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TREASURE _and_ TROUBLE THEREWITH
_A TALE OF CALIFORNIA_
BY GERALDINE BONNER
I DEDICATE THIS BOOK TO THE MEMORY OF MY FATHER
WHO, HIMSELF A WRITER, TRAINED ME IN THE WORK HE LOVED. WHAT MERIT THE READER MAY FIND IN THESE PAGES IS THE RESULT OF THAT TRAINING, UNDERTAKEN WITH A FATHER’S PRIDE, CARRIED ON WITH A FATHER’S BELIEF AND ENCOURAGEMENT.
I. HANDS UP
II. THE TULES
III. MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE
IV. THE DERELICT
V. THE MARKED PARAGRAPH
VII. THE PICAROON
VIII. THOSE GIRLS OF GEORGE’S
IX. GREEK MEETS GREEK
X. MICHAELS THE MINER
XI. THE SOLID GOLD NUGGET
XII. A KISS
XIII. FOOLS IN THEIR FOLLY
XIV. THE NIGHT RIDER
XV. THE LAST DINNER
XVI. THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY
XVII. THE WOLF IN SHEEP’S CLOTHING
XIX. HALF TRUTHS AND INFERENCES
XX. MARK PAYS A CALL
XXI. A WOMAN SCORNED
XXII. THEREBY HANGS A TALE
XXIII. THE CHINESE CHAIN
XXIV. LOVERS AND LADIES
XXV. WHAT JIM SAW
XXVI. PANCHA WRITES A LETTER
XXVII. BAD NEWS
XXVIII. CHRYSTIE SEES THE DAWN
XXIX. LORRY SEES THE DAWN
XXX. MARK SEES THE DAWN
XXXII. THE VOICE IN THE NIGHT
XXXIII. THE MORNING THAT CAME
XXXV. THE UNKNOWN WOMAN
XXXVI. THE SEARCH
XXXVII. HAIL AND FAREWELL
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
He … heard the feller at the wheel say, “Hands up!” _Frontispiece_
“Oh, silly, unbelieving child!” came his voice
As it came it sent up a hoarse cry for food
The ghost of a smile touched her lips
TREASURE _and_ TROUBLE THEREWITH
The time was late August some eleven years ago. The place that part of central California where, on one side, the plain unrolls in golden levels, and on the other swells upward toward the rounded undulations of the foothills.
It was very hot; the sky a fathomless blue vault, the land dreaming in the afternoon glare, its brightness blurred here and there by shimmering heat veils. Checkered by green and yellow patches, dotted with the black domes of oaks, it brooded sleepily, showing few signs of life. At long intervals ranch houses rose above embowering foliage, a green core in the midst of fields where the brown earth was striped with lines of fruit trees or hidden under carpets of alfalfa. To the west the foothills rose in indolent curves, tan-colored, as if clothed with a leathern hide. Their hollows were filled with the darkness of trees huddled about hidden streams, ribbons of verdure that wound from the mountains to the plain. Farther still, vision faint, remote and immaculate, the white peaks of the Sierra hung, a painting on the drop curtain of the sky.
Across the landscape a parent stem of road wound, branches breaking from it and meandering thread-small to ranch and village. It was white-dusted here, but later would turn red and crawl upward under the resinous dimness of pine woods to where the mining camps clung on the lower wall of the Sierra. Already it had left behind the region of farms in neighborly proximity and the little towns that were threaded along it like beads upon a string. Watching its eastward course, one would have noticed that after it crested the first rise it ran free of habitation for miles.
Along its empty length a dust cloud moved, a tarnishing spot on the afternoon’s hard brightness. This spot was the one point of energy in the universal torpor. From it came the rhythmic beat of flying hoofs and the jingle of harness. It was the Rocky Bar stage, up from Shilo through Plymouth, across the Mother Lode and then in a steep, straining grade on to Antelope and Rocky Bar, camps nestling in the mountain gorges. It was making time now against the slow climb later, the four horses racing, the reins loose on their backs.
There was only one passenger; the others had been dropped at towns along the route. He sat on the front seat beside Jim Bailey the driver, his feet on a pine box and a rifle across his knees. He and Jim Bailey knew each other well, for he had often come that way, always with his box and his rifle. He was Wells Fargo’s messenger and his name was Danny Leonard. In the box at his feet were twelve thousand dollars in coin to be delivered that night to the Greenhide Mine at Antelope.
With nothing of interest in sight, talk between them was desultory. Jim Bailey thought they’d take on some men at Plymouth when they stopped there to victual up. The messenger, squinting at the swimming yellow distance, yawned and said it might be a good thing, nobody knew when Knapp and Garland would get busy again. They’d failed in the holdup of the Rockville stage last spring and it was about time to hear from them–the road after you passed Plymouth was pretty lonesome. Jim Bailey snorted contemptuously and spat over the wheel–he guessed Knapp and Garland weren’t liable to bother _him_.
After this the conversation dropped. The stifling heat, the whirling dust clouds broken by whiffs of air, dry as from a kiln and impregnated with the pungent scent of the tarweed, made the men drowsy. Jim Bailey nodded, the reins drawing slack between his fingers. Leonard slipped the rifle from his knees to the floor and relaxed against the back of the seat. Through half-shut lids he watched the whitened crests of the Sierra brushed on the turquoise sky.
The horses clattered down a gulley and galloped across a wooden bridge that spanned a dead watercourse. The ascent was steep and they took it at a rush, backs humped, necks stretched, hoofs clattering among loosened stones.
A sudden breeze carried their dust ahead, and for a moment the prospect was obscured, the trees that filled the gulley, bunched at the summit into a thicket, just discernible in foggy outline. The horses had gained the level, Jim Bailey, who knew the road in his sleep, had cheered them with a familiar chirrup, when the leaders stopped, recoiling in a clatter of slackened harness on the wheelers. The stage came to a halt so violent that Jim Bailey lurched forward against the splashboard, the reins jerked out of his hands. He did not know what had happened, could see nothing but the horses’ backs, jammed together, lines and traces slapping about their flanks.
Afterward, describing it at Mormons Landing, he laid it all to the dust. In that first moment of surprise he hadn’t made out the men, and anyway who’d have expected it–on the open road in the full of the afternoon? You couldn’t put any blame on him, sprawled on his knees, the whole thing coming so quick. When he picked himself up he looked into the muzzle of a revolver and saw behind it a head, only the eyes showing between the hat brim and a gunny sack tied round the lower part of the face.
After that it all went so swift you couldn’t hardly tell. He didn’t even then know there were two of them–heard the feller at the wheel say, “Hands up,” and thought that was all there was to it–when the one at the horses’ heads fired. Leonard had given an oath and reached for his gun, and right with that the report came, and Leonard heaved up with a sort of grunt, and then settled and was still. The other feller came along down through the dust, and Jim Bailey, paralyzed, with his hands up, knew Knapp and Garland had got him at last.
The one at the wheel kept him covered while the other pulled out the box. He could see him plain, all but his face, a big powerful chap, shoulders on him like a prize fighter’s, and freckled hands covered with red hair. He got the box out with a jerk and dropped it, and then, snatching up a stick, struck the near wheeler a blow on the flank and jumped back into the bushes.
The horses started, mad, like they were locoed; it was a wonder the stage wasn’t upset, racing this way and that, up the bank and down on the other side. Jim Bailey crawled out on the axle, picked up the dragging reins and got back just in time to keep Leonard from bouncing out. He heaved him up and held him round the body, and when he got the horses going straight, took a look at him. That first time he thought he was dead, white as chalk and with his eyes turned up. But after a spell of going he decided there was life in him yet, and holding him with one arm, stretched the other over the splashboard, shaking the reins on the wheelers’ backs, and the way those horses buckled to their work was worth gettin’ held up to see.
Half an hour later the Rocky Bar stage came like a cyclone into Mormons Landing, Jim Bailey hopping like a grasshopper on the front seat, and on his arm Danny Leonard, shot through the lung. They drew up in front of the Damfino Saloon, and Mormons Landing, dead among its deserted ditches, knew again a crowded hour of glorious life. Everybody came running and lined up along the sidewalk, later to line up along the Damfino Bar. The widow woman who ran the eating house put Danny Leonard in her own bed and sent one of her sons, aged six, to San Marco for a doctor, and the other, aged eight, to Jackson for the sheriff.
Before night fell the news had flashed through the countryside. On ranch piazza and in cabin doorway, in the camps along the Mother Lode and the villages of the plain, men were telling one another how Knapp and Garland had held up the Rocky Bar stage and got away with twelve thousand dollars in gold.
The place of the holdup was on the first upward roll of the hills. Farther back, along more distant slopes, the chaparral spread like a dark cloth but here there was little verdure. The rainless California summer had scorched the country; mounded summit swelled beyond mounded summit all dried to a uniform ochre. But if you had stood on the rise where the stage stopped and faced toward the west, you would have seen, stretching to the horizon, a green expanse that told of water.
This was the tules, a vast spread of marsh covered with bulrushes, flat as a floor, and extending from a distant arm of the bay back into the land. It was like a wedge of green thrust through the yellow, splitting it apart, at one end meeting the sky in a level line, at the other narrowing to a point which penetrated the bases of the hills. From these streams wound down ravine and rift till their currents slipped into the brackish waters of the marsh. Such a stream, dried now to a few stagnant pools, had worn a way along the gulley where the holdup had occurred.
Down this gulley, the box between them, the bandits ran. Alders and bay grew thick, sun spots glancing through their leaves, boughs slapping and slashing back from the passage of the rushing bodies, stones rolling under the flying feet. The heat was suffocating, the narrow cleft holding it, the matted foliage keeping out all air. The men’s faces were empurpled, the gunny sacks about their necks were soaked with sweat. They spoke little–a grunt, a muttered oath as a stone turned. Doubled under the branches, crashing through a covert with closed eyes and warding arm, they fled, now and then pausing for a quick change of hands on the box or the sweep of a sleeve across a dripping brow. Nearly a half hour from the time they had started they emerged into brighter light, the trees growing sparse, the earth moist, a soft coolness rising–the creek’s conjunction with the tules.
The sun was sloping westward, the sky infinitely blue and clear, golden light slanting across the plain’s distant edges. Before them, silent, not a breath stirring the close-packed growth, stretched the marshes. They were miles in extent; miles upon miles of these level bulrush spears threaded with languid streams, streams that curved and looped, turned back upon themselves, narrowed into gleaming veins, widened to miniature lakes on whose bosom the clouds, the birds and the stars were mirrored. They were like a crystal inlay covering the face of the tules with an intricate, shining pattern. No place was ever more deserted, alien, uninhabitable, making no compromise with the friendly, fruitful land.
