Read CHAPTER XII - DICK KEEPS HIS PROMISE of Brandon of the Engineers , free online book, by Harold Bindloss, on ReadCentral.com.

Twinkling points of light that pierced the darkness lower down the hill marked the colored laborers’ camp, and voices came up faintly through the still air.  The range cut off the land breeze, though now and then a wandering draught flickered down the hollow spanned by the dam, and a smell of hot earth and damp jungle hung about the veranda of Dick’s iron shack.  He sat near a lamp, with a drawing-board on his knee, while Jake lounged in a canvas chair, smoking and occasionally glancing at the sheet of figures in his hand.  His expression was gloomily resigned.

“I suppose you’ll have things ready for us in the morning,” Dick said presently.

“Francois’ accounts are checked and I’m surprised to find them right, but I imagine the other calculations will not be finished.  Anyhow, it won’t make much difference whether they are or not.  I guess you know that!”

“Well, of course, if you can’t manage to do the lot ­”

“I don’t say it’s impossible,” Jake rejoined.  “But beginning work before breakfast is bad enough, without going on after dinner.  Understand that I don’t question your authority to find me a job at night; it’s your object that makes me kick.”

“We want the calculations made before we set the boys to dig.”

“Then why didn’t you give me them when I was doing nothing this afternoon?” Jake inquired.

“I hadn’t got the plans ready.”

“Just so.  You haven’t had things ready for me until after dinner all this week.  As you’re a methodical fellow that’s rather strange.  Still, if you really want the job finished, I’ll have to do my best, but I’m going out first for a quarter of an hour.”

“You needn’t,” Dick said dryly.  “If you mean to tell the engineer not to wait, he’s gone.  I sent him off some time since.”

“Of course you had a right to send him off,” Jake replied in an injured tone.  “But I don’t quite think ­”

“You know what your father pays for coal.  Have you reckoned what it costs to keep a locomotive two or three hours for the purpose of taking you to Santa Brigida and back?”

“I haven’t, but I expect the old man wouldn’t stand for my running a private car,” Jake admitted.  “However, it’s the only way of getting into town.”

“You were there three nights last week.  What’s more, you tried to draw your next month’s wages.  That struck me as significant, though I’d fortunately provided against it.”

“So I found out.  I suppose I ought to be grateful for your thoughtfulness but can’t say I am.  I wanted the money because I had a run of wretched luck.”

“At the casino?”

“No,” said Jake, shortly.

“Then you were at Kenwardine’s; I’ll own that’s what I wanted to prevent.  He’s a dangerous man and his house is no place for you.”

“One would hardly expect you to speak against him.  Considering everything, it’s perhaps not quite in good taste.”

Dick put down the drawing-board and looked at him steadily.  “It’s very bad taste.  In fact, I find myself in a very awkward situation.  Your father gave me a fresh start when I needed it badly, and agreed when your sister put you in my charge.”

“Ida’s sometimes a bit officious,” Jake remarked.

“Well,” Dick continued, “I promised to look after you, and although I didn’t know what I was undertaking, the promise must be kept.  It’s true that Kenwardine afterwards did me a great service; but his placing me under an obligation doesn’t relieve me from the other, which I’d incurred first.”

Somewhat to his surprise, Jake nodded agreement.  “No, not from your point of view.  But what makes you think Kenwardine is dangerous?”

“I can’t answer.  You had better take it for granted that I know what I’m talking about, and keep away from him.”

“As a matter of fact, it was Miss Kenwardine to whom you owed most,” Jake said meaningly.  “Do you suggest that she’s dangerous, too?”

Dick frowned and his face got red, but he said nothing, and Jake resumed:  “There’s a mystery about the matter and you know more than you intend to tell; but if you blame the girl for anything, you’re absolutely wrong.  If you’ll wait a minute, I’ll show you what I mean.”

He went into the shack and came back with a drawing-block which he stood upon the table under the lamp, and Dick saw that it was a water-color portrait of Clare Kenwardine.  He did not know much about pictures, but it was obvious that Jake had talent.  The girl stood in the patio, with a pale-yellow wall behind her, over which a vivid purple creeper trailed.  Her lilac dress showed the graceful lines of her slender figure against the harmonious background, and matched the soft blue of her eyes and the delicate white and pink of her skin.  The patio was flooded with strong sunlight, but the girl looked strangely fresh and cool.

“I didn’t mean to show you this, but it’s the best way of explaining what I think,” Jake said with some diffidence.  “I’m weak in technique, because I haven’t been taught, but I imagine I’ve got sensibility.  It’s plain that when you paint a portrait you must study form and color, but there’s something else that you can only feel.  I don’t mean the character that’s expressed by the mouth and eyes; it’s something vague and elusive that psychologists give you a hint of when they talk about the aura.  Of course you can’t paint it, but unless it, so to speak, glimmers through the work, your portrait’s dead.”

