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The Port of Adventure By A. M. Williamson Characters: 19359

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

Somehow, Miss Dene got herself invited to spend the afternoon in seeing with Mrs. May and Hilliard all the things which Falconer and his sister had spent the whole morning in showing her. Exactly how she did this she herself might have told-with her occasional startling frankness-if she had chosen. But Mrs. May could not. Perhaps Angela had invited her, or said something which could be snapped up as an invitation; for Nick would hardly have suggested a second guest unless his first guest expressly wished for one. In any case, the fact remained that Theo Dene was going in the yellow car for a spin round Santa Barbara, to the Country Club, the Hope Ranch, and above all, to the Mission.

She stood talking on the veranda to Falconer and Mrs. Harland, as she waited for Angela to come down, and for Hilliard to bring round the car. Her host and hostess were laughing at her change of plans, for she had announced, early in the day, that she meant to "lie down all the afternoon and rest her features."

"Who is the beautiful Mrs. May?" asked Falconer.

Theo did not like this way of putting the question, because, quite sincerely, she herself admired no woman who was not of her own type. She was tempted to take advantage of Angela's desire not to be known, and say: "Oh, she's one of a thousand other pretty travelling women with intermittent husbands." This would have been epigrammatic, and at the same time it might have quenched dawning interest in the stranger. Neither the brother nor sister was of the sort who favoured flitting ladies with vague male belongings kept in the background. But suddenly a brilliant idea occurred to Miss Dene, who loved dramatic effects.

"Mrs. May chooses to be an ordinary tourist," Theo said, with just the right air of mystery, "but if she liked, she could travel as a personage. She has her own reasons for coming to America, just as I have mine, though hers are different. Don't you think she ought to see Shasta, and the McCloud River, if her impressions are to be complete?"

"Would she care to go?" said Mrs. Harland. "John and I would be delighted to take her, and put her up for a week-end-wouldn't we, John?"

"Of course," said Falconer. "From what I saw of her, she'd be a charming guest. But poor Hilliard--"

"Oh, do ask him, too, and give me a chance to flirt with him, please. I've had such poor success with you, I'm feeling crushed. Do you think Mrs. Gaylor too formidable for me?"

"If I were a betting man, I'd bet on you," Falconer laughed. "But I don't know how far matters have gone between Mrs. Gaylor and Hilliard. It may be gossip; all the world loves a lover, you know; and it's human nature to weave a romance around two interesting figures placed toward each other as these are."

"Well, I should like to try my hand, if his isn't pre-engaged," said Miss Dene; "and if it is, he won't be wasted on me, for I can always use him up in a book. What fun to have Mrs. Gaylor at the same time! We should soon see if they were engaged if we brought them together, shouldn't we? If not, I'd be free to get in as much deadly work as possible."

"Is Mrs. May's husband living?" asked Falconer, with a twinkle of mischief in his usually grave eyes.

"I think I mustn't tell even you anything about her private affairs," Miss Dene answered virtuously. "But I've reason to know that, for this race, anyhow, she's out of the running. As Mrs. May was telling you at luncheon, Mr. Hilliard is showing her a few things because the mutual friend who was to have done it, couldn't. He can't show her Shasta and McCloud, though, as you can; for a mere motor's no attraction compared to a private car. I'm sure she's never been in one as gorgeous as the kind in America-yours in particular."

"Well, we must give her the chance to try it," said Falconer.

"And you will think of inviting Mrs. Gaylor at the same time?" Theo turned her eyes from her host to his sister, beseechingly.

"I don't know Mrs. Gaylor well," Mrs. Harland demurred. "But if John wants you to see her ranch, and takes us there, I don't mind asking her to Rushing River Camp for a day or two. It's not very likely that she'd refuse"-the lady smiled-"as I'm afraid that socially she's more or less neglected, in spite of her beauty."

"Or because of it," said Falconer. "And here comes Mrs. May."

A moment later the car came too, and Angela realized that already she had reached the stage when she would miss taking her place beside Hilliard. She sat behind with Miss Dene, and Billy the "assistant" climbed into the seat next the chauffeur's.

