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  • 1891
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her relations were rudely shaken and upset. It really seemed to this simple-minded young woman that the revolutionary disturbance of settled conditions might have as Providential an origin as the “Divine Right” of which she had heard so much.

CHAPTER IV

In her desire to be alone and to evade the now significant attentions of Emile, she took advantage of the bustle that followed the hurried transfer of furniture and articles from the house to escape through the garden to the outlying fields. Striking into one of the dusty lanes that she remembered, she wandered on for half an hour until her progress and meditation were suddenly arrested. She had come upon a long chasm or crack in the soil, full twenty feet wide and as many in depth, crossing her path at right angles. She did not remember having seen it before; the track of wheels went up to its precipitous edge; she could see the track on the other side, but the hiatus remained, unbridged and uncovered. It was not there yesterday. She glanced right and left; the fissure seemed to extend, like a moat or ditch, from the distant road to the upland between her and the great wheat valley below, from which she was shut off. An odd sense of being in some way a prisoner confronted her. She drew back with an impatient start, and perhaps her first real sense of indignation. A voice behind her, which she at once recognized, scarcely restored her calmness.

“You can’t get across there, miss.”

She turned. It was the young inventor from the wheat ranch, on horseback and with a clean face. He had just ridden out of the grain on the same side of the chasm as herself.

“But you seem to have got over,” she said bluntly.

“Yes, but it was further up the field. I reckoned that the split might be deeper but not so broad in the rock outcrop over there than in the adobe here. I found it so and jumped it.”

He looked as if he might–alert, intelligent, and self-contained. He lingered a moment, and then continued:–

“I’m afraid you must have been badly shaken and a little frightened up there before the chimneys came down?”

“No,” she was glad to say briefly, and she believed truthfully, I wasn’t frightened. I didn’t even know it was an earthquake.”

“Ah!” he reflected, “that was because you were a stranger. It’s odd–they’re all like that. I suppose it’s because nobody really expects or believes in the unlooked-for thing, and yet that’s the thing that always happens. And then, of course, that other affair, which really is serious, startled you the more.”

She felt herself ridiculously and angrily blushing. “I don’t know what you mean,” she said icily. “What other affair?”

“Why, the well.”

“The well?” she repeated vacantly.

“Yes; the artesian well has stopped. Didn’t the major tell you?”

“No,” said the girl. “He was away; I haven’t seen him yet.”

“Well, the flow of water has ceased completely. That’s what I’m here for. The major sent for me, and I’ve been to examine it.”

“And is that stoppage so very important?” she said dubiously.

It was his turn to look at her wonderingly.

“If it’s LOST entirely, it means ruin for the ranch,” he said sharply. He wheeled his horse, nodded gravely, and trotted off.

Major Randolph’s figure of the “life-blood of the ranch” flashed across her suddenly. She knew nothing of irrigation or the costly appliances by which the Californian agriculturist opposed the long summer droughts. She only vaguely guessed that the dreadful earthquake had struck at the prosperity of those people whom only a few hours ago she had been proud to call her friends. The underlying goodness of her nature was touched. Should she let a momentary fault–if it were not really, after all, only a misunderstanding–rise between her and them at such a moment? She turned and hurried quickly towards the house.

Hastening onward, she found time, however, to wonder also why these common men–she now included even the young inventor in that category–were all so rude and uncivil to HER! She had never before been treated in this way; she had always been rather embarrassed by the admiring attentions of young men (clerks and collegians) in her Atlantic home, and, of professional men (merchants and stockbrokers) in San Francisco. It was true that they were not as continually devoted to her and to the nice art and etiquette of pleasing as Emile,–they had other things to think about, being in business and not being GENTLEMEN,–but then they were greatly superior to these clowns, who took no notice of her, and rode off without lingering or formal leave-taking when their selfish affairs were concluded. It must be the contact of the vulgar earth–this wretched, cracking, material, and yet ungovernable and lawless earth–that so depraved them. She felt she would like to say this to some one–not her father, for he wouldn’t listen to her, nor to the major, who would laughingly argue with her, but to Mrs. Randolph, who would understand her, and perhaps say it some day in her own sharp, sneering way to these very clowns. With those gentle sentiments irradiating her blue eyes, and putting a pink flush upon her fair cheeks, Rose reached the garden with the intention of rushing sympathetically into Mrs. Randolph’s arms. But it suddenly occurred to her that she would be obliged to state how she became aware of this misfortune, and with it came an instinctive aversion to speak of her meeting with the inventor. She would wait until Mrs. Randolph told her. But although that lady was engaged in a low-voiced discussion in French with Emile and Adele, which instantly ceased at her approach, there was no allusion made to the new calamity. “You need not telegraph to your father,” she said as Rose approached, “he has already telegraphed to you for news; as you were out, and the messenger was waiting an answer, we opened the dispatch, and sent one, telling him that you were all right, and that he need not hurry here on your account. So you are satisfied, I hope.” A few hours ago this would have been true, and Rose would have probably seen in the action of her hostess only a flattering motherly supervision; there was, in fact, still a lingering trace of trust in her mind yet she was conscious that she would have preferred to answer the dispatch herself, and to have let her father come. To a girl brought up with a belief in the right of individual independence of thought and action, there was something in Mrs. Randolph’s practical ignoring of that right which startled her in spite of her new conservatism, while, as the daughter of a business man, her instincts revolted against Mrs. Randolph’s unbusiness-like action with the telegram, however vulgar and unrefined she may have begun to consider a life of business. The result was a certain constraint and embarrassment in her manner, which, however, had the laudable effect of limiting Emile’s attention to significant glances, and was no doubt variously interpreted by the others. But she satisfied her conscience by determining to make a confidence of her sympathy to the major on the first opportunity.

This she presently found when the others were preoccupied; the major greeting her with a somewhat careworn face, but a voice whose habitual kindness was unchanged. When he had condoled with her on the terrifying phenomenon that had marred her visit to the ranch,– and she could not help impatiently noticing that he too seemed to have accepted his wife’s theory that she had been half deliriously frightened,–he regretted that her father had not concluded to come down to the ranch, as his practical advice would have been invaluable in this emergency. She was about to eagerly explain why, when it occurred to her that Mrs. Randolph had only given him a suppressed version of the telegram, and that she would be betraying her, or again taking sides in this partisan divided home. With some hesitation she at last alluded to the accident to the artesian well. The major did not ask her how she had heard of it; it was a bad business, he thought, but it might not be a total loss. The water may have been only diverted by the shock and might be found again at the lower level, or in some lateral fissure. He had sent hurriedly for Tom Bent–that clever young engineer at the wheat ranch, who was always studying up these things with his inventions–and that was his opinion. No, Tom was not a well- digger, but it was generally known that he had “located” one or two, and had long ago advised the tapping of that flow by a second boring, in case of just such an emergency. He was coming again to- morrow. By the way, he had asked how the young lady visitor was, and hoped she had not been alarmed by the earthquake!

Rose felt herself again blushing, and, what was more singular, with an unexpected and it seemed to her ridiculous pleasure, although outwardly she appeared to ignore the civility completely. And she had no intention of being so easily placated. If this young man thought by mere perfunctory civilities to her HOST to make up for his clownishness to HER, he was mistaken. She would let him see it when he called to-morrow. She quickly turned the subject by assuring the major of her sympathy and her intention of sending for her father. For the rest of the afternoon and during their al fresco dinner she solved the difficulty of her strained relations with Mrs. Randolph and Emile by conversing chiefly with the major, tacitly avoiding, however, any allusion to this Mr. Bent. But Mrs. Randolph was less careful.

“You don’t really mean to say, major,” she began in her dryest, grittiest manner, “that instead of sending to San Francisco for some skilled master-mechanic, you are going to listen to the vagaries of a conceited, half-educated farm-laborer, and employ him? You might as well call in some of those wizards or water- witches at once.” But the major, like many other well-managed husbands who are good-humoredly content to suffer in the sunshine of prosperity, had no idea of doing so in adversity, and the prospect of being obliged to go back to youthful struggles had recalled some of the independence of that period. He looked up quietly, and said:–

“If his conclusions are as clear and satisfactory to-morrow as they were to-day, I shall certainly try to secure his services.”

“Then I can only say I would prefer the water-witch. He at least would not represent a class of neighbors who have made themselves systematically uncivil and disagreeable to us.”

“I am afraid, Josephine, we have not tried to make ourselves particularly agreeable to THEM,” said the major.

“If that can only be done by admitting their equality, I prefer they should remain uncivil. Only let it be understood, major, that if you choose to take this Tom-the-ploughboy to mend your well, you will at least keep him there while he is on the property.”

With what retort the major would have kept up this conjugal discussion, already beginning to be awkward to the discreet visitor, is not known, as it was suddenly stopped by a bullet from the rosebud lips of the ingenuous Adele.

“Why, he’s very handsome when his face is clean, and his hands are small and not at all hard. And he doesn’t talk the least bit queer or common.”

There was a dead silence. “And pray where did YOU see him, and what do you know about his hands?” asked Mrs. Randolph, in her most desiccated voice. “Or has the major already presented you to him? I shouldn’t be surprised.”

“No, but”–hesitated the young girl, with a certain mouse-like audacity,–“when you sent me to look after Miss Mallory, I came up to him just after he had spoken to her, and he stopped to ask me how we all were, and if Miss Mallory was really frightened by the earthquake, and he shook hands for good afternoon–that’s all.”

“And who taught you to converse with common strangers and shake hands with them?” continued Mrs. Randolph, with narrowing lips.

“Nobody, mamma; but I thought if Miss Mallory, who is a young lady, could speak to him, so could I, who am not out yet.”

“We won’t discuss this any further at present,” said Mrs. Randolph, stiffly, as the major smiled grimly at Rose. “The earthquake seems to have shaken down in this house more than the chimneys.”

