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19 Complete Works of Gertrude AthertonA Daughter of the VineAncestorsBlack OxenMrs. BalfameRezanovSenator NorthSleeping FiresThe AvalancheThe Bell in the Fog and Other StoriesThe CaliforniansThe ConquerorThe DoomswomanThe Gorgeous IsleThe Living PresentThe Sisters-In-LawThe Splendid Idle FortiesThe Valiant RunawaysThe White MorningWhat Dreams May Come
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The Complete Collection of Gertrude Atherton
A Daughter of the Vine
The Bell in the Fog and Other Stories
The Gorgeous Isle
The Living Present
The Splendid Idle Forties
The Valiant Runaways
The White Morning
What Dreams May Come
A Daughter of the Vine, by Gertrude Franklin
A DAUGHTER OF THE VINE
Author of "Senator North," "The Californians," etc.
New York Dodd, Mead and Company 1923
Copyright, 1899 By Dodd, Mead and Company
Printed in U. S. A.
A Daughter of the Vine
Two horses were laboriously pulling a carriage through the dense thickets and over the sandhills which in the early Sixties still made an ugly breach between San Francisco and its Presidio. The difficulties of the course were not abridged by the temper of the night, which was torn with wind and muffled in black. During the rare moments when the flying clouds above opened raggedly to discharge a shaft of silver a broad and dreary expanse leapt into form. Hills of sand, bare and shifting, huge boulders, tangles of scrub oak and chaparral, were the distorted features of the landscape between the high far-away peaks of the city and the military posts on the water's edge. On the other side of the bay cliffs and mountains jutted, a mere suggestion of outline. The ocean beyond the Golden Gate roared over the bar. The wind whistled and shrilled through the rigging of the craft on the bay; occasionally it lifted a loose drift and whirled it about the carriage, creating a little cyclone with two angry eyes, and wrenching loud curses from the man on the box.
"It's an unusually bad night, Thorpe, really," said one of the two occupants of the carriage. "Of course the winters here are more or less stormy, but we have many fine days, I assure you; and they're better than the summer with its fogs and trade winds--I am speaking of San Francisco," he added hastily, with newly acquired Californian pride. "Of course it is usually fine in the country at any time. I believe there are sixteen different climates in California."
"As any one of them might be better than England's, it is not for me to complain," said the other, good-naturedly. "But I feel sorry for the horses and the man. I don't think we should have missed much if we had cut this ball."
"Oh, I wouldn't miss it for the world. Life would be suicidal in this God-forsaken country if it were not for the hospitality of the San Franciscans. Some months ago two officers whose names I won't mention met in a lonely spot on the coast near Benicia Fort, on the other side of the bay, with the deliberate intention of shooting one another to death. They were discovered in time, and have since been transferred East. It is better for us on account of San Francisco--Whew! how this confounded thing does jolt!--and the Randolph parties are always the gayest of the season. Mr. Randolph is an Englishman with the uncalculating hospitality of the Californian. He has made a pot of money and entertains lavishly. Every pretty girl in San Francisco is a belle, but Nina Randolph is the belle par excellence."
"Is she a great beauty?" asked Thorpe, indifferently. He was wondering if the driver had lost his way. The wheels were zigzagging through drifts so deep that the sand shot against the panes.
"No, I don't know that she is beautiful at all. Miss Hathaway is that, and Mrs. McLane, and two of the 'three Macs'. But she has it all her own way. It's charm, I suppose, and then--well, she's an only child and will come in for a fortune--a right big one if this place grows as people predict. She's a deuced lucky girl, is Miss Nina Randolph, and it will be a deuced lucky fellow that gets her. Only no one does. She's twenty-three and heart-whole."
"Are you in love with her?"
"I'm in love with her and Guadalupe Hathaway and the 'three Macs' and Mrs. McLane. I never met so many attractive women in one place."
"Would it be Mrs. Hunt McLane--a Creole? I met her once in Paris--got to know her very well."
"You don't say. She'll make things hum for you. There's something else I wanted to say. I thought I'd wait and see if you discovered it yourself, but I believe I won't. It's this: there's something queer about the Randolphs in spite of the fact that they're more to the front than any people in San Francisco. I never leave that house that I don't carry away a vague impression that there's something behind the scenes I don't know anything about. I've never spoken of it to anyone else; it would be rather disloyal, after all the kindness they've shown me; but I'm too curious to know how they will impress you. I've only been here six months, and only know what everybody else knows about them--"
"Do you know, Hastings," said the Englishman abruptly, "I think something is wrong outside. I don't believe anyone is guiding those horses."
Hastings lowered the window beside him and thrust out his head.
"Hi, there, Tim!" he shouted. "What are you about?"
There was no reply.
"Hello!" he cried, thinking the wind might have miscarried his voice.
Again there was no reply; but the horses, gratefully construing the final syllable to their own needs, came to a full stop.
Hastings opened the door and sprang on to the hub of the wheel, expostulating angrily. He returned in a moment to his companion.
"Here's the devil to pay," he cried. "Tim's down against the dashboard as drunk as a lord. There's nothing to do but put him inside and drive, myself. I'd chuck him into a drift if I were not under certain obligations of a similar sort. Will you come outside with me, or stay in with him?"
"Why not go back to the Presidio?"
"We are about half-way between, and may as well go on."
"I'll go outside, by all means."
He stepped out. The two men dragged the coachman off the box and huddled him inside.
"We're off the road," said Hastings, "but I think I can find my way. I'll cut across to the Mission road, and then we'll be on level ground, at least."
They mounted the box. Hastings gathered the reins and Thorpe lit a cigar. The horses, well ordered brutes of the livery stable, did their weary best to respond to the peremptory order to speed.
"We'll be two hours late," the young officer grumbled, as they floundered out of the sandhills and entered the Mission Valley.
"Damn the idiot. Why couldn't he have waited till we got there?"
They were now somewhat sheltered from the wind, and as the road was level, although rutty, made fair progress.
"I didn't mean to treat you to a nasty adventure the very night of your arrival," continued Hastings apologetically.
