"Eleanor," she said, "is that a flirtation starting, or do any of us know the two men in the corner—there under that beer sign."
Eleanor looked. Kate Waddington, her indirect gaze still on that corner table, saw the dark young man smile and bow effusively. She slipped a sidling glance at Eleanor Gray. Something curious, an intent look which seemed drawn to conceal a tumult within, had filmed itself over Eleanor's grey eyes. But she spoke steadily.
"Why, yes. I have met them both. They used to do summer work on the ranch when they were in college. I believe that the darker one—Mr. Chester—is in Uncle Edward's law office now. I haven't seen either of them since I went abroad."
"I should say that this Mr. Chester fancied you, from his expression."
"I suppose that he fancies every girl that he sees—from his expression."
Kate Waddington caught the shade of irritation, uncommon with Eleanor, and noted it in memory. Mrs. Masters, an eager little woman who grasped at everything about her like a child, broke in:
"If you know them, and they're really frequenters of the place, it would be fun to ask them over. Sydney used to dine here a great deal when he was young and poor, and he has such stories of the people he used to know then!"
Eleanor hesitated. Kate looked again toward Bertram, who was talking rapidly across his soup to Mark Heath, and:
"Do!" she murmured.
In that instant, Bertram himself cast the die. This had been the debate across the soup:
"I'm going over to speak to her," said Bertram.
"I shouldn't butt in," said Mark. "It's a balanced party."
"Oh, I shan't try to stay—coming along?" He did not wait to see whether or not Mark was following.
Miss Gray greeted him more cordially, altogether more sweetly, than she had ever done in their meetings on the ranch, and passed him about the circle for introductions. Noticing, then, that Mark had not followed, Bertram turned and beckoned with impatience. Mark crossed the room in some embarrassment.
"Is this your first visit to the Hotel Marseillaise?" asked Mrs. Masters. Mark hesitated; but Bertram laughed and beamed down on her from his brown eyes.
"Only about my two hundred and first," he said. "Mr. Heath and I dine here every night we haven't the price to dine anywhere else."
Masters, with that ready tact which he needed in order to live with Mrs. Masters, rushed into the breach.
"And I should call it about my four hundred and first," he said. "It's back to the old scenes for the night. I haven't tasted real cabbage soup since the last time—it has been a canned imitation. For goodness' sake join us and tell us the news!"
"Do!" said Miss Waddington with animation, and "Please," said those two escorts who do not figure in this story. Eleanor said nothing, but her expression was an invitation.
"Sure!" responded Bertram.
The Hotel Marseillaise had familiar customs of its own. For one thing, guests bothered the waiters as little as possible. Masters smiled when the two unconscious youths went back to their table, picked up the big soup tureen, their knives and forks, their plates, and transported them to the larger table.
They were dragging the lees of a rather squalid Bohemia, these two boys; a Bohemia the more real because they were unconscious in it. Its components were a cheap furnished room, restaurants like this, adventurous companionship in the underworld which thrust itself to the surface here and there in that master-port of the Saxon advance. Not for months had either of them been in the society of such women as these—women who preferred cleanliness to display, women who were nice about their nails and hair. A kind of pleasant shyness crept over Mark Heath; the spirit came into the face of Bertram Chester. Masters, tactician that he was, put the conversation into their hands. Presently, they were telling freely about the fare at Coffee John's, about their familiars and companions in the little Eddy-Street lodging house, about the drifters of the Latin quarter. They quite eclipsed the pale youth who was playing escort to Eleanor, and the substantial person in the insurance business who seemed to be responsible for Kate Waddington. Heath, speaking with a little diffidence and lack of assurance, had twice the wit, twice the eye for things, twice the illumination of Bertram Chester; yet it was the latter who brought laughter and attention. His personality, which surrounded him like an aroma, his smile, his trick of the eyes—one listened to Bertram Chester.
* * * * *
When the son of Louis brought in the little sweet oranges and arranged the goblets for black coffee, talk shifted from monologue to dialogue. Eleanor found herself talking to Bertram. A kind of pride had been rising in her all the evening; a pride born in recoil from her latest recollection of him. The episode of that night under the bay tree had gone with her clear across the Atlantic. Even the influence of the wholly new environment, in which she had grown from a girl recluse to a woman, had not served for a long time to erase that ugly stain on her memory. Here and now was the man who served so to perturb her once—and she could look on him, with her more mature eyes, as an attractive, unlicked young cub. She surprised herself taking revenge upon the past by a hidden patronage. At once, then, she fell to talking of Europe and the splendors she had lived there.
"This reminds me of the places one slips into abroad," she said, "Mr. and Mrs. Wark—Lars Wark you know—took me to just such an old ruin in Paris. We dined for thirty centimes, I remember, but it was no better than this. I've had to go away to know my native city. That is the thing which strikes you when you come back—San Francisco is so like the Latin cities of Europe, and yet so unlike!"
Kate leaned across her insurance man.
"The Society for the Narration of European Travel is in session, Mr. Chester," she said. "I know the joy that Eleanor is having. It was the passion of my life after I first got back from abroad."
"Oh, I eat it alive," said Bertram. "I'm strong for seeing Paris." He turned back to Eleanor; and her double embarrassment drove her on.
"Such a good time as I had with the Warks—their studio in Munich, where I met all the German long-haired artists—a run to Paris in the season—the dearest little village on the Coast of Brittany last summer—and three weeks in incomparable London at the end. I haven't thought of the ranch for a year and a half—Uncle Edward pays me the compliment of saying that my profits fell off twenty per cent. under Olsen's management—oh, isn't she a dear!"
For Madame Loisel, wearing a beaming and affable manner, had come through the door and approached their table. Madame made it a point of business honor to promote personal relations with her regular guests, asking Jean how he liked the fish, assuring Jacques that the soup would be better to-morrow. This visit of hers to the slumming party came after a storm in the kitchen, whose French thunders had reached the dining room now and then. Louis, the conservative, hated slummers and dreaded being "discovered." He ran a restaurant as a social institution as well as a business venture. Madame Loisel, with her eye on the cash register, longed ardently for slummers who would give large tips to Louis the younger, order expensive wines, and put the Marseillaise on the way to a twenty-five cent table d'hote dinner. From that kitchen squabble, recurrent whenever slummers visited them, Madame Loisel swept in haughty determination, leaving Louis to take it out on the pots. As she approached the table, all the charm of France illuminated her smile.
She invariably paid slummers the compliment of addressing them in French.
"Bonsoir—le souper, plait-il vous?" she asked.
Eleanor took her up in fluent French, and the talk sparkled back and forth between them—reminiscences of this or that restaurant on the boulevards which Madame Loisel had known in her youth and which Eleanor had visited. Bertram, his mouth open, followed that talk as though summoning all his Sophomore French to match a word here and there. Kate Waddington, leaning again across her insurance man, was the first to break in.
"I myself used to be keen on French when I came back from Europe, but I'm out of practice. Please excuse me, Madame, if I speak English. How can you do it at this price?"
"It is kind of you to say so, Mademoiselle—economy and honesty."
Masters patted Mark Heath on the knee.
"We can't let you fellows go away from us now. One doesn't get guides to the Latin quarter for nothing. Take us somewhere, Mr. Heath—unless you're working to-night."
"No, virtue has been rewarded," said Mr. Heath. "I'm off to-night as a testimonial of esteem from the City Editor. What shall it be?"
Bertram Chester, taking up the talk again, laid out Kearney Street like a bill of fare. Mrs. Masters, casting her vote as chaperone, chose the Marionette Theatre tucked away under the shadow of the Broadway Jail.
As Eleanor stepped out into California Street, gathering her coat about her against a night which had come up windy and raw, Bertram took her side with a proprietary air. She turned toward her appointed escort. It happened that he was walking ahead with Heath just then, holding an argument about the drift of Montgomery Street when it was the water front. For several blocks, then, Bertram had her alone. It seemed to her that he began just where he left off two years or more ago.
"You're even prettier than you used to be," he said caressingly; "you've bully eyes. I think I told you that before."
This time, she looked him full in the face and smiled easily.
"Have I? Well I hope you don't mind my saying that they're resting on a bonny sight!"
Somewhat taken aback by the directness of this answer, so different from the artificial coyness of the girls he knew best in that period of his life, Bertram turned in his course.
"You're joshing me," he said.
"Truly I'm not. You are good to look at—eyes and all."
Although balked of his opening, Bertram tried again.
"Well your mouth is just as good as your eyes."
The same quick look into his face, and the same smile, as she answered:
"Yours is a little better if anything. It is not only well formed, but it becomes delicious when you smile, and it has most attractive shadows in the corners."
"Suppose we talk sense," grumbled Bertram.
"Suppose we do; I know you can." They both laughed at this, and all the way up Kearney Street she continued her chatter of Europe. Lars Wark, who had known her mother, had done everything for her. It had been very different from the regular tour; she came back ignorant of all the show places from Cologne Cathedral to the Tower. But it had been her privilege to see and meet wonderful people. They would not do for regular companionship, such people. They struck one, in the end, as goblins and trolls; but it had been an experience of a lifetime—while it lasted. The Warks had taken her to places which the tourist never sees—lost villages in the Black Forest, undiscovered corners of London, even.
After a little of this, she drew him on to speak of himself. She had heard news of him, she said, from her uncle, who said that he was doing well and gave promise of a future in the law. How long had he remained on the ranch that summer? This reference put him back into his presumptive mood.
"You went away without giving me a chance to say good-bye," he complained. "I never saw you again after the party on the lawn."
Her tongue ran away with her.
"I saw you, though," she said.
"Oh, at a distance." He caught nothing from her tone, yet a slight change did come into her manner, as though something had been drawn between them. Then her escort fell in on the other side of Eleanor, appropriating her by right and by consent of her attitude.
Now they were in Broadway, skirting the small bake-shops, the dark alleys, all the picture scenes of the Latin quarter. At that very moment, Miss Waddington drew a little apart from the group clustering about Masters and Mark Heath. An Italian baby of three, too late out of bed, stood by a cellar rail surveying them with the liquid fire which was his eyes. Kate Waddington stooped to pat his head. As she raised herself, she was beside Bertram. Nothing more natural than that she should fall in, step by step, beside him. He caught step with her, but he still looked toward Eleanor.
"Wonderful girl, isn't she?" asked Kate.