Against the muddy edge a rotten punt holding a pole swung deliberate from a stake. The men put the box in, then followed, and the elder, standing in the stern, took the pole and, pushing against the bank, drove the boat into deep water. It floated out, two ripples folding back oily sleek from its bow. After the Indian fashion, the man propelled it with the pole, prodding against the bottom. He did it skillfully, the unwieldly hulk making a slow, even progress. He also did it with a singular absence of sound, the pole never grating on the gunnel, feeling quietly along the soft mud of the shores, rising from the water, held suspended, then slipping in again as noiseless as the dip of the dragon flies.
No words passed between them. Sliding silent over the silent stream, they were like a picture done in a few strong colors, violent green of the rushes, violent blue of the sky. Their reflection moved with them, two boats joining at the water line, in each boat two figures, every fold of their garments, every shade and high light, minutely and dazzlingly reproduced.
Highwayman is a word of picturesque suggestion, but there was nothing picturesque about them. They looked like laborers weather-worn from wind and sun; the kind of men that crowd the streets of new camps and stand round the cattle pens at country fairs. Knapp, sitting in the bow, was younger than the other–under thirty probably. He was a big-boned, powerful animal, his thick, reddish hair growing low on his forehead, his face, with its wide nose and prominent jaw, like the study of a face left in the rough. In his stolid look there was something childlike, his eyes following the flight of a bird in the air, then dropping to see its reflection in the water.
Garland was older, fully fifty, burly, thickset, strong as an ox. His hat lay in the bottom of the boat and his head, covered with curly, grizzled hair, was broad and well-shaped. A corresponding grizzle of beard clothed his chin and fringed a straight line of lip. The rest of his face showed the skin sun-dried and lined less from age than a life in the open. Wrinkles radiated from the corners of his eyes, and one, like a fold in the flesh, crossed his forehead in a deep-cut crease. His clothes were of the roughest, a dirty collarless shirt with a rag of red bandanna round the neck, a coat shapeless and dusty, and overalls grease and mud-smeared with the rubbing of his hands. His boots were the iron-hard clouts of the rancher, his hat a broken black felt, sweat-stained and torn. Passing him on the road, you would have set him down as a farm hand out of a job.
The boat had passed beyond the shelter of the hills to where the tules widened. Pausing, he glanced about. Far to the right he could see a small white square–the lodge of a sportsman’s club which in the duck shooting season would disgorge men and dogs into the marsh. It was closed now, but on the plain beyond there were ranches. He dropped to his knees, shipped the pole, and drew from the bottom of the boat a piece of wood roughly shaped into a paddle. Here in the heart of the tules, where a head moving over the bulrush floor might be discerned, sound would not carry far. He dipped in the paddle, the long spray of drops hitting the water with a dry, running patter.
The man in front moved and looked ahead.
“We’d ought to be near there.”
“A few yards over to the right,” came the answer, and with it the boat took a sharp turn to the left, nosing along the bank, then stole down a waterway, a crystal channel between ramparts of green. This looped at a right angle, shone with a sudden glaze of sun, slipped into shadow and, rounding a point, an island with a bare, oozy edge came into view.
A deep stroke of the paddle sent the boat forward, its bow burrowing into the mud, and Knapp jumped out and beached it. The place was a small islet, one side clear, a wall of rushes, thick as grass, clothing the other. Over the water line the earth was hard, its surface cracked and flaked by the sun. On this open space lay two battered kerosene oil cans, their tops torn away, and a pile of stones. The hiding place was not a new one and the properties were already prepared.
With a knife and chisel they broke open the box. The money was in small canvas sacks, clean as if never used before and marked with a stenciled “W. F. & Co.” They took it out and looked at it; hefted its weight in their hands. It represented the first success after several failures, one brought to trial, others frustrated in the making or abandoned after warnings from the ranchers and obscure townsfolk who stood in with them. Knapp had been discouraged. Now he took a handful and spread it on his palm, golden eagles, heavy, shining, solid. Swaying his wrist, he let the sun play on them, strike glints from their edges, burnish their surface.
“Twelve thousand,” he murmured. “We ain’t but once before got that much.”
The elder, pulling the gunny sack from his neck, dropped it into one of the oil cans, pressing it against the sides like a lining.
“I can get the ranch now; six thousand’ll cover everything.”
“Are you honestly calculatin’ to do that?” Knapp had reached for the other can. With arm outstretched, he looked at Garland, gravely curious.
“I am. I told you so before. I had a look at it again last week. They’ll sell for four thousand, and it’ll take five hundred to put it into shape. I’ll bank the rest.”
“And you’ll quit?”
“Certain. I’ve had enough of the road.”
The younger man pondered, watching the hands of his partner fitting the money bags into the can. “Mebbe you got the right idea,” he muttered.
“It’s the right idea for me. I’m not what I once was, I’m old. It’s time for me to lay off and rest. I can’t keep this up forever and now I got the chance to get out and I’m goin’ to.”
He had filled his can and rose, taking off his coat and throwing it on the ground. Picking up the knife and chisel he went back to where the bulrushes began and crushed in among them. Knapp, packing the other can, could hear the sound of his heavy movements, the hacking of the knife at the bulrush stalks and then the thud of falling earth. When he had filled his can he saw that there were two sacks left over. He took them up and, looking about, caught sight of a newspaper protruding from the pocket of Garland’s coat. He pulled it out, calling as he did so:
“There’s two sacks I can’t get in. I’m goin’ to put ’em in this here paper you got.”
A grunt of acquiescence came from the bulrushes, the hacking of the knife, the thuds going on. Knapp unfolded the paper, set the sacks in it, and, gathering it about them, placed it on the top of his can. He heaved the whole up and crashed through the rushes to where Garland had already cleared a space and was digging a hole in the mud. When it was finished, the cans–the newspaper bundle on top–were lowered into it, and earth and roots replaced. No particular attempt was made at concealment; the cache was as secure against intrusion as if it were on the crest of the Sierra, and within the week they would be back to empty it. The box was filled with stones and sunk in the stream.
Then they rested, prone on the ground, at first talking a little. There was a question about the messenger; Knapp had shot and was casually confident he had only winged him. The matter seemed to give him no anxiety, and presently, his head burrowed into his arm, he fell asleep, a great, sprawled figure with the sun making his red hair shine like a copper helmet.
Garland lay on his back, his coat for a pillow, smoking a blackened pipe and thinking. He saw the sky lose its blue, and fade to a thin, whitish transparency, then flush to rose, bird specks skimming across it. He saw the tules grow dark, black walls flanking paths incredibly glossy, catching here and there a barring of golden cloud. He felt the breath of the marshes chill and salt-tainted, and watched the first star, white as a diamond, prick through the vault.
Then he rose and shook his partner, waking him with voluble profanity. The night had come, the dark that was to hide their stealthy exit. They went different ways; Knapp by a series of trails and planks to the south bank and thence across country, footing it through the night to his lair near Stockton. Garland would move north to friends of his up toward the mining camps along the Feather. They made a rendezvous for a night six days distant. Then they would carry away the money to places of safety which they went to prepare.
The sky was star-strewn as Garland’s punt slipped away from the island. It was intensely still, a whisper of water round the moving prow, the sibilant dip of the paddle the only sounds. He could see the water as a pale, winding shimmer ahead, dotted with star reflections like small, scattered flowers. Once, rising to make sure of his course, he saw the tiny yellow light in a ranch house far away. He stood for a moment looking at it, and when he crouched again the light had kindled his imagination. Its spark glowed wide till it showed the ranch kitchen, windows open to the blue night, earth smells floating in, the table with its kerosene lamp, the rancher reading the paper, his dog sleeping at his feet, peaceful, unguarded, secure.
Conscious of distance to be traversed before he became a creature of wary instincts and watchful eyes, he let his thoughts have way. They slipped about and touched the future with a sense of ease, then veered to the past. Here they steadied, memories rising photographically distinct like a series of pictures, detached yet revealing an underlying thread of connection:
First it was his youth in the Southwest when he had been Tom Michaels, a miner, well paid, saving his wages. Then his marriage with Juana Ramirez, the half-breed girl at Deming, and the bit of land he had bought–with a mortgage to pay–in the glaring, green river valley. Glimpses of their life there, children and work–stupefying, tremendous work–to keep them going and to meet the interest; he had been a giant in those days.
And even so he hadn’t been able to do it. Six years after they took possession they moved out, ruined. He remembered it as if it had been yesterday–the adobe house with its flat roof and strings of red peppers hanging on the walls, the cart piled high with furniture, Juana on the front seat and Pancha astride of the mule. Juana had grown old in those six years, fat and shapeless, but she had been dog-loyal, dog-loving, his woman. Never a word of complaint out of her–even when the two children died she had just covered her head with the blanket and sat by the hearth, stoical, dry-eyed, silent.
He could see now that it was his dream of making money–big money–that had been wrong. If he’d been content with a wage and a master he’d have done better by her, but from the start he’d wanted his freedom, balked at being roped and branded with the herd. That was why he drifted back to mining, not a steady job, though he could have got it, but as a prospector, leaving Arizona and moving to California. There were years of it; he knew the mineral belt from the Panamint mountains to the Kootenai country. Juana and Pancha plodded from town to town, seeing him at intervals, always expecting to hear he’d struck “the ledge,” and be hardly able to scrape a living for them from the bottom of his pan.
One picture stood out clearer than the rest, ineffaceable, to be carried to his grave–the day he came back and heard that Juana was dead. He had left them at a place in Inyo, a scattering of houses on the edge of the desert. Pancha saw him coming, and her figure, racing to meet him in a blown flutter of cotton skirt, was as plain before his eyes as if she were running toward him now along the shining water path. She was twelve, brown as a nut, and scarecrow-thin, with a tangle of black hair, and narrow, dark eyes. He could recall the feel of her little hard hand inside his as she told him, excited at imparting such news, pushing the hair off her dirty face to see how he took it.
It had crushed the heart in him and some upholding principle of hope and resolution broke. He found a place for Pancha with Maria Lopez, the Mexican woman who ran the Buon Gusto restaurant at Bakersfield and agreed to look after the girl for pay. Then he went back to the open, not caring much, the springs of his soul gone dry. He had no energy for the old life and did other things, anything to make his own food and Pancha’s keep–herded sheep, helped on the cattle ranges, tended store, hung on the fringes of the wilderness, saw men turn to savages and turned himself.
