“Well, what do you say? Speak the word, and you can go into it with your folks to-morrow. And I reckon you won’t want to take anything either, for you’ll find everything there—just as the old Don left it. I don’t want it; the land is good enough for me; I shall have my vaqueros and rancheros to look after the crops and the cattle, and they won’t trouble you, for their sheds and barns will be two miles away. You can stay there as long as you like, and go when you choose. You might like to try it for a spell; it’s all the same to me. But I should think it the sort of thing a man like you would fancy, and it seems the right thing to have you there. Well,—what shall it be? Is it a go?”
Dick knew that the speaker was sincere. It was an offer perfectly characteristic of his friend, the Western millionaire, who had halted by his side. And he knew also that the slow lifting of his bridle-rein, preparatory to starting forward again, was the business-like gesture of a man who wasted no time even over his acts of impulsive liberality. In another moment he would dismiss the unaccepted offer from his mind—without concern and without resentment.
“Thank you—it is a go,” said Dick gratefully.
Nevertheless, when he reached his own little home in the outskirts of San Francisco that night, he was a trifle nervous in confiding to the lady, who was at once his aunt and housekeeper, the fact that he was now the possessor of a huge mansion in whose patio alone the little eight-roomed villa where they had lived contentedly might be casually dropped. “You see, Aunt Viney,” he hurriedly explained, “it would have been so ungrateful to have refused him—and it really was an offer as spontaneous as it was liberal. And then, you see, we need occupy only a part of the casa.”
“And who will look after the other part?” said Aunt Viney grimly. “That will have to be kept tidy, too; and the servants for such a house, where in heaven are they to come from? Or do they go with it?”
“No,” said Dick quickly; “the servants left with their old master, when Ringstone bought the property. But we’ll find servants enough in the neighborhood—Mexican peons and Indians, you know.”
Aunt Viney sniffed. “And you’ll have to entertain—if it’s a big house. There are all your Spanish neighbors. They’ll be gallivanting in and out all the time.”
“They won’t trouble us,” he returned, with some hesitation. “You see, they’re furious at the old Don for disposing of his lands to an American, and they won’t be likely to look upon the strangers in the new place as anything but interlopers.”
“Oh, that is it, is it?” ejaculated Aunt Viney, with a slight puckering of her lips. “I thought there was something.”
“My dear aunt,” said Dick, with a sudden illogical heat which he tried to suppress; “I don’t know what you mean by ‘it’ and ‘something.’ Ringstone’s offer was perfectly unselfish; he certainly did not suppose that I would be affected, any more than he would he, by the childish sentimentality of these people over a legitimate, every-day business affair. The old Don made a good bargain, and simply sold the land he could no longer make profitable with his obsolete method of farming, his gang of idle retainers, and his Noah’s Ark machinery, to a man who knew how to use steam reapers, and hired sensible men to work on shares.” Nevertheless he was angry with himself for making any explanation, and still more disturbed that he was conscious of a certain feeling that it was necessary.
“I was thinking,” said Aunt Viney quietly, “that if we invited anybody to stay with us—like Cecily, for example—it might be rather dull for her if we had no neighbors to introduce her to.”
Dick started; he had not thought of this. He had been greatly influenced by the belief that his pretty cousin, who was to make them a visit, would like the change and would not miss excitement. “We can always invite some girls down there and make our own company,” he answered cheerfully. Nevertheless, he was dimly conscious that he had already made an airy castle of the old hacienda, in which Cecily and her aunt moved alone. It was to Cecily that he would introduce the old garden, it was Cecily whom he would accompany through the dark corridors, and with whom he would lounge under the awnings of the veranda. All this innocently, and without prejudice or ulterior thought. He was not yet in love with the pretty cousin whom he had seen but once or twice during the past few years, but it was a possibility not unpleasant to occasionally contemplate. Yet it was equally possible that she might yearn for lighter companionship and accustomed amusement; that the passion-fringed garden and shadow-haunted corridor might be profaned by hoydenish romping and laughter, or by that frivolous flirtation which, in others, he had always regarded as commonplace and vulgar.
Howbeit, at the end of two weeks he found himself regularly installed in the Hacienda de los Osos. His little household, re-enforced by his cousin Cecily and three peons picked up at Los Pinos, bore their transplantation with a singular equanimity that seemed to him unaccountable. Then occurred one of those revelations of character with which Nature is always ready to trip up merely human judgment. Aunt Viney, an unrelenting widow of calm but unshaken Dutch prejudices, high but narrow in religious belief, merged without a murmur into the position of chatelaine of this unconventional, half-Latin household. Accepting the situation without exaltation or criticism, placid but unresponsive amidst the youthful enthusiasm of Dick and Cecily over each quaint detail, her influence was, nevertheless, felt throughout the lingering length and shadowy breadth of the strange old house. The Indian and Mexican servants, at first awed by her practical superiority, succumbed to her half-humorous toleration of their incapacity, and became her devoted slaves. Dick was astonished, and even Cecily was confounded. “Do you know,” she said confidentially to her cousin, “that when that brown Conchita thought to please Aunty by wearing white stockings instead of going round as usual with her cinnamon-colored bare feet in yellow slippers—which I was afraid would be enough to send Aunty into conniption fits—she actually told her, very quietly, to take them off, and dress according to her habits and her station? And you remember that in her big, square bedroom there is a praying-stool and a ghastly crucifix, at least three feet long, in ivory and black, quite too human for anything? Well, when I offered to put them in the corridor, she said I ‘needn’t trouble’; that really she hadn’t noticed them, and they would do very well where they were. You’d think she had been accustomed to this sort of thing all her life. It’s just too sweet of her, any way, even if she’s shamming. And if she is, she just does it to the life too, and could give those Spanish women points. Why, she rode en pillion on Manuel’s mule, behind him, holding on by his sash, across to the corral yesterday; and you should have seen Manuel absolutely scrape the ground before her with his sombrero when he let her down.” Indeed, her tall, erect figure in black lustreless silk, appearing in a heavily shadowed doorway, or seated in a recessed window, gave a new and patrician dignity to the melancholy of the hacienda. It was pleasant to follow this quietly ceremonious shadow gliding along the rose garden at twilight, halting at times to bend stiffly over the bushes, garden-shears in hand, and carrying a little basket filled with withered but still odorous petals, as if she were grimly gathering the faded roses of her youth.
