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   Chapter 28 THE DARK CLOUD IN THE CRYSTAL

The Port of Adventure By A. M. Williamson Characters: 13381

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


When the musical gong sounded for luncheon, and Carmen came down from her room at one o'clock, she found her guest already in the garden, as lovely a garden as Angela had seen in her sleep. For a minute Carmen stood on a step of the brick terrace, looking at the slender figure in white. Angela did not hear the faint rustling of muslin. Her back was half turned to the house, and she was watching the aerial architecture of the fountain, delicate domes and pinnacles built of crystal. Carmen thought reluctantly that Mrs. May looked very young in her white frock, not more than eighteen or nineteen. She wondered if the love pirate enjoyed life very much, and whether she really cared for Nick and wanted to marry him or whether she was only flirting. Then the profile at which Carmen had been gloomily gazing turned into a full face. Angela smiled at Mrs. Gaylor. "You must have hypnotized me," she said. "Suddenly I felt I was being looked at by some one. Have you been taking a nap, too?"

"No," said her hostess. "I knew I couldn't go to sleep. I'm glad if you rested. You look very fresh."

Angela could not conscientiously return the compliment. Mrs. Gaylor might have been travelling for a week instead of one night.

Luncheon was in the pergola, where Carmen and Nick had dined together the night he went away; the night-as she expressed it to herself of late-when she had lost him. Angela had never seen a more beautiful place, and said so, trying to make conversation; for now that Nick was not with them she felt ill at ease with Mrs. Gaylor. "What a garden!" she exclaimed. "The other night in the Yosemite I dreamed of just such a garden-and I think, at the end of the dream there was a woman in it-rather like you. You must be very happy here."

"Yes, I'm happy enough," said Carmen. "Oh! I mustn't forget to tell you-Nick came back. Did you hear his automobile?"

"No. I must have been asleep."

"I thought you were. Besides, your room's on the other side of the house."

"It's beautifully quiet and cool. Did Mr. Hilliard come to change the plan for this afternoon?"

"Yes. He turned round before getting home, because he'd remembered something he had to do at six, something important, business with the men who've bought his gusher. They're to look at another one-smaller, but pretty good-and see if they want to buy it too; a new gusher that's burst out on the land Nick kept for his own. So he thought perhaps we wouldn't mind going over to look at the place a good deal earlier, after all, in spite of the heat. He won't let you be exposed to the sun more than he can help."

"I don't mind the heat, if you don't," said Angela.

"Oh, as for me, I'm half Spanish, you know. I'm like a salamander. Nick'll come back between half-past two and three-soon after his lunch. He might almost as well have stayed with us. But, of course, as he's been away from home so long, he wants to have a look around and be sure that everything's all right for a stranger to see. I don't wonder! I told him we'd meet him at the east gate. It's a short cut, and though it isn't much of a walk for us, and is in shade over half the way, it cuts off more than two miles of bad road for him-road that's just being made. I thought you'd rather like a stroll through the bamboo grove, which everybody admires so much. The only part of the walk that will be hot is going across a bit of disused pasture land. But we'll take green-lined parasols. I have a lot of them about the house, for visitors. We ought to start by two-thirty; and by three-fifteen, with the motor, we can be coming in sight of the Lucky Star Gusher, like a huge black geyser. You know Nick's land was once part of mine, so his place is no distance, really. I hope you don't dislike walking?"

"No, indeed. I'm very fond of it. I can easily do ten miles."

"Well, you will have only a short mile to meet Nick and his motor this afternoon. I dare say I shall pick up a little by half-past two. I thought maybe lunch would make me feel better, but it doesn't. Just the other way! I can't eat. I've got one of the horrid headaches that turn me almost into a lunatic once in a blue moon."

"I'm so sorry," said Angela. "Hadn't you better send Mr. Hilliard word that we can't come to-day? You know, there's most of to-morrow--"

"Oh, no," Carmen broke in hastily. "I wouldn't disappoint him for anything in the world. A cup of black coffee will do me good."

But apparently it had no such effect. And at two o'clock Mrs. Gaylor said that she feared she must not venture out, after all, in the hot sun. If she tried she might faint, and that would be silly. "I'm so sorry, but you'll have to go alone," she finished, "and when I've had a little rest, I'll come after you in a carriage, in time to bring you home. That will save Nick motoring here and back, and give him a chance to keep his engagement at six, with those men, and no danger of a breakdown with his car. He might burst a tire on that stony road, you see, and be delayed. Those men are important to him."

Angela was genuinely sympathetic, and strove to regret that Mrs. Gaylor could not be with her. But she could not feel as sorry as she wished to feel. There was a spice of danger in being alone with Nick, danger that he might take up the thread dropped in the Mariposa Forest-if, indeed, he really cared to take it up. That was the question. Perhaps, even if he loved her, he would not think it best to tell her so under his own roof, where she would have to run away from him to escape, if she did not choose to listen. Whether he loved her or not, it must come to the same in the end. But she could not help longing to know the truth. The one thing she did already know was that she was deliciously frightened, yet glad that she was to see Nick's ranch without Mrs. Gaylor.

At half-past two she started out, Carmen giving her explicit directions, which she could not mistake, because, after passing through the bamboos, the way was straight as far as that stretch of disused pasture land of which mention had been made.

"You'll be in shade of the orange-trees till you come to a big gate in a fence," Carmen explained. "Shut it after you, please, because dogs might stray into the garden if you left it open. No cattle graze on that part of the ranch any more. They're going to irrigate there and to plant alfalfa, the soil's likely to be so good. But I've been weak enough to let gipsies camp on the place once or twice, and there might be some there now, with their dogs and horses, for all I know. As you go out of the gate you'll see a kind of track worn in the grass; and all you've got to do is to follow it for abou

t three quarters of a mile, till you come to a new road that's just been finished. When the rest of it's made right, motors won't have any trouble between Nick's ranch and mine."

