Alice Muriel Williamson.

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out after a right hard day and feel kind of lonesome for something
beautiful, I don't know hardly what - only something I've never had - that
sort of angel is a woman, too, and not cold, though far above me, of
course. She has starry eyes and moonlight hair - lots of it, hanging down
in waves that could almost drown her. But I guess, after all - as you
say - that sort's not my line. I'll never come in the light she makes with
her shining, and if I should by accident, she wouldn't go shooting any of
her starry glances my way."

Carmen was vexed again. "I didn't know you were so sentimental, Nick!"

He looked half ashamed.

"Well, I didn't know I was, either, till it popped out," he grinned. "But
I suppose 'most every man has sentimental spells. Maybe, even, he wouldn't
be worth his salt if he hadn't. Sometimes I think that way. But my spells
don't come on often. When they do, it's generally nights in spring - like
this, when special kinds of night-thoughts come flyin' along like
moths - thoughts about past and future. But lately, since that blessed
little oil town has been croppin' up like a bed of mushrooms round my big
gusher - or rather, the company's gusher, as it is now - I've had my mind on
that more than anything else, unless it's been my ditches. Gee! there's as
much romance about irrigation in this country, I guess, as there is about
angels which you can see only in dreams; for you see every day, when
you're wide awake, the miracle of your ditches. You just watch your desert
stretches or your meanest grazin' meadows turn into fairyland. I say, Mrs.
Gaylor, have you ever read a mighty fine book - old but good and fresh as
to-morrow's bread - called _The Arabian Nights?_"

"I don't know. I dare say I read some of it when I was a little girl,"
replied Carmen, wondering what Nick was leading up to. "It's for children,
isn't it?"

"I reckon it's for every one with the right stuff in 'em," said Nick.
"Anyhow, I haven't grown up enough to get beyond it. I don't mean ever to
turn the boy that lives inside of me out-of-doors. If I ever do anything
to make him so mad that he quits, I'll be finished - dried up. That book,
_The Arabian Nights_, has got a dead clinch on me. You know, when I run
into Bakersfield, I like to have a browse in the bookstores. It sort of
rests me, and seein' the pictures in that book made me buy it - a birthday
present for my affectionate self - - "

"Your birthday!" Carmen broke in, tired of this book talk, but not tired
of anything that concerned him. "You never told me. That was bad of you.
How old, Nick? I'm not sure to a year or so."

"Twenty-nine. Quite some age, isn't it? But there's lots I want to do
before I'm old. I don't know, though, as I mean ever to be old."

"Of course, you never will be." Carmen agreed with him aloud, but she was
thinking in an undertone: "Only twenty-nine, and I'm thirty-three. He
won't be old ever, or for a long time, but I will. I'm that kind, I'm
afraid. My mother was. I've got no time to lose; but to-day's mine. Nick
must love me really, though maybe he's too used to me to know it, without
being stirred up by something unusual. But I'll try my hardest to make him
know it to-night."

"Go on about your 'Arabian Nights,'" she said, to give herself time for
the arranging of her tactics.

"Oh, well, all I really began to say was this: I was reading the story of
Aladdin and an enchanted cave of jewels he dropped into. There was a magic
ring and a lamp in the story too, that you could rub and get pretty near
anything you wanted; so I was thinking this irrigation business of ours in
California is like rubbing that lamp. It throws open doors of dark caves
in deserts, and gives up enchanted gardens full of jewelled fruit and
flowers. Then rub the smoky old lamp again and you get a spout of
oil - another gift, which makes you feel as if a genie'd chucked it to you.
Look at my gusher, for instance! Just think, Mrs. Gaylor, if you don't
mind my talking this way about, myself - you sold me my land, sliced it
right off your own ranch - let me have it darn cheap, too, when the boss
died - - "

"I wanted to keep you as near as possible, Nick, when people began to be
silly and say I oughtn't to have a young man like you on the place as
foreman, with me alone, and Eld gone. I needed you badly, and I'd have
been glad to give you land for nothing if you'd have taken it. Gracious!
I've got so much left I don't know what to do with it, or wouldn't if you
weren't where you can advise me."

