Moran of the Lady Letty by Frank Norris
XII. New Conditions
The winter season at the Hotel del Coronado had been unusually gay that year, and the young lady who wrote the society news in diary form for one of the San Francisco weekly papers had held forth at much length upon the hotel's "unbroken succession of festivities." She had also noted that "prominent among the newest arrivals" had been Mr. Nat Ridgeway, of San Francisco, who had brought down from the city, aboard his elegant and sumptuously fitted yacht "Petrel," a jolly party, composed largely of the season's debutantes. To be mentioned in the latter category was Miss Josie Herrick, whose lavender coming-out tea at the beginning of the season was still a subject of comment among the gossips--and all the rest of it.
The "Petrel" had been in the harbor but a few days, and on this evening a dance was given at the hotel in honor of her arrival. It was to be a cotillon, and Nat Ridgeway was going to lead with Josie Herrick. There had been a coaching party to Tia Juana that day, and Miss Herrick had returned to the hotel only in time to dress. By 9:30 she emerged from the process--which had involved her mother, her younger sister, her maid, and one of the hotel chambermaids--a dainty, firm-corseted little body, all tulle, white satin, and high-piled hair. She carried Marechal Niel roses, ordered by wire from Monterey; and about an hour later, when Ridgeway gave the nod to the waiting musicians, and swung her off to the beat of a two-step, there was not a more graceful little figure upon the floor of the incomparable round ballroom of the Coronado Hotel.
The cotillon was a great success. The ensigns and younger officers of the monitor--at that time anchored off the hotel-- attended in uniform; and enough of the members of what was known in San Francisco as the "dancing set" were present to give the affair the necessary entrain. Even Jerry Haight, who belonged more distinctly to the "country-club set," and who had spent the early part of that winter shooting elk in Oregon, was among the ranks of the "rovers," who grouped themselves about the draughty doorways, and endeavored to appear unconscious each time Ridgeway gave the signal for a "break."
The figures had gone round the hall once. The "first set" was out again, and as Ridgeway guided Miss Herrick by the "rovers" she looked over the array of shirt-fronts, searching for Jerry Haight.
"Do you see Mr. Haight?" she asked of Ridgeway. "I wanted to favor him this break. I owe him two already, and he'll never forgive me if I overlook him now."
Jerry Haight had gone to the hotel office for a few moments' rest and a cigarette, and was nowhere in sight. But when the set broke, and Miss Herrick, despairing of Jerry, had started out to favor one of the younger ensigns, she suddenly jostled against him, pushing his way eagerly across the floor in the direction of the musicians' platform.
"Oh!" she cried, "Mr. Haight, you've missed your chance--I've been looking for you."
But Jerry did not hear--he seemed very excited. He crossed the floor, almost running, and went up on the platform where the musicians were meandering softly through the mazes of "La Paloma," and brought them to an abrupt silence.
"Here, I say, Haight!" exclaimed Ridgeway, who was near by, "you can't break up my figure like that."
"Gi' me a call there on the bugle," said Haight rapidly to the cornetist. "Anything to make 'em keep quiet a moment."
The cornetist sounded a couple of notes, and the cotillon paused in the very act of the break. The shuffling of feet grew still, and the conversation ceased. A diamond brooch had been found, no doubt, or some supper announcement was to be made. But Jerry Haight, with a great sweep of his arm, the forgotten cigarette between his fingers, shouted out breathlessly:
"Ross Wilbur is out in the office of the hotel!"
There was an instant's silence, and then a great shout. Wilbur found! Ross Wilbur come back from the dead! Ross Wilbur, hunted for and bootlessly traced from Buenos Ayres in the south to the Aleutian Islands in the north. Ross Wilbur, the puzzle of every detective bureau on the coast; the subject of a thousand theories; whose name had figured in the scareheads of every newspaper west of the Mississippi. Ross Wilbur, seen at a fashionable tea and his club of an afternoon, then suddenly blotted out from the world of men; swallowed up and engulfed by the unknown, with not so much as a button left behind. Ross Wilbur the suicide; Ross Wilbur, the murdered; Ross Wilbur, victim of a band of kidnappers, the hero of some dreadful story that was never to be told, the mystery, the legend--behold he was there! Back from the unknown, dropped from the clouds, spewed up again from the bowels of the earth--a veritable god from the machine who in a single instant was to disentangle all the unexplained complications of those past winter months.
