UNDER THE ANDES
I. THE SWEETHEART OF A KING. II. BEGINNING THE DANCE. III. A MODERN MARANA. IV. ALLONS! V. THE CAVE OF THE DEVIL. VI. CAPTURED. VII. THE FIGHT IN THE DARK. VIII. THE DANCE OF THE SUN. IX. BEFORE THE COURT. X. THE VERDICT. XI. A ROYAL VISITOR. XII. AT THE DOOR. XIII. INTO THE WHIRLPOOL. XIV. A FISHING PARTY. XV. THE RESCUE. XVI. THE ESCAPE. XVII. THE EYES IN THE DARK. XVIII. A VICTORY AND A CONVERSATION. XIX. AFLOAT. XX. AN INCA SPEAR. XXI. THE MIDST OF THE ENEMY. XXII. THE BEGINNING OF THE END. XXIII. WE ARE TWO. XXIV. CONCLUSION.
THE SWEETHEART OF A KING.
The scene was not exactly new to me. Moved by the spirit of adventure, or by an access of ennui which overtakes me at times, I had several times visited the gaudy establishment of Mercer, on the fashionable side of Fifth Avenue in the Fifties. In either case I had found disappointment; where the stake is a matter of indifference there can be no excitement; and besides, I had been always in luck.
But on this occasion I had a real purpose before me, though not an important one, and I surrendered my hat and coat to the servant at the door with a feeling of satisfaction.
At the entrance to the main room I met Bob Garforth, leaving. There was a scowl on his face and his hand trembled as he held it forth to take mine.
"Harry is inside. What a rotten hole," said he, and passed on. I smiled at his remark—it was being whispered about that Garforth had lost a quarter of a million at Mercer's within the month—and passed inside.
Gaudy, I have said it was, and it needs no other word. Not in its elements, but in their arrangement.
The rugs and pictures and hangings testified to the taste of the man who had selected them; but they were abominably disposed, and there were too many of them.
The room, which was unusually large, held two or three leather divans, an English buffet, and many easy chairs. A smoking-table, covered, stood in one corner.
Groups of men were gathered about each of the three roulette wheels ranged along the farther side. Through a door to the left could be seen the poker tables, surrounded by grave or jocular faces. Above the low buzz of conversation there sounded the continual droning voices of the croupiers as they called the winning numbers, and an occasional exclamation from a "customer."
I made my way to the center wheel and stood at the rear of the crowd surrounding it.
The ball rolled; there was a straining of necks amid an intense silence; then, as the little pellet wavered and finally came to a rest in the hole number twenty-four a fervent oath of disappointment came from some one in front of me.
The next moment, rising on tiptoe to look over the intervening shoulders, I found myself looking into the white face of my younger brother Harry.
"Paul!" he exclaimed, turning quickly away.
I pushed my way through and stood at his side. There was no sound from the group of onlookers; it is not to be wondered at if they hesitated to offend Paul Lamar.
"My dear boy," said I, "I missed you at dinner. And though this may occupy your mind, it can scarcely fill your stomach. Haven't you had enough?"
Harry looked at me. His face was horribly pale and his eyes bloodshot; they could not meet mine.
"For Heaven's sake, Paul, let me alone," he said, hardly above a whisper. "I have lost ninety thousand."
In spite of myself I started. No wonder he was pale! And yet—
"That's nothing," I whispered back. "But you are making a show of yourself. Just now you were swearing like a sailor. See how your hand trembles! You were not made for this, Harry; it makes you forget that you're a gentleman. They are laughing at you. Come."
"But I say I have lost ninety thousand dollars," said the boy, and there was wildness in his eye. "Let me alone, Paul."
"I will repay you."
"No. Let me alone!"
"I say no!"
His mouth was drawn tight and his eyes glared sullenly as those of a stubborn child. Clearly it was impossible to get him away without making a scene, which was unthinkable. For a moment I was at a complete loss; then the croupier's voice sounded suddenly in my ear:
"You are interrupting us, sir."
I silenced him with a glance and turned to my brother, having decided in an instant on the only possible course.
"Here, let me have your chair. I will get it back for you. Come!"
He looked at me for a moment in hesitation, then rose without a word and I took his place.
The thing was tiresome enough, but how could I have avoided it? The blood that rushes to the head of the gambler is certainly not food for the intellect; and, besides, I was forced by circumstances into an heroic attitude—and nothing is more distasteful to a man of sense. But I had a task before me; if a man lays bricks he should lay them well; and I do not deny that there was a stirring of my pulse as I sat down.
Is it possible for a mind to directly influence the movements of a little ivory ball? I do not say yes, but will you say no? I watched the ball with the eye of an eagle, but without straining; I played with the precision of a man with an unerring system, though my selections were really made quite at random; and I handled my bets with the sureness and swift dexterity with which a chess-master places his pawn or piece in position to demoralize his opponent.
This told on the nerves of the croupier. Twice I corrected a miscalculation of his, and before I had played an hour his hand was trembling with agitation.
And I won.
The details would be tiresome, but I won; and when, after six hours of play without an instant's rest, I rose exhausted from my chair and handed my brother the amount he had lost—I pocketed a few thousands for myself in addition. There were some who tried to detain me with congratulations and expressions of admiration, but I shook them off and led Harry outside to my car.
The chauffeur, poor devil, was completely stiff from the long wait, and I ordered him into the tonneau and took the wheel myself.
Partly was this due to pity for the driver, partly to a desire to leave Harry to his own thoughts, which I knew must be somewhat turbulent. He was silent during the drive, which was not long, and I smiled to myself in the darkness of the early morning as I heard, now and then, an uncontrollable sigh break through his dry lips. Of thankfulness, perhaps.
I preceded him up the stoop and into the hall of the old house on lower Fifth Avenue, near Tenth Street, that had been the home of our grandfather and our father before us. There, in the dim light, I halted and turned, while Evans approached from the inner rooms, rubbing eyes heavy with sleep.
Good old Evans! Yet the faithfulness of such a servant has its disadvantages.
"Well?" said Harry in a thin, high voice.
The boy's nerves were stretched tightly; two words from me would have produced an explosion. So I clapped him on the shoulder and sent him off to bed. He went sulkily, without looking round, and his shoulders drooped like those of an old man; but I reflected that that would all be changed after a few hours of sleep.
"After all, he is a Lamar," I said to myself as I ordered Evans to bring wine and sandwiches to the library.
It was the middle of the following afternoon before Harry appeared down-stairs. He had slept eleven hours. I was seated in the library when I heard his voice in the hall:
"Breakfast! Breakfast for five at once!"
I smiled. That was Harry's style of wit.
After he had eaten his "breakfast for five" he came in to see me with the air of a man who was determined to have it out.
I myself was in no mood for talk; indeed, I scarcely ever am in such a mood, unless it be with a pretty woman or a great sinner. You may regard that sentence as tautological if you like; I sha'n't quarrel about it.
What I mean to say is that it was with a real effort I set myself to the distasteful task before me, rendered necessary by the responsibility of my position as elder brother and head of the family.
Harry began by observing with assumed indifference: "Well, and now there's the deuce to pay, I suppose."
"As his representative I am not a hard creditor," I smiled.
"I know, I know—" he began impetuously and stopped.
"My boy, there is always the deuce to pay. If not for one thing, then for another. So your observation would serve for any other time as well as now. The point is this: you are ten years younger than I, and you are under my care; and much as I dislike to talk, we must reach an understanding."
"Well?" said Harry, lighting a cigarette and seating himself on the arm of a chair.
"You have often thought," I continued, "that I have been trying to interfere with your freedom. But you are mistaken; I have merely been trying to preserve it—and I have succeeded."
"When our father and mother died you were fifteen years of age. You are now twenty-two; and I take some credit for the fact that those seven years have left no stain, however slight, on the name of Lamar."
"Do I deserve that?" cried Harry. "What have I done?"
"Nothing irremediable, but you must admit that now and then I have been at no small pains to—er—assist you. But there, I don't intend to speak of the past; and to tell the truth, I suspect that we are of one mind. You regard me as more or less of an encumbrance; you think your movements are hampered; you consider yourself to be treated as a child unjustly.
"Well, for my part, I find my duty—for such I consider it—grows more irksome every day. If I am in your way, you are no less in mine. To make it short, you are now twenty-two years old, you chafe at restraint, you think yourself abundantly able to manage your own affairs. Well—I have no objection."
Harry stared at me.
"You mean—" he began.
"There is no need to discuss it. For me, it is mostly selfishness."
But he wanted to talk, and I humored him. For two hours we sat, running the scale from business to sentiment, and I must confess that I was more than once surprised by a flash from Harry. Clearly he was developing, and for the first time I indulged a hope that he might prove himself fit for self-government.
At least I had given him the rope; it remained for time to discover whether or not he would avoid getting tangled up in it. When we had finished we understood each other better, I think, than we ever had before; and we parted with the best of feeling.
