Read CHAPTER V of The Argonauts of North Liberty , free online book, by Bret Harte, on ReadCentral.com.

The last note of the Angelus had just rung out of the crumbling fissures in the tower of the mission chapel of San Buena-ventura.  The sun which had beamed that day and indeed every day for the whole dry season over the red-tiled roofs of that old and happily ventured pueblo seemed to broaden to a smile as it dipped below the horizon, as if in undiminished enjoyment of its old practical joke of suddenly plunging the Southern California coast in darkness without any preliminary twilight.  The olive and fig trees at once lost their characteristic outlines in formless masses of shadow; only the twisted trunks of the old pear trees in the mission garden retained their grotesque shapes and became gruesome in the gathering gloom.  The encircling pines beyond closed up their serried files; a cool breeze swept down from the coast range and, passing through them, sent their day-long heated spices through the town.

If there was any truth in the local belief that the pious incantation of the Angelus bell had the power of excluding all evil influence abroad at that perilous hour within its audible radius, and comfortably keeping all unbelieving wickedness at a distance, it was presumably ineffective as regarded the innovating stage-coach from Monterey that twice a week at that hour brought its question-asking, revolver-persuading and fortune-seeking load of passengers through the sleepy Spanish town.  On the night of the 3d of August, 1856, it had not only brought but set down at the Posada one of those passengers.  It was a Mr. Ezekiel Corwin, formerly known to these pages as “hired man” to the late Squire Blandford, of North Liberty, Connecticut, but now a shrewd, practical, self-sufficient, and self-asserting unit of the more cautious later Californian immigration.  As the stage rattled away again with more or less humorous and open disparagement of the town and the Posada from its “outsiders,” he lounged with lazy but systematic deliberation towards Mateo Morez, the proprietor.

“I guess that some of your folks here couldn’t direct me to Dick Demorest’s house, could ye?”

The Senor Mateo Morez was at once perplexed and pained.  Pained at the ignorance thus forced upon him by a caballero; perplexed as to its intention.  Between the two he smiled apologetically but gravely, and said:  “No sabe, Senor.  I ’ave not understood.”

“No more hev I,” returned Ezekiel, with patronizing recognition of his obtuseness.  “I guess ez heow you ain’t much on American.  You folks orter learn the language if you kalkilate to keep a hotel.”

But the momentary vision of a waistless woman with a shawl gathered over her head and shoulders at the back door attracted his attention.  She said something to Mateo in Spanish, and the yellowish-white of Mateo’s eyes glistened with intelligent comprehension.

“Ah, posiblemente; it is Don Ricardo Demorest you wish?”

Mr. Ezekiel’s face and manner expressed a mingling of grateful curiosity and some scorn at the discovery.  “Wa’al,” he said, looking around as if to take the entire Posada into his confidence, “way up in North Liberty, where I kem from, he was allus known as Dick Demorest, and didn’t tack any forrin titles to his name.  Et wouldn’t hev gone down there, I reckon, ’mongst free-born Merikin citizens, no mor’n aliases would in court ­and I kinder guess for the same reason.  But folks get peart and sassy when they’re way from hum, and put on ez many airs as a buck nigger.  And so he calls hisself Don Ricardo here, does he?”

“The Senor knows Don Ricardo?” said Mateo politely.

“Ef you mean me ­wa’al, yes ­I should say so.  He was a partiklar friend of a man I’ve known since he was knee-high to a grasshopper.”

Ezekiel had actually never seen Demorest but once in his life.  He would have scorned to lie, but strict accuracy was not essential with an ignorant foreign audience.

He took up his carpet-bag.

“I reckon I kin find his house, ef it’s anyway handy.”

But the Senor Mateo was again politely troubled.  The house of Don Ricardo was of a truth not more than a mile distant.  It was even possible that the Senor had observed it above a wall and vineyard as he came into the pueblo.  But it was late ­it was also dark, as the Senor would himself perceive ­and there was still to-morrow.  To-morrow ­ah, it was always there!  Meanwhile there were beds of a miraculous quality at the Posada, and a supper such as a caballero might order in his own house.  Health, discretion, solicitude for oneself ­all pointed clearly to to-morrow.

