"You're not imported!" Nick dared to contradict her. "Or, if you are, you're the kind there oughtn't to be any duty on."
A rain of sunset colour poured over mountains, hills, and meadows as Nick turned his car toward San Miguel. When they came in sight of the old Mission (built far from the Springs because of hostile Indians), the changing lights were like an illuminated fountain. At last, when they began to fade, Angela said, "Let us go. If we stay longer we shan't remember this at its best."
She would have been surprised if she had known what happiness there was for Nick in the word "we," spoken as she often spoke it now: "We" must do this; "We" mustn't forget that.
But it was a blow when she asked Billy, the chauffeur, if he would like to see the Mission. "Nothing can hurt the car," she said; "and when we come back it will be too late."
Nick was tempted to glare a warning and suppress the youth's interest in objects of historical value: but he refrained. Billy must not get it into his head that there was "anything going on." So the chauffeur was allowed to follow Nick and Angela as they wandered, so it seemed to him, sentimentally about the big Mission enclosure, between crumbling adobe walls where the Franciscan Fathers had sheltered cattle in nights of peace, and Indians in nights of danger. Billy could not feel the pathos of the place—desolate, yet impressive in its simplicity; but as he sauntered about, his hands in his pockets, whistling beneath his breath, "I can't marry you!" his smart little modern mind began to work. The strategic value of the position appealed to him, and he saw why "those old Johnnies," as he irreverently styled the Padres, had planted the Mission here. "Guess they knew their business 'most as well as if they'd been soldiers," he said to himself.
Billy found pleasure in picturing the massacres which must have taken place, imagining the great doors of the enclosure opened hastily to let in an escaping band of "friendlies"; then the bursting in of the enemy, and the death of the Fathers as they tried to protect their Indian children. Many had died by fire and tomahawk, but always others had come to take their place; and so the work had gone on through time, even as the bell-signals had gone on sounding from Mission to Mission along El Camino Reale, the highway of the Padres.
"One Father lives here; a dear old gentleman," said Nick. "I met him once, but he mayn't remember me. I'll knock at his door to ask for the key of the church. Somehow I think you're going to like it better than the church of Santa Barbara. There's something special about this place, I hardly know what, but you'll know. And they've got some vestments they're proud of—made by Queen Isabella the Catholic and her ladies."
It rather surprised Angela to hear Nick speak of "Isabella the Catholic," for this way of naming the Queen showed knowledge of history; and Angela had not yet discovered that history was Nick's favourite reading. Indeed, she was only beginning to learn a few things about him. At first her whole rather patronizing idea of the young man had been that he was an "interesting type," a "picturesque figure." Then, when she heard him talk with Falconer, and Falconer talk of him and of what he had done, she saw that Hilliard was already a man of importance in his State: that the "picturesque figure" was merely the woman's point of view. She was ceasing to patronize him mentally now, and almost every hour he gave her some surprise.
At a closed door in the white, deserted cloisters, Hilliard knocked, but there was no answer. His face clouded, for he had set his heart on showing Mrs. May this Mission church.
"This means we can't get the key," sighed Angela.
"I'm afraid so," he agreed. "But it's possible the Padre's showing some one around, or having a look at his beloved vestments."
They walked to the church door and found it shut; but to their surprise the big old-fashioned key was in the lock. Nick pushed the door open and they both went in, followed by Billy. The Padre was not to be seen. So far as they could tell in the dimness the church was empty.
"Queer!" exclaimed Nick. "I wonder what can have become of the Padre? It isn't like him to leave his church open at this time of the evening. It's late, and we'll have to light up before we start on, although we've only eight miles to go."
"I'm sorry he's not here," Angela said. "I should have loved to see Queen Isabella's vestments."
"Would you? Well, you shall, if I have to turn everything in the church upside down. They must be somewhere."
The two wandered on, peering through the dusk at the primitive paintings and decorations, made by Indians according to designs of Spanish monks.
"Do you suppose the vestments may be kept up in that gallery?" Angela suggested. "It looks a safe sort of place for treasures. But if they're there I'm afraid we shall find them in a locked box."
It was worth trying, and they climbed the narrow stairs that led up to a gallery curtained with twilight. There sure enough was a box, and, like the door, it was open, the key in the lock. Within, free to every hand, were the embroideries, the great treasures of the church.
"Isn't it mysterious?" she asked, in a half-whisper, for loud tones would make jarring notes in this haunt of silence. "Can anything have happened to the Padre?"
"Things don't happen these days," Nick reassured her.
But he was not quite easy in his mind. "It's too dark for you to see the vestments well. Shall I carry them downstairs?"
"No," said Angela. "I'd rather look at them here. It's like staring at flowers in the night. The colours come up to your eyes in the most wonderful way."
Seeing that she meant to kneel by the open chest Nick whipped off his coat to lay under her knees, and she laughed as she named him Sir Walter Raleigh. Hilliard and Billy stood behind her, Nick stooping sometimes to examine a stole or altar-cloth she wished to show him, Billy frankly bored, until a faint sound somewhere made him prick up his ears.
"Maybe that's the Padre now," said he. "Shall I go and look?" Then he pattered down the steep stairway without waiting to be answered.
Angela and Nick forgot him for a moment, until his nasal young voice called excitedly from below the gallery:
"Say, Mr. Hilliard, we're locked in!"
"What!" exclaimed Nick, straightening himself up and dropping the end of an embroidered stole.
"Some fellow's been to the door and locked it on the outside."
THE WISE BIRD IN THE DARK
It was very dim in the Mission church. Angela had not realized how dim until she heard the news announced through Billy's nose. They were locked in!
Somebody had been to the door, somebody had locked it on the outside, and it was deep twilight, almost night.
Suddenly it seemed completely night. The colours of the old vestments still glowed in the dusk, like smouldering coals in a dying fire; but that was because of the rich tints, and because the eyes gazing at them were accustomed to darkness. Looking up at Nick to see what his silence meant, and whether he were nonplussed or merely deciding on a plan of action, Angela could hardly make out his features. She could see clearly only his eyes, luminous and gray.
"What shall we do?" she asked. Her voice sounded appealing, like that of a child.
"Don't worry, Mrs. May," said Nick, with sudden cheerfulness. "We'll get out all right. I was just studying what must have happened. That's why I was so mum. I reckon the Padre must have been away—though why he left the key in the door beats me—and coming back he locked up for the night. Unless he went around in the direction of the auto he wouldn't have seen it. If he looked in here, of course he'd have thought the church empty, we being in the gallery. And it's late in the day now, so late he wouldn't expect visitors."
"It's so 'late in the day' that it's night!" cried Angela. "Another reason for his not seeing the motor."
"Not quite night yet! And I'm going down to make all the noise I can at the door, assisted by Billy. There'll be such a din, between the two of us, you'll want to stop your ears, and as for the Padre, he'll come trotting as fast as his legs will carry him, to stop the row." Nick laughed so jovially that Angela began to be seriously concerned. If it were necessary to assume such gaiety he must regard the situation as desperate. She remembered how far away was the sole occupied room among the many empty, echoing cells.
Nick helped her down the steep stairway, and the touch of his hand upon her arm was comforting. It was cold in the darkening church, and she felt the chill more in imagination than in body; yet she shivered.
"What if we have to stay here all night?" she thought. But she kept the thought to herself.
Nick and Billy took turns in pounding on the door, shouting, "Hi, Padre!" then doing it together; but the separate and combined noises, ear-splitting inside the church, produced no result. The dreamy silence was shattered in vain, and at last, when the two refused to be discouraged by lack of success, Angela stopped them.
"It's no use," she said. "He isn't going to hear. And I shall have hysterics or something idiotic if you keep on for one more minute."
"I was thinking of trying another way," said Nick, still painfully cheerful.
"What other way?—since even Samson couldn't batter down the door."
"A lot simpler than battering. Climb out of a window."
"Too high," said Angela.
"No. I can manage all right. I'll get out, find the Padre, and——"
"And leave me here in the dark? No!"
"But there'll be Billy."
"Let Billy go," Angela half whispered, "and you stay with me. Supposing you went, and the Padre wasn't there, and—and you weren't able to get back. Oh, I couldn't bear that!"
Never had Nick known so exquisite a moment. He was sorry this queer, mysterious accident had happened, because it seemed to reflect somehow on his intelligence and foresight as a guide. And he hated to have Angela distressed. But—after his strivings with jealousy, and his defeat—it was balm that she should depend upon him, and want him with her in this adventure.
"I thought, if worst came to worst, I might find a ladder outside," he said, fearful of betraying his illicit happiness.
"Billy can find a ladder, if there is one," Angela persisted. "There's the most weird, rustling sound, which comes every once in a while, and I can't possibly stand it with only Billy."
Nick could hardly speak for joy, but he managed to reply, "All right; Billy shall be the man to go."