Three days later I sailed for Europe, leaving Harry in New York. It was my first trip across in eighteen months, and I aimed at pleasure. I spent a week in London and Munich, then, disgusted with the actions of some of my fellow countrymen with whom I had the misfortune to be acquainted, I turned my face south for Madrid.
There I had a friend.
A woman not beautiful, but eminently satisfying; not loose, but liberal, with a character and a heart. In more ways than one she was remarkable; she had an affection for me; indeed, some years previously I had been in a way to play Albert Savaron to her Francesca Colonna, an arrangement prevented only by my constitutional dislike for any prolonged or sustained effort in a world the slave of vanity and folly.
It was from the lips of this friend that I first heard the name of Desiree Le Mire.
It was late in the afternoon on the fashionable drive. Long, broad, and shady, though scarcely cool, it was here that we took our daily carriage exercise; anything more strenuous is regarded with horror by the ladies of Spain.
There was a shout, and a sudden hush; all carriages were halted and their occupants uncovered, for royalty was passing. The coach, a magnificent though cumbersome affair, passed slowly and gravely by. On the rear seat were the princess and her little English cousin, while opposite them sat the great duke himself.
By his side was a young man of five and twenty with a white face and weak chin, and glassy, meaningless eyes. I turned to my companion and asked in a low tone who he was. Her whispered answer caused me to start with surprise, and I turned to her with a question.
"But why is he in Madrid?"
"Oh, as to that," said my friend, smiling, "you must ask Desiree."
"And who is Desiree?"
"What! You do not know Desiree! Impossible!" she exclaimed.
"My dear," said I, "you must remember that for the past year and a half I have been buried in the land of pork and gold. The gossip there is neither of the poet nor the court. I am ignorant of everything."
"You would not have been so much longer," said my friend, "for Desiree is soon going to America. Who is she? No one knows. What is she? Well, she is all things to some men, and some things to all men. She is a courtesan among queens and a queen among courtesans.
"She dances and loves, and, I presume, eats and sleeps. For the past two years she has bewitched him"—she pointed down the drive to where the royal coach was disappearing in the distance—"and he has given her everything.
"It was for her that the Duke of Bellarmine built the magnificent chalet of which I was telling you on Lake Lucerne. You remember that Prince Dolansky shot himself 'for political reasons' in his Parisian palace? But for Desiree he would be alive to-day. She is a witch and a she-devil, and the most completely fascinating woman in the world."
"What a reputation! And you say she is going to America?"
"Yes. It is to be supposed that she has heard that every American is a king, and it is no wonder if she is tired of only one royal lover at a time. And listen, Paul—"
"You—you must not meet her. Oh, but you do not know her power!"
I laughed and pressed her hand, assuring her that I had no intention of allowing myself to be bewitched by a she-devil; but as our carriage turned and started back down the long drive toward the hotel I found myself haunted by the white face and staring eyes of the young man in the royal coach.
I stayed two weeks longer in Madrid. At the end of that time, finding myself completely bored (for no woman can possibly be amusing for more than a month at a time), I bade my friend au revoir and departed for the East. But I found myself just too late for an archeological expedition into the heart of Egypt, and after a tiresome week or so in Cairo and Constantinople I again turned my face toward the west.
At Rome I met an old friend, one Pierre Janvour, in the French diplomatic service, and since I had nothing better to do I accepted his urgent invitation to join him on a vacation trip to Paris.
But the joys of Paris are absurd to a man of thirty-two who has seen the world and tasted it and judged it. Still I found some amusement; Janvour had a pretty wife and a daughter eight years old, daintily beautiful, and I allowed myself to become soaked in domestic sentiment.
I really found myself on the point of envying him; Mme. Janvour was a most excellent housekeeper and manager. Little Eugenie and I would often walk together in the public gardens, and now and then her mother would join us; and, as I say, I found myself on the point of envying my friend Janvour.
This diversion would have ended soon in any event; but it was brought to an abrupt termination by a cablegram from my New York lawyers, asking me to return to America at once. Some rascality it was, on the part of the agent of my estate, which had alarmed them; the cablegram was bare of detail. At any rate, I could not afford to disregard it, and arranged passage on a liner sailing from Cherbourg the following day.
My hostess gave me a farewell dinner, which heightened my regret at being forced to leave, and little Eugenie seemed really grieved at my departure. It is pleasant to leave a welcome behind you; that is really the only necessary axiom of the traveler.
Janvour took me to the railroad station, and even offered to accompany me to Cherbourg; but I refused to tear him away from his little paradise.
We stood on the platform arguing the matter, when I suddenly became aware of that indistinct flutter and bustle seen in public places at some unusual happening or the unexpected arrival of a great personage.
I turned and saw that which was worthy of the interest it had excited.
In the first place, the daintiest little electric brougham in the world, fragile and delicate as a toy—a fairy's chariot. Then the fairy herself descended. She cannot be described in detail.
I caught a glimpse of glorious golden hair, softly massive; gray-blue eyes shot with lightning, restless, devouring, implacable, indescribably beautiful; a skin wondrously fine, with the purity of marble and the warmth of velvet; nose and mouth rather too large, but perfectly formed and breathing the fire and power of love. Really it was rather later that I saw all this; at the time there was but a confused impression of elegance and beauty and terrible power.
She passed from the brougham to her railway carriage supremely unconscious of the hundreds of eyes turned on her, and a general sigh of satisfaction and appreciation came from the throng as she disappeared within her compartment. I turned to Janvour.
"Who is she?"
"What?" he exclaimed in surprise. "But my dear Lamar, not to know her argues one a barbarian."
"Nevertheless, I do not know her."
"Well, you will have an opportunity. She is going to America, and, since she is on this train, she will, of course, take the same boat as yourself. But, my friend, beware!"
"But who is she?"
"Desiree Le Mire."
BEGINNING THE DANCE.
It developed, luckily for me, that my lawyers had allowed themselves to become unduly excited over a trifle. A discrepancy had been discovered in my agent's accounts; it was clearly established that he had been speculating; but the fellow's excessive modesty and moderation had saved me from any serious inconvenience or loss.
Some twenty thousand or so was the amount, and I did not even put myself to the trouble of recovering it. I placed a friend of mine, a plodder and one of those chaps who are honest on account of lack of imagination, in the position thus vacated and sighed with mild relief.
My experiment with Harry had proved a complete success. Left to the management of his own affairs, he had shown a wisdom and restraint none the less welcome because unexpected. He was glad to see me, and I was no less glad to see him.
There was little new in town.
Bob Garforth, having gambled away his entire patrimony, had shot and killed himself on the street; Mrs. Ludworth had publicly defied gossip and smiled with favor on young Driscoll; the new director of the Metropolitan Museum had announced himself an enemy to tradition and a friend of progress; and Desiree Le Mire had consented to a two weeks' engagement at the Stuyvesant.
The French dancer was the favorite topic of discussion in all circles.
The newspapers were full of her and filled entire columns with lists of the kings, princes, and dukes who had been at her feet.
Bets were made on her nationality, the color of her eyes, the value of her pearls, the number of suicides she had caused—corresponding, in some sort, to the notches on the gun of a Western bad man. Gowns and hats were named for her by the enterprising department stores.
It was announced that her engagement at the Stuyvesant would open in ten days, and when the box-office opened for the advance sale every seat for every performance was sold within a few hours.
In the mean time the great Le Mire kept herself secluded in her hotel. She had appeared but once in the public dining-room, and on that occasion had nearly caused a riot, whereupon she had discreetly withdrawn. She remained unseen while the town shouted itself hoarse.
I had not mentioned her name to Harry, nor had I heard him speak of her, until one evening about two weeks after my return.
We were at dinner and had been discussing some commonplace subject, from which, by one of the freaks of association, the conversation veered and touched on classical dancing.
"The Russians are preeminent," said I, "because they possess both the inspiration—the fire—and the training. In no other nation or school are the two so perfectly joined. In the Turkish dancers there is perfect grace and freedom, but no life. In Desiree Le Mire, for example, there is indeed life; but she has not had the necessary training."
"What? Le Mire! Have you seen her?" cried Harry.
"Not on the stage," I answered; "but I crossed on the same ship with her, and she was kind enough to give me a great deal of her time. She seems to understand perfectly her own artistic limitations, and I am taking her word for it."
But Harry was no longer interested in the subject of dancing. I was besieged on the instant with a thousand questions.
Had I known Le Mire long? What was she like? Was it true that Prince Dolansky had shot himself in despair at losing her? Was she beautiful? How well did I know her? Would I take him to see her?
And within half an hour the last question was repeated so many times and with such insistence that I finally consented and left Harry delighted beyond words.
My own experience with Desiree Le Mire had been anything but exciting. The woman was interesting; there could be no doubt of that; but she possessed little attraction for me. Her charms, on close inspection, were really quite too evident.
