"See the way that white-veiled witch stares at me with her golden eyes?" said Nick. "Wish I could flatter myself she remembers me."
"Of course she remembers," said her master, "She's the same one told your fortune when you were here before."
"I asked her if I was going to amount to anything in the world, and she nodded her head three times. I felt like sending her a present when Gaylor made me foreman, and again when I got my ranch. She ought to have had a diamond crown when the gusher came. But, like an ungrateful beast, I forgot all about her."
"She knows her business," said the Grapevine man. "Three nods mean three big strokes of luck."
"Good king!" exclaimed Nick. "I hope that doesn't mean I'm not going to have any more than three?"
"Anything you want in particular?"
"Well, yes, there is something I'm sort of set on."
"Ask her if you get your wish."
Nick fixed his eyes upon the owl.
"Do I get my wish?"
She sat motionless on her perch for a moment, consulting her oracle. Then she suddenly lifted her wings and flapped violently.
"Is that the best answer you can give?" Nick reproached her.
The owl repeated the gesture.
"I guess you want something she doesn't approve of," said the Grapevine man.
"She might give me a civil 'yes' or 'no.' See here, you Witch of Endor—do I get my wish?"
The owl closed her eyes, then opened them with a sudden flash of gold, but would neither nod nor shake her head.
"She knows, but she won't tell," said her master. "Maybe she doesn't want to upset your feelings."
"She can't scare me with her mysteries," Nick laughed. "I'm going right ahead on the same lines." Then he said good-bye to his friend and went out to his motor. But there was enough of the boy in him to be disappointed because the white witch had refused an answer.
The car had a proud way of dismissing the landscape impatiently, if given her head; but as her new owner was not out to show what he could do, she was compelled to crawl when she would have flown, like Pegasus harnessed to the plough.
To-day, the task of subduing herself was not so painful as usual, for the blue car went on mile after mile, through the far-stretching orange groves, without a stop; and Nick enjoyed driving.
"Wish I could remember," he thought, "how I felt when I was a kid, and walked alone across a room the first time without tumbling on my nose. I wonder if it was as good as this?"
"This" was very good indeed, and would have been good anywhere—for Nick was, according to his own way of putting it, a "crank" about doing well whatever he undertook, and he knew now that he had conquered the machine—but on such a road, and in the light and shade of orange groves, it was superlative.
The vast plain, walled with mountains, was an endless city of domed green temples, richly decorated with the gold of the late orange crop. Beyond its boundary were vines, cut close in Spanish fashion, which perhaps the Fathers had taught in Mission days; and there were tall, pink-trunked eucalyptus trees from whose wood beautiful furniture could be made; then cities of green and golden temples again, in a desert-frame of tawny yellow. Everything that was not green was golden. The sun poured gold; oranges blazed in golden splendour; and California poppies, golden with orange hearts, swept in a yellow flame over the landscape.
"Gold under the earth, and gold over the earth," thought Nick. "That's California!" And he thought, too, of the gold of Angela's hair. "She'd look mighty well in this yellow car, floating along among the white and gold of oranges and orange-blossoms, all white and gold herself," he said. "And she's going to look well in it. That's what I got it for. That's what I've been working for till this auto's fit to eat out of my hand. And gee! but I've been going some!"
He grinned under his motor mask as he recalled the strenuous hours. He had enjoyed them, but he had hated the mask; and so soon as the time came—he thought it must come soon—when he could reap the reward of labour he meant to shed the abomination. It had served its purpose by letting him come by accident once or twice within full sight of the Model, safe from recognition. He had not wanted Mrs. May to find out prematurely that he was dogging her tire tracks in a car which might have shot past her like a comet. She had misunderstood him too often already, and he wished her to think him safe at Lucky Star Ranch; until the moment when she would rejoice to see him at any price.
More than once during the last four days of practice and probation Nick had been tempted to offer his services. But common-sense had held him back when the blue car was in trouble. It had warned him that a little bitter experience might incline the lady to be lenient. Several minor breakdowns, disappointments, and vexations were needed before she would see matters eye to eye with him. And Nick thought himself lucky that, so far, the Model had not been permanently disabled. Now, if anything happened, he was ready.
* * * * *
Sealman had the air of slowing down, after an unusually long nonstop run, to show off his acquaintance with the country. "That great sandy stretch is the bed of the Santa Ana," said he. "Why, there's so much sand and so little water mostly, they have to sprinkle the bed to keep it from flyin' about the landscape, as if 'twas a pile o' feathers. It ain't like the Oro, where first they found gold, and then, when they thought they'd got the lot, come across more in the cobbles. Not only that, but by some scientific process or other—you wouldn't understand if I told you—they washed the river-bed, so the sand and stones riz. 'Stirrin' up the alluvial deposits' was what they called it; till they could get hold of the cobbles again, to crush 'em for road-makin'. Roads was needed bad them days! And at last they hauled out the mud from the bottom to plaster over the desert that was here, so oranges and olives and grapes could take to growin'. Sort of wonderful, wasn't it?"
Angela could have told him a great deal more than he had told her, about these "scientific processes," for her father had been one of the men most interested in their success. But she kept her knowledge to herself.
"Yes, it's wonderful," she replied. "But—don't you think we'd better be going on? We've a long way before us, according to the map."
"Yes, we'll go right on," said Sealman. "I just thought I'd stop her and point out the Santa Ana, for fear you'd miss it." He was anxious to conceal the fact that it was the Model who had "just thought," but, urging her to begin again where she had left off, the little brute refused to budge.
"Is anything wrong?" asked Angela, when Sealman had worked in worried silence for several minutes.
"Can't see nothing," said he, increasing in codfishiness. "She'll be all right in a minute. Give her time to breathe!"
Angela gave her time to breathe, but the minute passed, and other minutes limped after. Sealman sweated and grunted under the open lid of the bright bonnet. Angela was sorry for him. But she was more sorry for herself, as she counted the nearest rows of orange-trees for the twenty-fifth time, following them with her eyes, as they ran up the ankles and legs of the little yellow mountains. It was luncheon-time, and she was hungry. She had been reading about the Mission Inn at Riverside, and picturing herself there, in a cool, large dining-room.
"How far are we from a railway station?" she asked desperately, when her watch said that they had sat by the Santa Ana's bedside for thirty-five minutes.
"Can't tell you that, ma'am," snapped Sealman. "But it's too far to walk, unless you've got seven-league boots."
"What's the matter? Haven't you found out yet?"
"Thought it might be the pump. But it doesn't seem to be. I give it up!" And he wiped his forehead with a handkerchief that left green streaks of oil.
"But you mustn't give it up. We can't stop here all day."
Sealman grinned viciously. Perhaps he, too, hungered. Certainly he was hot, and felt like a Socialist. What was this young woman that she should sit there comfortably and nag him while he was down in the dust? "I don't see any reason against our stayin' all day," said he. "And I guess the machine don't."
"Hateful little beast!" exclaimed Angela.
"Who, me or the Model?" Sealman wanted to know.
"I meant the—alleged—Model. She's a fraud—a horror. If only I get—somewhere—I don't care where—I'll never come out with you again, never, never!"
"You're engaged to me till the end of the month," said Sealman as firmly as if he alluded to a promise of marriage. "I've refused two other gentlemen. If you don't use the machine, you'll pay, anyhow."
Angela would have given much if she had brought Kate. To be alone with these two monsters in an uninhabited world under a blazing sun, passionately hungry and futilely angry, was a dull adventure.
"You know perfectly well I engaged you only for three or four days," she said. "That settles it! You shall not cheat me. And since you don't seem to know what's to become of you or your car for the rest of the day, I shall decide on my own movements. I'm going to walk."
She sprang out; and Nick, awaiting developments at a safe distance of a hundred yards in the background, saw a slim gray figure separate itself from the motionless Model.
"Now's my time, I reckon," he said to himself, and started the car, which could be done from the chauffeur's seat. He drove at low speed, as if he were out to enjoy the scenery, and slowed down gently beside Angela, who was walking in the direction of Riverside. At that rate she might have reached the nearest railway station in an hour and a half.
Nick's goggles and chauffeur's hat were off. "Why, how do you do, Mrs. May?" he asked, in his pleasant voice. "Your machine's broke down for good this time, I'm afraid. Now do let me give you a lift."
"Mr. Hilliard!" cried Angela, taken completely by surprise, as she looked up from under her sunshade. "Where are you going?"
"I've no particular choice," said Nick. "I'm only in this part of the country because this part of the country happens to be here. I'd be just as pleased if 'twas anywhere else. Where are you going?"
Angela began to laugh, and could not stop laughing. Nick, seeing this, and seeing that she looked a schoolgirl of sixteen in her little motor-bonnet, ventured to laugh too.
"I was taking to the desert," she said. "But I wanted to go to Riverside. Is—is this the same old story?"
She could not put her meaning more plainly, because of Mr. Hilliard's chauffeur; but Nick understood. "I've been learnin' to drive, the last few days," he said. "And I've seen you, now and then, runnin' about in that little car. It's an old acquaintance of mine. Sealman tried to sell it to me last winter. I was sort of sorry to see he'd got hold of you." Nick was out in the road now, standing beside her, and the big yellow car was purring an invitation.