It was also probable that the lively Cecily’s appreciation of her aunt might have been based upon another virtue of that lady—namely, her exquisite tact in dealing with the delicate situation evolved from the always possible relations of the two cousins. It was not to be supposed that the servants would fail to invest the young people with Southern romance, and even believe that the situation was prearranged by the aunt with a view to their eventual engagement. To deal with the problem openly, yet without startling the consciousness of either Dick or Cecily; to allow them the privileges of children subject to the occasional restraints of childhood; to find certain household duties for the young girl that kept them naturally apart until certain hours of general relaxation; to calmly ignore the meaning of her retainers’ smiles and glances, and yet to good-humoredly accept their interest as a kind of feudal loyalty, was part of Aunt Viney’s deep diplomacy. Cecily enjoyed her freedom and companionship with Dick, as she enjoyed the novel experiences of the old house, the quaint, faded civilization that it represented, and the change and diversion always acceptable to youth. She did not feel the absence of other girls of her own age; neither was she aware that through this omission she was spared the necessity of a confidante or a rival—both equally revealing to her thoughtless enjoyment. They took their rides together openly and without concealment, relating their adventures afterwards to Aunt Viney with a naïveté and frankness that dreamed of no suppression. The city-bred Cecily, accustomed to horse exercise solely as an ornamental and artificial recreation, felt for the first time the fearful joy of a dash across a league-long plain, with no onlookers but the scattered wild horses she might startle up to scurry before her, or race at her side. Small wonder that, mounted on her fiery little mustang, untrammeled by her short gray riding-habit, free as the wind itself that blew through the folds of her flannel blouse, with her brown hair half-loosed beneath her slouched felt hat, she seemed to Dick a more beautiful and womanly figure than the stiff buckramed simulation of man’s angularity and precision he had seen in the parks. Perhaps one day she detected this consciousness too plainly in his persistent eyes. Up to that moment she had only watched the glittering stretches of yellow grain, in which occasional wind-shorn evergreen oaks stood mid-leg deep like cattle in water, the distant silhouette of the Sierras against the steely blue, or perhaps the frankly happy face of the good-looking young fellow at her side. But it seemed to her now that an intruder had entered the field—a stranger before whom she was impelled to suddenly fly—half-laughingly, half-affrightedly—the anxious Dick following wonderingly at her mustang’s heels, until she reached the gates of the hacienda, where she fell into a gravity and seriousness that made him wonder still more. He did not dream that his guileless cousin had discovered, with a woman’s instinct, a mysterious invader who sought to share their guileless companionship, only to absorb it entirely, and that its name was—love!
The next day she was so greatly preoccupied with her household duties that she could not ride with him. Dick felt unaccountably lost. Perhaps this check to their daily intercourse was no less accelerating to his feelings than the vague motive that induced Cecily to withhold herself. He moped in the corridor; he rode out alone, bullying his mustang in proportion as he missed his cousin’s gentle companionship, and circling aimlessly, but still unconsciously, around the hacienda as a centre of attraction. The sun at last was sinking to the accompaniment of a rising wind, which seemed to blow and scatter its broad rays over the shimmering plain until every slight protuberance was burnished into startling brightness; the shadows of the short green oaks grew disproportionally long, and all seemed to point to the white-walled casa. Suddenly he started and instantly reined up.
The figure of a young girl, which he had not before noticed, was slowly moving down the half-shadowed lane made by the two walls of the garden and the corral. Cecily! Perhaps she had come out to meet him. He spurred forward; but, as he came nearer, he saw that the figure and its attire were surely not hers. He reined up again abruptly, mortified at his disappointment, and a little ashamed lest he should have seemed to have been following an evident stranger. He vaguely remembered, too, that there was a trail to the high road, through a little swale clothed with myrtle and thorn bush which he had just passed, and that she was probably one of his reserved and secluded neighbors—indeed, her dress, in that uncertain light, looked half Spanish. This was more confusing, since his rashness might have been taken for an attempt to force an acquaintance. He wheeled and galloped towards the front of the casa as the figure disappeared at the angle of the wall.
“I don’t suppose you ever see any of our neighbors?” said Dick to his aunt casually.
“I really can’t say,” returned the lady with quiet equanimity. “There were some extraordinary-looking foreigners on the road to San Gregorio yesterday. Manuel, who was driving me, may have known who they were—he is a kind of Indian Papist himself, you know—but I didn’t. They might have been relations of his, for all I know.”
At any other time Dick would have been amused at this serene relegation of the lofty Estudillos and Peraltas to the caste of the Indian convert, but he was worried to think that perhaps Cecily was really being bored by the absence of neighbors. After dinner, when they sought the rose garden, he dropped upon the little lichen-scarred stone bench by her side. It was still warm from the sun; the hot musk of the roses filled the air; the whole garden, shielded from the cool evening trade winds by its high walls, still kept the glowing memory of the afternoon sunshine. Aunt Viney, with her garden basket on her arm, moved ghost-like among the distant bushes.
“I hope you are not getting bored here?” he said, after a slight inconsequent pause.
“Does that mean that you are?” she returned, raising her mischievous eyes to his.
“No; but I thought you might find it lonely, without neighbors.”
“I stayed in to-day,” she said, femininely replying to the unasked question, “because I fancied Aunt Viney might think it selfish of me to leave her alone so much.”
“But you are not lonely?”
Certainly not! The young lady was delighted with the whole place, with the quaint old garden, the mysterious corridors, the restful quiet of everything, the picture of dear Aunt Viney—who was just the sweetest soul in the world—moving about like the genius of the casa. It was such a change to all her ideas, she would never forget it. It was so thoughtful of him, Dick, to have given them all that pleasure.
“And the rides,” continued Dick, with the untactful pertinacity of the average man at such moments—“you are not tired of them?”
No; she thought them lovely. Such freedom and freshness in the exercise; so different from riding in the city or at watering-places, where it was one-half show, and one was always thinking of one’s habit or one’s self. One quite forgot one’s self on that lovely plain—with everything so far away, and only the mountains to look at in the distance. Nevertheless she did not lift her eyes from the point of the little slipper which had strayed beyond her skirt.
Dick was relieved, but not voluble; he could only admiringly follow the curves of her pretty arms and hands, clasped lightly in her lap, down to the point of the little slipper. But even that charming vanishing point was presently withdrawn—possibly through some instinct—for the young lady had apparently not raised her eyes.
“I’m so glad you like it,” said Dick earnestly, yet with a nervous hesitation that made his speech seem artificial to his own ears. “You see I—that is—I had an idea that you might like an occasional change of company. It’s a great pity we’re not on speaking terms with one of these Spanish families. Some of the men, you know, are really fine fellows, with an old-world courtesy that is very charming.”
He was surprised to see that she had lifted her head suddenly, with a quick look that however changed to an amused and half coquettish smile.
“I am finding no fault with my present company,” she said demurely, dropping her head and eyelids until a faint suffusion seemed to follow the falling lashes over her cheek. “I don’t think you ought to undervalue it.”
If he had only spoken then! The hot scent of the roses hung suspended in the air, which seemed to be hushed around them in mute expectancy; the shadows which were hiding Aunt Viney from view were also closing round the bench where they sat. He was very near her; he had only to reach out his hand to clasp hers, which lay idly in her lap. He felt himself glowing with a strange emanation; he even fancied that she was turning mechanically towards him, as a flower might turn towards the fervent sunlight. But he could not speak; he could scarcely collect his thoughts, conscious though he was of the absurdity of his silence. What was he waiting for? what did he expect? He was not usually bashful, he was no coward; there was nothing in her attitude to make him hesitate to give expression to what he believed was his first real passion. But he could do nothing. He even fancied that his face, turned towards hers, was stiffening into a vacant smile.
The young girl rose. “I think I heard Aunt Viney call me,” she said constrainedly, and made a hesitating step forward. The spell which had held Dick seemed to be broken suddenly; he stretched forth his arm to detain her. But the next step appeared to carry her beyond his influence; and it was even with a half movement of rejection that she quickened her pace and disappeared down the path. Dick fell back dejectedly into his seat, yet conscious of a feeling of relief that bewildered him.
