pagan doctrine.... I wonder what that means."
"Pagans are people who don't believe in God. I am not speaking of the God of the churches, exactly. I mean a good influence."
"Don't they believe in their own gods?"
"No doubt. But you might call their own gods bad influences, as often as not."
"Ah—perhaps they're just simple folk who believe in their own experiences."
He had the troubled feeling that her intuitions, her fatalistic leanings, were giving her a surer grasp of the subject than his, which was based upon a rather nebulous, logical process that often brought him to confusion.
"I only know that I am free," he declared doggedly.
The sun had warmed her to an almost vagrant mood. Her smile was delicate enough, yet her eyes held a gentle taunt as she responded: "Not a bit of it; you have a wife."
"A wife—yes; and that gives me ten times the freedom I ever had before. A man is like a bird with only one wing—before he finds a wife. His wife becomes his other wing. There isn't any height beyond him, when he has a wife."
She placed her hands on her cheeks. "Two wings!" she mused.... "What's between the wings?"
"A heart, you may say, if you will. Or a soul. A capacity. Words are fashioned by scholars—dull fellows. But you know what I mean."
From the hidden depths of the cuartel a silver bugle-note sounded, and Sylvia looked to see if the soldiers sitting out in front would go away; but they did not do so. She arose. "Would you mind going into the church a minute?" she asked.
"No; but why?"
"Oh, anybody can go into those churches," she responded.
"Anybody can go into any church."
"Yes, I suppose so. What I mean is that these old Catholic churches seem different. In our own churches you have a feeling of being—what do you say?—personally conducted. As if you were a visitor being shown children's trinkets. There is something impersonal—something boundless—in churches like this one here. The silence makes you think that there is nobody in them—or that perhaps ... God isn't far away."
He frowned. "But this is just where the trinkets are—in these churches: the images, the painted figures, the robes, the whole mysterious paraphernalia."
"Yes ... but when there isn't anything going on. You feel an influence. I remember going into a church in San Antonio once—a Protestant chapel, and the only thing I could recall afterward was a Yankee clock that ticked too fast and too loud. I never heard of anything so horribly inappropriate. Time was what you thought of. Not eternity. You felt that the people would be afraid of wasting a minute too much—as if their real concerns were elsewhere."
Harboro was instinctively combating the thought that was in her mind, so far as there was a definite thought, and as far as he understood it. "But why shouldn't there be a clock?" he asked. "If people feel that they ought to give a certain length of time to worship, and then go back to their work again, why shouldn't they have a clock?"
"I suppose it's all right," she conceded; and then, with a faint smile: "Yes, if it didn't tick too loud."
She lowered her voice abruptly on the last word. They had passed across the doorless portal and were in the presence of a group of silent, kneeling figures: wretched women whose heads were covered with black cotton rebozos, who knelt and faced the distant altar. They weren't in rows. They had settled down just anywhere. And there were men: swarthy, ill-shapen, dejected. Their lips moved noiselessly.
Harboro observed her a little uneasily. Her sympathy for this sort of thing was new to him. But she made none of the customary signs of fellowship, and after a brief interval she turned and led the way back into the sunshine.
He was still regarding her strangely when she paused, just outside the door, and opened a little hand-bag which depended from her arm. She was quite intently devoted to a search for something. Presently she produced a coin, and then Harboro observed for the first time that the tortured figure of a beggar sat in the sun outside the church door.
Sylvia leaned over with an impassive face and dropped the coin into the beggar's cup.
She chanced to glance at Harboro's face an instant later, and she was dismayed a little by its expression: that of an almost violent distaste. What did it mean? Was it because she had given a coin to the beggar? There could have been no other reason. But why should he look as if her action had contaminated her in some fashion—as if there had been communication between her and the unfortunate anciano? As if there had been actual contact?
"You wouldn't have done that?" she said.
"No, I shouldn't have done it," he replied.
"I can't think why. The wretched creature—I should have felt troubled if I'd ignored him."
"But it's a profession. It's as much a part of the national customs as dancing and drinking."
"Yes, I know. A profession ... but isn't that all the more reason why we should give him a little help?"
"A reason why you should permit yourself to be imposed upon?"