I require subtlety in a woman, and so far as I could discover Le Mire knew not the meaning of the word. We had spent many hours during the trip across in pleasant companionship; she had done me the honor to tell me that she found my conversation amusing; and, after all, she was undeniably a pretty woman. She had invited me with evident sincerity to call on her in New York; but I had not as yet taken advantage of the invitation.
I did not then think, and I do not now believe, that I acted foolishly when I took Harry to see her. In any event, he would have seen her sooner or later, and since all temptations meet us at one time or another, it is best to have it out with them at as early a date as possible. At the time, indeed, I gave the subject no thought whatever; but if I had I should not have hesitated.
We took tea with her the following afternoon in her apartment, and I must confess that I myself was more than a little impressed when I entered. I realized then that on the ship nothing had been in her favor; she had been completely out of her element, and she was not a good sailor.
Here all was different. The stiffly ostentatious hotel rooms, by her own genius or that of her maid, had been transformed into something very nearly approaching perfection. I was amazed at the excellent taste displayed in her furniture and its arrangement, for it was clear that these were no hotel properties. Certainly a woman is at her best only when she is able to choose or create her own surroundings.
Harry was captivated, and I can scarcely blame him. But the poor lad betrayed himself so frankly! Though I suppose Le Mire was more or less accustomed to immediate surrender.
On that day, at least, she had reason to expect it. She satisfied the eye, which is saying a great deal and is the highest praise possible for a woman's beauty, when you consider the full strength of the word.
She was radiant, adorable, irresistible; I had to own that my first impression of her had been far too weak.
We talked for an hour. Harry had little to say as he sat devouring Le Mire with his eyes, and whenever she turned to him for an answer to a question or confirmation of an opinion he stammered and kept his composure with difficulty. Never, I suppose, did woman have clearer evidence of her power, nor sweeter, for Harry was by no means a fool to be carried away by the first pretty face that came in his way.
She simply overwhelmed him, and I repeat that I do not wonder at it, for my own pulse was not exactly steady. She asked us to dine with her.
I pleaded an engagement at the club and signed to Harry to do likewise; but he was completely gone and paid no attention to me.
He accepted the invitation gratefully, with frank delight, and I left them together.
It was about ten o'clock when he came home that evening. I was seated in the library and, hearing him enter the hall, called to him.
What a face was his! His lips trembled with nervous feeling, his eyes glowed like the eyes of a madman. I half started from my chair in amazement.
"I have no time," said he in answer to my invitation to join me with a bottle. "I have a letter or two to write, and—and I must get some sleep."
"Did you just leave Le Mire?"
I looked at my watch.
"What under the sun did you find to talk about?"
"Oh, anything—nothing. I say, she's charming."
His essay at indifference was amusing.
"You find her so?"
"She seems to have taken a fancy to you."
Harry actually grew red.
"Hardly," he said; but there was hope in the word.
"She is hardly your kind, Harry. You know that. You aren't going in for this sort of thing?"
"This sort—I don't know what you mean."
"Yes, you do, Hal. You know exactly what I mean. To put the thing plainly, Le Mire is a dangerous woman—none more so in all the world; and, Harry boy, be sure you keep your head and watch your step."
He stood for a moment looking at me in silence with a half-angry frown, then opened his mouth as though to speak, and finally turned, without a word, and started for the door. There he turned again uncertainly, hesitating.
"I am to ride with Desiree in the morning," said he, and the next moment was gone.
He called her Desiree!
I think I smiled for an hour over that; and, though my reflections were not free from apprehension, I really felt but little anxiety. Not that I underrated Le Mire's fascination and power; to confess the truth, my ease of mind was the result of my own vanity. Le Mire had flattered me into the belief that she was my friend.
A week passed—a dull week, during which I saw little of Harry and Le Mire not at all. At the time, I remember, I was interested in some chemical experiments—I am a dabbler with the tubes—and went out but little. Then—this was on Friday—Harry sought me out in the laboratory to tell me he was going away. In answer to my question, "Where?" he said, "I don't know."
"How long will you be gone?"
"Oh, a week—perhaps a month."
I looked at him keenly, but said nothing. It would have done no good to force him into an equivocation by questions. Early the next morning he departed, with three trunks, and with no further word to me save a farewell. No sooner was he gone than I started for the telephone to call up Le Mire; but thought better of it and with a shrug of the shoulders returned to the laboratory.
It was the following Monday that was to see the first appearance of Le Mire at the Stuyvesant. I had not thought of going, but on Monday afternoon Billy Du Mont telephoned me that he had an extra ticket and would like to have me join him. I was really a little curious to see Le Mire perform and accepted.
We dined at the club and arrived at the theater rather late. The audience was brilliant; indeed, though I had been an ardent first-nighter for a year or two in my callow youth, I think I have never seen such a representation of fashion and genius in America, except at the opera.
Billy and I sat in the orchestra—about the twelfth row—and half the faces in sight were well known to me. Whether Le Mire could dance or not, she most assuredly was, or had, a good press-agent. We were soon to receive an exemplification of at least a portion of the reputation that had preceded her.
Many were the angry adjectives heaped on the head of the dancer on that memorable evening. Mrs. Frederick Marston, I remember, called her an insolent hussy; but then Mrs. Frederick Marston was never original. Others: rash, impudent, saucy, impertinent; in each instance accompanied by threats.
Indeed, it is little wonder if those people of fashion and wealth and position were indignant and sore. For they had dressed and dined hastily and come all the way down-town to see Le Mire; they waited for her for two hours and a half in stuffy theater seats, and Le Mire did not appear.
The announcement was finally made by the manager of the theater at a little before eleven-o'clock. He could not understand, he said—the poor fellow was on the point of wringing his hands with agitation and despair—he could not understand why the dancer did not arrive.
She had rehearsed in the theater on the previous Thursday afternoon, and had then seemed to have every intention of fulfilling her engagement. No one connected with the theater had seen her since that time, but everything had gone smoothly; they had had no reason to fear such a contretemps as her nonappearance.
They had sent to her hotel; she was gone, bag and baggage. She had departed on Friday, leaving no word as to her destination. They had asked the police, the hotels, the railroads, the steamship companies—and could find no trace of her.
The manager only hoped—he hoped with all his heart—that his frank and unreserved explanation would appease his kind patrons and prevent their resentment; that they would understand—
I made my way out of the theater as rapidly as possible, with Billy Du Mont at my side, and started north on Broadway.
My companion was laughing unrestrainedly.
"What a joke!" he exclaimed. "And gad, what a woman! She comes in and turns the town upside down and then leaves it standing on its head. What wouldn't I give to know her!"
I nodded, but said nothing. At Forty-Second Street we turned east to Fifth Avenue, and a few minutes later were at the club. I took Du Mont to a secluded corner of the grill, and there, with a bottle of wine between us, I spoke.
"Billy," said I, "there's the deuce to pay. You're an old friend of mine, and you possess a share of discretion, and you've got to help me. Le Mire is gone. I must find her."
"Find Le Mire?" He stared at me in amazement. "What for?"
"Because my brother Harry is with her."
Then I explained in as few words as possible, and I ended, I think, with something like this:
"You know, Billy, there are very few things in the world I consider of any value. She can have the lad's money, and, if necessary, my own into the bargain. But the name of Lamar must remain clean; and I tell you there is more than a name in danger. Whoever that woman touches she kills. And Harry is only a boy."
Billy helped me, as I knew he would; nor did he insist on unnecessary details. I didn't need his assistance in the search, for I felt that I could accomplish that as well alone.
But it was certainly known that Harry had been calling on Le Mire at her hotel; conjectures were sure to be made, leading to the assertions of busy tongues; and it was the part of my friend to counteract and smother the inevitable gossip. This he promised to do; and I knew Billy. As for finding Harry, it was too late to do anything that night, and I went home and to bed.
The next morning I began by calling at her hotel. But though the manager of the theater had gotten no information from them, he had pumped them dry. They knew nothing.
I dared not go to the police, and probably they would have been unable to give me any assistance if I had sought it. The only other possible source of information I disliked to use; but after racking my brain for the better part of the day I decided that there was nothing else for it, and started on a round of the ticket offices of the railroads and steamship companies.
I had immediate success. My first call was at the office where Harry and I were accustomed to arrange our transportation. As I entered the head clerk—or whatever they call him—advanced to greet me with a smile.
"Yes," said he in response to my question; "Mr. Lamar got his tickets from me. Let's see—Thursday, wasn't it? No, Friday. That's right—Friday."
"Tickets!" I muttered to myself. And in my preoccupation I really neglected to listen to him. Then aloud: "Where were the—tickets for?"
"For Friday's train?"
"Yes. The Western Express."
That was all I wanted to know. I hurried home, procured a couple of hastily packed bags, and took the afternoon train for the West.
A MODERN MARANA.
My journey westward was an eventful one; but this is not a "History of Tom Jones," and I shall refrain from detail. Denver I reached at last, after a week's stop-over in Kansas City. It was a delightful adventure—but it had nothing to do with the story.