"She sure is."
"Her mother," said Kate, "had more wit than any other woman in San Francisco—and the men she had!"
"I think Eleanor has inherited that at any rate," she added after a pause.
They had reached the door of the Marionette Theatre now. Afterward they drank beer at Norman's; and when they broke up, Bertram Chester found himself with three invitations to call.
* * * * *
Kate Waddington spent that night with Eleanor Gray in the Tiffany House on Russian Hill. While they sat before the fireplace, in the half-hour of loosened hair and confidences, Eleanor broke a minute of silence with the inquiry:
"What did you think of him?" An instant after she let slip this impersonal inquiry, she would have given gold to recall it. And if she had any hope that Kate Waddington had missed the point, it died in her when Kate answered in an indifferent tone:
"He? Oh, he seems to me to be a little promiscuous."
The Tiffany house—I spare you full description—rambled with many a balcony and addition over that hill which rose like a citadel above San Francisco. From its Southern windows, one looked clean over the city, lying outspread below. Even the Call building, highest eminence piled up by man in that vista, presented its roof to the eye. I can picture that site no better than by this; Over Judge Tiffany's front wall hung an apple tree, gnarled, convoluted, by the buffets of the sea wind. In autumn, when the fruit was ripe, stray apples from this tree had been seen to tumble from the wall and roll four blocks down into the Latin quarter.
From the rear, the house looked out on a hedged and sloping garden, quite old, as gardens go in that land, for a pioneer planted it; and from the rear gate of that garden it was only a step to the hill mount. Thence one came out suddenly to the panorama of the Bay, stretching on three sides; a panorama divided, as by the false panels of a mural landscape, into three equal marvels. To left, the narrow gate, a surge like the rush of a river always in its teeth and the bright ocean, colored like smelt-scales, beyond. In front the Roads, where all strange crafts from the mysterious Pacific anchored while they waited their turns at the docks. Both in foreground and background, this panel changed day by day. It might be whalers from the Arctic which lay there in the morning, their oils making noisome the breeze; it might be a fleet of beaten, battered tramp wind-jammers, panting after their fight about the Horn; it might be brigs from the South Seas; it might be Pacific steamers, Benicia scow-schooners, Italian fishing smacks, Chinese junks—it might be any and all of these together. As for the background, that changed not every day but every hour what with the shifts of wind, tide and mists. Now its tinge was a green-gold betraying pollution of those mountain placers which fed the San Joaquin and the mighty Sacramento. Now it was blue and ruffled, now black and calm, now slate-gray,—a mysterious shade this last, so that when the fog began to shoot lances across the waters, these fleets at anchor by Quarantine wharf seemed argosies of fairy adventure. Even Tamalpais, the gentle mountain which rose beyond everything, changed ever with the change in her veil of mist or fog or rain-rift. The third panel, lying far to the right, showed first dim mountain ranges and the mouths of mighty rivers, and then, nearer by, masts, stacks and shipping, fringing the city roofs.
North into this garden ran a small wing of the Tiffany house. Upon the death of Alice Gray, Mattie Tiffany had set it apart for Eleanor the baby. When, after her years with Billy Gray, Eleanor came back, Mattie had refurnished it for the grown baby. The upper story held her bedroom and her closets. Below was her own particular living-room. This opened by a vine-bordered door into the garden, into that path which led up to the bay view.
* * * * *
Judge Tiffany, sitting within the front window to watch the shimmer of a pleasant Sunday afternoon on the city roofs below, perceived that his wife had walked three times to that garden wall which looked down along the drop of Broadway to the Spanish Church.
The second time that he perceived this phenomenon, his eyes showed interest; the third he smiled with inner satisfaction and rose to meet her return as though by accident. He was leaning upon a cane, getting ease of the sciatica which plagued him.
The Judge had aged during the two years since he opened these events. He had settled now into the worldly state of a man who rests content with the warming sun and the bright air which feed life. But the inner soul, whose depth was his philosophy, whose surface his whimsical humor—that still burned in his dark blue eyes. Those eyes glistened a little as he went on to this, his daily sport.
He met her on the piazza. She had raked the rise of Broadway, which one mounted by two blocks of hen-coop sidewalks; and now she was inspecting the cross street.
"All the Sherlock Holmes in me," said Judge Tiffany, "tells me that Miss Eleanor Gray is going to have a caller, and that Mrs. Edward C. Tiffany is in a state of vicarious perturbation.
"Further," continued Judge Tiffany, dropping his hand upon her arm with that affectionate gesture which drew all sting his words might have carried, "this is no common caller. For that young civil engineer and Mr. Perham the painter and Ned Greene, Mrs. Tiffany never blushes; but these new attentions to her niece—well, I hope my approach drew as much blood from her heart to her countenance twenty-five years ago!"
"I—I am perturbed," said Mattie Tiffany. Running rose-bushes, just leafing out into their fall greenery, overgrew the pillars beside her. These she fell to pruning with her hands, so that she turned away her face.
"I see that discipline is relaxing in this family," said Judge Tiffany. "Dear, dear, after managing a wife bravely and well for a quarter century, to fail in one's age! Mattie, he works in my office, this blush-compelling caller; and I told you when I gave him the position not to take him up socially for the present!"
"But what was I to do when he telephoned to Eleanor and asked her?" Mrs. Tiffany turned her head with a turn of her thought. "Did you hear him telephone—was that how you knew?"
"I'd lose all hold on discipline if I revealed my methods."
Judge Tiffany settled himself in an armchair as one prepared to make it a long session. "Let's begin at the start. How came he to renew his acquaintance with Eleanor, and when, and where—and how much had Mattie Tiffany to do with bringing them together again?"
"Not a thing—truly Edward! Some of Eleanor's slumming with Kate Waddington and the Masters—they met by accident at a restaurant—Eleanor asked him. You remember he was taken with her that afternoon just before she went to Europe—the time he mortified me so dreadfully."
"And the time he attracted my attention," said Judge Tiffany. "And now behold that youth, who will always get what he wants by frontal attack, reading my California cases and wearing out my desk with his feet."
"Do you think he will make a good lawyer?" asked Mattie Tiffany. She turned full around at this, and the glance she threw into her husband's face showed more than a casual matchmaker's interest.
"He'll make a good something," said the Judge. "So far as anyone can judge the race from the start. But that isn't why I have him in the office. You know how little I care in these days for such practice as I have left. I tell myself, of course, that it is my lingering interest in life as a general proposition which made me do it—I am curious to see before I die how this find of yours is coming out. That is what I tell myself. Probably in my very inside heart I know that it's something else."
"What else?" asked Mattie.
"This is one of the hidden things which this experiment is to discover," said Judge Tiffany. "What made me notice him in the first place? What made you invite him to tea on the lawn? What has made you and me and Eleanor remember this chance meeting so long—let me see—how long was it?"
"A year ago last June," said Mattie. One of her functions in their partnership was to hold small details always ready to the hand of the wide-thinking Judge.
"Will he go back on me—that's the question," pursued the Judge. "Success is probably at the end for him, but he has two ways of success open. He may go slowly and well, or fast and ill. Road number one: he stays with my moth-eaten old practice, he refurbishes it, he earns a partnership; and so to conservative clients and, probably, to genuine success." He hesitated.
"And the other road?" asked Mrs. Tiffany.
"Oh, that has many by-paths. He is trying one of them already. The stealthy, invaluable Attwood has told me about it. This Mr. Chester has made an investment in Richmond lots on information which he had no right to use. Never mind the details. If he follows that general direction, it will be a flashy success, a pretty worm-eaten crown of laurels."
"Like Northrup's," broke in Mrs. Tiffany. That name always jarred on their ears. Northrup, ex-congressman, flowery Western orator, all Christian love on the surface, all guile beneath—he had taken to himself that success which Judge Tiffany might have had but for his hesitations of conscience. Theirs was a secret resentment. Judge Tiffany's pride would never have let him show the world one glimmer of what he felt.
"Suppose he should follow that path—and take up with Northrup," went on Judge Tiffany. "Mine honorable opponent has use for such young men as our Mr. Chester will prove himself if he follows that path—magnetic young men to coax the rabble, young men not too nice on moral questions. Well, a boy isn't born with honor, any more than he's born with courage; he grows to it. And God only knows just when the boy strikes the divide which will turn his course one way or the other."
"But Edward, you ought to warn him!"
"In the first place, it would do no good to warn one of his age and temperament. In the second place, it would spoil the experiment—but I had commanded you to talk, and here I am doing it all. How looked she; what said he?"
"To-day—just before church—I was hooking up Kate and Eleanor, and he telephoned."
"Instinct, of course, informing you that it was none other than he at the other end of the wire?" On another tongue and in another fashion of speech, this sentence might have been offensive; between them, it was a part of his perpetual game with her amiable weaknesses.
"If I did listen, it was no more than right. It was what a mother would have done by Eleanor. I heard her say, 'Good morning Mr. Chester,' not at all as though she were surprised to have him call up; and I was really quite disturbed. You had told me not to invite him here for the present; and I hadn't the slightest reason for knowing that Eleanor had seen him since she came back from abroad. Her speaking so familiarly—well, I wondered. But Kate—"
"Oh, she was listening too?"
"Well, I know that she hadn't the excuse for listening that I had; but I had stopped hooking her up, and it was only natural that she should listen too. Eleanor said, 'Certainly I shall be in,' and Kate said, 'That's the old friend we met with Mr. Masters last night in the Hotel Marseillaise. He is prompt!' Rather sharp in Kate, considering what Eleanor has been doing for her!
"You'd have thought Eleanor had eaten the canary bird when she came back. Of course, she knew we had been listening. I wish she hadn't. I'd have liked to see whether she'd have told us then, or waited for him to surprise us. Kate was sharp again. I wonder if she isn't envious at bottom? After all Eleanor is so much more a lady! Kate said again, 'The young man is prompt!'"
Judge Tiffany laughed.
"Oh, that women could dwell together in peace and harmony! Can't you grant my playmate Miss Waddington a feminine jab or two?"
"Well, she is nice to you!"
"Did it never occur to you as a virtue in her that she puts herself out to entertain—even, Madame, I flatter myself to fancy—a withered old codger like me!"
Mrs. Tiffany's first expression flooded her eyes and said, "Is there anything strange in liking you?" Her second expression set her mouth hard and said, "What is her object?" Her voice said nothing.
