As soon as he was sufficiently recovered, he was taken, in a special car, to Fair Oaks, to absorb the sun on his spacious verandahs. Magdalena had asked the doctor to order Southern California, but the order had been received with such a roar of fury that the subject was not resumed. Magdalena was forced to return to Menlo Park.
She spent the night walking the floor of her room, struggling for endurance to face the places eloquent of Trennahan. There were so many of them! Helena simply would not have returned; no power short of physical force could have compelled her. More than once Magdalena wished that she was cast in her friend's anarchic mould. She felt that did her grip upon herself relax she should scream aloud and grovel on the very boards that had had their share in her brief love-life. But she was Magdalena Yorba, the proudest woman in California; in the very hour of her discovery, when she had been possessed of a blind terror rather than grief, she had remembered to be thankful that the world could not pity her. Even the genuine sympathy of Tiny would have been gall in a raw wound. She was looking thinner and plainer than ever, but her father's illness would account for that. She must set her features in steel and lock them, keep her emotions for the night.
The next day she visited every spot associated with Trennahan,—not once, but many times. She had made up her mind with the right instinct that the thing to do was to blunt her sensibilities. By the third day she had ordered the earlier associations on duty, and managed to confuse them somewhat with those which had held possession for so brief a time. She was determined to succeed. She had no right to love the husband of another woman, and suffering was something so much more terrible than anything her imagination had ever hinted that she was frantic to get rid of the load as quickly as possible. By and by she would go back to her writing; and that, and her duties, should be every bit of her life henceforth.
At the end of a week she discovered that she was still receptive to the aesthetic delights. It was early spring. The soft air caressed the senses, perfumed with violet and lilac, Castilian roses, new clover, and the breath of mountain forests, brought on the long sighs of the wind. Never was there such a bouquet since Time began. Over a high bush on the lawn opposite her window the long "bridal wreaths" tumbled. The meadows were full of mustard, the bright green leaves hardly visible, so thick were the yellow blossoms.
Once she rode to the foot-hills, escorted by Dick. They were covered with yellow and purple lupins, miniature jungles which harboured nothing more sanguinary than the gopher and the cotton-tail. The tawny poppies had hills all to themselves, a blaze of colour as fiery as the sun to which they lifted their curved drowsy lips. The Mariposa lilies grew by the creeks, in the dark shade of meeting willows. The gold-green moss was like plush on the trees. From the hills the great valley looked like a dense forest out of which lifted the tower of an enchanted castle. Not another signal of man was to be seen, nothing but the excrescence on the big wedding-cake house of a Bonanza king. Beyond the hills rose the slopes of the mountains, with their mighty redwoods, their dark untrodden aisles, their vast primeval silences. Magdalena was thankful that Nature had not ceased to be beautiful, and pressed her hands against her heart to stifle its demand; Nature commands union, and has no sympathy for aching solitude.
Meanwhile Don Roberto was recovering rapidly. From the hour that he could walk briskly about the garden his voluble irascibility left him, and he reverted to something more than his old taciturnity; he rarely opened his mouth except to put the plainest of food into it, even to speak to Mr. Polk. His brows were lowered constantly over heavy brooding eyes; his lips seemed set with a spring. When he finally addressed his wife, it was to tell her that she must manage with one butler and one housemaid. Coincidently he dismissed two of the gardeners and commanded the one retained, and Dick, to plant in a part of the lawns that there might be less water used. Himself came from town every evening and worked in the garden for two hours, besides arising at five in the morning and working until breakfast. He sold his finest carriage horses to Mr. Geary; and when one of the two remaining was temporarily disabled, he rode to and from the station in the spring wagon. The monthly allowance of his wife and daughter was suspended for the summer.
Mrs. Yorba, tall, garbed in black, stalked about the house with the expression of an outraged empress; Magdalena, being the cause of the outrage, was rarely addressed. She ostentatiously made over several of her old frocks and coldly requested her daughter to make her own bed. She kept all the windows in the house, with the exception of one in each room, closed and shuttered, as she was deprived of both service and water. The house seemed perpetually expectant of funeral guests, its silence only broken by Mrs. Yorba's heavy sighs.
Magdalena had certainly succeeded in making three people miserable; she could only hope that she had been more fortunate with the other two. She spent most of her time out of doors, riding or walking until her strength was exhausted. She was profoundly grateful that she was to take little part in the socialities of the summer. To dance and picnic and tennis and ride to the hills, exactly as she had done when quite another person! She infinitely preferred the disapproval of her parents and the freedom they gave her.
Trennahan had written to Magdalena from the Islands, acknowledging the letter she had written him after her interview with her father, and accepting his dismissal. He returned to San Francisco the last of May. Almost immediately she received a letter from Helena announcing her engagement to him.
Helena, while in Southern California, had written to Magdalena with her accustomed regularity. The letters were bitter with self-reproach alternated with the very joy of being alive in that opulent southern land. When she wrote of the engagement she assured the dearest friend she had on earth that if things had turned out differently she should have gone away and got over it somehow, but as Magdalena's decision was irrevocable she intended to be the happiest girl in the world; it wouldn't do anybody a bit of good if she wasn't. Magdalena felt no bitterness toward her. She had lost Trennahan; the woman mattered nothing. She would rather it were Helena than another; for who else could make him so happy? But she knew that she should see less of Helena in the future, and she hardly knew whether she were glad or sorry. She wished that she had the courage to ask her to keep him away from Menlo Park this summer.
The other girls moved down, bringing many guests, and she saw them daily; habit is not broken in a moment. They passed through Fair Oaks as usual on their afternoon drives, stopping for a chat; in their char-a-bancs or on the verandah. It was some time before they discovered the changes in the Yorba household, and when they did they merely shrugged their shoulders at the old don's eccentricities. The big parlours were certainly to be regretted; but there were other parlours that were not half bad, and it was terribly up-hill work entertaining Don Roberto. They were profoundly sorry for Magdalena, and were so insistent in their demands that she should spend much of her time with them that she found her solitude far less complete than she had hoped. But Helena and Trennahan were not to come down until the first of July; they had gone with Colonel Belmont to the Yosemite, Geysers and Big Trees.
Trennahan in that first month thought little of Magdalena. He hardly knew whether he were happy or not; he certainly was intoxicated. Helena was both impassioned and shy, a companion to whom words were hardly a necessary medium for thought, and magnificently uncertain of mood. Moreover, whether riding a donkey up the steep dusty grades of the Yosemite, or half veiled in a mist of steam, reeking of Hell, or standing with wondering eyes and parted lips among the colossal trees of Calaveras, she was always beautiful. And Trennahan worshipped her beauty with the strength of a passion which had sprung from a long and recuperative sleep. That he was twice her age mattered nothing to him now. Nothing mattered but that she was to be wholly his.
The morning after his return to Menlo he awoke with a confused sense that he should be late for his morning ride with Magdalena. He laughed as his senses rattled into place, but he sighed just after; and both the laugh and the sigh were Magdalena's, grim as the former may have been. That had been a time of peace and perfect content, and he could never forget it, not though he lived long years of unimaginable bliss with Helena—which he probably would not. A part of his life, limited and stunted a part as it was, belonged irrevocably to Magdalena. He concluded, after some hard thinking, that it was his best part. He had given her something of his soul, and he had no wish to take it back. He had given her the reviving aspirations of an originally noble nature; the sun of her had shone upon the barren soil, and the harvest was hers. He was an unimaginative man, but he was inclined to believe that if there was a future existence, Magdalena would belong to him then and for ever, that something even less definable than the soul of each belonged to the other. For there was nothing to be ashamed of in his love for Helena. She appealed as powerfully to his mind and heart as to his passion. But there was something beyond all, and he had no name for it,—unless it were that principle of absolute good as distinguished from its grades and variations; and it belonged to the girl whom he certainly no longer wanted in this life.
He wished that he had suggested to Helena to spend the summer in San Rafael or Monterey. Menlo Park belonged to Magdalena; he found himself hating the thought of having a series of very perfect memories disturbed, even by the most passionately loved of women. And so Magdalena had her first revenge.
He went reluctantly enough to Fair Oaks in the afternoon. The very leaves whispered as they drove through the woods. He had protested, but Helena must see 'Lena at once; she could never be entirely happy until she had looked into 'Lena's eyes and convinced herself that they were quite unchanged. And Trennahan must go, too, and have it over. Trennahan, who only crossed her whims for the pleasure of making up with her later, admitted that she was right, and went.
Mrs. Yorba was on the verandah receiving Mrs. Geary and Mrs. Brannan. Magdalena was upstairs in her room. The monotony of those afternoon receptions had taken its place among the distasteful things of life, and she was determined not to go down until she was sent for. Each time she heard wheels she went to the window and looked out. The third time she saw Trennahan and Helena. The very bones of her skeleton seemed to fall upon each other; she sank to the ground with less vigour than a shattered soldier. But in a moment she gave a hard gasp and pressed her hands to her face. Then she heard Helena's voice,—that sweet husky voice which was not the least potent of her charms.
"'Lena! 'Lena! Well, I'll go look for her."
