IT WAS a freshly furrowed field, so large that the eye at first scarcely took in its magnitude. The irregular surface of upturned, oily, wave-shaped clods took the appearance of a vast, black, chopping sea, that reached from the actual shore of San Francisco Bay to the low hills of the Coast Range. The sea-breeze that blew chilly over this bleak expanse added to that fancy, and the line of straggling whitewashed farm buildings, that half way across lifted themselves above it, seemed to be placed on an island in its midst. Even the one or two huge, misshapen agricultural machines, abandoned in the furrows, bore an odd resemblance to hulks or barges adrift upon its waste.
This marine suggestion was equally noticeable from the door of one of the farm buildings—a long, detached wooden shed—into which a number of farm laborers were slowly filing, although one man was apparently enough impressed by it to linger and gaze over that rigid sea. Except in their rough dress and the labor-stains of soil on their hands and faces, they represented no particular type or class. They were young and old, robust and delicate, dull and intelligent; kept together only by some philosophical, careless, or humorous acceptance of equally enforced circumstance in their labors, as convicts might have been. For they had been picked up on the streets and wharves of San Francisco,—discharged sailors, broken-down miners, helpless newcomers, unemployed professional men, and ruined traders,—to assist in ploughing and planting certain broad leagues of rich alluvial soil for a speculative Joint Stock Company, at a weekly wage that would have made an European peasant independent for half a year. Yet there was no enthusiasm in their labor, although it was seldom marked by absolute laziness or evasion, and was more often hindered by ill-regulated “spurts” and excessive effort, as if the laborer was anxious to get through with it; for in the few confidences they exchanged there was little allusion to the present, and they talked chiefly of what they were going to do when their work was over. They were gregarious only at their meals in one of the sheds, or when at night they sought their “bunks” or berths together in the larger building.
The man who had lingered to look at the dreary prospect had a somewhat gloomy, discontented face, whose sensitive lines indicated a certain susceptibility to such impressions. He was further distinguished by having also lingered longer with the washing of his hands and face in the battered tin basin on a stool beside the door, and by the circumstance that the operation revealed the fact that they were whiter than those of his companions. Drying his fingers slowly on the long roller-towel, he stood gazing with a kind of hard abstraction across the darkening field, the strip of faded colorless shore, and the chill gray sea, to the dividing point of land on the opposite coast, which in the dying daylight was silhouetted against the cold horizon.
He knew that around that point and behind it lay the fierce, half-grown, half-tamed city of yesterday that had worked his ruin.
It was scarcely a year ago that he had plunged into its wildest excesses,—a reckless gambler among speculators, a hopeless speculator among gamblers, until the little fortune he had brought thither had been swept away.
From time to time he had kept up his failing spirit with the feverish exaltation of dissipation, until, awakening from a drunkard’s dream one morning, he had found himself on board a steamboat crossing the bay, in company with a gang of farm laborers with whom he was hired. A bitter smile crossed his lips as his eyes hovered over the cold, rugged fields before him. Yet he knew that they had saved him. The unaccustomed manual labor in the open air, the regular hours, the silent, heavy, passionless nights, the plain but wholesome food, were all slowly restoring his youth and strength again. Temptation and passion had alike fled these unlovely fields and grim employment. Yet he was not grateful. He nursed his dreary convalescence as he had his previous dissipation, as part of a wrong done him by one for whose sake, he was wont to believe, he had sacrificed himself. That person was a woman.
Turning at last from the prospect and his bitter memories to join his companions, he found that they had all passed in. The benches before the long table on which supper was spread were already filled, and he stood in hesitation, looking down the line of silent and hungrily preoccupied men on either side. A young girl, who was standing near a smaller serving-table, apparently assisting an older woman in directing the operation of half a dozen Chinese waiters, moved forward and cleared a place for him at a side-table, pushing before it the only chair in the room,—the one she had lately vacated. As she placed some of the dishes before him with a timid ostentation, and her large but well-shaped hands came suddenly in contact with, and in direst contrast to his own whiter and more delicate ones, she blushed faintly. He lifted his eyes to hers.
