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   Chapter 1 IN A GARDEN

The Port of Adventure By A. M. Williamson Characters: 12946

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


"I wonder what makes Nick so late?" Carmen Gaylor thought, hovering in the doorway between the dim, cool hall and the huge veranda that was like an out-of-doors drawing-room.

Though she spoke English well-almost as well as if she had not been born in Spain and made her greatest successes in the City of Mexico-Carmen thought in Spanish, for her heart was Spanish, and her beauty too.

She was always handsome, but she was beautiful as she came out into the sunset gold which seemed meant for her, as stage lights are turned on for the heroine of a play; and there was something about Carmen which suggested strong drama. Even the setting in which she framed herself was like an ideal scene for a first act.

The house was not very old, and not really Spanish, but it had been designed by an architect who knew Carmen, with the purpose of giving a Spanish effect. He had known exactly the sort of background to suit her, a background as expensive as picturesque; a millionaire husband had paid for it. There were many verandas and pergolas, but this immense out-of-doors room had wide archways instead of pillars, curtained with white and purple passion flowers; and the creamy stucco of the house-wall, and the ruddy Spanish tiles, which already looked mellow with age, were half hidden with climbing roses and grapevines.

Three shallow steps of pansy-coloured bricks went all the length of the gallery, descending to a terrace floored with the same brick, which held dim tints of purple, old rose, gray and yellow, almost like a faded Persian rug.

When Carmen had looked past the fountain across the lawn, down the path cut between pink oleanders, where the man she expected ought to appear, she trailed her white dress over terrace and grass to peer under the green roof of the bamboo forest. It was like a temple with tall pillars of priceless jade that supported a roof of the same gray-green, starred in a vague pattern with the jewels of sunset. Carmen did not see the beauty of the magic temple, though she was conscious of her own. She hated to think that Nick Hilliard should keep her waiting, and there was cruelty in the clutch she made at a cluster of orange blossoms as she passed a long row of trees in terra-cotta pots on the terrace. Under the bamboos she scattered a handful of creamy petals on the golden brown earth, and rubbed them into the ground with the point of her bronze shoe. Then she held up her hand to her face, to smell the sweetness crushed out of the blossoms.

Why didn't Nick come?

There was a short cut leading from the land which she had selected off her own immense ranch to sell to Nick Hilliard, and this way he sometimes took if he were in a hurry. But she knew that he loved the path between the pink walls of oleander, and preferred to come by it, though it was longer. He ought to have been with her at least ten minutes ago, for she had asked him to come early. She had said in the letter which she gave old Simeon Harp to take to Nick, "This is your last night. There are a great, great many things I want to talk to you about." But there was only one thing about which she wished Nick Hilliard to talk to her, and there were two reasons why she expected him to talk of it to-night.

One reason was, because he was going East, and planned to be gone a month, a dreadful plan which she feared and detested. The second reason concerned the anniversary of a certain event. Some people would have called the event a tragedy, but to Carmen it had made life worth living. Other people's tragedies were shadowy affairs to her, if she had not to suffer from them.

It was one of her pleasures to dress beautifully, in a style that might have seemed exaggerated on a different type of woman, and would have been extravagant for any except the mistress of a fortune. But never had Carmen taken more pains than to-night, when she expected only one guest. Her white chiffon and silver tissue might have been a wedding gown. She adored jewellery, and had been almost a slave to her love for it, until she began to value something else more-something which, unfortunately, her money could not buy, though she hoped and prayed her face might win it. She had quantities of diamonds, emeralds, and rubies-her favourite stones-but instinct had told her that even one would spoil the effect she wished to make to-night. She wore only a long rope of pearls, which would have suited a bride; and as she stood in the shadow of her bamboo temple, the pearls drank iridescent lights: green from the jade-coloured trees, pink from roses trailing over arbours, and gold from the California poppies thick among the grass.

Of course, any one of many reasonable things might have happened to delay Nick. He was busy, busier even than when he had been foreman of the Gaylor ranch a year ago, but Carmen could not bear to think that he would let mere reasonable things keep him away from her, just this night of all others. For exactly a year-a year to-day, a year this morning, so it was already more than a year-she had ceased to be a slave, and she had had everything she wanted, except one thing. Perhaps she had that too, yet she was not sure: and she could hardly wait to be sure. Nobody but Nick could make her so, and he ought to be in joyful haste to do it. He was not cold blooded. One could not look at Nick and think him that, yet to her he sometimes seemed indifferent. Carmen made herself believe that it was his respect which held him back. How desperately she wanted to know! Yet there was a strange pleasure in not knowing, such as she might never feel again, when she was sure.

Suddenly, far off, there was a rustling in the bamboo forest. A figure like a shadow, but darker than other shadows, moved in the distance. Carmen's heart jumped. She took a step forward, then stopped. It was not Nick Hilliard after all, but old Simeon Harp, the squirrel poisoner, coming from the direction of Nick's ranch, bringing her a message, maybe. She felt she could not possibly bear it if Nick were not coming, and she hated him at the bare thought that he might send an excuse at the last moment.

"What is it, Sim?" she called out sharply, as the queer, gnarled figure of the old man hobbled nearer.

"Nothing, my lady," Simeon Harp answered in the husky voice of one who is or has been a drunkard. "Nothing, only I was over at Nick's finishin' up a bit of my work, and he said, would I tell you he was sorry to be la

te. He's had somebody with him all afternoon, and no time to pack till just now. But he'll be along presently."