But only for a moment. A recollection of the chance that he had impotently and unaccountably thrown away returned to him. He tried to laugh, albeit with a glowing cheek, over the momentary bashfulness which he thought had overtaken him, and which must have made him ridiculous in her eyes. He even took a few hesitating steps in the direction of the path where she had disappeared. The sound of voices came to his ear, and the light ring of Cecily’s laughter. The color deepened a little on his cheek; he re-entered the house and went to his room.
The red sunset, still faintly showing through the heavily recessed windows to the opposite wall, made two luminous aisles through the darkness of the long low apartment. From his easy-chair he watched the color drop out of the sky, the yellow plain grow pallid and seem to stretch itself to infinite rest; then a black line began to deepen and creep towards him from the horizon edge; the day was done. It seemed to him a day lost. He had no doubt now but that he loved his cousin, and the opportunity of telling her so—of profiting by her predisposition of the moment—had passed. She would remember herself, she would remember his weak hesitancy, she would despise him. He rose and walked uneasily up and down. And yet—and it disgusted him with himself still more—he was again conscious of the feeling of relief he had before experienced. A vague formula, “It’s better as it is,” “Who knows what might have come of it?” he found himself repeating, without reason and without resignation.
Ashamed even of his seclusion, he rose to join the little family circle, which now habitually gathered around a table on the veranda of the patio under the rays of a swinging lamp to take their chocolate. To his surprise the veranda was empty and dark; a light shining from the inner drawing-room showed him his aunt in her armchair reading, alone. A slight thrill ran over him: Cecily might be still in the garden! He noiselessly passed the drawing-room door, turned into a long corridor, and slipped through a grating in the wall into the lane that separated it from the garden. The gate was still open; a few paces brought him into the long alley of roses. Their strong perfume—confined in the high, hot walls—at first made him giddy. This was followed by an inexplicable languor; he turned instinctively towards the stone bench and sank upon it. The long rows of calla lilies against the opposite wall looked ghostlike in the darkness, and seemed to have turned their white faces towards him. Then he fancied that one had detached itself from the rank and was moving away. He looked again: surely there was something gliding along the wall! A quick tremor of anticipation passed over him. It was Cecily, who had lingered in the garden—perhaps to give him one more opportunity! He rose quickly, and stepped towards the apparition, which had now plainly resolved itself into a slight girlish figure; it slipped on beneath the trees; he followed quickly—his nervous hesitancy had vanished before what now seemed to be a half-coy, half-coquettish evasion of him. He called softly, “Cecily!” but she did not heed him; he quickened his pace—she increased hers. They were both running. She reached the angle of the wall where the gate opened upon the road. Suddenly she stopped, as if intentionally, in the clear open space before it. He could see her distinctly. The lace mantle slipped from her head and shoulders. It was not Cecily!
But it was a face so singularly beautiful and winsome that he was as quickly arrested. It was a woman’s deep, passionate eyes and heavy hair, joined to a childish oval of cheek and chin, an infantine mouth, and a little nose whose faintly curved outline redeemed the lower face from weakness and brought it into charming harmony with the rest. A yellow rose was pinned in the lustrous black hair above the little ear; a yellow silk shawl or mantle, which had looked white in the shadows, was thrown over one shoulder and twisted twice or thrice around the plump but petite bust. The large black velvety eyes were fixed on his in half wonderment, half amusement; the lovely lips were parted in half astonishment and half a smile. And yet she was like a picture, a dream,—a materialization of one’s most fanciful imaginings,—like anything, in fact, but the palpable flesh and blood she evidently was, standing only a few feet before him, whose hurried breath he could see even now heaving her youthful breast.
His own breath appeared suspended, although his heart beat rapidly as he stammered out: “I beg your pardon—I thought—” He stopped at the recollection that this was the second time he had followed her.
She did not speak, although her parted lips still curved with their faint coy smile. Then she suddenly lifted her right hand, which had been hanging at her side, clasping some long black object like a stick. Without any apparent impulse from her fingers, the stick slowly seemed to broaden in her little hand into the segment of an opening disk, that, lifting to her face and shoulders, gradually eclipsed the upper part of her figure, until, mounting higher, the beautiful eyes and the yellow rose of her hair alone remained above—a large unfurled fan! Then the long eyelashes drooped, as if in a mute farewell, and they too disappeared as the fan was lifted higher. The half-hidden figure appeared to glide to the gateway, lingered for an instant, and vanished. The astounded Dick stepped quickly into the road, but fan and figure were swallowed up in the darkness.
Amazed and bewildered, he stood for a moment, breathless and irresolute. It was no doubt the same stranger that he had seen before. But who was she, and what was she doing there? If she were one of their Spanish neighbors, drawn simply by curiosity to become a trespasser, why had she lingered to invite a scrutiny that would clearly identify her? It was not the escapade of that giddy girl which the lower part of her face had suggested, for such a one would have giggled and instantly flown; it was not the deliberate act of a grave woman of the world, for its sequel was so purposeless. Why had she revealed herself to him alone? Dick felt himself glowing with a half-shamed, half-secret pleasure. Then he remembered Cecily, and his own purpose in coming into the garden. He hurriedly made a tour of the walks and shrubbery, ostentatiously calling her, yet seeing, as in a dream, only the beautiful eyes of the stranger still before him, and conscious of an ill-defined remorse and disloyalty he had never known before. But Cecily was not there; and again he experienced the old sensation of relief!
He shut the garden gate, crossed the road, and found the grille just closing behind a slim white figure. He started, for it was Cecily; but even in his surprise he was conscious of wondering how he could have ever mistaken the stranger for her. She appeared startled too; she looked pale and abstracted. Could she have been a witness of his strange interview?
Her first sentence dispelled the idea.
“I suppose you were in the garden?” she said, with a certain timidity. “I didn’t go there—it seemed so close and stuffy—but walked a little down the lane.”
A moment before he would have eagerly told her his adventure; but in the presence of her manifest embarrassment his own increased. He concluded to tell her another time. He murmured vaguely that he had been looking for her in the garden, yet he had a flushing sense of falsehood in his reserve; and they passed silently along the corridor and entered the patio together. She lit the hanging lamp mechanically. She certainly was pale; her slim hand trembled slightly. Suddenly her eyes met his, a faint color came into her cheek, and she smiled. She put up her hand with a girlish gesture towards the back of her head.
“What are you looking at? Is my hair coming down?”
“No,” hesitated Dick, “but—I—thought—you were looking just a little pale.”
An aggressive ray slipped into her blue eyes.
“Strange! I thought you were. Just now at the grille you looked as if the roses hadn’t agreed with you.”
They both laughed, a little nervously, and Conchita brought the chocolate. When Aunt Viney came from the drawing-room she found the two young people together, and Cecily in a gale of high spirits.
She had had such a wonderfully interesting walk, all by herself, alone on the plain. It was really so queer and elfish to find one’s self where one could see nothing above or around one anywhere but stars. Stars above one, to right and left of one, and some so low down they seemed as if they were picketed on the plain. It was so odd to find the horizon line at one’s very feet, like a castaway at sea. And the wind! it seemed to move one this way and that way, for one could not see anything, and might really be floating in the air. Only once she thought she saw something, and was quite frightened.
“What was it?” asked Dick quickly.
“Well, it was a large black object; but—it turned out only to be a horse.”
She laughed, although she had evidently noticed her cousin’s eagerness, and her own eyes had a nervous brightness.
“And where was Dick all this while?” asked Aunt Viney quietly.