"I was sorry for him," said Angela. "But I'm not now. He's a cheat. He pretends I've engaged the car for a fortnight."
"I guess he won't go on along that line now he's seen who I am," remarked Nick, "because if he does, I'll make his Model an orphan. He remembers me from last winter. I'll deal with him for you, if you please."
Angela laughed again. "Thank you! He doesn't seem likely to go on very soon, along any line, does he?"
"Shouldn't wonder if that car's ball-bearings ain't broken," said the sharp-nosed chauffeur. "That's a real favourite accident of Sealman's. We've got to know it by heart in Los Angeles. It generally happens with him—across a trolley track. Takes all day to dismount and fix up again."
"We can't go away and leave him to his fate," said Angela. "After all, he's human."
Nick could have shouted "Hurrah!" That "we" of hers told him that he had won.
"Shall we tow him to the next town?" he asked, keeping triumph out of his tone. "We'll land him in a garage. And then—if instead of his car you'll take mine to Riverside, why, I'll be mighty honoured."
"You expected me to come to grief!" she said.
"Well, I knew that Model."
"And you've been——"
"Just practising with my new machine. I thought I might as well keep around in your neighbourhood as anywhere."
"I've seen your car. But you were so goggled——"
"I hated to have you misunderstand me again, till I could explain. I thought maybe some day you'd be a little glad to see me—not for myself, but for—"
"Myself!" Angela finished. "Yes, I'm selfish enough to be glad now—very glad. You're a friend in need."
"Then I'm happy. That's all I ask to be—just a friend in need. Will you let me drive you to Riverside?"
"I'd let you drive me—anywhere, to lunch. But you mustn't ask just now if I've forgiven you. It would be taking an unfair advantage of a shipwrecked mariner."
"I shouldn't think of doing such a low-down thing," protested the forest creature.
THE BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY OF MAKE-BELIEVE
Nick refrained from mentioning this to Mrs. May, but when he had last seen the Mission Inn at Riverside he had thought that he would like to come there, next time, on his wedding trip. There had been no bride in view then, or since; but now he remembered that wish. It was a good omen that fate should have made the one woman of all the world his companion to-day.
He had not expected such a wonderful stroke of luck. The little blue auto might actually have gone a whole day without mishap, or might not have collapsed until after Mrs. May had lunched alone at the Glenwood. But here they were, he and she, in his yellow car, sailing into Riverside together; he driving, Angela by his side, talking as kindly as if she had forgiven him his sins without being asked. If he had not thought it "wasn't playing fair," he would have "made believe" like a small boy building air-castles, pretending that it really was a wedding trip, and that he and his Angel were about to have their first luncheon together.
"But she'd hate me even to make believe," he said to himself. "No! It wouldn't be a fair dream to have, behind her back."
Yet it was difficult not to dream. Angela was so delighted with the garden city watched by desert hills; and she said so innocently, "What sweet houses for brides and grooms! Oh, no one except people in love ought to live here!" that Nick had to bang the door of his dream-house with violence. And for the first time since he had fallen in love with Angela, he began to say, "Why not—why shouldn't I try to make her care? There are folks who think you need only to want a thing enough to get it."
She appeared to him radiant as a being from a higher planet. Never could she be content with his world, he had told himself. Dimly and wordlessly he had felt that here was a creature who had reached an orchidlike perfection through a long process of evolution, and generations of luxury. The earth was her playground. Men in Greenland hunted seal, and in Russia beautiful animals died, merely that she should have rich fur to fold round her shoulders. In the South perfumes were distilled for her. There were whole districts engaged in weaving velvets and silks that she might have dresses worthy of her loveliness, and men spent their lives toiling in mines to find jewels for her arms and fingers, or dived under deep waters to bring up pearls for her pleasure. It was right and just that it should be so, for there was nothing under heaven fairer than she. And since such things must always have been part of her life, because she was born for them and would take them for granted, was it reasonable to hope that she would waste two thoughts on a man like Nick Hilliard, a fellow reared on hardships, who had learned to read in night schools, and had considered it promotion to punch cattle?
All this was as true to-day in Riverside as it had been in New York and New Orleans. Angela was prettier than ever in the simple dress she wore for motoring, and the gray silk cap that framed her face, making a halo of her pale gold hair. Her dainty and expensive clothes were a part of her individuality, as its petals are of a rose; and she appeared to think of them no more than a nun thinks of her veil. But Nick felt this morning that Angela had come down from her shining heights to be human with him. She laughed like a schoolgirl, in sheer pleasure of motion which the big car gave after martyrdom with the Model. She had travelled all over the Old World, yet she said there was nothing anywhere prettier than Riverside; no such petticoated palms as those that trailed the gray fans of other years down to their feet like the feathers of giant owls; no such pepper-trees; no such cypresses even in Italy, as these standing black as burnt-out torches against the desert sky; no such rose-covered bungalows; and, above all, no hotel so quaint as the Mission Inn.
The hour for luncheon was past, but Nick ordered flowers and a feast for a dream-bride. Then, while it was preparing, the two walked in the garden court and under pergolas where bunches of wistaria, lit from above by the sun, hung like thousands of amethyst lanterns.
"I shall build a house like this in miniature," said Angela, half to herself. "I can't have the shrines and the 'Mission' Arches with the bell-windows; but I can have the court and the arcades and the pergolas; and a well and lots of fountains. Inside there shall be walls of natural wood, and great beams across the ceilings, and big brick chimneys—'Mission' furniture too, and Indian rugs and pottery. I can hardly wait to begin that house!"
"Where will it be?" Nick asked, afraid of the answer.
"In California somewhere," she said.
"You mean it?"
"Oh, yes! I don't know where, yet. I'm falling in love with the South now, but I won't let myself fall too deep in, till I've seen the North."
"If you're in love, can you keep yourself from falling deeper in?" said Nick. "I don't think I could; I'd sure have to let myself go."
It had been so good to see the forest creature at the moment when he was needed most, that Angela had melted toward him as snow melts in the spring sun. She had not only forgiven, but forgotten—for the moment—that there had been things to forgive; so she answered this question of his, humanly and simply. "I wonder?" she said. "If it were not a question of a country, but a person? I can't tell. I've never fallen deep in." Then she pulled herself up abruptly. "Luncheon must be ready," she went on in a changed voice. "I'm starving, aren't you?"
"Starving!" Nick answered mechanically. But he was saying in his heart, "She's never been in love! Hooray!"
The thought shot new colour into existence. "I'll pull the world up by the roots to get her," he thought. "And she wants to live in California! Maybe, if I try to make myself all over again, a little worthier—a little more like what she's used to, at last she——" It seemed sacrilege to finish the sentence.
It was for this end, to "make himself more like what she was used to," that he had bought the new clothes in New York. They had not been a success. But, luckily for his happiness to-day, he did not know how Angela had laughed when she saw the shiny shoes outside his door.
Never was a luncheon like that which they ate together in the great cool dining-room, whence everybody else had vanished long ago. Angela sat facing one of the big windows, and a green light filtering through rose-arbours gave her skin the luminous, pearly reflections that artists love to paint. Up in the minstrels' gallery a harpist played, softly, old Spanish airs.
"Before you decide where to live, will you come to my part of the country?" Nick asked, his eyes drinking in the picture. "There's a ranch you'd admire, I think. Not mine. I'd like you to see that, too. But the one I mean is a show place. It belongs to Mrs. Gaylor, the widow of my old boss. She's a mighty nice woman, and handsome as a picture. She's pretty lonely and likes visitors. If she invites you, will you come?"
"Perhaps, some day," said Angela, in a mood to humour him, because everything round her was so charming that to refuse a request would have sounded a jarring note. Not that she had the slightest intention of visiting Mrs. Gaylor, the widow of Mr. Hilliard's "old boss."
"But I've mapped out a programme for myself already," she went on, "which may take a long time, for if I like a place very much I shan't want to hurry away. For instance, maybe I shall have a whim to come back here and stay a week or a fortnight. You see, some one I loved dearly, long ago, lived in California, and there are parts of the country I want to visit, for his sake as well as my own."
This was a blow in spite of her late confession. But in a moment he took courage. If this girl (who looked eighteen and couldn't be much over twenty) had loved a man long ago, that man must have been a father or an uncle. And with a sense of relief he remembered the miniature frame.
"Would you tell me what parts you want to see most of all?" he asked, with an air of humility which was engaging in a man so big, so strong, and brown.
Angela's eyes smiled mischief.
"Why do you want to know?" she catechized him. "I think you'll admit that after—after several things which have happened, I've a right to ask—a question, before I answer yours."
"I know. You're afraid I'll want to be following you again," said Nick. "But following wasn't in my mind. I want to take you in my new automobile."
She stared in amazement.
"You extraordinary person! As if I could do such a thing!"
"Why not?" He asked it meekly, looking boyish, ready to be rebuked and snubbed—and yet to make his point. "I expect, when you were at home—wherever that was—you were used to travelling sometimes with your maid, in a motor, and nobody else except your chauffeur?" (Nick pronounced this word rather originally, but this was a detail.)