At long intervals he went down to the settlements and saw Pancha, growing into a gawky girl, headstrong, and with the wildness of her mother’s people cropping out. She hated Maria Lopez and the work in the restaurant and wanted him to take her to the mountains. When she was sixteen a spell of illness laid him up and after that he had difficulty in getting work. Two months passed without a payment and when he finally got down to Bakersfield he found that Pancha had gone, run away with a traveling company of actors. Maria Lopez and he had a fight, raged at one another in mutual fury, and then he started out to find his girl, not knowing when he did what he would do with her.
She solved that problem; she insisted on staying with the actors. She liked the life, she could sing, they told her she had a future. She had fixed and settled everything, even to her name; she would retain that of Lopez, which she was already known by in Bakersfield. There was nothing for it but to let her have her way; a man without home, money or prospects has no authority. But the sense of his own failure, of the hopelessness of his desire to shelter and enrich her, fell on his conscience like a foot on a spark and crushed it out. He returned to the mountains, his hand against all men, already an outlaw, love for his own all that was left of the original man. That governed him, gave him the will to act, stimulated his brain, and lent his mind an unfailing cunning. The meeting with Knapp crystallized into a partnership, but when Garland the bandit rose on the horizon, no one, least of all Pancha, knew he was Michaels the miner.
He stood up in the boat and again reconnoitered; he was near the shore. The country slept under the stars, gray rollings of hills and black blotches of trees, very still in its somber repose. Dropping back to the seat, he plied the paddle with extraordinary softness, wary, listening, alert. Soon, in a week or two, if he could settle the sale, he would be on his way to San Francisco to tell Pancha he had sold his claim at last and had bought the ranch. Under his caution the pleasure of this thought pervaded him with an exquisite satisfaction. He could not forbear its indulgence and, leaning on the paddle, allowed himself a last, delightful vision–the ranch house piazza with Pancha–her make-up off–sitting on the steps at his feet.
That night he slept in the cowshed of an abandoned ranch. A billet of wood under his head, his repose was deep and dreamless, but in the dawn’s light he woke, suddenly called out of slumber by a thought. It floated on the surface of his conciousness, vaguely disturbing, then took slow shape and he sat up feeling in the pockets of his coat. The paper was gone; Knapp saying he had taken it was not a dream. For a space he sat, coming to clearer recollection, his partner’s voice calling, vaguely heard, its request unheeded in his preoccupation. He gave a mutter of relief, and dropping back settled himself into comfort. The paper was as safe there as in his own pocket and he’d have it again inside of a week. With the first light in his eyes, he lapsed off again for another hour.
MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE
A few miles below where the stage was held up a branch road breaks from the main highway and cuts off at right angles across the plain. This is a ranchers’ road. If you follow it southward you come to the region of vast holdings, acres of trees in parallel lines as straight as if laid with a tape measure, great, fawn-colored fields, avenues of palm and oleander leading to white houses where the balconies have striped awnings and people sit in cushioned wicker chairs.
The other end of it runs through lands of decreasing cultivation till–after it passes Tito Murano’s cottage–it dips to the tules and that’s the end of it. To be sure, a trail–a horse path–breaks away and makes a detour round the head of the marshes, but this is seldom used, a bog in winter and in summer riven with dried water-courses and overgrown with brambles. To get around the tules comfortably you have to strike farther in and that’s a long way.
The last house before you get to Tito Murano’s, which doesn’t count, is the Burrage Ranch. In the white mansions among the fruit trees the Burrage Ranch doesn’t count much either. It is old and small, fifty acres, a postage stamp of a ranch. There is no avenue to the house, which is close to the road behind a picket fence, and instead of encircling balconies and striped awnings, it has one small porch with a sagging top, over which climbs a rose that stretches long festoons to the gable. In its yard grow two majestic live oaks, hoary giants with silvered limbs reaching out in a thick-leaved canopy and casting a great spread of shade.
Old Man Burrage had had the ranch a long time as they reckon time in California. In his youth he had seen the great epoch in Virginia City, figured in it in a humble capacity, and emerged from its final _débâcle_ with twenty thousand dollars. He should have emerged with more and that he didn’t made him chary of mining. Peace and security exerted their appeal, and after looking about for a few reflective years, he had married the prettiest waitress in the Golden Nugget Hotel in Placerville and settled down to farming. He had settled and settled hard, settled like a barnacle, so firm and fast that he had never been able to pull himself loose. Peace he had found but also poverty. If the mineral vein was capricious, so were the elements, insect pests and the fruit market. Thirty years after he had bought the ranch he was still there and still poor with his wife Mary Ellen, his daughter Sadie and his son Mark.
Mark’s advent had followed the decease of two older boys and his mother had proclaimed his preciousness by christening him Marquis de Lafayette. Her other sons had borne the undistinguished appellations of relatives, but this one, her consolation and her Benjamin, would be decked with the flower of her fancy. Of the original bearer of the name she knew nothing. Waiting on table at the Golden Nugget and later bearing children and helping on the ranch had not left her time for historical study. When her son, waking to the blight she had so innocently put upon him, asked her where she had found the name, she had answered, “In a book,” but beyond that could give no data. When, unable to bear his shame, he had abbreviated it to “Mark D.L.” she had been hurt.
Otherwise he had not disappointed her. When she had crowned him with a title she had felt that a high destiny awaited him and the event proved it. After a youth on the ranch, Mark, at sixteen, grew restive, at seventeen announced that he wanted an education and at eighteen packed his grip and went to work his way through Stanford University. Old Man Burrage made himself a bore at the crossroads store and the county fair telling how his boy was waiting on table down to Stanford and doing typewriting nights. Some boy, that!
When Mark came home on his vacations it was like the return of Ulysses after his ten years’ wandering–they couldn’t look at him enough, or get enough time to listen. His grammar was straightened out, his chin smooth, the freckles gone from his hands, and yet he was just the same–no fancy frills about _him_, Old Man Burrage bragged to his cronies. And then came the coping stone–he told them he was going to be a lawyer. Some of the neighbors laughed but others grew thoughtful and nodded commendingly. Even on the balconies of the white houses in the wicker chairs under the awnings Mark and his aspirations drew forth interested comment. Most of these people had known him since he was a shock-headed, barefoot kid, and when they saw him in his store clothes and heard his purified grammar, they realized that for youth in California belongs the phrase “the world is my oyster.”
Now Mark had graduated and was studying in a large law office in San Francisco. He was paid twenty dollars a week, was twenty-four years old, rather silent, five-feet-ten and accounted good-looking. At the time this story opens he was spending his vacation–pushed on to the summer’s end by a pressure of work in the office–on the ranch with his parents.
It was late afternoon, on the day following the holdup, and he was sitting in the barn doorway milking the brown cow. The doorway was shadowed, the blackness of the barn’s interior behind it, the scent of clean hay drifting out and mingling with the scents of baked earth and tarweed that came from the heated fields. With his cheek against the cow’s side he could see between the lower limbs of the oaks the country beyond, rust-colored and tan, streaked with blue shadows and the mottled blackness below the trees. Turning a little further he could look down the road with the eucalyptus tall on either side, the yellow path barred by their shade. From the house came a good smell of hot bread and a sound of voices–Mother and Sadie were getting ready for supper. At intervals Mother’s face, red and round below her sleeked, gray hair, her spectacles up, her dress turned in at the neck, appeared at the window to take a refreshing peep at her boy milking the brown cow.
The milk sizzed and foamed in the pail and the milker, his forehead against the cow’s warm pelt, watched it rise on the tin’s side. It made a loud drumming which prevented his hearing a hail from the picket fence. The hail came again in a husky, dust-choked voice:
“Hello, can you give me a drink?”
This time Mark heard and wheeled on the stool. A tramp was leaning against the fence looking at him.
Tramps are too familiar in California for curiosity or interest, also they are unpopular. They have done dreadful things–lonely women in outlying farms have guns and dogs, the one loaded, the other cultivated in savagery against the visits of the hobo.
Mark rose unwelcoming, but the fellow did look miserable. He was gaunt and dirty, long ragged locks of hair falling below the brim of his torn straw hat, an unkempt straggle of beard growing up his cheeks. His clothes hung loose on his lean frame, and he looked all the same color, dust-brown, his hair, his shirt, his coat, even his face, the tan lying dark over a skin that was sallow. Only his eyes struck a different note. They were gray, very clear in the sun-burned face, the lids long and heavy. Their expression interested Mark; it was not the stone-hard, evil look of the outcast man, but one of an unashamed, smoldering resentment.
The same quality was in his manner. The request for water was neither fawningly nor piteously made. It was surly, a right churlishly demanded. Mark moved to the pump and filled the glass standing there. The tramp leaning on the pickets looked at him, his glance traveling morose over the muscular back and fine shoulders, the straight nape, the dark head with its crown of thick, coarse hair. As Mark advanced with the glass he continued his scrutiny, when, suddenly meeting the young man’s eyes, his own shifted and he said in that husky voice, hoarse from a parched throat:
“It’s the devil walking in the heat on these rotten dusty roads.”
The other nodded and handed him the glass. He drained it, tilting his head till the sinews in his haggard throat showed below his beard. Then he handed it back with a muttered thanks.
“Been walking far?” said Mark.
The tramp moved away from the pickets, jerking his head toward the road behind him. For the first time Mark noticed that he had a basket on his arm, containing a folded blanket.
“From the fruit farms down there. I’ve been working my way up fruit picking. But it’s a dog’s job; better starve while you’re about it. Thank you. So long.”
It was evident he wanted no further parley, for he started off down the road. Mark stood looking after him. He noticed that he was tall and walked with a long stride, not the lazy shuffle of the hobo. Also he had caught a quality of education in the husky voice. Under its coarsened inflections there was an echo of something cultured, not fitting with his present appearance, a voice that might once have known very different conditions. Possibly a dangerous chap, Mark thought; had an ugly look, a secret, forbidding sort of face. When the educated kind dropped they were apt to fall further and come down harder than the others. He threw the glass into the bushes and went in to wash up. Before he was called to supper he had forgotten all about the man.
In the cool of the evening the Burrages sat on the porch, rather crowded for the space was small. Mark, on the bottom step, smoked a pipe and watched the eucalyptus leaves printed in pointed black groupings against the Prussian-blue sky. This was the time when the family, released from its labors, sat back comfortably and listened to the favored one while he told of the city by the sea. Old Man Burrage had a way of suddenly asking questions about people he had known in the brave days of the Comstock, some dead now, others trailing clouds of glory eastward this many years.
Tonight he was minded to hear about the children of George Alston whom Mark had met. Long ago in Virginia City Old Man Burrage had often seen George Alston, talked with him when he was manager of the Silver Queen and one of the big men of that age of giants. Mother piped up there–_she_ wasn’t going to be beaten. Many’s the time she’d waited on George Alston when he and the others would come riding over the Sierras on their long-tailed horses–a bunch of them together galloping into Placerville like the Pony Express coming into Sacramento.