"Oh, one rather looks for adventures in California. If I hadn't so much sand in my eyes I'd be rather entertained than otherwise. I only hope our faces are not dirty."
"They probably are. Still, if we are not held up, I suppose we can afford to overlook the minor ills."
"Stopped by road-agents, garroters, highway robbers--whatever you like to call 'em. I've never been held up myself; as a rule I go in the ambulance at night, but it's no uncommon experience. I've got a revolver in my overcoat pocket--on this side. Reach over and get it, and keep it cocked. I couldn't throw up my hands. I'd feel as if the whole United States army were disgraced."
Thorpe abstracted the pistol, but although the long lonely road was favourable to crime, no road-agents appeared, and Hastings drove into the outskirts of the town with audibly expressed relief.
"We're not far now," he added. "South Park is the place we're bound for; and, by the way, Mr. Randolph projected and owns most of it."
A quarter of an hour later he drove into an oval enclosure trimmed with tall dark houses, so sombre in appearance that to the old Californian they must now, in their desertion and decay, seem to have been grimly prescient of their destiny.
As the carriage drew up before a brilliantly lighted house the door opened, and a man-servant ran down the steps.
"Keep quiet," whispered Hastings.
The man opened the door of the carriage, waited a moment, then put his head inside. He drew it back with a violent oath.
"It's a damned insult!" he cried furiously.
"Why, Cochrane!" exclaimed Hastings, "what on earth is the matter with you?"
"Captain Hastings!" stammered the man. "Oh I--I--beg pardon. I thought--Oh, of course, I see. Tim had taken a drop too much. A most deplorable habit. Can I help you down, sir?"
He sprang lightly to the sidewalk, followed with less agility by the Englishman, who still held the cocked pistol.
"I forgot about this thing," said Thorpe. "Here--take it. I suppose we don't enter the houses of peaceable citizens, even in California, carrying loaded firearms?"
Cochrane led the horses into the little park which prinked the centre of the enclosure, and the young men ascended the steps.
"I'd give a good deal to know what set him off like that," said Hastings. "Hitherto he's been the one thoroughly impassive creature I've met in California; has a face about as expressionless as a sentinel on duty."
He pushed open the door and they entered a large hall lavishly decorated with flowers and flags. Many people were dancing in a room at the right, others were strolling about the hall or seated on the stair. These made way rather ungraciously for the late comers, who went hurriedly up to the dressing-room and regarded themselves in the mirror.
"We're not dirty, after all," said the Englishman in a tone of profound relief. He was a tall thin man of thirty or less with a dark face lean enough to show hard ungraceful lines of chin and jaw. The mouth would have been sensual had it been less determined, the grey eyes cold had they been less responsive to humour. Mrs. McLane had told him once that he was the type of man for whom civilization had done most: that an educated will and humour, combined with high breeding, had saved him from slavery to the primal impulses. His voice was harsh in tone but well modulated. He held himself very erectly but without self-consciousness.
Hastings' legs were his pride, and there were those who averred that they were the pride of the Presidio. His face was fair and round, his eyes were as talkative as his tongue. A past master of the noble art of flirting, no one took him more seriously than he took himself. He spoke with the soft rich brogue of the South; to-day it is hardened by years of command, and his legs are larger, but he is a doughty general, eager as ever for the hot high pulse of battle.
"Come on, Dud," he said, "time is getting short."
As they walked down the stair a man who was crossing the hall looked up, smiled charmingly, then paused, awaiting them. He was a small man of dignified presence with a head and face nobly modelled. His skin was faded and worn, it was cut with three or four deep lines, and his hair was turning grey, but his black eyes were brilliant.
"Don't turn us out, Mr. Randolph," cried Hastings. "It was not indifference that made us late; it was an ill-timed combination of Tim and rum. This is the English friend you were kind enough to say I could bring," he added as he reached the hall. "Did I tell you his name?--Thorpe, Dudley Thorpe, of Hampshire. That may interest you. You English are almost as sectional as we are."
Mr. Randolph had already grasped Thorpe's hand warmly and was bidding him welcome. "My home was further north--Yorkshire," he said. "Come into the parlour and meet my wife and daughter." As they pushed their way through the crowd he "sized up" the stranger with the rapid scrutiny of that period. "You must make yourself at home in my house," he said abruptly. "There are few English here and I am more glad than I can express to meet you."
"Ah--thanks!" Thorpe was somewhat taken aback, then remembered that he was in the newest section of the new world. And he had heard of the hospitality of the Californian.
They had entered a large room, canvassed for the evening and denuded of all furniture except the long rows of chairs against the walls. The musicians were resting. Men were fanning girls flushed and panting after the arduous labours of the waltz of that day. At one end of the room were some twenty or thirty older women.
Thorpe looked about him curiously. The women were refined and elegant, many of them with beauty or its approximate; three or four were Spanish, black-eyed, magnetic with coquetry and grace. The men, even the younger men, had a certain alertness of expression, a cool watchful glance; and they were all gentlemen. This fact impressed Thorpe at once, and as they walked down the long room something he said betrayed his thoughts.
"Yes," said Mr. Randolph, quickly. "They are all from the upper walks of life--men who thought there would be a better chance for them in the new community than in even the older American ones. And they keep together because, naturally, they are the law-abiding class and responsible for the future of the country. That also accounts for what you find in their faces. This sort of life develops character very quickly. There is another element in California. You will see it--Ah! here is my wife."
A tall raw-boned woman with weak blue eyes and abundant softly piled hair had arisen from the group of matrons and was advancing toward them. She was handsomely dressed in black velvet, her neck covered with point lace confined under the loose chin by a collar of diamonds.
She looked cold and listless, but spoke pleasantly to the young men.
"We are glad to welcome an Englishman," she said to Thorpe; and to Hastings: "You are not usually so late, and I have heard a round dozen inquiring for you."
