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   Chapter 24 THE BEST THING IN HER LIFE

The Port of Adventure By A. M. Williamson Characters: 25676

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


A faint fragrance of roses haunted the mysterious "nighty," filled the room, and mingled with Angela's dreams. All night long she walked in a garden of sleeping flowers, "sweet shut mouths of rosebuds, and closed white lids of lilies"; and it seemed but a short night, for in her dreams she had half the garden still to explore-in searching for Nick, it seemed-when a rap, sharp as the breaking of a tree branch, made her start up in bed. A dim impression was in her mind that a voice had accompanied the rap, and had made an unsympathetic announcement which meant the need to get up. But the only really important thing was to run back into the garden and find Nick Hilliard, as otherwise she might miss him forever. So Angela shut her eyes, and hurried down dim labyrinths, where she had been wandering before, and called to Nick: "I'm here again. Where are you?"

The rosebuds and lilies were still there, fast asleep, yet somehow the garden was different and not so beautiful. A handsome woman, with black hair, was gathering the flowers, pretending not to see Angela, and Nick had gone. A girl's voice somewhere was saying, "Prince di Sereno! What a romantic name."

It only seemed a minute since the first knock, but now there came another; and this time the announcement was even more disturbing: "Breakfast's ready!" Immediately after, as if to show that no arguing would avail, steps went clanking along the veranda, heavy at first, fainter with distance, and at last a convulsive banging on the door of some other unfortunate.

Now Angela wished no longer to return to the garden of sleep. She was glad to get up, bathe in haste and dress breathlessly, for she had asked to be called at five in order to breakfast before six. In a strenuous quarter of an hour she had arrived at the blouse-fastening stage of her toilet; and, as luck would have it, the blouse concerned was one which did not approve of hurry, and tolerated no liberties. It was of fine cambric, hand-embroidered, fastening at the back, where on one side lived a quantity of tiny pearl buttons, made to mate with an equal number of loops on the other side, very little loops of linen thread. As works of art these were admirable, but they liked to be waited upon respectfully by an experienced lady's maid. Missing such attentions, not one would consent to yoke itself with its appointed button.

Angela grew warm and flurried. She rang, but no one answered the bell, for it was not yet six o'clock; and only a few of the hotel servants had come on duty.

What should she do? Last night she had looked forward with interest to dressing this morning, for Nick had got for her a costume suitable for riding a trail pony, and fortunately she had it in her suit-case. It was of khaki, with a divided skirt, and a peculiarly fetching jacket. But the jacket must be worn over a thin blouse; and she could not go out to breakfast with that blouse unbuttoned from neck to waist. No doubt by this time Nick was waiting. A large party would start from the hotel to drive to Mirror Lake, and they two were to be in the crowd-though not of it-finding their trail ponies later. She might, of course, keep her "forest creature" waiting indefinitely. He was inured to that treatment and would not complain; but the others?

"Are you ready, Mrs. May?" Nick's voice inquired apologetically, outside the door. "I hope you won't mind my bothering you, but I thought perhaps your call had been forgotten, so--"

"Can you do my blouse for me? Because I can't! And if you can't I shall cry," moaned Angela in a voice of despair. She dashed the door open, and stood on the threshold, in the sweet dawn, the river laughing at her plight.

Nick did not laugh.

There was his Angel, in her short khaki skirt, and the thin cambric blouse that would not button. Her face was flushed, her eyes sparkling with that dress-rage than which no emotion known to woman is more fiercely primitive. She was in an early morning "I don't care what happens now!" mood; but Nick cared.

In the first place, as his eyes took in the situation, he was overwhelmed with a sense of vast responsibility. If he could not "do" the blouse, Mrs. May had threatened to cry, and she looked as if she would keep her word. So "do" the blouse he must, if the sky fell. And if he couldn't, it had better fall!

Angela stood with her back to her victim, and the rosy light of sunrise turned a small visible slip of white skin to pearl. A ring or two of bright hair, moist from her bath, curled out from the turned-up mass of gold, and hovered like little glittering bees just over the top buttons of Mrs. May's collar, which Nick must now attack. What if some of that shiny hair was twisted around the buttons? Good heavens! On closer inspection it was!

The man's heart, which was beating fast, seemed suddenly to turn to water-wild, rushing water, like that of the river below the fall.

"Can you do it?" asked Angela, anxiously.