The going was easier to propose than to carry out: for in bygone days, when the Padres of Old Spain were building New Spain, Mission churches had to protect their flocks against the devil incarnate as well as excarnate. Windows were made few and high; and now, when the brave builders sleep, it is nobody's business to worry about the free passage of air. Such windows as San Miguel possesses were hermetically closed that night when Angela di Sereno and Nick Hilliard were imprisoned; and Billy, standing on Nick's shoulders, had to work a few tedious moments before he could induce one of these windows to open. By the time the wiry, slim figure was ready to straddle the window-sill, slip out, dangling, and drop on the grass, night had closed in, fragrant and purple in the open, heavy and black in the church.
Angela came and stood close to Nick. She had never been a timid girl; but since the night when she had lain watching a thief who slowly, slowly raised her window, twelve storeys above the ground, foolish and hitherto unknown terrors crept through her veins if she happened to wake in the dark. And now there certainly was a rustling which stirred the silence, then died, as if it had never been.
"Don't go away from me," she said. "It's so dark that if we're separated we may be ages finding each other."
This sounded like an allegory!
"No, we mustn't be separated," Nick answered, struck by her words, as if by a prophecy. Then he, too, heard the rustling—faint, winged, and mysterious.
They stood still and close together, listening. There was no sound from outside—not a call for the Padre, not a reassuring shout that Billy had succeeded in finding him.
Angela groped with her hand, and, by accident, touched Nick's. To save his soul he could not have resisted pressing the small cold fingers! Wonderful! She did not snatch them away! Often they had shaken hands, or Nick had taken hers to help her in or out of the motor-car; but there had been nothing like this. He felt the thrill of the touch go through him as though electric wires flashed a message to his heart. He was afraid of himself—afraid he should kiss her hand, or stammer out "I love you!" And that would be fatal, for she would never trust herself to him again. Besides, it would not be fair. She was like a child asking his protection, here in the dark, and he must treat her as a man treats a child who has come to him because it is afraid. But he could not think of her as a child. He thought of the night in New York when she had knocked on his door, and called to him, a stranger, for help. He thought how he had seen her, drowned in the waves of her hair, like the angel of his dreams.
"Do you hear that?" she whispered, letting him keep her hand, even clasping his with her fingers. "There's something alive in this church, something besides ourselves."
Nick felt giddy. It was all he could do to keep himself from catching her in his arms, no matter what might be the consequences, no matter how she might hate him a moment afterward. But he resisted, and the strain of temptation passed.
"A bird has got in, perhaps," he said.
"You—you—don't think it could be the Padre himself ill, or—or——"
Nick understood her hesitation and fear.
"No," he soothed her. "We'd have seen any but some small thing. I've got two or three matches in my box, I guess. We'll have a look around." This was supreme self-sacrifice on his part, for to find matches and "look around" meant letting Angela's hand go. To let it go was tempting Providence, since almost certainly she would never, of her own accord, slip it into his again.
"Yes, do let us," she said, and drew the hand away. Nick supposed she had hardly been conscious that he had held her fingers in his, and even pressed them. But this was not the fact. True, Angela had mechanically groped for a protecting touch. Nevertheless, she was aware of Nick's hand on hers, and glad of it, with a gladness made up of several conflicting feelings: such as surprise, some slight shame, and defiance of that shame. She was afraid of the rustling in the dark, which might mean a lurking thief, a man half murdered, or one of a dozen things each more unpleasant than the other. Yet she half liked being afraid in the dark, with Nick Hilliard to reassure her, though she would have hated it with Billy. No unknown horror she could conjure up would have made her want to touch Billy. She was almost sorry when Nick found his matches and together they began moving about the church, she keeping a little behind.
The last match but one lit up something white that stirred beside the altar; and as the flame died down, leaving only a red glowing point, a pair of eyes like two points of fire stared up from the floor.
"Oh!" murmured Angela, and clutched Nick's coat sleeve, like a girl of early Victorian days. But, after all, women have not changed in essentials. They are much the same now in the dark, when pale things stir or shine unexpectedly; and they are still glad to have with them at such times a man, preferably a handsome man, they happen to like better than any other.
"Great Scot, it's an owl!" said Nick, profiting by the last match of all. It was, or appeared to be, a white owl; and it seemed to him for a second or two as if the witch-bird of the Grapevine man at Los Angeles had come to give the advice it had refused. But this was a childish idea, he knew! The owl was a plain, ordinary owl, which no doubt lived in the neighbourhood of San Miguel, and had flopped in, perhaps in search of the proverbial church mouse. It was afraid of the other intruders, and afraid of the match, so afraid that it flapped its wings and hooted dismally. It hooted three times, which, if it had been the witch fortune-teller, might really have meant something, though there was no time just then to think what. Nick was somewhat alarmed lest, in its anger and fear, it should dash at Angela's face, but she would not let him strike the creature with his hat.
"No, poor thing, it's worse off than we are, because it's alone, and we're together," she said. "We'll go, and leave it in peace now we know what it is." And she kept beside Nick in the dark by holding daintily to his coat sleeve.
He found the steps of the gallery, and made her sit down on the lower one, rolling up for a cushion his coat, on which she had knelt as she looked at the vestments. It began to seem odd that Billy had not come back, but it was difficult for Nick to regret the delay as much as he ought, for Angela's sake, to have regretted it.
When she shivered and confessed that she was cold, Nick fetched her a priest's coat from the gallery, a rare piece of brocade, embroidered perhaps by queen's fingers, and smelling of incense.
"What can have happened to Billy?" Angela wondered. "It's the strangest thing that he doesn't come back. I begin to be frightened about him."
Nick reassured her once more. Things often seemed queer that were simple when explained, as doubtless this would be. "I suppose you'd not like me to go——" he began, only to be cut short before he could finish his sentence.
"No—if you mean, would I like you to go and look. While you're here——"
"Yes, Mrs. May?"
"Why, of course, nothing matters so much. And I wish you wouldn't stand where I can't see you. Do sit down on this step by me."
So Nick sat down on the step, and her shoulder touched his arm. They talked in low voices, he telling her things to "keep her mind off" the situation: things about the Mission and other Missions. Then the conversation turned to Nick's ranch and the oil gusher which had given him fortune out of threatening ruin; and he described the queer little oil city which had grown up on his land.
"I should like to see it," Angela said, when he had pictured Lucky Star City and ranch in a simple way, which was nevertheless curiously graphic.
He caught up her words eagerly. "Would you let me take you there?" he begged. "Mrs. Gaylor'd invite you to stay at her house. You know I've told you about that, and how——"
"Yes, I know." Angela could hardly have explained why, but somehow she did not want to hear Mrs. Gaylor talked of just then. She was no longer indifferent to the idea of seeing Nick's home, and the woman who had helped him to make it, yet she was not sure that she wished to go there. Certainly she did not wish to visit Mrs. Gaylor. But—she would like to know whether the mistress of the Gaylor ranch was really so very beautiful.
"What we must think about now, is how to get out of this church," she went on, laughing faintly in the dark. "It seems as if we might have to stay here all the rest of our lives."
"Are you hungry?" Nick inquired.
In his enraged disgust at not being able to procure a meal, Nick would gladly have killed and cooked the owl.
"Are you?" Angela asked.
"Good heavens, no!"
Time passed vaguely, as time does pass in the dark, when there are no means of counting the minutes. They could hear their watches ticking, if they listened, but they never listened long enough to know how the seconds went by. And all the matches were gone.
"It's like being lost in a cave, or a mine, or the catacombs," Angela reflected aloud, "with your only candle burnt out. You can't tell whether it's minutes or hours."
"It must be mighty tedious for you, I'm afraid; though Billy's sure to come back soon," said Nick.
"No, somehow it isn't tedious," she answered as if puzzled. "I suppose I'm rather excited. And you——"
"Well, I suppose I'm rather excited, too," said Nick, in his low, quiet voice, that did not betray what he felt. Angela's voice told more of what went on in her soul. It was, as Nick often thought, a voice of lights and shadows.
At last—what time it might be they could not tell—there came a sound of a key turning in a lock. The door opened, and a yellow ray from a lantern streamed into the church, making the owl in its corner flutter wildly. Billy's face showed in a frame of dull gold, as he peered about, blinking.
Then, for the first time, Angela knew that Nick had been angry with the chauffeur. There was something in his tone as he said, "Well! So you have come!" which suggested that, if she had not been there, the "forest creature" might have added some strong and primitive language.
"Couldn't help it, Mr. Hilliard. I done the best I could," Billy explained hastily. "When I got out there, I was up against a tough proposition, and I guess it would have been tougher yet if I'd stopped to do much thinking."
"I don't know what your proposition was. But seems to me if it had been mine I'd have found time to yell: 'All right—coming as soon as I can!' as I passed the open window," Nick remarked dryly. "Mrs. May'll think we're a nice lot."