"And behold him now," said Judge Tiffany.
There, indeed, came Bertram Chester, visible over their garden wall as he toiled up the hen-coop sidewalk. The Judge returned to the house; Mattie Tiffany settled herself on the piazza with the preen and flutter of a female thing about to be wooed.
The Tiffany drawing-room, panelled simply in woods, furnished with the old Sturtevant mahogany, came upon Bertram Chester like a stage setting as he entered with Mrs. Tiffany. Upstage, burned a driftwood fire in a low hearth of rough bricks; Judge Tiffany sat there, in a spindle-backed chair, reading. Across a space broken only by a painting, a Japanese print or so, and more spindle-backed chairs, Eleanor and Kate had grouped themselves by the piano. Eleanor, turning the leaves on the music-rack, looked over her shoulder at him. She was in pink that day; the tint of her gown, blending into the tint of her fresh skin, contrasted magically with the subdued background. Kate, all in white, sat on a hassock pulling a volume from the low book shelf. All this came upon Bertram with a soothing sense which he did not understand in that stage of his development, did not even formulate.
Kate, tripping across the rugs with a lightness which perfectly balanced her weight, greeted him first; Eleanor and Judge Tiffany shook hands with more reserve. And as Bertram settled himself in an arm-chair before the fire, it was the ready Kate who put him at his ease by opening fire of conversation.
"Did I tell you, Mrs. Tiffany, about the restaurant which Mr. Chester found for us last night? such an evening he gave us! Mr. Chester, who is Madame Loisel—you should have seen her, Judge Tiffany—you'd never dine at home again. When these young charms fade, I'm going to marry a French restaurant-keeper and play hostess to the multitude and be just plump and precious like her. How can you ever get past the counter with her behind it, Mr. Chester?"
"I'm generally hungry—that's how!" said Bertram Chester.
"That's man for you!" responded Kate. "Judge beloved, if you were a young man and Eleanor—I'm too modest to mention myself, you see—were what she'll be at forty, and she were behind a counter, and you before it, would hunger tear you away? Oh dear, it's such a bore to keep one's grammar straight!"
"I ask my wife's permission before giving the answer which is in my heart," said Judge Tiffany.
Eleanor broke into the laugh which followed.
"But I would like to know about Madame Loisel."
"Well, she's certainly a ripe pippin; you've seen that," answered Bertram, his smile on Eleanor. "And I'd like to know what she's saying when she parleys French to the garcons. She's all right if she's feeling right, but I've seen her tear the place up when the service went bad. I guess she's a square and a pretty good fellow!"
"Tell us more about her—" this from Eleanor.
"About her squareness? Well, there was the time Gentle Willie Purdy got drunk. We call him Gentle Willie because he isn't, you know. About three o'clock in the morning, he took the notion it was dinner time and climbed the side gate to the Hotel Marseillaise and pounded at the door. He faded out about then, he says. When he woke up, he was laid out on a couch, with a towel on his head, and Madame was bringing him black coffee. He tried to thank her after he felt better; and what do you think she said? 'Meester Purdy, nevaire, nevaire come to eat in thees place again.' She stayed with it too!"
"Good for her!" said Mrs. Tiffany, reaching for her crewel work.
"Oh, yes," responded Mr. Chester in the uncertain tone of one who gives assent for politeness without knowing exactly why.
"If I ever depart from the straight and narrow paths and get drunk, may I have Madame Loisel to hold my head," cried Kate.
The talk ran, then, into conventional channels—the news, the latest novel, and the season's picking at the ranch. Judge Tiffany dropped out gradually, and resumed his book; and more and more did Bertram direct his talk, salted and seasoned with his magnetism, toward Eleanor. Kate Waddington, left out of the conversation through three or four exchanges, crossed the room and draped herself on a hassock at the feet of Judge Tiffany.
"Judge darling," she said in an aside which penetrated to the furthest corner of the room, "I'm going back to my unsympathetic home before tea. Don't you think we're well enough chaperoned to go on with our flirtation just where we left off?"
"Where was I when we were interrupted?" asked Judge Tiffany, leaning forward.
"Twenty-fourth page, fifth chapter," said Kate. "I was just getting you jealous and you were trying not to show it. Mr. Chester—oh excuse me—well, I've broken in now, so I might as well get the reward of my impoliteness—may I use you to make Judge Tiffany jealous?"
"Sure you can!" answered Bertram.
"Oh, he won't do at all!" Kate was addressing Judge Tiffany again. "He's entirely too eager. Who would be a good rival anyway, Judge adored? Let's create one, like the picture of your future husband in a nickel vaudeville!"
"Eleanor," spoke Mrs. Tiffany, "suppose you show Mr. Chester your end of the house and our garden—or would you like it, Mr. Chester? We're rather proud of the garden."
"I'd like it," answered Bertram; and he rose instantly. Mrs. Tiffany made no move to accompany them; she sat bent over her yarns, her ears open. And she noticed, at the moment when Bertram made that abrupt movement from his chair, how Kate hesitated in the middle of a sentence, as though confused.
The rehearsed flirtation between Kate and Judge Tiffany faded into a game of jackstones on the floor.
Mrs. Tiffany heard the double footsteps fade down the hall, heard the garden door open and close. After a short interval, she heard the door again, and the dim footsteps sounded for but a moment. They had turned, evidently, into Eleanor's own living room. Would they stop there, these two, for a talk—yes, her gentle treble, his booming bass, drifted down the hall. Presently Mrs. Tiffany heard Eleanor's laugh, followed by his. In that instant, she looked at the jackstone players by the hearth. Kate, on the crackle of that laugh, had arrested all motion. A jack which she had tossed in the air, descended with no hand to stop it. For a moment, Kate held that intent pose; then,
"Judge wonderful, I'm a paralytic at times. You for twosies." She swept the jacks towards him with one of her characteristic gestures, free and yet deft.
A bell rang in the outer hall, and the maid entered.
"Miss Waddington is wanted at the telephone," she announced.
Eleanor, when she saw that her visitor had no intention of rejoining the party, commanded him to smoke. He rolled a cigarette, Western fashion, from powdered tobacco and brown paper, and disposed himself in the window-seat, one leg drawn up under him, his big shoulders settled comfortably against the wall. Eleanor began to talk fluently, superficially, with animation. She felt from the first that he was throwing himself against her barriers, trying to reach at once the deeper stages of acquaintance. His direct look seemed both to plead and to command. She outwitted two or three flanking movements before he took advantage of a pause and charged her entrenchments direct.
"I've said it before, but I'm going to keep on. You are pretty."
"Thank you," she replied; and smiled—mainly at the ingenuousness of this, although partly at the contrast between her present view of him and that old memory.
"Oh, it never seems to bother you when I say that," went on Bert Chester, bending his rather large and compelling black-brown eyes upon her. "Some girls would get sore, and some would like it; you never pay any attention. That's one of the ways you're different."
("Heavens—is he making love already—he is sudden!" thought Eleanor with amusement.)
"You are, you know. I picked you for different the first time I saw you. I wondered then if you were beautiful—I always knew you had nice eyes—and it isn't so much that you've changed, as that the longer a man looks at you the prettier you are."
"Shall we discuss other things than me?" asked Eleanor.
"Why shouldn't we talk about you? I've never had a chance before—just think, it's the first time ever I saw you alone—even that time on the ranch a bull chaperoned us!" This minor joke, like every play of his spirit, gained a hundred times its own inherent effect by sifting through his personality. She smiled back to his smile at the boyish ripples about his mouth and eyes.
"You see, it means a lot when a girl sticks in a man's mind that way," he continued. "Why, I've carried you around right through my Senior year at college and my first year out. So of course, it must mean something."
The open windows of Eleanor's bower looked out upon a bay tree, a little thing awaiting its slaughter—for shade trees might not grow too near the windows in San Francisco. It was flopping its lance-leaves against the panes; puffs of the breeze brought in a suggestion of its pungency. That magic sense, so closely united with memory—it brought back a faint impression upon her. Her very panic at this ghost of old imaginations inspired the inquiry, barbed and shafted with secret malice:
"How many really nice girls have you known in that time?"
Bertram, sitting in considerable comfort on the window seat, flashed his eyes across his shoulder to her.
"Oh, a few in my Senior year, not many this year. What's a man going to do on twelve a week?" She noticed the indelicacy of this, since he spoke in the house of his employer. But the next sentence from him was even more startling:
"The last time I was in love was down in High School at Tulare. She's married a fellow in the salt business now. I guess she was pretty: anyway, her hair was the color of molasses candy. I wrote a poem to her the first day I saw her."
"A poem?" asked Eleanor.
"You do well to ask that," said Bertram, throwing on one of those literary phrases by which, in the midst of his plain, Anglo-Saxon speech, he was recalling that he was a university man. "It rhymed, after a fashion."
"You don't know how to be in love until you're older," he went on.
("Even that bay scent brings up only wonder, not emotion; and I can laugh at him all the way," she thought. Yet in this tiny triumph Eleanor was not entirely happy. The vision, a little disturbing, a little shameful, but yet sweet, was quite gone.)
"Tell me about this girl with the molasses hair. She interests me. And a lot about yourself."
"Oh, I've forgotten most about her long ago. And I've something else to remember now, I hope. I'd like to talk about myself, though. I'd like some girl to hear about my ambitions. I really think it would do me good."
He stopped, as though expecting an answer. None came. He bent his eyes closer on her and repeated:
And at that moment, a pair of high heels tapped in the doorway, a cheerful voice called for admission through the portieres, and enter Kate Waddington. Mr. Chester, Eleanor saw, rose to her entrance as one who has not always risen for women; there was something premeditated about the movement.
"Mrs. Tiffany said you two were in here," she began in her full, rich contralto, "and I made so bold, Nell—Mrs. Masters is taking a party over to their ranch next Sunday. One of her men has disappointed her and she's just telephoned to give me the commission to fill his place. Mr. Chester, you are an inspiration sent straight from Heaven. Any other man, positively any other, would be a second choice—but she didn't know you when she made up the party, so how could she have invited you?"
She paused and threw an arch look past Eleanor.
"Sure I'll come!" said Bertram, jarred into the vernacular by his internal emotion of pleasant surprise. "Sure—I'd be delighted."
"I told Mrs. Masters you'd be the ready accepter," said Kate.
