John Lane: The Bodley Head London and New York 1898
Third Edition University Press, Cambridge, U. S. A.
TO N. L.
"I won't study another word to-day!" Helena tipped the table, spilling the books to the floor. "I want to go out in the sun. Go home, Miss Phelps, that's a dear. Anyhow, it won't do you a bit of good to stay."
Miss Phelps, young herself, glanced angrily at her briery charge, longingly at the brilliant blue of sky and bay beyond the long window.
"I leave it to Miss Yorba." Her voice, fashioned to cut, vibrated a little with the vigour of its roots. "You seem to forget, Miss Belmont, that this is not your house."
"But you are just as much my teacher as hers. Besides, I always know what Magdalena wants, and I know that she has had enough United States history for one afternoon. When I go to England I'll get their version of it. We're brought up to love their literature and hate them! Such nonsense—"
"My dear Miss Belmont, I beg you to remember that you have but recently passed your sixteenth birthday—"
"Oh, of course! If I'd been brought up in Boston, I'd be giving points to Socrates and wondering why there were so many old maids in the world. However, that's not the question at present. 'Lena, do tell dear Miss Phelps that she needs an afternoon off, and that if she doesn't take it—I'll walk downstairs on my head."
Helena, even at indeterminate sixteen, showed promise of great beauty, and her eyes sparkled with the insolence of the spoiled child who already knew the power of wealth. The girl she addressed had only a pair of dark intelligent eyes to reclaim an uncomely face. Her skin was swarthy, her nose crude, her mouth wide. The outline of her head was fine, and she wore her black hair parted and banded closely below her ears. Her forehead was large, her expression sad and thoughtful. Don Roberto Yorba was many times more a millionaire than "Jack" Belmont, but Magdalena was not a spoiled child.
"I don't know," she said, with a marked hesitation of speech; "I'd like to go out, but it doesn't seem right to take advantage of the fact that papa and mamma are away—"
"What they don't know won't hurt them. I'd like to have Don Roberto under my thumb for just one week. He'd get some of the tyranny knocked out of him. Jack is a model parent—"
Magdalena flushed a dark ugly red. "I wish you would not speak in that way of papa," she said. "I—I—well—I'm afraid he wouldn't let you come here to study with me if he knew it."
"Well, I won't." Helena flung her arms round her friend and kissed her warmly. "I wouldn't hurt his Spanish dignity for the world; only I do wish you happened to be my real own cousin, or—that would be much nicer—my sister."
Magdalena's troubled inner self echoed the wish; but few wishes, few words, indeed, passed her lips.
"Well?" demanded Miss Phelps, coldly. "What is it to be? Do you girls intend to study any more to-day, or not? Because—"
"We don't," said Helena, emphatically. And Magdalena, who invariably gave way to her friend's imperious will, nodded deprecatingly. Miss Phelps immediately left the room.
"She's glad to get out," said Helena, wisely. "She hates me, and I know she's got a beau. Come! Come!" She pulled Magdalena from her chair, and the two girls ran to the balcony beyond the windows and leaned over the railing.
"There's nothing in all the world," announced Helena, "so beautiful as California—San Francisco included—in spite of whirlwinds of dust, and wooden houses, and cobblestone streets, and wooden sidewalks. One can always live on a hill, and then you don't see the ugly things below. For instance, from here you see nothing but that dark blue bay with the dark blue sky above it, and opposite the pink mountains with the patches of light blue, and on that side the hills of Sausalito covered with willows, and the breakers down below. And the ferry-boats are like great white swans, with long soft throats bending backwards. I don't express myself very well; but I shall some day. Just you wait; I'm going to be a scholar and a lot of other things too."
"What, Helena?" Magdalena drew closer. She thought Helena already the most eloquent person alive, and she envied her deeply, although without bitterness, loving her devotedly. The great gifts of expression and of personal magnetism had been denied her. She had no hope, and at that time little wish, that the last paucity could ever be made good by the power of will; but that articulate inner self had registered a vow that hard study and close attention to the methods of Helena and others as—or nearly as—brilliant should one day invest her brain and tongue with suppleness.
"What other things are you going to be, Helena?" she asked. "I know that you can be anything you like."
"Well, in the first place, I am going to New York to school,—now, don't look so sad: I've told you twenty times that I know Don Roberto will let you go. Then I'm going to Europe. I'm going to study hard—but not hard enough to spoil my eyes. I'm going to finish off in Paris, and then I'm going to travel. Incidentally, I'm going to learn how to dress, so that when I come back here I'll astonish the natives and be the best-dressed woman in San Francisco; which won't be saying much, to be sure. Then, when I do come back, I'm going to just rule things, and, what is more, make all the old fogies let me. And—and—I am going to be the greatest belle this State has ever seen; and that is saying something."
"Of course you will do all that, Helena. It will be so interesting to watch you. Ila and Tiny will never compare with you. Some people are made like that,—some one way and some another, I mean. Shall—shall—you ever marry, Helena?"
"Yes. After I have been engaged a dozen times or so I shall marry a great man."
"A great man?"
"Yes; I don't know any, but they are charming in history and memoirs. I'd have a simply gorgeous time in Washington, and ever after I'd have my picture in 'Famous Women' books."
"Shall you marry a president?" asked Magdalena, deferentially. She was convinced that Helena could marry a reigning sovereign if she wished.
"I haven't made up my mind about that yet. Presidents' wives are usually such dreary-looking frumps I'd hate to be in the same book with them. Besides, most of the presidents don't amount to much. Truthful George must have been a deadly bore. I prefer Benjamin Franklin—although I never could stand that nose—or Clay or Calhoun or Patrick Henry or Webster. They're dead, but there must be lots more. I'll find one for you, too."
Again the dark flush mounted to Magdalena's hair, as with an alertness of motion unusual to her, she shook her head.
"Aha!" cried the astute Helena, "you've been thinking the matter over, too, have you? Who is he? Tell me."
Magdalena shook her head again, but slowly this time. Helena embraced and coaxed, but to no effect. Even with her chosen friend, Magdalena was reticent, not from choice, but necessity. But Helena, whose love was great and whose intuitions were diabolical, leaped to the secret. "I know!" she exclaimed triumphantly. "It's a caballero!"
This time Magdalena's face turned almost purple; but she had neither her sex's quick instinct of self-protection nor its proneness to dissemble, secretive as she was. She lifted her head haughtily and turned away. For a moment she looked very Spanish, not the unfortunate result of coupled races that she was. Helena, who was in her naughtiest humour, threw back her head and laughed scornfully. "A caballero!" she cried: "who will serenade you at two o'clock in the morning when you are dying with sleep, and lie in a hammock smoking cigaritos all day; who will roll out rhetoric by the yard, and look like an idiot when you talk common-sense to him; who is too lazy to walk across the plaza, and too proud to work, and too silly to keep the Americans from grabbing all he's got. I met a few dilapidated specimens when I was in Los Angeles last year. One beauty with long hair, a sombrero, and a head about as big as my fist, used to serenade me in intervals of gambling until I appealed to Jack, and he threatened to have him put in the calaboose if he didn't let me alone—"
Magdalena turned upon her. Her face was livid. Her eyes stared as if she had seen the dead walking. "Hush!" she said. "You—you cruel—you have everything—"
Helena, whose intuitions never failed her, when she chose to exercise them, knew what she had done, caught a flashing glimpse of the shattered dreams of the girl who said so little, whose only happiness was in the ideal world she had built in the jealously guarded depths of her soul. "Oh, Magdalena, I'm so sorry," she stammered. "I was only joking. And my statesmen will probably be horrid old boors. I know I'll never find one that comes up to my ideal." She burst into tears and flung her arms about Magdalena's neck: she was always miserable when those she loved were angry with her, much as she delighted to shock the misprized. "Say you forgive me," she sobbed, "or I sha'n't eat or sleep for a week." And Magdalena, who always took her mercurial friend literally, forgave her immediately and dried her tears.
Don Roberto Yorba had escaped the pecuniary extinction that had overtaken his race. Of all the old grandees who, not forty years before, had called the Californias their own: living a life of Arcadian magnificence, troubled by few cares, a life of riding over vast estates clad in silk and lace, botas and sombrero, mounted upon steeds as gorgeously caparisoned as themselves, eating, drinking, serenading at the gratings of beautiful women, gambling, horse-racing, taking part in splendid religious festivals, with only the languid excitement of an occasional war between rival governors to disturb the placid surface of their lives,—of them all Don Roberto was a man of wealth and consequence to-day. But through no original virtue of his. He had been as princely in his hospitality, as reckless with his gold, as meagrely equipped to cope with the enterprising United Statesian who first conquered the Californian, then, nefariously, or righteously, appropriated his acres. When Commodore Sloat ran up the American flag on the Custom House of Monterey on July seventh, 1846, one of the midshipmen who went on shore to seal the victory with the strength of his lungs was a clever and restless youth named Polk. As his sharpness and fund of dry New England anecdote had made him a distinctive position on board ship, he was permitted to go to the ball given on the following night by Thomas O. Larkin, United States Consul, in honour of the Commodore and officers of the three warships then in the bay. Having little liking for girls, he quickly fraternised with Don Roberto Yorba, a young hidalgo who had recently lost his wife and had no heart for festivities, although curiosity had brought him to this ball which celebrated the downfall of his country. The two men left the ball-room,—where the handsome and resentful senoritas were preparing to avenge California with a battery of glance, a melody of tongue, and a witchery of grace that was to wreak havoc among these gallant officers,—and after exchanging amenities over a bowl of punch, went out into the high-walled garden to smoke the cigarito. The perfume of the sweet Castilian roses was about them, the old walls were a riot of pink and green; but the youths had no mind for either. The don was fascinated by the quick terse common-sense and the harsh nasal voice of the American, and the American's mind was full of a scheme which he was not long confiding to his friend. A shrewd Yankee, gifted with insight, and of no small experience, young as he was, Polk felt that the idle pleasure-loving young don was a man to be trusted and magnetic with potentialities of usefulness. He therefore confided his consuming desire to be a rich man, his hatred of the navy, and, finally, his determination to resign and make his way in the world.