"I can't help thinking further than that. After all, it's he and his kind that must have been imposed upon in the beginning. It's being a profession makes me believe that all the people who might have helped him, who might have given him a chance to be happy and respectable, really conspired against him in some way. You have to believe that it's the rule that some must be comfortable and some wretched."
"A beggar is a beggar," said Harboro. "And he was filthy."
"But don't you suppose he'd rather be the proprietor of a wine-shop, or something of that sort, if he had had any choice?"
"Well.... It's not a simple matter, of course. I'm glad you did what you felt you ought to do." It occurred to Harboro that he was setting up too much opposition to her whims—whims which seemed rooted in her principles as well as her impulses. It was as if their minds were of different shapes: hers circular, his square; so that there could be only one point of contact between them—that one point being their love for each other. There would be a fuller conformity after a while, he was sure. He must try to understand her, to get at her odd point of view. She might be right occasionally, when they were in disagreement.
He touched her lightly on the shoulder. "I'm afraid we ought to be getting on to the madame's," he said.
Harboro would have made you think of a bear in a toy-shop when he sat down in the tiny front room of Madame Boucher's millinery establishment. He was uncomfortably, if vaguely, conscious of the presence of many hats, displayed on affairs which were like unfinished music-racks.
He had given Madame Boucher certain instructions—or perhaps liberties would be a better word. Mrs. Harboro was to be shown only the best fabrics, he told her; and no pains were to be spared to make a dress which would be a credit to madame's establishment. Madame had considered this, and him, and had smiled. Madame's smile had impressed him curiously. There had been no co-operation between lips and eyes. The eyes had opened a little wider, as if with a stimulated rapaciousness. The lips had opened to the extent of a nicely achieved, symmetrical crescent of teeth. It made Harboro think of a carefully constructed Jack-o'-Lantern.
Sylvia had asked him if he wouldn't help in making a choice, but he had looked slightly alarmed, and had resolutely taken a seat which afforded a view of the big Casa Blanca across the way: an emporium conducted on a big scale by Germans. He even became oblivious to the discussion on the other side of the partition, where Sylvia and madame presently entered upon the preliminaries of the business in hand.
The street was quite familiar to him. There had been a year or so, long ago, when he had "made" Piedras Negras, as railroaders say, twice a week. He hadn't liked the town very well. He saw its vice rather than its romance. He had attended one bullfight, and had left his seat in disgust when he saw a lot of men and women of seeming gentility applauding a silly fellow whose sole stock in trade was an unblushing vanity.
His imagination travelled on beyond the bull-pen, to the shabby dance-halls along the river. It was a custom for Americans to visit the dance-halls at least once. He had gone into them repeatedly. Other railroaders who were his associates enjoyed going into these places, and Harboro, rather than be alone in the town, had followed disinterestedly in their wake, and had looked on with cold, contemplative eyes at the disorderly picture they presented: unfortunate Mexican girls dancing with cowboys and railroaders and soldiers and nondescripts. Three Mexicans, with harp, violin, and 'cello had supplied the music: the everlasting national airs. It seemed to Harboro that the whole republic spent half its time within hearing of Sobre las Olas, and La Paloma, and La Golondrina. He had heard so much of the emotional noises vibrating across the land that when he got away from the throb of his engine, into some silent place, it seemed to him that his ears reverberated with flutes and strings, rather than the song of steam, which he understood and respected. He had got the impression that music smelled bad—like stale wine and burning corn-husks and scented tobacco and easily perishable fruits.
He remembered the only woman who had ever made an impression upon him down in those dance-halls: an overmature creature, unusually fair for a Mexican, who spoke a little English, manipulating her lips quaintly, like a child. He recalled her favorite expression: "My class is very fine!" She had told him this repeatedly, enunciating the words with delicacy. She had once said to him, commiseratingly: "You work very hard?" And when he had confessed that his duties were onerous, she had brightened. "Much work, much money," she had said, with the avidity of a boy who has caught a rabbit in a trap. And Harboro had wondered where she had got such a monstrously erroneous conception of the law of industrialism.
The picture of the whirling figures came back to him: the vapor of dust in the room, the loud voices of men at the bar, trying to be heard above the din of the music and the dancing. There came back to him the memory of a drunken cowboy, nudging the violinist's elbow as he played, and shouting: "Give us Dixie—give us a white man's tune"—and the look of veiled hatred in the slumbrous eyes of the Mexican musician, who had inferred the insult without comprehending the words.
