The Gray Dawn by Stewart Edward White
One morning the accumulated fatigue had its way, and they overslept scandalously. It was after ten o'clock before they were ready to drive up the street. As they turned the corner from Kearney Street they were saluted by the ringing of numerous bells.
"Why, it's Sunday!" cried Keith, after a moment's calculation. In the unexpectedness of this discovery he reined in the horse.
"It will never do to work to-day," she answered his unspoken thought. "I suppose we ought to go to church."
But Keith turned the horse's head to the left.
"Church?" he returned with great decision. "We're going on a spree. This is a day of rest, and we've earned it."
"Where?" asked Nan, a trifle shocked at his implication as to church.
"I haven't the remotest idea," said Keith.
They drove along a plank road leading out of town. It proved to be thronged with people, all going in the same direction. The shuffle of their feet on the planks and the murmur of their many voices were punctuated by the klop, klop of hoofs and occasional shouts of laughter. All races of the earth seemed to be represented. It was like a Congress of the Nations at some great exposition. French, Germans, Italians, Russians, Dutchmen, British, were to be recognized and to be expected. But also were strange peoples--Turks, Arabs, Negroes, Chinese, Kanakas, East Indians, the gorgeous members of the Spanish races, and nondescript queer people to whom neither Nan nor Keith could assign a native habitat. At every step one or the other called delighted attention to some new exhibit. Most extraordinary were, possibly, the men from the gold mines of the Sierras, These were mostly young, but long haired, bearded, rough, wilder than any mortal man need be. They walked with a wide swagger. Their clothes were exaggeratedly coarse, but they ornamented themselves with bright silk handkerchiefs; with feathers, flowers; with squirrel or buck-tails In their hats; with long heavy chains of nuggets; with glittering and prominently displayed pistols, revolvers, stilettos, knives, or dirks. Some had plaited their beards in three tails; others had tied their long hair under their chins. But even the most bizarre seemed to attract no attention. San Francisco was accustomed to it.
Indeed, the few fashionable strollers were much more stared at. Most of the well dressed were in some sort of vehicle. The Keiths saw many buggies like their own. A few very smart, or rather very ornamental, double rigs dashed by. In these sat generally good-looking but rather loud young women, who stared straight ahead with an assumption of supreme indifference. Hacks or omnibuses careered along. In these the company was generally merry but mixed, though occasionally a good-looking couple had hired an ordinary public conveyance. Horsemen and horsewomen were numerous. Some of these were very dashing indeed, the women with long trailing skirts and high hats from which floated veils; the men with skin-tight trousers strapped under varnished boots, and long split-skirted coats. Others were simply plain a- horseback. The native Californians with their heavy, silver-mounted saddles, braided rawhide reins and bridles, their sombreros, their picturesque costumes, and their magnificent fiery horses made a fine appearance. Occasionally screaming, bouncing Chinese, hanging on with both hands, would dash by at full speed, their horses quite uncontrolled, their garments flying, ecstatically scared and happy, causing great confusion, and pursued by curses.
"Evidently we're headed in the right direction," remarked Keith.
After a drive of two or three miles, never far from the bay they arrived at what had evidently been a sleepy little village. The original low, picturesque, red-tiled adobe buildings still clustered about the Mission. But much had been added. The Keiths found themselves in an immense confusion. Screaming signs cried everywhere for attention--advertising bear pits, cock fights, theatrical attractions, side shows, and the like. Innumerable hotels and restaurants, small, cheap, and tawdry, offered their hospitality, the liquid part of which was already being widely accepted. Men were striking pegs with hammers, throwing balls at negroes' heads thrust through canvas, shooting at targets. A racecourse was surrounded. Dust rose in choking clouds, and the sun beat down heavily.
"Goodness, what a place!" cried Nan in dismay.
Had they known it, there were many quiet, attractive, outlying resorts catering to and frequented by the fashionables, for "the Mission" was at that time in its heyday as a Sunday amusement for all classes. As it was, Keith drove on through the village, and so out to a winding country road.
"This is heavenly," said Nan, and laid aside her veil.
The road wound and meandered through the low hills of the peninsula. The sun beat down on them in a flood, only its heat, no longer oppressive, had become grateful.
