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The Crossed Gloves by A.E.W. Mason

 

"Although you have not been near Ronda for five years," said the Spanish Commandant severely to Dennis Shere, "the face of the country has not changed. You are certainly the most suitable officer I can select, since I am told you are well acquainted with the neighbourhood. You will ride therefore to-day to Olvera and deliver this sealed letter to the officer commanding the temporary garrison there. But it is not necessary that it should reach him before eleven at night, so that you will still have an hour or two before you start in which you can renew your acquaintanceships, as I can very well understand you are anxious to do."

Dennis Shere's reluctance, however, was now changed into alacrity. For the road to Olvera ran past the gates of that white-walled, straggling residencía where he had planned to spend this first evening that he was stationed at Ronda. On his way back from his colonel's quarters he even avoided those squares and streets where he would be likely to meet with old acquaintances, foreseeing their questions as to why he was now a Spanish subject and wore the uniform of a captain of Spanish cavalry and by seven o'clock he was already riding through the Plaza de Toros upon his mission. There, however, a familiar voice hailed him, and turning about in his saddle he saw an old padre who had once gained a small prize for logic at the University of Barcelona, and who had since made his inferences and deductions an excuse for a great deal of inquisitiveness. Shere had no option but to stop. He broke in, however, at once on the inevitable questions as to his uniform with the statement that he must be at Olvera by eleven.

"Fifteen miles," said the padre. "Does it need four hours and a fresh horse to journey fifteen miles?"

"But I have friends to visit on the way," and to give convincing details to an excuse which was plainly disbelieved, Shere added, "Just this side of Setenil I have friends."

The padre was still dissatisfied. "There is only one house just this side of Setenil, and Esteban Silvela I saw with my own eyes to-day in Ronda."

"He may well be home by now, and it is not Esteban whom I go to see."

"Not Esteban," exclaimed the padre. "Then it will be—"

"His sister, the Señora Christina," said Shere with a laugh at his companion's persistency. "Since the brother and sister live alone, and it is not the brother, why it will be the sister. You argue still very closely, padre."

The padre stood back a little from Shere and stared. Then he said slyly, and with the air of one who quotes:

"All women are born tricksters."

"Those were rank words," said Shere composedly.

"Yet they were often spoken when you grew vines in the Ronda Valley."

"Then a crowd of men must know me for a fool. A young man may make a mistake, padre, and exaggerate a disappointment. Besides, I had not then seen the señora. Esteban I knew, but she was a child, and known to me only by name." And then, warmed by the pleasure in his old friend's face, he said, "I will tell you about it."

They walked on slowly side by side, while Shere, who now that he had begun to confide was quite swept away, bent over his saddle and told how after inheriting a modest fortune, after wandering for three years from city to city, he had at last come to Paris, and there, at a Carlist conversazione, had heard the familiar name called from a doorway, and had seen the unfamiliar face appear. Shere described Christina. She walked with the grace of a deer, as though the floor beneath her foot had the spring of turf. The blood was bright in her face; her brown hair shone; she was sweet with youth; the suppleness of her body showed it and the steadiness of her great clear eyes.

"She passed me," he went on, "and the arrogance of what I used to think and say came sharp home to me like a pain. I suppose that I stared — it was an accident, of course — perhaps my face showed something of my trouble; but just as she was opposite me her fan slipped through her fingers and clattered on the floor."

The padre was at a loss to understand Shere's embarrassment in relating so small a matter.

"Well," said he, "you picked up the fan and so—"

"No," interrupted Shere. His embarrassment increased, and he stammered out awkwardly, "Just for the moment, you see, I began to wonder whether after all I had not been right before; whether after all any woman would or could baulk herself of a fraction of any man's admiration, supposing that it would only cost a trick to extort it. And while I was wondering she herself stooped, picked up the fan, and good-humouredly dropped me a curtsey for my lack of manners. Esteban presented me to her that evening. There followed two magical months in Paris and a June in London."

"But, Esteban?" said the padre, doubtfully. "I do not understand. I know something of Esteban Silvela. A lean man of plots and devices. My friend, do you know that Esteban has not a groat? The Silvela fortunes and estate came from the mother and went to the daughter. Esteban is the Señora Christina's steward, and her marriage would alter his position at the least. Did he not spoil the magic of the months in Paris?"

Shere laughed aloud in assured confidence.

"No, indeed," said he. "I did not know Esteban was dependent on his sister, but what difference would her marriage make? Esteban is my best friend. For instance, you questioned me about my uniform. It is by Esteban's advice and help that I wear it."