It certainly had shaken all power of sleep from the eyes of Rose when the household at last dispersed to lie down in their clothes on the mattresses which had been arranged under the awnings. She was continually starting up from confused dreams of the ground shaking under her, or she seemed to be standing on the brink of some dreadful abyss like the great chasm on the grain-field, when it began to tremble and crumble beneath her feet. It was near morning when, unable to endure it any longer, she managed without disturbing the sleeping Adele, who occupied the same curtained recess with her, to slip out from the awning. Wrapped in a thick shawl, she made her way through the encompassing trees and bushes of the garden that had seemed to imprison and suffocate her, to the edge of the grain-field, where she could breathe the fresh air beneath an open, starlit sky. There was no moon and the darkness favored her; she had no fears that weighed against the horror of seclusion with her own fancies. Besides, they were camping OUT of the house, and if she chose to sit up or walk about, no one could think it strange. She wished her father were here that she might have some one of her own kin to talk to, yet she knew not what to say to him if he had come. She wanted somebody to sympathize with her feelings,–or rather, perhaps, some one to combat and even ridicule the uneasiness that had lately come over her. She knew what her father would say,–“Do you want to go, or do you want to stay here? Do you like these people, or do you not?” She remembered the one or two glowing and enthusiastic accounts she had written him of her visit here, and felt herself blushing again. What would he think of Mrs. Randolph’s opening and answering the telegram? Wouldn’t he find out from the major if she had garbled the sense of his dispatch?

Away to the right, in the midst of the distant and invisible wheat- field, there was the same intermittent star, which like a living, breathing thing seemed to dilate in glowing respiration, as she had seen it the first night of her visit. Mr. Bent’s forge! It must be nearly daylight now; the poor fellow had been up all night, or else was stealing this early march on the day. She recalled Adele’s sudden eulogium of him. The first natural smile that had come to her lips since the earthquake broke up her nervous restraint, and sent her back more like her old self to her couch.

But she had not proceeded far towards the tent, when she heard the sound of low voices approaching her. It was the major and his wife, who, like herself, had evidently been unable to sleep, and were up betimes. A new instinct of secretiveness, which she felt was partly the effect of her artificial surrounding, checked her first natural instinct to call to them, and she drew back deeper in the shadow to let them pass. But to her great discomfiture the major in a conversational emphasis stopped directly in front of her.

“You are wrong, I tell you, a thousand times wrong. The girl is simply upset by this earthquake. It’s a great pity her father didn’t come instead of telegraphing. And by Jove, rather than hear any more of this, I’ll send for him myself,” said the major, in an energetic but suppressed voice.

“And the girl won’t thank you, and you’ll be a fool for your pains,” returned Mrs. Randolph, with dry persistency.

“But according to your own ideas of propriety, Mallory ought to be the first one to be consulted–and by me, too.”

“Not in this case. Of course, before any actual engagement is on, you can speak of Emile’s attentions.”

“But suppose Mallory has other views. Suppose he declines the honor. The man is no fool.”

“Thank you. But for that very reason he must. Listen to me, major; if he doesn’t care to please his daughter for her own sake, he will have to do so for the sake of decency. Yes, I tell you, she has thoroughly compromised herself–quite enough, if it is ever known, to spoil any other engagement her father may make. Why, ask Adele! The day of the earthquake she ABSOLUTELY had the audacity to send him out of the room upstairs into your study for her fan, and then follow him up there alone. The servants knew it. I knew it, for I was in her room at the time with Father Antonio. The earthquake made it plain to everybody. Decline it! No. Mr. Mallory will think twice about it before he does that. What’s that? Who’s there?”

There was a sudden rustle in the bushes like the passage of some frightened animal–and then all was still again.

CHAPTER V

The sun, an hour high, but only just topping the greenish crests of the wheat, was streaming like the morning breeze through the open length of Tom Bent’s workshed. An exaggerated and prolonged shadow of the young inventor himself at work beside his bench was stretching itself far into the broken-down ranks of stalks towards the invisible road, and falling at the very feet of Rose Mallory as she emerged from them.

She was very pale, very quiet, and very determined. The traveling mantle thrown over her shoulders was dusty, the ribbons that tied her hat under her round chin had become unloosed. She advanced, walking down the line of shadow directly towards him.

“I am afraid I will have to trouble you once more,” she said with a faint smile, which did not, however, reach her perplexed eyes. “Could you give me any kind of a conveyance that would take me to San Jose at once?”

The young man had started at the rustling of her dress in the shavings, and turned eagerly. The faintest indication of a loss of interest was visible for an instant in his face, but it quickly passed into a smile of recognition. Yet she felt that he had neither noticed any change in her appearance, nor experienced any wonder at seeing her there at that hour.

“I did not take a buggy from the house,” she went on quickly, “for I left early, and did not want to disturb them. In fact, they don’t know that I am gone. I was worried at not hearing news from my father in San Francisco since the earthquake, and I thought I would run down to San Jose to inquire without putting them to any trouble. Anything will do that you have ready, if I can take it at once.”

Still without exhibiting the least surprise, Bent nodded affirmatively, put down his tools, begged her to wait a moment, and ran off in the direction of the cabin. As he disappeared behind the wheat, she lapsed quite suddenly against the work bench, but recovered herself a moment later, leaning with her back against it, her hands grasping it on either side, and her knit brows and determined little face turned towards the road. Then she stood erect again, shook the dust out of her skirts, lifted her veil, wiped her cheeks and brow with the corner of a small handkerchief, and began walking up and down the length of the shed as Bent reappeared.

He was accompanied by the man who had first led her through the wheat. He gazed upon her with apparently all the curiosity and concern that the other had lacked.

“You want to get to San Jose as quick as you can?” he said interrogatively.

“Yes,” she said quickly, “if you can help me.”

“You walked all the way from the major’s here?” he continued, without taking his eyes from her face.

“Yes,” she answered with an affectation of carelessness she had not shown to Bent. “But I started very early, it was cool and pleasant, and didn’t seem far.”

“I’ll put you down in San Jose inside the hour. You shall have my horse and trotting sulky, and I’ll drive you myself. Will that do?”

She looked at him wonderingly. She had not forgotten his previous restraint and gravity, but now his face seemed to have relaxed with some humorous satisfaction. She felt herself coloring slightly, but whether with shame or relief she could not tell.

“I shall be so much obliged to you,” she replied hesitatingly, “and so will my father, I know.”

“I reckon,” said the man with the same look of amused conjecture; then, with a quick, assuring nod, he turned away, and dived into the wheat again.

“You’re all right now, Miss Mallory,” said Bent, complacently. “Dawson will fix it. He’s got a good horse, and he’s a good driver, too.” He paused, and then added pleasantly, “I suppose they’re all well up at the house?”

It was so evident that his remark carried no personal meaning to herself that she was obliged to answer carelessly, “Oh, yes.”

“I suppose you see a good deal of Miss Randolph–Miss Adele, I think you call her?” he remarked tentatively, and with a certain boyish enthusiasm, which she had never conceived possible to his nature.

“Yes,” she replied a little dryly, “she is the only young lady there.” She stopped, remembering Adele’s naive description of the man before her, and said abruptly, “You know her, then?”

“A little,” replied the young man, modestly. “I see her pretty often when I am passing the upper end of the ranch. She’s very well brought up, and her manners are very refined–don’t you think so?–and yet she’s just as simple and natural as a country girl. There’s a great deal in education after all, isn’t there?” he went on confidentially, “and although”–he lowered his voice and looked cautiously around him–“I believe that some of us here don’t fancy her mother much, there’s no doubt that Mrs. Randolph knows how to bring up her children. Some people think that kind of education is all artificial, and don’t believe in it, but I do!”

With the consciousness that she was running away from these people and the shameful disclosure she had heard last night–with the recollection of Adele’s scandalous interpretation of her most innocent actions and her sudden and complete revulsion against all that she had previously admired in that household, to hear this man who had seemed to her a living protest against their ideas and principles, now expressing them and holding them up for emulation, almost took her breath away.

“I suppose that means you intend to fix Major Randolph’s well for him?” she said dryly.

“Yes,” he returned without noticing her manner; “and I think I can find that water again. I’ve been studying it up all night, and do you know what I’m going to do? I am going to make the earthquake that lost it help me to find it again.” He paused, and looked at her with a smile and a return of his former enthusiasm. “Do you remember the crack in the adobe field that stopped you yesterday?”

“Yes,” said the girl, with a slight shiver.

“I told you then that the same crack was a split in the rock outcrop further up the plain, and was deeper. I am satisfied now, from what I have seen, that it is really a rupture of the whole strata all the way down. That’s the one weak point that the imprisoned water is sure to find, and that’s where the borer will tap it–in the new well that the earthquake itself has sunk.”

It seemed to her now that she understood his explanation perfectly, and she wondered the more that he had been so mistaken in his estimate of Adele. She turned away a little impatiently and looked anxiously towards the point where Dawson had disappeared. Bent followed her eyes.

“He’ll be here in a moment, Miss Mallory. He has to drive slowly through the grain, but I hear the wheels.” He stopped, and his voice took up its previous note of boyish hesitation. “By the way– I’ll–I’ll be going up to the Rancho this afternoon to see the major. Have you any message for Mrs. Randolph–or for–for Miss Adele?”

“No”–said Rose, hesitatingly, “and–and”–

“I see,” interrupted Bent, carelessly. “You don’t want anything said about your coming here. I won’t.”

It struck her that he seemed to have no ulterior meaning in the suggestion. But before she could make any reply, Dawson reappeared, driving a handsome mare harnessed to a light, spider- like vehicle. He had also assumed, evidently in great haste, a black frock coat buttoned over his waistcoatless and cravatless shirt, and a tall black hat that already seemed to be cracking in the sunlight. He drove up, at once assisted her to the narrow perch beside him, and with a nod to Bent drove off. His breathless expedition relieved the leave-taking of these young people of any ceremony.

“I suppose,” said Mr. Dawson, giving a half glance over his shoulder as they struck into the dusty highway,–“I suppose you don’t care to see anybody before you get to San Jose?”

“No-o-o,” said Rose, timidly.

“And I reckon you wouldn’t mind my racin’ a bit if anybody kem up?”

“No.”

“The mare’s sort o’ fastidious about takin’ anybody’s dust.”

“Is she?” said Rose, with a faint smile.

“Awful,” responded her companion; “and the queerest thing of all is, she can’t bear to have any one behind her, either.”

