ANGERED, discomfited, and physically and morally beaten, James Reddy stumbled and clambered back across the field. The beam of light that had streamed out over the dark field as the door opened and shut on the girl left him doubly confused and bewildered. In his dull anger and mortification, there seemed only one course for him to pursue. He would demand his wages in the morning, and cut the whole concern. He would go back to San Francisco and work there, where he at least had friends who respected his station. Yet, he ought to have refused the girl’s offer before she had repulsed him; his retreat now meant nothing, and might even tempt her, in her vulgar pique, to reveal her rebuff of him. He raised his eyes mechanically, and looked gloomily across the dark waste and distant bay to the opposite shore. But the fog had already hidden the glow of the city’s lights, and, thickening around the horizon, seemed to be slowly hemming him in with the dreary rancho. In his present frame of mind there was a certain fatefulness in this that precluded his once free agency, and to that extent relieved and absolved him of any choice. He reached the dormitory and its turned-down lights in a state of tired and dull uncertainty, for which sleep seemed to offer the only relief. He rolled himself in his blankets with an animal instinct of comfort and shut his eyes, but their sense appeared to open upon Nelly Woodridge as she stood looking down upon him from the platform. Even through the dull pain of his bruised susceptibilities he was conscious of a strange satisfaction he had not felt before. He fell asleep at last, to waken only to the sunlight streaming through the curtainless windows on his face. To his surprise the long shed was empty and deserted, except for a single Chinaman who was sweeping the floor at the farther end. As Reddy started up, the man turned and approached him with a characteristic, vague, and patient smile.
“All lity, John, you sleepee heap! Mistel Woodlidge he say you no go wolkee field allee same Mellikan man. You stoppee inside housee allee same me. Shabbee? You come to glubbee [grub] now” (pointing to the distant dining-shed), “and then you washee dish.”
The full extent of his new degradation flashed upon Reddy with this added insult of his brother menial’s implicit equality. He understood it all. He had been detached from the field-workers and was to come to a later breakfast, perhaps the broken victuals of the first repast, and wash the dishes. He remembered his new bargain. Very well! he would refuse positively, take his dismissal, and leave that morning! He hurriedly dressed himself, and followed the Chinaman into the open air.
The fog still hung upon the distant bay and hid the opposite point. But the sun shone with dry Californian brilliancy over the league-long field around him, revealing every detail of the rancho with sharp, matter of fact directness, and without the least illusion of distance or romance. The rough, unplaned, unpainted walls of the dinner-shed stood out clearly before him; the half-filled buckets of water on the near platform, and the immense tubs piled with dirty dishes. He scowled darkly as he walked forward, conscious, nevertheless, of the invigorating discipline of the morning air and the wholesome whip in the sky above him. He entered sharply and aggressively. To his relief, the room at first sight seemed, like the dormitory he had just left, to be empty. But a voice, clear, dry, direct, and practical as the morning itself, spoke in his ear: “Mornin’, Reddy! My daughter says you’re willin’ to take an indoor job, and I reckon, speakin’ square, as man to man, it’s more in your line than what you’ve bin doin’. It mayn’t be high-toned work, but work’s work anyhow you can fix it; and the only difference I kin see is in the work that a man does squarely, and the work that he shirks.”
“But,” said Reddy hurriedly, “there’s a mistake. I came here only to”—
“Work like the others, I understand. Well, you see you can’t. You do your best, I know. I ain’t findin’ fault, but it ain’t in your line. This is, and the pay is better.”
“But,” stammered Reddy, “Miss Woodridge didn’t understand”—
“Yes, she did,” returned Woodridge impatiently, “and she told me. She says she’ll show you round at first. You’ll catch on all right. Sit down and eat your breakfast, and she’ll be along before you’re through. Ez for me, I must get up and get. So long!” and before Reddy had an opportunity to continue his protest, he turned away.