"Doesn't it feel good on your back!" exclaimed Nan, recognizing this quality. "One seems to soak it in--just the way a thirsty plant soaks water."
The rounded hills were turning a ripe soft brown. Across their crests the sky looked very blue. High in the heavens some buzzards were sailing. Innumerable quail called. On tree tops perched yellow-breasted meadow larks with golden voices. In the bottom of the narrow valley where the road wound were green willow trees and a little trickle of water. From the ground came upward waves of heat and a pungent clean odour of some weed. Nan was excited and keenly receptive to impressions.
"It's a hot day!" she cried, "and the road is dusty. By rights it ought to be disagreeable. But it isn't! Why is that?"
The little valley widened into a pocket. Back from the road stood a low white much house. Its veranda was smothered in the gorgeousness of bougainvillaea. A grave, elderly, bearded Spaniard, on horseback, passed them at a smooth shuffling little trot, and gave them a sonorous buenas dias, The road mounted rapidly. Once when Keith had reined in to breathe the horse, they heard the droning crescendo hum of a new swarm of bees passing overhead.
"Isn't this nice!" cried Nan, snuggling against Keith's arm.
Suddenly, over the crest and down the other side, they came on sand hills. The horse plodded along at a walk. Nan hung far out watching, fascinated, the smooth, clean sand dividing before the wheels and flowing back over the rim, and so over a little rise, and the sea was before them.
"Oh, the Pacific!" exclaimed she, sitting up very straight.
The horse broke into a trot along the smooth hard shore. The wind was coming in from the wide spaces. A taste of salt was in the air. Foam wreaths advanced and receded with the edge of the wash, or occasionally blew in a mass across the flat, until gradually they scattered and dissipated. The horse pricked up his ears, breathed deep of the fresh cool air, expanded his nostrils snorting softly, pretended to shy at the foam wreaths. The wash advanced and drew back with a soft hissing sound; the wind blew flat and low, so that even on the wet parts a fine, white, dried mist of sand was always scurrying and hurrying along close to the ground. Outside the surges reared and fell with a crash.
After the tepid or heated atmosphere of the hills the air was unexpectedly cool and vital. A flock of sickle-billed curlews stood motionless until they were within fifty yards; then rose and flew just inside the line of the breakers, uttering indescribably weird and lonely cries. A long file of pelicans, their wings outspread, sailed close to the surface of the ocean, undulating over the waves and into the hollows exactly paralleling, at a height of only a few feet, the restless contour of the sea. Occasionally they would all flop their wings two or three times in unison.
"I believe it's a sort of game--they're having fun!" stated Nan with conviction.
Everything seemed to be having fun. Close to the wash were forty or fifty tiny white sanderlings in a compact band. When the wash receded they followed it with an incredibly rapid twinkling of little legs; and when again the wave rushed, shoreward, scuttle, scuttle, scuttle went they, keeping always just at the edge of the water. Never were they forced to wing; yet never did they permit the distance to widen between themselves and the inrushing or outrushing wave. There were also sundry ducks. These swam just inside the breakers, and were carried backward and forward by the surges. Always they faced seaward. At the very last instant, as a great curler bent over them, they dipped their heads and dived. If the wave did not break, however, they rode over its top. Their accuracy of eye was uncanny. Time after time they gauged the wave so closely that they just flipped over the crest as it crashed with a roar beneath them. A tenth of a second later would have destroyed them. Keith reined up the horse to watch them and the sanderlings.
"It is a game," he agreed after a while, "just like the pelicans. It isn't considered sporting for sanderlings to get more than three inches away from the edge of the wash; or for a duck to dive unless he actually has to. It must be a game; for they certainly aren't catching anything."
At this moment the sanderlings as though at a signal sprang into the air, wheeled back and forth with instantaneous precision, and departed. The ducks, too, dove, and came up only outside the surf.
"Good little sportsmen," laughed Keith; "they play the game for its own sake. They don't like an audience."
After a few miles they came to a cliff reaching down to the beach and completely barring the way. Off shore were rocky islets covered with seals and sea lions. A lone blue heron stood atop a sand dune, absolutely motionless.
