Read CHAPTER XIX - JAKE EXPLAINS MATTERS of Brandon of the Engineers , free online book, by Harold Bindloss, on ReadCentral.com.

The sun had sunk behind the range when Clare Kenwardine stood, musing, on a balcony of the house.  Voices and footsteps reached her across the roofs, for Santa Brigida was wakening from its afternoon sleep and the traffic had begun again in the cooling streets.  The girl listened vacantly, as she grappled with questions that had grown more troublesome of late.

The life she led often jarred, and yet she could find no escape.  She hoped she was not unnecessarily censorious and tried to argue that after all there was no great harm in gambling, but rarely succeeded in convincing herself.  Then she had deliberately thrown in her lot with her father’s.  When she first insisted on joining him in England, he had, for her sake, as she now realized, discouraged the plan, but had since come to depend upon her in many ways, and she could not leave him.  Besides, it was too late.  She had made her choice and must stick to it.

Yet she rebelled against the feeling that she had brought a taint or stigma upon herself.  She had no women friends except the wives of one or two Spanish officials whose reputation for honesty was not of the best; the English and American women left her alone.  Most of the men she met she frankly disliked, and imagined that the formal respect they showed her was due to her father’s hints.  Kenwardine’s moral code was not severe, but he saw that his guests preserved their manners.  Clare had heard the Spaniards call him muy caballero, and they knew the outward points of a gentleman.  While she pondered, he came out on the balcony.

“Brooding?” he said with a smile.  “Well, it has been very dull lately and we need cheering up.  Suppose you send Mr. Fuller a note and ask him to dinner to-morrow?  He’s sometimes amusing and I think you like him.”

Clare braced herself for a struggle, for it was seldom she refused her father’s request.

“Yes,” she said, “I like him, but it would be better if he didn’t come.”

Kenwardine gave her a keen glance, but although he felt some surprise did not try to hide his understanding of what she meant.

“It looks as if you knew something about what happened on his last visit.”

“I do,” Clare answered.  “It was rather a shock.”

“One mustn’t exaggerate the importance of these things,” Kenwardine remarked in an indulgent tone.  “It’s difficult to avoid getting a jar now and then, though I’ve tried to shield you as much as possible.  Fuller’s young and high-spirited, and you really mustn’t judge his youthful extravagance too severely.”

“But don’t you see you are admitting that he shouldn’t come?” Clare asked, with some color in her face.  “He is young and inexperienced, and your friends are men of the world.  What is safe for them may be dangerous for him.”

Kenwardine pondered.  Fuller was an attractive lad, and he would not have been displeased to think that Clare’s wish to protect him might spring from sentimental tenderness.  But if this were so, she would hardly have been so frank and have admitted that he was weak.  Moreover, if she found his society congenial, she would not insist on keeping him away.

“You are afraid some of the others might take advantage of his rashness?” he suggested.  “Can’t you trust me to see this doesn’t happen?”

“It did happen, not long ago.  And you can’t go very far; one can’t be rude to one’s guests.”

“Well,” said Kenwardine, smiling, “it’s kind of you to make an excuse for me.  On the whole, of course, I like you to be fastidious in your choice of friends, but one should temper severity with sense.  I don’t want you to get as exacting as Brandon, for example.”

“I’m afraid he was right when he tried to keep Fuller away.”

“Right in thinking my house was unsafe for the lad, and in warning him that you and I were unfit for him to associate with?”

Kenwardine studied the girl.  She looked distressed, and he thought this significant, but after a moment or two she answered steadily: 

“After all, Brandon had some grounds for thinking so.  I would much sooner you didn’t urge me to ask Jake Fuller.”

“Very well,” said Kenwardine.  “I don’t want you to do anything that’s repugnant; but, of course, if he comes to see me, I can’t send him off.  It isn’t a matter of much importance, anyhow.”

He left her, but she was not deceived by his careless tone.  She thought he meant to bring Fuller back and did not see how she could prevent this, although she had refused to help.  Then she thought about the plans that Brandon had lost at their house in England.  They had certainly been stolen, for she could not doubt what he had told her, but it was painful to admit that her father had taken them.  She felt dejected and lonely, and while she struggled against the depression Lucille came to say that Jake was waiting below.

“Tell him I am not at home,” Clare replied.

Lucille went away and Clare left the balcony, but a few minutes later, when she thought Jake had gone, she went down the stairs and met him coming up.  He stopped with a twinkle of amusement.

“I sent word that I was not at home,” she said haughtily.

“You did,” Jake agreed in an apologetic tone.  “It’s your privilege, but although I felt rather hurt, I don’t see why that should prevent my asking if your father was in.”