He leaned forward with his expression of humorous enjoyment of some latent joke and did something with the reins–Rose never could clearly understand what, though it seemed to her that he simply lifted them with ostentatious lightness; but the mare suddenly seemed to LENGTHEN herself and lose her height, and the stalks of wheat on either side of the dusty track began to melt into each other, and then slipped like a flash into one long, continuous, shimmering green hedge. So perfect was the mare’s action that the girl was scarcely conscious of any increased effort; so harmonious the whole movement that the light skeleton wagon seemed only a prolonged process of that long, slim body and free, collarless neck, both straight as the thin shafts on each side and straighter than the delicate ribbon-like traces which, in what seemed a mere affectation of conscious power, hung at times almost limp between the whiffle-tree and the narrow breast band which was all that confined the animal’s powerful fore-quarters. So superb was the reach of its long easy stride that Rose could scarcely see any undulations in the brown shining back on which she could have placed her foot, nor felt the soft beat of the delicate hoofs that took the dust so firmly and yet so lightly.

The rapidity of motion which kept them both with heads bent forward and seemed to force back any utterance that rose to their lips spared Rose the obligation of conversation, and her companion was equally reticent. But it was evident to her that he half suspected she was running away from the Randolphs, and that she wished to avoid the embarrassment of being overtaken even in persuasive pursuit. It was not possible that he knew the cause of her flight, and yet she could not account for his evident desire to befriend her, nor, above all, for his apparently humorous enjoyment of the situation. Had he taken it gravely, she might have been tempted to partly confide in him and ask his advice. Was she doing right, after all? Ought she not to have stayed long enough to speak her mind to Mrs. Randolph and demand to be sent home? No! She had not only shrunk from repeating the infamous slander she had overheard, but she had a terrible fear that if she had done so, Mrs. Randolph was capable of denying it, or even charging her of being still under the influence of the earthquake shock and of walking in her sleep. No! She could not trust her–she could trust no one there. Had not even the major listened to those infamous lies? Had she not seen that he was helpless in the hands of this cabal in his own household?–a cabal that she herself had thoughtlessly joined against him.

They had reached the first slight ascent. Her companion drew out his watch, looked at it with satisfaction, and changed the position of his hands on the reins. Without being able to detect the difference, she felt they were slackening speed. She turned inquiringly towards him; he nodded his head, with a half smile and a gesture to her to look ahead. The spires of San Jose were already faintly uplifting from the distant fringe of oaks.

So soon! In fifteen minutes she would be there–and THEN! She remembered suddenly she had not yet determined what to do. Should she go on at once to San Francisco, or telegraph to her father and await him at San Jose? In either case a new fear of the precipitancy of her action and the inadequacy of her reasons had sprung up in her mind. Would her father understand her? Would he underrate the cause and be mortified at the insult she had given the family of his old friend, or, more dreadful still, would he exaggerate her wrongs and seek a personal quarrel with the major. He was a man of quick temper, and had the Western ideas of redress. Perhaps even now she was precipitating a duel between them. Her cheeks grew wan again, her breath came quickly, tears gathered in her eyes. Oh, she was a dreadful girl, she knew it; she was an utterly miserable one, and she knew that too!

The reins were tightened. The pace lessened and at last fell to a walk. Conscious of her telltale eyes and troubled face, she dared not turn to her companion to ask him why, but glanced across the fields.

“When you first came I didn’t get to know your name, Miss Mallory, but I reckon I know your father.”

Her father! What made him say that? She wanted to speak, but she felt she could not. In another moment, if he went on, she must do SOMETHING–she would cry!

“I reckon you’ll be wanting to go to the hotel first, anyway?”

There!–she knew it! He WOULD keep on! And now she had burst into tears.

The mare was still walking slowly; the man was lazily bending forward over the shafts as if nothing had occurred. Then suddenly, illogically, and without a moment’s warning, the pride that had sustained her crumbled and became as the dust of the road.

She burst out and told him–this stranger!–this man she had disliked!–all and EVERYTHING. How she had felt, how she had been deceived, and what she had overheard!

“I thought as much,” said her companion, quietly, “and that’s why I sent for your father.”

“You sent for my father!–when?–where?” echoed Rose, in astonishment.

“Yesterday. He was to come to-day, and if we don’t find him at the hotel it will be because he has already started to come here by the upper and longer road. But you leave it to ME, and don’t you say anything to him of this now. If he’s at the hotel, I’ll say I drove you down there to show off the mare. Sabe? If he isn’t, I’ll leave you there and come back here to find him. I’ve got something to tell him that will set YOU all right.” He smiled grimly, lifted the reins, the mare started forward again, and the vehicle and its occupants disappeared in a vanishing dust cloud.

CHAPTER VI

It was nearly noon when Mr. Dawson finished rubbing down his sweating mare in the little stable shed among the wheat. He had left Rose at the hotel, for they found Mr. Mallory had previously started by a circuitous route for the wheat ranch. He had resumed not only his working clothes but his working expression. He was now superintending the unloading of a wain of stores and implements when the light carryall of the Randolphs rolled into the field. It contained only Mrs. Randolph and the driver. A slight look of intelligence passed between the latter and the nearest one of Dawson’s companions, succeeded, however, by a dull look of stupid vacancy on the faces of all the others, including Dawson. Mrs. Randolph noticed it, and was forewarned. She reflected that no human beings ever looked NATURALLY as stupid as that and were able to work. She smiled sarcastically, and then began with dry distinctness and narrowing lips.

“Miss Mallory, a young lady visiting us, went out for an early walk this morning and has not returned. It is possible she may have lost her way among your wheat. Have you seen anything of her?”

Dawson raised his eyes from his work and glanced slowly around at his companions, as if taking the heavy sense of the assembly. One or two shook their heads mechanically, and returned to their suspended labor. He said, coolly:–

“Nobody here seems to.”

She felt that they were lying. She was only a woman against five men. She was only a petty domestic tyrant; she might have been a larger one. But she had all the courage of that possibility.

“Major Randolph and my son are away,” she went on, drawing herself erect. “But I know that the major will pay liberally if these men will search the field, besides making it all right with your– EMPLOYERS–for the loss of time.”

Dawson uttered a single word in a low voice to the man nearest him, who apparently communicated it to the others, for the four men stopped unloading, and moved away one after the other–even the driver joining in the exodus. Mrs. Randolph smiled sarcastically; it was plain that these people, with all their boasted independence, were quite amenable to pecuniary considerations. Nevertheless, as Dawson remained looking quietly at her, she said:–

“Then I suppose they’ve concluded to go and see?”

“No; I’ve sent them away so that they couldn’t HEAR.”

“Hear what?”

“What I’ve got to say to you.”

She looked at him suddenly. Then she said, with a disdainful glance around her: “I see I am helpless here, and–thanks to your trickery–alone. Have a care, sir; I warn you that you will have to answer to Major Randolph for any insolence.”

“I reckon you won’t tell Major Randolph what I have to say to you,” he returned coolly.

Her lips were nearly a grayish hue, but she said scornfully: “And why not? Do you know who you are talking to?”

The man came lazily forward to the carryall, carelessly brushed aside the slack reins, and resting his elbows on the horse’s back, laid his chin on his hands, as he looked up in the woman’s face.

“Yes; I know who I’m talking to,” he said coolly. “But as the major don’t, I reckon you won’t tell him.”

“Stand away from that horse!” she said, her whole face taking the grayish color of her lips, but her black eyes growing smaller and brighter. “Hand me those reins, and let me pass! What canaille are you to stop me?”

“I thought so,” returned the man, without altering his position; “you don’t know ME. You never saw ME before. Well, I’m Jim Dawson, the nephew of L’Hommadieu, YOUR OLD MASTER!”

She gripped the iron rail of the seat as if to leap from it, but checked herself suddenly and leaned back, with a set smile on her mouth that seemed stamped there. It was remarkable that with that smile she flung away her old affectation of superciliousness for an older and ruder audacity, and that not only the expression, but the type of her face appeared to have changed.

“I don’t say,” continued the man quietly, “that he didn’t MARRY you before he died. But you know as well as I do that the laws of his State didn’t recognize the marriage of a master with his octoroon slave! And you know as well as I do that even if he had freed you, he couldn’t change your blood. Why, if I’d been willing to stay at Avoyelles to be a nigger-driver like him, the plantation of ‘de Fontanges’–whose name you have taken–would have been left to me. If YOU had stayed there, you might have been my property instead of YOUR owning a square man like Randolph. You didn’t think of that when you came here, did you?” he said composedly.

“Oh, mon Dieu!” she said, dropping rapidly into a different accent, with her white teeth and fixed mirthless smile, “so it is a claim for PROPERTY, eh? You’re wanting money–you? Tres bien, you forget we are in California, where one does not own a slave. And you have a fine story there, my poor friend. Very pretty, but very hard to prove, m’sieu. And these peasants are in it, eh, working it on shares like the farm, eh?”

“Well,” said Dawson, slightly changing his position, and passing his hand over the horse’s neck with a half-wearied contempt, “one of these men is from Plaquemine, and the other from Coupee. They know all the l’Hommadieus’ history. And they know a streak of the tar brush when they see it. They took your measure when they came here last year, and sized you up fairly. So had I, for the matter of that, when I FIRST saw you. And we compared notes. But the major is a square man, for all he is your husband, and we reckoned he had a big enough contract on his hands to take care of you and l’Hommadieu’s half-breeds, and so”–he tossed the reins contemptuously aside–“we kept this to ourselves.”

“And now you want–what–eh?”

“We want an end to this foolery,” he broke out roughly, stepping back from the vehicle, and facing her suddenly, with his first angry gesture. “We want an end to these airs and grimaces, and all this dandy nigger business; we want an end to this ‘cake-walking’ through the wheat, and flouting of the honest labor of your betters. We want you and your ‘de Fontanges’ to climb down. And we want an end to this roping-in of white folks to suit your little game; we want an end to your trying to mix your nigger blood with any one here, and we intend to stop it. We draw the line at the major.”

Lashed as she had been by those words apparently out of all semblance of her former social arrogance, a lower and more stubborn resistance seemed to have sprung up in her, as she sat sideways, watching him with her set smile and contracting eyes.

“Ah,” she said dryly, “so SHE IS HERE. I thought so. Which of you is it, eh? It’s a good spec–Mallory’s a rich man. She’s not particular.”

The man had stopped as if listening, his head turned towards the road. Then he turned carelessly, and facing her again, waved his hand with a gesture of tired dismissal, and said, “Go! You’ll find your driver over there by the tool-shed. He has heard nothing yet– but I’ve given you fair warning. Go!”

