A Ward of the Golden Gate by Bret Harte
It was only the third time they had ever met--did Paul consider that when he thought her cold? Did he know now why she had not understood him at Rosario? Did he understand now how calculating and selfish he had seemed to her that night? Could he look her in the face now--no, he must be quiet--they were so near the house, and everybody could see them!--and say that he had ever believed her capable of making up that story of the Arguellos? Could he not have guessed that she had some memory of that name in her childish recollections, how or where she knew not? Was it strange that a daughter should have an instinct of her father? Was it kind to her to know all this himself and yet reveal nothing? Because her mother and father had quarreled, and her mother had run away with somebody and left her a ward to strangers--was that to be concealed from her, and she left without a name? This, and much more, tenderly reproachful, bewildering and sweetly illogical, yet inexpressibly dear to Paul, as they walked on in the gloaming.
More to the purpose, however, the fact that Briones, as far as she knew, did not know her mother, and never before the night at Strudle Bad had ever spoken of her. Still more to the purpose, that he had disappeared after an interview with the colonel that night, and that she believed always that the colonel had bought him off. It was not with her money. She had sometimes thought that the colonel and he were in confidence, and that was why she had lately distrusted Pendleton. But she had refused to take the name of Arguello again after that scene, and had called herself only by the name he had given her--would he forgive her for ever speaking of it as she had?--Yerba Buena. But on shipboard, at Milly's suggestion, and to keep away from Briones, her name had appeared on the passenger list as Miss Good, and they had come, not to New York, but Boston.
It was possible that the colonel had extracted the information he sent her from Briones. They had parted from Pendleton in London, as he was grumpy and queer, and, as Milly thought, becoming very miserly and avaricious as he grew older, for he was always quarreling over the hotel bills. But he had Mrs. Woods's New York address at Under Cliff, and, of course, guessed where she was. There was no address on his letter: he had said he would write again.
Thus much until they reached the steps of the veranda, and Milly, flying down, was ostentatiously overwhelmed with the unexpected appearance of Mr. Paul Hathaway and Yerba, whom she had been watching from the window for the last ten minutes. Then the appearance of Mr. Woods, Californian and reminiscent, and Mrs. Woods, metropolitan, languid, and forgetful, and the sudden and formal retirement of the girls. An arch and indefinable mystery in the air whenever Paul and Yerba appeared together--of which even the servants were discreetly conscious.
At dinner Mr. Woods again became retrospective and Californian, and dwelt upon the changes he had noticed. It appeared the old pioneers had in few cases attained a comfortable fortune for their old age. "I know," he added, "that your friend Colonel Pendleton has dropped a good deal of money over in Europe. Somebody told me that he actually was reduced to take a steerage passage home. It looks as if he might gamble--it's an old Californian complaint." As Paul, who had become suddenly grave again, did not speak, Mrs. Woods reminded them that she had always doubted the colonel's moral principles. Old as he was, he had never got over that freedom of life and social opinion which he had imbibed in early days. For her part, she was very glad he had not returned from Europe with the girls, though, of course, the presence of Don Caesar and his sister during their European sojourn was a corrective. As Paul's face grew darker during this languid criticism, Yerba, who had been watching it with a new and absorbing sympathy, seized the first moment when they left the table to interrogate him with heartbreaking eyes.
"You don't think, Paul, that the colonel is really poor?"
"God only knows," said Paul. "I tremble to think how that scoundrel may have bled him."
"And all for me! Paul, dear, you know you were saying in the woods that you would never, never touch my money. What"--exultingly--"if we gave it to him?"
What answer Paul made did not transpire, for it seemed to have been indicated by an interval of profound silence.
But the next morning, as he and Mr. Woods were closeted in the library, Yerba broke in upon them with a pathetic face and a telegram in her hand. "Oh, Paul--Mr. Hathaway--it's true!"
Paul seized the telegram quickly: it had no signature, only the line: "Colonel Pendleton is dangerously ill at St. John's Hospital."
"I must go at once," said Paul, rising.
"Oh, Paul"--imploringly---"let me go with you! I should never forgive myself if--and it's addressed to me, and what would he think if I didn't come?"
Paul hesitated. "Mrs. Woods will let Milly go with us and she can stay at the hotel. Say yes," she continued, seeking his eyes eagerly.