Clare’s indignation vanished.  She liked Jake and was moved by his reproachful look.  She determined to try an appeal.

“Mr. Fuller,” she said, “I would sooner you didn’t come to see us.  It would be better, in several ways.”

He gave her a curious, intent look, in which she read sympathy.  “I can’t pretend I don’t understand, and you’re very brave.  Still, I’m not sure you’re quite just, to me among others.  I’m a bit of a fool, but I’m not so rash as some people think.  Anyhow, if I were, I’d still be safe enough in your house.  Sorry, but I can’t promise to stop away.”

“It would really be much better,” Clare insisted.

“Would it make things any easier for you?”

“No,” said Clare.  “In a sense, it could make no difference to me.”

“Very well.  I intend to call on your father now and then.  Of course, you needn’t see me unless you like, though since I am coming, your keeping out of the way wouldn’t do much good.”

Clare made a gesture of helpless protest.  “Why won’t you be warned?  Can’t you understand?  Do you think it is easy for me to try ­”

“I don’t,” said Jake.  “I know it’s very hard.  I think you’re mistaken about the necessity for interfering; that’s all.”  Then he paused and resumed in a different tone:  “You see, I imagine that you must feel lonely at times, and that you might need a friend.  I dare say you’d find me better than none, and I’d like to know that I’ll have an opportunity of being around if I’m wanted.”

He gave her a quiet, respectful glance, and Clare knew she had never liked him so much.  He looked trustworthy, and it was a relief to note that there was no hint of anything but sympathy in his eyes and voice.  He asked nothing but permission to protect her if there was need.  Moreover, since they had been forced to tread on dangerous ground, he had handled the situation with courage.  She might require a friend, and his honest sympathy was refreshing by contrast with the attitude of her father’s companions.  Some were hard and cynical and some were dissipated, but all were stamped by a repugnant greediness.  They sought something:  money, the gratification of base desires, success in dark intrigue.  Jake with his chivalrous generosity stood far apart from them; but he must be saved from becoming like them.

“If I knew how I could keep you away, I would do so, but I can, at least, see you as seldom as possible,” she said and left him.

Jake knitted his brows as he went on to Kenwardine’s room.  He understood Clare’s motive, and admitted that she meant well, but he was not going to stop away because she thought this better for him.  There was, however, another matter that demanded his attention and he felt awkward when Kenwardine opened the door.

“It’s some time since you have been to see us,” the latter remarked.

“It is,” said Jake.  “Perhaps you can understand that I felt rather shy about coming after the way my partner arranged the matter of the check.”

“He arranged it to your advantage, and you ought to be satisfied.  Mr. Brandon is obviously a business man.”

Jack resented the polished sneer.  “He’s a very good sort and I’m grateful to him; but it doesn’t follow that I adopt his point of view.”

“You mean his views about the payment of one’s debts?”

“Yes,” said Jake.  “I don’t consider the debt wiped out; in fact, that’s why I came.  I want to make good, but it will take time.  If you will ask your friends to wait ­”

Kenwardine looked at him with an ironical smile.  “Isn’t this a change of attitude?  I understood you claimed that you were under a disadvantage through being drunk and suspected that the game was not quite straight.”

“I was drunk and still suspect Black of crooked play.”

“It’s rather a grave statement.”

“I quite see that,” said Jake.  “However, I deserved to lose for being drunk when I was betting high, and don’t hold you accountable for Black.  You’d take steep chances if you guaranteed all guests.”

Kenwardine laughed.  “You’re remarkably frank; but there’s some truth in what you say, although the convention is that I do guarantee them and their honor’s mine.”

“We’ll keep to business,” Jake replied.  “Will you tell your friends I’ll pay them out in full as soon as I can?”

“Certainly.  Since they thought the matter closed, it will be a pleasant surprise, but we’ll let that go.  Mr. Brandon obviously didn’t consult your wishes, but have you any idea what his object was in taking his very unusual line?”

“Yes,” said Jake; “if you press me, I have.”

“He thought he would make it awkward for you to come here, in fact?”

“Something like that.”

“Then you mean to run the risk?”

“I’m coming, if you’ll allow it,” Jake answered with a twinkle.  “The risk isn’t very great, because if I lose any more money in the next few months, the winners will not get paid.  The old man certainly won’t stand for it if I get into debt.”

Kenwardine pushed a box of cigarettes across.  “I congratulate you on your way of making things clear, and now we understand each other you can come when you like.  Have a smoke.”