But Billy broke into a flood of explanations, too proud to excuse himself to Hilliard, after being, as he thought, unjustly reproached, yet willing to justify himself in the eyes of the lady.
He had dropped from the window, he said, just in time to see a dim figure, which looked like that of a Padre, disappearing in the distance. He had started instantly in pursuit. If he had waited to call out under the window the figure would have disappeared, and he might not have found it again. As it was the old man had gone so far, and was going so fast, that it had taken some time to catch up. He—Billy—had yelled. The Padre—for the Padre it was—had eventually stopped. Then had followed explanations why the key was in the church door, and the door open; why the door was afterward locked, and why the Padre was hurrying away from the Mission, late in the evening, with the key in his pocket. And all these explanations were simple enough, simpler than Billy's own.
In the first place a gentleman in the hotel at Paso Robles—one who came often to the Mission of San Miguel, and was a most important person—had sent a message asking that the church might be opened for him in the afternoon. He wished to drive out, and bring a lady to see the Mission. The Padre, obliged to spend the afternoon at the bedside of a man dying at a distant farmhouse, stuck the key in the church door, with a note attached, asking the lady and gentleman to lock the door when ready to go away, and hide the key under a big stone which the letter indicated. The vestments and altar cloths, the great treasures of the church, had been purposely left in an open box, that they might be inspected by the visitors, and the Padre had departed with a growing uneasiness in his mind, lest the instructions should be neglected. So strong was his presentiment, "though the gentleman was not one to forget," that he felt compelled to leave the sick man before nightfall, and hurry off to the church to see if his fears were justified. He promised, however, to return to the bedside immediately; and luckily meeting the gentleman, heard a confession that indeed the key had been forgotten. Only a short time had passed since the church was left empty, therefore the Padre had no further fear for the safety of the vestments. He hurried on, missed seeing the motor, found the key in the church door as he expected, gave it a quick turn in the lock, took it out, put it in the pocket of his long gown, and started back to the farm as fast as his legs would carry him.
"Well, wouldn't he give you the key?" Nick asked, when the story had reached this point.
"Yes. He gave it to me. But it was pretty dark by that time, and a good long way from the Mission. I lost myself, and thought I was never going to get here," Billy admitted. "I guess I must have wandered all round Robin Hood's Barn, when, just as I was ready to give up boat, the stars come out through a lot of clouds, and showed me the roof of the church. I steered by that, and here I am."
"I think we must be grateful, and not scold him," said Angela.
"I did my best, anyhow," Billy persisted, "and I brought this lantern out of the auto. The worst is, I don't know how her lights'll work, for thinkin' to be at the hotel before dark, I didn't bring no water."
Nick stifled a word or two he would have liked to say, reflecting that perhaps he was as much as to blame as Billy. He ought to have left nothing to chance where Angela's comfort and safety were concerned.
They got water, though finding it meant further delay, and after all, the acetylene lamps obstinately refused to shine. It was the first time they had been used since Nick bought the car, and he abused himself roundly for not having tested their temper. Something was wrong, something which neither his knowledge nor Billy's could set right; and after tinkering for half an hour, they started with no other light than that of the lantern which Billy proposed to hold while Hilliard drove.
By this time Angela was thankful for the cloak she had left in the car. It was nearly twelve; and the eight miles which the Bright Angel would gaily have gobbled up in the same number of minutes had she been able to use her eyes, took an hour to negotiate. Like a wounded lioness the car crawled along the dark road, illumined only by a fitful spot of yellow light; and a deep-toned clock somewhere was striking one as she drew up before the door of the hotel.
Most of the windows had gone to sleep, but a few near the front entrance were twinkling wakefully, and the door flew open in response to the call of the motor. A servant of the hotel came out, but behind the liveried man appeared the tall figure of John Falconer, with a woman at his side.
"We've been anxious about you," Falconer said, coming forward.
That "we" was suggestive; and Angela's fancy sprang to a happy ending for the marred romance. As she entered the hall, dazzled by the lights, her first glance was for the woman who stood beside Falconer, smiling though a little shy. It did not need Falconer's introduction to tell that this was Mademoiselle Dobieski; and if the singer had lost her youth in Siberia, Paso Robles, or the magic medicine of love, had given it back. Her pale face, lit by immense dark eyes, was radiant, and though she leaned lightly on a stick, it seemed that this was a mere concession to a doctor's order, or a habit not quite forgotten.
"This is the lady I told you of," Falconer said to Angela, when he had heard the story of the adventure. "I told her about you, too, and she would sit up to see you. So would your maid, of course, who has been in a great state of anxiety—and even the cat was depressed. Mademoiselle Dobieski has been trying to console your poor Irish girl."
"I could not bear her to be unhappy," said the singer, in a voice of a curiously thrilling quality. "I am so happy myself! This is the best day of my life. I don't want it to end."
"The doctor has told her she will be cured," Falconer explained. "You can guess whether it has been a happy day for me! And she has promised to be my wife. It was in the Mission church of San Miguel, bless him!"
"Then it was you who forgot the key in the church door!" exclaimed Angela. "I felt it was, somehow. And no wonder you forgot!" She threw a smiling glance at Nick.
Nick said nothing, but he too blessed San Miguel. He knew nothing about the bodily ailments which brought people to sulphur springs, but he thought that no torture of the body could be worse than jealousy; and of that pain San Miguel had in a moment cured him.
He blessed also the owl which had rustled and made Angela want him near her.
"I believe I'll catch it, and have it tamed at my place," he said to himself. "I'll give it a good time all the rest of its life."
And next morning early, while Angela slept, he motored out again to the Mission, found the Padre, caught the owl which was young and dazed, brought it to the hotel, and hired a boy to take it by train to Bakersfield.
ANGELA AT HER WORST
But something had happened to Angela next day. That was clear, from her manner. What had changed her from a clinging, sweetly mid-Victorian girl into a reserved, coldly polite woman, Nick could not imagine. Her cool "Good morning" gave the first sign of a fallen temperature. His way of beginning the day was suited to the ending of yesterday: hers denied all that made yesterday memorable. Could it be that in recalling the scene in the Mission church, Mrs. May disapproved of something he had said, or some blundering act, and wished to "put him in his place"? Or—still more terrible—was she unhappy about Falconer? Nick was confused, miserable, and because he did not know how to take her, or consequently how to bear himself, he became self-conscious and awkward.
Angela did not refuse to go to Santa Ysabel and the mysterious warm lake, but she said that she would sit behind as her head ached a little, and she would feel the wind less than on the front seat. Nick knew, somehow, that she did not wish to talk to him. Yet there was nothing definite in her manner, of which he could take hold and say, "Have I offended you?"
"Perhaps it's only that she's tired, and didn't sleep well," Nick tried to persuade himself, because, in reason, he did not see what else it could be. "As like as not, she'll be different to-morrow."
But there was to be no to-morrow.
The blow did not fall until he had brought her back to the hotel. Then, before Nick could propose a new plan, she said quickly, in the presence of Falconer, who had strolled out to meet the Bright Angel, "Oh, Mr. Hilliard, I think you'll be glad to hear you are going to be relieved of all this bother I've been making you. I'm engaged to play chaperon for a few days. If I will go to Monterey, Mademoiselle Dobieski will go, and of course that will be a great, great pleasure to Mr. Falconer. You know, don't you, that our plans were never made for a day ahead? She and I will travel in the wonderful private car, and meet Mrs. Harland at the other end of the journey. I know Mr. Falconer means to ask you too, so we shan't be saying good-bye, or even au revoir, if you accept. His idea is for you to let your chauffeur drive the Bright Angel, and meet you where you like. But he'll tell you all about that, of course. We arranged this at breakfast, which Mademoiselle Dobieski had with me, in my sitting-room."
With this, she walked away, leaving the men to settle the question between themselves. Nick thought then that he understood. She mentioned the promised invitation, rather than break away from him too abruptly, but certainly she could not wish him to accept. If she had not wanted to escape from his society, she would not have fallen in with Falconer's suggestion. Perhaps she had even asked Falconer to help her out of a situation which, for some dreadful reason, she suddenly found impossible. This was very likely Falconer's way of coming to the rescue. The excuse seemed a fairly good one, and the invitation was calculated to save sensitive feelings. But it was not quite good enough—or the feelings were too sensitive. Nick thanked Falconer, and said that he was sorry to miss such a pleasure, but could not trust Billy to drive the Bright Angel: he must stick to the helm.