Magdalena scrambled to her feet and fled down the hall to her mother's dressing-room. There, in a cupboard, was always a decanter of sherry; for Mrs. Yorba, after her neuralgic attacks, was often faint. Magdalena filled a glass, drank it, and blessed the swift fire which shook her will free and made a disciplined regiment of her nerves. She was so delighted at her sudden mastery over herself that she ran out into the hall, caught Helena in her arms, and kissed her demonstratively. Helena burst into tears. "You are the best girl on earth," she sobbed. "And I feel so wicked; but I am so happy."
Magdalena dried her tears, a part she had filled many times. "You are the dearest and most honest girl in the world," she said.
"Oh, I try to be honest, but I get so mixed up. I wish I could have a new set of commandments handed down all for myself, and that I could have made the rough draft of them. Then I'd be quite happy. But come down and see Jack,—I couldn't stand John. He's awfully brown and looks splendid."
Trennahan gave Magdalena's hand a friendly shake and asked her what the plans for the summer were.
"Papa has a frightfully economical fit and says we are not to entertain any more. He doesn't even allow us enough water to wash the windows; and if this supply of gasoline gives out before the end of the summer, we've got to burn oil."
"Magdalena!" gasped Mrs. Yorba. She wondered if her contribution to the Yorbas had suddenly gone mad. But the sherry was in Magdalena's head. She was quite conscious of it, but recklessly decided to let it have its way so long as it helped her to convey to Trennahan the information that he was no more to her than the browning tuberoses on the lawn.
"It's only what everybody knows," she replied. "I am sure everybody in Menlo has discussed him threadbare. Mr. Trennahan, you happened upon him in the oasis of his life; you never could stand it to dine here now. We can scarcely see to eat, and he never opens his mouth except to swear at the servants."
Mrs. Yorba was speeding her guests. When she returned, she gave her daughter an annihilating glance and went into the house. Trennahan stared at Magdalena. He saw her object, but could not guess the motive-power behind. A sudden, sickening fear assailed him: Was Magdalena deteriorating? And he the cause? But Magdalena was rattling on. The sherry seemed to have a marvellous power over one's wits and tongue. Why had she not known of it in the days when she had longed to shine? But her mother did not approve of girls drinking wine, and she had rarely tasted it, although until recently it had always been on the table.
"You both look so well," she said. "You don't look so tired as most engaged people do. I suppose you don't sit up every night until twelve talking about yourselves, as they generally do, I am told. That must be so fatiguing. Mr. Trennahan, you are actually stouter. You don't look as if you had been climbing perpendicular mountains. Is it true that a man stepped over the Bridal Veil backward? Do tell me all about it!"
Helena was staring at Magdalena with her mouth half open. She was the least obtuse of mortals, but although she knew that pride was at the root of Magdalena's extraordinary behaviour, she concluded that love had fled, and marvelled, for she had believed Magdalena to be the deepest and most tenacious of women. But she was very glad.
"Well!" she exclaimed. "Something has improved you! You will be fairly brilliant by next winter. And do for goodness' sake, 'Lena, give Don Roberto to understand that he's not to have his own way. He's like all bullies: he'd soon give in if you bullied him. I adore papa, and would do anything on earth for him; but if he had been born a different sort, and gave me trouble, I'd find more than one way of bringing him to terms. Just flash your eyes at Don Roberto as you're flashing them at us, and you'll see the difference it will make."
Has she ceased to love me? thought Trennahan. Thank God!—at least I ought to.
When they had gone, the sherry had run its course, and Magdalena felt very much ashamed of herself. I overdid it, she thought in terror, as she recalled her scintillating remarks and elaborate manner. He must have suspected! I'll drink no more, and next time I'll be just what I would have been if I had never laid eyes on him—if I die in the attempt. And how I talked! What things I said! Great Heaven, I made a complete fool of myself!
And the knowledge that for once in her life she had thrown her dignity and pride to the winds put her other pain to flight, and she had at least one night unracked by the record within her.
Two days later she met Trennahan on the Montgomerys' verandah. She was her old sedate self, to his unspeakable relief. That Magdalena should change, be less than the admirable creature he had loved when he was something more than himself, would have seemed no less a calamity than had the stars turned black. She sat up very straight in her prim little way and talked of Helena's new project; which was to build bath-houses down by the lagoon at Ravenswood and bathe when the tide was in. He told her that he too had a project: to persuade the men of Menlo to build a Club House, and thus have some sort of informal social centre. She told him that she thought that would be nice, and added that she wished she had a project too, but she was hopelessly unoriginal. Trennahan assured her that she did herself injustice; and in these admirable platitudes they pushed along a half-hour like a wheel-barrow, while both thought of the great oak staring at them from the foot of the garden.
It will come easier with time, she thought that night, as she pulled her clothes off with heavy fingers. I can almost look him in the eyes without wanting to fling myself at him. His voice does not matter so much, for I always hear it anyway. They say that when you no longer hear a person's voice in your memory the love has gone too. They will be away for a year after they marry. Perhaps I shall forget then. My memory is not very good.
She opened the upper drawer of her bureau and lifted out her large handkerchief box. In its lower part, carefully hidden away, were Trennahan's letters, several of his faded boutonnieres, and one of his gloves. She had made up her mind the day she heard of his engagement to Helena that these things must be burnt, but had dreaded their sight and touch. Now, however, they must go. She was always conscious of their presence; something of her weakness might pass with their destruction. As she lifted out the handkerchiefs she came upon the dagger. It was a beautiful toy, but she pushed it aside resentfully. Its magic was not for her. She gathered up her tokens with trembling fingers, resisted the impulse to sit down and weep over them, laid them in the grate, and flung a bunch of lighted matches into the pyre.
* * * * *
Helena immediately gave a party. The Belmont house, like most of the others of Menlo, had been designed for comfort rather than for entertaining; but the dining-room was large, and when stripped of the many massive pieces of furniture which Colonel Belmont had brought from his Southern home, would have accommodated more dancing folk than the neighbours and their guests. The famous Four were not present; nor were they seen in Menlo that summer. Immediately after the announcement of Helena's engagement some cruel wag had sent each a miniature tub with "For Tears" inscribed with black paint upon the bottom. It was generally supposed that the afflicted quartette were spending their leisure over these tubs, for they had retired into as complete an obscurity as their various callings would permit. Helena told Magdalena that she lived in terror of their poisoned or perforated bodies being found in the dark byways of Golden Gate Park; but the youth of the modern civilisation, while amenable to suffering, thinks highly of himself as a factor in current history.
Trennahan was not allowed to spend the evening in the smoking-room with the older men; he must keep himself in sight even while his Helena was dancing with another. He wandered about with a grim smile on his mouth, talking occasionally to the older ladies who sat in a corner; wall-flowers there were none. He wished that Magdalena would take pity on him, for he was unmercifully bored; but she danced with exasperating regularity. Occasionally Helena slipped her hand through his arm and took him out in the garden, purring upon his shoulder and begging him not to be bored; but she must look at him! If he insisted upon it, she would not dance. He refused to countenance such a sacrifice, and protested that he was just beginning to understand the pleasure of evening parties. Once he did slip away, and was lying, with his coat off, a cigar between his lips, crosswise on a bed upstairs with Colonel Belmont and Mr. Washington, when he received a peremptory message to go downstairs at once. He threw his cigar away, jerked himself into his coat, and left the room with jeering condolences in his wake. He felt cross for the moment; but when he reached the hall below he smiled humorously as he met the protesting eyes of his lady.
"I can't bear to have you out of my sight!" she exclaimed. "It's horribly selfish, but I feel as if everything were a blank when you are out of the room."
What could a man do in the face of so much beauty and so much affection, but to vow to hold up the wall for the rest of the evening?
As he was taking Magdalena to her carriage a little after midnight, she said to him shyly,—
"I hope you are quite happy."
And he answered with unmistakable fervour, "I am indeed."
Mrs. Yorba was detained by Mrs. Cartright, who was delivering herself of many words.
"Do you believe that love is everything in life?" Magdalena asked him.
"By no means. Not even to woman, in spite of the poets. It induces intense concentration for the time, consequently looms larger in the affairs of life than the million other scraps that go to make up the vast patchwork. But it is as well to remember that it is but an occasional patch in the quilt, even if it be of the most vivid hue. And there is a lot to be got out of the other patches!"
"If you lost Helena, could you feel like that?"
"In time; beyond a doubt. Memory simply cannot hold water beyond a certain strain; there comes a rift at last, and the flood pours through."
"Then if you lost Helena, should you feel as—as—you did when you came here first? You were—tired of everything—you remember. You told me—you don't mind my speaking of it?" She was aghast at her inconsistency, but the magnet in the man was as irresistible as ever.
"Mind? From you? I have never talked to a human being about myself as I have talked to you. I don't know what would happen to me in such an event. I am neither a fool nor a drunkard, remember. I think I should seek entirely new, barely comprehended, lands,—the South Sea Islands, for instance. I have wasted my life. I have neither the energies nor the ambitions to pull up now. I should simply seek new oranges and squeeze them dry. There are always the intellectual pleasures, you know. I should not be proud of myself, but I should get through the remaining years somehow."
"There was something else—I should not speak of it—"
They were standing in the shadow of the char-a-banc. Trennahan raised her hand to his lips. "I was in a state of moral chaos when I met you,—that is what you mean. I do not think I ever shall be again. Even Helena could never do for me what you did. You and I made a great mistake, but we generated one of those singular friendships which no circumstances nor time can annihilate. Some day we shall take up the threads where they broke off. I always look forward to that. A man may be contented with one woman's love, but not with one woman's friendship. I am glad that you are as dear to Helena as you are to me. In time, perhaps we may all three live more or less together."