Theo availed herself of the opportunity to tell what she had heard about Nick and Mrs. Gaylor, with embroideries of her own.

The air was balm of a thousand flowers, but for Angela it was no longer "Parfait d'Amour." The two battleships had long ago finished their speed trial; and trails of floating kelp lay like golden sea-serpents asleep under the blue ripple of the sea. Everything was very beautiful. But it was not yesterday!

In the town with the Mission still distant, she began to feel the "foreignness" of Santa Barbara. The streets had Spanish names, and the trees seemed musical, as she had thought that trees seemed in the South of Europe; as if they had heard and seen all the happiness of history, and had set them to music with their branches. Pretty girls rode bareheaded, with sunburned men in sombreros, just outside the straggling town, between hedges of roses that made boundaries for bungalows.

The beauty of the world sang a song in Angela's ears, with the rushing breeze the motor made; the wind in the trees, the flashing lights and shadows on the mountains. Clear-cut, lovely peaks sprang toward a sky that was like fire opal with turquoise glowing blue behind it. Still, this was not yesterday! The song of the world's beauty did not seem meant personally for her, as it had then.

Piles of grain in the fields were like plumed, golden helmets, laid down in rows to await the heads of resting warriors. The California oaks, different from all other oaks, were classic in shape as Greek temples sacred to forest deities, standing against a background of indigo sea. But Miss Dene would talk.

Theodora, in her books, made a speciality of describing the emotional souls of women, her favourite female thermometers being usually at freezing or boiling point-never temperate. Descriptions of scenery she "couldn't do," and what she called "landscape gazing" bored her. She was more interested in people, and big towns, than in wide spaces where Nature tried to lecture her. But because Angela admired the country she admired it, too, more audibly than Angela.

They saved the Mission for the last. Nick had set his heart on showing it to Mrs. May at sunset. As for Theo, though she said so much, he knew by instinct that it was not she who cared for the beauty of the magnolia hedges, the hay-gilded meadows, and the dark oaks that blotted the gold. He felt that he ought to admire Miss Dene, for she was handsome, and put herself out to be kind to him; but he wished the girl away, and was glad that to-morrow she would be travelling with her own friends. When she looked at him with her greenish eyes, she had the air of judging his points, as if he were a portrait she thought of adding to her collection, and of wishing him to look at her. Nick was not to be fascinated in this way.

Along the Cliff Drive they went to the Hope Ranch, and Angela tried to think of the brave old days of the "Roaring Forties," of barbecues, and wedding feasts for Spanish brides-days when the business of life was to love, and laugh, and dance, and spend the money yielded by thousands of rolling acres. According to the stories, all women had been beautiful, all men brave, and ready to fight for the ladies they loved; and though the world had changed since then, faster here than elsewhere, it seemed to her that at heart the men of America had kept to old traditions more closely than men in older countries. Then she smiled at herself for this impression; for, after all, what did she know of American men?

When they turned at last, coming back toward the Mission, to which, somehow, all the rest had been leading up, the setting sun was beating the dusk into sparks of fire.

At first glimpse, alighting before the steps of the restored Mission church, Angela compared it unfavourably in her mind with the lovely shabbiness of San Gabriel. She had a feeling that Santa Barbara the pleasure-place lived on Santa Barbara the Mission, with its history and romance. But she had only to go inside to beg pardon of the church for her first impression. It was easy to remember that there had never been the same stress of poverty here as among the missionary Fathers of San Gabriel, in the City of Angela. Yet in this place, too, there was the same pathetic effect which had brought tears to Angela's eyes in the dim little church at San Gabriel; an effect that once felt and understood, gives the old Spanish Missions their great, undying charm. At Santa Barbara-sweet name, ringing like the silver bells of the Franciscan Fathers-as at San Gabriel, there had been the same striving to copy the noble designs and proportions of the Spanish cathedrals, visioned in spirit by the homesick monks, who knew well they would never see them with bodily eyes again. With simple materials and unskilled Indian workers, these exiled men had striven to reproduce in the far, lonely West the architecture of the East, loved and lost by them forever. The very simplicity of the church made its beauty.

