Each door of each tiny room, which housed an individual or a whole family, had the name of the owner upon it, in Chinese characters, black and sprawling, on a red label; and at one whose paper name-plate was peeling off, Angela's companion stopped. "Li Hung Sun; we makee visit," she announced, and opened the door without knocking.
Angela had seen furniture packing cases as big as that room, and extremely like it. On one of the wooden walls, above a bunk which took up nearly half the space, were a rough shelf and a few cheap, Chinese panel pictures and posters. Beside the bunk, and exactly the same height from the floor with its ragged strip of old matting was a box, in use as a table, covered with black oilcloth. On this were grouped some toy chairs and chests, made of tiny seashells pasted on cardboard; a vase with one flower in it; a miniature mirror, and some fetish charms and photographs, evidently for sale. But on the bunk itself lay a thing which made Angela forget all the surroundings. A thin, stabbing pain shot through her heart, as if it had been pricked with a needle. She was face to face with tragedy in a form hardly human; and though her plump little guide was smiling, Angela wished that she had listened to Nick's advice. For here was something never to be forgotten, something which would haunt her through years of dark hours, dreaming or waking. She knew that the thought of this box of a room and what she now saw in it would come suddenly to darken bright moments, as the sun is all at once overcast by a black thundercloud; and that in the midst of some pleasure she would find herself wondering if the idol-like figure still lived and suffered.
A little bag of bones and yellow skin that once had been a man lay on the wooden bunk, whose hard surface was softened only by a piece of matting. From the shrivelled face a pair of eyes looked up; deep-set, utterly tragic, utterly resigned. The face might have been on earth for sixty or seventy years perhaps. But the eyes were as old as the world, neither bright nor dull, yet wise with a terrible wisdom far removed from joy or sorrow. The shrivelled shell of a body was a mere prison for a soul to which torture and existence had become inseparable, and almost equally unimportant.
"Oh, we ought not to come in!" Angela exclaimed involuntarily, on the threshold of this secret.
The weary face faintly smiled, with a smile like a dim gleam of light flickering over the features of a mummy.
"Come in. Many people come see me," said a voice as old as the eyes, and sad with the fatal sadness that has forgotten hope. It was a very small, weak voice, almost like a voice heard at the other end of a long-distance telephone, and it spoke excellent English.
Silently Angela obeyed; and seeing a broken, cane-seated chair which she had not noticed before, dropped into it as the low voice asked her to sit down. She was not afraid now, but sadness gripped her.
"You wish see me smoke opium, lady?" the old man asked, his tone monotonous, devoid of interest, his face a mask. The light of a tallow candle flared into his eyes, and wavered over his egg-shaped head, which was entirely bald save for its queue.
"Oh, no," Angela answered, horrified, "I beg you won't smoke for me!"
"Not for you," he said. "I smoke all times. I must now. If not, I suffer too much. It is the smoking keeps me alive. I cannot eat, or only a little. My throats shuts up. But when I smoke, for a few minutes after I am happy. Then I wait a while, and bimeby I smoke again."
"Surely—surely—you can't smoke opium all day and all night?" Angela murmured, her lips dry. She seemed to know what he felt, and to feel it with him. It was a dreadful sensation, that physical knowledge, racking her nerves like a phase of nightmare.
"Nearly all day and all night, for I do not sleep much; perhaps two hours in twenty-four. Once, a long time ago, the opium made me sleep. I had nice dreams. Now it makes me wide awake. But I do not suffer, only for a few minutes. When it gets too bad, I begin again."
"What is it like—the suffering?" Angela half whispered.
"Cramps, and aching in my bones. Maybe you never had a toothache—you are too young. But it is like that all over my body. I wish to die then. And I will before long. The death will not hurt much if I keep on smoking. My heart will stop, that is all. It will give me a chance to begin again."
"In another world—yes," said Angela. "But—couldn't you stop smoking? Take medicine of some sort—have treatment from a doctor——"
"Too late, long time ago," he answered, with a calm, fatal smile. But his eyes lit with a faint spark of anticipation, and his cheeks worked with a slight twitching of the nerves, for, as he talked, in short sentences, he was quietly rolling and cooking his dose of opium. Into a large pipe, which looked to Angela like a queer, enormous flute with a metal spout halfway down its length, he pushed a pill he had rolled, ramming it in with a long pin, and cooking it in the flame of a small spirit lamp. He did not speak again until he had pulled strenuously at the pipe a few times. Then he went on talking, his face unchanged, unless it appeared rather fuller, less seamed with the wrinkles of intense nerve strain.
"You see," he said, "that is all I do. I was in a good deal of pain, but I am used to it. Now I'm contented for a few minutes. While I have this happiness, I feel willing to pay the price. But it is a big price. I warn the young men who come to see me not to begin opium smoking. It is so easy. You think you will try, to find out what it is like; and then you will stop. But you do not stop. Four weeks—six weeks—and it is finished for you. You are on the road where I am. That was the way with me. It is the way with every one who starts on that road and goes not back before the turn. Better not start, for the dreams are too good at first."
His resignation to the chains forged by himself seemed to Angela the saddest part of all. He was beyond help, and knew it, did not even think of it.
She had a strange burning behind her eyes, as she listened, though she was not inclined to cry.
"It is awful," she whispered. "Such days—such nights—such years. But—you do not lie here always?"
"Most of the time," he answered, the little spark of physical contentment beginning to dim in his eyes already. "I am very weak. I do not walk, except when I go down the passage to cook a little coffee once a day. Or sometimes I crawl out in the sun. But soon I come back. I can stand only a few minutes. I am too light in the head, when I get on my feet. When I was young I was tall and large. But a man shrinks small after the opium gets him."
"How you must regret!" Angela sighed.
"I do not know. Why regret when it is too late? I regret that it is hard to find opium. It is forbidden now, and very dear. I sell the cleanings of my pipe—the yenshee, we call it—so I keep going."
"How can you bear to sell to others what has ruined your life?" Angela could not help asking.
"I would do anything now to have opium," he said calmly. "But it is the old smokers who smoke the yenshee, not the young ones. So I do no harm."
Angela sprang up, shuddering. "Is there nothing I can do to help you?" she pleaded, her eyes turned from him, as he began to cook another pill.
"You can buy something I sell. That will help. Do you like this?" And he pointed to a little painted china group of three monkeys, one of which covered its ears, another its eyes, and the third its mouth. "You know what it means? 'See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.' It is the motto of our people."
"Yes—I'll buy that. It's a good motto," Angela stammered. Taking up the little figures, she laid a five-dollar gold piece on the box table, knowing only too well what it would buy.
"You wish to see me smoke this other pipe?" and he put it to his toothless mouth.
"No—I can't bear it."
She pushed past the Chinese girl, hardly knowing what she did. She felt faint and sick, as if she must have fresh air. As her hand fumbled for the latch, the door was pushed violently open, and Hilliard came in, with Schermerhorn at his back.
"Thank Heaven!" Nick stammered. He was very pale.
"You gave us a pretty bad scare, Miss," added the man, who had been informed that Nick was "not her husband."
"Lucky I thought of this house, and this old chap."
"But—there was no danger," Angela defended herself. "Nothing could have happened."
"Most anything can happen—in Chinatown," mumbled Schermerhorn. "Did you ever read a story by Norris called The Third Circle?"
"Not yet," said Angela. "I bought the book, but——"
"Well, read that story when you get home to-night, Miss, and maybe you'll know what your young gentleman here went through."
Her "young gentleman!" But Angela did not smile. A thing would have had to be very funny to strike her as laughable just then.
"No, don't read it to-night," said Nick. "Wait till another time."
"Will you forgive me?" she asked, looking at him. "I'm sorry. I didn't suppose you'd mind much."
"I was in—Hades for a few minutes," said Nick, hastily qualifying the remark he had been about to make.
"WHO IS MRS. MAY?"
Only one letter had Nick written to Carmen Gaylor—the one he had promised to write, telling her of his arrival in New York; that he was "pretty lonely, and didn't know how long he could stand for seeing no home sights." It never occurred to him to write again; and Carmen was not surprised at his remissness. She knew that Nick was not the sort of man who likes to write letters or can put his feelings upon paper. But when she received her invitation to visit Rushing River Camp, she could have sung for joy.
"We are hoping that an old friend of yours, Mr. Nickson Hilliard, may be with us when you come; as well as Miss Dene, the authoress," Mrs. Harland said in her note. And Carmen believed that she had Hilliard to thank for the compliment paid her by Falconer and his sister.
She knew that he had met Falconer and admired him; and putting two and two together, she fancied that already Nick must have come West, meaning to surprise her by his sudden appearance; that he had fallen in with Mrs. Harland and Falconer on the journey, perhaps been invited by them, and suggested, or at least hinted, that she should be asked to join the house-party at the same time.
"Otherwise, I don't believe they'd ever have thought of me," she told herself, with a humility which would have had an element of sulkiness if she had not been half out of her wits with happiness over the idea that Nick was near, and wanting her. If he had not wanted her, he would not have schemed to have her with him at Rushing River Camp.