"I haven't a red cent to bless myself with," he concluded. "But I've got what's more important as a starter,—brains. What's more, I feel the power in me to make money. It's the only thing on earth I care for; and when you put all your brains and energies to one thing you get it, unless you get paralysis or an ounce of cold lead first."
The Californian, who had a true grandee's contempt for gold, was nevertheless charmed with the engaging frankness and the unmistakable sincerity of the American.
"My house is yours," he exclaimed ardently. "You will living with me, no? until you find the moneys? I am—how you say it?—delighted. Always I like the Americanos—we having a few. All I have is yours, senor."
"Look here," exclaimed Polk. "I won't eat any man's bread for nothing, but I'll strike a bargain with you. If you'll stand by me, I'll stand by you. I mean to make money, and I don't much care how I do make it; this is a new place, anyhow. But there's one thing I never do, and that is to go back on a friend. You'll need me, and my Yankee sharpness may be the greatest godsend that ever came your way. I've seen more or less of this country. It's simply magnificent. Americans will be swarming over the place in less than no time. They've begun already. Then you'll be just nowhere. Is it a bargain?"
"It is!" exclaimed Don Roberto, with enthusiasm; and when Polk had explained his ominations more fully, he wrung the American's hand again.
Polk, after much difficulty, but through personal influence which he was fortunate enough to possess, obtained his discharge. He immediately became the guest of Don Roberto, who lived with his younger sister on a ranch covering three hundred thousand acres, and, his first intention being to take up land, was initiated into the mysteries of horse-raising, tanning hides, and making tallow; the two last-named industries being pursued for purposes of barter with the Boston skippers. But farming was not to Polk's taste; he hated waiting on the slow processes of Nature. He married Magdalena Yorba, and borrowed from Don Roberto enough money to open a store in Monterey stocked with such necessities and luxuries as could be imported from Boston. When the facile Californians had no ready money to pay for their wholesale purchases, he took a mortgage on the next hide yield, or on a small ranch. His rate of interest was twelve per cent; and as the Californians were never prepared to pay when the day of reckoning came, he foreclosed with a promptitude which both horrified Don Roberto and made imperious demands upon his admiration.
"My dear Don," Polk would say, "if it isn't I, it will be some one else. I'm not the only one—and look at the squatters. I'm becoming a rich man, and if I were not, I'd be a fool. You had your day, but you were never made to last. Your boots are a comfortable fit, and I propose to wear them. I don't mean yours, by the way. I'm going to look after you. Better think it over and come into partnership."
To this Don Roberto would not hearken; but when the rush to the gold mines began he was persuaded by Polk to take a trip into the San Joaquin valley to "see the circus," as the Yankee phrased it. There, in community with his brother-in-law, he staked off a claim, and there the lust for gold entered his veins and never left it. He returned to Monterey a rich man in something besides land. After that there was little conversation between himself and Polk on any subject but money and the manner of its multiplication; and, as the years passed, and Polk's prophecy was fulfilled, he gave the devotion of a fanatic to the retention of his vast inheritance and to the development of his grafted financial faculty.
Between the mines, his store, and his various enterprises in San Francisco, Polk rapidly became a wealthy man. Even in those days he was accounted an unscrupulous one, but he was powerful enough to hold the opinion of men in contempt and too shrewd to elbow such law as there was. And his gratitude and friendship for Don Roberto never flickered. He advised him to invest his gold in city lots, and as himself bought adjoining ones, Don Roberto invested without hesitation. Polk had acquired a taste for Spanish cooking, cigaritos, and life on horseback; his influences on the Californian were far more subtle and revolutionising. Don Roberto was still hospitable, because it became a grandee so to be; but he had a Yankee major-domo who kept an account of every cent that was expended. He had no miserly love of gold in the concrete, but he had an abiding sense of its illimitable power, all of his brother-in-law's determination to become one of the wealthiest and most influential men in the country, and a ferocious hatred of poverty. He saw his old friends fall about him: advice did them no good, and any permanent alliance with their interests would have meant his own ruin; so he shrugged his shoulders and forgot them. The American flag always floated above his rooms. In time he and Polk opened a bank, and he sat in its parlour for five hours of the day; it was the passion of his maturity and decline. When Polk's sister, some eleven years after the Occupation of California by the United States, came out to visit the brother who had left her teaching a small school in Boston, he married her promptly, feeling himself blessed in another New England relative. She was thirty-two at the time, and her complexion was dark and sallow: but she carried her tall angular figure with impressive dignity, and her chill manners gave her a certain distinction. Don Roberto was delighted with her, and as she was by nature as economical as his familiar could desire, he dismissed the major-domo and gave her carte blanche at the largest shops in the city; even if he had wished it, she could not have been induced to buy more than four gowns a year. But she was a very ambitious woman. As the wife of a great Californian grandee, she had seen herself the future leader of San Francisco society. Her ambitions were realised in a degree only. Don Roberto built her a huge wooden palace on Nob Hill,—on which was the highest flagstaff and the biggest flag in San Francisco,—placed a suitable number of servants at her command, and gave her a carriage. But he only permitted her to give two large dinners and one ball during the season, and would go to other people's entertainments but seldom. As their ideas of duty were equally rigid, she would not go without him; but they had a circle of intimate and aristocratic friends with whom they lunched and dined informally,—the Polks, the Belmonts, the Montgomerys, the Tarltons, the Brannans, the Gearys, and the Folsoms.
They had been married ten years when Magdalena, their only child, was born.
Mrs. Yorba was so ill when her daughter came that the child struggled miserably into existence, and, failing to cry, was put away as dead, and forgotten for a time. It was discovered to be breathing by Mrs. Polk, who coaxed it through several months of puny existence with all a native Californian woman's resource. During this time it never cried, only whimpered miserably at rare intervals. It was finally discovered to be tongue-tied, and as soon as it was old enough an operation was performed. After that the child's health mended, although she seemed in no hurry to use her tongue. As she progressed in years she still spoke but seldom, only mildly remonstrating when Helena Belmont pulled her hair or vented her exuberant vitality upon Magdalena's inferior person. Once only did she lose her temper,—when Helena hung up all her dolls in a row and slit them that she might have the pleasure of seeing the sawdust pour out,—and then she leaped upon her tormentor with a hoarse growl of rage, and the two pommelled each other black and blue. But as a rule she was gentle and much-enduring, and Helena was very kind and clamoured constantly for her society. As the girls grew older they studied together, and the friendship, born of propinquity, was strengthened by mutual tastes and sympathy. Helena was probably the only person who ever understood the reticent, proud, apparently cold and impassive temperament of the girl who was an unhappy and incongruous mixture of Spanish and New England traits; and Magdalena was Helena's most enthusiastic admirer and attentive audience.
Magdalena had one other friend, her aunt, Mrs. Polk, for whom she was named. That lady was enormously stout and something of an invalid, but carried the tokens of early beauty in a skin of brilliant fairness and a pair of magnificent dark eyes fringed with lashes so long and thick that Magdalena, when a child, found it her greatest pleasure to count them. Mrs. Polk knew little of her husband and liked him less. She had obeyed her brother's orders and married him, loving a dazzling caballero—who had since gambled away his acres—the while. But Polk ministered to the luxury that she loved; and though his high-pitched voice never ceased to shake her nerves, and his hard cold face to inspire active dislike, as the years went on and she saw how it was with her people, she accepted her lot with philosophy, and finally—as youth fled—with gratitude. Mrs. Yorba she detested, but she loved the child she had saved to a life of doubtful happiness, and—she had no children of her own—would gladly have adopted her. She lived a life of retirement, and had a scanty though kindly brain: therefore she never understood Magdalena as well as Helena did at the age of six; but she could love warmly, and that meant much to her niece.
The three large and aristocratically ugly mansions of Don Roberto Yorba, Hiram Polk, and Colonel "Jack" Belmont stood side by side on Nob Hill. Belmont was not as wealthy as the others, but a "palatial residence" does not mean illimitable riches even yet in San Francisco. Belmont had married a Boston girl of far greater family pretensions than Mrs. Yorba's, but of no more stately appearance nor correct demeanour. The two women were intimate friends until her husband's notorious infidelities and erraticisms when under the periodical influence of alcohol killed Mrs. Belmont. Neither Don Roberto nor Polk drank to excess, and they kept their mistresses in more decent seclusion than is the habit of the average San Franciscan. It would never occur to Mrs. Yorba to suspect her husband or any other man of infidelity, did she live in California an hundred years, and Mrs. Polk was too indifferent to give the matter a thought.