“And some of ’em,” said the old woman, rocking in easeful reminiscence, “would be as fresh with me as if I’d given ’em encouragement. But George Alston, never–he’d treat me as respectful as if I was the first lady in the land. Halting behind to have a neighborly chat and the rest of them throwin’ their money on the table and off through the dining room hollerin’ for their horses.”
Her son, on the lower step, stirred as if uncomfortable. These memories, once prone to rouse a tender amusement, now carried their secret sting.
“He was the real thing,” the farmer gravely commented. “There wasn’t many like him.”
Sadie, who was not interested in a man dead ten years ago, pushed the conversation on to her own generation.
“His daughters are grown up. They must be young ladies now.”
“Yes–Miss Chrystie’s just eighteen, came of age this summer. The other one’s a few years older.”
“Up in Virginia,” said the farmer, “George Alston was a bachelor. Every woman was out with her lariat after him but he give ’em all the slip. And afterward, when he went back East to see his folks, a little girl in his home town got him–a girl a lot younger than him. She died after a few years.”
There was regret in his tone, not so much for the untimely demise of the lady as for the fact that George Alston had not found his mate in California.
“What are they like?” said Sadie–“pretty?”
Mark had his back toward her. She could see the shape of it, pale in its light-colored shirt, against the dark filigree of shrubs at the bottom of the steps. His answer sounded indifferent between puffs of his pipe:
“Yes, I guess so. Miss Chrystie’s a big, fine sort of girl, with yellow hair and lots of color. She’s nearly as tall as I am. The other, Miss Lorry–well, she’s small.”
“They’d ought to have a heap of money,” said the farmer. “But when he died I heard he hadn’t cut up as rich as you’d think. Folks said he was too honest.”
“They’ve got enough–four hundred thousand each.”
“Well, well, well,” said Mother with a lazy laugh, “that’d do _me_.”
Her husband wouldn’t have it.
“Lord, that’s small for him,” he mourned. “But I’m not surprised. He wouldn’t ‘a’ stood for what some of the rest of ’em did.”
“Is the house grand?” asked Sadie.
“I suppose it is; it’s big enough, lots of bay windows and rooms and piazzas. It’s on Pine Street, near town, with a garden round it full of palms and trees.”
“Do they have parties there?”
“No–at least I never heard of any. They’re quiet sort of girls, don’t go out much. Just live there with an old lady–Mrs. Tisdale–some relative of their mother’s.”
Sadie was disappointed. Having been led to expect so much from these children of wealth, she felt cheated and was inclined to criticize. She rather grumbled about their being so quiet. Mother disagreed:
“It sounds as if they were nice and genteel. Not the flashy, fashionable kind. And their mother dying when they were so young–that makes a difference.”
“It was Crowder got you acquainted with them?” said the old man.
Charlie Crowder was a college chum of Mark’s who had spent several vacations on the ranch and who was regarded by the Burrages as a fount of wisdom. Mark from the steps said yes, Crowder had taken him to the house.
There was a pause after this, the parents sunk in gratified musings. The farmer, the simple, unaspiring male, saw no further than the fact of Mark a guest in George Alston’s home, but Mother had far-reaching fancies, glimpsed future possibilities. It was she who broke the silence, observing casually as if all doors must be open to her brilliant son,
“I’m glad you know them, honey. There’s no better companions for a young man making his way, than quiet, refined girls.”
Sadie saw it as astonishing. She could hardly encompass the thought of her brother, a few years ago working on the ranch like a hired man, now moving in the glittering spheres that she read about in the Sunday edition of the _Sacramento Courier._
“Do you go there often?” she asked.
“Oh, now and again. I haven’t much time for calling.”
It was Mark who turned the conversation, difficult at first. The farmer was tractable, but Mother and Sadie showed a tendency to cling to the Alston sisters. He finally diverted their attention by telling them about Pancha Lopez, the greaser girl, who was the new leading woman at the Albion Opera House, and a friend of Charlie Crowder’s. Mother forgot the Alstons.
“You don’t know _her_, do you, Mark?” she said uneasily.
“No, Mother, I’ve only seen her act.”
The farmer stirred and rumbled warningly out of the darkness,
“And you don’t want to, son. A hard-working boy don’t want to waste his time lallygaggin’ round with actresses.”
When they dispersed for the night, Mother noticed that Mark was abstracted, almost as if he was depressed. No one else saw it; eyes and tongues were heavy at bedtime on the ranch. Sadie, dragging up the stairs to be awake tomorrow at sunrise, might have been depressed but she wasn’t. And the farmer and his wife, creaking about in their stuffy room over the kitchen, their old bones stiff with fatigue, were elated.
A part of the attic, lighted by one window in the gable, had been Mark’s den since he was eight. Here was the table with its hacked edge where he had done his “homework” when he went to the public school up the road, his shelf of books, the line of pegs for his clothes, the rifle his father had given him when he shot fifty rabbits in one month. He lit the lamp and looked about, his eyes seeing it as mean and unlovely, and his heart reproaching him that he should see it so.
He sat down by the table and tried to read, but the book fell to his knees and he stared, thought-tranced, at the pegs along the wall. What he thought of was the eldest Alston girl, Lorry, the one he had described as “small.” Usually he did not permit himself to do this, but tonight the talk on the porch, his people’s naive pleasure that he should know one so fine and far-removed, called up her image–dominant, imperious, not to be denied. With the lamplight gilding his brooding face, the back-growing crest of dark hair, the thick eyebrows, the resolute mouth, lip pressed on lip in an out-thrust curve, he sat motionless, seeing her against the background of her home.
Details of its wealth came to him, costly elegancies of her surroundings–the long parlor with its receding vista to a dining room where silver shone grandly, rich, still curtains, pictures, statues; the Chinese servants offering delicate food, coming at the touch of a bell, opening doors, carrying trays. It was not really as imposing as Mark thought. There were people who sniffed at the Alstons’ way of living, in that queer, old-fashioned house far down town with the antiquated, lumbering furniture their father had bought when he married. But Mark had not the advantage of a comparative standard. Her setting gained its splendor not only from his inexperience, but by comparison with his own. He saw their two homes in contrast, just as he saw her in contrast with the other girls he had known, her fortune in contrast with his twenty dollars a week. It brought him a new, sharp pain, pain that he should have seen the difference, that he had acknowledged it, that what had once seemed good and fitting now looked poor and humble. He loved his people and hugged the love to him with a fierce loyalty, but it could not hide the fact that they were not as her people. It was the first jar to his glad confidence, the first blow in his proud fight for power and place, the first time the thought of his poverty had come with a humiliating sting. He was sore and angry with himself and would have liked to be angry with her. But he couldn’t–she was so sweet!
The tramp walked down the road, first on the grizzled grass, then, the earth under it baked to an iron hardness, back on the softened dust. He passed Tito Murano’s cottage with dogs and chickens and little Muranos sporting about the kitchen door and then noticed a diminishing of trees and a sudden widening of the prospect. From here the road dwindled to a trail that sloped to the marsh which spread before him. He sat down on a bank by the roadside and looked at it.
Under the high, unsullied heavens it lay like an unrolled map, green-painted, divisions and subdivisions marked by the fine tracings of streams. His eye traveled down its length to where in a line, ruler-straight, it met the sky, then shifted to its upper end, a jagged point reaching to the hills. He had heard of it on the ranches where he had been picking fruit–“It’s easy traveling till you reach the tules, but it’s some pull round _them_.” He gauged the distance round the point, and oaths, picturesque and fluent, came from him. He had sixteen dollars in the lining of his coat, and for days as he tramped and worked, he saw this hoard expended in San Francisco–a bath, clean linen, and a dinner, a dinner in a rôtisserie with a pint of red wine and a cigar. He saw no further than that–sixteen dollars’ worth of comfort and good living.
Now he was like a child deprived of its candy. He ached with fatigue, his feet were blistered, his throat dry as a kiln. Throwing off his hat, he leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, and cursed the marsh as if it were a living thing, cursed it with a slow, unctuous zest, spat out upon it the venom and wrath that had accumulated within him.
Seeing him thus, his hat off, sullen indifference replaced by a malign animation, he was a very different being from the man who had accosted Mark. A dangerous chap beyond doubt, dangerous from a dark soul and a stored power of malevolence. His face, vitalized with rage, was handsome; a narrow forehead, the hair receding from the temples, a high-bridged nose with wide-cut nostrils, lips thin and fine, moving flexibly as they muttered. It matched with what the voice had told Mark, was not the face of the brutalized hobo or low-bred vagrant, but beneath its hair and dirt showed as the mask of a man who might have fallen from high places. Even his curses went to prove it. They were not the dull profanities of the loafer, but were varied, colorful, imaginative, such curses as might come from one who had read and remembered.
Suddenly they stopped and his glance deflected, alert and apprehensive–his ear had caught a low crooning of song. It came from a small boy who, a little wooden boat in his hand, was advancing up the slope. This was Tito Murano, Junior, Tito’s first-born, nine years old, softly footing it home after a joyous hour along the edge of the tules.
Tito’s mother was Irish, but the Latin strain had flowered forth strong in her son. He was bronze-brown, with a black bullet head and eyes like shoe buttons. A pair of cotton trousers and a rag of shirt clothed him and his feet were bare and caked with mud. A happy day behind him and the prospect of supper made his heart light and he gave forth its joy in fresh, bird-sweet carolings.
He did not see the tramp and a sharp, “Hey, there, kid,” made him halt, startled, gripping the treasured boat against his breast. Then he made out the man, and stood staring, poised to run.
“Is there any way of getting across this infernal place?” The tramp’s hand swept the prospect.
Bashfulness held Tito speechless, and he stood rubbing one foot across the other.
The man’s eyes narrowed with a curious, ugly look.
“Are you deaf?” he said very quietly.
A muttered negative came from the child. The question contained a quality of scorn that he felt and resented.
“I want to cross the marsh, get to the railway. What’s the best way to go?”
Tito’s arm made a sweeping gesture round the head of the tules.
“That. There’s a trail. You go round.”
“Good God–that’s _miles_. How do people go, the people here, when they want to get to the other side?”
“That way.” Tito repeated his gesture. “But they don’t go often, and they mostly rides.”
The man gave a groaning oath, picked up his hat, then cast it from him with fury, and, planting his elbows on his knees, dropped his forehead on his hands. Tito was sorry for him, and advanced charily, his heart full of sympathy.
“The duck shooters have laid planks,” he murmured encouragingly.
The man raised his head.
Tito indicated the marsh.
“All along. They lay ’em when they come to shoot and then they let ’em lay. Nobody don’t ever go there ‘cept the duck shooters.”
