Story type: Literature
It was a freshly furrowed field, so large that the eye at first scarcely took in its magnitude. The irregular surface of upturned, oily, wave-shaped clods took the appearance of a vast, black, chopping sea, that reached from the actual shore of San Francisco Bay to the low hills of the Coast Range. The sea-breeze that blew chilly over this bleak expanse added to that fancy, and the line of straggling whitewashed farm buildings, that half way across lifted themselves above it, seemed to be placed on an island in its midst. Even the one or two huge, misshapen agricultural machines, abandoned in the furrows, bore an odd resemblance to hulks or barges adrift upon its waste.
This marine suggestion was equally noticeable from the door of one of the farm buildings–a long, detached wooden shed–into which a number of farm laborers were slowly filing, although one man was apparently enough impressed by it to linger and gaze over that rigid sea. Except in their rough dress and the labor-stains of soil on their hands and faces, they represented no particular type or class. They were young and old, robust and delicate, dull and intelligent; kept together only by some philosophical, careless, or humorous acceptance of equally enforced circumstance in their labors, as convicts might have been. For they had been picked up on the streets and wharves of San Francisco,–discharged sailors, broken-down miners, helpless newcomers, unemployed professional men, and ruined traders,–to assist in ploughing and planting certain broad leagues of rich alluvial soil for a speculative Joint Stock Company, at a weekly wage that would have made an European peasant independent for half a year. Yet there was no enthusiasm in their labor, although it was seldom marked by absolute laziness or evasion, and was more often hindered by ill-regulated “spurts” and excessive effort, as if the laborer was anxious to get through with it; for in the few confidences they exchanged there was little allusion to the present, and they talked chiefly of what they were going to do when their work was over. They were gregarious only at their meals in one of the sheds, or when at night they sought their “bunks” or berths together in the larger building.
The man who had lingered to look at the dreary prospect had a somewhat gloomy, discontented face, whose sensitive lines indicated a certain susceptibility to such impressions. He was further distinguished by having also lingered longer with the washing of his hands and face in the battered tin basin on a stool beside the door, and by the circumstance that the operation revealed the fact that they were whiter than those of his companions. Drying his fingers slowly on the long roller-towel, he stood gazing with a kind of hard abstraction across the darkening field, the strip of faded colorless shore, and the chill gray sea, to the dividing point of land on the opposite coast, which in the dying daylight was silhouetted against the cold horizon.
He knew that around that point and behind it lay the fierce, half-grown, half-tamed city of yesterday that had worked his ruin.
It was scarcely a year ago that he had plunged into its wildest excesses,–a reckless gambler among speculators, a hopeless speculator among gamblers, until the little fortune he had brought thither had been swept away.
From time to time he had kept up his failing spirit with the feverish exaltation of dissipation, until, awakening from a drunkard’s dream one morning, he had found himself on board a steamboat crossing the bay, in company with a gang of farm laborers with whom he was hired. A bitter smile crossed his lips as his eyes hovered over the cold, rugged fields before him. Yet he knew that they had saved him. The unaccustomed manual labor in the open air, the regular hours, the silent, heavy, passionless nights, the plain but wholesome food, were all slowly restoring his youth and strength again. Temptation and passion had alike fled these unlovely fields and grim employment. Yet he was not grateful. He nursed his dreary convalescence as he had his previous dissipation, as part of a wrong done him by one for whose sake, he was wont to believe, he had sacrificed himself. That person was a woman.
Turning at last from the prospect and his bitter memories to join his companions, he found that they had all passed in. The benches before the long table on which supper was spread were already filled, and he stood in hesitation, looking down the line of silent and hungrily preoccupied men on either side. A young girl, who was standing near a smaller serving-table, apparently assisting an older woman in directing the operation of half a dozen Chinese waiters, moved forward and cleared a place for him at a side-table, pushing before it the only chair in the room,–the one she had lately vacated. As she placed some of the dishes before him with a timid ostentation, and her large but well-shaped hands came suddenly in contact with, and in direst contrast to his own whiter and more delicate ones, she blushed faintly. He lifted his eyes to hers.
He had seen her half a dozen times before, for she was the daughter of the ranch superintendent, and occasionally assisted her mother in this culinary supervision–which did not, however, bring her into any familiar association with the men. Even the younger ones, perhaps from over-consciousness of their inferior position or the preoccupation of their labor, never indulged in any gallantry toward her, and he himself, in his revulsion of feeling against the whole sex, had scarcely noticed that she was good-looking. But this naive exhibition of preference could not be overlooked, either by his companions, who smiled cynically across the table, or by himself, from whose morbid fancy it struck an ignoble suggestion. Ah, well! the girl was pretty–the daughter of his employer, who rumor said owned a controlling share in the company; why should he not make this chance preference lead to something, if only to ameliorate, in ways like this, his despicable position here. He knew the value of his own good looks, his superior education, and a certain recklessness which women liked; why should he not profit by them as well as the one woman who had brought him to this? He owed her sex nothing; if those among them who were not bad were only fools, there was no reason why he should not deceive them as they had him. There was all this small audacity and cynical purpose in his brown eyes as he deliberately fixed them on hers. And I grieve to say that these abominable sentiments seemed only to impart to them a certain attractive brilliancy, and a determination which the undetermining sex is apt to admire.
She blushed again, dropped her eyes, replied to his significant thanks with a few indistinct words, and drew away from the table with a sudden timidity that was half confession.
She did not approach him again during the meal, but seemed to have taken a sudden interest in the efficiency of the waiters, generally, which she had not shown before. I do not know whether this was merely an effort at concealment, or an awakened recognition of her duty; but, after the fashion of her sex,–and perhaps in contrast to his,–she was kinder that evening to the average man on account of HIM. He did not, however, notice it; nor did her absence interfere with his now healthy appetite; he finished his meal, and only when he rose to take his hat from the peg above him did he glance around the room. Their eyes met again. As he passed out, although it was dark, he put on his hat a little more smartly.
The air was clear and cold, but the outlines of the landscape had vanished. His companions, with the instinct of tired animals, were already making their way in knots of two or three, or in silent file, across the intervening space between the building and their dormitory. A few had already lit their pipes and were walking leisurely, but the majority were hurrying from the chill sea-breeze to the warmth and comfort of the long, well-lit room, lined with blanketed berths, and set with plain wooden chairs and tables. The young man lingered for a moment on the wooden platform outside the dining-shed,–partly to evade this only social gathering of his fellows as they retired for the night, and partly attracted by a strange fascination to the faint distant glow, beyond the point of land, which indicated the lights of San Francisco.
There was a slight rustle behind him! It was the young girl who, with a white woolen scarf thrown over her head and shoulders, had just left the room. She started when she saw him, and for an instant hesitated.
