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The Port of Adventure By A. M. Williamson Characters: 6996

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

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.

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