The young man glanced vexatiously around him. A breakfast much better in service and quality than the one he had been accustomed to smoked on the table. There was no one else in the room. He could hear the voices of the Chinese waiters in the kitchen beyond. He was healthily hungry, and after a moment’s hesitation sat down and began his meal. He could expostulate with her afterward, and withdraw his promise. He was entitled to his breakfast, anyway!
Once or twice, while thus engaged, he heard the door of the kitchen open and the clipping tread of the Chinese waiters, who deposited some rattling burden on the adjacent tables, but he thought it prudent not to seem to notice them. When he had finished, the pleasant, hesitating, boyish contralto of Miss Woodridge fell upon his ear.
“When you’re ready, I’ll show you how to begin your work.”
He turned quickly, with a flush of mortification at being discovered at his repast, and his anger returned. But as his eyes fell upon her delicately colored but tranquil face, her well-shaped figure, coquettishly and spotlessly cuffed, collared, and aproned, and her clear blue but half-averted eyes, he again underwent a change. She certainly was very pretty—that most seductive prettiness which seemed to be warmed into life by her consciousness of himself. Why should he take her or himself so seriously? Why not play out the farce, and let those who would criticise him and think his acceptance of the work degrading understand that it was only an affair of gallantry. He could afford to serve Woodridge at least a few weeks for the favor of this Rachel! Forgetful of his rebuff of the night before, he fixed his brown eyes on hers with an audacious levity.
“Oh yes—the work! Let us see it. I’m ready in name and nature for anything that Miss Woodridge wants of me. I’m just dying to begin.”
His voice was raised slightly, with a high comedy jauntiness, for the benefit of the Chinese waiters who might be lingering to see the “Mellican man” assume their functions. But it failed in effect. With their characteristic calm acceptance of any eccentricity in a “foreign devil,” they scarcely lifted their eyes. The young girl pointed to a deep basket filled with dishes which had been placed on the larger table, and said, without looking at Reddy:—
“You had better begin by ‘checking’ the crockery. That is, counting the pieces separately and then arranging them in sets as they come back from washing. There’s the book to compare them with and to set down what is broken, missing, or chipped. You’ll have a clean towel with you to wipe the pieces that have not been cleaned enough; or, if they are too dirty, you’ll send them back to the kitchen.”
“Couldn’t I wash them myself?” said Reddy, continuing his ostentatious levity.
“Not yet,” said the girl, with grave hesitation; “you’d break them.”
She stood watching him, as with affected hilarity he began to take the dishes from the basket. But she noticed that in spite of this jocular simulation his grasp was firm and delicate, and that there was no clatter—which would have affected her sensitive ear—as he put them down. She laid a pencil and account book beside him and turned away.
“But you are not going?” he said, in genuine surprise.
“Yes,” she said quietly, “until you get through ‘checking.’ Then I’ll come back and show you what you have to do next. You’re getting on very well.”
“But that was because you were with me.”
She colored slightly and, without looking at him, moved slowly to the door and disappeared.
Reddy went back to his work, disappointed but not discomfited. He was getting accustomed to the girl’s eccentricities. Whether it was the freshness of the morning air and sunlight streaming in at the open windows, the unlooked-for solitude and security of the empty room, or that there was nothing really unpleasant in his occupation, he went on cheerfully “checking” the dishes, narrowly examining them for chips and cracks, and noting them in the book. Again discovering that a few were imperfectly cleaned and wiped, he repaired the defect with cold water and a towel without the least thought of the operation being degrading. He had finished his task in half an hour; she had not returned; why should he not go on and set the table? As he straightened and turned the coarse table-cloth, he made the discovery that the long table was really composed of half a dozen smaller ones, and that the hideous parallelogram which had always so offended him was merely the outcome of carelessness and want of taste. Without a moment’s hesitation he set at work to break up the monotonous line and rearranged the tables laterally, with small open spaces between them. The task was no light one, even for a stronger man, but he persevered in it with a new-found energy until he had changed the whole aspect of the room. It looked larger, wider, and less crowded; its hard practical, workhouse-like formality had disappeared. He had paused to survey it, panting still with his unusual exertion, when a voice broke upon his solitude.