“You are going home, Miss Woodridge?” he said pleasantly.
“Yes,” she returned, in a faint, embarrassed voice. “I thought I’d run on ahead of ma!”
“Will you allow me to accompany you?”
“It’s only a step,” she protested, indicating the light in the window of the superintendent’s house, the most remote of the group of buildings, yet scarcely a quarter of a mile distant.
“But it’s quite dark,” he persisted smilingly.
She stepped from the platform to the ground; he instantly followed and ranged himself at a little distance from her side. She protested still feebly against his “troubling himself,” but in another moment they were walking on quietly together. Nevertheless, a few paces from the platform they came upon the upheaved clods of the fresh furrows, and their progress over them was slow and difficult.
“Shall I help you? Will you take my arm?” he said politely.
“No, thank you, Mr. Reddy.”
So! she knew his name! He tried to look into her eyes, but the woolen scarf hid her head. After all, there was nothing strange in her knowing him; she probably had the names of the men before her in the dining-room, or on the books. After a pause he said:–
“You quite startled me. One becomes such a mere working machine here that one quite forgets one’s own name,–especially with the prefix of ‘Mr.’”
“And if it don’t happen to be one’s real name either,” said the girl, with an odd, timid audacity.
He looked up quickly–more attracted by her manner than her words; more amused than angry.
“But Reddy happens to be my real name.”
“What made you think it was not?”
The clods over which they were clambering were so uneven that sometimes the young girl was mounting one at the same moment that Reddy was descending from another. Her reply, half muffled in her shawl, was delivered over his head. “Oh, because pa says most of the men here don’t give their real names–they don’t care to be known afterward. Ashamed of their work, I reckon.”
His face flushed a moment, even in the darkness. He WAS ashamed of his work, and perhaps a little of the pitiful sport he was beginning. But oddly enough, the aggressive criticism only whetted his purpose. The girl was evidently quite able to take care of herself; why should he be over-chivalrous?
“It isn’t very pleasant to be doing the work of a horse, an ox, or a machine, if you can do other things,” he said half seriously.
“But you never used to do anything at all, did you?” she asked.
He hesitated. Here was a chance to give her an affecting history of his former exalted fortune and position, and perhaps even to stir her evidently romantic nature with some suggestion of his sacrifices to one of her own sex. Women liked that sort of thing. It aroused at once their emulation and their condemnation of each other. He seized the opportunity, but–for some reason, he knew not why–awkwardly and clumsily, with a simulated pathos that was lachrymose, a self-assertion that was boastful, and a dramatic manner that was unreal. Suddenly the girl stopped him.
“Yes, I know all THAT; pa told me. Told me you’d been given away by some woman.”
His face again flushed–this time with anger. The utter failure of his story to excite her interest, and her perfect possession of herself and the situation,–so unlike her conduct a few moments before,–made him savagely silent, and he clambered on sullenly at her side. Presently she stopped, balancing herself with a dexterity he could not imitate on one of the larger upheaved clods, and said:–
“I was thinking that, as you can’t do much with those hands of yours, digging and shoveling, and not much with your feet either, over ploughed ground, you might do some inside work, that would pay you better, too. You might help in the dining room, setting table and washing up, helping ma and me–though I don’t do much except overseeing. I could show you what to do at first, and you’d learn quick enough. If you say ‘yes,’ I’ll speak to pa to-night. He’ll do whatever I say.”
The rage and shame that filled his breast choked even the bitter laugh that first rose to his lips. If he could have turned on his heel and left her with marked indignation, he would have done so, but they were scarcely half way across the field; his stumbling retreat would have only appeared ridiculous, and he was by no means sure that she would not have looked upon it as merely a confession of his inability to keep up with her. And yet there was something peculiarly fascinating and tantalizing in the situation. She did not see the sardonic glitter in his eye as he said brutally:–
“Ha! and that would give me the exquisite pleasure of being near you.”
She seemed a little confused, even under her enwrappings, and in stepping down her foot slipped. Reddy instantly scrambled up to her and caught her as she was pitching forward into the furrow. Yet in the struggle to keep his own foothold he was aware that she was assisting him, and although he had passed his arm around her waist, as if for her better security, it was only through HER firm grasp of his wrists that he regained his own footing. The “cloud” had fallen back from her head and shoulders, her heavy hair had brushed his cheek and left its faint odor in his nostrils; the rounded outline of her figure had been slightly drawn against his own. His mean resentment wavered; her proposition, which at first seemed only insulting, now took a vague form of satisfaction; his ironical suggestion seemed a natural expression. “Well, I say ‘yes’ then,” he said, with an affected laugh. “That is, if you think I can manage to do the work; it is not exactly in my line, you know.” Yet he somehow felt that his laugh was feeble and unconvincing.
“Oh, it’s easy enough,” said the girl quietly. “You’ve only got to be clean–and that’s in your line, I should say.”
“And if I thought it would please you,” he added, with another attempt at gallantry.
She did not reply, but moved steadily on, he fancied a little more rapidly. They were nearing the house; he felt he was losing time and opportunity. The uneven nature of the ground kept him from walking immediately beside her, unless he held her hand or arm. Yet an odd timidity was overtaking him. Surely this was the same girl whose consciousness and susceptibility were so apparent a moment ago; yet her speech had been inconsistent, unsympathetic, and coldly practical. “It’s very kind of you,” he began again, scrambling up one side of the furrow as she descended on the other, “to–to–take such an interest in–in a stranger, and I wish you knew how” (she had mounted the ridge again, and stood balancing herself as if waiting for him to finish his sentence) “how–how deeply–I–I”–She dropped quickly down again with the same movement of uneasy consciousness, and he left the sentence unfinished. The house was now only a few yards away; he hurried forward, but she reached the wooden platform and stoop upon it first. He, however, at the same moment caught her hand.
“I want to thank you,” he said, “and say good-night.”
“Good-night.” Her voice was indistinct again, and she was trembling. Emboldened and reckless, he sprang upon the platform, and encircling her with one arm, with his other hand he unloosed the woolen cloud around her head and bared her faintly flushed cheek and half-open, hurriedly breathing lips. But the next moment she threw her head back with a single powerful movement, and, as it seemed to him, with scarcely an effort cast him off with both hands, and sent him toppling from the platform to the ground. He scrambled quickly to his feet again, flushed, angry, and–frightened! Perhaps she would call her father; he would be insulted, or worse,–laughed at! He had lost even this pitiful chance of bettering his condition. But he was as relieved as he was surprised to see that she was standing quietly on the edge of the platform, apparently waiting for him to rise. Her face was still uncovered, still slightly flushed, but bearing no trace of either insult or anger. When he stood erect again, she looked at him gravely and drew the woolen cloud over her head, as she said calmly, “Then I’ll tell pa you’ll take the place, and I reckon you’ll begin to-morrow morning.”
