Her idea had been to travel on to the West next day, but New Orleans held her. She had left the Old World eagerly for the New; but this bit of the Old, in the midst of the New, made her feel as if she had stumbled into an ancient Spanish court, in the middle of a modern skyscraper. The contrast was sharp as the impress of an old seal in new wax, and Angela loved it. She liked her hotel, too, and said but half-heartedly each morning, "To-morrow I'll go on." With Kate for duenna, she wandered through streets which, though they had historic French names, reminded her more of Spain than of France, with their rows of balconies and glimpses of flowery patios paved with mossy stones, or cracked but still beautiful tiles. She made friends with an elderly French shopkeeper of the Vieux Carre, who looked as if carved out of ivory and yellowed with age. His business was the selling of curiosities; antique furniture brought in sailing ships from France when New Orleans was in the making; quaintly set jewels worn by famous beauties of the great old days; brocades and velvets which had been their ball dresses; books which had Andrew Jackson's name on yellow fly-leaves; weird souvenirs from the haunted house where terrible Madame Lalaurie tortured slaves to death; fetishes which had belonged to Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen; sticks and stones of the varnished house where Louis Philippe lived, and letters written by Nicholas Girod, who plotted to rescue Napoleon from St. Helena and spirit him across the sea to New Orleans. The selling of these things, or rather the collecting of them, was the pleasure as well as the business of Monsieur Bienvenu, and he had stored in his mind as many legends of the old town as he had stored treasures in his low-browed, musky-smelling shop. Angela spent her mornings listening to his tales of slave-days, and always she bought something before she bade him au revoir, in the Parisian French which enchanted the old man.
"You light up my place, madame," he said; and insisted, with graceful gestures, that she should not pay for her collection of old miniatures, necklaces, gilded crystal bottles, illuminated books and ivory crucifixes, until the day fixed for her departure.
"Once you pay, madame, you may not come again," he smiled. "I am superstitious. I will not take your money till the last moment."
On the third day, however, Angela decided that she must go. Her father's country called, with a voice she could hear above the music of the Southern town, the laughter of the pretty French girls and the chatter of black and brown babies who babbled a language which was neither French, Spanish, nor English, but a mixture of all. She bought more things of Monsieur Bienvenu, and also in other curiosity shops which she dared not mention to him, since his one failing was a bitter jealousy of rivals.
"Where is my gold bag, Kate? Have you got it?" she asked, when the moment came to pay a hundred dollars for two or three snuff-boxes, picked up in a place she had not visited until that day.
"No, ma'am, you had it on yer arm when I noticed last," said Kate, looking startled. "Fur all the saints, I hope ye haven't lost it!"
Angela, too, began to look anxious. Not only was her bag valuable—worth seven or eight hundred dollars—but all her money was in it, and a check-book she had brought out that morning, to pay Monsieur Bienvenu the rather large sum she owed him. Still, she was not greatly distressed. She had lost that gold bag so many times, had dropped it from her lap when she got up, left it in motor-cars, or lying on the floor in friends' houses, and always it had come back to her! She cheered herself, therefore by saying that to-day would be no exception.
"Let me think, where were we last, Kate?" she wondered. "The shop where I bought the lilac and silver stole, wasn't it?"
"Yes, ma'am it was. And indade, if ye'll not mind my sayin' so, I begged ye not to go in there, the place looked so disrespectable, as if there might be measles or 'most anything, and the man himself come poppin' out to entice ye in, like the spider with the fly."
"We must go back at once and see if I left the bag after paying for the stole," said Angela. And, explaining to the late owner of the snuff-boxes, she hurried out with Kate, leaving her parcel to be called for.
Little Mr. Isaac Cohensohn, of the brocade shop, made a search, but could not find the missing trinket. Unfortunately, a number of people had been in since the lady left, strangers to him. If madam was sure she had gone out of the shop without the bag, why, somebody must have taken it since then. The question was, who? But she must apply to the police.
"If only I hadn't stuffed in that check-book!" Angela said to Kate. "Perhaps they would have cashed a check in the hotel. Anyhow, Monsieur Bienvenu would have taken one for what I owe him. Now I'm in the most horrid scrape! I don't know how I'm going to get out of it."
They walked back toward the shop of the snuff-boxes gloomily discussing the situation, which was complicated by the fact that, grown cautious since the attempted burglary at the Valmont, Angela had left her most valuable jewellery in a bank at New York. It was to be sent on, insured, only when she finished her travelling, and settled down.
"I'll have to call the police, I suppose," she said. "Though it's sure to do no good. I shall never see my bag again! I can telegraph to have the checks stopped at the San Francisco bank; but I had nearly five hundred dollars in the purse. What shall I do about my hotel bill and everything? And my railway tickets? We'll have to stay till I can get money."
Suddenly, because it seemed impossible, she wanted passionately to start at once.
Always she had hated postponing things.
"Somehow, I will go!" she said to herself. "I don't know how—but I will." And she walked on with Kate, back to the hotel, remembering how she had told the head clerk that this was her last day—she was giving up the rooms to-morrow. And the hotel was crammed, because there was a Convention of some sort. It might be that her suite was already let for the next day.
She went to the desk, asking abruptly, "If I find that I need to stop longer, are my rooms free for to-morrow?"
"Unfortunately, we've just let them—not as a suite, but separately," said the young man. "This is a big week for the Crescent City, you know, and we've got people sleeping in bathrooms."
"What shall I do?" Angela exclaimed, trouble breaking down reserve. "All my money and a check-book I had in my gold bag have been stolen. I'll have to telegraph my bank." And she had visions of being deposited in a bathroom, with all her luggage and Kate, and Tim the cat.
"Well, that's a shame," the clerk sympathized. "I'll tell you what I can do. A gentleman came in about an hour ago; said he was looking for a friend; glanced over the register, and must have found the name, because he's going to stay. He's got to sleep in the laundry to-night, but he's among those I've allotted to your suite to-morrow. When he hears a lady wants to keep her room, he's sure to wait for it."
"I don't like to ask a favour of a stranger," Angela hesitated.
"American men don't call things like that favours, when there's a lady in the case," replied the clerk. "It wouldn't do for you to be in the laundry."
It was rather unthinkable; so when the young man added that the newcomer might be in at any minute for luncheon, Angela flitted to her own quarters, which looked more than ever attractive now that they might be snapped away from her. She descended again soon, hoping to hear her fate; and there, by the desk, stood Mr. Nickson Hilliard.
His brown face reddened at sight of Mrs. May, but he did not show surprise. Seeing that she intended to recognize him, his eyes brightened, and Angela felt that she, too, was blushing a little. She was vexed with him still, but it would have been stupid as well as ungrateful to show her annoyance except by being elaborately polite. After all, she owed him gratitude, which she had wished for a chance to pay.
She put out her hand, and he radiated joy as he took it. Happiness was becoming to Nick. An all too cordial grip he gave, then loosened his grasp in a fright; "I hope I haven't hurt you!" he exclaimed, horrified.
Angela laughed. "Only a tiny bit; and that's better than a fishy handshake. Luckily, I left my sharpest rings in New York. And, oh, the gold bag you saved is gone forever! I've just had it stolen."
"That's too bad," he remarked. But he did not look cast down. "I'll rummage New Orleans for it, if you give me leave to have a try," he volunteered.
"Thank you," she said. "But I shall have to tell the police, I suppose. Not that there's much hope."
"You wouldn't let me set the ball rolling, would you?" he asked, as if he were begging a favour instead of wishing to do one. "I mean go to the police for you, and all that?"
"How kind you are!" exclaimed Angela. "But—no, indeed, I won't spoil your visit to New Orleans as I did your visit to New York."
Nick looked astounded. "What makes you think you spoiled my visit to New York?"
Here was Angela's chance for a gentle reproach, and she could not resist the temptation of administering it, wrapped in sugar.
"I don't think. I know. And it distressed me very much," she said, sweetly. "I read in the papers that you hadn't been in New York since you were a boy; that you were there to 'enjoy yourself.' And all your time was taken up with the bother that ought to have been mine! You were too busy even to let me hear what happened that night, after——" Suddenly she was sorry that she had begun. It was silly and undignified to reproach him.
His face grew scarlet, as if he were a scolded schoolboy.
"Too busy!" he echoed. "Why, you didn't think that, did you? You couldn't!"
"What was I to think?" asked Angela, lightly. "But really, what I thought isn't worth talking about."
"It may not be to you, but it is to me, if you don't mind," he persisted. "I—I made sure you'd know why I didn't—send you any word or—or anything. But if you didn't see it the right way, I've got to tell you now. It was because—of course, it was because—I just didn't dare butt in. I was afraid you'd feel, if I had the cheek to write a note, or follow up and speak to you in the hotel, that I was—kind of takin' advantage of what was an accident—my luck in gettin' a chance to do a little thing for you. A mighty small thing; 'twouldn't have been visible except in a high-powered microscope, and only then if you looked hard for it. So I said to myself, 'Twas enough luck to have had that chance.' I'd be a yellow dog to presume on it."
Instantly Angela realized that it was her vanity which had been hurt by his seeming negligence, and that it was stroked the right way by this embarrassed explanation. She was ashamed of herself for drawing it out, yet she was pleased; because she had been really hurt. Now that she need not puzzle over the man's motives, she would perhaps cease to think of him. But she must be kind, just for a minute or two—to make up for putting him in the confessional, and to prove the gratitude she wished to show.