Angela said that she understood her instructions perfectly, and took the green-lined parasol which her hostess had found for her. Its outer covering was scarlet, and it was rather big and heavy. Angela made up her mind that she would not use it except for the hottest part of the walk, going across the disused pasture land.

"You'll really be able to come on about five?" she asked.

"Oh, yes, I shall be a different woman by that time." The contralto voice dropped oddly and suddenly with these words: an effect of the headache, of course. And the pallor of the dark face was almost ghastly. Angela thought that her hostess looked very ill. "You may expect me," Carmen finished.

"I know Mr. Hilliard would be disappointed if you didn't come. Good-bye till five, then."

"Good-bye."

Angela turned away; and Mrs. Gaylor, who had brought her guest as far as the beginning of the bamboo grove; stood watching the white figure flit farther and farther away, among the intricate green pillars of the temple. Then, when the elusive form became ghostlike in the distance, Carmen went back to the house. She walked slowly and with dignified composure while it was possible that she might be seen by some servant. But once in her room, with the door locked, she tottered to the bedside and flung herself down on her knees.

"O God-O God!" she gasped, her face hidden.

Then, lifting her eyes, with a look of horror, she whispered, "No, not God-devil. He's the only one I can ever pray to now."

Her eyes, glazed and staring, saw again the white figure passing from sunshine into shadow. So it had been in Madame Vestris's crystal. How soon would the dark cloud blot it out of sight now-and forever?

Angela had some difficulty in opening the gate that led from an orange plantation into the disused pasture, for the fence was high and strong, and the gate, apparently, not often used. As for the pasture, it went billowing away mile after mile, seemingly, though at a distance she could see a wire fence, a long vanishing line. And beyond that-safety shut away by the wire, she was glad to think-a large number of cattle grazing. They were so far off that their forms were all massed together, and they seemed very quiet. Nevertheless, she was glad that a wire fence separated them from her, for though she was not a coward and would not have stopped now if there had been no fence, there was something rather terrifying about a great drove of cattle in a lonely place.

"They're much too far off to see my red-covered sunshade," she thought. "But even if they did see it, and didn't like it, they wouldn't jump over a fence to get at me, I suppose!"

She walked on, along the track worn by the passing of feet, which had thinned and flattened the grass. She could not see the new road of which Carmen had spoken, but she must reach it sooner or later, going this way. For the present, several low hills, like grass-sown waves, billowed between her and it. But by and by, perhaps, she would hear the "teuf-teuf" of Nick's motor coming along the new road, to fetch her and Carmen. Would he be glad or sorry when he found that she was alone? She hoped that he would be glad, but Mrs. Gaylor was so beautiful that it was hard to be sure. Suddenly, just as she reached the top of one of the billowing hills and caught sight of a rough road about half a mile away, she started at a sharp sound like a shot. It seemed to come from the direction of the cattle, and she turned to look toward them, vaguely disturbed. As she looked, her unformed fears turned to keen and definite terror. The shot, whether or no it had struck one of their number, had, in an instant, stirred the drove in panic. Their comfortable peace was broken. Horns tossed, dark forms reared, and hoofs descended on shining backs. A bull bellowed wildly. Others followed suit. There was a dreadful roaring, and a rushing of hoofs that sounded in Angela's horrified ears like the beginning of an earthquake. The whole troop, hundreds of horned heads and humpy backs, massed and seethed together. It was as if an irresistible force from behind impelled them all forward in a pack. She stood still and watched the black wave of cattle, fascinated, appalled, her heart beating thickly. No, they could not stop now. Nothing could stop them, except some great obstacle which they could not pass. And, when they came to that obstacle, many would be killed by others' trampling hoofs. They would fall and die, and their brothers would beat them down, not knowing, blind and mad and merciless. It was a stampede. She had read of such things happening among wild cattle in the West. Poor creatures, poor stupid brutes, how sorry, how sickeningly sorry she was for them! Who could have fired the shot, and why? Men on horses were in sight now-two, she thought-no, three, galloping fast, but far behind the drove. They could do no good. Only the fence would stop the rush, she told herself, through the poundings of her heart. Then-then-it was as if a loud voice cried the question in her ears-Would the fence stop it?

If not-"May God help me!" she heard herself saying. For an instant she stared at the oncoming black wave which swept on, faster and faster toward her, so incredibly, terribly fast now that in another second she knew they would break down the line of wire fence. The cattle, those that were not trampled to death, would soon pour through the gap, would sweep on and on, overwhelming this hill where she stood.

Strange, some lines of a poem were saying themselves in Angela's head. She had read them lately, since she came to America, the story of a stampede and a girl. Laska-yes, that was the name-loved a man, and saved him from the rush of wild cattle by covering his body with hers, protecting it with her bleeding flesh from the blows of the iron hoofs.

Nick had given her the book. She had been in a train when she read the story of Laska. She saw herself sitting safely and cosily in a stateroom, all panelled satinwood and green velvet. Now--

Blindly she started to run. It was useless, she knew, for the fence was certain to go, and she could no more outrun that black billow of death than she could outrace one of Paolo di Sereno's aeroplanes. Yet instinct made her run toward the far-off road, away from the plunging, bellowing cattle. She thought of Hilliard, and how he would hate to hear of the death she had died. He would give his life for hers, as Laska had given her life for her lover.

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