Angered, discomfited, and physically and morally beaten, James Reddy stumbled and clambered back across the field. The beam of light that had streamed out over the dark field as the door opened and shut on the girl left him doubly confused and bewildered. In his dull anger and mortification, there seemed only one course for him to pursue. He would demand his wages in the morning, and cut the whole concern. He would go back to San Francisco and work there, where he at least had friends who respected his station. Yet, he ought to have refused the girl’s offer before she had repulsed him; his retreat now meant nothing, and might even tempt her, in her vulgar pique, to reveal her rebuff of him. He raised his eyes mechanically, and looked gloomily across the dark waste and distant bay to the opposite shore. But the fog had already hidden the glow of the city’s lights, and, thickening around the horizon, seemed to be slowly hemming him in with the dreary rancho. In his present frame of mind there was a certain fatefulness in this that precluded his once free agency, and to that extent relieved and absolved HIM of any choice. He reached the dormitory and its turned-down lights in a state of tired and dull uncertainty, for which sleep seemed to offer the only relief. He rolled himself in his blankets with an animal instinct of comfort and shut his eyes, but their sense appeared to open upon Nelly Woodridge as she stood looking down upon him from the platform. Even through the dull pain of his bruised susceptibilities he was conscious of a strange satisfaction he had not felt before. He fell asleep at last, to waken only to the sunlight streaming through the curtainless windows on his face. To his surprise the long shed was empty and deserted, except for a single Chinaman who was sweeping the floor at the farther end. As Reddy started up, the man turned and approached him with a characteristic, vague, and patient smile.
“All lity, John, you sleepee heap! Mistel Woodlidge he say you no go wolkee field allee same Mellikan man. You stoppee inside housee allee same ME. Shabbee? You come to glubbee [grub] now” (pointing to the distant dining-shed), “and then you washee dish.”
The full extent of his new degradation flashed upon Reddy with this added insult of his brother menial’s implicit equality. He understood it all. He had been detached from the field-workers and was to come to a later breakfast, perhaps the broken victuals of the first repast, and wash the dishes. He remembered his new bargain. Very well! he would refuse positively, take his dismissal, and leave that morning! He hurriedly dressed himself, and followed the Chinaman into the open air.
The fog still hung upon the distant bay and hid the opposite point. But the sun shone with dry Californian brilliancy over the league-long field around him, revealing every detail of the rancho with sharp, matter of fact directness, and without the least illusion of distance or romance. The rough, unplaned, unpainted walls of the dinner-shed stood out clearly before him; the half-filled buckets of water on the near platform, and the immense tubs piled with dirty dishes. He scowled darkly as he walked forward, conscious, nevertheless, of the invigorating discipline of the morning air and the wholesome whip in the sky above him. He entered sharply and aggressively. To his relief, the room at first sight seemed, like the dormitory he had just left, to be empty. But a voice, clear, dry, direct, and practical as the morning itself, spoke in his ear: “Mornin’, Reddy! My daughter says you’re willin’ to take an indoor job, and I reckon, speakin’ square, as man to man, it’s more in your line than what you’ve bin doin’. It mayn’t be high-toned work, but work’s WORK anyhow you can fix it; and the only difference I kin see is in the work that a man does squarely, and the work that he shirks.”
“But,” said Reddy hurriedly, “there’s a mistake. I came here only to”–
“Work like the others, I understand. Well, you see you CAN’T. You do your best, I know. I ain’t findin’ fault, but it ain’t in your line. THIS is, and the pay is better.”
“But,” stammered Reddy, “Miss Woodridge didn’t understand”–
“Yes, she did,” returned Woodridge impatiently, “and she told me. She says she’ll show you round at first. You’ll catch on all right. Sit down and eat your breakfast, and she’ll be along before you’re through. Ez for ME, I must get up and get. So long!” and before Reddy had an opportunity to continue his protest, he turned away.
The young man glanced vexatiously around him. A breakfast much better in service and quality than the one he had been accustomed to smoked on the table. There was no one else in the room. He could hear the voices of the Chinese waiters in the kitchen beyond. He was healthily hungry, and after a moment’s hesitation sat down and began his meal. He could expostulate with her afterward, and withdraw his promise. He was entitled to his breakfast, anyway!
Once or twice, while thus engaged, he heard the door of the kitchen open and the clipping tread of the Chinese waiters, who deposited some rattling burden on the adjacent tables, but he thought it prudent not to seem to notice them. When he had finished, the pleasant, hesitating, boyish contralto of Miss Woodridge fell upon his ear.
“When you’re ready, I’ll show you how to begin your work.”
He turned quickly, with a flush of mortification at being discovered at his repast, and his anger returned. But as his eyes fell upon her delicately colored but tranquil face, her well-shaped figure, coquettishly and spotlessly cuffed, collared, and aproned, and her clear blue but half-averted eyes, he again underwent a change. She certainly was very pretty–that most seductive prettiness which seemed to be warmed into life by her consciousness of himself. Why should he take her or himself so seriously? Why not play out the farce, and let those who would criticise him and think his acceptance of the work degrading understand that it was only an affair of gallantry. He could afford to serve Woodridge at least a few weeks for the favor of this Rachel! Forgetful of his rebuff of the night before, he fixed his brown eyes on hers with an audacious levity.
“Oh yes–the work! Let us see it. I’m ready in name and nature for anything that Miss Woodridge wants of me. I’m just dying to begin.”
His voice was raised slightly, with a high comedy jauntiness, for the benefit of the Chinese waiters who might be lingering to see the “Mellican man” assume their functions. But it failed in effect. With their characteristic calm acceptance of any eccentricity in a “foreign devil,” they scarcely lifted their eyes. The young girl pointed to a deep basket filled with dishes which had been placed on the larger table, and said, without looking at Reddy:–
“You had better begin by ‘checking’ the crockery. That is, counting the pieces separately and then arranging them in sets as they come back from washing. There’s the book to compare them with and to set down what is broken, missing, or chipped. You’ll have a clean towel with you to wipe the pieces that have not been cleaned enough; or, if they are too dirty, you’ll send them back to the kitchen.”
“Couldn’t I wash them myself?” said Reddy, continuing his ostentatious levity.
“Not yet,” said the girl, with grave hesitation; “you’d break them.”
She stood watching him, as with affected hilarity he began to take the dishes from the basket. But she noticed that in spite of this jocular simulation his grasp was firm and delicate, and that there was no clatter–which would have affected her sensitive ear–as he put them down. She laid a pencil and account book beside him and turned away.
“But you are not going?” he said, in genuine surprise.
“Yes,” she said quietly, “until you get through ‘checking.’ Then I’ll come back and show you what you have to do next. You’re getting on very well.”