"I sure will," answered Nick, with a hundred per cent, more confidence than he felt. A confidence somewhat increased, however, by last evening's success. "Do I begin at the neck or the waist?" he inquired in his most matter-of-fact voice, as if he were about to cord a box, or nail up a crate of oranges.

"At the neck," Angela instructed him.

The stricken young man had a curious sensation, as if his hands were swelling to an immense size. He seemed to have as much control of his fingers as though he wore a pair of boxing gloves.

He took hold gingerly of the delicately embroidered collar, a thumb and finger on either side. "I guess it won't meet," he ventured, tentatively.

"Oh, yes, it will. Just pull it together firmly."

Nick pulled with resolution.

"Ugh! You're choking me!" she gurgled.

All that water which once had been his heart trickled vaguely and icily through the wrong veins, upsetting his whole system.

"Forgive me this time!" he implored. "It's going to be right, just as soon as-as-I find the buttonholes."

"There aren't any. They're loops."

"Oh, those tiny little stick-up things, like loosened threads?"

"Yes. You'll see it's quite easy, after the first."

Oh, was it indeed? Nick suppressed a groan, not at his task, but at his own oxlike awkwardness (so he anathematized it) that made a torture of a delicious privilege. Evidently it was a much harder thing to lasso one of these little pearl atrocities with its alleged "loop" than to rope a vicious steer. And there were those tangling threads of gold. If he should hurt her!

The ex-cowboy almost prayed, as, with the caution of a man treading upon knife-blades on the edge of a precipice, he unwound the two little curls from the top button of the collar. And perhaps his unconscious appeal for mercy had its effect, for the tendrils yielded graciously to coaxing. He would have given a year of his life to kiss one of those curls; a comparatively worthless year it would be, since, in all probability, it would be empty of Angela May! Yet no-now that he had touched her like this, now that he had come so near to her, he felt with all his soul that he could never let her go. He would have to keep her somehow.

"She may think there's a dead line between us," he told himself; "but before we leave the Yosemite Valley together I'm going to do my best to cross that line, if I get shot for my cheek. It's better to dare the dash and die, than not to dare, and lose her."

Never, perhaps, was so desperate a resolve cemented while fastening a woman's blouse; but there was a hint of triumph in Nick's voice as he announced, "I've done it!" His signal success in two operations of extreme difficulty seemed to him like two separate good omens.

Angela lightly thanked her knight for his services and bade him wait on the veranda while she put on her jacket and hat. A minute later she came out again, ready for breakfast; and now, having a mind released from buttons, she saw that Nick was good to look upon in his khaki riding-clothes.

"Am I all right?" she inquired modestly.

"Better than all right," he allowed himself to answer.

"I do think this hat of Hawaiian straw is a success. And you-well, I'm rather proud of my trail guide. Used you to dress like that in your cowboy days?"

Nick laughed. "Great Scot, no! I'd have been in rags in no time. Didn't you ever see a cowpuncher's 'shaps'?"

"No; I don't even know what they are. Have you kept your cowboy things?"

"Oh, yes. They're knocking around somewhere. I have to put them on once in a while."

"If I accept your invitation to come and see your place, will you 'dress up' in them?"

"Of course, if it'd please you. But I'd feel a fool rigging myself out just to show off, like an actor."

"Yet, that's the bribe you'll have to offer if you want me to pay you a visit."

"It's settled then. I hope the moths haven't got my 'shaps' since I had 'em on last."

They both laughed and went to breakfast. What a good world it was! Angela told Nick the tale of the mysterious apparition of a beauteous "nighty," and wondered how she could ever have felt unhappy, or depressingly grown up.

The others who were going to Mirror Lake were almost ready to start, and the "buckboard" which was to take Nick and Angela had come to the hotel door. But these two, at all times small eaters, were exhilarated by the wine of life, and a little milk and bread sufficed them. They did not keep the party waiting, and so they were regarded with favour-the handsome young man and the lovely girl about whose relations to each other people were quite good-naturedly speculating. Angela saw that she was regarded with interest, and that eyes turned from her to Nick. But she was "only Mrs. May, whom nobody knows." After the drive on the buckboard she and Nick would be separating from the rest. That night, at Glacier Point, she would find Kate, already arrived from El Portal; and then she would never see any of these pleasant questioning-eyed young people again. The most reckless part of the adventure would be over with this day-and she was rather sorry. After all, she did not much regret the wave of fate which had swept her and her maid-chaperon temporarily apart. There was a certain piquancy in travelling alone with this knight-errant.

