IT WAS only May, but the freshness of early summer already clothed the great fields of the rancho. The old resemblance to a sea was still there, more accented, perhaps, by the undulations of bluish-green grain that rolled from the actual shore-line to the foothills. The farm buildings were half submerged in this glowing tide of color and lost their uncouth angularity with their hidden rude foundations. The same sea-breeze blew chilly and steadily from the bay, yet softened and subdued by the fresh odors of leaf and flower. The outlying fringe of oaks were starred through their underbrush with anemones and dog-roses; there were lupines growing rankly in the open spaces, and along the gentle slopes of Oak Grove daisies were already scattered. And, as if it were part of this vernal efflorescence, the eminence itself was crowned with that latest flower of progress and improvement,—the new Oak Grove Hotel!
Long, low, dazzling with white colonnades, verandas, and balconies which retained, however, enough of the dampness of recent creation to make them too cool for loungers, except at high noon, the hotel nevertheless had the charms of freshness, youth, and cleanliness. Reddy’s fastidious neatness showed itself in all the appointments, from the mirrored and marbled barroom, gilded parlors, and snowy dining-room, to the chintz and maple furnishing of the bedrooms above. Reddy’s taste, too, had selected the pretty site; his good fortune had afterward discovered in an adjoining thicket a spring of blandly therapeutic qualities. A complaisant medical faculty of San Francisco attested to its merits; a sympathetic press advertised the excellence of the hotel; a novelty-seeking, fashionable circle—as yet without laws and blindly imitative—found the new hotel an admirable variation to the vulgar ordinary “across the bay” excursion, and an accepted excuse for a novel social dissipation. A number of distinguished people had already visited it; certain exclusive families had secured the best rooms; there were a score of pretty women to be seen in its parlors; there had already been a slight scandal. Nothing seemed wanting to insure its success.
Reddy was passing through the little wood where four months before he had parted from Kelly Woodridge to learn his fate from her father. He remembered that interview to which Nelly’s wafted kiss had inspired him. He recalled to-day, as he had many times before, the singular complacency with which Mr. Woodridge had received his suit, as if it were a slight and unimportant detail of the business in hand, and how he had told him that Kelly and her mother were going to the “States” for a three months’ visit, but that after her return, if they were both “still agreed,” he, Woodridge, would make no objection. He remembered the slight shock which this announcement of Kelly’s separation from him during his probationary labors had given him, and his sudden suspicion that he had been partly tricked of his preliminary intent to secure her company to solace him. But he had later satisfied himself that she knew nothing of her father’s intentions at the time, and he was fain to content himself with a walk through the fields at her side the day she departed, and a single kiss—which left him cold. And now in a few days she would return to witness the successful fufillment of his labors, and—reward him!
It was certainly a complacent prospect. He could look forward to a sensible, prosperous, respectable future. He had won back his good name, his fortune, and position,—not perhaps exactly in the way he had expected,—and he had stilled the wanton, foolish cravings of his passionate nature in the calm, virginal love of an honest, handsome girl who would make him a practical helpmeet, and a comfortable, trustworthy wife. He ought to be very happy. He had never known such perfect health before; he had lost his reckless habits; his handsome, nervous face had grown more placid and contented; his long curls had been conventionally clipped; he had gained flesh unmistakably, and the lower buttons of the slim waistcoat he had worn to church that memorable Sunday were too tight for comfort or looks. He was happy; yet as he glanced over the material spring landscape, full of practical health, blossom, and promise of fruition, it struck him that the breeze that blew over it was chilly, even if healthful; and he shivered slightly.
He reached the hotel, entered the office, glanced at the register, and passed through into his private room. He had been away for two days, and noticed with gratification that the influx of visitors was still increasing. His clerk followed into the room.
“There’s a lady in 56 who wanted to see you when you returned. She asked particularly for the manager.”
“Who is she?”
“Don’t know. It’s a Mrs. Merrydew, from Sacramento. Expecting her husband on the next steamer.”
“Humph! You’ll have to be rather careful about these solitary married women. We don’t want another scandal, you know.”
“She asked for you by name, sir, and I thought you might know her,” returned the clerk.
“Very well. I’ll go up.”