When Angela came back in a few minutes with Sonia Dobieski, Falconer was still trying to persuade Hilliard to change his mind, proposing that, if Billy could not drive, the Bright Angel should be put upon a train. For an instant Nick's eyes sought Angela's, but she was tucking a rose into her belt, and did not look up. Her lowered eyelids and long lashes gave her a look of deliberate remoteness. Nick again expressed his gratitude, but was "afraid he couldn't manage, although he would like it mighty well." This time he made no excuse for his refusal, and Falconer let the subject drop. He saw that something was wrong, and feared that he had been selfish in suggesting an idea which would give him Sonia for a guest. Certainly Mrs. May had accepted readily; but now there was a jarring note. He was sorry, but could do nothing more, except to express regret that Hilliard would not be of the party on board the McCloud. Mademoiselle Dobieski followed suit, and, in common civility, Angela had to say what they said whether she meant it or not. She had to look up, too, when she spoke, and Nick's eyes met hers. She blushed like a schoolgirl, and glanced away, adding quickly that she would have liked his advice as well as Falconer's, at Monterey. "You know, Mr. Falconer thinks I shall want to buy land along the Seventeen-Mile Drive, and build my house there," she said. "I wonder? Since Santa Barbara, I've been thinking I might prefer the North. But I can't tell, one bit. There's something about the climate of California—I suppose it must be the climate!—which makes me in two minds about the same things, every day."
Nick was not sure whether to take this as an excuse or a stab. He was sure of but one thing. Something hideous had come between him and his angel, while he slept and dreamed of her; and nothing would ever be the same again. Of course it must be his fault; and if he were used to women he would perhaps see what he had done that a woman would disapprove. Or perhaps, even so, he would be in the dark, for there were all the other women in the world, and there was Angela May. She was a law unto herself. It looked just now as if she were a hard and cruel law, but she must not be blamed. She had a right to break with him. She had promised nothing.
"I think," said Nick, when he had learned that the McCloud was to be "hitched" to a train, in the afternoon, "I'd better be getting on. I might as well say good-bye to you all now." When he shook hands with Mrs. May, Falconer and Sonia Dobieski turned aside a little, speaking to each other. "I hope you understand, Mr. Hilliard, and don't think I'm being rude after all your kindness," Angela said, melting a little; "I could hardly refuse them, when it was a question of chaperoning a newly engaged couple; and I thought you would join us, of course."
This concession gave Nick an unexpected chance. He dared to hope that it was an olive branch held out. "Did you really think that?" he asked quickly, in a low voice.
"Certainly. Why not?"
"Oh, I don't know! That's the trouble. But—if you did think it, maybe you'll let me see you again—maybe this won't be good-bye for always?"
"Dear me, I hope not, indeed!" she answered in a light, frivolous tone again. "We're sure to meet. You come to San Francisco sometimes I've heard you say. I shall be there—oh, ages."
"You'll let me call?" Nick was faintly—very faintly—encouraged, not to hope for much, but for a very little; for a chance to retrieve some of the ground he had lost in a night; to begin low down, and work up.
"I shall be glad to see you at the Fairmont Hotel, when I get there." She was almost too frankly cordial suddenly. The tone would have been perfect if the words had been spoken in New Orleans, before a thousand things had happened. But they had passed that stage now—for good or ill.
Then they finished shaking hands, and a few minutes later Nick left her with Falconer and Sonia Dobieski. The instant he had gone, Angela would have given a good deal to call him back, although she was sure she had done only her duty to herself and him.
Her reasons for the great change were not mysterious at all. They were very clear, and seemed to her very virtuous, very praiseworthy—up to the last minute. Then she thought that she was a prig, and a wretch, and several other things which she would have been furious to be thought by anybody else. She had wanted Nick to realize—that is, she had felt it her duty to make him realize—that things could not go on as they were, after last night. She had been incredibly silly in the Mission church. All night long she had scolded herself for the way she had "behaved" and let the "forest creature" behave—holding her hand, and sitting as close to her on the gallery stairs as if they were engaged in a desperate ballroom flirtation. She must show him that she was not really a stupid, sentimental person. She made up her mind that they must begin all over again, the very first thing in the morning; and, true to her resolution, she had, indeed, begun all over again. She had torn a hole in the net which was binding them together—all through her own silly fault!
In her heart, she had wanted him to accept Falconer's invitation; but she had not wanted him to know that she had wanted him. The thing was to give the impression that she would be pleased if he went, and not miserable if he refused. If they all went to Monterey together on Mr. Falconer's private car, they would not be losing each other—as friends; they would merely be adjusting their relations, which, owning to San Miguel, had suddenly got dangerously out of hand.
It was only when Nick's back was turned, and he was going, that she saw things from his point of view. Why had she not been clever enough to keep to the happy medium and not make him think that he had done something dreadfully wrong—that on second thoughts she was blaming him for last night, and punishing him? Surely she might have managed better—she a woman of the world, and he a mere "forest creature"?
But it was too late. The thing was done, and badly done. Angela saw herself a worm, and Nick noble as a tall pine-tree of the mountains. Still, it was best that the break should have come, one way or another.
"Why on earth should I care?" she asked herself angrily. '"We could never go on having a real friendship, all our lives—I and a man like that. He's a splendid fellow—of course, above me in lots of ways; but we're of different worlds. I don't see how anything could change that. What a pity it all is—not for my sake, but for his!" And she thought how awkward his fit of shy self-consciousness had made him appear in contrast with a cultured man, a cosmopolitan like Falconer. It was she who had made him self-conscious. She knew that. But there was the fact. Falconer was a man of her world. Nick Hilliard was not. It was sad that Nick, with his good looks and intelligence and fine qualities, could not have had advantages when a boy—could not have gone to a university or at least associated with gentlefolk as their equal—which he was in heart. But now he had got those slipshod ways of speaking he could never change. And there were a thousand other things which put him outside the pale of the men she knew. She would not listen when a sarcastic voice within defended Nick, sneering, "Oh, yes, Prince Paolo di Sereno and some of his friends are far superior to Mr. Hilliard, aren't they?"
Irritated because the "forest creature" had become of paramount importance in her life when he should remain the merest episode, she was surprised and even horrified to find herself despairing because he had done what she forced him to do. She could have cried for what he must be thinking of her. She wanted to go on seeing his faults, but in her changing mood she could see only her own. "He is one of the noblest gentlemen in the world," something inside her said. "You aren't worthy to black his boots!" Then the picture of herself blacking them—the shiny ones that were too tight—rose before her eyes, and she was afraid that she was going to laugh—or else to sob. Anyhow, he was gone, and there was an end of it all!
But when afternoon came, things were different again. In Falconer's private car, where she, Princess di Sereno, was the chaperon, and Sonia Dobieski was queen, Angela was so desperately homesick for Nick Hilliard that she did not see how she could get on without his—friendship. "After all," she reminded herself, excusing her inconsistency, "I didn't send him away. He went of his own accord. He might be here now. He refused to come with us. It's only that we oughtn't to be rushing about together any more in that absurd way. It won't do. Things keep happening—unexpected things—like last night. Still if he comes to San Francisco—if he asks again to 'show me the sights' I don't see why I shouldn't say yes—just to so small a favour—and to make up—in case his feelings are hurt."
In her heart she knew that his feelings were hurt. But had she not hurt her own?
There was a piano in the drawing-room part of the car. Sonia was singing to Falconer. They had forgotten Mrs. May, without whose martyred presence they could not have had this happiness. The soul of the Russian girl seemed to pour out with her voice, as upon a tide. The sorrow and pain of her past exile were in it at first: then it rose to the joy of new life in a new world. The sweetness of the voice and all that it meant of love after anguish stabbed Angela as she listened in the distance, like a knife dipped in honey.
Things were better at Del Monte. Mrs. Harland was there, and made a delightful hostess. It rather amused Angela to watch Theo Dene with Sonia Dobieski, and to see how delightful Falconer's sister was to both. But somehow she contrived that Miss Dene should not be of the motoring party for the Seventeen-Mile Drive. A young officer from the Presidio was produced, to compensate as far as could be for her frankly lamented "failure"; and Theo resigned herself to a second-best flirtation. It was consoling to think that Falconer had been in love with the Dobieski long before he saw her: and Theo could almost forgive the Russian, whom she considered plain and gawky compared to herself. She could not, however, forgive "Mrs. May" for having come into the party, and for being liked by the host better than she was liked. Judging another woman by herself, she thought that, out of revenge for one or two little things (such as the talk about Mrs. Gaylor and Nick Hilliard), Angela was trying to "take away" her California friends. If Theo had considered it worth while, she would have broken her word, and told who "Mrs. May" really was; but that would be worse than useless, as it would only make Angela seem of more importance than at present. However, on hearing that Mrs. May might decide to "run up to Shasta and the McCloud River," she promised herself a certain amount of fun. She had reminded Mrs. Harland so often about writing to Mrs. Gaylor, that at last the letter had been sent. The lady who was supposed to have a claim upon Nick Hilliard was asked to visit Rushing River Camp, as Falconer's place was called; and a telegram had been dispatched by Falconer himself to Hilliard at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, whither he was bound. If they all came—yes, Theo would have her fun.
