Chapter I
 

"Annie, what are you doing? Polishing the ramekins? Oh, that's right. Did the extra ramekins come from Mrs. Brown? Didn't! Then as soon as the children come back I'll send for them; I wish you'd remind me. Did Mrs. Binney come? and Lizzie? Oh, that's good. Where are they? Down in the cellar! Oh, did the extra ice come? Will you find out, Annie? Those can wait. If it didn't, the mousse is ruined, that's all! No, wait, Annie, I'll go out and see Celia myself."

Little Mrs. George Carew, flushed and excited, crossed the pantry as she spoke, and pushed open the swinging door that connected it with the kitchen. She was a pretty woman, even now when her hair, already dressed, was hidden under snugly pinned veils and her trim little figure lost under a flying kimono. Mrs. Carew was expecting the twenty-eight members of the Santa Paloma Bridge Club on this particular evening, and now, at three o'clock on a beautiful April afternoon, she was almost frantic with fatigue and nervousness. The house had been cleaned thoroughly the day before, rugs shaken, mirrors polished, floors oiled; the grand piano had been closed, and pushed against the wall; the reading-table had been cleared, and wheeled out under the turn of the stairway; the pretty drawing-room and square big entrance hall had been emptied to make room for the seven little card-tables that were already set up, and for the twenty-eight straight-back chairs that Mrs. Carew had collected from the dining-room, the bedrooms, the halls, and even the nursery, for the occasion. All this had been done the day before, and Mrs. Carew, awakening early in the morning to uneasy anticipations of a full day, had yet felt that the main work of preparation was out of the way.

But now, in mid-afternoon, nothing seemed done. There were flowers still to arrange; there was the mild punch that Santa Paloma affected at card parties to be finished; there was candy to be put about on the tables, in little silver dishes; and new packs of cards, and pencils and score-cards to be scattered about. And in the kitchen--But Mrs. Carew's heart failed at the thought. True, her own two maids were being helped out to-day by Mrs. Binney from the village, a tower of strength in an emergency, and by Lizzie Binney, a worthy daughter of her mother; but there had been so many stupid delays. And plates, and glasses, and punch-cups, and silver, and napkins for twenty-eight meant such a lot of counting and sorting and polishing! And somehow George and the children must have dinner, and the Binneys and Celia and Annie must eat, too.

"Well," thought Mrs. Carew, with a desperate glance at the kitchen clock, "it will all be over pretty soon, thank goodness!"

A pleasant stir of preparation pervaded the kitchen. Mrs. Binney, enormous, good-natured, capable, was opening crabs at one end of the table, her sleeves rolled up, and her gingham dress, in the last stage of age and thinness, protected by a new stiff white apron; Celia, Mrs. Carew's cook, was sitting opposite her, dismembering two cold roasted fowls; Lizzie Binney, as trim and pretty as her mother was shapeless and plain, was filling silver bonbon-dishes with salted nuts.

"How is everything going, Celia?" said Mrs. Carew, sampling a nut.

"Fine," said Celia placidly. "He didn't bring but two bunches of sullery, so I don't know will I have enough for the salad. They sent the cherries. And Mrs. Binney wants you should taste the punch."

"It's sweet now," said Mrs. Binney, as Mrs. Carew picked up the big mixing-spoon, "but there's the ice to go in."

"Delicious! not one bit too sweet," Mrs. Carew pronounced. "You know that's to be passed around in the little glasses, Lizzie, while we're playing; and a cherry and a piece of pineapple in every glass. Did Annie find the doilies for the big trays? Yes. I got the bowl down; Annie's going to wash it. Oh, the cakes came, didn't they? That's good. And the cream for coffee; that ought to go right on ice. I'll telephone for more celery."

"There's some of these napkins so mussed, laying in the drawer," said Lizzie, "I thought I'd put a couple of irons on and press them out."

"If you have time, I wish you would," Mrs. Carew said, touching the frosted top of an angel-cake with a tentative finger. "I may have to play to-night, Celia," she went on, to her own cook, "but you girls can manage everything, can't you? Dinner really doesn't matter-- scrambled eggs and baked potatoes, something like that, and you'll have to serve it on the side porch."

"Oh, yes'm, we'll manage!" Celia assured her confidently. "We'll clear up here pretty soon, and then there's nothing but the sandwiches to do."

Mrs. Carew went on her way comforted. Celia was not a fancy cook, she reflected, passing through the darkened dining-room, where the long table had been already set with a shining cloth, and where silver and glass gleamed in the darkness, but Celia was reliable. And for a woman with three children, a large house, and but one other maid, Celia was a treasure.

She telephoned the grocer, her eyes roving critically over the hall as she did so. The buttercups, in a great bowl on the table, were already dropping their varnished yellow leaves; Annie must brush those up the very last thing.

"So far, so good!" said Mrs. Carew, straightening the rug at the door with a small heel and dropping wearily into a porch rocker. "There must be one thousand things I ought to be doing," she said, resting her head and shutting her eyes.

It was a warm, delicious afternoon. The little California town lay asleep under a haze of golden sunshine. The Carews' pretty house, with its lawn and garden, was almost the last on River Street, and stood on the slope of a hill that commanded all Santa Paloma Valley. Below it, the wide tree-shaded street descended between other unfenced lawns and other handsome homes.