He sent a waiter ahead to announce him, and leisurely mounted the stairs. No. 56 was the sitting-room of a private suite on the first floor. The waiter was holding the door open. As he approached it a faint perfume from the interior made him turn pale. But he recovered his presence of mind sufficiently to close the door sharply upon the waiter behind him.
“Jim,” said a voice which thrilled him.
He looked up and beheld what any astute reader of romance will have already suspected—the woman to whom he believed he owed his ruin in San Francisco. She was as beautiful and alluring as ever, albeit she was thinner and more spiritual than he had ever seen her. She was tastefully dressed, as she had always been, a certain style of languorous silken deshabille which she was wont to affect in better health now became her paler cheek and feverishly brilliant eyes. There was the same opulence of lace and ornament, and, whether by accident or design, clasped around the slight wrist of her extended hand was a bracelet which he remembered had swept away the last dregs of his fortune.
He took her hand mechanically, yet knowing whatever rage was in his heart he had not the strength to refuse it.
“They told me it was Mrs. Merrydew,” he stammered.
“That was my mother’s name,” she said, with a little laugh. “I thought you knew it. But perhaps you didn’t. When I got my divorce from Dick—you didn’t know that either, I suppose; it’s three months ago,—I didn’t care to take my maiden name again; too many people remembered it. So after the decree was made I called myself Mrs. Merrydew. You had disappeared. They said you had gone East.”
“But the clerk says you are expecting your husband on the steamer. What does this mean? Why did you tell him that?” He had so far collected himself that there was a ring of inquisition in his voice.
“Oh, I had to give him some kind of reason for my being alone when I did not find you as I expected,” she said half wearily. Then a change came over her tired face; a smile of mingled audacity and tentative coquetry lit up the small features. “Perhaps it is true; perhaps I may have a husband coming on the steamer—that depends. Sit down, Jim.”
She let his hand drop, and pointed to an armchair from which she had just risen, and sank down herself in a corner of the sofa, her thin fingers playing with and drawing themselves through the tassels of the cushion.
“You see, Jim, as soon as I was free, Louis Sylvester—you remember Louis Sylvester?—wanted to marry me, and even thought that he was the cause of Dick’s divorcing me. He actually went East to settle up some property he had left him there, and he’s coming on the steamer.”
“Louis Sylvester!” repeated Reddy, staring at her. “Why, he was a bigger fool than I was, and a worse man!” he added bitterly.
“I believe he was,” said the lady, smiling, “and I think he still is. But,” she added, glancing at Reddy under her light fringed lids, “you—you’re regularly reformed, aren’t you? You’re stouter, too, and altogether more solid and commercial looking. Yet who’d have thought of your keeping a hotel or ever doing anything but speculate in wild-cat or play at draw poker. How did you drift into it? Come, tell me! I’m not Mrs. Sylvester just yet, and maybe I might like to go into the business too. You don’t want a partner, do you?”
Her manner was light and irresponsible, or rather it suggested a childlike putting of all responsibility for her actions upon others, which he remembered now too well. Perhaps it was this which kept him from observing that the corners of her smiling lips, however, twitched slightly, and that her fingers, twisting the threads of the tassel, were occasionally stiffened nervously. For he burst out: Oh yes; he had drifted into it when it was a toss up if it wasn’t his body instead that would be found drifting out to sea from the first wharf of San Francisco. Yes, he had been a common laborer,—a farm hand, in those fields she had passed,—a waiter in the farm kitchen, and but for luck he might be taking her orders now in this very hotel. It was not her fault if he was not in the gutter.
She raised her thin hand with a tired gesture as if to ward off the onset of his words. “The same old Jim,” she repeated; “and yet I thought you had forgotten all that now, and become calmer and more sensible since you had taken flesh and grown so matter of fact. You ought to have known then, as you know now, that I never could have been anything to you as long as I was tied to Dick. And you know you forced your presents on me, Jim. I took them from you because I would take nothing from Dick, for I hated him. And I never knew positively that you were in straits then; you know you always talked big, Jim, and were always going to make your fortune with the next thing you had in hand!”
It was true, and he remembered it. He had not intended this kind of recrimination, but he was exasperated with her wearied acceptance of his reproaches and by a sudden conviction that his long-cherished grievance against her now that he had voiced it was inadequate, mean, and trifling. Yet he could not help saying:—
“Then you had presents from Sylvester, too. I presume you did not hate him, either?”