"That's your generous way of puttin' things," said Nick. "And it was
walkin' along toward you, brought up these fairy-book thoughts so strong.
My land's all right, though my house is a shack and I haven't got any
flower-garden except in my head. But over here is another world; and I was
sayin' to myself, how I owe the biggest things of my life to you. True, I
was taking out my wages in calves while the boss was alive, and he was
lettin' me put my brand on 'em by the hundred. But square as he was with
me, he'd never have sold the land for the price you did. Not only that,
but when I struck oil, a month or so after he went, look what happened. I
hadn't the capital to do any good. 'Twas you put the money in my hand for
the well-sinking and - - "

"But you insisted on mortgaging every acre you bought - your cattle and
everything you had, to me; so that took away the credit," cried Carmen,
touched by his gratitude, and happy in the renewed assurance that this man
was hers. "Besides, all you did and spent seemed likely to harm more than
help, when everybody said you wouldn't get enough oil to pay for sinking
your wells. It was only when the gusher burst out by accident and took
every one by surprise that your troubles were over."

"If there's any such thing as accident," Nick mumbled, his eyes far away
from Carmen. "The longer I live, the more I think there isn't. It's all
arranged by Something Big up there beyond where the sun's sinking and the
moon's rising. But maybe you'll say that's sentimental, like the
angel-thought. I don't mean it that way, though I've got an almighty lot
to thank the Something for - as well as to thank you."

"It wasn't I who took the gusher off your hands, anyhow, and saved you the
expense of coping with it," said Carmen. "So I suppose you think it was
Heaven sent you those men to buy what oil land you wanted to sell, and
start Lucky Star City."

"I guess that's Who it was. Not that I deserve any special kindness from
that quarter," Nick laughed. "My mother used to talk a lot about those
things, you know, and though I was only a little shaver when she died,
I've remembered most all that was connected with her."

Carmen did not speak. She knew the history of Nick's terrible childhood
and early youth. Long ago he had told her how his grandfather, a
California pioneer of good Southern family, a successful judge, had turned
an only son away, penniless, because the boy of twenty chose to take for
a wife a pretty little dressmaker, of no family at all; how the couple had
gone East, to live on a few hundred dollars left to the boy by an aunt;
how he had hoped and expected to succeed in New York as a journalist and
writer; how he had failed and starved with his bride; how he had faded out
of life while Nick was a baby; how the girl-widow had taken in sewing to
support her child, and when she couldn't get that, had washed or scrubbed;
and how, as Nick became a wise, worried old man of four or five years, he
had been able to help earn the family living by selling the newspapers
which had refused his dead father's contributions. Nick had not enlarged
upon his adventures after this stage of his youthful career, merely
sketching them in the baldest manner, when it had been necessary to
present his credentials to the "boss" - "old Grizzly Gaylor." But in one
way or other it had leaked out that the boy had learned to read and write
and cipher at a night school in New York, not having time for such
"frills" as schooling by day. And Carmen could not help knowing that he
had gone on studying, and thinking out his own rather queer ideas about
heaven and earth, ever since, in spite of the most strenuous
interruptions - for she had been ashamed occasionally by happening to
discover how much Nick knew. He had read everybody and everything from
Plato to Schopenhauer, whereas it bored Carmen unspeakably to read
anything except novels, and verses which she liked sometimes in magazines,
because their pathos or passion might have been written round her.

She knew how Nick, as a little boy, had swept shops and found all sorts of
odd jobs; how he had been errand boy, and district messenger in a uniform
of which he had been proud because it made him feel "almost like a
soldier"; how after his mother's death he had got his long-cherished wish
to "go West," by working on the railway and eventually becoming a
brakesman. After that short experience "cowpunching" days had come, and
after several years in a subordinate position on Eldridge Gaylor's ranch
he had at twenty-five been made foreman. But by this time he was already a
familiar figure in her life - the life which she had chosen, and hated
after it was chosen, except for Nick Hilliard, who had always loomed large
in it, though she saw little of him until a year ago.