"You're going too, aren't you?" asked Bertram of Eleanor.
"No; I had to decline, I'm sorry to say."
"And I'm sorry; blame sorry." He turned back toward Kate Waddington, and she, the lightning-minded, read his expression. He had made a great faux pas; he had seemed more eager toward Eleanor, to whom he owed no gratitude for the invitation, than toward her.
"Would you care to drop in on Mrs. Masters as you go down town to let her know that you are coming? Or if you wish I'll tell them—I'm going now—that way." Her tone gave the very slightest hint of pique; her attitude put a suggestion. The game, plain as day to Eleanor, raised up in her only a film of resentment. Mainly, she was enjoying the humor of it.
Bertram rose promptly.
"It is time I was going," he said. "I've enjoyed myself very much, Miss Gray. If you don't mind, I'd like to come to see you again."
"And I'll get into my things," said Kate.
They all moved toward the door.
Kate passed first; then Eleanor. There hung beside the door-casing a hook, designed to hold the portiere cord. Eleanor brushed too close; it caught in the lace at her throat. She pulled up with a jerk, gave a little cry; the lace held fast. She turned—in the wrong direction.
Bertram saw this tiny accident; he sprang forward, caught the lace, disentangled her. And to do so, he must reach about her so that his arms, never quite touching her, yet surrounded her as a circle surrounds its centre. She turned and looked up to thank him, surprised him, surprised herself, in that position.
And a wave which was fear and loathing and longing and agitation ran over her with the speed of an electric current, and left her weak.
Her face, with its own sweet inscrutability, showed little change of expression; but he caught a dullness and then a glitter of her eye, a heave of her bosom, a catch of her breath. As he stood there, his great frame towering above her, something which she feared might be comprehension came into his eyes. And—
"You make a picture—you two there!" called Kate Waddington from without. The transitory expression in his eyes—Eleanor saw it now with triumph—was that of one who has thrown a pearl away. But he followed.
* * * * *
Dining with Mark Heath in the Hotel Marseillaise that night, Bertram fell into a spell of musing, a visible melancholy uncommon in him; for his ill-humors, like his laughters, burned short and violent. Mark Heath—by this time he was growing into a point of view on his chum and room mate—remarked it with some amusement and more curiosity.
Mark was casting about for an opening, when Bertram anticipated him. Staring into the dingy wall of the Hotel Marseillaise, past the laborers, the outcasts, the French cabmen purring over their cabbage soup, he said in a tone of musings:
"When Bert Chester grows up and gets rich, he'll take unto himself a wife. We'll live in a big house in the Western Addition with a bay frontage. It will be furnished with dinky old dull stuff, and those swell Japanese prints and paintings. And I'll have two autos and a toy ranch in the country to play with. We'll give little dances in the big hall downstairs. I'll lead the opening dance with the missus, and then I'll just take a dance or so with the best looking girls—the ones I take a special cotton to. I'll have my home sweet home dance with the missus—" he fell again to musing.
"A man up a tree," said Mark Heath, "would say you were in love."
"I'll be damned—I wonder if that ain't the matter?" said Bertram Chester.
The Ferry, doorway to San Francisco, wore its holiday Sunday aspect as Bertram Chester approached it. A Schuetzen Park picnic was gathering itself under the arches, to the syncopated tune of a brass band. The crowd blazed with bright color. The young men, in white caps, yellow sashes of their mysterious fraternity, and tinted neckties like the flowers of spring, lolled and larked and smoked about the pillars. Fat mothers and stodgy fathers fussed over baskets and progeny. Young girls, in white dresses and much trimming of ribbons, coquetted in groups as yet unbroken by the larking young men. Over these ceremonial white dresses of the Sunday picnic, they wore coats and even furs against the damp, penetrating morning—rather late in the season it was for picnics. In the rests of the ragtime, rose the aggressive crackle of that flat, hard accent, with its curious stress on the "r," which would denote to a Californian in Tibet the native of South of Market, San Francisco.
Bertram Chester, had he been accustomed to spare any of his powers for introspective imagination, might have beheld his crossroads, his turning point, in this passage through the South of Market picnic to the little group waiting, by the Sausalito Ferry, to take him to the Masters ranch. But a month ago, he himself had whistled up that infatuated little milliner's apprentice who was his temporary light of love, and had taken her over to Schuetzen Park of a Sunday. He had drunk his beer and shaken for his round of drinks with the boys, had taken the girl away from a young butcher, had fought and conquered the bookmaker's clerk who tried to take away the milliner's apprentice from him, and had gone home, when the day was done, with his head buried on that soft curve of the feminine shoulder which was made to receive tired male heads.
Now, without a backward look, he was walking toward Sydney Masters, Mrs. Masters, the sprightly and dainty Kate Waddington, and those others, grouped about them, who might be guides and companions on his new way.
Kate Waddington had acquainted him in advance with the party, so that the introductions brought no surprises. That young-old man with the sharp little face was Harry Banks, mine owner, millionaire, and figure about town—every one in San Francisco knew him or knew about him. That tall, swaying girl with the repressed mouth, the abundant hair coiled about her head, the rather dull expression, was Marion Slater—"she paints miniatures and hammers brass and does all kinds of art stunts," Kate had said. That tall young man, who radiated good manners, was Dr. Norman French; that little woman, all girl, was Alice Needham, his fiancee. "They play juvenile lead in this crowd," had been Kate's phrase for them.
Kate, taking possession of Bertram at once, gave him her bag to carry, and, as the gates opened and the whistle blew, she walked beside him. From the upper deck, this Masters party watched that city panorama, spread on the hills for all to see, roll away from them, the wheeling flocks of gulls trailing the craft in the roads, the surge of golden waters rolling in from the Gate. A morning mood blew in upon the winds; the party became gay.
Bertram, in the rise of his morning spirits, performed certain cub-like gambols for the benefit of Kate Waddington. The company failed not to notice that he had assisted her up the gangway by slipping his hand under her elbow. On the deck, he cut her out immediately from the rest, insisted on tucking her veil into his pocket, made a pretence of trying to take her hand. Even Kate found it hard to parry these advances. Banks, slouching back on a bench in his easy, indolent attitude, looked over toward them, and his mouth tightened and set. So much had he been courted for his wealth and personality, this Harry Banks, that among his familiars he assumed the privilege of falling into moods without reason or preliminary notice. His present mood was a perverse one; and he took it out on its reason for being—this presumptuous outsider.
"Me Gawd, Jimmie, but me belt hurts!" he called out suddenly in his richest imitation of the South of Market dialect. With his light step of a dancer, he skipped over to Kate Waddington, whirled her to her feet, and began to waltz about the forward deck, imitating the awkward, contorted, cheek-to-cheek style of the Schuetzen Park picnic. Kate, who fell in at once with every invitation, had laughed as he began to whirl her, but she flushed too. The whole upper deck was craning necks to stare. Mrs. Masters caught her breath and whispered, "Oh, don't!" Dr. French and Alice Needham fell to talking apart, as though repudiating, in their embarrassment, such company. Marion Slater, sitting at ease on her bench, cast one glance at Harry Banks as he whirled to face her. His eyes fell; on the next turn, he waltzed Kate back to her seat. The relationship between these two was a puzzle to their familiars. He, the uncaught bachelor, the flaneur, the epicurean, he who lived for his pleasures, taking them with a calculated moderation that he might preserve the power to enjoy; she, the etiolated, the subtle, the earnest follower of art, she who seemed always a little too earnest and conventional for that group of the frivolous and unconventional rich—people had wondered for years how there could be anything between them. These two alone understood that the bond was of the mind, not of the flesh or the spirit. She but thought, and he thought with her; she but lifted her eyebrow or moved her hand, and the motion translated itself to speech in his mind. That glance of her had made his mind say, "I am making them all ridiculous."
And, like the spoiled child that he was, he ceased from one naughtiness only to plunge into another and worse one. As Kate dropped to the bench, he looked at Bertram and said:
"You try it; I am a little rusty." One of his rare embarrassments flamed into the face of Bertram Chester. The shot had gone more truly than Harry Banks could have known.
"No, thank you," Bertram said simply, and flushed again.
Masters spoke up from his corner:
"Well, Chester, you ought to be a good dancer if build counts—though I shouldn't like to have you showing off your accomplishment right here—you might lack the public finish of the Banks style. You big football fellows always have the call on the little men in dancing. It is a matter of bulk and base, I think." The ferry boat was passing Alcatraz now, and the populace had turned its attention away from Harry Banks and his party. The spoiled child kept straight ahead.
"They make real, ball-room gents," he said. He turned toward Marion on this; turned as though he could not keep his look away. She lifted her eyebrow again, and he fell into a sulky silence.
The others rushed to the first refuge of tact—personalities. After a moment, Banks joined the talk; and then appeared another aspect of his perverse mood. He took the conversation into his own hands, and he talked of nothing which could by any chance include Bertram Chester, the callow newcomer, the outsider. It was all designed to show, it did show, how intimate they were, how many old things they had in common—never a passage in which Bertram could join by any excuse. Even so did Banks direct it as to draw Kate Waddington into the talk. Bertram sat apart, then, his face showing all his displeasure. His straight brows set themselves in a frown, which he bent sometimes at the group volleying personalities at Harry Banks, and sometimes on the terraced hills of Sausalito.
When they trooped off with the crowd, Kate fell in beside Bertram again. Lagging deliberately, she let a group of picnickers come in between them and the rest of their party. He was still frowning.
"I'd like to soak that man," he said. "Maybe I will."
"No you won't!" said she.
"Won't I?" he replied.
"Oh, don't think I haven't seen it all. He was horrid. You see, we've got used to him. You're meeting him new, and you don't quite understand him yet."
"Well, I'm going to spend no sleepless nights trying!"
"He's really very clever and kind, at bottom. You'll come to like him as we all do. And he's a man that it's good for you to know."
Bertram seemed to be considering this.
"Well, what did he mean, anyway?" he snapped.
"Nothing. It's just his foolery. We all had to take it from him at first—and then we came to appreciate him."
Bertram answered with an impatient gesture. Kate caught his arm, held it for just a second.
"Now, you wouldn't spoil my day, would you?" she asked softly. "You know I'm responsible for you—"
His frown melted into his smile.
"Sure, if you put it like that!"
