"What, don't you know?" the landlord of the Eureka Hotel replied with a question. "But I forgot, you ain't shown up around here much since you blow'd hack from the East. The fellers say Noo York's kinder got your goat, and you're sheddin' your feathers in these lonesome wilds, pinin' after the theayters and swell doin's in the Waldorf-Astoria. But I tell 'em 'nope, that ain't Nick Hilliard. He's true-blue to the Golden West."
"Right you are," said Nick. "All the same, I don't know who the lady is, and I'm sure I never saw her here, though I have a sort of feelin' I remember her face."
"Met in another world, mebbe?" Green chuckled. "She ain't no great looker, though, more's the pity for our young sparks that could do with a noo beauty at Lucky Star. She's no chicken, either; and her face is the kind of face that to see once is to forget twice, accordin' to your friend the Dook, who's great on what he calls epergrams, when he's feelin' well."
"Oh, is he?" Nick's hopeful expression lost some of its glow, for this trait of the Dook's did not strike him as attractive. "He ain't my friend yet. But you haven't told me who the lady is. Maybe her name will shake up my recollection box, for I've seen her somewhere, sure."
"She's Miss Sara Wilkins, the new school-teacher," Green replied, glad to impart information. "She was imported from the fur East while you was away; called on in a hurry to take the place of Mrs. Pears, who died on us, right in the midst of the last term, poor critter. She had no way with youngsters, Mrs. Pears hadn't, though she came recommended as a treasure: so p'raps it's just as well for us our treasure's laid up in heaven. We've got a surprisin' lot of children in this city, for such a young one; but our men are doin' that well they feel justified in sendin' fur their families. We're gettin' a mighty nice society: some o' our ladies from the East, as far off as Omaha; and 'twas the minister's wife stood out for this Miss Wilkins, an old school-fellow o' hern. Pity she ain't handsome, as we can't boast but two other unmarried gals in our set."
Nick reflected. Where had he seen that small-featured, conscientious little face? He seemed to associate it with some agreeable and not very distant episode; yet its intelligent insignificance was so overshadowed by the pleasantness of the episode itself, that he now tried in vain to identify it with a searchlight of recognition. "I give up," he said to himself discontentedly. "Maybe it'll come to me later." And then, suddenly, it did.
The new school-teacher at Lucky Star City was the little woman who had arrived with the Native Daughters at the Santa Barbara hotel, and would have been swamped by them had not Angela taken pity on her. No wonder it had been an effort to label his impression, for no woman had a face worth the name of face for Nick when Angela's was to be seen. But perhaps Miss Wilkins had not had the same difficulty in disentangling him from among her impressions of the past, for she had flashed upon him a glance, bright with interest, before casting down her eyes decorously and passing on.
"Here comes the Dook now," remarked the landlord of the Eureka. "By the look of him I guess his country-man wouldn't part with anything 'cept a drink. If he keeps clear of the liquor belt, as a general thing, it's only because his fee-nan-shel situation don't run to it. I'll introduce you."
A man approached, wearing a shambling air of discouragement, until he saw that he was under observation; whereupon his muscles tightened, and he pulled himself together, straightening his narrow shoulders and throwing back his small head.
"Mr. Nickson Hilliard, this is Mr. Montagu Jerrold, alias the Dook, a blarsted Britisher," announced Green affably. "Dook, this is Mr. Nickson Hilliard, who wants to meet you, the Lord knows why; late owner of Lucky Star gusher and the whitest man and the biggest man we've got in this section. His other name is High-pockets, as I guess you hev heard, and it might be Full-pockets too, wuthout steerin' wide o' the mark."
Nick put out his hand to the newcomer who had a haughty beak of a nose, little forehead, and less chin. Wretched bit of flotsam and jetsam on the sands of life, one keen look into his self-satisfied light eyes was enough to learn the secret of his failure; failure which, go where he would, seek as he might, could never be turned into success. Nick's heart pitied the man, while it shut involuntarily against him.
Montagu Jerrold crooked his elbow and lifted the brown strong hand of High-pockets to a level with his own weak chin, before he deigned to shake it. He did so then with an air, and a drawled "How d'y' do?" which was the most English thing that Nick had ever met with off the stage.
"Little brute, I'd like to kick him if he wasn't such a duffer," was Nick's reluctant thought, for he had wanted to be favourably impressed by the Dook. If this were really anything like an English duke, give him a crossing-sweeper! But he must not be too hasty in his generalization. He was unhappily sure that Mrs. May's position in her far-off world (world for which he was deemed unworthy) associated her with dukes, earls, barons, counts, and all sorts of titled anachronisms of every nation. Repulsive as this draggled specimen appeared, it might know something worth his, Nick Hilliard's, while to learn; and he was not going to give up because of first impressions. He had not met Montagu Jerrold before, but had heard of him often during the last three or four months since the Englishman "blew into" Lucky Star City. He was a boaster as well as a waster, no doubt; for according to himself, he knew "everybody at home," from the King down the whole gamut of the British peerage. Also he "claimed" to be an Oxford man, and it was that which, in this emergency, had focused Nick's attention upon him.
The landlord, aware that Nick had a "proposition" to make, excused himself when he had brought off the introduction; and the two men were left more or less alone at their end of the hotel veranda. Nevertheless, so complicated was the nature of Nick's business that he wished for greater privacy, and he suggested a stroll in the direction of the gusher.
"You're an Oxford graduate, aren't you?" he began.
"Ya-as, I went up to Oxford from Eton," drawled Jerrold with an accent which Nick disliked, but was ready to believe in as well-bred, because few Englishmen to the "manner born" had happened to come his way. "All the elder sons of my family, since the days of Charles the Second, don't you know, have gone in for the Army; and that's what I should have liked, but my eldest brother has the money as well as the title, d'you see, and I'm only third son. I——"
"Yes," said Nick curtly. "But you mustn't worry to tell me all your private affairs unless you really want to. Because what I'm most interested in is the Oxford part. I never went to college, nor to any school for the matter of that, except a night one, but I've tried to make up a bit with reading all I could. I suppose I don't know much about books, compared with you——"
"Oh, I was never much of a grind," the other cut in hastily. "I went in for other things. I was cox——".
"It's etiquette I'm thinking of," Nick confessed humbly. "You'd be born knowin' a lot about that, I dare say, in your family. And then, being at Oxford, too! I always notice college men have a different way from those who haven't been to any university. It's hard to explain the difference, but it's there."
"Oh, rather," agreed the Englishman. "You know our King himself will send all his sons to Oxford and Cambridge. Nothin' like it, my dear fellow, what? Our family——"
"Could you give lessons, sort of object-lessons, in what to do and what not do in society?" inquired Nick, eager yet shy, not ashamed of his motive in asking, but fearful by instinct that he was not getting hold of the right man.
"Nothing easier," returned Montagu Jerrold, the prominent gooseberries, which were his eyes, looking somewhat less thoroughly boiled. "I was thinkin' of leavin' this beastly hole, don't you know. Nothin' in it for a gentleman, what? But if you've somethin' to offer worth takin', why I might stick it out for a bit, I dessay."
Nick longed to box the' creature's ears; but they were well-shaped and might be the ears of a man born with etiquette flowing with his blue blood, through azure veins. The shape of his nose wasn't bad, but those eyes and that chin! They were, as Nick grimly expressed it to himself, the limit. Nevertheless, he would persevere, and try a course of lessons from the Dook.