“But that was because you were with me.”
She colored slightly and, without looking at him, moved slowly to the door and disappeared.
Reddy went back to his work, disappointed but not discomfited. He was getting accustomed to the girl’s eccentricities. Whether it was the freshness of the morning air and sunlight streaming in at the open windows, the unlooked-for solitude and security of the empty room, or that there was nothing really unpleasant in his occupation, he went on cheerfully “checking” the dishes, narrowly examining them for chips and cracks, and noting them in the book. Again discovering that a few were imperfectly cleaned and wiped, he repaired the defect with cold water and a towel without the least thought of the operation being degrading. He had finished his task in half an hour; she had not returned; why should he not go on and set the table? As he straightened and turned the coarse table-cloth, he made the discovery that the long table was really composed of half a dozen smaller ones, and that the hideous parallelogram which had always so offended him was merely the outcome of carelessness and want of taste. Without a moment’s hesitation he set at work to break up the monotonous line and rearranged the tables laterally, with small open spaces between them. The task was no light one, even for a stronger man, but he persevered in it with a new-found energy until he had changed the whole aspect of the room. It looked larger, wider, and less crowded; its hard practical, workhouse-like formality had disappeared. He had paused to survey it, panting still with his unusual exertion, when a voice broke upon his solitude.
“Well, I wanter know!”
The voice was not Nelly’s, but that of her mother,–a large-boned, angular woman of fifty,–who had entered the room unperceived. The accents were simply those of surprise, but on James Reddy’s present sensitive mood, coupled with the feeling that here was a new witness to his degradation, he might have resented it; but he detected the handsome, reserved figure of the daughter a few steps behind her. Their eyes met; wonderful to relate, the young girl’s no longer evaded him, but looked squarely into his with a bright expression of pleasure he had not seen before. He checked himself with a sudden thrill of gratification.
“Well, I declare,” continued Mrs. Woodridge; “is that YOUR idea–or yours, Helen?”
Here Reddy simply pointed out the advantages for serving afforded by the new arrangement; that all the tables were equally and quickly accessible from the serving-table and sideboard, and that it was no longer necessary to go the whole length of the room to serve the upper table. He tactfully did not refer to the improved appearance of the room.
“Well, as long as it ain’t mere finikin,” said the lady graciously, “and seems to bring the folks and their vittles nearer together–we’ll try it to-day. It does look kinder CITYFIED–and I reckoned that was all the good it was. But I calkilated you were goin’ to check the crockery this morning.”
“It’s done,” said Reddy, smilingly handing her the account-book.
Mrs. Woodridge glanced over it, and then surveyed her new assistant.
“And you didn’t find any plates that were dirty and that had to be sent back?”
“Yes, two or three, but I cleaned them myself.”
Mrs. Woodridge glanced at him with a look of approving curiosity, but his eyes were just then seeking her daughter’s for a more grateful sympathy. All of which the good lady noted, and as it apparently answered the unasked question in her own mind, she only uttered the single exclamation, “Humph!”
But the approbation he received later at dinner, in the satisfaction of his old companions with the new arrangement, had also the effect of diverting from him the criticism he had feared they would make in finding him installed as an assistant to Mrs. Woodridge. On the contrary, they appeared only to recognize in him some especial and superior faculty utilized for their comfort, and when the superintendent, equally pleased, said it was “all Reddy’s own idea,” no one doubted that it was this particular stroke of genius which gained him the obvious promotion. If he had still thought of offering his flirtation with Nelly as an excuse, there was now no necessity for any. Having shown to his employers his capacity for the highest and lowest work, they naturally preferred to use his best abilities–and he was kept from any menial service. His accounts were so carefully and intelligently rendered that the entire care of the building and its appointments was intrusted to him. At the end of the week Mr. Woodridge took him aside.
“I say, you ain’t got any job in view arter you finish up here, hev ye?”
Reddy started. Scarcely ten days ago he had a hundred projects, schemes, and speculations, more or less wild and extravagant, wherewith he was to avenge and recoup himself in San Francisco. Now they were gone he knew not where and how. He briefly said he had not.
“Because,” continued Woodridge, “I’ve got an idea of startin’ a hotel in the Oak Grove, just on the slope back o’ the rancho. The company’s bound to make some sort o’ settlement there for the regular hands, and the place is pooty enough for ‘Frisco people who want to run over here and get set up for a day or two. Thar’s plenty of wood and water up thar, and the company’s sure to have a wharf down on the shore. I’ll provide the capital, if you will put in your time. You can sling in ez much style as you like there” (this was an allusion to Reddy’s attempt to enliven the blank walls with colored pictures from the illustrated papers and green ceanothus sprays from the slope); “in fact, the more style the better for them city folks. Well, you think it over.”
He did. But meantime he seemed to make little progress in his court of the superintendent’s daughter. He tried to think it was because he had allowed himself to be diverted by his work, but although she always betrayed the same odd physical consciousness of his presence, it was certain that she never encouraged him. She gave him the few directions that his new occupation still made necessary, and looked her approval of his success. But nothing more. He was forced to admit that this was exactly what she might have done as the superintendent’s daughter to a deserving employee. Whereat, for a few days he assumed an air of cold and ceremonious politeness, until perceiving that, far from piquing the girl, it seemed to gratify her, and even to render her less sensitive in his company, he sulked in good earnest. This proving ineffective also,–except to produce a kind of compassionate curiosity,–his former dull rage returned. The planting of the rancho was nearly over; his service would be ended next week; he had not yet given his answer to Woodridge’s proposition; he would decline it and cut the whole concern!
It was a crisp Sunday morning. The breakfast hour was later on that day to allow the men more time for their holiday, which, however, they generally spent in cards, gossip, or reading in their sleeping sheds. It usually delayed Reddy’s work, but as he cared little for the companionship of his fellows, it enabled him, without a show of unsociability, to seclude himself in the dining-room. And this morning he was early approached by his employer.
“I’m goin’ to take the women folks over to Oakdale to church,” said Mr. Woodridge; “ef ye keer to join us thar’s a seat in the wagon, and I’ll turn on a couple of Chinamen to do the work for you, just now; and Nelly or the old woman will give you a lift this afternoon with the counting up.”
Reddy felt instinctively that the invitation had been instigated by the young girl. A week before he would have rejoiced at it; a month ago he would have accepted it if only as a relief to his degraded position, but in the pique of this new passion he almost rudely declined it. An hour later he saw Nelly, becomingly and even tastefully dressed,–with the American girl’s triumphant superiority to her condition and surroundings,–ride past in her father’s smart “carryall.” He was startled to see that she looked so like a lady. Then, with a new and jealous inconsistency, significant of the progress of his passion, he resolved to go to church too. She should see that he was not going to remain behind like a mere slave. He remembered that he had still certain remnants of his past finery in his trunk; he would array himself in them, walk to Oakdale, and make one of the congregation. He managed to change his clothes without attracting the attention of his fellows, and set out.