"Now, you're a sensible, accommodating, self-restrained lad, and every other adjective in Samuel Smiles. You could charm the buttons off a policeman—and you'll see how really nice he can be."
"You'll take out time until I get over my grouch?"
"Of course." They were approaching Masters and Dr. French, who stood waiting by the train platform. "Late and happy!" she called.
Harry Banks, walking ahead beside Marion Slater, had taken his own wordless rebuke from her. During the train passage, he made the concession of keeping away from Bertram, and grouped himself off in the other double seat. Bertram, sitting with Kate and the engaged couple, spoke but seldom and then languidly. He did not come face to face with Harry Banks again until the buckboards had delivered them at the Masters ranch.
This estate bore the title of "ranch" only by courtesy. Masters himself said that he raised nothing but mild Hell on his forty acres. He did have an olive orchard, a small orange grove flourishing by luck of a warm gorge in the hills, and a little fancy stock. Kate and Masters took possession of the new guest at the gate, and carried him over the estate for inspection. Mainly, Bertram took this entertainment sullenly. He warmed a little at the sight of the cattle. The house, built by Masters's own design, drew only the comment, "pretty nice." After that, Bertram was free to go to his room and dispose his belongings. Returning in a marvelously short time, he came out upon the house-party, grouped all in the big, redwood ceiled living-room.
A fire of driftwood snapped with metallic crackling on the hearth. Alice Needham sat with Dr. French beside it; Mrs. Masters, pausing in a flight of supervision, had stopped to speak with them; Alice was looking up at her, presenting her fresh, full-faced view to the gaze of the man on the staircase. Marion Slater stood with Masters by one of the Dutch windows, criticizing the design with a painter's half-arm gestures. Banks, by another window, sat dividing his time between a book and the valley below.
It happened then, as Bertram stood there, that Alice Needham looked in his direction. It happened, also, that she was smiling. He caught her smile and smiled back.
That smile was half the secret of his physical charm. In the first place, it broke with wholly unexpected force. His face, what with its heaviness of feature, was a little forbidding and severe. As he bent his unillumined gaze, he appeared stern—even angry. Then, with the sudden preliminary vibration of an earthquake, that smile would begin to quiver about his mouth, to start wrinkles about his eyes. Next, as he bent his head forward toward the target of his charms, it drew back the corners of his mouth to show his white teeth, it pulled eyelids and eyebrows into a tiny slit, through which his pupils twinkled like electric sparks. These movements—wholly muscular at that—spiritualized and transformed his face.
Mrs. Masters, looking up at the interruption, was caught in this flood of charm and good will. Harry Banks, feeling a psychic current running about the room, looked up also; and that smile caught him. It carried away the last trace of his perverse mood. And Bertram heaved himself down the stairs and crossed at once to seat himself beside Alice Needham.
"I see at a glance I'm going to like this party," he said. On other lips there would have been nothing to laugh at in this; but they all did laugh. In a minute more, Harry Banks had dropped his book and crossed over to the fireplace. Bertram, leading the talk now, took him in without a trace of apparent resentment. Kate, emerging from the room, dropped down beside Harry Banks on the floor and joined her cheerful pipe to the symphony of good fellowship. Before luncheon, this find of hers was the centre of the party; events were revolving about him.
In the lazy hour after meat, the engaged couple found chance to slip out into the orange grove. Masters, summoned by his foreman, went to look after a sick cow, Harry Banks went back to his reading, and Alice Needham to a design for a window seat which she was building for the Masters dining-room. These pairings left Bertram and Kate to each other; and presently they were out-of-doors, drawing on into the woods. Masters, from the barn, watched them and noted what a goodly couple, what a faun and dryad in clothes, they were. Kate Waddington was turning over her shoulder her slow and rather lazy smile, which began at her lips and lit her green-grey eyes last of all. That was her best attitude of head. Bertram swung up the trail, making progress by main force—not walking so much as lifting himself on those sturdy, saddle-sprung legs of his. He was making wide, sweeping gestures; and Kate, as he talked, leaned a little toward him now and then, like a woman absorbed.
Momentarily, she had him on the subject of football. He was touching upon the subject of one Bill Graham, Stanford tackle and opponent in two varsity games, whom she knew and whom he was teaching her to know better. Bertram stooped and gathered a handful of pebbles from the trail to show how Bill Graham used to throw sand in his eyes; he thrust his open hand against an alder, bordering the trail, to show how he contravened these tactics by slamming Bill Graham in the face. Even so far did loosen his tongue and spirit that he boasted of his victories and excused his defeats. He went further; he touched upon the most frightful disappointment of his career.
"It was in the ten to nothing game," said he. "You remember, don't you, how they had us down on our ten yard line early in the second half? We got the ball away. Nobody had scored yet. Well, Stuffy Halpin he gave the signal for a delayed pass on end. That was a freak play we were trying out that year—delayed pass first and then the back passed to me. I jogged Bill Graham and he stumbled down the field just bull-headed—he never did have much football sense. I looked down toward the goal"—(Bertram had been gesticulating wildly; now he gave the outstretched fingers of his right hand a sudden fillip to show the changed direction of his glance) "and I saw a clear field right straight to the fullback or glory—"
"Gracious! What happened?" asked Kate. She was capable, wit and social strategist that she was, of assuming all this interest by way of leading an inept youth to make a fool and a braggart of himself for her amusement. But she showed not a glimmer of irony, neither in her mouth nor in her green-grey eyes. She spoke with the straight, sincere interest of a dairymaid listening to the self-told heroisms of a stable boy.
"Stuffy tumbled all over himself and dropped the ball!"
Bertram's answer conveyed all the tragedy in the world.
They were come now to a place where the trail ran steep and the redwoods thickened to make a Californian hillside. It was November, but the season was late. The earth was washed bright by the early rains and not yet sodden with the later ones. The black, shaded loam, bare of grass, oozed the moisture it was saving for its evergreen redwoods against a rainless summer. In the dark clefts grew scentless things of a delicate, gnome aspect—gold-back fern, maiden-hair overlying dank, cold pools, sorrel, six-foot brake. No blossoms blew among all this greenery; only by that sign and by the wet, perspiring earth might one know that it was autumn on those hills.
The clean ooze and dew started a little stream which ran, choked with maiden-hair, to the trail, and formed a pool. Some philanthropic camper had driven a nail into the rock and hung there a tin cup. Kate (Bertram still talking and gesticulating at her left) threw a perceptive glance.
"How good the water looks!" she said. "I believe I am thirsty!"
While he filled the cup, she seated herself on the rock, disposed herself into a composition; and after they had both drunk, she showed no disposition to move from her perch. In fact, she loosened her brown student beri, shook her hair free, and sat there, a wood-nymph framed by the ruddy brown and dark green of redwood and laurel. He crouched his big frame down beside her, so that she leaned back against the rock. A long silence, and:
"Nature is mighty nice!" he said.
Then, perceiving her as a part of the picture, he added:
"And you're the nicest thing about it."
At this frontal attack, Kate waited to see whether it meant further attack, skirmish, or retreat. His general softness of expression, showed that it meant attack.
Bertram, in fact, was in the mood for attack on rose citadels. A year of life on twelve dollars a week—cheap, crowded lodgings, meals at the Hotel Marseillaise, the landlady's daughter and those of her kind for companionship—and now, in a week, the refinements of the Tiffany house, the refinement plus entertainment of the Masters villa, and these two lovely, fragrant women. It seemed all to roll up in him as he sat there, the woods about him and this golden creature at his side; and it found half-unconscious expression on his lips.
"I'm going to be rich some day," he said.
"I hope so."
"I am, sure. When I get rich I'm going to have a place like this—I'll have a long pull by that time and be able to invite anybody I want—this is the only way to live." His voice fell away.
Then he looked up and bent upon her that smile.
"It's great to have a girl like you to confide in," he said.
"Thank you; but you haven't confided much as yet," responded Kate.
"I don't suppose there is a whole lot to confide. At least, things you'd want to tell a girl like you. Only one thing. I'm in love!"
The arrest of all motion in Kate which followed this declaration was like one of those sudden calms which fall over a field at the approach of evening. It descended upon her in the mid-course of a gesture; it wrapped her about in such a stillness that neither breath nor blood stirred. Then, though only her lips moved, her vocal cords responded to her will.
"And she is to be mistress of the villa when you get rich?"
"If she'll take me," said Bertram. "You see, it is a brand new case. I've just got it—just realized it. She's up and I'm still down, so it wouldn't be square to say anything about it, now would it?"
"No," answered Kate softly, "though we women like bold lovers too."
"Yes, that's so. And I suppose if I keep too still about it, somebody else will come riding onto the ranch and carry her off. It's my game, I guess, to stay around and watch. And if I find any gazebo getting too thick with her, then up speaks little Bertie for the word that makes her his.
"If she'll have me," he added. "But she's a good many pegs above me just now and I've got more than a living to make. Of course, that'll come all right if I have fair luck. If it was easy money plugging my way through college, it will be easy plugging it through the world. Don't you size it up about that way?"
Kate clasped her hands and leaned forward.
"If you're playing the long game, I suppose so. But wouldn't you do better at least to hint to the girl?"
"I guess you can advise me about that," said he. "Better than anybody I know. Suppose I tell you all about it?" A little panic ran through the nerves of Kate.
"Now?" she said, "are—are you ready?"
"Now-time is good-time," he said. "Well, I guess you've savveyed just who it is and what's the matter. It's—it's Miss Gray—Eleanor Gray."
To the end of her days, Kate Waddington remembered to be thankful for a certain cotton-tail rabbit. At that moment precisely, this fearling of the woods streaked down the trail, pursued by a dog whose heavy crashing sounded in the distance; came out upon them, whirled with a loud roaring of fern and leaves, screamed the heart-rending scream of a frightened rabbit, and dashed off into the wood. The sound, coming in this tender moment, betrayed Bert Chester into a guilty start. So, when he looked back, her face was as smoothly beautiful as ever and she was even smiling.
"You lucky boy!" she said. And then, "I don't blame you. I wouldn't blame any man." Bertram fairly glowed.
"I knew you'd agree with me," he said. "Say, what chance do I stand—honest, what do you believe she thinks of me?"
"Honest, I never heard her say. It is likely she hasn't begun to think of it at all. Women are slower than men about such things. How long have you been—in love with her?"