They began to discuss terms, and Nick did not bargain. Mr. Jerrold was to have an advance payment of twenty-five dollars, on account of fifty, for ten "lessons"; and he was to come to Nick's house every evening to "supper" at half-past seven, remaining until half-past nine. Hilliard was to be watched through the meal and corrected if he did anything wrong with his knife and fork, or his bread; and they were to have conversations and discussions covering various imagined emergencies.
Details were arranged, much to the satisfaction of Montagu Jerrold, whose real name was Herbert Higgins, and who had been a house decorator, employed—and discharged—by a small London firm. Never had he been inside an Oxford college: never had he seen the King—except on a post card. He returned joyously to his hotel, where, as Mr. Green was lying in wait, he had to part with most of his advance. And Nick tramped home torn in mind, fearing instinctively that he was about to jump from the frying-pan of ignorance into a fire of vulgarity at which Angela would shudder.
Every night for a week the Dook appeared promptly in time for Nick's substantial supper, which, by the way, he advised his host to transform into dinner. "You simply can't have 'supper' at half-past seven, my deah fellow. It isn't done! Dinner should be at eight, at earliest. Our royalties prefer it at nine. If you have supper it is after the theatre or opera, don't you know." But when Nick stolidly refused to be such an "affected donkey" as to call his evening meal by another name to make it sweeter, Mr. Jerrold did not scorn the meal because it lacked refinement.
On the seventh night, however, Hilliard gave his noble instructor notice.
"I'm real sorry," he remarked pleasantly, "but I can't help it. I'd rather go on as I am, and pin myself to a prickly pear, than shine in society by doing any of these monkey tricks you've been tryin' to put me on to. You say they're 'the thing' and the newest dope and all that, and maybe they're real nice for your sort, but I tell you they're not for mine! It seems to me you know a wonderful lot of fool things that ain't so, and I can't yoke up with 'em. What's more, I don't mean to. And now I see they're the only cards you've got in your hand I don't want any more dealt out to me—Hook up my little finger when I come to grips with a coffee-cup! No, thank you! I see myself doin' it or any other of the pussy-catisms you've been tryin' to unload on me. And you drop your 'g's' just as bad as I do. No, you'll have to switch off, doc; and after to-night you can go your way and I'll go mine, for there's nothin' doin' here for you except this little roll of bills. Good night, bud. That's all the trumps in the game!"
But the bills—which were the trumps for Jerrold—amounted to fifty dollars more than he had been promised for the whole course of lessons. So he had not done badly after all. And leaving Lucky Star City, which had no oil nor milk of human kindness for him, he drifted on somewhere else, as he will continue to drift until he stumbles into an ignominious grave.
But Nick was angry and thwarted—angry with himself because he had been a fool, and thwarted because he remained as before, handicapped by his own ignorance. In spite of Jerrold's boasts, Nick's instinct had told him after the first words exchanged that the man was not only a cad, but a rank pretender. Still, in his desire for social knowledge, he had refused at first to listen to the voice of instinct and had been punished for obtuseness. The very thought of the little drawling outsider who had delighted in his sobriquet of "the Dook" made Hilliard feel sick, and he opened wide all the windows and doors when the contemptible creature went out of the house. "Wanted to turn me into a dry-goods clerk, did he?" Nick grumbled. And the episode was closed.
One afternoon, not many days after the expulsion of Montagu Jerrold, Nick kept a long-made promise, by going to call on the wife of the Presbyterian minister, the only professional purveyor of religion who had yet settled in Lucky Star City. Mrs. Kenealy was out, but was coming back soon, and Nick was urged by her small daughter to wait. This he consented to do, and found the school-teacher also waiting in the pleasant little "living-room."
The young man and woman were introduced by the child, who, then relieved of responsibility, left them to each other's mercy, and flew to a friend with whom she had been playing dolls on the back porch.
"I don't suppose you remember me," said Miss Sara Wilkins rather wistfully. "But I remember you very well."
"So do I you," Nick was glad to reply with truth; and his heart warmed to the wisp of a woman to whom Miss Dene had been catty and Mrs. May kind. "It was at Santa Barbara."
"Why, you do remember!" she exclaimed delightedly. "I never thought you would. I always think there's nothing about me that any one could recollect. Oh, would you mind telling me how that lovely lady is who was so good to me? I often think about her. She was the most beautiful thing I ever saw in my life."
Nick could have kissed her hands—little thin hands—kissed them even in their gray lisle-thread gloves; Needless to say, however, he did nothing of the sort. He answered quietly that it was now some time since he had seen Mrs. May, but he supposed she was well, and still in California, probably in San Francisco. She was planning to build a house near Monterey. Though his voice and manner were particularly calm, his eyes were as wistful, perhaps, as the school-teacher's smile had been. And just because Sara Wilkins knew well what it was to be wistful and try to hide it, perhaps she saw more clearly than a more attractive woman would. "Something had happened," she said to herself. That splendid young couple, about whom she had built up such a gorgeous romance, had been parted, and this handsome fellow with the kind smile and heroic shoulders was unhappy, far unhappier than Sara Wilkins had ever been, strange as that might seem—he who had looked so fortunate! Sara wondered if the lovely lady were unhappy, too, or if she had been cruel; and because Miss Wilkins adored romance (having nothing more personally her own to adore), not because she was naturally curious, the little woman positively ached to know the story.
They had nearly half an hour together she and Nick before Mrs. Kenealy returned, and in that time they had come close to the beginning of a friendship, each being secretly in need of sympathy, and dimly detecting the need in the other. Their liking for one another enchanted Mrs. Kenealy, who was a born matchmaker. To be sure, Miss Sara Wilkins was not pretty, and would never see twenty-nine again, but she was a good girl, clever and affectionate, and would make Nick Hilliard the best of wives if only he could be brought to see it. She sat between them, chattily telling each one nice things about the other, and soon she suggested bringing Miss Wilkins to visit Nick's ranch. School was off now, and the poor dear had nothing to do but read and write letters home, whither it cost far too much to return for only a few weeks. Nick said that he would be delighted; and offered to send Miss Wilkins as many books as she liked to her boarding house. Books were great friends of his, he admitted somewhat shyly. She was welcome to borrow any she cared to have.
They saw a good deal of each other during the next fortnight, too much for the school-teacher's peace of mind; for the oftener they met the more was she convinced that Nick was in love, perhaps hopelessly in love, with another woman as different from herself as a lily from a dusty sprig of lavender. Then, one day when Nick had started to carry her some books and they had met on the way, the two sat down and talked by the side of the blue, brackish lake, sheltering from the sun behind a bank of yellow sand that was like the high back of a queerly shaped throne. At a distance passed Green, the landlord of the Eureka, out walking with his little daughter, and in speaking of him and the odd folk who stopped at the green hotel the "Dook" was mentioned. He had disappeared from Lucky Star City some time before, but Miss Wilkins had met and disliked him.
"Horrid little pretentious toad!" she exclaimed sharply. "He was always talking to every one he could get hold of about his family and his swell friends and Oxford. But I don't believe any of his stories. He was just worse than nobody at all; and East I've met real nice Englishmen who had a lovely accent, and wouldn't be found dead drawling like he did."
Nick laughed. "You're jolly right," he said; and then being in a humorous as well as confidential mood, he told the story of himself and Montagu Jerrold.
"Wasn't I a Johnny?" he asked at the end. "Served me right for trying to make a silk purse of myself. Can't be done, I guess."