All the anxieties and suspicions of the past weeks were forgotten. She telegraphed her acceptance, and began thinking what to wear during the visit. She admitted in her mind that Mrs. Harland was a "bigger swell" than she, and knew more of the world and Society. But she determined that the hostess should not outdo her guest in the way of "smart" dresses, hats, and jewellery.
Carmen broke her journey at San Francisco, staying there two days at the Palace Hotel. On the first of these days, as it happened, Nick and Angela motored to Mount Hamilton, and stayed late at the Lick Observatory. On the second day they went to Mount Tamalpais, lunching at the delightful "tavern" on the mountain-top, and rushing madly down the wondrous steeps at sunset, in the little "gravity car" guided by the landlord.
So it was that Carmen got no chance glimpse of the two together, and had no suspicion that in the hotel register of the St. Francis was inscribed the name of Nickson Hilliard. She shopped contentedly, and enjoyed looking at the prettily dressed women, because she saw none whom she thought as good-looking as herself. Then, on the second evening, just as Angela and Nick were tearing down the rocky height known familiarly to San Francisco as "the mountain," Carmen left for Shasta Springs.
It was early next morning after the long journey north, that the white pinnacle of Mount Shasta appeared floating in the sky above dark pines, and the rushing stream of the Sacramento, fed by eternal snows. But Carmen hardly glanced out of her stateroom window at the hovering white glory, though her maid mentioned that Shasta was in sight. Mrs. Harland and Falconer were both coming to meet her at the Springs station, and would motor her to Rushing River Camp by the fifty-mile road over the mountains. Carmen hoped that Nick might be with them, though nothing had been said about him in the telegram they had sent. In any case, her one care was to be beautiful after the night journey. She took no interest in mountains and rivers. Her whole soul was concentrated upon the freshness of her complexion and the angle of the mauve hat on her dark waved hair. Never a good sleeper, she had been too feverish at the prospect of seeing Nick to do more than doze off for a few minutes in her berth; consequently, there were annoying brown shadows under her eyes, and her cheeks looked a little sallow; but Mariette was an accomplished maid, who had been with Carmen ever since the old theatrical days, and when Mrs. Gaylor was ready to leave her stateroom at Shasta Springs station she looked as bright-eyed and rosy as if she had slept without dreaming. This effect was partly due to liquid rouge and bismuth, but largely to happy excitement—a woman's greatest beautifier.
Her heart was beating fast under embroidered, dove-coloured chiffon and pale gray Shantung, a dress too elaborate for a railway journey; and she had no eyes for the fairylike greenness of the place, the mountain-side shadowed by tall trees, or rocks clothed in delicate ferns and spouting forth white cascades. The full, rich summer she had left at home in the South was early spring in the cool North. The earth was like a bride, displaying her trousseau of lace, fall after fall of it, on green velvet cushions, and the gold of her dowry, the splendour of her wedding gifts, in a riot of flowers. No money coined in mints could buy diamonds such as this bride had been given by her mother—Nature; diamonds flashing in river and cascade upon cascade. But Carmen Gaylor had no eyes for them. She had merely a pleasant impression that Shasta Springs seemed to be a pretty place, and no wonder it was popular with millionaires, who built themselves houses up there on the height, in the forest! But it was only a passing thought, as he alighted from the train in the welcoming music of many waters, which she hardly heard. Her attention was centred on picking out Mrs. Harland and Falconer among the people who were waiting to meet friends, and on seeing whether Nick Hilliard was with them.
There was a crowd on the platform. Pretty "summer girls" with bare heads, over which they held parasols of bright green, or rose-red, that threw charming lights and shadows on their tanned faces: brown young men in khaki knickerbockers, shaking hands with paler men just coming from town, and little children in white, laughing at sight of arriving "daddies".
Soon Falconer, towering over most others, appeared with his sister by his side, and Carmen was pleased to see that Mrs. Harland's clothes could not compare with hers. Having no idea of suiting her costume to the country, she thought herself infinitely preferable in her Paris gown to Mrs. Harland in a cotton frock, and shady straw hat. But no Nick was visible, and Carmen's pleasure was dashed.
The brother and sister met her cordially, took her to look at the bubbling spring in its kiosk, and then up the height on the scenic railway. Presently they landed on the level of the parklike plateau, where a big hotel and its attendant cottages were visible, with many golden dolomitic peaks and great white Shasta itself peeping through the trees. Still nothing had been said about Nick; and Carmen dared not ask. She feared some disappointment, and shrank from the blow.
Mariette had brought coffee to her mistress's stateroom very early, but Carmen was not averse to the suggestion of breakfast at the hotel before motoring over the mountains. As they ate, they talked of impersonal things: the colony under the trees; the making of the mountain road; and Falconer told how Mount Shasta—long ago named by Indians "Iska, the White"—was the abode of the Great Spirit; and how, in old, old times, before the Indians, the sole inhabitants of the country were grizzly bears. Carmen listened to the unfolding of the tale into a fantastic love-story, saying, "Oh!" or "How interesting!" at polite intervals. Always she asked herself, "Where's Nick? Hasn't he come yet? Is it possible he's been prevented from coming at all?" She tried to brace herself against disappointment and not show that she cared, but she turned red and white when Mrs. Harland said at last, "We're so sorry Mr. Hilliard couldn't be with us. We both like him so much, and it would have been very nice to have him too, while you are at Rushing River Camp."
"Oh, he couldn't come!" Carmen echoed dully.
"No. Isn't it too bad? We thought you'd know—that he might have written——"
"Perhaps he has, and I've missed the letter," Carmen broke in, hating to let these strangers think her slighted by Hilliard. "I've been in San Francisco two days. But—where is he? On his way home?"
"I don't quite know," replied Mrs. Harland, rather evasively, it seemed. And then she changed the subject.
Carmen had never seen anything like that winding road over the mountains, with the white, phantom glimpses of Shasta at every forest turning. Falconer's big automobile, which he kept at the "Camp," ran up the steep gradients without appearing to know that they existed, and Carmen strove to be cheerful, to look as if she were enjoying the drive. But her heart was a lump of ice, though she talked and laughed a great deal, telling Mrs. Harland about the rich or important people she knew, instead of drinking in the sweet air, and giving her eyes to the wild loveliness. It was bad enough that Nick was not coming, but the air of reserve or uneasiness with which Mrs. Harland had said, "I don't quite know," touched the situation with mystery. She realized that, if there were anything to hide, she would not find it out from her host or hostess; but when on the veranda of the glorified log-house overhanging the river she saw Theo Dene, Carmen instantly said to herself with conviction, "If she knows, I'll get it out of her!"
And seeing Miss Dene at Rushing River Camp she was almost inclined to be glad that Nick was not there. She admired Theo's splendid red hair and dazzling skin. She saw that, though the young woman's clothes were simple, their simplicity was Parisian and expensive; and she saw also that Theo was a flirt—a "man-eater," as she put it to herself, her dark eyes meeting the green eyes in a first understanding glance.
Miss Dene was far from unwilling to be pumped. In fact, she meant to be pumped; and that afternoon, while Mrs. Harland was writing letters and Falconer was with his secretary, whom he could not escape even in the country, she invited Mrs. Gaylor to sit with her on the broad veranda, beneath which the river ran singing a never-ending song.
The two pretty women, the one dark the other fair, made a charming picture, and neither was oblivious of the fact; but it would not have occurred to Carmen that her self-appreciation might be put into words. However, she laughed when Theo said:
"What a shame there aren't any men to admire us! We're both looking too adorable, aren't we? I should love to snapshot you in that Indian hammock, though the picture would lose a lot without colour. And it's very unkind of you if you wouldn't like to have a picture of me in my green rocking-chair on the scarlet rug."
This gave Carmen a chance to touch upon the subject in her heart without, as she thought, arousing any suspicion.
"You look awfully pretty," she said; "and this balcony is lovely, hanging over the river. It's quite different from my home; though mine's nice, too. And we have got one man—Mr. Falconer."
"He's engaged," said Theo.
"Oh, is he? I didn't know that. Well, and Mr. Hilliard will come, perhaps. Have you met him?"
"Yes," replied Theo promptly; "at Santa Barbara. He was motoring with Mrs. May. I thought him one of the handsomest men I ever saw. But I'm afraid he isn't coming. She isn't either—of course."
Carmen's face crimsoned; then her colour died away and left her sickly white, all but the little pink spots of rouge she had put on in the morning.
"Motoring with Mrs. May!" she repeated, harshly, then controlled her voice by a violent effort. "Was Mrs. May expected here?"
"Was expected," Theo echoed with emphasis. She was enjoying herself thoroughly; literally enjoying "herself." This was almost as good as if Hilliard had not refused the invitation and Angela had not basely slipped out of the engagement after practically accepting. "She won't come. I suppose she thinks she's having more fun where she is. Though if Mr. Hilliard had come I haven't the ghost of a doubt that she would. Do you know Mr. Hilliard well?"
This in a tone as innocent as that of a little child talking of its dolls.
"Pretty well," answered Carmen, moistening her lips. "Who is Mrs. May? I heard of her once. She's a friend of the Morehouses."
"She's a new importation," replied Theo lightly. "So far as I can make out, she and Mr. Hilliard met in New York."
"Yes, very. Fair hair and gray eyes that look dark. Mourning is becoming to her."
"Is she a widow?"