"Indeed!" said the padre, quickly. "Tell me."

"That June, in London, two years ago — it was by the way the last time I saw the señora — we three dined at the same house. As the ladies rose from the table I said to Christina quietly, 'I want to speak to you to-night,' and she answered very simply and quietly, 'With all my heart.' She was not so quiet, however, but that Esteban overheard her. He hitched his chair up to mine; I asked him what my chances were, and whether he would second them? He was most cordial, but he thought with his Spaniard's pride that I ought — I use my words, not his — in some way to repair my insufficiency in station and the rest; and he pointed out this way of the uniform. I could not resist his argument; I did not speak that night. I took out my papers and became a Spaniard; with Esteban's help I secured a commission. That was two years ago. I have not seen her since, nor have I written, but I ride to her to- night with my two years' silence and my two years' service to prove the truth of what I say. So you see I have reason to thank Esteban." And since they were now come to the edge of the town they parted company. Shere rode smartly down the slope of the hill, the padre stood and watched him with a feeling of melancholy.

It was not merely that he distrusted Esteban, but he knew Shere, the cadet of an impoverished family, who had come out from England to a small estate in the Ronda valley, which had belonged to his house since the days of the Duke of Wellington in Spain. He knew him for a man of tempests and extremes, and as he thought of his ardent words and tones, of his ready acceptance of Esteban's good faith, of his description of Christina, he fell to wondering whether so sudden and violent a conversion from passionate cynic to passionate believer would not lack permanence. There was that little instructive accident of the dropped fan. Even in the moment of conversion so small a thing had almost sufficed to dissuade Shere.

Shere, however, was quite untroubled — so untroubled, indeed, that he even rode slowly that he might not waste the luxury of anticipating the welcome which his unexpected appearance would surely provoke. He rode into the groves of almond and walnut trees and out again into a wild and stony country. It was just growing dusk when he saw ahead of him the square white walls of the enclosure, and the cluster of buildings within, glimmering at the foot of a rugged hill. The lights began to move in the windows as he approached, and then a man suddenly appeared at his side on the roadway and whistled twice loudly as though he were calling his dog. Shere rode past the man and through the open gates into the courtyard. There were three men lounging there, and they came forward almost as if they had expected Shere. He gave his horse into their charge and impetuously mounted the flight of stone steps to the house. A servant in readiness came forward at once and preceded Shere along a gallery towards a door. Shere's impetuosity led him to outstep the servant, he opened the door, and so entered the room unannounced.

It was a long, low room with a wainscot of dark walnut, and a single lamp upon the table gave it shadows rather than light. He had just time to notice that a girl and a man were bending over the table in the lamplight, to recognise with a throb of the heart the play of the light upon the girl's brown hair, to understand that she was explaining something which she held in her hands, and then Esteban came quickly to him with a certain air of perplexity and a glance of inquiry towards the servant. Then he said: —

"Of course, of course, you stopped and came in of your own accord."

"Of my own accord, indeed," said Shere, who was looking at Christina instead of heeding Esteban's words. His unexpected coming had certainly not missed its effect, although it was not the effect which Shere had desired. There was, to be sure, a great deal of astonishment in her looks, but there was also consternation; and when she spoke it was in a numbed and absent way.

"You are well? We have not seen you this long while. Two years is it? More than two years."

"There have been changes," said Esteban. "We have had war and, alas, defeats."

"Yes, I was in Cuba," said Shere, and the conversation dragged on impersonal and dull. Esteban talked continually with a forced heartiness, Christina barely spoke at all, and then absently. Shere noticed that she had but lately come in, for she still wore her hat, and her gloves lay crossed on the table in the light of the lamp; she moved restlessly about the room, stopping now and then to give an ear to any chance noise in the courtyard, and to glance alertly at the door; so that Shere understood that she was expecting another visitor, and that he himself was in the way. An inopportune intrusion, it seemed, was the sole outcome of the two years' anticipations, and utterly discouraged he rose from his chair. On the instant, however, Esteban signed to Shere to remain, and with a friendly smile himself made an excuse and left the room.

Christina was now walking up and down one particular seam in the floor with as much care as if the seam was a tight-rope, and this exercise she continued. Shere moved over to the table and quite absently played with the gloves which lay there, disarranging their position, so that they no longer made a cross.

"You remember that night in London," said he, and Christina stopped for a second to say simply and without any suggestion that she was offended, "You should have spoken that night," and then resumed her walk.

"Yes," returned Shere. "But I was always aware that I could not offer you your match, and I found, I thought, quite suddenly that evening a way to make my insufficiency less insufficient."