Mirror Lake-well-named-was asleep still, and dreaming of the mountains which imprisoned it as dragons used to imprison princesses in glass retorts. There was the dream, lying deep down and visible under the clear surface; and when every one else had gone off to the trail ponies, Nick and Angela stayed to watch the water's waking. It was a darting fish which, with a splash and a ripple, shattered the picture; but the ripple died, and the lake slept again, taking up its dream where it had been broken off, as Angela had tried to do. She had failed, for her picture had changed for the worse when she found it again; but the second dream of Mirror Lake was fairer than the first. Into it there stole a joyous luminance which made saints' haloes for the reflected heads of mountains. The sun rose, and stepped slowly into the water's dream. It flung the lake a golden loving cup, thrilling it to the heart with that bright gift.

A little farther on, by the Happy Isles-small, lovely islands of rock in the river's whirl-Nick and Angela found their trail ponies waiting in charge of a boy. But Nick knew the trail well, and was to be the sole guide, as they had always planned. He put Angela up on an intelligent brown bronco, which had to be ridden Mexican fashion; and they set off together, the boy looking after them as if he, too, would have liked to follow the trail.

Far ahead they could see the procession of their lost companions, just rounding a sharp corner. They were an admirable cavalcade in khaki, the men wearing sombreros, the girls with brilliant blue or green veils tied over big hats, and scarlet silk handkerchiefs knotted at their necks. The gaily coloured figures on horse or mule back fitted the picture as appropriately as if they had been Indians; and Angela gazed at them with pleasure; but she felt no wish to join the band.

Nick led; she rode close behind, sometimes mounting, sometimes descending the narrow trail toward Glacier Point. By and by Hall Dome, one of the great granite mountains, began to dominate the world; but though the cascades were in his kingdom they could not be governed by him, because spirits are not ruled by earthly kings. There was Vernal Fall, gentle in majesty; and Nevada, a wild and untamed water spirit; and retrospect glimpses of the Yosemite Falls.

Close to Nevada, they reached a famous viewpoint, and Nick took Angela off her pony that she might stand near the edge and see the white torrent plunge over an unthinkable abyss. Always she had hate

d to look down from heights, because they made her long to jump and end everything. But to-day she was in love with life, and the leap of the waters quickened her heart with a sense of power. On the pony again, as they went up and up, or down steep rocky ways on the verge of sheer abysses, she had no fear. She seemed to be learning a lesson of peace, a lesson such as only unspoiled nature can teach.

"The world was a sea, billowing with mountains"

From the high levels they had reached, they looked down on clouds that glittered silver-white as snow-capped mountain-heads. Among the rocks, where the ponies' hoofs picked their way, wild flowers sprang, strange and lovely blossoms such as Angela had never seen; but Nick knew most of them by name. Bird notes dropped like honey from fragrant shrubs and trees that hid the singers. Squirrels with plumed tails, and chipmunks striped white, gray, and brown, raced across the trail, or peered with the bright beads they had for eyes from piles of dead wood that lay gray as skeletons among the living green of the mountain forest. Far below, Silver Apron Fall splashed into the Emerald Pool and turned its green jewels to diamonds. The near forests and faraway waters sang in the different voices the same song other waters and forests had sung yesterday; but this song of the High Sierra had wilder notes, above and beyond all knowledge of fleeting episodes such as human lives and civilizations. For the song had not changed since the world was young. The air was not mere air, but seemingly a conscious mingling of Divine Ether with the atmosphere. Though they ascended always, it was as if they rode through the depths of a crystal sea, unstirred by their presence, a sea as deep and as high as heaven, a blue that took the solidity of turquoise between tree-trunks and paled to opaline fire across the canon. Angela knew that never again, after these spacious days, could she go back to her old self. She felt that she had mounted one step higher on the stage of development, and gained an ampler view. It was easier now than it had been to see how Nick Hilliard had become what he was. Nature, on the grandest scale and with the "grand manner," she thought, had given him his education; had been for him at once schoolmistress, guide, and companion. And no college built by man could give, for money, such knowledge as sky and wide spaces had given Nick for love.

Early in the afternoon the ponies brought them to the high plateau of Glacier Point, where, looking down, the world was a sea billowing with mountains, foaming with cataracts.

