Book I
Chapter XIV
 

I

After luncheon, grinning amiably when Mrs. Abbott hinted that Englishmen liked to be out of doors, she led Gathbroke to the confines of the park, where they sat down under one of the oaks that reminded him of England; for which he was in truth desperately homesick, and never more so than at this moment.

Everything combined to make him realize uneasily his youth. In England a man of twenty-three was a man-of-the-world if he had had the proper opportunities; but this girl who had infatuated him, and even the far more sympathetic Miss Dwight, made him feel that he was a mere boy; and so had this entire family, however unwittingly.

II

He spoke of Miss Dwight suddenly, for Alexina, who had been duly enlightened while the men were smoking with Tom, had tactfully conveyed her sympathy, her eyes almost round with fascinated horror and curiosity.

He set his teeth and gave a rapid but graphic account of the whole dreadful episode, willing to interest her at any price; and Alexina, sitting opposite on the ground, her long spine curved, her long arms embracing her knees, listened with a breathless interest, spurring him to potent words, even to stressing of detail.

"My goodness gracious me!" she ejaculated when he paused. "I should have gone raving mad. You are a perfect wonder. I never heard of anything so gor--perfectly thrilling. And that girl, what did you say her name was?"

Gathbroke, who had purposely withheld it, said explosively:

"Dwight."

"Dwight?"

"I think she is a sister of a friend of yours." And he was made as miserable as he could wish by a crimson tide that swept straight from her heart pump up to her widow's peak.

"Dwight? Sister? I didn't know he had one. I saw him several times during the fire and he didn't mention her."

"I suspect he was too absorbed." Gathbroke muttered the words, but man's instinct of loyalty to his own sex is strong. "A city doesn't burn every day, you know."

"Still...what is she like? Like him?"

"I do not remember him at all...She? Oh, she has a tremendous amount of dark hair that looks as if falling off the top of her head and down her face. Uncommonly heavy eyebrows, and very light gray--Ah, I have it! I have been groping for the word ever since--sinister eyes....That is the effect in that dark face. She has a curious character, I should think. Not very frank. She--well, she rather struck me as having been born for drama; tragic drama, I am afraid."

"Not a bit like her brother. How old is she?"

"Twenty-two, she told me."

"What--what does she do? They are not a bit well off."

He hesitated a moment. "Well--as I recall it, she is studying something or other at the University of California."

"And of course she boards down there with her brother, who takes care of her while she is studying to be a teacher or something." Alexina having arranged it to her satisfaction dismissed the subject. She had no mind to betray herself to this good-looking young Englishman who had been sent to her providentially on a very dull day. He would, no doubt, have been frantically interesting if he had not been so idiotic as to fall head over ears the first shot.

Still...Alexina examined him covertly as he transferred his gaze for a moment to the mountains across the distant bay, swimming now in a pale blue mist with a wide banner of pale pink above them....If she had met him first, or had never met the other at all...who knew?

III

Alexina, for all her passion for romance, had a remarkably level head. She was quite aware that there had been a certain amount of deliberation in her own headlong plunge, convinced as she was that high romance belonged to youth alone, and fearful lest it pass her by; aware also that a part of Dwight's halo, aside from his looks and manners and chivalrous charm, consisted in his being a martyr to an unjust fate, and, as such, under the ban of her august family. It was all quite too perfect....But if Gathbroke had come first his qualifications might have proved quite as puissant, and no doubt Tom Abbott, who retained his school-history hatred of the entire English race, would have provided the opposition and perhaps influenced the family.

She swept her intoxicating lashes along the faint bloom high on her olive cheeks and then raised her eyes suddenly to the tormented ones opposite. She also smiled softly, alluringly, as little fascinating wretches will who know nothing of the passions of men.

"I think you should follow Mr. Gwynne's example and stay here with us." He thought of silver chimes and contrasted her voice with Gora Dwight's angry contralto: he always thought of Gora in phrases. "So many Englishmen live out here and adore it."

"I'm perfectly satisfied with my own country, thank you."

Alexina, who was feeling intensely American at the moment, curled her lip. "Oh, of course. We have had plenty of those, too. Scarcely any of them becomes naturalized. Just use and enjoy the country and give as little in return as possible."

"Really? I fancy they must give rather a lot in return or they would hardly be tolerated. No native has worked harder than Elton these last days. I understand most of them are in business or ranching and have married California girls."

"Oh, they have redeeming points." And then having satisfied her curiosity as to how hazel eyes looked when angry she gave him a dazzling smile. "We love them like brothers, and that is a proof that we are not snobbish, for most of them are not of your or Mr. Gwynne's class--just middle-class business people at home."