Although she lived in retirement, rarely venturing out into the winds and fogs of San Francisco, Mrs. Polk surrounded herself with all the luxuries of a pampered woman of wealth and fashion. Her house was magnificent, her private apartments almost stifling in their sumptuousness. Polk squeezed every dollar before he parted with it, but his wife had long since accomplished the judicious exercise of a violent Spanish temper, and her bills were seldom disputed.
Magdalena and Helena loved these scented gorgeous apartments, and ran through the connecting gardens daily to see her. Their delight was to sit at her feet and listen to the tales of California when the grandee owned the land, when the caballero, in gorgeous attire, sang at the gratings of the beauties of Monterey. Mrs. Polk would sing these old love-songs of Spain to the accompaniment of the guitar which had entranced her caballeros in the sala of her girlhood; and Helena, who had a charming voice, learned them all—to the undoing of her own admirers later on. It was she who asked a thousand questions of that Arcadian time, and Mrs. Polk responded with enthusiasm. Doubtless she exaggerated the splendours, the brilliancy, the unleavened pleasure; but it was a time far behind her, and she was happy again in the rememoration. As for Magdalena, she seldom spoke. She listened with fixed eyes and bated breath to those descriptions of the beautiful women of her race, seeing for the time her soul's face as beautiful, gazing at her reflected image aghast when she turned suddenly upon one of the long mirrors. Her soul sang in accompaniment to her aunt's rich voice, and her hands moved unconsciously as those listless Spanish fingers swept the guitar. When Helena imperiously demanded to be taught, and quickly became as proficient as her teacher, Magdalena kept her eyes on the floor lest the others should see the dismay in them. Had it occurred to Mrs. Polk to ask her niece if she would like to learn these old songs of her race, Magdalena would have shaken her head shyly, realising even sooner than she did that there was no medium for the music in her soul, as there was none for the thoughts in her mind. Although her aunt loved her, she did not scruple to tell her that she was not to be either a beautiful or a brilliant woman; but although Magdalena made no reply, she had a profound belief that the Virgin would in time grant her passionate nightly prayers for a beautiful face and an agile tongue. Beauty was her right; no woman of her father's house had ever been plain, and she had convinced herself that if she were a good girl the Virgin would acknowledge her rights by her eighteenth birthday. As her intellect developed, she was haunted by an uneasy scepticism of miracles, particularly after she learned to draw, but she still prayed; it was a dream she could not relinquish. Nor was this all she prayed for. She had all the Californian's indolence, which was ever at war with the intellect she had inherited from her New England ancestors. Her most delectable instinct was to lie in the sun or on the rug by the fire all day and dream; and she was thoroughly convinced that the Virgin aided her in the fight for mental energy, and was the prime factor in the long periods of victory of mind over temperament.
And only her deathless ambition enabled her to keep pace with Helena. She sat up late into the night poring over lessons that her brilliant friend danced through while dressing in the morning. Her memory was bad, and she never mastered spelling; even after her schooldays were over, she always carried a little dictionary in her pocket. She laboured for years at the piano, not only under her father's orders, but because she passionately loved music, but she had neither ear nor facility, and to her importunities for both the Virgin gave no heed.
And the bitterness of it all lay in the fact that she was not stupid; she was fully aware that her intellect was something more than commonplace; but the machinery was heavy, and, so far as she could see, there was not a drop of cleverness with which to oil the wheels. She had read extensively even before she was sixteen,—letters, essays, biographies, histories, and a number of novels by classic authors; and although she was obliged to read each book three times in order to write it on her memory, she slowly assimilated it and developed her brain cells. Up to this age she was seldom actively unhappy, for she had the hopes of youth and religion, her aunt, Helena, and, above all, her sweet inner life, which was an almost constant dwelling upon the poetical past, linked to a future of exalted ideals: not only should she be more beautiful than Helena or Tiny Montgomery or Ila Brannan, but she should hold rooms spell-bound with her eloquence, or the music in her finger-tips; and when in solitude her soul would rise to such heights as her fettered mind hinted at vaguely but insistently. Wild imaginings for a plain tongue-tied little hybrid, but what man's inner life is like unto the husk to whose making he gave no hand?
Helena remained an hour longer, then ran home to don a white frock and Roman sash. Her father, with all his vagaries, seldom failed to dine at home; and he expected to find his little daughter, smartly dressed, presiding at his table. His sister, Mrs. Cartright, who had managed his house since his wife's death, made no attempt to manage Helena, and never thought of taking the head of the table.
Magdalena stood for some time looking out over the darkening bay, at the white mist riding in to hang before the mountains beyond. She had seen California wet under blinding rain-storms, but never ugly. Even the fogs were beautiful, the great waves of sand whirling through the streets of San Francisco picturesque. California was associated in her mind, however, with perpetual blue skies and floods of yellow light. She had wondered occasionally if all people were not happy in such a country,—where the sun shone for eight months in the year, where flowers grew more thickly than weeds, and fruit was abundant and luscious. She had read of the portion to which man was born, and had decided that if Thackeray and Dickens had lived in California they would have been more cheerful; but to-day, assailed by a presentiment general rather than specific, she accepted, for the first time, life in something like its true proportions.
"There are no more caballeros," she thought, putting into form such sense of the change as she could grasp. "And Helena is going away, for years; and papa will not let me go, I know, although I mean to ask him; and aunt is way down in Santa Barbara, and writes that she may not return for months. And I don't know my music lesson for to-morrow, and papa will be so angry, because he pays five dollars a lesson; and Mrs. Price is so cross." She paused and shivered as the white fog crept up to the verandah. It was very quiet. She could hear the ocean roaring through the Golden Gate. Again the presentiment assailed her. "None of those things was it," she thought in terror. "Uncle Jack Belmont says, according to Balzac, our presentiments always mean something." She noticed anew how beautiful the night was: the white wreaths floating on the water, the dark blue sky that was bursting into stars, the mysterious outline of the hills, the ravishing perfumes rising from the garden below. "It is like a poem," she thought. "Why does no one write about it? Oh!" with a hard gasp, "if I could—if I could only write!" A meteor shot down the heavens. For the moment it seemed that the fallen star flashed through her brow and lodged, effulgent, in her brain. "I—I—think I could," she thought. "I—I—am sure that I could." And so, the cruel desires of art, and the tree of her crucifix were born.
She went inside hastily, afraid of her thoughts. She changed her frock for a white one, smoothed her sleek hair, and walked downstairs. She never ran, like Helena—unless, to be sure, Helena dragged her; she had all the dignity of her father's race, all its iron sense of convention.
She went into the big parlours to await her parents' return; they had been spending a day or two at their country house in Menlo Park, and would return in time for dinner. The gas had been lighted and turned low; Magdalena had never seen any rooms but her own in this house sufficiently lighted by day or by night, except when guests were present. Mrs. Yorba would waste neither gas nor carpets; in consequence, the house had a somewhat sepulchral air; even its silence was never broken, save when Helena gave a sudden furious war-whoop and slid down the banisters.
The walls of the parlour were tinted a pale buff, the ceilings frescoed with cherubs and flowers. On the great plate-glass windows were curtains of dark red velvet trimmed with gold fringe. The large square pieces of furniture were upholstered with red velvet. The floor was covered with a red Brussels carpet with a design of squirming devil-fish. Three or four small chairs were covered with Indian embroidery, and there were two Chinese tables of teak-wood and mottled marble. Gas having been an afterthought, the pipes were visible, although painted to match the walls. Magdalena had seen few rooms and had not awakened to the hideousness of these; her aunt had mingled little taste with her splendour, and the Belmont mansion was furnished throughout its lower part in satin damask with no attempt at art's variousness. Magdalena opened the piano and felt vaguely for the music in the keys. She forgot the star, remembered only her passionate love of exultant sound, her longing to find the soul of this most mysterious of all instruments. But her stiff fingers only sprawled helplessly over the keys, and after a few moments she desisted and sat staring with dilating eyes, the presentiment again assailing her. Her shattered caballeros rose before her, but she shook her head; they, under what influence she knew not, had faded out into ghost-land.
A carriage drove up to the door. She went forward and stood in the hall, awaiting her parents. They entered almost immediately. Both kissed her lightly, her mother inquiring absently if she had been a good girl, and remarking that she had neuralgia and should go to bed at once. Her father grunted and asked her if she and Helena Belmont had behaved themselves, and, more particularly, if she had been outside the house without an attendant; he never failed to ask this when he had been away from the house for twenty-four hours. Magdalena replied in the negative, and did not feel called upon to confess her minor sins. She had a conscience, but she had also a strong distaste for her father's temper.
