At that moment Helena entered the room.
The white tulle gown, made with a half-dozen skirts, floated about her so lightly that she seemed rising from, suspended above it. Even beside her father she looked tall; and her neck and arms, the rise of her girlish bust, were more dazzlingly white than the diaphanous substance about her. Her haughty little head was set well back on a full firm throat, not too long. Her cheeks were touched with pink; her lips were full of it. Her long lashes and low straight brows were many shades darker than the unruly mane of glittering coppery hair. And she carried herself with a swing, with an imperious pride, with a nonchalant command of immediate and unmeasured admiration which sent every maiden's heart down with a drop and every man's pulses jumping.
"I give in!" gasped Ben Sansome. "We never had anything like that—never! Gad! the girl's got everything. It's almost unfair."
Alan Rush turned white, but he did not lose his presence of mind. He asked Don Roberto to present him at once, and secured the next dance. It was a waltz; and as the admirably mated couple floated down the room, many others paused to watch them. Helena's limpid eyes, raised to the eager ones above her, did all the execution of which they were capable. During the next entre-dance she was mobbed. Twenty men pressed about her, introduced by Don Roberto and Rollins, until she finally commanded them to "go away and give her air," then walked off with Eugene Fort, finishing his first epigram and mocking at his second. He had only a fourth of the next dance; but as Helena had refused to permit her admirers to write their names on her card, and as she was at no pains to remember which fourth was whose, giving her scraps to the first comer, Rush and Fort, who had had the forethought not to pre-engage themselves, and were constantly in her wake, secured more than their share. But the other men had time and energy to fight for their own: Helena was constantly stopped in the middle of the room with a firm demand that she should keep her word. Between the dances the men crowded about her, eager for a glance, and at supper the small table before her looked like an offering at a Chinese funeral.
"Well," exclaimed Mrs. Washington, "I always said that no girl could be a belle in this town nowadays, that the men didn't have gumption enough; but I reckon it's because the rest of us haven't come up to the mark. This looks like the stories they tell of old times."
"It makes me think of old times," said Mr. Sansome. "Makes me feel young again; or older than ever. I can't decide which."
Tiny took her eclipse with unruffled philosophy, and divided her smiles between two or three faithful suppliants. Ila had a very high colour, and her primal fascination was less reserved than usual. Rose admired Helena too extravagantly for jealousy, and what Caro felt no man ever knew.
Colonel Belmont renewed his acquaintance with many of the women of his youth, long neglected, although he had loved more than one of them in his day. They filled his ears with praises of his beautiful daughter. Helena's beauty was of that rare order which compels the willing admiration of her own sex: it was not only indisputable, but it warmed and irradiated. When Colonel Belmont was not talking, he stood against the wall and followed her with adoring eyes. If she had been a failure—admitting the possibility—his disappointment would have been far keener than hers.
"You've cause to be proud, as proud as Lucifer," said Mr. Polk to him. "But you ain't looking well, Jack. What's the matter?"
"I'm well enough. I shall live long enough to give her to someone who's good enough for her, and that's all I care about—although I'm in no hurry for that, either. But I'm not feeling right smart, Hi; I don't just know what's the matter."
"We're both getting old. I feel like a worked-out old cart-horse. But you've got ten years the best of me, and I'll tell you what's the matter with you: you can't switch off drink at your age after being two thirds full for twenty-five years. We all need whiskey as we grow older, and the more we've had, the more we need. I'd advise you to take it up again in moderation."
"Not if it's the death of me! It's nothing or everything with me. The first cocktail, and I'd be off on a jamboree. Then she'd know, and I'd blow out my brains with the shame of it. She thinks I'm the finest fellow in the world now, and so she shall if I suffer the tortures of the damned."
"Well, I guess you're right. The young fellows talk about dying for the girls, but I guess we're the ones that would do that for our own if it came to the scratch."
"It's too bad you have none," said Colonel Belmont, with the sympathy of his own full measure. And then, although Mr. Polk's iron features did not move, he looked away hastily.
"I guess I didn't deserve any," Mr. Polk answered harshly. "I don't know that you did, for that matter, but I certainly didn't. Look at Don cavorting round with those girls," he added viciously. "It's positively sickening."
"Not a bit of it. He's making up for what he's missed. And a little of it would do you good, old fellow. You've never had half enough fun, and you ought to take a little before it's too late. You haven't a pound of flesh on you, and are as spry as any of them. Go and make yourself agreeable to the girls. Even a smile from them goes a long way, I assure you."
Mr. Polk shook his head. "I couldn't think of a thing to say to them. I didn't learn when I was young."
When Magdalena drew the dagger out of her hair that night, she laughed a little and tossed it into her handkerchief box. She had seen men carried off their feet for the first time, not caring whether the world laughed or not. She had also noted the exact order of homage that she was to expect from men. Helena infatuated. The other girls inspired admiration in varying measure. Respect for her father's millions was her portion. She had watched and compared all the evening. It would have distressed and appalled her had she made her debut last winter. As it was, it mattered little.
Occasionally there is a lively winter in San Francisco. This promised to be almost brilliant. There were six balls in the next two weeks. At each Helena's triumphs were reiterated. The men waited in a solid body between the front door and the staircase, and she had promised, divided, and subdivided every dance before she had set foot on the lowest step. It was almost impossible to begin a party until her arrival. Kettledrums had been inaugurated the previous winter, and hardly a man been got to them. Now the men would have begged for invitations. They even began to attend church; and Helena's "evening" was so crowded that she was obliged to ask five or six of her girl friends to help her. Alan Rush, Eugene Fort, Carter Howard, a Southerner of charming manners, infinite tact, and little conversation, and "Dolly" Webster, a fledgeling of enormous length and well-proportioned brain, were her shadows, her serfs, her determined, trembling adorers. They barely hated one another, so devoured were they by the sovereign passion; and as they were treated with exasperating similitude, there was nothing to set them at one another's throats.
Helena had all the gifts and arts of the supreme coquette. She allured and mocked, appealed and commanded; adapted herself with the suppleness of bronze to mould, with enchanting flashes of egotism; discarded all perception of man's existence in the abstract, when she had surrendered her attention to one, to jerk him out of his heaven by ordering him to go and send her his rival; possessed a quickness of intuition which finished a man's sentences with her eyes, an exquisite sympathy which made a man feel that here at last he was understood (as he would wish himself understood, rather than as he understood himself); an audacity which never failed to surprise, and never shocked; a fund of talk which never wore itself into platitudes, and a willing ear; and an absolute confidence in herself and her destiny. In addition she had great beauty, the high light spirits of her mercurial temperament, a charming and equable manner (when not engaged in judiciously tormenting her slaves), and a shrewd brain. What wonder that her sovereignty was something for the men who worshipped her to remember when they too were old beaux, and that their present condition was abject? The wonder was that the women did not hate her; but so impulsive and unaffected a creature disarms her own sex, particularly when her gowns are faultless, and she is not lifeless in their company, to scintillate the moment a man enters the room.
And they forbore to criticise the dictates of her royal fancy. It is true that she deferred to no one's opinion, but she escaped criticism nevertheless. If she capriciously refused to dance at a party, but sat the night through with one man, not recognising the existence of her lowering train, people merely smiled and shrugged their shoulders, saving their scowls for those who were not the fashion. Sometimes these flirtations took place in the open ball-room, sometimes in the conservatory; it was all one to Helena, whose powers of concentration amounted to genius. At one of the Presidio hops she spent the evening—it was moonlight—in a boat on the bay with an officer who was as accomplished a flirt as herself. The appearance of Rush, Fort, Howard, and Webster upon this occasion was pitiable. On her evening, if she tired of her admirers before they could reasonably be expected to leave, she walked out of the room without excuse and went to bed. She not only ran to fires when the humour seized her, but she commanded her quartette to rush every time the alarm sounded, that they might be at her beck in the event of officious policemen. As fires are frequent in San Francisco, these enamoured young men were profoundly thankful when they occurred at such times as they happened to be in their tyrant's presence: they were willing to bundle into their clothes at two in the morning, or to leave their duties at midday, were they sure of meeting her; but as she was as capricious about fires as about everything else, their chances were as one in ten. They hinted once that she might advise them of her pleasure by telephone, but were peremptorily snubbed. Helena never made concessions.