He was a man of humour, but he said that. She was a woman of little humour, but she laughed.
The breathless state of Helena's affections did not interfere with her desire to lead in all things those favoured of her acquaintance. Although, in deference to Trennahan's emphatic wish, she forswore eccentricities, she taxed her fertile brain to keep Menlo Park in a whirl of excitement.
"It can't be done," said Rose. "The climate has poppy dust in it instead of oxygen, but she may wake us up for a while."
She did. The bath-houses were built, and the big char-a-bancs rolled down the dusty road to Ravenswood every morning. The salt water and the sun brought out the red in the girls' hair, so the pastime promised to weather one season, at least. She gave dances and picnics on alternate weeks, and her hospitality in the matter of luncheons and dinners was unbounded. The Colonel built a bowling-alley and a proper tennis-court; in short, there was no doubt about "The Belmonts'" being the nucleus of Menlo Park. Several times Helena persuaded the owner of the stage line between Redwood City and La Honda to let her drive; and she took a select few of her friends on the top of the lumbering coach, relegating the uneasy passengers to the stuffy interior. The road is one of the most picturesque in California, but the grades are steep, the turnings abrupt, dangerous in many places. Nevertheless, Helena, balancing on her narrow perch high above the wheelers' heels, managed her rapid mustangs so admirably that Trennahan, balancing beside her, wondered if he should be able to manage her one half so well.
"What Helena Belmont needs," said Mrs. Montgomery, with some asperity, "is six babies; and I hope for Mr. Trennahan's sake she'll have them. Otherwise, I should like to know where the poor man is to get any rest; she's a human cyclone."
"I never thought she'd marry so soon," replied Mrs. Brannan. "It looked as if she were going to be a regular old-time belle; and it took them years to get through."
"She's not married yet," remarked Mrs. Montgomery.
But these enormous energies, as Rose had predicted, reached their meridian in something under two months, after which, much to Trennahan's relief, Helena succumbed to Menlo Park, and manifested an increasing desire for long hours alone with him under the trees on the lawn, although she by no means allowed her neighbours to rest for more than seventy-two hours at a time.
Don Roberto and Mr. Polk took no part in these festivities; Mrs. Yorba and Magdalena took less and less; the picture made by Don Roberto in his shirt-sleeves, manipulating a hose as the char-a-banc drove off, finally forbade his wife to riot while her husband toiled. She was angry and resentful; but she was a woman of stern principles, and she had a certain measure of that sort of love for her husband which duty prompts in those who are without passion.
"I don't pretend to understand your father," she said to Magdalena. "The bees he gets in his bonnet are quite beyond me, but if he feels that way, he does, and that's the end of it; and he makes me feel uncomfortable all the time I am anywhere. I sha'n't go out again until he gets over this. You can go with somebody else."
"I would a great deal rather stay home. I don't enjoy myself. People work so hard to be amused. I'd much rather just sit still and do nothing."
"You're lazy, like all the Spanish. Well, you'll have to do a good deal of sitting still, I expect; and in a sick room, I'm afraid. Poor Hiram looks thinner and greyer every day. Almost all our relations died of consumption."
"I wrote to aunt how badly he was looking, but she has not answered."
"She won't, the heartless thing. She never loved him. But if he takes to his bed with slow consumption, she'll have to come up and do her share of the nursing. She ought to like it. Fat women always make good nurses."
Magdalena was more than glad to fall out of the gaieties. She was beginning to feel that most demoralising of all sensations,—the disintegration of will. Pride, a certain excitement, and novelty had kept her armour locked for a time; but each time she met Trennahan, the ordeal of facing him with platitudes, or, what was worse still, in occasional friendly talks, and of witnessing Helena's little airs of possession, suggested a future and signal failure. She came to have a morbid terror that she should betray herself, and when in company with him kept out of the very reach of his voice. She never went to the woods, lest she meet him, with or without Helena. In those rustling arbours of many memories, she knew that she should let fly the passion within her. She was appalled that neither time nor will nor principle had authority over her love. She had made up her mind that she would, if not tear it up by the roots, at least level it to the soil from which it had sprung, and she was quite ready to believe that love was not all; that with her youth, intellect, and wealth there was much in life for her. But the plant flourished and was heavy with bloom. Even while she avoided him, she longed for the moment when he must of necessity speak to her. She welcomed the excuse to secede from the ranks of pleasurers, but even then she started up at every sound of wheels that might herald his approach. She longed for the wedding to be over; but Helena would not marry before December, that being her birth month and eminently suitable, in her logical fancy, for her second launching. Colonel Belmont, having satisfied himself that everyone in the little drama had acted with honour, was well pleased with his son-in-law; but he was much distressed at the attitude of the old friend who had hoped to fill a similar relation to Trennahan. Don Roberto, taciturn with everybody, refused to speak to Colonel Belmont, to return his courtly salutation.
"I suppose it is natural," said Colonel Belmont to Helena. "Don is not only eccentric, but he would almost rather lose a hundred thousand dollars than his own way. But I hope he'll come round in time, for it makes me feel right lonesome in my old age. He and Hi were the only real intimates I have had in California, and now Hi is going, poor old fellow! and of course I can do little to cheer him up until Don thaws out."
"Do you feel quite well yourself?" asked Helena, anxiously. "You often look so terribly pale."
"I never was better, honey, I assure you. But remember that you must expect to lose your old father some day. But I've been pretty good to you, haven't I? You'll have nothing but pleasant things to remember?"
"You're the very best angel on earth. I don't even love Jack so much. I thought I did, but I don't."
"Don't you love him?" asked her father, anxiously. He was eager for her to marry; he knew that his blood was white.
"Of course! What a question!"
It was an intensely hot September night. Magdalena, knowing that sleep was impossible, had not gone to bed. She wandered restlessly about her large room, striving to force a current of air. Not a vibration came through the open windows, nor a sound. The very trees seemed to lean forward with limp hanging arms. Across the stars was a dark veil, riven at long intervals with the copper of sheet lightning. Her room, too, was dark. A light would bring a pest of mosquitoes. The high remote falsetto of several, as it was, proclaimed an impatient waiting for their ally, sleep.
Last night, Tiny had given a party, and wrung from Magdalena a promise that she would go to it. Rose had called for her. At the last moment Magdalena's courage had shrunk to a final shuddering heap, and as she heard the wheels of the Geary waggonette, she had run upstairs, and flung herself between the bedclothes, sending down word that she had a raging toothache. It was her first lie in many years, but it was better than to dance with despair and agony written on her relaxed face behind the windows of the garden in which Trennahan had asked her to marry him.
To-night she was seriously considering the proposition of going to her aunt in Santa Barbara, with or without her father's consent. Her sense of duty had not tumbled into the ruins of her will, but she argued that in this most crucial period of her life, her duty was to herself. Helena had not even asked her to be bridesmaid; she took her acquiescence for granted. Magdalena laughed aloud at the thought; but she could not leave Helena in the lurch at the last moment. When she got to Santa Barbara, she could plead her aunt's ill health as excuse for not returning in time for the ceremony. She was in a mood to tell twenty lies if necessary, but she would not stand at the altar with Trennahan and Helena. Her passionate desire for change of associations was rising rapidly to the dignity of a fixed idea. To-morrow there must be a change of some sort, or her brain would be babbling its secrets. Already her memory would not connect at times. She felt sure that the prolonged strain had produced a certain congestion in her brain. And she was beginning to wonder if she hated Helena. The fires in Magdalena burned slowly, but they burned exceeding hot.
She paused and thrust her head forward. For some seconds past her sub-consciousness had grasped the sound of galloping hoofs. They were on the estate, by the deer park; a horse was galloping furiously toward the house.
She ran to the window and looked out. She could see nothing. Could it be a runaway horse? Was somebody ill? The flying feet turned abruptly and made for the rear of the house, then paused suddenly. There was a furious knocking.
Magdalena's knees shook with a swift presentiment. Something had happened—was going to happen—to her. She stood holding her breath. Someone ran softly but swiftly up the stair, and down the hall, to her room. She knew then who it was, and ran forward and opened the door.
"Helena!" she exclaimed. "What is the matter? Something has—Mr. Trennahan—"
Helena flung herself upon Magdalena and burst into a passion of weeping. Magdalena stood rigid, ice in her veins. "Is he dead?" she managed to ask.
"No! He isn't. I wish he were—No, I don't mean that—I'll tell you in a minute—Let me get through first!"
Magdalena dragged her shaking limbs across the room and felt for a chair. Helena began pacing rapidly up and down, pushing the chairs out of her way.
"Would you like a light?" asked Magdalena.
"No, thanks; I don't want to be eaten alive with mosquitoes. Oh, how shall I begin? I suppose you think we've had a commonplace quarrel. I wish we had. I swear to you, 'Lena, that up to to-night I loved him—yes, I know that I did! I was rather sorry I'd promised to marry so soon, for I like being a girl, not really belonging to anyone but myself, and I love being a great belle, and I think that I should have begged for another year—but I loved him better than anyone, and I really intended to marry him—"
"Aren't you going to marry him?"
