Read A Thorn in the Bush Online
Authors: Frank Herbert
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Suspense, #Two Hours or More (65-100 Pages), #Thrillers
A Thorn in the Bush
Everything of beauty must have at least one flaw in it. Otherwise people do not realize how beautiful it truly is.
Mrs. Ross is an expatriate American who has found a quiet life in the small Mexican village of San Juan, a place where she can be content, a place where no one knows the secrets of her shadowy past life. Until an ambitious American painter takes up residence in San Juan, attempting to depict—and expose—everything about the sleepy Mexican town. But he may have underestimated the lengths a seemingly harmless old woman will go to protect her secrets.
A Thorn in the Bush is one of four previously unpublished short novels written by famed Dune author Frank Herbert. Early in his career Herbert moved his family to Mexico where he struggled to survive as a writer. This novel came from those life-changing experiences.
Smashwords Edition – 2014
Copyright © 2014 Herbert Properties, LLC
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Electronic Version by Baen Books
“But what if the young man is innocent?” asked Don Jaime. He spoke in Spanish with a lisping Castilian accent, an affectation that marked him as a man of some daring among Mexican politicians.
“Innocent!” Mrs. Ross put all the scorn of her seventy-one years into the word. “I tell you he is precisely like the other one!” Her Spanish lashed at him, full of overtones from countless kitchen maids and with hardly a trace remaining of her native English.
“But … but …” Don Jaime sputtered at her as only the mayor of a small town can sputter at a rich land owner and valued confidante. “You cannot come here and ask me to imprison a tourist simply because he reminds you of someone out of your past! Please? You cannot.” His shoulders hunched in a Latin shrug. “Emma, my dearest friend, we must remember that times change.”
“But young men don’t!”
They sat in Don Jaime’s upstairs parlor, a plaster and blue tile room of austere furnishings. It looked out on Mexico’s Lake Chapala from the waterfront of San Juan. Afternoon sunlight, reduced to narrow ribbons by venetian blinds, wove a tapestry of glowing yellow across the room.
An immense black upholstered chair enfolded Mrs. Ross, dwarfed her. She had presented this chair to Don Jaime on his Saint’s Day ten years ago because she could not endure sitting in any of his other furniture. Every other chair in the house presented unexpected corners, painful edges and sloping planes that kept you ever on the alert against being slid off onto the floor. She was convinced that none of these pieces had been designed for human beings.
Mrs. Ross wore a blue silk dress and a small blue-feathered hat over her grey hair. She looked like a shriveled dowager duchess: sharp-eyed and slightly sunburned so that the effect was a little horsey. Her face presented balanced planes that still revealed some of the beauty that age had covered.
Don Jaime held himself severely upright in a high-backed teak throne. He was a lean figure in a black business suit of European cut. His face—long, narrow and with pinched-in cheeks—looked like the face of the crucified Jesus that hung in San Juan’s church. Although two years older than Mrs. Ross, he still retained the glossy charcoal hair of his youth.
On this afternoon there had been the long, slow ritual conversation: the inquiries about health, about mutual friends, the state of the weather, of the crops (both agricultural and tourist), and a discussion of a recent fishing tragedy at Solas farther down the lake in which a father and son had drowned. The son had been known to Serena, Mrs. Ross’s current maid of all work.
During all their talk there had been persistent mouse-like sounds in a nearby room: one of Don Jaime’s serving girls making work there to eavesdrop.
But now Mrs. Ross was down to the object of her visit. “I know this young man’s type,” she said.
“What do you
know about him?” asked Don Jaime.
Mrs. Ross’s nose twitched in irritation. “His full name is Francis Andrew Hoblitt,” she said. “He comes from St. Louis. He is twenty-eight, unmarried, speaks little Spanish … and that poorly. I’m certain you’ve seen him around: a blond young man, always frowning.”
“And always carrying the drawing pad.” With two motions of his hands Don Jaime hung the squared-off pad shape in the air between them.
“The same. He lives in that little guest house that the Friesmans rent out. He drinks too much. He throws things … and he doesn’t like the new tax on foreign artists. He said vile things to the tax collector.”
She did not add that Hoblitt, while in wine, had pinched Lolita Veras on the bottom. Hoblitt was altogether the kind of tourist who made Mrs. Ross ashamed of her countrymen.
