"Concha," said Sturgis abruptly, "will you marry me?"
Concha, who was sitting in the shade of the rose vines on the corridor making a dress for Gertrudis Rudisinda, ran the needle into her finger.
"Madre de Dios!" she cried angrily. "Who would have expected such foolish words from you? and now I have pricked my finger and stained my little frock. It will have to be washed before worn, and is never so pretty after."
"I am sorry," said Sturgis humbly. "But it seems to me that if a man wishes to marry a maid he should ask her in a straightforward manner, with no preliminary sighs and hints and serenades--and all sorts of insincere stage play.
"He should at least address her parents first."
"True. I was wholly the American for the moment. May I speak to Don Jose and Dona Ignacia, Concha?"
"How can I prevent? No, I will not coquet with you, Weeliam. But I am angry that you have thought of such nonsense. Such friends as we were! We have talked and read together by the hour, and my parents have thought no more of it than if it had been Santiago. There! You have a new book in your pocket. Why did you not read it to me instead of making love? Let me see it."
"I brought it to read later if you wished, but I came to ask you to marry me and to receive your answer. I never expected to ask you--but--lately --things have changed--life seems, somehow, more real. The thought of losing you has suddenly become terrible."
"You have been drinking Russian tea," said Concha, stitching quietly but flashing him a glance of amusement, not wholly without malice.
"It is true," he replied. "I suppose I never really believed you would marry Raimundo or Ignacio or any of the caballeros. They think and talk of nothing but horse-racing, gambling, cock-fighting, love and cigaritos. I thought of you always here, where at least I could look at you or read with you. But one must admit that this Russian is no ordinary man. I hate him, yet like him more than any I have ever met. Last night I stayed to punch with him, and we talked English for an hour. That is to say, he did; I could have listened to him till morning. Langsdorff says that he has the greatest possible command of his native tongue, but he speaks English well enough. I wish I could despise him, but I do not believe I even hate him."
"Well?" demanded Concha. She kept her eyes on her work (and the delight that rose in her breast from her voice).
"Why should you hate him?"
"Do you ask me that, Concha, when he makes a fence of himself about you, and his fine eyes--practised is nearer the mark--look at no one else?"
"But why should that cause you jealousy? He is a man of the world, accustomed to make himself agreeable, and I am the daughter of the Com- mandante."
"He is more in love with you than he knows."
"Do you think so, Weeliam?" Still her voice was innocent and even, although the color rose above the inner commotion. "But even so, what of it? Have not many loved me? Am I to be won by the first stranger?"
"I do not know."
The tumult in Concha turned to wrath, and she lifted flashing eyes to his moody face. "Do you presume to say you are jealous because you think I love him--a stranger I have known but a week--who looks upon me as a child--who has never--never thought--" But her dignity, flying to the rescue, assumed control. Her upper lip curled, her body stiffened for a moment, and she went on with her stitching. "You deserve I should rap your silly little skull with my thimble. You are no better than Ignacio and Fernando. Such scenes as I have had with them! They wanted to fight the Russian! How he would laugh at them! I have threatened they shall both be sent to San Diego if there is any more nonsense." Then curiosity overcame her. "You never had the least, least reason to think I would marry you, and now, according to your own words, you think you have less. Then why, pray, did you address me?"
"Because I am a man, I suppose. I could not sit tamely down and see you go."
She looked at him with a slight access of interest. A man? Perhaps he was, after all. And his well- bred, bony face looked very determined, albeit the eyes were wistful. Suddenly she felt sorry for him; and she had never experienced a pang of sympathy for a suitor before. She leaned forward and patted his hand.
"I cannot marry you, dear Weeliam," she said, and never had he seen her so sweet and adorable, although he noted with a pang that her mouth was already drawn with a firmer line. "But what matter? I shall never marry at all. For many years--forty, fifty perhaps--I shall sit here on the veranda, and you shall read to me."
And then she shivered violently. But she set her mouth until it was almost straight, and picked up the little dress. "Not that, perhaps," she said quietly in a moment. "I sometimes think I should like to be a nun, that, after all, it is my vocation. Not a cloistered one, for that is but a selfish life. But to teach, to do good, to forget myself. There are no convents in California, but I could join the Third Order of the Franciscans, and wear the gray habit, and be set aside by the world as one that only lived to make it a little better. To forget oneself! That, after all, may be the secret of happiness. I envy none of my friends that are married. They have the dear children, it is true. But the children grow up and go away, and then one is fat and eats many dulces and the siesta grows longer and longer and the face very brown. That is life in California. I should prefer to work and pray, and"--with a flash of insight that made her drop her work again and stare through the rose-vines--"to dream always of some beautiful thing that youth promised but never gave, and that given might have ended in dull routine and a brain so choked with little things that memory too held nothing else."
"But Concha," cried Sturgis eagerly, "I could give you far better than that. I could take you away from here--to Boston, to Europe. You should see--live your life--in the great cities you have dreamed of--that you hardly believe in--that were made to enjoy. I have told you of the theater, the opera--you should go to the finest in the world. You should wear the most beautiful gowns and jewels, go to courts, see the great works of art--I am not trying to bribe you," he stammered, flushing miserably. "God forbid that I should stoop to anything as mean as that. But it all rushed upon me suddenly that I could give you so much that you were made for, with this worthless money of mine. And what happiness to be in Europe with you--what--what--"
His voice trembled and broke, and he dared not look at her. Again she stared through the vines. A splendid and thrilling panorama rose beyond them, her bosom heaved, her lips parted. She saw herself in it, and not alone. And not, alas, with the honest youth whose words had inspired it. In a moment she shook her head and turned her eyes on the flushed, averted face of her suitor.
"I shall never see Europe," she said gently, "and I shall never marry."
"Not if this Russian asks you?" cried Sturgis, in his jealous misery.
But Concha's anger did not rise again. "He has no intention of asking a little California girl to share the honors of one of the most brilliant careers in Europe," she said calmly. "Set your mind at rest. He has paid me no more attention than is due my position as the daughter of the Commandante, and perhaps of La Favorita. If I flirt a little and he flirts in response, that is nothing. Is he not then a man? But he will forget me in a month. The world, his world, is full of pretty girls."
"A week ago you would not have said that," said Sturgis shrewdly. "There has been nothing in your life to make you so humble."
"I cannot explain, but he seems to have brought the great world with him. I know, I understand so many things that I had not dreamed of a week ago. A week! Madre de Dios!"
And Sturgis, who after all was a gallant gentleman, made no comment.
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