The astonishment of Preble Key on recognizing the gateway into which the mysterious lady had vanished was so great that he was at first inclined to believe her entry THERE a mere trick of his fancy. That the confederate of a gang of robbers should be admitted to the austere recesses of the convent, with a celerity that bespoke familiarity, was incredible. He again glanced up and down the length of the shadowed but still visible wall. There was no one there. The wall itself contained no break or recess in which one could hide, and this was the only gateway. The opposite side of the street in the full moonlight stared emptily. No! Unless she were an illusion herself and his whole chase a dream, she MUST have entered here.
But the chase was not hopeless. He had at least tracked her to a place where she could be identified. It was not a hotel, which she could leave at any moment unobserved. Though he could not follow her and penetrate its seclusion now, he could later--thanks to his old associations with the padres of the contiguous college--gain an introduction to the Lady Superior on some pretext. She was safe there that night. He turned away with a feeling of relief. The incongruity of her retreat assumed a more favorable aspect to his hopes. He looked at the hallowed walls and the slumbering peacefulness of the gnarled old trees that hid the convent, and a gentle reminiscence of his youth stole over him. It was not the first time that he had gazed wistfully upon that chaste refuge where, perhaps, the bright eyes that he had followed in the quaint school procession under the leafy Alameda in the afternoon, were at last closed in gentle slumber. There was the very grille through which the wicked Conchita--or, was it Dolores?--had shot her Parthian glance at the lingering student. And the man of thirty- five, prematurely gray and settled in fortune, smiled as he turned away, and forgot the adventuress of thirty who had brought him there.
The next morning he was up betimes and at the college of San Jose. Father Cipriano, a trifle more snuffy and aged, remembered with delight his old pupil. Ah! it was true, then, that he had become a mining president, and that was why his hair was gray; but he trusted that Don Preble had not forgot that this was not all of life, and that fortune brought great responsibilities and cares. But what was this, then? He HAD thought of bringing out some of his relations from the States, and placing a niece in the convent. That was good and wise. Ah, yes. For education in this new country, one must turn to the church. And he would see the Lady Superior? Ah! that was but the twist of one's finger and the lifting of a latch to a grave superintendent and a gray head like that. Of course, he had not forgotten the convent and the young senoritas, nor the discipline and the suspended holidays. Ah! it was a special grace of our Lady that he, Father Cipriano, had not been worried into his grave by those foolish muchachos. Yet, when he had extinguished a snuffy chuckle in his red bandana handkerchief, Key knew that he would accompany him to the convent that noon.
It was with a slight stirring of shame over his elaborate pretext that he passed the gate of the Sacred Heart with the good father. But it is to be feared that he speedily forgot that in the unexpected information that it elicited. The Lady Superior was gracious, and even enthusiastic. Ah, yes, it was a growing custom of the American caballeros--who had no homes, nor yet time to create any--to bring their sisters, wards, and nieces here, and-- with a dove-like side-glance towards Key--even the young senoritas they wished to fit for their Christian brides! Unlike the caballero, there were many business men so immersed in their affairs that they could not find time for a personal examination of the convent,--which was to be regretted,--but who, trusting to the reputation of the Sacred Heart and its good friends, simply sent the young lady there by some trusted female companion. Notably this was the case of the Senor Rivers,--did Don Preble ever know him?--a great capitalist in the Sierras, whose sweet young sister, a naive, ingenuous creature, was the pride of the convent. Of course, it was better that it was so. Discipline and seclusion had to be maintained. The young girl should look upon this as her home. The rules for visitors were necessarily severe. It was rare indeed--except in a case of urgency, such as happened last night-- that even a lady, unless the parent of a scholar, was admitted to the hospitality of the convent. And this lady was only the friend of that same sister of the American capitalist, although she was the one who had brought her there. No, she was not a relation. Perhaps Don Preble had heard of a Mrs. Barker,--the friend of Rivers of the Sierras. It was a queer combination of names. But what will you? The names of Americanos mean nothing. And Don Preble knows them not. Ah! possibly?--good! The lady would be remembered, being tall, dark, and of fine presence, though sad. A few hours earlier and Don Preble could have judged for himself, for, as it were, she might have passed through this visitors' room. But she was gone--departed by the coach. It was from a telegram-- those heathen contrivances that blurt out things to you, with never an excuse, nor a smile, nor a kiss of the hand! For her part, she never let her scholars receive them, but opened them herself, and translated them in a Christian spirit, after due preparation, at her leisure. And it was this telegram that made the Senora Barker go, or, without doubt, she would have of herself told to the Don Preble, her compatriot of the Sierras, how good the convent was for his niece.