She thought of this, as she flirted with the officer from the Presidio, and promised to make him the hero of her next book. But the party in Falconer's motor thought of her not at all.
Angela was enchanted with the peninsula of Monterey. In the dark arbour of the cedar forest Falconer kept ordering the chauffeur of a hired car to slow down, or stop. The practically minded young man believed that this great gentleman and the three ladies must be slightly mad. It was so queer to stop a car when she was going well just to stare around and talk poetry about a lot of trees.
One of the ladies, the prettiest and youngest, with yellow hair under her gray motor-bonnet, said they weren't trees but people—either nymphs or witches—and the rest of the party humoured her, talking nonsense about Greece and goddesses. He thought the pleasure of a motor trip was "going some"; but his passengers seemed to have other ideas. They were idiots, of course, but they seemed mighty happy.
Angela, however, was less happy than the others, less happy than she tried to seem. She had a dim idea that, if she had come with Nick, she would have thought this the most beautiful place on earth, and that she had found the ideal spot for a home. As it was, in spite of all the loveliness, she was not sure of herself, or what she wanted. This made her ashamed. She was as self-conscious as Nick had been yesterday, and in sheer panic fear lest "they" should think she was pining for Hilliard, or grieving over some stupid quarrel, she said that she would certainly buy land in the forest. She must not lose such a chance. If for any reason she should change her mind, she could always sell, couldn't she? On this point Falconer reassured her. "You can sell to me," he laughed in the light-hearted way that surprised the chauffeur. "You build a house and furnish it, and take all the trouble, and I'll buy it from you—to live in myself when I want to imagine I'm in Greece or Sicily, as I do sometimes when I'm too busy to go there." And he looked at Sonia.
Though he laughed, he was in earnest, and Angela began to feel that she might want to keep her house—if she built it. She saw herself walking under the strange dark trees to the gray rocks, to look at the seals. Nick was with her.... She hurried to think of something else. Nick would not be here. They would have forgotten each other by the time her house was built. Perhaps he would be married to his Mrs. Gaylor.
After all it did not seem so romantic to have a place where she could go and look at some seals, alone. Stupid! Because she had come to California on purpose to have a place where she could be alone.
"How absurd women, are!" she thought, irritably. "As soon as we can have what we want, we don't want it. I suppose it must be that. Now I long for all kinds of new things I can't possibly have, which would be very bad for me if I could."
After lunching at the wonderful Club House built of logs, they went back by way of Monterey, and in the sleepy old town which holds more California history than any other they wandered about, "seeing the sights," one after another. They paid their respects to the monument of Father Juniperra Serra, who landed at Monterey with his soldiers a hundred and forty years ago—a long time in America, where life moves quickly. Then, next in interest, came the verandaed Custom House, built under Spanish rule, and looking just the place to spend a lazy afternoon in gossiping about lovely ladies, and pretending to do important business for the Crown. There was the oldest Court-house in California, too, and the oldest brick house, and the oldest frame building—"brought round the Horn"; the oldest theatre, glorified by Jenny Lind's singing; and, indeed, all the oldest old things to be found anywhere in history or romance. But, though Angela dared not say so, she wondered what had become of the really old things, new in the beginning of the seventeenth century when Don Sebastian Viscanio landed to name the town—in honour of Philip the Third—Monterey or "King of the Mountains."
That night they all walked together under the great trees of the park at Del Monte. A lake (where black swans threaded their way like dark spirits among white water-lilies) drank the last light of day, and little waves the swans made were ruffled with dim silver. Above, the sky was another deep blue lake lilied with stars; and as darkness fell, hot and sweet-scented as the veil of an Eastern woman, slowly the boundaries were lost between forest and garden. Outlines faded and blended into one another. The fuchsias, big as babies' fists, the poppies like dolls' crepe sunbonnets, the roses large enough for nightingales' nests, lost their colour, and seemed to go out in the dark, like brilliant bubbles that break into nothingness. Here and there yellow light flashed near the ground, far from the walkers, as if a faint firefly were astray in a tangle of flowers. Chinese gardeners, deft and mysterious as brownies, were working at night to change the arrangement of flower-beds so that the dwellers in the hotel should have a surprise by day.
Theo Dene talked of Carmen Gaylor, telling stories she had heard of the rich widow from people whose acquaintance she had first made at Del Monte. "I am longing to meet the woman," she said; "I think she must be an interesting character, typically Spanish, or Mexican—or, anyhow, not American—from what they all say. A beauty—vain and jealous, and a fearful temper. I shouldn't like to interfere with a woman of that sort in what she thought her 'rights,' should you?"
"One can't interfere with a person one has never met, can one?" Angela remarked, pretending not to understand.
"Maybe not, in real life," Theo agreed. "I'm always losing myself in my books, and forgetting that the world outside isn't like my world, made of romance. But you can understand, can't you; here where it's so beautiful that even a married woman—who has, of course, left love far behind her in Europe—must feel some faint yearning to be the heroine of a romance?"
Princess di Sereno wondered why she had ever been nice to Theo in Rome.
LA DONNA E MOBILE
Angela stood at her hotel window, looking down over the gilded hills and purple valleys of the most romantic city in America—San Francisco, the port of adventure; away to the Golden Gate, where the sea poured in a flood of gold under a sea of rosy fog—a foaming, rushing sea of sunset cloud, beneath a high dome of fire away to the fortified islands and to Mount Tamalpais.
She had arrived only a few hours ago, after two days spent at Del Monte, and was waiting for Nick.
There had been a note sent up the day before, and she had not been in the hotel twenty minutes when he had telephoned. It had been good to hear his voice, so good that Angela had felt obliged to stiffen her resolution. Would she let him call? he asked; and she said: "Yes, come before dinner." Her impulse was to say, "Dine with me," but she would not. Instead, she added, "I dine at eight." It was now after seven, and she had dressed to be ready for Nick. He might arrive at any minute. Angela's heart was beating quickly—but perhaps it was the glory of the sunset that made her blood run fast. She was listening for the bell of the telephone, yet when the sharp sound came it went through her nerves with the thrill of the unexpected.
"A gentleman, Mr. Hilliard, has called," announced the small impersonal voice at the other end of the wire.
"Ask him to come up," Angela answered, feeling virtuously firm in her resolve that really had not weakened once in the last five days!
The pretty white room was full of rose-coloured twilight, so pink, it seemed, that if you closed your hand tightly you might find a little ball of crushed rose-petals there when you opened it. It would be a pity to shut out so much loveliness by switching on the electricity, so when Nick came he found Angela, a tall, slim black figure, with a faint gold nimbus round its head, silhouetted against a background of flaming sky. Standing as she did with her back to the window, he could hardly see her face, but the sunset streamed full into his as he crossed the room, holding out his hand.
His dark face and deep-lighted eyes looked almost unearthly to Angela seen in this wonderful light. No man could really be as handsome as he seemed! She must remember that he had never been so before, never would be again. It was only an effect. "It's like meeting him transformed, in another world," was the thought that flashed through her head. And the immense height of this great house on a hill, the apparent distance from the veiled city beneath, with its starlike lights beginning to glitter through clouds of shadow, all intensified the fancy. For an instant it was as if they two met alone together on a mountain-top, immeasurably high above the tired, struggling crowd of human things where once their place had been.
Strange what fantastic ideas jump into your mind! Angela was ashamed; and her embarrassment, mingling with admiration of Nick which must be hidden, chilled her greeting into commonplace. Yet she could hardly take her eyes from his good looks.
Nick had dressed himself for evening in some of those clothes bought in haste, ready-made, to please a woman who had laughed at them and at him, during his abbreviated visit in New York. The woman did not laugh now. She forgot that she had ever laughed; and the thought was in her mind that the large white oval of evening shirt set off his head like a marble pedestal.
"How do you do?" she said, giving him her hand, and holding it rather high, in the English way, which seemed excessively formal to Nick. "I'm glad to see you again."
Nick's heart went down. Her voice did not sound glad. This was just what he had expected, though not what he had hoped. She had changed toward him the day they parted, and though she had flung him a word of encouragement, evidently she had gone on changing more and more. There seemed little good in asking what he had come to ask; but he had to get through with it now.
"I guess I don't need to tell you I'm glad to see you," he said. He looked at that nimbus round her head, as she stood with her back to the window. He could say no more, though he had meant to add something.
"What are you thinking about?" she questioned him almost sharply.
Nick laughed, embarrassed. "I was thinking some words that sound like poetry—or no, they were thinking themselves. Night in her eyes, morning in her hair! Because standing like you do, Mrs. May, a kind of gold powder wreath seems to be floating around your head."
She laughed too. "You must have been reading poetry since I left you!"