"Certainly. That's entirely different."
"Now you've got a cat too."
Angela broke into laughter. This man, and this day, were unique. She was delighted with herself for forgiving Mr. Hilliard. Because, of course, she could unforgive him again at any minute, if it seemed really best.
When a woman laughs at your bon mot, there is hope. There is also happiness. Nick felt both. They came in a gust, like a spray of perfume in his face, taking his breath away. "I believe she'll do it," he said to that sympathetic chum—himself, who was taking the kindliest interest in his love affairs. "It's up to me now."
"And in my car you'd have two shuvvers. What with us both, and your Irish maid, and your black cat, wouldn't we be enough to take care of you?"
"You're not a real chauffeur," said Angela.
"I've been qualifying for the article, and if I do say it myself I'm as smart a driver this minute as you could find in California."
Angela shook her head. "You amuse me, because you're quite, quite different from any man I ever saw, but—I'm afraid I can't engage you as my chauffeur."
"Not if I could give you a first-rate character, ma'am?"
"Don't call me 'ma'am'!" Angela reminded him. "It's too realistic, Mr. Would-be-Chauffeur."
"I call you 'Angel' behind your back. You can't say you won't be an angel, because 'twould be irreligious."
"I used to play at being one when I was a wee thing," said Angela, her eyes far away. "Bed was the sky. The pillows and sheets were white clouds tumbling all round me. I could bury myself in them. I made believe I was disguised as a child by day, but the door of dreams let me into heaven."
"It mostly does," Nick mumbled. Then he said aloud, "If you used to like making believe then, wouldn't you just try it for a little while now? Make believe I'm going to take you round in my car, and I'll tell you some of the things that will happen to us."
"Well—it couldn't do any harm to make believe just for a few minutes, could it?" Angela wondered if she were flirting with the forest creature. But no. Certainly not. She never flirted, not even with the men of her own world, as most of the young women she knew were in the habit of doing. This was not flirting. It was only playing—and letting him play a little too—at "making believe."
"What would happen to us?" she asked.
"Well, shall we begin with to-day—what's left of it?—or skip on to to-morrow?"
"I hate putting off things till to-morrow—if they're pleasant."
"So do I, and this would be pleasant. When you'd seen all you wanted of the Mission Inn, I'd drive you along Magnolia Avenue, that's walled in with those owl-palms in gray petticoats. As you go down it looks like a high gray wall in a fort, with bunches of green at the top, and roses trained over it. We'd run up Mount Rubidoux, that has a grand, curlycue sort of road to the top, where there's one of the old Mission bells, and a cross, and a plaque in memory of the best Father of 'em all, Juniperra Serra. Rubidoux's one of those yellow desert mountains, the biggest of the lot, with a view of Riverside, and miles of orange groves like a big garden at its foot. We'd sit up there awhile, and I'd tell you a story of General Fremont, when he passed in the grand old days. Then we'd spin on to Redlands, and see the park and the millionaires' houses——"
"I like the lovers' bungalows best."
"Do you? Would you like one better for yourself?"
"A thousand times!" But she broke that silken thread quickly. "Go on. What would we do next?"
"Oh, next an orange-packing factory. You'd enjoy seeing the oranges running like mad down a sloping trough, pretending they're all equal, till the boys watching spy out the bruised ones that are sneaking along, and pitch 'em away before they can say 'knife.' By and by the small, no-account oranges are sent about their business, which is to play second fiddle, and the big, noble-fellows, who're worthy to succeed, fall first into the hands of girls, who wrap them up in squares of white paper. My faith, but those girls' hands go fast! It makes you feel like heat-lightning just to watch 'em fly! Anybody who wants to can order a box of picked oranges, each wrapped in paper, with a lady's name and a verse in her honour printed on it. Lots of fellows do that. When you'd seen the factory I'd drive you back to Los Angeles, and we'd get there after dark. But there's a searchlight on my car equal to a light on a battleship, and her name alone's enough to illuminate the road. I've christened her Bright Angel."
He paused for half a second; but if the analogy meant anything to his companion she did not choose that he should know. "And then?" she said.
"Then—if you'd seen enough of Los Angeles, I'd ask you to let your Irish girl pack up. And I'd start off with you—for good. I mean, you and the maid, and the cat, and Billy. Billy's the other shuvver, besides me. I'd take you to Santa Barbara."
"That's one of the places on my programme."
"Another of my places. But I want to go to the Yosemite. You couldn't motor me there."
"I could guide you. I've known horses longer than I've known motors. And I know the Yosemite. Once I got hurt in a kind of accident. I wasn't good for much, for a while afterward. And as I couldn't do any work I went and loafed in the Yosemite Valley. I'd always wanted to go. It was grand. But it would be heaven to see it again with y—with an angel."
Angela traced the steel embroidery on a gray suede bag which lay on the table. She had got it the other day to serve as understudy for the gold bag which was "taboo" for public use at present. She was glad that the forest creature did not know, and never would know, that she had secretly bought back his gold bag. If he found out, it might be his turn to misunderstand.
"How were you hurt in an accident?" she asked, for the sake of diverting the talk from angels.
"It was in a fire," said Nick.
"Oh! On your ranch."
"No. In San Francisco."
Her interest grew. "In the great fire?"
"Did you live in San Francisco then?"
"No. I just went there."
"I think I guess. You went on purpose to help?"
"I felt as if every man ought to do what he could. I couldn't do much. Shall we go on making believe?"
"You don't like talking of your good deeds."
"Oh, good deeds! I don't like talking of myself when there are better things to talk of. I could make you out a tour in the Yosemite, Mrs. May. You shouldn't travel by the ordinary stages. I'd get you something special, for the driving parts; and you should have the finest trail pony in California. I'd give ten years off my life to show you the Big Trees. There are some mighty fine ones in other places, you know; the Santa Cruz forest is splendid. But it's the Mariposa Big Trees, in the Yosemite, I mean. We'd drive from Wawona early in the morning, one day, and stay till the sunset. You can't think what sunset's like among the giant Sequoias, with the red light, like a rain of ruby stars, falling through the branches. And those trees are God's own architecture. I guess even you have never seen a cathedral to touch it; because there can't be one. All day you should stay in the forest. I'd find you places for lunch and dinner, and the squirrels would come and help you eat."
"It does sound nice," said Angela, bewitched by the picture.
"It would be—the nicest thing that ever happened. Only 'nice' ain't a big enough word. Can't it come true? Think, with your cat and your Kate and your trail guide? You called me a 'friend in need.' Can't I be your guide in need? You'd have to get a guide for the Valley. Why not me?"
"We've only known each other a few days."
"Any other guide would be a stranger. And I guess, Mrs. May, if that's all, we know each other as well as a good many, who call themselves friends, get to know one another in years. Do you ever find out anything about people that you didn't feel the first moment you set eyes on them?"
"Well—you did save my life!" she conceded. "I can't get away from that."
"Do you mind not getting away from it?"
"Then will you take me for your shuvver and trial guide to those places? I won't ask you any more, now. You can send me packing afterward, if you don't think I live up to the character Mr. Morehouse has given you of me."
"Mr. Morehouse! I haven't heard from him since my first day in New York."
"I mean the other Mr. Morehouse, his brother—your banker. Henry wired to him from New York. And he was writing you, to say, if you hadn't got anybody who knew the ropes to see you through your excursions, you couldn't do better than let Hilliard of Lucky Star be your pilot—kind of courier, you know. Both the Morehouses vouch for me, though it's Henry who's my friend. All strangers who come to have a look around California take a Californian to show them the sights. If you haven't got Mr. Morehouse's letter, it must be waiting for you. I reckon it ought to have arrived last night or this morning. And if you find he recommends me as a trustworthy man, will you think the plan over, before you say no?"
"You take my breath away! But—ye-es. I'll think it over. I suppose one really can do things in America one wouldn't do anywhere else?"
"That's why there's so much emigration," replied Nick, gravely.
"And I should be studying California through you, I suppose? I begin to see that you're a typical Californian."
"No," Nick contradicted her. "You mustn't get hold of that impression. It wouldn't be playing the game for me to let you. The typical Californian's a very different man: a grand chap, and I reckon more like the sort you're used to."
Angela smiled. "Describe him."
"Well, I'm not much at description. You'll meet the kind I mean when you get to San Francisco, if you don't before. The two Morehouses are the right sort; and lots of others. John Falconer's one of the best. Have you ever heard of him?"
"Yes," said Angela. "I remember his name. My—friends of mine have spoken of him, though he was younger, and made his fame later."
"I should like you to come across him," said Nick, full of enthusiasm for the man he admired, and devoid of small jealousy. "Falconer was one of the grandest lawyers California ever had; and in a way he made himself, though he came of the best blood we've got." (Nick would not have dreamed of mentioning that his own blood was as good. He, like most men of the West, thought more of his horses' pedigree than his own, and he would as readily have boasted of his handsome looks as of his father's people—the people who had disowned that father, and sent him to starve. But now he was boasting of and for California. That was legitimate.) "Falconer's the wisest and most far-seeing politician we have," he went on, "and deserves his luck—the money's he's made and the name he's won. He's high up on one of our biggest railroads, too, since he gave up law because he'd no time to follow it; and he's not much over forty now. That's California, Mrs. May. That's typical. Falconer's as different from a rough fellow like me, as—as I hope I'm different from Sealman."