"But you are a silk purse!" Sara protested indignantly. "How can you talk about yourself the way you do?"
"I'm a little down on my luck these days," he answered. "Did you ever read about the moth who loved a star? I guess, when that moth got to thinking of himself and his chances, he saw himself pretty well as he really was, poor old chap. Fusty brown wings, too many legs, antennae the wrong shape, and a clumsy way of usin' 'em. I've gone and made a moth of myself, Miss Wilkins."
"Maybe the star doesn't think you a moth, or anyhow not a common moth," the little school-teacher tried to comfort him loyally, though her heart ached as a lonely woman's heart must ache when the man she could have loved, if she had dared, confides in her about the "other." She had known quite well that there was another, but to have the confession come out in words seemed to make her feel the grayness of life rather more intensely than she had felt it before. Yet she rallied her forces and longed to fight Nick Hilliard's battles and wave his banner in the face of the enemy—if enemy there were.
"That's just what the star does think!" laughed Nick. "She thinks I'm common."
Miss Wilkins stiffened with indignation. "I don't believe it—if she's a real star. And you wouldn't mistake an imitation one for real, would you?"
"She's the brightest star in the heavens; as good as a whole constellation."
"Then she can't think you common."
"Well, put in another way. She thinks me 'impossible'—impossible for her, that is. She told me so. But I might have known it without telling. I guess she thought I would know. I had the cheek to hope, though, that I might polish myself up enough to pass muster in a crowd, even a crowd of her sort of people, and that she might change her mind about me."
"As if that disgusting little Montagu Jerrold could teach you anything!"
"I found he couldn't. Not anything she'd like me better for knowing."
"If she doesn't find you good enough as you are she isn't worth loving," insisted the school-teacher. "Oh, I know I'm not the same kind of woman she is! I'm only a little 'provincial,' as I expect she'd call me in her own mind, but—but I can tell a man when I see him."
"Thank you a whole lot for sticking up for me," said Nick, boyishly. "But how do you know what kind of a woman my star is?"
Miss Wilkins blushed and was silent. She did not look pretty when she blushed, like Angela, but Nick thought she had one of the nicest little faces in the world.
"I expect I've gone and given myself away," he said. "Well, I don't care, for you're so good and sympathetic. You've seen my star, and you can judge just what kind of a blame fool I was to hope she could ever really care for a rough fellow like me—care enough to be yoked up with me for life."
"Are you sure she didn't care?" asked the school-teacher.
If he had "given himself away" he did not intend to give away Angela. "I told you she said I was impossible," he answered discreetly. "Well, thank you again for listenin' to my whinings. It's done me a lot of good. Now I've talked enough and too much about myself. Let's talk about you."
"There's nothing interesting to say about me," Miss Wilkins defended herself, with the faintest sigh that only a man who loved her would have heard. "We won't talk about you any more, though, if you don't want to. That book of Mr. Muir's you sent me is beautiful. I've been wishing to read it for years."
So they fell to discussing The National Parks of America; but Sara's heart was not in the discussion, much as she admired the book. She was thinking about Nick and Angela.
"It doesn't seem," she told herself, "that a woman who could be so kind to another woman as she was to me, when she didn't even know me, could be cruel to a man she did know and like, even if she didn't love him. And could a woman he loved not love him back again?"
Miss Wilkins had resigned herself long ago, or thought she had, to going through life without any intimate personal interests of her own, and when her heart ached hardest that night in her mean little boarding-house bedroom, it was going out most warmly toward Nick, and yearning for the happiness of making him happy.
"If I could only do something!" she said to her mossy-smelling pillow. "And I owe her a good turn too, although maybe she doesn't deserve it. I wonder what I could do?"
THE BREAKING OF THE SPELL
The spell was broken for Angela. She knew now, if she had not known before, that it was Nick Hilliard who lit the world for her with the light never seen on land or sea, where love is not. Some quality was gone from the sunshine, and the glory of the golden poppies had withered.
Back in San Francisco, living in the rooms which he had helped to make beautiful with daily gifts of flowers, she realized how completely Nick had meant for her the spirit of the West. It was because he had been with her that, from morning till night, she had thrilled with the joy of life and excited anticipation of each new day which had never failed or let her tire.
Every moment she missed him and wanted him, and would have given anything to call him back to her; but she had no right to call, for what had she to give worth his pain in coming?
Angela was an anxiety to Kate and a responsibility to Mr. Morehouse. The banker would have liked to send his friends to call upon Mrs. May, but she was in no mood to meet people. Then he suggested that she should go to Del Monte for the summer and watch the beginning of the new home, but she dismissed this idea, saying that as the architect had not yet even finished his plan it would be a long time before the house could reach an interesting stage.
"We all go somewhere in summer," Mr. Morehouse urged. Whereupon Angela merely shrugged her shoulders. "You who live here may want a change," she said. "I've had plenty of changes. I'm very happy where I am, thanks."
But she did not look happy, and Kate, who loved her, realized the alteration far more keenly than Mr. Morehouse, though even he felt vaguely that something had gone wrong with the Princess di Sereno. Kate, who knew well what a difference happiness could make in a woman's health and looks, guessed that the loss of her mistress's colour and spirits was connected with the disappearance of Hilliard. A paragraph she had read in that exciting number of the Illustrated London News had, together with some vague hints unconsciously dropped by Angela and a few words of the banker's overheard, set Kate's wits to working, and thus she arrived, through sympathy, at something like the truth. But Mr. Morehouse's diagnosis of the case had in it no such romantic ingredient as hopeless love.
He alone in America (since Theo Dene was gone, and Kate merely suspected) knew that Mrs. May was the Princess di Sereno, who had never been a wife to Paolo di Sereno except in name. He knew that the Princess had grievances, and that she had left her identity in the Old World in the wish to forget the past completely. Knowing this, when a certain piece of news came his way he felt it his disagreeable duty to pass it on to Mrs. May. And it was the very piece of news which had set Theo Dene wondering whether Angela "knew about the Prince."
Most California journals are apt to give local matters of interest precedence over affairs at a distance, and so it was that (though Angela usually glanced through a newspaper every day or two during her travels) she had never come upon Paolo di Sereno's name except in that old copy of the Illustrated London News. There she learned how well he was amusing himself while Mrs. May saw California under Nick Hilliard's guidance. But after that came a blank. She knew only that he and a somewhat notorious woman were making ascents together in an aeroplane. But it remained for Mr. Morehouse to tell her of the sensation the pair were creating in Europe.
There was a woman—indeed, there was invariably a woman, though not always the same—whose flaunting friendship with the Prince had fixed Angela's resolve to turn her back on the old life. The woman had begun a career on the very humblest plane, had become an artist's model, then had learned to sing and dance, and at length her reputation as a beauty had made her name famous. A marquis had married her, and when his heart was broken and his money spent, had obligingly killed himself in an inconspicuous and gentlemanly manner. After that his widow had achieved an even greater popular success, and had attracted the attention of Paolo di Sereno.
It was about this time that Angela left Rome, and what Theo Dene wondered if Mrs. May "knew about the Prince," was his hope to break the record for distance in a new aeroplane. Mr. Morehouse, who took one or two French and English illustrated weeklies as well as New York daily papers, saw these things as soon as Theo Dene saw them; and, when Angela returned to San Francisco from Bakersfield, he told her of the Prince's project.