I left the train at the Rocky Mountain city about the middle of the afternoon. And now, what to do? I think I am not a fool, but I certainly lack the training of a detective, and I felt perfectly rudderless and helpless as I ordered the taxi-driver to take me to the Alcazar Hotel.
I was by no means sure that Harry had come to Denver. He was traveling with a bundle of animated caprice, a creature who would have hauled him off the train at Rahway, New Jersey, if she had happened to take a fancy to the place. At the moment, I reflected, they might be driving along Michigan Boulevard, or attending a matinee at the Willis Wood, or sipping mint juleps at the Planters'.
Even if they were in Denver, how was I to find them? I keenly regretted the week I had lost. I was sure that Harry would avoid any chance of publicity and would probably shun the big hotels. And Denver is not a village.
It was the beauty of Le Mire that saved me. Indeed, I might have foreseen that; and I have but poorly portrayed the force of her unmatchable fascination unless you have realized that she was a woman who could pass nowhere without being seen; and, seen, remembered.
I made inquiries of the manager of the hotel, of course, but was brought up sharply when he asked me the names of my friends for whom I was asking. I got out of it somehow, some foolish evasion or other, and regarded my task as more difficult than ever.
That same evening I dined at the home of my cousin, Hovey Stafford, who had come West some years before on account of weak lungs, and stayed because he liked it. I met his wife that evening for the first time; she may be introduced with the observation that if she was his reason for remaining in the provinces, never did man have a better one.
We were on the veranda with our after-dinner cigars. I was congratulating Hovey on the felicity of his choice and jocularly sympathizing with his wife.
"Yes," said my cousin, with a sigh, "I never regretted it till last week. It will never be the same again."
Mrs. Hovey looked at him with supreme disdain.
"I suppose you mean Senora Ramal," said she scornfully.
Her husband, feigning the utmost woe, nodded mournfully; whereupon she began humming the air of the Chanson du Colonel, and was stopped by a smothering kiss.
"And who is the Senora Ramal?" I asked.
"The most beautiful woman in the world," said Mrs. Hovey.
This from a woman who was herself beautiful! Amazing! I suppose my face betrayed my thought.
"It isn't charity," she smiled. "Like John Holden, I have seen fire-balloons by the hundred, I have seen the moon, and—then I saw no more fire-balloons."
"But who is she?"
Hovey explained. "She is the wife of Senor Ramal. They came here some ten days ago, with letters to one or two of the best families, and that's all we know about them. The senora is an entrancing mixture of Cleopatra, Sappho, Helen of Troy, and the devil. She had the town by the ears in twenty-four hours, and you wouldn't wonder at it if you saw her."
Already I felt that I knew, but I wanted to make sure.
"Byron has described her," I suggested, "in Childe Harold."
"Hardly," said Hovey. "No midnight beauty for hers, thank you. Her hair is the most perfect gold. Her eyes are green; her skin remarkably fair. What she may be is unknowable, but she certainly is not Spanish; and, odder still, the senor himself fits the name no better."
But I thought it needless to ask for a description of Harry; for I had no doubt of the identity of Senor Ramal and his wife. I pondered over the name, and suddenly realized that it was merely "Lamar" spelled backward!
The discovery removed the last remaining shadow of doubt.
I asked in a tone of assumed indifference for their hotel, expressing a desire to meet them—and was informed by Hovey that they had left Denver two days previously, nor did he know where they had gone.
Thus did I face another obstacle. But I was on the track; and the perfume of a woman's beauty is the strongest scent in the world as well as the sweetest. I thanked my cousin for a pleasant evening—though he did not know the extent of my debt to him—and declined his urgent invitation to have my luggage brought to his home.
On my way to the hotel I was struck by a sudden thought: Senor Ramal could not be my brother or my cousin would have recognized him! But I immediately reflected that the two had not seen each other for some ten years, at which time Harry had been a mere boy.
The following morning, with little difficulty, I ascertained the fact that the Ramals had departed—at least ostensibly—for Colorado Springs.
I followed. That same evening, when I registered at the Antlers Hotel, a few minutes before the dinner hour, I turned over two pages of the book, and there before me was the entry, "Senor and Senora Ramal, Paris." It was in Harry's handwriting.
After dinner—a most excellent dinner, with melons from La Junta and trout from the mountain streams—I descended on the hotel clerk with questions. He was most obliging—a sharp, pleasant fellow, with prominent ears and a Rocky Mountain twang.
"Senor and Senora Ramal? Most assuredly, sir. They have been here several days. No, they are not now in the hotel. They left this afternoon for Manitou, to take dinner there, and are going to make the night trip up the Peak."
An idea immediately suggested itself to me. They would, of course, return to the hotel in the morning. All I had to do was to sit down and wait for them; but that would have been dull sport. My idea was better.
I sought out the hotel's wardrobe—there is nothing the Antlers will not do for you—and clothed myself in khaki, leggings, and boots. Then I ordered a car and set out for Manitou, at the foot of the mountain.
By ten o'clock I was mounted on a donkey, headed for the top, after having been informed by a guide that "the man and the beautiful lady" had departed an hour previous.
Having made the ascent twice before, I needed no guide. So I decided; but I regretted the decision. Three times I lost the path; once I came perilously near descending on the village below—well, without hesitation. It was well after midnight when I passed the Half-way House, and I urged my donkey forward with a continual rat-a-tat-tat of well-directed kicks in the effort to make my goal.
You who have experienced the philosophical calm and superb indifference of the Pike's Peak donkey may imagine the vocabulary I used on this occasion—I dare not print it. Nor did his speed increase.
I was, in fact, a quarter of an hour late. I was still several hundred yards from the summit when the sun's first rays shot through the thin atmosphere, creating colorful riot among the clouds below, and I stopped, holding my breath in awe.
There is no art nor poetry in that wonderful sight; it is glorious war. The sun charges forth in a vast flame of inconceivable brilliance; you can almost hear the shout of victory. He who made the universe is no artist; too often He forgets restraint, and blinds us.
I turned, almost regretting that I had come, for I had been put out of tune with my task. Then I mounted the donkey and slowly traversed the few remaining yards to the Peak.
There, seated in the dazzling sunshine on the edge of a huge boulder near the eastern precipice, were the two I sought.
Le Mire's head was turned from me as she sat gazing silently at the tumbling, gorgeous mass of clouds that seemed almost to be resting on her lap; Harry was looking at her. And such a look!
There was no rival even in nature that could conquer Le Mire; never, I believe, did woman achieve a more notable victory than hers of that morning. I watched them for several minutes before I moved or spoke; and never once did Harry's eyes leave her face.
Then I advanced a step, calling his name; and they turned and caught sight of me.
"Paul!" cried Harry, leaping to his feet; then he stopped short and stared at me half defiantly, half curiously, moving close to Le Mire and placing his hand on her shoulder like a child clinging to a toy.
His companion had not moved, except to turn her head; but after the first swift shadow of surprise her face brightened with a smile of welcome, for all the world as though this were a morning call in her boudoir.
"Senor and Senora Ramal, I believe?" said I with a smile, crossing to them with an exaggerated bow.
I could see Harry cocking his ear to catch the tone of my first words, and when he heard their friendliness a grin overspread his face. He took his hand from Le Mire's shoulder and held it out to me.
"How did you come here? How did you find us?"
"You forgot to provide Le Mire with a veil," said I by way of answer.
Harry looked at me, then at his companion. "Of course," he agreed—"of course. By Jove! that was stupid of us."
Whereupon Le Mire laughed with such frank enjoyment of the boy's simplicity that I couldn't help but join her.
"And now," said Harry, "I suppose you want to know—"
"I want to know nothing—at present," I interrupted. "It's nearly six o'clock, and since ten last night I've been on top of the most perfectly imbecile donkey ever devised by nature. I want breakfast."
Velvet lids were upraised from Le Mire's eyes. "Here?" she queried.
I pointed to the place—extreme charity might give it the title of inn—where smoke was rising from a tin chimney.
Soon we were seated inside with a pot of steaming black coffee before us. Harry was bubbling over with gaiety and good will, evidently occasioned by my unexpected friendliness, while Le Mire sat for the most part silent. It was easy to see that she was more than a little disturbed by my arrival, which surprised me.
I gazed at her with real wonder and increasing admiration. It was six in the morning; she had had no sleep, and had just finished a most fatiguing journey of some eight hours; but I had never seen her so beautiful.
Our host approached, and I turned to him:
"What have you?"
There was pity in his glance.
"Aigs," said he, with an air of finality.
"Ah!" said Le Mire. "I want them—let's see—au beurre noire, if you please."
The man looked at her and uttered the single word: "Fried."
"Fried?" said she doubtfully.
"Only fried," was the inexorable answer. "How many?"
Le Mire turned to me, and I explained. Then she turned again to the surly host with a smile that must have caused him to regret his gruffness.