He had seen her half a dozen times before, for she was the daughter of the ranch superintendent, and occasionally assisted her mother in this culinary supervision—which did not, however, bring her into any familiar association with the men. Even the younger ones, perhaps from over-consciousness of their inferior position or the preoccupation of their labor, never indulged in any gallantry toward her, and he himself, in his revulsion of feeling against the whole sex, had scarcely noticed that she was good-looking. But this naïve exhibition of preference could not be overlooked, either by his companions, who smiled cynically across the table, or by himself, from whose morbid fancy it struck an ignoble suggestion. Ah, well! the girl was pretty—the daughter of his employer, who rumor said owned a controlling share in the company; why should he not make this chance preference lead to something, if only to ameliorate, in ways like this, his despicable position here. He knew the value of his own good looks, his superior education, and a certain recklessness which women liked; why should he not profit by them as well as the one woman who had brought him to this? He owed her sex nothing; if those among them who were not bad were only fools, there was no reason why he should not deceive them as they had him. There was all this small audacity and cynical purpose in his brown eyes as he deliberately fixed them on hers. And I grieve to say that these abominable sentiments seemed only to impart to them a certain attractive brilliancy, and a determination which the undetermining sex is apt to admire.
She blushed again, dropped her eyes, replied to his significant thanks with a few indistinct words, and drew away from the table with a sudden timidity that was half confession.
She did not approach him again during the meal, but seemed to have taken a sudden interest in the efficiency of the waiters, generally, which she had not shown before. I do not know whether this was merely an effort at concealment, or an awakened recognition of her duty; but, after the fashion of her sex,—and perhaps in contrast to his,—she was kinder that evening to the average man on account of him. He did not, however, notice it; nor did her absence interfere with his now healthy appetite; he finished his meal, and only when he rose to take his hat from the peg above him did he glance around the room. Their eyes met again. As he passed out, although it was dark, he put on his hat a little more smartly.
The air was clear and cold, but the outlines of the landscape had vanished. His companions, with the instinct of tired animals, were already making their way in knots of two or three, or in silent file, across the intervening space between the building and their dormitory. A few had already lit their pipes and were walking leisurely, but the majority were hurrying from the chill sea-breeze to the warmth and comfort of the long, well-lit room, lined with blanketed berths, and set with plain wooden chairs and tables. The young man lingered for a moment on the wooden platform outside the dining-shed,—partly to evade this only social gathering of his fellows as they retired for the night, and partly attracted by a strange fascination to the faint distant glow, beyond the point of land, which indicated the lights of San Francisco.
There was a slight rustle behind him! It was the young girl who, with a white woolen scarf thrown over her head and shoulders, had just left the room. She started when she saw him, and for an instant hesitated.
“You are going home, Miss Woodridge?” he said pleasantly.
“Yes,” she returned, in a faint, embarrassed voice. “I thought I’d run on ahead of ma!”
“Will you allow me to accompany you?”
“It’s only a step,” she protested, indicating the light in the window of the superintendent’s house, the most remote of the group of buildings, yet scarcely a quarter of a mile distant.
“But it’s quite dark,” he persisted smilingly.
She stepped from the platform to the ground; he instantly followed and ranged himself at a little distance from her side. She protested still feebly against his “troubling himself,” but in another moment they were walking on quietly together. Nevertheless, a few paces from the platform they came upon the upheaved clods of the fresh furrows, and their progress over them was slow and difficult.
“Shall I help you? Will you take my arm?” he said politely.
“No, thank you, Mr. Reddy.”
So! she knew his name! He tried to look into her eyes, but the woolen scarf hid her head. After all, there was nothing strange in her knowing him; she probably had the names of the men before her in the dining-room, or on the books. After a pause he said:—
“You quite startled me. One becomes such a mere working machine here that one quite forgets one’s own name,—especially with the prefix of ‘Mr.’”
“And if it don’t happen to be one’s real name either,” said the girl, with an odd, timid audacity.
He looked up quickly—more attracted by her manner than her words; more amused than angry.
“But Reddy happens to be my real name.”
“What made you think it was not?”
The clods over which they were clambering were so uneven that sometimes the young girl was mounting one at the same moment that Reddy was descending from another. Her reply, half muffled in her shawl, was delivered over his head. “Oh, because pa says most of the men here don’t give their real names—they don’t care to be known afterward. Ashamed of their work, I reckon.”
His face flushed a moment, even in the darkness. He was ashamed of his work, and perhaps a little of the pitiful sport he was beginning. But oddly enough, the aggressive criticism only whetted his purpose. The girl was evidently quite able to take care of herself; why should he be over-chivalrous?
“It isn’t very pleasant to be doing the work of a horse, an ox, or a machine, if you can do other things,” he said half seriously.
“But you never used to do anything at all, did you?” she asked.