"Don't be so stern, 'Lena! You don't know all yet. Lately I've been alone with him a great deal, and you know how you talk about yourselves in those circumstances. I had told him everything I had ever done and thought—most; had turned myself inside out. Then I made him talk. Up to a certain point he was fluent enough; then he shut up like a clam. I never was very curious about men; but because he was all mine, or perhaps because I didn't have anything else to think about, I made up my mind he should come to confession. He fought me off, but you know I have a way of getting what I want—if I don't there's trouble; and to-night I pulled his past life out of him bit by bit. 'Lena! he's had liaisons with married women; he's kept house with women; he's seen the worst life of every city! For a few years—he confessed it in so many words—he was one of the maddest men in Europe. The actual things he told me only in part; but you know I have the instincts of the devil. 'Lena, he's a human slum, and I hate him! I hate him! I hate him!"
"But that all belongs to his past. He loves you, and you can make him better—make him forget—"
"I don't want to make any man better. I love everything to be clean and new and bright,—not mildewed with a thousand vices that I would never even discuss. Oh, he's a brute to ask me to marry him. I hate myself that I've been engaged to him! I feel as if I'd tumbled off a pedestal!"
"Are you so much better and purer than I? I knew much of this; but it did not horrify me. I knew too, what you may not know, that he came here in a critical time in his—his—inner life, and I was glad to think that—California had helped him to become quite another man." Her voice was hoarse, almost inarticulate.
Helena flung herself at Magdalena's feet. She was trembling with excitement; but her feverish appeal for sympathy met with no response.
"That is another thing that nearly drove me wild,—that I had taken him away from you for nothing. I know you don't care now; but you did—perhaps you do now—sometimes I've suspected, only I wouldn't face it—and to think that in my wretched selfishness I've separated you for ever! For your pride wouldn't let you take him back now, and he's as wild about me as ever: I never thought he could lose control over himself as he did when I told him what I thought of him and beat him on the shoulders with both my fists. He turned as white as a corpse and shook like a leaf. Then he braced up and told me I was a little wild cat, and that he should leave me and come back when I had come to my senses, that he had no intention of giving me up. But he need not come back. I'll never lay eyes on him again. While he was letting me get at those things, I felt as if my love for him burst into a thousand pieces, and that when they flew together again they made hate. He told me he was used to girls of the world, who understood things; and that the girls of California were so crude they either knew all there was to know by experience, or else they were prudes—"
Helena paused abruptly and caught her breath. She had felt Magdalena extend her arm and stealthily open a drawer in the bureau beside her chair. There was nothing remarkable in the fact, for in that drawer Magdalena kept her handkerchiefs. Nevertheless, Helena shook with the palsy of terror; the cold sweat burst from her body. In the intense darkness she could see nothing, only a vague patch where the face of Magdalena was. The silence was so strained that surely a shriek must come tearing across it. The shriek came from her own throat. She leaped to her feet like a panther, reached the door in a bound, fled down the hall and the stair, her eyes glancing wildly over her shoulder, and so out to her horse. It is many years since that night, but there are silent moments when that ride through the woods flashes down her memory and chills her skin,—that mad flight from an unimaginable horror, through the black woods on a terrified horse, the shadow of her fear racing just behind with outstretched arms and clutching fingers.
Helena's sudden flight left Magdalena staring through the dark at the Spanish dagger in her hand. Her arm was raised, her wrist curved; the dagger pointed toward the space which Helena had filled a moment ago.
"I intended to kill her," she said aloud. "I intended to kill her."
The mental admission of the design and its frustration were almost simultaneous. Her brain was still in a hideous tumult. Weakened by suffering, the shock of Helena's fickleness and injustice, the sudden perception that her sacrifice had been useless, if not absurd, had disturbed her mental balance for a few seconds, and left her at the mercy of passions hitherto in-existent to her consciousness. Her love for her old friend, long trembling in the balance, had flashed into hate. Upon hate had followed the murderous impulse for vengeance; not for her own sake, but for that of the man whose weakness had ruined her life and his own. In the very height of her sudden madness she was still capable of a curious misdirected feminine unselfishness.
When she came to herself, chagrin that she had failed to accomplish her purpose possessed her mind for the moment, although she had made no attempt to follow Helena, beyond springing to her feet. Then her conscience asserted itself, and reminded her that she should be appalled, overcome with horror, at the awful possibilities of her nature. The picture of Helena in the death struggle, bleeding and gasping, rose before her. Her knees gave way with horror and fright, and she fell upon her chair, dropping the dagger from her wet fingers, staring at the grim spectre of her friend. Then once more the sound of galloping hoofs came to her ears. Both Helena and herself were safe.
In a few moments her thoughts grouped themselves into a regret deeper and bitterer still. She was capable of the highest passion, and Circumstance had diverted it from its natural climax and impelled it toward murder. She sat there and thought until morning on the part to which she had been born; the ego dully attempting to understand, to realise that its imperious demands receive little consideration from the great Law of Circumstance, and are usually ignored.
The next morning Magdalena did as wise a thing as if inspired by reason instead of blind instinct: she got on her horse and rode for six hours. When she returned home she was exhausted of body and inert of brain. She found a note from Helena awaiting her.
DEAREST 'LENA,—What a tornado and an idiot you must think me! I cannot explain my extraordinary departure. I suppose I was in such a nervous state that I was obsessed in some mysterious manner and went off like a rocket. I can assure you I feel like a stick this morning. You will forgive me, won't you? for you know that although my affections do fluctuate for some people, they never do for you.
Well! this morning I had a scene with papa. He was very angry, talked about honour and all that sort of thing, said that I was an unprincipled flirt, and that I expected too much of a man. But when I said I could not understand how so perfect a man as himself could wish his daughter to marry a rake, he never said another word, but went off and wound up with Mr. Trennahan. I don't know what they said to each other; I don't care. It's all too dreadful to think about, and I never want to hear the subject mentioned again.
We're going to Monterey this afternoon to remain till the end of the season, and then we'll go to the Blue Lakes for a little before settling down for the winter. I'm tired of Menlo. Can't you come to Monterey for a week or two? Do think about it. I haven't a minute to go over to Fair Oaks to say good-bye, but perhaps you'll come to the train. HELENA.
Magdalena got some luncheon from the pantry, then went to bed and slept until six o'clock. At dinner Mr. Polk said to her,—
"I saw Trennahan this afternoon in a hack with a lot of luggage on behind, and I stopped the driver and got in, and went to the ferry with him. His engagement with Helena Belmont is broken, it seems, and he is off for Samoa. Looked like the devil, but was as polite as ever, and asked me to say good-bye to all of you."
Don Roberto looked up. "When he coming back?" he asked.
"You know as much about that as I do; or as he does, I guess. He told me that he was going to explore the South Seas thoroughly, and that ought to take as many years as he's got left, and more too."
It was two or three days before Magdalena realised what a relief it was to have Trennahan out of the country. It moved him back among the memories, and struck from her imagination agitating possibilities. And he belonged to no woman! He could never be hers, but at least she could love him. Already she had begun to do so with a measure of calm. She could hide him in her soul and count him wholly hers; and the prospect seemed far sweeter and more satisfactory than she should have imagined of such immaterial union. And some day, she believed, he would write to her. He had spoken authoritatively of the permanence of their friendship, and of its necessity to him. He had not loved her, as men count love, but for a little she had been to him something more than other women had been. The spiritual sympathy which had been rudely interrupted, but had surely existed, taught her this. In time he would become conscious again of the bond, and his letters alone would be something to live for.
And she had much else. In the evenings when her father was weeding on the lawn, she devoted herself to her uncle; and he seemed grateful for her attentions, slight as was his response. He was visibly shrinking to his skeleton, although he neither coughed nor complained, and went to town every morning with the regularity of his youth. But his gaunt face was less savagely determined, his eyes had lost the hard surface of metal; and one evening when Magdalena slipped her hand into his, he clasped and held it until Don Roberto, gloomy and perspiring, came panting across the drive.
And almost immediately Magdalena began to write. She did not go to her nook in the woods, but after her morning ride she wrote in her room until luncheon. She told her mother of her literary plans and asked her advice about making a similar announcement to her father. Between astonishment and consternation Mrs. Yorba gasped audibly, and her impassive countenance looked as if the hinges had fallen out of its muscles.
"For God's sake don't tell your father!" she exclaimed; and she was not given to strong language. "I don't believe you can write, anyhow, and we should only have a terrible scene for nothing."
Magdalena accepted the advice. Her father showed so little sense of his duty as a parent that her own was growing adaptable to circumstances, although she was still determined not to publish without his knowledge. She had not returned to her English romance: that had been consigned to the flames, and was now meditating in that limbo which receives the wraiths of the lame, the halt, and the blind of abortive talent. She was at work upon the simplest of the Old-Californian tales.
On the Saturday afternoon after Helena's departure for Monterey Rose called and invited Magdalena to drive with her to the train to meet Mr. Geary. Tiny and Ila, who were with her, added their insistence, and Magdalena, having no reasonable excuse, joined them. As they drove through the woods Ila confided her engagement to young Washington, and was kissed and congratulated in due form.