"You must be a very modest person, if you didn't understand that I longed to hear—lots of things you wouldn't let the newspapers get hold of," she smiled. "Of course, it was interesting to read about that wretched man—Dutchy, or whatever they called him. And as he seems to have stolen from heaps of people, I suppose it's well for the world that he'll be shut up in prison—although I can't bear the thought of prison for any one. It stifles me. There ought to be some other kind of punishment. But I did want to know what happened in your room after——"
"Nothing much happened," said Nick. "The little beast was all in. I'd kind of got on his nerves, and he knew I'd dig a hole in the ground with him if he so much as peeped. I just rounded him up, and then the police came and played out the rest of the hand. As for you spoilin' my visit to New York, why ma'am, you made it. I had the time of my life."
Angela laughed, because he called her "ma'am" (which was even funnier than "lady," from the hero who had saved her life), and because all his expressions struck her as extremely "quaint."
"It was a very short time of your life then. I should have thought you'd want to stay weeks in New York, as you hadn't been there for so long—and you'd travelled so far. You see, I saw in the paper that you'd come from California. And that interested me, because my—because dear friends of mine have told me so much about California." She did not add that she was on her way there, but, of course, he might suspect, meeting her in New Orleans, if he were curious concerning her movements.
"I did mean to stay some time when I went East," he admitted, "but—well, perhaps I was homesick. Anyhow, I felt as if I'd got a hurry call to go home."
"What an odd coincidence, our meeting here!" Angela spoke out her thought.
"Ye-es," assented Nick. "I reckon it does seem that way." He was interested in the pattern of the carpet. "If you won't think it a liberty, now I am here," he began again, "I'll be mighty glad to try and find your bag. If you'll tell me just how and where you lost it——"
Angela shook her head. "You're not to spend your time fussing with the police, as you did in New York."
"But I'd like it better than anything," he said. "I didn't come to New Orleans to see the sights, anyhow. I'll feel down and out if you won't let me help. 'Twill seem as if I'd managed wrong in New York."
"Oh, if you're going to feel like that!" And forthwith Angela told him the story of her loss.
"All your money and a check-book full of blank checks!" he echoed.
"Yes. I've wired already to have the checks stopped for the bank's sake. But it's a bore. And I was fond of that bag. Besides, I had about five hundred dollars in my purse. Now I shall have to wait here till I can get more."
"You wanted to go?" he asked.
"Yes—to-morrow. However, that doesn't matter."
"It does, if you wanted to. But, see here, ma'am, I've thought of something."
"My name is Mrs. May," said Angela, smiling.
"I know—I mean, are you willing I should call you it, just as if I was really acquainted with you?"
"Of course. Why not?"
"Well, you see," he explained. "What I don't know about society and the right way to act with ladies could be put in a book bigger than the Bible. And I wouldn't offend you, for—for a good deal."
"I feel certain you'd know the 'right way to act,' by instinct," Angela assured him. "You were splendid to me that night in New York. Very few men would have known how to do what you did."
"Thank you a thousand times for saying that, though I don't deserve one word," Nick burst out, flushing again, and hoping she did not see, because he had a trying task before him. "But my idea is this. Couldn't you let me lend the money you need, and go on when you like, instead of waiting? You could send it back, any old way—check or anything. And I wouldn't care a hang—I wouldn't care a red cent—when."
"Oh, I couldn't——" Angela began, but the look on his face stopped her. It was so strong a mixture of disappointment and chagrin, as to make him instantly pathetic in her eyes. She had just said that he was a man whose instinct would always be right, and she had meant it sincerely. She knew, if she knew anything about men, that here was one of Nature's gentlemen. He had proved that already; and—it was a shame to hurt his feelings after all he had done for her.
"I beg your pardon if I've said the wrong thing. I meant no harm," he apologized warmly. "But I get left-handed and tongue-tied, I guess, when it comes to being civilized—where there's a lady in the case. It must have been I said it the wrong way, for, I do know the thing itself would be right. You want to go. You've lost your money. And I expect your bank wouldn't send it on a telegram. They mostly won't. That means waiting days, perhaps. So I thought——"
"It would mean waiting," she broke into his pause. "My bank is a long way off. You're very kind, and I will borrow the money, if it won't inconvenience you, on condition that—you let me give you security."
"That would hurt my feelings badly," said he; "but I'd rather you'd do it than not take the money, because your convenience is a heap more important than my feelings."
"If I go I can get money in a few days, and wire it back to you here," Angela reflected aloud, at a loss how to treat the situation when it became a question of hurting Mr. Hilliard's feelings.
Nick's face fell. "I—unless you give me your orders—I don't want to stay here very long," said he. "I don't care when I get the money back."
"Why, you've only just arrived, haven't you?"
"Ye-es. But I feel my homesickness coming on again. I shouldn't wonder if I'll always be sort of restless, now, away from the West. It's my country—anyhow, the country of my heart."
Angela came near saying, "So it is mine." But that might have necessitated explanations. "Well, you must take the security, I'm afraid," she said, "or I can't take the loan. As I told you, I left most of my things in New York, to be sent on when I settle down. Still, there's one thing, which I couldn't pawn, or leave with hotel people. But I wouldn't mind giving it to you. It's a diamond frame for a miniature I always carry with me. I could take the miniature out."
Nick stared hard at the carpet again. He was afraid to let her see the look on his face. "It's her dead husband's picture," he thought. "She must have loved him, if she always carries his portrait around." Aloud he said, "Very well, if you won't do my way, I'll have to do yours."
"I'll give you the address of my bank; and I must have your address," Angela went on. "Then, if you should change your mind and stay here——"
"I'm going to stay just long enough to get your bag," he replied.
She laughed. "That may be forever."
"I reckon it will be some hours at longest."
"You must be a wonderful detective!"
"There's more of the bulldog than the detective in me. But it will go hard if we don't find that bag."
"Thank you again. We shall see!" she said. "Anyway, as you're to be my banker I can tell the hotel clerk I shan't need to keep people in bathrooms, waiting for my suite, after to-night."
"Oh, was it you?" exclaimed Nick. "The fellow was telling me a lady wanted to stay——"
"Then it's you they've stuffed into a laundry!"
"I like it," Nick assured her. "It's a mighty clean place. I wish you could see some of the holes I've slept in—that is, I don't wish so! But it's all right. And now, just say how much money you want. Anything up to three thousand dollars I can give you in a minute——"
"Oh, not nearly so much. A few hundreds. But I'm going to lunch now. Would you care to lunch at the same table, and we can arrange about the loan? Also you can tell me more of Dutchy."
"I'd like it better than anything," said Nick. "But first I've got to fix things about your bag with the police. I'll be back, and look you up by the time you're halfway to dessert. I remember just what that bag was like, because—maybe you've forgotten—I picked it up in the hotel hall when you dropped it. I can see it as plain as if it was here. 'Twas a kind of knitted gold, like chain armour for a doll. And there was a rim all smothered in diamonds and blue stones."
"Sapphires," said Angela.
"That's right. Well, I'll be back in twenty minutes."
It was useless to protest against his going, for he had gone before she could speak. And instead of beginning luncheon, Angela went upstairs to take from its diamond frame her father's miniature. On the gold back of this frame there was an inscription: "Angela, on her eleventh birthday, from her father. The day before she sails." And it was because of the inscription that she could not have offered the frame to an ordinary person as security, no matter how desperately she had wanted a loan. But Mr. Nickson Hilliard was not an ordinary person.
A POLICE MYSTERY
It was a blow to Nick to be told that there was little hope of finding the lost bag. He had pledged himself to "see the thing through," but he had reasons—immensely important reasons they seemed to him—for wishing to leave New Orleans next day.
So far as was known, Cohensohn was an honest man. There was nothing against him, and his shop could not be searched by the police. All they could do was to get a description of the people who had called between the times of Mrs. May's going out and coming in. But ten chances to one, like most women, she had mislaid her bag somewhere else, or left it at home.
Nick did not like these insinuations against the sex to which an angel deigned to belong; but he took them quietly, and instructed the police to offer five-hundred dollars reward for the bag alone, or a thousand with the contents intact. Then he went back and had lunch with Mrs. May, which was, without exception, the most exquisite experience of his life. Yet he did not know what he ate, or afterward, whether he had eaten anything at all—unless it was some bread which, with bitter disgust at his bad manners, he vaguely remembered crumbling on the table.
He was cheered, however, by a plan he had, and by the inscription on Angela's miniature frame. He would have hated the thing if it had been her husband's.
Evening came and there was no news of the missing bag. There were not even any satisfactory clues.
When Nick heard this he thought very hard for a few minutes, and then inquired at what time the shops closed. He was told; and consulting his watch, realized that they would shut in less than an hour.
"What's the name of the best jewellery store in this town?" he wanted to know.
There were several which ranked about the same, and scribbling three or four names on his shirt-cuff, he rushed off to find the first.
"Got any gold handbags?" he asked in a low voice, as if he had something to conceal. "Kind made of chain, with diamonds and sapphires along the top."
He was shown the stock; saw nothing apparently which struck his fancy, and was off like a shot in search of the next name on his list.
At this place lived a bag which, so far as he could remember, seemed the duplicate of Mrs. May's except that the stones alternating with the diamonds were emeralds instead of sapphires.