Thorpe, as he exchanged commonplaces with her, reflected that no woman had ever attracted him less. As he looked into the face he saw that it was cold, evil, and would have appeared coarse but for the hair and quiet elegance of attire. Despite her careful articulation, he detected the broad o and a of the Yorkshire people. The woman was playing the part of a gentlewoman and playing it fairly well. When the thin lips moved apart in an infrequent smile they displayed sharp scattered teeth. The jaw was aggressive. The hands in their well-adjusted gloves were large even for her unusual height. As Thorpe remarked that he was prepared to admire and enjoy California, one side of her upper lip lifted in an ugly sneer.
"Probably," she replied coldly. "Most people catch it. It's like the measles. I wish Jim Randolph liked it less."
Thorpe, for the first time, experienced a desire to meet Nina Randolph.
Hastings disengaged him. "Come," he said, "I'll introduce you to Miss Randolph and one or two others, and then you can look out for yourself. I want to dance. Mrs. McLane is not here. There are the 'three Macs,'" indicating a trio surrounded by a group of men,--"Miss McDermott, classic and cold; Miss McAllister, languid and slight; Miss McCullum, stocky and matter-of-fact. But it will take you a week to straighten them out. Here--look--what do you think of this?"
Thorpe directed his glance over the shoulders of a knot of men who surrounded a tall Spanish-looking girl with large haughty blue eyes and brown hair untidily arranged. She wore an old black silk frock with muslin bertha. Her face interested Thorpe at once, but in a moment he had much ado to keep from laughing outright. For she spoke never a word. She merely looked; taking each eager admirer in turn, and by some mysterious manipulation of eyelash, sweeping a different expression into those profound obedient orbs every time. As she saw Hastings she nodded carelessly, and, when he presented Thorpe, spoke for the first time. She merely said "Good-evening," but her voice, Spanish, low, sweet--accompanied by a look--made the stranger feel what a blessed thing hospitality was.
"So that is your Miss Hathaway," he said, as Hastings once more led him onward. "What a pity that such a beautiful girl should be so poor. But she'll probably marry any one of these incipient millionaires she wants."
"Poor?" cried Hastings. "Oh, her get-up. She affects to despise dress--or does. God forbid that I should presume to understand what goes on behind those blue masks. Her father is a wealthy and distinguished citizen. Her mother inherited a hundred thousand acres from one of the old grandees. What do you think of her?"
"Her methods are original and entertaining, to say the least. Does she never--converse?"
"When she has something to say; she's a remarkable woman. That must be Miss Randolph. Her crowd is always the densest."
As Thorpe was presented to Nina Randolph he forgot that he was a student of heredity. He had never seen so radiant and triumphant a being. She seemed to him, in that first moment, to symbolize the hope and joy and individualism of the New World. Small, like her father, she was perfectly modelled, from her round pulsing throat to the tips of her tiny feet: ignoring the fashion, her yellow gown fitted her figure instead of a hoop-skirt. Her black hair was coiled low on her head, but, although unconfined in a net, did not, like Miss Hathaway's "waterfall," suggest having been arranged in the dark. Her black eyes, well set and wide apart, sparkled with mirth. The head was thrown back, the chin uplifted, the large sweet human mouth, parted, showed small even teeth. The eyebrows were heavy, the nose straight and tilted, the complexion ivory-white, luminous, and sufficiently coloured.
As she saw Hastings, she rose at once and motioned her group aside.
"Whatever made you so late?" she exclaimed. "And this is Mr. Thorpe? I am so relieved that you have not been garotted, or blown into the bay. Captain Hastings is always the first to arrive and the last to leave--I was sure something had happened."
"You look remarkably worried," murmured Hastings.
"I cannot depress my other guests. They also have their rights." She gave Thorpe a gracious smile. "I have saved the fifth dance from this for you, and you are also to take me in to supper. Now I must go. Hasta luego! Captain Hastings, as it's all your fault, I shall not give you a dance till after supper."
She spun down the room in the clasp of an army officer little taller than herself. Thorpe's eyes followed the fluent pair darting through the mob of dancers with the skill and energy of that time. Miss Randolph's eyes glittered, her little feet twinkled. She looked the integer of happy youth; and Thorpe turned away with a sigh, feeling old for the moment under the pressure of his large experience of the great world beyond California. He became aware that Hastings was introducing him to several men, and a moment later was guided to the library to have a drink. When he returned, it was time to claim Miss Randolph.
"Do you care to dance?" he asked as he plied her fan awkwardly. "I am rather rusty. To tell the truth, it's eight years since I last danced, and I never was very keen on it. I should say that I've been travelling a lot, and when I'm home I go in for sport rather more than for the social taxes."
"What a relief to find a man who doesn't dance! Let us go into the conservatory. Have you been much in America? How is it that you and Captain Hastings are such great friends?"
"He came over when a lad to visit some English relatives whose place adjoins ours, and we hit it off. Since then I have visited him in Louisiana, and we have travelled in Europe together."
"I suppose he amuses you--you are certainly unlike enough."
"Not in the least--he's the prince of good fellows. What a jolly place!"
They had passed through the library and entered the conservatory: a small forest of palms, great ferns, and young orange-trees; brought, Miss Randolph explained, from Southern California. Chinese lanterns swung overhead. Rustic chairs and sofas, covered with the skins of panthers, wild cats, and coyotes, were grouped with much discretion.
Miss Randolph threw herself into a chair and let her head drop against the yellow skin on the back. Thorpe drew his chair close in front of her. In a moment he discovered that her lids were inclined to droop, and that there were lines about her mouth.
"You are tired," he said abruptly. "Shall I fetch you a glass of champagne?"
"Oh, no; it wouldn't do me a bit of good. Hot rooms and dancing always tire me. I'm glad when the season is over. In another month or so we shall be going to Redwoods, our country home--about thirty miles south of San Francisco. You must come down with us; we have good shooting,--deer and quail in the mountains, and snipe and duck in the marshes."
"You are very kind," he said, and his reply was as mechanical as her invitation. He knew that all but the edge of her mind was turned from him, and was sufficiently interested to wish to get down into her thought. He went on gropingly: "I will confide to you that army life bores me a good deal, and as I intend to spend six months in California, I shall travel about somewhat." Then he added abruptly: "You are utterly unlike an English girl."