Don Jaime nodded, averted his eyes. He had been a widower for thirty-six years, and his manner betrayed a certain watchful caution with women (although he had courted Mrs. Ross when she first arrived in San Juan in 1937).
The detailed information about Hoblitt did not surprise Don Jaime. Through her many tenants and employees, Mrs. Ross ran a first class spy system—almost as good as Don Jaime’s own. And he knew that an absolute requirement for anyone working in Mrs. Ross’s immediate household was the ability to relay every bit of gossip heard in the market square. Serena, the current maid, shone above all others in this capacity—a two-legged recording device who chattered endlessly at her work, telling everything she saw or heard, spicing it all with local superstitions.
“Do you think this Hoblitt is a good painter?” ventured Don Jaime.
Mrs. Ross dismissed Francis Hoblitt’s work with one word: “Modern!”
Don Jaime scowled, thinking now about St. Louis, a name he had just heard in connection with Hoblitt. Don Jaime knew that St. Louis was a place name in América del Norte, very likely a large city. His knowledge of geography went little beyond awareness that Mexico City (called simply “Mexico” in the local idiom) lay somewhere vaguely eastward—not as far as the Gulf, but nonetheless a boring trip in his twelve-year-old chauffeur-driven Buick. He knew that Guadalajara lay northward up the superhighway, and that the Pacific Ocean billowed endlessly off in the west. América del Norte—that bottomless source of rich tourists—remained a geography book picture: a green, yellow, brown and pink blob occupying an immense frozen area north of the Rio Grande—which was a Mexican river.
Perhaps it is evil to come from St. Louis,
thought Don Jaime.
A breeding ground of gangsters, possibly.
He said: “You know St. Louis?”
“I’ve never been there.”
Mrs. Ross resigned herself to a few moments of diversionary questioning, but she resolved not to be put off.
This business of Hoblitt and Paulita Romera could become tragic,
she told herself.
Don Jaime pursed his lips. “St. Louis, then, is not near to Fairbanks?” Don Jaime had been told the fiction that Mrs. Ross came from Fairbanks, Alaska, a locale he had hopelessly misplaced. He thought of Alaska as being somewhere eastward, fronting on the Atlantic Ocean, and close by the capital of América del Norte, which was a city called New York.
“It’s at least three thousand miles from Fairbanks!” snapped Mrs. Ross.
Three thousand miles!
An incomprehensible distance having something to do with kilometers. Don Jaime put it out of his mind.
“Perhaps it would serve if I detailed Beto to keep watch on this Señor Hoblitt,” said Don Jaime. By Beto he meant his nephew, Roberto García y Machado, a mustachioed braggart and police chief of San Juan.
Mrs. Ross had never reconciled herself to Mexican political nepotism. She scowled. “You know very well, Jaime, that Beto would be off drunk somewhere when anything serious happened, and he would show up later full of stupid excuses. This is much too critical for Beto.”
“But what do you expect me to do?”
“Trump up some charge against Señor Hoblitt, throw him in jail and have him deported. It’s really very simple.”
“Very simple!” Don Jaime threw up his hands.
“If you wish me to handle this myself, I shall!”
“Oh, no! No … no …” Don Jaime, instantly sobered, shook his head.
The last tourist that Emma Ross had handled herself had landed in the Guadalajara hospital, the innocent victim of a street riot, it was said, although it had been dark at the time and the only witnesses were a dozen or so tenant farmers from Mrs. Ross’s lands. There had followed a sharply worded note to Don Jaime from Don Tomás Norillega, minister in charge at the Dirección General de Turismo in Mexico City. The note’s substance had been: “See that such things are not repeated. They frighten away the tourists!”
“No,” said Don Jaime. “We will work out something.”
“I’m sure you will.”
Don Jaime turned to look out at the lake through the slatted blinds. The sun’s reflection lay like a molten copper puddle on the surface of the water. He squinted. A fly buzzed his head, evaded the warding hand to alight on the glossy black hair.
It was a tragic thing,
he thought. In spite of the fact that he felt he knew the
situation with this Hoblitt, Don Jaime’s Latin heart ached with the story Mrs. Ross had told.