"Well, you are a business nation, so why not? I have met hardly any but business men out here and I feel quite at home with them. My mother's family are in trade and I enjoy myself immensely when I visit them."

"Oh!" His halo slipped....Still, what did it matter? "I suppose you told me that to let me know you didn't need to come out here in search of an heiress. But many of our most charming girls are not. Just now it seems to me that more young men in California have money than girls...but they are so uninteresting."

She looked pathetic, her mouth drooped; then she smiled at him confidingly.

He knew quite as well as if he had not been hard hit that she was flirting with him, but as long as she gave him his chance to win her she might do her transparent little best to make a fool of him.

"Have you ever been in love?" asked Alexina softly.

"Oh, about half-way several times, but always drew back in time...knew it wasn't the real thing...Youth fools itself, you know, for the sake of the sensation--or the race. Have you?"

"Oh--" Alexina lifted her thin flexible shoulders airily and this time her color did not flow. "How is one to tell...a girl in her first season...when all men look so much alike? It is fun to flirt with them, when you have been shut up in boarding-school and hardly had a glimpse of life even in vacation. My New York relatives are terribly old-fashioned. It's great fun to give one man all the dances and watch the dado of dowagers look disapproving." And once more she gave him the quick smile of understanding that springs so spontaneously between youth and youth.

"Well...you might have given all those dances to me the other night, instead of to that fellow Dwight."

"Oh, but you see, I had already promised them to him. Lady Victoria always comes so late."

"That's true enough." His spirits rose a trifle.

"When do you go--back to England, I mean? Not for a good long time, I hope. We have awfully good times down here. Janet Maynard and Olive Bascom live at San Mateo in the summer, and Aileen Lawton at Burlingame. They are my chums and we'd give you a ripping time. We'd like to have you take away the pleasantest possible memory of California instead of such a terrible one. I don't mean anything very gay of course. You mustn't think I'm heartless." And she showed the lower pearl of her eyes and looked like a madonna.

"I'm afraid I must go soon. I've had an extension of leave already, and Hofer told me just before we left to-day that he thought he could let me have his private car inside of a week. They've been using it."

IV

There was not a dwelling in sight. The quiet of that old park with its brooding oaks was primeval. Behind her was the pink and blue glory of sky and mountain. Her eyes were like stars.

He burst out boyishly: "If I only had more time! If only I could have met you even when I first came to San Francisco...before...before...I'd--I'd like to marry you. It's fearfully soon to say such a thing. I feel like a fool. But I'm not the first man to fall madly in love at first sight...and you...you...If I tell you now instead of waiting it's because there's so little time. Would you...do you think you could marry me?"

"Oh! Ah!" (She almost said Ow.) After all it was her first proposal. She was thrilled in spite of the fact that she was in love with another man, for she felt close to something elemental, hazily understood...something in her own unsounded depths rushed to meet it.

But he was too young, and too "easy," and she didn't like his gray flannel shirt; which, laundry being out of the question, he had bought in Fillmore Street almost opposite the undertaker's.

"Suppose we correspond for a year? That is, if you must really go so soon."

"I must. I want you to go with me."

His eyes had turned almost black and he had set his jaw in a way she didn't like at all. In nerving himself to go through the ordeal he had worked up his fermenting mind into a positively brutal mood.

"Oh--mercy! I couldn't do that. My people are the most conventional in the world."

The situation was getting beyond her. She had not intended to make him propose for at least a week and then he would have been abject and she majestic. She sprang to her feet with a swift sidewise movement that made her limp young body melt into a series of curves; and, standing at bay as it were, looked at him with a little frown.

He rose as quickly and she liked the set of his jaw bones less and less.

"Are you refusing me outright?" he demanded. "That would be only fair, you know, if I have no chance."

"Well....I think so. That is--"

"Do you love another man?"

Coquetry flashed back. Nevertheless, she told the exact truth little as she suspected it.

"I love myself, and youth, and life, and liberty. What is a man in comparison with all that?"

"This." And before she could make another leap he had her in his arms; and under the fire of his lips and eyes she lay inert, intoxicated, her first flash of young passion completely responsive to his.

But only for a moment.

She wrenched herself away, her face livid, her eyes black with fury. She beat his chest with her fists.

"You! You! How I hate you! To think I should have given that to you...to think that another man should have been the first to kiss me...I'm in love with another man, I tell you. Why don't you go? I hate myself and I never want to lay eyes on you again. Go! Go! Go!"