"Less insufficient by a strip of brass upon your shoulder," she exclaimed passionately. She came and stood opposite to him. "Well, that strip of brass stops us both. It stops my ears, it must stop your lips too. Where did we meet first?"

"In Paris."

"Go on!"

"At a Carlist—" and Shere broke off and took a step towards her. "Oh!" he exclaimed, "I never thought of it. I imagined you went there to laugh as I did."

"Does one laugh at one's creed?" she cried violently; and Shere with a helpless gesture of the hands sat down in a chair. Esteban had fooled him, and why, the padre had shown Shere that afternoon, Esteban had fooled him irreparably; it did not need a glance at Christina, as she stood facing him, to convince him of that. There was no anger against him, he noticed, in her face, but on the contrary a great friendliness and pity. But he knew her at that moment. Her looks might soften, but not her resolve. She was heart-whole a Carlist. Carlism was her creed, and her creed would be more than a creed, it would be a passion too. So it was not to persuade her but rather in acknowledgment that he said:

"And one does not change one's creed?"

"No," she answered, and suggested, but in a doubtful voice, "but one can put off one's uniform."

Shere stood up. "Neither can one do that," he said simply. "It is quite true that I sought my commission upon your account. I would just as readily have become a Carlist had I known. I had no inclination one way or the other, only a great hope and longing for you. But I have made the mistake, and I cannot retrieve it. The strip of brass obliges me to good faith. Already you will understand the uniform has had its inconvenience. It sent me to Cuba, and set me armed against men almost of my own blood. There was no escape then; there is no escape now."

Christina moved closer to him. The reticence with which Shere spoke, and the fact that he made no claim upon her made her voice very gentle.

"No," she agreed. "I thought that you would make that answer. And in my heart I do not think that I should like to have heard from you any other."

"Thank you," said Shere. He drew out his watch. "I have still some way to go. I have to reach Olvera by eleven;" and he was aware that Christina at his side became at once very still, so that even her breathing was arrested. For her sigh of emotion at the abrupt mention of parting he was thankful, but it made him keep his eyes turned from her lest a sight of any distress of hers might lead him to falter from his purpose.

"You are riding to Olvera?" she asked, after a pause, and in a queer muffled voice.

"Yes. So I must say good-bye," and now he turned to her. But she was too quick for him to catch a glimpse of her face. She had already turned from him and was walking towards the door.

"You must also say good-bye to Esteban," said she, as though to gain time. With her fingers on the door-handle she stopped. "Tell me," she exclaimed. "It was Esteban who advised the army, who helped you to your commission? You need not deny it! It was Esteban," she stood silent, turning over this revelation in her mind. Then she added, "Did you see Esteban in Ronda this afternoon?"

"No, but I heard that he was there. I must go."

He took up his hat, and turning again towards the door saw that Christina stood with her back against the panels and her arms outstretched across them like a barrier.

"You need not fear," he said to reassure her. "I shall not quarrel with Esteban. He is your brother, and the harm is done. Besides, I do not know that it is all harm when I look back in the years before I wore the uniform. In those times it was all one's own dissatisfactions and trivial dislikes and trivial ambitions. Now I find a repose in losing them, in becoming a little necessary part of a big machine, even though it is not the best machine of its kind and works creakily. I find a dignity in it too."

It was the man of extremes who spoke, and he spoke quite sincerely. Christina, however, neither answered him nor heard. Her eyes were fixed with a strange intentness upon him; her breath came and went as if she had run a race, and in the silence seemed unnaturally audible.

"You carry orders to Olvera?" she said at length. Shere fetched the sealed letter out of his pocket.

"So I must go, or fail in my duty," said he.

"Give me the letter," said Christina.

Shere stared at her in amazement. The amazement changed to suspicion. His whole face seemed to narrow and sharpen out of his own likeness into something foxy and mean.

"I will not," he said, and slowly replaced the letter. "There was a man in the road," he continued slowly, "who whistled as I passed — a signal, no doubt. You are Carlist. This is a trap."

"A trap not laid for you," said Christina. "Be sure of that! Until you spoke of Olvera I did not know."

"No," admitted Shere, "not laid for me to your knowledge, but to Esteban's. You were surprised at my coming — Esteban only at the manner of my coming. He asked if I had ridden into the gates of my own accord I remember. He was in Ronda this afternoon. Very likely it was he who told my colonel of my knowledge of the neighbourhood. It would suit his purposes well to present me to you suddenly, not merely as an enemy, but an active enemy. Yes, I understand that. But," and his voice hardened again, "even to your knowledge the trap was laid for the man who carries the letter. You have your share in the trick." He repeated the word with a sharp laugh, savouring it, dwelling upon it as upon something long forgotten, and now suddenly remembered. "A murderous trick, too, it seems! I wonder what would have happened if I had not turned in at the gates of my own accord. How much farther should I have ridden towards Olvera, and by what gentle means should I have been stopped?"