"You're a loyal friend," Angela said, admiring the fire in his eyes and the glow on his face as she would have admired an impressionist sketch for a portrait by Sargent. "Only this man ought to be a fresco," she told herself as she followed out the picture-simile. "He's too big and spirited and unconventional to be put into a frame."
"Oh, I'm not a personal friend of Falconer's," Nick hastened to explain. "Wish I were! I've met him when he's been to the Gaylor ranch—the ranch I want you to visit. But I expect he'd hardly remember me. And now you see that I'm not typical, maybe you'll think there's no place for me on your map. But I have my uses. I'm warranted sure and sound. And wouldn't I just be ready to die tryin', if you'd let me, to give you the time of your life in California?"
"I've always heard that Californian men are chivalrous and kind."
"Oh, kind! That's a funny word."
"And these plans you draw for me are—are the sort of thing to make a woman feel glad there are men in the world willing to take so much trouble——"
"They're the sort of thing to make a man glad there are women—or better still, a woman—to work for," he amended, so good to look at in his enthusiasm, that Angela's eyes would not be banished to the suede bag or to the flowers on the table—Nick's flowers.
"But," she went on, "but——"
"Don't say that word to-day," Nick begged. "Whatever you decide afterward, let me take you up to Rubidoux and on to Redlands? Make up your mind about the rest when you've seen Mr. Morehouse's letter."
"Very well," she said. "Just for to-day, the 'make-believe' shall come true."
Nick turned away his face lest it should betray him.
"Thank you," he said quietly. "Well, then, I reckon it's time I went to round up Billy. And we'll hit the breeze for Rubidoux and Redlands."
They saw the park and the millionaires' houses and the orange-packing, passing on the way picturesque little towns, with Indian and Mexican names, which charmed the eyes and ears of Angela. And always the air was sweet with scent of orange-blossoms, roses, and alfalfa, the life of the country. Once, at Redlands, Nick excused himself and jumped out of the car at a shop. He was gone three or four minutes; but when he came back he said nothing of any purchase.
It was only when he was bidding Mrs. May good night at her hotel door that, with a schoolboy air, he pulled a small package out of his pocket.
"Talking of typical Californian things," he said, trying to seem careless, "here's one. I thought, as it's only a little bouquet in a bottle—a few flowers distilled—you might accept it. But if you want to give it back, I'll take it like a lamb. It's—because you love California—I want you to have it. Don't open the paper till you get indoors. And you'll send me word whether you can go along farther in the country of make-believe?"
"Of course. I'll telephone."
"Early enough for us to start, if—if the answer's yes?"
"As soon as I wake up. Will that do?"
"That will do. And let it depend on your dreams. I'll trust my luck to them. Because dreams are in the country of make-believe; sometimes they are good—so good they make you want to go on and on. Besides, there'll be the Morehouse letter. I bank on that. But more on the dreams."
The letter had come. Angela found it when she got back to her hotel, and meant to read it at once, as a letter from so important a man deserved. But Nick's package was in her hand, and she was tempted to untie the gold string.
Inside was a fancy bottle of perfume, bound round with quantities of narrow rose-coloured ribbon.
"Parfait d'Amour. Made of California Flowers," announced the blossomy label. And Angela broke into laughter, repeating the name aloud, "Parfait d'Amour!"
She had laughed very often that day.
"He knew I wouldn't give it back to him," she thought. "That would be worse than keeping it and saying nothing."
She put the bottle down on her dressing-table, and took up the letter from Mr. Morehouse the banker. It was a pleasant letter, extremely satisfactory from Hilliard's point of view. It was evident that, in the two brothers opinion, there was no reason why she should not accept the services of Mr. Nickson Hilliard, in seeing California. The banker, who alone knew (and would not tell) that Mrs. May was the Princess di Sereno, said "Hilliard, who was to be introduced to you in New York if my brother had not been ill, is a man your father would have approved. You are not travelling alone, I understand, but have your servant. You can trust Hilliard as a kind of glorified guide, which he wishes to be, I understand, partly out of friendship for my brother (who hoped to show you about), partly because he—in common with all of us Californians—is proud of our State, and likes nothing better than bringing its beauty spots to the notice of sympathetic strangers. That, I am sure, the daughter of my old friend Merriam must be; and I am looking forward to her arrival in San Francisco, which place I am too busy to leave at present. I hope our meeting may be soon; and wish I were a married man, that I might have the pleasure of entertaining 'Mrs. May' in my house."
When Angela had read the letter twice she let it fall, and again took up the bottle of perfume. Untying the bow of pink ribbon, she pulled out the heart-shaped glass stopper, and breathed the fragrance of "Parfait d'Amour, made from California flowers."
The name might be laughable, but the fragrance was exquisite as the sweet air among the orange groves.
Angela sighed, without knowing that she sighed, as she put the bottle down and pushed it away.
She did not even look at it again until she was ready to switch off the electric light, and try to sleep, after Kate had finished her ministrations. Then, once more, Mrs. May sniffed daintily at the "Parfait d'Amour," as a bird hovers near a tempting crumb thrown by a hand it fears. She wondered what flowers made up this sweetness, so different from any perfume she had known.
"It's California," she said to herself. "Essence of California."
Long after she had gone to bed, Angela lay awake, not restless, but vaguely excited, as she listened to a mouse in the hinterland of the wall, and thought her own thoughts, that floated from subject to subject. But always she could smell the perfume which—or she imagined it—filled the room with its sweetness. It was a pity that the scent had been given such a silly name!
"If the people of this country can be unconventional when they like, why shouldn't I be unconventional, if I like?" she asked of the darkness. "It's so gay and amusing to make believe, and so—beautiful." It occurred to her that she had just begun to live. Now a door had opened before her eyes, and she saw a new world that was big and glorious, ready to give her a welcome.
"There's something in being a married woman, and going about as I choose," she thought, "even if it is only in the country of make-believe. Why shouldn't I do what he asks me to do? I'm only Mrs. May, whom nobody knows! And it would be fun. I haven't had any fun since I was a little, little girl."
* * * * *
Perhaps Nick had been right to trust his luck to her dreams; or perhaps it was the influence of the letter. In any case, at eight o'clock next morning, Angela, with her hair hanging over her shoulders, and dreams still in her eyes, was ringing up Mr. Hilliard by telephone at the Alexandria Hotel.
"It's only to say that you may take me—and Kate—and the cat—and some luggage—to Santa Barbara this morning. That is, if you still want to? Oh, thanks! You're very kind. It's settled only about to-day, you know! Yes. Ten o'clock will suit me."
She hummed a dance-tune while Kate dressed her. And the room was still sweet with the fragrance of that strange perfume, "Parfait d'Amour made from California flowers."
She sat beside Nick in the yellow car, Kate (and black Timmy in a basket) behind with the sharp-nosed youth whom Hilliard called his "assistant." There was also luggage—enough to last for a few days, the rest had been sent on by train to San Francisco.
Nick enjoyed hearing Angela exclaim, "This is like Algeciras!" "That's like the Italian Riviera!" as the car ran on. It seemed wonderful that she should have seen all the most beautiful places in Europe, that she should hold their pictures in her mind now, comparing them with these new ones, yet that her heart should be in the New World—his world.
Near Santa Barbara the mountains came crowding down to the sea, as at Mentone; and on the horizon floated islands, mysterious as the mirage of Corsica seen from the Italian shore at sunrise. Over there, Nick told her, was a grotto, painted in many lovely colours; and boats dived into it on the crest of a wave. He had not heard of the Blue Grotto at Capri, but she described it; and so they went on, each with something to tell that the other did not know.
Two new battleships were trying their speed in the channel between Santa Barbara and the islands, and as the car turned into the park of the hotel the rivals raced into sight. Angela's eyes were dazzled with the brilliant sunshine, the blue of the sea, and the flaming colour of the geranium borders that burned like running fire the length of the mile-long drive. The veranda was crowded with people, but thinking only of the great ships in the bay she was conscious of seeing no one until a voice exclaimed, "Why, Princess, what a surprise to meet you here!"
It was a voice she knew, and if she could have stepped back into the car, pulled her motor-veil over her eyes, and asked Nick Hilliard to drive away, she would have been glad. But one does not do these things. One faces emergencies, and makes the best of them. Angela had been foolish, she told herself, not to think of running across somebody she knew. If she wished to hide herself, she must be more prudent; but for this time it was too late. There was Theodora Dene, of all people, waiting to meet her at the top of the steps!