He walked slowly back towards the shed, as the woman, snatching up the reins, drove violently off in the direction where the men had disappeared. But she turned aside, ignoring her waiting driver in her wild and reckless abandonment of all her old conventional attitudes, and lashing her horse forward with the same set smile on her face, the same odd relaxation of figure, and the same squaring of her elbows.

Avoiding the main road, she pushed into a narrow track that intersected another nearer the scene of the accident to Rose’s buggy three weeks before. She had nearly passed it when she was hailed by a strange voice, and looking up, perceived a horseman floundering in the mazes of the wheat to one side of the track. Whatever mean thought of her past life she was flying from, whatever mean purpose she was flying to, she pulled up suddenly, and as suddenly resumed her erect, aggressive stiffness. The stranger was a middle-aged man; in dress and appearance a dweller of cities. He lifted his hat as he perceived the occupant of the wagon to be a lady.

“I beg your pardon, but I fear I’ve lost my way in trying to make a short cut to the Excelsior Company’s Ranch.”

“You are in it now,” said Mrs. Randolph, quickly.

“Thank you, but where can I find the farmhouse?”

“There is none,” she returned, with her old superciliousness, “unless you choose to give that name to the shanties and sheds where the laborers and servants live, near the road.”

The stranger looked puzzled. “I’m looking for a Mr. Dawson,” he said reflectively, “but I may have made some mistake. Do you know Major Randolph’s house hereabouts?”

“I do. I am Mrs. Randolph,” she said stiffly.

The stranger’s brow cleared, and he smiled pleasantly. “Then this is a fortunate meeting,” he said, raising his hat again as he reined in his horse beside the wagon, “for I am Mr. Mallory, and I was looking forward to the pleasure of presenting myself to you an hour or two later. The fact is, an old acquaintance, Mr. Dawson, telegraphed me yesterday to meet him here on urgent business, and I felt obliged to go there first.”

Mrs. Randolph’s eyes sparkled with a sudden gratified intelligence, but her manner seemed rather to increase than abate its grim precision.

“Our meeting this morning, Mr. Mallory, is both fortunate and unfortunate, for I regret to say that your daughter, who has not been quite herself since the earthquake, was missing early this morning and has not yet been found, though we have searched everywhere. Understand me,” she said, as the stranger started, “I have no fear for her PERSONAL safety, I am only concerned for any INDISCRETION that she may commit in the presence of these strangers whose company she would seem to prefer to ours.”

“But I don’t understand you, madam,” said Mallory, sternly; “you are speaking of my daughter, and”–

“Excuse me, Mr. Mallory,” said Mrs. Randolph, lifting her hand with her driest deprecation and her most desiccating smile, “I’m not passing judgment or criticism. I am of a foreign race, and consequently do not understand the freedom of American young ladies, and their familiarity with the opposite sex. I make no charges, I only wish to assure you that she will no doubt be found in the company and under the protection of her own countrymen. There is,” she added with ironical distinctness, “a young mechanic, or field hand, or ‘quack well-doctor,’ whom she seems to admire, and with whom she appears to be on equal terms.”

Mallory regarded her for a moment fixedly, and then his sternness relaxed to a mischievously complacent smile. “That must be young Bent, of whom I’ve heard,” he said with unabated cheerfulness. “And I don’t know but what she may be with him, after all. For now I think of it, a chuckle-headed fellow, of whom a moment ago I inquired the way to your house, told me I’d better ask the young man and young woman who were ‘philandering through the wheat’ yonder. Suppose we look for them. From what I’ve heard of Bent he’s too much wrapped up in his inventions for flirtation, but it would be a good joke to stumble upon them.”

Mrs. Randolph’s eyes sparkled with a mingling of gratified malice and undisguised contempt for the fatuous father beside her. But before she could accept or decline the challenge, it had become useless. A murmur of youthful voices struck her ear, and she suddenly stood upright and transfixed in the carriage. For lounging down slowly towards them out of the dim green aisles of the arbored wheat, lost in themselves and the shimmering veil of their seclusion, came the engineer, Thomas Bent, and on his arm, gazing ingenuously into his face, the figure of Adele,–her own perfect daughter.

“I don’t think, my dear,” said Mr. Mallory, as the anxious Rose flew into his arms on his return to San Jose, a few hours later, “that it will be necessary for you to go back again to Major Randolph’s before we leave. I have said ‘Good-by’ for you and thanked them, and your trunks are packed and will be sent here. The fact is, my dear, you see this affair of the earthquake and the disaster to the artesian well have upset all their arrangements, and I am afraid that my little girl would be only in their way just now.”

“And you have seen Mr. Dawson–and you know why he sent for you?” asked the young girl, with nervous eagerness.

“Ah, yes,” said Mr. Mallory thoughtfully, “THAT was really important. You see, my child,” he continued, taking her hand in one of his own and patting the back of it gently with the other, “we think, Dawson and I, of taking over the major’s ranch and incorporating it with the Excelsior in one, to be worked on shares like the Excelsior; and as Mrs. Randolph is very anxious to return to the Atlantic States with her children, it is quite possible. Mrs. Randolph, as you have possibly noticed,” Mr. Mallory went on, still patting his daughter’s hand, “does not feel entirely at home here, and will consequently leave the major free to rearrange, by himself, the ranch on the new basis. In fact, as the change must be made before the crops come in, she talks of going next week. But if you like the place, Rose, I’ve no doubt the major and Dawson will always find room for you and me when we run down there for a little fresh air.”

“And did you have all that in your mind, papa, when you came down here, and was that what you and Mr. Dawson wanted to talk about?” said the astonished Rose.

“Mainly, my dear, mainly. You see I’m a capitalist now, and the real value of capital is to know how and when to apply it to certain conditions.”

“And this Mr.–Mr. Bent–do you think–he will go on and find the water, papa?” said Rose, hesitatingly.

“Ah! Bent–Tom Bent–oh, yes,” said Mallory, with great heartiness. “Capital fellow, Bent! and mighty ingenious! Glad you met him! Well,” thoughtfully but still heartily, “he may not find it exactly where he expected, but he’ll find it or something better. We can’t part with him, and he has promised Dawson to stay. We’ll utilize HIM, you may be sure.”

It would seem that they did, and from certain interviews and conversations that took place between Mr. Bent and Miss Mallory on a later visit, it would also appear that her father had exercised a discreet reticence in regard to a certain experiment of the young inventor, of which he had been an accidental witness.

A MAECENAS OF THE PACIFIC SLOPE

CHAPTER I

As Mr. Robert Rushbrook, known to an imaginative press as the “Maecenas of the Pacific Slope,” drove up to his country seat, equally referred to as a “palatial villa,” he cast a quick but practical look at the pillared pretensions of that enormous shell of wood and paint and plaster. The statement, also a reportorial one, that its site, the Canyon of Los Osos, “some three years ago was disturbed only by the passing tread of bear and wild-cat,” had lost some of its freshness as a picturesque apology, and already successive improvements on the original building seemingly cast the older part of the structure back to a hoary antiquity. To many it stood as a symbol of everything Robert Rushbrook did or had done– an improvement of all previous performances; it was like his own life–an exciting though irritating state of transition to something better. Yet the visible architectural result, as here shown, was scarcely harmonious; indeed, some of his friends–and Maecenas had many–professed to classify the various improvements by the successive fortunate ventures in their owner’s financial career, which had led to new additions, under the names, of “The Comstock Lode Period,” “The Union Pacific Renaissance,” “The Great Wheat Corner,” and “Water Front Gable Style,” a humorous trifling that did not, however, prevent a few who were artists from accepting Maecenas’s liberal compensation for their services in giving shape to those ideas.

Relinquishing to a groom his fast-trotting team, the second relay in his two hours’ drive from San Francisco, he leaped to the ground to meet the architect, already awaiting his orders in the courtyard. With his eyes still fixed upon the irregular building before him, he mingled his greeting and his directions.

“Look here, Barker, we’ll have a wing thrown out here, and a hundred-foot ballroom. Something to hold a crowd; something that can be used for music–sabe?–a concert, or a show.”

“Have you thought of any style, Mr. Rushbrook?” suggested the architect.

“No,” said Rushbrook; “I’ve been thinking of the time–thirty days, and everything to be in. You’ll stop to dinner. I’ll have you sit near Jack Somers. You can talk style to him. Say I told you.”

“You wish it completed in thirty days?” repeated the architect, dubiously.

“Well, I shouldn’t mind if it were less. You can begin at once. There’s a telegraph in the house. Patrick will take any message, and you can send up to San Francisco and fix things before dinner.”

Before the man could reply, Rushbrook was already giving a hurried interview to the gardener and others on his way to the front porch. In another moment he had entered his own hall,–a wonderful temple of white and silver plaster, formal, yet friable like the sugared erection of a wedding cake,–where his major-domo awaited him.

“Well, who’s here?” asked Rushbrook, still advancing towards his apartments.

“Dinner is set for thirty, sir,” said the functionary, keeping step demurely with his master, “but Mr. Appleby takes ten over to San Mateo, and some may sleep there. The char-a-banc is still out and five saddle-horses, to a picnic in Green Canyon, and I can’t positively say, but I should think you might count on seeing about forty-five guests before you go to town to-morrow. The opera troupe seem to have not exactly understood the invitation, sir.”

“How? I gave it myself.”

“The chorus and supernumeraries thought themselves invited too, sir, and have come, I believe, sir. At least Signora Pegrelli and Madame Denise said so, and that they would speak to you about it, but that meantime I could put them up anywhere.”

“And you made no distinction, of course?”

“No, sir, I put them in the corresponding rooms opposite, sir. I don’t think the prima donnas like it.”

“Ah!”

“Yes, sir.”

Whatever was in their minds, the two men never changed their steady, practical gravity of manner. The major-domo’s appeared to be a subdued imitation of his master’s, worn, as he might have worn his master’s clothes, had he accepted, or Mr. Rushbrook permitted, such a degradation. By this time they had reached the door of Mr. Rushbrook’s room, and the man paused. “I didn’t include some guests of Mr. Leyton’s, sir, that he brought over here to show around the place, but he told me to tell you he would take them away again, or leave them, as you liked. They’re some Eastern strangers stopping with him.”

