Read CHAPTER XI - CLARE GETS A SHOCK of Brandon of the Engineers , free online book, by Harold Bindloss, on ReadCentral.com.

For a week the stagnant heat brooded over Santa Brigida, sucking up the citizens’ energy and leaving limp depression.  Steaming showers that broke at intervals filled the air with an enervating damp, and the nights were worse than the days.  No draught crept through the slits of windows into the darkened houses, and the musty smell that characterizes old Spanish cities gathered in the patios and sweltering rooms.

This reacted upon Dick, who had a bad relapse, and for some days caused his nurses grave anxiety.  There was sickness in the town and the doctor could spare but little time to him, the nursing sister was occupied, and Dick was, for the most part, left to Clare and Lucille.  They did what they could; the girl with pitiful tenderness, the mulatto woman with patience and some skill, but Dick did not know until afterwards that, in a measure, he owed his life to them.  Youth, however, was on his side, the delirium left him, and after lying for a day or two in half-conscious stupor, he came back to his senses, weak but with unclouded mind.  He knew he was getting better and his recovery would not be long, but his satisfaction was marred by keen bitterness.  Clare had stolen his papers and ruined him.

Point by point he recalled his visit to Kenwardine’s house, trying to find something that could be urged in the girl’s defense and when he failed seeking excuses for her; but her guilt was obvious.  He hated to own it, but the proof was overwhelming.  She knew the power of her beauty and had treated him as a confiding fool.  He was not revengeful and had been a fool, but it hurt him badly to realize that she was not what he had thought.  He hardly spoke to Lucille, who came in now and then, and did not ask for Clare, as he had hitherto done.  The girl did not know this because she was taking the rest she needed after a week of strain.

Jake was his first visitor next morning and Dick asked for a cigarette.

“I’m well enough to do what I like again,” he said.  “I expect you came here now and then.”

“I did, but they would only let me see you once.  I suppose you know you were very ill?”

“Yes; I feel like that.  But I dare say you saw Kenwardine.  It looks as if this is his house.”

“It is.  We brought you here because it’s near the street where you got stabbed.”

Dick said nothing for a minute, and then asked:  “What’s Kenwardine doing in Santa Brigida?”

“It’s hard to say.  Like other foreigners in the town, he’s probably here for what he can get; looking for concessions or a trading monopoly of some kind.”

“Ah!” said Dick.  “I’m not sure.  But do you like him?”

“Yes.  He strikes me as a bit of an adventurer, but so are the rest of them, and he’s none the worse for that.  Trying to get ahead of dago politicians is a risky job.”

“Is he running this place as a gambling house?”

“No,” said Jake warmly; “that’s much too strong.  There is some card play evenings, and I’ve lost a few dollars myself, but the stakes are moderate and anything he makes on the bank wouldn’t be worth while.  He enjoys a game, that’s all.  So do other people; we’re not all like you.”

“Did you see Miss Kenwardine when you came for a game?”

“I did, but I want to point out that I came to see you.  She walked through the patio, where we generally sat, and spoke to us pleasantly, but seldom stopped more than a minute.  A matter of politeness, I imagine, and no doubt she’d sooner have stayed away.”

“Kenwardine ought to keep her away.  One wonders why he brought the girl to a place like this.”

Jake frowned thoughtfully.  “Perhaps your remark is justified, in a sense, but you mustn’t carry the idea too far.  He’s not using his daughter as an attraction; it’s unthinkable.”

“That is so,” agreed Dick.

“Well,” said Jake, “I allow that our talking about it is in pretty bad taste, but my view is this:  Somehow, I don’t think Kenwardine has much money and he may feel he has to give the girl a chance.”

“To marry some gambling rake?”

“No,” said Jake sharply.  “It doesn’t follow that a man is trash because he stakes a dollar or two now and then, and there are some pretty straight fellows in Santa Brigida.”  Then he paused and grinned.  “Take yourself, for example; you’ve talent enough to carry you some way, and I’m open to allow you’re about as sober as a man could be.”

“As it happens, I’m not eligible,” Dick rejoined with a touch of grimness.  “Kenwardine wouldn’t think me worth powder and shot, and I’ve a disadvantage you don’t know of yet.”

“Anyhow, it strikes me you’re taking a rather strange line.  Kenwardine let us bring you here when you were badly hurt, and Miss Kenwardine has given herself a good deal of trouble about you.  In fact, I guess you owe it to her that you’re recovering.”

“That’s true, I think,” said Dick.  “I can’t remember much about my illness, but I’ve a notion that she took very good care of me.  Still, there’s no reason I should give her further trouble when I’m getting better, and I want you to make arrangements for carrying me back to the dam.  Perhaps a hammock would be the best plan.”

