THE educational establishment of Mrs. Mix and Madame Bance, situated in the best quarter of Sacramento and patronized by the highest state officials and members of the clergy, was a pretty if not an imposing edifice. Although surrounded by a high white picket fence and entered through a heavily boarded gate, its balconies festooned with jasmine and roses, and its spotlessly draped windows as often graced with fresh, flower-like faces, were still plainly and provokingly visible above the ostentatious spikes of the pickets. Nevertheless, Mr. Jack Hamlin, who had six months before placed his niece, Miss Sophonisba Brown, under its protecting care, felt a degree of uneasiness, even bordering on timidity, which was new to that usually self-confident man. Remembering how his first appearance had fluttered this dovecote and awakened a severe suspicion in the minds of the two principals, he had discarded his usual fashionable attire and elegantly fitting garments for a rough, homespun suit, supposed to represent a homely agriculturist, but which had the effect of transforming him into an adorable Strephon, infinitely more dangerous in his rustic shepherd-like simplicity. He had also shaved off his silken mustache for the same prudential reasons, but had only succeeded in uncovering the delicate lines of his handsome mouth, and so absurdly reducing his apparent years that his avuncular pretensions seemed more preposterous than ever; and when he had rung the bell and was admitted by a severe Irish waiting-maid, his momentary hesitation and half humorous diffidence had such an unexpected effect upon her, that it seemed doubtful if he would be allowed to pass beyond the vestibule. “Shure, miss,” she said in a whisper to an under teacher, “there’s wan at the dhure who calls himself, ‘Mister’ Hamlin, but av it is not a young lady maskeradin’ in her brother’s clothes Oim very much mistaken; and av it’s a boy, one of the pupil’s brothers, shure ye might put a dhress on him when you take the others out for a walk, and he’d pass for the beauty of the whole school.”
Meantime, the unconscious subject of this criticism was pacing somewhat uneasily up and down the formal reception room into which he had been finally ushered. Its farther end was filled by an enormous parlor organ, a number of music books, and a cheerfully variegated globe. A large presentation Bible, an equally massive illustrated volume on the Holy Land, a few landscapes in cold, bluish milk and water colors, and rigid heads in crayons—the work of pupils—were presumably ornamental. An imposing mahogany sofa and what seemed to be a disproportionate excess of chairs somewhat coldly furnished the room. Jack had reluctantly made up his mind that, if Sophy was accompanied by any one, he would be obliged to kiss her to keep up his assumed relationship. As she entered the room with Miss Mix, Jack advanced and soberly saluted her on the cheek. But so positive and apparent was the gallantry of his presence, and perhaps so suggestive of some pastoral flirtation, that Miss Mix, to Jack’s surprise, winced perceptibly and became stony. But he was still more surprised that the young lady herself shrank half uneasily from his lips, and uttered a slight exclamation. It was a new experience to Mr. Hamlin.
But this somewhat mollified Miss Mix, and she slightly relaxed her austerity. She was glad to be able to give the best accounts of Miss Brown, not only as regarded her studies, but as to her conduct and deportment. Really, with the present freedom of manners and laxity of home discipline in California, it was gratifying to meet a young lady who seemed to value the importance of a proper decorum and behavior, especially towards the opposite sex. Mr. Hamlin, although her guardian, was perhaps too young to understand and appreciate this. To this inexperience she must also attribute the indiscretion of his calling during school hours and without preliminary warning. She trusted, however, that this informality could be overlooked after consultation with Madame Bance, but in the mean time, perhaps for half an hour, she must withdraw Miss Brown and return with her to the class. Mr. Hamlin could wait in this public room, reserved especially for visitors, until they returned. Or, if he cared to accompany one of the teachers in a formal inspection of the school, she added, doubtfully, with a glance at Jack’s distracting attractions, she would submit this also to Madame Bance.
“Thank you, thank you,” returned Jack hurriedly, as a depressing vision of the fifty or sixty scholars rose before his eyes, “but I’d rather not. I mean, you know, I’d just as lief stay here alone. I wouldn’t have called anyway, don’t you see, only I had a day off,—and—and—I wanted to talk with my niece on family matters.” He did not say that he had received a somewhat distressful letter from her asking him to come; a new instinct made him cautious.
Considerably relieved by Jack’s unexpected abstention, which seemed to spare her pupils the distraction of his graces, Miss Mix smiled more amicably and retired with her charge. In the single glance he had exchanged with Sophy he saw that, although resigned and apparently self-controlled, she still appeared thoughtful and melancholy. She had improved in appearance and seemed more refined and less rustic in her school dress, but he was conscious of the same distinct separation of her personality (which was uninteresting to him) from the sentiment that had impelled him to visit her. She was possibly still hankering after that fellow Stratton, in spite of her protestations to the contrary; perhaps she wanted to go back to her sister, although she had declared she would die first, and had always refused to disclose her real name or give any clue by which he could have traced her relations. She would cry, of course; he almost hoped that she would not return alone; he half regretted he had come. She still held him only by a single quality of her nature,—the desperation she had shown on the boat; that was something he understood and respected.