"I reasoned," he said, "that it would be better for you to hear what is going on from me rather than be exposed to a surprise and shock from some London or Paris paper lying on a hotel table."
Angela interrupted him to reply that nothing the Prince di Sereno could do had power to shock her, for they had never been really in each other's lives, and had now passed out of one another's orbits forever. In spite of this assurance, however, when Mr. Morehouse saw the Princess looking pale and listless taking little interest in the plans for her new house, he attributed the change to humiliation, or possibly even to fears for the Prince's safety, for women are strange. Luckily she could not be annoyed in this new country where she would make her home, for nobody knew who she was or could associate her with the Prince's eccentricities! Nevertheless, Mr. Morehouse thought it natural that her health and spirits should suffer; and because of his old and close friendship with Franklin Merriam he longed to find some wholesome distraction for Angela.
But after all it was Kate, not he, who succeeded in supplying it. Poor Kate, so near to, yet so far from, Oregon, dared in her insignificance to follow her mistress's example. Though she would have had a hand cut off rather than "give notice" to her beloved lady, as a matter of fact, she was pining; Tim was growing impatient. His affairs were marching well. Something had been saved out of the disaster caused by his dishonest partner. He had got in with a "good man," and they believed that together they would some day "beat the world" with their apples. Already they had obtained a London market. There wasn't much ready money to spare yet; but Tim could manage to pay Kate's way from San Francisco to Portland, and on to his place, if she would come. Besides, there was her nest egg, her dowry, from the sale of the gold bag.
Of course, Kate was dying to go, but would not even tell her sad-eyed, pale-cheeked mistress that Tim was wanting her. It was only when, one day, Angela noticed how miserable poor Kate was looking, that little by little she drew out the whole truth. Then she was roused to interest, and forgetfulness of herself.
"I'll tell you what I will do, Kate," she said with more animation than she had shown for weeks. "I'll take Mr. Morehouse's very latest advice, and run up north to Lake Tahoe, to stay till my new house is born. Then, instead of your going to your Tim, he must come to you; and I'll give you a wedding—oh, a beautiful wedding, with a white silk dress and a veil and orange blossoms, and a cake big enough to last you the rest of your life. You're not to make any objections, because I shouldn't be happy to have you stay with me now that Tim's ready, and you know the idea always was for you to go when I'd reached my farthest point north and nearest to Oregon. Besides, it will do me good to plan for a wedding. And I mean to give you your trousseau. You shall get the things here in San Francisco before we start for Tahoe."
So that was why one evening Nick read in a San Francisco paper that "Mrs. May, who has been staying at the Fairmont Hotel for several weeks, left last night for Lake Tahoe, where she has engaged rooms at the famous Tahoe Tavern, and may remain for some time."
Afterward, when he sent the paper on to Sara Wilkins, as he did send papers now, with parcels of books and magazines, she too noticed the paragraph.
"His star's gone as far north and as far from him as she can possibly go and be in California," thought the school-teacher. And because Nick was right, and her good little face hid a heart that was still better, she was not glad, but very, very sorry.
When Kate was married to her good-looking Irishman, and the little excitement of the wedding was over, Angela began to feel rather desolate.
There were a great many pleasant people at the tavern who would have been kind to the stranger if she had let them be kind, but they were all so merry and had so many intimate interests of their own that their goodness to her seemed only to emphasize her loneliness. Kate had insisted on "lending" her Timmy in fact, the bride and bridegroom both insisted, for there was no doubt in their minds that the black cat had brought them good fortune. Now they had all the fortune they wanted, to "go on with," and as poor, pretty Mrs. May seemed "a bit down on her luck," they would leave her Timmy to bring it back again. And really the topaz-eyed creature, in its becoming jade collar—a gift from Nick Hilliard—was often a comfort to Angela, curled up in her lap and purring cosily under her book as she read. It seemed curiously fond of her, even fonder than of Kate, and had "taken to" her from the first.
Angela had travelled through a region of snowsheds to reach the lake in the heart of the Sierra Nevada, and the scenery was as different from any she had met in California as was her mood from the mood of the south. At Tahoe she was a mile above sea-level, and ringed in by higher mountains which had not lost their dazzling crowns of snow.
On the shore of the long blue lake that mirrored eternally, a clear, cool sky and immense dark trees—pines and cedars—Angela felt that a line had been drawn between her and her California past, with its flame of golden, poppies and flowers of the forest. Here she had reached a high note of beauty which rang crystalline as a silver rod striking upon ice. The place gave Angela a sense of purity and remoteness which she had felt by no lake-shore of Europe. The charm of other lakes had been their villa-sprinkled shores, their historical associations. The charm of Tahoe was loneliness. She liked to row out on the water alone, and rest on her oars to look down, down, through miles (it seemed) of liquid sapphire and emerald blending together.
Tahoe was not remote, really since luxurious trains had brought it into close touch with San Francisco and with the East; but Angela liked to cultivate the impression of remoteness as if she were a nun in retreat, and the beauty was of a kind that called to her spirit, making renunciation easier than in the luscious south, scented with lilies and roses. Tahoe had its roses, too; but its chief perfume was of pines and the pure freshness of breezes that blow over water and snow mountains.
The journey, too, had prepared her for the isolation that she craved; the glimpse of tragic Donner Lake, where the pioneers starved and agonized in 1848; the wild Truckee River sweeping its flood past thickets of pale sagebrush and forests of black pines; the tang of cold and the smell of snow in the air; the lonely farmhouses folded among green hills; and the primitive look of Truckee town with its little frame buildings called by pretentious foreign names; Firenze Saloon; Roma Hotel.
Nobody else, however, seemed to have the half-sad, half-delicious sense of remoteness from the world, at Tahoe, which Angela had. That month was very gay, and the immense verandas of the tavern were flower-gardens of pretty girls—those American "summer girls," of whom Angela had often heard. They swam, and boated and fished, and, above all, flirted, for there were always plenty of men; and in the evenings they danced in the ballroom of the casino, built on the edge of the water.
Angela never tired of going from end to end of the lake in the steamboat that set out from the tavern jetty in the morning and returned in the afternoon. The captain, a great character, let her sit in a room behind the pilot-box, where her luncheon was brought by an eager-eyed youth working his way through college by serving as steward in the holidays. He was in love with a girl at his university, equally poor and equally plucky; but because she was earning dollars as a waitress at the tavern, the boy thought Tahoe a place "where you couldn't help being happy." Angela thought it a place where, more than most others, it might be possible to find peace, though happiness was gone.
She no longer opened her diary. Never again, she told herself, would she keep a record of her days. But, some time—years from now, maybe—when she could read what she had written without a heartache, she would open the unfinished volume where she had broken off a sentence in the great redwood forest. She might be able to think of Nick Hilliard then without longing for him; but that time seemed far, very far away.
* * * * *
One August evening Angela came back from an excursion to the top of Mount Tallac. She was tired, and had made up her mind to dine in her own sitting-room, then to go immediately to bed; but asking for her key she was told that "a lady was waiting to see her; had been waiting nearly all day."
"A lady!" she echoed. Could it be Mrs. Gaylor? Angela hoped not; for, though she had not heard from Nick those things which Carmen had feared and expected her to hear, she guessed something of Carmen's hate. The fact that she had not been allowed to go back; that Kate had arrived in Bakersfield with a story of Mrs. Gaylor's being called suddenly away from home; that Carmen had never answered a short letter she wrote; all these things roused her suspicions. Indeed, she had even gone so far as to associate the box of poison-oak leaves with Mrs. Gaylor; and now the thought that the Spanish woman might have followed her to Tahoe sent a shiver through her veins. Who could the lady be, if not Carmen Gaylor? Who but Carmen would wait patiently for her coming, through a whole day?