“He would have married me the day after I got my divorce.”
“And so would I,” burst out Reddy.
She looked at him fixedly. “You would?” she said with a peculiar emphasis. “And now”—
He colored. It had been part of his revengeful purpose on seeing her to tell her of his engagement to Kelly. He now found himself tongue-tied, irresolute, and ashamed. Yet he felt she was reading his innermost thoughts.
She, however, only lowered her eyes, and with the same tired expression said: “No matter now. Let us talk of something nearer. That was two months ago. And so you have charge of this hotel! I like it so much. I mean the place itself. I fancy I could live here forever. It is so far away and restful. I am so sick of towns and cities, and people. And this little grove is so secluded. If one had merely a little cottage here, one might be so happy.”
What did she mean?—what did she expect?—what did she think of doing? She must be got rid of before Kelly’s arrival, and yet he found himself wavering under her potent and yet scarcely exerted influence. The desperation of weakness is apt to be more brutal than the determination of strength. He remembered why he had come upstairs, and blurted out: “But you can’t stay here. The rules are very stringent in regard to—to strangers like yourself. It will be known who you really are and what people say of you. Even your divorce will tell against you. It’s all wrong, I know—but what can I do? I didn’t make the rules. I am only a servant of the landlord, and must carry them out.”
She leaned back against the sofa and laughed silently. But she presently recovered herself, although with the same expression of fatigue. “Don’t be alarmed, my poor Jim! If you mean your friend, Mr. Woodridge, I know him. It was he, himself, who suggested my coming here. And don’t misunderstand him—nor me either. He’s only a good friend of Sylvester’s; they had some speculation together. He’s coming here to see me after Louis arrives. He’s waiting in San Francisco for his wife and daughter, who come on the same steamer. So you see you won’t get into trouble on my account. Don’t look so scared, my dear boy.”
“Does he know that you knew me?” said Reddy, with a white face.
“Perhaps. But then that was three months ago,” returned the lady, smiling, “and you know how you have reformed since, and grown ever so much more steady and respectable.”
“Did he talk to you of me?” continued Reddy, still aghast.
“A little—complimentary of course. Don’t look so frightened. I didn’t give you away.”
Her laugh suddenly ceased, and her face changed into a more nervous activity as she rose and went toward the window. She had heard the sound of wheels outside—the coach had just arrived.
“There’s Mr. Woodridge now,” she said in a more animated voice. “The steamer must be in. But I don’t see Louis; do you?”
She turned to where Reddy was standing, but he was gone.
The momentary animation of her face changed. She lifted her shoulders with a half gesture of scorn, but in the midst of it suddenly threw herself on the sofa, and buried her face in her hands.
A few moments elapsed with the bustle of arrival in the hall and passages. Then there was a hesitating step at her door. She quickly passed her handkerchief over her wet eyes and resumed her former look of weary acceptation. The door opened. But it was Mr. Woodridge who entered. The rough shirt-sleeved ranchman had developed, during the last four months, into an equally blunt but soberly dressed proprietor. His keen energetic face, however, wore an expression of embarrassment and anxiety, with an added suggestion of a half humorous appreciation of it.
“I wouldn’t have disturbed you, Mrs. Merrydew,” he said, with a gentle bluntness, “if I hadn’t wanted to ask your advice before I saw Reddy. I’m keeping out of his way until I could see you. I left Nelly and her mother in ’Frisco. There’s been some queer goings-on on the steamer coming home; Kelly has sprang a new game on her mother, and—and suthin’ that looks as if there might be a new deal. However,” here a sense that he was, perhaps, treating his statement too seriously, stopped him, and he smiled reassuringly, “that is as may be.”
“I don’t know,” he went on, “as I ever told you anything about my Kelly and Reddy,—partik’lerly about Kelly. She’s a good girl, a square girl, but she’s got some all-fired romantic ideas in her head. Mebbee it kem from her reading, mebbee it kem from her not knowing other girls, or seeing too much of a queer sort of men; but she got an interest in the bad ones, and thought it was her mission to reform them,—reform them by pure kindness, attentive little sisterly ways, and moral example. She first tried her hand on Reddy. When he first kem to us he was—well, he was a blazin’ ruin! She took him in hand, yanked him outer himself, put his foot on the bedrock, and made him what you see him now. Well—what happened; why, he got reg’larly soft on her; wanted to marry her, and I agreed conditionally, of course, to keep him up to the mark. Did you speak?”