Stung by the thought that this woman had again evaded him, and disconcerted and confused by the scarcely intelligible information he had acquired, Key could with difficulty maintain his composure. "The caballero is tired of his long pasear," said the Lady Superior gently. "We will have a glass of wine in the lodge waiting-room." She led the way from the reception room to the outer door, but stopped at the sound of approaching footsteps and rustling muslin along the gravel walk. "The second class are going out," she said, as a gentle procession of white frocks, led by two nuns, filed before the gateway. "We will wait until they have passed. But the senor can see that my children do not look unhappy."
They certainly looked very cheerful, although they had halted before the gateway with a little of the demureness of young people who know they are overlooked by authority, and had bumped against each other with affected gravity. Somewhat ashamed of his useless deception, and the guileless simplicity of the good Lady Superior, Key hesitated and began: "I am afraid that I am really giving you too much trouble," and suddenly stopped.
For as his voice broke the demure silence, one of the nearest--a young girl of apparently seventeen--turned towards him with a quick and an apparently irresistible impulse, and as quickly turned away again. But in that instant Key caught a glimpse of a face that might not only have thrilled him in its beauty, its freshness, but in some vague suggestiveness. Yet it was not that which set his pulses beating; it was the look of joyous recognition set in the parted lips and sparkling eyes, the glow of childlike innocent pleasure that mantled the sweet young face, the frank confusion of suddenly realized expectancy and longing. A great truth gripped his throbbing heart, and held it still. It was the face that he had seen in the hollow! The movement of the young girl was too marked to escape the eye of the Lady Superior, though she had translated it differently. "You must not believe our young ladies are all so rude, Don Preble," she said dryly; "though our dear child has still some of the mountain freedom. And this is the Senor Rivers's sister. But possibly--who knows?" she said gently, yet with a sudden sharpness in her clear eyes,--"perhaps she recognized in your voice a companion of her brother."
Luckily for Key, the shock had been so sudden and overpowering that he showed none of the lesser symptoms of agitation or embarrassment. In this revelation of a secret, that he now instinctively felt was bound up with his own future happiness, he exhibited none of the signs of a discovered intriguer or unmasked Lothario. He said quietly and coldly: "I am afraid I have not the pleasure of knowing the young lady, and certainly have never before addressed her." Yet he scarcely heard his companion's voice, and answered mechanically, seeing only before him the vision of the girl's bewitching face, in its still more bewitching consciousness of his presence. With all that he now knew, or thought he knew, came a strange delicacy of asking further questions, a vague fear of compromising HER, a quick impatience of his present deception; even his whole quest of her seemed now to be a profanation, for which he must ask her forgiveness. He longed to be alone to recover himself. Even the temptation to linger on some pretext, and wait for her return and another glance from her joyous eyes, was not as strong as his conviction of the necessity of cooler thought and action. He had met his fate that morning, for good or ill; that was all he knew. As soon as he could decently retire, he thanked the Lady Superior, promised to communicate with her later, and taking leave of Father Cipriano, found himself again in the street.