"Well, then, fr-r-ied!" said she, rolling the "r" deliciously. "And you may bring me five, if you please."
It appeared that I was not the only hungry one. We ate leisurely and smoked more leisurely still, and started on our return journey a little before eight o'clock.
It was late in the afternoon when we arrived at the Antlers. The trip was accomplished without accident, but Le Mire was thoroughly exhausted and Harry was anything but fresh. That is the worst of mountain climbing: the exaltation at the summit hardly pays you for the reaction at the foot. We entered the broad portico with frank sighs of relief.
I said something about joining them at dinner and left for my own rooms.
At dinner that evening Harry was in high spirits and took great delight in everything that was said, both witty and dull, while Le Mire positively sparkled.
She made her impression; not a man in the well-filled room but sent his tribute of admiring glances as she sat seemingly unconscious of all but Harry and myself. That is always agreeable; a man owes something to the woman who carries a room for him.
I had intended to have a talk with Harry after dinner, but I postponed it; the morning would assuredly be better. There was dancing in the salon, but we were all too tired to take advantage of it; and after listening to one or two numbers, during which Le Mire was kept busy turning aside the importunities of would-be partners, we said good night and sought our beds.
It was late the next morning when the precious pair joined me in the garden, and when we went in for breakfast we found the dining-room quite empty. We did not enjoy it as on the morning previous; the cuisine was of the kind usually—and in this case justly—described as "superior," but we did not have the same edge on our appetite.
We were not very talkative; I myself was almost taciturn, having before me the necessity of coming to an understanding with Harry, a task which I was far from relishing. But there were certain things I must know.
"What do you say to a ride down the valley?" said Harry. "They have excellent horses here; I tried one of 'em the other day."
"I trust that they bear no resemblance to my donkey," said I with feeling.
"Ugh!" said Le Mire with a shudder. "Never shall I forget that ride. Besides," she added, turning to Harry, "this morning I would be in the way. Don't you know that your brother has a thousand things to say to you? He wants to scold you; you must remember that you are a very bad boy."
And she sent me a glance half defiant, half indifferent, which plainly said: "If I fight you, I shall win; but I really care very little about it one way or the other."
After breakfast she went to her room—to have her hair dressed, she said—and I led Harry to a secluded corner of the magnificent grounds surrounding the hotel. During the walk we were both silent: Harry, I suppose, was wondering what I was going to say, while I was trying to make up my own mind.
"I suppose," he began abruptly, "you are going to tell me I have acted like a fool. Go ahead; the sooner it's over the better."
"Nothing of the sort," said I, glad that he had opened it.
He stopped short, demanding to know what I meant.
"Of course," I continued, "Le Mire is a most amazing prize. Not exactly my style perhaps, but there are few men in the world who wouldn't envy you. I congratulate you.
"But there were two things I feared for several reasons—Le Mire's fascination, your own youth and impulsive recklessness, and the rather curious mode of your departure. I feared first and most that you would marry her; second, that you would achieve odium and publicity for our name."
Harry was regarding me with a smile which had in it very little of amusement; it held a tinge of bitterness.
"And so," he burst out suddenly, "you were afraid I would marry her! Well, I would. The last time I asked her"—again the smile—"was this morning."
"She won't have me."
"Bah!" I concealed my surprise, for I had really not thought it possible that the lad could be such a fool. "What's her game, Harry?"
"Game the deuce! I tell you she won't have me."
"You have asked her?"
"A thousand times. I've begged her on my knees. Offered her—anything."
"And she refuses?"
I stared at him for a moment in silence. Then I said: "Go and get her and bring her here. I'll find out what she wants," and sat down on a bench to wait. Harry departed for the hotel without a word.
In a few minutes he returned with Le Mire. I rose and proffered her a seat on the bench, which she accepted with a smile, and Harry sat down at her side. I stood in front of them.
"Le Mire," said I, and I believe I frowned, "my brother tells me that you have been offered the name of Lamar in marriage."
"I have thanked him for it," said she with a smile.
"And declined it."
"And—declined it," she agreed.
"Well," said I, "I am not a man of half measures, as you will soon see, Le Mire. Besides, I appreciate your power. On the day," I continued with slow precision—"on the day that you give me a contract to adhere to that refusal you may have my check for one million dollars."
She surprised me; I admit it. I had expected a burst of anger, with a touch of assumed hauteur; the surrender to follow, for I had made the stake high. But as I stood looking down at her, waiting for the flash of her eye, I was greeted by a burst of laughter—the frank laughter of genuine mirth. Then she spoke:
"Oh, you Americans! You are so funny! A million dollars! It is impossible that I should be angry after such a compliment. Besides, you are so funny! Do you not know Le Mire? Am I not a princess if I desire it—tomorrow—today? Bah! There is the world—is it not mine? Mrs. Lamar? Ugh! Pardon me, my friend, but it is an ugly name.
"You know my ancestors? De L'Enclos, Montalais, Maintenon, La Marana! They were happy—in their way—and they were great. I must do nothing unworthy of them. Set your mind at rest, Mr. Lamar; but, really, you should have known better—you who have seen the world and Le Mire in Paris! And now our amusement is perhaps ended? Now we must return to that awful New York? Voila!"
Indeed I had not understood her. And how could I? There is only one such woman in a generation; sometimes none, for nature is sparing of her favorites. By pure luck she sat before me, this twentieth-century Marana, and I acknowledged her presence with a deep bow of apology and admiration.
"If you will forgive me, madame," I said, "I will—not attempt to make reparation, for my words were not meant for you. Consider them unspoken. As for our amusement, why need it end? Surely, we can forget? I see plainly I am not a St. Evremond, but neither am I a fool. My brother pleases you—well, there he is. As for myself, I shall either stay to take care of you two children, or I shall return to New York, as you desire."
Le Mire looked at me uncertainly for a moment, then turned to Harry and with a fluttering gesture took his hand in her own and patted it gaily. Then she laughed the happy laugh of a child as she said:
"Then it is well! And, monsieur, you are less an American than I thought. By all means, stay—we shall be so jolly! Will we not, my little friend?"
Harry nodded, smiling at her. But there was a troubled look in his face.
The events of the month that followed, though exciting enough, were of a similarity that would make their narration tedious, and I shall pass over them as speedily as possible.
We remained at Colorado Springs only two days after that morning in the garden. Le Mire, always in search of novelty, urged us away, and, since we really had nothing in view save the satisfaction of her whims, we consented. Salt Lake City was our next resting-place, but Le Mire tired of it in a day.
"I shall see the Pacific," she said to Harry and me, and we immediately set out for San Francisco.
Is it necessary for me to explain my attitude? But surely it explains itself. For one thing, I was disinclined to leave Harry in a position where he was so abundantly unable to take care of himself. For another, I take amusement wherever it offers itself, and I was most certainly not bored.
The vagaries and caprices of a beautiful woman are always interesting, and when you are allowed to study them at close range without being under the necessity of acting the part of a faithful lover they become doubly so.
Le Mire managed Harry with wonderful tact and finesse; I sat back and laughed at the performance, now and then applying a check when her riotous imagination seemed likely to run away with us.
At San Francisco she achieved a triumph, notorious to the point of embarrassment. Paul Lamar, of New York, had introduced himself into the highest circle of society, and in turn had introduced his friends, Senor and Senora Ramal. The senora captured the town in a single night at a reception and ball on Telegraph Hill.
The day following there were several dozens of cards left for her at our hotel; invitations arrived by the score. She accepted two or three and made the fortune of two drawing-rooms; then suddenly tired of the sport and insulted a most estimable lady, our hostess, by certain remarks which inadvertently reached the ears of the lady's husband.
"You have done for yourself, Le Mire," I told her.
She answered me with a smile—straightway proceeded to issue invitations for an "entertainment" at our hotel. I had no idea what she meant to do; but gave the thing no thought, feeling certain that few, or none, of the invitations would be accepted—wherein I was badly mistaken, for not one was refused.
Well, Le Mire danced for them.
For myself it was barely interesting; I have passed the inner portals of the sacred temples of India, and the human body holds no surprises for me. But the good people of San Francisco were shocked, astonished, and entranced. Not a man in the room but was Le Mire's slave; even the women were forced to applaud. She became at once a goddess and an outcast.
The newspapers of the following morning were full of it, running the scale of eulogy, admiration, and wonder. And one of the articles, evidently written by a man who had been considerably farther east than San Francisco, ended with the following paragraph:
In short, it was sublime, and with every movement and every gesture there was a something hidden, a suggestion of a personality and mysterious charm that we have always heretofore considered the exclusive property of just one woman in the world. But Desiree Le Mire is not in San Francisco; though we declare that the performance of last evening was more than enough to rouse certain suspicions, especially in view of Le Mire's mysterious disappearance from New York.