“No,” said the lady, with her bright eyes fixed upon him.
“Well, that was all well and good, and I’d liked to have carried out my part of the contract, and was willing, and am still. But you see, Kelly, after she’d landed Reddy on firm ground, got a little tired, I reckon, gal-like, of the thing she’d worked so easily, and when she went East she looked around for some other wreck to try her hand on, and she found it on the steamer coming back. And who do you think it was? Why, our friend Louis Sylvester!”
Mrs. Merrydew smiled slightly, with her bright eyes still on the speaker.
“Well, you know he is fast at times—if he is a friend of mine—and she reg’larly tackled him; and as my old woman says, it was a sight to see her go for him. But then he didn’t tumble to it. No! Reformin’ ain’t in his line I’m afeard. And what was the result? Why, Kelly only got all the more keen when she found she couldn’t manage him like Reddy,—and, between you and me, she’d have liked Reddy more if he hadn’t been so easy,—and it’s ended, I reckon, in her now falling dead in love with Sylvester. She swears she won’t marry any one else, and wants to devote her whole life to him! Now, what’s to be done! Reddy don’t know it yet, and I don’t know how to tell him. Kelly says her mission was ended when she made a new man of him, and he oughter be thankful for that. Couldn’t you kinder break the news to him and tell him there ain’t any show for him?”
“Does he love the girl so much, then?” said the lady gently.
“Yes; but I am afraid there is no hope for Reddy as long as she thinks there’s a chance of her capturing Sylvester.”
The lady rose and went to the writing-table. “Would it be any comfort to you, Mr. Woodridge, if you were told that she had not the slightest chance with Sylvester?”
She wrote a few lines on a card, put it in an envelope, and handed it to Woodridge. “Find out where Sylvester is in San Francisco, and give him that card. I think it will satisfy you. And now as I have to catch the return coach in ten minutes, I must ask you to excuse me while I put my things together.”
“And you won’t first break the news to Reddy for me?”
“No; and I advise you to keep the whole matter to yourself for the present. Good-by!”
She smiled again, fascinatingly as usual, but, as it seemed to him, a trifle wearily, and then passed into the inner room. Years after, in his practical, matter of fact recollections of this strange woman, he always remembered her by this smile.
But she had sufficiently impressed him by her parting adjuration to cause him to answer Reddy’s eager inquiries with the statement that Kelly and her mother were greatly preoccupied with some friends in San Francisco, and to speedily escape further questioning. Reddy’s disappointment was somewhat mitigated by the simultaneous announcement of Mrs. Merrydew’s departure. But he was still more relieved and gratified to hear, a few days later, of the marriage of Mrs. Merrydew with Louis Sylvester. If, to the general surprise and comment it excited, he contributed only a smile of cynical toleration and superior self-complacency, the reader will understand and not blame him. Nor did the public, who knew the austere completeness of his reform. Nor did Mr. Woodridge, who failed to understand the only actor in this little comedy who might perhaps have differed from them all.
A month later James Reddy married Kelly Woodridge, in the chilly little church at Oakdale. Perhaps by that time it might have occurred to him that although the freshness and fruition of summer were everywhere, the building seemed to be still unwarmed. And when he stepped forth with his bride, and glanced across the prosperous landscape toward the distant bay and headlands of San Francisco, he shivered slightly at the dryly practical kiss of the keen northwestern Trades.
But he was prosperous and comfortable thereafter, as the respectable owner of broad lands and paying shares. It was said that Mrs. Reddy contributed much to the popularity of the hotel by her charming freedom from prejudice and sympathy with mankind; but this was perhaps only due to the contrast to her more serious and at times abstracted husband. At least this was the charitable opinion of the proverbially tolerant and kind-hearted Baroness Streichholzer (nee Merrydew, and relict of the late lamented Louis Sylvester, Esq.), whom I recently had the pleasure of meeting at Wiesbaden, where the waters and reposeful surroundings strongly reminded her of Oakdale.