It was at the end of the second month that her father imported a coach from New York. She had driven since her baby days, and could handle four horses as scientifically as one. Thereafter, one of the sights of Golden Gate Park on fine afternoons was Helena on the box of the huge black and yellow structure, tooling a party of her delighted friends, her father beside her, one of her admirers crouched at her indifferent shoulder. It was the only gentleman's coach in California, for in the Eighties the youth of the city had not turned their wits and prowess to sport. Few of them could drive with either grace or assurance, and Helena's accomplishment was the more renowned. Occasionally Colonel Belmont was allowed to drive, a favour which he enjoyed with all the keenness of his dashing youth.
"I told you how it would be," said Ila to Rose. "She is not only belle, but leader. That's the real reason Caro's gone to New York. We are nowhere. I'd turn eccentric, regularly shock people, if I had the good luck to be the fashion. But I've got to marry well. When I have—you'll see."
"We can't all be raving belles," said Rose. "If Helena were so much as doubled, the men would be gibbering idiots. I don't care, so long as I have a good time; and I hold my own. So do you. As for Tiny, she may not be mobbed, but she has one man in love with her after another. As soon as poor Charley Rollins got his conge, Bob Payne took the vacant seat, and I see a third climbing over the horizon with business in his eye. There can be only one sun, but we're all stars of the first magnitude."
"But we'd each like to be the sun, all the same."
Magdalena, although much interested in Helena's performances, felt at times as if dream-walking, half expecting to awaken at the foot of her little altar. In the days when she had prayed, full of faith, for beauty and its triumphs, although ignorance had handled the brush of her imagination, yet the vigorous outline sketch had closely resembled all that was now the portion of her friend. She pondered on the fancy she had had as a child that Helena realised all her own little ambitions. She certainly had realised all her larger, but one. She dreaded to ask Helena if she had ever cared to write, fearing to surprise a confession to the authorship of the novel of the day. This, she concluded, after due reflection, was exaggeration; for if Helena had written, even without publication, she certainly would have talked about it, reticence being no vice of hers. But the suggestion might prick a latent talent into action. This was just the one thing Magdalena could not endure, and she decided to let the talent sleep. The rest mattered little, aside from the sense of failure which the vicarious accomplishment of ambition must always induce; for she had her advantage of Helena, the greatest one woman can have of another. She was happy, but Helena was only satisfied for the moment; so restless and passionate a heart would not long remain content with the husks. It was true that Trennahan had not gone mad over herself as other men over Helena; but what of that? It was a question of years alone.
It was now three months since he had left California. He had found his mother's affairs in a serious condition, but had managed to gather up the threads, and the knot would be tied before long. There was no doubt about his desire to return. In fact, as the time waned, his ardour waxed. Sometimes Magdalena was driven to wonder if his yearning for California or herself were the greater; but on the whole she was satisfied, for she liked to accept his fancy that the two were indissoluble. He wrote delightful letters, witty and graceful, full of interesting gossip, and with many personal and tender pages. But the novelty of his absence had worn off some time since, and she longed impatiently for his return. She was caught in the whirl of social activity, and was the restless Helena's constant companion; nevertheless, there were lonely hours, when the future with its imperious demands routed the past.
The engagement was still a profound secret; Magdalena had told Helena at once, but it was unguessed by anyone else. Mrs. Yorba had insisted that her daughter should have one brilliant girl season. The truth was that she was delighted at Don Roberto's sudden interest in the world of fashion, and was determined to make the most of it. He developed, indeed, into an untiring seeker after the innocent amusements of his wife's exclusive kingdom, and had given a fashionable tailor permission to bring his wardrobe down to date; he had hitherto worn clothes of the same cut for twenty years. The girls always gave him a square dance; during the round dances he stood against the wall with Mr. Polk and Colonel Belmont, and fairly beamed with good-will. The Yorbas seldom spent an evening at home unless their own doors were open, and Don Roberto consented to two parties and several large dinners. Mrs. Yorba shuddered sometimes at the weakening of her inborn and long-nurtured economical faculty, but thoroughly enjoyed herself—forming an important item of the dado—and hoped that her husband's enthusiasm would endure.
"I'm not a bit blase," remarked Helena, "but I'd like to be engaged for a change—not to last, of course. Only I can't make up my mind which of the four; and whichever I choose the other three will be so disagreeable. If I could only let them know I didn't mean it,—at least wouldn't later,—but that would never do, because I shouldn't enjoy myself unless I really thought I was in earnest. Besides, I haven't been able to fall in love with any of them yet."
"You don't really mean what you say when you talk that way, do you, Helena?" asked Magdalena, with much concern. "It would be so—so unprincipled; and I can't bear to think that of you."
"But, 'Lena dearest, I should be in earnest for the time being; I'm just talking from the outside, as it were. At the time I should think I really meant it. Otherwise I'd be bored to death, and the engagement wouldn't last five minutes after I was. I'm simply wild to fall in love, if only to see what it's like. You won't tell me; anyhow, I don't think that would satisfy all my curiosity if you did. I wish some new man would come along."
"Alan Rush is charming."
"He's too much in love with me."
"Mr. Fort keeps your wits on the jump."
"My wits are in my brain, not my heart."
"He has so much tact that he has no sincerity."
"There is still Mr. Webster."
"What do you want?"
Helena was moving restlessly about her boudoir,—a bower of pearl-grey embroidered with wild roses, in which she reclined luxuriously when free from social duties, and improved her mind. A volume of Motley lay on the floor. Walter Pater's "Imaginary Portraits" was slipping off the divan, and there was a pile of Reviews on the table. She was biting the corner of a volume of Herrick.
"I haven't any ideal, if that's what you mean. I think it would have to be a man of the world, for conversation so soon gives out with the men of this village. Mr. Fort takes refuge in epigrams. If I married—became engaged to him—I should feel as if I were living on pickles. I think that one reason why Alan Rush and Mr. Howard are so determined to make love to me is because they have nothing left to talk about."
"You've told me twice what you don't want, but you don't seem to know what you do. 'A man of the world' is not very definite."
"No; he must be capable of falling violently in love with me, and at the same time not make himself ridiculous; to keep his head except when I particularly want him to lose it. Of course I want to inspire a grand passion as well as to feel one, but I don't want to be surrounded by it; and the first time he looked ridiculous would be the last of him as far as I was concerned. I might be in the highest stages of the divine passion, and that would cure me."
"Well! is that all? Some men could not be ridiculous if they tried."
"You are thinking of Mr. Trennahan, of course. If he did, I do believe you wouldn't see it. But I should; I have a hideous sense of the ridiculous. Well, lemme see. He must have read and travelled and thought a lot, so that he would know more than I, and I could look up to him; also that subjects of conversation would not give out. The platitudes of love! That would be fatal."
"I don't believe they ever sound like platitudes."
"Hm! I won't undertake to discuss that point, knowing my limitations. What next? He must have suffered. That gives a man weight, as the sculptors say. My quartette will be much more interesting to the next divinity than they are to me. Then of course he must have charming manners and an agreeable voice: I could not stand the brain of a Bismark in the skull of an Apollo if he had a nasal American voice. I believe that's all. I'm not so particular about looks, so long as he's neither small nor fat."
"And if you found all that wouldn't you marry it?"
"N-o-o—I don't know—but I'd be engaged a good long time. You see I want to be a belle for years and years."
"And what is to become of the poor men when you are through with them?"
"Oh, they'll get over it. I shall. Why shouldn't they?"
"I thought you said once you wanted to marry a statesman."
"Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don't. I'll consider that question ten years hence. I want to be a perfectly famous belle first."
"You are that already."
"Oh, I must have a season in New York, and another in Washington, and another in London. The gods have given me all the gifts, and I intend to make the most of them. Now let's read a chapter of Motley out loud, and if I jump off to other things you jerk me back. Let's finish Pater, though. It's like lying under a cascade of bubbles on a hot summer's day. My brains are addled between trying to be well read and trying to keep four men from proposing. You read aloud, and I'll brush my hair. No, I'll embroider on papa's mouchoir case; I've been at it for thirteen months. Oh, by the bye, I didn't tell you that I had a brilliant idea. It darted into my head just as I was dropping off last night. I forgot to speak about it to papa this morning, but I will to-night. It's this: I'm going to give a ball at Del Monte. Take everybody down on a special train. Don't you think it will be a change? The spring has come so early that we can have the grounds lit up with Chinese lanterns; and there may be some Eastern men there. There often are. So much the better for my ball—and me. Now read."