He recalled other pictures of those nights: the Indian girls who might be expected to yell in the midst of a dance if they had succeeded in attracting the attention of a man who usually danced with some one else. And there were other girls with a Spanish strain in them—girls with a drop of blood that might have been traced back a hundred years to Madrid or Seville or Barcelona. Small wonder if such girls felt like shrieking too, sometimes. Not over petty victories, and with joy; but when their hearts broke because the bells of memory called to them from away in the barred windows of Spain, or in walled gardens, or with the shepherd lovers of Andalusia.
If you danced with one of them you paid thirty cents at the bar and got a drink, while the girl was given a check good for fifteen cents in the trade of the place. The girls used to cash in their checks at the end of a night's work at fifty cents a dozen. It wasn't quite fair; but then the proprietor was a business man.
"My class is very fine!" The words came back to Harboro's mind. Good God!—what had become of her? There had been a railroad man, a fellow named Peterson, who was just gross enough to fancy her—a good chap, too, in his way. Courageous, energetic, loyal—at least to other men. He had occasionally thought that Peterson meant to take the poor, pretentious creature away from the dance-halls and establish her somewhere. He had not seen Peterson for years now.
... Sylvia emerged from behind the thin partition, sighing and smiling. "Did it seem very long?" she asked. "It's hard to make up your mind. It's like taking one color out of the rainbow and expecting it to look as pretty as the whole rainbow. But I'm ready now."
"Remember, a week from Wednesday," called Madame Boucher, as Harboro and Sylvia moved toward the door.
Harboro looked at Sylvia inquiringly.
"For the try-on," she explained. "Yes, I'll be here." She went out, Harboro holding the door open for her.
Out on the sidewalk she almost collided with a heavy man, an American—a gross, blond, good-natured creature who suddenly smiled with extreme gratification. "Hello!—Sylvia!" he cried. He seized her by the hand and drew her close.
Harboro stood on the door-step and looked down—and recognized Peterson.
THE TIME OF FLAME
Peterson felt the dark shadow of Harboro immediately. He looked up into the gravely inquiring face above him, and then he gave voice to a new delight. "Hello!—HARBORO!" He dropped Sylvia's hand as if she no longer existed. An almost indefinable change of expression occurred in his ruddy, radiant face. It was as if his joy at seeing Sylvia had been that which we experience in the face of a beautiful illusion; and now, seeing Harboro, it was as if he stood in the presence of a cherished reality. He grasped Harboro's hand and dragged him down from the step. "Old Harboro!" he exclaimed.
"You two appear to have met before," remarked Harboro, looking with quiet inquiry from Sylvia to Peterson, and back to Sylvia.
"Yes, in San Antonio," she explained. It had been in Eagle Pass, really, but she did not want Harboro to know.
The smile on Peterson's face had become curiously fixed. "Yes, in San Antonio," he echoed.
"He knew my father," added Sylvia.
"A particular friend," said Peterson. And then, the lines of mirth on his face becoming a little less rigid and the color a little less ruddy, he added to Sylvia: "Doesn't your father occasionally talk about his old friend Peterson?"
Harboro interrupted. "At any rate, you probably don't know that she is Mrs. Harboro now."
Peterson appeared to be living entirely within himself for the moment. He might have made you think of the Trojan Horse—innocuous without, but teeming with belligerent activity within. He seemed to be laughing maliciously, though without movement or noise. Then he was all frank joyousness again. "Good!" he exclaimed. He smote Harboro on the shoulder. "Good!" He stood apart, vigorously erect, childishly pleased. "Enjoying a holiday?" he asked.
And when Harboro nodded he became animated again. "You're both going to take dinner with me—over at the Internacional. We'll celebrate. I've got to take my train out in an hour—I've got a train now, Harboro." (Harboro had noted his conductor's uniform.) "We'll just have time. We can have a talk."
Harboro recalled a score of fellows he had known up and down the line, with most of whom he had gotten out of touch. Peterson would know about some of them. He realized how far he had been removed from the spontaneous joys of the railroad career since he had been in the office. And Peterson had always been a friendly chap, with lots of good points.
"Should you like it, Sylvia?" he asked.
She had liked Peterson, too. He had always been good-natured and generous. He had seemed often almost to understand.... "I think it would be nice," she replied. She was afraid there was a note of guilt in her voice. She wished Harboro had refused to go, without referring the matter to her.
