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A fortnight later Isabel announced to Gwynne that she intended to give a party and introduce him to the young people of Rosewater.
"All the girls want to know you, Anabel tells me, and as it is a relief to hear that they are interested in something besides cards, and as nobody else seems disposed to take the initiative, I have concluded to play the grande dame for a night. In a way it is my duty to introduce you formally, although it would be more so if they had done anything for me since my return. However—I will ask them for next Saturday evening if you have nothing better to do."
"One day is quite the same as another to me," said Gwynne, dryly. "What do you fancy are my evening engagements? I have not even begun to read law with Mr. Leslie; he has gone off to southern California to see his son. He says he is always restless in the autumn, as young people are in the spring, but has promised me his attention before the middle of this month."
They were rowing down the channel of the wider portion of the creek towards Isabel's landing, their boat filled with spoil. The little steamboat was winding proudly through the marsh, there were a dozen sails in sight; from the south came an incessant sound of firing. The distant mountains looked as hard as metal and there was a new crispness in the air. Little rain had fallen, but it was no longer summer. Gwynne had exchanged his khaki riding-clothes for corduroy; and Isabel's habit, although still dust-colored, was made of cloth instead of pongee. To-day they wore light covert coats over their canvas and rubber.
With the passing of the heat and the advent of the daily electric breezes sweeping up the valleys from the sea, Gwynne felt a slow lifting of the dead weight on his spirits, although he was only happy when he had his gun in his hand. California seemed less like a voluptuous leviathan blowing poppy-dust that blunted the memory of all things beyond her borders. At first he had been vaguely uneasy at the insidious suggestion that he had transferred himself to another planet, but he was beginning to suspect that California, true to her sex, might have surprises in store that would quicken his blood at least. He still disliked her at night: the high unfriendly arch of her sky, the sinister atmosphere that brooded over her spaces, suggesting illimitable reaches where no man dwelt, or would long be tolerated. But her days seemed full of promise, and they certainly were full of beauty.
He still fought with a longing to confide in Isabel: his apprehensions and doubts, his haunting interrogation of inherent greatness. But he turned from the temptation in a panic of spirit, sure that he would fail unless he fought his battle alone. He had pondered more and more upon his possible debt to his mother; and the doubt that she might have been the foundation of his courage and self-confidence was as bitter as that he might have owed the extraordinary rapidity of his career to the influence of his family and name. And Isabel's very strength alarmed him, the more so as he felt her subtle fingers among the leaves of his new destiny. So he merely smiled into her eyes and made a gallant remark, a purely masculine method of emphasizing that woman is charming in her proper place.
"I shall be delighted to dance again; particularly—it seems odd—as I have never danced with you. And it is a year since I have seen you in an evening gown. I have a vivid remembrance of how you looked that night at Arcot, when you turned so many heads."
Isabel colored, and whether with pleasure or resentment, she had not the least idea. But she answered, hastily:
"I feel that I have been very selfish to do nothing before. But really, it seemed hopeless until Anabel told me yesterday that there was a vast amount of interest in the young English rancher. I am afraid the girls here will not interest you; only you should have the opportunity of deciding that question for yourself. But what will be really delightful will be to show you San Francisco. I have not been able to leave the ranch for a day since that three weeks' outing I had no business to take. But I have had half a dozen resentful letters from Paula, who has persuaded herself that you are her cousin too, and asserts her right to know you. But neither she nor Lyster has the remotest suspicion of your identity. Elton Gwynne might have a dozen brothers; nor is it likely they ever heard the name. If you were an artist or actor or littérateur or composer you might be as well known in San Francisco as in London. There is no city in the United States one-half so artistic—nor so given to fads. But in European politics, the young people, at least, take as much interest as they do in the canals of the moon. So you are quite safe, and Lyster is the man of all others to show you Bohemian San Francisco and give you a thoroughly good time. We might go down a few days after the party."