Trennahan arrived late in the evening, and went directly to the Yorbas' to dinner. He saw Magdalena alone for a moment before the others came downstairs, and his delight at meeting her again was so boyish that she could hardly have recalled his eventful forty years had she tried. He was one of those men, who, having a great deal of nervous energy, are possessed briefly by the high animal spirits of youth when in unusual mental and physical tenor,—with coincident obliteration of the bills of time. Trennahan was in the highest spirits this evening. He was delighted to get back to California, delighted to see Magdalena, whom he thought improved and almost pretty in her smart frock. Moreover, no woman had ever seemed to him half so sincere, half so well worth the loving, as this girl who said so little and breathed so much.
Don Roberto and Mr. Polk detained him some time after dinner, and Magdalena, who thought them most inconsiderate, awaited him in the green-and-brown reception-room. She knew the ugliness of these rooms now, and wondered, as Trennahan finally entered, if it clashed with his sentiment. But he gave no sign. He pushed a small sofa before the fire, drew her beside him, and demanded the history of the past four months. He held her hand and looked at her with boyish delight. Even the lines had left his face for the moment, the grimness his mouth. He looked twenty-six.
"Your trip has done you more good than California did. You never looked so well here."
"I have been funereal since the day I left. This is pure reaction. I never felt so happy in my life. Couldn't we have a walk or ride somewhere to-morrow early—out to the Presidio? I want to be in the open air with you."
"I am afraid we couldn't. Nobody does such things, you know—except Helena. Someone would be sure to see us, and it would be all over town before night. Then we should have to announce—I'd rather not do that until just before—I should hate being discussed."
"Well, but I must have you to myself in my own way. I wonder if your mother would bring you down to my house for a few days. Don Roberto and Mr. Polk could come down every evening."
"I think they would like it."
"Oh, I should like it. The woods must be lovely in winter."
"Who has been teaching you coquetry? Who has fallen in love with you since I left?"
"With me? No one. No one would ever think of such a thing but you—"
"I love you with an unerring instinct."
"They are all in love with Helena. I suppose you heard of her in New York."
"It certainly was not your fault if I did not."
"But surely you must have heard otherwise. She is a great, great belle."
"My dearest girl, you do not hear California mentioned in New York once a month. It might be on Mars. The East remembers California's existence about as often as Europe remembers America's. They don't know what they miss. When am I to see your Helena?"
"A week from to-night; she gives a ball then at Del Monte. She and her father have already gone, because each thought the other needed rest."
"Monterey,—that is the scene of your Ysabel's tragedy. We will explore the old part of the town together."
She moved closer to him, her eyes glistening. "That has been one of my dreams,—to be there with you—for the first time. We can guess where they all lived—and go to the cemetery on the hill where so many are buried—and there is the Custom House on the rocks, where the ball was and where Ysabel jumped off—it will be heaven!"
He laughed and caught her in his arms, kissing her fondly. "You dear little Spanish maid," he said. "You don't belong to the present at all. No wonder you bewitched me. I am beginning to feel quite out of place in the present, myself. It is a novel and delightful sensation."
Mrs. Yorba decided that it would be wiser for them all to go to Fair Oaks; no one would know whether Trennahan were their guest or not. This was her first really gay winter, and could she have thought of a plausible excuse she would have delayed the marriage for a year or two. But both Don Roberto and Trennahan were determined that the wedding should not take place later than June.
They were to spend five days at Fair Oaks. Then Don Roberto, Mrs. Yorba, and Magdalena would go to Monterey, Trennahan to follow on the evening of the ball.
The winter woods were wet and glistening. Thick in the brush were the vivid red berries and the firm little snowballs. The air was of a wonderful freshness and fragrance, cool on the cheek, but striking no chill to the blood. The grass tips in the meadows were close and green. There was no haze on the distant mountains: the redwoods stood out sharply; one could almost see the sun baldes crossing in their gloomy aisles. Close to the ground was a low, restless, continuous mutter,—the voluntary of Spring.
Trennahan and Magdalena rode or strolled in the woods during most of the hours of light. They could not sit on the damp ground, but they swung hammocks by the path-side to sit in when tired. Trennahan would have slept on the verandah had not his enthusiasm for outdoor delights been controlled by his matter-of-fact brain, but he grudged the hours at table, and persuaded Magdalena to go early to bed that she might rise and go forth at five in the evening of night. After four months of snow and nipping winds and furnace heat, small wonder that he was as happy as a boy out of school, and that he made Magdalena the most wonderingly happy of women. He did little love-making; he treated her more as a comrade upon whose constant companionship he was dependent for happiness,—his other part, with which he was far better satisfied than with the original measure.
"We will camp out up there during all of July and August," he said to her one morning, as they stood on the edge of the woods and watched the rising sun pick out the redwoods one by one from the black mass on the mountain. "I can't imagine a more enchanting place for a honeymoon than a redwood forest. We'll take a servant, and a lot of books; but I doubt if we shall read much,—we'll shoot and fish all day. If we like it as much as I am sure we shall, we'll build a house there. Do you think you should like it?"
"Oh, I should! I should!"
"You are so sympathetic in your own particular way; not temperamentally so, which is pleasant but means little, but with a slow, sure understanding which goes forth to few people, but is unerring and permanent."
"I love no one but you and Helena. I have never cared to understand anyone else."
"We all have great weaknesses in us. I wonder if mine were ever revealed to you—which God forbid!—if you have sympathy enough to cover those, too."
"I am sure that I have. I am neither quick nor generally affectionate, but I do nothing by halves."
"I believe you. You are the one person on whose mercy I would throw myself. However,—it is a long time since we have spoken of another subject. Do you think no further of writing?"
"I haven't lately. There has been no time. Some day—Oh, yes, I think I should never wholly give it up. Should—should you object?"
"Not in the least. But I am afraid I sha'n't give you much time, either. What were you writing,—your Old-California tales?"
"No,—an—an historical novel—English."
"Of course! And with fresh and fascinating material begging for its turn. I arrived in the nick of time. When you have transcribed those stories into correct and distinguished English, you will have taken your place among the immortals. But style alone will give you a place in letters worth having. Always remember that. The theme determines popular success, the manner rank. Don't misunderstand me; there is no greater fraud or bore than the writer who has acquired the art of saying nothing brilliantly. You must have both. And you are too ambitious, too intellectual, as distinguished from clever, too serious and logical, to be contented with anything short of perfection. I shall be your severest critic; but you yourself will work for years before you produce a line with which you are wholly satisfied. Is not this true?"
"Yes; I should always be my severest critic."
He drew a long breath of relief. He had no desire for a literary wife; nor to be known as the husband of one. Magdalena should be as happy as he could make her, but the sooner she realised that genius was not her portion, the better.
"Never I think I come to Monterey again," said Don Roberto, as the 'bus which contained his party only drove from the little toy station to the big toy hotel. "Once I hate all the Spanish towns, because so extravagant I am before that I feel 'fraid, si I return, I am all the same like then; but now I am old and the habits fixit; and now I know my moneys go to be safe with Trennahan, I feel more easy in the mind and can enjoy. But I no go to the town, for all is change, I suppose: all the womens grown old and poor, and all the mens dead—by the drink, generalmente. Very fortunate I am I no stay there; meeting Eeram in time. Ay, yi! What kind de house is this? Look like paper, and the grounds so artifeecial. No like much."
Magdalena hardly knew her father these last months. From the day that he found a reminiscent pleasure in the mild diversions of Menlo he had visibly softened. From the day he was assured of Trennahan he had become almost expansive, and at times was moved to generosity. Upon one occasion he had doubled Magdalena's allowance, and at Christmas he had given her a hundred dollars; and he had paid the bills of the season without a murmur. The fear which had haunted him during the last thirty years,—that he should suddenly relapse into his native extravagance and squander his patrimony and his accumulated millions, dying as the companions of his youth had died,—he dismissed after he met Trennahan. Polk had been the iron mine to the voracious magnet in his character. In the natural course of things Polk would outlive him; but the possibility of Polk's extermination by railroad accident or small-pox had been a second devil of torment, and during the past year he had visibly failed. Now, however, there was Trennahan to take his place. Don Roberto would enjoy life once more, a second youth. He was almost happy. If he felt his will rotting, he would transfer all his vast interests to Trennahan in trust for his wife and daughter, retaining a large income. He did not believe, at this optimistic period, that there was any real danger, after an inflexible resistance of thirty years; but he also realised for the first time what the strain of those thirty years had been.
Helena, dazzlingly fair in a frock of forest green, and surrounded by five new admirers, three Eastern and two English tourists, awaited Magdalena on the verandah. The strangers gave Magdalena a faint shock: being the only well-dressed men she had ever seen except Trennahan, they assumed a family likeness to him, and seemed to steal something of his preeminence among men. She commented distantly on this fact as she went up the stair with Helena.