“All right,” said Rushbrook, quietly, as he entered his own apartment. It was decorated as garishly as the hall, as staring and vivid in color, but wholesomely new and clean for all its paint, veneering, and plaster. It was filled with heterogeneous splendor–all new and well kept, yet with so much of the attitude of the show-room still lingering about it that one almost expected to see the various articles of furniture ticketed with their prices. A luxurious bed, with satin hangings and Indian carved posts, standing ostentatiously in a corner, kept up this resemblance, for in a curtained recess stood a worn camp bedstead, Rushbrook’s real couch, Spartan in its simplicity.

Mr. Rushbrook drew his watch from his pocket, and deliberately divested himself of his boots, coat, waistcoat, and cravat. Then rolling himself in a fleecy, blanket-like rug with something of the habitual dexterity of a frontiersman, he threw himself on his couch, closed his eyes, and went instantly to sleep. Lying there, he appeared to be a man comfortably middle-aged, with thick iron- gray hair that might have curled had he encouraged such inclination; a skin roughened and darkened by external hardships and exposure, but free from taint of inner vice or excess, and indistinctive features redeemed by a singularly handsome mouth. As the lower part of the face was partly hidden by a dense but closely-cropped beard, it is probable that the delicate outlines of his lips had gained something from their framing.

He slept, through what seemed to be the unnatural stillness of the large house,–a quiet that might have come from the lingering influence of the still virgin solitude around it, as if Nature had forgotten the intrusion, or were stealthily retaking her own; and later, through the rattle of returning wheels or the sound of voices, which were, however, promptly absorbed in that deep and masterful silence which was the unabdicating genius of the canyon. For it was remarkable that even the various artists, musicians, orators, and poets whom Maecenas had gathered in his cool business fashion under that roof, all seemed to become, by contrast with surrounding Nature, as new and artificial as the house, and as powerless to assert themselves against its influence.

He was still sleeping when James re-entered the room, but awoke promptly at the sound of his voice. In a few moments he had rearranged his scarcely disordered toilette, and stepped out refreshed and observant into the hall. The guests were still absent from that part of the building, and he walked leisurely past the carelessly opened doors of the rooms they had left. Everywhere he met the same glaring ornamentation and color, the same garishness of treatment, the same inharmonious extravagance of furniture, and everywhere the same troubled acceptance of it by the inmates, or the same sense of temporary and restricted tenancy. Dresses were hung over cheval glasses; clothes piled up on chairs to avoid the use of doubtful and over ornamented wardrobes, and in some cases more practical guests had apparently encamped in a corner of their apartment. A gentleman from Siskyou–sole proprietor of a mill patent now being considered by Maecenas–had confined himself to a rocking-chair and clothes-horse as being trustworthy and familiar; a bolder spirit from Yreka–in treaty for capital to start an independent journal devoted to Maecenas’s interests–had got a good deal out of, and indeed all he had INTO, a Louis XVI. armoire; while a young painter from Sacramento had simply retired into his adjoining bath-room, leaving the glories of his bedroom untarnished. Suddenly he paused.

He had turned into a smaller passage in order to make a shorter cut through one of the deserted suites of apartments that should bring him to that part of the building where he designed to make his projected improvement, when his feet were arrested on the threshold of a sitting-room. Although it contained the same decoration and furniture as the other rooms, it looked totally different! It was tasteful, luxurious, comfortable, and habitable. The furniture seemed to have fallen into harmonious position; even the staring decorations of the walls and ceiling were toned down by sprays of laurel and red-stained manzanito boughs with their berries, apparently fresh plucked from the near canyon. But he was more unexpectedly impressed to see that the room was at that moment occupied by a tall, handsome girl, who had paused to take breath, with her hand still on the heavy centre-table she was moving. Standing there, graceful, glowing, and animated, she looked the living genius of the recreated apartment.

CHAPTER II

Mr. Rushbrook glanced rapidly at his unknown guest. “Excuse me,” he said, with respectful business brevity, “but I thought every one was out,” and he stepped backward quickly.

“I’ve only just come,” she said without embarrassment, “and would you mind, as you ARE here, giving me a lift with this table?”

“Certainly,” replied Rushbrook, and under the young girl’s direction the millionaire moved the table to one side.

During the operation he was trying to determine which of his unrecognized guests the fair occupant was. Possibly one of the Leyton party, that James had spoken of as impending.

“Then you have changed all the furniture, and put up these things?” he asked, pointing to the laurel.

“Yes, the room was really something TOO awful. It looks better now, don’t you think?”

“A hundred per cent.,” said Rushbrook, promptly. “Look here, I’ll tell you what you’ve done. You’ve set the furniture TO WORK! It was simply lying still–with no return to anybody on the investment.”

The young girl opened her gray eyes at this, and then smiled. The intruder seemed to be characteristic of California. As for Rushbrook, he regretted that he did not know her better, he would at once have asked her to rearrange all the rooms, and have managed in some way liberally to reward her for it. A girl like that had no nonsense about her.

“Yes,” she said, “I wonder Mr. Rushbrook don’t look at it in that way. It is a shame that all these pretty things–and you know they are really good and valuable–shouldn’t show what they are. But I suppose everybody here accepts the fact that this man simply buys them because they are valuable, and nobody interferes, and is content to humor him, laugh at him, and feel superior. It don’t strike me as quite fair, does it you?”

Rushbrook was pleased. Without the vanity that would be either annoyed at this revelation of his reputation, or gratified at her defense of it, he was simply glad to discover that she had not recognized him as her host, and could continue the conversation unreservedly. “Have you seen the ladies’ boudoir?” he asked. “You know, the room fitted with knick-knacks and pretty things–some of ’em bought from old collections in Europe, by fellows who knew what they were but perhaps,” he added, looking into her eyes for the first time, “didn’t know exactly what ladies cared for.”

“I merely glanced in there when I first came, for there was such a queer lot of women–I’m told he isn’t very particular in that way– that I didn’t stay.”

“And you didn’t think THEY might be just as valuable and good as some of the furniture, if they could have been pulled around and put into shape, or set in a corner, eh?”

The young girl smiled; she thought her fellow-guest rather amusing, none the less so, perhaps, for catching up her own ideas, but nevertheless she slightly shrugged her shoulders with that hopeless skepticism which women reserve for their own sex. “Some of them looked as if they had been pulled around, as you say, and hadn’t been improved by it.”

“There’s no one there now,” said Rushbrook, with practical directness; “come and take a look at it.” She complied without hesitation, walking by his side, tall, easy, and self-possessed, apparently accepting without self-consciousness his half paternal, half comrade-like informality. The boudoir was a large room, repeating on a bigger scale the incongruousness and ill fitting splendor of the others. When she had of her own accord recognized and pointed out the more admirable articles, he said, gravely looking at his watch, “We’ve just about seven minutes yet; if you’d like to pull and haul these things around, I’ll help you.”

The young girl smiled. “I’m quite content with what I’ve done in my own room, where I have no one’s taste to consult but my own. I hardly know how Mr. Rushbrook, or his lady friends, might like my operating here.” Then recognizing with feminine tact the snub that might seem implied in her refusal, she said quickly, “Tell me something about our host–but first look! isn’t that pretty?”

She had stopped before the window that looked upon the dim blue abyss of the canyon, and was leaning out to gaze upon it. Rushbrook joined her.

“There isn’t much to be changed down THERE, is there?” he said, half interrogatively.

“No, not unless Mr. Rushbrook took it into his head to roof it in, and somebody was ready with a contract to do it. But what do you know of him? Remember, I’m quite a stranger here.”

“You came with Charley Leyton?”

“With MRS. Leyton’s party,” said the young girl, with a half- smiling emphasis. “But it seems that we don’t know whether Mr. Rushbrook wants us here or not till he comes. And the drollest thing about it is that they’re all so perfectly frank in saying so.”

“Charley and he are old friends, and you’ll do well to trust to their judgment.”

This was hardly the kind of response that the handsome and clever society girl before him had been in the habit of receiving, but it amused her. Her fellow-guest was decidedly original. But he hadn’t told her about Rushbrook, and it struck her that his opinion would be independent, at least. She reminded him of it.

“Look here,” said Rushbrook, “you’ll meet a man here to-night–or he’ll be sure to meet YOU–who’ll tell you all about Rushbrook. He’s a smart chap, knows everybody and talks well. His name is Jack Somers; he is a great ladies’ man. He can talk to you about these sort of things, too,”–indicating the furniture with a half tolerant, half contemptuous gesture, that struck her as inconsistent with what seemed to be his previous interest,–“just as well as he can talk of people. Been in Europe, too.”

The young girl’s eye brightened with a quick vivacity at the name, but a moment after became reflective and slightly embarrassed. “I know him–I met him at Mr. Leyton’s. He has already talked of Mr. Rushbrook, but,” she added, avoiding any conclusion, with a pretty pout, “I’d like to have the opinion of others. Yours, now, I fancy would be quite independent.”

“You stick to what Jack Somers has said, good or bad, and you won’t be far wrong,” he said assuringly. He stopped; his quick ear had heard approaching voices; he returned to her and held out his hand. As it seemed to her that in California everybody shook hands with everybody else on the slightest occasions, sometimes to save further conversation, she gave him her own. He shook it, less forcibly than she had feared, and abruptly left her. For a moment she was piqued at this superior and somewhat brusque way of ignoring her request, but reflecting that it might be the awkwardness of an untrained man, she dismissed it from her mind. The voices of her friends in the already resounding passages also recalled her to the fact that she had been wandering about the house with a stranger, and she rejoined them a little self- consciously.

“Well, my dear,” said Mrs. Leyton, gayly, “it seems we are to stay. Leyton says Rushbrook won’t hear of our going.”

“Does that mean that your husband takes the whole opera troupe over to your house in exchange?”

“Don’t be satirical, but congratulate yourself on your opportunity of seeing an awfully funny gathering. I wouldn’t have you miss it for the world. It’s the most characteristic thing out.”

“Characteristic of what?”

“Of Rushbrook, of course. Nobody else would conceive of getting together such a lot of queer people.”

“But don’t it strike you that we’re a part of the lot?”