Cecily interrupted, and answered for him briskly. “Oh, he was trying to make attar of rose of himself in the garden. He’s still stupefied by his own sweetness.”
“If this means,” said Aunt Viney, with matter-of-fact precision, “that you’ve been gallivanting all alone, Cecily, on that common plain, where you’re likely to meet all sorts of foreigners and tramps and savages, and Heaven knows what other vermin, I shall set my face against a repetition of it. If you must go out, and Dick can’t go with you—and I must say that even you and he going out together there at night isn’t exactly the kind of American Christian example to set to our neighbors—you had better get Concepcion to go with you and take a lantern.”
“But there is nobody one meets on the plain—at least, nobody likely to harm one,” protested Cecily.
“Don’t tell me,” said Aunt Viney decidedly; “haven’t I seen all sorts of queer figures creeping along by the brink after nightfall between San Gregorio and the next rancho? Aren’t they always skulking backwards and forwards to mass and aguardiente?”
“And I don’t know why we should set any example to our neighbors. We don’t see much of them, or they of us.”
“Of course not,” returned Aunt Viney; “because all proper Spanish young ladies are shut up behind their grilles at night. You don’t see them traipsing over the plain in the darkness, with or without cavaliers! Why, Don Rafael would lock one of his sisters up in a convent and consider her disgraced forever, if he heard of it.”
Dick felt his cheeks burning; Cecily slightly paled. Yet both said eagerly together: “Why, what do you know about it, Aunty?”
“A great deal,” returned Aunt Viney quietly, holding her tatting up to the light and examining the stitches with a critical eye. “I’ve got my eyes about me, thank heaven! even if my ears don’t understand the language. And there’s a great deal, my dears, that you young people might learn from these Papists.”
“And do you mean to say,” continued Dick, with a glowing cheek and an uneasy smile, “that Spanish girls don’t go out alone?”
“No young lady goes out without her duenna,” said Aunt Viney emphatically. “Of course there’s the Concha variety, that go out without even stockings.”
As the conversation flagged after this, and the young people once or twice yawned nervously, Aunt Viney thought they had better go to bed.
But Dick did not sleep. The beautiful face beamed out again from the darkness of his room; the light that glimmered through his deep-set curtainless windows had an odd trick of bringing out certain hanging articles, or pieces of furniture, into a resemblance to a mantled figure. The deep, velvety eyes, fringed with long brown lashes, again looked into his with amused, childlike curiosity. He scouted the harsh criticisms of Aunt Viney, even while he shrank from proving to her her mistake in the quality of his mysterious visitant. Of course she was a lady—far superior to any of her race whom he had yet met. Yet how should he find who she was? His pride and a certain chivalry forbade his questioning the servants—before whom it was the rule of the household to avoid all reference to their neighbors. He would make the acquaintance of the old padre—perhaps he might talk. He would ride early along the trail in the direction of the nearest rancho,—Don Jose Amador’s,—a thing he had hitherto studiously refrained from doing. It was three miles away. She must have come that distance, but not alone. Doubtless she had kept her duenna in waiting in the road. Perhaps it was she who had frightened Cecily. Had Cecily told all she had seen? Her embarrassed manner certainly suggested more than she had told. He felt himself turning hot with an indefinite uneasiness. Then he tried to compose himself. After all, it was a thing of the past. The fair unknown had bribed the duenna for once, no doubt—had satisfied her girlish curiosity—she would not come again! But this thought brought with it such a sudden sense of utter desolation, a deprivation so new and startling, that it frightened him. Was his head turned by the witcheries of some black-eyed schoolgirl whom he had seen but once? Or—he felt his cheeks glowing in the darkness—was it really a case of love at first sight, and she herself had been impelled by the same yearning that now possessed him? A delicious satisfaction followed, that left a smile on his lips as if it had been a kiss. He knew now why he had so strangely hesitated with Cecily. He had never really loved her—he had never known what love was till now!
He was up early the next morning, skimming the plain on the back of “Chu Chu,” before the hacienda was stirring. He did not want any one to suspect his destination, and it was even with a sense of guilt that he dashed along the swale in the direction of the Amador rancho. A few vaqueros, an old Digger squaw carrying a basket, two little Indian acolytes on their way to mass passed him. He was surprised to find that there were no ruts of carriage wheels within three miles of the casa, and evidently no track for carriages through the swale. She must have come on horseback. A broader highway, however, intersected the trail at a point where the low walls of the Amador rancho came in view. Here he was startled by the apparition of an old-fashioned family carriage drawn by two large piebald mules. But it was unfortunately closed. Then, with a desperate audacity new to his reserved nature, he ranged close beside it, and even stared in the windows. A heavily mantled old woman, whose brown face was in high contrast to her snow-white hair, sat in the back seat. Beside her was a younger companion, with the odd blonde hair and blue eyes sometimes seen in the higher Castilian type. For an instant the blue eyes caught his, half-coquettishly. But the girl was not at all like his mysterious visitor, and he fell, discomfited, behind.
He had determined to explain his trespass on the grounds of his neighbor, if questioned, by the excuse that he was hunting a strayed mustang. But his presence, although watched with a cold reserve by the few peons who were lounging near the gateway, provoked no challenge from them; and he made a circuit of the low adobe walls, with their barred windows and cinnamon-tiled roofs, without molestation—but equally without satisfaction. He felt he was a fool for imagining that he would see her in that way. He turned his horse towards the little Mission half a mile away. There he had once met the old padre, who spoke a picturesque but limited English; now he was only a few yards ahead of him, just turning into the church. The padre was pleased to see Don Ricardo; it was an unusual thing for the Americanos, he observed, to be up so early: for himself, he had his functions, of course. No, the ladies that the caballero had seen had not been to mass! They were Donna Maria and her daughter, going to San Gregorio. They comprised all the family at the rancho,—there were none others, unless the caballero, of a possibility, meant Donna Inez, a maiden aunt of sixty—an admirable woman, a saint on earth! He trusted that he would find his estray; there was no doubt a mark upon it, otherwise the plain was illimitable; there were many horses—the world was wide!
Dick turned his face homewards a little less adventurously, and it must be confessed, with a growing sense of his folly. The keen, dry morning air brushed away his fancies of the preceding night; the beautiful eyes that had lured him thither seemed to flicker and be blown out by its practical breath. He began to think remorsefully of his cousin, of his aunt,—of his treachery to that reserve which the little alien household had maintained towards their Spanish neighbors. He found Aunt Viney and Cecily at breakfast—Cecily, he thought, looking a trifle pale. Yet (or was it only his fancy?) she seemed curious about his morning ride. And he became more reticent.
“You must see a good many of our neighbors when you are out so early?”
“Why?” he asked shortly, feeling his color rise.
“Oh, because—because we don’t see them at any other time.”
“I saw a very nice chap—I think the best of the lot,” he began, with assumed jocularity; then, seeing Cecily’s eyes suddenly fixed on him, he added, somewhat lamely, “the padre! There were also two women in a queer coach.”
“Donna Maria Amador, and Dona Felipa Peralta—her daughter by her first husband,” said Aunt Viney quietly. “When you see the horses you think it’s a circus; when you look inside the carriage you know it’s a funeral.”