"Oh, your little tin god on wheels is not the only one," replied Helena, the astute. "There are five here with possibilities besides dress, and more coming to-morrow. They are such a relief! If I feel real wicked to-morrow night—well, never mind!"
"Helena! You will not make those four young men any more miserable than they are now?"
Helena shook her head. She was looking very naughty. "Four months, my dear! I didn't realise what I had endured until I had this sudden vacation. Two days of blissful rest, and then the variations for which I was born."
They were in Helena's room, and Magdalena sat down by the open window, where she could smell the cypresses, and regarded her beloved friend more critically than was her habit.
"I wonder if you will ever mature,—get any heart?" she said.
"'Lena! What do you mean! Heart? Don't I love you and my father; and the other girls—some?"
"I don't mean that kind. Nor falling in love, either. I never expressed myself very well, but you know what I mean."
"Oh, bother. What were men and women made for but to amuse each other?"
"Life isn't all play."
"It is for a time—when you're young. I am sure that that is what Nature intended, and that the people who don't see it are those who make the mistakes with their lives. Otherwise life would be simply outrageous,—no balance, no compensation. After a certain age even fools become serious: they can't help it, for life begins to take its revenge for permitting them to be young at all, and to hope, and all that sort of thing. Therefore those that don't make the most of youth and all that goes with it are something more than fools."
Magdalena looked at her in dismay. "How do you realise that, at your age? I have lived alone, thought more—had more time to think and to read—but I never should—"
"I have intuitions. And I've seen more of the world than you have. I see everything that goes on—you can bet your life on that. Talk about my powers of concentration! They're nothing to my antennae."
"But have you no principles of right and wrong? No morality? You would not deliberately sacrifice others to your own pleasure, would you?"
"Wouldn't I? I don't take the least pleasure in cruelty, like some women. If I could give people oblivion draughts, I'd do it in a minute—for my vanity has nothing to do with it, either. But the world is at my feet, and there it shall stay, no matter who pays the piper. I love life. I love everything about it. I've never seen anything in the world I thought ugly. I don't think anything is ugly. If it was, I should hate it. I've never been through a slum,—a horrid slum, that is,—and I don't want to. The beauty of the earth intoxicates me. When I even think about it, much less look at it, I feel perfectly wild with delight to think that I am alive. And my senses are so keen. I see so far. I can hear miles. I believe I can hear the grass grow. I eat and drink little, but that little gives me delight. A glass of cold spring water intoxicates me. And, above all, I enjoy being loved. I never forget how much you and papa love me. I couldn't exist without either of you. Papa is looking much better since he came down. Don't you think so? And I like to see love in the eyes of men I don't care a rap about. Their eyes are like impersonal mirrors for me to read the secrets of the future in. And I don't really hurt them. Most men have a lot of superfluous love in them. I may as well have it as another. It won't interfere with the destination of the reserve in the least."
"Helena!" exclaimed Magdalena, with a sinking heart. "I believe you are a genius."
"I have the genius of personality, but I couldn't do a thing to save my life."
Magdalena breathed freely again.
Trennahan, who was to have arrived in time to dine with the Belmonts and Yorbas, missed his train and took his dinner alone. Afterward, he saw Magdalena for a few moments in the Yorbas' private parlour, but she had to dress, and he went off to smoke in the grounds with Don Roberto, Mr. Polk, Mr. Washington, and Colonel Belmont. They subsequently had a game of bowls, and—excepting Colonel Belmont—several cocktails. When they suddenly remembered that a ball was in progress to which they were expected, it was eleven o'clock, and Trennahan was not dressed.
It was Helena's ball, but she had made every man promise to look after the wall-flowers, that she might be at liberty to enjoy herself. Her aunt, Mrs. Yorba, and Magdalena received with her; and as all the guests had arrived by the same train, and had dressed at about the same time, the arduous duty of receiving was soon over. Helena left the stragglers to her chaperons and prepared to amuse herself. As usual, she had refused to engage herself for any dances, but she gave the first two to her devoted four, then announced her intention to dance no more for the present. The truth was that one of her minute high-heeled slippers pinched, but this she had no intention of acknowledging; if men wished to think her an angel, so they should. She was a sensible person, far too practical to reduce the sum of her happiness by physical discomfort; but the slippers, which she had never tried on, matched her gown, and she had no others with her that did. But the one rift in her lute induced a sympathetic rift in her temper.
The party was very gay and pretty. The rooms had been fantastically decorated with red berries and snowballs, pine, and cedar. The leader of the band was in that stage of intoxication which promised music to make the soles of the dado tingle. All the girls had brought their prettiest frocks, and all the matrons their diamonds. There were no tiaras in the Eighties, but there were a few necklaces, stars, and ear-rings—of the vulgar variety known as "solitaires." It is true that certain of the Fungi looked like crystal chandeliers upon occasion; but Helena would have none of them.
Herself had rarely been more lovely,—in floating clouds of pale pink tulle, which looked like a shower of almond blossoms. Her hair was roped up with pearls, hinting the head-dress of Juliet, but stopping short of eccentric effect. She wore nothing to break the lines of her throat and neck, but on her arms were quantities of odd and beautiful "bangles," many made from her own suggestions, others picked up in different parts of the world.
She was standing opposite the door in the middle of the room as Trennahan entered, leaning lightly upon a little table to rest her mischievous foot. Only one man was beside her at the moment, and Trennahan's view of her was uninterrupted. He knew at once who she was. His second impression was that he had seen few girls so beautiful. His third, that she possessed something more potent than beauty, and that he was responding to it with a certain wild flurry of the senses, and a certain glad exultation in youth and danger which had not been his portion for many a long year. The instinct of the hunter leaped from its tomb, shocked into the eager quivering life of its youth. Trennahan was appalled to hear the fine web he had spun between his senses and his spirit rent in a second, then gratified at the youthful singing in his blood. The old joy in recklessness, in surrender to the delirium of the senses, came back to him. He pushed them roughly aside, and looked about for Magdalena. She was listening to the rapid delivery of Mr. Rollins. He thought she looked ill, and was about to go to her when Colonel Belmont took him by the arm.
"You must meet my daughter," he said. "Oh, bother! There go half a dozen."
When Trennahan reached Helena, he was presented in the same breath with two other new arrivals, and her slipper was fairly biting. She did not even hear his name. She was in a mood to make her swains unhappy; and she liked Trennahan's face, and what she saw there. There was eager admiration in his eyes and nostrils, and on his face the record of a man who might possibly be her match. Of man's deeper and more personal life she never thought. She had heard that men sometimes loved married women, and others whose like she had never seen; but she hated the mere fact of vice as she did all forms of ugliness, and dismissed it from her mind. She read in Trennahan's face that he had had many flirtations, nothing more.
"I am not going to dance any more to-night," she announced. She placed her hand in Trennahan's arm. "Take me to the conservatory," she said.
There was really nothing for him to do but take her. But it was three hours before either was seen again.
"You are not looking well this morning," said Trennahan, solicitously, about twelve hours after he had appeared in the ball-room. He had just entered the Yorbas' private parlour.
"Neither do you," replied Magdalena.
"I sat up late with some of the men, and slept ill after."
Magdalena raised her eyes and looked at him steadily. "You have fallen in love with Helena," she said.
"What nonsense! My dear child, what are you talking about? Miss Belmont asked me to take her to the conservatory; and as I do not dance, and as you do, and as she announced her intention of not dancing again, and is a very entertaining young woman, I decided to remain there. If our engagement had been made known, of course I should have done nothing of the sort. But as it was—"
"You turned white when you first saw her. Alan Rush looked just like that. Now he is mad about her."
"I am not Alan Rush, nor any other boy of twenty-five. The man you have elected to marry, and who is not half good enough for you, as I have told you many times, is a seasoned person past middle age, my dearest. I could not go off my head over a pretty face if I tried. My day for that is long past."
He spoke vehemently.
"You never looked at me like that."
"Doubtless my pallor was due to some such unromantic cause as an extremely bad dinner."
"I have seen that look several times. Alan Rush is not the only one. And Helena is no doll. She has every fascination."
"Possibly. Shall we go for our walk? I am most anxious to see those old houses and graves."
He did not offer to kiss her. She was too proud to take up woman's usual refrain. She put on her hat, and they left the hotel, and walked toward the town.
"I believe the cemetery comes first," she said. "I have made inquiries. We can see the town from there, and go on afterward—if you like."