"She—gives that impression," Miss Dene smiled. This Carmen Gaylor was like a beautiful, fiery thundercloud. Teasing her was delightful. Theo felt as if she were in a play. It was a dreadful waste of good material not to have an audience. But she would "use the scene" afterward. She remembered hearing a great actress tell how she visited hospitals for consumptives, and even ran up to Davos one winter, when she was preparing to play La Dame aux Camelias. Theo would have done all that if she had been an actress. She was fond of realism in every form, and did not stick at gruesomeness.
"A grass widow?" exclaimed Carmen eagerly.
Theo shrugged her shoulders. "Really, I can't tell you."
Carmen supposed that she knew little of Mrs. May, and had met her for the first time at Santa Barbara with Nick. With Nick—motoring! The thought gave Carmen a strange sensation, as if her blood had turned to little cold, sharp crystals freezing in her veins.
"Not very young, I suppose?" she hazarded, her lips so dry that she had to touch them with her tongue. But that was dry, too.
"Oh, about twenty-three or four, and looks nineteen."
There was no hope, then! Nick was with a woman, beautiful, young, presumably a widow, and evidently in love with him, as Miss Dene said that she would be here at Rushing River Camp if Nick had come. A deadly sickness caught Carmen by the throat. Her love for Nick was one with her life, and had been for years. Always she had believed that some day she would be happy with Nick, would have him for her own. Anything else would be impossible—too bad to be true. Even when he went East without asking her to marry him, though she was free, she had assured herself that he loved her. Had he not as much as said that the anniversary of her husband's death was not a lucky night to choose for love-making? Carmen had made certain that she was the only woman in Nick's life; and he had laughed when she hinted that "some lovely lady" might persuade him to stay in New York.
"Where is Mrs. May now?" she asked sharply, past caring much whether or no Miss Dene saw her agony.
"In San Francisco—unless she's gone to the Yosemite Valley with Mr. Hilliard."
"With him! Why should she go everywhere with him?"
Theo laughed. "Because she likes his society, I suppose, and he likes hers. He is supposed to be her unpaid, amateur guide, I believe, and she trots her maid about with her, to play propriety. Also a cat. Don't you think a black cat a charmingly original chaperon?"
Carmen did not answer. Anguish and rage in her heart were like vitriol dashed on a raw wound. No wonder Nick had not written! And she had been happy, and trusting, while he forgot his debt of gratitude, and ignoring her existence, travelled about the country with another woman. Only this morning Carmen had dreamed of meeting him here, and that he had asked for her invitation, as a favour to himself. She could have screamed, and torn her flesh, in agony. She suffered too much. Some one else would have to pay for this! Nick would have to pay, and that woman, that love pirate sailing from strange seas to steal the treasure of others.
Her one uncontrollable impulse was to go and find them both, to do something to part them, she did not know what yet, but inspiration would come. She felt unable to bear any delay. Somehow, she must find an excuse to get away from this place. She would have to go San Francisco, or perhaps even to the Yosemite Valley, and find Nick and the woman together.
It occurred to her that she might contrive to telegraph to Simeon Harp, telling him to wire her that something had gone wrong on the ranch, that she must return home at once. Mariette could find out how to send telegrams from here—there was sure to be a way—and get the message off in secret.
* * * * *
That night a telegram came for Mrs. Gaylor, announcing that there had been a fire on the ranch. She was needed at home. She showed the bit of paper to Mrs. Harland and Falconer, and there was much sympathy and regret that her visit must be broken short.
Next morning she left, having been but twenty-four hours at Rushing River Camp. And late that night, she arrived in San Francisco. But she was in no hurry to obey the summons from the Gaylor ranch.
THE BOX OF MYSTERY
Again Angela was expecting Hilliard. They were to dine, and then she and Nick and Kate and the cat were going by train to El Porto, the gate of the Yosemite Valley. Angela was waiting in her sitting-room, as on that first evening there, when she had changed one decision for another all in a moment; but now she was in travelling dress, and a week had passed since that other night. It had been, perhaps, the happiest week of her life; but the week to which she was looking forward would be happier still. Afterward, of course, there would be an end. For the end must come. She was clear-sighted enough to realize that.
As she thought these things—and quickly put away the thoughts, since nothing must spoil this hour—there was a rap at the door, and she went to throw it open, confident that she would see Nick smiling at her, saying in his nice voice, "Well, are you ready?"
But it was not Nick. A bellboy of the hotel had brought up a large cardboard box which had arrived by post. The address was printed: "Mrs. May, Fairmont Hotel, San Francisco," and there were several stamps upon it; but Angela could not make out the postmark. She found a pair of scissors and cut the string. The box was tightly packed with a quantity of beautiful foliage, lovely leaves shaped like oak leaves, and of bright autumn colours, purple, gold, and crimson, though spring had hardly turned to summer.
She plunged her hands into the box, lifting out the gorgeous mass, looking for a card or note, but finding none. It was a pity that this mysterious gift had arrived just as she was going away. However, she was keeping on her rooms, and would leave instructions with the chambermaid to take great care of the beauties.
Some one else was tapping at the door now, and this time it was Nick. Angela's hands overflowed with their brilliant burden as she called aloud, "Come in!" and he came with the very words she had expected: "Well, are you ready?"
But they died on his lips, and it seemed to her, in the waning light, that his face grew pale.
"Drop that stuff, quick, Mrs. May!"
He flung the words at her, and Angela, bewildered and amazed, threw down the coloured leaves as if a tarantula hid among them.
"Have you got any ammonia?" Nick asked sharply.
"Go wash your hands in it while I use your telephone. Don't be frightened, but that's poison-oak, and I want to prevent it from hurting you."
"Can it—kill me?" Her face quivered.
"No. And it shan't do you any harm if I can help it. But be quick as you can. Keep your hands in the basin till I get what I'm sending out for."
Without another word Angela ran into the next room, and so to the bath. As she poured ammonia into the marble basin, feeling a little faint, she could hear Nick's voice at the telephone: "Send to the nearest drug store for some gamgee tissue, a bundle of lint, and a pint bottle of lime-water. This is a hurry call."
Angela's heart was thumping. It was horrible that there should be some one in the world—a lurking, mysterious some one—who planned in secret to do her dreadful harm. The incident seemed unreal. Whom did she know, on this side of the world, who could hate her so bitterly? She was afraid, as of eyes that she could not see, staring through the dark.
Nick called from the sitting-room: "How do you feel? Are you all right?" And when she answered "Yes," tried to reassure her. It began to look as if there were much to fear. Luckily he had come in time. Was she sure she hadn't held the leaves near her face? No. Then she might hope that there would be no trouble now. Already he had bundled the bunch of fire into a newspaper and it had been taken out of the room to be destroyed, like a wicked witch. Luckily there were people who could touch poison-oak and suffer no harm. Nick told Angela he "felt in his bones" that no evil thing could have power over her.
Soon, almost before she could have believed it possible, the messenger arrived with a strange assortment of packets from the chemist. Nick shouted that all was ready, and she went back to the sitting-room, her hands dripping ammonia. Kate had been summoned, and having just appeared, was about to empty a large flower bowl, which Nick had ordered her to wash. The Irish girl was pale, and looked dazed. She knew nothing yet of what had happened, but guessed at some mysterious accident to her mistress.
A great bouquet of roses which Nick had sent that morning now lay on a side table, and into the flower bowl they had adorned he poured the lime-water. In this he soaked the gamgee tissue (Angela had never heard of the stuff before), and bade her hold out both hands. Then he bound them quickly and skilfully, intent on what he was doing, though his head was bent closer to Angela's than it had ever been before, and the fragrance of her hair was sweet, as in his dreams of angels. As for her, she felt a childlike confidence in his ability to cure her, to save her from harm.
Over the tissue, wet with lime-water, Nick wrapped bandages of lint; and the operation finished, Angela was as helpless as if she had pulled on a pair of tight, thick gloves whose fingers would not bend.
"Does this mean that we aren't to go to-night?" she asked mournfully.
"I hope it doesn't mean that. But we can't be dead certain yet," answered Nick. He looked at her searchingly, his face drawn and anxious; but it relaxed as if he were suddenly relieved from some great strain as his eyes travelled over the smooth, pure features, and met her questioning gaze at last with assurance.
"If we are not certain soon, it will be too late to start, and I can't bear to put off going. I'm looking forward to the trip so much!" she said. "Shall we dine here? You'll have to feed me, I'm afraid." She laughed; but a slow flush crept up to Nick's forehead.
"Would you let me?"
"Yes. Why not? If you don't mind. Anything rather than miss our train—unless some horrid symptoms are coming on that you haven't the courage to tell me about. Ring for dinner, Kate. And you can go and have yours. We'll do everything exactly as if we expected to start."
"Sure, ma'am, don't make me leave the room till I've heard what Mr. Hilliard has to say. I'm that worried till I know the worst," Kate pleaded.
Angela smiled. "I'm just beginning to learn," she said, "that it's a mistake to think of the worst. I used to make a point of doing it, and it generally happened. Now—I expect the best!" She spoke to Kate, and looked at Nick. "But tell me what poison-oak can do."