"Of course, I've been that way ever since I saw her first—ever since I was a student, picking prunes for her uncle, and went down and helped her run a bull off her place. I thought then that I never saw nicer eyes or a more ladylike girl. She's always given me the glassy eye. I think she hates me—no, it isn't that, either. She just feels superior to me."
"Oh, perhaps not that!"
"Well, anyhow, I was in college and any one girl looked about the same to me as any other—" Bertram wrinkled his brows in contempt for his utter, undeveloped youngness of two years before—"but I remembered her always. When I saw her sitting in the Hotel Marseillaise that evening, I felt queer; and after I called on her I just knew I had it. Funny, you coming in that afternoon. You and I have hit it off so well, and here I'm confiding in you! It was a regular luck sign, I think."
Kate's voice, when she spoke, fell to its deeper, richer tones.
"And I'm sure I feel flattered—any girl would. I really thank you—you don't know how much."
"And you'll help me, won't you?"
"With my advice—yes."
"Well, that's all I want. If I win this game, I want to win it square.
"Say, you are sure the goods. You're as pretty—it wouldn't be natural for a man to say you're as pretty as she is, but a man can just look at you and wonder—" and here he dropped one of his hands gently upon hers. She let it rest there a moment before she drew away.
"We'd better be going back," she said. "They'll think it's I and not Eleanor, if we stay so long."
As they started, he stooped to get her another drink. Standing above him, her hand lifted toward her student beri, she bent her gaze on his back. A peculiar look it was, as though an effort against pain. It faded into an expression like hunger.
It seemed afterward to Bertram Chester, reviewing the early events of a life in which he was well pleased, that his real attack on things, his virtual beginning, came with that house-party of the Masters's. The victory of his smile on the staircase he followed up that evening to a general conquest. For Masters, when dinner was over, brewed a hot punch. They drank it about the driftwood fire, and even the severe Marion Slater relaxed and made merry. The essence of the gods strips self-control and delicacy first, so that the finer wit goes by without tribute of a laugh and the wit of poked fingers—especially if it be sauced by personality—rules at the board. After the punch had worked sunshine in them, the poked finger of this young barbarian was more compelling than the sallies of Masters or the mimicry of Harry Banks.
When the party dispersed at the Sausalito Ferry and scattered for a workaday Monday, he found himself accepting invitations left and right. Dr. French asked him to motor out to the Cliff House that very night; Mrs. Masters wanted him to dinner; Harry Banks must have him over to his ranch under Tamalpais. Kate Waddington, mounting the steps to Banks's automobile, slipped him a farewell word.
"You were a success," she said. "That's the reward of naughty little boys when they reform!"
"Well, I'd have liked to smash his face just the same—then."
"You've done better than that—you've quite conquered him. I'll see you Wednesday at the Masters? Good bye!"
Bertram Chester sold forthwith the Richmond lots, his first venture in business, to get ready money for the wisest or the most foolish investment which a young man of affairs can make in the beginning of his career—general society. With all his youth, his energy and his eager attack on things, he plunged into the life of San Francisco. Only in that city of easy companionships and careless social scrutinies would such a sudden rise have been possible. His furnished room, where he used to read and study of evenings in his years of beginnings, knew him no more before midnight. He dropped away from those comrades of the lower sort with whom he had found his recreation; abandoned and forgotten were his old lights of love. The milliner's apprentice, a coarsely pretty little thing, used to wait for him sometimes on the doorstep. Mark Heath, coming home one night earlier than usual, found her there, took her for a walk about the block, and conveyed to her the unpleasant news that Bertram was now flying higher than her covey. After that, she came no more; and the first phase of his life in San Francisco drifted definitely back of Bertram Chester.
We shall stop with him only three or four times in the course of that winter wherein he made his beginnings. Before it was over, he had entered, by the special privilege accorded such characters, the club about which man-society in San Francisco revolved; he had broken into a half a dozen circles of women society; he had become hail-fellow-well-met with the younger sons of the cocktail route, the loud characters of flashy Latin quarter studios, the returned Arctic millionaires of the hour and day who kept the Palace Hotel prosperous, the patrons and heroes of the prize-fight games, the small theatrical sets of that small metropolis. Sometimes he flashed in a night through four or five such circles.
He hung of late afternoons over bars, exchanging that brainless but well-willed talk by which men of his sort come to know men. He sat beside roped rings to witness the best muscle of the world—and not the worst brain—revive in ten thousand men the primeval brute. He frolicked with trifling painters, bookless poets, apprentice journalists, and the girls who accrued to all these, through wild studio parties in Latin quarter attics. He sat before the lace, mahogany, crimson lights and cut glass of formal dinners, whereat, after the wine had gone round, his seat became head of the table.
From these meetings and revels, whereby he made his way along the path of dalliance in the easiest, most childish, most accepting city of the Western world, two or three kaleidoscopic flashes remained in his maturer memory. The night of the football game, for example, he strayed into the annual pitched battle of noise and reproach at the Yellowstone between the California partisans and the Stanford fanatics. A California graduate, his companion along the cocktail route, recognized him; immediately, he was riding shoulder high. His bearers broke for the sidewalk, and down Market Street he went, a blue-and-gold serpentine dancing behind him. There was his first Jinks at the Bohemian club—an impromptu affair, thrown in between the revelling Christmas Jinks in the clubhouse and the formally artistic Midsummer High Jinks in the Russian River Grove. The Sire, noting his smile and figure, impressed him into service for a small part. This brought a fortnight of rehearsal which was all play and expression of young animal spirits, a night of revel refined by art, an after-jinks dinner of the cast, whereat Bertram, as usual, spoke only to conquer. Memory held also one perfectly-blended winter house-party at the Banks ranch, with the rain swaying the eucalyptus trees outside and a dozen people chosen from San Francisco for their power to entertain, making two nights and a day cheerful within.
Later in life, he, the unreflective, thought that times had changed in his city; that men were not so brilliant nor circles so convivial as when he was very young. It was not in him to know that neither times nor men had changed; that he thought so only because he looked on them no longer through the rose glasses of youth.
He himself would have called it a season of great change, and he would have missed, at that, the greatest change of all—the transformation in himself. The face on which we saw so little written when he had that meeting in the Hotel Marseillaise, the new sheet straight from the mills of the gods, had now a faint scratching upon it. The mouth was looser in repose, firmer in action; the roving and merry eye was more certain, more accurate as it were, in its glances. His youthful assurance had changed in him to something like mature self-certainty. In those external city manners which he had set about from the beginning to acquire, he showed more ease. Although he had lost the fragrance of an untouched youth, he had become altogether a prettier figure of a man.
He needed all the prodigal youth and the cowboy strength in him to keep up his social pace and still do his work, but he managed it. Indeed, he became of distinct value to the office through the business which he brought in from his wandering and his revelling. It seemed that he might refurbish that old law practice and find his way to the partnership which Judge Tiffany foresaw at the end of one path.
Through this consideration and through the partisan friendship of Mrs. Tiffany, he became gradually a pet and familiar of the Tiffany household, taking pot-luck dinners with them, joining them once or twice on their out-of-doors excursions. His big, bounding presence, his good-natured gambols of the Newfoundland pup order, transformed that somewhat serious and faded menage, gave it light and interest, as from a baby in the house. Although Mrs. Tiffany mothered him, gave him her errands to do, she made no mistake about the centre of attraction for him. He was "after" Eleanor. That young woman took him soberly and naturally, laughing at his gambols, accepting his attentions, but giving no sign to Mrs. Tiffany's attentive eyes that her interest was more than indifferent friendship.
His wooing, in fact, went on in a desultory fashion, as though he were following the policy which he had expounded to Kate Waddington—"hang around and watch." He paid no more compliments to grey eyes; he paid no compliments at all. When they were alone, he entertained her with those new tales of his associations in the city, which pleased her less, had he only known it, than his tales of the ranch and gridiron. If he showed the state of his feeling, it was no more than by an occasional long and hungry look.
In one way or another, he saw nearly as much of Kate Waddington, that winter, as he did of Eleanor. Kate, too, was a ray of light. She—"the little sister of the clever" her enemies called her—made the Tiffany house a bourne between her stops at her home in the Mission and her rangings about Russian Hill. Bertram noticed with sentimental pleasure that the two girls were a great deal together. He found them exchanging the coin of feminine friendship in Eleanor's living-room, he met them on shopping excursions in Post street. When the three met so, Kate always sparkled with her best wit, her most cheerful manner; but she showed, too, a kind of deference toward Eleanor, an attitude which said, "He is yours; I am intruding only by accident." The meaning in this attitude bore itself in, at length, even upon Bertram Chester; and he did not fail to glow with gratitude. He expressed that gratitude once or twice when he was alone with Kate. Somehow, it was easy for him to talk to her about such things.
"Are you off the job to-night?" came the resonant voice of Bertram Chester over the telephone.
"Yes!" Eleanor laughed. "Are you coming to play with us?"
"No. You're coming to play with me. One of our best little playmates leans over my elbow as I indite these few lines—little Katie. Mark Heath is reporting great doings in Chinatown to-night, and he wants assistance. Do you suppose your Aunt Mattie will object to Chinatown?"
"Aunt Matilda never dictates—"
"Then it's Chinatown! We'll be along for you in half an hour. We're dining with the Masters, who have inconsiderately refused to come along. What's happened to you?"
"Your voice sounds so chipper!"
"That shows I'm in a mood to play!"
"Then we'll be along in a quarter of an hour."
"And I'll be waiting at the garden gate!"
The swish and murmur of night, the rustle of a steady sea breeze, the composite rumble of the city far below, tuned with the song in Eleanor's blood as she stood waiting by the front gate. She looked down on the pattern of light and heavy shadow that was the city, and a curious mood of exultation came over her. Light foreshadowings of this mood had touched her now and again during the past two months; never before had these transitory feelings piled themselves up into such a definite emotion.
She could not trace its shy beginning, but she was aware of it first as a sense of the humanity in the cells of that luminous honeycomb below, the struggling, hoping, fighting, aspiring mass, each unit a thing to love, did one but know the best. The wave of love universal beat so strong on her heart that she turned her eyes away for surfeit of rapture, and looked up to the stars. They, the bright angels of judgment whose infinite spaces she could not contemplate without fear, united themselves in some mysterious bond with the little human things below; the sight of them brought the same wave of rapture. Too mighty long to be endured, the wave broke into ripples of happy contemplation. Sounding lines of forgotten poems ran through her mind, movements of old symphonies, memories of her vicarious raptures before the altar in the convent, glimpses of hillsides and valleys and woods in the winter rain which she had seen unseeing that she might reserve their deeper meaning for this deeper sight of the spirit. "I wonder if this is not happiness; if Heaven will not be so?" she thought. It came, too, that if this exaltation lasted a moment longer, she should know with God the meaning of all things, the Reason which united stars and space and men and the works of men.