"Of course I like. How good of you to wait for me! I know you have been longing for the town which I am convinced is a part of your very personality."
"Yes, I have been longing. I don't care much about it this morning."
"Which of your heroines is buried in the cemetery?"
"Benicia Ortega, La Tulita, and some of aunt's old friends."
"You must certainly write those old stories. I often think of them."
"Nothing that you say this morning sounds like the truth."
"My dear girl! I am dull and stupid after a sleepless night. And the night after you left I sat up until two in the morning writing important letters."
"I think it was disloyal of Helena."
"I must rush to her defence. She did not know until the end of the evening who I was. She took me for one of the several Easterners who arrived to-day. Two of them brought letters to her father from Mr. Forbes. One was the son of an old friend. As her father presented me—"
Magdalena faced about. "And you did not tell her? You did not speak of me?"
"I am going to be perfectly frank, knowing how sensible you are. I had a desperate flirtation with your friend, as desperate and meaningless as those things always are; for it is merely an invention to pass the idler hours of society. There was nothing else to do, so we flirted. It added to the zest to keep her in ignorance of my identity. It was a silly pastime, but better than nothing. I should far rather have been in bed. If I could have talked to you, it would have been quite another matter."
Magdalena hurried on ahead. He had the tact not to accelerate his own steps. After a time she fell back. She said,—
"What is this 'flirtation,' anyhow? I have heard nothing but 'flirtation' all winter, and I heard a good deal of it last summer. But I have not the slightest idea what it means. What do you do?"
"Do? Oh—I—it is impossible to define flirtation. You must have the instinct to understand. Then you wouldn't ask. Thank Heaven you never will understand. Flirtation is to love-making what soda-water is to champagne. I can think of no better definition than that."
"Did you kiss Helena?"
"Good God, no! That's not flirtation. She is not the sort that would let me if I wished."
"Did you hold her hand?"
"I have held no woman's hand but yours for an incalculable time."
"Did you tell her that you loved her?"
"I must say I can't see how a flirtation differs from an ordinary conversation."
"It only does in that subtle something which cannot be explained."
Magdalena had an inspiration. "Perhaps you talk with your eyes some."
"Well, you are not altogether wrong. Did you ever see a fencing match? Imagine two invisible personalities dodging and doubling, springing and darting. That will give you some idea. And all without a flutter of passion or real interest. It is good exercise for the lighter wits, but stupid at best." He did not add that the very essence of flirtation is its promise of more to come.
It was some time before Magdalena spoke again. Then she asked,—
"What did Helena say when you told her your name?"
"I believe she said, 'Great Heaven!'"
"I think this must be the cemetery."
They ascended the rough hill, and pushed their way through weeds and thistles and wild oats to the dilapidated stones under the oaks. Magdalena had imagined her conflicting emotions when she visited the graves of her youthful heroines; among other things the delightful sense of unreality. But the unreality was of another sort to-day. They were a part of an insignificant past. Trennahan elevated one foot to a massive stone and plucked the "stickers" from his trousers.
"This is all very romantic," he said, "but these confounded things are uncomfortable. Have you found your graves?"
"I think this is Benicia's. We can go if you like."
"By no means." He went and leaned over the sunken grey stone which recorded the legend of Benicia Ortega's brief life and tragic death, then insisted upon finding the others.
"You don't take any interest," said Magdalena. "Why do you pretend?"
He caught her in his arms and seated her on the highest and driest of the tombs, then sat beside her. He kept his arm about her, but he did not kiss her. "Come now," he said, "let us have it out. We must not quarrel. I humble myself to the dust. I vow to be a saint. I will not exchange two consecutive sentences with your friend in the future. Make me promise all sorts of things."
"If you love her, you can't help yourself."
"I have no intention of loving her. Perhaps you will be as sweet and sensible as you always are, and not say anything so absurd again. I am deeply sorry that I have offended you. Will you believe that? And will you forgive me?"
"Do you mean that you still wish to marry me?"
"Great Heaven, 'Lena! Even if my head were turned, do you think that I have not brains enough to remember that that sort of thing is a matter of the hour only, and that I am a man of honour? I have no less intention of marrying you to-day than I had yesterday. Does that satisfy you? And—since you take it so hardly—I wish I might never see Miss Belmont again."
Magdalena raised her eyes; they were full of tears. Her hat was pushed back, her soft hair ruffled. In the deep shade of the oaks and with the passion in her face she looked prettier than he had ever seen her. A kiss sprang to her lips. He bent his head swiftly and caught it; and then he was delighted at the depth of his penitence.
* * * * *
"'Lena, you ought to hate me, but I didn't know! I swear I didn't!"
"I know you did not. He told me that it was entirely his fault, and I have forgiven him; so don't let us say any more about it."
"Well, I am glad he admitted that. I'm pretty selfish, as I've never denied, but I'd never be disloyal. Not to you, anyhow," she added on second thoughts. "I shouldn't mind Ila so much, nor Caro."
"You don't mean to say you would take any girl's lover away from her, Helena?"
"Yes, I would if I wanted him badly. But I'd do it right out before her face. I'd never be underhand about it. I loathe deceit. I was furious for a time with Mr. Trennahan last night, but I really believe I was more furious because he was the most interesting man I had ever met and I couldn't have him, than because he hadn't behaved quite properly."
Magdalena reached her right hand to a bow on her left shoulder, that Helena should not see the sudden leap of her heart. "Do you mean to say that you had—had intended to—to—add him to the quartette?"
"I had had a very definite idea of turning the entire quartette out in his favour. I don't mind telling you that, because wild horses couldn't make me so much as flirt an eyelash at him again; and of course it was only one of my passing fancies. Nothing goes very deep with me. I'm made on a magnificent plan. So is he. We'll both have forgotten last evening before the end of the week. I hate the morning after a ball, don't you? One always feels so devitalised. Wasn't Ila's gown disgracefully low? And the way some girls roll their eyes is positively sickening. Let's go out and get a breath of air."
Two nights later Tiny had a large dinner. A place had been kept for Trennahan. He had expected to be sent in with Magdalena,—somewhat illogically, as no one suspected his engagement. He was sent in with Helena.
The long low dining-room of the old house on Rincon Hill had never been double-dated with gas fixtures. There was a large candelabra against the dark wainscot at each end of the room, and little clusters of flame on the table. The girls never looked so pretty, so guileless, never planted their arrows so surely, as in this room, in the soft radiance of its wax candles.
On Helena's other side sat Rollins, whom she honoured by regarding as a brother. On Trennahan's left Ila was intent upon the subjugation of a younger brother of Mr. Washington, who had recently returned to San Francisco after six years in Europe, and had knelt at her shrine at once. He was wealthy, and she had made up her mind to marry him. Trennahan she had given up during the summer. Had she not, she would have known better than to pit her charms against Helena's. Magdalena was on the same side of the table.
Helena wore white, in which she looked her best; the silk softened with much lace on the bust. She raised her eyes defiantly to Trennahan's. Their coquetry had been ordered to the rear.
"We've got to talk, or look like idiots," she said. "I had made up my mind never to speak to you again. I think you were quite too horrid the other night."
"I certainly was."
"Was it your fault or mine?"
"Wholly mine—despite your fascinations."
"I wouldn't have been fascinating if I had known. I am glad you admit that it was all your fault. It makes me believe that it was. What made you keep it up for three hours?"
"The weakness of man."
"Is that what you told 'Lena?"
"No; it is not."
"What did you tell her—Oh, how horrid of me to ask! Let's talk about something else. Do you like California better than New York?"
"It will take exactly eight minutes to exhaust that subject; I am an old hand at it. So while I assure you that I do, and am giving my reasons, please cast about for a subject to follow."
"My thinker is not good to-night. I expect you to take care of me."
"What greater delight! You are paler than you were. Are you not well?"
Trennahan's voice became tender from long habit. The softness and fire sprang to Helena's eyes. The pink tide poured into her cheeks. A sudden intense light sprang into Trennahan's eyes. It held hers for the fraction of a moment, then both looked away; and ate their oysters.
It was Helena who spoke first. "Another moment, and we should have been launched into the second chapter. But we are not to flirt; we understand that thoroughly. I don't think, on second thoughts, that I should like you at all. You have yourself too well in hand; you look as if you had been through it all too many times; there isn't a bit of freshness about you—Oh, bother, I hate lying! I'll tell you plainly and have done with it,—I should be in love with you by this time if it were not for 'Lena. That's not the way of older climes, but it's mine: I've got to talk out or die. I've always said everything that occurred to me. Let's talk this out, and then we'll never talk for two minutes alone again. If you had not been in love with 'Lena, should you be in love with me by this time?"