"Oh, bother!" Angela had just time to whisper, before she found herself shaking hands with a tall, red-haired, hatless girl in a white dress. Theo Dene never wore a hat unless it were absolutely necessary, for her hair was her great attraction. It was splendid in the sun, as she came out of the shade to stand in the blaze of light, shaking Angela's hand and sending a long-lashed glance to Nick. She never looked at a woman if there were a man worth looking at within eye-shot. But she had no hypocrisy about this. She did not pretend to be a friend of women, though she was nice to them if they did not interfere with her and there was nothing better to do. She was twenty-eight, and confessed to twenty-four. She danced as well as a professional, sang French songs in what she called a "twilight voice," dressed better than most married women, did daring things, and had written two books which shocked Puritans. Some of her own experiences had been worked into her novels, which made them read realistically; and clergymen in England and America had preached against them; so, of course, they were a great success and sold enormously. Miss Dene herself was also a great success. She went where she liked, alone if she liked, and during a visit to Rome she had lured desirable men from ladies who were engaged in flirting with them. Angela, who was not flirting with any one, had been amused by the strange girl, but now she would have preferred a chance encounter with almost anybody else.
"Please call me Mrs. May," she whispered, as they shook hands. "I don't want to be known by the other name."
The tall young woman in white took in the situation, or a view of it, and the long green eyes (which she loved and copied for her heroines) smiled in a way that fascinated some people and displeased others. Angela thought that, with the strong sunlight bringing out the value of red hair, black brows, white skin, and white frock, she was like a striking poster, sketched in a few daring lines, with splashes of unshaded colour dashed in between.
"How do you do, Mrs. May?" the girl amended her greeting. "I thought I must be dreaming you."
"I'm not sure that I'm not dreaming myself," said Angela.
"I hope you haven't come here for your health?"
"I wanted to see California."
Miss Dene laughed. "That doesn't sound exciting. But perhaps it is." She glanced again at Hilliard, to whom a porter had come for directions about luggage. Nick was telling him that only Mrs. May's and the maid's luggage was to go in. He intended to stop at another hotel.
"Oh, do ask That to lunch with you, and invite me and my friends to your table," the girl suggested, in a stage whisper. "I never saw anything so beautiful. I must know him. I've been seeking a hero for my new book which I'm going to write about California, and I feel he's the one. Pity the sorrows of the poor author! If you don't," and she laughed to take away the sting, "I'll tell every one who you are. The reporters will get you—as they have me. But I liked it, and you wouldn't."
Angela wondered why she had ever admired red-haired women; and as for long, narrow green eyes, she now thought them hideous. She was sure, in spite of the laugh, that Miss Dene was capable of keeping her word.
"I intended to ask him to lunch with me in any case," she said calmly; and this was true. But it was to have been a repetition of yesterday; quiet and peaceful, and idyllic. "He is a Mr. Hilliard who has—been detailed by a friend of my father's to show me some places he knows. That's his car. If you and your friends would care to join us, I should be delighted of course." Then she turned away, moving back a step or two nearer the edge of the veranda, and thus closer to Nick.
"I hope you mean to have lunch with me here, Mr. Hilliard?" she said.
He looked up, his eyes asking if she really wanted him, or if politeness dictated the invitation. Hers gave no cue, so he did the simplest and most direct thing, which was to him the most natural thing.
"I should like to, very much," he said. "But you've found friends. I could come back afterward, and take you around Santa Barbara, unless——"
"One of the friends was glad when she heard you being invited," Theo Dene broke in. "And the other friends are so new, Mrs. May hasn't met them yet. You shall be introduced all together in a bunch."
Of course, at that Nick came up the steps and joined Angela. He had a curious feeling as if he ought to be defending her from something; and at the same time a sensation of relief when he heard her once again called "Mrs. May." "Princess" was only a sort of pet name, no doubt. That was what he had hoped when the word caught his startled attention. He would not like to have her turn into a real princess. An angel she was for him, and might be, without seeming hopelessly remote somehow; but the pedestal of a princess was cold as a block of marble.
The poster-simile did not occur to Nick; but he thought that the red-haired girl with the self-conscious eyes, standing beside Mrs. May, was like a coloured lithograph in a magazine, compared with a delicate painting in a picture gallery, such as he loved to go and see in San Francisco. Miss Dene's peculiar attraction, strong for many men, left him cold, although he might have felt it if he had never seen Angela.
"I'm travelling with Mrs. Harland, and her brother, Mr. Falconer, in his private car," Theo explained. She turned to them. "Mrs. May won't mind my claiming her as a friend I hope. She was immensely nice to me in Rome. And we've met in London, too. I don't know why I was surprised to see her. Every one comes to this country. And Mr. Hilliard, perhaps, you both know?"
"We have met," said John Falconer, whom Nick had praised yesterday as the "typical" man of California. He put out his hand, and Nick took it, pleased and somewhat surprised by the recognition. For he was in his own eyes an insignificant person compared to John Falconer, who had done things worth doing in the world.
Angela remembered Nick's eulogy of the man. He was about forty, as tall as Hilliard, though built more heavily. Nick was clean shaven, and Falconer wore a close-cut brown beard, which gave him somewhat the air of a naval officer, though his face was not so deeply tanned. His features were strong, and behind his clear eyes thoughts seemed to pass as clouds move under the surface of a deep lake. Such a man was born to be a leader. No one could look at him and not see that.
Mrs. Harland, his sister, who—as Nick was aware—kept house and entertained for Falconer, was as like him as a very feminine woman can be like an extremely masculine man; and, in fact, they were twins. Ralph Harland, an Englishman, who had owned a California ranch, was dead; and when his widow was not in Europe she stayed with her brother.
They all talked together for a few minutes, or Theo Dene talked and let the others speak occasionally. Then Nick said that he must take his car to the garage, but would come back for luncheon; and when he had flashed away, Miss Dene invited herself to Mrs. May's room. "Do let me go with you," she pleaded, with a girlish air which she liked to put on with married women younger than herself. She thought that amusing. It impressed upon them the fact that she was a girl—free, with life before her. And, indeed, "The Free Lance" was a nickname of hers, which she liked rather than disliked.
Of course, Angela said, "Do come." She had found out that she was tired of Miss Dene. Still, she was curious to hear what she would say.
Kate had already opened her mistress's luggage, and spread gold and crystal toilet things about. There were flowers, too, on the sitting-room tables and mantel, California poppies with flaming orange hearts. Nick had telegraphed for these; but Angela supposed that they had been ordered by the "management." This impression was unlikely to be contradicted, because Nick had wanted her to have the flowers, not to get the credit for giving them. But Theodora Dene, who was experienced and shrewd in matters of the heart, wondered about the poppies. She made no mention of them, however, to Angela.
"I wanted you to myself for a minute," she explained, "to tell you I won't forget you are Mrs. May—toujours Mrs. May. And you needn't tell me—anything, unless you like."
"I have told you why I came to California," said Angela. "I came to see it."
"And I do think you're seeing it in the nicest way!" Miss Dene commented, sweetly. "I came for something quite different. I don't one bit mind confessing."
"To write a book about California?"
"That was what I said to reporters. And that I was going to visit Mrs. Harland. She's quite a dear, and I made her ask me, last time she was in England, because that was the first time I met her brother. I really came over with the idea of marrying him. He's splendid, and has loads of money—which I badly need, for I've spent every penny I've made from my books, and I've only eight hundred a year of my own. That won't buy my frocks! I took the greatest fancy to him. But I see now it's no use. Rather a bore! One hates to fail—and I'm not used to failure. However, there's a great romance—which is one consolation. I'm thinking whether or not I shall use it for the book. I'd like to—only Mr. Falconer's so well known. Perhaps I shall pick up another plot. Anyhow, I'm recovering from the blow, and beginning to take notice—as they say of babies and widows. That brown man of yours is a dream of beauty. Do you mind if I smoke?"
"No. And he isn't mine," said Angela, taking off her motor-veil in front of the mirror.
"Well, then, dear Princess, if he isn't yours, and you don't want him to play with, do hand him over to me. I won't grab him, if you want him yourself. You were too nice to me in Rome."
"You saw in Rome that I didn't play." Angela stabbed a hatpin viciously into her hat.
"There were cats there. Here there aren't—at least not any who know the mouse."
Angela daintily ceased to be a fellow-being, in a disconcerting way she had when she chose, and became a high personage. She did this without a word, without a gesture, without even lifting her eyebrows. There was merely a change of atmosphere. Miss Dene felt it, but she did not care here as she would have cared in Rome. There, the young Princess di Sereno could have made or marred her socially. In California she was on the same ground as Mrs. May. Besides, she knew a thing about Mrs. May which, for some reason or other, Mrs. May did not want other people to know. So Theo sat on a green sofa and smoked a cigarette, hoping that she looked like a snake charmer with the sinuous, serpentine smoke-loops weaving and writhing round her head.
"Pray don't joke in that way before any one else," said Angela. "It is rather horrid, don't you think? No doubt Mr. Hilliard will be delighted to have you 'play' with him, if you see enough of each other to make it worth while wasting your energy."
As she spoke, she wrestled with a violent desire to show Miss Dene that Nick was not to be detached from his present position of guide, philosopher, and friend.
"I don't do that sort of thing with 'energy.' I do it with magnetism," Theo drawled. Her cigarette was smoked out, and she got up. "Well, I must run down to Mrs. Harland, I suppose. We arrived only this morning, early, from Monterey, and to-morrow we're going on to Paso Robles. That's where Mr. Falconer's romance comes in. Did you ever hear of Paso Robles?"