Who was she, what was she, and what meant her joyous recognition of him? It is to be feared that it was the last question that affected him most, now that he felt that he must have really loved her from the first. Had she really seen him before, and had been as mysteriously impressed as he was? It was not the reflection of a conceited man, for Key had not that kind of vanity, and he had already touched the humility that is at the base of any genuine passion. But he would not think of that now. He had established the identity of the other woman, as being her companion in the house in the hollow on that eventful night; but it was HER profile that he had seen at the window. The mysterious brother Rivers might have been one of the robbers,--perhaps the one who accompanied Mrs. Barker to San Jose. But it was plain that the young girl had no complicity with the actions of the gang, whatever might have been her companion's confederation. In the prescience of a true lover, he knew that she must have been deceived and kept in utter ignorance of it. There was no look of it in her lovely, guileless eyes; her very impulsiveness and ingenuousness would have long since betrayed the secret. Was it left for him, at this very outset of his passion, to be the one to tell her? Could he bear to see those frank, beautiful eyes dimmed with shame and sorrow? His own grew moist. Another idea began to haunt him. Would it not be wiser, even more manly, for him--a man over twice her years--to leave her alone with her secret, and so pass out of her innocent young life as chancefully as he had entered it? But was it altogether chanceful? Was there not in her innocent happiness in him a recognition of something in him better than he had dared to think himself? It was the last conceit of the humility of love.
He reached his hotel at last, unresolved, perplexed, yet singularly happy. The clerk handed him, in passing, a business-looking letter, formally addressed. Without opening it, he took it to his room, and throwing himself listlessly on a chair by the window again tried to think. But the atmosphere of his room only recalled to him the mysterious gift he had found the day before on his pillow. He felt now with a thrill that it must have been from HER. How did she convey it there? She would not have intrusted it to Mrs. Barker. The idea struck him now as distastefully as it seemed improbable. Perhaps she had been here herself with her companion-- the convent sometimes made that concession to a relative or well- known friend. He recalled the fact that he had seen Mrs. Barker enter the hotel alone, after the incident of the opening door, while he was leaning over the balustrade. It was SHE who was alone THEN, and had recognized his voice; and he had not known it. She was out again to-day with the procession. A sudden idea struck him. He glanced quickly at the letter in his hand, and hurriedly opened it. It contained only three lines, in a large formal hand, but they sent the swift blood to his cheeks.
"I heard your voice to-day for the third time. I want to hear it again. I will come at dusk. Do not go out until then."
He sat stupefied. Was it madness, audacity, or a trick? He summoned the waiter. The letter had been left by a boy from the confectioner's shop in the next block. He remembered it of old,--a resort for the young ladies of the convent. Nothing was easier than conveying a letter in that way. He remembered with a shock of disillusion and disgust that it was a common device of silly but innocent assignation. Was he to be the ridiculous accomplice of a schoolgirl's extravagant escapade, or the deluded victim of some infamous plot of her infamous companion? He could not believe either; yet he could not check a certain revulsion of feeling towards her, which only a moment ago he would have believed impossible.
Yet whatever was her purpose, he must prevent her coming there at any hazard. Her visit would be the culmination of her folly, or the success of any plot. Even while he was fully conscious of the material effect of any scandal and exposure to her, even while he was incensed and disillusionized at her unexpected audacity, he was unusually stirred with the conviction that she was wronging herself, and that more than ever she demanded his help and his consideration. Still she must not come. But how was he to prevent her? It wanted but an hour of dusk. Even if he could again penetrate the convent on some pretext at that inaccessible hour for visitors,--twilight,--how could he communicate with her? He might intercept her on the way, and persuade her to return; but she must be kept from entering the hotel.
