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The Port of Adventure By A. M. Williamson Characters: 17750

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

Just as Nick was finishing a somewhat hurried and sketchy luncheon a telegram was handed to him. It was from Max Wisler, the San Francisco detective, and it said laconically, "Don't let A. M. visit C. G."

As Nick read, the blood rushed to his forehead, and he sprang to his feet, knocking over the chair in which he had been sitting.

Max Wisler had not been told by him that Mrs. May was to visit Mrs. Gaylor; but that must be what he meant. It had not occurred to Nick that it could be necessary to mention Angela's brief stay, in telling Wisler that he himself was "running up to Lucky Star." The detective must have found out in some ferreting way of his own. And he had telegraphed, "Don't let A. M. visit C. G." What could be his reason? Then suddenly a dreadful explanation flashed into Nick's head; flashed there and stayed, as if printed in letters of blood on his brain.

Wisler had been right after all. He had found out who sent the box of poison oak. Those hateful questions of his, so much resented, had been justified. There could be no other explanation. Nothing else could excuse this warning. It seemed too hideous to be true that Wisler had telegraphed because there was danger for Angela, and yet--

Nick did not wait to finish out the sentence in his mind. The Japanese servant, who was cook and valet and chamberman, had brought the telegram and the last luncheon dish at the same time. Now he was providing Billy the chauffeur with something to eat. But Nick did not wait or even think about Billy. The engagement with Mrs. Gaylor and Angela was for five o'clock, but that made no difference to Nick, with the telegram in his hand. Knowing what he knew-for he did know now, as if he had seen all Wisler's proofs-he would not trust Angela alone with Carmen for a single hour. He was going this instant to snatch her away, with no matter what excuse. He would think of something to satisfy Angela, for she must not find out the truth if he could help it-anyhow, not while she was under Carmen's roof; it would shock and distress her too much. The principal thing was to get her out of the place quickly and quietly. As for Carmen-he could not decide yet how he should deal with Carmen. Loyal as he was by nature, and as he had shown himself to Wisler, modest as to his own deserts, and slow to fancy himself valued by any woman, he could not now help seeing, as Wisler had seen the one motive which could have tempted Carmen Gaylor to send Angela May a box of poison-oak. Many little things came back, in a flood of disturbing memory; things to which Nick had attached no importance at the time, or had misunderstood, owing to his humility, where women were concerned, and his chivalrous, almost exaggerated respect for his employer's wife and widow-the generous, disinterested friend that he had thought her. "What a fool-what a double-dyed fool!" he anathematized himself, as he got the motor ready to start, while Billy still ate apple-pie and cream on the kitchen veranda. In spite of Wisler's catechism he had let Angela accept Carmen's invitation, had even urged her to accept. If anything hideous happened it would be his fault. But no, surely nothing would happen. It was too bad to be true. If Carmen had committed the crime of sending the poison-oak, it must have been in a fit of madness, after hearing things-stupid things-from Miss Dene. By this time she must have repented. She could not be a woman and harm a guest-such a guest as Angela May and in her own house.

And yet it was odd-he had dimly thought it odd, even in his ignorance-that Carmen should have followed them out to the Big Trees from Wawona, there to make a "dead set" at Mrs. May. She had said that her choice of the Yosemite for rest and change of air was a coincidence; that she had not known he was in the neighbourhood until she heard the news at Wawona. But suddenly Nick ceased to believe that story. She had gone because he was there-with Angela May.

As he thought these things he was starting the car, getting into the car, driving the car away from the house, to the Gaylor ranch. There was no bad patch of road. That was an invention of Carmen's for the plausibility of the plan she had sketched out to Angela. The road had been finished months ago, and Nick flew along it in the Bright Angel at a pace which might have got him into trouble with the police if there had been any police to spy upon him. The way ran through disused pasture land which was to be irrigated, enriched, and grown with alfalfa; and at a turn in the road he came upon a sight which flashed to his eyes like a spurt of vitriol. He saw the wild cattle break through the fence-the new "bunch" which Carmen had just got from Arizona. He saw them struggling, and trampling each other down, and sweeping through the gap like a wave through a broken dyke. He saw a figure in white running toward him, and knew it was Angela May-knew that she must die unless he could be in time to save her.

Nick turned the car, and sent it leaping off the road, to bound over the rough hummocks, billowing under the heat-baked grass. He looked like a dead man, with only his eyes and hands-his strong, firm hands-alive. The motor rocked on the green waves as if in a stormy sea, and groaned like a wounded bull-one of those who had died there at the broken fence, with their hearts' blood in their mouths.

It was almost on her now-the wild black wave-with death in its wake and death in its gift; but he reached her first, and leaning out while the car swerved-as many a time he had leaned from his galloping bronco in cowboy days, to pick up a hat or a handkerchief-he caught Angela up beside him. Then with a twist of the steering-wheel he gave the Bright Angel a half-turn that sent her flying along in front of the cattle, almost underneath the tossing horns and plunging hoofs. Thus he shot past the surging line of them, since he could not turn round sharply to run before the wave without risk of upsetting. As the automobile dashed past, the cattle surged on irresistibly; but Nick and Angela in the car were beyond the reach of hoofs and horns.