The air was pure but keen, with none of the languor of spring in its breath, although a few flowers were beginning to star the weedy wagon-tracked lane, and there was an awakening spice in the wayside southernwood and myrtle. He felt invigorated, although it seemed only to whet his jealous pique. He hurried on without even glancing toward the distant coast-line of San Francisco or even thinking of it. The bitter memories of the past had been obliterated by the bitterness of the present. He no longer thought of “that woman;” even when he had threatened to himself to return to San Francisco, he was vaguely conscious that it was not SHE who was again drawing him there, but Nelly who was driving him away.
The service was nearly over when he arrived at the chilly little corrugated-zinc church at Oakdale, but he slipped into one of the back seats. A few worshipers turned round to look at him. Among them were the daughters of a neighboring miller, who were slightly exercised over the unusual advent of a good-looking stranger with certain exterior signs of elegance. Their excitement was communicated by some mysterious instinct to their neighbor, Nelly Woodridge. She also turned and caught his eye. But to all appearances she not only showed no signs of her usual agitation at his presence, but did not seem to even recognize him. In the acerbity of his pique he was for a moment gratified at what he believed to be the expression of her wounded pride, but his uneasiness quickly returned, and at the conclusion of the service he slipped out of the church with one or two of the more restless in the congregation. As he passed through the aisle he heard the escort of the miller’s daughters, in response to a whispered inquiry, say distinctly: “Only the head-waiter over at the company’s rancho.” Whatever hesitating idea Reddy might have had of waiting at the church door for the appearance of Nelly vanished before the brutal truth. His brow darkened, and with flushed cheeks he turned his back upon the building and plunged into the woods. This time there was no hesitation in his resolve; he would leave the rancho at the expiration of his engagement. Even in a higher occupation he felt he could never live down his reputation there.
In his morose abstraction he did not know how long or how aimlessly he had wandered among the mossy live-oaks, his head and shoulders often imperiled by the downcurving of some huge knotted limb; his feet straying blindly from the faint track over the thickly matted carpet of chickweed which hid their roots. But it was nearly an hour before he emerged upon a wide, open, wooded slope, and, from the distant view of field and shore, knew that he was at Oak Grove, the site of Woodridge’s projected hotel. And there, surely, at a little distance, was the Woodridges’ wagon and team tied up to a sapling, while the superintendent and his wife were slowly climbing the slope, and apparently examining the prospect. Without waiting to see if Nelly was with them, Reddy instantly turned to avoid meeting them. But he had not proceeded a hundred yards before he came upon that young lady, who had evidently strayed from the party, and who was now unconsciously advancing toward him. A rencontre was inevitable.
She started slightly, and then stopped, with all her old agitation and embarrassment. But, to his own surprise, he was also embarrassed and even tongue-tied.
She spoke first.
“You were at church. I didn’t quite know you in–in–these clothes.”
In her own finery she had undergone such a change to Reddy’s consciousness that he, for the first time in their acquaintance, now addressed her as on his own level, and as if she had no understanding of his own feelings.
“Oh,” he said, with easy bitterness, “OTHERS did, if you did not. They all detected the ‘head-waiter’ at the Union Company’s rancho. Even if I had accepted your kindness in offering me a seat in your wagon it would have made no difference.” He was glad to put this construction on his previous refusal, for in the new relations which seemed to be established by their Sunday clothes he was obliged to soften the churlishness of that refusal also.
“I don’t think you’d look nice setting the table in kid gloves,” she said, glancing quickly at his finery as if accepting it as the real issue; “but you can wear what you like at other times. I never found fault with your working clothes.”
There was such a pleasant suggestion in her emphasis that his ill-humor softened. Her eyes wandered over the opposite grove, where her unconscious parents had just disappeared.
“Papa’s very keen about the hotel,” she continued, “and is going to have the workmen break ground to-morrow. He says he’ll have it up in two months and ready to open, if he has to make the men work double time. When you’re manager, you won’t mind what folks say.”
There was no excuse for his further hesitation. He must speak out, but he did it in a half-hearted way.
“But if I simply go away–WITHOUT being manager–I won’t hear their criticism either.”
“What do you mean?” she said quickly.
“I’ve–I’ve been thinking of–of going back to San Francisco,” he stammered awkwardly.
A slight flush of contemptuous indignation passed over her face, and gave it a strength and expression he had never seen there before. “Oh, you’ve not reformed yet, then?” she said, under her scornful lashes.
“I don’t understand you,” he said, flushing.
“Father ought to have told you,” she went on dryly, “that that woman has gone off to the Springs with her husband, and you won’t see HER at San Francisco.”
“I don’t know what you mean–and your father seems to take an unwarrantable interest in my affairs,” said Reddy, with an anger that he was conscious, however, was half simulated.
“No more than he ought to, if he expects to trust you with all HIS affairs,” said the girl shortly; “but you had better tell him you have changed your mind at once, before he makes any further calculations on your staying. He’s just over the hill there, with mother.”
She turned away coldly as she spoke, but moved slowly and in the direction of the hill, although she took a less direct trail than the one she had pointed to him. But he followed her, albeit still embarrassedly, and with that new sense of respect which had checked his former surliness. There was her strong, healthy, well-developed figure moving before him, but the modish gray dress seemed to give its pronounced outlines something of the dignity of a goddess. Even the firm hands had the distinguishment of character.
“You understand,” he said apologetically, “that I mean no discourtesy to your father or his offer. And”–he hesitated–“neither is my reason what you would infer.”
“Then what is it?” she asked, turning to him abruptly. “You know you have no other place when you leave here, nor any chance as good as the one father offers you. You are not fit for any other work, and you know it. You have no money to speculate with, nor can you get any. If you could, you would have never stayed here.”
He could not evade the appalling truthfulness of her clear eyes. He knew it was no use to lie to her; she had evidently thoroughly informed herself regarding his past; more than that, she seemed to read his present thoughts. But not all of them! No! he could startle her still! It was desperate, but he had nothing now to lose. And she liked the truth,–she should have it!
“You are right,” he said shortly; “these are not my reasons.”
“Then what reason have you?”
“Me?” she repeated incredulously, yet with a rising color.
“Yes, YOU! I cannot stay here, and have you look down upon me.”
“I don’t look down on you,” she said simply, yet without the haste of repelling an unjust accusation. “Why should I? Mother and I have done the same work that you are doing,–if that’s what you mean; and father, who is a man like yourself, helped us at first, until he could do other things better.” She paused. “Perhaps you think so because YOU looked down on us when you first came here.”