For her part, Mrs. Ross was reviewing the same story, wondering if she had left out some fact more apt to stir Don Jaime to action. She felt supremely sure of herself in this matter:
Urgent action is required!
It had begun two days ago—on Tuesday morning. The day had started (as most San Juan days did) with a stridency of church bells. A Protestant herself, Mrs. Ross frowned on this early morning clanging as a sort of pagan rite, especially when it was mixed with firecrackers. The crackers were an Indian custom, exploded to help a baby’s soul to heaven. Sure enough, staccato explosions cut across the morning sounds. Another baby had died in the night.
Mrs. Ross sniffed, sat up in her bed.
Mingled odors of scorched chili peppers, charcoal, bottled gas, and coffee wafted upward to her second-floor bedroom from the kitchen. She heard a sizzle of frying—Serena with the two breakfast eggs. Presently, Serena would appear with a tray: the eggs, buttered toast, fresh orange juice, and coffee. Like much of Mrs. Ross’s life, it was an unvarying ritual.
A burro brayed on the waterfront a block away. Answering yodels echoed from farther down the lake.
Mrs. Ross swung her skinny legs out of the bed into the patch of sunshine on the Mitla serape she used as a rug. She was entirely nude, a habit adopted during her first week in San Juan. Sunshine poured onto her bony knees like a warm, golden liquid. This first feeling of the morning sun on her body always made Mrs. Ross think of the old days in Alaska—icy winds, blowing snow. It gave her a sense of accomplishment to feel the sun.
So to work,
By eight-thirty, she had breakfasted, bathed, settled the usual petitions from some of her tenants, checked the account books, and sent Serena off to market for the day’s food and gossip. The morning ritual brought her now to the red-draped French doors that opened onto her balcony. She carried a hammered brass watering can, a gift from Don Jaime. It sloshed as she put it down.
Outside, growing in oblong pottery boxes along the rail, a green riot of herbs and spices perfumed the air. Their aroma penetrated the gap where the French doors did not quite meet. Mrs. Ross swung the doors open, inhaled, stretched.
The hot Mexican sun made her plants thrive so much better than they had in Alaska, she thought. But the parsley and chives drooped if they missed only one watering.
A Mexican bumblebee the size of a walnut buzzed the planters, sped off toward the
copa de oro
vine growing up the corner of the balcony.
Mrs. Ross looked down through the open work of the balcony rail, saw Paulita Romera—as always at this hour—sitting at the ground floor window of the house across the cobblestone street. Paulita held a fabric frame, sewing at
punto de cruz
—the tiny cross-stitches—working them into a floral pattern. Sometimes she knitted or tatted or crocheted intricate Mexican lace.
An exquisite young woman,
thought Mrs. Ross:
more beautiful than any hundred-dollar-a-night girl I’ve ever seen.
Paulita’s ebon hair was braided in two strands tied by red bows. There was a touch of the Indio in her skin: tan bordering on cocoa. But when she smiled it drew planes on her face that unveiled the Spanish invaders, particularly some Hidalgo beauty in her ancestry: haughty but yet passionate.
No doubt about it,
Mrs. Ross thought, Paulita would be devastating the village males right now had not the paralysis taken away most of the use of her legs when she was ten.
Paulita heard the balcony doors. She paused in her work, smiled up at Mrs. Ross. “Good morning,” she called, using the English Mrs. Ross had taught her.
Mrs. Ross took up her watering can, stepped through the doorway.
It was then she noticed the American. He stood directly under her in the shadow of the balcony, sketch pad in hand, doing a charcoal drawing of Paulita at the window.
His name came to Mrs. Ross’s mind:
Hoblitt, Francis Hoblitt
She made it a point to learn the names of all
who came to San Juan, carefully observed them before she permitted them to see her. Not that she
expected anyone from the past to recognize her—what with the changed name and her beauty withered away by the years and sun.
Still … there was always the chance: an old customer, one of her girls. And this was such a simple precaution. It would make things insufferable in San Juan should the natives learn of her past.
Mrs. Ross studied Hoblitt: the intensity of the man at his work—slashing strokes of pencil, blots of black on the paper. The artist was a blond, athletic type with corded muscles showing at the shoulders beneath a white shirt. His features, as Mrs. Ross recalled, were stern, full of angular abruptness. He had been in San Juan only a month, but already was tanned a rich shade of golden oak.