“You mean I can get across by the planks?”
Tito forgot his bashfulness and drew nearer. He was emboldened by the thought that he could help the tramp, give assistance as man to man.
“_You_ couldn’t. It’s all mud and water, and turns too, like you was goin’ round in rings. But _I_ could–I bin acrost, right over to the Ariel Club.” He pointed to a small white square on the opposite side. “That’s where. The railroad’s a ways beyont that, but it ain’t awful far.”
The man looked and nodded, then smiled, a slight curling of his lip, a slight contraction of the skin round his eyes.
“If you show me the way I’ll give you a quarter,” he said, turning the smile on Tito.
Tito did not like the smile; it suggested a dog’s lifted lip when contemplating battle. Also he had been forbidden to go into the marsh; some of the streams were deep, the mud treacherous. But a quarter had seldom crossed his palm. He saw himself spending it at the crossroads store, and, tucking his boat up under his arm, said manfully:
“All right–I’ll get you over before sundown.”
They started, the child running fleet-footed ahead, the man following with long strides. There was evidently a way and Tito knew it. His black head bobbed along in front, now a dark sphere glossed by the sunlight, now an inky silhouette against the white shine of water. There were creeks to jump and pools to wade–the duck shooters’ planks only spanned the deep places–and the way was hard.
Once the tramp stopped, surly-faced, and measured the distance to the Ariel Club house. It seemed but little nearer. He told Tito so, and the child, pausing to look back, cheered him with heartening phrases. But it was a hard pull, crushing through the dense growth, staggering on the slippery ooze, and he began to mutter his curses again. Tito, hearing them, made no reply, a little scared in the sun-swept loneliness with the swearing in his ears.
Finally the man, floundering on a bank of mud, slipped and fell to his knees. He groveled, his hands caked, and when he rose a fearful stream of profanity broke from him. Tito stopped, chilled, peering back between the rushes. If it had been a rancher or one of the boys he would have laughed. But he had no inclination to laugh at the staggering figure, with the haggard, sweat-beaded face and furious eyes.
“I said it was long, but we’re gettin’ there. We’re halfway acrost now,” his little pipe, mellow-sweet, was in strange contrast with what had come before.
“You’re a liar, a damnable liar. You’ve led me into the middle of this–place that you don’t know any more of than I do.”
His eyes, ranging about in helpless desperation, saw, some distance beyond, a rise of dry ground. The sight appeared to divert him, and he stood looking at it. He had the appearance of having forgotten Tito, and the child, uneasy at this sudden stillness as he was ready to be at anything the tramp did, said with timid urgence:
“Say, come on. I got to get home for supper or I’ll get licked.”
For answer the man moved in an opposite direction, to where the stream widened. He saw there was deep water between him and the dry place, but he wanted to get there, rest, smoke, unroll his blanket and sleep. Tito’s uneasiness increased.
“You’re goin’ the wrong way,” he pleaded. “You can’t get round there, it’s all water.”
Suddenly the man turned on him savagely. His brooding eyes widened and their look, a threatening glare, made the boy’s heart quail.
“Get out,” he shouted, “get out, I’m done with you. You’re a fakir.”
Tito retreated, crushing the rushes under his naked feet, his face extremely fearful.
“But I was takin’ you. I sure was–“
“Get out. You don’t know anything about it. You’re a liar.”
“I do. I was takin’ you straight–and you promised me a quarter.”
“To hell with you and your quarter. Didn’t you hear me say get out?”
The thought of the quarter gave Tito a desperate courage; his voice rose in a protesting wail:
“But I done half already–you’re halfway acrost. You’d oughter give me a dime. I’ve done more than a dime’s worth.”
The tramp, with a smothered ejaculation, bent and picked up a bit of iron, relic of some sportsman’s passage. Tito saw the raised hand and ducked, hearing the missile hurtle over his head and plop into the water behind him. It frightened him, but not so much as the man’s face. Like a small, terrified animal he bent and fled. The breaths came quick from his laboring breast, and as he ran, his head low, the rushes swaying together over his wake, sobs burst from him, not alone for fear, but for his lost quarter.
The sun was the dazzling core of a golden glow when he crept on to the dry ground, mud-soaked, tear-streaked, his wooden boat still in his hand. His terror was over and he padded home in deep thought, inventing a lie. For if his parents knew of his wanderings he would be beaten and sent to bed without supper.
The tramp picked his way round to the stream that separated him from the desired ground, slipped out of his clothes and, putting them in the basket, plunged in the current. On the opposite bank he stood up, a lean, shining shape, the sunlight gilding his wet body, till it looked like a statue of brass. The bath refreshed him; he would eat some fruit he had in his basket, take a smoke, and rest there for the night.
Still wet, he pulled on his clothes, stretched out, and drawing a pear from the basket began to eat it. As he did so his glance explored the place and brought up on a mark at the water’s edge. It interested him, and still gnawing the pear, he crawled down to it–a footprint, large and as clearly impressed as if cast in plaster. Not far from it was a triangular indentation, its point driven deep–the mark of a boat’s prow.
Both looked fresh, the uppressed outlines of mud crisp and flakey, which would happen quickly under such a sun. Among his fellow vagrants he had learned a good deal about the tules, one fact, corroborated by the child, that at this season no one ever disturbed their loneliness. Still squatting he glanced about–at the foot of the rush wall behind him were two burnt matches. Men had recently been there, come in a boat, and smoked; there were no traces of a fire.
To perceptions used to the open dealings of an unobservant honesty, it would have signified nothing. But to his, trained for duplicity, learned in the ways of a world where concealments were a part of life, it carried a meaning. His face took on an animal look of cunning, his movements became alert and stealthy. Rising to his feet, he moved about, staring, studying, saw other footprints and then a break in the rushes at the back. He went there, parted the broken spears and came on a space where some were cut away, the ground disturbed, and still moist.
Half an hour later, the sun, sending its last long shafts across the marsh, played on a strange picture–a tramp, white-faced, with trembling hands, and round him, on the ground, about his sprawled legs, falling from his shaking fingers, yellow in the yellow light, gold, gold, gold!
THE MARKED PARAGRAPH
The first half of the night he spent moving the money to the marshes’ edge. Its weight was like the weight of millstones but disposed about him, in the basket, in the gunny sacks slung from his shoulders, in the newspaper carried in his hands, he dragged it across. When he reached the bank he fell like one dead. Outstretched beside his treasure he lay on his back and looked with half-closed eyes at the black vault and the cold satiric stars.
Before the dawn came he wrapped part of it in the paper and buried it among the sedge; the rest he put in his basket and his pockets. Early morning saw him, an inconspicuous, frowsy figure, slouching up to a way station on the line to Sacramento.
In the train he found a newspaper left by a departed traveler, and on its front page, featured with black headlines, the latest news of the Knapp and Garland holdup. After he had read it he sat very still. He knew what he had found and was relieved. It cleared the situation if it added to its danger. But he was intrigued by the difficulty of disposing of the money. To bank it was out of the question; he must rouse no curiosity and he could give no references. To leave it on the marshes’ edge was impracticable. He had heard of men who kept their loot buried, but he feared the perils of a cache, to be dug and redug, ungettable, in a solitary place, hard to find and dangerous to visit. He must put it somewhere not too remote, secure against discovery, where he could come and go unnoticed and free from question. By the time the train reached Sacramento he had formulated a plan.
He knew the city well, had footed the streets of its slums before he went South. In a men’s lodging house, kept by a Chinese, he engaged a room, left what gold he had there–he had to take his chance against theft–and in the afternoon took a down train to the marsh. He was back with the rest of the money that night, buying a secondhand suitcase on his way from the depot. In this he packed it, still in the canvas sacks, the newspaper folded over it. He saw to it that the suitcase had a lock, and lead-heavy he laid it flat under the bed.
The next morning he rose, nerved to a day of action. He was out early, his objective the small, mean stores of the poorer quarter. In these he bought shoes, the coarse brogans of the workman, and a hat, a rusty, sweat-stained Stetson. A barber’s shop in a basement was his next point of call. Here he was shaved and his hair cut. When he emerged into the light of day the tramp had disappeared. The ragged growth gone, the proud almost patrician character of his face was strikingly apparent. It matched so illy with his wretched clothes that passersby looked at him. He saw it and slunk along the walls, his hat on his brows, uneasily aware of the glances of women which usually warmed him like wine. At a secondhand dealer’s, a dark den with coats and trousers hanging in layers about the entrance, he bought a suit of clothes and an overcoat. Carrying these in a bundle he went back to his room and put them on.
The transformation was now complete. He studied himself in the blotched and wavy mirror and nodded in grave approval. He might have been an artisan, a small clerk, or a traveling salesman routed through the country towns.
Half an hour later saw him at the desk of the Whatcheer House. This was a third-rate men’s hotel, a decent enough place where the transient male population from the interior met the restless influx from the coast. Here floated in, lodged a space, then drifted out a tide of men, seekers of work, of pleasure, of change, of nothing at all. The majority were of the world’s rovers impelled by an unquenchable wanderlust, but among them were the industrious and steady, quartered in the city or shifting to a new center of activity. He registered as Harry Romaine of Vancouver and described himself as a traveling man who would use Sacramento as a base of operations. He took a room in the back–No. 19–said he would probably keep it all winter and paid a month’s rent in advance.
By afternoon he had the money there and with it a chisel and hammer. It was intensely hot, the sun beating on the wall and sloping in through the one window. Complete silence from the rooms on either side reassured him, and in the scorching stillness he worked with a noiseless, capable speed. In one corner under the bed he pulled up the carpet and pried loose the boards. Some of the money went there, some below the pipes in the cupboard under the stationary washstand, the rest behind a piece of the baseboard.
Before he replaced the boards in the corner cache–the largest and least difficult to disturb–he glanced about for anything overlooked or forgotten for which the hole would be a convenient hiding-place. On the floor, outspread and crumpled, lay the newspaper. The outer sheets were brown and disintegrated from contact with the mud, but the two inner ones were whole and clean. Probably it would be better to take no chances and hide it; someone might notice it and wonder how it came to be in such a state. He picked it up, looked it over, and saw it was the _Sacramento Courier_ of August 25. That would make it only three days old, the issue of the day before the holdup. If anything was needed to convince him that the cache was Knapp and Garland’s this was it. He opened it on the table to fold, brushing out the creases, when suddenly his hand dropped and his glance became fixed. A marked paragraph had caught his attention.
The light was growing dim and he took the paper to the window. The paragraph was at the end of a column, was encircled by two curved pencil strokes, and on the edge of clean paper below it was written, also in pencil, “Hello, Panchita. Ain’t you the wonder. Your best beau’s proud of you.”
