"You don't mean it?" said Bertha, while Mrs. Gilman stared at him over her soup.
He went on quietly. "Sure! Me mind's made up. You want the garden and I like the porch; so 'phone the agent after dinner, and we'll go up and see to it this very afternoon."
Bertha's bosom heaved with excitement, and her eyes expanded. "I'd like just once to see the inside of a house like that. It must be half as big as this hotel—but to own it! You're crazy, Captain."
The remote possibility of walking through that wonderful mansion took away the young wife's appetite, and she became silent and reflective in the face of a delicious fried chicken. The magic of her husband's wealth began to make itself most potently felt.
Haney insisted on smoking a cigar in the lobby. Bertha took her mother away to talk over the tremendous decision which was about to be thrust upon them. "We want a house," said she, decisively, "but not a palace like that. What would we do with it? It scares me up a tree to think of it."
"I guess he was only joking," Mrs. Gilman agreed.
"I can see the porch would be fine for him," Bertha went on. "But, jiminy spelter, we'd all be lost in the place!"
Haney called Williams to his side, and told him of the house. "It's a big place, but I want it. Go you and see the agent. My little girl needs a roof, and why not the best?"
"Sure!" replied Williams, with conviction. "She's entitled to a castle. You round up the women, and I'll do the rest."
The house proved to be even more splendid and spacious than its exterior indicated, and Bertha wrIked its wide halls with breathless delight. After a hurried survey of the interior, they came out upon the broad veranda, and lingered long in awe and wonder of the outlook. To the west lay a glorious garden of fruits and s flowers; a fountain was playing over the rich green grass; high above the tops of the pear and peach trees (which made a little copse) rose the purple peaks of the Rampart range.
"Oh, isn't it great!" exclaimed Bertha.
Haney turned to the agent with a tense look on his pale face—a look of exultant power.
"Make out your papers," said he, quietly. "We take the place—as it stands."
Bertha was overwhelmed by this flourish of the enchanter's wand—but only for a moment. No sooner was the contract signed than she roused herself as to a new business venture. "Well, now, the first thing is furniture. Let's see! There is some carpets and curtains in the place, isn't there? And a steel range. It's up to me to rustle the balance of the outfit together right lively."
And so she set to work quite as she would have done in outfitting a new hotel—so many beds, so many chairs in a room, so many dressers, and soon had a long list made out and the order placed.
She spent every available moment of her time for the next two days getting the kitchen and dining-room in running order, and when she had two beds ready insisted on moving in. "We can kind o' camp out in the place till we get stocked up. I'm crazy to be under our own roof."
Haney, almost as eager as she, consented, and on the third day they drove up to the door, dismissed their hired coachman, and stepped inside the gate—master and mistress of an American chateau.
Mart turned, and, with misty eyes and a voice choked with happiness, said: "Well, darlin', we have it now—the palace of the fairy stories."
"It's great," she repeated, musingly; "but I can't make it seem like a home—mebbe it'll change when I get it filled with furniture, but the garden is sure all right."
They took their first meal on the porch overlooking the mountains, listening to the breeze in the vines. It was heavenly sweet after the barren squalor of their Cripple Creek home, and they did little but gaze and dream.
"We need a team," Bertha said, at last. "Buy one," replied Haney.
So Bertha bought a carriage and a fine black span. This expenditure involved a coachman, and to fill that position an old friend of Williams'—a talkative and officious old miner—was employed. She next secured a Chinese cook, the best to be had, and a girl to do the chamber-work. They were all busy as hornets, and Bertha lived in a glow of excitement every waking hour of the day—though she did not show it.
Haney's check-book was quite as wonderful in its way as Aladdin's lamp, and little by little the women permitted themselves to draw upon its magic. The shining span of blacks, with flowing manes and champing bits, became a feature of the avenue as the women drove up and down on their never-ending quest for household luxuries—they had gone beyond mere necessities. Mart usually went with them, sitting in the carriage while they "visited" with the grocery clerks and furniture dealers. They were very popular with these people, as was natural.
"Little Mrs. Haney" became at once the subject of endless comment — mostly unfavorable; for Mart's saloon-made reputation was well-known, and the current notion of a woman who would marry him was not high.
She was reported, in the alien circles of the town, to be a vulgar little chamber-maid who had taken a gambler for his money at a time when he was supposed to be on his death-bed, and her elevation to the management of a palatial residence was pointed out as being "peculiarly Western-American."
The men, however, were much more tolerant of judgment than their women. They had become more or less hardened to seeing crude miners luxuriating in sudden, accidental wealth; therefore, they nodded good-humoredly at Haney and tipped their hats to his pretty wife with smiles. As bankers, tradesmen, and taxpayers generally they could not afford to neglect a citizen possessed of so much wealth and circumstance.