"Just keep that thing for twenty minutes," said he. "I'll come back to tell you whether I'll take it or not, and what I want done to it, if I do."
"Another gentleman was in to-day looking at that bag," said the attendant. "If he comes before you, I must let him have it."
"What price did you make for him?" asked Nick.
"Seven hundred and seventy-five dollars," was the reply.
"Well, will you do a little gamble? Keep it till I come in, and if I take it I'll pay eight hundred. If I don't, you can have twenty-five dollars interest on your time."
The attendant laughed. "We don't do business that way. But I guess I can promise to keep the bag till you come back, if you hurry."
Nick did hurry, and visited three other shops within ten minutes, though they were at some distance from each other. He found nothing to suit him.
"I'll take that bag, if you can change the stones and put in sapphires instead of emeralds," he announced, somewhat breathlessly, wiping his forehead. "I know it will come dearer. But I'm willing to pay."
"When would you want it?" asked the shopman.
"To-morrow morning by ten o'clock at latest."
"I don't know much about that word," said Nick. "We've cut it out of the dictionary up my way. Offer your men what they want to do night work, and I guess they'll name a price."
After all, even in a smart jewellery shop they do not sell a gold bag every day; and a point was stretched to gratify the purchaser, who had a way which made people glad to please him.
He went back to his hotel, feeling guilty but happy. "She's going to have a gold bag, anyhow," he thought. "I don't believe she'll ever know the difference." And Nick began to rejoice that the old bag would never be found. It would be splendid to know that she was using a thing he had given her. If the other bag did turn up, the police would let him know. That was arranged; and he would manage somehow.
"Only to think," he said to himself, "a year ago I might have been as wild to do this deal as I am now, but I couldn't have run to it. This is the first real fun I've got out of my money. Mighty good thing money is—though I used not to know it mattered. Dollars, even if I'd a million, could never put me in the same class with an angel. But they give me a chance to travel with her, and that'll be something to remember."
For Nick had found the angel of his dreams, and had recognized her at first glance that day in the hall of the Valmont. He would have known the angel by her eyes and hair, if nothing else had answered the description; but all the rest belonged to the same picture—the picture of his ideal, the girl he had never expected to see in real life. And it was all the more wonderful that her name should be Angel, or something near it. He might not have learned that exquisite detail if she had not given him the diamond frame to hold as security. And to be sure of his security he was keeping it in a pocket over his heart. He knew that this was sentimental, but he did not care a red cent! Indeed, he gloried in it. Soon all would be over, for she was of a world different from his, and presently she would vanish back to her own high place, wherever that might be. He could not have defined the difference between their worlds, if he had been called upon to do so, but he felt it intensely. Still, he meant to make the most of every minute, and he intended to have as many minutes as he could get. Each could be separately treasured as if it were a pearl. He would make a jewel-case of his memory, he told himself, for he was very sure that never would so good a thing come to him again.
When he reached the hotel it was dinner-time, and hoping that Mrs. May might invite him to her table, as she had before, he dressed carefully, despite his inconvenient quarters. When he was ready, however, his heart failed him. It seemed too good to be true that his luck should hold. She would probably be dining in her own sitting-room, or else she would have had enough of his company earlier in the day. But no, there she was in the restaurant, at the same table where they had lunched together; and after all everything arranged itself very simply. He had to tell her the news of the gold bag—his version of it; and hearing that it might be restored, she exclaimed, "You're wonderful! I'm sure it's all through you. It will be nice to have my dear bag again, when I go aboard the train."
It was a pleasant dinner for both, and each seemed to find out a good deal about the other's likings and dislikings, though—perhaps purposely, perhaps by accident—they said singularly little about their own affairs, their past lives, or future intentions. Afterward, in her own room, Angela laughed as she thought over the day and the queer things she had somehow been led into doing.
"It's too quaint that I should have borrowed money of him!" she said to herself, giggling under her breath like a schoolgirl. "Of course, on top of that, it's nothing at all that I should invite him to lunch and dine. And the funniest part is, it never once seemed queer at the time, or as if I could do anything else."
At all events she had no regrets. The coincidence of Mr. Nickson Hilliard's appearance in New Orleans, just as her hour of need was striking, had given a bright side to what would otherwise have been a disagreeable and sordid adventure. Certainly there was something about him that inspired confidence. She felt that through him she might retrieve her bag; and, if, by chance, the money were intact she could pay him what she owed. He would then return the miniature frame, and it would not be necessary to give her address or say where she was going! Not that he would misuse such information. She was sure of this now, and she could not help being pleased that he had come back into her life just for one day—long enough to explain himself.
Next morning, at a quarter-past ten precisely, a note was brought to her room. It began:
"Dear Madam" (Nick had not dared venture upon "Dear Mrs. May"; it had not even occurred to him that he might), and informed her primly that the bag had arrived. Also it inquired in stiff language whether the writer might be permitted to place it in her hands.
Angela laughed as she read, partly with pleasure because her bag was found, partly because the poor young man's stiffness amused her. She knew enough about him now to understand that it was shyness and ignorance of social customs; but earlier she might have thought she had offended him. "Anyway, he writes a good hand," she thought. "Full of character and strength and not a bit uneducated."
"Ask Mr. Hilliard to come to my sitting-room," she said to the bellboy.
A few minutes later Nick appeared, his manner strained in a painful endeavour to hide anxiety.
"So you've got my bag. How splendid!" Angela exclaimed, as they shook hands. "I'm sure I have your efforts to thank more than those of the police."
"No, indeed," said Nick valiantly. "The police of this town are a fine set of men."
"How did they find it?" she asked eagerly.
Nick looked grave.
"Well, it seems there's—er—a kind of secret concerned," he explained. "The thing required is that we don't ask questions. And perhaps you'll agree, for what you want is the bag."
Desperately obliterating all expression from his face, and hoping that his eyes were not anxious, Nick took from his pocket a gold bag whose diamonds, alternating with sapphires, sparkled as the sunshine struck them.
Angela accepted it delightedly, with but a superficial glance at the bag itself. "Why, there's something inside!" she exclaimed.
"Only money," he hurried to break the news. "Not the purse, nor the check-book. I'm mighty sorry, but they're both gone. The police did their best. May get them later."
Angela opened the bag. "Five hundred dollars," she said counting rapidly. "Now, isn't that odd? I didn't think I had quite so much! How queer the money should have come back without the purse it was in, and especially the check-book. One would think that would be of little value to a thief."
"There's no accounting for a thief's ways," said Nick solemnly. "And I guess a lady can't always remember to a dollar or two what money she had."
"No-o," Angela admitted. "But—it looks different, somehow." She glanced again at the outside of the bag, and Nick's heart jumped. "The bag looks different, too," she said. "Newer, and——"
"As a matter of fact I took the liberty of having it cleaned up before it came back to your hands."
"But the stones——"
"The worst of it is they had to be put back in again," said Nick. "That gives a different look."
"The thief had taken out the stones?"
"Somebody had, anyhow—some of them."
"And I'm not to ask questions! It's the most mysterious thing I ever heard."
"I expect it's one of those cases where 'the least said soonest mended,'" Nick remarked.
"But do you know who took the bag, and what happened?"
"No more than you do. I—just had to make the best of a bad business. I hope you don't think I did wrong?"
"No, indeed. That would be ungrateful. Only—it's very strange. I suppose this must be my bag, but——"
"You can take your oath of that, anyhow. And it's your money."
"More than I thought I had. And the bag looks prettier. It's as if I'd cast my bread on the waters and it had returned—buttered. One good thing is, I can pay you. Four hundred dollars I borrowed. Here it is."
Nick had not bargained for this transaction, and it was the last thing he wanted.
"But—but—you're not leaving yourself enough," he objected.
"Oh, yes. I can pay for my ticket as far as my first stopping-place. Already I've written the bank to have money to meet me there, and it will be in time, for I shall stay in that town several days. You must take it—really."
He could not refuse, although it meant that he would not have her address, or an excuse for giving his. Slowly he drew the miniature frame out from an inside pocket of his coat. "I kept it there so as to be sure it was safe," he explained, lest the lady should think he had taken a liberty in wearing her property close to his heart.
Then, with many more thanks from Angela, and protestations on his part, they said good-bye. Although the newspapers had told her that Mr. Hilliard lived near Bakersfield, California, she had no association with that part of the State, and it seemed improbable to Angela that she should ever meet the handsome forest creature again. As she had no home she could not, even if it seemed best, invite him to call upon her at some future time; but she felt a stirring of regret that her travelling adventure was over—quite over—now.
After that she had not much time to think, because there were things to do before she took the train. And then she was in the express, getting settled in a stateroom, which would be hers all the way to Los Angeles. Kate, who was to have a berth in the same car, arranged her mistress's things, and beamed with excitement and joy. They were really going West now—she and Timmy the cat: and going West meant getting nearer and nearer to Oregon. Meanwhile the girl was happy, for she adored Angela.
When Kate had finished her work everything was delightfully compact in the pretty green room, which was almost as big as Mrs. May's cabin on the ship. A white silk dressing-gown hung from a hook. The gold-backed brushes and crystal bottles from her fitted bag were arranged conveniently. There were lilies of the valley in a vase.
"Where did those flowers come from?" Angela asked.