"I am a Californian. Blood does not go for much in this climate. You'll understand why, if you stay here long enough."
"In what way is it so unlike other places? I feel the difference, but cannot define it."
"It's the wickedest place on earth! I suppose there are wicked people everywhere, but California is a sort of headquarters. It seems to be a magnet for that element in human nature. I wish I had been born and brought up in England."
"Why?" he asked, smiling but puzzled, and recalling Hastings' imaginings. "I never saw any one look less wicked than yourself. Are you wicked?" he added, audaciously.
She flirted her fan at him, and her eyes danced so coquettishly that he no longer saw the drooping lids. "Our wickedness takes the form of flirtation,--heartless and unprincipled. Ask Captain Hastings. We are all refusing him in turn. Talk to me about England, while I study you and determine which line to take. I haven't typed you yet--I never make the fatal mistake of generalising."
As he answered the questions she put to him in rapid succession, his own impressions changed several times. He was charmed by her intelligence, occasionally by a flash of something deeper. Again, he saw only the thrilling beauty of her figure, and once something vibrated across his brain so fleeting that he barely realised it was an echo of the repulsion her mother had inspired.
"Well? What are your conclusions?" she demanded suddenly.
"You have been sizing me up. I want to know the result."
"You shall not," he said stubbornly. "I--I beg pardon; I have lost the knack of polite fencing."
"I had read that Englishmen were blunt and truthful beings--either through conscious superiority or lack of complexity, I forget which. My father and the few others out here are almost denationalised."
"Well, I did beg pardon. And when a man is talking and receiving impressions at the same time, the impressions are not very well defined."
"But you think quickly and jump at conclusions. And minds of that sort sometimes make mistakes."
"I frequently make mistakes. Among the few things I have learned is not to judge people at sight--nor in a lifetime, for that matter. I certainly don't pretend to size up women, particularly women like yourself."
"That was very neat. Why myself? I am a very transparent young person." She flirted her lashes at him, but he fancied he saw a gleam of defiance shoot between them.
"You are not transparent. If you are kind enough to let me see a good deal of you, I fancy I shall know something of twenty Miss Randolphs by the time I leave California."
"Some you will like, and some you will not," she replied, with calm disregard of her previous assertion. "Well, I shall know what you think of me before long--don't make any mistake about that. Shall we flirt, by the way, or shall we merely be friends?"
"The last condition would give greater range to your inherent wickedness."
She laughed, apparently with much amusement. "I have a good many friends, nevertheless,--real friends. I have made it my particular art, and have rules and regulations. When they transgress, I fine them."
"Suppose we begin that way. I'd like to know the rules."
"N-o, I don't think I want to. You see, the rule I most strictly enforce is that when the party of the other part transgresses, I never sit with him in a conservatory again."
"Let us cut the rules by all means. I feel a poor helpless male, quite at your mercy: I haven't been in a conservatory for years. Although I've made a point of seeing something of the society of every capital I've visited, I've forgotten the very formula of flirtation. I might take a few lessons of Hastings--"
"Oh, don't! What a combination that would be! I will teach you all that it is necessary for you to know."
"Heaven help me. I shall be wise and sad when I leave California. However, I face my fate like a man; whatever happens, I shall not run. Just now it is my duty to wait on you. Shall I bring your supper here?"
"Yes--do. You will find a table behind that palm. Draw it up. There. Now bring what you like for yourself, but only a few oysters for me."
He returned in a few moments followed by a man, who spread the table with delicate fare.
Miss Randolph nibbled her oysters prettily. Thorpe was about to fill her glass with champagne, when she shook her head.
"I cannot," she said. "It goes to my head--one drop."
"Then don't, by all means. I hope you like it, and are resisting a temptation."
"I detest it, as it happens. If you want to see me in the high heroic role, which I infer you admire, you must devise a temptation of another sort."
"I think your dear little sex should be protected from all temptation. I rather like the Oriental way of doing things."
"Don't you flatter yourself that a wall fifteen feet high, and covered with broken glass, would protect a woman from temptations, if she wanted them. A man, to keep a woman inside that wall, must embody all the temptations himself."
Thorpe looked at her, and drew his brows together.
"That was a curious remark for a girl to make," he said, coldly.
"You mean it would be if I were English. But I am not only American, but Californian, born and brought up in a city where they are trying to be civilised and succeeding indifferently well. Do you suppose I can help seeing what life is? I should be next door to an idiot if I could."
"I hardly know whether you would be more interesting if you had been brought up in England. No," he added, reflectively, after a moment, "I don't think you would be."
"What you really think is, that I should not be half so interesting, but much more ideal."
"If I thought anything of the sort, it was by a purely mechanical process," he said, reddening. "I have lived out of England too much to be insular in all my notions."
"I don't believe an Englishman ever changes on certain points, of which woman is one; heredity is too strong. If you sat down and thought it all over, you'd find that although you could generalise on a more liberal scale than some of your countrymen, your own personal ideals were much the same as theirs."
"Possibly, but as I don't intend to marry till I'm forty,--when I intend to stand for Parliament,--I'm not bothering about ideals at present."
"That was a more insular remark than you evidently imagine. However--speaking of ideals, I should say that California generated them more liberally than any other country--through sheer force of contrast. I have grown rather morbid on the subject of good people, myself. I grow more exacting every month of my life; and the first thing I look for in a new man's face is to see, first, whether he has a mind, and then, whether it controls all the rest of him. I've seen too much of practical life to have indulged much in dreams and heroes; but I've let my imagination go somewhat, and I picture a man with all the virtues that you don't see in combination out here, and living with him in some old European city where there are narrow crooked streets, and beautiful architecture, and the most exquisite music in the cathedrals."
Her voice had rattled on lightly, and she smiled more than once during her long speech. But her eyes did not smile; they had a curious, almost hard, intentness which forced Thorpe to believe that her brain was casting up something more than the froth of a passing mood.
"I am afraid you won't meet your hero of all the virtues," he said, "even in a picturesque old continental town. But I think I understand your feeling. It is the principle of good in you demanding its proper companionship and setting."
