But with the exception of the Alcalde and Miss Chubb, Mrs. Brimmer’s words fell on unheeding ears, and Miss Keene did not prejudice the triumph of her own superior attractions by seeming to notice Mrs. Brimmer’s innuendo. She answered briefly, and entered into lively conversation with Crosby and the Secretary, holding the hand of Dona Isabel in her own, as if to assure her that she was guiltless of any design against her former admirer. This was quite unnecessary, as the gentle Isabel, after bidding Brace, with a rap on the knuckles, to “go and play,” contented herself with curling up like a kitten beside Miss Keene, and left that gentleman to wander somewhat aimlessly in the patio.
Nevertheless, Miss Keene, whose eyes and ears were nervously alert, and who had indulged a faint hope of meeting Padre Esteban and hearing news of Hurlstone, glanced from time to time towards the entrance of the patio. A singular presentiment that some outcome of this present visit would determine her relations with Hurlstone had already possessed her. Consequently she was conscious, before it had attracted the attention of the others, of some vague stirring in the plaza beyond. Suddenly the clatter of hoofs was heard before the gateway. There was a moment’s pause of dismounting, a gruff order given in Spanish, and the next moment three strangers entered the patio.
They were dressed in red shirts, their white trousers tucked in high boots, and wore slouched hats. They were so travel-stained, dusty, and unshaven, that their features were barely distinguishable. One, who appeared to be the spokesman of the party, cast a perfunctory glance around the corridor, and, in fluent Spanish, began with the mechanical air of a man repeating some formula,—
“We are the bearers of a despatch to the Comandante of Todos Santos from the Governor of Mazatlan. The officer and the escort who came with us are outside the gate. We have been told that the Comandante is in this house. The case is urgent, or we would not intrude”—
He was stopped by the voice of Mrs. Markham from the corridor. “Well, I don’t understand Spanish much—I may be a fool, or crazy, or perhaps both—but if that isn’t James Markham’s voice, I’ll bet a cooky!”
The three strangers turned quickly toward the corridor. The next moment the youngest of their party advanced eagerly towards Miss Keene, who had arisen with a half frightened joy, and with the cry of “Why, it’s Nell!” ran towards her. The third man came slowly forward as Mrs. Brimmer slipped hastily from the hammock and stood erect.
“In the name of goodness, Barbara,” said Mr. Brimmer, closing upon her, in a slow, portentous whisper, “where are your stockings?”
A more important arrival.
The Commander was the first to recover his presence of mind. Taking the despatch from the hands of the unlooked-for husband of the woman he loved, he opened it with an immovable face and habitual precision. Then, turning with a military salute to the strangers, he bade them join him in half an hour at the Presidio; and, bowing gravely to the assembled company, stepped from the corridor. But Mrs. Markham was before him, stopped him with a gesture, and turned to her husband.