"I don't know ma'am. I found them here," said Kate. "Perhaps the railway people supply them to the state-rooms."
Perhaps they did. But Angela suspected something different. She was touched and pleased. He must have taken some trouble in getting the lilies placed in the right room. And it was like him not to have come forward himself to bid her good-bye. But—suddenly the question sprang into her head—how had he found out that she was travelling in this train?
All the afternoon she watched the Louisiana plantations, lakes, and bayous fly by in sunshine and shadow; or she read a novel of the South as it had been in old days. It was an interesting story and held her attention so closely that she was late in going to dinner. When at last she went there was only one chair left, at a table for two. Mr. Nickson Hilliard sat in the other.
THE GOLD BAG COMEDY
If ever there was a blush of guilt, it was Nick's.
Angela lifted her eyebrows, though she smiled. It would have been ungracious not to smile, and Angela hated to be ungracious. All the youth in her was glad to see him again; but all that was conventional, all that responded to her early training, disapproved of his presence.
"This is very unexpected!" she exclaimed, wondering if he would say it was a surprise to him, almost hoping that he might say so, because she could then seem to accept his word; which would save bother.
Nick hung his head. He jumped up when Mrs. May was shown to the table, and did not sit down again until she was seated. Now he disappointed Angela by making no attempt to defend himself. "Will you please forgive me?" he begged.
This forced Angela to be stern, and she decided to spare him no pang.
"Forgive you for what?" she asked.
"For coming," he answered to the first turn of the rack.
She was coldly puzzled. "But—do you mean your being in this train? Surely that can have nothing to do with me."
Nick was silent for a moment. The dining-car was full, and the waiters all busy. No one had come to take Mrs. May's order. Gathering his mental forces he resolved upon honesty as the best and only policy. "'Twould be easy enough to say it had nothing to do with you; that I'd have been travelling by this train to-day, anyhow," he began bravely. "The fact is, I came on board meanin' to try and make you think so, without exactly tellin' lies. But you've asked me a straight question, and I've just got to answer it straight, even if you refuse to speak to me ever again. I'm here because you're here, Mrs. May. But I promise I won't trouble you. And maybe you won't believe me, after my tellin' you this, but it's true; I didn't intend ever to let you see me to-night, and maybe not the whole journey. I only wanted to be on the same train and then, supposin' you should happen to need help any way, I'd be ready."
"But—that's rather too much self-sacrifice," said Angela, looking him full in the face with her dark-lashed, slate-gray eyes. "I'm not alone. I have my maid. I shan't need help."
"I guess you know I'm not making a self-sacrifice," Nick said honestly. "I'd be gladder than glad to do anything for the first angel I ever met on earth. But please don't be worrying, Mrs. May. This ain't any hold-up. I won't come near you, unless you happen to need a man to look after you. I'll fade away this minute, if——"
"Certainly not!" cried Angela. "It was your table before it was mine. But—I don't understand yet. I think it would have been better if you'd finished your visit to New Orleans."
"I was sure there for the same reason I'm here," Nick blurted out. "I guess I have to tell you the whole thing now."
"You mean—you came to New Orleans because I——"
"Yes, that's right," he finished for her, when she paused, at a loss for words. "Something made me do it. Something stronger than I am. You were a kind of dissolving view, and I couldn't let it get out of my sight for good. When I heard you'd gone to New Orleans by boat——"
"How did you find out?" Angela's sweet voice had a sharp edge.
"In the travel bureau of the Valmont Hotel."
"Ah! Was that quite—considerate?"
"I know how it sounds to you. But it wasn't so bad as you think. I inquired as if from a friend of yours, a man I know out home——"
"How—how horrid of you! I'd rather you didn't explain any more." Angela's cheeks were bright pink, and she was more beautiful than Nick had ever seen her before, except the night of the burglar, when she had been drowned in the gold waves of her hair, the angel of his dreams. "But you may go on about the rest," she added hastily, when he was struck into silence, without being able to bring in the name of his one excuse, Mr. Henry Morehouse. "I'd better know the worst. When you heard where I'd gone——"
"Well, I was too late for your ship, because I had to hang on and see Dutchy's case through, so I took the first train I could get when that business was wound up. And in New Orleans I found you. I didn't know for certain where you were going next, but——"
"I was pretty sure you were bound for California. And anyhow, wherever it was, I made up my mind to go. Not to bother you—no more than if I was your hired man. Just to see you through, from a distance, to know you were all right, and—and not to lose sight of you. I—of course you can't understand. I reckon no woman could. I don't wonder you're mad. I was dead sure you would be. Yet I had to stand for it."
"It's the most extraordinary thing I ever heard," said Angela, working herself up to be as angry as she ought to be. "That you should have left New York, after being there only a few days, and—oh, it doesn't bear thinking of! And I'd rather not believe it."
Again Nick wished to wave the name of Morehouse like a white flag of truce, but the San Franciscan lawyer, lying far away in a New York hospital, seemed too weak to flutter in the breeze of Mrs. May's displeasure.
"I'd rather have jogged along without tellin' you this," he said. "But as things worked out, it seemed as if I had to speak."
Angela was silent, busily thinking for a moment.
"Would you leave the train at the next stop, if I asked you?" she inquired.
"No. I'd be real sorry, but I wouldn't do that, even if you asked." And here was his chance to use Mr. Morehouse—a chance which might never come again. "I was going to tell you, I do know a man who's acquainted with you, Mrs. May. We came East together. His name's Morehouse, and when he was taken sick, I went to see him, and—and had a little talk—all the nurses would let me have. I wanted him to write a note I could give you in New Orleans, but he wasn't strong enough. He did say I could mention his name when I told him I meant to go back West and look after you; but somehow it never seemed the right time in New Orleans. And now, when I began to explain how I inquired about you at the Valmont, as if it was from Morehouse, you didn't——"
"I felt there could be no explanation I'd care to hear," Angela finished for him. "I beg your pardon! Still I don't see why you should take Mr. Morehouse's responsibilities on your shoulders—for my sake."
"No, you'll never see that," Nick sighed. "Only, if you could just see your way to forgiving me, I should be mighty thankful. I promise to switch off till you send for me. I'm in the next car to yours, if you should need to—if there's anything I could do, between here and Los Angeles——"
"How do you know my journey ends there? Did Mr. Morehouse tell you that, too?"
"When he and I were travelling East, he said Mrs. May had the notion to see California; and I thought you'd be sure to begin with Los Angeles."
"You, no doubt, will go on to Bakersfield," remarked Angela coldly, making a statement rather than putting a question.
"I suppose so, pretty soon," Nick assented, too crushed by the angel's displeasure to be flattered because she remembered where he lived.
"Of course you will, at once," she announced relentlessly. "Meanwhile, I hold you to your word, Mr. Hilliard. It was—wrong of you to come, and knowing Mr. Henry Morehouse—of whom I never heard till after I landed—doesn't make it much more—sensible. I'm sure your motives were—most kind. But—you've made a mistake, as you must realize now, and the only way to atone is to—to——"
"I know. Keep out of your way. And I've promised. But I don't realize that I've made a mistake, Mrs. May. There's no use sayin' I do; for, in spite of all, if 'twas to do over again, I would. I wouldn't change anything."
"Then you shouldn't boast of it!" exclaimed Angela. "Confession may be good for the soul of the confessor, but it can be embarrassing for the one confessed to. You oughtn't to have told me why you came. The only thing to save the situation would have been to let me think it was an accident."
"You wouldn't have thought so long—unless I lied. Ought I to have lied?"
She was rather thankful that the waiter came just then with the menu, and saved her from answering. She ordered her dinner, and the smiling negro turned to Nick.
"I don't think I want——" he began. But Angela sternly caught his eye, mutely commanding him to eat. When he had chosen several dishes at random, and the waiter had gone, she reproached him again. "What would people think if you went away in the midst of dinner? There's a man opposite staring at us now! You're not as tactful as you were the night of the burglar. Then, you did just the right thing, cleverly and bravely. For that I can forgive you a good deal—but not everything. Now you make one blunder after another."
"That night in New York you wanted me. This time you don't. I guess that's what makes the difference in the quality of my gray matter," said Nick. "I feel riddled with bullets, and they've hit me right where I live. I—I suppose you'll never forgive me, will you? If you only half guessed how little I meant to butt in, or be rude, or annoy you, maybe you could, though."
"Maybe I can—by and by; for the sake of your kindness in the past." Angela relented. "But not even for that quite yet. And not ever, if you look so stricken that you make people stare."
"I am stricken," Nick confessed.
"You deserve to be." She crushed him deeper into the mire. Whereupon the soup arrived, and they began to eat, and talk politely. Nick had never known before that a man could be wildly happy and desperately miserable at the same time, but now he knew. And he would not have changed places with any other man in the world. "I'm under a spell," he said to himself, "and I wouldn't get out of it if I could."
At the same moment Angela conjectured that there must be something strange about the air she was breathing in this New World. "It makes one want to act queerly," she thought. "I'm sure I should have acted quite differently about this whole affair in Europe. It's so easy to feel conventional in places where you've always lived, and where you know everybody. Or is it only because this man's so different from any one else? I thought I was beginning to understand his nature, but now I see I don't. The thing is, I was too nice to him. I oughtn't to have asked him to lunch and dine in New Orleans. That began the mischief. And it was my fault more than his."