Harp was an Englishman, with some fading signs about him of decent birth, decent education and upbringing, but such signs were blurred and almost obliterated by the habits which had degraded him. He would have been dead or in prison or the poorhouse years ago if Carmen had not chosen to rescue him, more through a whim than from genuine charity. Her mother's people had been English, and somehow she had not cared to see an Englishman thrown to the dogs in this country which was not hers nor his. In days when her word was law for the infatuated and brutal man whose death anniversary it now was, this bit of human driftwood-failure, drunkard, rascal-had been found trespassing on the ranch. If Carmen had not chosen to show her power over old "Grizzly Gaylor" by protecting the poor wretch, Harp would have met the fate he probably deserved. But she had amused herself, and saved him. Sick and forlorn, he had been nursed back to something like health in the house of one among many gardeners. Since then he had been her slave, her dog. He called her "my lady," and she rather liked the name. She liked the worshipping admiration in the red-lidded eyes which had once been handsome, and she believed, what he often said, that there was nothing on earth he wouldn't do for her. Once or twice the thought had pierced her brain like a sharp needle, that perhaps he had already done a thing for her-a great thing. But it was better not to know, not even to guess. Fortunately the idea had apparently never occurred to any one else, and of course it never could now. Yet there had been a very curious look in Simeon Harp's eyes a year ago when-- ... Not that it proved anything. There was always a more or less curious look in his eyes. He was altogether a curious person, perhaps a little mad, or, at any rate, vague. Especially was he vague about his reasons for leaving his native land to emigrate to America. He said it was so long ago, and he had gone through so much, that he had forgotten. There are some things it is as well to forget. Since Carmen had known him, Simeon Harp had tried his luck as a water diviner, but failing, sometimes when he most wished to succeed, in that profession, he had now definitely settled down as squirrel poisoner to the neighbourhood. Those pests to farmers and ranchmen, ground squirrels, had given the strange old man a chance to build up a reputation of a sort. As a squirrel poisoner he was a brilliant success.

"Who gave you permission to call Mr. Hilliard 'Nick'?" Carmen asked, not very sternly, for she was pleased to have news from the other ranch. After all, if Nick had had a visitor he might not be to blame.

"Why, everybody calls him 'Nick'," explained Simeon, huskily. "But I won't, if it isn't your will, my lady."

"Oh, I don't care, if he doesn't. Only--" she broke off, slightly confused. Even to this old wretch she could not say, "It isn't suitable that you should use my future husband's Christian name as if he were down on the same level with a man like you." She could not be sure that Nick would be her husband, though it seemed practically certain. Besides, if Hilliard was "Nick" to everybody, it was a token of his popularity; and Nick himself was the last man to forget that he had risen to his present place by climbing up from the lowest rung of the ladder-the ladder of poverty. She could not imagine his "putting on airs," as he would call it, though she thought it might be better if he were less of the "hail-fellow-well-met," and more of the master in manner among his own cattlemen, and particularly with the wild riff-raff that had rushed to his land with the oil boom.

"Who was with him-some man, I suppose?" she asked of the squirrel poisoner, who stood quietly adoring her with eyes dimmed by drink and years. He had so settled down on his rheumatic old joints that he had become dwarfish in stature as well as gnarled in shape, and looked a gnomelike thing, gazing up at the tall young woman.

"Oh, yes, it was a man, of course," Simeon assured her. "There couldn't be any women for him who knows you, it seems to me, my lady. And you were never as handsome as you are this night. It warms the heart to set eyes on you, like the wine you give me on your birthdays, to drink your health."

Carmen was pleased with praise, even a squirrel poisoner's praise. She could never have too much.

"You needn't wait for my birthday," she laughed. "I don't mean to have another for a good long time, Sim! You can have some of that wine to-night."

"Thank you, my lady. It's an anniversary, too," he mumbled, lowering his husky voice for the last words. But Carmen heard them. "You remember that!" she exclaimed, without stopping to think, or perhaps she would not have spoken.

"Oh, yes, my lady, I remember," he said. "There's reasons-several good reasons-why I shan't forget that as long as I live. You see, things was gettin' pretty bad for you, and so--"

"Don't let's talk of it, Sim!" she broke in sharply.

"No, my lady, we won't," he agreed. "I was only goin' to say, things bein' so bad made what happened a matter for rejoicin' and not sorrow, to those who wish you well. That's all-that's all, my lady."

"Thank you, Sim. I know you're fond of me-and grateful," Carmen said. "Things were bad. I don't pretend to grieve. I shouldn't even have worn mourning, if Madame Vestris, the great palmist in San Francisco, hadn't told me it would bring me ill luck not to. I'm glad the year's up. I hate black! This is a better anniversary than a silly old birthday, Sim!"

"Yes, and that reminds me, my lady," said Simeon, "that I've put together enough perfect skins of the squirrels I've killed without the dope to make the grand automobile coat I've been promisin' you so long. Got the last skin cured to-day, as it happened. Maybe, that'll bring you good luck!"

"Oh, I hope so!" she cried.

"Here's Nick-Mr. Hilliard," Harp announced, nodding his gray head in the direction of the oleander path, to which Carmen's back was turned as she stood.

She wheeled quickly, and saw a tall young man coming toward her, with long strides. Instantly, she forgot Simeon Harp, and did not even see him as he hobbled away, pulling on to his head the moth-eaten cap of squirrel fur which he always wore, summer and winter, as if for a sign of his trade.

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