Except perhaps with the old man she had married for his money and hated
for his brutality, Carmen believed that Nick Hilliard's "ways" and good
looks had helped, even more than his courage and cleverness, to win him
success and recognition. With Eldridge Gaylor it had been different. He
thought of no man's pleasant looks or ways, though even upon the
corrugated iron of his nature, a woman's beauty had had influence, and he
had married Carmen off the comic opera stage, in the City of Mexico, where
he had gone to see a great bullfight ten years ago. When he had brought
her home to his famous ranch, willing for a while to be her slave and give
her everything she wanted, she had found Nick a cowpuncher among other
cowpunchers. And she had seen how he made "old Grizzly" respect him. But
his promotion had come through a row and an attempt at murdering the
"boss" by a drunken foreman driven mad by a blow from the short whip
Gaylor carried about the ranch. Nick had saved his employer's life,
risking his own - for he was unarmed at the moment; and to his surprise
the reward had been the discharged foreman's place. Carmen shivered a
little even now, remembering that night, and how she had worshipped Nick
for his bravery. She had never since ceased to worship him, though he had
done a great many things which irritated her extremely, such as saving
"old Grizzly's" life once again: but those years were past.

As she wondered whether Nick would like her to talk with him about his
mother, or whether that subject was too delicate to pursue, a musical
Japanese gong sounded from a side gallery.

"Oh, it must be half-past seven," she said. "I ordered dinner early, so we
could talk afterward by moonlight (I love talking in moonlight!) before
the time for you to go. You can give me your arm, if you like, Nick."

Of course, Nick "liked," though he had never taken a lady to dinner in
that way before, and he felt proud, if a little awkward, as a bare, creamy
arm laid itself on his coat-sleeve.

Slowly and without speaking, they walked along a flower-bordered path that
skirted the lawn on one side, and on the other a canal full to the brim of
glittering water, which reflected the sky and the two figures.

It was a place and an hour made for love.




III

THE ANNIVERSARY


They did not dine in the house, though one of the show rooms was a huge
dining-hall like a glorified refectory in an old Spanish mission. After
the beginning of April, and sometimes long before, Carmen seldom took a
meal indoors, unless she was attacked by one of her fierce fits of
depression, and had a whim to hate the sun.

She and Nick mounted the steps, passed the fountain which spouted diamond
spray through a round head made of some flowering water-plant, went on
round a corner, Carmen's dress brushing fallen camellia petals or pink
shells of broken roses, and so came to another veranda. This was pergola
as well. It had no roof but beams of old Spanish chestnut, so draped with
wistaria and roses that the whole out-of-doors room was canopied with
leaves and hanging clusters of flowers. Only a faint filtering of sun or
moonshine could steal through, and such rays as penetrated seemed to be
dyed pink and purple by draining through the flowers.

Suspended from the beams were big iridescent pearl-shells, known in
southern California as "abalone," and in the rainbow-tinted half-globes
gleamed electric lights, subdued by dull gold glass; but neither these nor
the tall shaded lamps on the low wall of the terrace, nor the hidden
electric bulbs in the fountain basin, were allowed to shine out yet. As
Carmen said, she liked to talk by moonlight; and now, over in the east,
behind magnolia and palm trees, the moon had been born while the sun died
in the west.

If it had been her wedding-night dinner Carmen could not have been more
careful in ordering the different dishes and planning the decorations of
the table. Usually whether she were alone or had guests (as she had
sometimes, though "society" had never taken her up), she left everything
to her Chinese head-cook, who was a worthy rival of any Parisian _chef_;
and the beautifying of her table to the artistic Japanese youth whose one
business in life was to think out new flower-combinations. This, however,
was not only the anniversary of the day which had given her freedom, but
she hoped it might be one to remember for a sweeter reason. Besides, Nick
Hilliard was to be enchanted, to be made conscious of himself and her, as
the only man, the only woman, worth thinking of in the world.

The air was sweet with the fragrance of orange-blossoms, and the deep-red
velvet roses which were Carmen's own flowers. Nick was a water drinker by
preference and because he was an open-air man, also because it had been
necessary for him to set an example; but to-night Carmen made him sip a
little iced champagne, and she drank to the success of his first visit
East since boyhood - to his safe and speedy home-coming.

"Because this is home, Nick; your home," she said. "It would kill me if
you saw any place you liked better, and if you made up your mind that you
wanted to sell out and live in New York."

"No fear," said Nick. "No man ever left paradise unless he was driven out
by flaming swords."

"Then you won't be gone long?" she asked, playing with the abalone chowder
on her plate.