"I could telephone to Antonia," he said slowly. It seemed impossible to quicken his pulses in any way. "She needn't get anything ready."
"I could do it," suggested Sylvia. She felt she'd rather not be left alone with Peterson. "I could use Madame Boucher's telephone."
But Harboro had already laid his hand on the door. "Better let me," he said. "I can do it quicker." He knew that Antonia would want to remonstrate, to ask questions, and he wanted Sylvia to enjoy the occasion whole-heartedly. He went back into the milliner's shop.
"Peterson," said the man who remained on the sidewalk with Sylvia.
"I remember," she replied, her lips scarcely moving, her eyes avoiding his burning glance. "And ... in San Antonio."
They were rather early for the midday meal when they reached the Internacional; indeed, they were the first to enter the dining-room. Nevertheless the attitudes of the Mexican waiters were sufficient assurance that they might expect to be served immediately.
Peterson looked at his watch and compared it with the clock in the dining-room. "The train from Spofford is late," he said. "It's due now." He pitched his head up like a dog. "There she is!" he exclaimed. There was the rumble of a train crossing the bridge. "They'll be coming in right away." He indicated the empty tables by a glance.
Harboro knew all about the train schedules and such matters. He knew that American tourists bound for Mexico would be coming over on that train, and that they would have an hour for dinner while their baggage was passing through the hands of the customs officials.
They had given their orders and were still waiting when the train pulled in at the station, close at hand, and in a moment the dining-room became noisy.
"Travel seems pretty light," commented Peterson. He appeared to be trying to make conversation; he was obviously under some sort of constraint. Still, he had the genuine interest of the railroader in the subjects he mentioned.
Harboro had not observed that there was not even one woman among the travellers who entered; but Peterson noted the fact, mentioning it in the tone of one who has been deprived of a natural right. And Harboro wondered what was the matter with a man who saw the whole world, always, solely in relation to women. He sensed the fact that Peterson was not entirely comfortable. "He's probably never grown accustomed to being in the company of a decent woman," he concluded. He tried to launch the subject of old associates. It seemed that Peterson had been out in Durango for some time, but he had kept in touch with most of the fellows on the line to the City. He began to talk easily, and Harboro was enjoying the meeting even before the waiter came back with their food.
Sylvia was ill at ease. She was glad that Harboro and Peterson had found something to talk about. She began to eat the amber-colored grapes the waiter had placed before her. She seemed absent-minded, absorbed in her own thoughts. And then she forgot self in the contemplation of a man and a child who had come in and taken a table at the other end of the dining-room. The man wore a band of crape around his arm. The child, a little girl of five or six, had plainly sobbed herself into a condition verging upon stupor. She was not eating the dinner which had been brought to her, though she occasionally glanced with miserable eyes at one dish or another. She seemed unable to help herself, and at intervals a dry sob shook her tiny body.
Sylvia forgot the grapes beside her plate; she was looking with womanly pity at that little girl, and at the man, who seemed sunk into the depths of despair.
Peterson followed her compassionate glance. "Ah," he explained, "it's a chap who came up from Paila a little while back. He had his wife with him. She was dying, and she wanted to be buried in Texas. I believe he's in some sort of business down in Paila."
The spirit of compassion surrounded Sylvia like a halo. She had just noted that the little girl was making a stupendous effort to conquer her sobs, to "be good," as children say. With a heroic resolve which would have been creditable to a Joan of Arc, the little thing suddenly began to try to eat from one of the dishes, but her hands trembled so that she was quite helpless. Her efforts seemed about to suffer a final collapse.
And then Sylvia pushed her chair back and arose. There was a tremulous smile on her lips as she crossed the room. She paused by that man with crape on his sleeve. "I wonder if you won't let me help," she said. Her voice would have made you think of rue, or of April rain. She knelt beside the child's chair and possessed herself of a tiny hand with a persuasive gentleness that would have worked miracles. Her face was uplifted, soft, beaming, bright. She was scarcely prepared for the passionate outburst of the child, who suddenly flung forth eager hands with a cry of surrender. Sylvia held the convulsed body against her breast, tucking the distorted face up under her chin. "There!" she soothed, "there!" She carried her charge out of the room without wasting words. She had observed that when the child came to her the man had seemed on the point of surrender, too. With an effort he had kept himself inert, with a wan face. He had the dubious, sounding expression of one who stands at a door with his back to the light and looks out into the dark.