Aunt Viney did not condescend to explain how she had acquired her genealogical knowledge of her neighbor’s family, but succeeded in breaking the restraint between the young people. Dick proposed a ride in the afternoon, which was cheerfully accepted by Cecily. Their intercourse apparently recovered its old frankness and freedom, marred only for a moment when they set out on the plain. Dick, really to forget his preoccupation of the morning, turned his horse’s head away from the trail, to ride in another direction; but Cecily oddly, and with an exhibition of caprice quite new to her, insisted upon taking the old trail. Nevertheless they met nothing, and soon became absorbed in the exercise. Dick felt something of his old tenderness return to this wholesome, pretty girl at his side; perhaps he betrayed it in his voice, or in an unconscious lingering by her bridle-rein, but she accepted it with a naive reserve which he naturally attributed to the effect of his own previous preoccupation. He bore it so gently, however, that it awakened her interest, and, possibly, her pique. Her reserve relaxed, and by the time they returned to the hacienda they had regained something of their former intimacy. The dry, incisive breath of the plains swept away the last lingering remnants of yesterday’s illusions. Under this frankly open sky, in this clear perspective of the remote Sierras, which admitted no fanciful deception of form or distance—there remained nothing but a strange incident—to be later explained or forgotten. Only he could not bring himself to talk to her about it.
After dinner, and a decent lingering for coffee on the veranda, Dick rose, and leaning half caressingly, half mischievously, over his aunt’s rocking-chair, but with his eyes on Cecily, said:—
“I’ve been deeply considering, dear Aunty, what you said last evening of the necessity of our offering a good example to our neighbors. Now, although Cecily and I are cousins, yet, as I am head of the house, lord of the manor, and padron, according to the Spanish ideas I am her recognised guardian and protector, and it seems to me it is my positive duty to accompany her if she wishes to walk out this evening.”
A momentary embarrassment—which, however, changed quickly into an answering smile to her cousin—came over Cecily’s face. She turned to her aunt.
“Well, don’t go too far,” said that lady quietly.
When they closed the grille behind them and stepped into the lane, Cecily shot a quick glance at her cousin.
“Perhaps you’d rather walk in the garden?”
“I? Oh, no,” he answered honestly. “But”—he hesitated—“would you?”
“Yes,” she said faintly.
He impulsively offered his arm; her slim hand slipped lightly through it and rested on his sleeve. They crossed the lane together, and entered the garden. A load appeared to be lifted from his heart; the moment seemed propitious,—here was a chance to recover his lost ground, to regain his self-respect and perhaps his cousin’s affection. By a common instinct, however, they turned to the right, and away from the stone bench, and walked slowly down the broad allee.
They talked naturally and confidingly of the days when they had met before, of old friends they had known and changes that had crept into their young lives; they spoke affectionately of the grim, lonely, but self-contained old woman they had just left, who had brought them thus again together. Cecily talked of Dick’s studies, of the scientific work on which he was engaged, that was to bring him, she was sure, fame and fortune! They talked of the thoughtful charm of the old house, of its quaint old-world flavor. They spoke of the beauty of the night, the flowers and the stars, in whispers, as one is apt to do—as fearing to disturb a super-sensitiveness in nature.
They had come out later than on the previous night; and the moon, already risen above the high walls of the garden, seemed a vast silver shield caught in the interlacing tops of the old pear-trees, whose branches crossed its bright field like dark bends or bars. As it rose higher, it began to separate the lighter shrubbery, and open white lanes through the olive-trees. Damp currents of air, alternating with drier heats, on what appeared to be different levels, moved across the whole garden, or gave way at times to a breathless lull and hush of everything, in which the long rose alley seemed to be swooning in its own spices. They had reached the bottom of the garden, and had turned, facing the upper moonlit extremity and the bare stone bench. Cecily’s voice faltered, her hand leaned more heavily on his arm, as if she were overcome by the strong perfume. His right hand began to steal towards hers. But she had stopped; she was trembling.
“Go on,” she said in a half whisper. “Leave me a moment; I’ll join you afterwards.”
“You are ill, Cecily! It’s those infernal flowers!” said Dick earnestly. “Let me help you to the bench.”
“No—it’s nothing. Go on, please. Do! Will you go!”
She spoke with imperiousness, unlike herself. He walked on mechanically a dozen paces and turned. She had disappeared. He remembered there was a smaller gate opening upon the plain near where they had stopped. Perhaps she had passed through that. He continued on, slowly, towards the upper end of the garden, occasionally turning to await her return. In this way he gradually approached the stone bench. He was facing about to continue his walk, when his heart seemed to stop beating. The beautiful visitor of last night was sitting alone on the bench before him!
She had not been there a moment before; he could have sworn it. Yet there was no illusion now of shade or distance. She was scarcely six feet from him, in the bright moonlight. The whole of her exquisite little figure was visible, from her lustrous hair down to the tiny, black satin, low-quartered slipper, held as by two toes. Her face was fully revealed; he could see even the few minute freckles, like powdered allspice, that heightened the pale satin sheen of her beautifully rounded cheek; he could detect even the moist shining of her parted red lips, the white outlines of her little teeth, the length of her curved lashes, and the meshes of the black lace veil that fell from the yellow rose above her ear to the black silk camisa; he noted even the thick yellow satin saya, or skirt, heavily flounced with black lace and bugles, and that it was a different dress from that worn on the preceding night, a half-gala costume, carried with the indescribable air of a woman looking her best and pleased to do so: all this he had noted, drawing nearer and nearer, until near enough to forget it all and drown himself in the depths of her beautiful eyes. For they were no longer childlike and wondering: they were glowing with expectancy, anticipation—love!
He threw himself passionately on the bench beside her. Yet, even if he had known her language, he could not have spoken. She leaned towards him; their eyes seemed to meet caressingly, as in an embrace. Her little hand slipped from the yellow folds of her skirt to the bench. He eagerly seized it. A subtle thrill ran through his whole frame. There was no delusion here; it was flesh and blood, warm, quivering, and even tightening round his own. He was about to carry it to his lips, when she rose and stepped backwards. He pressed eagerly forward. Another backward step brought her to the pear-tree, where she seemed to plunge into its shadow. Dick Bracy followed—and the same shadow seemed to fold them in its embrace.
Cecily, herself a little nervously exalted, corroborated the fact of his indisposition by telling Aunt Viney that the close odors of the rose garden had affected them both. Indeed, she had been obliged to leave before him. Perhaps in waiting for her return—and she really was not well enough to go back—he was exposed to the night air too long. She was very sorry.
Aunt Viney heard this with a slight contraction of her brows and a renewed scrutiny of her knitting; and, having satisfied herself by a personal visit to Dick’s room that he was not alarmingly ill, set herself to find out what was really the matter with the young people; for there was no doubt that Cecily was in some vague way as disturbed and preoccupied as Dick. He rode out again early the next morning, returning to his studies in the library directly after breakfast; and Cecily was equally reticent, except when, to Aunt Viney’s perplexity, she found excuses for Dick’s manner on the ground of his absorption in his work, and that he was probably being bored by want of society. She proposed that she should ask an old schoolfellow to visit them.
“It would give Dick a change of ideas, and he would not be perpetually obliged to look so closely after me.” She blushed slightly under Aunt Viney’s gaze, and added hastily, “I mean, of course, he would not feel it his duty.”