He walked discontentedly to the window and looked out; he walked discontentedly to the end of the room and stopped before the organ. It was a fine instrument; he could see that with an admiring and experienced eye. He was alone in the room; in fact, quite alone in that part of the house which was separated from the class-rooms. He would disturb no one by trying it. And if he did, what then? He smiled a little recklessly, slowly pulled off his gloves, and sat down before it.
He played cautiously at first, with the soft pedal down. The instrument had never known a strong masculine hand before, having been fumbled and friveled over by softly incompetent, feminine fingers. But presently it began to thrill under the passionate hand of its lover, and carried away by his one innocent weakness, Jack was launched upon a sea of musical reminiscences. Scraps of church music, Puritan psalms of his boyhood; dying strains from sad, forgotten operas, fragments of oratorios and symphonies, but chiefly phases from old masses heard at the missions of San Pedro and Santa Isabel, swelled up from his loving and masterful fingers. He had finished an Agnus Dei; the formal room was pulsating with divine aspiration; the rascal’s hands were resting listlessly on the keys, his brown lashes lifted, in an effort of memory, tenderly towards the ceiling.
Suddenly, a subdued murmur of applause and a slight rustle behind him recalled him to himself again. He wheeled his chair quickly round. The two principals of the school and half a dozen teachers were standing gravely behind him, and at the open door a dozen curled and frizzled youthful heads peered in eagerly, but half restrained by their teachers. The relaxed features and apologetic attitude of Madame Bance and Miss Mix showed that Mr. Hamlin had unconsciously achieved a triumph.
He might not have been as pleased to know that his extraordinary performance had solved a difficulty, effaced his other graces, and enabled them to place him on the moral pedestal of a mere musician, to whom these eccentricities were allowable and privileged. He shared the admiration extended by the young ladies to their music teacher, which was always understood to be a sexless enthusiasm and a contagious juvenile disorder. It was also a fine advertisement for the organ. Madame Bance smiled blandly, improved the occasion by thanking Mr. Hamlin for having given the scholars a gratuitous lesson on the capabilities of the instrument, and was glad to be able to give Miss Brown a half-holiday to spend with her accomplished relative. Miss Brown was even now upstairs, putting on her hat and mantle. Jack was relieved. Sophy would not attempt to cry on the street.
Nevertheless, when they reached it and the gate closed behind them, he again became uneasy. The girl’s clouded face and melancholy manner were not promising. It also occurred to him that he might meet some one who knew him and thus compromise her. This was to be avoided at all hazards. He began with forced gayety:—
“Well, now, where shall we go?”
She slightly raised her tear-dimmed eyes. “Where you please—I don’t care.”
“There isn’t any show going on here, is there?” He had a vague idea of a circus or menagerie—himself behind her in the shadow of the box.
“I don’t know of any.”
“Or any restaurant—or cake shop?”
“There’s a place where the girls go to get candy on Main Street. Some of them are there now.”
Jack shuddered; this was not to be thought of. “But where do you walk?”
“Up and down Main Street.”
“Where everybody can see you?” said Jack, scandalized.
The girl nodded.
They walked on in silence for a few moments. Then a bright idea struck Mr. Hamlin. He suddenly remembered that in one of his many fits of impulsive generosity and largesse he had given to an old negro retainer—whose wife had nursed him through a dangerous illness—a house and lot on the river bank. He had been told that they had opened a small laundry or wash-house. It occurred to him that a stroll there and a call upon “Uncle Hannibal and Aunt Chloe” combined the propriety and respectability due to the young person he was with, and the requisite secrecy and absence of publicity due to himself. He at once suggested it.
“You see she was a mighty good woman and you ought to know her, for she was my old nurse”—
The girl glanced at him with a sudden impatience.
“Honest Injin,” said Jack solemnly; “she did nurse me through my last cough. I ain’t playing old family gags on you now.”
“Oh, dear,” burst out the girl impulsively, “I do wish you wouldn’t ever play them again. I wish you wouldn’t pretend to be my uncle; I wish you wouldn’t make me pass for your niece. It isn’t right. It’s all wrong. Oh, don’t you know it’s all wrong, and can’t come right any way? It’s just killing me. I can’t stand it. I’d rather you’d say what I am and how I came to you and how you pitied me.”
