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- A First Family of Tasajara - 20/33 -
come, and to whom she was returning. She could see that she had not only aimlessly wandered from the world but from the road; and for that instant she hated this man who had reminded her of it, even while she knew she must ask his assistance. It relieved her slightly to observe that he seemed as disturbed and impatient as herself, and as he took a pencil from between his lips and returned it to his pocket he scarcely looked at her.
But with her return to the world of convenances came its repression, and with a gentlewoman's ease and modulated voice she leaned over her mustang's neck and said: "I have strayed from my party and am afraid I have lost my way. We were going to the hotel at San Mateo. Would you be kind enough to direct me there, or show me how I can regain the road by which I came?"
Her voice and manner were quite enough to arrest him where he stood with a pleased surprise in his fresh and ingenuous face. She looked at him more closely. He was, in spite of his long silken mustache, so absurdly young; he might, in spite of that youth, be so absurdly man-like! What was he doing there? Was he a farmer's son, an artist, a surveyor, or a city clerk out for a holiday? Was there perhaps a youthful female of his species somewhere for whom he was waiting and upon whose tryst she was now breaking? Was he-- terrible thought!--the outlying picket of some family picnic? His dress, neat, simple, free from ostentatious ornament, betrayed nothing. She waited for his voice.
"Oh, you have left San Mateo miles away to the right," he said with quick youthful sympathy, "at least five miles! Where did you leave your party?"
His voice was winning, and even refined, she thought. She answered it quite spontaneously: "At a fork of two roads. I see now I took the wrong turning."
"Yes, you took the road to Crystal Spring. It's just down there in the valley, not more than a mile. You'd have been there now if you hadn't turned off at the woods."
"I couldn't help it, it was so beautiful."
"And such shadows, and such intensity of color."
"Wonderful!--and all along the ridge, looking down that defile!"
"Yes, and that point where it seems as if you had only to stretch out your hand to pick a manzanita berry from the other side of the canyon, half a mile across!"
"Yes, and that first glimpse of the valley through the Gothic gateway of rocks!"
"And the color of those rocks,--cinnamon and bronze with the light green of the Yerba buena vine splashing over them."
"Yes, but for color DID you notice that hillside of yellow poppies pouring down into the valley like a golden Niagara?"
"Certainly,--and the perfect clearness of everything."
"And yet such complete silence and repose!"
They were both gravely nodding and shaking their heads with sparkling eyes and brightened color, looking not at each other but at the far landscape vignetted through a lozenge-shaped wind opening in the trees. Suddenly Mrs. Ashwood straightened herself in the saddle, looked grave, lifted the reins and apparently the ten years with them that had dropped from her. But she said in her easiest well-bred tones, and a half sigh, "Then I must take the road back again to where it forks?"
"Oh, no! you can go by Crystal Spring. It's no further, and I'll show you the way. But you'd better stop and rest yourself and your horse for a little while at the Springs Hotel. It's a very nice place. Many people ride there from San Francisco to luncheon and return. I wonder that your party didn't prefer it; and if they are looking for you,--as they surely must be," he said, as if with a sudden conception of her importance, "they'll come there when they find you're not at San Mateo."
This seemed reasonable, although the process of being "fetched" and taking the five miles ride, which she had enjoyed so much alone, in company was not attractive. "Couldn't I go on at once?" she said impulsively.
"You would meet them sooner," he said thoughtfully.
This was quite enough for Mrs. Ashwood. "I think I'll rest this poor horse, who is really tired," she, said with charming hypocrisy, "and stop at the hotel."
She saw his face brighten. Perhaps he was the son of the hotel proprietor, or a youthful partner himself. "I suppose you live here?" she suggested gently. "You seem to know the place so well."
"No," he returned quickly; "I only run down here from San Francisco when I can get a day off."
A day off! He was in some regular employment. But he continued: "And I used to go to boarding-school near here, and know all these woods well."
He must be a native! How odd! She had not conceived that there might be any other population here than the immigrants; perhaps that was what made him so interesting and different from the others. "Then your father and mother live here?" she said.