For an instant Angela was tempted to answer: "I'm too tired to see any one this evening." But that would be cowardly. Besides, she was curious to see her visitor, whoever it might be.
"The lady's waiting in the veranda now," said a hotel clerk. "She's been here ever since morning, but she went away at lunch time and came back afterward. I don't know what she means to do to-night, for the train for Truckee will be leaving in a few minutes, and she hasn't engaged a room."
Angela went out on the veranda, feeling' a little tense and excited, but when a small, blue-frocked, gray-hatted figure, dejectedly lost in a big rocking-chair, was pointed out to her, excitement died while bewilderment grew.
Her first thought was that she had never seen this countrified-looking person before, but as her guest turned, raising to hers a pair of singularly intelligent, rather frightened eyes, she knew that she had met the same glance from the same eyes somewhere before.
The little woman's face was so pale, so tired, her whole personality so pathetic yet indomitable, that Angela's heart softened.
"How do you do?" she asked kindly. "I hear you have come to see me, so we must know each other, I'm sure——"
The visitor was on her feet, the chair, from which she had sprung with a nervous jerk, rocking frantically as if a nervous ghost were sitting in it.
"We don't know each other exactly," Miss Wilkins hastened to explain, as though eager not to begin with false pretences. "The only time you ever saw me was at Santa Barbara last May, but you were very good to me and—and I found out your name——"
"Of course. I remember quite well!" Mrs. May smiled reassuringly, for the poor little thing was certainly terrified and ill at ease as well as tired. Angela sprang to the conclusion that the young woman was in money difficulties, and having remembered the loan of the sitting-room at Santa Barbara had somehow found her way to Tahoe in the hope of getting help. Well, she should have it. Angela was only too glad to be able to do something for any one in trouble. "I'm glad to see you again," she said, as if it were quite a commonplace thing for a stranger to have dropped apparently from the clouds in search of her. "But I'm so sorry you've had to wait. Perhaps you wrote and I haven't got the letter yet?"
"No, I didn't write. I couldn't have explained in a letter," said the weary-faced visitor; "and maybe you wouldn't have wanted me to come if you'd known before-hand. I thought if I'd travelled all this way though, just to speak to you, you wouldn't refuse. I've been two nights on the way."
"Oh, how dreadful!" exclaimed Angela. "You must let me get you a room at once. Some people are leaving to-night. They surely can put you up in the hotel."
"Thank you very much," returned the young woman, "but I couldn't impose on you as your guest. You'll see that when I've told you why I came. I can't get away to Truckee, I know, for the train goes too soon, but I'll take a room at some simpler place where it's cheaper than this."
"We'll talk of that later," said Angela soothingly. "Now I hope you'll come to my rooms and rest, and tell me about yourself. When we're both washed and refreshed we'll dine together in my sitting-room quietly."
"But it isn't about myself I want to talk," protested the stranger. "I must tell you my name, Mrs. May. Of course, you've forgotten it. It's Miss Wilkins—Sara Wilkins."
She didn't want to talk about herself! That was puzzling and didn't fit in with Angela's deductions. However, she made no comment, and talking of her day on Mount Tallac, escorted Miss Wilkins to a pretty sitting-room, which in her absence had been supplied with fresh flowers.
"Shall we talk first?" Angela asked. "Or would you like to rest and bathe——"
"If you're not too tired yourself to listen to me, I'd rather talk now," Sara answered with a kind of suppressed desperation. "But you do look tired. You're thinner and paler than at Santa Barbara! Yet I've been screwing my courage up to this for so long I can hardly bear to wait."
"If I was tired I've forgotten it now," said Angela. "And I'm as eager to begin as you can be. But you mustn't feel that it needs courage to speak out, whatever you have to say. And if there's any way for me to make it easier for you, I should be so glad if you could give me just the slightest hint. Shall we both sit down on this sofa together?"
"You sit there," replied Sara. "I don't want to be comfortable. I couldn't lean back. I'm all on edge."
"Oh, but you mustn't be 'on edge'!"
"I don't tell you that to get sympathy, Mrs. May," said the school-teacher, "but only because I'd like you to understand before I begin that I haven't come just to be 'cheeky' and bold. I came because I felt I must—on somebody's account, if not yours. For myself, I didn't want to force myself on you. I didn't want it one bit! And now I'm here, if I could do what I feel most like doing, I'd run away as fast as ever I could go, without saying one more word."
"You almost frighten me," said Angela, her eyes dark and serious. "Have I done something dreadful that—that I ought to be warned not to do again, and you have come to tell me because you think I was once a little kind to you? Not that I was really kind—for it was nothing at all that I did."
Miss Wilkins, sitting stiff and upright on the smallest, straightest, least luxurious chair in the pretty room, was silent for an instant, as if collecting all her forces. "No," she answered at last. "It wouldn't be fair to say exactly that. And yet you have done something dreadful. Oh, my goodness, this is even harder to get out than—than I supposed it would be, for, of course, you'll think it's not my business anyhow. And isn't or wouldn't be if—if——"
"If—what?" Angela prompted her gently.
Sara Wilkins swallowed a lump in her throat and pressed her lips together. They were dry and pale. "Well," she broke out, "I'll have to tell you the truth and not care for my own feelings. They don't matter really. It wouldn't be my business if I didn't love him myself, dearly—oh, but not selfishly! And he doesn't dream of it. He never will. And he never thinks about me except to pity me a little and do kind things because I'm alone in the world. And that's all I want of him. It is, truly, though I can't explain very well. I just want him to be happy, and to have made him so. Because somebody had to act if anything was to be done. And there was nobody but me."
"Him!" Angela repeated in a whisper. Yet the name was in her mind now, as always it was in her heart.
"Mr. Hilliard, of course. You see"—desperately—"I'm school-teacher at Lucky Star City, close to his place. All the land there and the big gusher were his. When he came back in June I was at Lucky Star, and we were introduced. He remembered my face dimly, more I guess because he couldn't forget even the least thing associated with you than for any other reason. Since then we've got to be friends."
Angela did not speak, even when Sara Wilkins made a slight hesitating pause. Her heart was beating too fast and thickly for words to come, and, besides, there seemed to be nothing to say yet, until she had heard more.
"Don't think," Sara went on, gathering courage, "that he confided in me in any ordinary way. I just couldn't bear you should do him that injustice. If you did I should have done harm instead of good by coming all this way to see you. But the very first day I met him at Lucky Star I asked about you, and I—saw; though he only said he believed you were in San Francisco—that he was heart-broken about you. Even at Santa Barbara I couldn't help making up a romance round you both—you so beautiful and somehow like a great lady, though you didn't put on any airs at all; he so handsome and splendid, like a hero in some book of the West. It was weeks before we mentioned you again—he and I—though I saw a lot of him at Lucky Star. He was kind, and it was holidays, so I hadn't much to do except read books he lent me."
Still Angela said nothing, though it was evident that Miss Wilkins would have been thankful at this stage for some leading question which might help her over a difficult place. Angela could not now give the help she had once offered. Rather was she in need of it herself. She sat waiting, her eyes disconcertingly fixed upon the other woman's flushed face. But that was because she could not bring herself to look away from it.
