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The Port of Adventure By A. M. Williamson Characters: 25496

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

If ever there was a blush of guilt, it was Nick's.

Angela lifted her eyebrows, though she smiled. It would have been ungracious not to smile, and Angela hated to be ungracious. All the youth in her was glad to see him again; but all that was conventional, all that responded to her early training, disapproved of his presence.

"This is very unexpected!" she exclaimed, wondering if he would say it was a surprise to him, almost hoping that he might say so, because she could then seem to accept his word; which would save bother.

Nick hung his head. He jumped up when Mrs. May was shown to the table, and did not sit down again until she was seated. Now he disappointed Angela by making no attempt to defend himself. "Will you please forgive me?" he begged.

This forced Angela to be stern, and she decided to spare him no pang.

"Forgive you for what?" she asked.

"For coming," he answered to the first turn of the rack.

She was coldly puzzled. "But-do you mean your being in this train? Surely that can have nothing to do with me."

Nick was silent for a moment. The dining-car was full, and the waiters all busy. No one had come to take Mrs. May's order. Gathering his mental forces he resolved upon honesty as the best and only policy. "'Twould be easy enough to say it had nothing to do with you; that I'd have been travelling by this train to-day, anyhow," he began bravely. "The fact is, I came on board meanin' to try and make you think so, without exactly tellin' lies. But you've asked me a straight question, and I've just got to answer it straight, even if you refuse to speak to me ever again. I'm here because you're here, Mrs. May. But I promise I won't trouble you. And maybe you won't believe me, after my tellin' you this, but it's true; I didn't intend ever to let you see me to-night, and maybe not the whole journey. I only wanted to be on the same train and then, supposin' you should happen to need help any way, I'd be ready."

"But-that's rather too much self-sacrifice," said Angela, looking him full in the face with her dark-lashed, slate-gray eyes. "I'm not alone. I have my maid. I shan't need help."

"I guess you know I'm not making a self-sacrifice," Nick said honestly. "I'd be gladder than glad to do anything for the first angel I ever met on earth. But please don't be worrying, Mrs. May. This ain't any hold-up. I won't come near you, unless you happen to need a man to look after you. I'll fade away this minute, if--"

"Certainly not!" cried Angela. "It was your table before it was mine. But-I don't understand yet. I think it would have been better if you'd finished your visit to New Orleans."

"I was sure there for the same reason I'm here," Nick blurted out. "I guess I have to tell you the whole thing now."

"You mean-you came to New Orleans because I--"

"Yes, that's right," he finished for her, when she paused, at a loss for words. "Something made me do it. Something stronger than I am. You were a kind of dissolving view, and I couldn't let it get out of my sight for good. When I heard you'd gone to New Orleans by boat--"

"How did you find out?" Angela's sweet voice had a sharp edge.

"In the travel bureau of the Valmont Hotel."

"Ah! Was that quite-considerate?"

"I know how it sounds to you. But it wasn't so bad as you think. I inquired as if from a friend of yours, a man I know out home--"

"How-how horrid of you! I'd rather you didn't explain any more." Angela's cheeks were bright pink, and she was more beautiful than Nick had ever seen her before, except the night of the burglar, when she had been drowned in the gold waves of her hair, the angel of his dreams. "But you may go on about the rest," she added hastily, when he was struck into silence, without being able to bring in the name of his one excuse, Mr. Henry Morehouse. "I'd better know the worst. When you heard where I'd gone--"

"Well, I was too late for your ship, because I had to hang on and see Dutchy's case through, so I took the first train I could get when that business was wound up. And in New Orleans I found you. I didn't know for certain where you were going next, but--"

"But what?"

"I was pretty sure you were bound for California. And anyhow, wherever it was, I made up my mind to go. Not to bother you-no more than if I was your hired man. Just to see you through, from a distance, to know you were all right, and-and not to lose sight of you. I-of course you can't understand. I reckon no woman could. I don't wonder you're mad. I was dead sure you would be. Yet I had to stand for it."

"It's the most extraordinary thing I ever heard," said Angela, working herself up to be as angry as she ought to be. "That you should have left New York, after being there only a few days, and-oh, it doesn't bear thinking of! And I'd rather not believe it."

Again Nick wished to wave the name of Morehouse like a white flag of truce, but the San Franciscan lawyer, lying far away in a New York hospital, seemed too weak to flutter in the breeze of Mrs. May's displeasure.