"Not more than a month anyhow; maybe a few days less if I get homesick;
though it would hardly be worth while to go so far for a shorter time,
after staying West so many years without a single break. First, I count on
poking round in some of our old haunts - poor mother's and mine - and then,
when I am way down in the dumps I'll yank myself up again with a little
fun - theatres and roof-gardens and such-like."

"You've seen good plays in San Francisco," said Carmen.

"Yes, San Franciso's a great place. Only I haven't had time to go there
once in a blue moon. And just now it's those old associations
pulling - something seems drawing and drawing me to the East. It's like a
voice calling my name - 'Nick - Nick, I want you. Come!' Funny, isn't it?"

Carmen was not sure that it was funny. For she was superstitious beyond
all things; and at that moment it happened that she could hear the moaning
note of doves - a sound which she believed always brought her bad luck.

"What kind of a voice is it?" she asked, laughing rather shrilly. "Not a
woman's, I hope?"

"I guess it's that angel's I was telling you about." Nick smiled.

Carmen motioned the Chinese butler to fill her guest's glass, which he had
hardly touched.

"Don't let's talk any more of angels," she said. "Let's talk of me, and
you. Nick, do you know what to-night is? A year since I was free. 'At the
end of a year' I always said to myself. 'Twelve long months of
hypocritical respect paid to the memory of a person who was more brute
than man. But not a day more, when the twelve months are over.
Then - happiness - new life!' Don't you consider I'm justified in feeling
like that?"

Nick thought for a moment, not looking at Carmen. He gazed out through the
torn curtain of roses into the silver of the moonlight, over the wide lawn
with its fountains, toward the walls of trees which screened from sight
the rolling billows of the ranch-meadows with their cattle, their shining,
canal-like irrigation-ditches, their golden grain, their alfalfa, their
fruit and flowers. All this wealth and much more old Grizzly Gaylor had
given the pretty young singer in exchange for her beauty and the pleasure
of snatching her away from other men. Despite the "boss's" notorious
failings, it grated on Hilliard to hear Carmen rejoice aloud because her
husband was underground, and she was free of him now that his back was
turned forever.

"Probably you're right," Nick said. "Yet - it kind of rubs me up the wrong
way to listen to you talkin' like that, in particular just this very
night."

"Why in particular this very night?" she asked sharply.

"Well - I guess it's only conventional, because, why are twelve months more
important than fourteen or any other number? But it's the feeling of an
anniversary, I suppose. A year ago to-day he breathed his last - and he
didn't want to die. It sort of seems as if to-day ought to be sacred to
him, no matter what he was. And - maybe I'm a dashed hypocrite and don't
know it, but it doesn't suit my ideas of you to get the feeling that you
set up to-night as festival. I expect I'm wrong, though, and you ought to
be lecturin' me instead of me you."

"I don't want to lecture you, Nick, whether you understand me or not,"
said Carmen. But the dinner and the meaning of the feast were spoilt for
her in an instant. She could have bitten her tongue out because it had
spoken the wrong words - words which jarred on Nick at the very moment when
she most wished to charm him. She knew, with a heavy weight of
premonition, that this moonlight talk she had planned would give her
nothing worth having now. To try to make Nick feel her power would do more
harm than good, because the night had suddenly become haunted by the
spirit of the dead man. "I'm punished," she thought, superstitiously. But
she exerted herself to be cheerful, lest Nick should go East disgusted
with her. And that would be the end of all.




IV

A GIRL IN MOURNING


Angela May sat in her chair on the promenade-deck of the _Adriatic_ and
felt peacefully conscious that she was resting body and brain.

The ship was not crowded, for it was spring, and the great tide of travel
had turned in the opposite direction - toward Europe. On either side of her
chair were several which were unoccupied, and a soothing silence hovered
round her, through which she could listen to the whisper of the sea as the
ship glided on to the land of hope.

Loneliness gave a real joy to Angela; for, young as she was, she had lived
through an ordeal, and had taken a step which meant high nervous tension
leading up to a supreme decision. She was glad all was over, and well
over; desperately glad that her courage had not failed.