“You’re not fit to be moved yet.”

“I’m going, anyhow,” Dick replied with quiet resolution.

After trying in vain to persuade him, Jake went away, and soon afterwards Kenwardine came in.  The light was strong and Dick noted the touches of gray in his short, dark hair, but except for this he looked young and athletic.  His figure was graceful, his dress picturesque, for he wore white duck with a colored silk shirt and red sash, and he had an easy, good-humored manner.  Sitting down close by, he gave Dick a friendly smile.

“I’m glad to find you looking better, but am surprised to hear you think of leaving us,” he said.

“My work must be falling behind and Stuyvesant has nobody to put in my place.”

“He sent word that they were getting on all right,” Kenwardine remarked.

“I’m afraid he was overstating it with a good motive.  Then, you see, I have given you and Miss Kenwardine a good deal of trouble and can’t take advantage of your kindness any longer.  It would be an unfair advantage, because I’m getting well.  Of course I’m very grateful, particularly as I have no claim on you.”

“That is a point you can hardly urge.  You are a countryman, and your cousin is a friend of mine.  I think on that ground we are justified in regarding you as an acquaintance.”

Dick was silent for a few moments.  He felt that had things been different he would have liked Kenwardine.  The man had charm and had placed him under a heavy obligation.  Dick admitted this frankly, but could not stay any longer in his house.  He had, however, a better reason for going than his dislike to accepting Kenwardine’s hospitality.  Clare had robbed him and he must get away before he thought of her too much.  It was an awkward situation and he feared he had not tact enough to deal with it.

“The truth is, I’ve no wish to renew my acquaintance with people I met in England, and I went to America in order to avoid doing so,” he said.  “You know what happened before I left.”

“Yes; but I think you are exaggerating its importance.  After all, you’re not the only man who has, through nothing worse than carelessness, had a black mark put against his name.  You may have a chance yet of showing that the thing was a mistake.”

“Then I must wait until the chance comes,” Dick answered firmly.

“Very well,” said Kenwardine.  “Since this means you’re determined to go, we must try to make it as easy as possible for you.  I’ll see the doctor and Mr. Fuller.”

He went out, and by and by Clare came in and noted a difference in Dick.  He had generally greeted her as eagerly as his weakness allowed, and showed his dependence on her, but now his face was hard and resolute.  The change was puzzling and disturbing.

“My father tells me you want to go away,” she remarked.

“I don’t want to, but I must,” Dick answered with a candor he had not meant to show.  “You see, things I ought to be looking after will all go wrong at the dam.”

“Isn’t that rather egotistical?” Clare asked with a forced smile.  “I have seen Mr. Bethune, who doesn’t look overworked and probably doesn’t mind the extra duty.  In fact, he said so.”

“People sometimes say such things, but when they have to do a good deal more than usual they mind very much.  Anyhow, it isn’t fair to ask them, and that’s one reason for my going away.”

Clare colored and her eyes began to sparkle.  “Do you think we mind?”

“I don’t,” Dick answered awkwardly, feeling that he was not getting on very well.  “I know how kind you are and that you wouldn’t shirk any trouble.  But still ­”

“Suppose we don’t think it a trouble?”

Dick knitted his brows.  It was hard to believe that the girl who sat watching him with a puzzled look was an adventuress.  He had made her blush, and had come near to making her angry, while an adventuress would not have shown her feelings so easily.  The light that shone through the window touched her face, and he noted its delicate modeling, the purity of her skin, and the softness of her eyes.  The sparkle had gone, and they were pitiful.  Clare had forgiven his ingratitude because he was ill.

“Well,” he said, “what you think doesn’t alter the fact that I have given you trouble and kept you awake looking after me at night.  I wasn’t always quite sensible, but I remember how often you sat here and brought me cool things to drink.  Indeed, I expect you helped to save my life.”  He paused and resumed in a voice that thrilled with feeling:  “This wasn’t all you did.  When I was having a very bad time before I left England and everybody believed the worst, you sent me a letter saying that you knew I was innocent.”

“You told me you tore up the letter,” Clare remarked quietly.

Dick’s face got red.  He had not taken the line he meant to take and was obviously making a mess of things.

“Are you sure I wasn’t delirious?”

“I don’t think so.  Did you tear up the letter?”

He gave her a steady look, for he saw that he must nerve himself to face the situation.  It was unfortunate that he was too ill to deal with it properly, but he must do the best he could.

“I’ll answer that if you’ll tell me how you knew I was innocent.”