"I don't know where we are, or how we get out," said Keith, "but I'm going to take that chap there as a sign post," and he turned his horse directly toward the heron.
Sure enough, a track led them through the sand, and by a zigzag route to the top of the knoll that had barred their way along the shore. They came to an edge. Before them lay an arm of the sea, sweeping and eddying with a strong incoming tide. Over the way stood a great mountain, like a sentinel. Far to their right the arm widened. There was a glimpse of sparkling blue, and of the pearl of far-off hills, and the haze of a distant dim peak.
"It's the Golden Gate!" cried Keith in sudden enlightenment.
He told her that the mountain over the way must be Tamalpais; that the pearl-gray, far-off hills must be Contra Costa; that the distant dim peak was undoubtedly Mount Diabolo. She repeated the syllables after him softly, charmed by their music.
Simultaneously they discovered that they were hungry. The wind whipped in from the sea. An outpost tent or so marked the distant invisible city over the hills. Keith turned his horse's head toward them. They drove back across what are now the Presidio hills.
But in a hollow they came upon another ranch house, like the first--low, white, red roofed, covered with vines. Keith insisted on driving to it. A number of saddled horses dozed before the door, a half-dozen dogs sprawled in the dust, fowls picked their way between the horses' legs or over the dogs' recumbent forms. At the sound of wheels several people came from the shadow of the porch into the open. They proved to be Spanish Californians dressed in the flat sombreros, the short velvet jackets, the slashed trousers, and soft leather zapatos. The men, handsome, lithe, indolent, pressed around the wheels of the buggy, showing their white teeth in pleasant smiles.
"Can we get anything to eat here?" asked Keith.
They all smiled again most amiably. The elder swept off his hat with a free gesture.
"A piedes ouestros, senora," he said, "pero no hablo Ingles. Habla usted Espanol?"
Keith understood the last three words.
"No," he shook his head violently, "no Espanol. Hungry." He pointed to Nan, then to himself: "She, me, hungry."
This noble effort brought no results, except that the Californians looked more politely distressed and solicitous than ever.
"They don't understand us," murmured Nan; "don't you think we'd better drive on?"
But Keith, who had now descended from the buggy, resorted to sign language. He rubbed his stomach pathetically and pointed down his open mouth; as an afterthought he rubbed the horse's belly; then, with apparent intention, he advanced toward Nan. A furious red inundated her face and neck, and she held her little parasol threateningly between them. Everybody burst into laughter.
"Si! si! si!" they cried.
Several started to unharness the horse. Others held out their hands. After a moment's hesitation Nan accepted their aid and descended. Keith's performance was evidently considered a great joke.
On the low veranda were two women, one most enormously fat, the other young and lithe. They were dressed almost exactly alike, their blue--black hair parted smoothly over their foreheads but built up to a high structure behind, filmy rebosas over high combs, and skirts with many flowered flounces. They both had soft, gentle eyes, and they were both so heavily powdered that their complexions were almost blue. All the men explained to them at once. The younger answered gayly; the older listened with entire placidity. But when the account was finished, she reached out to pat Nan's hand, and to smile reassuringly.
Various foods and a flask of red wine were brought. There was no constraint, for Keith threw himself with delighted abandon into experiments with sign language.
"Esta simpatica," the Californians told each other over and again.
Their manners were elaborate, dignified, deliberate, and beautiful. Keith, ordinarily rather direct and brusque, to Nan's great amusement became exactly like them. They outvied each other. The women touched smilingly the stuff of Nan's gown, and directly admired her various feminine trappings. She, thus encouraged, begged permission to examine more closely the lace of the rebosas or the beautiful embroidery on the shawls. A little feeling of intimacy drew them all together, although they understood no word of each other's language.
One of the dogs now approached and gravely laid its nose on Nan's knee, gazing up at her with searching soft eyes. The older woman cried out scandalized, but Nan shook her head, and patted the beast's nose.
"You like?" asked the woman.
"Why, you do talk English!" cried Nan.
But either these two words were all the woman had, or she was unwilling to adventure further.
"You like?" she repeated again, after a moment, and then, observing Nan's interest, she uttered a command to one of the numerous ragged small boys standing about. The urchin darted away, to return after a moment with a basket, which he emptied on the ground. Four fuzzy puppies rolled out.
