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Some eight or ten people, including Hastings, came in after dinner. Mrs. Randolph had gone upstairs from the dining-room, and did not appear again. Her dampening influence removed, Mr. Randolph and Nina recovered their high light spirits; and there was much music and more conversation. Miss Randolph had a soprano voice of piercing sweetness, which flirted effectively with Captain Hastings’ tenor. Thorpe thought Hastings an ass for rolling his eyes out of his head, and finally turned his back on the piano to meet the large amused glance of Miss Hathaway. He sat down beside her, and, being undisturbed for ten minutes, found her willing to converse, or rather to express a number of decided opinions. She told him whom he was to know, what parts of California he was to visit, how long he was to stay, and after what interval he was to return. Thorpe listened with much entertainment, for her voice was not tuned to friendly advice, but to command. Her great eyes were as cold as icicles under a blue light; but there was a certain cordiality in their invitation to flirt. Thorpe did not respond. If he had known her first, he reflected, he should doubtless have made an attempt to dispossess her court; but the warm magnetic influence of Nina Randolph held him, strengthened by her demand upon his sympathy. Still he felt that Miss Hathaway was a person to like, and remained at her side until he was dismissed in favour of Hastings; when he talked for a time to the intellectual Miss McDermott, the sweet and slangy Miss McAllister, who looked like an angel and talked like a gamin, to Don Roberto Yorba, a handsome and exquisitely attired little grandee who was trying to look as much like an American as his friend Hiram Polk, with his lantern jaws and angular figure. It was the first city Thorpe had visited where there was no type: everybody suggested being the father or mother of one, and was of an individuality so pronounced that the stranger marvelled they were not all at one another’s throats. But he had never seen people more amiable and fraternal.
He did not see Nina alone again until a few moments before he left. He drew her out into the hall while Hastings was saying good-night to Mr. Randolph.
“May I come often?” he asked.
“I certainly shall.”
“Will you talk to me about things that men scarcely ever talk to girls about,—books and art—and—what one thinks about more than what one does.”
“I’ll talk about anything under heaven that you want to talk about—particularly yourself.”
“I don’t want to talk about myself.”
Her face was sparkling with coquetry, but it flushed under the intensity of his gaze. His brown skin was paler than when he had entered the house, his hard features were softened by the shaded lamp of the hall, and his grey eyes had kindled as he took her hand. She looked very lovely in a white gown touched up with red velvet bows.
“I believe you’ll be a tremendous flirt by the time you leave here,” she said, trying to draw her hand away. “And don’t tell me this is your first experience in eight years.”
“I’ve known a good many women,” he said, bluntly. “At present I am only following your cues—and there are a bewildering lot of them. When you are serious, I shall be serious. When you are not—I shall endeavour to be frivolous. To be honest, however, I have no intention of flirting with you, fascinating and provocative as you are. I’d like awfully to be your intimate friend, but nothing more. Good-night.”
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