I took the paper to Desiree in her room, and while she read the article stood gazing idly from a window. It was about eleven in the morning; Harry had gone for a walk, saying that he would return in half an hour to join us at breakfast.
"Well?" said Desiree when she had finished.
"But it is not well," I retorted, turning to face her. "I do not reproach you; you are being amused, and so, I confess, am I. But your name—that is, Le Mire—has been mentioned, and discovery is sure to follow. We must leave San Francisco at once."
"But I find it entertaining."
"Nevertheless, we must leave."
"But if I choose to stay?"
"No; for Harry would stay with you."
"Well, then—I won't go."
"Le Mire, you will go?"
She sent me a flashing glance, and for a moment I half expected an explosion. Then, seeming to think better of it, she smiled:
"But where? We can't go west without falling into the ocean, and I refuse to return. Where?"
"Then we'll take the ocean."
She looked up questioningly, and I continued:
"What would you say to a yacht—a hundred and twenty foot steamer, with a daredevil captain and the coziest little cabins in the world?"
"Bah!" Le Mire snapped her fingers to emphasize her incredulity. "It does not exist."
"But it does. Afloat and in commission, to be had for the asking and the necessary check. Dazzling white, in perfect order, a second Antoine for a chef, rooms furnished as you would your own villa. What do you say?"
"Really?" asked Le Mire with sparkling eyes.
"Here—in San Francisco?"
"In the harbor. I saw her myself this morning."
"Then I say—allons! Ah, my friend, you are perfection! I want to see it. Now! May I? Come!"
I laughed at her eager enthusiasm as she sprang up from her chair.
"Le Mire, you are positively a baby. Something new to play with! Well, you shall have it. But you haven't had breakfast. We'll go out to see her this afternoon; in fact, I have already made an appointment with the owner."
"Ah! Indeed, you are perfection. And—how well you know me." She paused and seemed to be searching for words; then she said abruptly: "M. Lamar, I wish you to do me a favor."
"Anything, Le Mire, in or out of reason."
Again she hesitated; then:
"Do not call me Le Mire."
"But certainly, Senora Ramal. And what is the favor?"
"Do not call me Le Mire—nor Senora Ramal."
"Well, but I must address you occasionally."
"Call me Desiree."
I looked at her with a smile.
"But I thought that that was reserved for your particular friends."
"So it is."
"Then, my dear senora, it would be impertinent of me."
"But if I request it?"
"I have said—anything in or out of reason. And, of course, I am one of the family."
"Is that the only reason?"
I began to understand her, and I answered her somewhat dryly: "My dear Desiree, there can be none other."
"Are you so—cold?"
"When I choose."
"Ah!" It was a sigh rather than an exclamation. "And yet, on the ship—do you remember? Look at me, M. Lamar. Am I not—am I so little worthy of a thought?"
Her lips were parted with tremulous feeling; her eyes glowed with a strange fire, and yet were tender. Indeed, she was "worthy of a thought"—dangerously so; I felt my pulse stir. It was necessary to assume a stoicism I was far from feeling, and I looked at her with a cynical smile and spoke in a voice as carefully deliberate as I could make it.
"Le Mire," I said, "I could love you, but I won't." And I turned and left her without another word.
Why? I haven't the slightest idea. It must have been my vanity. Some few men had conquered Le Mire; others had surrendered to her; certainly none had ever been able to resist her. There was a satisfaction in it. I walked about the lobby of the hotel till Harry returned, idiotically pleased with myself.
At the breakfast table I acquainted Harry with our plans for a cruise, and he was fully as eager about it as Le Mire had been. He wanted to weigh anchor that very afternoon. I explained that it was necessary to wait for funds from New York.
"How much?" said he. "I'm loaded."
"I've sent for a hundred thousand," said I.
"Are you going to buy her?" he demanded with astonishment.
Then we fell to a discussion of routes. Harry was for Hawaii; Le Mire for South America.
We tossed a coin.
"Heads," said Desiree, and so it fell.
I requested Le Mire to keep to the hotel as closely as possible for the days during which it was necessary for us to remain in San Francisco. She did so, but with an apparent effort.
I have never seen a creature so full of nervous energy and fire; only by severe restraint could she force herself to even a small degree of composure. Harry was with her nearly every minute, though what they found to talk about was beyond my comprehension. Neither was exactly bubbling over with ideas, and one cannot say "I love you" for twenty-four hours a day.
It was a cool, sunny day in the latter part of October when we weighed anchor and passed through the Golden Gate. I had leased the yacht for a year, and had made alternative plans in case Le Mire should tire of the sport, which I thought extremely probable.
She and Harry were delighted with the yacht, which was not surprising, for she was as perfect a craft as I have seen. Sides white as sea-foam; everything above decks of shining brass, below mahogany, and as clean and shipshape as a Dutch kitchen. There were five rooms besides the captain's, and a reception-room, dining-room, and library. We had provisioned her well, and had a jewel of a cook.
Our first port was Santa Catalina. We dropped anchor there at about five o'clock in the afternoon of such a day as only southern California can boast of, and the dingey was lowered to take us ashore.
"What is there?" asked Le Mire, pointing to the shore as we stood leaning on the rail waiting for the crew to place the ladder.
I answered: "Tourists."
Le Mire shrugged her shoulders. "Tourists? Bah! Merci, non. Allons!"
I laughed and went forward to the captain to tell him that madame did not approve of Santa Catalina. In another minute the dingey was back on its davits, the anchor up, and we were under way. Poor captain! Within a week he became used to Le Mire's sudden whims.
At San Diego we went ashore. Le Mire took a fancy to some Indian blankets, and Harry bought them for her; but when she expressed an intention to take an Indian girl—about sixteen or seventeen years old—aboard the yacht as a "companion," I interposed a firm negative. And, after all, she nearly had her way.
For a month it was "just one port after another." Mazatlan, San Bias, Manzanillo, San Salvador, Panama City—at each of these we touched, and visited sometimes an hour, sometimes two or three days. Le Mire was loading the yacht with all sorts of curious relics. Ugly or beautiful, useful or worthless, genuine or faked, it mattered not to her; if a thing suited her fancy she wanted it—and got it.
At Guayaquil occurred the first collision of wills. It was our second evening in port. We were dining on the deck of the yacht, with half a dozen South American generals and admirals as guests.
Toward the end of the dinner Le Mire suddenly became silent and remained for some minutes lost in thought; then, suddenly, she turned to the bundle of gold lace at her side with a question:
"Where is Guayaquil?"
He stared at her in amazement.
"It is there, senora," he said finally, pointing to the shore lined with twinkling lights.
"I know, I know," said Le Mire impatiently; "but where is it? In what country?"
The poor fellow, too surprised to be offended, stammered the name of his native land between gasps, while Harry and I had all we could do to keep from bursting into laughter.
"Ah," said Desiree in the tone of one who has made an important discovery, "I thought so. Ecuador. Monsieur, Quito is in Ecuador."
The general—or admiral, I forget which—acknowledged the correctness of her geography with a profound bow.
"But yes. I have often heard of Quito, monsieur. It is a very interesting place. I shall go to Quito."
There ensued immediately a babel. Each of our guests insisted on the honor of accompanying us inland, and the thing would most assuredly have ended in a bloody quarrel on the captain's polished deck, if I had not interposed in a firm tone:
"But, gentlemen, we are not going to Quito."
Le Mire looked at me—and such a look! Then she said in a tone of the utmost finality:
"I am going to Quito."
I shook my head, smiling at her, whereupon she became furious.
"M. Lamar," she burst forth, "I tell you I am going to Quito! In spite of your smile! Yes! Do you hear? I shall go!"
Without a word I took a coin from my pocket and held it up. I had come to know Le Mire. She frowned for a moment in an evident attempt to maintain her anger, then an irresistible smile parted her lips and she clapped her hands gaily.
"Very well," she cried, "toss, monsieur! Heads!"
The coin fell tails, and we did not go to Quito, much to the disappointment of our guests. Le Mire forgot all about it in ten minutes.
Five days later we dropped anchor at Callao.
This historic old port delighted Le Mire at once. I had told her something of its story: its successive bombardments by the liberators from Chile, the Spanish squadron, buccaneering expeditions from Europe and the Chilean invaders; not to mention earthquakes and tidal waves. We moored alongside the stone pier by the lighthouse; the old clock at its top pointed to the hour of eight in the morning.
But as soon as Le Mire found out that Lima was but a few miles away, Callao no longer held any interest for her. We took an afternoon train and arrived at the capital in time for dinner.
There it was, in picturesque old Lima, that Le Mire topped her career. On our first afternoon we betook ourselves to the fashionable paseo, for it was a band day, and all Lima was out.
In five minutes every eye in the gay and fashionable crowd was turned on Le Mire. Then, as luck would have it, I met, quite by chance, a friend of mine who had come to the University of San Marcos some years before as a professor of climatology. He introduced us, with an air of importance, to several of the groups of fashion, and finally to the president himself. That night we slept as guests under the roof of a luxurious and charming country house at Miraflores.