Something about the man plucked at Mrs. Ross’s memory. The thought darted away before she could label it. She began watering her plants, tried to recall—
What? Something. It definitely had been something.
Irritation at the young man touched Mrs. Ross. Usually at this hour she carried on a conversation, back and forth across the street, with Paulita. This morning—Hoblitt standing there—it was out of the question. Paulita was too busy with the eye-dodging game, a type of flirting in which all Mexican young women became adepts starting at the age of three.
From her second-floor vantage, Mrs. Ross could see through Paulita’s window to the floor of the Romera house: the crutches beside the chair, the red and black serape thrown across the young woman’s almost useless legs. Mrs. Ross knew that the window ledge would conceal these things from the artist. It crossed her mind that this made a more kindly portrayal. Hoblitt saw just a beautiful young woman at her window—very Spanish.
The watering can gurgled its empty signal as Mrs. Ross finished with the last of the chives. She put down the can, leaned over the rail to peer at Hoblitt.
“I see you’re an artist,” she said, as though she had not known this fact since his second day in the village.
Hoblitt did not answer. He made a slashing mark at the bottom of the sketch, thrust the pad beneath his left arm, stalked off up the street and around the corner. Not once did he look up to see who had spoken.
Mrs. Ross shrugged, smiled at Paulita, took up the brass can, went indoors. She had grown to ignore the ways of her countrymen, especially of the artist-folk who had been appearing lately here in San Juan, at Ajijic, and at Solas. Still—the man’s gesture of irritation added to the nagging sureness that there was something about him … something she should remember.
She put the watering can on a chair for Serena to collect, drew the draperies in preparation for the heat of the day. The cloth dulled the sounds from outside.
Now came a special moment in the morning ritual. Through the red-washed gloom, she crossed to a carved Jocotapec sideboard that stood polished and civilized against a plaster wall. There, she mixed herself a glass of Cuban rum and vanilla.
The drink reminded her of the blonde girl who had introduced her to it: Gertie something, an unsmiling Nordic female who hadn’t attracted much business. Too intense.
Mrs. Ross sipped her drink.
But that was in another country, and besides the wench is dead,
A feeling of relaxed satisfaction crept through Mrs. Ross. She took another sip. This time for relaxation was one of the things she had promised herself the day she paid off the girls, withdrawn her savings, and left for the tropics. This and hot sunlight. She began to giggle with an abrupt thought:
Sunlight inside and sunlight outside!
In that instant, with the laughter still in her throat, memory struck Mrs. Ross. She put down her drink, all pleasure gone from it.
Gertie, of course,
And seeing that Hoblitt at his work—the way he acts. He’s precisely like the young artist who knifed Gertie … when he found out how she made her living. Even looks like him. Same scowling kind of a face.
She recalled what the young artist had screamed as the mob dragged him into the night to hang him:
“But she was deformed! She was deformed! I only cut away some filth! Painted filth! Deformed!”
Mrs. Ross shook her head to drive out the memory of his voice.
The damned fool. Melodramatic to the end … and so … empty.
She looked at her rum and vanilla.
No use going back to it.
The ritual had been shattered.
Later, she barked at Serena, found fault with the meat at lunch, even snarled at the pair of nuns, mouse-eyed in sexless brown, who came nibbling at her afternoon to collect for church bells.
Word circulated through San Juan: It was one of Mrs. Ross’s “days.”
The next morning, Hoblitt returned to his position beneath the balcony with a partly completed oil painting and portable easel. There was a stubble of golden beard on his cheeks, paint stained his hands, and he was squinting against the brilliance of the early sunlight as though he had arisen without enough sleep. He wedged the canvas onto the easel, bent to work.
Above him Mrs. Ross fumed. She banged her water can, almost wished she dared spill some on the artist. A restless night had left her in no mood to forgive the arouser of old memories.
Hoblitt wore a white shirt open at the neck, white trousers and tennis sneakers. A blond duck-curl of hair at the nape of his neck lifted when he bent his head. He worked with a smooth sureness that surprised Mrs. Ross. The brush dipped and twisted on the pallet, poised over the canvas—then slid through a controlled flurry of color and shape.