Nick shivered. For an instant, a picture of that adored young face hideously disfigured turned him sick. And even her little white hands—no, it did not bear thinking of! But he controlled himself and tried to speak coolly.
"Why, it affects some people so their faces and hands swell up, and—and get red and spotted. Of course, that doesn't last many days: but—it isn't nice while it does last, and I—couldn't bear the thought of its happening to you. I just couldn't bear it! It isn't going to happen, though," he added hastily, seeing the colour leave her lips. "By this time you'd have begun to feel mighty bad, if you were in for trouble. You can't be easy to affect, for if you were, the poison might have gone to your face, without your even touching the leaves. Your hands don't burn, do they?"
"Only a little—from the ammonia."
"That saved them. If you feel all right in an hour more, you can have the bandages off, and the danger'll be over for good. Then we can start, unless the shock's been too much for you?"
"I'm too bewildered to be shocked," said Angela.
"Who could have played such a horrid practical joke on me? It's a little bit like—in a ridiculous way—the play of Adrienne Lecouvreur, where a woman is poisoned by a bouquet of flowers sent by a jealous rival. Only I haven't a jealous rival!"
Nick's face hardened. "I'm going to find out who did send the stuff. While you were in the other room I was looking at the wrapper of the box. I can't make out the postmark; but I reckon there are those who can, and I won't rest till I know."
"What can you do to find out?" asked Angela.
"I can put the best detective in San Francisco on to the job. He shall follow up the clues like a bloodhound, and hang on to them when he's got 'em, like a bulldog."
"Oh, but don't let's put off our journey!" Angela exclaimed. "I feel, if we do that, we'll never go. It has always——" she half-whispered, "seemed too good to come true."
"I'd rather do 'most anything than put off the trip," said Nick. "But there's time for everything. We don't leave the hotel till after nine. Dinner won't be ready for a bit; and if you'll let me, I'll go out now and see a man I've heard of—a very smart detective."
But Angela begged him to wait. She hated the thought of being left alone till she was sure that no ill effect need be feared from the poison. So Nick stayed, not unwillingly, and a simple dinner was ordered in haste.
Kate was sure that after what had happened she would have no appetite for dinner; but, like a true Irish girl, she was romantic to the core of her heart; and because she was deeply in love with her Tim, she had the "seeing eye" which showed her clearly what was in Nick Hilliard's heart for Angela.
Of course, he was not good enough for her lady; no man could be. But Kate had a sneaking kindness for Nick, the splendid giver of the golden bag, and would not, by offering her services as cutter-up-of-food for the queen, rob him of the privilege.
So Kate slipped out unobtrusively, and the privilege in question became Nick's. It was a joy, even a delirious joy, but it was also an ordeal; for as he fed her, Angela smiled at him. Each time that he proffered a spoonful of soup or a morsel of chicken she met his gaze with laughing eyes, roguish, under dark lashes, as the eyes of a child. The difficulty when this happened, as it did constantly, was to keep hands steady and mind calm, as if for the performance of a delicate surgical operation; because to drop a thing, or aim it wrongly, would have been black disgrace. And to ensure perfection of aim, attention must be concentrated upon the lady's lips as she opened them to receive supplies. It was to watch the unfolding of a rosebud into a rose while forbidden to touch the rose. And even monks of the severest brotherhoods may pluck the flowers that grow beside their cloisters.
Nick did not leave Angela until Kate had come back; then he and the Irish girl together unwound the bandages. There was a moment of suspense, but the hands were satin-smooth.
"It seems to be written that you shall save me always from horrors—ever since the night of the burglar," Angela said, when Kate had gone to the next room to dispose of the lint.
"I shall be like a child learning to walk alone when my journeyings with you come to an end."
There was his chance to say, "Must they come to an end?" But Kate was near; and besides, a snub from Angela might stop the "journeyings" then and there. So he answered with a mere compliment, as any man may, meaning nothing at all or a great deal. To save her from danger, it was worth while to have been born, he said. And he remembered, as he had remembered many times, how clear had been the call he had heard to go East; a call like a voice in his ears, crying, "Nick, I want you. Come." He was tempted to be superstitious, and to believe that unconsciously, in some mysterious way, Angela had summoned him to be her knight. To be even more, perhaps, in the end. Who could tell—yet?
It was a good sign, at all events, that she was reluctant to give up the trip; and Nick decided not to risk confiding in the police. Put the affair of the poison-oak into their hands, and they would lasso every one concerned, with yards of red tape! In that case, he and Mrs. May might be detained in San Francisco. No! A private detective would do the trick; and Nick had the name of one pigeon-holed in his brain: Max Wisler, a shrewd fellow, once employed with success by "old Grizzly Gaylor" when there had been a leakage of money and vanishing of cattle on the ranch. Nick went in search of Max Wisler now, in a taxi, and found him at the old address; a queer little frame house, in a part of San Francisco which had been left untouched by the great fire.
Wisler was at home, and remembered Hilliard. He was fair and fat, with a manner somewhat cold; unlit by enthusiasm; yet as he listened a gleam flashed out from his carefully controlled gray eyes, which hinted at hidden fires. He heard Nick to the end of the story, in silence, playing always with the leaves of a book which he had been reading—a volume of Fenimore Cooper's. Still he went on fingering the pages for a minute, when Hilliard paused expecting questions. Then he looked up suddenly, seeming literally to catch Nick's eye and hold it by force.
"What woman is jealous of this lady—Mrs. May?" he asked.
"I don't think she knows any woman in California, except Mrs. Falconer's sister—and a Miss Dene from England, an authoress who is travelling about with Mrs. Harland in Falconer's car."
"Ah! Mrs. Harland's out of the running. And that Miss Dene's gone East. I happened to see her start, yesterday. She had a collection of people giving her a send-off. Of course, she could have employed some one else to do the job, and keep out of the way herself. But—I guess we must look further. Now see here, Mr. Hilliard, a patient has got to be frank with his doctor if the doctor's to do any good. Are you engaged to marry Mrs. Gaylor, the widow of my old client?"
"Good Lord, no!" exclaimed Nick, scarlet to his forehead. "Such an idea never entered my head."
"Humph! Rumour's wrong, then. But that isn't to say it never entered her head. Does she know Mrs. May?"
"No," said Nick. "Surely you're not hinting——"
"I'm not hinting anything. I'm feeling my way in the dark."
"It isn't quite dark. You've got the paper that was round the box. I saw you looking at it, through a magnifying glass, just now."
"That postmark means the longest way round that we can take. Do you think any one with an ounce of brains would send poison from a place where she—or he, if you like—was known? No. She—or he—would go a long way, and a roundabout way. Or send a trusted messenger. Tell me straight, Mr. Hilliard, has Mrs. Gaylor got in her employ a confidential maid, or man?"
Nick, distressed and embarrassed, angry with the detective, yet unwilling to offend and put him off his work, knew not what to answer. There was Simeon Harp, of course, who would do anything for Carmen. But Nick could not, would not, play into Wisler's hands by mentioning the name of Harp, or telling of the old man's doglike devotion to his mistress. It was a detestable and vulgar suggestion which connected Mrs. Gaylor with this affair—detestable for every one concerned; for Carmen, for Nick; above all, for Angela.
"Mrs. Gaylor hasn't a servant who isn't loyal," he returned at last, evading Wisler's eye. "But you'd better get this notion out of your mind, to start with, or you'll find yourself on the wrong track. Mrs. Gaylor and I are good friends, no more. She doesn't know anything about Mrs. May; and if she did, there's nothing to make her jealous, even if—if we were warmer friends than we are."
"Sure she never heard of the lady?"
Nick hesitated. "I don't see how she can have heard. I haven't written to her since I—met Mrs. May."
"Ah, you haven't written to her since then. H'm! Does Mrs. Gaylor know Mr. Falconer and his sister, and their authoress friend Miss Dene?"
"Not Miss Dene. Come to think of it, I heard Miss Dene say she'd like to meet Mrs. Gaylor. She asked questions about her. But that's nothing."
"Perhaps they've been visiting back and forth since then."
"If they have, it hasn't come to my knowledge."
"Women do a lot of things that don't come to men's knowledge. That's one reason detectives exist. Well, you don't seem much inclined to help me, Mr. Hilliard, though you say you're anxious to get to the bottom of this little mystery as soon as possible."
"I am anxious. And if I don't help you, it's because I can't. I don't want you to lose yourself in the woods, and have to find your way back, to begin all over again."
"No. I don't want that, either," said Wisler, smiling his slow smile. "It's a long time since I got lost in the woods, and I'll do my best not to lose my reckoning this time. I must worry along without you, I see. But I'm not discouraged. When you've finished up this trip that you seem to think so important, I may have news for you, of one kind or another."
Nick looked at his watch. It was time to go back to the Fairmount if he meant to take Angela away that night.
THE HAPPY VALLEY
In thinking of the Yosemite, Angela had, half-unconsciously, pictured herself and Nick Hilliard alone in the valley together, separated from "mere tourists" by a kind of magic wall. But down it tumbled with her first moment at El Portal; and behold, on the other side of the wall were hundreds of eager young men and women who no doubt resented her existence as much as she resented theirs.