"I'm going to live in Paris," she announced. "No more California for me. You might as well be on Mars, in the first place, and everybody cackles over your private affairs, in the second. For the matter of that, you haven't any."
"I think it's disloyal of you to desert California," said Tiny. "I have a feeling that we should all keep together, and to the country."
"That's a very fine sentiment, but though I love you none the less, I want to live. I intend to be the best-dressed American in Paris. That's a reputation worth having."
"I'm going East to find a husband," said Rose, shamelessly. "There's no one to marry here. Alan Rush would not have been half bad, but he might as well be in an urn on Helena's mantel-piece. I like Eastern men best, anyhow."
"Why not go to Southern California?" asked Tiny. "It's not so far as New York; and there are always plenty of them there."
"I should feel like a ghoul,—man-hunting in One-lungdom, as Mr. Bierce calls it. Besides, I'd rather die an old maid than have a sick man on my hands for five minutes. I'm not heartless, but—well, we've all had our experiences with fathers and brothers. A sick man's an anomaly, somehow: he doesn't fit into a woman's imagination."
"I'm not going to marry at all," said Tiny. "Fancy what a lot of bother. It's so comfortable just to drift along like this."
"Tiny," said Rose, "you're a Menlo Park poppy."
They had arrived at the station, the pretty station under its great oak, and flanked by its beds of bloom. Eight or ten other equipages were there, waiting for the "Daisy train,"—the fast train from town which on Saturday afternoons carried many San Franciscans to Monterey.
The women were in their bright summer attire and full of chatter; as the train was not due for some moments, several got out of their carriages and went to other carriages to gossip. It was a very lively and agreeable scene: there being no outsiders, they were like one large family. In the middle of the large open space beside the platform stood several of the phaetons and waggonettes, whose horses stepped high at sight of the engine. On the far side was a row of Chinese wash-houses, in whose doors stood the Mongolians, no less picturesque than the civilisation across the way. Behind them was the tiny village of Menlo Park. On the opposite side of the track was a row of high closely knit trees which shut the Folsom place from the passing eye. Caro, under a big pink sunshade, had walked over to chat with her friends and escort her visitors home.
The train rolled in and discharged its favoured few. The wait was short, and Mr. Geary was still mounting the steps of his char-a-banc when Magdalena sat forward with a faint exclamation. The smoking-car was slowly passing. Four hats at four consecutive windows were raised as they drifted past. They were the hats of Alan Rush, Eugene Fort, Carter Howard, and "Dolly" Webster.
The Yorba house on Nob Hill was the gloomiest house in San Francisco in any circumstances; upon the return of the family to town this year it suggested a convent of perpetual silence. Mrs. Yorba, bereft of her full corps of servants, herself shook the curtains free of their loops and pinned them together. "Ah Kee can play the hose on the windows from the outside once a month," she remarked to her daughter; "but Heaven only knows when they will be washed inside again, or how often poor Ah Kee will have time to sweep the rooms. I shall make an attempt to keep the reception-room in some sort of order; and as it is comparatively small and I can dust it myself, I may succeed, but I don't suppose anyone will ever enter the parlours again. There seems no hope of your father coming to his senses."
Magdalena flung her own curtains wide, determined to have light if she had to wash the windows herself. But the rest of the house chilled and oppressed her. Even her mother's bedroom was half-lighted, and the halls and rooms downstairs were echoing vaults. One was almost afraid to break the silence; even the soft-footed Chinaman walked on his toes. Magdalena conceived the whimsical idea that her father's house had been closed to receive all the family skeletons of San Francisco, of which many whispers had come to her. Sometimes she fancied that she heard their bones rattling at night, as they crowded together, muttering their terrible secrets. But the idea only amused her; it did not make her morbid, although there was little but her own will to keep her spirits on a plane where there was more light than bog. It was a very grey and rainy winter. She was forced to spend the afternoons after four o'clock in idleness: Don Roberto himself turned off the gas every morning before he went down town, and on again at seven in the evening. The meals in the dining-room, naturally the darkest room in the house, were eaten in absolute silence. In fact, it was seldom that anyone spoke except on Mrs. Yorba's reception day. Herself wore the air of a stoic. Don Roberto's keen eyes searched his wife and daughter now and again for any sign of extravagance in attire, but he rarely addressed them except on the first of the month, when he demanded their accounts. He peremptorily forbade them to go out after dusk, as the night air was bad for the horses. The evenings he spent in his study with his brother-in-law. Mrs. Yorba and Magdalena sat in their respective rooms until nearly half-past ten; when Don Roberto went the rounds to see that the lights were out. Were it not for his fear of earthquakes, he would have turned off the gas at that hour, but he permitted a tiny spark to burn in the halls all night. Occasionally Mr. Polk came home early and went to Magdalena's little sitting-room, the old schoolroom, and sat with her for an hour or two. He said little and never talked of himself. She longed to bring her aunt back to this lonely old man, but did not know in the least how to go about it, and the subject never was mentioned between them; he might have been a bachelor or a widower. But as he sat staring into the fire, Magdalena was convinced that he was thinking of his wife. She had never entered his house since the day of her strange discovery; delicacy kept her away, but her feminine curiosity often tempted her to go in and see if the fires were burning, the flowers and magazines on the table. Sometimes at night she heard footsteps in the connecting gardens behind the houses, and fancied they were those of her uncle, gone on what pilgrimage she dared not imagine.
She and Helena met again early in November. They greeted each other with all their old cordiality, but there was a barrier, and both felt it. Still, they exchanged frequent visits, and Magdalena was always interested in Helena's new conquests and dazzling regalities. Helena was enjoying herself mightily. She had all her old admirers exhausting and coining adjectives at her feet, and a number of distinguished foreigners, who were spending the winter in San Francisco. She could not drive, nor yacht, nor run to fires on account of the weather, but she unloosed her energies upon indoor society, and started a cotillion club, and an amateur opera company. She gave a fancy dress ball, to which all her guests were obliged to come in the costumes of Old California, and laughed for a week at the ridiculous figure which most of them cut. She also gave many dinners and breakfasts, kettle-drums and theatre parties, and, altogether, managed to amuse herself and others. She never mentioned Trennahan to Magdalena. Nor did he write. The Pacific might have been climbing over him, for any sign he gave.
It was midnight, and Magdalena was still awake; a storm raged, prohibitive of sleep. The wind screamed over the hills, tearing the long ribbons of rain to bits and flinging them in great handfuls against the windows; from which they rebounded to the porch to skurry down the pipes and gurgle into the pools of the soaked ground below. The roar of the ocean bore aloft another sound, a long heavy groan,—the fog-horn of the Farallones. Magdalena imagined the wild scene beyond the Golden Gate: the ships driven out of their course, bewildered by the fog, the loud unceasing rattle of the rigging, the hungry boom of the breakers, the mountains and caverns of the raging Pacific. Her mind, open to impressions once more, stirred as it had not during its period of subservience to the heart, and toward expression. Suffering had not worked those wonders with her literary faculty of which she had read; but she certainly wrote with something more of fluency, something less of attenuated commonplace. She had finished her first story; and although it by no means satisfied her, she had passed on to the next, determined to write them all; then, with the education accruing from long practice, to go back to the beginnings and make them literature. To-night she forgot her stories and lay wondering at the ghostly images rolling through her brain, breaking upon the wall which stood between themselves and speech,—hurled back to rise and form again. What did it mean? Was some dumb dead poet trying to speak through her brain, inextricably caught in the folds of her ravening intelligence before recognising its fatal limitations? Or was that intelligence but the half of another, divided out there in eternity before being sucked earthwards? It was seldom that such fancies came to her nowadays, but to-night the storm shrieked with a thousand voices, no one of which was unfamiliar to these ghosts in her mind. She had heard the expression "hell let loose" variously applied. Were those the souls of old and wicked mates tossed into the wild playground of the storm, helpless and furious shuttle-cocks, yelling their protests with furious energy? The idea that she too might have been wicked once thrilled Magdalena unexpectedly: she had had a few sudden brief lapses into primal impulse, accompanied by a certain exaltation of mind. As she recalled them the rest of her life seemed flat by comparison, and unburdened with meaning; something buried, unsuspected, left over from another existence, shook itself and made as if to leap to those doomed wretches, heavy with memories, buffeting each other on the tides of the storm.
A crash brought her upright. It had been preceded by a curious bumping along the front of the house. She realised in a moment what it meant: the flag-pole had snapped and been hurled to the ground. She thought of her father's dismay, and shuddered slightly; she was in a mood to greet omens hospitably.
Suddenly her eyes fixed themselves expandingly upon the door. She was cast in a heroic mould; but the storm and the vagaries of her imagination had unnerved her, and she shook violently as the knob was softly turned and the door moved forward with significant care. Had her father gone suddenly mad? The possibility had crossed her mind more than once. She would lock her door hereafter.
"What is it?" she faltered.
The door was pushed open abruptly. Her uncle stood there. For a moment she thought it was his ghost. The dim light of the hall shone on a ghastly face, and he wore a long gown of grey flannel. He held one hand pressed against his chest. In another second she heard the rattling of his breath. She sprang out of bed and ran to him.
"I am going to die," Mr. Polk said. "Telegraph and ask her to come."