Angela was deliciously tired; and the long low hotel, built of logs, with a huge veranda, seemed to promise the welcome she wanted: a cool, clean room, a warm bath, and afterward luncheon. Also, she expected to find Kate. Nick had wired, or telephoned, she was uncertain which; and though no answer had been received, Kate's silence might no doubt be easily explained later. Angela felt confident that she would have precisely the room she pictured; she rather hoped it would be white and green.

The manager met them on the veranda, but it was not the manager Nick had known.

"My name's Hilliard," Nick began.

"Oh, yes. I 'phoned an answer to you at the Sentinel Hotel this morning. Something wrong with the wire between us yesterday."

"We must have started before you 'phoned."

"Well, I'm sorry. You wanted two rooms. But the best we can do for you and Mrs. Hilliard is one."

"Great Scot, you don't know what you're talking about!" gasped Nick. "This is Mrs. May."

"Beg your pardon, Mr. May. I thought you said your name was Hilliard."

"It is. But hers isn't. We-I-I'm only her guide," stammered Nick, so deeply embarrassed for Angela's sake that for the moment he lost his presence of mind. "It's the last straw," he thought. "She'll never forgive me." And he dared not look to see how she had taken the blow, until she surprised him by laughing. She was blushing a little, too.

"Do you remember the laundry in New Orleans?" she asked. "I'm afraid it will have to be the laundry for you again, or else a refrigerator."

Nick was of opinion that the refrigerator would better suit the state of his complexion, which needed cooling, but his relief at seeing Angela amused, not offended, was too great for words. He mumbled something vague about any cupboard or cellar being good enough, and began to recover himself; but his confusion had been contagious. The hotel manager caught the disease, and hoped Mrs. Willard would excuse him-no, he meant Mrs. Day-no, really he began to be afraid that he didn't remember rightly what he meant! He'd got Mrs. Milliard and Mr. Hay mixed up, and would they sort themselves, please? Once he had them straightened out in his mind, he'd try to keep them straight.

"Has my maid come on from El Portal?" Angela thought this a propitious moment for a question on some other subject.

"Your maid? No, Mrs. Hill, she hasn't."

"And no message? How strange!"

"Nothing that I've heard of. But I'll let you know. If Mr. Mayard-Mr. Mill, will come with me to the 'phone, when you're in his room-I mean, when you're in yours-we may get on to El Portal."

Angela was still laughing to herself, when word was brought by a chambermaid that Kate had telephoned from El Portal. She had hurt her ankle in getting into the stage (Angela could quite imagine that!), and had not been able to proceed. It was not, however, a regular sprain. She was in bandages, but better; and it was now settled that, without fail, she was to meet Mrs. May at Wawona to-morrow. "And your husband wants to know," added the chambermaid, "what time you would like to have your lunch."

"He is not my husband," said Angela.

The young woman froze.

"We are friends."

The scandalized muscles relaxed. There was a high nobility in friendship. The chambermaid herself had a friend, who talked a great deal about Plato, in the cheap edition.

"And will you please say I shall be ready in twenty minutes?"

Standing on the hotel veranda together, after luncheon, "Mrs. Mill and Mr. Hayward"-he restored to calmness-could look thousands of feet down to the floor of the valley. Exactly how many thousands of feet there were Angela refused to be told, for the distance seemed illimitable, and cold facts might dwarf imagination. They saw the Yosemite Falls, a quivering white vein on a dark wall a million miles away. Mirror Lake was a splinter of glass on a pavement of green tiles. Nevada and Vernal Falls were pale yet bright as streaks of stardrift, in the blue haze of distance.

If it had not been for the episode of Mrs. Hilliard and Mr. May, Nick might have felt tempted to try his fate, and dare the dash across the "dead line," that evening of moonlight on the mountain-top. But it might, he thought, seem like presuming on what had happened; and having come, more or less safely, round an awkward turning, he was thankful to find himself on a narrow ledge of security. The moonshine, that turned mountains to marble and sky to pearl, was cold as it was pure; and in its bleaching radiance Angela seemed less woman than spirit. He dared not let that angel know how hot was his heart.

"I'll wait till we're among the Big Trees," he said to himself. "They're great, as great as the mountains in their way, but they're friendly and kind, as if they might help. That's where I'll risk it all: in the Mariposa Forest, the place I like better than any other in the world. So whatever happens, we shall have seen the best there is together, and all that will be mine to remember, if I lose everything else."