He pulled a chair to the window, folded back the page and read the marked item. The column was headed “C. C.’s San Francisco Letter,” was dated August 21, and was mainly concerned with social and business news of the coast city. That part of it outlined by the pencil strokes ran as follows:
As to matters theatrical there’s nothing new in sight, except that Pancha Lopez–our Pancha–made a hit this week in “The Zingara,” the gypsy operetta produced on Sunday night at the Albion. I can’t tell much about “The Zingara”–maybe it was good and maybe it wasn’t. I couldn’t reckon with anything but Pancha; she was the whole show. She’s never done anything so well, was as dainty as a pink, as brilliant as a humming bird, danced like a fairy, and sang–well, she sang way beyond what she’s led us to expect of her. Can I say more? The public evidently agrees with me. The S.R.O. sign has been out at the cozy little home of comic opera ever since Sunday. C.C., who can’t keep away from the place, has seen so many dress shirt fronts and plush cloaks that he’s rubbed his eyes and wondered if he hasn’t made a mistake and it’s the grand opera season come early with a change of dates. But he hasn’t. Pacific and Van Ness avenues are beginning to understand that we’ve got a little song bird right here in our midst that they can hear for half a dollar and who gives them more for that than the Metropolitans do for a V. Saluda, Pancha! Here’s looking at you. Some day the East is going to call you and you’re going to make a little line of footsteps across the continent. But for our sakes postpone it as long as you can. Remember that you belong to us, that we discovered you and that we can’t get on without you.
He read it twice and then studied the penciled words, “Hello, Panchita! Ain’t you the wonder. Your best beau’s proud of you.” In the dying light he murmured them over as if their sound delighted him and as he murmured a slight, sardonic smile broke out on his face.
His sense of humor, grim and cynical, was tickled. He, the picaroon, companion of rogues and small marauders, had seen many and diverse love affairs. On the shady bypaths he had followed, edging along the rim of the law, he had met all sorts of couples, men and women incomprehensibly attracted, ill-assorted, mysterious, picturesque. This seemed to him one of the most piquant combinations he had ever encountered–a bandit and a comic opera singer. It amused him vastly and he crooned over the paper, grinning in the dusk. The fellow had evidently marked the item and written his congratulations, intending to send it to her, then needed it to wrap round the money, and confident in the security of his cache, left it there against his return. That thought increased his amusement, and he laughed, a low, smothered chuckle.
It was dark and he rose and lit the lamp. Then he tore out the piece of the paper and put it in the pocket of his suitcase. The rest he folded and placed in the hole under the money. As he knelt, fitting the boards back, he thought of the singing woman, Pancha Lopez. The beloved of a highwayman, with a Spanish name, he pictured her as a dark, flashing creature, coarsely opulent and mature. It was evident that she too belonged to the world of rogues and social pirates, and he laughed again as he saw himself, swept back by a turn of fate, into the lives of the outlawed. He must see Pancha Lopez; she promised to be interesting.
A week later, at eleven at night, a large audience was crowding out of the Albion Opera House. If you know San Francisco–the San Francisco of before the fire–you will remember the Albion. It stood on one of those thoroughfares that slant from the main stem of Market Street near Lotta’s Fountain. That part of the city is of dubious repute; questionable back walls look down on the alley that leads to the stage door, and after midnight there is much light of electricity and gas and much unholy noise round its darkened bulk.
But that is not the Albion’s fault. It did not plant itself in the Tenderloin; it was the Tenderloin that grew. Since it first opened its doors as a temple of light opera–fifty cents a seat and a constant change of bill–its patrons have been, if not fashionable, always respectable. Smoking was permitted, also the serving of drinks–the seat in front had a convenient shelf for the ladies’ lemonade and the gentleman’s beer–but even so, no one could say that a strict decorum did not prevail in the Albion’s audiences even as it did in the Albion’s productions.
A young man with a cheerful, ugly face stood in a side aisle, watching the crowd file out. He had a kindly blue eye, a merry thick-lipped mouth, and blonde hair sleeked back across his crown, one lock, detached from the rest, falling over his forehead. He had a way of smoothing back this lock with his palm but it always fell down again and he never seemed to resent it. Of all that pertained to his outward appearance, he was indifferent. Not only his patience with the recalcitrant lock, but his clothes showed it–dusty, carelessly fitting, his collar too large for his neck, his cravat squeezed up into a tight sailor’s knot and shifted to one side. He was Charlie Crowder, not long graduated from Stanford and now a reporter on the _Despatch_, where he was regarded with interest as a promising young man.
His eye, exploring the crowd, was the journalist’s, picking salient points. It noted fur collars and velvet wraps, the white gloss of shirt bosoms, women’s hair, ridged with artificial ripples–more of that kind in the audience than he’d seen yet. “The Zingara” had made a hit; he’d just heard at the box office that they would extend the run through the autumn. It pleased him for it verified his prophecy on the first night and it was a bully good thing for Pancha.
He stepped out of a side entrance, edged through the throngs on the pavement, dove up an alley and reached the stage door. A single round lamp burned over it and already dark shapes were issuing forth, mostly women, Cinderellas returned to their dingy habiliments. There was a great chatter of feminine voices as they skirmished off, some in groups, some alone, some on the arms of men who emerged from the darkness with muttered greetings.
Crowder crossed the back of the large stage where supers were pulling scenery about; weights and ropes, forest edges, bits of sky and parlor ceilings, hanging in layers from the flies. The brick wall at the back was whitewashed and against it a line of men and girls passed scurrying to the exit, throwing remarks back and forth, laughing, pulling on their coats. Some of them hailed him and got a cheery word in reply. Then, skirting the wings, he turned down a passage and brought up at a door on which a small star was drawn in chalk. He knocked, and a woman’s voice called from inside:
“Who is it?”
“Your faithful press agent.”
The woman’s voice answered:
“Enter Charlie, rear, smiling.”
He opened the door, went in. The place was the Albion’s best dressing room. It was small, with white-washed walls, and lighted by a gas jet inclosed in a wire shield. A mirror, its frame dotted with artificial flowers, bits of ribbon, notes and favors, surmounted the dressing table. This was a litter of paint pots, hair pins, toilet articles, powder rags, across which, like a pair of strayed snakes, lay two long braids of black hair. A powerful scent of cosmetics and stale perfumery mingled with the faint, thrilling breath of roses.
Seated in front of the glass in a soiled red satin kimono embroidered in storks, was Pancha Lopez, leading woman of the Albion. She was wiping off her make-up, a large jar of cold cream on the table before her, a grease rag in her hand. The kimono, falling richly, outlined a thin, lithe body, flat-backed, muscular and supple. The make-up still on her face turned her brown skin to a meerschaum pallor and the dusky brick-red of her cheeks to an unnatural rose. A long neck upheld a small, finely shaped head, the hair now drawn back and twisted in a tight knot to which the two long braids had been pinned. The Indian strain in her revealed itself in the flattened cheek-bones, the wide-cut, delicate nostrils and the small, high-set eyes as clearly black and white as if made of enamel. They were now outlined and elongated with lamp black which still clung to her lashes in flakes. She was twenty-two years old, and had been on the stage for six years.
After a glance over her shoulder and a flashing smile she returned to her work, pushing her hair still further off her forehead with one hand, and sweeping the greasy cloth over her face with the other.
“Well,” said Crowder, standing beside her and looking at her reflection, “how’s the baby-grand Patti tonight?”
“Fine!” She drew down her upper lip and slowly rubbed round her mouth, Crowder, as if fascinated, watching the process in the mirror. “Just sit down on something. Hang up my costume and take that chair if there isn’t any other. I got to get this thing off before I can talk comfortably.”
Her costume, a glittering heap of red and orange, lay across a chair, the pile surmounted by an open cardboard box whence the heads of roses protruded from tissue paper. He feared to touch that, and finding another chair against the wall, drew it to the side of the dressing table and sat down.
“Have you been in front?” she asked, rubbing along her jaw.
“Yes, it’s packed. But I only came in just before the curtain. How was the house?”
She threw a radiant look at him.
“Ate it up, dearie. Couldn’t get enough. Six encores for my Castanet song. Oh, Charlie,” she dropped the hand with its rag to the edge of the table and looked at him, solemnly earnest, “you don’t know how I feel–you don’t know. It’s hard to believe and yet it’s true. I can see the future stretching up like a ladder, and me mounting, step by step, on rungs made of gold.”
Pancha Lopez, unlettered, almost illiterate, child of the mountains and the ditches, wandering vagabond of the stage, would sometimes indulge in unexpected felicities of phrase. Her admirers said it was another expression of that “temperament” with which she was endowed. Crowder, who knew her better than most, set it down to the Indian blood. From that wild blend had come all that lifted her above her fellows, her flashes of deep intelligence, her instinct for beauty, her high-mettled, invincible spirit. He even maintained to his friend Mark Burrage–Mark was the only person he ever talked her over with–that it was the squaw in her which had kept her pure, made her something more than “a good girl,” a proud virgin, self-sufficing, untamable, jealous of her honor as a vestal.
“That’s what you ought to see,” he said in answer to her serious eyes. “Haven’t I always said it? Didn’t I tell you so up there in Portland when we first met and you were doing a turn between six saxaphone players and a bunch of trained cockatoos?”
She nodded, laughing, and returned to her rubbing.
“You surely did, and fanned up the flame that was just a tiny spark then. Dear old press agent, I guess I’ll have to change your name to the Bellows.”
“A. 1. Have you read the last blast I’ve given out?” She shook her head and he thrust his hand into his overcoat pocket. “I’ve brought it along, though I thought your father might have sent it to you.”
“Pa’s in the mountains.” Drawing down her upper lip she pressed on her cheeks with painted finger tips, scrutinizing her face in the mirror. “I haven’t heard from him for weeks. He’s off on the lode somewhere.”
“Then he hasn’t seen it. It’s the best I’ve done yet, and it’s true, every word.”
He had drawn from his pocket a paper which he now opened. As he folded it back, Pancha took out her hairpins and shook down her hair. It extended to her shoulders, a thick, curly bush, through which she pulled the comb with short, quick sweeps.
“Read that,” said the young man and handed her the paper. “_Sacramento Courier_–‘C. C’s San Francisco Letter.'”
She took it and read while he watched her with twinkling eyes. They were great pals, these two; had been since they met in Portland, five years ago. He was on his way to Stanford, and had seen her doing a singing and dancing act in a wretched vaudeville company. That vision of a girlhood, beset and embattled, the pitifulness of its acquired hardness, had called to his western chivalry and made him her champion. Ever since he had helped and encouraged, his belief and friendship a spur to the ruthless energy, the driving ambition, that had landed her in the Albion six months before.