"No, that came out of my head. But I've been thinking a whole lot. About a good many things—only most of them were about you, or came back to you if they didn't begin there. Don't you know how one idea can sort of run through all your thoughts?"
"I know," said Angela. Just so had the idea of him been running through all her thoughts these last few days. "But," she added with an effort, "why should you have been thinking of me? We're such—new friends."
"Yes," Nick admitted, "but you can't always account for your thoughts."
"Of course not. And I'm grateful for a few of yours. Have you been enjoying San Francisco? Do sit down. And would you mind putting on the electricity?"
"Must I? It's beautiful like this."
"Very well. Leave it so."
She sat on a sofa, still with her back to the window, and Nick took a chair facing the light.
"I've had a feeling on me of waiting," said Nick. "Just that. I haven't gone around much, though this is the first time I've been in San Francisco, except for a day, since the city's grown up after the fire. I was waiting to see if you'd let me show you things, as you——"
"As I—what?" Angela asked, when he paused.
"I was going to say, as you partly promised. But that wouldn't be fair, because you didn't really promise anything."
If he had claimed a right, it would have been easy to say that it didn't exist, but he made things harder by claiming nothing. Still, she went on: "No, of course, I couldn't promise. As I'm situated now, it's difficult to make plans. However, if you've really waited for me, it was kind, and there's no reason why I shouldn't ask you to show me San Francisco. Already, even though I haven't gone about at all, except just 'taxying' up to the hotel, I can see it's wonderful. From this window, it's like looking out on Rome, with all its hills—Rome transplanted to the sea. And I know you, and don't know Mr. Morehouse, who's my only other resource here. Besides, he's a busy man; and if you're busy, you pretend not to be."
"I'm having a vacation," Nick explained.
"All the nicer of you, spending some of it on me. But I mustn't let you spend too much. Besides, I have as little time as you have for running about the country. Everything has changed with me since I saw you last."
"I was afraid so!" Nick exclaimed, before he could stop to think.
"Only because I've bought land," Angela said hastily. "Some of California—five acres on the peninsula of Monterey—is mine! I must decide on an architect. Isn't that exciting? Then, while he's working out our joint ideas, perhaps I'll make a visit to Mrs. Harland. I'm rather tired, and I believe it will do me good."
"I expect it will," said Nick bravely.
"Think of the journey I've had from Europe, and not a day's rest since," went on Angela, with the air of excusing herself.
"It must have been mighty hard on you," Nick agreed. He flushed faintly, as if he deserved reproach for inconsiderateness.
"Not that I felt the need of rest till—till now," she hurried on. "It was delicious sailing along with your Bright Angel. When I'm at Rushing River Camp I shall think of her again, wondering who is spinning about with you in my place. For you'll often take your friends out when you're at home?"
It was on the tip of Nick's tongue to answer, "Bright Angel was bought for you; named after you, and I can never bear to take anybody else, now you've finished with her—and me." But that, like claiming a promise half made, "wouldn't have been fair." If he hinted that the car had been got for her sake, she would be distressed. Some men in his place would have said—whether meaning it or not—"No other woman shall ever go with me in that auto." And the wish to say this was in Nick's mind, but he knew that it would be in bad taste. Besides, there was a woman who would want to try his car, and it would be unfriendly to deny her. So he said, "There is one friend I must take: Mrs. Gaylor. I've talked to you about her. She'll be interested in Bright Angel when I get home."
"Yes; of course," replied Angela. It was extraordinary how much she disliked the picture of Nick and a beautiful dark woman together in the car where her place had been by his side. Could it be that Theo Dene was right? Was Nick's interest in her—Angela—less than, and different from, his interest in Mrs. Gaylor? She had no right to know, no right to want to know, still less to try to find out. Yet she felt that not to know very soon would make her lose sleep, and appetite, and interest in daily life.
Silence fell between them for a moment. The rose of sunset burned to ashes-of-rose. A small clock on the mantelpiece mentioned in a discreet voice that it was a quarter to eight. Nick got up, rather heavily for a man so lithe as he.
"Well, I must go," he said. "Thank you for letting me take, you around San Francisco. May I come to-morrow morning?"
"Oh, do. About half-past nine." She got up also, feeling miserable, though, as she pointed out to herself, for no real reason.
"I'll be prompt." He put out his hand, and she laid hers in it, looking up to his face with a smile which would not for the world have been wistful. Suddenly his fingers gripped hers convulsively.
"So it's all over!" he whispered.
"No, no; not all over," she contradicted him. "There's to-morrow."
"Yes, there's to-morrow," he echoed.
"I told you at first," and she tried to laugh, "that 'sufficient for the day was the trip thereof.' Nothing was to be planned ahead."
"It's all right, Mrs. May," Nick answered.. "I want to be glad you're going to have that McCloud River visit. And, of course, you've got your new place to think of. No wonder you're sick of travelling and want to settle down. It's all right, and there's to-morrow, as you say."
He shook her hand, moving it up and down mechanically, then dropped it, and turned to go. Another second and the door was opening. Then it was shutting behind him. He had gone! And though he was coming to-morrow for a little while, nothing would ever be as it had been between them. It was now, not to-morrow, that she was sending him definitely out of her life; and he understood.
Never had Angela thought so quickly. She trembled as she stood staring at the shut door. Her cheeks burned, and a pulse beat in her throat, under the string of pearls. She clasped and unclasped her hands, and they were very cold.
"He shan't go to that woman, and take her out in my place in the Bright Angel!" she said out aloud, and flew to the door.
"Mr. Hilliard!—Mr. Hilliard!" she called.
Everything seemed to depend—though this was nonsense!—on his not having got to the elevator. She stood in the doorway, waiting to see what would happen, her blood pounding as if she had taken a really important step; which, of course, was not the case.
He had turned a corner of the corridor and was out of sight, but her voice reached him, and he came back.
"Was there something you forgot to tell me?" he asked. Perhaps she was going to say that after all she would not go out to-morrow.
"No, not that I forgot—something I want to say. Come in again."
She whisked the tail of her black chiffon dress back into the room. He followed her, wondering and silently anxious.
"I've changed my mind," she said in a low voice. (There! He had known it. She was not going.)
"Would you still care to be my 'trail guide' in the Yosemite Valley?"
"Would I care?" echoed Nick.
"Then we'll go. I'll give up the McCloud River. I'll telephone Mrs. Harland—she's in San Francisco till day after to-morrow. I'll find an excuse—I haven't had time to think it out yet. But I don't care what happens, I won't change again! I'm going to the Yosemite if you'll take me."
He looked at her searchingly. "Because you're kind-hearted, and afraid you've hurt me——"
"No—no! Because I want to go!"
Women are strange, and hard to understand, when they are worth taking the trouble to understand; and even then they cannot understand themselves.
THE CITY OF ROMANCE
Angela was ridiculously happy next morning. She had no regrets. Nick had stayed to dinner after all, and they had made plans. There was nothing in this, really, she reminded herself, laughing five times an hour; nothing at all. But it was about as wild and exciting as if—as if it were an elopement: to have given up everything she had almost decided upon, and to be going to the Yosemite Valley—with Nick, whom she had intended gently to put in his place—at a distance from hers.
"There will never, never be anything in my life again like this," she said. "I've never lived. I've never done the things I wanted to do. There was always some one or something to keep me back. Now, for a week or a fortnight, I shall live—live! nothing and no one shall keep me back." She knew how absolutely contradictory this was, after taking so much pains to "let the 'forest creature' down gently," and begin all over again. But she did not care. Nothing mattered, except that she could not send him to Mrs. Gaylor. As gaily as she had embarked upon the "little adventure" at Los Angeles, did she now face the great one.
Nick, too, was violently happy, happier than he had ever been or supposed it possible to be. At Los Angeles he had hardly dared to hope for anything beyond the pleasure of having this woman by his side for a few hours. Since then, his feelings had, as he expressed it to himself, been running up and down, like a thermometer in changeable weather; but they had been "mostly down," and during the last few days had mounted little above freezing-point. Now the sudden bound bewildered him. He did not know why Angela had changed again at the very moment when she had seemed most cold; but she had changed, and almost fiercely he determined now to fight for her. He loved her, and she must know what was in his heart. She could not do what she had just agreed to do unless she liked and trusted him: and he would make the most of all the days to come. He would keep her forever if he could.
Her sudden throwing over of her own plans, for his sake, seemed too good to be true, especially after her strange conduct at Paso Robles; but like a boy who dreams he has all the Christmas presents he ever coveted in vain, and wakes to find them his, he reminded himself that it was true—true—true!
Angela did not tell Nick the excuse she offered Mrs. Harland for giving up her visit. It was enough for him that it was given up. He would have been even more proud and pleased, however, if he had known how frankly she confessed her real intentions.
To do that seemed to Angela the only way. To have fibbed a little, or even to have prevaricated whitely, would have spoiled everything.