Three mounted cowboys saw the race won, and yelled a wild yell of triumph, but their duty was to the cattle. They went about their business knowing that the car was safe; and Nick neither saw the men nor consciously heard their shouts.

Angela was half fainting. Holding her up, he steered as he could, slowing down now lest the jumping springs of the car should break. He drove away from, not toward, Mrs. Gaylor's house. He would not take Angela back to Carmen even for a moment. Yet as she was alone and swooning she could not go to his house. He caught at the idea of a quick run into Bakersfield in search of a doctor. But when he saw at last that Angela was slowly coming to herself, drawing deep, sobbing breaths, her eyelashes trembling on wet cheeks, he eased the car down on a quiet stretch of road, under the shade of young walnut-trees and oaks. There he stopped for a while, in the cool tree shadows.

"You're safe, precious one, safe," he whispered, as he might have soothed a child. "There's nothing to be afraid of now."

Angela opened her eyes and looked at him through her lashes as she had never looked before. "I-thought of you then," she murmured. "I thought of you-I wanted you. Just when I expected to die."

Her eyes, her voice, her words, broke down the last barrier that held him back; and he would have been more or less than man if he had not poured out, in a torrent, all his love and worship in a flood of words.

"Darling-heart's dearest-do you think I'd have let you die so? I must have felt-I must have heard you call me. It had to be. I'd feel a thought of yours across the world," he stammered. "If I were in my grave and you wanted me, my spirit would come back into my body to serve you. How I love you, love you, dear! It can't be that such love can leave you cold. I'm not of your world, but come down to mine, or help me to come into yours. Give me a little love, just a little love, and I'll give you my soul."

"Don't-oh, don't!" faltered Angela. She raised her head from his arm and sat up, leaning away from him.

"I know I'm a wretch!" he said. "I ought to be shot for speaking of myself, when you're all broken to pieces. The words came. I've been keeping them back day by day, but that's no excuse. Forgive me!"

"No-you mustn't use the word forgive-when you've just saved my life! It's only this-I can't let you go on."

"Not now. I know. But some time--"

"No. Not ever. Don't think I couldn't care for you. It isn't that. I could. I--But I mustn't care. It's all impossible! I ought to have told you long ago. The only thing is to forget-for us both. Oh, if I could have kept you for my friend! But I feel now that's impossible, too. After this, we can't be frien

ds, can we?"

"No, we can't be friends," he echoed, very pale, suddenly weary and almost broken by the strain he had endured. "But are you sure--"

"Sure. The more I care, the more sure. Oh, Nick, my dear, my dear, I wish you had let me die!"

He looked at her strangely and very sadly, after his first start and stiffening of the muscles. "Would that have been better than caring for me?" he asked in a voice so low that she could just catch the words.

"Yes, it would have been much better," she answered, covering her face with her hands to hide the tears that burned her eyes. She was too weak for the explanation she would have given at sunset among the redwoods. This was no time, and she was in no state for explanations. She could only feel and hide from him what she felt, or part of it; for if he but half guessed how she loved him and wanted his love, she would be in his arms, his lips on hers. There was no thought in her mind how terribly he might be misunderstanding.

His lips were white. "Very well," he said. "It's better for me that you've been frank. All the same and all the more I want you to forgive me for speaking at a time like this. I won't offend you again. Only I don't take back anything. So now you know. Don't try to talk, and I won't talk much to you. I don't think I could if I would. I'm going to drive you to Bakersfield. But shall I take you to a kind old doctor I know, who can give you something to pick you up, or would you rather I'd drop you at a hotel? For-I can't explain, so please don't ask-but I mustn't let you go to Mrs. Gaylor's again. There's a good reason why. Maybe you'll know some time, but I don't believe it can ever be from me. I'll fetch your maid and your baggage when you're settled somewhere. And if you're strong enough, the best thing will be to start for San Francisco to-night. When you're there, see Mr. Morehouse, and let him take good care of you. For it's true, as you said; you and I can't go on being friends."

Angela opened her lips to answer him, but could not. He started the car once more, and drove on faster.

"I'll go to a hotel, thank you, not to a doctor," she said when she could speak.

* * *

Soon the news of the stampede among the new bunch of steers from Arizona found its way to the house, and Carmen was told what had happened. The rush of the cattle had been stopped by the time she heard of it, but only at the brink of the big irrigation canal. Two fences had been broken down and a good many animals killed. Others had had to be shot.

"Anybody hurt?" Carmen asked in a queer, dry voice. She seemed to take little interest in the fate of the new cattle, though they had been a costly purchase.