"I'd rather have jogged along without tellin' you this," he said. "But as things worked out, it seemed as if I had to speak."

Angela was silent, busily thinking for a moment.

"Would you leave the train at the next stop, if I asked you?" she inquired.

"No. I'd be real sorry, but I wouldn't do that, even if you asked." And here was his chance to use Mr. Morehouse-a chance which might never come again. "I was going to tell you, I do know a man who's acquainted with you, Mrs. May. We came East together. His name's Morehouse, and when he was taken sick, I went to see him, and-and had a little talk-all the nurses would let me have. I wanted him to write a note I could give you in New Orleans, but he wasn't strong enough. He did say I could mention his name when I told him I meant to go back West and look after you; but somehow it never seemed the right time in New Orleans. And now, when I began to explain how I inquired about you at the Valmont, as if it was from Morehouse, you didn't--"

"I felt there could be no explanation I'd care to hear," Angela finished for him. "I beg your pardon! Still I don't see why you should take Mr. Morehouse's responsibilities on your shoulders-for my sake."

"No, you'll never see that," Nick sighed. "Only, if you could just see your way to forgiving me, I should be mighty thankful. I promise to switch off till you send for me. I'm in the next car to yours, if you should need to-if there's anything I could do, between here and Los Angeles--"

"How do you know my journey ends there? Did Mr. Morehouse tell you that, too?"

"When he and I were travelling East, he said Mrs. May had the notion to see California; and I thought you'd be sure to begin with Los Angeles."

"You, no doubt, will go on to Bakersfield," remarked Angela coldly, making a statement rather than putting a question.

"I suppose so, pretty soon," Nick assented, too crushed by the angel's displeasure to be flattered because she remembered where he lived.

"Of course you will, at once," she announced relentlessly. "Meanwhile, I hold you to your word, Mr. Hilliard. It was-wrong of you to come, and knowing Mr. Henry Morehouse-of whom I never heard till after I landed-doesn't make it much more-sensible. I'm sure your motives were-most kind. But-you've made a mistake, as you must realize now, and the only way to atone is to-to--"

"I know. Keep out of your way. And I've promised. But I don't realize that I've made a mistake, Mrs. May. There's no use sayin' I do; for, in spite of all, if 'twas to do over again, I would. I wouldn't change anything."

"Then you shouldn't boast of it!" exclaimed Angela. "Confession may be good for the soul of the confessor, but it can be embarrassing for the one confessed to. You oughtn't to have told me why you came. The only thing to save the situation would have been to let me think it was an accident."

"You wouldn't have thought so long-unless I lied. Ought I to have lied?"

She was rather thankful that the waiter came just then with the menu, and saved her from answering. She ordered her dinner, and the smiling negro turned to Nick.

"I don't think I want--" he began. But Angela sternly caught his eye, mutely commanding him to eat. When he had chosen several dishes at random, and the waiter had gone, she reproached him again. "What would people think if you went away in the midst of dinner? There's a man opposite staring at us now! You're not as tactful as you were the night of the burglar. Then, you did just the right thing, cleverly and bravely. For that I can forgive you a good deal-but not everything. Now you make one blunder after another."

"That night in New York you wanted me. This time you don't. I guess that's what makes the difference in the quality of my gray matter," said Nick. "I feel riddled with bullets, and they've hit me right where I live. I-I suppose you'll never forgive me, will you? If you only half guessed how little I meant to butt in, or be rude, or annoy you, maybe you could, though."

"Maybe I can-by and by; for the sake of your kindness in the past." Angela relented. "But not even for that quite yet. And not ever, if you look so stricken that you make people stare."

"I am stricken," Nick confessed.

"You deserve to be." She crushed him deeper into the mire. Whereupon the soup arrived, and they began to eat, and talk politely. Nick had never known before that a man could be wildly happy and desperately miserable at the same time, but now he knew. And he would not have changed places with any other man in the world. "I'm under a spell," he said to himself, "and I wouldn't get out of it if I could."

At the same moment Angela conjectured that there must be something strange about the air she was breathing in this New World. "It makes one want to act queerly," she thought. "I'm sure I should have acted quite differently about this whole affair in Europe. It's so easy to feel conventional in places where you've always lived, and where you know everybody. Or is it only because this man's so different from any one else? I thought I was beginning to understand his nature, but now I see I don't. The thing is, I was too nice to him. I oughtn't to have asked him to lunch and dine in New Orleans. That began the mischief. And it was my fault more than his."