“But I didn’t,” said Reddy quickly.
“You did,” said the young girl quietly. “That’s why you acted toward me as you did the night you walked home with me. You would not have behaved in that way to any San Francisco young lady–and I’m not one of your–fast–MARRIED WOMEN.”
Reddy felt the hot blood mount to his cheek, and looked away. “I was foolish and rude–and I think you punished me at the time,” he stammered. “But you see I was right in saying you looked down on me,” he concluded triumphantly.
This was at best a feeble sequitur, but the argument of the affections is not always logical. And it had its effect on the girl.
“I wasn’t thinking of THAT,” she said. “It’s that you don’t know your own mind.”
“If I said that I would stay and accept your father’s offer, would you think that I did?” he asked quickly.
“I should wait and see what you actually DID do,” she replied.
“But if I stayed–and–and–if I told you that I stayed on YOUR account–to be with you and near you only–would you think that a proof?” He spoke hesitatingly, for his lips were dry with a nervousness he had not known before.
“I might, if you told father you expected to be engaged on those terms. For it concerns HIM as much as me. And HE engages you, and not I. Otherwise I’d think it was only your talk.”
Reddy looked at her in astonishment. There was not the slightest trace of coyness, coquetry, or even raillery in her clear, honest eyes, and yet it would seem as if she had taken his proposition in its fullest sense as a matrimonial declaration, and actually referred him to her father. He was pleased, frightened, and utterly unprepared.
“But what would YOU say, Nelly?” He drew closer to her and held out both his hands. But she retreated a step and slipped her own behind her.
“Better see what father says first,” she said quietly. “You may change your mind again and go back to San Francisco.”
He was confused, and reddened again. But he had become accustomed to her ways; rather, perhaps, he had begun to recognize the quaint justice that underlaid them, or, possibly, some better self of his own, that had been buried under bitterness and sloth and struggled into life. “But whatever he says,” he returned eagerly, “cannot alter my feelings to YOU. It can only alter my position here, and you say you are above being influenced by that. Tell me, Nelly–dear Nelly! have you nothing to say to me, AS I AM, or is it only to your father’s manager that you would speak?” His voice had an unmistakable ring of sincerity in it, and even startled him–half rascal as he was!
The young girl’s clear, scrutinizing eyes softened; her red resolute lips trembled slightly and then parted, the upper one hovering a little to one side over her white teeth. It was Nelly’s own peculiar smile, and its serious piquancy always thrilled him. But she drew a little farther back from his brightening eyes, her hands still curled behind her, and said, with the faintest coquettish toss of her head toward the hill: “If you want to see father, you’d better hurry up.”
With a sudden determination as new to him as it was incomprehensible, Reddy turned from her and struck forward in the direction of the hill. He was not quite sure what he was going for. Yet that he, who had only a moment before fully determined to leave the rancho and her, was now going to her father to demand her hand as a contingency of his remaining did not strike him as so extravagant and unexpected a denouement as it was a difficult one. He was only concerned HOW, and in what way, he should approach him. In a moment of embarrassment he hesitated, turned, and looked behind him.
She was standing where he had left her, gazing after him, leaning forward with her hands still held behind her. Suddenly, as with an inspiration, she raised them both, carried them impetuously to her lips, blew him a dozen riotous kisses, and then, lowering her head like a colt, whisked her skirt behind her, and vanished in the cover.
It was only May, but the freshness of early summer already clothed the great fields of the rancho. The old resemblance to a sea was still there, more accented, perhaps, by the undulations of bluish-green grain that rolled from the actual shore-line to the foothills. The farm buildings were half submerged in this glowing tide of color and lost their uncouth angularity with their hidden rude foundations. The same sea-breeze blew chilly and steadily from the bay, yet softened and subdued by the fresh odors of leaf and flower. The outlying fringe of oaks were starred through their underbrush with anemones and dog-roses; there were lupines growing rankly in the open spaces, and along the gentle slopes of Oak Grove daisies were already scattered. And, as if it were part of this vernal efflorescence, the eminence itself was crowned with that latest flower of progress and improvement,–the new Oak Grove Hotel!
Long, low, dazzling with white colonnades, verandas, and balconies which retained, however, enough of the dampness of recent creation to make them too cool for loungers, except at high noon, the hotel nevertheless had the charms of freshness, youth, and cleanliness. Reddy’s fastidious neatness showed itself in all the appointments, from the mirrored and marbled barroom, gilded parlors, and snowy dining-room, to the chintz and maple furnishing of the bedrooms above. Reddy’s taste, too, had selected the pretty site; his good fortune had afterward discovered in an adjoining thicket a spring of blandly therapeutic qualities. A complaisant medical faculty of San Francisco attested to its merits; a sympathetic press advertised the excellence of the hotel; a novelty-seeking, fashionable circle–as yet without laws and blindly imitative–found the new hotel an admirable variation to the vulgar ordinary “across the bay” excursion, and an accepted excuse for a novel social dissipation. A number of distinguished people had already visited it; certain exclusive families had secured the best rooms; there were a score of pretty women to be seen in its parlors; there had already been a slight scandal. Nothing seemed wanting to insure its success.
Reddy was passing through the little wood where four months before he had parted from Kelly Woodridge to learn his fate from her father. He remembered that interview to which Nelly’s wafted kiss had inspired him. He recalled to-day, as he had many times before, the singular complacency with which Mr. Woodridge had received his suit, as if it were a slight and unimportant detail of the business in hand, and how he had told him that Kelly and her mother were going to the “States” for a three months’ visit, but that after her return, if they were both “still agreed,” he, Woodridge, would make no objection. He remembered the slight shock which this announcement of Kelly’s separation from him during his probationary labors had given him, and his sudden suspicion that he had been partly tricked of his preliminary intent to secure her company to solace him. But he had later satisfied himself that she knew nothing of her father’s intentions at the time, and he was fain to content himself with a walk through the fields at her side the day she departed, and a single kiss–which left him cold. And now in a few days she would return to witness the successful fufillment of his labors, and–reward him!
It was certainly a complacent prospect. He could look forward to a sensible, prosperous, respectable future. He had won back his good name, his fortune, and position,–not perhaps exactly in the way he had expected,–and he had stilled the wanton, foolish cravings of his passionate nature in the calm, virginal love of an honest, handsome girl who would make him a practical helpmeet, and a comfortable, trustworthy wife. He ought to be very happy. He had never known such perfect health before; he had lost his reckless habits; his handsome, nervous face had grown more placid and contented; his long curls had been conventionally clipped; he had gained flesh unmistakably, and the lower buttons of the slim waistcoat he had worn to church that memorable Sunday were too tight for comfort or looks. HE WAS happy; yet as he glanced over the material spring landscape, full of practical health, blossom, and promise of fruition, it struck him that the breeze that blew over it was chilly, even if healthful; and he shivered slightly.