"Yes, that is it," she said, softly. "That is it. I am no worse than other girls; but I flirt and waste my time abominably. It would be all right if I did no more thinking than they do; but I do so much that, if I were inclined to be religious, I believe I'd run, one of these days, into a convent. However, I can always look forward to the old European town."
"I suppose when your left eyebrow goes up like that you're trying to flirt. I don't know that I'd mind being alone, particularly. It would be several thousand times better than the society of some of the people I've been forced to associate with. I love art,--particularly architecture and music,--and I'm sure I could weave a romance round myself. Yes, I'm sure I should love it as much as I hate this country," she added with such vehemence that Thorpe set down his fork abruptly.
"You are very pale," he said; "I think you had better take a little champagne. Indeed, you must be utterly worn out. I can imagine what a lot you have had to do and think of to-day."
He filled her glass, and she drank the champagne quickly.
"I have a shocking head," she said; "but I need this. I have been out eight nights in succession, and have been on the go all day besides. Mother never attends to anything; and father, of course, is too busy to bother with parties. Cochrane and I have to do everything."
"Tell me some more of your ideals," said Thorpe. He was not sure that he liked her, but she piqued his curiosity.
"Ideals? Who ever had an ideal after a glass of champagne--except to be in the wildest spirits for the rest of one's life? There will be no champagne in Bruges--that's the city I've settled on; but I can't even think of Bruges. Champagne suggests Paris, and they tell me Paris is even more wicked than San Francisco. Is it?"
Her eyes were sparkling with merriment; but although she refilled her glass, there was no suggestion as yet of the bacchante about her. The colour had come back to her face, and she looked very charming. Nevertheless Thorpe frowned and shook his head.
"I should prefer to talk about Bruges," he said. "I've been there, and can tell you all you'd like to know. When I go back, I'll send you some photographs."
"Thanks--but I have a whole portfolio full. I want to hear about Paris. I'm afraid you're a bit of a prig."
"No man could be less of a prig. I hope you are above the silly idea that, because we English have a slightly higher standard than other nations, it follows that we are prigs. You were entirely delightful a few moments ago; but I don't like to see a woman drink when it affects her as it does you."
The colour flew from her cheeks to her hair, and her eyes flashed angrily. "You are a prig, and you are extremely impertinent," she said.
Thorpe sprang to his feet, plunging his hands into his pockets.
"Oh--don't--don't--" he exclaimed. "I'm afraid I was rude. I assure you, I did not intend to criticise you. Please say you forgive me."
She smiled and shrugged her shoulders. "You look so really penitent," she said gaily. "Sit down and fill my glass, and drink to our--friendship."
He was about to remonstrate; but reflecting that it would be a bore to apologise twice in succession, and also that what she did was none of his affair, he filled her glass. She touched it to his, and threw herself back against the skins, sipping the wine slowly and chattering nonsense. He refilled her glass absently the fourth time; but when she pushed it across the table again, he said, with some decision:
"Be careful. This champagne is very heady. I feel it myself."
She drained the glass. For a moment they stared hard at each other in silence, Thorpe wondering at the sudden maturity in the face before him. All the triumphant young womanhood had gone out of it; the diabolical spirit of some ancestor entombed in the depths of her brain might have possessed her for the moment, smothering her own groping soul. The distant music filled the conservatory with a low humming sound, such as one hears in a tropical forest at noon. Suddenly Thorpe realised that the evil which is in all human souls was having its moment of absolute liberty, and that the two dissevered particles, his and hers, recognised each other. He had knocked his senseless many times in his life, but he felt no inclination to do so to-night; for so much more than what little was evil in this girl attracted and magnetised him. His brain was not clear, and it was reckless with its abrupt possession by the idea that this woman was his mate, and that, for good or for evil, there was no escaping her. He sprang to his feet, pushed the table violently aside, took her in his arms and kissed her. For a moment she was quiescent; then she slipped from his embrace and ran down the conservatory, thrusting the ferns aside. One fell, its jar crashing on the stone floor. He saw no more of her that night.
Two days later Thorpe was strolling up and down the beach before the Presidio. The plaza was deserted; here and there, on the verandahs of the low adobe houses surrounding it, officers lay at full length in hammocks, smoking or reading, occasionally flirting with some one in white.
Every trace of the storm had fled. The warmth and fragrance and restlessness of spring were in the air. The bay, as calm as a mountain lake, reflected a deep blue sky with no wandering white to give it motion. Outside the Golden Gate, the spray leaped high, and the ocean gave forth its patient roar. The white sails on the bay hung limply. Opposite was a line of steep cliffs, bare and green; beyond was a stupendous peak, dense and dark with redwoods. Farther down, facing the young city, hills jutted, romantic with sweeping willows. Between was the solitary rock, Alcatraz, with its ugly fort of many eyes. Far to the east was a line of pink mountains dabbled with blue, tiny villages clinging to their knees.
Thorpe's keen eye took in every detail. It pleased him more than anything he had seen for some time. After a long rainy day in quarters, trying to talk nonsense to the Presidio women in their cramped parlours, and giving his opinion of California some thirty times, he felt that he could hail the prospect of a week of fresh air and solitude with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy. He kept the tail of his eye on the square, ready to hasten his steps and disappear round the sand dunes, did any one threaten to intrude upon his musings.
He saw a man ride into the plaza, dismount at the barracks, and a moment later head for the beach. Thorpe's first impulse was to flee. But he stopped short; he had recognised Mr. Randolph's butler.
The man touched his hat as he approached.
"A note from Miss Randolph, sir."
Thorpe opened the note. It read:
MY DEAR MR. THORPE,--I should like to see you this afternoon, if you are disengaged. If not, at your earliest convenience. I hope you will understand that this is not an idle request, but that I particularly wish to see you.
Sincerely, NINA RANDOLPH.
"Tell Miss Randolph that I will call at three," said Thorpe, promptly.