What part of this speech Ezekiel understood affected him only as an innkeeper’s bid for custom, and as such to be steadily exposed and disposed of.  With the remark that he guessed Dick Demorest’s was “a good enough hotel for him,” and that he’d better be “getting along there,” he walked down the steps, carpet-bag in hand, and coolly departed, leaving Mateo pained, but smiling, on the doorstep.

“An animal with a pig’s head ­without doubt,” said Mateo, sententiously.

“Clearly a brigand with the liver of a chicken,” responded his wife.

The subject of this ambiguous criticism, happily oblivious, meantime walked doggedly back along the road the stage-coach had just brought him.  It was badly paved and hollowed in the middle with the worn ruts of a century of slow undeviating ox carts, and the passage of water during the rainy season.  The low adobe houses on each side, with bright cinnamon-colored tiles relieving their dark-brown walls, had the regular outlines of their doors and windows obliterated by the crumbling of years, until they looked as if they had been afterthoughts of the builder, rudely opened by pick and crowbar, and finished by the gentle auxiliary architecture of birds and squirrels.  Yet these openings at times permitted glimpses of a picturesque past in the occasional view of a lace-edged pillow or silken counterpane, striped hangings, or dyed Indian rugs, the flitting of a flounced petticoat or flower-covered head, or the indolent leaning figure framed in a doorway of a man in wide velvet trousers and crimson-barred serape, whose brown face was partly hidden in a yellow nimbus of cigarette smoke.  Even in the semi-darkness, Ezekiel’s penetrating and impertinent eyes took eager note of these facts with superior complacency, quite unmindful, after the fashion of most critical travellers, of the hideous contrast of his own long shapeless nankeen duster, his stiff half-clerical brown straw hat, his wisp of gingham necktie, his dusty boots, his outrageous carpet-bag, and his straggling goat-like beard.  A few looked at him in grave, discreet wonder.  Whether they recognized in him the advent of a civilization that was destined to supplant their own ignorant, sensuous, colorful life with austere intelligence and rigid practical improvement, did not appear.  He walked steadily on.  As he passed the low arched door of the mission church and saw a faint light glimmering from the side windows, he had indeed a weak human desire to go in and oppose in his own person a debased and idolatrous superstition with some happily chosen question that would necessarily make the officiating priest and his congregation exceedingly uncomfortable.  But he resisted; partly in the hope of meeting some idolater on his way to Benediction, and, in the guise of a stranger seeking information, dropping a few unpalatable truths; and partly because he could unbosom himself later to Demorest, who he was not unwilling to believe had embraced Popery with his adoption of a Spanish surname and title.

It had become quite dark when he reached the long wall that enclosed Demorest’s premises.  The wall itself excited his resentment, not only as indicating an exclusiveness highly objectionable in a man who had emigrated from a free State, but because he, Ezekiel Corwin, had difficulty in discovering the entrance.  When he succeeded, he found himself before an iron gate, happily open, but savoring offensively of feudalism and tyrannical proprietorship, and passed through and entered an avenue of trees scarcely distinguishable in the darkness, whose mysterious shapes and feathery plumes were unknown to him.  Numberless odors equally vague and mysterious were heavy in the air, strange and delicate plants rose dimly on either hand; enormous blossoms, like ghostly faces, seemed to peer at him from the shadows.  For an instant Ezekiel succumbed to an unprofitable sense of beauty, and acquiesced in this reckless extravagance of Nature that was so unlike North Liberty.  But the next moment he recovered himself, with the reflection that it was probably unhealthy, and doggedly approached the house.  It was a long, one-storied, structure, apparently all roof, vine, and pillared veranda.  Every window and door was open; the two or three grass hammocks swung emptily between the columns; the bamboo chairs and settees were vacant; his heavy footsteps on the floor had summoned no attendant; not even a dog had barked as he approached the house.  It was shiftless, it was sinful ­it boded no good to the future of Demorest.