He reached the hotel, entered the office, glanced at the register, and passed through into his private room. He had been away for two days, and noticed with gratification that the influx of visitors was still increasing. His clerk followed into the room.
“There’s a lady in 56 who wanted to see you when you returned. She asked particularly for the manager.”
“Who is she?”
“Don’t know. It’s a Mrs. Merrydew, from Sacramento. Expecting her husband on the next steamer.”
“Humph! You’ll have to be rather careful about these solitary married women. We don’t want another scandal, you know.”
“She asked for you by name, sir, and I thought you might know her,” returned the clerk.
“Very well. I’ll go up.”
He sent a waiter ahead to announce him, and leisurely mounted the stairs. No. 56 was the sitting-room of a private suite on the first floor. The waiter was holding the door open. As he approached it a faint perfume from the interior made him turn pale. But he recovered his presence of mind sufficiently to close the door sharply upon the waiter behind him.
“Jim,” said a voice which thrilled him.
He looked up and beheld what any astute reader of romance will have already suspected–the woman to whom he believed he owed his ruin in San Francisco. She was as beautiful and alluring as ever, albeit she was thinner and more spiritual than he had ever seen her. She was tastefully dressed, as she had always been, a certain style of languorous silken deshabille which she was wont to affect in better health now became her paler cheek and feverishly brilliant eyes. There was the same opulence of lace and ornament, and, whether by accident or design, clasped around the slight wrist of her extended hand was a bracelet which he remembered had swept away the last dregs of his fortune.
He took her hand mechanically, yet knowing whatever rage was in his heart he had not the strength to refuse it.
“They told me it was Mrs. Merrydew,” he stammered.
“That was my mother’s name,” she said, with a little laugh. “I thought you knew it. But perhaps you didn’t. When I got my divorce from Dick–you didn’t know that either, I suppose; it’s three months ago,–I didn’t care to take my maiden name again; too many people remembered it. So after the decree was made I called myself Mrs. Merrydew. You had disappeared. They said you had gone East.”
“But the clerk says you are expecting your HUSBAND on the steamer. What does this mean? Why did you tell him that?” He had so far collected himself that there was a ring of inquisition in his voice.
“Oh, I had to give him some kind of reason for my being alone when I did not find you as I expected,” she said half wearily. Then a change came over her tired face; a smile of mingled audacity and tentative coquetry lit up the small features. “Perhaps it is true; perhaps I may have a husband coming on the steamer–that depends. Sit down, Jim.”
She let his hand drop, and pointed to an armchair from which she had just risen, and sank down herself in a corner of the sofa, her thin fingers playing with and drawing themselves through the tassels of the cushion.
“You see, Jim, as soon as I was free, Louis Sylvester–you remember Louis Sylvester?–wanted to marry me, and even thought that he was the cause of Dick’s divorcing me. He actually went East to settle up some property he had left him there, and he’s coming on the steamer.”
“Louis Sylvester!” repeated Reddy, staring at her. “Why, he was a bigger fool than I was, and a worse man!” he added bitterly.
“I believe he was,” said the lady, smiling, “and I think he still is. But,” she added, glancing at Reddy under her light fringed lids, “you–you’re regularly reformed, aren’t you? You’re stouter, too, and altogether more solid and commercial looking. Yet who’d have thought of your keeping a hotel or ever doing anything but speculate in wild-cat or play at draw poker. How did you drift into it? Come, tell me! I’m not Mrs. Sylvester just yet, and maybe I might like to go into the business too. You don’t want a partner, do you?”
Her manner was light and irresponsible, or rather it suggested a childlike putting of all responsibility for her actions upon others, which he remembered now too well. Perhaps it was this which kept him from observing that the corners of her smiling lips, however, twitched slightly, and that her fingers, twisting the threads of the tassel, were occasionally stiffened nervously. For he burst out: Oh yes; he had drifted into it when it was a toss up if it wasn’t his body instead that would be found drifting out to sea from the first wharf of San Francisco. Yes, he had been a common laborer,–a farm hand, in those fields she had passed,–a waiter in the farm kitchen, and but for luck he might be taking her orders now in this very hotel. It was not her fault if he was not in the gutter.
She raised her thin hand with a tired gesture as if to ward off the onset of his words. “The same old Jim,” she repeated; “and yet I thought you had forgotten all that now, and become calmer and more sensible since you had taken flesh and grown so matter of fact. You ought to have known then, as you know now, that I never could have been anything to you as long as I was tied to Dick. And you know you forced your presents on me, Jim. I took them from YOU because I would take nothing from Dick, for I hated him. And I never knew positively that you were in straits then; you know you always talked big, Jim, and were always going to make your fortune with the next thing you had in hand!”
It was true, and he remembered it. He had not intended this kind of recrimination, but he was exasperated with her wearied acceptance of his reproaches and by a sudden conviction that his long-cherished grievance against her now that he had voiced it was inadequate, mean, and trifling. Yet he could not help saying:–
“Then you had presents from Sylvester, too. I presume you did not hate him, either?”
“He would have married me the day after I got my divorce.”
“And so would I,” burst out Reddy.
She looked at him fixedly. “You would?” she said with a peculiar emphasis. “And now”–
He colored. It had been part of his revengeful purpose on seeing her to tell her of his engagement to Kelly. He now found himself tongue-tied, irresolute, and ashamed. Yet he felt she was reading his innermost thoughts.
She, however, only lowered her eyes, and with the same tired expression said: “No matter now. Let us talk of something nearer. That was two months ago. And so you have charge of this hotel! I like it so much. I mean the place itself. I fancy I could live here forever. It is so far away and restful. I am so sick of towns and cities, and people. And this little grove is so secluded. If one had merely a little cottage here, one might be so happy.”
What did she mean?–what did she expect?–what did she think of doing? She must be got rid of before Kelly’s arrival, and yet he found himself wavering under her potent and yet scarcely exerted influence. The desperation of weakness is apt to be more brutal than the determination of strength. He remembered why he had come upstairs, and blurted out: “But you can’t stay here. The rules are very stringent in regard to–to strangers like yourself. It will be known who you really are and what people say of you. Even your divorce will tell against you. It’s all wrong, I know–but what can I do? I didn’t make the rules. I am only a servant of the landlord, and must carry them out.”
She leaned back against the sofa and laughed silently. But she presently recovered herself, although with the same expression of fatigue. “Don’t be alarmed, my poor Jim! If you mean your friend, Mr. Woodridge, I know him. It was he, himself, who suggested my coming here. And don’t misunderstand him–nor me either. He’s only a good friend of Sylvester’s; they had some speculation together. He’s coming here to see me after Louis arrives. He’s waiting in San Francisco for his wife and daughter, who come on the same steamer. So you see you won’t get into trouble on my account. Don’t look so scared, my dear boy.”