“Well, I wanter know!”
The voice was not Nelly’s, but that of her mother,—a large-boned, angular woman of fifty,—who had entered the room unperceived. The accents were simply those of surprise, but on James Reddy’s present sensitive mood, coupled with the feeling that here was a new witness to his degradation, he might have resented it; but he detected the handsome, reserved figure of the daughter a few steps behind her. Their eyes met; wonderful to relate, the young girl’s no longer evaded him, but looked squarely into his with a bright expression of pleasure he had not seen before. He checked himself with a sudden thrill of gratification.
“Well, I declare,” continued Mrs. Woodridge; “is that your idea—or yours, Helen?”
Here Reddy simply pointed out the advantages for serving afforded by the new arrangement; that all the tables were equally and quickly accessible from the serving-table and sideboard, and that it was no longer necessary to go the whole length of the room to serve the upper table. He tactfully did not refer to the improved appearance of the room.
“Well, as long as it ain’t mere finikin,” said the lady graciously, “and seems to bring the folks and their vittles nearer together—we’ll try it to-day. It does look kinder cityfied—and I reckoned that was all the good it was. But I calkilated you were goin’ to check the crockery this morning.”
“It’s done,” said Reddy, smilingly handing her the account-book.
Mrs. Woodridge glanced over it, and then surveyed her new assistant.
“And you didn’t find any plates that were dirty and that had to be sent back?”
“Yes, two or three, but I cleaned them myself.”
Mrs. Woodridge glanced at him with a look of approving curiosity, but his eyes were just then seeking her daughter’s for a more grateful sympathy. All of which the good lady noted, and as it apparently answered the unasked question in her own mind, she only uttered the single exclamation, “Humph!”
But the approbation he received later at dinner, in the satisfaction of his old companions with the new arrangement, had also the effect of diverting from him the criticism he had feared they would make in finding him installed as an assistant to Mrs. Woodridge. On the contrary, they appeared only to recognize in him some especial and superior faculty utilized for their comfort, and when the superintendent, equally pleased, said it was “all Reddy’s own idea,” no one doubted that it was this particular stroke of genius which gained him the obvious promotion. If he had still thought of offering his flirtation with Nelly as an excuse, there was now no necessity for any. Having shown to his employers his capacity for the highest and lowest work, they naturally preferred to use his best abilities—and he was kept from any menial service. His accounts were so carefully and intelligently rendered that the entire care of the building and its appointments was intrusted to him. At the end of the week Mr. Woodridge took him aside.
“I say, you ain’t got any job in view arter you finish up here, hev ye?”
Reddy started. Scarcely ten days ago he had a hundred projects, schemes, and speculations, more or less wild and extravagant, wherewith he was to avenge and recoup himself in San Francisco. Now they were gone he knew not where and how. He briefly said he had not.
“Because,” continued Woodridge, “I’ve got an idea of startin’ a hotel in the Oak Grove, just on the slope back o’ the rancho. The company’s bound to make some sort o’ settlement there for the regular hands, and the place is pooty enough for ’Frisco people who want to run over here and get set up for a day or two. Thar’s plenty of wood and water up thar, and the company’s sure to have a wharf down on the shore. I’ll provide the capital, if you will put in your time. You can sling in ez much style as you like there” (this was an allusion to Reddy’s attempt to enliven the blank walls with colored pictures from the illustrated papers and green ceanothus sprays from the slope); “in fact, the more style the better for them city folks. Well, you think it over.”