Before she had brought the child back, washed and comforted, to help her with her food, Peterson had forgotten the interruption entirely. Taking advantage of Sylvia's absence (as if she had been an interfering factor in the meeting, but scarcely a third person), he turned keen eyes upon Harboro. "Old Harboro!" he said affectionately and musingly. Then he seemed to be swelling up, as if he were a mobile vessel filled with water that had begun to boil. He became as red as a victim of apoplexy. His eyes filled with an unholy mirth, his teeth glistened. His voice was a mere wheeze, issuing from a cataclysm of agonized mirth.
"And so you've come to it at last!" he managed to articulate.
"Come to what?" inquired Harboro. His level glance was disconcerting.
Peterson was on the defensive immediately. "You used not to care for women—or you claimed you didn't."
"Oh! I didn't understand. I used not to care for—a certain class of women. I don't yet."
The threatened boiling-over process was abruptly checked, as if a lid had been lifted. "Oh!" said Peterson weakly. He gazed at a fragment of roast beef on his plate. It might have been some sort of strange insect. He frowned at it. And then his eyes blazed steadily and brightly. He did not look at Harboro again for a long time.
Sylvia came back, moving a little shyly, and pushing a strand of hair back into its place. She looked across the dining-room to where the child was talking with old-fashioned sedateness to her father. She had forgotten her tragedy—for the moment. The man appeared to have forgotten, too.
But Peterson's dinner turned out to be a failure, after all. Conversation became desultory, listless.
They arose from their places at last and left the room. On the street they stood for a moment, but nothing was said about another meeting. Harboro thought of inviting Peterson over to the house; but he fancied Sylvia wouldn't like it; and besides, the man's grossness was there, more patent than ever, and it stood between them.
"Well, good-by," said Peterson. He shook hands with Harboro and with Sylvia. But while he shook hands with Sylvia he was looking at Harboro. All that was substantial in the man's nature was educed by men, not by women; and he was fond of Harboro. To him Sylvia was an incident, while Harboro was an episode. Harboro typified work and planning and the rebuffs of the day. Sylvia meant to him only a passing pleasure and the relaxation of the night or of a holiday.
As he went away he seemed eager to get around a corner somewhere. He seemed to be swelling up again. You might have supposed he was about to explode.
Sylvia's dress made its appearance in due course in the house on the Quemado Road.
Sylvia could not understand why Harboro should have arranged to have it delivered according to routine, paying the duty on it. It seemed to her a waste of money, a willingness to be a victim of extortion. Why should the fact that the river was there make any difference? It was some scheme of the merchants of Eagle Pass, probably, the purpose of which was to compel you to buy from them, and pay higher prices, and take what you didn't want.
The dress was a wonderful affair: a triumph of artful simplicity. It was white, with a suggestion of warmth: an effect produced by a second fabric underlying the visible silk. It made Sylvia look like a gentle queen of marionettes. A set of jewelry of silver filigree had been bought to go with it: circles of butterflies of infinite delicacy for bracelets, and a necklace. You would have said there was only wanting a star to bind in her hair and a wand for her to carry.
But the Mesquite Club ball came and went, and the Harboros were not invited.
Harboro was stunned. The ball was on a Friday night: and on Saturday he went up to the balcony of his house with a copy of the Guide clutched in his hand. He did not turn to the railroad news. He was interested only in the full-column, first-page account of the ball at the Mesquite Club. There was the customary amount of fine writing, including a patent straining for new adjectives to apply to familiar decorations. And then there was a list of the names of the guests. Possibly Piedras Negras hadn't been included—and possibly he was still regarded as belonging to the railroad offices, and the people across the river.
But no, there were the names: heads of departments and the usual presentable clerks—young Englishmen with an air. The General Manager, as Harboro knew, was on a trip to Torreon; but otherwise the list of names was sufficient evidence that this first ball of the season had been a particularly ambitious affair.