As she read she began to smile, then squeals of delight broke from her.
“You old press agent!” she cried, hitting at him with the comb and still reading, and then: “You pet, you precious pet!”
She finished on a little cry and cast the paper to the floor.
“Oh, Charlie, oh, my good, _dear_ Charlie!” Her face was suddenly stirred with an upswelling of emotion. No other man in her hard and sordid experience had been to her what Charlie Crowder had, never a lover, always a friend.
“Now, Pancha,” he said pleadingly, “don’t look at me like that or I’ll burst into sobs.”
She rose and, putting her hands on his shoulders, kissed him on the forehead with a sexless tenderness. Her eyes were wet and to hide it she turned to where her costume lay on the chair. Crowder had nothing to say; these bursts of gratitude from his friend made him embarrassed.
“Look,” she cried suddenly and snatched up the box of roses, “even a Johnny at the stage door. That’s going some,” and thrusting her hand into the box, she plucked up by their heads a handful of blossoms. Their pure sweet breath flowed out on the coarse scents with which the small place reeked.
Crowder affected a shocked surprise.
“What’s this? A lover at last and I kept in ignorance.”
“This is his first appearance, not a yap till tonight. And look at the yap.” She dropped the box and took out from under the paper a card which she held toward him, “Some style about _that_ yap.”
It was the square of pasteboard furnished by the florist. On it was written in a small, upright hand, “Let me offer you these roses, sweet as your voice, delicate as your art, and lovely as yourself. An admirer.”
Crowder raised his eyebrows and widened his eyes in exaggerated amazement.
“Well, well, well! I must look into this. Who _is_ the gentleman ?”
“I haven’t a guess.” She took the card and dwelt on it delightedly. “Ain’t it stylish writing–scratchy and yet you can read it? And the words, they’re almost poetry. I never got flowers before with a sentiment as swell as that.”
“Don’t you honest know who it is?” said Crowder, impressed by the flowery profusion of “the sentiment.”
“Not me. Jake brought ’em in after the second curtain. They were left by a messenger boy. Whoever he is he certainly does things in a classy way. Maybe he’s a newspaper man to write like that.”
Crowder opined he was not. He could hardly imagine one of his fellows–even secure in his anonymity–permitting his pen such florid license.
“When you break through the dark secret let me know. Then I’ll come round and cast my searchlight eye over him and see if he’s a proper companion for little Panchita.”
“No fear,” she cried, throwing the card back in the box. “Little Panchita’s got a searchlight eye of her own. Believe _me_, it’s a good, trained, old eye. Now skiddoo. I’ve got to slip into my togs and then me for home and a glass of milk. If he comes to the surface with another gasp I’ll tell you.”
When he had gone she dropped the kimono and put on a blouse and skirt, both old and shabby. Her actions were quick and harmonious, no unnecessary moves made, the actions of one trained to an economy of time and labor. On a wall hook behind a curtain she hung her gypsy dress, touching it lightly, flicking off dust, settling the folds. Poverty had taught her this care, as ambition was teaching her a thrift that made her associates call her mean.
What they thought was a matter of indifference to her. Before she had reached the Albion she knew herself superior and had plans that stretched far. About these she was secret. Not one, not even her father, knew the amount of money she had saved, or that, when she had accumulated enough, she intended going East and to Europe. She felt her powers and dreamed of a future on stages far finer than the Albion’s. Once she had thought her father could help her. Two years ago he _had_ sold a prospect for four thousand dollars, but he had lost the money in an unlucky mining venture in Oregon. That ended all hopes of his assistance. Even if he did make another strike he needed what he got for himself; he was getting on, he wanted to buy a ranch and settle down. If she was to reach the summit of her desire–and she would reach it or die–she must do it herself. So she worked doggedly, nursed her voice, hoarded her earnings and said nothing.
She was ready to leave, her hat, a little black velvet toque, pulled down over her hair, a long shaggy ulster clothing her to the ankles. As she went to the dressing table to put out the light she saw her image in the glass and paused, eyeing it. So far her appearance had had no value for her save as a stage asset. Now she looked at herself with a new, critical interest. Behind the footlights she was another person, blossomed into an exotic brilliance, took on fire and beauty with the music and excitement. Might not a man seeing her there be disappointed when he met her as she really was? She studied her face intently, viewing it at different angles, judging it by the standards of her world. By these she found it wanting, and with a wistful sigh she stretched out her hand and turned off the light.
It was nearly midnight when she walked down the side streets that led to the car line which took her home. Overhead the fog hung, covering the city with a luminous rack which here and there parted, showing segments of dark, star-dotted sky. Passing men looked at her, some meeting a defiant stare, others a face so chastely unresponsive that they averted their eyes as if rebuked. On the car she took an outside seat, for she loved the swift passage through the night with the chill air on her face. The grip man knew her and smiled a greeting, and as she mounted the step she answered cheerily. Now and then as the car stopped he spoke to her, leaning over his lever, and she twisted round to reply, friendly, frank, intimate. Until she came to San Francisco his class was the best she had ever known.
It was part of her economy to live in the Mission. She had two rooms there in the old Vallejo Hotel, a hostelry once fashionable, now fallen on dreary days. It fronted on a wide street where new business buildings rose beside gabled houses, detached and disconsolate in the midst of withered lawns. The Vallejo was a connecting link between these samples of the new and the old. It belonged to the ornate bay-windowed period of the seventies. Each of its “front suites” had the same proud bulge, and its entrance steps were flanked by two pillars holding aloft ground glass globes upon which its name was painted in black. Tall buildings were unknown in those days; the Vallejo boasted only three stories and its architect had never dreamed of such an effete luxury as an elevator. Built on the filled-in ground of Mission Creek, it had developed a tendency to sag in the back, and when you walked down the oil-clothed hall to the baths, you were conscious of a list to starboard.
The Vallejo patrons did not mind these drawbacks, or if they did, thought of the low rates and were uncomplaining. All things considered, you got a good deal for your money. The place was quiet and respectable; even in its downfall it clung desperately to its traditions. It took no transients, required a certain standard of conduct in its lodgers, and still maintained a night clerk in the office of its musty front hall.
Pancha thought it quite regal. If it was a proud elevation for her to reign at the Albion, it was a corresponding one for her to have two rooms to herself in a real hotel. As she ascended the stairs–her apartment was on the second floor–she looked about her, taking in satisfactory details, the worn moquette carpet, the artificial palm on a pedestal in the corner, the high, gilt-topped mirror at the turn on the stairs. It all seemed to her what she would have called “refined”; she need never be ashamed to have a visitor come there.
In her parlor she lit the light and surveyed her surroundings with an increasing satisfaction. It was a startlingly ugly room, but she thought it a bower of elegance. What gave her authority on the stage, what had already lifted her above the mass, seemed to fall from her with her costume. That unwavering sense of beauty and grace, that instinctive taste which lent her performance poetry and distinction, left her at the wings. Now her eye dwelt, complacent, on the red plush chairs, the coarse lace curtains, the sofa pillows of etched leather and dissonant colors, the long mirror between the windows, and each and all received her approval. As she had thought on the stairs, she thought again–no one would be ashamed to receive a visitor, no matter how stylish, in such a room.
She put her roses in a vase and then fetched a bottle of milk from the window sill and a box of crackers from the bureau drawer. Setting these on the marble-topped table beside the droplight she sat and ate. It was too cold to take off her coat and from its pocket she drew the card that had come with the flowers. As she sipped and munched, the shadows of the room hovering on the light’s circular edge, she read over the words, murmuring them low, her voice lingering on them caressingly.
It was the first knock at the door of her dreams, the first prismatic ray of romance that had penetrated the penumbra of brutal realities in which she had lived.
The Argonaut Hotel–all San Franciscans will remember it–had, like the Vallejo, started life with high expectations and then declined. But not to so complete a downfall. Fashion had left it, but it still did a good business, was patronized by commercial travelers and old customers from the interior, and had a solid foundation of residentials, married couples beaten by the servant question and elderly men with no ties. Its position had been against it–on that end of Montgomery Street where the land begins to rise toward Telegraph Hill, with the city’s made ground behind, and in front “the gore” where Dr. Coggeswell’s statue used to stand. People who lived there were very loyal to it–not much style, but comfort, quiet and independence.
Three days before the events in the last chapter a man entered its office and asked for rooms. He was an impressive person, of the kind who usually went to the Palace or the St. Francis. Ned Murphy, the clerk, sized him up as an Easterner or maybe a foreigner. There was something foreign-looking about him–you couldn’t just tell what; it might be the way he wore his hair, brushed back straight from his forehead, or an undemocratic haughtiness of bearing. He looked as if he was used to the best, and he acted that way; had to be shown four suites before he was satisfied and then took the most expensive, second floor front, two rooms and bath, and you could see he didn’t think much of it. Ned Murphy lived up to him with an unbroken spirit, languidly whistled as he slid the register across the counter, looked up the hall with a bored air, and then winked at the bell boy holding the bags. But when the stranger had followed the boy up the stairs–the Argonaut had no elevator–he pulled the register round and eagerly read the entry–“Boyé Mayer, New York.” A foreign name all right; you couldn’t fool him.
He told the switchboard girl, who had been taking it all in from her desk, and she slid over to size up the signature. She thought he mightn’t be foreign–just happened to have that sort of name–he didn’t talk with any dialect. When the bell boy came back they questioned him, but he was grouchy–feller’d only given him a dime. And say, one of them suit cases was all battered and wore out, looked like the kind the hayseeds have when they come up from the country.
In his room the man went to the window, hitched back the lace curtains and threw up the sash. Life in the open had made these shut-in places stifling, and he drew in the air with a deep relish. Evening was falling, a belated fog drifting in, wreathing in soft whorls over the hills, feeling its way across their summits and through their hollows. It made the prospect depressing, everything enveloped in a universal, dense whiteness. He surveyed it, frowning–the looming shapes of the high land beyond, the line of one-story hovels sprawled on the gore. To the right the street slanted upward toward Telegraph Hill whence smaller streets would decline to the waterfront and the Barbary Coast. He knew that section well and smiled a little as he thought of it and of himself, a ragged vagrant, exploring its byways.
His thoughts stopped at that memory–the lowest point of his fall–hung there contemplative and then turned backward. They passed beyond his arrival in California, his days of decay before that, the first gradual disintegration, back over it all to the beginning.