“I don’t quite understand; but sometimes things do give you an impression you can’t analyze,” Dick replied.

“Well, allowing for poor workmanship, all you see here’s harmonious.  The blues and purples and yellows tone, and yet, if I’ve got the hot glare of the sun right, you feel that the figure’s exotic and doesn’t belong to the scene.  The latter really needs an olive-skinned daughter of the passionate South; but the girl I’ve painted ought to walk in the moonlight through cool forest glades.”

Dick studied the picture silently, for he remembered with disturbing emotion that he had felt what Jake suggested when he first met Clare Kenwardine.  She was frank, but somehow remote and aloof; marked by a strange refinement he could find no name for.  He was glad that Jake did not seem to expect him to speak, but after a few moments the latter wrapped up the portrait and took it away.  When he came back he lighted a cigarette.

“Now,” he said, “do you think it’s sensible to distrust a girl like that?  Admitting that her father makes a few dollars by gambling, can you believe that living with him throws any taint on her?”

Dick hesitated.  Clare had stolen his papers.  This seemed impossible, but it was true.  Yet when he looked up he answered as his heart urged him: 

“No.  It sounds absurd.”

“It is absurd,” Jake said firmly.

Neither spoke for the next minute, and then Dick frowned at a disturbing thought.  Could the lad understand Clare so well unless he loved her?

“That picture must have taken some time to paint.  Did Miss Kenwardine often pose for you?”

“No,” said Jake, rather dryly; “in fact, she didn’t really pose at all.  I had trouble to get permission to make one or two quick sketches, and worked up the rest from memory.”

“Yet she let you sketch her.  It was something of a privilege.”

Jake smiled in a curious way.  “I think I see what you mean.  Miss Kenwardine likes me, but although I’ve some artistic taste, I’m frankly flesh and blood; and that’s not quite her style.  She finds me a little more in harmony with her than the rest, but this is all.  Still, it’s something to me.  Now you understand matters, perhaps you won’t take so much trouble to keep me out of Santa Brigida.”

“I’ll do my best to keep you away from Kenwardine,” Dick declared.

“Very well,” Jake answered with a grin.  “You’re quite a good sort, though you’re not always very smart, and I can’t blame you for doing what you think is your duty.”

Then he set to work on his calculations and there was silence on the veranda.

Dick kept him occupied for the next week, and then prudently decided not to press the lad too hard by finding him work that obviously need not be done.  If he was to preserve his power, it must be used with caution.  The first evening Jake was free he started for Santa Brigida, though as there was no longer a locomotive available, he got two laborers to take him down the line on a hand-car.  After that he had some distance to walk and arrived at Kenwardine’s powdered with dust.  It was a hot night and he found Kenwardine and three or four others in the patio.

A small, shaded lamp stood upon the table they had gathered round, and the light sparkled on delicate green glasses and a carafe of wine.  It touched the men’s white clothes, and then, cut off by the shade, left their faces in shadow and fell upon the tiles.  A colored paper lantern, however, hung from a wire near an outside staircase and Jake saw Clare a short distance away.  It looked as if she had stopped in crossing the patio, but as he came forward Kenwardine got up.

“It’s some time since we have seen you,” he remarked.

“Yes,” said Jake.  “I meant to come before, but couldn’t get away.”

“Then you have begun to take your business seriously?”

“My guardian does.”

“Ah!” said Kenwardine, speaking rather louder, “if you mean Mr. Brandon, I certainly thought him a serious person.  But what has this to do with your coming here?”

“He found me work that kept me busy evenings.”

“With the object of keeping you out of mischief?”

“I imagine he meant something of the kind,” Jake admitted with a chuckle. 
He glanced round, and felt he had been too frank, as his eyes rested on
Clare.  He could not see her face, but thought she was listening.

“Then it looks as if he believed we were dangerous people for you to associate with,” Kenwardine remarked, with a smile.  “Well, I suppose we’re not remarkable for the conventional virtues.”

Jake, remembering Dick had insisted that Kenwardine was dangerous, felt embarrassed as he noted that Clare was now looking at him.  To make things worse, he thought Kenwardine had meant her to hear.

“I expect he really was afraid of my going to the casino,” he answered as carelessly as he could.

“Though he would not be much relieved to find you had come to my house instead?  Well, I suppose one must make allowances for the Puritan character.”

“Brandon isn’t much of a Puritan, and he’s certainly not a prig,” Jake objected.

Kenwardine laughed.  “I’m not sure this explanation makes things much better, but we’ll let it go.  We were talking about the new water supply.  It’s a harmless subject and you ought to be interested.”

Jake sat down and stole a glance at Clare as he drank a glass of wine.  There was nothing to be learned from her face, but he was vexed with Kenwardine, who had intentionally involved him in an awkward situation.  Jake admitted that he had not dealt with it very well.  For all that, he began to talk about the irrigation works and the plans for bringing water to the town, and was relieved to see that Clare had gone when he next looked round.