"Yes," said Angela. "My father owned land there, with a warm sulphur lake. There's a legend about it, which he used to tell me. The place is sold now. But I'm going to see it—because of the legend. I had photographs of the old Mission—and of the lake, too."
"Well, perhaps you know, then, there's a big hotel at Paso Robles and a 'cure.' I never heard of it before—but apparently it's famous. If you stop there try and find out about a Mademoiselle Dobieski, and see her if you can."
"Who is she?" Angela asked. "The name sounds dimly familiar, as if she were an actress or a dancer, or somebody one has heard of."
"She was a singer. She is Mr. Falconer's romance. I'd give a good deal to see her."
"I suppose you will, if she's a friend of his, and you're going to Paso Robles in his private car."
"No. I won't be allowed. He's sending Mrs. Harland and me straight on to Del Monte, and then to San Francisco. He'll follow; and afterward he's going to take us to Shasta, and the McCloud River, where they say he has the most fascinating country house in the world. I shall probably have a relapse when I see it."
"I remember now," said Angela. "There was a Polish girl who sang in concerts, and then made her debut in opera in London. I never saw or heard her, but people used to say she was divine. Then she went back to Russia, three or four years ago, and seemed to vanish into space."
"She vanished into Siberia," replied Miss Dene. "Meanwhile, Mr. Falconer had had time to fall in love with her in London, just before she took her Russian engagement. It was his sister who told me this—perhaps to prove that there was no use my having Designs, with a capital D. He followed the girl to St. Petersburg; she disappeared. He put the matter into the hands of a detective—an American one, brought over on purpose—money no object. Then Mr. Falconer couldn't stay any longer himself, on account of important interests on this side—but I believe he flashed across once in a while, during the last four years, when he was supposed to be resting and seeing Europe with his sister. She was always in the secret. Well at last they wormed out the truth: that the Dobieski'd been arrested as a Nihilist, secretly, and, in spite of her popularity on the stage as a singer, sent to Siberia. With money, or influence, or both, she was rescued from some dreadful hole, and smuggled to England. But she'd had rheumatic fever, and her beauty was gone—she was a cripple. Still the extraordinary man was faithful—though he'd never even had a chance to try and make her like him. Did you ever hear of such a lover, out of a book?"
"No," said Angela, interested. But something within her whispered, "There might be another such lover."
"Specialists—Mr. Falconer and his sister had the best—said there was practically no hope that the girl would ever be herself again. Yet the man wouldn't give up. He thought there was no place in the world like Paso Robles for performing miracles. The doctors laughed—because it was natural he should believe in his own country. However, the Dobieski consented to come. Mrs. Harland brought her over. Now she's been here two months, and is actually almost cured. Do try to get a glimpse of her. I've an evil idea that my noble host is going to drop off at the Springs, after shedding us encumbrances, for the sole purpose of proposing. If I use this for my plot, I shall give myself the satisfaction of making the story end badly."
"I dare say you'll enjoy doing that," Angela remarked, in her gentlest voice.
"I really must go!" exclaimed Theo, and threw her cigarette end into Angela's golden poppies. But she did not tell when she went downstairs, as Angela was half afraid she would, that Mrs. May was the Princess di Sereno.
Her friends had not left the veranda. Mrs. Harland was talking to some people she knew, Falconer walking up and down looking at the ships that were still trying their speed, in sight of the hotel.
"I do wonder if the darling Angela knows about the Prince?" Theo asked herself; and then joined Falconer in his walk, not mentioning Mrs. May.
"So you've met that handsome big boy before?" she began.
"Hilliard?" said Falconer. "Oh, yes, I've met him at Mrs. Gaylor's."
"Who's Mrs. Gaylor?" Theo had the curiosity to ask.
Falconer told her, and described Mrs. Gaylor as being a beautiful as well as immensely rich young woman.
"It must be over a year since her husband died," he added. "'Old Grizzly Gaylor' he was called; a brute, I'm afraid. His taking off must have been a relief to her. She's left with a splendid property. I've heard it said there may be a match between her and Hilliard. He used to be foreman of her husband's ranch; but now he's a landowner on his own account; struck oil, and made a pile of money selling a gusher—the biggest and longest-lived we've had yet."
"Are they engaged?" inquired Theo.
"I don't know. It isn't announced, anyhow. But it wouldn't be a bad match, even for a rich woman. Hilliard's a fine fellow, all the finer because he's a self-made man. By the way, the Gaylor place is one of the show ranches of California. I think we ought to take you to see it."
"Do!" cried Miss Dene. "I could write about it, couldn't I? I'd like to see Mrs. Gaylor. Another California type for my book!"
And again she asked herself, "I wonder if dear Angela knows about the Prince?"
FOR THE SAKE OF DRAMATIC EFFECT
Somehow, Miss Dene got herself invited to spend the afternoon in seeing with Mrs. May and Hilliard all the things which Falconer and his sister had spent the whole morning in showing her. Exactly how she did this she herself might have told—with her occasional startling frankness—if she had chosen. But Mrs. May could not. Perhaps Angela had invited her, or said something which could be snapped up as an invitation; for Nick would hardly have suggested a second guest unless his first guest expressly wished for one. In any case, the fact remained that Theo Dene was going in the yellow car for a spin round Santa Barbara, to the Country Club, the Hope Ranch, and above all, to the Mission.
She stood talking on the veranda to Falconer and Mrs. Harland, as she waited for Angela to come down, and for Hilliard to bring round the car. Her host and hostess were laughing at her change of plans, for she had announced, early in the day, that she meant to "lie down all the afternoon and rest her features."
"Who is the beautiful Mrs. May?" asked Falconer.
Theo did not like this way of putting the question, because, quite sincerely, she herself admired no woman who was not of her own type. She was tempted to take advantage of Angela's desire not to be known, and say: "Oh, she's one of a thousand other pretty travelling women with intermittent husbands." This would have been epigrammatic, and at the same time it might have quenched dawning interest in the stranger. Neither the brother nor sister was of the sort who favoured flitting ladies with vague male belongings kept in the background. But suddenly a brilliant idea occurred to Miss Dene, who loved dramatic effects.
"Mrs. May chooses to be an ordinary tourist," Theo said, with just the right air of mystery, "but if she liked, she could travel as a personage. She has her own reasons for coming to America, just as I have mine, though hers are different. Don't you think she ought to see Shasta, and the McCloud River, if her impressions are to be complete?"
"Would she care to go?" said Mrs. Harland. "John and I would be delighted to take her, and put her up for a week-end—wouldn't we, John?"
"Of course," said Falconer. "From what I saw of her, she'd be a charming guest. But poor Hilliard——"
"Oh, do ask him, too, and give me a chance to flirt with him, please. I've had such poor success with you, I'm feeling crushed. Do you think Mrs. Gaylor too formidable for me?"
"If I were a betting man, I'd bet on you," Falconer laughed. "But I don't know how far matters have gone between Mrs. Gaylor and Hilliard. It may be gossip; all the world loves a lover, you know; and it's human nature to weave a romance around two interesting figures placed toward each other as these are."
"Well, I should like to try my hand, if his isn't pre-engaged," said Miss Dene; "and if it is, he won't be wasted on me, for I can always use him up in a book. What fun to have Mrs. Gaylor at the same time! We should soon see if they were engaged if we brought them together, shouldn't we? If not, I'd be free to get in as much deadly work as possible."
"Is Mrs. May's husband living?" asked Falconer, with a twinkle of mischief in his usually grave eyes.
"I think I mustn't tell even you anything about her private affairs," Miss Dene answered virtuously. "But I've reason to know that, for this race, anyhow, she's out of the running. As Mrs. May was telling you at luncheon, Mr. Hilliard is showing her a few things because the mutual friend who was to have done it, couldn't. He can't show her Shasta and McCloud, though, as you can; for a mere motor's no attraction compared to a private car. I'm sure she's never been in one as gorgeous as the kind in America—yours in particular."
"Well, we must give her the chance to try it," said Falconer.
"And you will think of inviting Mrs. Gaylor at the same time?" Theo turned her eyes from her host to his sister, beseechingly.
"I don't know Mrs. Gaylor well," Mrs. Harland demurred. "But if John wants you to see her ranch, and takes us there, I don't mind asking her to Rushing River Camp for a day or two. It's not very likely that she'd refuse"—the lady smiled—"as I'm afraid that socially she's more or less neglected, in spite of her beauty."
"Or because of it," said Falconer. "And here comes Mrs. May."
A moment later the car came too, and Angela realized that already she had reached the stage when she would miss taking her place beside Hilliard. She sat behind with Miss Dene, and Billy the "assistant" climbed into the seat next the chauffeur's.
Theo availed herself of the opportunity to tell what she had heard about Nick and Mrs. Gaylor, with embroideries of her own.
The air was balm of a thousand flowers, but for Angela it was no longer "Parfait d'Amour." The two battleships had long ago finished their speed trial; and trails of floating kelp lay like golden sea-serpents asleep under the blue ripple of the sea. Everything was very beautiful. But it was not yesterday!