Don Roberto had been a handsome caballero in his youth, but his face, like that of most Californians, had coarsened as it receded from its prime. The nose was thick, the outlines of the jaw lost in rolls of flesh. But the full curves of his mouth had been compressed into a straight line, and the consequent elevation of the lower lip had almost obliterated an originally weak chin. He was bald and wore a skull-cap, but his black eyes were fiery and restless, his skin fair with the fairness of Castile. He went to his room, and Magdalena did not see him again until dinner was announced. She saw little of her parents. There is not much fireside life in California. There was none in the Yorba household. Mrs. Yorba was a martyr to neuralgia, and such time as was not passed in the seclusion of her chamber was devoted to the manifold cares of her household and to her small circle of friends. Don Roberto would not permit her to belong to charitable associations, nor to organisations of any kind, and although she regretted the prestige she might have enjoyed as president of such concerns, she had long since found herself indemnified: Don Roberto's social restrictions had unwittingly given her the position of the most exclusive woman in San Francisco. As time went on, it gave people a certain distinction to be on her visiting list. When Mrs. Yorba realised this, she looked it over carefully and cut it down to ninety names. After that, hostesses whose position was as secure as her own begged her personally to go to their balls. Her own yearly contribution to the season's socialities was looked forward to with deep anxiety. It was the stiffest and dullest affair of the year, but not to be there was to be written down as second of the first. So was greatness thrust upon Mrs. Yorba, who never returned to her native Boston, lest she might once more feel the pangs of nothingness. She loved her daughter from a sense of duty rather than from any animal instinct, but never petted nor made a companion of her. Nevertheless she watched over her studies, literary excursions, and associates with a vigilant eye.
Magdalena's companions were the objects of her severe maternal care. Once a year in town and once during the summer in Menlo Park, Magdalena had a luncheon party, the guests chosen from the very inner circle of Mrs. Yorba's acquaintance. The youngsters loathed this function, but were forced to attend by their distinguished parents. Magdalena sat at one end of the table and never uttered a word. The only relief was Helena, who talked bravely, but far less than was her wont; the big dark dining-room, panelled to the ceiling with redwood, and hung with the progenitors of the haughty house of Yorba, the gliding Chinese servants, the eight stiff miserable little girls, with their starched white frocks, crimped hair, and vacant glances, oppressed even that indomitable spirit. On one awful occasion when even Helena's courage had failed her, and she was eating rapidly and nervously, the children with one accord burst into wild hysterical laughter. They stopped as abruptly as they had begun, staring at one another with expanded, horrified eyes, then simultaneously burst into tears. Helena went off into shrieks of laughter, and Magdalena hurriedly left the room, and in the privacy of her own wept bitterly. When she went downstairs again, she found Helena making a brave attempt to entertain the others in the large garden behind the house. They were swinging and playing games, and looked much ashamed of themselves. When they went home each kissed Magdalena warmly, and she forgave them and wished that she could see them oftener. She was never allowed to go to lunch-parties herself. Occasionally she met them at Helena's, where they romped delightedly, appropriating the entire house and yelling like demons, but taking little notice of the quiet child who sat by Mrs. Cartright, listening to that voluble dame's tales of the South before the war, too shy and too Spanish to romp. Even at that early age, they respected and rather feared her. As she grew older, it became known that she was "booky,"—a social crime in San Francisco. As for Helena, she was one of those favoured mortals who are permitted to be anything they please. She, too, devoured books, but she did so many other things besides that people forgot the idiosyncrasy, or were willing to overlook it.
Don Roberto spent his leisure hours with his friends Hiram Polk and Jack Belmont. There was no resource of the town unknown to these elderly rakes; and the older they grew the more they enjoyed themselves. On fine evenings they always rode out to the Presidio or to the Cliff House; and it was one of the sights of the town,—these three leading citizens and founders of the city's prosperity: Don Roberto, fat, but riding his big chestnut with all the unalterable grace of the Californian; Polk, stiff and spare, his narrow grey face unchanged from year to year, ambling along on a piebald; dashing Jack Belmont, a cavalry officer to his death, his long black moustachios flying in the wind, a flapping hat pulled low over his abundant curls, bestriding a mighty black. All three men were somewhat old-fashioned in their attire; they went little into society, preferring the more various life beyond its pale.
Half of the dinner passed in unbroken silence. Magdalena sat at one end of the table, her father at the other, their wants attended to by three Chinese servants. Magdalena was not eating: she was summoning up courage to speak on a subject that was fast conquering her reticence. Her thoughts were not interrupted. Don Roberto was a man of few words. He had been an eloquent caballero in his youth, but had grown to be as careful of words as of investments. He liked to be amused by women; but, as he rightly judged, no amount of development could make his wife and daughter amusing, so he encouraged them to hold their tongues. He deeply resented Magdalena's lack of beauty; all the women of his house had been famous throughout the Californias for their beauty. It was the duty of a Yorba to be beautiful—while young; after thirty it mattered nothing.
Magdalena had completed the structure of her courage. She did nothing by halves, and she knew that she should not break down.
"Papa," she said.
"Helena is going to New York and to Paris to school. She is going to live with relatives, but she will attend school."
"I thought you liked Helena."
"I like; but she need the discipline more than all the girls in California."
"I shall be very lonely without her."
"Suppose so; but now is the time to learn plenty, and no think so much by the play."
"I should like to go with her."
"But you would not miss me, nor mamma either."
"I choose you shall be educate at home. I no approve of the schools. Si Helena Belmont was my daughter, I take the green hide reata to her every morning; but Belmont so soffit, the school is better for her. You stay here. No say any more about it."
"Could I not travel with her after? I want to travel."
"Si I find time one day go abroad, I take you; but you no go with Helena Belmont. I no am surprise si she make herself the talk of Europe."
"Could not mamma go with me?"
"Your mother no leave the husband! Never she propose such a thing!"
"Do you think you will be able to go soon?"
"Very doubt. The Californian who leave the business for a year working like the dog for five after. Si he find one red cent when he come back, he is lucky. The man no knowing just where he is even when he stand over the spot."
"Then when Helena goes, can I go to Santa Barbara for awhile and visit aunt?"
"You no can! I no wish you ask the reason. You never go to the South! Never before you talk so much, by Scott!"
Magdalena had failed at every point. She had expected to fail, but she felt miserable and discouraged, nevertheless. After dinner she went up to her room and prayed to the Virgin. In time she felt comforted, her tears ceased, and she sat thinking for some time at the foot of her little altar. With the sad philosophy of her nature she put the impossible from her, and considered the future. It had been arranged long ago that she and Helena, Ila and Tiny, were to come out at the same time; the great function which should introduce to San Francisco three of its most beautiful girls, and its most favoured by lineage and fortune, was to be given by Mrs. Yorba. The other girls would come out a year earlier or later. Ila and Tiny were already in Europe. She had three uninterrupted years before her. In those years she could do much. When she was not studying, she would read the best authors and learn their secret. Her father had no library, but Colonel Belmont had, and she was a life member of the Mercantile Library; the membership had been presented to her two birthdays ago by her luncheon guests, who respected what they would not emulate. She pressed her face into her hands, striving to arrange the nebulous thoughts and ambitions which burned in her brain.
There was a wild ringing of bells. She raised her head and saw a red glare, then rose and walked over to the window. She thought a fire very beautiful; and as there were many in that city of wood and wind, she had had full opportunity to observe their manifold phases. Her bedroom adjoined the schoolroom, but was on the corner of the house at the back, and overlooked not only the business part of the city between the foot of the hill and the bay, but the region known as "South of Market Street." This large valley had its aristocratic quarter, but it was now largely given over to warehouses, depots, and streets of the poor. A month seldom passed without a big blaze in this closely built combustible section. To-night there was a long narrow ribbon of flame twisting in the wind, which in a few moments would leap from block to block, licking up the flimsy dwellings as a cat licks up milk. Above the ribbon flew a million sparks, turning the stars from gold to white. Every moment the wind twisted the ribbon into wonderful fantastic shapes, which beset Magdalena's brain for words as beautiful.
She listened intently. Some one was climbing a pillar of the balcony. It was Helena, of course: she often chose that laborious method of entering a house whose doors were always open to her. Magdalena opened the back window and stepped out onto the balcony.
"Is that you, Helena?" she whispered.
"Is it? Just you wait till you see me!"
A moment later she had clambered over the railing and stood before the astonished Magdalena.
"Boys' clothes. Can't you see for yourself? I'm going to the fire, and you're going with me."
"Of course I shall not. What possessed you—"
But the astute Helena detected a lack of decision in her friend's voice. "You're just dying to go," she said coaxingly. "You adore fires, and you'd love to see one close to. Put a waterproof on and a black shawl over your head. Then if anybody notices you, they'll think you're a muchacha from Spanish town. As I am a boy, I can protect you beautifully. We'll go to the livery stable and I'll make old Duff give me a hack. I've a pocket full of boodle; papa gave me my allowance to-day. Here, come in." She dragged the unresisting Magdalena into the room, arrayed her in a waterproof, and pinned a black shawl tightly about the small brown face. "There!" she said triumphantly, "you look like a poor little greaser, for all the world. Don Roberto would have a fit. Do you think you can slide down the pillar?"
"I don't know—yes, I am sure I can if you can." Her Spanish dignity was aghast, but her newborn creative instinct stung her spirit into a sudden overpowering desire for dramatic incident. "Yes, I'll go," she whispered, closer to excitement than Helena had ever, save once, seen her. "I'll go."