"Santa Barbara Mission, with its history and romance"

The scar of Santa Barbara Mission had been patched up, while at San Gabriel the bandages were vines and flowers; but the sunset light lent to the cloisters all the stateliness and glory of some old monastery in Southern Spain; the octagonal fountain on the bare terrace dripped silver; and an embroidery of lichen had gilded the rose-coloured tiles of the sloping roof with all shades and tints of gold. The sun, bidding good-bye to the day, gave back for an hour the splendour of the past.

The three went up into the bell tower and looked down; upon the old garden of the monks, then away to the sheltering hills, with the far-off rampart of mountains. It was beautiful there, and the bells in their open, window-like arches, had the kindly beauty of age and experience. Angela tapped them with pink finger-nails, and brought out a faint, musical whisper, which seemed to breathe some secret, if only she could understand. But she could not! She felt dull and unhappy, she could not tell why. Certainly it could not be for such a stupid, dog-in-the-manger reason as because Nick Hilliard was supposed to be engaged to his "boss's widow"-a most suitable arrangement. Perhaps it was the dreamy sadness of this; place which had taken hold of her. If there were a secret in the musical whisper of the bells, it was a secret of the past; and it was time to come which was clouded for Angela. There seemed to be nothing definite in it for her to touch. Her bodily eyes looked out over the bay of Santa Barbara, grape-purple with the wine of sunset; but her spirit saw only the uncharted sea of the future, across which strange sunrises glimmered, and winds cried like harps, or voices called to her in prophecies she could not hear. Happiness which she had never known seemed to live beyond that sea in an island palace; but the key of the palace lay fathoms deep, fallen among rocks under deep water. When Angela had been on her way to California, she had said to herself: "I shall be happy there living alone in some place which I shall find, because I shall be at peace, and disagreeable things can never come to me." But now, suddenly, she felt that more than peace was needed. She wanted to be happy with a happiness far removed from peace.

"I think I'll go to the North to live," she decided. "In all this sunshine and colour, one needs love-or else one's out of the picture."

At a little distance Miss Dene was telling Nick Hilliard that she was glad she had met him, because he was just what she wanted for her book about California.

"I'm going to see your ranch," she said, "and Mrs. Gaylor's ranch. I've heard about it-and her. She's very handsome, isn't she?"

"Yes," said Nick.

"And a great friend of yours-your best friend?"

"A great friend," he echoed, wishing that Angela, holding herself remote, would let him draw her into the conversation.

It occurred to Miss Dene, seeing Nick's eyes wander, that perhaps there was something about her which California men were not trained to appreciate, for she was not having her usual success. And she had scarcely made the sensation she had expected to make in San Francisco, although she had been interviewed, and one reporter had said that her hair was dyed. Nevertheless, if she could not have the sort of fun she wanted, she would at least have what fun she could. She was sure that with Mrs. Gaylor, and the Princess di Sereno, and this big unsophisticated young man, between them life would be interesting even for an onlooker.

"I can see Chapter First, anyhow," she laughed to herself. And again she wondered if Angela "knew about the Prince."

That night, while everybody drank coffee and talked or played bridge in the hall, it was suddenly flooded with a tidal wave of women. They flowed into the hotel in a compact stream of femininity; billows of stout elderly ladies, and dancing ripples of slim young girls, with here and there a side-eddy of thin, middle-aged spinsterhood. Each female thing had a "grip," and of these possessions they built the desk a mountain of volcanic formation, which looked alarmingly subject to eruptions and upheavals. Then they all began to talk at once, to each other and to such hotel officials as they could overwhelm and swamp.

"Good gracious! what is it?" asked Miss Dene of Falconer, who was supposed to be a human encyclopaedia of general information. "I didn't suppose there were so many women in the world!"

"They're Native Daughters, out for an excursion and the time of their lives," said Falconer.

"Why Native?" Angela ventured. "It sounds like oysters."

"And it means California. They were all born in this State; and they will now proceed to see something of it in each other's company. To-morrow morning they'll 'do' the Mission of Santa Barbara."