The next day was a day of forest and flowers.

They were not travelling this time in an ordinary stage, for Nick had secured a buckboard for themselves alone, with a driver who knew the country, with its beauties and legends, as well as he knew his big muscular gray horses.

Those never-ending, cathedral-forests of America's. National Park were wilder than any that Angela had imagined. She hardly believed that the great redwoods which she was to see to-morrow could be grander than these immense fluted columns of cedar and pine. In the arms of the biggest and most virile trees, many slender sapling shapes, storm-broken, or tired of facing life alone, lay helplessly. But the driver's heart was proof against a romantic view of this situation, as sketched by Angela. "It oughtn't to be allowed," he said, sternly. "Think of the danger in fire. That's what is called by the foresters, 'extra hazard,' as I guess Mr. Hilliard knows."

Oh, yes, Nick knew. But, seeing with Angela's eyes, he envied the lover-trees their peril. He, a lonely tree, had already taken fire, but he would gladly risk the "extra hazard." What if-and his thoughts ran ahead to the day in the redwoods, that day set apart by his mind as the clou of the excursion-what if the thing her eyes seemed to say to him should be true? What if she could love him, and give up her world, that world which he saw vaguely, as a dazzling vision? What if, to-morrow, she too should know the thrill of "extra hazard"?

No wonder, then, as he dreamed, that the glacier meadows encircled by green walls of forest primeval should seem like fairy rings, visible to mortal eyes only as a special privilege. In the sunlight-gold, the sheets of azaleas, cyclamen, and violets, were embroidered tapestries of pink and purple; the bright rivulets of melting snow that bathed the wild flowers' roots became a network of diamonds.

Here and there, under the huge coniferous trees, lay patches of snow still unmelted, though the month was June. Indian fire glowed red on the white expanse, blood on marble, and scarlet snow-plant sent up lurid spouts like flaming fountains. The tree-shadows were painted pools of lupin, azure lakes; or they were purple seas of larkspur. Mountain-roses and wild lilac tangled in a maze of pink and white and gold. Bear-clover crowned the bald gray heads of rocks, or shone out like star-white strawberry blossoms from under a thicket of deer-bush. Wild asters burned rosily, like small Catherine wheels half extinguished. Small, mottled tiger lilies blazed among the pale young fronds of growing bracken: the air was scented with wild roses and the spicy fragrance of manzanita trees-the breath of California. But loveliest and strangest of all things were the gardens chosen for their own by the mariposa lilies. The trembling winged flowers hovered airily just above the earth, like a flock of alighting butterflies; and overhead poised real butterflies, of the self-same delicate tints hardly strong enough to be named as colours; silvery white, faint lilac, and a sunrise-hint of rose. Ground butterflies and air butterflies seemed kin to one another, those rooted to the ground longing for wings, those to whom earth offered no permanent foothold envying their half-sister's rest and peace.

Here in the mountains it was spring, though down below in the valleys full summer had come; and toward evening Angela and Nick descended once again to the summer world.

The valley of Wawona was laid out on the plan of those fairy rings, alias glacier meadows, which they had seen in higher places, only this was a fairy ring on a grander scale. It seemed so hidden by a belt of mountains that its green lawns, its gardens, its fountains and flowers might have been originally discovered only by some happy accident. But the discoverer being of a practical turn of mind, he or his descendants had built a delightful though unobtrusive hotel on a spot which might still have been warm from the fairies. On the veranda of the hotel was Kate, beaming with smiles of welcome as the buckboard coming down from Glacier Point brought her mistress in sight.

"Oh, it was a lovely place!" said Kate. And sure, how happy she and Timmy were to be there at last. She had arrived hours ago, and was nicely rested, yes, thank you, ma'am.

There were saucers of white violets, and vases of iris and Washington lilies in Mrs. May's bedroom. Here were no embarrassing complications connected with "Mr." May and "Mrs." Hilliard. All was peace; and as the dust which had turned Angela's golden hair to silver was being brushed away by Kate, the tale of the maid's adventures was unfolded. Yet Angela, smiling gently, as she inhaled the sweetness of violets, hardly listened. She was glad that Kate was almost well and that Timmy was restored to the bosom of his family. But it seemed to her that no one except herself had had any adventures worth the name. No one else could ever have adventures half as good! Even she-no, not for her could their like come again. She began to grudge the passing of the hours, wishing that she had the power to stop all the clocks of the world.

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