"By nothing more dangerous than a hand upon your bridle and an excuse that you might do me some small service at Olvera."

"An excuse, a falsity! To be sure," said Shere bitterly. "Yet you still stand before the door though you know the letter will not be yours. Is the trick after all so harmless? Is there no one — Esteban, for instance — in the dark passage outside the door or on the dark road outside the gates?"

"I will prove to you you are wrong."

Christina dropped her arms to her side, moved altogether from the door, and rang a bell. "Esteban shall come here; he will see you outside the gates; he will set you safely on your road to Olvera." She spoke now quite quietly; all the panic and agitation had gone in a moment from her face, her manner, and her words. But the very suddenness of the change in her increased Shere's suspicions. A moment ago Christina was standing before the door with every nerve astrain, her face white, and her eyes bewildered with horror. Now she stood easily by the table with the lighted lamp, speaking easily, playing easily with the gloves upon the table. Shere watched for the secret of this sudden change.

A servant answered the bell and was bidden to find Esteban. No look of significance passed between them; by no gesture was any signal given. "No harm was intended to any man," Christina continued as soon as the door again was closed; "I insisted — I mean there was no need to insist; for I promised to get the letter from the bearer once he had come into this room."

"How?" Shere asked with a blunt contempt. "By tricks?"

Christina raised her head quickly, stung to a moment's anger; but she did not answer him, and again her head drooped.

"At all events," she said quietly, "I have not tried to trick you," and Shere noticed that she arranged with an absent carelessness the gloves in the form of a cross beneath the lamp; and at once he felt that her action contradicted her words. It was merely an instinct at first. Then he began to reason. Those gloves had been so arranged when first he entered the room. Christina and Esteban were bending over the table. Christina was explaining something. Was she explaining that arrangement of the gloves? Was that arrangement the reason of her ready acceptance of his refusal to part with his orders? Was it, in a word, a signal for Esteban — a signal which should tell him whether or not she had secured the letter? Shere saw a way to answer that question. He was now filled with distrust of Christina as half an hour back he had been filled with faith in her; so that he paid no heed to her apology, or to the passionate and pleading voice in which she spoke it.

"So much was at stake for us," she said. "It seemed a necessity that we must have that letter, that no sudden orders must reach Olvera to-night. For there is some one at Olvera — I must trust you, you see, though you are our pledged enemy — some one of great consequence to us, some one we love, some one to whom we look to revive this Spain of ours. No, it is not our King, but his son — his young and gallant son. He will be gone to- morrow, but he is at Olvera to-night. And so when Esteban found out to-day that orders were to be sent to the commandant there it seemed we had no choice. It seemed those orders must not reach him, and it seemed therefore — just so that no hurt might be done, which otherwise would surely have been done, whatever I might order or forbid — that I must use a woman's way and secure the letter."

"And the bearer?" asked Shere, advancing to the table. "What of him? He, I suppose, might creep back to Ronda, broken in honour and with a lie to tell? The best lie he could invent. Or would you have helped him to the lie?"

Christina shrank away from the table as though she had been struck.

"You had not thought of his plight," continued Shere. "He rides out from Ronda an honest soldier and returns — what? No more a soldier than this glove of yours is your hand," and taking up one of the gloves he held it for a moment, and then tossed it down at a distance from its fellow. He deliberately turned his back to the table as Christina replied:

"The bearer would be just our pledged enemy — pledged to outwit us, as we to outwit him. But when you came there was no effort made to outwit you. Own that at all events? You carry your orders safely, with your honour safe, though the consequence may be disaster for us, and disgrace for that we did not prevent you. Own that! You and I, I suppose, will meet no more. So you might own this that I have used no tricks with you?"

The appeal coming as an answer to his insult and contempt, and coming from one whose pride he knew to be a real and dominant quality, touched Shere against his expectation. He faced Christina on an impulse to give her the assurance she claimed, but he changed his mind.

"Are you sure of that?" he asked slowly, for he saw that the gloves while his back was turned had again been crossed. He at all events was now sure. He was sure that those crossed gloves were a signal for Esteban, a signal that the letter had not changed hands. "You have used no tricks with me?" he repeated. "Are you sure of that?"