"Oh, the darlings!" cried Nan.
The little animals proceeded at once to roll one another over, growling fiercely, charging uncertainly about, gazing indeterminately through their blue infantile eyes. The mother left her position at Nan's knee to hover over them; turning them over with her nose, licking them, skipping nimbly sidewise when they charged down upon her with an idea of nourishment.
Nan was enchanted. She left the bench to stoop to their level, tumbling them over on their backs; playfully boxing their ears, working them up to a wild state of yapping enthusiasm.
"The little darlings!" she cried; "just see their fat little tummies! And their teeth are just like needles. No, no, you mustn't! You'll tear my flounces! Look, Milton, see this little rascal pull at my handkerchief!"
Her cheeks were flushed, and as she looked up laughing from beneath her hat, she made a very charming picture.
"You like," stated the Californian woman with conviction.
After a while it became time to go. Vaqueros brought out the horse and harnessed it to the buggy. Keith made a movement to offer payment, but correctly interpreted the situation and refrained. They mounted the vehicle.
"Muchas gracias!" Nan enunciated slowly.
This effort was received with an admiring acclaim that flushed Nan with an inordinate pride. She had picked up the phrase from hearing it used at table. The fat woman came forward, one of the puppies tucked under her arm. In spite of her apparently unwieldy size she moved gracefully and lightly.
"You like?" she inquired, holding the squirming puppy at arm's length.
"Si, si, muchas gracias!" cried Nan eagerly, and employing at once all her Spanish vocabulary. She deposited the puppy in her lap and reached out to shake hands. Keith flicked the horse with his whip. He, too, had recollected a word of Spanish, and he used it now.
"Adios!" he shouted.
But their hosts had a better phrase.
"Vaya Con Dios!" they cried in chorus.
Nan was in raptures over the whole episode, but especially over the puppy. The latter, with the instantaneous adaptability of extreme youth, had snuggled down into a compact ball, and was blinking one hazy dark blue eye upward at his new mistress.
"Weren't they nice people," cried Nan, "and wasn't it an adventure? And isn't he just the dearest, cutest little thing? You're not a little Spanish dog any more, you know. You're a--what is it they call us?--oh, yes! You're a gringo now. Why, that's a fine idea! Your name is Gringo!"
And Gringo he became henceforth.
"What kind of a dog is he?" she asked.
Keith grinned sardonically.
"Of course I do not know his honoured father," said he, "so I cannot offer an opinion as to that half of him. But on his mother's side he is bloodhound, bulldog, collie, setter, pointer, St. Bernard, and Old English sheepdog."
"Which?"' asked Nan puzzled.
"All," asserted Keith.
Now suddenly the sun was blotted out. They looked back: a white bank of fog was rolling in from the sea. It flowed over the hills like a flood, reaching long wisps down into the hollows, setting inertly in the flats and valleys, the upper part rolling on and over in a cascade. Beneath its shadow the warmth and brightness of the world had died.
"It strikes me we're going to be cold," remarked Keith, urging forward the horse.
The roadbed became more solid, and they trotted along freely. The horse, also, was anxious to get home. Signs of habitations thickened. The wide waste hills of the ranchos had been left behind. Here and there were outlying dwellings, or road houses, the objectives of pleasure excursions of various sorts and degrees of respectability from the city. From one of the latter came a hail.
"Oh, Keith! I say, Keith!"
From a group of people preparing to enter a number of vehicles two men came running. Ben Sansome and Morrell, somewhat out of breath, came alongside. They were a little flushed and elevated, but very cordial, and full of reproaches that Keith had so entirely dropped out of sight during the past week.
"I tell you, you must come over to our house for supper," said Morrell finally. "Everybody comes."
"The Morrells' Sunday night suppers are an institution," supplemented Sansome.
"I wish I could persuade you," urged Morrell. "I wonder where Mimi is. I know Mrs. Morrell ought to call, and all that sort of thing, but this is not a conventional place. We live next door, y'know. Do be delightful and neighbourly, and come!"
Nan hesitated; but the lure of the well-dressed company, so thoroughly at ease with one another, was irresistible in the reaction. She accepted.