She even induced her aunt to drive with her to the old mission church, where she displayed a pretty vivacity and interest in the people they met, particularly a few youthful and picturesque caballeros. Aunt Viney smiled gravely. Was the poor child developing an unlooked-for coquetry, or preparing to make the absent-minded Dick jealous? Well, the idea was not a bad one. In the evening she astonished the two cousins by offering to accompany them into the garden—a suggestion accepted with eager and effusive politeness by each, but carried out with great awkwardness by the distrait young people later. Aunt Viney clearly saw that it was not her presence that was required. In this way two or three days elapsed without apparently bringing the relations of Dick and Cecily to any more satisfactory conclusion. The diplomatic Aunt Viney confessed herself puzzled.
One night it was very warm; the usual trade winds had died away before sunset, leaving an unwonted hush in sky and plain. There was something so portentous in this sudden withdrawal of that rude stimulus to the otherwise monotonous level, that a recurrence of such phenomena was always known as “earthquake weather.” The wild cattle moved uneasily in the distance without feeding; herds of unbroken mustangs approached the confines of the hacienda in vague timorous squads. The silence and stagnation of the old house was oppressive, as if the life had really gone out of it at last; and Aunt Viney, after waiting impatiently for the young people to come in to chocolate, rose grimly, set her lips together, and went out into the lane. The gate of the rose garden opposite was open. She walked determinedly forward and entered.
In that doubly stagnant air the odor of the roses was so suffocating and overpowering that she had to stop to take breath. The whole garden, except a near cluster of pear-trees, was brightly illuminated by the moonlight. No one was to be seen along the length of the broad allee, strewn an inch deep with scattered red and yellow petals—colorless in the moonbeams. She was turning away, when Dick’s familiar voice, but with a strange accent of entreaty in it, broke the silence. It seemed to her vaguely to come from within the pear-tree shadow.
“But we must understand one another, my darling! Tell me all. This suspense, this mystery, this brief moment of happiness, and these hours of parting and torment, are killing me!”
A slight cough broke from Aunt Viney. She had heard enough—she did not wish to hear more. The mystery was explained. Dick loved Cecily; the coyness or hesitation was not on his part. Some idiotic girlish caprice, quite inconsistent with what she had noticed at the mission church, was keeping Cecily silent, reserved, and exasperating to her lover. She would have a talk with the young lady, without revealing the fact that she had overheard them. She was perhaps a little hurt that affairs should have reached this point without some show of confidence to her from the young people. Dick might naturally be reticent—but Cecily!
She did not even look towards the pear-tree, but turned and walked stiffly out of the gate. As she was crossing the lane she suddenly started back in utter dismay and consternation! For Cecily, her niece,—in her own proper person,—was actually just coming out of the house!
Aunt Viney caught her wrist. “Where have you been?” she asked quickly.
“In the house,” stammered Cecily, with a frightened face.
“You have not been in the garden with Dick?” continued Aunt Viney sharply—yet with a hopeless sense of the impossibility of the suggestion.
“No, I was not even going there. I thought of just strolling down the lane.”
The girl’s accents were truthful; more than that, she absolutely looked relieved by her aunt’s question. “Do you want me, Aunty?” she added quickly.
“Yes—no. Run away, then—but don’t go far.”
At any other time Aunt Viney might have wondered at the eagerness with which Cecily tripped away; now she was only anxious to get rid of her. She entered the casa hurriedly.
“Send Josefa to me at once,” she said to Manuel.
Josefa, the housekeeper,—a fat Mexican woman,—appeared. “Send Concha and the other maids here.” They appeared, mutely wondering. Aunt Viney glanced hurriedly over them—they were all there—a few comely, but not too attractive, and all stupidly complacent. “Have you girls any friends here this evening—or are you expecting any?” she demanded. Of a surety, no!—as the padrona knew—it was not night for church. “Very well,” returned Aunt Viney; “I thought I heard your voices in the garden; understand, I want no gallivanting there. Go to bed.”
She was relieved! Dick certainly was not guilty of a low intrigue with one of the maids. But who and what was she?
Dick was absent again from chocolate; there was unfinished work to do. Cecily came in later, just as Aunt Viney was beginning to be anxious. Had she appeared distressed or piqued by her cousin’s conduct, Aunt Viney might have spoken; but there was a pretty color on her cheek—the result, she said, of her rapid walking, and the fresh air; did Aunt Viney know that a cool breeze had just risen?—and her delicate lips were wreathed at times in a faint retrospective smile. Aunt Viney stared; certainly the girl was not pining! What young people were made of now-a-days she really couldn’t conceive. She shrugged her shoulders and resumed her tatting.
Nevertheless, as Dick’s unfinished studies seemed to have whitened his cheek and impaired his appetite the next morning, she announced her intention of driving out towards the mission alone. When she returned at luncheon she further astonished the young people by casually informing them they would have Spanish visitors to dinner—namely, their neighbors, Donna Maria Amador and the Dona Felipa Peralta.
Both faces were turned eagerly towards her; both said almost in the same breath, “But, Aunt Viney! you don’t know them! However did you— What does it all mean?”
“My dears,” said Aunt Viney placidly, “Mrs. Amador and I have always nodded to each other, and I knew they were only waiting for the slightest encouragement. I gave it, and they’re coming.”
It was difficult to say whether Cecily’s or Dick’s face betrayed the greater delight and animation. Aunt Viney looked from the one to the other. It seemed as if her attempt at diversion had been successful.
“Tell us all about it, you dear, clever, artful Aunty!” said Cecily gayly.
“There’s nothing whatever to tell, my love! It seems, however, that the young one, Dona Felipa, has seen Dick, and remembers him.” She shot a keen glance at Dick, but was obliged to admit that the rascal’s face remained unchanged. “And I wanted to bring a cavalier for you, dear, but Don Jose’s nephew isn’t at home now.” Yet here, to her surprise, Cecily was faintly blushing.
Early in the afternoon the piebald horses and dark brown chariot of the Amadors drew up before the gateway. The young people were delighted with Dona Felipa, and thought her blue eyes and tawny hair gave an added piquancy to her colorless satin skin and otherwise distinctively Spanish face and figure. Aunt Viney, who entertained Donna Maria, was nevertheless watchful of the others; but failed to detect in Dick’s effusive greeting, or the Dona’s coquettish smile of recognition, any suggestion of previous confidences. It was rather to Cecily that Dona Felipa seemed to be characteristically exuberant and childishly feminine. Both mother and stepdaughter spoke a musical infantine English, which the daughter supplemented with her eyes, her eyebrows, her little brown fingers, her plump shoulders, a dozen charming intonations of voice, and a complete vocabulary in her active and emphatic fan.
The young lady went over the house with Cecily curiously, as if recalling some old memories. “Ah, yes, I remember it—but it was long ago and I was very leetle—you comprehend, and I have not arrive mooch when the old Don was alone. It was too—too—what you call melank-oaly. And the old man have not make mooch to himself of company.”
“Then there were no young people in the house, I suppose?” said Cecily, smiling.
“No—not since the old man’s father lif. Then there were two. It is a good number, this two, eh?” She gave a single gesture, which took in, with Cecily, the distant Dick, and with a whole volume of suggestion in her shoulders, and twirling fan, continued: “Ah! two sometime make one—is it not? But not then in the old time—ah, no! It is a sad story. I shall tell it to you some time, but not to him.”