He seized his hat and rushed downstairs. But here another difficulty beset him. It was easy enough to take the ordinary road to the convent, but would SHE follow that public one in what must be a surreptitious escape? And might she not have eluded the procession that morning, and even now be concealed somewhere, waiting for the darkness to make her visit. He concluded to patrol the block next to the hotel, yet near enough to intercept her before she reached it, until the hour came. The time passed slowly. He loitered before shop windows, or entered and made purchases, with his eye on the street. The figure of a pretty girl,--and there were many,--the fluttering ribbons on a distant hat, or the flashing of a cambric skirt around the corner sent a nervous thrill through him. The reflection of his grave, abstracted face against a shop window, or the announcement of the workings of his own mine on a bulletin board, in its incongruity with his present occupation, gave him an hysterical impulse to laugh. The shadows were already gathering, when he saw a slender, graceful figure disappear in the confectioner's shop on the block below. In his elaborate precautions, he had overlooked that common trysting spot. He hurried thither, and entered. The object of his search was not there, and he was compelled to make a shamefaced, awkward survey of the tables in an inner refreshment saloon to satisfy himself. Any one of the pretty girls seated there might have been the one who had just entered, but none was the one he sought. He hurried into the street again,--he had wasted a precious moment,--and resumed his watch. The sun had sunk, the Angelus had rung out of a chapel belfry, and shadows were darkening the vista of the Alameda. She had not come. Perhaps she had thought better of it; perhaps she had been prevented; perhaps the whole appointment had been only a trick of some day-scholars, who were laughing at him behind some window. In proportion as he became convinced that she was not coming, he was conscious of a keen despair growing in his heart, and a sickening remorse that he had ever thought of preventing her. And when he at last reluctantly reentered the hotel, he was as miserable over the conviction that she was not coming as he had been at her expected arrival. The porter met him hurriedly in the hall.
"Sister Seraphina of the Sacred Heart has been here, in a hurry to see you on a matter of importance," he said, eyeing Key somewhat curiously. "She would not wait in the public parlor, as she said her business was confidential, so I have put her in a private sitting-room on your floor."
Key felt the blood leave his cheeks. The secret was out for all his precaution. The Lady Superior had discovered the girl's flight,--or her attempt. One of the governing sisterhood was here to arraign him for it, or at least prevent an open scandal. Yet he was resolved; and seizing this last straw, he hurriedly mounted the stairs, determined to do battle at any risk for the girl's safety, and to perjure himself to any extent.
She was standing in the room by the window. The light fell upon the coarse serge dress with its white facings, on the single girdle that scarcely defined the formless waist, on the huge crucifix that dangled ungracefully almost to her knees, on the hideous, white- winged coif that, with the coarse but dense white veil, was itself a renunciation of all human vanity. It was a figure he remembered well as a boy, and even in his excitement and half resentment touched him now, as when a boy, with a sense of its pathetic isolation. His head bowed with boyish deference as she approached gently, passed him a slight salutation, and closed the door that he had forgotten to shut behind him.
Then, with a rapid movement, so quick that he could scarcely follow it, the coif, veil, rosary, and crucifix were swept off, and the young pupil of the convent stood before him.
For all the sombre suggestiveness of her disguise and its ungraceful contour, there was no mistaking the adorable little head, tumbled all over with silky tendrils of hair from the hasty withdrawal of her coif, or the blue eyes that sparkled with frank delight beneath them. Key thought her more beautiful than ever. Yet the very effect of her frankness and beauty was to recall him to all the danger and incongruity of her position.
"This is madness," he said quickly. "You may be followed here and discovered in this costume at any moment!" Nevertheless, he caught the two little hands that had been extended to him, and held them tightly, and with a frank familiarity that he would have wondered at an instant before.
"But I won't," she said simply. "You see I'm doing a 'half- retreat'; and I stay with Sister Seraphina in her room; and she always sleeps two hours after the Angelus; and I got out without anybody knowing me, in her clothes. I see what it is," she said, suddenly bending a reproachful glance upon him, "you don't like me in them. I know they're just horrid; but it was the only way I could get out."