She led him to his room, roused her father and mother, telephoned for the doctor and a messenger boy, then went to her room, dressed, and wrote the telegram. She had little time to think, but the approach of death made her hands shake a little, and lent an added significance to the horrid sounds without. Death had been a mere name before these last few moments; he suddenly became an actual presence stalking the storm.
The bell rang. She went down to the door herself. It was the messenger boy. She gave him the telegram to despatch, and told him to return and to remain on duty all night. Then she went to her uncle's room. Her mother and a dishevelled maid were compounding mustard plasters and heating water. Her father was huddled in an armchair, staring at the gasping form on the bed. Magdalena shuddered. His face was more terrible to look on than the sick man's.
"It's pneumonia, of course," said Mrs. Yorba, in the hushed whisper of the sick room, although her hard voice was little more sympathetic in its lower register. "He was wet through when he came home this afternoon. I should think it had rained enough for one year."
The doctor came and eased the sufferer with morphine; but he gave the watchers no hope.
"He has no lungs, anyhow," he said. "This abrupt climax is rather a mercy than otherwise."
Magdalena remained by the bedside during all of the next day. Early in the morning a telegram came from Mrs. Polk, saying that she was about to start on a special train. The message was read to her husband, and he whispered to Magdalena, "I should live until she came,—if she took a week." That was the only remark he made until late in the day, when he motioned to Magdalena to bend her ear to his lips. "Don't waste your youth," he whispered; and then he coloured slightly, as if ashamed of having broken the reticence of a lifetime.
Don Roberto barely moved from the chair which commanded a view of the dying man's face. His own shrank visibly. He neither ate nor drank. His sunken terror-struck eyes seemed staring through the passing face on the high pillows into an inferno beyond.
"I declare, he gives me the horrors, and I'm not a nervous woman," said Mrs. Yorba to her daughter. "I never could understand your father's queer ways. Who would ever have thought that he could care for anyone like that? Poor Hiram! No one can feel worse than I do; but he has to go, and as the doctor says, this is a mercy; there's no use acting as if you had lost your last friend on earth."
"Perhaps that's the way papa feels; and as you say, he's not like other people."
The only other person in the sick-room was Colonel Belmont. He came over as soon as he heard of the attack, and sat on the other side of the bed all day, when he was not attempting to make himself useful. His old comrade smiled when he entered; but Mr. Polk took little notice of anyone. Occasionally his eyes rested with an expression of profound pity on the face of his brother-in-law: once or twice he pressed Magdalena's hand; but his attention chiefly centred on the door, although he knew that his wife could not arrive until after midnight.
Magdalena went to the train to meet her aunt. It was still raining, but calmly. There was no gay and chattering crowd in Market Street, not even the light of a cable car flashing through the grey drizzle. Magdalena recalled the night of the fire. Her inner life had undergone many upheavals since that night; even her feeling for Helena was changed. And her aunt was a mere memory.
At the station she left the carriage and walked along the platform as the train drew in. Mrs. Polk, assisted by a Mexican maid, descended from the car. She was very stout, but as she approached Magdalena, it was evident that her carriage had lost nothing of majesty or grace. She kissed her niece warmly.
"So good you are to come for me, mijita. And when rain, too—so horriblee San Francisco. Never I want to see again. And the uncle? how he is?"
"He says he will live until you come; but he won't live long after."
"Poor man! I am sorry he go so soon. But all the mens die early in California now: work so hard. Live very old before the Americanos coming."
They could talk without restraint in the carriage, for the maid did not speak English; but Mrs. Polk merely asked how her husband had caught cold. Her fair placid face and sleepy eyes showed no print of the years. She seemed glad to see Magdalena again.
"Often I wish have you with me in Santa Barbara," she said. "But Roberto is what the Americanos call 'crank.' No is use asking him. Santa Barbara no is like in the old time, but is nice sleep place, where no have the neuralgia, and nothing to bother. Then always I have the few old families that are left, and we are so friends,—see each other every day, and eat the Spanish dishes. I no know any Americanos; always I hating them. So thin you are, mijita; I wish I can take you back."
But Magdalena felt no desire to go with her; her aunt seemed to belong to another life.
When they reached home, Mrs. Polk went to Mrs. Yorba's room to remove her wraps and drink a cup of chocolate. She smoothed her beautiful dusky hair and arranged the old-fashioned lace about her throat, then sailed in all her languid majesty across the hall.
"Aunt," said Magdalena, with her hand on the door of the sick room, "will—will—you kiss uncle?"
Mrs. Polk raised her eyebrows. "Why, yes, is he wanting; but I never kiss him in my life. Why now?"
"He is dying, and he has wanted you more than anything."
"So queer fancies the seeck people have. But I kiss him, of course."
As she entered the room, Mr. Polk raised himself slightly and stared at her with an expression she had never seen in his young eyes. It thrilled her nerves within their mausoleum of flesh. She bent over and kissed him. "Poor Eeram!" she said. "So sorry I am. But you no suffer, no?"
He made no reply. He sank back to his pillows; and after greeting her brother, she took a chair beside the bed and sat there until her husband died, in the ebb of the night. He held her hand, his eyes never leaving her beautiful face, never losing their hunger until the film covered them. What thoughts, what bitter regrets, what futile desires for another beginning may have moved sluggishly in that disintegrating brain, he carried with him into the magnificent vault which his widow erected on Lone Mountain.
His will was read on the day following the funeral, in the parlour where his coffin had rested, and by the light of a solitary gas-jet. Magdalena had never heard a will read before: she hoped she might never hear another. The three women in their black gowns, the four executors and trustees in their crow-black funeral clothes,—her father, Colonel Belmont, Mr. Washington, and Mr. Geary,—the big rustling document with its wearisome formalities,—made a more lugubrious picture than the lonely coffin of the day before. The terms of the will were simple enough: the interest of the vast fortune was left to Mrs. Polk; upon her death it was to be divided between his sister and niece, the principal to go to Magdalena upon Mrs. Yorba's death. When Mr. Washington finished reading the document, Don Roberto spoke for the first time in four days.
"I go to resign. I no will be executor or trustee. No need me, anyhow." And he would listen to no argument.
The next day he called a meeting of the bank's board of directors and resigned the presidency, requesting that Mr. Geary, a cautious and solid man, should succeed him. His wish was gratified, and he walked out of the bank, never to enter it again. His many other interests were in the hands of trustworthy agents: neither he nor his brother-in-law had ever made a mistake in their choice of servants. When he reached home, he wrote to each of these agents demanding monthly instead of quarterly accounts. He had a bed brought down to a small room adjoining the "office," and in these two rooms he announced his intention to live henceforth. At the same time he informed his wife and daughter that their allowance hereafter would be one hundred dollars a year each, and that he would pay no bills. Ah Kee, who had lived with him for twenty years, would attend to the domestic supplies. Then he ordered his meals brought to the office, and shut himself up.
On the third day Mrs. Polk said to Magdalena,—
"Si I stay in this house one day more, I go mad, no less. Is like the dungeons in the Mission. Madre de Dios! and you living like this for years, perhaps; for Roberto grow more crank all the time. Come with me. I no think he know."
"You may be sure that he knows everything. And I cannot leave them. Shall you go back to Santa Barbara? Don't you want to travel?"
"Dios de mi alma; no! I think I go to die on that treep from Santa Barbara—so jolt. I am too old to travel. Once I think I like see Spain; but now I only want be comfortable. Well, si you change the mind and come sometime, I am delight. But I go now: feel like I am old flower wither up, without the sun."
Mrs. Polk's large white face and throat had seemed to shed a measure of light in the dark house; when she left, the gloom seemed to get down and sit on one. Helena refused to enter by the front door, and lamenting that she was too big to climb the pillar, paid her visits by way of the kitchen and back stairs.
After the calls of condolence visitors came more and more rarely to the Yorba house. They said it depressed them for days after, and that while there they sat in mortal terror of hearing Don Roberto burst out of his den with the yell of a maniac. And as for dear Mrs. Yorba and Magdalena, they never had had much to say, but now they had nothing. They would not drop off altogether, for the old don was bound to follow his brother-in-law in course of time, and then his widow would once more be a useful member of society. Mrs. Montgomery, Mrs. Geary, and Mrs. Cartright were more faithful than the others, but the affections Mrs. Yorba had inspired during her long and distinguished sojourn in San Francisco were not very deep and warm.
The girls were sorry for Magdalena, and called frequently, conquering their horror of the gloomy echoing house; but they had less to endure than their elders, for they were received in Magdalena's own sitting-room, which, although sparsely and tastelessly furnished, was always as cheerful as the weather would permit. They brought her all the gossip of the outside world, discussed the new novels with her, and occasionally induced her to spend a day with them.
At the end of the winter Ila was married; very grandly, in Grace Church. All her friends but Magdalena were bridesmaids. The omission was a serious one, and all felt that it robbed the function of a last fine finish: each of the girls had counted upon having the last of the Yorbas for chief bridesmaid. Magdalena went and sat in a corner of the church and saw the first of her friends break the circle of their girlhood. Her present had been very meagre: it had come out of her monthly allowance. Mrs. Polk was much too indolent to consider whether her niece was allowed an income suitable for her position or not, and Magdalena was much too proud to ask favours. She slipped out of the church just before the end of the ceremony, feeling like a poor relation.