They had luckily entered a narrow side street, and the sobs which shook the young girl’s frame were unnoticed. For a few moments Jack felt a horrible conviction stealing over him, that in his present attitude towards her he was not unlike that hound Stratton, and that, however innocent his own intent, there was a sickening resemblance to the situation on the boat in the base advantage he had taken of her friendlessness. He had never told her that he was a gambler like Stratton, and that his peculiarly infelix reputation among women made it impossible for him to assist her, except by a stealth or the deception he had practiced, without compromising her. He who had for years faced the sneers and half-frightened opposition of the world dared not tell the truth to this girl, from whom he expected nothing and who did not interest him. He felt he was almost slinking at her side. At last he said desperately:—
“But I snatched them bald-headed at the organ, Sophy, didn’t I?”
“Oh yes,” said the girl, “you played beautifully and grandly. It was so good of you, too. For I think, somehow, Madame Bance had been a little suspicious of you, but that settled it. Everybody thought it was fine, and some thought it was your profession. Perhaps,” she added timidly, “it is?”
“I play a good deal, I reckon,” said Jack, with a grim humor which did not, however, amuse him.
“I wish I could, and make money by it,” said the girl eagerly. Jack winced, but she did not notice it as she went on hurriedly: “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. I want to leave the school and make my own living. Anywhere where people won’t know me and where I can be alone and work. I shall die here among these girls—with all their talk of their friends and their—sisters,—and their questions about you.”
“Tell ’em to dry up,” said Jack indignantly. “Take ’em to the cake shop and load ’em up with candy and ice cream. That’ll stop their mouths. You’ve got money, you got my last remittance, didn’t you?” he repeated quickly. “If you didn’t, here’s”—his hand was already in his pocket when she stopped him with a despairing gesture.
“Yes, yes, I got it all. I haven’t touched it. I don’t want it. For I can’t live on you. Don’t you understand,—I want to work. Listen,—I can draw and paint. Madame Bance says I do it well; my drawing-master says I might in time take portraits and get paid for it. And even now I can retouch photographs and make colored miniatures from them. And,” she stopped and glanced at Jack half-timidly, “I’ve—done some already.”
A glow of surprised relief suffused the gambler. Not so much at this astonishing revelation as at the change it seemed to effect in her. Her pale blue eyes, made paler by tears, cleared and brightened under their swollen lids like wiped steel; the lines of her depressed mouth straightened and became firm. Her voice had lost its hopeless monotone.
“There’s a shop in the next street,—a photographer’s,—where they have one of mine in their windows,” she went on, reassured by Jack’s unaffected interest. “It’s only round the corner, if you care to see.”
Jack assented; a few paces farther brought them to the corner of a narrow street, where they presently turned into a broader thoroughfare and stopped before the window of a photographer. Sophy pointed to an oval frame, containing a portrait painted on porcelain. Mr. Hamlin was startled. Inexperienced as he was, a certain artistic inclination told him it was good, although it is to be feared he would have been astonished even if it had been worse. The mere fact that this headstrong country girl, who had run away with a cur like Stratton, should be able to do anything else took him by surprise.
“I got ten dollars for that,” she said hesitatingly, “and I could have got more for a larger one, but I had to do that in my room, during recreation hours. If I had more time and a place where I could work”—she stopped timidly and looked tentatively at Jack. But he was already indulging in a characteristically reckless idea of coming back after he had left Sophy, buying the miniature at an extravagant price, and ordering half a dozen more at extraordinary figures. Here, however, two passers-by, stopping ostensibly to look in the window, but really attracted by the picturesque spectacle of the handsome young rustic and his schoolgirl companion, gave Jack such a fright that he hurried Sophy away again into the side street. “There’s nothing mean about that picture business,” he said cheerfully; “it looks like a square kind of game,” and relapsed into thoughtful silence.
At which, Sophy, the ice of restraint broken, again burst into passionate appeal. If she could only go away somewhere—where she saw no one but the people who would buy her work, who knew nothing of her past nor cared to know who were her relations! She would work hard; she knew she could support herself in time. She would keep the name he had given her,—it was not distinctive enough to challenge any inquiry,—but nothing more. She need not assume to be his niece; he would always be her kind friend, to whom she owed everything, even her miserable life. She trusted still to his honor never to seek to know her real name, nor ever to speak to her of that man if he ever met him. It would do no good to her or to them; it might drive her, for she was not yet quite sure of herself, to do that which she had promised him never to do again.
There was no threat, impatience, or acting in her voice, but he recognized the same dull desperation he had once heard in it, and her eyes, which a moment before were quick and mobile, had become fixed and set. He had no idea of trying to penetrate the foolish secret of her name and relations; he had never had the slightest curiosity, but it struck him now that Stratton might at any time force it upon him. The only way that he could prevent it was to let it be known that, for unexpressed reasons, he would shoot Stratton “on sight.” This would naturally restrict any verbal communication between them. Jack’s ideas of morality were vague, but his convictions on points of honor were singularly direct and positive.