Clare looked puzzled, as if his manner had jarred; and Dick saw that she was not acting.  Her surprise was real.  He could not understand this, but felt ashamed of himself.

“In a sense, of course, I didn’t know,” she answered with a touch of embarrassment.  “Still, I felt you didn’t steal the plans.  It seemed impossible.”

“Thank you,” said Dick, who was silent for the next few moments.  He thought candor was needed and had meant to be frank, but he could not wound the girl who had taken care of him.

“Anyhow, I lost the papers and that was almost as bad,” he resumed feebly.  “When you get into trouble people don’t care much whether you’re a rogue or a fool.  You’re in disgrace and that’s all that matters.  However, I mustn’t bore you with my grumbling.  I’m getting better and they want me at the dam.”

“Then I suppose you must go as soon as you are able,” Clare agreed, and began to talk about something else.

She left him soon and Dick lay still, frowning.  It had been a trying interview and he doubted if he had come through it well, but hoped Clare would make allowances for his being ill.  He did not want her to think him ungrateful, and had certainly no wish to punish her for what had happened in the past.  But she had stolen his papers and he must get away.

He was taken away next morning, with the consent of the doctor, who agreed that the air would be more invigorating on the hill.  Clare did not come down to see him off and Dick felt strangely disappointed, although she had wished him a quick recovery on the previous evening.  Kenwardine, however, helped him into his hammock and after the carriers started went back to the room where Clare sat.  He noted that although the sun was hot the shutter was not drawn across the window, which commanded the street.

“Well,” he said, “Mr. Brandon has gone and on the whole that’s a relief.”

“Do you know why he went so soon?” Clare asked.

Kenwardine sat down and looked at her thoughtfully.  He was fond of Clare, though he found her something of an embarrassment now and then.  He was not rich and ran certain risks that made his ability to provide for her doubtful, while she had no marked talents to fall back upon if things went against him.  There was, however, the possibility that her beauty might enable her to make a good marriage, and although Kenwardine could not do much at present to forward this plan he must try to prevent any undesirable entanglement.  Brandon, for example, was not to be thought of, but he suspected Clare of some liking for the young man.

“Yes,” he said, “I know and sympathize with him.  In fact, I quite see why he found it difficult to stay.  The situation was only tolerable while he was very ill.”

“Why?”

Kenwardine meant to tell her.  It was better that she should smart a little now than suffer worse afterwards.

“As soon as he began to get better Brandon remembered that we were the cause of his misfortunes.  You can see how this complicated things.”

“But we had nothing to do with them,” Clare said sharply.  “What made him think we had?”

“It’s not an illogical conclusion when he imagines that he lost his papers in our house.”

Clare got up with a red flush in her face and her eyes sparkling.  “It’s absurd!” she exclaimed.  “He must have been delirious when he said so.”

“He didn’t say so in as many words; Brandon has some taste.  But he was perfectly sensible and intended me to see what he meant.”

The girl stood still, trembling with anger and confusion, and Kenwardine felt sorry for her.  She was worse hurt than he had expected, but she would rally.

“But he couldn’t have been robbed while he was with us,” she said with an effort, trying to understand Dick’s point of view.  “He hadn’t an overcoat, so the plans must have been in the pocket of his uniform, and nobody except myself was near him.”

She stopped with a gasp as she remembered how she had slipped and seized Dick.  In doing so her hand had caught his pocket.  Everything was plain now, and for a few moments she felt overwhelmed.  Her face blanched, but her eyes were hard and very bright.

Kenwardine left her, feeling that Brandon would have cause to regret his rashness if he ever attempted to renew her acquaintance, and Clare sat down and tried to conquer her anger.  This was difficult, because she had received an intolerable insult.  Brandon thought her a thief!  It was plain that he did so, because the change in his manner bore out all her father had said, and there was no other explanation.  Then she blushed with shame as she realized that from his point of view her unconventional behavior warranted his suspicions.  She had asked him to come into the garden and had written him a note!  This was horribly foolish and she must pay for it, but she had been mistaken about his character.

She had, as a rule, avoided the men she met at her father’s house and had shrunk with frank repugnance from one or two, but Brandon had seemed different.  Then he had watched for her when he was ill and she had seen his heavy eyes get brighter when she came into the room.  Now, however, she understood him better.  She had some beauty and he had been satisfied with her physical attractiveness, although he thought her a thief.  This was worse than the coarse admiration of the men she had feared.  It was unthinkably humiliating, but her anger helped her to bear the blow.  After all, she was fortunate in finding out what Brandon was, since it might have been worse had the knowledge come later.  There was a sting in this that rankled, but she could banish him from her thoughts now.