Le Mire took the capital by storm. Her style of beauty was peculiarly fitted for their appreciation, for pallor is considered a mark of beauty among Lima ladies. But that could scarcely account for her unparalleled triumph. I have often wondered—was it the effect of a premonition?
The president himself sat by her at the opera. There were two duels attributed to her within a week; though how the deuce that was possible is beyond me.
On society day at the bull-ring the cues were given by Le Mire; her hand flung the rose to the matador, while the eight thousand excited spectators seemed uncertain whether they were applauding her or him. Lima was hers, and never have I seen a fortnight so crowded with incidents.
But Le Mire soon tired of it, as was to be expected. She greeted me one morning at the breakfast table:
"My friend Paul, let us go to Cerro de Pasco. They have silver—thousands and thousands of tons—and what you call them? Ornaments."
"And then the Andes?" I suggested.
"But, my dear Desiree, what shall we do with the yacht?"
"Pooh! There is the captain. Come—shall I say please?"
So we went to Cerro de Pasco. I wrote to Captain Harris, telling him not to expect us for another month or so, and sending him sufficient funds to last till our return.
I verily believe that every one of note in Lima came to the railroad station to see us off.
Our compartment was a mass of flowers, which caused me to smile, for Le Mire, curiously enough, did not like them. When we had passed out of the city she threw them out of the window, laughing and making jokes at the expense of the donors. She was in the best of humor.
We arrived at Oroya late in the afternoon, and departed for Cerro de Pasco by rail on the following morning.
This ride of sixty-eight miles is unsurpassed in all the world. Snow-capped peaks, bottomless precipices, huge masses of boulders that seem ready to crush the train surround you on every side, and now and then are directly above or beneath you.
Le Mire was profoundly impressed; indeed, I had not supposed her to possess the sensibility she displayed; and as for me, I was most grateful to her for having suggested the trip. You who find yourselves too well-acquainted with the Rockies and the Alps and the Himalayas should try the Andes. There is a surprise waiting for you.
But for the story.
We found Cerro de Pasco, interesting as its situation is, far short of our expectations. It is a mining town, filled with laborers and speculators, noisy, dirty, and coarse. We had been there less than forty-eight hours when I declared to Harry and Le Mire my intention of returning at once.
"But the Andes!" said Le Mire. "Shall we not see them?"
"Well—there they are."
I pointed through the window of the hotel.
"Bah! And you call yourself a traveler? Look! The snow! My friend Paul, must I ask twice for a favor?"
Once again we tossed a coin.
Ah, if Le Mire had only seen the future! And yet—I often wonder—would she have turned her back? For the woman craved novelty and adventure, and the gameness of centuries was in her blood—well, she had her experience, which was shared only in part by Harry and myself.
Those snow-capped peaks! Little did we guess what they held for us. We were laughing, I remember, as we left behind us the edge of civilization represented by Cerro de Pasco.
We found it impossible to procure a complete outfit in the mining town, and were forced to despatch a messenger to Lima. He returned in two days with mules, saddles, saddle-bags, boots, leather leggings, knickerbockers, woolen ponchos, and scores of other articles which he assured us were absolutely necessary for any degree of comfort. By the time we were ready to start we had a good-sized pack-train on our hands.
The proprietor of the hotel found us an arriero, whom he declared to be the most competent and trustworthy guide in all the Andes—a long, loose-jointed fellow with an air of complete indifference habitually resting on his yellow, rather sinister-looking face. Le Mire did not like him, but I certainly preferred the hotel proprietor's experience and knowledge to her volatile fancy, and engaged the arriero on the spot.
Our outfit was complete, and everything in readiness, when Harry suddenly announced that he had decided not to go, nor to allow Le Mire to do so.
"I don't like it," he said in troubled tones. "I tell you, Paul, I don't like it. I've been talking to some of the miners and arrieros, and the thing is foolhardy and dangerous."
Then, seeing the expression on my face, he continued hastily: "Oh, not for myself. You know me; I'll do anything that any one else will do, and more, if I can. But Desiree! I tell you, if anything happened to her I—well—"
I cut him short:
"My dear boy, the idea is Desiree's own. And to talk of danger where she is concerned! She would laugh at you."
"She has," Harry confessed with a doubtful smile.
I clapped him roughly on the shoulder.
"Come, brace up! Our caravan awaits us—and see, the fairy, too. Are you ready, Desiree?"
She came toward us from the inner rooms of the hotel, smiling, radiant. I shall never forget the picture she presented. She wore white knickerbockers, a white jacket, tan-leather boots and leggings and a khaki hat.
Her golden hair, massed closely about her ears and upon her forehead, shimmered in the bright sun dazzlingly; her eyes sparkled; her little white teeth gleamed in a happy, joyous smile.
We lifted her to the back of her mule, then mounted our own. Suddenly a recollection shot through my brain with remarkable clearness, and I turned to Le Mire:
"Desiree, do you know the first time I ever saw you? It was in an electric brougham at the Gare du Nord. This is somewhat different, my lady."
"And infinitely more interesting," she answered. "Are you ready? See that stupid arriero! Ah! After all, he knew what he was about. Then, messieurs—allons!"
The arriero, receiving my nod uttered a peculiar whistle through his teeth. The mules pricked up their ears, then with one common movement started forward.
"Adios! Adios, senora! Adios, senores!"
With the cry of our late host sounding in our ears we passed down the narrow little street of Cerro de Pasco on our way to the snow-capped peaks of the Andes.
THE CAVE OF THE DEVIL.
You may remember that I made some remark concerning the difficulty of the ascent of Pike's Peak. Well, that is mere child's play—a morning constitutional compared to the paths we found ourselves compelled to follow in the great Cordillera.
Nor was it permitted us to become gradually accustomed to the danger; we had not been two hours out of Cerro de Pasco before we found ourselves creeping along a ledge so narrow there was scarcely room for the mules to place their hoofs together, over a precipice three thousand feet in the air—straight. And, added to this was the discomfort, amounting at times to positive pain, caused by the soroche.
Hardly ever did we find ground sufficiently broad for a breathing space, save when our arriero led us, almost by magic it seemed, to a camping place for the night. We would ascend the side of a narrow valley; on one hand roared a torrent some hundreds of feet below; on the other rose an uncompromising wall of rock. So narrow would be the track that as I sat astride my mule my outside leg would be hanging over the abyss.
But the grandeur, the novelty, and the variety of the scenery repaid us; and Le Mire loved the danger for its own sake. Time and again she swayed far out of her saddle until her body was literally suspended in the air above some frightful chasm, while she turned her head to laugh gaily at Harry and myself, who brought up the rear.
"But Desiree! If the girth should break!"
"Oh, but it won't."
"But if it should?"
"Tra-la-la! Come, catch me!"
And she would try to urge her mule into a trot—a futile effort, since the beast had a much higher regard for his skin than she had for hers; and the mule of the arriero was but a few feet ahead.
Thus we continued day after day, I can't say how many. There was a fascination about the thing that was irresistible. However high the peak we had ascended, another could be seen still higher, and that, too, must be scaled.
The infinite variety of the trail, its surprises, its new dangers, its apparent vanishings into thin air, only to be found, after an all but impossible curve, up the side of another cliff, coaxed us on and on; and when or where we would have been able to say, "thus far and no farther" is an undecided problem to this day.
About three o'clock one afternoon we camped in a small clearing at the end of a narrow valley. Our arriero, halting us at that early hour, had explained that there was no other camping ground within six hours' march, and no hacienda or pueblo within fifty miles. We received his explanation with the indifference of those to whom one day is like every other day, and amused ourselves by inspecting our surroundings while he prepared the evening meal and arranged the camp beds.
Back of us lay the trail by which we had approached—a narrow, sinuous ribbon clinging to the side of the huge cliffs like a snake fastened to a rock. On the left side, immediately above us, was a precipice some thousand feet in height; on the right a series of massive boulders, of quartzite and granite, misshapen and lowering.
There were three, I remember, placed side by side like three giant brothers; then two or three smaller ones in a row, and beyond these many others ranged in a mass unevenly, sometimes so close together that they appeared to be jostling one another out of the way.
For several days we had been in the region of perpetual snow; and soon we gathered about the fire which the arriero had kindled for our camp. Its warmth was grateful, despite our native woolen garments and heavy ponchos.
The wind whistled ominously; a weird, senseless sound that smote the ear with madness. The white of the snow and the dull gray of the rocks were totally unrelieved by any touch of green or play of water; a spot lonely as the human soul and terrifying as death.
Harry had gone to examine the hoofs of his mule, which had limped slightly during the afternoon; Le Mire and I sat side by side near the fire, gazing at the play of the flames. For some minutes we had been silent.
"In Paris, perhaps—" she began suddenly, then stopped short and became again silent.