But Cecily’s face betrayed no undue bashful consciousness, and she only asked, with a quiet smile, “Why not to—to my cousin?”
“Imbecile!” responded that lively young lady.
After dinner the young people proposed to take Dona Felipa into the rose garden, while Aunt Viney entertained Donna Maria on the veranda. The young girl threw up her hands with an affectation of horror. “Santa Maria!—in the rose garden? After the Angelus, you and him? Have you not heard?”
But here Donna Maria interposed. Ah! Santa Maria! What was all that! Was it not enough to talk old woman’s gossip and tell vaqueros tales at home, without making uneasy the strangers? She would have none of it. “Vamos!”
Nevertheless Dona Felipa overcame her horror of the rose garden at infelicitous hours, so far as to permit herself to be conducted by the cousins into it, and to be installed like a rose queen on the stone bench, while Dick and Cecily threw themselves in submissive and imploring attitudes at her little feet. The young girl looked mischievously from one to the other.
“It ees very pret-ty, but all the same I am not a rose: I am what you call a big goose-berry! Eh—is it not?”
The cousins laughed, but without any embarrassed consciousness. “Dona Felipa knows a sad story of this house,” said Cecily; “but she will not tell it before you, Dick.”
Dick, looking up at the coquettish little figure, with Heaven knows what other memories in his mind, implored and protested.
“Ah! but this little story—she ees not so mooch sad of herself as she ees str-r-r-ange!” She gave an exaggerated little shiver under her lace shawl, and closed her eyes meditatively.
“Go on,” said Dick, smiling in spite of his interested expectation.
Dona Felipa took her fan in both hands, spanning her knees, leaned forward, and after a preliminary compressing of her lips and knitting of her brows, said:—
“It was a long time ago. Don Gregorio he have his daughter Rosita here, and for her he will fill all thees rose garden and gif to her; for she like mooch to lif with the rose. She ees very pret-ty. You shall have seen her picture here in the casa. No? It have hang under the crucifix in the corner room, turn around to the wall—why, you shall comprehend when I have made finish thees story. Comes to them here one day Don Vincente, Don Gregorio’s nephew, to lif when his father die. He was yong, a pollio—same as Rosita. They were mooch together; they have make lofe. What will you?—it ees always the same. The Don Gregorio have comprehend; the friends have all comprehend; in a year they will make marry. Dona Rosita she go to Monterey to see his family. There ees an English warship come there; and Rosita she ees very gay with the officers, and make the flirtation very mooch. Then Don Vincente he is onhappy, and he revenge himself to make lofe with another. When Rosita come back it is very miserable for them both, but they say nossing. The warship he have gone away; the other girl Vincente he go not to no more. All the same, Rosita and Vincente are very triste, and the family will not know what to make. Then Rosita she is sick and eat nossing, and walk to herself all day in the rose garden, until she is as white and fade away as the rose. And Vincente he eat nossing, but drink mooch aguardiente. Then he have fever and go dead. And Rosita she have fainting and fits; and one day they have look for her in the rose garden, and she is not! And they poosh and poosh in the ground for her, and they find her with so mooch rose-leaves—so deep—on top of her. She has go dead. It is a very sad story, and when you hear it you are very, very mooch dissatisfied.”
It is to be feared that the two Americans were not as thrilled by this sad recital as the fair narrator had expected, and even Dick ventured to point out that those sort of things happened also to his countrymen, and were not peculiar to the casa.
“But you said that there was a terrible sequel,” suggested Cecily smilingly: “tell us that. Perhaps Mr. Bracy may receive it a little more politely.”
An expression of superstitious gravity, half real, half simulated, came over Dona Felipa’s face, although her vivacity of gesticulation and emphasis did not relax. She cast a hurried glance around her, and leaned a little forward towards the cousins.
“When there are no more young people in the casa because they are dead,” she continued, in a lower voice, “Don Gregorio he is very melank-oaly, and he have no more company for many years. Then there was a rodeo near the hacienda, and there came five or six caballeros to stay with him for the feast. Notabilimente comes then Don Jorge Martinez. He is a bad man—so weeked—a Don Juan for making lofe to the ladies. He lounge in the garden, he smoke his cigarette, he twist the moustache—so! One day he came in, and he laugh and wink so and say, ‘Oh, the weeked, sly Don Gregorio! He have hid away in the casa a beautiful, pret-ty girl, and he will nossing say.’ And the other caballeros say, ‘Mira! what is this? there is not so mooch as one young lady in the casa.’ And Don Jorge he wink, and he say, ‘Imbeciles! pigs!’ And he walk in the garden and twist his moustache more than ever. And one day, behold! he walk into the casa, very white and angry, and he swear mooch to himself; and he orders his horse, and he ride away, and never come back no more, never-r-r! And one day another caballero, Don Esteban Briones, he came in, and say, ‘Hola! Don Jorge has forgotten his pret-ty girl: he have left her over on the garden bench. Truly I have seen.’ And they say, ‘We will too.’ And they go, and there is nossing. And they say, ‘Imbecile and pig!’ But he is not imbecile and pig; for he has seen, and Don Jorge has seen; and why? For it is not a girl, but what you call her—a ghost! And they will that Don Esteban should make a picture of her—a design; and he make one. And old Don Gregorio he say, ‘madre de Dios! it is Rosita’—the same that hung under the crucifix in the big room.”
“And is that all?” asked Dick, with a somewhat pronounced laugh, but a face that looked quite white in the moonlight.
“No, it ees not all. For when Don Gregorio got himself more company another time—it ees all yonge ladies, and my aunt she is invite too; for she was yonge then, and she herself have tell to me this:—
“One night she is in the garden with the other girls, and when they want to go in the casa one have say, ‘Where is Francisca Pacheco? Look, she came here with us, and now she is not.’ Another one say, ‘She have conceal herself to make us affright.’ And my aunt she say, ‘I will go seek that I shall find her.’ And she go. And when she came to the pear-tree, she heard Francisca’s voice, and it say to some one she see not, ‘Fly! vamos! some one have come.’ And then she come at the moment upon Francisca, very white and trembling, and—alone. And Francisca she have run away and say nossing, and shut herself in her room. And one of the other girls say: ‘It is the handsome caballero with the little black moustache and sad white face that I have seen in the garden that make this. It is truly that he is some poor relation of Don Gregorio, or some mad kinsman that he will not we should know.’ And my aunt ask Don Gregorio; for she is yonge. And he have say: ‘What silly fool ees thees? There is not one caballero here, but myself.’ And when the other young girl have tell to him how the caballero look, he say: ‘The saints save us! I cannot more say. It ees Don Vincente, who haf gone dead.’ And he cross himself, and— But look! Madre de Dios! Mees Cecily, you are ill—you are affrighted. I am a gabbling fool! Help her, Don Ricardo; she is falling!”
But it was too late: Cecily had tried to rise to her feet, had staggered forward and fallen in a faint on the bench.
The gentle opening of his door and the slight rustle of a skirt started him to his feet with a feeling of new and overpowering repulsion. But it was a familiar figure that he saw in the long aisle of light which led from his recessed window, whose face was white enough to have been a spirit’s, and whose finger was laid upon its pale lips, as it softly closed the door behind it.