“Does he know that you knew me?” said Reddy, with a white face.
“Perhaps. But then that was three months ago,” returned the lady, smiling, “and you know how you have reformed since, and grown ever so much more steady and respectable.”
“Did he talk to you of me?” continued Reddy, still aghast.
“A little–complimentary of course. Don’t look so frightened. I didn’t give you away.”
Her laugh suddenly ceased, and her face changed into a more nervous activity as she rose and went toward the window. She had heard the sound of wheels outside–the coach had just arrived.
“There’s Mr. Woodridge now,” she said in a more animated voice. “The steamer must be in. But I don’t see Louis; do you?”
She turned to where Reddy was standing, but he was gone.
The momentary animation of her face changed. She lifted her shoulders with a half gesture of scorn, but in the midst of it suddenly threw herself on the sofa, and buried her face in her hands.
A few moments elapsed with the bustle of arrival in the hall and passages. Then there was a hesitating step at her door. She quickly passed her handkerchief over her wet eyes and resumed her former look of weary acceptation. The door opened. But it was Mr. Woodridge who entered. The rough shirt-sleeved ranchman had developed, during the last four months, into an equally blunt but soberly dressed proprietor. His keen energetic face, however, wore an expression of embarrassment and anxiety, with an added suggestion of a half humorous appreciation of it.
“I wouldn’t have disturbed you, Mrs. Merrydew,” he said, with a gentle bluntness, “if I hadn’t wanted to ask your advice before I saw Reddy. I’m keeping out of his way until I could see you. I left Nelly and her mother in ‘Frisco. There’s been some queer goings-on on the steamer coming home; Kelly has sprang a new game on her mother, and–and suthin’ that looks as if there might be a new deal. However,” here a sense that he was, perhaps, treating his statement too seriously, stopped him, and he smiled reassuringly, “that is as may be.”
“I don’t know,” he went on, “as I ever told you anything about my Kelly and Reddy,–partik’lerly about Kelly. She’s a good girl, a square girl, but she’s got some all-fired romantic ideas in her head. Mebbee it kem from her reading, mebbee it kem from her not knowing other girls, or seeing too much of a queer sort of men; but she got an interest in the bad ones, and thought it was her mission to reform them,–reform them by pure kindness, attentive little sisterly ways, and moral example. She first tried her hand on Reddy. When he first kem to us he was–well, he was a blazin’ ruin! She took him in hand, yanked him outer himself, put his foot on the bedrock, and made him what you see him now. Well–what happened; why, he got reg’larly soft on her; wanted to MARRY HER, and I agreed conditionally, of course, to keep him up to the mark. Did you speak?”
“No,” said the lady, with her bright eyes fixed upon him.
“Well, that was all well and good, and I’d liked to have carried out my part of the contract, and was willing, and am still. But you see, Kelly, after she’d landed Reddy on firm ground, got a little tired, I reckon, gal-like, of the thing she’d worked so easily, and when she went East she looked around for some other wreck to try her hand on, and she found it on the steamer coming back. And who do you think it was? Why, our friend Louis Sylvester!”
Mrs. Merrydew smiled slightly, with her bright eyes still on the speaker.
“Well, you know he IS fast at times–if he is a friend of mine–and she reg’larly tackled him; and as my old woman says, it was a sight to see her go for him. But then HE didn’t tumble to it. No! Reformin’ ain’t in HIS line I’m afeard. And what was the result? Why, Kelly only got all the more keen when she found she couldn’t manage him like Reddy,–and, between you and me, she’d have liked Reddy more if he hadn’t been so easy,–and it’s ended, I reckon, in her now falling dead in love with Sylvester. She swears she won’t marry any one else, and wants to devote her whole life to him! Now, what’s to be done! Reddy don’t know it yet, and I don’t know how to tell him. Kelly says her mission was ended when she made a new man of him, and he oughter be thankful for that. Couldn’t you kinder break the news to him and tell him there ain’t any show for him?”
“Does he love the girl so much, then?” said the lady gently.
“Yes; but I am afraid there is no hope for Reddy as long as she thinks there’s a chance of her capturing Sylvester.”
The lady rose and went to the writing-table. “Would it be any comfort to you, Mr. Woodridge, if you were told that she had not the slightest chance with Sylvester?”
She wrote a few lines on a card, put it in an envelope, and handed it to Woodridge. “Find out where Sylvester is in San Francisco, and give him that card. I think it will satisfy you. And now as I have to catch the return coach in ten minutes, I must ask you to excuse me while I put my things together.”
“And you won’t first break the news to Reddy for me?”
“No; and I advise you to keep the whole matter to yourself for the present. Good-by!”
She smiled again, fascinatingly as usual, but, as it seemed to him, a trifle wearily, and then passed into the inner room. Years after, in his practical, matter of fact recollections of this strange woman, he always remembered her by this smile.
But she had sufficiently impressed him by her parting adjuration to cause him to answer Reddy’s eager inquiries with the statement that Kelly and her mother were greatly preoccupied with some friends in San Francisco, and to speedily escape further questioning. Reddy’s disappointment was somewhat mitigated by the simultaneous announcement of Mrs. Merrydew’s departure. But he was still more relieved and gratified to hear, a few days later, of the marriage of Mrs. Merrydew with Louis Sylvester. If, to the general surprise and comment it excited, he contributed only a smile of cynical toleration and superior self-complacency, the reader will understand and not blame him. Nor did the public, who knew the austere completeness of his reform. Nor did Mr. Woodridge, who failed to understand the only actor in this little comedy who might perhaps have differed from them all.
A month later James Reddy married Kelly Woodridge, in the chilly little church at Oakdale. Perhaps by that time it might have occurred to him that although the freshness and fruition of summer were everywhere, the building seemed to be still unwarmed. And when he stepped forth with his bride, and glanced across the prosperous landscape toward the distant bay and headlands of San Francisco, he shivered slightly at the dryly practical kiss of the keen northwestern Trades.
But he was prosperous and comfortable thereafter, as the respectable owner of broad lands and paying shares. It was said that Mrs. Reddy contributed much to the popularity of the hotel by her charming freedom from prejudice and sympathy with mankind; but this was perhaps only due to the contrast to her more serious and at times abstracted husband. At least this was the charitable opinion of the proverbially tolerant and kind-hearted Baroness Streichholzer (nee Merrydew, and relict of the late lamented Louis Sylvester, Esq.), whom I recently had the pleasure of meeting at Wiesbaden, where the waters and reposeful surroundings strongly reminded her of Oakdale.