This was the aristocratic part of the town. The Willard Whites' immense colonial mansion was here; and the Whites, rich, handsome, childless, clever, and nearing the forties, were quite the most prominent people of Santa Paloma. The Wayne Adamses, charming, extravagant young people, lived near; and the Parker Lloyds, who were suspected of hiding rather serious money troubles under their reckless hospitality and unfailing gaiety, were just across the street. On River Street, too, lived dignified, aristocratic old Mrs. Apostleman and nervous, timid Anne Pratt and her brother Walter, whose gloomy, stately old mansion was one of the finest in town. Up at the end of the street were the Carews, and the shabby comfortable home of Dr. and Mrs. Brown, and the neglected white cottage where Barry Valentine and his little son Billy and a studious young Japanese servant led a rather shiftless existence. And although there were other pretty streets in town, and other pleasant well-to- do women who were members of church and club, River Street was unquestionably the street, and its residents unquestionably the people of Santa Paloma.

Beyond these homes lay the business part of the town, the railway station, and post-office, the library, and the women's clubhouse, with its red geraniums, red-tiled roof, and plaster arches.

And beyond again were blocks of business buildings, handsome and modern, with metal-sheathed elevators, and tiled vestibules, and heavy, plate-glass windows on the street. There was a drug store quite modern enough to be facing upon Forty-second Street and Broadway, instead of the tree-shaded peace of Santa Paloma's main street. At its cool and glittering fountain indeed, a hundred drinks could be mixed of which Broadway never even heard. And on Broadway, three thousand miles away, the women who shopped were buying the same boxed powders, the same bottled toilet waters, the same patented soaps and brushes and candies that were to be found here. And in the immense grocery store nearby there were beautifully spacious departments worthy of any great city, devoted to rare fruits, and coffees and teas, and every pickle that ever came in a glass bottle, and every little spiced fish that ever came in a gay tin. A white-clad young man "demonstrated" a cake-mixer, a blue-clad young woman "demonstrated" jelly-powders.

Nearby were the one or two big dry-goods stores, with lovely gowns in their windows, and milliners' shops, with French hats in their smart Paris boxes--there was even a very tiny, very elegant little shop where pastes and powders and shampooing were the attraction; a shop that had a French name "et Cie" over the door.

In short, there were modern women, and rich women, in Santa Paloma, as these things unmistakably indicated. Where sixty years ago there had been but a lonely outpost on a Spanish sheep-ranch, and where thirty years after that there was only a "general store" at a crossroads, now every luxury in the world might be had for the asking.

All this part of the town lay northeast of the sleepy little Lobos River, which cut Santa Paloma in two. It was a pretty river, a boiling yellow torrent in winter, but low enough in the summer-time for the children to wade across the shallows, and shaded all along its course by overhanging maples, and willows, and oaktrees, and an undergrowth of wild currant and hazel bushes and blackberry vines. Across the river was Old Paloma, where dust from the cannery chimneys and soot from the railway sheds powdered an ugly shabby settlement of shanties and cheap lodging-houses. Old Paloma was peppered thick with saloons, and flavored by them, and by the odor of frying grease, and by an ashy waste known as the "dump." Over all other odors lay the sweet, cloying smell of crushed grapes from the winery and the pungent odor from the tannery of White & Company. The men, and boys, and girls of the settlement all worked in one or another of these places, and the women gossiped in their untidy doorways. Above the Carew house and Doctor Brown's, opposite, River Street came perforce to an end, for it was crossed at this point by an old-fashioned wooden fence of slender, rounded pickets. In the middle of the fence was a wide carriage gate, with a smaller gate for foot passengers at each side, and beyond it the shabby, neglected garden and the tangle of pepper, and eucalyptus, and weeping willow trees that half hid the old Holly mansion. Once this had been the great house of the village, but now it was empty and forlorn. Captain Holly had been dead for five or six years, and the last of the sons and daughters had gone away into the world. The house, furnished just as they had left it, was for sale, but the years went by, and no buyer appeared; and meantime the garden flowers ran wild, the lawns were dry and brown, and the fence was smothered in coarse rose vines and rampant wild blackberry vines. Dry grass and yarrow and hollow milkweed grew high in the gateways, and when the village children went through them to prowl, as children love to prowl, about the neglected house and orchard, they left long, dusty wakes in the crushed weeds. Further up than the children usually ventured, there was an old bridge across the Lobos, Captain Holly's private road to the mill town; but it was boarded across now, and hundreds of chipmunks nested in it, and whisked about it undisturbed. The great stables and barns stood empty; the fountains were long gone dry. Only the orchard continued to bear heavily.

The Holly estate ran up into the hill behind it, one of the wooded foothills that encircled all Santa Paloma, as they encircle so many California towns. Already turning brown, and crowned with dense, low groves of oak, and bay, and madrona trees, they shut off the world outside; although sometimes on a still day the solemn booming of the ocean could be heard beyond them, and a hundred times a year the Pacific fogs came creeping over them long before dawn, and Santa Paloma awakened in an enveloping cloud of soft mist. Here and there the slopes of these hills were checkered with the sharp oblongs and angles of young vineyards, and hidden by the thickening green of peach and apple orchards. A few low, brown dairy ranch-houses were perched high on the ridges; the red-brown moving stream of the cattle home-coming in mid-afternoon could be seen from the village on a clear day. And over hill and valley, on this wonderful afternoon in late spring, the most generous sunlight in the world lay warm and golden, and across them the shadows of high clouds--for there had been rain in the night--traveled slowly.

"I declare," said little Mrs. Carew lazily, "I could go to sleep!"