“Perhaps,” returned the lively Mrs. Leyton. “No doubt that’s the reason why Jack Somers is coming over, and is so anxious that YOU should stay. I can’t imagine why else he should rave about Miss Grace Nevil as he does. Come, Grace, no New York or Philadelphia airs, here! Consider your uncle’s interests with this capitalist, to say nothing of ours. Because you’re a millionaire and have been accustomed to riches from your birth, don’t turn up your nose at our unpampered appetites. Besides, Jack Somers is Rushbrook’s particular friend, and he may think your criticisms unkind.”

“But IS Mr. Somers such a great friend of Mr. Rushbrook’s?” asked Grace Nevil.

“Why, of course. Rushbrook consults him about all these things; gives him carte blanche to invite whom he likes and order what he likes, and trusts his taste and judgment implicitly.”

“Then this gathering is Mr. Somers’s selection?”

“How preposterous you are, Grace. Of course not. Only Somers’s IDEA of what is pleasing to Rushbrook, gotten up with a taste and discretion all his own. You know Somers is a gentleman, educated at West Point–traveled all over Europe–you might have met him there; and Rushbrook–well, you have only to see him to know what HE is. Don’t you understand?”

A slight seriousness; the same shadow that once before darkened the girl’s charming face gave way to a mischievous knitting of her brows as she said naively, “No.”

CHAPTER III

Grace Nevil had quite recovered her equanimity when the indispensable Mr. Somers, handsome, well-bred, and self-restrained, approached her later in the crowded drawing-room. Blended with his subdued personal admiration was a certain ostentation of respect– as of a tribute to a distinguished guest–that struck her. “I am to have the pleasure of taking you in, Miss Nevil,” he said. “It’s my one compensation for the dreadful responsibility just thrust upon me. Our host has been suddenly called away, and I am left to take his place.”

Miss Nevil was slightly startled. Nevertheless, she smiled graciously. “From what I hear this is no new function of yours; that is, if there really IS a Mr. Rushbrook. I am inclined to think him a myth.”

“You make me wish he were,” retorted Somers, gallantly; “but as I couldn’t reign at all, except in his stead, I shall look to you to lend your rightful grace to my borrowed dignity.”

The more general announcement to the company was received with a few perfidious regrets from the more polite, but with only amused surprise by the majority. Indeed, many considered it “characteristic”–“so like Bob Rushbrook,” and a few enthusiastic friends looked upon it as a crowning and intentional stroke of humor. It remained, however, for the gentleman from Siskyou to give the incident a subtlety that struck Miss Nevil’s fancy. “It reminds me,” he said in her hearing, “of ole Kernel Frisbee, of Robertson County, one of the purlitest men I ever struck. When he knew a feller was very dry, he’d jest set the decanter afore him, and managed to be called outer the room on bus’ness. Now, Bob Rushbrook’s about as white a man as that. He’s jest the feller, who, knowing you and me might feel kinder restrained about indulging our appetites afore him, kinder drops out easy, and leaves us alone.” And she was impressed by an instinct that the speaker really felt the delicacy he spoke of, and that it left no sense of inferiority behind.

The dinner, served in a large, brilliantly-lit saloon, that in floral decoration and gilded columns suggested an ingenious blending of a steamboat table d’hote and “harvest home,” was perfect in its cuisine, even if somewhat extravagant in its proportions.

“I should be glad to receive the salary that Rushbrook pays his chef, and still happier to know how to earn it as fairly,” said Somers to his fair companion.

“But is his skill entirely appreciated here?” she asked.

“Perfectly,” responded Somers. “Our friend from Siskyou over there appreciates that ‘pate’ which he cannot name as well as I do. Rushbrook himself is the only exception, yet I fancy that even HIS simplicity and regularity in feeding is as much a matter of business with him as any defect in his earlier education. In his eyes, his chef’s greatest qualification is his promptness and fertility. Have you noticed that ornament before you?” pointing to an elaborate confection. “It bears your initials, you see. It was conceived and executed since you arrived–rather, I should say, since it was known that you would honor us with your company. The greatest difficulty encountered was to find out what your initials were.”

“And I suppose,” mischievously added the young girl to her acknowledgments, “that the same fertile mind which conceived the design eventually provided the initials?”

“That is our secret,” responded Somers, with affected gravity.

The wines were of characteristic expensiveness, and provoked the same general comment. Rushbrook seldom drank wine; Somers had selected it. But the barbaric opulence of the entertainment culminated in the Californian fruits, piled in pyramids on silver dishes, gorgeous and unreal in their size and painted beauty, and the two Divas smiled over a basket of grapes and peaches as outrageous in dimensions and glaring color as any pasteboard banquet at which they had professionally assisted. As the courses succeeded each other, under the exaltation of wine, conversation became more general as regarded participation, but more local and private as regarded the subject, until Miss Nevil could no longer follow it. The interests of that one, the hopes of another, the claims of a third, in affairs that were otherwise uninteresting, were all discussed with singular youthfulness of trust that to her alone seemed remarkable. Not that she lacked entertainment from the conversation of her clever companion, whose confidences and criticisms were very pleasant to her; but she had a gentlewoman’s instinct that he talked to her too much, and more than was consistent with his duties as the general host. She looked around the table for her singular acquaintance of an hour before, but she had not seen him since. She would have spoken about him to Somers, but she had an instinctive idea that the latter would be antipathetic, in spite of the stranger’s flattering commendation. So she found herself again following Somers’s cynical but good- humored description of the various guests, and, I fear, seeing with his eyes, listening with his ears, and occasionally participating in his superior attitude. The “fearful joy” she had found in the novelty of the situation and the originality of the actors seemed now quite right from this critical point of view. So she learned how the guest with the long hair was an unknown painter, to whom Rushbrook had given a commission for three hundred yards of painted canvas, to be cut up and framed as occasion and space required, in Rushbrook’s new hotel in San Francisco; how the gray-bearded foreigner near him was an accomplished bibliophile who was furnishing Mr. Rushbrook’s library from spoils of foreign collections, and had suffered unheard-of agonies from the millionaire’s insisting upon a handsome uniform binding that should deprive certain precious but musty tomes of their crumbling, worm- eaten coverings; how the very gentle, clerical-looking stranger, mildest of a noisy, disputing crowd at the other table, was a notorious duelist and dead shot; how the only gentleman at the table who retained a flannel shirt and high boots was not a late- coming mountaineer, but a well-known English baronet on his travels; how the man who told a somewhat florid and emphatic anecdote was a popular Eastern clergyman; how the one querulous, discontented face in a laughing group was the famous humorist who had just convulsed it; and how a pale, handsome young fellow, who ate and drank sparingly and disregarded the coquettish advances of the prettiest Diva with the cold abstraction of a student, was a notorious roue and gambler. But there was a sudden and unlooked- for change of criticism and critic.

The festivity had reached that stage when the guests were more or less accessible to emotion, and more or less touched by the astounding fact that every one was enjoying himself. This phenomenon, which is apt to burst into song or dance among other races, is constrained to voice itself in an Anglo-Saxon gathering by some explanation, apology, or moral–known as an after-dinner speech. Thus it was that the gentleman from Siskyou, who had been from time to time casting glances at Somers and his fair companion at the head of the table, now rose to his feet, albeit unsteadily, pushed back his chair, and began:–

“‘Pears to me, ladies and gentlemen, and feller pardners, that on an occasion like this, suthin’ oughter be said of the man who got it up–whose money paid for it, and who ain’t here to speak for himself, except by deputy. Yet you all know that’s Bob Rushbrook’s style–he ain’t here, because he’s full of some other plan or improvements–and it’s like him to start suthin’ of this kind, give it its aim and purpose, and then stand aside to let somebody else run it for him. There ain’t no man livin’ ez hez, so to speak, more fast horses ready saddled for riding, and more fast men ready spurred to ride ’em,–whether to win his races or run his errands. There ain’t no man livin’ ez knows better how to make other men’s games his, or his game seem to be other men’s. And from Jack Somers smilin’ over there, ez knows where to get the best wine that Bob pays for, and knows how to run this yer show for Bob, at Bob’s expense–we’re all contented. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re all contented. We stand, so to speak, on the cards he’s dealt us. What may be his little game, it ain’t for us to say; but whatever it is, WE’RE IN IT. Gentlemen and ladies, we’ll drink Bob’s health!”

There was a somewhat sensational pause, followed by good-natured laughter and applause, in which Somers joined; yet not without a certain constraint that did not escape the quick sympathy of the shocked and unsmiling Miss Nevil. It was with a feeling of relief that she caught the chaperoning eye of Mrs. Leyton, who was entreating her in the usual mysterious signal to the other ladies to rise and follow her. When she reached the drawing-room, a little behind the others, she was somewhat surprised to observe that the stranger whom she had missed during the evening was approaching her with Mrs. Leyton.

“Mr. Rushbrook returned sooner than he expected, but unfortunately, as he always retires early, he has only time to say ‘goodnight’ to you before he goes.”

For an instant Grace Nevil was more angry than disconcerted. Then came the conviction that she was stupid not to have suspected the truth before. Who else would that brusque stranger develop into but this rude host? She bowed formally.

Mr. Rushbrook looked at her with the faintest smile on his handsome mouth. “Well, Miss Nevil, I hope Jack Somers satisfied your curiosity?”

With a sudden recollection of the Siskyou gentleman’s speech, and a swift suspicion that in some way she had been made use of with the others by this forceful-looking man before her, she answered pertly:–

“Yes; but there was a speech by a gentleman from Siskyou that struck me as being nearer to the purpose.”

“That’s so,–I heard it as I came in, said Mr. Rushbrook, calmly. “I don’t know but you’re right.”

CHAPTER IV

Six months had passed. The Villa of Maecenas was closed at Los Osos Canyon, and the southwest trade-winds were slanting the rains of the wet season against its shut windows and barred doors. Within that hollow, deserted shell, its aspect–save for a single exception–was unchanged; the furniture and decorations preserved their eternal youth undimmed by time; the rigidly-arranged rooms, now closed to life and light, developed more than ever their resemblance to a furniture warehouse. The single exception was the room which Grace Nevil had rearranged for herself; and that, oddly enough, was stripped and bare–even to its paper and mouldings.