But then, according to the man's own confession, the mischief had begun in New York. "I wish I could make myself enjoy snubbing the extraordinary creature," she went on, as she ate her dinner, throwing an occasional sentence concerning the scenery, or, as a last resort, the weather, to her chastened companion. "But it's difficult to snub a person who's saved your life and lent you money and found your gold bag. That's why he oughtn't to have put me in this position-because I owe him gratitude. It's really horrid." And she began to feel sincerely that the New Type had conducted itself unworthily.

She gave Nick a cool bow when she was ready to go, and left him plunged in gloom, but stubbornly unrepentant. "It's a tough proposition I'm up against," he thought, "but a man's as good as his nerve. And I'll fight till the next spring rains sooner than let her slip away out of my life."

It was deep blue dusk when Angela went back to her stateroom, too dark to look out of the window; yet she had lost interest in the book which she had found absorbing earlier in the day. It seemed irrelevant somehow; and though there was no reason why they should do so, her own affairs appeared more insistently exciting than before. "It's the call of the West already," she answered her own question. "I hear the voice of my father's country."

And then her thoughts returned to Nick.

"I wonder what he is doing now-whether I made him see the error of his ways?" she asked herself, stroking Timmy, lent by Kate. And she was not sorry for the forest creature: not sorry at all. It was stupid even to think of him. But in her lap, a splendid plaything for the black cat, was the gold bag. It seemed associated with Mr. Hilliard now. Odd, how different it looked since she had got it back! Bigger, somehow, though, of course, it was the same. There couldn't have been a mistake. Almost mechanically she began to count the jewels set along the mouth of the bag. Fifteen sapphires-fifteen diamonds. Why, there had been only twenty-eight altogether! She was sure of that. She had counted them before, in absent-minded moments. What could this mean? Suddenly an explanation of what it might mean flashed into her head. The theory seemed too elaborate-yet it would account for the mystery Hilliard had made of the whole matter, and his anxiety t

hat she should not interview the police, or come into contact with them. And the five hundred dollars-more money than ought to have been in the bag. She recalled now having mentioned that sum in telling of her loss. And the forest creature had said that he "knew exactly what her bag was like." If he had found a duplicate, and palmed it off upon her, the absence of the check-book and the presence of the money without the purse would be explained. But could he have found a bag, ready-made, so like the lost one as to deceive her until now? She must question him at once. Yet, with her finger on the bell, ready to summon the porter, she paused. Only half an hour ago she had forbidden Mr. Hilliard to come near her. Now she was about to send for him. This would appear to be a triumph for the enemy. "But I'll soon show him it isn't a triumph," she thought, and pushed the electric button.

"In the car between this and the dining-car, there's a Mr. Hilliard," she announced when the porter arrived. "Please ask him to come and speak to Mrs. May."

"Yes, miss, I'll tell the gen'leman with pleasure," replied the elderly negro, trotting off to cry aloud a name more or less resembling Hilliard.

Nick, not daring to hope that luck might change so soon, had drifted into the observation car; but a man answered to the call, beckoning the porter.

"Sure you understood the name right, George?" he inquired. "My name's Millard. What kind of a looking lady is this Mrs. May?"

The black porter, who was not George, but who had answered to the name a thousand times, smiled a smile like a diamond tiara. "She sure is the prettiest young lady I evah see, sah," said he. "Most ob dese wite ladies look jest alike to me. I cyant tell one ob dere faces from de odders. But dis one-my! I won't forget her in a month o' Sundays."

"I know who you mean now, and I guess it's Millard she inquired for," said the gentleman of that name. "You got it a little mixed."

So a minute or two later Angela had her second surprise of the evening. Expecting Nick, and with her first shot prepared, she saw at her stateroom door a man as different as night from day-the man who had stared in the dining-car. He had a dyed black moustache, like the brand of Cain, and an air of thinking that women and other animals of the chase were made for him to hunt.

"Mrs. May, I believe?" he began politely. "I'm Mr. Millard. I think you sent for me. We've met somewhere before, and--"

Angela explained matters coldly, in three words; though she fancied that no explanation was needed. Mr. Millard showed signs of seeking an excuse to linger, but none was granted. Even Timmy was in a dangerous mood, and, as Kate appeared, on her way back from dinner, the gentleman from the next car retired in good order.