"Before we spoke of you again, what do you think he'd been doing?" the school-teacher went on, almost fiercely.
"Oh, I can hardly tell you, it's so sad! If you're the sweet woman that in spite of everything I think you are, you'll be sorry all the way through to your heart. He—he hired a wretched humbug of a man who pretended to be an English swell to teach him manners, so that he could be a little worthier of you. He, Nick Hilliard, the noblest gentleman that ever drew breath, to stoop to learning from a little thing who called itself Montagu Jerrold. He did it because of what you said to him."
"Oh!" cried Angela, her cheeks scarlet. "I said nothing—nothing which could make him feel that I didn't think him a gentleman. I——"
"That's what I told him," Sara broke in. "I knew his reason for employing Jerrold, because he made up a sort of allegory about a moth loving a star and trying to fly up to heaven and be near her, or something like that. I said that a real star couldn't be stupid enough to think him a moth, or, anyway, not a common one. And he said, 'That's just what she does think me, common.' I knew he meant you, though he didn't speak your name then. And I thought to myself, 'She didn't look like a silly doll stuffed with sawdust,' I did you the justice to believe that a great lady, experienced in the world, would know and appreciate a man. I'm just nobody at all, Mrs. May; but even I'm clever enough for that. I'm sure as fate, if I were acquainted with all the best kings and princes there are in the world, I couldn't find a better gentleman than Nick Hilliard. Yet according to him you didn't have the eyes to see what he was worth. You not only turned him down, but turned him down saying he was too common for you."
Angela could stand no more. It was as if the fierce little woman in dusty blue serge had struck her in the face. She sprang up, very white, her eyes blazing. "It is not true," she said in a low voice. "He couldn't have told you I said that."
"He told me you said just the same thing: that he was 'impossible.' That was the word—a cruel, cruel word."
She was up too, the fiery little school-teacher, and they faced each other—the tall girl, white as lily grown in a king's garden, and the little snub-nosed, freckled country schoolma'am.
"Do you mean when I used the word 'impossible,'" asked Angela, "that he thought I meant it in such a way—meant to tell him that he was an impossible person?"
"Yes, I do mean just that."
"You're sure of what you say?"
"Dreadfully sure. When I'd got that much out of him—somehow. I hardly know how—I felt wounded and sore, as I knew he was feeling, and, would feel all the rest of his life. Oh, I'd have given mine for him! I would then, and I would now, to make him happy. That's why I came up here—to find out whether, after all, there could be any misunderstanding between you that could be righted. He doesn't know I've come. He thinks I'm staying with a friend in San Francisco. I don't want him to know, ever. I should die of shame. I wish I could talk in some wise, clever way to you, and get you to see what a mistake you've made. He loves you so, Mrs. May!"
Then a thing happened which was the last that Sara Wilkins had expected. With a stifled cry Angela turned away, and, covering her face with both hands, sobbed as if her heart would break.
The little school-teacher trembled all over. She had come here—giving her time and money—far more than she could afford—and her nerve-tissue, in Nick Hilliard's cause; and all in the hope of making his "star" see the error of her ways. But when the cruel star broke down and cried uncontrollably, in anguish of soul, the hardness and anger which Nick's champion had cherished melted into pity.
"I do hope you'll forgive me," she stammered. "I—I didn't mean to make you suffer like this. I'm so afraid I've done everything all wrong! But I let my feelings carry me away. I thought if you loved him a little after all, maybe——"
"Loved him! I love him so much that it's killing me!" Angela broke out through her tears. "I can't sleep at night, for thinking of him, longing for him, and telling myself it's all over—all the joy of waking up to a new day and knowing I shall see him. Ah, night is terrible! I pray for peace, and just as I begin to hope—to be a little calmer, at least by day, out in the sunshine looking at the white mountains, you, a stranger, come and tell me that I don't love him!"
"I wouldn't have dared if I didn't love him myself," Sara retorted, choking on the words. "You see—I know. But if you care for him like this, if you're so unhappy without him, why did you send him away broken-hearted?"
Angela flung her hands up, then dropped them hopelessly. With no attempt to hide her tear-blurred face she answered: "I sent him away because I am married. I said 'It is impossible'; not—what he seems to think I said."
"Oh, how sad!" The little school-teacher was confronting real tragedy for the first time in her gray, conscientious existence. "How sorry I am. Forgive me! But—you know, it isn't I who matter."
"No," Angela echoed. "It isn't you."
"You didn't tell him? You gave him no idea?"
"I hadn't a chance. There'd been an evening, a little while before, when I'd meant to tell if—if anything happened. But—we were interrupted."
"He thinks you're a young widow."
"Yes. It's only in the sight of the world that I have a husband—that I ever had one. When I came to America I left the man for good, and took another name."
"'Mrs. May' isn't your real name?"
"No. I'll tell you if you like——"
"You needn't. But you ought to tell him. That, and everything. I don't mean confess, or anything like that. Probably you thought, till you fell in love with him, that there was no reason why you should give him your secrets. What I mean is—oh, the difference it would make to Mr. Hilliard, knowing that you sent him away, not because you looked down on him as common and impossible, but because you had no right to care!"
Angela stared at the earnest little face as if she were dazed, bewildered in a dark place, and groping for light.
"I had no idea he misunderstood me so," she said slowly. "If I'd guessed at the time, I couldn't have resisted telling him how much I loved him. I couldn't have let him go, so wounded. But now, since no happiness can ever come for us together, and perhaps by this time he is getting over his first suffering, wouldn't it be better just to leave the veil of silence down between us? I don't want to hurt him all his life long. It must make it easier for him to forget, if he believes me a 'doll stuffed with sawdust,' or a snob. He can't go on for long loving a poor thing like that. And so he will be cured. Oh, though I long to send him a message—I mustn't. I mustn't be tempted! Let him think badly of me. It's the best and kindest thing."
"No," said Sara Wilkins, "that is not the right way; not for him. It might be with a vain man. But he doesn't get over it. He doesn't stop loving you. Only the pain is worse because he thinks you scorned him. Mrs. May, I implore you to write him a letter. I can't take a message, because he mustn't know I came to see you. It would spoil it all for him, I think. Write as if it were of your own accord. Don't explain in the letter. Letters are such hard, unsatisfactory things. The best one you could write wouldn't make up to him a bit for what he's suffered and what he must go on suffering, for you couldn't help studying your words, and they'd be stiff and disappointing, no matter how hard you tried to say the things just right. Ask him to come here and let you explain in your own words why you seemed so harsh. Only, warn him that it isn't to change your mind about—about saying yes. It would be awful to rush up here happy and hopeful, only to find out—what he'll have to find out."
"You don't understand," said Angela. "I care too much to dare see him again. I couldn't trust myself. I——"
"Ah, but you could trust him. He's strong and high in his nature—like the great redwoods."
"Yes, like the great redwoods," Angela echoed, in a whisper.
"He'd be a rock, too—a rock to rely upon," Sara went on. "Do this, Mrs. May. Do it for my sake. I know it's the right thing. It will give him back his self-respect. That's even more important than happiness, especially to him. I've done all I could for you—not much, but my best. Do this for me, will you?"
"Yes, I will!" Angela answered suddenly and impulsively. She put out her hands to the little school-teacher and drew her close. They kissed each other, the two women who loved Nick Hilliard.
