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   Chapter 16 ANGELA AT HER WORST

The Port of Adventure By A. M. Williamson Characters: 12884

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


But something had happened to Angela next day. That was clear, from her manner. What had changed her from a clinging, sweetly mid-Victorian girl into a reserved, coldly polite woman, Nick could not imagine. Her cool "Good morning" gave the first sign of a fallen temperature. His way of beginning the day was suited to the ending of yesterday: hers denied all that made yesterday memorable. Could it be that in recalling the scene in the Mission church, Mrs. May disapproved of something he had said, or some blundering act, and wished to "put him in his place"? Or-still more terrible-was she unhappy about Falconer? Nick was confused, miserable, and because he did not know how to take her, or consequently how to bear himself, he became self-conscious and awkward.

Angela did not refuse to go to Santa Ysabel and the mysterious warm lake, but she said that she would sit behind as her head ached a little, and she would feel the wind less than on the front seat. Nick knew, somehow, that she did not wish to talk to him. Yet there was nothing definite in her manner, of which he could take hold and say, "Have I offended you?"

"Perhaps it's only that she's tired, and didn't sleep well," Nick tried to persuade himself, because, in reason, he did not see what else it could be. "As like as not, she'll be different to-morrow."

But there was to be no to-morrow.

The blow did not fall until he had brought her back to the hotel. Then, before Nick could propose a new plan, she said quickly, in the presence of Falconer, who had strolled out to meet the Bright Angel, "Oh, Mr. Hilliard, I think you'll be glad to hear you are going to be relieved of all this bother I've been making you. I'm engaged to play chaperon for a few days. If I will go to Monterey, Mademoiselle Dobieski will go, and of course that will be a great, great pleasure to Mr. Falconer. You know, don't you, that our plans were never made for a day ahead? She and I will travel in the wonderful private car, and meet Mrs. Harland at the other end of the journey. I know Mr. Falconer means to ask you too, so we shan't be saying good-bye, or even au revoir, if you accept. His idea is for you to let your chauffeur drive the Bright Angel, and meet you where you like. But he'll tell you all about that, of course. We arranged this at breakfast, which Mademoiselle Dobieski had with me, in my sitting-room."

With this, she walked away, leaving the men to settle the question between themselves. Nick thought then that he understood. She mentioned the promised invitation, rather than break away from him too abruptly, but certainly she could not wish him to accept. If she had not wanted to escape from his society, she would not have fallen in with Falconer's suggestion. Perhaps she had even asked Falconer to help her out of a situation which, for some dreadful reason, she suddenly found impossible. This was very likely Falconer's way of coming to the rescue. The excuse seemed a fairly good one, and the invitation was calculated to save sensitive feelings. But it was not quite good enough-or the feelings were too sensitive. Nick thanked Falconer, and said that he was sorry to miss such a pleasure, but could not trust Billy to drive the Bright Angel: he must stick to the helm.

When Angela came back in a few minutes with Sonia Dobieski, Falconer was still trying to persuade Hilliard to change his mind, proposing that, if Billy could not drive, the Bright Angel should be put upon a train. For an instant Nick's eyes sought Angela's, but she was tucking a rose into her belt, and did not look up. Her lowered eyelids and long lashes gave her a look of deliberate remoteness. Nick again expressed his gratitude, but was "afraid he couldn't manage, although he would like it mighty well." This time he made no excuse for his refusal, and Falconer let the subject drop. He saw that something was wrong, and feared that he had been selfish in suggesting an idea which would give him Sonia for a guest. Certainly Mrs. May had accepted readily; but now there was a jarring note. He was sorry, but could do nothing more, except to express regret that Hilliard would not be of the party on board the McCloud. Mademoiselle Dobieski followed suit, and, in common civility, Angela had to say what they said whether she meant it or not. She had to look up, too, when she spoke, and Nick's eyes met hers. She blushed like a schoolgirl, and glanced away, adding quickly that she would have liked his advice as well as Falconer's, at Monterey. "You know, Mr. Falconer thinks I shall want to buy land along the Seventeen-Mile Drive, and build my house there," she said. "I wonder? Since Santa Barbara, I've been thinking I might prefer the North. But I can't tell, one bit. There's something about the climate of California-I suppose it must be the climate!-which makes me in two minds about the same things, every day."

Nick was not sure whether to take this as an excuse or a stab. He was sure of but one thing. Something hideous had come between him and his angel, while he slept and dreamed of her; and nothing would ever be the same again. Of course it must be his fault; and if he were used to women he would perhaps see what he had done that a woman would disapprove. Or perhaps, even so, he would be in the dark, for there were all the other women in the world, and there was Angela May. She was a law unto herself. It looked just now as if she were a hard and cruel law, but she must not be blamed. She had a right to break with him. She had promised nothing.

"I think," said Nick, when he had learned that the McCloud was to be "hitched" to a train, in the afternoon, "I'd better be getting on. I might as well say good-bye to you all now." When he shook hands with Mrs. May, Falconer and Sonia Dobieski turned aside a little, speaking to each other. "I hope you understand, Mr. Hilliard, and don't think I'm being rude after all your kindness," Angela said, melting a little; "I could hardly refuse them, when it was a question of chaperoning a newly engaged couple; and I thought you would join us, of course."

This concession gave Nick an unexpected chance. He dared to hope that it was an olive branch held out. "Did you really think that?" he asked quickly, in a low voice.