Mrs. Ross glanced across the street, admitted to herself:
He’s right—morning light is best.
It gave Paulita’s face a translucent look, put gold flecks in her brown eyes. It bronzed the rust spots on the bars of the iron shutters that stood open against the sides of the window alcove. The red bricks framing the window appeared more red in the early sun, as did the bows in Paulita’s hair. And the old plaster of the wall around the window gained a deeper texture from cross lighting.
Paulita was back at the eye-dodging game with the artist this morning. She had interrupted it only long enough to exchange greetings with Mrs. Ross. The girl turned her head as though to look directly at Hoblitt. (She did this almost every time he paused to study the scene.) Then she shifted her attention past him, through him, above him. Never once did she get caught looking directly at him. But she saw him—knew every move he made.
Mrs. Ross finished the watering, put down the brass can with unnecessary noise, peered over the rail. The face on the canvas, seen from this oblique angle, looked to be a clear likeness—not at all the gaudy, sunburst splashes that rioted through Hoblitt’s other work on sale at the Tienda Moderna.
The Paulita of the painting sat at her
punto de cruz,
apparently more subdued than in real life, but nonetheless vital and dramatic. She appeared just about to turn her head and look straight out of the picture.
He’s caught the eye-dodging game!
thought Mrs. Ross.
A sense of grudging admiration filled her. The painting displayed a depth of feeling … and more. With a sense of shock, she realized that this newcomer, this
, had also seen right through to the basic moodiness these people never quite shook off.
Mrs. Ross lifted her head, studied the real girl in the window. The painting had pulled a veil from the scene. She saw the touch of malice lurking in the fawn eyes, the anger lines at the edges of the passionate mouth, the cruelty in the straight Castilian nose. It made Mrs. Ross think of Old Spain and the
—the lovely virgins—sitting at their windows: waiting, waiting.
Hoblitt put pallet and brushes onto a rack attached to the cross arm of the easel, turned, stared up at Mrs. Ross. His brows stood out whitely against the tan.
“Don’t you have anything else to do besides look over my shoulder?” he asked.
Speechless, Mrs. Ross stiffened with anger.
“Why don’t you go stir your kettle or something?” asked Hoblitt. “It’s very distracting to have someone looking down like that all the time.”
“Well!” exploded Mrs. Ross. She whirled, fled into her house, slammed the French doors.
What an insufferable young man!
Things she should have said tumbled through her mind.
The very idea!
Her anger demanded action. She stalked through the house to the back garden, a space enclosed by high adobe walls and filled with a jungle of green leaves, blue, yellow, and flaming blooms. She grabbed a trowel off the potting table.
Why … the very idea!
She beat a frenzied rhythm with the trowel on the table.
She fought back her fury, turned to the garden, began weeding around the hibiscus.
Shortly before noon, Serena returned from the market. She had been talking to María Carlotta, the Friesmans’ maid, who also cleaned for their tenant, Hoblitt.
Serena was short statured, her tubular body encased in a heavy cotton dress of Carmelite brown that reached below the calf. She had big features, high cheekbones. The large nose, without indentation at the bridge, sloped into a flat forehead and oily black hair. This hair was parted in the middle, swept back in two braids that fell almost to her waist. A profile view of Serena looked like one of the carved stone Aztec figures in the Museo Nacional. She spoke a coarse Spanish full of village-isms. And some ancestor had given her a mobile voice that unconsciously imitated whomever she quoted.
“Such a terrible morning in the market,” she said. “Pareno again has raised the price of oranges! He has no right! He is an evil man. I have seen him spit during a rainstorm! He will come to no good end.”
She moved about the whitewashed kitchen in a determined, mechanical way—unloading her market basket, hanging her shawl on a peg beside the gas stove.
Mrs. Ross, stinking of a patent sunburn lotion (she had worked too long in the garden) watched from the dining room doorway.
The kitchen was a high room (a story and a half) skylighted to the southeast. Serena’s sandals echoed
in the space. A pot of beans on a back burner emitted sporadic burps. Aromas of chili, coffee, frying tortillas, onions, and beans overrode the bottled gas smell. There was a residue of odors in the room from all the past meals that seemed to enfold every new aroma.