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   Chapter 2 NICK

The Port of Adventure By A. M. Williamson Characters: 20299

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

Nick Hilliard snatched off his sombrero as he came swinging along the oleander path. He was tall, fully six feet in height, and looked taller than he was, being lean and hard, with long straight legs which could carry him very fast over great stretches of country. Also he had a way of holding his head high, a way which a man gets if he is in the habit of gazing toward far horizons. He had a well-cut nose, a good chin, and a mouth that meant strength of purpose, though some of his friends laughed at him for a "womanish" curve of the upper lip. Luckily Nick did not mind being laughed at by his friends. His face was almost as brown as his hair, for the sun had darkened the one and bleached the other; but the hair was nice hair, with a glow of auburn in it, which contrasted not uninterestingly with his black, straight brows. It was, however, the brilliance of the brook-brown eyes which made Nick a handsome man, and not merely a "good-looking fellow." It was because of his eyes that women turned in the street for another glance when he went into Bakersfield or Fresno; but Nick never knew that they turned. He liked pretty girls, and enjoyed their society, but was too busy to seek it, and had had little of it in his life. It did not occur to him that he had qualities to attract women. Indeed, he wasted few thoughts upon himself as an individual; not enough, perhaps; for he gave his whole attention to his work. Work was what he liked best, even without the ultimate success it brought, but lately he had begun to long for a change. He had a strong wish to go East, and a reason for the wish.

Carmen held out both hands, and enjoyed seeing how white they looked in Nick's sunburned, slightly freckled ones. He shook hers, frankly, warmly, and apologized for his "rig," which was certainly far from conventional. "I'm ashamed of myself for blowin' in on you this way," he said, "especially as you're so mighty fine. I hope you'll excuse me, for you know I pull out to-night, and Jim Beach is bringin' the buggy along here for me, with my grip in it. If I'd piked back home afterward, my visit with you'd have been a cut game."

"Ah, I'm glad you arranged not to go back," said Carmen. "I want you to stay with me as long as you can. I like you in those clothes." She smiled at him as if she would like him in anything; but Nick was thinking about Jim Beach, wondering if the boy would have trouble with the flea-bitten gray, which he himself had newly broken to harness.

"All the same," Carmen went on, "though I like them, you haven't got much vanity if you mean to wear those things to travel East, and land in New York."

"Why, what's the matter with 'em, Mrs. Gaylor?" Nick asked. He spoke carelessly, in the matter of accent as well as of his feeling about the clothes. He cut off his words in a slipshod way, as if he had never had time to think much about the value or beauty of the English language. Still, though his speech was not that of a cultivated man, it did not grate on the ear. His voice was singularly pleasant, even sweet, with something of boyish gaiety in it.

"The things are all right, Nick, and you're all right in them. You needn't worry," said Carmen. "Only-well, I don't believe there'll be anything else like them-or like you either-in New York."

Nick looked himself over indifferently. He wore a "soft" white shirt, with a low collar turned over a black scarf tied anyhow. There was a leather belt round his waist, which obviated the need of a waistcoat or suspenders. His short coat and trousers were of navy blue serge. Everything he had on was neat and of good material, but Carmen smiled when she thought of this tall, belted figure, hatted with a gray sombrero on the back of its head, arriving at one of the best hotels in New York. Nick was pretty sure to go to one of the best hotels. He wanted to see life, no doubt, and get his money's worth. Her smile was as tender as Carmen's smile could be, however, and she was pleased that he was not "dressing up" to make an impression on pretty women in the East.

"I don't care what anybody thinks about me in New York," said he. "As long as you excuse me for not having on my Sunday-go-to-meeting rags to dine with you, I don't mind the rest."

"I thought you were never coming," she said, changing the subject.

"So did I, by George! I thought the fellow'd never go."

"Was it a deputation to say good-bye?"

"Lord, no, Mrs. Gaylor! It was a chap you don't know, I guess. I only ran up against him lately, since I sold my gusher to the United Oil Company. He's their lawyer-and does some work for the railroad too. Smart sort of man he seems to be, though kind of stiff when you first know him: between forty and forty-five, maybe: name's Henry Morehouse, a brother of a bank manager in San Francisco."

"James Morehouse the banker is a very rich, important man," said Carmen, somewhat impressed by the idea of Nick's new friend who had stayed too long. "I've never met his family myself. You know how close I was kept till a year ago. But I've heard of them. They're in with the Falconer set and that lot, so it shows they're smart. What does Henry Morehouse want, making up to you, Nick?"

"It was oil business brought us together and he seemed to take a sort of likin' to me. We care about some o' the same things-books and that. Now he's going East-maybe on more oil business. Anyhow, he proposes we share a stateroom on the Limited, and he's been recommendin' his hotel in New York. I was kind of plannin' to be a swell, and hang out at the Waldorf-Astoria, to see the nobs at home. But his place sounds nice, and I like bein' with him pretty well. He's lit up with bright ideas and maybe he'll pass on some to me. His business won't keep him long, he thinks; and he's promised his brother James to look after a lady who's landing from Europe about the time we're due in New York. He'll meet her ship; and if she doesn't want to stay East any length of time, he'll bring her back to California. She means to settle out here."

Carmen's face hardened into anxious lines, though she kept up a smile of interest. She looked older than she had looked when she held out her hands to Nick. She had been about twenty-six then. Now she was over thirty.

"Is the lady young or old?" she asked.

"I don't know anything about her," Nick answered with a ring of truthfulness in his voice which Carmen's keen ears accepted. "All I can tell you is, that she's a Mrs. May, a relation or friend of Franklin Merriam the big California millionaire who died East about ten years ago-about the time I was first cowpunching on your ranch."

"Oh, the Franklin Merriam who made such stacks of money irrigating desert land he owned somewhere in the southern part of the State!" Carmen sighed with relief. "I've heard of him of course. He must have been middle-aged when he died, so probably this woman's old or oldish."

"I suppose so," Nick readily agreed. "Great king, isn't it mighty sweet here to-night? It looks like heaven, I guess, and you're like-like--"

"If this is heaven, am I an angel? Do I seem like that to you?"

"Well, no-not exactly my idea of an angel, somehow: though I don't know," he reflected aloud. "You're sure handsome enough-for anything, Mrs. Gaylor. But I've always thought of angels lily white, with moonlight hair and starry eyes."

"You're quite poetical!" retorted Carmen, piqued. "But other men have told me my eyes are stars."

He looked straight into them, and at the hot pomegranate colour which blazed up in her olive cheeks, like a reflection of the sunset. And Carmen looked back at him with her big, splendid eyes.

It was a man's look he gave her, a man's look at a woman; but not a man's look at the woman he wants.

"No," he answered. "They're not stars. They're more like the sun at noon in midsummer, when so many flowers are pourin' out perfume you can hardly keep your senses."

Carmen was no longer hurt. "That's the best compliment I ever had, and I've had a good many," she laughed. "Besides-coming from you, Nick! I believe it's the first you ever paid me right out in so many words."

"Was it a compliment?" Nick asked doubtfully and boyishly. "Well, I'm real glad I was smart enough to bring one off. I spoke out just what came into my mind, and I'd have felt mighty bad if you'd been cross."

"I'm not cross!" she assured him. "I'd rather be a woman-for you-than an angel. Angels are cold, far-off, impossible things that men can't grasp. Besides, their wings would probably moult."

Nick laughed, a pleasant, soft laugh, half under his breath. "Say, I don't picture angels with wings! The sort that flits into my mind when I'm tired 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 yo

u'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.

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