"You saw Mr. Hilliard, who brought my-a gold bag to the sitting-room in New Orleans?" Angela said to Kate. "He's in the car between this and the dining-car. Please find him, and let him know that I should like to see him here."

Kate's quest produced Nick; and Mrs. May did not mention Mr. Millard. She fired her shot without warning.

"This is not my gold bag."

Nick's jaw squared itself. "It is your bag," he insisted.

"Mine had twenty-eight stones. This has thirty. How is that to be explained?"

"How should I tell?" he echoed, bold as brass. "It's a question for the police." She had scolded him for confessing. He would not court the lash again.

"I wonder if you couldn't tell-if you would? I insist, Mr. Hilliard, that you give me the whole truth, if you know it. And I think you must know."

"I warned you there was a mystery," he mumbled.

"You gave me the impression that it was a police mystery. Now I believe it was of your making. A little while ago you asked me to forgive you. Don't you see I never can, unless you tell the truth about this wretched bag?"

"A little while ago you wouldn't forgive me because I did tell the truth."

She answered like a woman. "That's entirely different." And dimly Nick realized that it would be worse than useless to ask why. Queer how a woman seemed to want only the things you were just out of!

"You-bought this bag," she stated.

"Oh, well, it's no use!" groaned Nick. "Once I thought 'twas a fake about little George Washington; but I see now it can be harder to tell lies than truth to some people. I can't tell one to you," the prisoner in the dock confessed. "I did buy the bag, but when yours is found, they'll send it on to me. Then we can change."

"It will never be found. Oh, how could you?-and the five hundred dollars!-your money. How idiotic of me-and how you must have laughed when I paid you back the four hundred I owed-out of your own pocket."

"I never felt less like laughing in my life than I did then. Unless it's now."

"You can't feel as distressed as you've made me feel. I still owe you the four hundred; and another hundred besides. That makes up the five. And the worst of all is, I can't pay you till Los Angeles. But here is the bag."

"Do you hate me so much you've got to give it back?" Nick's eyes implored mercy from the court.

"I'm more vexed than I can tell. This is beyond everything! Please take your bag at once."

"I swore just now it was your bag. And it is."

"Surely, it's hardly necessary for me to tell you I can't keep it?"

She held the bag out to him, and when he would have none of it, forced the soft gold mesh into his hand. He let the thing drop, and at the instant of its fall Kate returned, hovering uncertainly. She supposed that Mrs. May's visitor had gone by this time, and had come to ask for a promised book.

"Kate, there's been a mistake." Angela said. "This gold bag isn't mine after all, though they look so much alike. Please pick it up from the floor and give it to Mr. Hilliard."

These tactics overmastered Nick. He could not let a woman, be she maid or mistress, grovel on the carpet in his presence. He dived for the bag, and, pale and troubled, handed it to Kate. "It seems this has got to be mine," he stammered. "But I don't want it. Will you take the thing? If you won't, it goes out of the window, sure as fate."

"Oh, ma'am, what will I do?" cried Kate. "Why, it's a rale fortune! I-must I let him throw it out the window? What all them jewels and gold would mean to me and Tim-the difference in our lives! If I won't have the bag some wicked tramp may find and sell it for drink."

"Do as you choose. It has ceased to be my affair," said Angela.

"Are you sure you'd fling the bag away, sir, if I say no to it?" the Irish girl implored.

"Dead sure."

"Then-oh, I must take it! I can't give it up to a tramp, when 'twould buy Tim and me a home. You must be a millionaire, sir, throwing away good money like that."

"I've got more than I know what to do with, good or bad," said Nick, drowned in gloom. "Thank you very much for taking it. It's real kind of you. And it's a comfort to me the thing'll be of use to some one."

He looked at Angela, but she would not see him. And without another word he effaced himself.

"I suppose that snuffs me out," he muttered, dolefully, returning to his own car. Almost, he was minded to leave the train in Texas-to go on by another; or to return to New York and do what he could to forget the hard-hearted angel. But he did not leave the train. He went on doggedly. "I'm hanged if I give up," was his last thought. "It's no soft snap, but I'll make her forgive me before we're through."