But then, according to the man's own confession, the mischief had begun in New York. "I wish I could make myself enjoy snubbing the extraordinary creature," she went on, as she ate her dinner, throwing an occasional sentence concerning the scenery, or, as a last resort, the weather, to her chastened companion. "But it's difficult to snub a person who's saved your life and lent you money and found your gold bag. That's why he oughtn't to have put me in this position—because I owe him gratitude. It's really horrid." And she began to feel sincerely that the New Type had conducted itself unworthily.
She gave Nick a cool bow when she was ready to go, and left him plunged in gloom, but stubbornly unrepentant. "It's a tough proposition I'm up against," he thought, "but a man's as good as his nerve. And I'll fight till the next spring rains sooner than let her slip away out of my life."
It was deep blue dusk when Angela went back to her stateroom, too dark to look out of the window; yet she had lost interest in the book which she had found absorbing earlier in the day. It seemed irrelevant somehow; and though there was no reason why they should do so, her own affairs appeared more insistently exciting than before. "It's the call of the West already," she answered her own question. "I hear the voice of my father's country."
And then her thoughts returned to Nick.
"I wonder what he is doing now—whether I made him see the error of his ways?" she asked herself, stroking Timmy, lent by Kate. And she was not sorry for the forest creature: not sorry at all. It was stupid even to think of him. But in her lap, a splendid plaything for the black cat, was the gold bag. It seemed associated with Mr. Hilliard now. Odd, how different it looked since she had got it back! Bigger, somehow, though, of course, it was the same. There couldn't have been a mistake. Almost mechanically she began to count the jewels set along the mouth of the bag. Fifteen sapphires—fifteen diamonds. Why, there had been only twenty-eight altogether! She was sure of that. She had counted them before, in absent-minded moments. What could this mean? Suddenly an explanation of what it might mean flashed into her head. The theory seemed too elaborate—yet it would account for the mystery Hilliard had made of the whole matter, and his anxiety that she should not interview the police, or come into contact with them. And the five hundred dollars—more money than ought to have been in the bag. She recalled now having mentioned that sum in telling of her loss. And the forest creature had said that he "knew exactly what her bag was like." If he had found a duplicate, and palmed it off upon her, the absence of the check-book and the presence of the money without the purse would be explained. But could he have found a bag, ready-made, so like the lost one as to deceive her until now? She must question him at once. Yet, with her finger on the bell, ready to summon the porter, she paused. Only half an hour ago she had forbidden Mr. Hilliard to come near her. Now she was about to send for him. This would appear to be a triumph for the enemy. "But I'll soon show him it isn't a triumph," she thought, and pushed the electric button.
"In the car between this and the dining-car, there's a Mr. Hilliard," she announced when the porter arrived. "Please ask him to come and speak to Mrs. May."
"Yes, miss, I'll tell the gen'leman with pleasure," replied the elderly negro, trotting off to cry aloud a name more or less resembling Hilliard.
Nick, not daring to hope that luck might change so soon, had drifted into the observation car; but a man answered to the call, beckoning the porter.
"Sure you understood the name right, George?" he inquired. "My name's Millard. What kind of a looking lady is this Mrs. May?"
The black porter, who was not George, but who had answered to the name a thousand times, smiled a smile like a diamond tiara. "She sure is the prettiest young lady I evah see, sah," said he. "Most ob dese wite ladies look jest alike to me. I cyant tell one ob dere faces from de odders. But dis one—my! I won't forget her in a month o' Sundays."
"I know who you mean now, and I guess it's Millard she inquired for," said the gentleman of that name. "You got it a little mixed."
So a minute or two later Angela had her second surprise of the evening. Expecting Nick, and with her first shot prepared, she saw at her stateroom door a man as different as night from day—the man who had stared in the dining-car. He had a dyed black moustache, like the brand of Cain, and an air of thinking that women and other animals of the chase were made for him to hunt.
"Mrs. May, I believe?" he began politely. "I'm Mr. Millard. I think you sent for me. We've met somewhere before, and——"
Angela explained matters coldly, in three words; though she fancied that no explanation was needed. Mr. Millard showed signs of seeking an excuse to linger, but none was granted. Even Timmy was in a dangerous mood, and, as Kate appeared, on her way back from dinner, the gentleman from the next car retired in good order.
"You saw Mr. Hilliard, who brought my—a gold bag to the sitting-room in New Orleans?" Angela said to Kate. "He's in the car between this and the dining-car. Please find him, and let him know that I should like to see him here."
Kate's quest produced Nick; and Mrs. May did not mention Mr. Millard. She fired her shot without warning.
"This is not my gold bag."
Nick's jaw squared itself. "It is your bag," he insisted.
"Mine had twenty-eight stones. This has thirty. How is that to be explained?"
"How should I tell?" he echoed, bold as brass. "It's a question for the police." She had scolded him for confessing. He would not court the lash again.
"I wonder if you couldn't tell—if you would? I insist, Mr. Hilliard, that you give me the whole truth, if you know it. And I think you must know."
"I warned you there was a mystery," he mumbled.
"You gave me the impression that it was a police mystery. Now I believe it was of your making. A little while ago you asked me to forgive you. Don't you see I never can, unless you tell the truth about this wretched bag?"
"A little while ago you wouldn't forgive me because I did tell the truth."
She answered like a woman. "That's entirely different." And dimly Nick realized that it would be worse than useless to ask why. Queer how a woman seemed to want only the things you were just out of!
"You—bought this bag," she stated.
"Oh, well, it's no use!" groaned Nick. "Once I thought 'twas a fake about little George Washington; but I see now it can be harder to tell lies than truth to some people. I can't tell one to you," the prisoner in the dock confessed. "I did buy the bag, but when yours is found, they'll send it on to me. Then we can change."
"It will never be found. Oh, how could you?—and the five hundred dollars!—your money. How idiotic of me—and how you must have laughed when I paid you back the four hundred I owed—out of your own pocket."
"I never felt less like laughing in my life than I did then. Unless it's now."
"You can't feel as distressed as you've made me feel. I still owe you the four hundred; and another hundred besides. That makes up the five. And the worst of all is, I can't pay you till Los Angeles. But here is the bag."
"Do you hate me so much you've got to give it back?" Nick's eyes implored mercy from the court.
"I'm more vexed than I can tell. This is beyond everything! Please take your bag at once."
"I swore just now it was your bag. And it is."
"Surely, it's hardly necessary for me to tell you I can't keep it?"
She held the bag out to him, and when he would have none of it, forced the soft gold mesh into his hand. He let the thing drop, and at the instant of its fall Kate returned, hovering uncertainly. She supposed that Mrs. May's visitor had gone by this time, and had come to ask for a promised book.
"Kate, there's been a mistake." Angela said. "This gold bag isn't mine after all, though they look so much alike. Please pick it up from the floor and give it to Mr. Hilliard."
These tactics overmastered Nick. He could not let a woman, be she maid or mistress, grovel on the carpet in his presence. He dived for the bag, and, pale and troubled, handed it to Kate. "It seems this has got to be mine," he stammered. "But I don't want it. Will you take the thing? If you won't, it goes out of the window, sure as fate."
"Oh, ma'am, what will I do?" cried Kate. "Why, it's a rale fortune! I—must I let him throw it out the window? What all them jewels and gold would mean to me and Tim—the difference in our lives! If I won't have the bag some wicked tramp may find and sell it for drink."
"Do as you choose. It has ceased to be my affair," said Angela.
"Are you sure you'd fling the bag away, sir, if I say no to it?" the Irish girl implored.
"Then—oh, I must take it! I can't give it up to a tramp, when 'twould buy Tim and me a home. You must be a millionaire, sir, throwing away good money like that."
"I've got more than I know what to do with, good or bad," said Nick, drowned in gloom. "Thank you very much for taking it. It's real kind of you. And it's a comfort to me the thing'll be of use to some one."
He looked at Angela, but she would not see him. And without another word he effaced himself.
"I suppose that snuffs me out," he muttered, dolefully, returning to his own car. Almost, he was minded to leave the train in Texas—to go on by another; or to return to New York and do what he could to forget the hard-hearted angel. But he did not leave the train. He went on doggedly. "I'm hanged if I give up," was his last thought. "It's no soft snap, but I'll make her forgive me before we're through."
"You'll not be cross with me, ma'am because I couldn't be lettin' him throw away the beautiful bag?" Kate coaxed her mistress. "I seen he would ha' done it. There was fire in his eyes."
"Yes, he would have done it," Angela echoed. "I'm not cross with you, though I hoped you would refuse. I'd no right to dictate when it meant your sacrificing a lot of money—a hundred pounds at least, which would go begging unless you accepted."
"A hundred pounds!" the girl stammered. "Oh, I didn't know the bag was worth the half of that! Will I give it back to the gentleman?"
"It's too late. There would only be a scene. He'd refuse to take the thing."
Kate looked relieved. "Then I'll just try and sell it in the first big city where we're stopping ma'am," she said, with a happy sigh. "You tould me a black cat brought luck!"