He put down his carpet-bag on the veranda and entered the broad hall, where an old-fashioned lantern was burning on a stand.  Here, too, the doors of the various apartments were open, and the rooms themselves empty of occupants.  An opportunity not to be lost by Ezekiel’s inquiring mind thus offered itself.  He took the lantern and deliberately examined the several apartments, the furniture, the bedding, and even the small articles that were on the tables and mantels.  When he had completed the round ­including a corridor opening on a dark courtyard, which he did not penetrate ­he returned to the hall, and set down the lantern again.

“Well,” said a voice in his own familiar vernacular, “I hope you like it.”

Ezekiel was surprised, but not disconcerted.  What he had taken in the shadow for a bundle of serapes lying on the floor of the veranda, was the recumbent figure of a man who now raised himself to a sitting posture.

“Ez to that,” drawled Ezekiel, with unshaken self-possession, “whether I like it or not ez only a question betwixt kempany manners and truth-telling.  Beggars hadn’t oughter be choosers, and transient visitors like myself needn’t allus speak their mind.  But if you mean to signify that with every door and window open and universal shiftlessness lying round everywhere temptin’ Providence, you ain’t lucky in havin’ a feller-citizen of yours drop in on ye instead of some Mexican thief, I don’t agree with ye ­that’s all.”

The man laughed shortly and rose up.  In spite of his careless yet picturesque Mexican dress, Ezekiel instantly recognized Demorest.  With his usual instincts he was naturally pleased to observe that he looked older and more careworn.  The softer, sensuous climate had perhaps imparted a heaviness to his figure and a deliberation to his manner that was quite unlike his own potential energy.

“That don’t tell me who you are, and what you want,” he said, coldly.

“Wa’al then, I’m Ezekiel Corwin of North Liberty, ez used to live with my friend and yours too, I guess ­seein’ how the friendship was swapped into relationship ­Squire Blandford.”

A slight shade passed over Demorest’s face.  “Well,” he said, impatiently, “I don’t remember you; what then?”

“You don’t remember me; that’s likely,” returned Ezekiel imperturbably, combing his straggling chin beard with three fingers, “but whether it’s nat’ral or not, considerin’ the sukumstances when we last met, ez a matter of op-pinion.  You got me to harness up the hoss and buggy the night Squire Blandford left home, and never was heard of again.  It’s true that it kem out on enquiry that the hoss and buggy ran away from the hotel, and that you had to go out to Warensboro in a sleigh, and the theory is that poor Squire Blandford must have stopped the hoss and buggy somewhere, got in and got run away agin, and pitched over the bridge.  But seein’ your relationship to both Squire and Mrs. Blandford, and all the sukumstances, I reckoned you’d remember it.”

“I heard of it in Boston a month afterwards,” said Demorest, dryly, “but I don’t think I’d have recognized you.  So you were the hired man who gave me the buggy.  Well, I don’t suppose they discharged you for it.”

“No,” said Ezekiel, with undisturbed equanimity.  “I kalkilate Joan would have stopped that.  Considerin’, too, that I knew her when she was Deacon Salisbury’s darter, and our fam’lies waz thick az peas.  She knew me well enough when I met her in Frisco the other day.”

“Have you seen Mrs. Demorest already?” said Demorest, with sudden vivacity.  “Why didn’t you say so before?” It was wonderful how quickly his face had lighted up with an earnestness that was not, however, without some undefinable uneasiness.  The alert Ezekiel noticed it and observed that it was as totally unlike the irresistible dominance of the man of five years ago as it was different from the heavy abstraction of the man of five minutes before.

“I reckon you didn’t ax me,” he returned coolly.  “She told me where you were, and as I had business down this way she guessed I might drop in.”

“Yes, yes ­it’s all right, Mr. Corwin; glad you did,” said Demorest, kindly but half nervously.  “And you saw Mrs. Demorest?  Where did you see her, and how did you think she was looking?  As pretty as ever, eh?”

But the coldly literal Ezekiel was not to be beguiled into polite or ambiguous fiction.  He even went to the extent of insulting deliberation before he replied.  “I’ve seen Joan Salisbury lookin’ healthier and ez far ez I kin judge doin’ more credit to her stock and raisin’ gin’rally,” he said, thoughtfully combing his beard, “and I’ve seen her when she was too poor to get the silks and satins, furbelows, fineries and vanities she’s flauntin’ in now, and that was in Squire Blandford’s time, too, I reckon.  Ez to her purtiness, that’s a matter of taste.  You think her purty, and I guess them fellows ez was escortin’ and squirin’ her round Frisco thought so too, or she thought they did to hev allowed it.”