He put his fork down abruptly and turned to her. She shrank a little. "I think we had better let that subject alone. As a product of older climes, I am competent to judge."
"I must know. I will know. Tell me."
"Well, then, I should."
"As much as you are with 'Lena?"
"I should have been madder about you than I have been about any woman for fifteen years."
"If you know that, how can you help it now?"
"There is such a thing as honour in men."
"That means that there is none in women? Well, I don't believe there is. But honour does not keep a man from loving a woman."
He made no reply.
"Are you mad about fire? Or is it your vanity that is insatiable?"
Again he met her eyes. And this time her face was as white as her gown. Her bosom was heaving. Her skin was translucent. To Trennahan's suffused vision she seemed bathed in white fire.
"I love you," he said hoarsely; "and I would give all the soul I've got to have met you a year ago."
Talk about the complex heart of a woman. It is nothing to that of a man.
Trennahan had loved a good many women in a good many ways. Perhaps he understood women as well as any man of his day: he had been bred by women of the world, and his errant fancy had occasionally sent him into other strata. He also thought that he knew himself. His mind, his heart, his senses, the best and the worst in him, had been engaged so often and so actively that he could have drawn diagrams of each, alone or in combination, with accommodating types of woman. He also, without generalising too freely, knew men, and he had spent ten years of his life in diplomacy. But he now stood before himself as puzzled as he was aghast.
If his grip upon himself had suddenly relaxed, and he had spent a wild night with the wild young men of San Francisco, he should not have been particularly surprised: he had been living on an exalted plane for the last ten months. But that he loved Magdalena with the love of his life, that he realised in her some vague youthful ideal, that she was the woman created for the better part of him, that his highest happiness was to be found in her, he had never doubted from the minute he had finished his long communion with himself and determined to marry her. And every moment he had spent with her had strengthened the tie. Nothing about her but had pleased him: her intellect, her pride, her reticence, her difference from other women; even, after the first shock to his taste was over, her lack of beauty. It was true that she had no great power over his pulses, but he was tired of his pulses. She appealed to his tenderness and deeper affections as no woman had done. Above all, she had given him peace of mind; and she held his future in her hands.
Helena Belmont was that most dangerous rival of other women,—a girl whom men loved desperately with no attendant loss of self-respect. Whatever their passion, they felt a keen personal delight in the purity of her mind; and they admired themselves the more that they appreciated her cleverness. She was not only a woman to love but to idolise; she gave even these prosaic San Francisco youths vague promptings to distinguish themselves by some great and noble action, sending her shafts straight through the American brain to those dumb inherited instincts which had straggled down through the centuries from mediaeval ancestors. Her very selfishness—which she was pleased to call Paganism—charmed them: it was one of the divine rights of the woman born to rule men and to create a happiness for one unimagined by lesser women. No man but idealised her, unfanciful as he might be, not so much for her beauty or gifts, or for all combined, as because when she gave herself it would be for the last as it was for the first time. As the reader knows, there was nothing ideal about Helena. Even her fastidiousness was natural in view of her upbringing. She was a most practical young flirt, with a very distinct intention of having her own way as long as she lived. The wealth and petting and adulation which had surrounded her from birth had made a thorough-going egoist of her, albeit a most charming one; for she was warm-hearted, impulsive, generous, and kind—in her own way. Naturally the men for whom her lovely eyes beamed welcome, for whom her tantalising mouth pouted into smiles, thought her nothing short of a goddess, and were moved to inarticulate rhyme.
* * * * *
Trennahan had met many more women who were beautiful, seductive, dashing, and withal fastidious, than had these young men of a cosmopolitan and still chaotic State; nevertheless, he might have been Adam ranging the dreary solitudes of Paradise, facing about for the first time upon the first woman. Helena was the type of woman for whom such men as meet her have the strongest passion of their lives, if for no other reason than because she induces an exaggeration of their best faculties and a consequent exaltation of self-appreciation, as distinguished from mere masculine self-sufficiency. Never is the briefly favoured one so much of a man apart from a type, looking down upon that type with pitying scorn. This is a mere matter of fascination, too subtle, and composed of too many parts for man's analysis, but it is the most telling force in the clashing of the sexes.
Trennahan was an extremely practical man. He called things by their right names, and scorned to turn his head aside when life or himself was to be looked squarely in the eye. It is true that he cursed himself for a fool. He was neither in his youth nor in his dotage; he was in that long intermediate period where a man may hope that his will and sound common-sense are in their prime,—the interval of the minimum of mistakes. Nevertheless, he was as madly in love with Helena Belmont as was the first man with the first woman, as a boy with his first mistress, an old man with his last. He admitted the fact and ordered his brain to make the best of the situation.
He was not conscious of any change in his feelings for Magdalena except that he no longer desired to marry her. The sense of rest, of comradeship, the tenderness and affection, had not abated. He was just as sure that she was the woman for him to marry as he had been two weeks ago; and he knew that he could not make a greater mistake than to marry Helena Belmont. He believed that it would be years before she would be capable of loving any man for any length of time. Such women not only develop slowly, but they have too much to give, men too little. The clever woman is abnormal in any case, being a divergence from the original destiny of her sex. The woman who is beautiful, fascinating, passionate, and clever is a development with which man has not kept pace.
He spent the greater part of the three days following the dinner, on the cliffs beyond the Golden Gate. There was no great moral battle going on in his mind; he intended to marry Magdalena. One of his pet theories was that one secret of the rottenness underlying the social, and in natural sequence, the political structure of the United States was the absence of a convention. Men were on their knees to women so long as their pleasure was materially abetted by the attitude; but the moment the motive ceased to exist, any display of chivalry toward her would be as useless and wasted as toward the ordinary run of women. It is always the woman of the moment, never woman in general. The so-called chivalry of American men does not exist; the misconception has arisen out of the multitudinous examples of American subserviency to the individual woman,—which is part of a habit of exaggeration natural to a youthful nation. There is an utter absence of all responsibility that is not the concomitant of personal desire.
The new country is full of good impulses with little to bind them together. Children respect their parents if they feel like it, just as they are polite when in a responsive mood, not through any sense of convention. The American press is an exemplification of this absence of noblesse oblige, and more particularly in its treatment of women. Even when not moved by personal jealousy or spite, the total lack of respect with which the American press treats women who have not in any way challenged public opinion—society women with whom the public has no concern, women upon whom either the misfortune of circumstances or of a powerful individuality has fallen—is the most significant foreboding of the degeneration of a national character while yet half grown. It is individualism, which is a polite term for rampant selfishness, run mad, a fussy contempt and hatred for the traditions of older nations.
Fifty years ago, when the United States was still so old-fashioned as to be hardly "American," it was more or less bound together by the conventions it had inherited from the great civilisations that begat it. These conventions exist to-day only in men of the highest breeding, those with six or eight generations behind them of refinement, consequence, and fastidiousness in association. In these men, the representatives of an aristocracy that is in danger of being crippled and perhaps swamped by plutocracy, exists the convention which forces the most deplorable degenerate of old-world aristocracy to manifest himself a gentleman in every crucial test. So thoroughly did Trennahan comprehend these facts, so profound was his contempt for the second-rate men of his country, that he was almost self-conscious about his honour. He would no more have asked Magdalena to release him, nor have adopted the still more contemptible method of forcing her to break the engagement, than he would have been the ruin of an ignorant girl. But he would have sacrificed every green blade in his soul to have met Helena Belmont a year ago, and would have taken the chances with defiance and the consequences without a murmur.
To marry Magdalena in June was impossible. That he should ever cease to desire Helena Belmont, to regret the very complete happiness which might have been his for a few years, was a matter of doubt,—with even possibilities. But there must be a long intermission before he could marry another woman. His determination to leave California for a year was fixed, but what excuse to offer Don Roberto and Magdalena was the question which beset him in all his waking hours and amid all his torments.
During these three days he avoided seeing Magdalena alone. On the afternoon of the fourth day he came face to face with Helena Belmont in the Mercantile Library.
She was leaving as he entered. They looked at each other for a moment, then without a word both walked toward a room at the right of the door.
This was a long narrow apartment leading off the great room, and was darker, dustier, gloomier, grimmer. As the building stood almost against another of equal height, its side windows looked upon blank walls; but some measure of grey light was coaxed down from the narrow strip above by means of reflectors. The walls were lined with old books bound in calf black with age, and in the centre was a long narrow table which looked as if it should have a coffin on it. This room had depressed many cheerful lovers in its time; it was enough to drive tormented souls to suicide.