In the town with the Mission still distant, she began to feel the "foreignness" of Santa Barbara. The streets had Spanish names, and the trees seemed musical, as she had thought that trees seemed in the South of Europe; as if they had heard and seen all the happiness of history, and had set them to music with their branches. Pretty girls rode bareheaded, with sunburned men in sombreros, just outside the straggling town, between hedges of roses that made boundaries for bungalows.
The beauty of the world sang a song in Angela's ears, with the rushing breeze the motor made; the wind in the trees, the flashing lights and shadows on the mountains. Clear-cut, lovely peaks sprang toward a sky that was like fire opal with turquoise glowing blue behind it. Still, this was not yesterday! The song of the world's beauty did not seem meant personally for her, as it had then.
Piles of grain in the fields were like plumed, golden helmets, laid down in rows to await the heads of resting warriors. The California oaks, different from all other oaks, were classic in shape as Greek temples sacred to forest deities, standing against a background of indigo sea. But Miss Dene would talk.
Theodora, in her books, made a speciality of describing the emotional souls of women, her favourite female thermometers being usually at freezing or boiling point—never temperate. Descriptions of scenery she "couldn't do," and what she called "landscape gazing" bored her. She was more interested in people, and big towns, than in wide spaces where Nature tried to lecture her. But because Angela admired the country she admired it, too, more audibly than Angela.
They saved the Mission for the last. Nick had set his heart on showing it to Mrs. May at sunset. As for Theo, though she said so much, he knew by instinct that it was not she who cared for the beauty of the magnolia hedges, the hay-gilded meadows, and the dark oaks that blotted the gold. He felt that he ought to admire Miss Dene, for she was handsome, and put herself out to be kind to him; but he wished the girl away, and was glad that to-morrow she would be travelling with her own friends. When she looked at him with her greenish eyes, she had the air of judging his points, as if he were a portrait she thought of adding to her collection, and of wishing him to look at her. Nick was not to be fascinated in this way.
Along the Cliff Drive they went to the Hope Ranch, and Angela tried to think of the brave old days of the "Roaring Forties," of barbecues, and wedding feasts for Spanish brides—days when the business of life was to love, and laugh, and dance, and spend the money yielded by thousands of rolling acres. According to the stories, all women had been beautiful, all men brave, and ready to fight for the ladies they loved; and though the world had changed since then, faster here than elsewhere, it seemed to her that at heart the men of America had kept to old traditions more closely than men in older countries. Then she smiled at herself for this impression; for, after all, what did she know of American men?
When they turned at last, coming back toward the Mission, to which, somehow, all the rest had been leading up, the setting sun was beating the dusk into sparks of fire.
At first glimpse, alighting before the steps of the restored Mission church, Angela compared it unfavourably in her mind with the lovely shabbiness of San Gabriel. She had a feeling that Santa Barbara the pleasure-place lived on Santa Barbara the Mission, with its history and romance. But she had only to go inside to beg pardon of the church for her first impression. It was easy to remember that there had never been the same stress of poverty here as among the missionary Fathers of San Gabriel, in the City of Angela. Yet in this place, too, there was the same pathetic effect which had brought tears to Angela's eyes in the dim little church at San Gabriel; an effect that once felt and understood, gives the old Spanish Missions their great, undying charm. At Santa Barbara—sweet name, ringing like the silver bells of the Franciscan Fathers—as at San Gabriel, there had been the same striving to copy the noble designs and proportions of the Spanish cathedrals, visioned in spirit by the homesick monks, who knew well they would never see them with bodily eyes again. With simple materials and unskilled Indian workers, these exiled men had striven to reproduce in the far, lonely West the architecture of the East, loved and lost by them forever. The very simplicity of the church made its beauty.
The scar of Santa Barbara Mission had been patched up, while at San Gabriel the bandages were vines and flowers; but the sunset light lent to the cloisters all the stateliness and glory of some old monastery in Southern Spain; the octagonal fountain on the bare terrace dripped silver; and an embroidery of lichen had gilded the rose-coloured tiles of the sloping roof with all shades and tints of gold. The sun, bidding good-bye to the day, gave back for an hour the splendour of the past.
The three went up into the bell tower and looked down; upon the old garden of the monks, then away to the sheltering hills, with the far-off rampart of mountains. It was beautiful there, and the bells in their open, window-like arches, had the kindly beauty of age and experience. Angela tapped them with pink finger-nails, and brought out a faint, musical whisper, which seemed to breathe some secret, if only she could understand. But she could not! She felt dull and unhappy, she could not tell why. Certainly it could not be for such a stupid, dog-in-the-manger reason as because Nick Hilliard was supposed to be engaged to his "boss's widow"—a most suitable arrangement. Perhaps it was the dreamy sadness of this; place which had taken hold of her. If there were a secret in the musical whisper of the bells, it was a secret of the past; and it was time to come which was clouded for Angela. There seemed to be nothing definite in it for her to touch. Her bodily eyes looked out over the bay of Santa Barbara, grape-purple with the wine of sunset; but her spirit saw only the uncharted sea of the future, across which strange sunrises glimmered, and winds cried like harps, or voices called to her in prophecies she could not hear. Happiness which she had never known seemed to live beyond that sea in an island palace; but the key of the palace lay fathoms deep, fallen among rocks under deep water. When Angela had been on her way to California, she had said to herself: "I shall be happy there living alone in some place which I shall find, because I shall be at peace, and disagreeable things can never come to me." But now, suddenly, she felt that more than peace was needed. She wanted to be happy with a happiness far removed from peace.
"I think I'll go to the North to live," she decided. "In all this sunshine and colour, one needs love—or else one's out of the picture."
At a little distance Miss Dene was telling Nick Hilliard that she was glad she had met him, because he was just what she wanted for her book about California.
"I'm going to see your ranch," she said, "and Mrs. Gaylor's ranch. I've heard about it—and her. She's very handsome, isn't she?"
"Yes," said Nick.
"And a great friend of yours—your best friend?"
"A great friend," he echoed, wishing that Angela, holding herself remote, would let him draw her into the conversation.
It occurred to Miss Dene, seeing Nick's eyes wander, that perhaps there was something about her which California men were not trained to appreciate, for she was not having her usual success. And she had scarcely made the sensation she had expected to make in San Francisco, although she had been interviewed, and one reporter had said that her hair was dyed. Nevertheless, if she could not have the sort of fun she wanted, she would at least have what fun she could. She was sure that with Mrs. Gaylor, and the Princess di Sereno, and this big unsophisticated young man, between them life would be interesting even for an onlooker.
"I can see Chapter First, anyhow," she laughed to herself. And again she wondered if Angela "knew about the Prince."
That night, while everybody drank coffee and talked or played bridge in the hall, it was suddenly flooded with a tidal wave of women. They flowed into the hotel in a compact stream of femininity; billows of stout elderly ladies, and dancing ripples of slim young girls, with here and there a side-eddy of thin, middle-aged spinsterhood. Each female thing had a "grip," and of these possessions they built the desk a mountain of volcanic formation, which looked alarmingly subject to eruptions and upheavals. Then they all began to talk at once, to each other and to such hotel officials as they could overwhelm and swamp.
"Good gracious! what is it?" asked Miss Dene of Falconer, who was supposed to be a human encyclopaedia of general information. "I didn't suppose there were so many women in the world!"
"They're Native Daughters, out for an excursion and the time of their lives," said Falconer.
"Why Native?" Angela ventured. "It sounds like oysters."
"And it means California. They were all born in this State; and they will now proceed to see something of it in each other's company. To-morrow morning they'll 'do' the Mission of Santa Barbara."
"They'll do for it, if they all try to get in at once," laughed Miss Dene. "The place will be simply crawling with Daughters. How lucky we've done our sightseeing to-day!"
She did not take the trouble to moderate her voice; and one of the new arrivals, who hovered alone on the edge of the crowd, like a bubble of foam flung out by the surging wave, stood near enough to overhear. She turned and threw a glance at the group, in time to catch en route to the back of her dress a look sent forth from the eyes of Miss Dene. It was that look which has no family resemblance to any other look, yet is always the same in the eyes of the best and the worst woman—the look she gives another woman's dress the style and fit of which fill her with supreme disgust.
The victim did not take this well-known gaze with meekness. She was a small person, thin as a lath, with no attempt at complexion, and a way of doing her hair which alone would have proved impeccable virtue in the face of incriminating circumstantial evidence. She had neat little features, and a neat little figure, though "provincial" was written over her in conspicuous letters; and the gray eyes which she fastened on Miss Dene looked almost ill with gloomy intelligence. She did not attempt to "down" the beautifully dressed young woman with a retort, though her expression betrayed a temptation to be fishwifish. It was evident, however, that she was a little lady, though she wore a badly made frock, and her hat sat like a hard, extraneous Bath bun on the top of her neat head. Whether or no she were a Native Daughter, native good breeding fought with and got the better of fatigue, nervousness, and irritation. She merely gazed fixedly for a long second at Miss Dene, as if to say, "I know my dress is amateurish, and yours is perfectly lovely, but I have a heart and would hate to hurt the feelings of anybody, especially one who couldn't pay me back, whereas your only use for a heart is to keep your blood in circulation."