He did. But meantime he seemed to make little progress in his court of the superintendent’s daughter. He tried to think it was because he had allowed himself to be diverted by his work, but although she always betrayed the same odd physical consciousness of his presence, it was certain that she never encouraged him. She gave him the few directions that his new occupation still made necessary, and looked her approval of his success. But nothing more. He was forced to admit that this was exactly what she might have done as the superintendent’s daughter to a deserving employee. Whereat, for a few days he assumed an air of cold and ceremonious politeness, until perceiving that, far from piquing the girl, it seemed to gratify her, and even to render her less sensitive in his company, he sulked in good earnest. This proving ineffective also,—except to produce a kind of compassionate curiosity,—his former dull rage returned. The planting of the rancho was nearly over; his service would be ended next week; he had not yet given his answer to Woodridge’s proposition; he would decline it and cut the whole concern!
It was a crisp Sunday morning. The breakfast hour was later on that day to allow the men more time for their holiday, which, however, they generally spent in cards, gossip, or reading in their sleeping sheds. It usually delayed Reddy’s work, but as he cared little for the companionship of his fellows, it enabled him, without a show of unsociability, to seclude himself in the dining-room. And this morning he was early approached by his employer.
“I’m goin’ to take the women folks over to Oakdale to church,” said Mr. Woodridge; “ef ye keer to join us thar’s a seat in the wagon, and I’ll turn on a couple of Chinamen to do the work for you, just now; and Nelly or the old woman will give you a lift this afternoon with the counting up.”
Reddy felt instinctively that the invitation had been instigated by the young girl. A week before he would have rejoiced at it; a month ago he would have accepted it if only as a relief to his degraded position, but in the pique of this new passion he almost rudely declined it. An hour later he saw Nelly, becomingly and even tastefully dressed,—with the American girl’s triumphant superiority to her condition and surroundings,—ride past in her father’s smart “carryall.” He was startled to see that she looked so like a lady. Then, with a new and jealous inconsistency, significant of the progress of his passion, he resolved to go to church too. She should see that he was not going to remain behind like a mere slave. He remembered that he had still certain remnants of his past finery in his trunk; he would array himself in them, walk to Oakdale, and make one of the congregation. He managed to change his clothes without attracting the attention of his fellows, and set out.
The air was pure but keen, with none of the languor of spring in its breath, although a few flowers were beginning to star the weedy wagon-tracked lane, and there was an awakening spice in the wayside southernwood and myrtle. He felt invigorated, although it seemed only to whet his jealous pique. He hurried on without even glancing toward the distant coast-line of San Francisco or even thinking of it. The bitter memories of the past had been obliterated by the bitterness of the present. He no longer thought of “that woman;” even when he had threatened to himself to return to San Francisco, he was vaguely conscious that it was not she who was again drawing him there, but Nelly who was driving him away.
The service was nearly over when he arrived at the chilly little corrugated-zinc church at Oakdale, but he slipped into one of the back seats. A few worshipers turned round to look at him. Among them were the daughters of a neighboring miller, who were slightly exercised over the unusual advent of a good-looking stranger with certain exterior signs of elegance. Their excitement was communicated by some mysterious instinct to their neighbor, Nelly Woodridge. She also turned and caught his eye. But to all appearances she not only showed no signs of her usual agitation at his presence, but did not seem to even recognize him. In the acerbity of his pique he was for a moment gratified at what he believed to be the expression of her wounded pride, but his uneasiness quickly returned, and at the conclusion of the service he slipped out of the church with one or two of the more restless in the congregation. As he passed through the aisle he heard the escort of the miller’s daughters, in response to a whispered inquiry, say distinctly: “Only the head-waiter over at the company’s rancho.” Whatever hesitating idea Reddy might have had of waiting at the church door for the appearance of Nelly vanished before the brutal truth. His brow darkened, and with flushed cheeks he turned his back upon the building and plunged into the woods. This time there was no hesitation in his resolve; he would leave the rancho at the expiration of his engagement. Even in a higher occupation he felt he could never live down his reputation there.