The huge veranda of the log-built hotel, on the hill above the railway, swarmed with brides and bridegrooms. It was extremely early in the morning, and everybody was sleepy, even those who had passed their night in the hotel, not in the train; nevertheless, though good-natured, one and all wore an air of square-chinned, indomitable determination which puzzled Angela.
Something was evidently about to happen, something of immense importance, for which each man with all his feminine belongings intended to be ready if possible before any one else. Angela watched the silent preparations with impersonal interest while she waited for Hilliard to come from the office and tell her about the special carriage for which he had telegraphed.
By this time a hasty breakfast had been snatched, and in a crowded dining-room full of laughter and chattering she had resigned herself to the falling of the magic wall. Other people had a right to enjoy the Yosemite and she must not grudge them their place. "I suppose," she said to Kate, who stood beside her on the veranda, "that all these nice girls and men are going off for different excursions. They seem a good deal excited. I wonder why?"
Just then a stage drawn by four splendid horses drove up the veranda steps. Something was shouted. Angela could not catch the announcement, for she had all she could do not to be carried off her feet in the general rush. A dozen of the firm-faced men and resolute girls made a dash for the box seat. With no malice in their eyes, they fought and wrestled with each other; and it was a case of the best man wins. Those worsted in the struggle with the utmost good-nature contented themselves with the next best places; and so on to the back seat, into which the weakest fell, almost before the driver had brought his horses to a full stop. Away tore the stage with its laughing load, and another vehicle whirled up to the hotel steps, to be filled in a breathless instant.
As Angela stood watching, fascinated yet appalled, Nick came out to her, with the air of a general who has lost a battle.
"How glad I am," she whispered, "that we haven't got to fight for our lives like that. I simply couldn't do it."
"Mrs. May, we have got to!" he groaned. "I've failed, after all my boastings of what I could do for you in the Yosemite. A private carriage can't be had, and they've made a rule that no one's allowed to book a seat in advance. When the stage for the Sentinel Hotel comes along, I shall swing you on to the box seat, if I kill ten men."
Angela rebelled. She pitied herself so intensely that she had no compassion left for Nick. "What—dash people away, and push ahead of them? I'd rather—yes, I'd rather turn back to San Francisco."
"I don't see myself letting you turn back," said Nick. And said it so firmly that Angela, never opposed by him before, looked up in surprise. He was not smiling. Evidently he was in earnest, deadly earnest. She knew that what he told her she would have to do, and, oddly enough, she grew quite calm.
"When our stage comes along," he said in a low voice, "I shall get in before any one else, and keep a place for you. Don't hesitate a second, but be ready for a jump. I'll have you up by my side before you know what's happened. Kate must be close behind, and I'll try to swing her up to the next seat."
"Why shouldn't we have the back places, since somebody must?" Angela questioned meekly.
"Because I want you to have the best there is, and I'm going to get it for you, that's the only reason," Nick explained, leaving no room for further argument. "It's the least I owe you, after failing to keep my other promises."
She said no more; and round her the fight for places went on, desperate, yet extraordinarily good-natured. People tried with all their might to grab what they coveted, but if somebody else snatched it from under their noses, why, blame Kismet! The rule of the game was to make no moan.
Always, as a new relay surged forward, Nick by some insidious manoeuvre edged Angela and Kate nearer to the front. At last he got them wedged behind the foremost row of travellers who were waiting to spring upon and overwhelm an approaching stage. Those who had won the way to the front and achieved safety, unless defeated by an unexpected rear attack, wore an appearance of deceitful calm. Two extremely big young men, who had the air of footballers in training, did what they could to form a hollow square round a couple of fragile but determined girls. The party, while in reality bent upon securing the two best seats at any cost to life or limb, pretended to be looking at an illustrated newspaper. This feint was intended to put others off their guard; and the four concealed their emotions by discussing the pictures on the uppermost page.
A name spoken by one of the girls was an electric shock for Angela. In an instant the veranda, the crowd on it, and the stage whose turn would come next, vanished from before her eyes like a dissolving view.
"Prince di Sereno! What a romantic name. And say, isn't he handsome? I wonder if he's as good-looking as that, really?"
"She's handsome, too," the other girl added. "I do hope they won't be killed."
"Come along, kids—look sharp!" said the two young men. And before others who hoped to annex the box seat could breathe after an interlude of footballing, the conquering four secured what they wanted. Those less fortunate were tumbling up as best they could; and Angela had scarcely time to realize that she had not dreamed the incident, when the stageload had bounced away.
She was left dazed, and blushing deeply, so deeply that Nick, quick to notice lights and shadows on her face, wondered what match had lit that rosy fire.
Angela's first thought was that somehow she had been found out. Then she remembered that the girls had seen the name in a newspaper. Also they had been looking at Paolo's picture. And he could be handsome—in a picture. But of whom had they said, "She's handsome, too?" Could it be that her own photograph had been published with Paolo's? If so, who had dared to reproduce it, and why? What if Nick should come across the picture and recognize the face as hers? She did not want him to know that she was the Princess di Sereno until, for her own reasons and in her own time, she should choose to tell him the story of her life. Once she had thought there was no reason why he need ever know; that they would part, and she would remain in his memory as Angela May. Now, however, she began to see that the moment must come when she would not only need, but wish, to tell him all, so that he might know why. But she never quite finished this explanation in her mind. It was too fond of trying to finish itself without waiting to be put into words.
She was a little frightened now, lest by chance there should be a premature revelation, for in the rush to get away the girls dropped the paper they had been reading. It lay on the veranda steps, and though the cover was turned back, and only an advertisement page could be seen, Angela discovered that it was the Illustrated London News.
Perhaps the page which lay face down was the page of the photograph. She half longed, half dreaded that a flutter of wind or a passing foot might turn the paper over. What could the girl have meant by saying, "I hope they won't be killed?"
Could Angela have read Theo Dene's mind the day at Santa Barbara, this picture and paragraph would have been less mysterious to her. "I wonder if Mrs. May knows about the Prince?" Theo had asked herself.
"There's an English paper on the step," said Nick, following the direction of her eyes. "Does it make you homesick? If it does, I'll put in a claim to it. There may be time for you to glance it over before the right stage turns up."
"No, no," said Angela, hastily. "I don't want the paper. And oh, look, it says 'Sentinel' on this stage that's coming."
The next thing she knew, she was swaying between earth and heaven, over heads that surged beneath her. Somehow, Nick had got that place on the box seat, and he was beside her, resolutely helping Kate on to the high step. Suddenly, however, Timmy's covered basket flew open. Kate had been playing with the cat, and had forgotten to fasten Tim in. Resenting the confusion, Timmy made a leap, Kate screamed and jumped down from the stage, carrying not only the cat's basket, but a small dressing-bag of Angela's—all she had brought, except a suit-case containing a dress or two for the journey. Some one else had, of course, scrambled into the coveted seat so miraculously vacated, and the stage, with its full complement of passengers, went swinging down the road, with Kate and Timmy and the dressing-bag left behind.
"Shall we try to stop?" Nick began; but Angela cut him short, her face now as determined as those of the square-chinned girls who had passed triumphantly on their way. "No!" she said. "I can't go through that again! Kate will have to come on later."
"There'll be another 'Sentinel' stage in about an hour, I guess," announced the good-natured driver. "She'll be all right."
"She knows where we're going," said Angela. "She's a quick-witted girl, and I shan't worry. I mean to be happy in spite of everything—and because of everything!"
So the stage rolled on into the gate of the Yosemite and Kate remained on the veranda of the hotel at El Portal, consoling herself, when she had retrieved Timmy, by looking at the pictures in the Illustrated London News, an old number of a fortnight or three weeks ago. She found it so interesting and absorbing, one page in particular, that when the next coach bound for the Sentinel Hotel came along, she forgot to fight for a place until it was too late to fight. There was not another stage bound for that destination until to-morrow. And to-morrow Mrs. May and Hilliard were going on somewhere else. Kate could not remember where.
Seeing her dismay, the manager of the hotel took pity on the pretty Irish girl. "Never mind," said he. "You can 'phone from here to the Sentinel. When your lady arrives there this afternoon, she'll find your message and know what's happened. Then she can 'phone back what she wants you to do."
"But I won't get to her to-night, will I?" wailed Kate.
"No, you won't get to her to-night," he echoed. "But I guess she ain't so helpless she can't do up her back hair without you, is she?"
"Her blouse buttons up behind," Kate murmured, as one murmurs in a painful dream. "And, oh, by the powers, if I haven't got her nightgown in this dressing-bag!"
Naturally the manager was not deeply interested in Mrs. May's nightgown. As for Mrs. May herself, she was not yet conscious of the loss of it. She was thinking, at first, about the pictures which she had not seen in the Illustrated London News, and the girl's exclamation: "I hope they won't be killed!" Then, later, of the valley through whose door she had just entered with Nick Hilliard, the hidden valley which Indians knew and loved long before a few cattle-seeking American soldiers ferreted out the secret.
The voice of the Merced drowned the dull voice of the past which had suddenly called to her. It was a gay laughing voice that sang among the tumbled rocks sent down to the river for playthings, by her tall brothers the mountains; and the voices of pines and cedars answered, all singing the same high song in the same language—the language of Nature. Only, they sang in different tones and different keys—soprano and contralto, tenor and bass. The song was so sweet that no one could think of anything else, unless it might be of love; for the song told of love, because nature is love.