"That will be very jolly. I will confess that although San Francisco did not inspire me with enthusiasm, it has occurred to me that it might be an improvement on Rosewater.... Oh, by-the-way, I had a letter from my mother not long ago, in which she said she had met some San Franciscans at Homburg—Hofer, I believe the name was—and had promised I should call on them, mentioning me, of course, as John Gwynne. I have wondered if the risk would be worth while. The amusement to be derived from provincial society is very doubtful."
"Provincial! What arrogance! Do please call on the Hofers. They have the old Polk house, whose history I have told you, and entertain like princes. Besides, Mr. Hofer is one of that small millionaire group that is trying to clean up San Francisco municipally. He is quite worth knowing. And I want you to know San Francisco. It is my ambition to be a great figure in San Francisco—and I have seen other cities, and might be enjoying myself in England this moment."
"Yes, I know," said Gwynne, smiling, and admiring her pink cheeks and flashing eyes. "And of course I don't forget that you have spurned a great position for the sake of your beloved city. That is really at the root of my desire to know the place. If it has a fascination I should like to feel it. Fascination is a strong word and means a considerable amount of enjoyment, up to a certain point. But I am glad to have heard the declaration of your ambition. Is it the final one?"
"It is the pedestal," said Isabel, enigmatically. "Sometime, when you give me your confidence, I will give you mine."
"I have no confidences to make—none, at least, that can compare with the rich experiences of your past. I told you all about Mrs. Kaye before I left England, and, so far, America has left me—well, unfascinated. By-the-way, Colton informs me that he and his wife have picked out some one to cheer my loneliness and—"
"I do not remember her name. Doubtless she will be at the party. I am curious to see all your friends together. I have seen an astonishing number of pretty girls in the street, and I am wondering how they will stand the test of lighting up; the great test to my mind. I don't know which I like least, the manufactured animation of the European woman of the world, or the too natural animation which makes the American girl's features dance all over her face. You, if you don't mind my saying so, are one of the very few Americans I have met that has something of the Englishwoman's faculty of looking, at the same time, statuesque and glowingly alive."
"You excite my suspicion: I see no indication that you are out of practice. It is quite true that American women's faces, like their voices, lack cultivation. Well, you will see a good many pretty girls on Saturday night, and with no particular advantage of dress. Money has nothing to do with social position in these country towns. Perhaps twenty families besides the bankers and Mr. Boutts, and the Leslies, are well off. But many girls who are in the best society earn their living: typewriters, clerks, book-keepers, and the like. One has carried on her father's drug-store since his death. Most of the young men that could get away have gone, and there are not half a dozen left with any money behind them. The majority of beaux are either clerks, or in some small business, although there are always the doctors and clergymen—very few young lawyers. Snobbery barely exists. There are lines, but purely theological. All social groups centre about the churches. The first here has always been the Episcopalian."
"It had occurred to me that society of any sort had ceased. Of the famous California hospitality I have seen nothing. A number of men have driven out and called upon me, and I have returned their calls, and found their houses very well appointed—although some member of the family usually answered the bell; and one morning I saw Miss Wheaton sweeping off the porch, her head tied up in a towel. All I meet appear to be very cordial and friendly, but I have not been asked to take so much as a cup of tea in a house in the county, and I have now been here something like five weeks."
"California hospitality is a mere legend except in San Francisco. In the small communities it has never existed in my time, although they used to dance a good deal before cards turned their heads. You will find just as much haggling over a five-cent piece here as in any small New England town. These rich men have made their money by hoarding and wary investments, rarely speculating; and that tells immensely on the character. I doubt if the State itself has ever known the meaning of hospitality since the old ranch days, when, of course, it was prodigal. It is the San Franciscans that have kept the tradition alive; they are as reckless, as extravagant, as royally indifferent to mere money as in the famous Fifties. If you happen to call too close to a meal-time in one of these towns, the meal will be postponed until you leave. In San Francisco they would give you two-thirds of their last crust. At the old Rosewater dances we never had anything but cake and lemonade—ice-cream in very hot weather. I think it would be a good idea to give them a shock and have a supper from town."
"I believe you are socially ambitious," said Gwynne, smiling. "No doubt it is your intention to make a fortune and lead San Francisco society."
"Perhaps, but not in the way you mean."
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