Jake took a cigarette, but left soon afterwards to do an errand of Bethune’s that had given him an excuse for visiting the town.  Then he went back to the dam, and after dinner sat outside Dick’s shack, pondering what Clare had said.  She had, of course, had some ground for warning him, but he did not believe yet that Kenwardine meant to exploit his recklessness.  It would not be worth while, for one thing, since he had never had much money to lose and now had none.  Besides, Kenwardine was not the man to take a mean advantage of his guest, though Jake could not say as much for some of his friends.  Anyhow, he meant to go to the house because he felt that Clare might need his help.  He did not see how that might be, but he had a half-formed suspicion that she might have to suffer on her father’s account, and if anything of the kind happened, he meant to be about.

Yet he was not in love with her.  She attracted him strongly, and he admitted that it would be remarkably easy to become infatuated, but did not mean to let this happen.  Though often rash, he had more sense and self-control than his friends believed, and realized that Clare was not for him.  He could not tell how he had arrived at this conclusion, but there it was, and he knew he was not mistaken.  Sometimes he wondered with a twinge of jealousy what she thought of Brandon.

By and by he roused himself from his reflections and looked about.  There was no moon and a thin mist that had stolen out of the jungle drifted past the shack.  A coffee-pot and two cups stood upon a table near his chair, and one cup was half empty, as Dick had left it when he was unexpectedly summoned to the dam, where work was going on.  The veranda lamp had been put out, because Jake did not want to read and a bright light would have attracted moths and beetles, but Dick had left a lamp burning in his room, and a faint illumination came through the curtain on the open window.  Everything was very quiet except when the ringing of hammers and the rattle of a crane rose from the dam.

Looking farther round, Jake thought he distinguished the blurred outline of a human figure in the mist, but was not surprised.  Some ironwork that made a comfortable seat lay near the shack and the figure had been there before.  For all that, he imagined the man was wasting his time and keeping an unnecessary watch.  Then his thoughts again centered on Clare and Kenwardine and some time had passed when he looked up.  Something had disturbed him, but he could not tell what it was, and on glancing at the spot where he had seen the figure he found it had gone.

Next moment a board in the house creaked softly, as if it had been trodden on; but the boards often did so after a change of temperature, and Jake sat still.  Their colored servant had asked leave to go down to the camp and was perhaps now coming back.  One had to be careful not to give one’s imagination too much rein in these hot countries.  Payne seemed to have done so and had got an attack of nerves, which was curious, because indulgence in native cana generally led to that kind of thing, and Payne was sober.  Moreover, he was of the type that is commonly called hard.

Jake took out a cigarette and was lighting it when he heard a swift, stealthy step close behind him.  He dropped the match as he swung round, pushing back his canvas chair, and found his eyes dazzled by the sudden darkness.  Still he thought he saw a shadow flit across the veranda and vanish into the mist.  Next moment there were heavier footsteps, and a crash as a man fell over the projecting legs of the chair.  The fellow rolled down the shallow stairs, dropping a pistol and then hurriedly got up.

“Stop right there, Pepe!” he shouted.  “What were you doing in that room?”

Nobody answered and Jake turned to the man, who was rubbing his leg.

“What’s the trouble, Payne?” he asked.

“He’s lit out, but I reckon I’d have got him if you’d been more careful how you pushed your chair around.”

“Whom did you expect to get?”

“Well,” said Payne, “it wasn’t Pepe.”

“Then why did you call him?”

“I wanted the fellow I was after to think I’d made a mistake.”

Jake could understand this, though the rest was dark.  Pepe was an Indian boy who brought water and domestic stores to the shack, but would have no excuse for entering it at night.

“I allow he meant to dope the coffee,” Payne resumed.

This was alarming, and Jake abruptly glanced at the table.  The intruder must have been close to it and behind him when he heard the step, and might have accomplished his purpose and stolen away had he not struck the match.

“He hadn’t time,” he answered.  “We had better see what he was doing in the house.”

Payne put away his pistol and they entered Dick’s room.  Nothing seemed to have been touched, until Jake placed the lamp on a writing-table where Dick sometimes worked at night.  The drawers beneath it were locked, but Payne indicated a greasy finger-print on the writing-pad.

“I guess that’s a dago’s mark.  Mr. Brandon would wash his hands before he began to write.”

Jake agreed, and picking up the pad thought the top sheet had been hurriedly removed, because a torn fragment projected from the leather clip.  The sheet left was covered with faint impressions, but it rather looked as if these had been made by the ink running through than by direct contact.  Jake wrote a few words on a scrap of paper and pressing it on the pad noted the difference.

“This is strange,” he said.  “I don’t get the drift of it.”

Payne looked at him with a dry smile.  “If you’ll come out and let me talk, I’ll try to put you wise.”

Jake nodded and they went back to the veranda.