He had no wish to avoid the interview; he was quite willing that she should turn the scorpions of her wrath upon him. He deserved it. He did not pretend to understand Nina Randolph, deeply as he had puzzled over her since their memorable interview; but that he had helped her to violate her own self-respect, there could be little doubt, and he longed to give her what satisfaction he could. He had lived his inner life very fully, and knew all that the sacrifice of an ideal meant to the higher parts of the mind. Whether Miss Randolph had ever kissed a man before or not, he would not pretend to guess; but he would have been willing to swear that she had never kissed another in the same circumstances; and he burned to think that he had been the man to cast her at the foot of her girlish pedestal. Whatever possibilities for evil there might be in her, instinct prompted him to believe that they were undeveloped. Her strong sudden magnetism for him had passed with her presence, and, looking back, he attributed it entirely to the momentary passion of which he was ashamed; but he felt something of the curious tie which binds thinking people who have helped each other a step down the moral ladder.
After luncheon, he informed Hastings that he was going to the city, and asked for a horse.
"I'll go with you--"
"I don't want you," said Thorpe, bluntly. "I have a particular reason for wishing to go alone."
"Oh, very well," said Hastings, amiably. "The savage loves his solitude, I know."
The road between the army posts and San Francisco was well beaten. Thorpe could not have lost his way, even if the horse had not known every inch of it.
He reached the city within an hour. It was less picturesque by day than by night. The board sidewalks were broken and uneven, the streets muddy. The tall frame buildings of the business section looked as if they had been pieced together in intervals between gambling and lynching. Dwelling-houses with gardens about them were scattered on the heights.
Two miles south of the swarming, hurrying, swearing brain of the city was the aristocratic quarter,--South Park and Rincon Hill. The square wooden houses, painted a dark brown, had a solid and substantial air, and looked as if they might endure through several generations.
The man, Cochrane, admitted Thorpe, and conducted him to the library. The room was unoccupied, and, as the door closed behind the butler, Thorpe for the first time experienced a flutter. He was about to have a serious interview with a girl of whose type he knew nothing. Would she expect him to apologise? He had always held that the man who kissed and apologised was an ass. But he had done Miss Randolph something more than a minor wrong.
He shrugged his shoulders and took his stand before the fireplace. She had sent for him; let her take the initiative. He knew woman well enough to follow her cues, be the type new or old. Then he looked about him with approval. One would know it was an Englishman's library, he thought. Book-shelves, closely furnished, lined two sides of the large and lofty room. One end opened into the conservatory--where palms did shelter and the lights were dim. The rugs and curtains were red, the furniture very comfortable. On a long table were the periodicals of the world.
Miss Randolph kept him waiting but a few moments. She opened the door abruptly and entered. Her face was pale, and her eyes were shadowed; but she held her head very high. Her carriage and her long dark gown made her appear almost tall. As she advanced down the room, she looked at Thorpe steadily, without access of colour, her lips pressed together. He met her half way. His first impression was that her figure was the most beautiful he had ever seen, his next the keenest impulse of pity he had felt for any woman.
She extended her hand mechanically, and he took it and held it.
"Is it true that I kissed you the other night?" she asked, peremptorily.
"Yes," he said, ungracefully.
"And I had drunk too much champagne?"
"It was my fault," he said, eagerly. "You told me that you had a bad head. I had no business to press it on you."
"You must think I am a poor weak creature indeed, if my friends are obliged to take care of me," she said drily. "I was a fool to touch it--that is the long and the short of it. I have given you a charming impression of the girls of San Francisco--sit down: we look idiotic standing in the middle of the room holding each other's hand--I can assure you that there was not another girl in the house who would have done what I did, or whom you would have dared to kiss. In a new country, you know, the social lines are drawn very tight, and the best people are particular to prudery. It is necessary: there are so many dreadful women out here. I am positive that in the set to which Captain Hastings has introduced you, you will meet a larger number of well-conducted people than you have ever met in any one place before."
"It is very good of you to put on armour for your city," he said, smiling. "I shall always think of it as your city, by the way. But I thought you did not like California."
"It is my country. I feel great pride in it. You will find that it is a country with a peculiar influence. Some few natures it leaves untouched--but they are precious few. In the others, it quickens all the good and evil they were born with."
Thorpe looked at her with a profound interest. He was eager to hear all that she had to say.
"I have never before had occasion to speak like this to any man," she went on. "If I had had, I should not have done so. I should have carried it off with a high hand, ignored it, assumed that I was above criticism. I only speak to you so frankly because you are an Englishman. People of the same blood are clannish when away from their own land. I say this without coquetry: I care more for your good opinion than for that of any of the others--I am so tired of them!"
"Thank you--even if you did rather spoil it. You have it, if it really matters to you. Surely, you don't think I misunderstand. I insist upon assuming all the blame--and--upon apologising."
"Well, I am glad you apologised. Although you were not the most to blame, just for the moment it made me feel that you were. I have already forgiven you." She dropped her eyes for a moment, then looked at him again with her square, almost defiant regard. "There is something I have been trying to lead up to. It is this--it is not very easy to say--I want you to make a promise. There is a skeleton in this house. Some people know. I don't want you to ask them about it. My father will ask you here constantly. I shall want you to come, too. I ask you to promise to keep your eyes shut. Will you?"
"I shall see nothing. Thanks, thanks." He got up and moved nervously about. "We will be friends, the best of friends, promise me that. No flirtation. No nonsense. There may be something I can do to help you while I am here. I hope there will be."
"There will not, but I like you better for saying that--I know you are not demonstrative." She threw herself back in her chair and smiled charmingly. "As to the other part--yes, we shall be the best of friends. It was hard to speak, but I am glad that I did. I knew it was either that or a nodding acquaintance, and I had made up my mind that it should be something quite different. When we are alone and serious, we will not flirt; but I have moods, irrepressible ones. If, when we meet in society, I happen to be in a highly flirtatious humour, you are to flirt with me. Do you understand?"
"Certainly, certainly, I agree--to keep you from flirting with other men."
"Now fetch that portfolio over there,--it has Bruges in it,--and tell me something about every stone."