In other respects, the sealed treasures of Rushbrook’s villa, far from provoking any sentimentality, seemed only to give truth to the current rumor that it was merely waiting to be transformed into a gorgeous watering-place hotel under Rushbrook’s direction; that, with its new ball-room changed into an elaborate dining-hall, it would undergo still further improvement, the inevitable end and object of all Rushbrook’s enterprise; and that its former proprietor had already begun another villa whose magnificence should eclipse the last. There certainly appeared to be no limit to the millionaire’s success in all that he personally undertook, or in his fortunate complicity with the enterprise and invention of others. His name was associated with the oldest and safest schemes, as well as the newest and boldest–with an equal guarantee of security. A few, it was true, looked doubtingly upon this “one man power,” but could not refute the fact that others had largely benefited by association with him, and that he shared his profits with a royal hand. Some objected on higher grounds to his brutalizing the influence of wealth by his material and extravagantly practical processes, instead of the gentler suggestions of education and personal example, and were impelled to point out the fact that he and his patronage were vulgar. It was felt, however, by those who received his benefits, that a proper sense of this inferiority was all that ethics demanded of them. One could still accept Rushbrook’s barbaric gifts by humorously recognizing the fact that he didn’t know any better, and that it pleased him, as long as they resented any higher pretensions.

The rain-beaten windows of Rushbrook’s town house, however, were cheerfully lit that December evening. Mr. Rushbrook seldom dined alone; in fact, it was popularly alleged that very often the unfinished business of the day was concluded over his bountiful and perfect board. He was dressing as James entered the room.

“Mr. Leyton is in your study, sir; he will stay to dinner.”

“All right.”

“I think, sir,” added James, with respectful suggestiveness, “he wants to talk. At least, sir, he asked me if you would likely come downstairs before your company arrived.”

“Ah! Well, tell the others I’m dining on BUSINESS, and set dinner for two in the blue room.”

“Yes, sir.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Leyton–a man of Rushbrook’s age, but not so fresh and vigorous-looking–had thrown himself in a chair beside the study fire, after a glance around the handsome and familiar room. For the house had belonged to a brother millionaire; it had changed hands with certain shares of “Water Front,”–as some of Rushbrook’s dealings had the true barbaric absence of money detail,–and was elegantly and tastefully furnished. The cuckoo had, however, already laid a few characteristic eggs in this adopted nest, and a white marble statue of a nude and ill-fed Virtue, sent over by Rushbrook’s Paris agent, and unpacked that morning, stood in one corner, and materially brought down the temperature. A Japanese praying-throne of pure ivory, and, above it, a few yards of improper, colored exposure by an old master, equalized each other.

“And what is all this affair about the dinner?” suddenly asked a tartly-pitched female voice with a foreign accent.

Mr. Leyton turned quickly, and was just conscious of a faint shriek, the rustle of a skirt, and the swift vanishing of a woman’s figure from the doorway. Mr. Leyton turned red. Rushbrook lived en garcon, with feminine possibilities; Leyton was a married man and a deacon. The incident which, to a man of the world, would have brought only a smile, fired the inexperienced Leyton with those exaggerated ideas and intense credulity regarding vice common to some very good men. He walked on tip-toe to the door, and peered into the passage. At that moment Rushbrook entered from the opposite door of the room.

“Well,” said Rushbrook, with his usual practical directness, “what do you think of her?”

Leyton, still flushed, and with eyebrows slightly knit, said, awkwardly, that he had scarcely seen her.

“She cost me already ten thousand dollars, and I suppose I’ll have to eventually fix up a separate room for her somewhere,” continued Rushhrook.

“I should certainly advise it,” said Leyton, quickly, “for really, Rushbrook, you know that something is due to the respectable people who come here, and any of them are likely to see”–

“Ah!” interrupted Rushbrook, seriously, “you think she hasn’t got on clothes enough. Why, look here, old man–she’s one of the Virtues, and that’s the rig in which they always travel. She’s a ‘Temperance’ or a ‘Charity’ or a ‘Resignation,’ or something of that kind. You’ll find her name there in French somewhere at the foot of the marble.”

Leyton saw his mistake, but felt–as others sometimes felt–a doubt whether this smileless man was not inwardly laughing at him. He replied, with a keen, rapid glance at his host:–

“I was referring to some woman who stood in that doorway just now, and addressed me rather familiarly, thinking it was you.”

“Oh, the Signora,” said Rushbrook, with undisturbed directness; “well, you saw her at Los Osos last summer. Likely she DID think you were me.”

The cool ignoring of any ulterior thought in Leyton’s objection forced the guest to be equally practical in his reply.

“Yes, but the fact is that Miss Nevil had talked of coming here with me this evening to see you on her own affairs, and it wouldn’t have been exactly the thing for her to meet that woman.”

“She wouldn’t,” said Rushbrook, promptly; “nor would YOU, if you had gone into the parlor as Miss Nevil would have done. But look here! If that’s the reason why you didn’t bring her, send for her at once; my coachman can take a card from you; the brougham’s all ready to fetch her, and there you are. She’ll see only you and me.” He was already moving towards the bell, when Leyton stopped him.

“No matter now. I can tell you her business, I fancy; and in fact, I came here to speak of it, quite independently of her.”

“That won’t do, Leyton,” interrupted Rushbrook, with crisp decision. “One or the other interview is unnecessary; it wastes time, and isn’t business. Better have her present, even if she don’t say a word.”

“Yes, but not in this matter,” responded Leyton; “it’s about Somers. You know he’s been very attentive to her ever since her uncle left her here to recruit her health, and I think she fancies him. Well, although she’s independent and her own mistress, as you know, Mrs. Leyton and I are somewhat responsible for her acquaintance with Somers,–and for that matter so are you; and as my wife thinks it means a marriage, we ought to know something more positive about Somers’s prospects. Now, all we really know is that he’s a great friend of yours; that you trust a good deal to him; that he manages your social affairs; that you treat him as a son or nephew, and it’s generally believed that he’s as good as provided for by you–eh? Did you speak?”

“No,” said Rushbrook, quietly regarding the statue as if taking its measurement for a suitable apartment for it. “Go on.”

“Well,” said Leyton, a little impatiently, “that’s the belief everybody has, and you’ve not contradicted it. And on that we’ve taken the responsibility of not interfering with Somers’s attentions.”

“Well?” said Rushbrook, interrogatively.

“Well,” replied Leyton, emphatically, “you see I must ask you positively if you HAVE done anything, or are you going to do anything for him?”

“Well,” replied Rushbrook, with exasperating coolness, “what do you call this marriage?”

“I don’t understand you,” said Leyton.

“Look here, Leyton,” said Rushbrook, suddenly and abruptly facing him; “Jack Somers has brains, knowledge of society, tact, accomplishments, and good looks: that’s HIS capital as much as mine is money. I employ him: that’s his advertisement, recommendation, and credit. Now, on the strength of this, as you say, Miss Nevil is willing to invest in him; I don’t see what more can be done.”

“But if her uncle don’t think it enough?”

“She’s independent, and has money for both.”

“But if she thinks she’s been deceived, and changes her mind?”

“Leyton, you don’t know Miss Nevil. Whatever that girl undertakes she’s weighed fully, and goes through with. If she’s trusted him enough to marry him, money won’t stop her; if she thinks she’s been deceived, YOU’LL never know it.”

The enthusiasm and conviction were so unlike Rushbrook’s usual cynical toleration of the sex that Leyton stared at him.

“That’s odd,” he returned. “That’s what she says of you.”

“Of ME; you mean Somers?”

“No, of YOU. Come, Rushbrook, don’t pretend you don’t know that Miss Nevil is a great partisan of yours, swears by you, says you’re misunderstood by people, and, what’s infernally odd in a woman who don’t belong to the class you fancy, don’t talk of your habits. That’s why she wants to consult you about Somers, I suppose, and that’s why, knowing you might influence her, I came here first to warn you.”

“And I’ve told you that whatever I might say or do wouldn’t influence her. So we’ll drop the subject.”

“Not yet; for you’re bound to see Miss Nevil sooner or later. Now, if she knows that you’ve done nothing for this man, your friend and her lover, won’t she be justified in thinking that you would have a reason for it?”

“Yes. I should give it.”

“What reason?”

“That I knew she’d be more contented to have him speculate with HER money than mine.”

“Then you think that he isn’t a business man?”

“I think that she thinks so, or she wouldn’t marry him; it’s part of the attraction. But come, James has been for five minutes discreetly waiting outside the door to tell us dinner is ready, and the coast clear of all other company. But look here,” he said, suddenly stopping, with his arm in Leyton’s, “you’re through your talk, I suppose; perhaps you’d rather we’d dine with the Signora and the others than alone?”

For an instant Leyton thrilled with the fascination of what he firmly believed was a guilty temptation. Rushbrook, perceiving his hesitation, added:–

“By the way, Somers is of the party, and one or two others you know.”

Mr. Leyton opened his eyes widely at this; either the temptation had passed, or the idea of being seen in doubtful company by a younger man was distasteful, for he hurriedly disclaimed any preference. “But,” he added with half-significant politeness, “perhaps I’m keeping YOU from them?”

“It makes not the slightest difference to me,” calmly returned Rushbrook, with such evident truthfulness that Leyton was both convinced and chagrined.

Preceded by the grave and ubiquitous James, they crossed the large hall, and entered through a smaller passage a charming apartment hung with blue damask, which might have been a boudoir, study, or small reception-room, yet had the air of never having been anything continuously. It would seem that Rushbrook’s habit of “camping out” in different parts of his mansion obtained here as at Los Osos, and with the exception of a small closet which contained his Spartan bed, the rooms were used separately or in suites, as occasion or his friends required. It is recorded that an Eastern guest, newly arrived with letters to Rushbrook, after a tedious journey, expressed himself pleased with this same blue room, in which he had sumptuously dined with his host, and subsequently fell asleep in his chair. Without disturbing his guest, Rushbrook had the table removed, a bed, washstand, and bureau brought in, the sleeping man delicately laid upon the former, and left to awaken to an Arabian night’s realization of his wish.

CHAPTER V

James had barely disposed of his master and Mr. Leyton, and left them to the ministrations of two of his underlings, before he was confronted with one of those difficult problems that it was part of his functions to solve. The porter informed him that a young lady had just driven up in a carriage ostensibly to see Mr. Rushbrook, and James, descending to the outer vestibule, found himself face to face with Miss Grace Nevil. Happily, that young lady, with her usual tact, spared him some embarrassment.

“Oh! James,” she said sweetly, “do you think that I could see Mr. Rushbrook for a few moments IF I WAITED FOR THE OPPORTUNITY? You understand, I don’t wish to disturb him or his company by being regularly announced.”