In his morose abstraction he did not know how long or how aimlessly he had wandered among the mossy live-oaks, his head and shoulders often imperiled by the downcurving of some huge knotted limb; his feet straying blindly from the faint track over the thickly matted carpet of chickweed which hid their roots. But it was nearly an hour before he emerged upon a wide, open, wooded slope, and, from the distant view of field and shore, knew that he was at Oak Grove, the site of Woodridge’s projected hotel. And there, surely, at a little distance, was the Woodridges’ wagon and team tied up to a sapling, while the superintendent and his wife were slowly climbing the slope, and apparently examining the prospect. Without waiting to see if Nelly was with them, Reddy instantly turned to avoid meeting them. But he had not proceeded a hundred yards before he came upon that young lady, who had evidently strayed from the party, and who was now unconsciously advancing toward him. A rencontre was inevitable.
She started slightly, and then stopped, with all her old agitation and embarrassment. But, to his own surprise, he was also embarrassed and even tongue-tied.
She spoke first.
“You were at church. I didn’t quite know you in—in—these clothes.”
In her own finery she had undergone such a change to Reddy’s consciousness that he, for the first time in their acquaintance, now addressed her as on his own level, and as if she had no understanding of his own feelings.
“Oh,” he said, with easy bitterness, “others did, if you did not. They all detected the ‘head-waiter’ at the Union Company’s rancho. Even if I had accepted your kindness in offering me a seat in your wagon it would have made no difference.” He was glad to put this construction on his previous refusal, for in the new relations which seemed to be established by their Sunday clothes he was obliged to soften the churlishness of that refusal also.
“I don’t think you’d look nice setting the table in kid gloves,” she said, glancing quickly at his finery as if accepting it as the real issue; “but you can wear what you like at other times. I never found fault with your working clothes.”
There was such a pleasant suggestion in her emphasis that his ill-humor softened. Her eyes wandered over the opposite grove, where her unconscious parents had just disappeared.
“Papa’s very keen about the hotel,” she continued, “and is going to have the workmen break ground to-morrow. He says he’ll have it up in two months and ready to open, if he has to make the men work double time. When you’re manager, you won’t mind what folks say.”
There was no excuse for his further hesitation. He must speak out, but he did it in a half-hearted way.
“But if I simply go away—without being manager—I won’t hear their criticism either.”
“What do you mean?” she said quickly.
“I’ve—I’ve been thinking of—of going back to San Francisco,” he stammered awkwardly.
A slight flush of contemptuous indignation passed over her face, and gave it a strength and expression he had never seen there before. “Oh, you’ve not reformed yet, then?” she said, under her scornful lashes.
“I don’t understand you,” he said, flushing.
“Father ought to have told you,” she went on dryly, “that that woman has gone off to the Springs with her husband, and you won’t see her at San Francisco.”
“I don’t know what you mean—and your father seems to take an unwarrantable interest in my affairs,” said Reddy, with an anger that he was conscious, however, was half simulated.
“No more than he ought to, if he expects to trust you with all his affairs,” said the girl shortly; “but you had better tell him you have changed your mind at once, before he makes any further calculations on your staying. He’s just over the hill there, with mother.”
She turned away coldly as she spoke, but moved slowly and in the direction of the hill, although she took a less direct trail than the one she had pointed to him. But he followed her, albeit still embarrassedly, and with that new sense of respect which had checked his former surliness. There was her strong, healthy, well-developed figure moving before him, but the modish gray dress seemed to give its pronounced outlines something of the dignity of a goddess. Even the firm hands had the distinguishment of character.
“You understand,” he said apologetically, “that I mean no discourtesy to your father or his offer. And”—he hesitated— “neither is my reason what you would infer.”
“Then what is it?” she asked, turning to him abruptly. “You know you have no other place when you leave here, nor any chance as good as the one father offers you. You are not fit for any other work, and you know it. You have no money to speculate with, nor can you get any. If you could, you would have never stayed here.”
He could not evade the appalling truthfulness of her clear eyes. He knew it was no use to lie to her; she had evidently thoroughly informed herself regarding his past; more than that, she seemed to read his present thoughts. But not all of them! No! he could startle her still! It was desperate, but he had nothing now to lose. And she liked the truth,—she should have it!