But I was fast dropping into melancholy and wanted to hear her voice, and I said:
"Well? In Paris—"
She looked at me, her eyes curiously somber, but did not speak. I insisted:
"You were saying, Desiree, in Paris—"
She made a quick movement and laughed unpleasantly.
"Yes, my friend—but it is useless. I was thinking of you. 'Ah! A card! Mr. Paul Lamar. Show him in, Julie. But no, let him wait—I am not at home.' That, my friend, would be in Paris."
I stared at her.
"For Heaven's sake, Desiree, what nonsense is this?"
She disregarded my question as she continued:
"Yes, that is how it would be. Why do I talk thus? The mountains hypnotize me. The snow, the solitude—for I am alone. Your brother, what is he? And you, Paul, are scarcely aware of my existence.
"I had my opportunity with you, and I laughed it away. And as for the future—look! Do you see that waste of snow and ice, glittering, cold, pitiless? Ha! Well, that is my grave."
I tried to believe that she was merely amusing herself, but the glow in her eyes did not proceed from mirth. I followed her fixed gaze across the trackless waste and, shivering, demanded:
"What morbid fancy is this, Desiree? Come, it is scarcely pleasant."
She rose and crossed the yard or so of ground between us to my side. I felt her eyes above me, and try as I would I could not look up to meet them. Then she spoke, in a voice low but curiously distinct:
"Paul, I love you."
"My dear Desiree!"
"I love you."
At once I was myself, calm and smiling. I was convinced that she was acting, and I dislike to spoil a good scene. So I merely said:
"I am flattered, senora."
She sighed, placing her hand on my shoulder.
"You laugh at me. You are wrong. Have I chosen this place for a flirtation? Before, I could not speak; now you must know. There have been many men in my life, Paul; some fools, some not so, but none like you. I have never said, 'I love you.' I say it now. Once you held my hand—you have never kissed me."
I rose to my feet, smiling, profoundly fatuous, and made as if to put my arm around her.
"A kiss? Is that all, Desiree? Well—"
But I had mistaken her tone and overreached. Not a muscle did she move, but I felt myself repulsed as by a barrier of steel. She remained standing perfectly still, searching me with a gaze that left me naked of levity and cynicism and the veneer of life; and finally she murmured in a voice sweet with pain:
"Must you kill me with words, Paul? I did not mean that—now. It is too late."
Then she turned swiftly and called to Harry, who came running over to her only to meet with some trivial request, and a minute later the arriero announced dinner.
I suppose that the incident had passed with her, as it had with me; little did I know how deeply I had wounded her. And when I discovered my mistake, some time later and under very different circumstances, it very nearly cost me my life, and Harry's into the bargain.
During the meal Le Mire was in the jolliest of moods apparently. She retold the tale of Balzac's heroine who crossed the Andes in the guise of a Spanish officer, performing wondrous exploits with her sword and creating havoc among the hearts of the fair ladies who took the dashing captain's sex for granted from his clothing.
The story was a source of intense amusement to Harry, who insisted on the recital of detail after detail, until Desiree allowed her memory to take a vacation and substitute pure imagination. Nor was the improvisation much inferior to the original.
It was still light when we finished dinner, a good three hours till bedtime. And since there was nothing better to do, I called to the arriero and asked him to conduct us on a tour of exploration among the mass of boulders, gray and stern, that loomed up on our right.
He nodded his head in his usual indifferent manner, and fifteen minutes later we started, on foot. The arriero led the way, with Harry at his heels, and Desiree and I brought up the rear.
Thrice I tried to enter into conversation with her; but each time she shook her head without turning round, and I gave it up. I was frankly puzzled by her words and conduct of an hour before; was it merely one of the trickeries of Le Mire or—
I was interested in the question as one is always interested in a riddle; but I tossed it from my mind, promising myself a solution on the morrow, and gave my attention to the vagaries of nature about me.
We were passing through a cleft between two massive rocks, some three or four hundred yards in length. Ahead of us, at the end of the passage, a like boulder fronted us.
Our footfalls echoed and reechoed from wall to wall; the only other sound was the eery moaning of the wind that reached our ears with a faintness which only served to increase its effect. Here and there were apertures large enough to admit the entrance of a horse and rider, and in many places the sides were crumbling.
I was reflecting, I remember, that the formation was undoubtedly one of limestone, with here and there a layer of quartzite, when I was aroused by a shout from Harry.
I approached. Harry and Desiree, with Felipe, the arriero, had halted and were gazing upward at the wall of rock which barred the exit from the passage. Following their eyes, I saw lines carved on the rock, evidently a rude and clumsy attempt to reproduce the form of some animal.
The thing was some forty feet or so above us and difficult to see clearly.
"I say it's a llama," Harry was saying as I stopped at his side.
"My dear boy," returned Desiree, "don't you think I know a horse when I see one?"
"When you see one, of course," said Harry sarcastically. "But who ever saw a horse with a neck like that?"
As for me, I was really interested, and I turned to the arriero for information.
"Si, senor," said Felipe, "Un caballo."
"But who carved it?"
Felipe shrugged his shoulders.
"Is it new—Spanish?"
Another shrug. I became impatient.
"Have you no tongue?" I demanded. "Speak! If you don't know the author of that piece of equine art say so."
"I know, senor."
"Then, for Heaven's sake, tell us."
"His story?" pointing to the figure on the rock.
Without a sign of interest, Felipe turned twice around, found a comfortable rock, sat down, rolled a cigarette, lighted it, and began. He spoke in Spanish dialect; I shall preserve the style as far as translation will permit.
"Many, many years ago, senor, Atahualpa, the Inca, son of Huayna-Capac, was imprisoned at Cajamarco. Four, five hundred years ago, it was. By the great Pizarro. And there was gold at Cuzco, to the south, and Atahualpa, for his ransom, ordered that this gold be brought to Pizarro.
"Messengers carried the order like the wind, so swift that in five days the priests of the sun carried their gold from the temples to save the life of Atahualpa."
Felipe paused, puffing at his cigarette, glanced at his audience, and continued:
"But Hernando Pizarro, brother of the great Pizarro, suspected a delay in the carriers of gold. From Pachacamac he came with twenty horsemen, sowing terror in the mountains, carrying eighty loads of gold. Across the Juaja River and past Lake Chinchaycocha they came, till they arrived at the city of Huanuco.
"There were temples and gold and priests and soldiers. But when the soldiers of the Inca saw the horses of the Spaniards and heard the guns, they became frightened and ran away like little children, carrying their gold. Never before had they seen white men, or guns, or horses.
"With them came many priests and women, to the snow of the mountains. And after many days of suffering they came to a cave, wherein they disappeared and no more were seen, nor could Hernando Pizarro and his twenty horsemen find them to procure their gold.
"And before they entered the cave they scaled a rock near its entrance and carved thereon the likeness of a horse to warn their Inca brethren of the Spaniards who had driven them from Huanuco. That is his story, senor."
"But who told you all this, Felipe?"
The arriero shrugged his shoulders and glanced about, as much as to say, "It is in the wind."
"But the cave?" cried Desiree. "Where is the cave?"
"It is there, senora," said Felipe, pointing through a passage to the right.
Then nothing would do for Desiree but to see the cave. The arriero informed her that it was difficult of access, but she turned the objection aside with contempt and commanded him to lead.
Harry, of course, was with her, and I followed somewhat unwillingly; for, though Felipe's history was fairly accurate, I was inclined to regard his fable of the disappearing Incas as a wild tradition of the mountains.
He had spoken aright—the path to the cave was not an easy one. Here and there deep ravines caused us to make a wide detour or risk our necks on perilous steeps.
Finally we came to a small clearing, which resembled nothing so much as the bottom of a giant well, and in the center of one of the steep walls was an opening some thirty or forty feet square, black and rugged, and somehow terrifying.
It was the entrance to the cave.
There Felipe halted.
"Here, senor. Here entered the Incas of Huanuco with their gold."
He shivered as he spoke, and I fancied that his face grew pale.
"We shall explore it!" cried Desiree, advancing.
"But no, senora!" The arriero was positively trembling. "No! Senor, do not let her go within! Many times have my countrymen entered in search of the gold, and americanos, too, and never did they return. It is a cave of the devil, senor. He hides in the blackness and none who enter may escape him."
Desiree was laughing gaily.
"Then I shall visit the devil!" she exclaimed, and before either Harry or I could reach her she had sprung across the intervening space to the entrance and disappeared within.
With shouts of consternation from Felipe ringing in our ears, we leaped after her.
"Desiree!" cried Harry. "Come back, Desiree!"
There was no answer, but echoing back from the night before us came faint reverberations—could they be footsteps! What folly! For I had thought that she had merely intended to frighten poor Felipe, and now—
"Desiree!" Harry called again with all the strength of his lungs. "Desiree!"
Again there was no answer. Then we entered the cave together. I remember that as we passed within I turned and saw Felipe staring with white face and eyes filled with terror.