"Here he comes!" shouted Jerry, his eyes caught by a group of men in full dress and gold lace who came tramping down the hall to the ballroom, bearing a nondescript figure on their shoulders. "Here he comes--the boys are bringing him in here! Oh!" he cried, turning to the musicians, "can't you play something?--any-thing! Hit it up for all you're worth! Ridgeway--Nat, look here! Ross was Yale, y' know--Yale '95; ain't we enough Yale men here to give him the yell?"
Out of all time and tune, but with a vigor that made up for both, the musicians banged into a patriotic air. Jerry, standing on a chair that itself was standing on the platform, led half a dozen frantic men in the long thunder of the "Brek-kek-kek-kek, co-ex, co-ex."
Around the edges of the hall excited girls, and chaperons themselves no less agitated, were standing up on chairs and benches, splitting their gloves and breaking their fans in their enthusiasm; while every male dancer on the floor--ensigns in their gold-faced uniforms and "rovers" in starched and immaculate shirt- bosoms--cheered and cheered and struggled with one another to shake hands with a man whom two of their number old Yale grads, with memories of athletic triumphs yet in their minds--carried into that ball-room, borne high upon their shoulders.
And the hero of the occasion, the centre of all this enthusiasm-- thus carried as if in triumph into this assembly in evening dress, in white tulle and whiter kid, odorous of delicate sachets and scarce-perceptible perfumes--was a figure unhandsome and unkempt beyond description. His hair was long, and hanging over his eyes. A thick, uncared-for beard concealed the mouth and chin. He was dressed in a Chinaman's blouse and jeans--the latter thrust into slashed and tattered boots. The tan and weatherbeatings of nearly half a year of the tropics were spread over his face; a partly healed scar disfigured one temple and cheek-bone; the hands, to the very finger-nails, were gray with grime; the jeans and blouse and boots were fouled with grease, with oil, with pitch, and all manner of the dirt of an uncared-for ship. And as the dancers of the cotillon pressed about, and a hundred kid-gloved hands stretched toward his own palms, there fell from Wilbur's belt upon the waxed floor of the ballroom the knife he had so grimly used in the fight upon the beach, the ugly stains still blackening on the haft.
There was no more cotillon that night. They put him down at last; and in half a dozen sentences Wilbur told them of how he had been shanghaied--told them of Magdalena Bay, his fortune in the ambergris, and the fight with the beach-combers.
"You people are going down there for target-practice, aren't you?" he said, turning to one of the "Monterey's" officers in the crowd about him. "Yes? Well, you'll find the coolies there, on the beach, waiting for you. All but one," he added, grimly.
"We marooned six of them, but the seventh didn't need to be marooned. They tried to plunder us of our boat, but, by -----, we made it interesting for 'em!"
"I say, steady, old man!" exclaimed Nat Ridgeway, glancing nervously toward the girls in the surrounding group. "This isn't Magdalena Bay, you know."
And for the first time Wilbur felt a genuine pang of disappointment and regret as he realized that it was not.
Half an hour later, Ridgeway drew him aside. "I say, Ross, let's get out of here. You can't stand here talking all night. Jerry and you and I will go up to my rooms, and we can talk there in peace. I'll order up three quarts of fizz, and--"
"Oh, rot your fizz!" declared Wilbur. "If you love me, give me Christian tobacco."
As they were going out of the ballroom, Wilbur caught sight of Josie Herrick, and, breaking away from the others, ran over to her.
"Oh!" she cried, breathless. "To think and to think of your coming back after all! No, I don't realize it--I can't. It will take me until morning to find out that you've really come back. I just know now that I'm happier than I ever was in my life before. Oh!" she cried, "do I need to tell you how glad I am? It's just too splendid for words. Do you know, I was thought to be the last person you had ever spoken to while alive, and the reporters and all--oh, but we must have such a talk when all is quiet again! And our dance--we've never had our dance. I've got your card yet. Remember the one you wrote for me at the tea--a facsimile of it was published in all the papers. You are going to be a hero when you get back to San Francisco. Oh, Ross! Ross!" she cried, the tears starting to her eyes, "you've really come back, and you are just as glad as I am, aren't you--glad that you've come back--come back to me?"