The resonant bass of Bertram Chester, beating down Kate's cheerful treble, floated up from the sidewalk. The sound came almost as a relief; yet on second thought she was a little sorry for their intrusion into this lonely rapture of the spirit. She looked over the wall. Kate, revealed in the light of their gate-lamp, walked between the two men, who were bending toward her; now they were all laughing together. She was radiant, this firm-fleshed, golden flower of the West. Eleanor dipped from her clouds of glory to notice that she wore a new tailor gown, that every touch of her costume showed how she had got herself up for that special occasion. And now the spiritual fluid in Eleanor transmuted itself into a reckless gaiety. She slipped down the steps and confronted them on the sidewalk.
"Hello," said Kate, looking her over. "Well, who's given you a present?"
Eleanor hugged her. "That's just what's happened, Katie. Somebody has given me a present—I believe it must have been the stars." She extended her hands, right and left, to the men; holding them so, she rattled on; "Boys and girls, there's so much ego in my cosmos to-night that it's running out at every pore. I'm sure there's going to be a party to-night, and I'm sure it's got up for my benefit. I'm going to play so hard—so hard that they'll put me to bed crying! Mr. Heath, bring on your Chinese and let them gambol and frisk. It's my birthday. This isn't the date in the family Bible, as Kate could tell you if she weren't a lady, but I'm sure my parents made a mistake. I just know that some menial is coming in a minute with a birthday cake—and the ring and the thimble and the coin and everything will be in my slice—Hello, Bert Chester!"
"Where do I come in?" enquired Kate.
"You? You come in as my dearest little playmate, to whom I sent the first invitation."
"I see at a glance," rejoined Mark Heath, "that we've got our work cut out for us. I will now announce to the Little Girl who is Having a Party the program of games and sports. The festival of the women is on in Chinatown."
"I saw it from the car as I passed Dupont Street," chimed in Kate. "And the Quarter is blazing like a fire in a tar barrel."
In the most natural manner, Kate linked herself to Mark Heath. She always yielded the place beside Bertram when Eleanor was present; quite as naturally, she herself took that place when Eleanor was away. Bertram cast a long look on his companion; and he ventured for the first time in weeks, on something like a compliment.
"What has happened to you? You look—hanged if I can just tell you how you look, but it's great!"
"Oh, compliment me! I love compliments! That's my birthday present from you. I wonder if the Chinese babies will be out on the street—the little, golden babies. Why haven't they a legend about those babies? Mr. Heath, do you know Chinese mythology? Kate, aren't you sure those children are primroses transformed by the fairies to hide them from the goblins?"
Bertram frowned a little as she drew the other couple into their private conversation. But he continued to study her. This lightness and brightness which she had developed so suddenly, seemed quite to dim the radiance of his own personality. He fell into a quiet which lasted far into the evening. She, on her side, moved like one intoxicated by some divine liquor. Never had she seemed so gay, so young; and—though he did not wholly formulate this—never had she seemed to him so inaccessible.
They approached a dark alley beside an Italian tenement. Eleanor, dancing around the corner, came upon it suddenly. She drew up.
"There's an ogre in this dark den—I know there is. I must see him! Just think, I'm ten years old going onto eleven, and I never yet saw a real ogre. Come on—we're going ogre hunting!" She plunged into the shadows. Mark, laughing, followed.
Eleanor peeped into the door of a wine-house, peeped over a board fence, and came back to announce:
"He's not in. I left my card—oh, there he is—he's visiting the goblin in that garden across the street!" She skipped across to an old stone wall which held its half-acre of earth suspended over the hill-fall. Mark skipped with her; Bertram followed at a distance as one who plays a game of which he is not sure. Eleanor brought up against the wall.
"There he is—by the kitchen door. Of course you see him! Good, Kind ogre, you don't eat little girls on their birthdays do you?"
"Aren't his red eyes beautiful and hasn't he a classy set of teeth?" rejoined Mark Heath. "Be good, Fido, and you shall have a plumber for breakfast."
"But he'll spare me! He says I'm too beautiful to eat!" Eleanor was dancing back. "Oh Kate, I've seen an ogre!"
Kate did not answer. She fell in with Mark Heath, and as they drew ahead she murmured:
"I wonder what's got into her?"
"Nothing I guess. I should rather say she'd got out. I think it's bully."
"Oh, yes," said Kate, drawing out the last word.
They turned into the Quarter at Washington Street, and at once they were in the midst of the festival. From a doorway burst a group of little, immobile-featured Cantonese women, all in soft greens, deep blues, reds and golds that glimmered in the gas-lights. Banded combs in jade and gold held their smooth, glossy black hair; their slender hands, peeping from their sleeves, shone with rings. The foremost among them, a doll-girl of sixteen or so, tottered and swayed on the lily feet of a lady. The rest walked upon clattering pattens, like a French heel set by the cobbler's mistake at the instep.
Mark Heath, the young reporter, proud in his knowledge of "the inside," took up the reins of conversation.
"A fairy story for you right at the start, birthday lady! That little-foot girl is the daughter of Hom Kip. You remember the story, don't you? The old plug tried to sell this daughter of his for wife to a merchant in Portland. She had her own ideas—she eloped with the second tragedian from the theatre over there. Hom Kip put detectives on them, and caught her at Fresno. But she'd already married her actor American fashion; and the Portland bridegroom is waiting until father makes his little blossom a widow."
"As temporary Empress of Chinatown, I order that he shall do nothing of the kind," said Eleanor.
"As your grand vizier, I shall put the machinery in motion that will free the beautiful young bride," rejoined Mark Heath.
Kate broke in.
"What became of the actor? I'm one of those dull persons who always wants the rest of the story!"
"I told you, didn't I, that father is going to make her a widow? At least he was until the Empress ordered otherwise. The actor has probably abandoned his art, which gives him undesirable publicity. And some day, if father dares disobey the Empress, there'll be a mysterious murder in a backwoods laundry—police baffled."
Eleanor contemplated the lily-foot girl, swaying about the corner into Dupont, her little handkerchief in one hand, her proper fan in the other.
"Poor little blossom—I wonder if she'll mourn for him? Faithful Grand Vizier, don't tell me sad facts on my birthday night. I want only pretty things."
"Whether she'll mourn or not won't make much difference to father—or to the Highbinders. Je-hoshaphat—look!"
For they had turned the corner into Dupont Street, main avenue of the Quarter. Its narrow vista came upon them at first as a smothered flame. Innumerable paper lanterns, from scarlet globes as big as a barrel to parti-colored cones that one might hold in his palm, blazed everywhere, making strange combinations, incredible shades, in the flaring Chinese signs, the bright dresses of the women. The sidewalks quivered with life—soberly dressed coolies, making green background for the gauds of their women, bespangled babies late out of bed that they might gain good luck and blessing from those rites, priests in white robes, dignitaries in long tunics, incongruous Caucasian tourists and spectators.
A moment Eleanor drank it all in; then she addressed her Grand Vizier.
"Inform my people, through your invaluable publication, that their demonstration in my honor is perfect."
"It shall be done, liege lady—three column spread on the front page. Oh, you've got to have a shoe." For a vendor was bearing down on them, carrying a tray of pink paper shoes like valentines. "That's the symbol of this festival—the goddess lost her shoe before she died. How much, Charlie? Two bits two? All light! Empress, permit me to present this souvenir of a grateful people. Miss Waddington, have a shoe on me!"
Eleanor hung the pink trifle to the pin at her throat.
"I shall add it to the royal treasure trove," she said. It came across her then, as one of the unrelated thoughts and fancies which were coursing in such swarms through her mind, that Bertram Chester, though he stuck close to her side, had been unusually silent. She drew him in at once.
"Does it become me?" she asked.
"Everything becomes you."
"You don't say anything about my shoes!" said Kate.
Now the crowd began to eddy and to whirl toward the next corner. There rose the clang of gongs, the shrilling of a Chinese pipe playing a mournful air in that five-toned scale Whose combinations suggest always the mystery of the East. About that corner swept the procession of the Good Lady, priests before, women worshippers behind. The priests set up a falsetto chant, the banner-bearers lifted their staves, and the parti-colored mass moved down on them.
"It's like a flower-bed on a landslide!" exclaimed Eleanor.
Mark Heath gravely pulled out his left cuff and took rapid notes with a pencil.
"That goes into the story—anything more up your sleeve like that?"
"Wasn't it good? Eleanor is always thinking up clever things to say," Kate came in. Her voice was rather flat.
At the edge of the gutter where they stood, a Chinese shoemaker had set out on a lacquer tray his offering to the gods. Red candles bordered it, surrounding little bowls of rice and sweetmeats, a slice of roast pig, a Chinese lily. As the banners approached, certain devout coolies found room on the sidewalk to prostrate themselves. Eleanor, absorbed now in a poetic appreciation of all this glory of color and spirit, felt a movement beside her. She looked down. The shoemaker was flat on his forehead beside his offering.
"Would you per-ceive that Chink grovel," spoke the voice of Bertram Chester.
Before Eleanor could turn on him, he was addressing the shoemaker.
"Feel a heap better, Charlie? Say, who-somalla you? Brush off your knees!" The Chinese, if he understood, paid no more attention than he paid to the lamp post in his path. Gathering up his offering, he pushed his way back through the crowd.
For the first time that evening, Eleanor became somewhat like her normal self as she said:
"Why, this is a religious ceremony, isn't it—all this light and color!"
"Yes," responded the personal conductor of the party, "but you have to pinch yourself to remember it. For instance, you'll be charmed to know that I saw one of those priests, up in front there, arrested last week in a raid on a gambling joint. Morals haven't an awful lot to do with this religion. Maybe that fellow on the pavement was praying that he'd have a chance to murder his dearest enemy, and maybe he was applying for luck in a lottery. Empress of Chinatown, up yon frazzled flight of stairs lurks the New York Daytime Lottery. The agents of said lottery are playing ducks and drakes right now with the pay of the printers on the imperial bulletin which I have the honor to represent. Some day, your grand vizier and most humble servant is going to do a Sunday story on a drawing in a Chinese lottery."