AN END—AND A BEGINNING
"Come to me if you can. I can give you no hope of happiness, but there is something I should like to explain," Angela said in her letter.
She expected an answer, though she asked for none; but no word came on the morning when she had thought that she might hear. Other people had their letters and were reading them on the veranda, but there was nothing for her. She sat there for a while, cold with disappointment, listening to the tearing open of envelopes and the pleasant crackle of thick letter-paper. Then, when Timmy, the black cat, suddenly leapt off her lap, as if in a mad rush after something he fondly hoped was a mouse, Angela was glad of an excuse to follow. But Timmy, who was of an independent character, evidently believed that he was in for a good thing. He darted across the grass, and with a whisk of eager tail disappeared behind a clump of trees.
"A dragon-fly!" Angela said to herself. For Timmy could not resist the fascination of dragon-flies—a bright and beautiful kind that spent the summer at Lake Tahoe. She followed round the clump of trees, and there was Nick Hilliard coming toward her with Timmy in his arms.
"Oh!" she cried, "I—I thought——"
"I was afraid you'd think it was too early," said Nick as quietly as possible, though his voice shook. "I got in on the train; and after my bath I was taking a walk around, till a decent time to call. Then Timmy came running to welcome me——"
"I believe he must really have seen you!" cried Angela, grateful to Timmy, who was saving them both the first awkwardness of the situation. "He is the most extraordinary cat—quite a super-cat. And you remember, he used always to know what time you were coming to call when we were in San Francisco."
Owing to Timmy, they were spared a meeting on the veranda, and Angela did not offer to take her visitor into the house yet.
There were some quiet places in the garden in the deep shadow of trees, where she could say what she had to say better than between four walls. They strolled on, Nick holding Timmy, who purred loudly, as if glad to welcome the giver of his jade collar.
"I got your letter just in time to catch the train for San Francisco, and then to get on here," Hilliard explained. "Of course, you knew I'd come at once."
"No—I wasn't sure. I thought—I might hear from you this morning—a telegram or letter," Angela stammered. "But—I'm glad, very glad. It was good of you to come, and so soon."
"I wanted so much to talk to you. I've been wanting it for a long time. Ever since—we parted. But it was only the other night I made up my mind that I had any right to send for you."
"What did I say to you that last day about coming from the end of the world? It's only a step from Lucky Star here."
"I know what you said. There isn't one word I've forgotten. Shall we sit under that arbour? It's my favourite seat, and no one ever disturbs me."
They sat down on a rustic bench curtained with trails of Virginia creeper, red as the blood of the dying summer. Nick kept Timmy on his knee, stroking the glossy back. His hand looked very strong and brown, and Angela longed to snatch it up and lay it against her cheek. How she loved him! How much more even than she had known when she couldn't see his face, his eyes and the light there was in his eyes for her! It had not changed, that wonderful light, though his face was sadder, and, she thought, thinner.
"Are you glad to see me again—Nick?" she could not resist asking.
He smiled at her wistfully. "Just about as glad as a man would be to see God's sunlight if he'd been in prison, or starving in a mine that had fallen in on him. Only perhaps a little gladder than that."
She answered him with a look; and then, as involuntarily she put out her hand to stroke Timmy, their fingers met. He caught hers, held them for an instant, and let them go.
"Nick, that day when you saved my life and told me you loved me, did I make you realize that I loved you, too?" she asked.
"No. I couldn't think you meant that. I thought you tried to save my feelings by saying you cared; that you were sorry for me, and——"
"I was sorry for myself, because, you see, you'd begun to be the one person in the whole world who mattered. Oh, wait; don't speak yet! I had to make you understand that we couldn't be anything to each other, and it was so hard for me, that often I've wondered if, inadvertently, I said things to hurt you more than you need have been hurt. Tell me, truly and frankly, what did you believe I meant by that word I used—'impossible'?"
He hesitated, then answered slowly: "I felt that I ought to have known, without your telling me, I wasn't the sort of man for you."
"You did think that! Oh, Nick, then I'm glad I sent for you—I can't help being glad. If you loved me, and I were free, nothing in the world could come between us, and I should be the happiest creature on earth."
"If you were free?" His hand lay heavily on Timmy's back, and the cat resented it by jumping down. But both had forgotten Timmy's existence and their late gratitude to him.
"If I were free. You thought I was—you saw me in mourning. I never meant to make you, or any one, believe a lie. All I thought of at first was getting away from the old life. But, oh, Nick, though I'm not a widow, I was never any man's wife except in name. I'm Franklin Merriam's daughter—you must have heard of him. And when I was seventeen I married Prince Paolo di Sereno. That very day I found out there was—some one who had more right to him that I had. She came, and threatened to kill herself. You see, it was not me, it was money he cared for. But he hated me for saying I would be his wife only in the eyes of the world. That made him so angry, that he has spent his life since in taking revenge. When my mother died, nearly a year ago, I made up my mind to leave him altogether, and I did as soon as I could. I gave him more than half the money, so he didn't care, for he'd grown quite indifferent; and I took the name of 'May.' It is one of my names really. I was so glad to be some one else and come to a new country to begin a new life! It never entered my head that I could fall in love with any one—that there might be complications in my plan. It seemed so simple. All I wanted was peace and a quiet life, with a few kind people round me. Then—you came. At first I didn't realize what was happening to me—for it had never happened before. But soon I might have seen if I hadn't closed my eyes and drifted. I was happy. I didn't want you to go out of my life. Then came the Yosemite, with you, and—I couldn't close my eyes any more. I saw my own heart. I thought—I saw yours. Now you understand, Nick, why I told you it was impossible for you and me to be anything more to each other than friends. It was you who said we couldn't be friends. And you know—I want you to know—that it's as hard for me as it can be for you, because I love you."
She had hurried on to get it all over, not daring to look at him until just at the end. When he did not speak she had to look at last, and see his bowed head—the dear black head that she loved.
"Oh!" she murmured. "I ought never to have gone with you to the Yosemite. If I hadn't, you would have forgotten me by this time—perhaps."
"No," said Nick. "I'd not have forgotten you. Not if I'd never seen you again after that first day in New York. You see, you were my ideal. Every man has one, I guess. And I just recognized you, the first minute, in the hall of the hotel. I didn't expect to know you—and yet, somehow, it was as if I couldn't let you go—even then. Have I got to let you go, now, after what you've told me? You're not the wife of that man—that prince, except in law. You don't love him, and you do love me—you say you do. Why, that makes you already more mine than his."
"Heart and spirit, I'm all yours," Angela said. "Oh, Nick, I don't love you, I worship you, you—man! I never thought there were men like you. I don't believe there are any more. Paolo di Sereno is—a mere husk."
"Divorce him," Nick implored. "You've got cause."
"He's Italian," she answered. "So am I, as his wife, in the eyes of the law. He and his people don't recognize divorce, even if I——"
"But here——" Nick began, then stopped, and shut his lips together. No, he would not propose that. Angela guessed what he had wanted to say, and loved him better for not saying it.