His frank face, incapable of disguise, changed suddenly. "No," he said simply, but without any trace of awkwardness. Then after a slight pause he laid his hand--she noticed it was white and well kept--on her mustang's neck, and said, "If--if you care to trust yourself to me, I could lead you and your horse down a trail into the valley that is at least a third of the distance shorter. It would save you going back to the regular road, and there are one or two lovely views that I could show you. I should be so pleased, if it would not trouble you. There's a steep place or two--but I think there's no danger."
"I shall not be afraid."
She smiled so graciously, and, as she fully believed, maternally, that he looked at her the second time. To his first hurried impression of her as an elegant and delicately nurtured woman--one of the class of distinguished tourists that fashion was beginning to send thither--he had now to add that she had a quantity of fine silken-spun light hair gathered in a heavy braid beneath her gray hat; that her mouth was very delicately lipped and beautifully sensitive; that her soft skin, although just then touched with excitement, was a pale faded velvet, and seemed to be worn with ennui rather than experience; that her eyes were hidden behind a strip of gray veil whence only a faint glow was discernible. To this must still be added a poetic fancy all his own that, as she sat there, with the skirt of her gray habit falling from her long bodiced waist over the mustang's fawn-colored flanks, and with her slim gauntleted hands lightly swaying the reins, she looked like Queen Guinevere in the forest. Not that he particularly fancied Queen Guinevere, or that he at all imagined himself Launcelot, but it was quite in keeping with the suggestion-haunted brain of John Milton Harcourt, whom the astute reader has of course long since recognized.
Preceding her through the soft carpeted vault with a woodman's instinct,--for there was apparently no trail to be seen,--the soft inner twilight began to give way to the outer stronger day, and presently she was startled to see the clear blue of the sky before her on apparently the same level as the brown pine-tessellated floor she was treading. Not only did this show her that she was crossing a ridge of the upland, but a few moments later she had passed beyond the woods to a golden hillside that sloped towards a leafy, sheltered, and exquisitely-proportioned valley. A tiny but picturesque tower, and a few straggling roofs and gables, the flashing of a crystal stream through the leaves, and a narrow white ribbon of road winding behind it indicated the hostelry they were seeking. So peaceful and unfrequented it looked, nestling between the hills, that it seemed as if they had discovered it.
With his hand at times upon the bridle, at others merely caressing her mustang's neck, he led the way; there were a few breathless places where the crown of his straw hat appeared between her horse's reins, and again when she seemed almost slipping over on his shoulder, but they were passed with such frank fearlessness and invincible youthful confidence on the part of her escort that she felt no timidity. There were moments when a bit of the charmed landscape unfolding before them overpowered them both, and they halted to gaze,--sometimes without a word, or only a significant gesture of sympathy and attention. At one of those artistic manifestations Mrs. Ashwood laid her slim gloved fingers lightly but unwittingly on John Milton's arm, and withdrew them, however, with a quick girlish apology and a foolish color which annoyed her more than the appearance of familiarity. But they were now getting well down into the valley; the court of the little hotel was already opening before them; their unconventional relations in the idyllic world above had changed; the new one required some delicacy of handling, and she had an idea that even the simplicity of the young stranger might be confusing.
"I must ask you to continue to act as my escort," she said, laughingly. "I am Mrs. Ashwood of Philadelphia, visiting San Francisco with my sister and brother, who are, I am afraid, even now hopelessly waiting luncheon for me at San Mateo. But as there seems to be no prospect of my joining them in time, I hope you will be able to give me the pleasure of your company, with whatever they may give us here in the way of refreshment."
"I shall be very happy," returned John Milton with unmistakable candor; "but perhaps some of your friends will be arriving in quest of you, if they are not already here."
"Then they will join us or wait," said Mrs. Ashwood incisively, with her first exhibition of the imperiousness of a rich and pretty woman. Perhaps she was a little annoyed that her elaborate introduction of herself had produced no reciprocal disclosure by
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