She rarely saw her father. Occasionally she met him in the hall; he drifted past her like a ghost. Mr. Polk died in February. On the first of June Don Roberto had not been out of the house for three months, nor had he exchanged a word with his wife or daughter.
"He'll blink like an owl when he does go out," said Mrs. Yorba. "I wonder if he remembers that it is time to go to the country?"
"He never forgets anything. I'll pack his things if you like."
But the day passed and the next, and Don Roberto gave no sign of remembering that it was time to move. Then Mrs. Yorba drew several long breaths, went downstairs, and knocked at his door. There was no response, but she turned the knob and went in. Don Roberto's face was between the large pages of a ledger. He looked round with a scowl.
"Everything is ready to move down. Are you not coming?"
"No; and you no going either. Letting the place."
If the President of the United States had let the White House, Mrs. Yorba could not have been more astounded.
"Let Fair Oaks! Fair Oaks?"
"And where are we to go this summer?"
"We stay here."
"Robert! You cannot mean that. No one stays here in summer. The city is impossible—those trade-winds—those fogs—"
"Need not go out. Can stay in the house." And Don Roberto returned to his ledger.
Mrs. Yorba went straight to Magdalena's room, and for the first time in her daughter's experience of her, wept.
"To think of spending a summer in San Francisco! How I have looked forward to the summer! Things are always bright and cheerful in Menlo even with the house shut up, for one can sit on the verandah. But here! And not a soul in town! And the house like a prison! What in Heaven's name ails your father? He's not crazy. He's reading his ledgers, and what he says is to the point, goodness knows! But I shall follow Hiram if this keeps up. You're a real comfort to me, 'Lena. I don't know what I should do without you."
Magdalena said what she could to console her mother. The two had drawn together during these trying months. She was bitterly disappointed that she could not go to Menlo Park. She was tired of its efforts to amuse itself, but she could live in its woods, its soft gracious air, find companionship in the distant redwoods swimming in their dark-blue mists.
The girls all invited her to visit them, but she would not leave her mother, even could her father's consent be obtained. Mrs. Yorba was genuinely unhappy. Without mental resources, and deprived of even an occasional hour with her friends, she was further harassed by the fear that her husband would die and leave her with a pittance: he certainly appeared to hate the sight of his family. It consoled her somewhat to reflect that wills were easily broken in California. Why had her brother left her nothing? With a full purse she could at least have the distractions of philanthropy. She took to novel-reading with a voracious appetite, and her taste grew so exacting that she would have nothing that was not magnificently sensational. She thought on Boston with a shudder, but concluded that it was enough to have been intellectual when young.
Magdalena plodded on with her work. She described the customs and manners of the old times with much accuracy, and felt that her beloved creations were rather more than puppets; and it was as much for their sake as for her own that she wanted these little histories to be triumphs of art, that they might arrest the attention of the world. Alvarado and Castro were great heroes to her: it was unjust and cruel that the big world outside of California should know nothing of them; to the present Californian, for that matter, they were not even names. And forty years before the Californias had bent to their nod! They had lived with the state of princes, and the wisdom with which the one had ruled and the other had managed his armies would have given them lasting fame had not their country then been as remote from Earth's greater civilisations as had it been on Jupiter. If she could only immortalise them! That would be a sufficient reason for living, compensate her for the wreck of her personal life. It might take a lifetime, but what of that if she succeeded in the end?
She took long walks daily; alone, for the French maid had been dismissed long since. The walks were not pleasant, for when the sand from the outlying dunes was not swept through the city by the bitter trades, the fog was crawling into one's very marrow. And the hills were steep. Sometimes she took the cable car to the end of the line, then walked to the Presidio; but that brought the sand-hills nearer, and she went home with smarting eyes. Protected by her window, she found beauty even in the summer mood of San Francisco; and sometimes she went up into the tower of the Belmont house and watched the long clouds of dust roll symmetrically down the streets of the city's valleys; or the delicate white mist ride through the Golden Gate to wreathe itself about the cross on Calvary, then creep down the bare brown cone to press close about the tombs on Lone Mountain; then onward until all the city was gone under a white swinging ocean; except the points of the hills disfigured with the excrescences of the rich. Into the canons and rifts of the hills beyond the blue bay the fog crept daintily at first, hanging in festoons so light that the very trades held aloof, then advancing with a rush,—a phantom of the booming ocean whence it came.
And Trennahan? He made no sign. Whether he were dead or alive, the victim or the captor of his old familiars, careless, or nursing an open wound, Magdalena was miserably ignorant. The time had come when she waited tensely as mails were due, feeling that an empty envelope covered with his handwriting would give her solace. She cherished no hope that he would ever return to her, but he had promised her his lasting friendship. Sometimes she wondered at the cruelty of men. Why should he not help her? Even if he really believed in the extinction of her love, he might guess that she needed his friendship. She had yet to learn that the one thing that man never gives to woman is spiritual help.
Helena wrote that her father was so anxious for her to marry Alan Rush that she was officially engaged to that much-enduring youth and really liked him. Menlo Park was the same as ever; not so gay as last year, but the same in quality. No one had called on the lessees of Fair Oaks. They were new people whom nobody knew, and it would be horrid to go there, anyhow. Caro was engaged to marry an Englishman who had bought a grape-ranch some twenty miles from Menlo. Tiny was prettier and more bored than usual. Rose wrote that she certainly could not stand another summer of Menlo and should go East in the autumn. Ila wrote from Paris, London, and Homburg that life was quite perfect. It was so interesting to be named Washington,—everybody stared so; as the English had never read a line of United States history, they thought her George was a lineal descendant of the immortal head of his house; and she had thirty-two trunks of Paris clothes and ever so many men in love with her.
And Magdalena lived this life for three years. Its monotony was broken by one event only.
During the winter following Mr. Polk's death, Colonel Belmont was driving his coach along the beach beyond the Park one afternoon when Helena, who sat beside him, saw him give a long shudder, then huddle. She grasped the reins of the four swiftly trotting horses and spoke over her shoulder to Alan Rush.
"Pull my father up to the top," she said.
Rush did as he was bid, and the body of Colonel Belmont was laid out between the two rows of young people, whose gaiety had frozen to horror.
"Now take the reins," said Helena.
Rush took the reins. Helena followed her father swiftly and stooped to take his head in her arms. But she dropped her ear to his lips instead, then to his heart. For a moment longer she stared at him, while the others waited for the outburst. But she returned to the front seat, and caught the reins from Rush's hands.
"I must do something," she said; and he knew better than to answer her, or even to look at her.
It was some time before she could turn the horses, and then she was several miles from home. She drove with steady hands; but when they had reached the house and Rush lifted her down, she was trembling violently. She pushed him aside.
"Go and get Magdalena," she said.
Magdalena remained with her a week. This was Helena's first real grief, and there was nothing cyclonic about it. "I'll never get over it," she said. "Never! And I'll never be quite the same again. Of course I don't mean that I'll have this awful sense of bereavement and keep on crying all my life: I know better than that; but I could never forget him, nor forget to wish I still had him, if I lived to be a hundred. If I had anything to reproach myself for—anything serious—I believe I'd go off my head; but I was good to him; and I am sure mamma never could have taken better care of him than I did. When he was under doctor's orders I gave him every drop of the medicine myself, and I never would let him eat a thing I thought wouldn't agree with him. He used to say his life was a burden, poor darling, but I know he liked it. And who knows?—if I hadn't watched him so, he might not have lived as long as he did. That is my one consolation.... This terrible grief makes everything else seem so paltry; I could not even think of being engaged to Alan Rush any longer. Poor fellow! I feel sorry for him, but I can't play for a long time to come. As for papa's wishes in the matter, Mr. Geary and Mr. Washington will take care of my money, and I am quite able to take care of myself. If papa is near me now, he will understand how I feel, and agree with me. I wish I had some heroic destiny. Why has the United States ceased to make history? I'd like to play some great part. Papa used to say there was bound to be another upheaval some day, but I'm afraid it won't be in my time."
"It may," replied Magdalena. "There's a good deal of history-making, quiet and noisy, going on all the time. I've been reading the newspapers this last year. They're horrid sensational things, but I manage to get a few ideas from them. No one can tell what may happen ten years hence. You may have a chance to be the heroine of a revolution yet."
"I'm afraid I'll never be anything but a belle, and I'm tired of that already, although I never could stand being shelved. But if there is a revolution during my life I'll be a factor in it. Just you remember that."
"I really do believe that you were intended for something extraordinary."
"I believe I was. That's the reason I'm so restless and dramatic. I don't feel as if I ever could be so again, though,—not for ages, anyhow."
The old close and affectionate intimacy between the two girls was restored during that week. At its end Helena went East to visit her aunt, Mrs. Forbes. She was the untrammelled mistress of something under a million dollars; and as her private car, filled with flowers, bonbons, and books, pulled away from a sorrowing crowd of friends on the Oakland side of the ferry, it must be confessed she reflected that the future would appear several shades darker if she were arranging her belongings in a half-section, a small quarterly allowance in her pocket. Nevertheless Colonel Belmont had his reward. His daughter's grief was deep and lasting; and perhaps he knew.