"You don't understand me," he said eagerly. "I don't like you to run these dreadful risks and dangers for"--He would have said "for me," but added with sudden humility--"for nothing. Had I dreamed that you cared to see me, I would have arranged it easily without this indiscretion, which might make others misjudge you. Every instant that you remain here--worse, every moment that you are away from the convent in that disguise, is fraught with danger. I know you never thought of it."
"But I did," she said quietly; "I thought of it, and thought that if Sister Seraphina woke up, and they sent for me, you would take me away with you to that dear little hollow in the hills, where I first heard your voice. You remember it, don't you? You were lost, I think, in the darkness, and I used to say to myself afterwards that I found you. That was the first time. Then the second time I heard you, was here in the hall. I was alone in the other room, for Mrs. Barker had gone out. I did not know you were here, but I knew your voice. And the third time was before the convent gate, and then I knew you knew me. And after that I didn't think of anything but coming to you; for I knew that if I was found out, you would take me back with you, and perhaps send word to my brother where we were, and then"-- She stopped suddenly, with her eyes fixed on Key's blank face. Her own grew blank, the joy faded out of her clear eyes, she gently withdrew her hand from his, and without a word began to resume her disguise.
"Listen to me," said Key passionately. "I am thinking only of YOU. I want to, and WILL, save you from any blame,--blame you do not understand even now. There is still time. I will go back to the convent with you at once. You shall tell me everything; I will tell you everything on the way."
She had already completely resumed her austere garb, and drew the veil across her face. With the putting on her coif she seemed to have extinguished all the joyous youthfulness of her spirit, and moved with the deliberateness of renunciation towards the door. They descended the staircase without a word. Those who saw them pass made way for them with formal respect.
When they were in the street, she said quietly, "Don't give me your arm--Sisters don't take it." When they had reached the street corner, she turned it, saying, "This is the shortest way."
It was Key who was now restrained, awkward, and embarrassed. The fire of his spirit, the passion he had felt a moment before, had gone out of him, as if she were really the character she had assumed. He said at last desperately:--
"How long did you live in the hollow?"
"Only two days. My brother was bringing me here to school, but in the stage coach there was some one with whom he had quarreled, and he didn't want to meet him with me. So we got out at Skinner's, and came to the hollow, where his old friends, Mr. and Mrs. Barker, lived."
There was no hesitation nor affectation in her voice. Again he felt that he would as soon have doubted the words of the Sister she represented as her own.
"And your brother--did you live with him?"
"No. I was at school at Marysville until he took me away. I saw little of him for the past two years, for he had business in the mountains--very rough business, where he couldn't take me, for it kept him away from the settlements for weeks. I think it had something to do with cattle, for he was always having a new horse. I was all alone before that, too; I had no other relations; I had no friends. We had always been moving about so much, my brother and I. I never saw any one that I liked, except you, and until yesterday I had only HEARD you."
Her perfect naivete alternately thrilled him with pain and doubt. In his awkwardness and uneasiness he was brutal.
"Yes, but you must have met somebody--other men--here even, when you were out with your schoolfellows, or perhaps on an adventure like this."
Her white coif turned towards him quickly. "I never wanted to know anybody else. I never cared to see anybody else. I never would have gone out in this way but for you," she said hurriedly. After a pause she added in a frightened tone: "That didn't sound like your voice then. It didn't sound like it a moment ago either."
"But you are sure that you know my voice," he said, with affected gayety. "There were two others in the hollow with me that night."
"I know that, too. But I know even what you said. You reproved them for throwing a lighted match in the dry grass. You were thinking of us then. I know it."
"Of US?" said Key quickly.
"Of Mrs. Barker and myself. We were alone in the house, for my brother and her husband were both away. What you said seemed to forewarn me, and I told her. So we were prepared when the fire came nearer, and we both escaped on the same horse."
"And you dropped your shoes in your flight," said Key laughingly, "and I picked them up the next day, when I came to search for you. I have kept them still."
"They were HER shoes," said the girl quickly, "I couldn't find mine in our hurry, and hers were too large for me, and dropped off." She stopped, and with a faint return of her old gladness said, "Then you DID come back? I KNEW you would."