Angela saw this silent play of weapons, and all her sympathy was with the stranger in dusty blue alpaca. She busied herself mentally in rearranging the little woman's hair, dressing her in such a way as to make her quite pretty and young-looking, and had not finished the operation when a hotel clerk appeared with a paper in his hand.
"Your name, please," he said to the small, unaccompanied person.
"My name is Sara Wilkins," she replied in a clear precise voice, which matched her personality; "but I must tell you that I am not a Native Daughter, and have not engaged a room. I arrived at the same time with the others, and when they are settled I hope you'll be able to find me something; otherwise I hardly know what I shall do, as it's late, and I'm travelling alone."
"I'm afraid I can do nothing for you, Madam, if you have not engaged," said the young man, civilly. "These ladies are expected, and a great many will be sleeping three and four in a room. I'm sorry; but there are other hotels in the town."
"I'm sorry too," said the lady in the dusty alpaca. "I've wanted for years to stay in this hotel, if it was only for a few hours, as I've read so much about it, and I arranged to stop off at Santa Barbara on purpose, though I really ought to have gone on. And I'm so tired!"
Angela could bear no more. "Oh, would you take my sitting-room?" she asked, with the smile she had inherited with her heart and a few other things from Franklin Merriam. "It would be such a shame to go away when you've wanted to stop here—so late, too, and you mightn't get in anywhere else. I shall be delighted—really—and I'm sure they can make you up a comfortable bed, for there's a big lounge in the room."
Nick sat adoring her with his eyes, and Miss Dene believed that Mrs. May had made the offer to please him and Falconer. Men were very silly and sentimental about such things. But as she, Theo, had no sitting-room of her own they could not blame her for selfishness.
Miss Wilkins looked at Angela with her intelligent gray eyes. "Why, that's very kind of you," she said. "I don't like to take your room——"
"But you must like it, or you'll spoil my pleasure," Angela broke in, looking so charming in her wish to make the little dusty person happy that few women and no men could have resisted, or helped believing in her. It was at this moment that Falconer determined to tell Mrs. May something about certain private interests of his at Paso Robles, which he had not intended to mention.
"Well, I will take the room, then, and I will like it, too," returned Miss Wilkins. "I don't know how to thank you enough."
"I'm giving up nothing that I shall mind doing without," said Angela; and did not dream that she had stirred the deep water under which a golden key lay hid; the key of that island palace in the uncharted sea of the future.
THE MYSTERY OF SAN MIGUEL
"Do you think you will go to Shasta in Mr. Falconer's private car?" Nick asked wistfully.
They were flying along together on the winds of the Bright Angel, Angela by Nick's side, on the way to Paso Robles. It was afternoon of the next day; Falconer and Mrs. Harland and Theo Dene had left Santa Barbara in the morning; and the sister and brother had been so pressing in their invitation that Angela had hardly known how to refuse, though not quite willing to accept. Late that night, Mrs. Harland and Theo would arrive at Del Monte, where Falconer would join them, and in a day or two they would go on to San Francisco, where Miss Dene had already been visiting. In Mrs. Harland's maid, Kate had found a friend from her own part of "the ould country," who had "come over" three years ago, and who had known Tim. This meeting was such a joy, that Angela had fallen in with Mrs. Harland's suggestion that Kate should go on to Paso Robles in Mr. Falconer's car McCloud. The girl would thus enjoy her friend's society for several hours, and having arranged Mrs. May's things in the rooms already engaged at the hotel, would await her mistress's arrival that evening. Therefore, Angela, Nick, and the little chauffeur had the Bright Angel to themselves for a run of a few hours through beautiful country, and a visit to the old Mission of San Miguel before arriving at Paso Robles.
"Do I think I shall go?" Angela echoed the question lazily, for she was happier this morning, and basking dreamily in the change, not troubling to wonder what had brought it about. "I hardly know. They were very kind to ask me. Californian people seem so warm-hearted to strangers, and so hospitable, one can't help feeling one's known them for years instead of days. You are like that too—otherwise I shouldn't be here! And I've almost forgotten to be surprised at myself for—anything. I like Mr. Falconer; Mrs. Harland, too; but he is what you said—splendid. I understand why you called him typically Californian."
"I'm glad," said Nick. And he tried to be glad. But he had not been told the romance of Mademoiselle Dobieski. Falconer did not guess that Angela or Theo Dene knew it, though he proposed introducing Mrs. May to a "Polish lady, staying at Paso Robles." "Then, of course, you will go to Shasta, and they'll take you to their place on the McCloud River. They say Falconer's house is the prettiest place of the sort in California. Mrs. Gaylor's never been, but she reads a lot about society folk and their doings in the papers. You'll sure have a good time."
"Why do you say 'you'? They invited you, too."
"Yes, and that was really kind," Nick said. "It isn't 'kindness' to ask you, because 'twould be an honour to have your visit. But they don't want me. I was asked only because I happened to be with you, and Mrs. Harland was afraid my feelings would be hurt if I was left out."
"I'm sure you're mistaken," Angela insisted, laughing within herself because he had not seen Theo's manoeuvres. "Of course they want you." She could not add what was in her mind. "Anyway, Miss Dene does." As for Carmen, Angela had no idea that the invitation was to be extended to her, and the figure of Mrs. Gaylor, who, according to Theo, intended to marry Hilliard, loomed less important than after listening to Miss Dene's gossip. Of course, it would be a good thing for him to care for Mrs. Gaylor, and if she were really nice, to marry her in the end. Only, when a young woman is in a motor-car with a handsome "forest creature" who appears to live only for her pleasure, she does not think much beyond the hour. For that hour he may be hers, and hers alone, though to-morrow they part; and she shuts her eyes to anything so far away, so out of the picture, as an "end."
"I'm not Mrs. Harland's kind," Nick explained; "nor Falconer's, though he's too big a man to care for what people call 'social distinctions.' They'd be kind to me if I went, and wouldn't let me feel any difference they could help. But there'd be a house-party, maybe, and I wouldn't know any one. I'd be 'out of it.' I couldn't stand for that, Mrs. May."
"You're sensitive," Angela said.
"In some ways," Nick admitted. But he did not admit the truth; that he could not, and would not, go to Rushing River Camp because he was jealous of Falconer. To Nick it seemed impossible that any man, free to love, could be five minutes in Angela's society without falling in love with her.
He had had his moments of hope, but with Falconer for a rival the handicap was too great. Not that Nick meant to give up the fight; but if she went to Shasta it would be a knockdown blow. John Falconer was high enough for a place in Mrs. May's own world. Nick despised jealousy as common and shameful, and had always scorned men who yielded to so mean a vice. Now, however, they had his pity. He knew what they suffered, and he could not go with Mrs. May, in Falconer's car.
Nevertheless he beat down the desire to dissuade her from the trip.
"You oughtn't to miss McCloud River," he forced himself to say.
"I'll see," said Angela. "It's nice not to make up one's mind, but just to enjoy the minute."
"Are you enjoying the minute?"
He was rewarded. For this minute was his. They were spinning along the coast road, between sea and meadow, with the salt breeze in their faces. The red-gold earth rose and fell in gracious curves, like the breasts of a sleeping Indian girl, and now and then an azure inlet of the sea lit up a meadow as eyes light a face. In the distance, mountains seemed to float like spirit guardians of hill-children; and desert dunes billowed through irrigated garden oases, like rivers of gold boiling up from magic mines.
Nick pointed out the two little mountains named after Louis the Bishop, and told Angela tales of the country, of the people, and of the little towns with Spanish names and faces, which gave her always that haunting impression of the Old World. Some of the stories were her father's stories, and she liked Hilliard the better for knowing them.
They had both forgotten Miss Sara Wilkins, who had "stopped off" at Santa Barbara because all her life she had wanted to see the place. But just at that moment, on her way to Bakersfield, she happened to be thinking of them both.
At last the car plunged into a maze of folding hills, like giant dunes. The motor road was woven in twisted strands while the railway overhead strode across the gaps between height and height, on a vast trestle that might have been built for an army of Martians. Rock-crested hills rose gray in the sun above the soft night of oak forests; and as the road ascended, its ribbons were looped from mountain to mountain like the thrown lasso of a cowboy.
"Paso Robles means 'Pass of the Oaks,'" said Nick, as they came into a stretch of billowing country where immense trees shadowed the summer gold of meadows.
"Shall we go first to the Mission of San Miguel?" Nick asked. "Or are you tired, and shall I take you to the hotel now?"
"I'm not tired," said Angela. She did not want this day to end yet.
"We'll hit the trail for the Mission, then," said Nick, "and see the sunset, as we did from Santa Barbara."
"Can this be as beautiful?" Angela asked. "Surely not?"
"You, maybe, won't think so, but I know it will be more beautiful for me," he answered. "That imported young lady, with all those elegant fixings, sort of jarred with the Mission architecture, to my mind."
Angela hoped that her laugh was not cattish. "But I'm imported, too," she said. "Shall I jar on you at San Miguel?"