“Hush!” she said, in a distracted whisper: “I felt I must see you to-night. I could not wait until day—no, not another hour! I could not speak to you before them. I could not go into that dreadful garden again, or beyond the walls of this house. Dick, I want to—I must tell you something! I would have kept it from every one—from you most of all! I know you will hate me, and despise me; but, Dick, listen!”—she caught his hand despairingly, drawing it towards her—“that girl’s awful story was true!” She threw his hand away.
“And you have seen her!” said Dick, frantically. “Good God!”
The young girl’s manner changed. “Her!” she said, half scornfully, “you don’t suppose I believe that story? No. I—I—don’t blame me, Dick,—I have seen him.”
She pushed him nervously into a seat, and sat down beside him. In the half light of the moon, despite her pallor and distraction, she was still very human, womanly, and attractive in her disorder.
“Listen to me, Dick. Do you remember one afternoon, when we were riding together, I got ahead of you, and dashed off to the casa. I don’t know what possessed me, or why I did it. I only know I wanted to get home quickly, and get away from you. No, I was not angry, Dick, at you; it did not seem to be that; I—well, I confess I was frightened—at something, I don’t know what. When I wheeled round into the lane, I saw—a man—a young gentleman standing by the garden-wall. He was very picturesque-looking, in his red sash, velvet jacket, and round silver buttons; handsome, but oh, so pale and sad! He looked at me very eagerly, and then suddenly drew back, and I heard you on Chu Chu coming at my heels. You must have seen him and passed him too, I thought: but when you said nothing of it, I—I don’t know why, Dick, I said nothing of it too. Don’t speak!” she added, with a hurried gesture: “I know now why you said nothing,—you had not seen him.”
She stopped, and put back a wisp of her disordered chestnut hair.
“The next time was the night you were so queer, Dick, sitting on that stone bench. When I left you—I thought you didn’t care to have me stay—I went to seek Aunt Viney at the bottom of the garden. I was very sad, but suddenly I found myself very gay, talking and laughing with her in a way I could not account for. All at once, looking up, I saw him standing by the little gate, looking at me very sadly. I think I would have spoken to Aunt Viney, but he put his finger to his lips—his hand was so slim and white, quite like a hand in one of those Spanish pictures—and moved slowly backwards into the lane, as if he wished to speak with me only—out there. I know I ought to have spoken to Aunty; I knew it was wrong what I did, but he looked so earnest, so appealing, so awfully sad, Dick, that I slipped past Aunty and went out of the gate. Just then she missed me, and called. He made a kind of despairing gesture, raising his hand Spanish fashion to his lips, as if to say good-night. You’ll think me bold, Dick, but I was so anxious to know what it all meant, that I gave a glance behind to see if Aunty was following, before I should go right up to him and demand an explanation. But when I faced round again, he was gone! I walked up and down the lane and out on the plain nearly half an hour, seeking him. It was strange, I know; but I was not a bit frightened, Dick—that was so queer—but I was only amazed and curious.”
The look of spiritual terror in Dick’s face here seemed to give way to a less exalted disturbance, as he fixed his eyes on Cecily’s.
“You remember I met you coming in: you seemed so queer then that I did not say anything to you, for I thought you would laugh at me, or reproach me for my boldness; and I thought, Dick, that—that—that—this person wished to speak only to me.” She hesitated.
“Go on,” said Dick, in a voice that had also undergone a singular change.
The chestnut head was bent a little lower, as the young girl nervously twisted her fingers in her lap.
“Then I saw him again—and—again,” she went on hesitatingly. “Of course I spoke to him, to—to—find out what he wanted; but you know, Dick, I cannot speak Spanish, and of course he didn’t understand me, and didn’t reply.”
“But his manner, his appearance, gave you some idea of his meaning?” said Dick suddenly.
Cecily’s head drooped a little lower. “I thought—that is, I fancied I knew what he meant.”
“No doubt,” said Dick, in a voice which, but for the superstitious horror of the situation, might have impressed a casual listener as indicating a trace of human irony.
But Cecily did not seem to notice it. “Perhaps I was excited that night, perhaps I was bolder because I knew you were near me; but I went up to him and touched him! And then, Dick!—oh, Dick! think how awful—”
Again Dick felt the thrill of superstitious terror creep over him. “And he vanished!” he said hoarsely.
“No—not at once,” stammered Cecily, with her head almost buried in her lap; “for he—he—he took me in his arms and—”
“And kissed you?” said Dick, springing to his feet, with every trace of his superstitious agony gone from his indignant face. But Cecily, without raising her head, caught at his gesticulating hand.
“Oh, Dick, Dick! do you think he really did it? The horror of it, Dick! to be kissed by a—a—man who has been dead a hundred years!”
“A hundred fiddlesticks!” said Dick furiously. “We have been deceived! No,” he stammered, “I mean you have been deceived—insulted!”
“Hush! Aunty will hear you,” murmured the girl despairingly.
Dick, who had thrown away his cousin’s hand, caught it again, and dragged her along the aisle of light to the window. The moon shone upon his flushed and angry face.
“Listen!” he said; “you have been fooled, tricked—infamously tricked by these people, and some confederate, whom—whom I shall horsewhip if I catch. The whole story is a lie!”
“But you looked as if you believed it—about the girl,” said Cecily; “you acted so strangely. I even thought, Dick,—sometimes—you had seen him.”
Dick shuddered, trembled; but it is to be feared that the lower, more natural human element in him triumphed.
“Nonsense!” he stammered; “the girl was a foolish farrago of absurdities, improbable on the face of things, and impossible to prove. But that infernal, sneaking rascal was flesh and blood.”
It seemed to him to relieve the situation and establish his own sanity to combat one illusion with another. Cecily had already been deceived—another lie wouldn’t hurt her. But, strangely enough, he was satisfied that Cecily’s visitant was real, although he still had doubts about his own.
“Then you think, Dick, it was actually some real man?” she said piteously. “Oh, Dick, I have been so foolish!”
Foolish she no doubt had been; pretty she certainly was, sitting there in her loosened hair, and pathetic, appealing earnestness. Surely the ghostly Rosita’s glances were never so pleading as these actual honest eyes behind their curving lashes. Dick felt a strange, new-born sympathy of suffering, mingled tantalizingly with a new doubt and jealousy, that was human and stimulating.
“Oh, Dick, what are we to do?”
The plural struck him as deliciously sweet and subtle. Had they really been singled out for this strange experience, or still stranger hallucination? His arm crept around her; she gently withdrew from it.
“I must go now,” she murmured; “but I couldn’t sleep until I told you all. You know, Dick, I have no one else to come to, and it seemed to me that you ought to know it first. I feel better for telling you. You will tell me to-morrow what you think we ought to do.”
They reached the door, opening it softly. She lingered for a moment on the threshold.
“Tell me, Dick” (she hesitated), “if that—that really were a spirit, and not a real man,—you don’t think that—that kiss” (she shuddered) “could do me harm!”
He shuddered too, with a strange and sympathetic consciousness that, happily, she did not even suspect. But he quickly recovered himself and said, with something of bitterness in his voice, “I should be more afraid if it really were a man.”
“Oh, thank you, Dick!”
Her lips parted in a smile of relief; the color came faintly back to her cheek.
A wild thought crossed his fancy that seemed an inspiration. They would share the risks alike. He leaned towards her: their lips met in their first kiss.
“I think—we are saved.”
“It wasn’t at all like that.”
He smiled as she flew swiftly down the corridor. Perhaps he thought so too.