“You are not very merciful to your townsfolk, Mr. Corwin,” said Demorest, with a forced smile; “but what can I do for you?”

It was the turn for Ezekiel’s face to brighten, or rather to break up, like a cold passionless mirror suddenly cracked, into various amusing but distorted reflections on the person before him.  “Townies ain’t to be fooled by other townies, Mr. Demorest; at least that ain’t my idea o’ marcy, he-he!  But seen you’re pressin’, I don’t mind tellen you my business.  I’m the only agent of Seventeen Patent Medicine Proprietors in Connecticut represented by the firm of Dilworth & Dusenberry, of San Francisco.  Mebbe you heard of ’em afore ­A1 druggists and importers.  Wa’al, I’m openin’ a field for ’em and spreadin’ ’em gin’rally through these air benighted and onhealthy districts, havin’ the contract for the hull State ­especially for Wozun’s Universal Injin Panacea ez cures everything ­bein’ had from a recipe given by a Sachem to Dr. Wozun’s gran’ther.  That bag ­leavin’ out a dozen paper collars and socks ­is all the rest samples.  That’s me, Ezekiel Corwin ­only agent for Californy, and that’s my mission.”

“Very well; but look here, Corwin,” said Demorest, with a slight return of his old off-hand manner, ­“I’d advise you to adopt a little more caution, and a little less criticism in your speech to the people about here, or I’m afraid you’ll need the Universal Panacea for yourself.  Better men than you have been shot in my presence for half your freedom.”

“I guess you’ve just hit the bull’s-eye there,” replied Ezekiel, coolly, “for it’s that half-freedom and half-truth that doesn’t pay.  I kalkilate gin’rally to speak my hull mind ­and I do.  Wot’s the consequence?  Why, when folks find I ain’t afeard to speak my mind on their affairs, they kinder guess I’m tellin’ the truth about my own.  Folks don’t like the man that truckles to ’em, whether it’s in the sellin’ of a box of pills or a principle.  When they re-cognize Ezekiel Corwin ain’t goin’ to lie about ’em to curry favor with ’em, they’re ready to believe he ain’t goin’ to lie about Jones’ Bitters or Wozun’s Panacea.  And, wa’al, I’ve been on the road just about a fortnit, and I haven’t yet discovered that the original independent style introduced by Ezekiel Corwin ever broke anybody’s bones or didn’t pay.”

And he told the truth.  That remarkably unfair and unpleasant spoken man had actually frozen Hanley’s Ford into icy astonishment at his audacity, and he had sold them an invoice of the Panacea before they had recovered; he had insulted Chipitas into giving an extensive order in bitters; he had left Hayward’s Creek pledged to Burne’s pills ­with drawn revolvers still in their hands.

At another time Demorest might have been amused at his guest’s audacity, or have combated it with his old imperiousness, but he only remained looking at him in a dull sort of way as if yielding to his influence.  It was part of the phenomenon that the two men seemed to have changed character since they last met, and when Ezekiel said confidentially:  “I reckon you’re goin’ to show me what room I ken stow these duds o’ mine in,” Demorest replied hurriedly, “Yes, certainly,” and taking up his guest’s carpet-bag preceded him through the hall to one of the apartments.

“I’ll send Manuel to you presently,” he said, putting down the bag mechanically; “the servants are not back from church, it’s some saint’s festival to-day.”

“And so you keep a pack of lazy idolaters to leave your house to take care of itself, whilst they worship graven images,” said Ezekiel, delighted at this opportunity to improve the occasion.

“If my memory isn’t bad, Mr. Corwin,” said Demorest dryly, “when I accompanied Mr. Blandford home the night he returned from his journey, we found you at church, and he had to put up his horse himself.”

“But that was the Sabbath ­the seventh day of the command,” retorted Ezekiel.