Sylvia was standing alone in the dining-room while Harboro frowned darkly over the list of names before him. The physical Sylvia was in the dining-room; but her mind was up on the balcony with Harboro. She was watching him as he scowled at the first page of the Guide. But if chagrin was the essence of the thing that bothered Harboro, something far deeper caused Sylvia to stand like a slim, slumbering tree. She was frightened. Harboro would begin to ask why? And he was a man. He would guess the reason. He would begin to realize that mere obscurity on the part of his wife was not enough to explain the fact that the town refused to recognize her existence. And then...?
Antonia spoke to her once and again without being heard. Would the senora have the roast put on the table now, or would she wait until the senor came down-stairs? She decided for herself, bringing in the roast with an entirely erroneous belief that she was moving briskly. An ancient Mexican woman knows very well what the early months of marriage are. There is a flame, and then there are ashes. Then the ashes must be removed by mutual effort and embers are discovered. Then life is good and may run along without any annoyances.
When the senor went up-stairs with scarcely a word to the senora, Antonia looked within, seeming to notice nothing. But to herself she was saying: "The time of ashes." The bustle of the domestic life was good at such a time. She brought in the roast.
Harboro, with the keen senses of a healthy man who is hungry, knew that the roast had been placed on the table, but he did not stir. The Guide had slipped from his knee to the floor, and he was looking away to the darkening tide of the Rio Grande. He had looked at his problem from every angle, and now he was coming to a conclusion which did him credit.
... They had not been invited to the ball. Well, what had he done that people who formerly had gone out of their way to be kind to him should ignore him? (It did not occur to him for an instant that the cause lay with Sylvia.) He was not a conceited man, but ... an eligible bachelor must, certainly, be regarded more interestedly than a man with a wife, particularly in a community where the young women were blooming and eligible men were scarce. They had drawn him into their circle because they had regarded him as a desirable husband for one of their young women. He remembered now how the processes of the social mill had brought him up before this young woman and that until he had met them all: how, often, he had found himself having a tete-a-tete with some kindly disposed girl whom he never would have thought of singling out for special attention. He hadn't played their game. He might have remained a bachelor and all would have been well. There would always have been the chance of something happening. But he had found a wife outside their circle. He had, in effect, snubbed them before they had snubbed him. He remembered now how entirely absorbed he had been in his affair with Sylvia, and how the entire community had become a mere indistinct background during those days when he walked with her and planned their future. There wasn't any occasion for him to feel offended. He had ignored the town—and the town had paid him back in his own coin.
He had conquered his black mood entirely when Sylvia came up to him. She regarded him a moment timidly, and then she put her hand on his shoulder. He looked up at her with the alert kindliness which she had learned to prize.
"I'm afraid you're fearfully disappointed," she said.
"I was. But I'm not now." He told her what his theory was, putting it into a few detached words. But she understood and brightened immediately.
"Do you suppose that's it?" she asked.
"What else could it be?" He arose. "Isn't Antonia ready?"
"I think so. And there are so many ways for us to be happy without going to their silly affairs. Imagine getting any pleasure out of sitting around watching a girl trying to get a man! That's all they amount to, those things. We'll get horses and ride. It's ever so much more sensible."
She felt like a culprit let out of prison as she followed him down into the dining-room. For the moment she was no longer the fatalist, foreseeing inevitable exposure and punishment. Nothing had come of their meeting with Peterson—an incident which had taken her wholly by surprise, and which had threatened for an instant to result disastrously. She had spent wakeful hours as a result of that meeting; but the cloud of apprehension had passed, leaving her sky serene again. And now Harboro had put aside the incident of the Mesquite Club ball as if it did not involve anything more than a question of pique.
She took her place at the end of the table, and propped her face up in her hands while Harboro carved the roast. Why shouldn't she hope that the future was hers, to do with as she would—or, at least, as she could? That her fate now lay in her own hands, and not in every passing wind of circumstance, seemed possible, even probable. If only....
A name came into her mind suddenly; a name carved in jagged, sinister characters. If only Fectnor would stay away off there in the City.
She did not know why that name should have occurred to her just now to plague her. Fectnor was an evil bird of passage who had come and gone. Such creatures had no fixed course. He had once told her that only a fool ever came back the way he had gone. He belonged to the States, somewhere, but he would come back by way of El Paso, if he ever came back; or he would drift over toward Vera Cruz or Tampico.