As the sun rose higher and warmed the air, the valley was like a great box full of spices, such as the three Wise Men of the East carried for an offering when they followed their Star; a secret, golden box was the valley, high-sided, with a lid of turquoise and sapphire, which was the sky itself.
The deep, still trout-pools of the Merced—bravest and strongest river of the valley—were coloured like beds of purple pansies; or they were vivid green, glinting with sparks of gold, like the wings of a Brazilian beetle. Far down in the clear depths, Angela caught glimpses of darting fish, swift as silver arrows shot from an unseen bow. And close to the sky, high on the rocky sides of the Yosemite treasure-chest, were curiously traced bas-reliefs, which might have been carved by a dead race of giants: heads of elephants, profiles of Indians and Titanic tortoises, most of them appropriately and whimsically named by ancient pioneers.
"The Yosemite!" Angela said, over and over to herself. "I'm in the Yosemite Valley!"
Once, in the heart of a forest, a deer sprang out on to the road and stood alert, quivering, as the stage lumbered heavily toward it through sparkling red dust like powdered rubies. Then, suddenly, when the horses were almost upon it, the delicate creature bounded away, vanishing among the shadows which seemed to have given it birth, as a diving fish is swallowed up by water and lost to sight. This vision lingered in Angela's memory as one of the loveliest of the day; but the great cataracts did their startling best, later, to paint out the earlier pictures.
Even the first slender forerunners of the mighty torrents were unforgettable, and individual. Long, ethereal, floating white feathers drooped from the heads of tremendous boulders that were gray with the glossy grayness of old silver. Cascades were everywhere; and the weaving of many diamond-skeins of water behind a dark foreground of motionless trees was like the ceaseless play of human thought behind inscrutable faces whose expression never changed.
Yet these silver tapestries, pearl-embroidered, were but the binding for the Book of the Valley, the great poem of the waterfalls; and as the stage brought them near the home of the mighty cataracts, Nick and Angela noticed that the atmosphere became mysteriously different. The sky rolled down a blue curtain, to trail on the floor of the valley, like a veil suspended before an altar-piece. Through this curtain of exquisite texture—bright as spun glass, transparent as star-sapphires, and faintly shimmering—their gaze travelled toward soaring peaks and boulders, which seemed to rise behind the sky instead of against it. Then, suddenly, out gleamed the dome of the Bridal Veil, bright and high in the heavens as a comet sweeping a glittering tail earthward.
Later, as the stage wound along the road and brought them under the wall of the cataract, the rainbow diadem that pinned the topmost folds of the veil glittered against the noonday sun; and in the lacy woof of moving water, lovely kaleidoscopic patterns played with constant interchange of flowery designs. Invisible fingers wove the bridal lace, beading with diamonds the foliage of its design; or so Angela thought when first she saw the falls. But presently she made a discovery—one which Nick had made years ago, and kept the secret that Angela might have the joy of finding it for herself.
"Why, it isn't a veil, after all!" she exclaimed.
"I know," said Nick. "That effect's only for the first few minutes, like a stage curtain hiding the real thing."
"And the real thing is only for the elect, like us," said Angela, conceitedly. "Outsiders can't get behind the curtain. Let me tell you what I see."
"And if we see the same thing?"
"Why, it would be a sign that we'd been—friends in a former incarnation, wouldn't it?" But this was a question to leave unanswered, and she went on quickly to describe what she saw behind the "stage curtain" of the Bridal Veil. "A white witch falling——"
"Yes, from the saddle of a black horse——"
"A winged horse, like those the Valkyries ride. Oh, now the witch has turned her face to me, as she falls. She's putting me under a spell. I feel I shall never escape."
"I hope you never will," said Nick. "So we did see the same thing in the Cascade! I found the falling witch when I was here before; but I came under the spell with you."
He watched her face fearfully, as he ventured this, never having dared as much before; and seeing that she turned away, he drew her attention to El Capitan, grandest of the near mountains. Nick had been reading The Cid, trying to "worry through it in the old Spanish," he explained; and the idea had come into his head that the mountain might have been named by some Spaniard for "El Gran Capitan." "You see, it's too big and important for an everyday Captain. But it's just right for El Gran Capitan: don't you think so?"
Angela did think so, as he suggested it, though she remembered next to nothing about The Cid. But Nick's knowledge of history, which had amazed her once, pleased without surprising her now. She began to take his knowledge of most things for granted. Here in the Yosemite Valley he could teach and show her much that she might have missed but for him, and his similes showed habits of thought with which a few weeks ago she would not have credited the ex-cowboy. He made the mountains take shape for her as gods and heroes of Indian legends; he told her of the Three Graces, and the Three Brothers, grim as gray monks, who threw glances over their round shoulders at the Graces; and there was no drama or tragedy of the valley that he did not know from its first act to the last.
In the afternoon the stage rushed them past a charming camp in the woods, to the Sentinel Hotel, at the foot of the Yosemite Falls. Angela was given a room opening on to a veranda, and waiting for Nick to bring her some word from Kate, by telephone, she stood looking up at the immeasurable height of the cataract, which loomed white across a brown sweep of trout-haunted river. "It's like a perpendicular road of marble going up to heaven," she thought; and as she gazed, down that precipice of snow came tumbling a white shape as of a giant bear, striving desperately to save itself, hanging for an instant on the brink of the vast gulf, then letting go hopelessly and plunging over.
Angela stepped out on the veranda to talk with Hilliard when he came, and though shocked to hear that Kate could not arrive that night, was glad to know her safe. Nick had arranged that Kate should meet her mistress at Glacier Point next day. "And so," he said, "there's nothing to bother about, if you can do without her for this one night. I hope you don't mind much, for I feel it was my fault. I ought to have managed better."
"I don't mind in the least," Angela was beginning to console him, when suddenly she broke off with an "Oh!" of dismay, clasping her hands together.
"What's the matter?" Nick questioned anxiously.
"Nothing. Nothing at all."
"But there is something, Mrs. May. You must tell me, and I'll try to make it right."
"What shops are there here?" she asked by way of answer.
"Oh, you can buy photographs and souvenirs, and candy and drugs, I expect."
Angela shook her head. "I don't want to buy them. Do you think—I could find—a—a—nighty?"
"A nightgown. You see, I've just remembered—the cascades and mountains made me forget—my dressing-bag was left behind with Kate. I've a frock or two, and the new khaki things for to-morrow, in my suit-case, but—nothing else. Brushes and combs and so on, I can get here I'm sure. But—would the shops—if any—run to nighties?"
"No," said Nick, gloomily. "I'm afraid they wouldn't, anyhow not the sort that deserves a nice pet name like that. But—I'll get you one."
"You can't," said Angela. "You can't create a 'nighty' or call it from the vasty deep."
"That's what I mean to do: call one from the vasty deep; hook it up like a rare fish."
She laughed. "What bait will you use?"
"I don't know yet. But I'm going to find out. And you shall have the 'nighty,' as you call it, by the time you want it."
"You'd better not pledge yourself."
"I do. I've failed you often enough since we started! I won't fail this time, you'll see. The thing you want must exist somewhere within a radius of ten miles, and I'm going to lasso it."
"But you didn't engage as a lassoer of nighties. You engaged as trail guide."
"If anything is wanted along the trail, why then it's the business of the trail guide to get it. Don't you worry about your arrangements, Mrs. May."
"I don't. Meanwhile, I may find some kind of a garment lurking on a forgotten shelf of the candy-drugs-grocery shop."
"If you do, it wouldn't be worthy of you. But you can try," said Nick dubiously. And after a late luncheon, she did try, in vain. Other necessaries were forthcoming, but nighties were things that you had to bring into the Yosemite Valley, it would seem, or do without. Angela said nothing of her failure. She supposed that Nick would forget her plight if she made little of it; but she did not know him thoroughly yet. They took a walk, and the momentous subject was not mentioned: nevertheless, it pressed upon Nick's thoughts. As he talked, the "nighty" that was not, and must be, weighed upon his mind as heavily as though it were a coat of mail instead of the gossamer creation he imagined.
"Now I've got to concentrate and figure out what's trumps," he said to himself, when Angela had gone to rest before dinner. "I've dealt myself a mighty queer card, but there's no good bluffing in this game."
The desired garment declared itself even to the untrained masculine intelligence as a dainty and dreamlike thing, which, to deserve its name and be worthy of a fastidious wearer, must be delicate as the outer petals of a white rose.
How then to obtain for this despoiled goddess such a marvel in a remote village, lost among Yosemite forests? There was the rub; a vaguely groping "rub" with no Aladdin's lamp to match.
Nick's thoughts ramped in the cage of his mind like a menagerie of hungry animals awaiting food. Where was that food—in other words, an inspiration—to be got? Then of a sudden it dropped at his feet.
He had been pacing uneasily up and down his room; but now, with all his customary decision, he touched the electric bell. A trim chambermaid of superior and intelligent appearance answered the call.
"Are you a Californian?" was the first question flung at the neat head, in place of an expected demand for hot water. She had brought the water, and was equally prepared for a want unforeseen. "Yes, sir," she said. "I'm a Native Daughter."