Trennahan and Helena sat down in an angle where they were least likely to be seen.
"What are you going to do?" asked Helena.
"I am going away for a year as soon as I can invent a decent excuse."
"Then shall you come back and marry 'Lena?"
"Suppose you still love me?"
"It will make no difference. And Time works wonders. You will have quite forgotten me."
"I sincerely hope I shall." Her voice shook. There was agitation in every curve of her figure. But had anyone entered, their faces could not have been distinguished two feet away. The sky was grey. There was no light to reflect.
"It is the first time I haven't got what I wanted," she said ingenuously.
"It will make your next triumph the keener. I shall be glad to serve as a shadow for the high lights."
"I have suffered horribly in the last week."
"So have I, if that consoles you. But I have had a good deal of suffering in my life, one way and another, and I shall weather it. I wish I could take your share."
"Shouldn't you like to marry me?"
"Of course I should. Why do you ask such foolish questions?"
"I want to talk it all out. I love 'Lena, but I don't love her better than I do myself, and I don't see why I should suffer instead of she. Don't you think that if we told her she would release you?"
"Undoubtedly; but I shall not ask her. Nor must you think of such a thing. Why two young and exceptionally fortunate girls should want what is left of me God only knows; but if they do the prior rights must win the day. If I don't marry 'Lena, I shall marry no woman,—not even you."
She gave him a swift glance. His face was not as stern as his words. "You know that you would," she said with decision. "You are too honourable to break the engagement, but you would marry me if it were broken for you."
He drew his brows together and bent his face to hers. "Listen to me," he said. "I mean what I say. I love you,—how much you have not the vaguest idea; but I will not have her happiness ruined. If you ask her to break the engagement, I shall never see you again. Will you remember that?"
"I suppose you are right. I had not really thought of asking her. But I've got to tell her that I love you. I feel like a hideous hypocrite. I can hardly look her in the face. I'll promise not to betray you, but I must tell her that. She has been so sweet to me this last week, ever since that night at Monterey. She's the very best creature that ever lived. Then I'll ask papa to take me away. You need not go."
"I shall go. Can't you go away without saying anything to her about it? I don't see why her peace of mind should be disturbed."
"I should feel just as guilty when I came back."
"You would have forgotten it by that time."
"Oh, no; I shouldn't! I shouldn't!"
There was no mistaking the passion in her voice. Trennahan half rose, but sat down again. "I would rather you wrote it to her after you left," he said. "Then there would be no danger of saying too much. If you want to go to Europe, I will go to the South Sea Islands."
"Well, I will arrange it that way, if you like."
Her head was lowered. She spoke dejectedly. There was little of the old Helena manifest. In truth, she had been making a mighty effort to control herself for the first time in her life. She hardly knew whether she wished to do what was right or not; for the moment she was dominated by a stronger will than her own. She drew a deep sigh. "I wish I could take it as coolly as you do," she said.
"I take it less coolly. But I am older and used to self-control."
"I hate self-control."
"So do I."
"I feel as if life were quite over. I would a great deal rather die than not. I wish I were older. I don't know what to do. I feel that it cannot be right to throw away the happiness of one's life, but I don't know how to hold you, and, above all, I don't want to hurt 'Lena. I thought that I knew so much; but I know nothing at all—nothing."
"If you do what is right, you will be very glad a year hence."
"A year is such a long time." Her head dropped lower. She looked utterly dejected. In a moment she put her handkerchief to her face and cried silently. The undemonstrativeness of the act, so unlike her usual volcanic energy, touched him out of prudence. He put his arm about her and pressed her head against his shoulder. In a moment he laid his face against hers and closed his eyes to crowd back the tears that sprang from the depths of his soul. When he opened his eyes, it was to meet those of Magdalena.
She had left them without a word, and Trennahan did not see her until the following evening, when she sent for him.
She received him in the room at the end of the hall, where they were sure not to be interrupted. As he entered he averted his face hastily, and cursed himself for a scoundrel. But he went straight to the point.
"I have made you suffer," he said, "and as only you can suffer. I have no excuse to offer except my own weakness. Do you remember that I asked you once if you thought you could love me did you come to understand all the weakness of my nature, and that you replied you could? Will you forgive me this display of it? I have no desire—no intention of marrying any other woman."
"I have not doubted your honour. But I shall not marry you. I do not want you without your love. I see now that I never had it."
"You did, and you have it still. It is impossible for a man to explain himself to a woman. Will you let me decide for both? I am going away for a time. When I return I want you to marry me."
She shook her head. "There would be three people miserable instead of one. If I had not gone there yesterday, perhaps I should never have known: I simply made up my mind after that night at Monterey that I would think no more about it. By and by you might have got over it and we might have been happy in a way—I don't know. It is not your fault that I found out. And I went to the Library by the merest chance yesterday. It seems like fate, and I shall recognise it. If Helena did not love you, it would be different; but I had a terrible scene with her last night. I never thought even she could feel so. For the time I felt much sorrier for her than for myself—I felt rather dull, for that matter. After she went I thought all night. It was a terrible night." She stopped and shivered.
He took her hand, but she withdrew it. "I thought of everything. You know I once told you that my only religion was to do what I believed to be right. If love means anything, it means that one should make the other person happy, not oneself. I thought and thought. You two were more to me than any people living. I have not ever really loved anyone else, except my aunt, and her not half so much as Helena. Therefore my love would not be worth much if I did not consider you two before myself. If Helena did not love you, it would be different. I would try to forget that she had fascinated you, and I should see no reason why I should not marry you if you still wished me to. But she loves you. I never expected to see such tragedy. But even if I did not believe she would make you happy, I would not give you to her, for I vowed to live for that—long before the night at Tiny's—in the garden. But Helena could make any man happy. She has everything."
She paused again. He made no reply for a moment. He was staring at the carpet, at a hideous green-and-yellow dragon. The comedy which cuts every black cloud in thin staccato blades was suggesting that he had something to be grateful for, inasmuch as the scene with Helena had been spared himself.
"You are far more suited to me than she is," he said finally. "I am too old for her. I am not for you. If we have souls, yours and mine were made for each other. Years have nothing to do with us. They would mean everything between Helena and myself."
She leaned forward and fixed her eyes on his, compelling his gaze.
"If you had never met me, would you not be engaged to Helena by this time?"
"Doubtless, but that proves nothing."
"Will you give me your word of honour that you do not wish you were free, that you would not gladly marry her now?"
He drew a long breath. He felt like a prisoner on the witness stand driven to save himself by incrimination of another. But he was in that state of mind when only the truth is possible.
"I will put it in another way. Do you want anything in the world as much as Helena?"
"No," he said; "I do not."
She got up and walked to the window, and drew aside the curtains. The sky was brilliant with moon and stars; the bay and hills lovely with the mystery of night. California had never been more unsympathetically beautiful. She jerked the curtains together and went back to him. As she did not sit down, he rose.
"That is all," she said, "except that you must let me explain to my father."
"And let you bear the whole brunt of it. Not if I know myself."
"You must. I understand him, and you do not. Besides, if he knew that you and Helena had anything to do with the breaking of the engagement he would never let me speak to either of you again, and I have no other friends. I shall tell him that I no longer wish to marry you, and he cannot compel me to give reasons. If he speaks to you about it, you must tell him that you will marry no woman against her will, and let him see that you mean it."
"Magdalena, you are a grand woman."
"I am a very dull and stupid person who has made up her mind that the only chance of making life bearable is to do what is right. I am terribly commonplace. I wonder you stood me as long as you did."
"You are the reverse of stupid and commonplace; and I am by no means sure that you are doing right. I, too, have thought over this matter, for nearly as many days as you have hours. I have tried to get outside myself, to view the case quite dispassionately; and I honestly believe that—as you insist upon putting me before yourself—it would be better for me to marry you than Helena."
"I do not believe it. Nor could I marry you after what you just acknowledged. I have never had much pride with you, but I have that much. Marry you when you said that you wanted nothing so much in the world as to marry Helena Belmont? That was the end of everything."
He left the room and the house. Magdalena went up the stair slowly, assisting herself with the banister. Her limbs felt as if their muscles had fallen to dust. Her heart seemed to have taken it outside of herself altogether; there was no sensation where sensation was supposed to sit, unless it were that of vacancy. Her brain was not confused; she did not feel in the least as if she were going to be ill. She knew what she had done, what she had to do in the future; and she wished that her heavy limbs were as dead as that something within her for which she had no name.