Angela neither slept well nor lay awake well that night. Whenever she closed her eyes she seemed to meet Nick Hilliard's beseeching look; and next day, angrily pushing him and his problems out of her mind, she devoted herself passionately to scenery. He must have taken his meals very early or very late, or else had none at all, for not once did she see him in the dining-car. The following day at luncheon, however, he was going out as she came in. She bowed to him coldly, but her heart beat as if something exciting had happened. That night she forgot to set back her watch, and so went to dinner earlier than usual. Not far ahead, also bound for the dining-car, was Mr. Hilliard. She disliked the large tables laid for four; and when he could, her favourite waiter kept a place for Mrs. May at a small table for two persons. Often she got one to herself, but this evening, as she sat down, Mr. Millard appropriated the other chair. Had he not been rather stout, he would have squeezed himself into place before she could protest; but being a tight fit, inadvertently he gave her time to think.
"This seat is engaged," she said, raising her voice to reach the ears of Mr. Nickson Hilliard. He turned and saw invitation in her eyes. "I'm keeping your chair," she calmly informed him—since between two evils it is wise to choose the less.
"Thank you," said Nick, as quietly as if it had been a long engagement.
"Did that galoot annoy you?" he asked, dropping into the seat.
"No," said Angela. "But I preferred you for a neighbour."
Having explained her motives, she made it clear that conversation was not included, and Nick, knowing that a man in disgrace should be seen and not heard, was silent. When Mrs. May had finished a light meal, she unbent far enough to say: "It was clever—and kind of you to understand. One thing more! I must have your address at Bakersfield, to send the money."
Then Nick told her that he lived on a ranch a good many miles from Bakersfield. "I call it the 'Lucky Star Ranch,'" he added.
"I'll write you from Los Angeles," said she, and became conscious that her last words had been overheard by Mr. Millard. He had seated himself at a table close by, and now glanced up with such an intelligent look that she was sure he had taken in something of the situation.
When the journey through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona was over, and the train slowed into the station at Los Angeles, she had cause to remember this incident, for Millard was on the car steps, just in front of her. He caught up the large dressing-bag which the porter had carried out of her stateroom, and, looking back, said:
"It's my turn to help you a little now, Mrs. May, since your friend's going on farther. You're English, I guess; and if you haven't got anybody to show you around here, you must let me make myself useful."
"I would rather the porter took all my luggage, please," replied Angela, glancing about for her black friend. But doubtless Mr. Millard had claimed authority, and "George" was giving his services to some one else.
"Porter isn't here. You'd better let me look after you, and get a carriage," said Millard, whose legitimate business it was to travel for a manufacturing firm.
The train stopped, and he jumped off with Angela's dressing-bag, but only in time to have it taken in a business-like manner by Nick, who had swung down from his own car while the train was still in motion.
"It just occurred to me you might be giving yourself a little unnecessary trouble," said he. "I'll see to this lady."
"I thought you were going on," stammered the commercial traveller.
"Not just yet," Nick spoke mildly, but his eyes looked dangerous, and Mr. Millard thought best to give up the point without further argument.
"I always have to thank you for something! It's too bad!" laughed Angela, as Nick put her and Kate into a carriage which he had secured. "Good-bye; I suppose it's fated that I must forgive you, as we shan't see each other again."
With this she put out her hand, half friendly, half reluctant, and as Nick shook it eagerly, the train moved away.
Angela gave a little cry. "Now I've made you miss your train! And your luggage!"
"I won't howl about that," said he. "I'll wire. And I can get another train by and by—when I want it," he added under his breath. Then he let the carriage drive away.
THE LAST ACT OF THE GOLD BAG COMEDY
"May I go out, ma'am, and see what they'll be givin' me for the gold bag?" Kate asked, when the unpacking—for a few days—was done at a Los Angeles hotel.
This was a sore subject with Angela. She believed that she disliked the bag; but also she disliked having it go out of her life beyond recall. "Think of the money he spent, and the trouble he took!" something seemed to moan in her mind. But with an impersonal air she gave Kate permission, dismissing the past as represented by the Hilliard incident, and plunging into the joy of arranging future motor-cars and trains—a future which was to concern her, and Kate, and Kate's cat alone, not Mr. Hilliard.
A singularly sympathetic and apparently intelligent hotel clerk not only advised a motor for sightseeing in the neighbourhood, but recommended one owned and invented by a friend. It was a "clipper," he said; could do anything but climb trees or jump brooks, and might be hired by Mrs. May, at a reasonable price, for a day, a week, a month, a year. Angela felt bound to say that she should like to see it; and—almost before the last word was out of her mouth—the garage was rung up by telephone.
The car arrived with startling promptness, and if Angela had been given time to think it might have occurred to her that there was not, perhaps, as much competition for this new invention as the hotel clerk had implied. The inventor, who was driver and chauffeur as well, bore a striking resemblance to a sulky codfish, but his half-boiled eyes lighted up and glittered (even as his car glittered with blue paint), at the prospect of business. Other vehicles were now being produced by a firm who had bought his patent, said he, but at present his own; appropriately named the "Model," was the "only one running." He lifted the brilliant bonnet, and revealed intricate things, all new and silvery and glistening like crystallized sugar. Angela fell an easy victim. She knew nothing about the mechanical virtues and vices of cars, though she had two at home for her own use, and the Prince a dozen, valued only less than his aeroplanes. Hers had been gray and dark green. She had always wanted a blue car, and this was a lovely colour. Though she was no more vain than a pretty young woman ought to be, she consented to an experimental run, with an undertone of conviction that the car would become her as a background.
As she made her decision, Kate arrived, breathless with the excitement of bargaining, to find her mistress on the curbstone.
"Oh, ma'am!" she panted. "I've done it! I've got five hundred dollars in me pocket!"
"And they've got the bag," Angela regretfully murmured.
"Yes, ma'am, they have. Unless they've sold it since. Such a fine jewellery shop. The name an Oirish one, and I went there first, for luck. Then I tried another place, but they offered less, and I ran back to Barrymore's. They said 'twas a splendid bag, and they'd 'a give more, but they haven't the same call for the article as if 'twas Paris or New York; and they must make their profit."
"No doubt they will make it," Angela almost snapped. She felt as a certain type of woman feels on hearing that the first man who ever proposed to her has married some one else. And when the codfish, whose name was Sealman, asked her where she would go for a trial spin, she said that he might take her to the shop of Barrymore the jeweller. But that was when Kate had disappeared into the hotel.
The automobile ran quietly, and the springs, as the codfish said, were "grasshoppers." The motor made a pleasant purring, not much louder than Timmy's when you scratched his head through the open roof of his basket. It was a small car, but as Angela wanted it only to run about the neighbouring country, keeping Los Angeles as a centre, she began to think that she might as well engage it. After the poor codfish had given her this run for nothing, how could she disappoint him?
Exactly what she meant to do when she stopped before the shop of Thomas Barrymore & Company she could not have explained, even to herself. Perhaps she had the curiosity to see how the bag would look in the window, in case the jeweller had placed it there; and sure enough, he had displayed it, anxious not to miss a sale. There were other gold bags, but this one—of many adventures—was by far the most beautiful; and suddenly she knew why she had come. She was going to buy the thing for herself. She could not bear to let any one else own that bag.
Of course, if she had been sensible and business-like, she might have told Kate before selling to inquire at some shop what would be a fair price; and then she might have offered the girl that amount. Now she must pay for her pride; and having less than half the income of the Princess di Sereno, Mrs. May ought to have been thinking about the California land she wished to purchase before committing useless extravagances which she could no longer afford. Besides, if she bought back the bag, she would always be ashamed to use it under the eyes of Kate.
She pointed it out to one of the Barrymore assistants, who said it had just arrived from Paris, and the price was seven hundred and fifty dollars. For her life, Angela could not have contradicted him or haggled. Luckily, or unluckily, her money had come from San Francisco. It served her right, she thought, to pay two hundred and fifty dollars more than if she had dealt with Kate. She should have been ashamed even to want Mr. Hilliard's bag, still more to buy it; and she took away her purchase in a beautiful box, with all the joy of a normal female thing who has secured for her own something which she ought not to have. When Angela di Sereno had been able to afford everything, she had longed for nothing. There was a new spice in life. And the redemption of the bag was to be a dead secret.
"Back to the hotel, please; and I'll engage your car for the next three or four days," said Mrs. May to Sealman, suddenly full of kindness for him and all the world.
Nick sat in the window of a better hotel than Angela's. She had chosen hers on the advice of a lady in the dining-car, a lovely blonde, nee brunette, who had once enjoyed a honeymoon in Los Angeles, and was now on her way Nevadaward to get a divorce. Nick had been to Los Angeles before, and knew where to go without asking advice, though the same lovely lady would have been enchanted to give him some. Mr. Millard was also in his hotel, and would not move to Mrs. May's (although it was cheaper), so long as Nick remained on guard. That was one of the reasons why Nick stayed. But there were others. His luggage he had wired for, and it would come back.
He sat by the window, wondering whether Mrs. May would be angry if he showed himself; or whether, on the principle that a cat may look at a king, she would consider that he had as much right to be in Los Angeles as she had.
Then she flashed by in the blue automobile, which was as becoming as she had expected. Nevertheless, Nick jumped up from the chair in which he had been lounging, and frowned. "Great guns! If there ain't that bandy-legged, crop-eared, broken-nosed auto Sealman came to offer Mrs. Gaylor last winter, and wanted to palm off on me!" he grumbled to himself. "How in creation did that maverick get hold of Mrs. May? Bet there've been bribes flyin' around somewhere."