"Of course! I knew you would. I always knew you were a brick; come! Quick! I'll go first." She slid down the pillar, which she could easily clasp with her long arms and legs; and Magdalena, after a gasp, followed, shivering with terror, but too proud to utter a sound. Before she had reached the bottom she had lost all interest in the fire; she no longer wanted to write poetry; she wished frantically to be back in the security of her room. But she reached the ground safely; and although she fell in a heap, she quickly pulled herself together and stood up, holding her head higher than ever. And when she was on the sidewalk, in disguise, unattended for the first time in her life, her very nerves sang with exultation, and she was filled with a wild longing for a night replete with adventure.
"'Lena!" whispered Helena, ecstatically. "Isn't this gorgeous?"
Magdalena nodded. Her brain and heart were throbbing too loud for speech.
"I'm going to fires for the rest of my life," announced Helena, as they turned the corner and walked swiftly down the hill. She was not of the order which is content with one experience, even while that initial experience is yet a matter of delightful anticipation.
When they reached the livery stable, Helena marched in, holding Magdalena firmly by the hand. "I want a hack," she said peremptorily to the man in charge. "And double quick, too." The man stared, but Helena rattled the gold in her pocket, and he called to two men to hitch up.
"Upon my soul," he whispered to his associates, "it's those kids of Jack Belmont's and old Yorba's, or I'm a dead man. But it ain't none of my business, and I ain't one to peach. I like spirit."
"We're going to the fire, and I wish the hack to wait for us," said Helena, as he signified that all was ready. "I'll pay you now. How much is it?"
"Ten dollars," he replied unblushingly.
Helena paid the money like a blood, Magdalena horrified at the extravagance. Her own allowance was five dollars a month. "Can you really afford this, Helena?" she asked remonstrantly, as the hack slid down the steep hill.
"I got fifty dollars out of Jack to-night. He's feeling awfully soft over my going away. Poor old Jack, he'll feel so lonesome without me. But we'll have a gay old time travelling together in Europe when I'm through."
Magdalena did not speak of her conversation with her own parent. She did not want to think of it. This night was to be one of uniform joy. They were a quarter of an hour reaching the fire. As they turned into the great central artery of the city, Market Street, they leaned forward and gazed eagerly at the dense highly coloured mass of men and women, mostly young, who promenaded the north sidewalk under a blaze of gas.
"What queer-looking girls!" said Magdalena. "Why do they wear so many frizzes, and sailor hats on one side?"
"They're chippies," said Helena, wisely.
"Girls that live south of Market Street. They work all day and promenade with their beaux all evening. As I live, 'Lena, we're going down Fourth Street. We'll go right through Chippytown."
They had been south of Market Street before, for Ila and Tiny lived on the aristocratic Rincon Hill; but their way had always lain down Second Street, which was old, but stately and respectable. Fourth Street, like Market Street by night, would be a new country; but after a few moments' eager attention Helena sniffed with disappointment. The narrow street and those branching from it were ill-lighted and deserted; there was nothing to be seen but low-browed shops. But there was always the red glare beyond; and in a few moments the holocaust burst upon them in all its terrible magnificence.
They sprang out of the hack and walked rapidly to the edge of the crowd, which filled the street in spite of the warning cries of the firemen and the angry shouts of the policemen. The fire was devouring four large squares and sending leaping branches to isolated dwellings beyond. A great furniture factory and innumerable tenements were vanishing like icicles under a hot sun.
The girls, careless of the severe jostling they received, stared in fascinated amazement at the red tongues darting among the blackened shells, the crashing roofs, the black masses of smoke above, cut with narrow swords of flame, the solid pillar of fire above the factory, the futile streams of water, the gallant efforts of the firemen. Magdalena, hardly knowing why, reflected with deep satisfaction that a fire was even more wonderful at close quarters than when viewed from a distance. Every detail delighted her; but when a clumsy boy stepped on her toes, she drew Helena into a sand lot opposite, where it was less crowded. It was then that she noticed for the first time the weeping women gathered about their household goods. She stared at them for a moment, then shook the rapt Helena by the arm.
"Look!" she whispered. "What is the matter with those people?"
"What?" asked Helena, absently. "Oh, don't I wish I were on that house with a hose in my hand! What a lovely exciting life a fireman's must be!" Then, yielding to Magdalena's insistence, she turned and directed her gaze to the people in the lot behind her. "Oh, the poor things!" she said, forgetting the fire. "They've been burnt out. Let's talk to them."
The two girls approached the unfortunate creatures, who were wailing loudly, as if at a wake.
"Poor devils!" exclaimed Helena. "I am so glad I have some silver with me."
"And I have nothing to give them," thought Magdalena, bitterly; but she was too proud to speak. She stared at them, her brain a medley of new sensations, as Helena went about, questioning, fascinating, sympathising, giving. It was the first time she had seen poverty; she had barely heard of its existence; it had never occurred to her that great romanticists condescended to borrow from life. It was not abject poverty that she witnessed, by any means. There were no hollow cheeks here, no pallid faces, no shrunken limbs. It was, save for the passing distress, to which they were not unaccustomed, a very jolly, hearty, contented poverty. Their belongings were certainly mean, but solid and sufficient. Nevertheless, to Magdalena, who had been surrounded by luxury from her birth, and had rarely been in a street of less importance than her own, these commonly clad creatures, weeping over their cheap household goods, seemed the very dregs of the earth. Her keen enjoyment fled. She was sure she could never be happy again with so much misery in the world. If her father would only—she recalled his contempt for charities, the prohibition he had laid on her mother. She determined to pray all night to the Virgin to soften his heart. When the Virgin had been allowed a reasonable time, she would beg him to give her a monthly allowance to devote to the poor. The Virgin had failed her many times, but must surely hearken to so worthy a petition as this. She stood apart. No one noticed her. She had nothing to give. They were showering blessings upon Helena, who was walking about with a cocky little stride, well pleased with herself.
Suddenly Helena wheeled and ran over to Magdalena.
"I've given away my last red," she said. "It's lucky I paid for that hack in advance. Let's get out. Those I haven't given any to will be down on me in a minute. Besides, it's getting late. A-ou-u!"
A policeman had tapped her roughly on the shoulder. She gazed at him in speechless terror for a half-moment, then gasped, "W-h-a-t do you want?"
"I want you two young uns for the lock-up," he said curtly. The struggling crowd had lashed his pugnacity and ensanguined his temper. As an additional indignity, the saloon had been burned, and he had not had a drink for an hour. "I'll run you in for wearing boys' clothes; have you ever heard the penalty for that, miss? And I'll run in this little greaser as a vagrant."
Helena burst into shrieks of terror, clinging to Magdalena, who comforted her mechanically, too terrified, herself, to speak. Even in that awful moment it was her father she feared, not the law.
"Shut up!" exclaimed the officer. "None of that." He paused abruptly and regarded Helena closely. She was searching wildly in her pockets. "Oh, if you've got a fiver," he said easily, "I'll call it square."
"I haven't so much as a five-cent piece," sobbed Helena, with a fresh burst of tears. "Oh, 'Lena, what shall we do?"
"You'll come with me! that's what you'll do." He took them firmly by the hand and dragged them through the crowd, a section of which had transferred its attentions to the victims of the officer's wrath. But the three were soon hurrying up a dark cross-street toward a car; and as they went Helena recovered herself, and began to cast about among her plentiful resource. She dared not risk telling this man their names, and bid him take them home in hope of reward, for he would certainly demand that reward of their scandalised parents. No, she decided, she would confide in the dignitary in charge at the station; and as soon as he knew who she was, he would be sure to let them go at once.
They went up town on a street-car. Helena had never been in one before, and the experience interested her; but Magdalena sat dumb and wretched. She had been a docile child, and her father's anger had never been visited upon her; but she had seen his frightful outbursts at the servants, and once he had horsewhipped a Mexican in his employ until the lad's shrieks had made Magdalena put her fingers in her ears. He would not whip her, of course; but what would he do? And this horrid man, who was of the class of her father's coachman, had called her a "greaser." She had all the pride of her race. The insult stifled her. She felt smirched and degraded.
Nor was this all: she had had her first signal experience of the pall that lines the golden cloud.
The officer motioned to the conductor to stop in front of a squat building in front of the Old Plaza. The man, whose gall had been slowly rising for want of drink, hurried them roughly off the car and across the sidewalk into a dark passage. Their feet lagged, and he shoved them before him, flourishing his bludgeon.
"Git on! Git on!" he said. "There's no gittin' out of this until you've served your time."
The words and the dark passage made Helena shiver. What if they would not give her a chance to speak, but should lock her up at once? She knew nothing of these dark doings of night. Perhaps the policeman would take them directly to a cell. In that case, she must confide in him.
They entered a room, and her confidence returned. A man sat at a desk, an open ledger before him. He was talking to several tramps who stood in various uneasy attitudes in front of the desk. His face was tired, but his eyes had a humourous twinkle. He did not glance at the new-comers.
"Sit down," commanded the policeman, "and wait your turn."
The girls sat down uncomfortably on the edge of a bench. In a moment they noticed a young man sitting near the desk and writing on a small pad of paper. He looked up, looked again, regarding them intently, then rose and approached the policeman.