Fectnor was one of those who had trod that path through the mesquite to Sylvia's back door in the days which were ended. But he was different from the others. He was a man who was lavish with money—but he expected you to pick it up out of the dust. He was of violent moods; and he had that audacity—that taint of insanity, perhaps—which enables some men to maintain the reputation of bad men, of "killers," in every frontier. When Fectnor had come he had seemed to assume the right of prior possession, and others had yielded to him without question. Indeed, it was usually known when the man was in town, and during these periods none came to Sylvia's door save one. He even created the impression that all others were poachers, and that they had better be wary of him. She had been afraid of him from the first; and it had seemed to her that her only cross was removed when she heard that Fectnor had got a contract down in the interior and had gone away. That had happened a good many months ago; and Sylvia remembered now, with a feeling as of an icy hand on her heart, that if her relationships with many of the others in those old days were innocent enough—or at best marred only by a kindly folly—there had been that in her encounters with Fectnor which would forever damn her in Harboro's eyes, if the truth ever reached him. He would have the right to call her a bad woman; and if the word seemed fantastic and unreal to her, she knew that it would not seem so to Harboro.
If only Fectnor....
She winked quickly two or three times, as if she had been dreaming. Antonia had set her plate before her, and the aroma of the roast was in her nostrils. Harboro was regarding her serenely, affectionately.
They were happier than ever, following that adjusting episode.
Harboro felt that his place had been assigned to him, and he was satisfied. He would have to think of ways of affording diversion for Sylvia, of course; but that could be managed, and in the meantime she seemed disposed to prolong the rapturous and sufficient joys of their honeymoon. He would be on the lookout, and when the moment of reaction came he would be ready with suggestions. She had spoken of riding. There would be places to go. The bailes out at the Quemado; weddings far out in the chaparral. Many Americans attended these affairs in a spirit of adventure, and the ride was always delightful. There was a seduction in the desert winds, in the low-vaulted skies with their decorative schemes of constellations.
He was rather at a loss as to how to meet the people who had made a fellow of him. There was Dunwoodie, for example. He ran into Dunwoodie one morning on his way to work, and the good fellow had stopped him with an almost too patent friendliness.
"Come, stop long enough to have a drink," said Dunwoodie, blushing without apparent cause and shaking Harboro awkwardly by the hand. And then, as if this blunt invitation might prove too transparent, he added: "I was in a game last night, and I'm needing one."
There was no need for Dunwoodie to explain his desire for a drink—or his disinclination to drink alone. Harboro saw nothing out of the ordinary in the invitation; but unfortunately he responded before he had quite taken the situation into account.
"It's pretty early for me," he said. "Another time—if you'll excuse me."
It was to be regretted that Harboro's manner seemed a trifle stiff; and Dunwoodie read uncomfortable meanings into that refusal. He never repeated the invitation; and others, hearing of the incident, concluded that Harboro was too deeply offended by what the town had done to him to care for anybody's friendship any more. The thing that the town had done to Harboro was like an open page to everybody. Indeed, the people of Eagle Pass knew that Harboro had been counted out of eligible circles considerably before Harboro knew it himself.
As for Sylvia, contentment overspread her like incense. She was to have Harboro all to herself, and she was not to be required to run the gantlet of the town's too-knowing eyes. She felt safe in that house on the Quemado Road, and she hoped that she now need not emerge from it until old menaces were passed, and people had come and gone, and she could begin a new chapter.
She was somewhat annoyed by her father during those days. He sent messages by Antonia. Why didn't she come to see him? She was happy, yes. But could she forget her old father? Was she that kind of a daughter? Such was the substance of the messages which reached her.
She would not go to see him. She could not bear to think of entering his house. She had been homesick occasionally—that she could not deny. There had been moments when the new home oppressed her by its orderliness, by its strangeness. And she was fond of her father. She supposed she ought not to be fond of him; he had always been a worthless creature. But such matters have little to do with the law of cause and effect. She loved him—there was the truth, and it could not be ignored. But with every passing day the house under the mesquite-tree assumed a more terrible aspect in her eyes, and the house on the Quemado Road became more familiar, dearer.
Unknown to Harboro, she sent money to her father. He had intimated that if she could not come there were certain needs ... there was no work to be obtained, seemingly.... And so the money which she might have used for her own pleasure went to her father. She was not unscrupulous in this matter. She did not deceive Harboro. She merely gave to her father the money which Harboro gave her, and which she was expected to use without explaining how it was spent.