"You'll not be cross with me, ma'am because I couldn't be lettin' him throw away the beautiful bag?" Kate coaxed her mistress. "I seen he would ha' done it. There was fire in his eyes."

"Yes, he would have done it," Angela echoed. "I'm not cross with you, though I hoped you would refuse. I'd no right to dictate when it meant your sacrificing a lot of money-a hundred pounds at least, which would go begging unless you accepted."

"A hundred pounds!" the girl stammered. "Oh, I didn't know the bag was worth the half of that! Will I give it back to the gentleman?"

"It's too late. There would only be a scene. He'd refuse to take the thing."

Kate looked relieved. "Then I'll just try and sell it in the first big city where we're stopping ma'am," she said, with a happy sigh. "You tould me a black cat brought luck!"

Angela neither slept well nor lay awake well that night. Whenever she closed her eyes she seemed to meet Nick Hilliard's beseeching look; and next day, angrily pushing him and his problems out of her mind, she devoted herself passionately to scenery. He must have taken his meals very early or very late, or else had none at all, for not once did she see him in the dining-car. The following day at luncheon, however, he was going out as she came in. She bowed to him coldly, but her heart beat as if something exciting had happened. That night she forgot to set back her watch, and so went to dinner earlier than usual. Not far ahead, also bound for the dining-car, was Mr. Hilliard. She disliked the large tables laid for four; and when he could, her favourite waiter kept a place for Mrs. May at a small table for two persons. Often she got one to herself, but this evening, as she sat down, Mr. Millard appropriated the other chair. Had he not been rather stout, he would have squeezed himself into place before she could protest; but being a tight fit, inadvertently he gave her time to think.

"This seat is engaged," she said, raising her voice to reach the ears of Mr. Nickson Hilliard. He turned and saw invitation in her eyes. "I'm keeping your chair," she calmly informed him-since between two evils it is wise to choose the less.

"Thank you," said Nick, as quietly as if it had been a long engagement.

"Did that galoot annoy you?" he asked, dropping into the seat.

"No," said Angela. "But I preferred you for a neighbour."

Having explained her motives, she made it clear that conversation was not included, and Nick, knowing that a man in disgrace should be seen and not heard, was silent. When Mrs. May had finished a light meal, she unbent far enough to say: "It was clever-and kind of you to understand. One thing more! I must have your address at Bakersfield, to send the money."

Then Nick told her that he lived on a ranch a good many miles from Bakersfield. "I call it the 'Lucky Star Ranch,'" he added.

"I'll write you from Los Angeles," said she, and became conscious that her last words had been overheard by Mr. Millard. He had seated himself at a table close by, and now glanced up with such an intelligent look that she was sure he had taken in something of the situation.

When the journey through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona was over, and the train slowed into the station at Los Angeles, she had cause to remember this incident, for Millard was on the car steps, just in front of her. He caught up the large dressing-bag which the porter had carried out of her stateroom, and, looking back, said:

"It's my turn to help you a little now, Mrs. May, since your friend's going on farther. You're English, I guess; and if you haven't got anybody to show you around here, you must let me make myself useful."

"I would rather the porter took all my luggage, please," replied Angela, glancing about for her black friend. But doubtless Mr. Millard had claimed authority, and "George" was giving his services to some one else.

"Porter isn't here. You'd better let me look after you, and get a carriage," said Millard, whose legitimate business it was to travel for a manufacturing firm.

The train stopped, and he jumped off with Angela's dressing-bag, but only in time to have it taken in a business-like manner by Nick, who had swung down from his own car while the train was still in motion.

"It just occurred to me you might be giving yourself a little unnecessary trouble," said he. "I'll see to this lady."

"I thought you were going on," stammered the commercial traveller.

"Not just yet," Nick spoke mildly, but his eyes looked dangerous, and Mr. Millard thought best to give up the point without further argument.

"I always have to thank you for something! It's too bad!" laughed Angela, as Nick put her and Kate into a carriage which he had secured. "Good-bye; I suppose it's fated that I must forgive you, as we shan't see each other again."

With this she put out her hand, half friendly, half reluctant, and as Nick shook it eagerly, the train moved away.

Angela gave a little cry. "Now I've made you miss your train! And your luggage!"

"I won't howl about that," said he. "I'll wire. And I can get another train by and by-when I want it," he added under his breath. Then he let the carriage drive away.

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