He consented, and in half an hour they were in the train for New York. Leaving Milly at the hotel, ostensibly in deference to the Woods's prejudices, but really to save the presence of a third party at this meeting, Paul drove with Yerba rapidly to the hospital. They were admitted to an anteroom. The house surgeon received them respectfully, but doubtingly. The patient was a little better this morning, but very weak. There was a lady now with him--a member of a religious and charitable guild, who had taken the greatest interest in him--indeed, she had wished to take him to her own home--but he had declined at first, and now he was too weak to be removed.
"But I received this telegram: it must have been sent at his request," protested Yerba.
The house surgeon looked at the beautiful face. He was mortal. He would see if the patient was able to stand another interview; possibly the regular visitor might withdraw.
When he had gone, an attendant volunteered the information that the old gentleman was perhaps a little excited at times. He was a wonderful man; he had seen a great deal; he talked much of California and the early days; he was very interesting. Ah, it would be all right now if the doctor found him well enough, for the lady was already going--that was she, coming through the hall.
She came slowly towards them--erect, gray, grim--a still handsome apparition. Paul started. To his horror, Yerba ran impulsively forward, and said eagerly: "Is he better? Can he see us now?"
The woman halted an instant, seemed to gather the prayer-book and reticule she was carrying closer to her breast, but was otherwise unchanged. Replying to Paul rather than the young girl, she said rigidly: "The patient is able to see Mr. Hathaway and Miss Yerba Buena," and passed slowly on. But as she reached the door she unloosed her black mourning veil from her bonnet, and seemed to drop it across her face with the gesture that Paul remembered she had used twelve years ago.
"She frightens me!" said Yerba, turning a suddenly startled face on Paul. "Oh, Paul, I hope it isn't an omen, but she looked like some one from the grave!"
"Hush!" said Paul, turning away a face that was whiter than her own. "They are coming now."
The house surgeon had returned a trifle graver. They might see him now, but they must be warned that he wandered at times a little; and, if he might suggest, if it was anything of family importance, they had better make the most of their time and his lucid intervals. Perhaps if they were old friends--very old friends--he would recognize them. He was wandering much in the past--always in the past.
They found him in the end of the ward, but so carefully protected and partitioned off by screens that the space around his cot had all the privacy and security of an apartment. He was very much changed; they would scarcely have known him, but for the delicately curved aquiline profile and the long white moustache--now so faint and etherealized as to seem a mere spirit wing that rested on his pillow. To their surprise he opened his eyes with a smile of perfect recognition, and, with thin fingers beyond the coverlid, beckoned to them to approach. Yet there was still a shadow of his old reserve in his reception of Paul, and, although one hand interlocked the fingers of Yerba--who had at first rushed impulsively forward and fallen on her knees beside the bed--and the other softly placed itself upon her head, his eyes were fixed upon the young man's with the ceremoniousness due to a stranger.
"I am glad to see, sir," he began in a slow, broken, but perfectly audible voice, "that now you are--satisfied with the right--of this young lady--to bear the name of--Arguello--and her relationship-- sir--to one of the oldest"--
"But, my dear old friend," broke out Paul, earnestly, "I never cared for that--I beg you to believe"--
"He never--never--cared for it--dear, dear colonel," sobbed Yerba, passionately: "it was all my fault--he thought only of me--you wrong him!"
"I think otherwise," said the colonel, with grim and relentless deliberation. "I have a vivid--impression--sir--of an--interview I had with you--at the St. Charles--where you said"-- He was silent for a moment, and then in a quite different voice called faintly--
Paul and Yerba glanced quickly at each other.
"George, set out some refreshment for the Honorable Paul Hathaway. The best, sir--you understand. . . . A good nigger, sir--a good boy; and he never leaves me, sir. Only, by gad! sir, he will starve himself and his family to be with me. I brought him with me to California away back in the fall of 'forty-nine. Those were the early days, sir--the early days."
His head had fallen back quite easily on the pillow now; but a slight film seemed to be closing over his dark eyes, like the inner lid of an eagle when it gazes upon the sun.
"They were the old days, sir--the days of Men--when a man's word was enough for anything, and his trigger-finger settled any doubt. When the Trust that he took from Man, Woman, or Child was never broken. When the tide, sir, that swept through the Golden Gate came up as far as Montgomery Street."
He did not speak again. But they who stood beside him knew that the tide had once more come up to Montgomery Street, and was carrying Harry Pendleton away with it.