He hesitated. Here was a chance to give her an affecting history of his former exalted fortune and position, and perhaps even to stir her evidently romantic nature with some suggestion of his sacrifices to one of her own sex. Women liked that sort of thing. It aroused at once their emulation and their condemnation of each other. He seized the opportunity, but—for some reason, he knew not why—awkwardly and clumsily, with a simulated pathos that was lachrymose, a self-assertion that was boastful, and a dramatic manner that was unreal. Suddenly the girl stopped him.
“Yes, I know all that; pa told me. Told me you’d been given away by some woman.”
His face again flushed—this time with anger. The utter failure of his story to excite her interest, and her perfect possession of herself and the situation,—so unlike her conduct a few moments before,—made him savagely silent, and he clambered on sullenly at her side. Presently she stopped, balancing herself with a dexterity he could not imitate on one of the larger upheaved clods, and said:—
“I was thinking that, as you can’t do much with those hands of yours, digging and shoveling, and not much with your feet either, over ploughed ground, you might do some inside work, that would pay you better, too. You might help in the dining room, setting table and washing up, helping ma and me—though I don’t do much except overseeing. I could show you what to do at first, and you’d learn quick enough. If you say ‘yes,’ I’ll speak to pa to-night. He’ll do whatever I say.”
The rage and shame that filled his breast choked even the bitter laugh that first rose to his lips. If he could have turned on his heel and left her with marked indignation, he would have done so, but they were scarcely half way across the field; his stumbling retreat would have only appeared ridiculous, and he was by no means sure that she would not have looked upon it as merely a confession of his inability to keep up with her. And yet there was something peculiarly fascinating and tantalizing in the situation. She did not see the sardonic glitter in his eye as he said brutally:—
“Ha! and that would give me the exquisite pleasure of being near you.”
She seemed a little confused, even under her enwrappings, and in stepping down her foot slipped. Reddy instantly scrambled up to her and caught her as she was pitching forward into the furrow. Yet in the struggle to keep his own foothold he was aware that she was assisting him, and although he had passed his arm around her waist, as if for her better security, it was only through her firm grasp of his wrists that he regained his own footing. The “cloud” had fallen back from her head and shoulders, her heavy hair had brushed his cheek and left its faint odor in his nostrils; the rounded outline of her figure had been slightly drawn against his own. His mean resentment wavered; her proposition, which at first seemed only insulting, now took a vague form of satisfaction; his ironical suggestion seemed a natural expression. “Well, I say ‘yes’ then,” he said, with an affected laugh. “That is, if you think I can manage to do the work; it is not exactly in my line, you know.” Yet he somehow felt that his laugh was feeble and unconvincing.
“Oh, it’s easy enough,” said the girl quietly. “You’ve only got to be clean—and that’s in your line, I should say.”
“And if I thought it would please you,” he added, with another attempt at gallantry.
She did not reply, but moved steadily on, he fancied a little more rapidly. They were nearing the house; he felt he was losing time and opportunity. The uneven nature of the ground kept him from walking immediately beside her, unless he held her hand or arm. Yet an odd timidity was overtaking him. Surely this was the same girl whose consciousness and susceptibility were so apparent a moment ago; yet her speech had been inconsistent, unsympathetic, and coldly practical. “It’s very kind of you,” he began again, scrambling up one side of the furrow as she descended on the other, “to—to—take such an interest in—in a stranger, and I wish you knew how” (she had mounted the ridge again, and stood balancing herself as if waiting for him to finish his sentence) “how—how deeply—I—I”—She dropped quickly down again with the same movement of uneasy consciousness, and he left the sentence unfinished. The house was now only a few yards away; he hurried forward, but she reached the wooden platform and stoop upon it first. He, however, at the same moment caught her hand.
“I want to thank you,” he said, “and say good-night.”
“Good-night.” Her voice was indistinct again, and she was trembling. Emboldened and reckless, he sprang upon the platform, and encircling her with one arm, with his other hand he unloosed the woolen cloud around her head and bared her faintly flushed cheek and half-open, hurriedly breathing lips. But the next moment she threw her head back with a single powerful movement, and, as it seemed to him, with scarcely an effort cast him off with both hands, and sent him toppling from the platform to the ground. He scrambled quickly to his feet again, flushed, angry, and—frightened! Perhaps she would call her father; he would be insulted, or worse,—laughed at! He had lost even this pitiful chance of bettering his condition. But he was as relieved as he was surprised to see that she was standing quietly on the edge of the platform, apparently waiting for him to rise. Her face was still uncovered, still slightly flushed, but bearing no trace of either insult or anger. When he stood erect again, she looked at him gravely and drew the woolen cloud over her head, as she said calmly, “Then I’ll tell pa you’ll take the place, and I reckon you’ll begin to-morrow morning.”