Mrs. Gilman presented a letter of introduction to the nearest church of her own persuasion, and went to service quite as unassumingly as in Sibley, and was greeted by a few of the ladies there cordially and without hint of her son-in-law's connections. Two or three, including the pastor's wife, made special effort to cultivate her acquaintance by calling immediately, but they were not of those who attracted Bertha; and though she showed them about the house and answered their questions, she did not promise to call. "We're too busy," she explained. "I haven't got more than half the rooms into shape, and, besides, we're to have my brother's folks down from the Junction—we're on the hustle all day long."
This was true. She had been quite besieged by her former neighbors in Sibley, who found it convenient to "put up with the Haneys" while visiting the town. They were, in fact, very curious to study her in her new and splendid setting; and though some of them peeked and peered amid the beds, and thumped the mattresses in vulgar curiosity, the young housewife merely laughed. All her life had been spent among folk of this directly inquisitive sort. She expected them to act as they did, and, being a hearty and generous soul, as well as a very democratic one, she sent them away happy.
Indeed, she won praise from all who came to know her. But that small part of the Springs—alien and exclusive—which considered itself higher if not better than the rest of the Western world, looked askance at "the gambler's wife and her freak friends," and Mrs. Crego, who was inclined to be very censorious, alluded to the Haneys as "beggars on horseback" as she met them on the boulevard.
Of all this critical comment Bertha remained, happily, unconscious, and it is probable that she would soon have won her way to a decent circle of friends had not Charles Haney descended upon them like a plague. Mart had been receiving letters from this brother, but had said nothing to Bertha of his demands. "Charles despised me when he met me in Denver," he explained to Williams. " I was busted at the time, ye mind." He winked. "And now when he reads in the papers that Mart Haney is rich, he comes down on me like a hawk on a June bug. 'Tis no matter. He may come—I'll not cast him out. But he does not play with me double-eagles—not he!"
Charles Haney was not fitted to raise his brother's wife in the social scale, for he belonged to that marked, insistent variety of actor to be distinguished on trains and in the lobbies of hotels—a fat, sleek, loud-voiced comedian, who enacted scenes from his unwritten plays while ladling his soup, and who staggered and fell across chairs in illustration of highly emotional lines and, what was worse, he was of those who regard every unescorted woman as fair game. Bold of glance and brassy of smile, he began to make eyes at his sister-in-law from their first meeting.
She amazed him. He had expected a woman of his own class—an adventuress, painted, designing; and to find this sweet little girl—"why, she's too good for Mart," he concluded, and shifted his hollow pretensions of sympathy from his brother to his sister-in-law. Before the first evening of his visit closed he sought opportunity to tell her, in hypocritic sadness, that Mart was a doomed man, and that she would soon be free of him. Bertha was disturbed by his gaze and repelled by his touch, but tried to like him on Mart's account. His mouthing disgusted her, and the good-will with which Haney greeted his brother turned into bitterness as the boaster and low wit began to display himself.
"We all grew up in the street or in the saloon," Haney sadly remarked, "and you finished your education in the variety theatre, I'm thinking."
The actor took this as a joke, and with a grin retorted: "That's better than running a faro-layout."
"I dunno; a good quiet game has its power to educate a man," replied the gambler.
That night, as she was preparing the Captain for bed, he remarked, with a sigh: "Life is a quare game! I mind Charley well as a cute little yellow-haired divil, always laughing, always in mischief, and me chasm' after him—a big slob of a boy. I used to carry him up an' down the tenement stairs. I learned him to skate —and now here he is drinkin' himself puffy, whilst I am an old broken-down hack at forty-five." He looked up at her with a sheen of tears in his eyes. "Darlin', 'tis a shame to be leanin' on you."
She put her arm around his big grizzled head and drew it to her.
"You can lean hard, Mart. I'm standhV by."
"No, I'll not lean too hard," he answered. "I don't want your fine, straight back to stoop. I make no demands. I'll not spoil your young life. I'm not worth it. You're free to go when you can't stand me any longer."
"Now, now, no more of that!" she warned. "When I have cause to knock, you won't need no ear-trumpet. Put up your hoof." He obeyed, and, stooping swiftly, she began to unlace the shoe which he could no longer reach. Her manner was that of a daughter who tyrannizes over an indulgent father. Her admiration and gratitude, so boyish once, were now replaced by an affection in which the element of sex had small place, and his love for her sprang also from a source far removed from the fierce instinct which first led him to seek her subduing.