"They'll do for it, if they all try to get in at once," laughed Miss Dene. "The place will be simply crawling with Daughters. How lucky we've done our sightseeing to-day!"

She did not take the trouble to moderate her voice; and one of the new arrivals, who hovered alone on the edge of the crowd, like a bubble of foam flung out by the surging wave, stood near enough to overhear. She turned and threw a glance at the group, in time to catch en route to the back of her dress a look sent forth from the eyes of Miss Dene. It was that look which has no family resemblance to any other look, yet is always the same in the eyes of the best and the worst woman-the look she gives another woman's dress the style and fit of which fill her with supreme disgust.

The victim did not take this well-known gaze with meekness. She was a small person, thin as a lath, with no attempt at complexion, and a way of doing her hair which alone would have proved impeccable virtue in the face of incriminating circumstantial evidence. She had neat little features, and a neat little figure, though "provincial" was written over her in conspicuous letters; and the gray eyes which she fastened on Miss Dene looked almost ill with gloomy intelligence. She did not attempt to "down" the beautifully dressed young woman with a retort, though her expression betrayed a temptation to be fishwifish. It was evident, however, that she was a little lady, though she wore a badly made frock, and her hat sat like a hard, extraneous Bath bun on the top of her neat head. Whether or no she were a Native Daughter, native good breeding fought with and got the better of fatigue, nervousness, and irritation. She merely gazed fixedly for a long second at Miss Dene, as if to say, "I know my dress is amateurish, and yours is perfectly lovely, but I have a heart and would hate to hurt the feelings of anybody, especially one who couldn't pay me back, whereas your only use for a heart is to keep your blood in circulation."

Angela saw this silent play of weapons, and all her sympathy was with the stranger in dusty blue alpaca. She busied herself mentally in rearranging the little woman's hair, dressing her in such a way as to make her quite pretty and young-looking, and had not finished the operation when a hotel clerk appeared with a paper in his hand.

"Your name, please," he said to the small, unaccompanied person.

"My name is Sara Wilkins," she replied in a clear precise voice, which matched her personality; "but I must tell you that I am not a Native Daughter, and have not engaged a room. I arrived at the same time with the others, and when they are settled I hope you'll be able to find me something; otherwise I hardly know what I shall do, as it's late, and I'm travelling alone."

"I'm afraid I can do nothing for you, Madam, if you have not engaged," said the young man, civilly. "These ladies are expected, and a great many will be sleeping three and four in a room. I'm sorry; but there are other hotels in the town."

"I'm sorry too," said the lady in the dusty alpaca. "I've wanted for years to stay in this hotel, if it was only for a few hours, as I've read so much about it, and I arranged to stop off at Santa Barbara on purpose, though I really ought to have gone on. And I'm so tired!"

Angela could bear no more. "Oh, would you take my sitting-room?" she asked, with the smile she had inherited with her heart and a few other things from Franklin Merriam. "It would be such a shame to go away when you've wanted to stop here-so late, too, and you mightn't get in anywhere else. I shall be delighted-really-and I'm sure they can make you up a comfortable bed, for there's a big lounge in the room."

Nick sat adoring her with his eyes, and Miss Dene believed that Mrs. May had made the offer to please him and Falconer. Men were very silly and sentimental about such things. But as she, Theo, had no sitting-room of her own they could not blame her for selfishness.

Miss Wilkins looked at Angela with her intelligent gray eyes. "Why, that's very kind of you," she said. "I don't like to take your room--"

"But you must like it, or you'll spoil my pleasure," Angela broke in, looking so charming in her wish to make the little dusty person happy that few women and no men could have resisted, or helped believing in her. It was at this moment that Falconer determined to tell Mrs. May something about certain private interests of his at Paso Robles, which he had not intended to mention.

"Well, I will take the room, then, and I will like it, too," returned Miss Wilkins. "I don't know how to thank you enough."

"I'm giving up nothing that I shall mind doing without," said Angela; and did not dream that she had stirred the deep water under which a golden key lay hid; the key of that island palace in the uncharted sea of the future.

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