Eleanor showed no inclination to go on with the game.
"Have another shoe—one shoe, Charlie, for the little princess!" continued Mark Heath. This one, displayed amid the cone-sticks and New Years nuts of a sweetmeat stand, was bright blue. Mark hung it on Eleanor's shoulder; then, as a kind of afterthought, he bought a crimson tassel for Kate.
The procession was past, was breaking up. The women, in knots of three or four, were scattering to the night's festivities. Mark, as guide, let business go as he led them on his grand tour of Chinatown. They stopped to survey sidewalk altars of rice paper and jade, where priests tapped their little gongs and sang all night the glory of the Good Lady; they visited the prayer store, emporium for red candles, "devil-go-ways," punks, votive tassels, and all other Chinese devices to win favor of the gods and surcease from demons; they explored the cavernous underground dwellings beneath the Jackson Street Theatre; they climbed a narrow, reeking passage to marvel at the revel of color and riot of strange scent which was the big joss house. Bertram's spirits were rising by this time; he expressed them by certain cub-like gambols which showed both his failure to appreciate the beauty in all this strangeness and his old-time Californian contempt for the Chinese as a people. Once he tweaked a cue in passing and laughed in the face of the insulted Chinaman; and once he made pretence of stealing nuts from a sweetmeat stall.
Wherever Mark found a new design in toy shoes, he bought one for Eleanor, until she wore a string of them, like a necklace, across her bodice. Yet had the illumination gone a little out of her; she replied with diminishing vivacity to Mark's advances as he played the birthday game.
When they mounted the joss house stairs she lagged behind; and Bertram lagged with her.
"What's the matter?" he asked. "I never saw you so bright and chipper as we were awhile ago, and now—say, what's the matter?"
"Nothing. Oh, Mr. Heath—" she raised her voice, "are the actors allowed in the joss house—and if not will you have it fixed for me?"
After they had presented their votive punks to the great high god, Kate announced that she was footweary.
"Can't we find a place to sit down?" she asked. Mark took her up.
"That's the signal for tea at the Man Far Low restaurant. Ever been there? Tea store below, fantan next floor, restaurant top side all the way through the block. Come on, Empress of Chinatown. The royal board awaits."
The Man Far Low was in the throes of large preparation for the Chinese all-night banquets which would close the festival. The cashier wore his dress tunic, his cap with the red button. The kitchen door, open on the second landing, gave forth a cloud of steam which bore odors of peanut oil, duck, bamboo sprouts and Chinese garlic; through the cloud they could see cooks working mightily over their brass pots. Every compartment of the big dining hall upstairs held its prepared table; waiters in new-starched white coats were setting forth a thousand toy devices in porcelain. Though the Chinese feasting had not yet commenced, it was plain, from the attitude of the waiters, that slummers and tourists were not wanted on that night. But still the head waiter, when he came slipping over on his felt shoes, led them to a table in the Eastern dining room, from whose balconies one overlooked Portsmouth Square. His aspect, however, was anything but cheerful.
"Say, you Chink, smile!" said Bertram as he seated himself.
By a slight turn of the head, the very slightest in the world, the Chinese showed that he caught this in all its force. But he went gravely on, setting out porcelain bowls. Eleanor's hand moved a little, as though in restraint.
"Cheer up, Charlie, crops is ripe!" resumed Bertram.
"Don't—please," cried Eleanor. The first word came short, sharp and peremptory; the "please" was appealing.
The color rose under Bertram's brown skin. Kate, an outside party to this passage, smiled a quiet smile; but she spoke to Mark Heath.
"What are those paintings on that screen—come and tell me about them!"
Now Bertram and Eleanor stood alone with the table between them.
"I was jollying him!" burst out Bertram. Eleanor glanced at Kate, who stood profile-on listening to the ready Heath.
"Shall we go out on the balcony?" She stepped through the open French window.
As they stood in the shadow, the city at their feet, neither spoke for a moment. Finally,
"It's a call-down, I suppose?" began Bertram, tentatively.
With a slam, he brought his hand down on the balcony rail.
"You don't give—you don't give a damn—that's the trouble with you—you don't care what I do!"
Eleanor drew a little away from him before she answered:
"I care if anyone is uncivil."
"What is it but a Chink? They expect it! Why, down in Tulare—" His voice fell away as though he recognized the futility of an attack in this form. She spoke:
"It is you who should not expect it." And then, "I am sorry I said what I did. It was an impulse. We are all imperfect. I've often been unkind myself."
Bertram stood gripping the rail before him as one caught and held by a new emotion. When he spoke, his voice was low and rather hard. At the first tone of it, she shrank from the daimon in him.
"If you only cared enough to call me down! That's the trouble with you. Am I—am I the dirt under your feet?"
"Oh, don't please!" But he was going on, too fast to be stopped.
"I'm afraid of you—that's what's the matter. What have you got in you that I can't seem to melt? You kept away from me the first time ever I saw you. You've kept away ever since. You don't think I'm as good as you—and I'm not. But it's aggravating—it's damned aggravating—to have you rub it in. You've got something about you that I can't touch anywhere." And he paused, as though expecting her to deny it.
"I don't know what right you have to say this," she exclaimed.
In her swift rush to her own defence, she had dropped her guard. She realized it on the moment, heard his inevitable reply before he opened his mouth to the swift-flashing answer which, that outer self told her, was the only possible answer for him to make.
"Only this right. I'm in love with you. I've been in love with you ever since I saw you down at the Judge's ranch, only I didn't know it then. I love you." Silence for a moment, and then, "I love you!"
For just one instant, it seemed to her that she was swaying toward him in spite of herself. He made, curiously, no active motion toward her. That outer self of Eleanor's, reigning as always over her conscious self, commenting, criticising, seeing—that outer self remembered, above her mental turmoil, that never in all their later acquaintance had he tried even to touch her finger.
"Oh, don't!" she cried, "please don't!"
He made a growl in his throat, the adult counterpart to a baby's cry of disappointment.
"Didn't I tell you?" he said, "and now I've laid myself wide open for a throw-down."
"If you call it that. Oh Bertram—" he and she both noticed the shift to his familiar name—"I'm afraid I haven't been fair to you. Oh, have I been fair?"
He paused as though considering a whole new range of ideas.
"Yes, I guess you have," he responded at length.
"You're a man," she said, "and a big man. I suppose I ought—to love you. To have the power of loving you in me. And oh, there have been moments when I thought I could." She stopped as though appalled by the lengths to which she had gone. "You see, I'm trying to be fair now. I'm telling you everything."
And then, with the thought which succeeded, it was as though she felt the physical tingle of bay leaves in her nostrils, "or nearly everything."
Through the open French windows came the cheery voice of Kate Waddington.
"Tea is served, ladies and gentlemen!"
"All right—be along presently!" called Bertram. And then to Eleanor:
"You must tell me—you can't keep me hanging by the toes until I see you again."
"The rest means—since I am being perfectly fair to you—that I can't tell." Now something like strong emotion touched her voice—"Don't think I am coquetting with you—don't believe that it is anything but my effort to be fair." She turned on this, and stepped through the open window.
Bertram struggling to compose his face, Eleanor wearing her old air of sweet inscrutability, they faced the quick, perceiving glance of Kate Waddington who sat pouring tea from the crack between two shell bowls.
Eleanor settled herself on the teak-wood stool.
"You must come out on the balcony before we go," she cried. "I never saw the city lights so wonderful."
"Well," said Kate, "it all depends on the company!"
Kate's plump and inert mother, who always regarded this daughter of hers somewhat as a cuckoo in the nest, was in a complaining mood this morning. She sat in her dressing-gown embroidering peonies on a lambrequin and aired her grievances. Kate, writing notes at the old-fashioned black walnut writing desk, looked up at the climaxes of her mother's address, bit her pen and frowned over her shoulder. For the greater part of the time, however, Mrs. Waddington spoke to empty air.
"I never did see such a daughter," said Mrs. Waddington, jabbing with her scissors at a loose end of pink silk. "As if it isn't enough, gallivanting around the way you do, fairly living in other people's houses, never bringing any company home, but you can't even be decently civil when you are at home. We might just as well be a hotel for all the respect you pay us. What are you doing when you're away, I'd like to know? It's all well enough, the stories you tell—" Kate, resting between notes, saw fit to parry this last thrust.
"I've always supposed I was capable of taking care of myself," she said. "At any rate, you've let me proceed on that theory."
It needed only the slightest flutter of an opponent's rapier to throw Mrs. Waddington on the defensive.
"You never let me," she mourned. "Goodness knows, I gave you every chance to take me along. When first you began going with those painter people, you might have counted me in."
"You didn't seem eager, perceptibly, until I had made my own way," Kate vouchsafed. At that moment the telephone rang.
While Kate was in the house, no one else thought of answering the telephone. Mrs. Waddington would have been the last to usurp the prerogative. For that instrument was the tap root of her spy system over her daughter. By it, she picked up things; learned what this irresponsible responsibility of hers was doing. Mrs. Waddington had her mental lists of Kate's telephonic friends. She imagined that she could tell, by the tone of her daughter's voice, just who was on the other end of the line.
"Oh, Bert Chester!" came Kate's voice from the hall. Mrs. Waddington made note number one. This mention of the name was significant. The discreet Kate, who knew her mother's habits, hardly ever called names over the wire.
A pause for a very short reply, and then:
"Certainly. Zinkand at one. I'm beginning to think it's time I worked at my job as confidant. What is the use of a confidant if you don't confide?"
Mrs. Waddington leaned forward while Kate got her reply. The mother in her, unsensitized though as it was, noted the sparkle in Kate's voice. But for the intervening door, she might have seen a great deal more sparkle in Kate's face, down-turned to listen.
"Oh yes, I was aware of that!" Kate's voice went on. "Dolt! Did I catch it? You're a poor dissembler. You're too honest. You might tell the verdict before I tell you—"
Mrs. Waddington could stand it no longer. It was so uncommon for her daughter to speak thus freely and emotionally at the telephone, that she must have a look. She rose, therefore, and crossed past the open hall door. She noticed a certain tension in her daughter's face as she bent her head to await the reply.