"I used to think," she went on hastily, "that I knew the worst of being married to a man without love. But now I see I didn't know half. A woman can't know till she loves another man. Oh, Nick, I can't get on without you—not quite without you. I've been trying—and every day it grows harder instead of easier. Nothing matters—but you. I'm not Paolo di Sereno's real wife, and he hates me. So it's not wrong to love you, Nick, or for you to love me. Only, we—we——"
"You don't have to get on without me," said Nick. "My angel one, you needn't be frightened. Wait till I tell you. I'll go away—this minute if you tell me to. I'll do whatever you say, because what you say will be right for you, and that's the important thing. What I mean is—I'm always there. My love can't change, except to grow bigger and brighter—and make me more of a man—so you won't have to worry about hurting me. Once I told you we couldn't be friends, but now I know you better, and what you've got in your heart for me—and what stands between us—I take that back. A friend can worship his friend. I worship you. I will be your friend, angel, in the biggest sense of the word."
"Oh, thank you, Nick," she cried. "Thank you a thousand times. Now I can live again—just thinking—as you say—that you're there. The world can't be blank. But you must go. I—I don't think I could bear this long, and keep true—to myself—and——"
It was the same with Nick. He had felt that he could not bear this long and be true either to himself or to her. Yet he would have stayed if she had bidden him stay, and fought for his manhood against odds. "Am I to go—now?" he asked.
"Yes—oh, please, yes!" she begged him, holding out her hands. "I am keyed up to bear it now. It might be different later. But—let us write to each other, Nick. I'll write little things every day—that I think and feel. Then, if they're worthy, I'll send them to you—once a month or so. Will you do the same?"
"And you'll take care of yourself—for me—won't you?"
He could not answer in words. He crushed her hands against his lips, and then, turning from her abruptly, walked away, without looking back.
* * * * *
It grew cold at Lake Tahoe. When weeks had passed, there was no excuse to stay: the plans of the architect were finished, and the new house begun. Angela went to Del Monte, and motored nearly every day to the forest on the peninsula to see how her home grew. She had not the old interest in thinking of it, but she was no longer unhappy, for she had not lost Nick Hilliard out of her life. She could almost feel the thrill of his thoughts. And at Del Monte she was much nearer Lucky Star City than she had been at Tahoe.
Sometimes she wondered if it would be very wrong and unwise to have him come to look at the house when it was finished. If, afterward, she could have the memory of him in the rooms, walking through them with her—just that, no more; and then going away—it would make all the difference between a live home and a dead house, or a house that never had really "come alive." But generally, when she had dreamed this dream, she said to herself, "Better not," or "It would never do."
One morning in October, just six months to the day after her coming to California, she read in a San Francisco paper—a mere tucked-away paragraph to fill up a corner—that the Italian amateur aeronaut, Prince di Sereno, had arranged a sensational flight from Naples to Algiers in his new aeroplane, an improvement on a celebrated older make. The machine had just been named the Vittoria in honour of the brave and beautiful lady whom he called his "mascot," and who had made so many daring journeys through the air with him. The projected dash would be the most ambitious so far attempted, and it was exciting considerable interest. It was said that Prince di Sereno, in gratitude to his "mascot" had lately made a will in her favour, leaving all his personal property to her. In event of death, his great estates would go to a nephew, as he was without a direct heir.
Angela wondered how much of her money was left for him to bequeath to the celebrated Vittoria di Cancellini. She did not grudge it either to the Prince or his mascot. She took no interest in the great flight from Naples to Algiers, but she felt certain that Paolo would succeed in accomplishing it. He had always succeeded in everything he had ever wanted to do, except perhaps in winning her love. But then he had not really wanted that.
The day came for the flight, but she had forgotten it. She went in the morning to the new house, picnicked there, and returned to Del Monte only at dusk. She was thinking on the way back of several things she would put in the diary she kept for Nick, sending it off to him in a fat envelope the first of each month. One bit of news she wanted to tell him was that his favourite flowers—pansies—were to be planted in a great bed under the windows of her own room. "Then, whenever I look out, I shall think of you. Not that I shouldn't do that anyway." She wondered if she had better add that last sentence, or if it would be better to leave it out.
"There's a telegram for you, Mrs. May; just this minute come," said the hotel clerk.
Angela took it, her heart beating fast, for whenever a telegram arrived—which happened seldom—she always wondered if it would tell her that, for some good reason or other, Nick was coming. But he never had come, and had never telegraphed.
She opened the envelope, and glanced first at the signature: "James Morehouse." Why should he have wired? Then she read:
"In flight to-day aeroplane fell into Sea off Sardinia. Aeronaut killed. Companion injured. Forgive abruptness. Wished get ahead of newspapers."
For a moment she felt absolutely unconcerned, as if reading of the death of some stranger aeronaut, of Japan or South America. Then:
"I hope you've not got bad news, Mrs. May?" a concerned voice was saying. She was vaguely conscious that the hotel clerk who had given her the telegram was hovering distressfully before her. She had been standing up when she began to read the message. Now she was sitting down. But her voice sounded quite calm and natural in her own ears as she answered, "No, thank you very much. A surprise—that is all. A great surprise."
"You are all right?"
"Nothing I can do for you?"
"Nothing, thanks. I will go up to my room."
* * * * *
Her first thought, when she could think connectedly, was to send her unfinished letter to Nick, with a few hastily scribbled words at the end—not about the pansies. And perhaps to enclose the telegram.
But she did neither. Two days passed before she sent the long diary letter, and when she did send it, nothing more had been written. She waited. She did not know what would happen. She did not even read the newspapers, though she knew there must be paragraphs, not tucked into corners, for this was, in a way, world's news. There had been "considerable interest."
On the third day she was given another telegram. This time the name at the bottom was the only name that could make her heart beat:
"I have seen what has happened. When will you let me come?"
He did not say "Will you let me come?" but "When." She thought if she did not answer soon he would come all the same. It seemed wonderful, unbelievable, that now there was no wrong, no cruelty, no terrible unwisdom in having him near her. But there was none. Even she could see none. So she telegraphed, not the immediate summons he hoped for and she was tempted to send him, but the message of her second thought. "Come; not yet, but on the day I have a home of my own to welcome you in. Till then, let me be alone with my thoughts of you."
* * * * *
The architect thought Mrs. May's impatience to get into her new house, and to have even the garden finished, a charming whim. As she seemed not to care how much money was spent, relays of men, many men, were put on to work night as well as day. Angela chose furniture in San Francisco, all made of beautiful California woods. "We shall have two homes," she thought. It was heavenly to say "we" again.
"You can have Christmas dinner at your own place," said the architect.
"Oh, but I want Christmas Eve there!" Angela exclaimed. "Of all things, I want Christmas Eve!"
"Very well, I promise you Christmas Eve," the architect answered, almost as if she were a child.
But she was not a child. She was a woman loving and longing. Always she had wanted to have a happy Christmas Eve, and she had never had one since Franklin Merriam died.
At last she wrote: "I am going to have a house-warming at Christmas-time: only five guests, and you, Nick, are the principal one. The others, are Mrs. Harland, Mr. Falconer and his bride, and little Miss Wilkins, your school-teacher at Lucky Star. Some day I'll tell you how we renewed our acquaintance."
Nick did not care to know. He wanted to be the only guest: yet somehow he felt that she did not mean to disappoint him. She meant him to be happy that day—the day of Christmas Eve, when she asked him to come to her—at last. But how could she contrive, with other guests, not to let it be a disappointment?
She contrived it by letting him arrive first at the beautiful new house, which was as like as possible, in miniature, to the Mission Inn where they had once "made-believe." They did not speak when they met. Their hearts were too full. There was no question, "Will you marry me?" No answer, "Yes, I am free to love you now." But when the others came, Angela said:
"Congratulate me. I am engaged to the best and dearest man on earth, and I—am the happiest woman."