The handle of the door rattled; Christina quickly crossed towards it. Shere followed her, but stopped for the fraction of a second at the table and deliberately and unmistakably placed the gloves in parallel lines. As the door opened, he was standing between Christina and the table, blocking it from her view.

It was not she, however, who looked to the table, but Esteban. She kept her eyes upon her brother, and when he in his turn looked to her Shere noticed a glance of comprehension swiftly interchanged. So Shere was confident that he had spoiled this trick of the gloves, and when he took a polite leave of Christina and followed Esteban from the room it was not without an air of triumph.

Christina stood without changing her attitude, except that perhaps she pushed her head a little forward that she might the better hear the last of her lover's receding steps. When they ceased to sound she ran quickly to the window, opened it, and leaned out that she might the better hear his horse's hoofs on the flagged courtyard. She heard besides Esteban's voice speaking amiably and Shere's making amiable replies. The sharp hard clatter upon the stones softened into the duller thud upon the road; the voices became fainter and lost their character. Then one clear "good-night" rang out loudly, and was followed by the quick beats of a horse trotting. Christina slowly closed the window and turned her eyes upon the room. She saw the lamp upon the table and the gloves in parallel lines beneath it.

Now Shere was so far right in that the gloves were intended as a signal for Esteban; only owing to that complete revulsion of which the padre had seen the possibility, Shere had mistaken the signal. The passionate believer had again become the passionate cynic. He saw the trick, and setting no trust in the girl who played it, heeding neither her looks nor words nor the sincerity of her voice, had no doubt that it was aimed against him; whereas it was aimed to protect him. Shere had no doubt that the gloves crossed meant that he still had the sealed letter in his keeping, and therefore he disarranged them. But in truth the gloves crossed meant that Christina had it, and that the messenger might go unhindered upon his way.

Christina uttered no cry. She simply did not believe what her eyes saw. She needed to touch the gloves before she was convinced, and when she had done that she was at once not sure but that she herself in touching them had ranged them in these lines. In the end, however, she understood, not the how or why, but the mere fact. She ran to the door, along the gallery, down the steps into the courtyard. She met no one. The house might have been a deserted ruin from its silence. She crossed the courtyard to the glimmering white walls, and passed through the gates on to the road. The night was clear; and ahead of her far away in the middle of the road a lantern shone very red. Christina ran towards it, and as she approached she saw faces like miniatures grouped above it. They did not heed her until she was close upon them, until she had noticed one man holding a riderless horse apart from the group and another coiling up a stout rope. Then Esteban, who was holding the lantern, raised his hand to keep her back.

"There has been an accident," said he. "He fell, and fell awkwardly, the horse with him."

"An accident," said Christina, and she pointed to the coil of rope. It was no use for her now to say that she had forbidden violence. Indeed, at no time, as she told Shere, would it have been of any use. She pushed through the group to where Dennis Shere lay on the ground, his face white and shiny and tortured with pain. She knelt down on the ground and took his head in her hands as though she would raise it on to her lap, but one man stopped her, saying, "It is his back, señora." Shere opened his eyes and saw who it was that bent over him, and Christina, reading their look, was appalled. It was surely impossible that human eyes could carry so much hate. His lips moved, and she leaned her ear close to his mouth to catch the words. But it was only one word he spoke and repeated: —

"Tricks! Tricks!"

There was no time to disprove or explain. Christina had but one argument. She kissed him on the lips.

"This is no trick," she cried, and Esteban, laying a hand upon her shoulder, said, "He does not hear, nor can his lips answer;" and Esteban spoke the truth. Shere had not heard, and never would hear, as Christina knew.

"He still has the letter," said Esteban. Christina thrust him back with her hand and crouched over the dead man, protecting him. In a little she said, "True, there is the letter." She unbuttoned Shere's jacket and gently took the letter from his breast. Then she knelt back and looked at the superscription without speaking. Esteban opened the door of the lantern and held the flame towards her. "No," said she. "It had better go to Olvera."

She rode to Olvera that night. They let her go, deceived by her composure and thinking that she meant to carry it to "the man of great consequence."

But Christina's composure meant nothing more than that her mind and her feelings were numbed. She was conscious of only one conviction, that Shere must not fail in his duty, since he had staked his honour upon its fulfilment. And so she rode straight to the commandant's quarters at Olvera, and telling of an accident to the bearer, handed him the letter. The commandant read it, and was most politely distressed that Christina should have put herself to so much trouble, for the orders merely recalled his contingent to Ronda in the morning. It was about this time that Christina began to understand precisely what had happened.

 
 
 

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