"Hello, Tim," he said. "What have you got here? A girl in boys' clothes?"
"That's about the size of it."
Helena pulled her cap over her eyes and reddened to her hair. For the first time she fully realised her position. She was Colonel Jack Belmont's daughter, and she was waiting in the city prison as a common vagrant. Magdalena bent her head, pulling the shawl more closely about her face.
The young man looked them over sharply. "They are the kids of somebodies," he said audibly. "Look at their hands. There's a 'story' here."
Helena turned cold and set her teeth. She had no idea who the young man might be, but instinct told her that he threatened exposure.
A few moments later the tramps had gone, and the man at the desk asked the policeman what charge he preferred against his arrests.
"This one's a girl in boys' clothes, sir, and both, I take it, are vagrants. The House of Correction is the place for 'em, I'm thinkin'."
Magdalena's head sank still lower, and she dug her nails into her palms to keep from gasping. But Helena, in this crucial moment, was game. She walked boldly forward and said authoritatively,—
"I wish to speak alone with you."
The sergeant recognised the great I AM of the American maiden; he also recognised her social altitude. But he said, with what severity he could muster,—
"If you have anything private to say, you can whisper it."
Helena stepped behind the desk and put her lips close to his ear. "I am Colonel Jack Belmont's daughter," she whispered. "Send me home, quick, and he'll make it all right with you to-morrow."
"A chip of the old block," muttered the sergeant, with a smile. "I see. And who is your companion?"
Helena hesitated. "Do—do I need to tell you?" she asked.
"You must," firmly.
"She's—you'll never breathe it?"
"You must leave that to my discretion. I shall do what is best."
"She is the daughter of Don Roberto Yorba."
"O Lord! O Lord!" He threw back his head and gave a prolonged chuckle.
The young man edged up to the desk.
"Who is that man?" demanded Helena, haughtily. She felt quite mistress of the situation.
"He's a reporter."
"Why, a reporter for the newspapers."
"I know nothing of the newspapers," said Helena, with an annihilating glance at the reporter. "My father does not permit me to read them."
The sergeant sprang to his feet. "This is no place for you," he muttered. "That's the best thing I've heard of Jack Belmont for some time. Here, come along, both of you."
He motioned to the girls to enter the passage, and turned to the officer. "Don't let anybody leave the room till I come back," he said; and the reporter, who had started eagerly forward, fell back with a scowl. "There's no 'story' in this, young man," said the sergeant, severely; "and you'll oblige me," with significant emphasis, "by making no reference to it."
"I think you're just splendid!" exclaimed Helena, as they went down the passage.
"Oh, well, we all like your father. Although it would be a great joke on him,—Scott, but it would! However, it wouldn't be any joke on you a few years from now, so I'm going to send you home with a little good advice,—don't do it again."
"But it's such fun to run to fires!" replied Helena, who now feared nothing under heaven. "We did have a time!"
"Well, if you're set on running to fires, go in your own good clothes, with money enough in your pocket to grease the palm of people like our friend Tim. Here we are."
He called a hack and handed the girls in.
"Please tell him to stop a few doors from the house," said Helena; "and," with her most engaging smile, "I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to pay him. If you'll give me your address, I'll send you the amount first thing to-morrow."
"Oh, don't mention it. Just ask your father to vote for Tom Shannon when he runs for sheriff. It's no use asking anything of old Yorba," he added, with some viciousness. "And I'd advise you, young lady, to keep this night's lark pretty dark."
The remark was addressed to Magdalena, but she only lifted her head haughtily and turned it away. Helena replied hastily,—
"My father shall vote for you and make all his friends vote, too. I won't tell him about this until next Wednesday, the day before I leave for New York; then he'll be feeling so badly he won't say a word, and he'll be so grateful to you that he'll do anything. Good-night."
"Good-night, miss, and I guess you'll get along in this world."
As the carriage drove off, Helena threw her arms about Magdalena, who was sitting stiffly in the corner. "Oh, darling, dearest!" she exclaimed. "What have I made you go through? And you're so generous, you'll never tell me what a villain I am. But you will forgive me, won't you?"
"I am just as much to blame as you are. I was not obliged to go."
"But it was dreadful, wasn't it? That horrid low policeman! The idea of his daring to put his hand on my shoulder. But we'll just forget it, and next week, to-morrow, it will be as if it never had happened."
Magdalena made no reply.
"'Lena!" exclaimed Helena, sharply. "You're never going to own up?"
"I must," said Magdalena, firmly. "I've done a wicked thing. I've disobeyed my father, who thinks it's horrible for girls to be on the street even in the daytime alone, and I've nearly disgraced him. I've no right not to tell him. I must!"
"That's your crazy old New England conscience! If you were all Spanish, you'd look as innocent as a madonna for a week, and if you were my kind of Californian you'd cheek it and make your elders feel that they were impertinent for taking you to task."
"You are half New England."
"So I am, but I'm half Southerner, too, and all Californian. I'm just beautifully mixed. You're not mixed at all; you're just hooked together. Come now, say you won't tell him. He's a terror when he gets angry."
"I must tell him. I'd never respect myself again if I didn't. I've done lots of other things and didn't tell, but they didn't matter,—that is, not so much. He's got a right to know."
"It's a pity you're not more like him, then you wouldn't tell."
"What do you mean, Helena? I am sure my father never told a lie."
Helena was too generous to tell what she knew. She asked instead, "I wonder would your conscience hurt you so hard if everything had turned out all right, and we were coming home in our own hack?"
Magdalena thought a moment. "It might not to-night, but it would to-morrow. I am sure of that," she said.
Helena groaned. "You are hopeless. Thank Heaven, I was born without a conscience,—that kind, anyhow. I intend to be a law all to myself. I'm Californian clear through into my backbone."
The hack stopped. The girls alighted and walked slowly forward. Mr. Belmont's house was the first of the three.
"Well," said Helena, "here we are. I'm going to climb up the pillar and walk along the ledge. How are you going in?"
"Through the front door."
"Well, if you will, you will, I suppose. Kiss me good-night."
Magdalena kissed her and walked on. A half-moment later Helena called after her in a loud whisper,—
"Take off that shawl!"
Magdalena lifted her hand to her chin, then dropped it. When she reached her own home, she rang the bell firmly. The Chinaman who opened the door stared at her, the dawn of an expression on his face.
"Where is Don Roberto?" she asked.
"In loffice, missee."
Magdalena crossed the hall and tapped at the door of the small room her father called his office. Don Roberto grunted, and she opened the door and went in. He was writing, and wheeled about sharply.
"What?" he exclaimed. "What the devil! Take that shawl off the head."
Magdalena removed the shawl and sat down.
"I went to a fire," she said. "I got taken up by a policeman and went to the station. A man named Tom Shannon said he wouldn't lock me up, and sent me home. He paid for the carriage." She paused, looking at her father with white lips.
His face had turned livid, then purple. "Dios!" he gasped. "Dios!" And then she knew how furious her father was. When his life was in even tenor he never used his native tongue. "Dios!" he repeated. "Tell that again. You go with that little devil, Helena Belmont, I suppose. Madre de Dios! Again! Again!"
"I went to a fire—south of Market Street. A policeman arrested me for a vagrant. He called me a greaser—"
Her father sprang to his feet with a yell of rage. He caught his riding-whip from the mantel.
She stumbled to her feet. "Papa!" she said. "Papa! You will not do that!"
A few moments later she was in her own room. The stars shone full on her pretty altar. She turned her back on it and sat down on the floor. She had not uttered a word as her father beat her. Even now she barely felt the welts on her back. But her self-respect had been cut through at every blow, and it quivered and writhed within her. She hated her father and she hated life with an intensity which added to her misery, and she decided that she had made her last confession to any one but the priest, who always forgave her. If she did wrong in the future and her father found it out, well and good; but she would not be the one to tell him.
It was a part of her punishment that she was to be locked in her room until Helena left for New York; but Helena visited her every night in her time-honoured fashion. Magdalena never told of the blows, but confinement was a sufficient excuse to her restless friend for any amount of depression; and Helena coaxed twenty dollars out of her father and bought books and bonbons for the prisoner, which she carefully disposed about her person before making the ascent. Magdalena hid her presents in a bureau drawer; and it is idle to deny that they comforted her. One of the books was "Jane Eyre," and another Mrs. Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Bronte. They fired her with enthusiasm, and although she cried all night after the equally tearful Helena had said good-bye to her, she returned to them next day with undiminished enthusiasm.
The Sunday after Helena's departure she was permitted to go to church. She was attended by her mother's maid, a French girl and a fervid Catholic. St. Mary's Cathedral, in which Don Roberto owned a pew that he never occupied, was at that time on the corner of California and Dupont streets.
Magdalena prayed devoutly, but only for the reestablishment of her self-respect, and the grace of oblivion for the degradation to which her father had subjected her. Later, she intended to pray that he might be forgiven, both by herself and God, and that his heart should be softened to the poor; but not yet. She must be herself again first.
Her head had been aching for two days, the result of long confinement and too many bonbons. It throbbed so during service that she slipped out, whispering to the maid that she only wanted a breath of fresh air and would be back shortly.
