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The party for the elk-hunt assembled at Mr. Randolph’s door at four o’clock on Monday morning. Miss Hathaway’s large Spanish eyes were heavy with the languor of her race. Miss Shropshire looked cross. Even the men were not wholly animate. Nina alone was as widely awake as the retreating stars. She rode ahead with Thorpe.
They made for the open country beyond the city. What is now a large and populous suburb, was then a succession of sand dunes, in whose valleys were thickets of scrub oak, chaparral, and willows. A large flat lying between Rincon Hill and Mission Bay was the favourite resort of elk, deer, antelope, and the less aristocratic coyote and wild cat. It was to this flat that Mr. Randolph’s party took their way, accompanied by vaqueros leading horses upon which to bring back the spoils of the morning.
The hour was grey and cold. The landscape looked inexpressibly bleak. A blustering wind travelled between the sea and the bay. From the crests of the hills they had an occasional glimpse of water and of the delapidated Mission, solitary on its cheerless plain. In the little valleys, the thickets were so dense they were obliged to bend their heads. The morning was intensely still, but for the soft pounding of the horses’ hoofs on the yielding earth, the long despairing cry of the coyote, the sudden flight of a startled wild cat.
“We are all so modern, we seem out of place in this wilderness,” said Thorpe. “I can hardly accept the prophecy of your father and other prominent men here, that San Francisco will one day be the great financial and commercial centre of Western America. It seems to me as hopeless as making cake out of bran.”
“Just you wait,” said Nina, tossing her head. “It will come in our time, in my father’s time. You haven’t got the feel of the place yet, haven’t got it into your bones. And you don’t know what we Californians can do, when we put our minds to it.”
“I hope I shall see it,” he replied, smiling; “I hope to see California at many stages of her growth. I am a nomad, you know, and I shall make it the objective point of my travels hereafter. The changes—I don’t doubt if they come at all they will ride the lightning—will interest me deeply. May there be none in you,” he added, gallantly. “I cannot imagine any.”
Her eyes drooped, and her underlids pressed upward,—a repellant trick that had made Thorpe uncomfortable more than once. “That is where you will find the changes upon which the city will not pride itself,” she said. “Fortunately, there won’t be many of them.”
“You are unfair,” he said, angrily. “You told me to ask you no questions, and this is not the first time you have deliberately pricked my curiosity—that is not the word, either. The first night I dined at your house—” he stopped, biting his lip. He had said more than he intended.
“I know. You thought you had discovered the secret—I know exactly what you thought. But you have come to the conclusion since that there is more behind. Well, you are right.”
“What is your secret? I have had opportunities to discover. I hope I need not tell you that I have shut my ears; but I wish you would tell me. I don’t like mystery. It is sensational and old-fashioned. Between such friends as ourselves, it is entirely without excuse. It is more than possible that, girl-like, you have exaggerated its importance, and you are in danger of becoming morbid. But, whether it is real or imaginary, let me help you. Every woman needs a man’s help, and you can have all of mine that you want. Only don’t keep prodding my imagination, and telling me not to think. I am close upon thinking of nothing else.”
“Well, just fancy that that is my way of making myself interesting; that I cannot help flirting a little, even with friends.” She laughed lightly; but her face, which was not always under her control, had changed: it looked dull and heavy.
“That is pure nonsense,” he said, shortly. “Do you suppose you make yourself more interesting by hinting that your city will one day be ashamed of you?”
“Ah, perhaps that was an exaggeration.”
“I should hope so.”
“I meant one’s city need not know everything.”
“You are unpleasantly perverse this morning. I choose to take what you said as an exaggeration; but there is something behind, and I feel strongly impelled to say that if you don’t tell me I shall leave.”
“If I did, you would take the next steamer.”
“I am the one to decide that. At least give me the opportunity to reduce your mountain to a mole-hill.”
“Even you could not. And look—I see no reason why friends should wish to get at one another’s inner life. The companionship of friends is mental only. I have given you my mind freely. You have no right to ask for my soul. You are not my lover, and you don’t wish to be, although I don’t doubt that at times you imagine you do.”
“I am free to confess that I have imagined it more than once. I will set the example by being perfectly frank with you. If I could understand you, if I were not tormented by all sorts of dreadful possibilities, I should have let myself go long before this. Does that sound cold-blooded? I can only say in explanation that I was born with a good deal of self-control, and that I have strengthened my will by exercise. It would be either one extreme or the other with me. At first I thought I should not want to marry you in any case. I am now sufficiently in love with you to long to be wholly so.”
Nina stole a glance at him with a woman’s uncontrollable curiosity, even in great moments. But he had turned his head from her, and was hitting savagely at his boot.
“I will be frank to this extent, by way of return: The barrier between us is insurmountable, and you would be the first to admit it. I will tell you the whole truth the day before you leave; that must content you. And, meanwhile, nip in the bud what is merely a compound of sympathy and passion. I know the influence I exert perfectly. I have seen more than one man go off his head. It humiliates me beyond expression.”
“It need not—although it is extremely distasteful to me that you should have seen men go off their heads, as you express it. But passion is the mightiest factor in love; there is no love without it, and it is bound to predominate until it is satisfied. Then the affections claim their part; and a dozen other factors, mental companionship for one, enter in. But, for Heaven’s sake, don’t add to your morbidity by despising yourself because you inspire passion in men. The women who do not are not worth considering.”
“Is that true? Well, I am glad you have suggested another way of looking at it. I don’t think I am morbid. At all events no one in this world ever made a harder fight not to be.”
They were riding through a thicket, and he turned and brought his face so close to hers that she had only a flashing glimpse of its pallor and of the flame in his eyes.
“It is your constant fight that wrings my heart,” he said. “Whatever it is against, I will make it with you, if you will let me. I am strong enough for both. And who am I that I should judge you? I have not lived the life of a saint. We all have our ideals. Mine has been never to give way except when I chose, never to let my senses control my mind for an instant. I believe, therefore, that I am strong enough to help and protect you against everything. And, whatever it is, you shall never be judged by me.”
They left the thicket at the moment, and she pushed her horse aside, that she might no longer feel Thorpe’s touch, his breath on her neck. “You are the most generous of men,” she said; “and you can have the satisfaction of knowing that you have made me think better of myself and of human nature than I have ever thought before. But I cannot marry you. Not only is the barrier insurmountable, but I don’t love you. Here we are.”
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