"Hurrah!" said Nick. "Then I know you won't fail me."
She was too well trained a girl to stare. "Are you a Native Son?" she ventured, seeing that a lead would be useful.
"No; but I ought to have been. My parents were Californian, and my heart is and always will be. I have to ask help from a Californian now, for the honour of California."
Usually, when gentlemen clamoured for help from this young person it was to find a collar stud. But not even the most cherished collar stud could concern the honour of the State. She waited, looking sympathetic; for Nick's eyes would have drawn sympathy from a stone, and Jessy Jones had not even a pebble in her composition.
"As a Californian, I'm showing California to a lady," he explained. "She's from Europe, and I don't want her to think the old civilization can produce anything better than ours."
"I should think not!" retorted the Native Daughter. "What is she looking for that we can't produce, I'd like to know?"
"A nightgown," confessed Nick, boldly. "You see," he hurried on, "she's lost the bag she had it in."
"Oh, if that's all, I——"
"Have you seen the lady, over in the annex, in number twenty-three?"
"Yes," said Jessy. "One of the girls told me there was a regular beauty there, English or something, so I made an errand that way. So she's the lady? Well, that makes it harder! 'Tisn't everything would do for her. I guess she's rather special."
"I guess so, too. That was what worried me. Because it's for the honour of California that a foreigner should be supplied, even at a moment's notice, with something as good as she could get at home."
"If not better," Jessy corrected him.
"If not better. Of course, if an American lady lost her baggage she'd make allowances, being at home. And if she couldn't get what she wanted, she'd be good-natured and want what she could get. Well, this lady's good-natured, too; but it's no compliment to the Yosemite for her to expect little and have what she expects."
"No. We must surprise her."
"Exactly. For the honour of California. Let's mingle our brains," said Nick.
"I guess they'll be more useful kept separate, sir; each along its own line."
"Does yours keep a line of the right thing?"
"It begins to see its way there. We've a lady staying in the hotel, Mrs. Everett, from San Francisco, who's got what we want. Mrs. Everett's a Native Daughter, too. Oh, yes, she'll spare one—her prettiest. Don't you worry, and don't you say a word to your friend. I and Mrs. Everett will do the rest. When that lady from Europe opens her door to-night she'll see lying on her bed something that'll keep her from knowing the difference between the Yosemite Valley and Paris. Trust two Native Daughters."
"I will," said Nick devoutly. And he shook hands with Jessy Jones. He knew better than to offer money at this stage of the game; for he, too, was a Californian, and honour was concerned.
That night, her spirit illumined by the unearthly glory of a lunar rainbow, Angela went to her room with a faint sense of anticlimax, in the discomfort she expected. Then, making a light, she saw foaming over the coverlet a froth of lace and film of cambric. Almost it might have been woven from the moon-rainbow. But pinned on to a sleeve-knot of pale pink ribbon was a slip of paper; and on the slip of paper were a few words in a woman's handwriting: "Compliments of California to Mrs. May."
THE BEST THING IN HER LIFE
A faint fragrance of roses haunted the mysterious "nighty," filled the room, and mingled with Angela's dreams. All night long she walked in a garden of sleeping flowers, "sweet shut mouths of rosebuds, and closed white lids of lilies"; and it seemed but a short night, for in her dreams she had half the garden still to explore—in searching for Nick, it seemed—when a rap, sharp as the breaking of a tree branch, made her start up in bed. A dim impression was in her mind that a voice had accompanied the rap, and had made an unsympathetic announcement which meant the need to get up. But the only really important thing was to run back into the garden and find Nick Hilliard, as otherwise she might miss him forever. So Angela shut her eyes, and hurried down dim labyrinths, where she had been wandering before, and called to Nick: "I'm here again. Where are you?"
The rosebuds and lilies were still there, fast asleep, yet somehow the garden was different and not so beautiful. A handsome woman, with black hair, was gathering the flowers, pretending not to see Angela, and Nick had gone. A girl's voice somewhere was saying, "Prince di Sereno! What a romantic name."
It only seemed a minute since the first knock, but now there came another; and this time the announcement was even more disturbing: "Breakfast's ready!" Immediately after, as if to show that no arguing would avail, steps went clanking along the veranda, heavy at first, fainter with distance, and at last a convulsive banging on the door of some other unfortunate.
Now Angela wished no longer to return to the garden of sleep. She was glad to get up, bathe in haste and dress breathlessly, for she had asked to be called at five in order to breakfast before six. In a strenuous quarter of an hour she had arrived at the blouse-fastening stage of her toilet; and, as luck would have it, the blouse concerned was one which did not approve of hurry, and tolerated no liberties. It was of fine cambric, hand-embroidered, fastening at the back, where on one side lived a quantity of tiny pearl buttons, made to mate with an equal number of loops on the other side, very little loops of linen thread. As works of art these were admirable, but they liked to be waited upon respectfully by an experienced lady's maid. Missing such attentions, not one would consent to yoke itself with its appointed button.
Angela grew warm and flurried. She rang, but no one answered the bell, for it was not yet six o'clock; and only a few of the hotel servants had come on duty.
What should she do? Last night she had looked forward with interest to dressing this morning, for Nick had got for her a costume suitable for riding a trail pony, and fortunately she had it in her suit-case. It was of khaki, with a divided skirt, and a peculiarly fetching jacket. But the jacket must be worn over a thin blouse; and she could not go out to breakfast with that blouse unbuttoned from neck to waist. No doubt by this time Nick was waiting. A large party would start from the hotel to drive to Mirror Lake, and they two were to be in the crowd—though not of it—finding their trail ponies later. She might, of course, keep her "forest creature" waiting indefinitely. He was inured to that treatment and would not complain; but the others?
"Are you ready, Mrs. May?" Nick's voice inquired apologetically, outside the door. "I hope you won't mind my bothering you, but I thought perhaps your call had been forgotten, so——"
"Can you do my blouse for me? Because I can't! And if you can't I shall cry," moaned Angela in a voice of despair. She dashed the door open, and stood on the threshold, in the sweet dawn, the river laughing at her plight.
Nick did not laugh.
There was his Angel, in her short khaki skirt, and the thin cambric blouse that would not button. Her face was flushed, her eyes sparkling with that dress-rage than which no emotion known to woman is more fiercely primitive. She was in an early morning "I don't care what happens now!" mood; but Nick cared.
In the first place, as his eyes took in the situation, he was overwhelmed with a sense of vast responsibility. If he could not "do" the blouse, Mrs. May had threatened to cry, and she looked as if she would keep her word. So "do" the blouse he must, if the sky fell. And if he couldn't, it had better fall!
Angela stood with her back to her victim, and the rosy light of sunrise turned a small visible slip of white skin to pearl. A ring or two of bright hair, moist from her bath, curled out from the turned-up mass of gold, and hovered like little glittering bees just over the top buttons of Mrs. May's collar, which Nick must now attack. What if some of that shiny hair was twisted around the buttons? Good heavens! On closer inspection it was!
The man's heart, which was beating fast, seemed suddenly to turn to water—wild, rushing water, like that of the river below the fall.
"Can you do it?" asked Angela, anxiously.
"I sure will," answered Nick, with a hundred per cent, more confidence than he felt. A confidence somewhat increased, however, by last evening's success. "Do I begin at the neck or the waist?" he inquired in his most matter-of-fact voice, as if he were about to cord a box, or nail up a crate of oranges.
"At the neck," Angela instructed him.
The stricken young man had a curious sensation, as if his hands were swelling to an immense size. He seemed to have as much control of his fingers as though he wore a pair of boxing gloves.
He took hold gingerly of the delicately embroidered collar, a thumb and finger on either side. "I guess it won't meet," he ventured, tentatively.
"Oh, yes, it will. Just pull it together firmly."
Nick pulled with resolution.
"Ugh! You're choking me!" she gurgled.
All that water which once had been his heart trickled vaguely and icily through the wrong veins, upsetting his whole system.
"Forgive me this time!" he implored. "It's going to be right, just as soon as—as—I find the buttonholes."
"There aren't any. They're loops."
"Oh, those tiny little stick-up things, like loosened threads?"
"Yes. You'll see it's quite easy, after the first."
Oh, was it indeed? Nick suppressed a groan, not at his task, but at his own oxlike awkwardness (so he anathematized it) that made a torture of a delicious privilege. Evidently it was a much harder thing to lasso one of these little pearl atrocities with its alleged "loop" than to rope a vicious steer. And there were those tangling threads of gold. If he should hurt her!
The ex-cowboy almost prayed, as, with the caution of a man treading upon knife-blades on the edge of a precipice, he unwound the two little curls from the top button of the collar. And perhaps his unconscious appeal for mercy had its effect, for the tendrils yielded graciously to coaxing. He would have given a year of his life to kiss one of those curls; a comparatively worthless year it would be, since, in all probability, it would be empty of Angela May! Yet no—now that he had touched her like this, now that he had come so near to her, he felt with all his soul that he could never let her go. He would have to keep her somehow.
"She may think there's a dead line between us," he told himself; "but before we leave the Yosemite Valley together I'm going to do my best to cross that line, if I get shot for my cheek. It's better to dare the dash and die, than not to dare, and lose her."