They talked for two hours, and of much beside Bruges. Haphazardly as she had been educated in this new land, her natural intelligence had found nutrition in her father's mind and library. Thorpe noted that when talking on subjects which appealed to the intellect alone, her face changed strikingly: the heavy lids lifted, the eyes sparkled coldly, the mouth lost its full curves. Even her voice, so warm and soft, became, more than once, harsh and sharp.
"There are several women in her," he thought. "She certainly is very interesting. I should like to meet her again ten years hence."
"Why don't you travel?" he asked. "It would mean so much more to you than to most women. Even if Mr. Randolph cannot leave this fair young city he is building up, and your mother won't leave him, you could go with some one else--"
"I never expect to leave California," she said shortly. Then, as she met his look of surprise, she added: "I told you a fib when I said that I did not dream, or only a little. I get out of my own life for hours at a time by imagining myself in Europe, cultivating my mind, my taste for art, to their utmost limit, living a sort of impersonal life--Of course there are times when I imagine myself with some one who would care for it all as much as I, and know more--and all that. But I try to keep to the other. I have suffered enough to know that in the impersonal life is the surest content. And as for the other--it could not be, even if I ever met such a man. But dreams help one enormously, and I am the richer for all I have indulged in."
Thorpe stood up again. Under a rather impassive exterior, he was a restless man, and his acquaintance with Nina Randolph had tried his nerves.
"I wish you had not given me half confidences, or that you would refrain from rousing my curiosity--my interest, as you do. It is hardly fair. I don't wish to know what the family skeleton is, but I do want to know you better. If you want the truth, I have never been so intrigue by a woman in my life. And I have never so wanted to help one. I have been so drawn to you that I have had a sense of having done you a personal wrong ever since the other night. A man does not usually feel that way when he kisses a girl. I see it is no use to ask your confidence now; but, mind, I don't say I sha'n't demand it later on."
At this moment the butler entered with the lamps. He was followed immediately by Mr. Randolph, who exclaimed delightedly:
"Is it really you, Mr. Thorpe? I have just sent you a note asking you to dine with us on Sunday. And you'll stay to dinner to-night--no, I won't listen to any excuses. If you knew what a pleasure it is to meet an Englishman once more!"
"Hastings will think I am lost--"
"I'll send him a note, and ask him to come in for the evening, and I'll get in a dozen of our neighbours. We'll have some music and fun."
"Very well--I am rather keen on staying, to tell you the truth. Many thanks."
"Sit down. You must see something of sport here. It is very interesting in this wild country."
"I should like it above all things." Thorpe sat forward eagerly, forgetting Miss Randolph. "What have you that's new? I've killed pretty nearly everything."
"We will have an elk hunt."
"I want to go, too," said Nina, authoritatively.
Thorpe turned, and smiled, as he saw the hasty retreat of an angry sparkle.
"I am afraid you would be a disturbing influence," he said gallantly.
"I shouldn't disturb you," she said, with the pertness of a spoilt child. "I am a good shot myself. I can go--can't I, papa?"
Mr. Randolph smiled indulgently. "You can do anything you like, my darling," he said. "I wonder you condescend to ask."
Nina ran over and kissed him, then propped her chin on top of his head and looked defiantly at Thorpe.
"If you don't take me," she remarked, drily, "there will be no hunt."
"On the whole, I think my mind would concentrate better if you were not absent," he said.
She blew him a kiss. "You are improving. Hasta luego! I must go and smooth my feathers." And she ran out of the room.
The two men talked of the threatened civil upheaval in the United States until dinner was announced, a half hour later.
Mrs. Randolph did not appear until the soup had been removed. She entered the dining-room hurriedly, muttering an apology. Her toilette had evidently been made in haste: her brooch was awry; and her hair, banded down the face after the fashion of the time, hung an inch below one ear and exposed the lobe of the other, dealing detrimentally with her dignity, despite her fine physique.
She took no part in the conversation for some time. It was very lively. Mr. Randolph was full of anecdote and information, and enjoyed scintillating. He frequently referred to Nina, as if proud of her cleverness and anxious to exhibit it; but the guest noticed that he never addressed a word--nor a glance--to his wife.
Suddenly Thorpe's eyes rested on a small dark painting in oils, the head of an old man.
"That is rather good," he said, "and a very interesting face."
"You have probably never heard of the artist, unless you have read the life of his sister. I was so fond of the man that I resent his rescue from oblivion by the fame of a woman. His name was Branwell Bronte, and that is a portrait of my grandfather."
"If Branwell 'ad a-conducted hisself," said a heavy voice opposite, "'ee'd a-been the wonder of the family. Mony a time a 've seen 'im coom into tha Lord Rodney Inn, 'is sharp little face as red as tha scoollery maid's 'ands, and rockin' from one side of tha 'all to tha hother, and sit doon at tha table, and make a caricachure of ivvery mon thot coom in. And once when 'ee was station-master at Luddondon Foote a 've 'eard as 'ow a mon coom runnin' oop just as tha train went oot, and said as 'ow 'ee was horful anxious to know if a certain mon went hoff. 'Ee tried describin' 'im, and couldn't, so Branwell drew pictures of all the persons as 'ad left, and 'ee recognised the one as 'ee wanted."
There was a moment's silence, so painful that Thorpe felt his nerves jumping and the colour rising to his face. He recalled his promise, and looked meditatively at the strange concoction which had been placed before him as Mrs. Randolph finished. But his thought was arbitrary. An ignorant woman of the people, possibly an ex-servant, who could only play the gentlewoman through a half-dozen rehearsed sentences, and forget the role completely at times! He had not expected to find the skeleton so soon.
"That is carne con agi, a Chile dish," said Mr. Randolph, suavely. "I'm very fond of Spanish cooking, myself, and you had better begin your education in it at once: you will get a good deal out here."
"I am jolly glad to hear it. I'm rather keen on new dishes." He glanced up. Mr. Randolph was yellow. The lines in his face had deepened. Thorpe dared not look at Nina.