With the passing of days she ceased to worry about those messages of her father—she ceased to regard them as reminders that the tie between her old life and the new was not entirely broken. And following the increased assurances of her safety in Harboro's house and heart, she began to give rein to some of the coquetries of her nature.
She became an innocent siren, studying ways of bewitchment, of endearment. She became a bewildering revelation to him, amazing him, delighting him. After he had begun to conclude that he knew her she became not one woman, but a score of women: demure, elfin, pensive, childlike, sedate, aloof, laughing—but always with her delight in him unconcealed: the mask she wore always slipping from its place to reveal her eagerness to draw closer to him, and always closer.
The evenings were beginning to be cool, and occasionally she enticed him after nightfall into the room he had called her boudoir. She drew the blinds and played the infinitely varied game of love with him. She asked him to name some splendid lover, some famous courtier. Ingomar? Very well, he should be Ingomar. What sort of lover was he?... And forthwith her words, her gestures and touches became as chains of flowers to lead him to do her bidding. Napoleon? She saluted him, and marched prettily before him—and halted to claim her reward in kisses. He was Antony and Leander.
When she climbed on his knees with kisses for Leander he pretended to be surprised. "More kisses?" he asked.
"But these are the first."
"And those other kisses?"
"They? Oh, they were for Antony."
"Ah, but if you have kissed Antony, Leander does not want your kisses."
Her face seemed to fade slightly, as if certain lights had been extinguished. She withdrew a little from him and did not look at him. "Why?" she asked presently. The gladness had gone out of her voice.
"Well ... kisses should be for one lover; not for two."
She pondered, and turned to him with an air of triumph. "But you see, these are new kisses for Leander. They are entirely different. They've never been given before. They've got nothing to do with the others."
He pretended to be convinced. But the kisses she gave to Leander were less rapturous. She was thinking.
"I'm afraid you don't think so highly of ... Leander," he suggested. "Suppose I be ... Samson?"
She leaned her head on his shoulder as if she had grown tired.
"Samson was a very strong man," he explained. "He could push a house down."
That interested her.
"Would you like to be Samson?" she asked.
"I think it might be nice ... but no—the woman who kissed Samson betrayed him. I think I won't be Samson, after all."
She had been nervously fingering the necklace of gold beads at her throat; and suddenly she uttered a distressed cry. The string had broken, and the beads fell in a yellow shower to the rug.
She climbed down on her knees beside him and picked up the beads, one by one.
"Let them go," he urged cheerfully, noting her distress. "Come back. I'll be anybody you choose. Even Samson."
That extinguished light seemed to have been turned on again. She looked up at him smiling. "No, I don't want you to be Samson," she said. "And I don't want to lose my beads."
He regarded her happily. She looked very little and soft there on the rug. "You look like a kitten," he declared.
She picked up the last bead and looked at the unstable baubles in her pink left palm. She tilted her hand so that they rolled back and forth. "Could a kitten look at a king?" she asked with mock earnestness.
"I should think it could, if there happened to be any king about."
She continued to make the beads roll about on her hand. "I'm going to be a kitten," she declared with decision. "Would you like me to be a kitten?" She raised herself on her knees and propped her right hand behind her on the rug for support. She was looking earnestly into his eyes.
"If you'd like to be," he replied.
"Hold your hand," she commanded. She poured the beads into his immense, hard palm. "Don't spill them." She turned about on the rug on hands and knees, and crept away to the middle of the floor. She turned and arose to her knees, and rested both hands before her on the floor. She held her head high and meowed twice so realistically that Harboro leaned forward, regarding her with wonder. She lowered herself and turned and crept to the window. There she lifted herself a little and patted the tassel which hung from the blind. She continued this with a certain sedateness and concentration until the tassel went beyond her reach and caught in the curtain. Then she let herself down again, and crawled to the middle of the floor. Now she was on her knees, her hands on the floor before her, her body as erect as she could hold it. Again she meowed—this time with a certain ennui; and finally she raised one arm and rubbed it slowly to and fro behind her ear.... She quickly assumed a defensive attitude, crouching fiercely. An imaginary dog had crossed her path. She made an explosive sound with her lips. She regained her tranquillity, staring with slowly returning complacency and contempt while the imaginary dog disappeared.