“Impossible! This war threatens to bring utter ruin; and now that Esteban and Rosa are home they spend money like water. I groan with poverty.”
“Yes, they are extravagant. It is the more reason for me to remain in your service.”
“No, no! I tell you I’m bankrupt.”
“So? Then the remedy is simple—sell a part of your land.”
Although this suggestion came naturally enough, Dona Isabel turned cold, and felt her smile stiffen into a grimace. She wondered if Cueto could be feeling her out deliberately. “Sell the Varona lands?” she queried, after a momentary struggle with herself. “Esteban would rise from his grave. No. It was his wish that the plantations go to his children intact.”
“And his wish is sacred to you, eh?” Cueto nodded his approval, although his smile was disconcerting. “An admirable sentiment! It does you honor! But speaking on this subject, I am reminded of that dispute with Jose Oroz over the boundary to La Joya. He is a rascal, that Oroz; he would steal the sap out of your standing cane if he could. I have promised to show him the original deed to La Joya and to furnish him with the proofs about the boundary line. That would be better than a lawsuit, wouldn’t it?”
“Decidedly! But—I will settle with him myself.”
Cueto lifted an admonitory hand, his face alight with the faintest glimmer of ironic mirth. “I couldn’t trust you to the mercies of that rascal,” he said, piously. “No, I shall go on as I am, even at a sacrifice to myself. I love Don Esteban’s children as my very own; and you, senora—”
Isabel knew that she must win a complete victory at once or accept irretrievable defeat,
“Never!” she interrupted, with a tone of finality. “I can’t accept your sacrifice. I am not worthy. Kindly arrange to turn over your books of account at once. I shall make you as handsome a present as my circumstances will permit in recognition of your long and faithful service.”
Then Pancho Cueto did an unexpected thing: he laughed shortly and shook his head.
Dona Isabel was ready to faint and her voice quavered as she went on: “Understand me, we part the best of friends despite all I have heard against you. I do not believe these stories people tell, for you probably have enemies. Even if all they say were true I should force myself to be lenient because of your affection for my husband.”
The man rose, still smiling. “It is I who have been lenient,” said he.
“Eh? Speak plainly.”
“Gladly. I have long suspected that Don Esteban hid the deeds of his property with the rest of his valuables, and now that you admit—”
Dona Isabel recoiled sharply. “Admit! Are you mad? Deeds! What are you talking about?” Her eyes met his bravely enough, but she could feel her lips trembling loosely.
Casting aside all pretense, the overseer exclaimed: “Por el amor de Dios! An end to this! I know why you sent for me. You think I have been robbing you. Well, to be honest, so I have. Why should I toil as I do while you and those twins live here in luxury and idleness, squandering money to which you have no right?”