“And here the Sabbath doesn’t consist of only one day to serve God in,” said Demorest, sententiously.

Ezekiel glanced under his white lashes at Demorest’s thoughtful face.  His fondest fears appeared to be confirmed; Demorest had evidently become a Papist.  But that gentleman stopped any theological discussion by the abrupt inquiry: 

“Did Mrs. Demorest say when she thought of returning?”

“She allowed she moût kem to-morrow ­but ­” added Ezekiel dubiously.

“But what?”

“Wa’al, wot with her enjyments of the vanities of this life and the kempany she keeps, I reckon she’s in no hurry,” said Ezekiel, cheerfully.

The entrance of Manuel here cut short any response from Demorest, who after a few directions in Spanish to the peon, left his guest to himself.

He walked to the veranda with the same dull preoccupation that Ezekiel had noticed as so different from his old decisive manner, and remained for a few moments abstractedly gazing into the dark garden.  The strange and mystic shapes which had impressed even the practical Ezekiel, had become even more weird and ghost-like in the faint radiance of a rising moon.

What memories evoked by his rude guest seemed to take form and outline in that dreamy and unreal expanse!

He saw his wife again, standing as she had stood that night in her mother’s house, with the white muffler around her head, and white face, imploring him to fly; he saw himself again hurrying through the driving storm to Warensboro, and reaching the train that bore him swiftly and safely miles away ­that same night when her husband was perishing in the swollen river.  He remembered with what strangely mingled sensations he had read the account of Blandford’s death in the newspapers, and how the loss of his old friend was forgotten in the associations conjured up by his singular meeting that very night with the mysterious woman he had loved.  He remembered that he had never dreamed how near and fateful were these associations; and how he had kept his promise not to seek her without her permission, until six months after, when she appointed a meeting, and revealed to him the whole truth.  He could see her now, as he had seen her then, more beautiful and fascinating than ever in her black dress, and the pensive grace of refined suffering and restrained passion in her delicate face.  He remembered, too, how the shock of her disclosure ­the knowledge that she had been his old friend’s wife ­seemed only to accent her purity and suffering and his own wilful recklessness, and how it had stirred all the chivalry, generosity, and affection of his easy nature to take the whole responsibility of this innocent but compromising intrigue on his own shoulders.  He had had no self-accusing sense of disloyalty to Blandford in his practical nature; he had never suspected the shy, proper girl of being his wife; he was willing to believe now, that had he known it, even that night, he would never have seen her again; he had been very foolish; he had made this poor woman participate in his folly; but he had never been dishonest or treacherous in thought or action.  If Blandford had lived, even he would have admitted it.  Yet he was guiltily conscious of a material satisfaction in Blandford’s death, without his wife’s religious conviction of the saving graces of predestination.

They had been married quietly when the two years of her widowhood had expired; his former relations with her husband and the straitened circumstances in which Blandford’s death had left her having been deemed sufficient excuse in the eyes of North Liberty for her more worldly union.  They had come to California at her suggestion “to begin life anew,” for she had not hesitated to make this dislocation of all her antecedent surroundings as a reason as well as a condition of this marriage.  She wished to see the world of which he had been a passing glimpse; to expand under his protection beyond the limits of her fettered youth.  He had bought this old Spanish estate, with its near vineyard and its outlying leagues covered with wild cattle, partly from that strange contradictory predilection for peaceful husbandry common to men who have led a roving life, and partly as a check to her growing and feverish desire for change and excitement.  He had at first enjoyed with an almost parental affection her childish unsophisticated delight in that world he had already wearied of, and which he had been prepared to gladly resign for her.  But as the months and even years had passed without any apparent diminution in her zest for these pleasures, he tried uneasily to resume his old interest in them, and spent ten months with her in the chaotic freedom of San Francisco hotel life.  But to his discomfiture he found that they no longer diverted him; to his horror he discovered that those easy gallantries in which he had spent his youth, and in which he had seen no harm, were intolerable when exhibited to his wife, and he trembled between inquietude and indignation at the copies of his former self, whom he met in hotel parlors, at theatres, and in public conveyances.  The next time she visited some friends in San Francisco he did not accompany her.  Though he fondly cherished his experience of her power to resist even stronger temptation, he was too practical to subject himself to the annoyance of witnessing it.  In her absence he trusted her completely; his scant imagination conjured up no disturbing picture of possibilities beyond what he actually knew.  In his recent questions of Ezekiel he did not expect to learn anything more.  Even his guest’s uncomfortable comments added no sting that he had not already felt.