The next morning she received a note from Trennahan.
I am sailing for Honolulu. Do nothing until my return. I shall be gone six weeks. Until your final decision I shall consider myself bound to you. And, I repeat, I think it best that we should marry. You have acted on impulse, and your mind and judgment were constructed to work slowly. And God knows this is not a matter to be decided in haste. I shall have sailed before even a telegram from you could reach me. Don Roberto knows that I have thought more than once of a trip to the Islands. Tell him when he returns that I suddenly decided to go. J. T.
But Magdalena wanted no respite. It was her temper to die once rather than a thousand times. Her father was in Sacramento on business. He would return the following day. She was too dull and listless to feel fear of him, but she wanted it over.
She wrote at once to Helena, enclosing Trennahan's letter: "I have made up my mind, and that is the end of it. As far as I am concerned, he now belongs to you. I shall speak to papa to-morrow night. Immediately after I shall write to Mr. Trennahan, and that will put an end to my part in the matter."
Helena ordered her devoted parent to take her to Southern California at once. To pick up the old routine, to show herself daily and nightly in the studied simulacrum of her former self, was no part of her code. She felt she should tell every man that came near her that she hated him, and the reason why. Nor was hers the temperament for suspense without diversion. She could live through the next six weeks with change of scene, but not otherwise. She made a full confession to her father and received the severest reprimand of her life; but Colonel Belmont took her to Southern California.
Magdalena went to a lunch-party on the day following Trennahan's departure and paid calls during the afternoon. The small details diverted her, and she found herself able to make conversation, despite the sluggish current of misery beneath. She had told her mother of her determination not to marry Trennahan; and although Mrs. Yorba had paced the room in apprehension of her husband's wrath, she was secretly pleased. A daughter, particularly one that gave no trouble, was companionable and useful, and she saw no reason why she should be asked to give her to any man for years to come. Although meagre, she was not heartless, and was much relieved that Magdalena appeared indifferent to the sudden break. She was dimly conscious that she did not understand her daughter, but she had no desire to plumb the depths; she had a substantial distaste for the Spanish nature when roused.
Her husband was expected to return in time for dinner. She went to bed with an attack of neuralgia a little after six.
Magdalena did not see her father until he entered the dining-room with her uncle. He inquired immediately for Trennahan, who usually dined with him when there were no engagements elsewhere.
"He decided suddenly to go to the Sandwich Islands and sailed yesterday."
"Very sorry he no wait until I come back. I think I gone with him. Always I want to see the Islands. I work long enough now: go to travel some and see the world. So queer to think is so much world outside California. When you go to Europe, I go too. And you, too, Eeram. You no can go with us, for both cannot leave the bank, but when we coming back you take the vacation, too."
"I never expect to see the outside of California again," said Mr. Polk, shortly.
Magdalena's nerves shook for the first time in seventy-two hours. She appreciated the ordeal she had to face within the next. The dull ache in every nerve of her gave place to a certain keenness of apprehension. What would that terrible little man do? She had absorbed something of her father's personality as a child. During the last year she had talked much with him and had discovered the strange weaknesses and fears which lurked in that manufactured character. She fully realised what a son-in-law like Trennahan meant to him. He was quite capable of killing her. And during the last three or four weeks he had flown into more than one violent passion, prompted by a liver disordered by too much dining out.
While the two men were drinking their coffee, she left the room and went to the office. The riding-whip was in its old place; on a shelf in the cupboard was a brace of pistols. Magdalena threw the whip into the cupboard, locked the door, and slipped the key behind a book on the mantel. Her father came in a moment later. She handed him a cigar and a match. He drew his heavy brows together and puckered his eyelids.
"What the matter?" he demanded drily. "So white you are, and the hand tremble."
Magdalena sat down and took control of herself.
"I am not going to marry Mr. Trennahan," she said.
She held her breath for the expected outburst; but Don Roberto only stared at her, his eyes slowly expanding. The cigar dropped from his fingers.
"He no want marry you?" he ejaculated finally.
"I told him that I did not wish to marry him,—I never wish to marry any man,—and he is too proud to insist upon marrying a woman who does not want him. We had a long conversation. We quite understand each other. He will never ask me again."
"Dios!" gasped Don Roberto. "Dios!" But there was no anger in his voice. His eyes rolled from Magdalena to the window and back again. Finally he said,—
"He no come back, then?"
"He is coming back in six weeks."
Don Roberto drew a long breath and seemed to recover himself.
"Then si he no break the engagement, he feel glad si it is make again. You marry him the day after he come back. I fixit that."
"No power on earth can make me marry him."
Her father searched her countenance. He knew her character. Did it not have that iron of New England in it for which he would have sold his birthright? He might turn her into the street, and it would avail him nothing. Again his features relaxed, this time not with surprise and consternation, but with abject fear. He shuddered from head to foot; then his hands shot up to receive his face. He groaned and rocked from side to side.
Magdalena was aghast. What feeling was alive in her united in filial tenderness. She went to him and put her hands uncertainly about his head, then stroked his hair awkwardly: she was little used to endearments.
"I never thought—" she stammered. "I never thought—"
"Thirty years I work like the slave, and now all going! Eeram, he have the death-tick in him: I hear! And now I no go to have the son, and I go to die in the streets like the others; with no one cents! Ay! yi! ay! yi!"
Magdalena was pricked with a new fear: Was her father insane? She had heard of the "fixed idea." This weevil had been burrowing in his brain for more than a quarter of a century. She went back to her chair and said assertively,—
"You are one of the ablest financiers in California: everybody says so. Nothing can change that, whether uncle dies or not. This is all a fancy of yours. You don't half appreciate yourself. And you are tired out to-night, and have not been well lately—"
"All going! All going! Ay de mi! Ay de mi! Why I no dying with the wife and the little boy? Make myself over, and now the screws go to drop out my character, and I am like before."
Magdalena had an inspiration. "Take me into the bank," she said eagerly. "Teach me everything. I am sure I can learn. Then I will look after everything when uncle dies. I want to work—"
Don Roberto dropped his hands and gave a low roar. "The women all fools, and you the more big fool I never see. You throw way the clever man like he is old hat, and think you can manage the bank! Madre de Dios! Si I no feel like old clothes, no more, I beating you. To-morrow I do it." His eyes kindled at the prospect. "To-morrow si you no say you marry Trennahan, I beating you till you are black like my hat."
What remained of Magdalena's apathy left her then. She stood up and faced him, drawing her heavy brows together after his own fashion. "You will never beat me again," she said. "Let us have an understanding on that subject before we go to bed to-night. I am your daughter, and I shall always obey you except where the question of my marrying is concerned. But if you ill-treat me I shall leave your house and not return. I am of age, and I have my aunt to go to. Now, unless you promise me that you will never raise your hand to me again, I will leave for Santa Barbara to-night."
Again Don Roberto stared at her. But his surprise passed quickly. He was too shrewd a judge of human nature to doubt her. If she had inherited the iron of her mother's ancestors, she had also inherited the pride of the Yorbas: she would not permit her womanhood to be outraged. But he could have his revenge in other ways; and he would take it. He gave the promise and ordered her sullenly to send the butler to help him up to bed.
During the following week Don Roberto was very ill. The doctor came three times a day. Mrs. Yorba and Magdalena sat up on alternate nights. Mr. Polk was constantly at the bedside. When he retired to snatch an hour's sleep, Don Roberto's temperature became alarming; of the presence of his wife and daughter he took no notice whatever.
As the ego must enter into all things, Magdalena, despite her alarm and pity, was grateful for the diversion. The interview with her father had roused her abruptly and finally; and during that night her misery had raged in every part of her. It is true that in the long watches thought fairly stamped in her brain, but it was rudely brushed aside every little while by the imperious wants of the sick man, or the whispered remarks of the professional nurse. At other times she slept heavily or received the numerous friends who came to inquire for the eminent citizen who had dined out too often during the gayest season in many years.
Don Roberto recovered, and his convalescence was as memorable as his previous social activity. No nurse would remain more than thirty-six hours at any price; and even his wife, whose ideas of marital duty were as rigid as her social code, lost her patience upon one occasion and rated him soundly. Mr. Polk was the only person he treated with common decency. As for Magdalena, he might have been a sultan and she his meanest slave. But Magdalena was rather pleased than otherwise. Her conscience had flagellated her as the immediate cause of his illness, and she strove by every act of devotion to make amends.