"I find, dear Mrs. Harland," she said in her letter, "that I can't tear myself from San Francisco. If I go with you to Shasta and the McCloud River, and come back in a week or a fortnight to do my sightseeing, nothing will be the same. I believe you will understand how I feel. My impressions will be broken. Besides, Mr. Hilliard is here now, and willing to show me what I ought to see. I'm afraid I seemed to repay his kindness by being rude to him at Paso Robles. After San Francisco, he volunteers to be my 'trail guide' through the Yosemite Valley, and if I put off that trip too long I mayn't get so good a guide. Mr. Morehouse has advised me to take him, and says these things are done in this Western World, where gossip is blown away like mist by the winds that sweep through the Golden Gate. Besides, why should any one gossip? There is no cause; and I am nobody, and known to few. I'm not worth gossiping about! But I wonder if you'll ever again invite me to Rushing River Camp? I hardly dare expect it. Yet I hope!"
Already Mrs. Gaylor had been invited, and had accepted; but Angela was not thinking of Mrs. Gaylor at the moment, and she was doing her best to keep Nick's thoughts from his "boss's widow." He and "Mrs. May" went about San Francisco together like two children on a holiday.
The place was a surprise to Angela. Her father's stories had pictured for her a strange, wild city, of many wooden houses, a tangle of steep streets running up hill and down dale, a few great mansions, a thousand or more acres of park in the making. But the San Francisco which he had known as a boy had greatly changed, even before the fire. Angela was aware of this, though she had not been able to realize the vastness of the change; and though she knew that the city was reborn since the epic tragedy which laid it low, she had expected to find it in a confused turmoil of growing. The work done in six or seven years by men who loved the City of the Golden Gate—men who gave blood and fortune for her, as men will for an adored woman—was almost incredible. "Rome was not built in a day" she had often heard; but this great town of many hills, so like a Rome of a new world, seemed to have risen from its ashes by magic.
The place began to take on in her eyes a curious, startling individuality. She began to think of the city not as a town, but as a person. A woman, young, lovely, and beloved, who had gone gaily to bed one night to dream of her lovers, her jewels, and her triumphs. While she lay smiling in her beauty sleep, this woman had been rudely aroused by a cry of fire and shouts that warned her to fly. Dazed, she dressed in wildest haste, putting on all the gorgeous jewels she could find, for fear of losing them forever, and wrapping herself in exquisite laces. But in her hurry, she had been obliged to fling on some very queer garments rather than not be clothed at all; and, losing her head, had contrived to save a few worthless things. All this the woman had done, laughing through her fear of death, because nothing could conquer her brave spirit and because she knew that, scared and destitute, near to death, she would be rescued at last, loved better than ever for her sufferings, and by and by would be more regal than before.
Now, here was this vital creature, rewarded for her faith by the worship and the prowess of her lovers. What matter if she still wore some of the odd things she had picked up in a hurry? Gowns better than she had ever boasted were being fashioned for her; and the contrast between a tiara showing under a sunbonnet, a scarf of rose-point covering a cotton belt, and diamond-buckled shoes slipped on to torn stockings, made her beauty more piquant, as she sat watching the work of her lovers, on her throne by the sea. No wonder that the men who adored such a woman were brave as she! generous and reckless as she, and on fire with energy and courage.
"But the beautiful woman worked, too, to help her lovers," Nick answered Angela's little allegory. "When she was wounded, she said, 'Just give me a hand up and I won't die. You shall have a big reward for all you do—only hurry, for I can't bear to be seen like this by any one but you.'"
"And what did her lovers say?" Angela asked.
"'We'll die for you, gladly. You have our hearts. You can have our hearts' blood.'" And his eyes spoke to her of himself.
* * * * *
The first day was tiring, nevertheless Angela went out to Oakland that night to the Greek theatre, where a classic tragedy was to be performed; and next day it was the Presidio and Golden Gate Park. They lunched at the Cliff House, and fed the barking sea-lions on the seal rocks. Then came a few hours' rest: and Chinatown was saved as a bonne-bouche for the evening. They dined in the most stately and expensive of the Chinese restaurants—"no chop suey house," as their waiter said, where they entered through the kitchen to see cakes being baked, and pots of rice in the act of cooking. Upstairs the walls were adorned with golden flowers, panel paintings by artists of China, and strange dragons, and Buddhas that nodded on shelves. There were open-work screens, and tables and chairs of black, carved teakwood. Angela would have been aghast had she dreamed that the queer dinner, which she liked and laughed at, cost Nick more than a hundred dollars, but luckily she was not initiated in the rarity of bird's-nest soup or other Chinese delicacies.
It was half-past eight when they finished dining, the hour when Chinatown begins to be most lively, most ready to amuse itself and, incidentally, strangers. Therein lay the kernel of the nut, the blossom of the clove: that this bit of the old, old East, inlaid in the heart of the new West was not an "exhibition" like "Japan in London," but a large, busy town, living for itself alone. The big posters in Chinese characters, pasted on the walls, were for Chinese eyes; not meant to amuse foreigners. The two or three daily papers printed in Chinese, and filled with advertisements, were for the Chinese; the bazaars, crammed with strange Eastern things, were meant to attract women of the Orient, little flitting creatures in embroidered silk jackets and long, tight trousers, who passed and gazed, with dark eyes aslant; let European women come, or stay away, as they pleased, there were plenty of Chinese husbands whose purses were full enough to keep the merchants of Chinatown contented. The tiny, dressed-up Oriental dolls—boy and girls—who strolled about with pink balloons or butterfly kites, in the short intervals between "Mellican" school and Chinese school, were not baby-actors playing parts on the stage, but real flesh and blood children, who had no idea that they were odd to look at in their gay-coloured gowns and tiny caps.
They did not even know that the streets through which, they toddled were any more strange than the "Mellican" streets outside Chinatown, which they doubtless considered extremely dull, made up of huge gray and white buildings like mountains or prisons; whereas the tortuous ways and blind alleys of their home-town were full of colour; balconied house fronts, high and low, huddled together, painted red or blue, and decorated with flowers, or shaped like Chinese junks or toy castles and temples. It was all new, of course, this town of theirs, since the fire; at least what was above-ground and known to foreigners was new; but it had been built in imitation of past glories. The alleys were as blind, there were as many mysterious, hidden little courts, and packing-case houses and bazaars as ever, so that the children saw no difference; and already a curious look of age, a drugged weariness, had fallen upon the seven-year-old Chinatown.
Angela walked beside Nick through the lighted streets, enchanted with the flowerlike lanterns that bloomed in front of balconied restaurants or places of entertainment, and with the crowding figures that shuffled silently by in felt-soled slippers or high rocker shoes. Tiny, elaborate women, young and old, slim youths with greeny-yellow faces like full summer moons, little old men with hands hidden in flowing sleeves, and dull eyes staring straight ahead, were to her ghosts of the Far East, or creatures of a fantastic dream from which she would soon awake.
When they had "done" the principal thoroughfares and Angela had bought ivory boxes, jade bracelets, and a silver bell collar for Timmy the cat, Nick said that the time had come to join their guide. He had engaged a man supposed to know Chinatown inside and out, and the rendezvous was at 9:30 in Portsmouth Square, the "lungs of Chinatown"—close to the memorial statue of Robert Louis Stevenson.
It was quiet there, and pleasant in the starlight, faintly gilded by the street lamps. The young moon of the sixth month, which had sunk with the sun when Angela was in Monterey, had not yet dropped beyond distant house roofs. Its pearly profile looked down, surrounded by a clear-cut ring, like the face of a pale saint seen through the rose-window of a cathedral. Soon the guide came, a little dark man with a Jewish face, a German name, an American accent, and the polite manner of an Oriental.
"What would you like the lady to see?" he asked.
"Everything you advise," said Nick. "We've dined in a Chinese restaurant, and seen the things everybody sees. Now we'll do a few barber shops and drug stores, and anything else queer you can think of."
"There's an old fellow," suggested the guide, "who used to be head musician in the big Chinese theatre. He has a place of his own now, about four storeys underground, where he tinkles on every sort of Chinese instrument. Probably the lady would like to visit him. And I know a house where children sing and dance. It's underground too; and the poor little brutes, who go to two kinds of schools till nine o'clock, are at it till midnight. But the lady needn't mind. If she doesn't go, somebody else will, so the kids are kept out of their beds all the same—the more money the merrier. You may get to see a Chinese funeral too, though I ain't sure of one to-night——"
"I guess the lady wouldn't enjoy butting in at a funeral," said Nick.
"No, she wouldn't!" Angela added hastily. "But I should love to see them playing fan-fan—isn't that what they call the gambling game?—and—and smoking opium."