"I should have stayed THEN, but we got no reply when we shouted. Why was that?" he demanded suddenly.
"Oh, we were warned against speaking to any stranger, or even being seen by any one while we were alone," returned the girl simply.
"But why?" persisted Key.
"Oh, because there were so many highwaymen and horse-stealers in the woods. Why, they had stopped the coach only a few weeks before, and only a day or two ago, when Mrs. Barker came down. SHE saw them!"
Key with difficulty suppressed a groan. They walked on in silence for some moments, he scarcely daring to lift his eyes to the decorous little figure hastening by his side. Alternately touched by mistrust and pain, at last an infinite pity, not unmingled with a desperate resolution, took possession of him.
"I must make a confession to you, Miss Rivers," he began with the bashful haste of a very boy, "that is"--he stammered with a half hysteric laugh,--"that is--a confession as if you were really a sister or a priest, you know--a sort of confidence to you--to your dress. I HAVE seen you, or THOUGHT I saw you before. It was that which brought me here, that which made me follow Mrs. Barker--my only clue to you--to the door of that convent. That night, in the hollow, I saw a profile at the lighted window, which I thought was yours."
"I never was near the window," said the young girl quickly. "It must have been Mrs. Barker."
"I know that now," returned Key. "But remember, it was my only clue to you. I mean," he added awkwardly, "it was the means of my finding you."
"I don't see how it made you think of me, whom you never saw, to see another woman's profile," she retorted, with the faintest touch of asperity in her childlike voice. "But," she added, more gently and with a relapse into her adorable naivete, "most people's profiles look alike."
"It was not that," protested Key, still awkwardly, "it was only that I realized something--only a dream, perhaps."
She did not reply, and they continued on in silence. The gray wall of the convent was already in sight. Key felt he had achieved nothing. Except for information that was hopeless, he had come to no nearer understanding of the beautiful girl beside him, and his future appeared as vague as before; and, above all, he was conscious of an inferiority of character and purpose to this simple creature, who had obeyed him so submissively. Had he acted wisely? Would it not have been better if he had followed her own frankness, and--
"Then it was Mrs. Barker's profile that brought you here?" resumed the voice beneath the coif. "You know she has gone back. I suppose you will follow?"
"You will not understand me," said Key desperately. "But," he added in a lower voice, "I shall remain here until you do."
He drew a little closer to her side.
"Then you must not begin by walking so close to me," she said, moving slightly away; "they may see you from the gate. And you must not go with me beyond that corner. If I have been missed already they will suspect you."
"But how shall I know?" he said, attempting to take her hand. "Let me walk past the gate. I cannot leave you in this uncertainty."
"You will know soon enough," she said gravely, evading his hand. "You must not go further now. Good-night."
She had stopped at the corner of the wall. He again held out his hand. Her little fingers slid coldly between his.
"Good-night, Miss Rivers."
"Stop!" she said suddenly, withdrawing her veil and lifting her clear eyes to his in the moonlight. "You must not say THAT--it isn't the truth. I can't bear to hear it from YOUR lips, in YOUR voice. My name is NOT Rivers!"
"Not Rivers--why?" said Key, astounded.
"Oh, I don't know why," she said half despairingly; "only my brother didn't want me to use my name and his here, and I promised. My name is 'Riggs'--there! It's a secret--you mustn't tell it; but I could not bear to hear YOU say a lie."
"Good-night, Miss Riggs," said Key sadly.
"No, nor that either," she said softly. "Say Alice."
She moved on before him. She reached the gate. For a moment her figure, in its austere, formless garments, seemed to him to even stoop and bend forward in the humility of age and self- renunciation, and she vanished within as into a living tomb.
Forgetting all precaution, he pressed eagerly forward, and stopped before the gate. There was no sound from within; there had evidently been no challenge nor interruption. She was safe.