Later on, in Ridgeway's room, Wilbur told his story again more in detail to Ridgeway and Jerry. All but one portion of it. He could not make up his mind to speak to them--these society fellows, clubmen and city bred--of Moran. How he was going to order his life henceforward--his life, that he felt to be void of interest without her--he did not know. That was a question for later consideration.
"We'll give another cotillon!" exclaimed Ridgeway, "up in the city--give it for you, Ross, and you'll lead. It'll be the event of the season!"
Wilbur uttered an exclamation of contempt. "I've done with that sort of foolery," he answered.
"Nonsense; why, think, we'll have it in your honor. Every smart girl in town will come, and you'll be the lion of--"
"You don't seem to understand!" cried Wilbur impatiently. "Do you think there's any fun in that for me now? Why, man, I've fought-- fought with a naked dirk, fought with a coolie who snapped at me like an ape--and you talk to me of dancing and functions and german favors! It wouldn't do some of you people a bit of harm if you were shanghaied yourselves. That sort of life, if it don't do anything else, knocks a big bit of seriousness into you. You fellows make me sick," he went on vehemently. "As though there wasn't anything else to do but lead cotillons and get up new figures!"
"Well, what do you propose to do?" asked Nat Ridgeway. "Where are you going now--back to Magdalena Bay?"
Wilbur smote the table with his fist.
"Cuba!" he cried. "I've got a crack little schooner out in the bay here, and I've got a hundred thousand dollars' worth of loot aboard of her. I've tried beach-combing for a while, and now I'll try filibustering. It may be a crazy idea, but it's better than dancing. I'd rather lead an expedition than a german, and you can chew on that, Nathaniel Ridgeway."
Jerry looked at him as he stood there before them in the filthy, reeking blouse and jeans, the ragged boots, and the mane of hair and tangled beard, and remembered the Wilbur he used to know--the Wilbur of the carefully creased trousers, the satin scarfs and fancy waistcoats.
"You're a different sort than when you went away, Ross," said Jerry.
"Right you are," answered Wilbur.
"But I will venture a prophecy," continued Jerry, looking keenly at him.
"Ross, you are a born-and-bred city man. It's in the blood of you and the bones of you. I'll give you three years for this new notion of yours to wear itself out. You think just now you're going to spend the rest of your life as an amateur buccaneer. In three years, at the outside, you'll be using your 'loot,' as you call it, or the interest of it, to pay your taxes and your tailor, your pew rent and your club dues, and you'll be what the biographers call 'a respectable member of the community.'"
"Did you ever kill a man, Jerry?" asked Wilbur. "No? Well, you kill one some day--kill him in a fair give-and-take fight--and see how it makes you feel, and what influence it has on you, and then come back and talk to me."
It was long after midnight. Wilbur rose.
"We'll ring for a boy," said Ridgeway, "and get you a room. I can fix you out with clothes enough in the morning "
Wilbur stared in some surprise, and then said:
"Why, I've got the schooner to look after. I can't leave those coolies alone all night."
"You don't mean to say you're going on board at this time in the morning?"
"Why--but--but you'll catch your death of cold."
Wilbur stared at Ridgeway, then nodded helplessly, and, scratching his head, said, half aloud:
"No, what's the use; I can't make 'em understand. Good-night I'll see you in the morning."
"We'll all come out and visit you on your yacht," Ridgeway called after him; but Wilbur did not hear.
In answer to Wilbur's whistle, Jim came in with the dory and took him off to the schooner. Moran met him as he came over the side.
"I took the watch myself to-night and let the boy turn in," she said. "How is it ashore, mate?"
"We've come back to the world of little things, Moran," said Wilbur. "But we'll pull out of here in the morning and get back to the places where things are real."
"And that's a good hearing, mate."
"Let's get up here on the quarterdeck," added Wilbur. "I've something to propose to you."
Moran laid an arm across his shoulder, and the two walked aft. For half an hour Wilbur talked to her earnestly about his new idea of filibustering; and as he told her of the war he warmed to the subject, his face glowing, his eyes sparkling. Suddenly, however, he broke off.