With these thoughts called up by the unlooked-for advent of Ezekiel under his roof, he continued to gaze moodily into the garden.  Near the house were scattered several uncouth varieties of cacti which seemed to have lost all semblance of vegetable growth, and had taken rude likeness to beasts and human figures.  One high-shouldered specimen, partly hidden in the shadow, had the appearance of a man with a cloak or serape thrown over his left shoulder.  As Demorest’s wandering eyes at last became fixed upon it, he fancied he could trace the faint outlines of a pale face, the lower part of which was hidden by the folds of the serape.  There certainly was the forehead, the curve of the dark eyebrows, the shadow of a nose, and even as he looked more steadily, a glistening of the eyes upturned to the moonlight.  A sudden chill seized him.  It was a horrible fancy, but it looked as might have looked the dead face of Edward Blandford!  He started and ran quickly down the steps of the veranda.  A slight wind at the same moment moved the long leaves and tendrils of a vine nearest him and sent a faint wave through the garden.  He reached the cactus; its fantastic bulk stood plainly before him, but nothing more.

“Whar are ye runnin’ to?” said the inquiring voice of Ezekiel from the veranda.

“I thought I saw some one in the garden,” returned Demorest, quietly, satisfied of the illusion of his senses, “but it was a mistake.”

“It moût and it moutn’t,” said Ezekiel, dryly.  “Thar’s nothin’ to keep any one out.  It’s only a wonder that you ain’t overrun with thieves and sich like.”

“There are usually servants about the place,” said Demorest, carelessly.

“Ef they’re the same breed ez that Manuel, I reckon I’d almost as leave take my chances in the road.  Ef it’s all the same to you I kalkilate to put a paytent fastener to my door and winder to-night.  I allus travel with them.”  Seeing that Demorest only shrugged his shoulders without replying, he continued, “Et ain’t far from here that some folks allow is the headquarters of that cattle-stealing gang.  The driver of the coach went ez far ez to say that some of these high and mighty Dons hereabouts knows more of it than they keer to tell.”

“That’s simply a yarn for greenhorns,” said Demorest, contemptuously.  “I know all the ranch proprietors for twenty leagues around, and they’ve lost as many cattle and horses as I have.”

“I wanter know,” said Ezekiel, with grim interest.  “Then you’ve already had consid’ble losses, eh?  I kalkilate them cattle are vally’ble ­about wot figger do you reckon yer out and injured?”

“Three or four thousand dollars, I suppose, altogether,” replied Demorest, shortly.

“Then you don’t take any stock in them yer yarns about the gang being run and protected by some first-class men in Frisco?” said Ezekiel, regretfully.

“Not much,” responded Demorest, dryly; “but if people choose to believe this bluff gotten up by the petty thieves themselves to increase their importance and secure their immunity ­they can.  But here’s Manuel to tell us supper is ready.”

He led the way to the corridor and courtyard which Ezekiel had not penetrated on account of its obscurity and solitude, but which now seemed to be peopled with péons and household servants of both sexes.  At the end of a long low-ceilinged room a table was spread with omelettes, chupa, cakes, chocolate, grapes, and melons, around which half a dozen attendants stood gravely in waiting.  The size of the room, which to Ezekiel’s eyes looked as large as the church at North Liberty, the profusion of the viands, the six attendants for the host and solitary guest, deeply impressed him.  Morally rebelling against this feudal display and extravagance, he, who had disdained to even assist the Blandfords’ servant-in-waiting at table and had always made his solitary meal on the kitchen dresser, was not above feeling a material satisfaction in sitting on equal terms with his master’s friend and being served by these menials he despised.  He did full justice to the victuals of which Demorest partook in sparing abstraction, and particularly to the fruit, which Demorest did not touch at all.  Observant of his servants’ eyes fixed in wonder on the strange guest who had just disposed of a second melon at supper, Demorest could not help remarking that he would lose credit as a medico with the natives unless he restrained a public exhibition of his tastes.