The young girl’s practical intelligence appeared to increase the usual respect which James had always shown her. “I understand, miss.” He thought for a moment, and said: “Would you mind, then, following me where you could wait quietly and alone?” As she quickly assented, he preceded her up the staircase, past the study and drawing-room, which he did not enter, and stopped before a small door at the end of the passage. Then, handing her a key which he took from his pocket, he said: “This is the only room in the house that is strictly reserved for Mr. Rushbrook, and even he rarely uses it. You can wait here without anybody knowing it until I can communicate with him and bring you to his study unobserved. And,” he hesitated, “if you wouldn’t mind locking the door when you are in, miss, you would be more secure, and I will knock when I come for you.”

Grace Nevil smiled at the man’s prudence, and entered the room. But to her great surprise, she had scarcely shut the door when she was instantly struck with a singular memory which the apartment recalled. It was exactly like the room she had altered in Rushbrook’s villa at Los Osos! More than that, on close examination it proved to be the very same furniture, arranged as she remembered to have arranged it, even to the flowers and grasses, now, alas! faded and withered on the walls. There could be no mistake. There was the open ebony escritoire with the satin blotter open, and its leaves still bearing the marks of her own handwriting. So complete to her mind was the idea of her own tenancy in this bachelor’s mansion, that she looked around with a half indignant alarm for the photograph or portrait of herself that might further indicate it. But there was no other exposition. The only thing that had been added was a gilt legend on the satin case of the blotter,–“Los Osos, August 20, 186-,” the day she had occupied the room.

She was pleased, astonished, but more than all, disturbed. The only man who might claim a right to this figurative possession of her tastes and habits was the one whom she had quietly, reflectively, and understandingly half accepted as her lover, and on whose account she had come to consult Rushbrook. But Somers was not a sentimentalist; in fact, as a young girl, forced by her independent position to somewhat critically scrutinize masculine weaknesses, this had always been a point in his favor; yet even if he had joined with his friend Rushbrook to perpetuate the memory of their first acquaintanceship, his taste merely would not have selected a chambre de garcon in Mr. Rushbrook’s home for its exhibition. Her conception of the opposite characters of the two men was singularly distinct and real, and this momentary confusion of them was disagreeable to her woman’s sense. But at this moment James came to release her and conduct her to Rushbrook’s study, where he would join her at once. Everything had been arranged as she had wished.

Even a more practical man than Rushbrook might have lingered over the picture of the tall, graceful figure of Miss Nevil, quietly enthroned in a large armchair by the fire, her scarlet, satin-lined cloak thrown over its back, and her chin resting on her hand. But the millionaire walked directly towards her with his usual frankness of conscious but restrained power, and she felt, as she always did, perfectly at her ease in his presence. Even as she took his outstretched hand, its straightforward grasp seemed to endow her with its own confidence.

“You’ll excuse my coming here so abruptly,” she smiled, “but I wanted to get before Mr. Leyton, who, I believe, wishes to see you on the same business as myself.”

“He is here already, and dining with me,” said Rushbrook.

“Ah! does he know I am here?” asked the girl, quietly.

“No; as he said you had thought of coming with him and didn’t, I presumed you didn’t care to have him know you had come alone.”

“Not exactly that, Mr. Rushbrook,” she said, fixing her beautiful eyes on him in bright and trustful confidence, “but I happen to have a fuller knowledge of this business than he has, and yet, as it is not altogether my own secret, I was not permitted to divulge it to him. Nor would I tell it to you, only I cannot bear that you should think that I had anything to do with this wretched inquisition into Mr. Somers’s prospects. Knowing as well as you do how perfectly independent I am, you would think it strange, wouldn’t you? But you would think it still more surprising when you found out that I and my uncle already know how liberally and generously you had provided for Mr. Somers in the future.”

“How I had provided for Mr. Somers in the future?” repeated Mr. Rushbrook, looking at the fire, “eh?”

“Yes,” said the young girl, indifferently, “how you were to put him in to succeed you in the Water Front Trust, and all that. He told it to me and my uncle at the outset of our acquaintance, confidentially, of course, and I dare say with an honorable delicacy that was like him, but–I suppose now you will think me foolish–all the while I’d rather he had not.”

“You’d rather he had not,” repeated Mr. Rushbrook, slowly.

“Yes,” continued Grace, leaning forward with her rounded elbows on her knees, and her slim, arched feet on the fender. “Now you are going to laugh at me, Mr. Rushbrook, but all this seemed to me to spoil any spontaneous feeling I might have towards him, and limit my independence in a thing that should be a matter of free will alone. It seemed too much like a business proposition! There, my kind friend!” she added, looking up and trying to read his face with a half girlish pout, followed, however, by a maturer sigh, “I’m bothering you with a woman’s foolishness instead of talking business. And”–another sigh–“I suppose it IS business for my uncle, who has, it seems, bought into this Trust on these possible contingencies, has, perhaps, been asking questions of Mr. Leyton. But I don’t want you to think that I approve of them, or advise your answering them. But you are not listening.”

“I had forgotten something,” said Rushbrook, with an odd preoccupation. “Excuse me a moment–I will return at once.”

He left the room quite as abstractedly, and when he reached the passage, he apparently could not remember what he had forgotten, as he walked deliberately to the end window, where, with his arms folded behind his back, he remained looking out into the street. A passer-by, glancing up, might have said he had seen the pale, stern ghost of Mr. Rushbrook, framed like a stony portrait in the window. But he presently turned away, and re-entered the room, going up to Grace, who was still sitting by the fire, in his usual strong and direct fashion.

“Well! Now let me see what you want. I think this would do.”

He took a seat at his open desk, and rapidly wrote a few lines.

“There,” he continued, “when you write to your uncle, inclose that.”

Grace took it, and read:–

DEAR MISS NEVIL,–Pray assure your uncle from me that I am quite ready to guarantee, in any form that he may require, the undertaking represented to him by Mr. John Somers. Yours very truly,

ROBERT RUSHBROOK.

A quick flush mounted to the young girl’s cheeks. “But this is a SECURITY, Mr. Rushbrook,” she said proudly, handing him back the paper, “and my uncle does not require that. Nor shall I insult him or you by sending it.”

“It is BUSINESS, Miss Nevil,” said Rushbrook, gravely. He stopped, and fixed his eyes upon her animated face and sparkling eyes. “You can send it to him or not, as you like. But”–a rare smile came to his handsome mouth–“as this is a letter to YOU, you must not insult ME by not accepting it.”

Replying to his smile rather than the words that accompanied it, Miss Nevil smiled, too. Nevertheless, she was uneasy and disturbed. The interview, whatever she might have vaguely expected from it, had resolved itself simply into a business indorsement of her lover, which she had not sought, and which gave her no satisfaction. Yet there was the same potent and indefinably protecting presence before her which she had sought, but whose omniscience and whose help she seemed to have lost the spell and courage to put to the test. He relieved her in his abrupt but not unkindly fashion. “Well, when is it to be?”

“It?”

“Your marriage.”

“Oh, not for some time. There’s no hurry.”

It might have struck the practical Mr. Rushbrook that, even considered as a desirable business affair, the prospective completion of this contract provoked neither frank satisfaction nor conventional dissimulation on the part of the young lady, for he regarded her calm but slightly wearied expression fixedly. But he only said: “Then I shall say nothing of this interview to Mr. Leyton?”

“As you please. It really matters little. Indeed, I suppose I was rather foolish in coming at all, and wasting your valuable time for nothing.”

She had risen, as if taking his last question in the significance of a parting suggestion, and was straightening her tall figure, preparatory to putting on her cloak. As she reached it, he stepped forward, and lifted it from the chair to assist her. The act was so unprecedented, as Mr. Rushbrook never indulged in those minor masculine courtesies, that she was momentarily as confused as a younger girl at the gallantry of a younger man. In their previous friendship he had seldom drawn near her except to shake her hand– a circumstance that had always recurred to her when his free and familiar life had been the subject of gossip. But she now had a more frightened consciousness that her nerves were strangely responding to his powerful propinquity, and she involuntarily contracted her pretty shoulders as he gently laid the cloak upon them. Yet even when the act was completed, she had a superstitious instinct that the significance of this rare courtesy was that it was final, and that he had helped her to interpose something that shut him out from her forever.

She was turning away with a heightened color, when the sound of light, hurried footsteps, and the rustle of a woman’s dress was heard in the hall. A swift recollection of her companion’s infelicitous reputation now returned to her, and Grace Nevil, with a slight stiffening of her whole frame, became coldly herself again. Mr. Rushbrook betrayed neither surprise nor agitation. Begging her to wait a moment until he could arrange for her to pass to her carriage unnoticed, he left the room.

Yet it seemed that the cause of the disturbance was unsuspected by Mr. Rushbrook. Mr. Leyton, although left to the consolation of cigars and liquors in the blue room, had become slightly weary of his companion’s prolonged absence. Satisfied in his mind that Rushbrook had joined the gayer party, and that he was even now paying gallant court to the Signora, he became again curious and uneasy. At last the unmistakable sound of whispering voices in the passage got the better of his sense of courtesy as a guest, and he rose from his seat, and slightly opened the door. As he did so the figures of a man and woman, conversing in earnest whispers, passed the opening. The man’s arm was round the woman’s waist; the woman was–as he had suspected–the one who had stood in the doorway, the Signora–but–the man was NOT Rushbrook. Mr. Leyton drew back this time in unaffected horror. It was none other than Jack Somers!

Some warning instinct must at that moment have struck the woman, for with a stifled cry she disengaged herself from Somers’s arm, and dashed rapidly down the hall. Somers, evidently unaware of the cause, stood irresolute for a moment, and then more silently but swiftly disappeared into a side corridor as if to intercept her. It was the rapid passage of the Signora that had attracted the attention of Grace and Rushbrook in the study, and it was the moment after it that Mr. Rushbrook left.

CHAPTER VI

Vaguely uneasy, and still perplexed with her previous agitation, as Mr. Rushbrook closed the door behind him, Grace, following some feminine instinct rather than any definite reason, walked to the door and placed her hand upon the lock to prevent any intrusion until he returned. Her caution seemed to be justified a moment later, for a heavier but stealthier footstep halted outside. The