So far as was known, nobody had been hurt. But it was too soon to be sure yet. And there was no one who could tell up to that moment how the stampede had been started. But some of the boys talked about a gun going off mysteriously. And a lady had been seen in the disused pasture. The boys had seen her running, and afterward being caught up by a man in a big yellow motor, what man they weren't sure-they'd been going too fast and were too far off-but he was like Nick Hilliard.

And it was then that Simeon Harp came on to the terrace where Carmen was standing to hear the story. Seeing his face she knew that things had gone utterly wrong, and that all hope was lost.

"Nick will know what I did!" she told herself, as the death-stab of failure struck her in the heart. "Maybe he knows already. If that woman has told him how I sent her out alone, and how I lied about his plans being changed, and the men he had to meet, then he must guess. They're sure to compare notes, and he'll suspect about the poison-oak."

The ice of despair was a frozen dagger in her breast. Even before the chance came for a talk with Simeon Harp she made up her mind what to do. It would be a cruel wrench, but there was nothing else. She could not face Nick's look of loathing, even though gratitude for the past should close his lips upon his knowledge, and upon his secret thoughts of her. To go away, far away, this very hour, before he could come, would be a confession of guilt and of utter defeat; but to Carmen, crushed and hopeless and ashamed, it was the only thing to do. She would go and never come back. She would live in the East, or, better still, in Europe, and sell the hateful ranch. She had received many tempting offers since her husband's death, and through her lawyers she would accept one that was still open. Life here would be too hateful with Nick for a silent enemy; Nick married by and by, perhaps, to the other woman.

The excitement of her decision kept Carmen from a physical collapse. Quickly, if a little confusedly, she thought out a plan. There would, of course, be a question of insurance for the dead and injured cattle, she said to the elderly foreman who had taken Nick's place on the ranch. She would go to San Francisco at once. No use to point out that it was unnecessary. She wished to go. That was enough. And she gave directions to every one what was to be done in her absence, for she might be away some days. She would not take her maid. She preferred to travel alone. And when some question was asked later by one of the house servants about the guest, Mrs. May, Carmen answered: "She has been suddenly called away from here by telegram. I don't think she'll be coming back to the house. There'll be a message for that Irish girl of hers by and by, I expect. Anyhow, I can't trouble about them now. Their affairs must take care of themselves."

Mariette, Carmen's French maid, hurriedly and sulkily packed enough things to last her mistress for a week; and by the time the trunk and bag were ready the carriage was waiting to take Mrs. Gaylor into Bakersfield. Everybody knew that no train would leave Kern for San Francisco until night, but the imperious lady was in no mood to receive extraneous information. She had said something about seeing a lawyer in Bakersfield. If she chose to waste hours there it was her business, not that of the household.

But driving to the town, Carmen decided not to go to San Francisco by that night's train. She had had time to reflect a little, not only upon what had happened, but upon what was likely to happen. If Angela May suspected the truth-and Carmen's conscience told her that this was more than probable-she would not go back to the ranch. Nick would not let her go there, even if she wished it. He would send for or fetch the Irish maid and the luggage, while Mrs. May-already engaged to marry him, perhaps-waited at his place, or at a Bakersfield hotel. In any case it was almost certain that "the woman" (as Carmen called Angela always, in her mind) would travel to San Francisco that night. And it seemed likely to Mrs. Gaylor that Nick would go with her and the maid. Carmen could not risk an encounter in the train.

Arrived at Bakersfield, fortunately without meeting Nick in his motor, she hired a large automobile. And at the hour when Hilliard was being informed that Mrs. Gaylor had gone away for a few days, on business which had come up suddenly, she was travelling swiftly by road to San Francisco.

The car she had engaged was a powerful touring automobile, with side-curtains of canvas, and these she ordered to be kept down; for she had some wild fear that Nick might discover her plan, try to follow and find her during her journey, necessarily much longer by motor than by train. Always by daylight she was peeping out, nervously, from under her thick veil, but the Bright Angel never flashed into sight. She knew at last that it would not come, that Nick did not mean to follow; that she would not see him again this side the grave; for she did not intend ever to return to the Gaylor ranch. Where she would live she did not know yet, though she thought vaguely of some great city in Europe-Paris, perhaps, where there would be plenty of excitement which might help her to forget. Meanwhile, the thing was to get away-away, not only from California, but even from America-as quickly as possible, it hardly mattered how, for luckily-the one piece of luck she had left!-there was plenty of money. And the ranch could take care of itself.

The day Carmen reached San Francisco a ship happened to be sailing for Japan. She was able to engage a cabin, and went on board almost at the last moment. Among others who arrived very late was a bent old man, with a worn face which had once been handsome. Carmen did not see him till the third day out. Then, from the deck sacred to second-class passengers, a pair of dark blue, red-rimmed eyes looked up at her as she leaned listlessly on the rail, gazing down.

Madame Vestris had seen in the crystal a man standing beside her, a man in shadow. After all, it was not Nick Hilliard but Simeon Harp.

* * *

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