“Ez ha’aw?” queried Ezekiel.

“They have a proverb here that fruit is gold in the morning, silver at noon, and lead at night.”

“That’ll do for lazy stomicks,” said the unabashed Ezekiel.  “When they’re once fortified by Jones’ bitters and hard work, they’ll be able to tackle the Lord’s nat’ral gifts of the airth at any time.”

Declining the cigarettes offered him by Demorest for a quid of tobacco, which he gravely took from a tin box in his pocket, and to the astonished eyes of the servants apparently obliterated any further remembrance of the meal, he accompanied his host to the veranda again, where, tilting his chair back and putting his feet on the railing, he gave himself up to unwonted and silent rumination.

The silence was broken at last by Demorest, who, half-reclining on a settee, had once or twice glanced towards the misshapen cactus.

“Was there any trace discovered of Blandford, other than we knew before we left the States?”

“Wa’al, no,” said Ezekiel, thoughtfully.  “The last idea was that he’d got control of the hoss after passin’ the bridge, and had managed to turn him back, for there was marks of buggy wheels on the snow on the far side, and that fearin’ to trust the hoss or the bridge he tried to lead him over when the bridge gave way, and he was caught in the wreck and carried off down stream.  That would account for his body not bein’ found; they do tell that chunks of that bridge were picked up on the Sound beach near the mouth o’ the river, nigh unto sixty miles away.  That’s about the last idea they had of it at North Liberty.”  He paused and then cleverly directing a stream of tobacco juice at an accurate curve over the railing, wiped his lips with the back of his hand, and added, slowly:  “Thar’s another idea ­but I reckon it’s only mine.  Leastways I ain’t heard it argued by anybody.”

“What is that?” asked Demorest.

“Wa’al, it ain’t exakly complimentary to E. Blandford, Esq., and it moût be orkard for you.”

“I don’t think you’re in the habit of letting such trifles interfere with your opinion,” said Demorest, with a slightly forced laugh; “but what is your idea?”

“That thar wasn’t any accident.”

“No accident?” replied Demorest, raising himself on his elbow.

“Nary accident,” continued Ezekiel, deliberately, “and, if it comes to that, not much of a dead body either.”

“What the devil do you mean?” said Demorest, sitting up.

“I mean,” said Ezekiel, with momentous deliberation, “that E. Blandford, of the Winnipeg Mills, was in March, ‘50, ez nigh bein’ bust up ez any man kin be without actually failin’; that he’d been down to Boston that day to get some extensions; that old Deacon Salisbury knew it, and had been pesterin’ Mrs. Blandford to induce him to sell out and leave the place; and that the night he left he took about two hundred and fifty dollars in bank bills that they allus kept in the house, and Mrs. Blandford was in the habit o’ hidin’ in the breast-pocket of one of his old overcoats hangin’ up in the closet.  I mean that that air money and that air overcoat went off with him, ez Mrs. Blandford knows, for I heard her tell her ma about it.  And when his affairs were wound up and his debts paid, I reckon that the two hundred and fifty was all there was left ­and he scooted with it.  It’s orkard for you ­ez I said afore ­but I don’t see wot on earth you need get riled for.  Ef he ran off on account of only two hundred and fifty dollars he ain’t goin’ to run back again for the mere matter o’ your marrying Joan.  Ef he had ­he’d a done it afore this.  It’s orkard ez I said ­but the only orkardness is your feelin’s.  I reckon Joan’s got used to hers.”

Demorest had risen angrily to his feet.  But the next moment the utter impossibility of reaching this man’s hidebound moral perception by even physical force hopelessly overcame him.  It would only impress him with the effect of his own disturbing power, that to Ezekiel was equal to a proof of the truth of his opinions.  It might even encourage him to repeat this absurd story elsewhere with his own construction upon his reception of it.  After all it was only Ezekiel’s opinion ­an opinion too preposterous for even a moment’s serious consideration.  Blandford alive, and a petty defaulter!  Blandford above the earth and complacently abandoning his wife and home to another!  Blandford ­perhaps a sneaking, cowardly Nemesis ­hiding in the shadow for future ­impossible!  It really was enough to make him laugh.