She stood for a few moments on the steps. Her head felt better, and she noticed how peaceful the city looked; yet, as ever, with its suggestion of latent feverishness. She had heard Colonel Belmont say that there was no other city in the world like it, and as she stood there and regarded the precipitous heights with their odd assortment of flimsy "palaces" and dilapidated structures dating back to the Fifties, she felt the vague restlessness that brooded over everything, and understood what he had meant; and she also knew that she understood as he had not. Above was the dazzling sky, not a fleck in its blue fire. There was not a breath of wind in the city. She had never known a more peaceful day. And yet, if at any moment the earth had rocked beneath her feet, she would have felt no surprise.
She felt the necessity for exercise. It was now over a week since she had been out of her room, and during that time she had not only studied as usual, but read and read and read. She did not remember to have ever felt so nervous before. She could not go back into the Cathedral; it was musty in itself and crowded with the Great Unwashed. But it would not be right to disturb Julie. There could be no harm in the least bit of a walk alone, particularly as her father was in Menlo Park. She glanced about her dubiously. Chinatown, which began a block to her right, was out of the question, although she would have liked to see the women and the funny little Chinese babies that she had heard of: the fortunate Helena had been escorted through Chinatown by her adoring parent and a policeman. She did not care to climb twice the almost perpendicular hill which led to her home, and at the foot of the hill was the business portion of the city. There was only one other way, and it looked quiet and deserted and generally inviting.
She crossed California Street and walked along Dupont Street. She saw to her surprise that the houses were small and mean; those the fire had eaten had hardly been worse. They had green outside blinds and appeared to date from the discovery of gold at least.
"There are poor people so near us," she thought. "Even Helena never guessed it. I am glad the plate had not been handed round; I will give some one my quarter."
The houses were very quiet. The shutters were closed, but the slats were open. She glanced in, but saw no one.
"Probably they are all in the Cathedral," she thought. "I am glad it is so close to them."
She walked on, forgetting the houses for the minute, absorbed in her new appreciation of the strange suggestiveness of San Francisco. Again, something was shaping itself in her mind, demanding expression. She felt that it would have the power to make her forget all that she did not wish to remember, and thought that perhaps this was the sponge for the slate the Virgin was sending in answer to her prayers.
Suddenly, almost in her ear, she heard a low chuckle. She started violently; in all her life she had never heard anything so evil, so appalling, as that chuckle. It had come from the window at her left. She turned mechanically, her spirits sinking with nameless terror.
Her expanded eyes fastened upon the open shutters. A woman sat behind them; at least, she was cast in woman's mould. Her sticky black hair was piled high in puffs,—an exaggeration of the mode of the day. Her thick lips were painted a violent red. Rouge and whitewash covered the rest of her face. There was black paint beneath her eyes. She wore a dirty pink silk dress cut shamefully low.
The blood burned into Magdalena's cheeks. Of sin she had never heard. She had no name for the creature before her, but her woman's instinct whispered that she was vile.
The woman, who was regarding her malevolently, spoke. Magdalena did not understand the purport of her words, but she turned and fled whence she had come. As she did so, the chuckle, multiplied a dozen-fold, surrounded her. She stopped for a second and cast a swift glance about her, fascinated, with all her protesting horror.
Behind every shutter which met her gaze was the duplicate of the creature who had startled her first. As they saw her dismay, their chuckle broke into a roar, then split into vocabulary. Magdalena ran faster than she had ever run in her life before. Suddenly she saw Colonel Belmont sauntering down California Street, debonair as ever. His long moustaches swept his shoulders. His soft hat was on the back of his head, framing his bold handsome dissipated face. His frock-coat, but for the lower button, was open, and stood out about the dazzling shirt, well revealed by a low vest.
"Uncle Jack!" screamed Magdalena. "Uncle Jack!"
Colonel Belmont jumped as if a battery had ripped up the ground in front of him. Then he dashed across the street. "Good God!" he shouted. "Good God!" He caught Magdalena in his arms and carried her back to the shadow of the cross.
"You two have been possessed by the devil of late," he began wrathfully, but Magdalena interrupted him.
"No! no!" she exclaimed. "I didn't know there was anything different there from any other street. I didn't mean to."
"Well, I don't suppose you did. You never know where you are in this infernal town, anyhow. Where's your maid?"
But Magdalena had fainted.
After that, Magdalena had brain fever. It was a sharp but brief attack, and when she was convalescent the doctor ordered her to go to the country at once and let her school-books alone. As Mrs. Yorba never left her husband for any consideration, Magdalena was sent to Menlo Park with Miss Phelps. The time came when Magdalena hated the monotony of Menlo, with its ceaseless calling and driving, its sameness of days and conversation; but at that age she loved the country in any form.
Menlo Park, originally a large Spanish grant, had long since been cut up into country places for what may be termed the "Old Families of San Francisco." The eight or ten families who owned this haughty precinct were as exclusive, as conservative, as any group of ancient county families in Europe. Many of them had been established here for twenty years, none for less than fifteen. That fact set the seal of gentle blood upon them for all time in the annals of California,—a fact in which there is nothing humourous if you look at it logically; there is really no reason why a new country should not take itself seriously.
Don Roberto owned a square mile known as Fair Oaks, in honour of the ancient and magnificent woods upon it. These woods were in three sections, separated by meadows, and there was a broad road through each, but not a twig of the riotous underbrush had been sacrificed to a foot-path. A hundred acres about the house—which was a mile from the entrance to the estate—had been cleared for extensive lawns, ornamental trees, and a deer park.
Directly in front of the house, across the driveway and starting from a narrow walk between two great lawns, was a solitary eucalyptus-tree, one of the few in the State at the time of its planting. It was some two hundred feet high and creaked alarmingly in heavy winds; but Don Roberto, despite Mrs. Yorba's protestations, would not have it uprooted: he had a particular fondness for it because it was so little like the palms and magnolias of his youth.
To the left of the house at the end of an avenue of cherry-trees was an immense orchard surrounded by an avenue of fig-trees, and English walnut-trees.
The house was as unlike the adobe mansions of the old grandees as was the eucalyptus the palms. It was large, square, two-storied, and although of wood, of massive appearance. It was, indeed, the most solid-looking structure in California at that time. A deep verandah traversed three sides of the house, its roof making another beneath the bedroom windows. Its pillars were hidden under rose vines and wistaria. The thirty rooms were somewhat superfluous, as Don Roberto would have none of house-parties, but he could not have breathed in a small house. The rooms were very large and lofty, the floors covered with matting, the furniture light and plain. Above, as from the town house, floated the American flag.
Colonel Belmont's estate adjoined Fair Oaks on one side, the Montgomerys' on the other; and the Brannans, Kearneys, Gearys, Washingtons, and Folsoms all spent their summers in that sleepy valley between the waters of the San Francisco and the redwood-covered mountains; these and others who have nothing to do with this tale. Hiram Polk had no home in Menlo, excepting in his brother-in-law's house. Some of his wife's happiest memories were of the Rancho de los Pulgas, and she refused to witness its possession by the hated American. So Polk had bought her one of the old adobe houses in Santa Barbara, and each year she extended the limit of her sojourn in a town where memories were still sacred.
Magdalena was languid and content. She put the terrible experiences which had preceded her illness behind her without effort. Her mind dwelt upon the joy of living in the sunshine, and upon the hopes of the future. She admitted frankly that she was glad to be rid of her parents, and only longed for Helena. That faithful youngster wrote, twice a week, letters which were a succession of fireworks embellished by caricatures of such of her teachers and acquaintance as had incurred her disapproval. Her aunt, Mrs. Edward Forbes, who was one of the leaders of New York society and a beauty, was giving her much petting and would take her abroad later.
Magdalena read these letters with delight stabbed with doubt. More than once she had wondered if Helena had been born to realise all her own ambitions. Even her letters were clever and original.
In a week Magdalena was strong enough to walk in the woods, and Miss Phelps placed no restraint upon her. She re-read what books she had, then made out a list and sent it to her father to purchase, believing that he would refuse her nothing after her illness. Don Roberto read the note, grunted, and threw it into the waste-paper basket. He abominated erudite women, and had the scorn of the financial mind for the superfluous attributes of the intellectual. Magdalena waited a reasonable time, then after a day's hard fight with the reticence of her nature, wrote and asked Colonel Belmont for the books. He sent them at once, with a penitent note and an order on the principal bookseller of the city for all that she might want in the future. "I will say a prayer to the Virgin for him," thought Magdalena, with a glow at her heart, oblivious that the Virgin had refused to intercede with her father.
The packet contained the lives of a number of men and women who had distinguished themselves in letters; but although Magdalena read them twice they told her little, save that she must read the works of the masters and puzzle out their methods if she could.
Meanwhile, in spite of her studies, she was growing strong, for she spent the day out of doors; and when her parents came down on the first of June, they found her as shy and cold as ever, but with sparkling eyes and a faint glow in her cheeks.
"But never she is beauty," said Don Roberto, that evening to Polk, as the two men sat on the verandah, smoking. "Before, I resent very much, and say damnation, damnation, damnation. But now I think I no mind. Si she is beauty I think more often by that time—no can help. I wonder si there are the beautiful women in the South now, like before; but, by Jimminy! I like forget the place exeest. I am an American. Yes, Great Scott!"