"Certainly. Why not?"

"Oh, I don't know! That's the trouble. But-if you did think it, maybe you'll let me see you again-maybe this won't be good-bye for al

ways?"

"Dear me, I hope not, indeed!" she answered in a light, frivolous tone again. "We're sure to meet. You come to San Francisco sometimes I've heard you say. I shall be there-oh, ages."

"You'll let me call?" Nick was faintly-very faintly-encouraged, not to hope for much, but for a very little; for a chance to retrieve some of the ground he had lost in a night; to begin low down, and work up.

"I shall be glad to see you at the Fairmont Hotel, when I get there." She was almost too frankly cordial suddenly. The tone would have been perfect if the words had been spoken in New Orleans, before a thousand things had happened. But they had passed that stage now-for good or ill.

Then they finished shaking hands, and a few minutes later Nick left her with Falconer and Sonia Dobieski. The instant he had gone, Angela would have given a good deal to call him back, although she was sure she had done only her duty to herself and him.

Her reasons for the great change were not mysterious at all. They were very clear, and seemed to her very virtuous, very praiseworthy-up to the last minute. Then she thought that she was a prig, and a wretch, and several other things which she would have been furious to be thought by anybody else. She had wanted Nick to realize-that is, she had felt it her duty to make him realize-that things could not go on as they were, after last night. She had been incredibly silly in the Mission church. All night long she had scolded herself for the way she had "behaved" and let the "forest creature" behave-holding her hand, and sitting as close to her on the gallery stairs as if they were engaged in a desperate ballroom flirtation. She must show him that she was not really a stupid, sentimental person. She made up her mind that they must begin all over again, the very first thing in the morning; and, true to her resolution, she had, indeed, begun all over again. She had torn a hole in the net which was binding them together-all through her own silly fault!

In her heart, she had wanted him to accept Falconer's invitation; but she had not wanted him to know that she had wanted him. The thing was to give the impression that she would be pleased if he went, and not miserable if he refused. If they all went to Monterey together on Mr. Falconer's private car, they would not be losing each other-as friends; they would merely be adjusting their relations, which, owning to San Miguel, had suddenly got dangerously out of hand.

It was only when Nick's back was turned, and he was going, that she saw things from his point of view. Why had she not been clever enough to keep to the happy medium and not make him think that he had done something dreadfully wrong-that on second thoughts she was blaming him for last night, and punishing him? Surely she might have managed better-she a woman of the world, and he a mere "forest creature"?

But it was too late. The thing was done, and badly done. Angela saw herself a worm, and Nick noble as a tall pine-tree of the mountains. Still, it was best that the break should have come, one way or another.

"Why on earth should I care?" she asked herself angrily. '"We could never go on having a real friendship, all our lives-I and a man like that. He's a splendid fellow-of course, above me in lots of ways; but we're of different worlds. I don't see how anything could change that. What a pity it all is-not for my sake, but for his!" And she thought how awkward his fit of shy self-consciousness had made him appear in contrast with a cultured man, a cosmopolitan like Falconer. It was she who had made him self-conscious. She knew that. But there was the fact. Falconer was a man of her world. Nick Hilliard was not. It was sad that Nick, with his good looks and intelligence and fine qualities, could not have had advantages when a boy-could not have gone to a university or at least associated with gentlefolk as their equal-which he was in heart. But now he had got those slipshod ways of speaking he could never change. And there were a thousand other things which put him outside the pale of the men she knew. She would not listen when a sarcastic voice within defended Nick, sneering, "Oh, yes, Prince Paolo di Sereno and some of his friends are far superior to Mr. Hilliard, aren't they?"

Irritated because the "forest creature" had become of paramount importance in her life when he should remain the merest episode, she was surprised and even horrified to find herself despairing because he had done what she forced him to do. She could have cried for what he must be thinking of her. She wanted to go on seeing his faults, but in her changing mood she could see only her own. "He is one of the noblest gentlemen in the world," something inside her said. "You aren't worthy to black his boots!" Then the picture of herself blacking them-the shiny ones that were too tight-rose before her eyes, and she was afraid that she was going to laugh-or else to sob. Anyhow, he was gone, and there was an end of it all!

But when afternoon came, things were different again. In Falconer's private car, where she, Princess di Sereno, was the chaperon, and Sonia Dobieski was queen, Angela was so desperately homesick for Nick Hilliard that she did not see how she could get on without his-friendship. "After all," she reminded herself, excusing her inconsistency, "I didn't send him away. He went of his own accord. He might be here now. He refused to come with us. It's only that we oughtn't to be rushing about together any more in that absurd way. It won't do. Things keep happening-unexpected things-like last night. Still if he comes to San Francisco-if he asks again to 'show me the sights' I don't see why I shouldn't say yes-just to so small a favour-and to make up-in case his feelings are hurt."

In her heart she knew that his feelings were hurt. But had she not hurt her own?

There was a piano in the drawing-room part of the car. Sonia was singing to Falconer. They had forgotten Mrs. May, without whose martyred presence they could not have had this happiness. The soul of the Russian girl seemed to pour out with her voice, as upon a tide. The sorrow and pain of her past exile were in it at first: then it rose to the joy of new life in a new world. The sweetness of the voice and all that it meant of love after anguish stabbed Angela as she listened in the distance, like a knife dipped in honey.

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