As a matter of fact, Clare had quietly stolen away and was sitting on a balcony in the dark, tingling with anger and humiliation.  She imagined that she had banished Brandon from her thoughts and was alarmed to find that he had still power to wound her.  It had been a shock to learn he believed that she had stolen his papers; but he had now warned his companion against her father and no doubt herself.  Jake’s manner when questioned had seemed to indicate this.

By and by she tried, not to make excuses for Brandon, but to understand his point of view, and was forced to admit that it was not unreasonable.  Her father now and then allowed, or perhaps encouraged, his guests to play for high stakes, and she had hated to see the evening gatherings of extravagant young men at their house in England.  Indeed, she had eagerly welcomed the change when he had offered to take her abroad because business necessitated his leaving the country.  Things had been better at Santa Brigida, but after a time the card playing had begun again.  The men who now came to their house were, however, of a different type from the rather dissipated youths she had previously met.  They were quieter and more reserved; men of experience who had known adventure.  Still, she disliked their coming and had sometimes felt she must escape from a life that filled her with repugnance.  The trouble was that she did not know where to find a refuge and could not force herself to leave her father, who had treated her with good-humored indulgence.

Then she began to wonder what was the business that had brought him to Santa Brigida.  He did not talk about it, but she was sure it was not gambling, as Brandon thought.  No doubt he won some money from his friends, but it could not be much and he must lose at times.  She must look for another explanation and it was hard to find.  Men who did not play cards came to the house in the daytime and occasionally late at night, and Kenwardine, who wrote a good many letters, now and then went away down the coast.  There was a mystery about his occupation that puzzled and vaguely alarmed her, and she could turn to nobody for advice.  She had refused her aunt’s offer of a home and knew it would not be renewed.  They had cast her off and done with her.  Getting up presently with a troubled sigh, she went to her room.

In the meantime, Jake stayed in the patio with the others.  A thin, dark Spaniard, who spoke English well, and two Americans occupied the other side of the table; a fat German sat nearly opposite the Spaniard and next to Jake.  The heat made them languid and nobody wanted to play cards, although there was a pack on the table.  This happened oftener than Brandon thought.

“It’s a depressing night and an enervating country,” Kenwardine remarked.  “I wonder why we stay here as we do, since we’re apt to leave it as poor as when we came.  The people are an unstable lot, and when you’ve spent your time and energy developing what you hope is a profitable scheme, some change of policy or leaders suddenly cuts it short.”

“I guess that explains why we are here,” one of the Americans replied.  “The South is the home of the dramatic surprise and this appeals to us.  In the North, they act by rule and one knows, more or less, what will happen; but this gives one no chances to bet upon.”

The fat German nodded.  “It is the gambler’s point of view.  You people take with pleasure steep chances, as they say, but mine act not so.  The system is better.  One calculates beforehand what may happen and it is provided for.  If things do not go as one expects, one labors to change them, and when this is not possible adopts an alternative plan.”

“But there always is a plan, Senor Richter!” the Spaniard remarked.

Richter smiled.  “With us, I think that is true.  Luck is more fickle than a woman and we like not the surprise.  But our effort is to be prepared for it.”

“You’re a pretty hard crowd to run up against,” said the other American.

Jake, who had taken no part in the recent talk, and leaned languidly back in his chair, turned his head as he heard footsteps in the patio.  They were quick and decided, as if somebody was coming straight towards the table, but they stopped suddenly.  This seemed strange and Jake, who had caught a glimpse of a man in white clothes, looked round to see if Kenwardine had made him a sign.  The latter, however, was lighting his pipe, but the Spaniard leaned forward a little, as if trying to see across the patio.  Jake thought he would find this difficult with the light of the lamp in his eyes, but Richter, who sat opposite, got up and reached across the table.

“With excuses, Don Sebastian, but the wine is on your side,” he said, and filled his glass from the decanter before he sat down.

In the meantime the man who had come in was waiting, but seemed to have moved, because Jake could only see an indistinct figure in the gloom.

“Is that you, Enrique?” Kenwardine asked when he had lighted his pipe.

Si, senor,” a voice answered, and Kenwardine made a sign of dismissal.

Bueno! You can tell me about it to-morrow.  I am engaged now.”

The footsteps began again and when they died away Kenwardine picked up the cards.

“Shall we play for half an hour?” he asked.

The others agreed, but the stakes were moderate and nobody took much interest in the game; and Jake presently left the house without seeing anything more of Clare.  He felt he had wasted the evening, but as he walked back to the line he thought about the man whom Kenwardine had sent away.  He did not think the fellow was one of the servants, and it seemed strange that Richter should have got up and stood in front of Don Sebastian when the latter was trying to see across the patio.  Still, there was no apparent reason why the Spaniard should want to see who had come in, and Jake dismissed the matter.