"Oh, how thankful I am!" she said again and again, under her breath.
Still, she vaguely envied some of the family parties on the ship, who
appeared happy and united. Not that she wanted them to talk to her. Witty,
lively people could be very nice when you were in the mood for them, but
agonizing when you were not; and since it wasn't permissible to cover
human beings up like canaries when you had tired of them, or send them
away like children when they had prattled enough, Angela cuddled down
among her cushions and rugs, glad to be let alone for the first time in
her life. But there was a young mother with a small imp of a curly-haired
girl, who fascinated her, and made her think. Once, when the imp fell on
the deck, to be caught up and kissed until a wail ended in a laugh, Angela
said to herself, "If my mother had been like that, everything would have
been different for me."

Saunterers for exercise or flirtation often turned for a glance at Angela.
What they saw was a slim girl, with pearly fair skin, big gray eyes,
quantities of wavy hair of so pale a yellow-brown that it was like gold
under the mourning hat she wore. Her low black collar made the slender
throat that rose out of it white as a lily. The oval of her face was
perfect, and when she read or closed her eyes, as she sometimes did, the
long lashes, many shades darker than her hair, and the delicate arch of
the brown eyebrows, gave her the soft, sweet look of a child asleep.

Always the glances were more admiring than curious; but they were curious,
too, for every one was wondering who she was. In spite of her youth, there
was something of pride and distinction about her which made it seem that
she could not be an ordinary sort of person you had never heard of; a mere
Miss Smith or Mrs. Brown. Yet all the "swells" on board had been duly
accounted for and recognized. She was not one of them.

"What a pretty girl!" people said. "And she seems to be travelling alone,
unless her friends are too sick to come out of their cabins. Apparently
she hasn't even brought a maid - yet what lovely clothes she has, though so
simple, and all black. Perhaps she's in mourning for her father or her
mother, or some near relation. She's too young to be a widow!"

Angela did not much mind these glances, or this gentle curiosity, for no
normal woman objects to being thought pretty. But it was delightful to
feel sure that no one knew who she was. If she were on the passenger-list
as the Princess di Sereno she would be more stared at and bothered than
that poor, fat Duchess of Dorsetshire, who was too near-sighted to
recognize her at a distance, thank goodness. Each glance thrown her way
would have been an annoyance, for there would have been nothing flattering
in any spice of interest her title gave. Some silly creatures might have
stared at her because she was a princess; but - far worse - others would
have looked because they knew all about her.

These would have buzzed: "Why, that's the Princess di Sereno, don't you
know, the only child of the California millionaire who died about ten
years ago, so suddenly while his wife and little daughter were in Europe!
The girl married that Roman prince, Paolo di Sereno, who used to make such
a sensation going about in an aeroplane, and gambling high at Monte
Carlo - awfully handsome man, a lot older than she. He must have been
nearly forty, and she seventeen, when she married him. Her mother made the
match, of course: girl just out of school - the wedding wasn't six weeks
after she was presented in England. The prince met her there, has English
relations, like most of the Roman nobility. But the interesting part of
the story is this: they never lived together as husband and wife. The
bride either found out some secret the prince had kept from her (which is
what people believe), or else there was a mysterious row the first hour
after the wedding. Anyhow, something happened; he went off the same day
and left her with her mother. Afterward, he came back; but it was an open
secret that the two were no more than strangers, or, you might say, polite
acquaintances, though they lived at opposite ends of his palace in Rome,
which her money restored, and his country place near Frascati. There was
never the least scandal, only wild curiosity. Now she has cut the whole
thing. Apparently couldn't stand the empty sort of life, or else he did
something worse than usual, at which she drew the line."

Angela did not much care whether people in Rome knew the truth or not.
That no longer greatly mattered to her, because she meant never, never to
go back to Rome, or to see Paolo di Sereno, or any of his friends - who had
never really been her friends. But she did not want people on the ship to
know, because she was tired of being talked about, and her hope was to
begin a new and different life. For herself, she had nothing to conceal;
but, she had never felt any pride or pleasure in being a princess, and
after the flatteries and disillusions, the miseries and foolish
extravagances of the last hateful, brilliant six years, everything
connected with them, and the historic title her dead father's money had
bought, was being eagerly obliterated by Franklin Merriam's daughter. She
knew little about her forebears on her father's side, except that they



Online LibraryAlice Muriel WilliamsonThe Port of Adventure → online text (page 2 of 25)