Angela, being on the way back to her hotel from Barrymore's when Nick caught sight of her, had returned by the time he strolled in to ask if Mr. Sealman was staying there. Mr. Sealman was not; but the clerk admitted acquaintance with him.
"I want to know if his car's engaged," began Nick.
Yes, the clerk happened to know that it was engaged for the next three days, perhaps longer, to a young lady in the hotel who intended to do some touring in the neighbourhood.
"Contract all fixed up?" asked Nick.
Everything was arranged; had just been settled; in fact, Mr. Sealman had gone home.
Nick stood still and thought for a moment, looking as sad as if he had earnestly desired the Model for himself, which was, of course, the impression conveyed. As he reflected (not so much wondering what he wanted to do next, as whether the thing he wanted to do would "work") Kate came down, with a letter in her hand ready to post to Mr. Timothy Moriarty, White Orchard, Oregon.
"Oh, sir!" she exclaimed, flitting up to Nick. "P'raps you don't remember me, but I'm maid to Mrs. May, and 'twas to me you gave that beautiful bag you said you'd throw out o' window if I didn't take it. Ye don't mind if I sold it, do ye?"
"Of course not," Nick assured her. "I gave it to you for that."
"I thought so, sir; and I've done fine with it to-day. A gentleman named Barrymore, who keeps a smart jewellery shop, paid me five hundred dollars. I'm all in a flutter, sir! Just to think, it's the same as if you'd give me the money."
"Not a bit of it," said Nick. "Some cow might have swallowed the bag by this time if you'd let me chuck it out of the car window. Or a goat, maybe."
"Well, thank you again a thousand times. And what with you, and my lady, Mrs. May, I'm the happiest girl in the wurruld." And Kate tripped away to post her letter.
"'My lady, Mrs. May,'" echoed Nick, beneath his breath. "She's my lady, too—my angel—though she doesn't know it. And nothing can change that till doomsday."
He had hated the gold bag when it was rejected by Angela; but now he felt differently. His heart warmed toward it. Had it not been hers, if only for a little while? It had hung on her wrist. It had been in her hand. It had held her lace handkerchief, which smelled like some mysterious flower of fairyland. Now he knew what he had come to learn, there was nothing to keep him any longer; and, walking out of the hotel, he asked the first intelligent-looking man he met where to find Barrymore's.
"A young lady in black, in a blue auto, sir, bought the bag you must have seen in the window," he was presently informed by the youth who had served Angela. "A young lady with golden hair. You might almost have met her on the way."
"I rather think I did meet her," drawled Nick. And though the bag was gone forever, he was suddenly so happy that he could have sung for joy. He hurried away to telegraph Henry Morehouse, at Doctor Beal's Nursing Home, asking a favour which he was sure Morehouse would grant, because they had grown very friendly on the journey East. Next, he called at the largest garage in Los Angeles, and asked advice of the manager about buying a motor-car. "You wrote me in the winter, saying you had a fine one here to dispose of," he said. "Maybe you remember?"
Remember? Why, of course, the manager remembered Mr. Hilliard! Every one had been talking of his Lucky Star gusher.
Nick laughed. "A right smart lot of letters wanting me to buy things came along about that time. I hadn't got any use for an auto then. Now I have. And I want a good one, for touring. The best there is."
"Any make you fancy?"
"I don't know much more about motors than elephants," Nick confessed. "No use pretendin' to be an expert, but I'm going to learn the whole game from A to Z."
"I've got a machine here now," said the man of the garage, "that might suit you if you want something first-rate. Belongs to a millionaire who went broke before he'd had his auto a week. Best American on the market, and better than new. She's found herself. Come and have a look at her." Nick went. "She" was a beauty, inside and out a pale primrose yellow.
"Almost the colour of her hair," he thought.
"I must have a shuvver to overhaul the machine, until I've been put wise," he said, when, after some discussion, he had agreed to buy the yellow car if it were satisfactory. "But I want to learn to drive right away. I'd sure be on pins and needles, sittin' like a duke, in behind, with somebody else at the helm. How long will it take me? I'm pretty quick at pickin' up new things."
"Can you drive a horse?" the man inquired.
Nick laughed. "I can worry along some."
Few men in California knew more about horses than he.
"Well, then, you'll get the trick of steering sooner. Six or seven lessons might do you."
"Lessons of an hour or two?"
"Well, yes. That's about it."
"Suppose I pay extra, and practise extra? If I keep at it all day and every day, will I be warranted safe and kind after, say, four lessons? I can have several men to teach me maybe, if I tire one out."
"But you're only one man. Keeping at it like that you'd feel a strain."
"No, I wouldn't," said Nick. "I'd have a doze or two and a sandwich or two in between spins. No harder work than a round-up."
"All right, then. In four days like that you'll be a dandy driver, I promise you, Mr. Hilliard," said the man of the garage.
"Fit to drive—ladies?"
"Fit to drive a queen."
"That's what I want to do," mumbled Nick under his breath.
WHEN ANGELA WENT SIGHTSEEING
The next five days Angela spent in seeing the country her father had helped to create, and in breaking down in the blue motor-car at brief and inconvenient intervals. At first they were unexpected intervals; but soon they were taken for granted; for the more she knew of Mr. Sealman's invention the less was Angela surprised at anything it chose to do. The Model was a model of all the vices. It smoked like a chimney, drank like a fish, and developed, one after another or all together, every malady to which motor-metal is heir. The stages of the way, even to the Mission of San Gabriel, in its sleepy old Mexican village on the fringe of Los Angeles, were punctuated with disasters. A burst tire was a comma; carburetor trouble a colon; nervous prostration of the sparking-plug a period. But Mr. Sealman never lost confidence. He explained everything, justified himself and the car; told anecdotes of his courage, and let fall pathetic words concerning an invalid mother dependent on him and his success.
"I'm a pioneer, I tell you," he said. "You and I are making history this minute."
Angela would gladly have turned from so lurid an occupation to any other pursuit; but Mr. Sealman looked as if his health were more fragile than that of the car. When he clawed obscurely at the crystallized sugar ornaments under the bright bonnet of the fainting Model, his air looked so dejected, his eyes so hollow, and his smile so wan that Angela's fury melted into pity. Passionate resolves to shed him and his blue abomination died within her as she watched his struggles. His whole future depended, he said, on the Model. If Mrs. May should throw him over and hire another car, the news would fly like lightning from garage to garage of Los Angeles; indeed, from end to end of California. He would be ruined. His mother, who had been forbidden excitement, would, without doubt, die of heart failure.
The heart of Angela failed also, again and yet again. She began to see that Mr. Sealman had cast himself for the part of Old Man of the Sea, in a travel drama of which she was heroine. She felt alone in the world. "It will probably end in my having to buy the little blue brute and burn it," she thought. "But even then the codfish will probably insist on being my butler."
These gloomy forebodings shadowed her mind one morning when the Model broke down about half a mile from fantastic little Venice, the Coney Island of South California. In a rage she got out and walked, past a kaleidoscopic pattern of tiny bazaars, shooting-galleries, paper icebergs, and cardboard mountains. She threaded her way through a good-natured crowd of tall, tanned young Americans, pretty girls with wonderful erections of golden hair, dark-faced Mexicans, yellow-faced Japanese, a few Hindus and negroes. Then, by the pier, she saw an old Spanish galleon disguised as a restaurant, and drifted in to lunch on fried sand-dabs attractively advertised in big black letters. How old, how Spanish, and how galleon the craft might really be, none could tell—or would. But the sand-dabs were delicious; and from the queer window near her table—a window cut in the ship's side—she could see the Pacific, blue in distance, green where it tossed white foam-blossoms on a beach of gold.
"Breakdowns would be fun if I'd some one to laugh at them with me," she thought; and her mind conjured up the image of Nick Hilliard, seating him opposite her at the little table.
She had ordered him home and he had apparently obeyed; which seemed unkind and poor-spirited, and altogether unlike him. Ever until now he had been at hand to save her from all that was disagreeable. Even at Los Angeles he had jumped off the train to circumvent Mr. Millard. His ways had been like the ways of story-book heroes, who, by some extraordinary coincidence, invariably appear in time to rescue the heroine from a villain, a mad bull, a runaway horse or a burning house. The only difference was that Mr. Hilliard could not possibly be the hero of this story, and his opportune arrival was, on his own confession, never a coincidence. He came on purpose; and that was bad taste. But as he had done it so often, why couldn't he have transgressed just once again, to rescue her from Sealman?
She thought of the tall forest creature with yearnings, which interfered with her appetite for sand-dabs. He might unobtrusively have stayed, she thought, and put himself at her service. Not the most clinging Old Man of the Sea could continue to cling if that square-chinned bronze statue pointed out the wisdom of letting go. But no doubt he was at home near Bakersfield, before this—Angela seldom named Nick in her mind—otherwise she must have run across him somewhere that first day at the City of the Angels when she had spun gaily from park to park, the Model for once behaving well. Almost, she had expected to see him the next morning when the car refused to move, and she had taken a trolley car, halfway to San Gabriel. It would have seemed appropriate, somehow, to meet him strolling in front of the Mission, his hands in his pockets, gazing up at the beautiful half-ruined facade, with its delicate chain-armour of gold lichen, its tower, and its flowers like blossoming barnacles.