"Afraid the gambling can't be managed," said Mr. Jacob Schermerhorn, sadly shaking his head, as if the good days were gone. "But you'd like a little curio store I'll take you to—owned by an American lady married to a Chinese, and wearing the costume. They sell relics of the fire. And a joss-house is interesting——"
"But the opium smoking——" Angela persisted, suspecting that he meant to slide off the subject.
"That's not easy. Opium smoking's forbidden, and——"
But Angela grew obstinate. "I shan't feel I've seen Chinatown unless I've seen that. The books say it goes on."
"It does, on the quiet—very quiet! But they're scared to death of being found out. Besides——"
"Well, ma'am, your husband said when he engaged me he thought it would be best not to try and get you into any such place. It might hurt your feelings."
"Oh!" exclaimed Angela. Her "feelings," if not hurt, were in commotion. "He—he isn't my husband."
Then she wondered if it would not have been better to have kept silence, and let the man think what he pleased. He would never see or hear of her again. She laughed to show Nick that she was not embarrassed, and then hurried on. "I must see them smoking!"
"It would make you feel mighty sad, Mrs. May," said Nick. "I went once, and—it kind of haunted me. I thought to myself, I'd never take a woman who had a heart——"
"I haven't a heart," laughed Angela, piqued. "I've only a will. But—you're my host, so I suppose I shall have to give my will up to yours."
To her surprise, Nick did not yield. "We'd better begin with the singing children," he said to Schermerhorn, "and then we won't feel we're keeping them up late."
The guide led them through Dupont Street, the street of the bazaars, and another smaller, less noisy street, where fat, long-gowned men, and women with gold clasps in their glittering edifices of ebony hair, chaffered for dried abalones, green sugarcane, and Chinese nuts. In basements they could see through half-open doors at the bottom of ladderlike steps, earnest-faced men, with long, well-tended queues of hair, busily tonsuring sleepy clients. Stooping merchants, with wrinkled brown masks like the soft shells of those nuts which others sold, could be discerned in dim, tiny offices, poring through huge round spectacles as they wrote with paint brushes, in volumes apparently made of brown paper. Here and there, in a badly lit shop with a greenish glass window, an old chemist with the air of a wizard was measuring out for a blue-coated customer an ounce of dried lizard flesh, some powdered shark's eggs, or slivered horns of mountain deer. These things would cure chills and fever; many other diseases, too, and best of all, win love denied, or frighten away bad spirits.
By and by they turned out of the street into a dim passage. This led into another, and so on, until Angela lost count. But at last, when she began to think they must be threading a maze, they plunged into a little square court, where a lantern over one dark doorway showed faintly the blacks of irregularly built houses. Several small windows which looked upon the court were barred, and there was a door with a grated peephole, where Angela fancied that she caught the glint of eyes as the lantern swung in a light breeze. But there was no such grille in the low-browed door which the guide approached. It stood ajar, and he pushed it open without knocking.
"Follow, please," he said, "it's better for me to go first." And Angela followed, with Nick close behind her, down a narrow flight of steps, more a ladder than a stairway, which descended abruptly from the threshold. One, two, three flights there were, so steep that you had to go slowly or tumble on your nose, and then down at the bottom of the third ran a long passage, where a greenish yellow dusk from some unseen lamp prevailed. The walls were of unpainted wood, made of slips as thin as laths, and several doors were roughly cut in it. At the end, one of these doors gaped open, music of a peculiar shrillness floated out. Also a smell as of musk and sandalwood drifted through the crack, with small, fitful trails of smoke or curling mist.
On the other side they were burning incense inside; a Chinese man and a woman, two tiny children like gilded idols, and three or four Europeans. The latter were evidently tourists, with a guide. They sat on a rough bench, their backs to the door; and the Chinaman was perched on a smaller, higher seat, in front of a rack hung with several odd, brightly painted Chinese musical instruments. He was playing solemnly and delicately on an object like a guitar gone mad—so thought Angela—bringing forth a singing sound, small and crystalline; but, glancing over his shoulder as the newcomer appeared, at once he snatched up another curious object, smiling at Angela, as much as to say the change was a compliment to her. The instrument was of the mandolin type, covered with evil-looking snake-skin, and having only a few strings, which the player's fingers touched lightly. Each gave out a separate vibration, though all blended together with a strange, alluring sweetness, and, underneath, Angela thought that she could hear, faintly, a wicked impish voice hissing and chuckling, as if something alive and vilely clever were curled up inside the instrument—perhaps the spirit of the snake whose skin had been stolen.
The fat man nodded to the children who stood opposite on a piece of matting, their silk-clad backs against the wooden wall, which was panelled with paintings, very cheap, and not beautiful like those of the restaurant. But the colours were harmonious; and on a low table stood a blue dragon vase, holding in its mouth a single mariposa lily, such as Angela had never seen before. Nick, standing beside her, whispered the name of the white-and-crimson-spotted butterfly flower, and she smiled her thanks, as the Chinese woman gave the boy's cap a pat, and tweaked the American ribbon bow which tied the queue of the little girl. Both children began to sing, keeping time with the snake-skinned imp.
The boy, who looked about two feet in height—no more—sang stolidly, with an unchanging countenance, and no expression in the black beads which were his eyes. He had on a primrose-coloured silk jacket, fastened across his miniature chest with a loop. His blue pantaloons were bound round his ankles, and his queue, mostly artificial, was braided with scarlet. The girl, however—still smaller than her brother, or perhaps her fiance—lifted her voice emotionally, singing very high, with the notes of a musical insect, or thin silver strings stretched tight. Her eyes rolled, she appeared self-conscious, though tired, and tinkled her silver bracelets and anklets. She saw Angela enter, and admired the newcomer's pearly skin and gold hair, which seemed to attract all the light in the mean room. The child stared at her intently, taking in every detail of the black hat and simple though perfect dress. But the singing insect was not alone in her admiration.
Suddenly Angela felt a touch on her arm. She turned, and saw a Chinese girl, who might have been sixteen or seventeen, smiling up at her. Angela smiled too, and the girl kissed her own fingers, dimpling with pleasure, her eyes sparkling. Then, with a nod of her head, and a gesture of the hand, she invitingly indicated the half-open door.
Angela glanced at Nick. He was intent on the children and had not seen the girl. Again the pretty creature nodded and beckoned, and Angela's curiosity was fired. Apparently there was something which she alone was privileged to see. She was amused and childishly flattered. It would be fun, she thought, to steal away and give Mr. Hilliard a surprise when he turned round to find her gone. Then, just when he was beginning to be frightened, she would come back and tell him her small adventure—whatever it might prove to be.
Cautiously she moved to the door, which the girl as cautiously opened wider. Then, in a second, she was out in the dusky passageway, beside her smiling guide.
THE DOOR WITH THE RED LABEL
"Mellican gell see ole Chineseman smokee opum pipe?" the girl asked.
"Why, you speak English!" exclaimed Angela, forgetting in her surprise that here was only a very little of China set in the midst of a great deal of America.
"I go school one time," said the girl. "Dis times I fo'get sometings. You come Chinese gell. You velly pletty."
Angela laughed, and went, guilty but excited. This was too good an adventure to miss. Schermerhorn must know the inhabitants and habits of this place, and he would guess what had become of her, when they found her gone. "So are you very pretty," she smiled.
"Yes," replied the girl, in her little metallic voice. "I like you. You like me. You give one dollah; I take you see Chinese man smokes mo' 'n all oddeh mens. He velly old—knows ebelyting."
"Oh, I am to pay you a dollar! So it isn't all for love of my beaux yeux," murmured Angela. But she gave the sum, glad that she had spent most of her money in buying jade and ivory, which now encumbered Nick's pockets. The girl took first her dollar and next her gloved hand. Then, opening one of the unpainted doors in the long, dusky passage, she led her companion into a dark cellar.
"Where are you taking me?" Angela inquired, thinking with sudden longing of the lighted room of the musician, where Nick was perhaps beginning to look for her.
"Next-do'h house," replied the girl calmly; and Angela would have been ashamed to draw back, even had curiosity and a faint excitement not compelled her to go on. At one end of the cellar was a wooden stairway, very steep, going both up and down. She and her conductor went down one flight, then along a short passage, then up some steps, then down a few more. Angela was enjoying the experience, but her joy was spiced with fear.
The two girls were in a very strange house, much stranger, Angela thought, than the one they had left. It was a rabbit-warren of tiny, boxlike rooms, threaded with narrow, labyrinthine passages, just wide enough for two slim persons to pass side by side. The rough wooden walls were neither painted nor stained, and the knot-holes were stuffed with rags. Here and there a rude door was open, hanging crookedly on its hinges, while the occupant talked with a friend outside, or prepared for an expedition, laden with kitchen utensils, coal and food, to the common cooking-place of the rabbit colony—a queer and dismal set of iron shelves, long and narrow, sticking out from a wall, and calling itself an oven.