He did laugh, albeit with an uneasy sense that only a few years ago he would have struck down the man who had thus traduced his friend’s memory.

“You’ve been overtaxing your brain in patent-medicine circulars, Corwin,” he said in a roughly rallying manner, “and you’ve got rather too much highfalutin and bitters mixed with your opinions.  After that yarn of yours you must be dry.  What’ll you take?  I haven’t got any New England rum, but I can give you some ten-year-old aguardiente made on the place.”

As he spoke he lifted a decanter and glass from a small table which Manuel had placed in the veranda.

“I guess not,” said Ezekiel dryly.  “It’s now goin’ on five years since I’ve been a consistent temperance man.”

“In everything but melons, and criticism of your neighbor, eh?” said Demorest, pouring out a glass of the liquor.

“I hev my convictions,” said Ezekiel with affected meekness.

“And I have mine,” said Demorest, tossing off the fiery liquor at a draft, “and it’s that this is devilish good stuff.  Sorry you can’t take some.  I’m afraid I’ll have to get you to excuse me for a while.  I have to take a ride over the ranch before turning in, to see if everything’s right.  The house is ‘at your disposition,’ as we say here.  I’ll see you later.”

He walked away with a slight exaggeration of unconcern.  Ezekiel watched him narrowly with colorless eyes beneath his white lashes.  When he had gone he examined the thoroughly emptied glass of aguardiente, and, taking the decanter, sniffed critically at its sharp and potent contents.  A smile of gratified discernment followed.  It was clear to him that Demorest was a heavy drinker.

Contrary to his prognostication, however, Mrs. Demorest did arrive the next day.  But although he was to depart from Buenaventura by the same coach that had set her down at the gate of the casa, he had already left the house armed with some letters of introduction which Demorest had generously given him, to certain small traders in the pueblo and along the route.  Demorest was not displeased to part with him before the arrival of his wife, and thus spare her the awkwardness of a repetition of Ezekiel’s effrontery in her presence.  Nor was he willing to have the impediment of a guest in the house to any explanation he might have to seek from her, or to the confidences that hereafter must be fuller and more mutual.  For with all his deep affection for his wife, Richard Demorest unconsciously feared her.  The strong man whose dominance over men and women alike had been his salient characteristic, had begun to feel an undefinable sense of some unrecognized quality in the woman he loved.  He had once or twice detected it in a tone of her voice, in a remembered and perhaps even once idolized gesture, or in the accidental lapse of some bewildering word.  With the generosity of a large nature he had put the thought aside, referring it to some selfish weakness of his own, or ­more fatuous than all ­to a possible diminution of his own affection.

He was standing on the steps ready to receive her.  Few of her appreciative sex could have remained indifferent to the tender and touching significance of his silent and subdued welcome.  He had that piteous wistfulness of eye seen in some dogs and the husbands of many charming women ­the affection that pardons beforehand the indifference it has learned to expect.  She approached him smiling in her turn, meeting the sublime patience of being unloved with the equally resigned patience of being loved, and feeling that comforting sense of virtue which might become a bore, but never a self-reproach.  For the rest, she was prettier than ever; her five years of expanded life had slightly rounded the elongated oval of her face, filled up the ascetic hollows of her temples, and freed the repression of her mouth and chin.  A more genial climate had quickened the circulation that North Liberty had arrested, and suffused the transparent beauty of her skin with eloquent life.  It seemed as if the long, protracted northern spring of her youth had suddenly burst into a summer of womanhood under those gentle skies; and yet enough of her puritan precision of manner, movement, and gesture remained to temper her fuller and more exuberant life and give it repose.  In a community of pretty women more or less given to the license and extravagance of the epoch, she always looked like a lady.

He took her in his arms and half-lifted her up the last step of the veranda.  She resisted slightly with her characteristic action of catching his wrists in both her hands and holding him off with an awkward primness, and almost in the same tone that she had used to Edward Blandford five years before, said: 

“There, Dick, that will do.”