Angela knew now that she had felt certain of meeting Hilliard "accidentally," in the Mission church. That while she walked beside the elderly Spanish verger, chatting of his native Cordova, listening to tales of Father Juniperra Serra, Father Somera, and the legend of the Indians with the miraculous portrait of the Madonna, she had started more than once at a footfall, fancying it that of her lost hero.
Of course, if he had ventured to show himself at any time she would have known that it was no coincidence; and she would have lifted her eyebrows in silent reproach, talking more earnestly to the verger, who had been happy because she knew Cordova and all his beloved Spanish cathedrals. Nevertheless, the bronze statue would have fitted well into the scene, and something lacked because it was absent.
"I do think he might write from his ranch and acknowledge the money I sent him," she told herself now, neglecting the sand-dabs to stare through the galleon window at the floating seaweed on the tide-dark gold-green kelp, like lost laurel-wreaths torn from the brows of drowned divinities. "I posted the letter myself, that first day. He must have got it—if he is at home."
Just then a tall, dark young man walked into the ship-restaurant, taking off a sombrero. Angela gathered herself together, ready to administer a gentle snub. But she might have saved herself the trouble. It was not Nick. She could have cried with disappointment. Snubs of the past were coming home to roost.
There was time to buy California jewels in the bazaars—tourmalines and pearl-blisters—before the car came up, purring sweetly, and looking innocent as a cat gorged with canary birds. Mr. Sealman was so sure that nothing could or would go wrong ever again that Angela had no heart to receive him coldly.
They started off for a run through bungalow-land, and the Model conducted itself like a newly converted sinner.
"I've been thinking out a dandy plan, while I was tinkering on the auto," remarked Mr. Sealman in an engaging manner. "What do you say to doing a tour of the Missions? You know, I guess, there's a chain of 'em, and the fine thing it would be to see the lot by road! I tell you, this little auto's going to be all right—all right. It'd be the best kind of a stunt for a lady from Europe; and if the papers got hold of it, I bet they'd give us a bang-up notice—a photo too, maybe, you could send your friends on the other side."
Angela shuddered. She could hardly bear even to hear this proposal from the codfish, for a pilgrimage to the Missions of California had been a dream of Franklin Merriam's. He and she were to have followed the footsteps of the Franciscan Fathers, stage by stage; and if a Mission here or there were falling into ruin, Merriam had talked of offering to restore it at his own expense. Now the money had gone to restore the Palazzo di Sereno, and to buy motors and aeroplanes and ladies' favours for the Prince of that name. Yet some day Angela meant to make the pilgrimage, when she had built her house and given herself a starting-point.
"I've other things to do," she replied coldly. "I shall see only the Missions I may happen to pass on this tour."
"Well, some folks'd ruther save this trip for a weddin' journey," Sealman suggested. "I suppose widows have weddin' trips, don't they?" He gazed thoughtfully at the gray coat and gray-veiled motor hat which Angela wore to protect her from the dust. She sat in front beside the chauffeur for the motion of the car was less there, but she decided that, if she were ever hypnotized into associating with the Model again, she would take the back seat.
"The Missions for mine," he went on, when his passenger made no reply. "There's some prefers the Yosemite, but there's no motorin' there. And if I was a girl I wouldn't feel married without a motor. In the Yosemite there's; so much honeymoonin', the minute you see a lady with a man you put 'em down for bride and groom."
Angela had cause to remember this remark later.
"Speakin' of honeymoons, looks as if there'd been some around here," the codfish continued chattily.
They were running about through the suburbs of Los Angeles, and if Sealman's passenger had deigned to answer she would have been compelled to agree. It was ideal honeymoon-land; a moving picture, painted in colours, seemingly by rival artists of different nations, for the mingling of effects was mysterious as the scenery of dreams.
Just as Angela told herself that it was like Holland in the jewel-box neatness of little streets and little houses—behold the Riviera, with groups of palms among tropical flowers, and feathery pepper-trees, graceful and large as giant willows! Then, when she had decided on Italy or Southern France as a simile, far-off, sharp mountain peaks, a dark, grotesquely branching pine in filmy distance, and a doll's house with a red pointed roof, suggested a sketch on a Japanese fan.
This was a spick-and-span little world for a perpetual honeymoon, and at the entrance of the streets there should have been signs, Angela thought, saying, "No one but brides and grooms need apply." It was all distractingly pretty; and though Angela had already admired the big handsome houses of Los Angeles and Pasadena, these rose-bowered bungalows caught her fancy more. After all, there is a sameness about millionaires' mansions the whole world over; but here was something new, invented by California.
Cupid himself might have been the architect so daintily was each little dwelling planned for the happiness of two lovers; so, of course, all the women who lived in these houses must be young and beautiful. All the men must be handsome, and husbands and wives must adore each other. No creatures old or fat or inclined to be disagreeable would dare come house-hunting here; or if they did come, surely some wise suburban by-law would rule them out! Once in, as residents, the happy lovers would remain forever young.
"It's to be Riverside to-morrow, ain't it?" Sealman inquired, when, full two hours later than she had expected, he brought her back to the door of her hotel.
Angela hesitated. In California, at most times of year, it is hopeless to use the weather as a handle to hang an excuse upon. She looked at the sky. It was a vast inverted cup of turquoise.
"Are you sure the car is equal to so long a run?" she asked mildly.
The likeness between Mr. Sealman and a codfish became so marked that Angela feared he was going to be ill.
"You don't know what the car can do," he answered reproachfully.
"Perhaps not," she admitted. "Very well, we'll start at eight."
"Better make it earlier."
She made it earlier, and was actually ready; but at half-past eight Sealman appeared on foot. Of the car's health he said nothing, but of his mother's health he said much. She had suffered a relapse. The doctor had been with her all night. How Sealman was going to pay the bill he did not know. Would Mrs. May go to Santa Catalina Island this morning, and to Riverside to-morrow? There was time to catch the boat.
The doctor's bill was a trump card. Angela consented to wait for Riverside, and she took Kate to that fair island loved by Californians, and by fishermen all over the world.
The name Avalon alone would have lured her; for who would not set sail for Avalon at a moment's notice?
Santa Catalina is Corsica in miniature, Corsica without Napoleon or vendetta. But it has sea-gardens, fathoms deep under green water, where flowers bloom and fish glitter in a dazzle of jewelled armour beneath the glass floors of flat-bottomed boats. The fishermen were catching yellow-tail that day, too, just as Franklin Merriam had caught them in his time; and his daughter went back to Los Angeles full of thoughts of him.
To-morrow was to be held sacred to her father's memory; for his old home, vanished off the face of the earth now, had been near Riverside. Angela wanted the day to be perfect, unmarred by trouble or vexation; and though she had her fears, when morning came the Model started off so well that hope began to rise.
Making a detour, they spun past the old Mission San Gabriel, where she had arrived ignominiously by trolley four days ago; and turning for a look at the facade, Angela saw a yellow car drawn up in the fleecy shadow of a pepper-tree. A chauffeur sat next the driver's empty seat, apparently half asleep.
"That's the motor I wanted to ask you about, a day or two ago," Angela said, bending forward to speak to Sealman—for she had kept her resolution to sit behind him. "It's the handsomest I've seen; and we've met it several times; two men in it always, in chauffeur's caps and goggles."
"Oh, that car!" remarked the inventor with indifference. "That's what we call Smith's Folly. Thad Smith, a fellow who made a pile of money, had the thing built to order, and it brought him bad luck—lost every cent the day she was finished, and he's been trying to sell her ever since. I wouldn't take her for a present."
Angela leaned back, hiding a smile behind her motor veil. She did not believe that Mr. Sealman would have the offer. His little car looked a badly made toy compared with that golden chariot. She wondered if it had been sold, or if it would be worth while to make inquiries. Somebody was perhaps trying it, she thought, for often it followed the road taken by Sealman; or, when their car broke down, as it usually did, the yellow giant shot ahead, disappeared and occasionally appeared again.
"I should like to find out if it's still for sale," she said to herself, gazing back admiringly. "Why shouldn't I have a motor of my own?"
As the Model trundled her out of sight, a man walked round the corner, and, springing into the yellow car, took the driver's seat.
THE MAN AT THE WHEEL
Nick had not been visiting the Mission that day. But he had been there before, gabbling fluent Spanish with the verger. This was more than Angela could do, though she knew the cathedrals of Spain! In the morning Nick had made an early start with his new car, and, after four long days of constant practice, at last he experienced the joy of confidence in himself, at the wheel. He was now licensed to drive, and the yellow automobile was his, body and soul.
The chauffeur, a reedy and extremely young youth, with a sharp nose and a keen sense of humour, had scraped acquaintance with Sealman. Without giving away any information on his side, he had always contrived to find out, if not where the Model was going, at least where it was hoped she might go. It was to be Riverside to-day; and after a preliminary spin from six to eight, Nick had been lingering near the Mission, paying a friendly visit to the owner of the Big Grapevine and the Trained Owls. This man was the most taciturn of mortals. But something behind the locked windows of his soul recognized a congenial spirit in the open windows of Nick Hilliard's, and the two had made friends years ago. The morning's call was a renewal of old acquaintance; and the sea-green light under the Grapevine was as clear as on another May day, when Nick was six years younger. The alligators were larger; but the white-faced owls were unchanged—unless perhaps a little wiser, a little more instructed in the oldest secrets of an old, secretive world.