Thirty-six years ago he had been born in New York, a few months after the arrival of his parents. They were Austrians, his father an officer in the Royal Hungarian Guards, his mother a dancer at the Grand Opera House in Vienna. When Captain Ruppert Heyderich, of a prosperous Viennese family, had, in a burst of passionate chivalry, married Kathi Mayer, end coryphée on the second row, he had deserted the army, his country and his world and fled to America. Captain Heyderich had not committed so radical a breach of honor and convention without something to do it on, and the early part of the romance had moved smoothly in a fitting environment. Their only child, Lothar, could distinctly recall days of affluence in an apartment on the Park. He had had a governess, he had worn velvet and furs.
Then a change came; the governess disappeared, also the velvet and furs, and they began moving. There was a period when to move was a feature of their existence, each habitat showing a decrease in size and splendor. Lothar was nine, a lanky boy with his hair worn _en brosse,_ in baggy knickerbockers and turn-over white collars, when they were up on the West Side in six half-lighted rooms, with a sloppy Hungarian servant to do all the work. That was the time when his father taught languages and his mother dancing. But _he_ went to a private school. Captain Heyderich never got over his European ideas.
Those lean years came to a sudden end; Captain Heyderich’s mother died in Vienna and left him a snug little fortune. They moved once more, but this time it was a hopeful, jubilant move, also a long one–to Paris. They settled there blithely in an apartment on the Rue Victor Hugo, Lothar, placed at a Lycée, coming home for weekends. He remembered the apartment as ornate and over-furnished, voluble guests coming and going, a great many parties, his mother, elaborately dressed, always hurrying off to meet people in somebody’s else house or hurrying home to meet them in her own. Several times Austrian relations visited them, and Lothar had a lively recollection of a fight one Sunday evening, when an uncle, a large, bearded man, had accused his mother of extravagance and she had flown into a temper and made a humiliating scene.
He was seventeen when his father died, and it was discovered that very little money was left. Some of the relations came from Vienna and there was a family conclave at which it was suggested to Lothar that he return to Vienna with them and become a member of the clan. Separation from his mother was a condition and he refused. He did this not so much from love of her as from fear of them. They represented a world of which he was already shy, of high standards, duties rigorously performed, pledges to thrift and labor. Life with Kathi was more to his taste. He loved its easy irresponsibility, its lack of routine, its recognition of amusement as a prime necessity. He delivered his dictum, his mother wept triumphant tears, and the relations departed washing their hands of him.
After that they went to London and Lothar made his first attempts at work. They were fitful; the grind of it irked him, the regular hours wore him to an ugly fretfulness. He tried journalism–could have made his place for he was clever–but was too unreliable, and dropped to a space writer, drifting from office to office. In his idle hours, which were many, he gambled. That was more to his taste, done in his own way, at his own time–no cramping restrictions to bind and stifle him. He was often lucky and developed a passion for it.
He was twenty-three when they returned to New York, Kathi having begged some more money from Vienna. She was already a worn, old witch of a woman, dressed gayly in remnants of past grandeur and always painting her face. She and her son held together in a partnership strained and rasping, but unbreakable, united by the mysterious tie of blood and a deep-rooted moral resemblance. They led a wandering life, following races, hanging on the fringes of migrating fashion, sometimes hiding from creditors, then reestablished by a fortunate coup. But in those days he was still careful to pick his steps along the edges of the law, just didn’t go over though it was perilous balancing. When she died he was relieved and yet he grieved for her. He felt free, no longer subject to her complaints and bickerings, but in that freedom there was a chill, empty loneliness–no one was beside him in that gingerly picking of his steps.
It was when he was twenty-seven–not quite lost–that the news came from Vienna of an unexpected legacy. His uncle, dying at the summit of a successful career, had relented and left him fifty thousand dollars. He assured himself he would be careful–poverty had taught him–and at first he tried. But the habits of “the years that the locust had eaten” were too strong. Augmented by several successful speculations it lasted him for six years. At the end of that time he was ruined, worn in body, warped in mind, his mold finally set.
After that he ceased to pick his way along the edges of the law, he slipped over. He followed many lines of endeavor, knew the back waters and hinterlands of many cities, ceased to be Lothar Heyderich and was known by other names. It was in Chicago, the winter before this story begins, that an attack of pneumonia brought him to the public ward of a hospital. Before his discharge, a doctor–a man who had noticed and been interested in him–gave him a word of warning:
“A warm climate–no more lake breezes for you. If you stay here and keep on swinging round the circle it won’t be long before you swing back here to us–swing back to stay. Do you get me?”
He did, his face gone gray at this sudden vision of the end of all things. The doctor, in pity for what he was now and evidently once had been, gave him his fare to California.
It had been hell there. The climate had done its work, he was well, but he had felt himself more a pariah than ever before. He had seemed like a fly crawling over a glass shield under which tempting dainties are clearly visible and maddeningly unattainable. A man wanted money in California–with money could lead the life, half vagabondage, half lazy luxury, that was meat to his longing. Never had he been in a place that allured him more and that held him more contemptuously at arm’s length.
He had sunk to his lowest depth in this tantalizing paradise, tramped the streets of cattle towns, herded with outcasts lower than himself. In Los Angeles he had washed dishes in a cafeteria, in Fresno polished the brasses in a saloon. And all around him was plenty, an unheeding prodigal luxuriance, Nature rioting in a boundless generosity. Her message came to him from sky and earth, from sweep of flowered land, from embowered village and thronging town–that life was good, to savor it, plunge in it, live it to the full. At times he felt half mad, struggling to exist in the midst of this smiling abundance.
When he began that upward march through the state he had no purpose, his mind was empty as a dried nut, the terrible lethargy of the tramp was invading him. From down-drawn brows he looked, morose, at a world which refused him entrance, and across whose surface he would drift aimless as a leaf on the wind. Then, the strength regained by exercise and air, the few dollars made by fruit picking, gave a fillip to his languishing spirit and an objective point rose on his vision. He would go to San Francisco–something might turn up there–and with his hoarded money buy cleanliness and one good meal. It grew before him, desirable, dreamed of, longed for–the bath, the restaurant, the delicate food, the bottle of wine. He was obsessed by it; the deluge could follow.
The wind, blowing through the open casement, brought him back to the present. The night had fallen, the street below a misty rift, its lights smothered in swimming vapor. There was brightness about it, blotted and obscured but gayly intentioned, even the sheds on the gore sending out golden gushes that suffused the milky currents with a clouded glow. He lighted the gas and looked at his watch–nearly seven. He would go out and dine–that dinner at last–and afterward drop in at the Albion and see Pancha Lopez, “the bandit’s girl.”
THOSE GIRLS OF GEORGE’S
The Alstons were finishing dinner. From over the table, set with the glass and silver that George Alston had bought when he came down from Virginia City, the high, hard light of the chandelier fell on the three females who made up the family. It was devastating to Aunt Ellen Tisdale’s gnarled old visage–she was over seventy and for several years now had given up all tiresome thought processes–but the girls were so smoothly skinned and firmly modeled that it only served to bring out the rounded freshness of their youthful faces.
The Alstons were conservative, clung to the ways of their parents. This was partly due to inheritance–mother and father were New Englanders–and partly to a reserved quality, a timid shyness, that marked Lorry who, as Aunt Ellen ceased to exert her thought processes and relapsed into a peaceful torpor, had assumed the reins of government. They conformed to none of those innovations which had come from a freer intercourse with the sophisticated East. The house remained as it had been in their mother’s lifetime, the furniture was the same and stood in the same places, the table knew no modern enhancement of its solidly handsome fittings. Fong, the Chinese cook–he had been with George Alston before he married–ruled the kitchen and the two “second boys.” No women servants were employed; women servants had not been a feature of domestic life in Bonanza days.
That was why the house was lit by chandeliers instead of lamps, that was why dinner was at half past six instead of seven, that was why George Alston’s daughters had rather “dropped out.” They would not move with the times, they would not be brought up to date. Friends of their mother’s had tried to do it, rustled into the long drawing-room and masterfully attempted to assist and direct. But they had found Lorry unresponsive, listening but showing no desire to profit by the chance. They asked her to their houses–replenished, modern, object lessons to rich young girls–and hinted at a return of hospitalities. It had not been a success. She was disappointing, no snap, no go to her; the young men who sat beside her at dinner were bored, and the house on Pine Street had not opened its doors in reciprocal welcome. By the time she was twenty they shrugged their shoulders and gave her up–exactly like Minnie, only Minnie had always had George to push her along.
As the women friends of Minnie did their duty, the men friends of George–guardians of the estate–did theirs. They saw to it that the investments were gilt-edged, and the great ranch in Mexico that George had bought a few years before his death was run on a paying basis. At intervals they asked their wives with sudden fierceness if they had called on “those girls of George’s,” and the wives, who had forgotten all about it, looked pained and wanted to know the reason for such an unnecessary question. Within the week, impelled by a secret sense of guilt, the ladies called and in due course Lorry returned the visits. She suffered acutely in doing so, could think of nothing to say, was painfully conscious of her own dullness and the critical glances that wandered over her best clothes.
But she did not give much thought to herself. That she lacked charm, was the kind to be overlooked and left in corners, did not trouble her. Since her earliest memories–since the day Chrystie was born and her mother had died–she had had other people and other claims on her mind. Her first vivid recollection–terrible and ineffaceable–was of her father that day, catching her to him and sobbing with his face pressed against her baby shoulder. It seemed as if the impression made then had extended all through her life, turned her into a creature of poignant sympathies and an unassuagable longing to console and compensate. She had not been able to do that for him, but she had been able to love–break her box of ointment at his feet.
From that day the little child became the companion of the elderly man, her soft youth was molded to suit his saddened age, her deepest desire was a meeting of his wishes. Chrystie, whose birth had killed her mother, became their mutual joy, their shared passion. Chrystie-worship was inaugurated by the side of the blue and white bassinet, the nursery was a shrine, the blooming baby an idol installed for their devotion. When George Alston died, Lorry, thirteen years old, had dedicated herself to the service, held herself committed to a continuance of the rites. He had left her Chrystie and she would fulfill the trust even as he would have wished.
Probably it was this enveloping idolatry that had made Christie so unlike parents and sister. She was neither retiring nor serious, but social and pleasure-loving, ready to dance through life as irresponsibly enjoying as a mote in a sunbeam. And now Lorry had wakened to the perplexed realization that it was her affair to provide the sunbeam and she did not know how to do it. They were rich, they had a fine house, but nothing ever happened there and it was evident that Chrystie wanted things to happen. It was a situation which Lorry had not foreseen and before which she quailed, feeling herself inadequate. That was why, at twenty-three, a little line had formed between her eyebrows and her glance dwelt anxiously on Chrystie as an obligation–her great obligation–that she was not discharging worthily.
The glare of the chandelier revealed the girls as singularly