Some eight or ten people, including Hastings, came in after dinner. Mrs. Randolph had gone upstairs from the dining-room, and did not appear again. Her dampening influence removed, Mr. Randolph and Nina recovered their high light spirits; and there was much music and more conversation. Miss Randolph had a soprano voice of piercing sweetness, which flirted effectively with Captain Hastings' tenor. Thorpe thought Hastings an ass for rolling his eyes out of his head, and finally turned his back on the piano to meet the large amused glance of Miss Hathaway. He sat down beside her, and, being undisturbed for ten minutes, found her willing to converse, or rather to express a number of decided opinions. She told him whom he was to know, what parts of California he was to visit, how long he was to stay, and after what interval he was to return. Thorpe listened with much entertainment, for her voice was not tuned to friendly advice, but to command. Her great eyes were as cold as icicles under a blue light; but there was a certain cordiality in their invitation to flirt. Thorpe did not respond. If he had known her first, he reflected, he should doubtless have made an attempt to dispossess her court; but the warm magnetic influence of Nina Randolph held him, strengthened by her demand upon his sympathy. Still he felt that Miss Hathaway was a person to like, and remained at her side until he was dismissed in favour of Hastings; when he talked for a time to the intellectual Miss McDermott, the sweet and slangy Miss McAllister, who looked like an angel and talked like a gamin, to Don Roberto Yorba, a handsome and exquisitely attired little grandee who was trying to look as much like an American as his friend Hiram Polk, with his lantern jaws and angular figure. It was the first city Thorpe had visited where there was no type: everybody suggested being the father or mother of one, and was of an individuality so pronounced that the stranger marvelled they were not all at one another's throats. But he had never seen people more amiable and fraternal.
He did not see Nina alone again until a few moments before he left. He drew her out into the hall while Hastings was saying good-night to Mr. Randolph.
"May I come often?" he asked.
"I certainly shall."
"Will you talk to me about things that men scarcely ever talk to girls about,--books and art--and--what one thinks about more than what one does."
"I'll talk about anything under heaven that you want to talk about--particularly yourself."
"I don't want to talk about myself."
Her face was sparkling with coquetry, but it flushed under the intensity of his gaze. His brown skin was paler than when he had entered the house, his hard features were softened by the shaded lamp of the hall, and his grey eyes had kindled as he took her hand. She looked very lovely in a white gown touched up with red velvet bows.
"I believe you'll be a tremendous flirt by the time you leave here," she said, trying to draw her hand away. "And don't tell me this is your first experience in eight years."
"I've known a good many women," he said, bluntly. "At present I am only following your cues--and there are a bewildering lot of them. When you are serious, I shall be serious. When you are not--I shall endeavour to be frivolous. To be honest, however, I have no intention of flirting with you, fascinating and provocative as you are. I'd like awfully to be your intimate friend, but nothing more. Good-night."
South Park in the Fifties and Sixties was the gayest quarter of respectable San Francisco, with not a hint of the gloom which now presses about it like a pall. The two concave rows of houses were the proudest achievements of Western masonry, and had a somewhat haughty air, as if conscious of the importance they sheltered. The inner park was green and flowered; the flag of the United States floated proudly above. The whole precinct had that atmosphere of happy informality peculiar to the brief honeymoon of a great city. People ran, hatless, in and out of each other's houses, and sat on the doorsteps when the weather was fine. The present aristocracy of San Francisco, the landed gentry of California whose coat-of-arms should be a cocktail, a side of mutton, or a dishonest contract, would give not a few of their dollars for personal memories of that crumbling enclosure at the foot of the hill: memories that would be welcome even with the skeleton which, rambling through these defaced abandoned houses, they might expect to see grinning in dark spidery corners or in rat-claimed cupboards. Poor old houses! They have kept silent and faithful guard over the dark tales and tragic secrets of their youth; curiosity has been forced to satisfy itself with little more than vague and ugly rumour. The memories that throng them tell little to any but the dead.
There lived, in those days, the Randolphs, the Hathaways, the Dom Pedro Earles, the Hunt McLanes, the three families to which the famous "Macs" belonged, and others that have no place in this story. Before his second week in California was finished, Thorpe knew them all, and was petted and made much of; for San Francisco, then as now, dearly loved the aristocratic stranger. He rode into the city every day, either alone or with Hastings, and rarely returned without spending several moments or hours with Nina Randolph. Sometimes she was alone, sometimes companioned by her intimate friend, Molly Shropshire,--a large masculine girl of combative temper and imbued with disapproval of man. She made no exception in favour of Thorpe, and when he did not find her in the way, he rather enjoyed quarrelling with her. Mrs. Randolph made no more abrupt incursions into the table talk and spent most of her time in her room. Occasionally Thorpe met in the hall a coarse-looking woman whom he knew to be a Mrs. Reinhardt and the favoured friend of Mrs. Randolph. Mr. Randolph was often in brilliant spirits; at other times he looked harassed and sad; but he always made Thorpe feel the welcome guest.
Thorpe, during the first fortnight of their acquaintance, snubbed his maiden attempt to understand Nina Randolph; it was so evident that she did not wish to be understood that he could but respect her reserve. Besides, she was the most charming woman in the place, and that was enough to satisfy any visitor. Just after that he began to see her alone every day; Miss Shropshire had retired to the obscurity of her chamber with a cold, and socialities rarely began before night. They took long walks together in the wild environs of the city, once or twice as far as the sea. Both had a high fine taste in literature, and she was eager for the books of travel he had lived. He sounded her, to discover if she had ambition, for she was an imperious little queen in society; but she convinced him that, when alone or with him, she rose high above the petty strata of life. With a talent, she could have been one of the most rapt and impersonal slaves of Art the world had ever known; and, as it was, her perception for beauty was extraordinary. Thorpe wished that she could carry out her imaginings and live a life of study in Europe; it seemed a great pity that she should marry and settle down into a mere leader of society.
Toward the end of the second fortnight, he began to wonder whether he should care to marry her, were he ready for domesticity, and were there no disquieting mystery about her. He concluded that he should not, as he should doubtless be insanely in love with her if he loved her at all, and she was too various of mood for a man's peace of mind. But in the wake of these reflections came the impulse to analyse her, and he made no further attempt to snub it.
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