“You are right,” he said shortly; “these are not my reasons.”
“Then what reason have you?”
“Me?” she repeated incredulously, yet with a rising color.
“Yes, you! I cannot stay here, and have you look down upon me.”
“I don’t look down on you,” she said simply, yet without the haste of repelling an unjust accusation. “Why should I? Mother and I have done the same work that you are doing,—if that’s what you mean; and father, who is a man like yourself, helped us at first, until he could do other things better.” She paused. “Perhaps you think so because you looked down on us when you first came here.”
“But I didn’t,” said Reddy quickly.
“You did,” said the young girl quietly. “That’s why you acted toward me as you did the night you walked home with me. You would not have behaved in that way to any San Francisco young lady—and I’m not one of your—fast—married women.”
Reddy felt the hot blood mount to his cheek, and looked away. “I was foolish and rude—and I think you punished me at the time,” he stammered. “But you see I was right in saying you looked down on me,” he concluded triumphantly.
This was at best a feeble sequitur, but the argument of the affections is not always logical. And it had its effect on the girl.
“I wasn’t thinking of that,” she said. “It’s that you don’t know your own mind.”
“If I said that I would stay and accept your father’s offer, would you think that I did?” he asked quickly.
“I should wait and see what you actually did do,” she replied.
“But if I stayed—and—and—if I told you that I stayed on your account—to be with you and near you only—would you think that a proof?” He spoke hesitatingly, for his lips were dry with a nervousness he had not known before.
“I might, if you told father you expected to be engaged on those terms. For it concerns him as much as me. And he engages you, and not I. Otherwise I’d think it was only your talk.”
Reddy looked at her in astonishment. There was not the slightest trace of coyness, coquetry, or even raillery in her clear, honest eyes, and yet it would seem as if she had taken his proposition in its fullest sense as a matrimonial declaration, and actually referred him to her father. He was pleased, frightened, and utterly unprepared.
“But what would you say, Nelly?” He drew closer to her and held out both his hands. But she retreated a step and slipped her own behind her.
“Better see what father says first,” she said quietly. “You may change your mind again and go back to San Francisco.”
He was confused, and reddened again. But he had become accustomed to her ways; rather, perhaps, he had begun to recognize the quaint justice that underlaid them, or, possibly, some better self of his own, that had been buried under bitterness and sloth and struggled into life. “But whatever he says,” he returned eagerly, “cannot alter my feelings to you. It can only alter my position here, and you say you are above being influenced by that. Tell me, Nelly—dear Nelly! have you nothing to say to me, as I am, or is it only to your father’s manager that you would speak?” His voice had an unmistakable ring of sincerity in it, and even startled him—half rascal as he was!
The young girl’s clear, scrutinizing eyes softened; her red resolute lips trembled slightly and then parted, the upper one hovering a little to one side over her white teeth. It was Nelly’s own peculiar smile, and its serious piquancy always thrilled him. But she drew a little farther back from his brightening eyes, her hands still curled behind her, and said, with the faintest coquettish toss of her head toward the hill: “If you want to see father, you’d better hurry up.”
With a sudden determination as new to him as it was incomprehensible, Reddy turned from her and struck forward in the direction of the hill. He was not quite sure what he was going for. Yet that he, who had only a moment before fully determined to leave the rancho and her, was now going to her father to demand her hand as a contingency of his remaining did not strike him as so extravagant and unexpected a dénouement as it was a difficult one. He was only concerned how, and in what way, he should approach him. In a moment of embarrassment he hesitated, turned, and looked behind him.
She was standing where he had left her, gazing after him, leaning forward with her hands still held behind her. Suddenly, as with an inspiration, she raised them both, carried them impetuously to her lips, blew him a dozen riotous kisses, and then, lowering her head like a colt, whisked her skirt behind her, and vanished in the cover.