Caro married her Englishman, and on a thriving grape-farm entertained other Englishmen. Rose went East and triumphantly captured a Baltimorean of distinguished lineage and depleted exchequer. Tiny went to Europe again. Magdalena was practically alone. Her father still lived in his two rooms downstairs and never spoke to anyone but Ah Kee. Once he forgot to close his study door, and Magdalena, who happened to be passing, paused and looked at him. His face had shrunken and was crossed with a thousand fine and eccentric lines; like the palm of a man singled out for a career of trouble. He had let his hair and beard grow, and he looked uncouth and dirty.
Mrs. Yorba still read novels. She no longer paid calls, for her allowance, now reduced to fifty dollars a year, was quite inadequate to meet the requirements of a dignified member of society. She received her few intimate and faithful friends in her bedroom; the first floor was never dusted nor aired. The house smelt musty and deserted; the lower rooms were as cold and damp as underground caverns; the spiders spun unheeded; when the front door was opened, the festoons in the hall swung like hammocks. Even the gloom of the house seemed to accentuate with the years. Magdalena wondered if the inside of the old Polk house looked any more haunted than this; and even the Belmont house was acquiring an expression of pathos, peculiar to desertion in old age. Magdalena fancied that the three houses must be pointed out to visitors as the sarcophagi of the futile ambitions of three Californian millionaires.
In her own rooms she toiled on, absorbed in her work, loving it with the beggared passion of her nature, experiencing two or three moments of creative ecstasy and many hours of dull discouragement. She wrote her stories and rewrote them; then again, and again. Her critical faculty took long strides ahead of her creative power, and she rarely ceased to be uneasy at the disparity between her work and her ideals. But Trennahan had said that it would be ten years before she could attain excellence, and she was willing to serve a harder apprenticeship than this. Had it not been for her work and the books of those who had climbed the heights and slept beneath the stars, she might have become morbid and melancholy in her unnatural surroundings. But although the monotony of her life was never broken by a day in the country, she had always the beauty of bay and hill and sky beyond her window; and there are certain months in the spring and autumn when San Francisco is as lovely and brilliant as the southern shores of California. The trades are hibernating in the caves of the Pacific, and the fogs exist only in the spray of the ponderous waves. On such days and evenings Magdalena sat for hours on her little balcony, forgetting her work, dreaming idly. It was inevitable, in her purely mental and imaginative life, that she should apprehend in Trennahan the lover again. She wove her own romance as ardently and consecutively as that of any of her heroines. In time he would forget Helena; his love for her had been one of those sudden insane passions of which she had read,—which she tried to depict in her Southland tales,—and in time it would fall from him, and he would hear the tinkle of the chain forged in long hours of perfect sympathy. They would both be older and wiser and more sad: the better, perhaps. Loneliness and the peculiar circumstances of her life inclined her to borderland sympathies; she believed that if he died suddenly she should become immediately aware of the fact.
Her love for Trennahan by no means interfered with her literary ambitions. All others had failed her; she knew now that with the best of opportunities she should never have cut a brilliant figure in society. But she did not care; letters were a far more glorious goal. Helena adored great military heroes, great imperialists like Clive and Hastings, even great tyrants like Napoleon. Herself reverenced the great names in literature, and could think of no destiny so exalted as to be enrolled among them. And if she succeeded, what would have mattered these long years of dull loneliness, of denial of all that is dear to the heart of a girl? Sometimes she even thought the tarrying of Trennahan mattered little; for there is no tyrant so jealous as Art.
Once she read her stories aloud to her mother; and Mrs. Yorba was pleased to observe that they were much better than she could have expected, but that on the whole she preferred "The Duchess." She had grown quite fond of her daughter, and often sat in her room while she wrote. The intimacy and isolation of the two women had made it easy and natural for Magdalena to confide in her mother, but she was forced to confess that she had not inherited her critical faculty from her maternal parent. Nevertheless, she was glad of the meagre encouragement and plodded on.
It was early in the fourth year that Henry James swooped down upon San Francisco. He arrived in the train of Helena's triumphant return, under her especial patronage. Not that a few choice spirits in California had not discovered James for themselves long since; but James as a definite entity, known and approved by Society, awaited the second advent of Helena. He immediately became the fad; rather, Society split into two factions and was threatened with disruption. One young woman of the disapproving camp even went so far as to call an ardent advocate a "Henry James fool." All of which was doubtless due to the fact that the traditions of action still lingered in California. Strangely enough, Tiny, who returned almost immediately after Helena, was one of the first to take Mr. James under her small but determined wing. She regarded well-read people as an unnecessary bore, and ambition of any sort as unsuited to the Land of the Poppy, but she had a feminine faith in exceptions, and joined the cult with something like enthusiasm. It was she who introduced him to Magdalena.
Magdalena cared nothing for American latter-day authors, and gave no heed to Helena's emphatic approval of Mr. James. In fact, she and Helena had so much else to talk about that they found little leisure for books. Helena had been abroad again, and the belle of a winter in Washington. She was more beautiful than ever, and, although somewhat subdued, was full of plans for the future. Her first ball—she arrived at the end of the winter season—determined that her supremacy, socially and sentimentally, was unshaken. Immediately after, she bought an old Spanish house in the northern redwoods and provided new surprises for her little world. But there is no more room for Helena in this chronicle. Perhaps, if history shapes itself around her, she may one day have a chronicle to herself.
Tiny called on Magdalena one afternoon with two volumes of Henry James under her arm. She took to her toes as the front door closed, and ran down the long hall and up the stair to Magdalena's room.
"I feel like a book agent," she said, trying not to pant, and hoping Magdalena would go down to the door with her when she left. "But you really must read him, 'Lena. He's so fascinating: I think it's because nothing ever happens, and that's so like life. I think I must always have felt Henry Jamesish, and it seems to me that he is singularly like Menlo,—when Helena is not there,—just jogging along in aristocratic seclusion punctuated by the epigrams of Rose and Eugene Fort. I'm sure Mr. James could, write a novel of Menlo Park; he just revels in irradiating nothing with genius. There! I feel so guilty, for I really do love Menlo,—with intervals of Europe,—but I've been visiting Rose, and I'm afraid I'm plagiarising a little; you know I'm not one bit clever. Only I really feel so when I read Mr. James. And he'll be such company in Menlo this summer. Just think, I shall be all alone there, when I'm not visiting Helena or Caro. Is—is—" she glanced about fearfully—"is there no hope of dear Don Roberto relenting?"
"I am afraid not. But it is such a comfort to have you back. I heard you were engaged—to an Englishman, or something?"
Tiny blushed. She was on her way to a tea, and looked exquisitely pretty in a fawn-coloured crepe de chine embroidered with wild roses, and a bonnet of pink tulle crushed about her face. Magdalena wondered why some man had not married her out of hand, then reflected that Tiny was likely to dispose of her own future.
"I'm not quite sure," said Miss Montgomery, looking innocently at a lithograph of the Virgin which still decorated the wall. "You see, he has a title, and it's so commonplace to marry a title. But if I decide to, I'll let you know the very first."
Shortly after she went away—and left Magdalena alone with Henry James.
She took up one of the volumes. As she did so, something stirred in the cellars of her mind—beat its stiff wings against the narrow walls—struggled forward and upward.
She stood on the porch in the late evening: alone in a fog. Her young mind opened to literary desire—preceding it was a swift disturbing presentiment; it had recurred once, and again—but not for several years. What did it mean, here again? And what had Henry James to do with it? She dropped into a chair. Her hands trembled as they opened the book.
It was a week before she squarely faced the relation of Henry James to her own ambitions. Then she admitted it in so many words: she could not write, she never could write. The writers who were dust had inspired her to emulation; it took a great contemporary to bring her despair. It is only the living enemies we fear; the dead and their past are beautiful unrealities to the smarting ego.
Magdalena realised for the first time the exact value she had placed upon the art of expression,—a value that was in inverse ratio to her limitations. Literature to her was, above all else, the art of words. Stories were to be picked up anywhere: had she not found a number ready to her hand? The creative faculty might, in its unique development, be something supremer still, although crippled without the perfected medium of this writer, who seemed above all writers to be the master and not the servant of words. She re-read her own efforts. They represented the hard thought and work of six years; not a great span, perhaps, but long enough to determine the promise of a faculty. The stories were wooden. Her work would always be wooden. There was not a phrase to delight the cultivated reader, not a line that any moderately clever person, given the same material, might not have written. After as many more years of labour she might become a praiseworthy writer of the third rank. She put her manuscripts in the fire.
After that, life turned grey indeed. Her imagination might have gone into the flames with the stories, for her illusions about Trennahan fell to ashes coincidently. She no longer believed that he would return, that he would even write demanding her friendship. She could hardly recall his face; the sound of his voice was gone from her. Indubitably he had forgotten her long since. Why not? She had ascended above the rosy stratum of youth, where delusions were possible.
Then began a long struggle against despair and its terrible consequences. It was a summer of raging trades which seemed to lift the sand dunes from their foundations and hurl them through the choking city. She could take little exercise. The Library was her only resource, but one can read only so many hours a day. If she could but travel, as Helena did, when anything went wrong! Or if her uncle had only left her an income that she could expend in charity! Her sympathy for the poor had never ebbed, and she would have gladly spent her life in their service, although she doubted if they were more miserable than herself. It was true that she had enough to eat, a roof to her head, and clothes to wear,—extremely plain clothes; but that was all. A nun or a prisoner had as much.