Never, perhaps, was so desperate a resolve cemented while fastening a woman's blouse; but there was a hint of triumph in Nick's voice as he announced, "I've done it!" His signal success in two operations of extreme difficulty seemed to him like two separate good omens.
Angela lightly thanked her knight for his services and bade him wait on the veranda while she put on her jacket and hat. A minute later she came out again, ready for breakfast; and now, having a mind released from buttons, she saw that Nick was good to look upon in his khaki riding-clothes.
"Am I all right?" she inquired modestly.
"Better than all right," he allowed himself to answer.
"I do think this hat of Hawaiian straw is a success. And you—well, I'm rather proud of my trail guide. Used you to dress like that in your cowboy days?"
Nick laughed. "Great Scot, no! I'd have been in rags in no time. Didn't you ever see a cowpuncher's 'shaps'?"
"No; I don't even know what they are. Have you kept your cowboy things?"
"Oh, yes. They're knocking around somewhere. I have to put them on once in a while."
"If I accept your invitation to come and see your place, will you 'dress up' in them?"
"Of course, if it'd please you. But I'd feel a fool rigging myself out just to show off, like an actor."
"Yet, that's the bribe you'll have to offer if you want me to pay you a visit."
"It's settled then. I hope the moths haven't got my 'shaps' since I had 'em on last."
They both laughed and went to breakfast. What a good world it was! Angela told Nick the tale of the mysterious apparition of a beauteous "nighty," and wondered how she could ever have felt unhappy, or depressingly grown up.
The others who were going to Mirror Lake were almost ready to start, and the "buckboard" which was to take Nick and Angela had come to the hotel door. But these two, at all times small eaters, were exhilarated by the wine of life, and a little milk and bread sufficed them. They did not keep the party waiting, and so they were regarded with favour—the handsome young man and the lovely girl about whose relations to each other people were quite good-naturedly speculating. Angela saw that she was regarded with interest, and that eyes turned from her to Nick. But she was "only Mrs. May, whom nobody knows." After the drive on the buckboard she and Nick would be separating from the rest. That night, at Glacier Point, she would find Kate, already arrived from El Portal; and then she would never see any of these pleasant questioning-eyed young people again. The most reckless part of the adventure would be over with this day—and she was rather sorry. After all, she did not much regret the wave of fate which had swept her and her maid-chaperon temporarily apart. There was a certain piquancy in travelling alone with this knight-errant.
Mirror Lake—well-named—was asleep still, and dreaming of the mountains which imprisoned it as dragons used to imprison princesses in glass retorts. There was the dream, lying deep down and visible under the clear surface; and when every one else had gone off to the trail ponies, Nick and Angela stayed to watch the water's waking. It was a darting fish which, with a splash and a ripple, shattered the picture; but the ripple died, and the lake slept again, taking up its dream where it had been broken off, as Angela had tried to do. She had failed, for her picture had changed for the worse when she found it again; but the second dream of Mirror Lake was fairer than the first. Into it there stole a joyous luminance which made saints' haloes for the reflected heads of mountains. The sun rose, and stepped slowly into the water's dream. It flung the lake a golden loving cup, thrilling it to the heart with that bright gift.
A little farther on, by the Happy Isles—small, lovely islands of rock in the river's whirl—Nick and Angela found their trail ponies waiting in charge of a boy. But Nick knew the trail well, and was to be the sole guide, as they had always planned. He put Angela up on an intelligent brown bronco, which had to be ridden Mexican fashion; and they set off together, the boy looking after them as if he, too, would have liked to follow the trail.
Far ahead they could see the procession of their lost companions, just rounding a sharp corner. They were an admirable cavalcade in khaki, the men wearing sombreros, the girls with brilliant blue or green veils tied over big hats, and scarlet silk handkerchiefs knotted at their necks. The gaily coloured figures on horse or mule back fitted the picture as appropriately as if they had been Indians; and Angela gazed at them with pleasure; but she felt no wish to join the band.
Nick led; she rode close behind, sometimes mounting, sometimes descending the narrow trail toward Glacier Point. By and by Hall Dome, one of the great granite mountains, began to dominate the world; but though the cascades were in his kingdom they could not be governed by him, because spirits are not ruled by earthly kings. There was Vernal Fall, gentle in majesty; and Nevada, a wild and untamed water spirit; and retrospect glimpses of the Yosemite Falls.
Close to Nevada, they reached a famous viewpoint, and Nick took Angela off her pony that she might stand near the edge and see the white torrent plunge over an unthinkable abyss. Always she had hated to look down from heights, because they made her long to jump and end everything. But to-day she was in love with life, and the leap of the waters quickened her heart with a sense of power. On the pony again, as they went up and up, or down steep rocky ways on the verge of sheer abysses, she had no fear. She seemed to be learning a lesson of peace, a lesson such as only unspoiled nature can teach.
From the high levels they had reached, they looked down on clouds that glittered silver-white as snow-capped mountain-heads. Among the rocks, where the ponies' hoofs picked their way, wild flowers sprang, strange and lovely blossoms such as Angela had never seen; but Nick knew most of them by name. Bird notes dropped like honey from fragrant shrubs and trees that hid the singers. Squirrels with plumed tails, and chipmunks striped white, gray, and brown, raced across the trail, or peered with the bright beads they had for eyes from piles of dead wood that lay gray as skeletons among the living green of the mountain forest. Far below, Silver Apron Fall splashed into the Emerald Pool and turned its green jewels to diamonds. The near forests and faraway waters sang in the different voices the same song other waters and forests had sung yesterday; but this song of the High Sierra had wilder notes, above and beyond all knowledge of fleeting episodes such as human lives and civilizations. For the song had not changed since the world was young. The air was not mere air, but seemingly a conscious mingling of Divine Ether with the atmosphere. Though they ascended always, it was as if they rode through the depths of a crystal sea, unstirred by their presence, a sea as deep and as high as heaven, a blue that took the solidity of turquoise between tree-trunks and paled to opaline fire across the canon. Angela knew that never again, after these spacious days, could she go back to her old self. She felt that she had mounted one step higher on the stage of development, and gained an ampler view. It was easier now than it had been to see how Nick Hilliard had become what he was. Nature, on the grandest scale and with the "grand manner," she thought, had given him his education; had been for him at once schoolmistress, guide, and companion. And no college built by man could give, for money, such knowledge as sky and wide spaces had given Nick for love.
Early in the afternoon the ponies brought them to the high plateau of Glacier Point, where, looking down, the world was a sea billowing with mountains, foaming with cataracts.
Angela was deliciously tired; and the long low hotel, built of logs, with a huge veranda, seemed to promise the welcome she wanted: a cool, clean room, a warm bath, and afterward luncheon. Also, she expected to find Kate. Nick had wired, or telephoned, she was uncertain which; and though no answer had been received, Kate's silence might no doubt be easily explained later. Angela felt confident that she would have precisely the room she pictured; she rather hoped it would be white and green.
The manager met them on the veranda, but it was not the manager Nick had known.
"My name's Hilliard," Nick began.
"Oh, yes. I 'phoned an answer to you at the Sentinel Hotel this morning. Something wrong with the wire between us yesterday."
"We must have started before you 'phoned."
"Well, I'm sorry. You wanted two rooms. But the best we can do for you and Mrs. Hilliard is one."
"Great Scot, you don't know what you're talking about!" gasped Nick. "This is Mrs. May."
"Beg your pardon, Mr. May. I thought you said your name was Hilliard."
"It is. But hers isn't. We—I—I'm only her guide," stammered Nick, so deeply embarrassed for Angela's sake that for the moment he lost his presence of mind. "It's the last straw," he thought. "She'll never forgive me." And he dared not look to see how she had taken the blow, until she surprised him by laughing. She was blushing a little, too.
"Do you remember the laundry in New Orleans?" she asked. "I'm afraid it will have to be the laundry for you again, or else a refrigerator."
Nick was of opinion that the refrigerator would better suit the state of his complexion, which needed cooling, but his relief at seeing Angela amused, not offended, was too great for words. He mumbled something vague about any cupboard or cellar being good enough, and began to recover himself; but his confusion had been contagious. The hotel manager caught the disease, and hoped Mrs. Willard would excuse him—no, he meant Mrs. Day—no, really he began to be afraid that he didn't remember rightly what he meant! He'd got Mrs. Milliard and Mr. Hay mixed up, and would they sort themselves, please? Once he had them straightened out in his mind, he'd try to keep them straight.
"Has my maid come on from El Portal?" Angela thought this a propitious moment for a question on some other subject.
"Your maid? No, Mrs. Hill, she hasn't."
"And no message? How strange!"
"Nothing that I've heard of. But I'll let you know. If Mr. Mayard—Mr. Mill, will come with me to the 'phone, when you're in his room—I mean, when you're in yours—we may get on to El Portal."
Angela was still laughing to herself, when word was brought by a chambermaid that Kate had telephoned from El Portal. She had hurt her ankle in getting into the stage (Angela could quite imagine that!), and had not been able to proceed. It was not, however, a regular sprain. She was in bandages, but better; and it was now settled that, without fail, she was to meet Mrs. May at Wawona to-morrow. "And your husband wants to know," added the chambermaid, "what time you would like to have your lunch."