He stretched out his little fat legs and rested his third chin on his inflexible shirt-front. He felt an American, every inch of him, and hated anything that reminded him of what he might become did he yield to the natural indolence and extravagance of his nature. He would gladly have drained his veins and packed them with galloping American blood. It grieved him that he could not eliminate his native accent, and he was persuaded that he spoke the American tongue in all its purity, being especially proud of a large assortment of expletives peculiar to the land of his adoption.
Polk gave a short dry laugh and stretched out his long hard Yankee legs. Even in the dusk his lantern jaws stood out. There was no doubt about his nationality. Those legs and jaws were the objects of Don Roberto's abiding envy.
"Pretty women in the family are a nuisance," said Polk. "They want the earth, and don't see why they shouldn't get it. I wouldn't have that Helena for another million. By the way, Jack told me a good story on you yesterday."
Don Roberto grunted. His Spanish pride had not abated an inch. He resented being discussed.
Polk continued: "There were seven or eight men talking over old times in the Union Club the other night; that is to say, they were reminiscing over the various enterprises they had been engaged in, and the piles they had made and lost. Our names naturally came up, and Brannan said, slowly, as if he were thinking it over hard, 'I—don't—think—I—had—any—dealings—with—Yorba—ever.' Whereupon Washington replied, quick as a shot, 'You'd remember it if you had.'"
Don Roberto scowled heavily. It was one of his fictions that he hoodwinked the world. He never snapped his fingers in its face as Polk did: exteriorly a Yorba must always be a Yorba.
"Some day when the bank have lend Meester Washington one hundred thousand dollars, I turn on the screw when he no is prepare to pay," he said. And he did.
During the following week all Menlo, which had moved down before Mrs. Yorba, called on that august leader. She received every afternoon on the verandah, clad in black or grey lawn, stiff, silent, but sufficiently gracious. On the day after her arrival, as the first visitor's carriage appeared at the bend of the avenue, its advent heralded by the furious barking of two mastiffs, a bloodhound, and an English carriage dog, Magdalena gathered up her books and prepared to retreat, but her mother turned to her peremptorily.
"I wish you to stay," she said. "You must begin now to see something of society. Otherwise you will have no ease when you come out. And try to talk. Young people must talk."
"But I can't talk," faltered Magdalena.
"You must learn. Say anything, and in time it will be easy."
Magdalena realised that her mother was right. If she was to overcome her natural lack of facile speech, she could not begin too soon. Although she was terrified at the prospect of talking to these people who had alighted and were exchanging platitudes with her mother, she resolved anew that the time should come when she should be as ready of tongue and as graceful of speech as her position and her pride demanded.
She sat down by one of the guests and stammered out something about the violets. The young woman she addressed was of delicate and excessive beauty: her brunette face, under a hat covered with corn-coloured plumes, was almost faultless in its outline. She wore an elaborate and dainty French gown the shade of her feathers, and her small hands and feet were dressed to perfection. Magdalena had heard of the beautiful Mrs. Washington, and felt it a privilege to sun herself in such loveliness. The three elderly ladies she had brought with her—Mrs. Cartright, Mrs. Geary, and Mrs. Brannan—were dressed with extreme simplicity.
"Yes," replied Mrs. Washington, "they are lovely,—they are, for a fact. Mine have chilblains or something this year, and won't bloom for a cent. Hang the luck! I'm as cross as a bear with a sore head about it."
"Would you like me to pick some of ours for you?" asked Magdalena, wondering if she had better model her verbal accomplishments on Mrs. Washington's. She thought them even more picturesque than Helena's.
"Do; that's a jolly good fellow."
When Magdalena returned with the violets, they were received with a bewitching but absent smile; another carriage-load had arrived, and all were discussing the advent of a "Bonanza" family, whose huge fortune, made out of the Nevada mines, had recently lifted it from obscurity to social fame.
"It's just too hateful that I've got to call," said Mrs. Washington, in her refined melodious voice. "Teddy says that I must, because sooner or later we've all got to know them,—old Dillon's a red Indian chief in the financial world; and there's no use kicking against money, anyhow. But I can't cotton to that sort of people, and I just cried last night when Teddy—the old darling! I'd do anything to please him—told me I must call."
"It's a great pity we old families can't keep together," said Mrs. Brannan, a stout high-nosed dame. "There are plenty of others for them to know. Why can't they let us alone?"
"That's just what they won't do," cried Mrs. Washington. "We're what they're after. What's the reason they've come to Menlo Park? They'll be 'landed aristocracy' in less than no time. Hang the luck!"
"Shall you call, Hannah?" asked Mrs. Cartright. "Dear Jack never imposes any restrictions on me,—he's so handsome about everything; so I shall be guided by you."
"In time," replied Mrs. Yorba, who also had had a meaning conference with her husband. "But I shall not rush. Toward the end of the summer, perhaps. It would be unwise to take them up too quickly."
"I've got to give them a dinner," said Mrs. Washington, with gloom. "But I'll put it off till the last gun fires. And you've all got to come. Otherwise you'll see me on the war-path."
"Of course we shall all go, Nelly," said Mrs. Yorba. "We will always stand in together."
The conversation flowed on. Other personalities were discussed, the difficulty of getting servants to stay in the country, where there was such a dearth of "me gentleman frien'," the appearance of the various gardens, and the atrocious amount of water they consumed.
"I wish to goodness the water-works on top wouldn't shut off for eight months in the year," exclaimed Mrs. Washington. "Whenever I want something in summer that costs a pile, Teddy groans and tells me that his water bill is four hundred dollars a month." And Mrs. Washington, whose elderly and doting husband had never refused to grant her most exorbitant whim, sighed profoundly.
Magdalena did not find the conversation very interesting, nor was she called upon to contribute to it. Nevertheless, she received every day with her mother and went with her to return the calls. At the end of the summer she loathed the small talk and its art, but felt that she was improving. Her manner was certainly easier. She had decided not to emulate Mrs. Washington's vernacular, but she attempted to copy her ease and graciousness of manner. In time she learned to unbend a little, to acquire a certain gentle dignity in place of her natural haughty stiffness, and to utter the phrases that are necessary to keep conversation going; but her reticence never left her for a moment, her eyes looked beyond the people in whom she strove to be interested, and few noticed or cared whether or not she was present. But at the end of the summer she was full of hope; society might not interest her, but the pride which was her chief characteristic commanded that she should hold a triumphant place among her peers.
She had told neither of her parents of the books Colonel Belmont had given her, knowing that the result would be a violent scene and an interdiction. At this stage of her development she had no defined ideas of right and wrong. Upon such occasions as she had followed the dictates of her conscience, the consequences had been extremely unpleasant, and in one instance hideous. She was indolent and secretive by nature, and she slipped along comfortably and did not bother her head with problems.
The Yorbas returned to town on the first of November. It was decided that Magdalena should continue her studies, but the rainy days and winter evenings gave her long hours for her books. She found, to her delight, that her brain was losing something of its inflexibility; that, by reading slowly, one perusal of an ordinary book was sufficient. Her memory was still incomplete, but it was improving. Her mother had ceased to overlook her choice of books, being satisfied that Magdalena would never care for trash.
Magdalena always found the big dark house oppressive after the months in Menlo Park, and went out as often as she could. On fine days, attended by Julie, she usually walked down to the Mercantile Library, and prowled among the dusty shelves. The old Mercantile Library in Bush Street, almost in the heart of the business portion of the city, had the most venerable air of any building in California. There was, indeed, danger of coming out covered with blue mould. And it was very dark and very gloomy. It has always been suspected that it was a favourite resort for suicides, but this, happily, has never been proved.
But Magdalena loved it, for it held many thousand volumes, and they were all at her disposal. Her membership was worth more to her than all her father's riches. Julie, who hated the library, always carried a chair at once to the register and closed her eyes, that she might not be depressed to tears by the gloom and the walls of books, which were bound as became all that was left of the dead.
It was during one of these visits that Magdalena approached another crisis of her inner life. She was wandering about aimlessly, hardly knowing what she wanted, when her eye was caught by the title of a book on an upper shelf: "Conflict between Religion and Science." She knew nothing about science, but she wondered in what manner religion could conflict with anything. She took the book down and read the first few lines, then the page, then the chapter, still standing. When she had finished she made as if to replace the book, then put it resolutely under her arm, called Julie, and went home.
She read during the remainder of the afternoon, and as far into the night as she dared. Before she went to bed she said her prayers more fervently than ever, and the next morning considered deeply whether or not she should return the book half read. She finally concluded to finish it. Her intellect was voracious, and she had no other companion but her religion. Moreover, if she was to aspire to a position in the world of letters, she must equip her mind with the best that had gone before. She had every faith in the power of the Catholic religion to hold its own; her hesitation had been induced, not by fear of disturbing her faith, but because she doubted, pricked by the bigotry in her veins, if it was loyal to recognise the existence of the enemy.
However, she finished the book. On the following Saturday morning she went down to the library and asked the librarian, who took some interest in her, what he would advise her to read in the way of science; she had lost all taste for anything else.