"But no!" he exclaimed. "You don't understand, Moran. How can you--you're foreign-born. It's no affair of yours!"
"Mate! mate!" cried Moran, her hands upon his shoulders. "It's you who don't understand--don't understand me. Don't you know-- can't you see? Your people are mine now. I'm happy only in your happiness. You were right--the best happiness is the happiness one shares. And your sorrows belong to me, just as I belong to you, dear. Your enemies are mine, and your quarrels are my quarrels." She drew his head quickly toward her and kissed him.
In the morning the two had made up their minds to a certain vague course of action. To get away--anywhere--was their one aim. Moran was by nature a creature unfit for civilization, and the love of adventure and the desire for action had suddenly leaped to life in Wilbur's blood and was not to be resisted. They would get up to San Francisco, dispose of their "loot," outfit the "Bertha Millner" as a filibuster, and put to sea again. They had discussed the advisability of rounding the Horn in so small a ship as the "Bertha Millner," but Moran had settled that at once.
"I've got to know her pretty well," she told Wilbur. "She's sound as a nut. Only let's get away from this place."
But toward ten o'clock on the morning after their arrival off Coronado, and just as they were preparing to get under way, Hoang touched Wilbur's elbow.
"Seeum lil one-piece smoke-boat; him come chop-chop."
In fact, a little steam-launch was rapidly approaching the schooner. In another instant she was alongside. Jerry, Nat Ridgeway, Josie Herrick, and an elderly woman, whom Wilbur barely knew as Miss Herrick's married sister, were aboard.
"We've come off to see your yacht!" cried Miss Herrick to Wilbur as the launch bumped along the schooner's counter. "Can we come aboard?" She looked very pretty in her crisp pink shirt-waist her white duck skirt, and white kid shoes, her sailor hat tilted at a barely perceptible angle. The men were in white flannels and smart yachting suits. "Can we come aboard?" she repeated.
Wilbur gasped and stared. "Good Lord!" he muttered. "Oh, come along," he added, desperately.
The party came over the side.
"Oh, my!" said Miss Herrick blankly, stopping short.
The decks, masts, and rails of the schooner were shiny with a black coating of dirt and grease; the sails were gray with grime; a strangling odor of oil and tar, of cooking and of opium, of Chinese punk and drying fish, pervaded all the air. In the waist, Hoang and Jim, bare to the belt, their queues looped around their necks to be out of the way, were stowing the dory and exchanging high-pitched monosyllables. Miss Herrick's sister had not come aboard. The three visitors--Jerry, Ridgeway, and Josie--stood nervously huddled together, their elbows close in, as if to avoid contact with the prevailing filth, their immaculate white outing- clothes detaching themselves violently against the squalor and sordid grime of the schooner's background.
"Oh, my!" repeated Miss Herrick in dismay, half closing her eyes. "To think of what you must have been through! I thought you had some kind of a yacht. I had no idea it would be like this." And as she spoke, Moran came suddenly upon the group from behind the foresail, and paused in abrupt surprise, her thumbs in her belt.
She still wore men's clothes and was booted to the knee. The heavy blue woolen shirt was open at the throat, the sleeves rolled half-way up her large white arms. In her belt she carried her haftless Scandinavian dirk. She was hatless as ever, and her heavy, fragrant cables of rye-hued hair fell over her shoulders and breast to far below her belt.
Miss Herrick started sharply, and Moran turned an inquiring glance upon Wilbur. Wilbur took his resolution in both hands.
"Miss Herrick," he said, "this is Moran--Moran Sternersen."
Moran took a step forward, holding out her hand. Josie, all bewildered, put her tight-gloved fingers into the calloused palm, looking up nervously into Moran's face.
"I'm sure," she said feebly, almost breathlessly, "I--I'm sure I'm very pleased to meet Miss Sternersen."
It was long before the picture left Wilbur's imagination. Josie Herrick, petite, gowned in white, crisp from her maid's grooming; and Moran, sea-rover and daughter of a hundred Vikings, towering above her, booted and belted, gravely clasping Josie's hand in her own huge fist.