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Authors: Phyllis A. Whitney

The fire and the gold

BOOK: The fire and the gold
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"I Knew You Were What I Wanted from the Moment I Saw You."

He drew Melora into his arms and she went unresisting. When he kissed her she no longer tried to think. This was something she had wanted and dreamed about. She could not question this moment with his arms around her and his cheek rough against her own. She knew he was going much too fast, but she felt too breathlessly happy to be bothered with words. 

He gave her a last kiss and then took her hand. "We'd better go back before they send out a search party..."

To my mother

who first showed me

San Francisco

A DIAMOND SOLITAIRE

The train, whistling impatiently as it sped through the April morning, sent black smoke billowing in its wake. For the hundredth time in the nearly three days of the trip west from Chicago, Melora Cranby lifted her book and dusted gritty cinders from the gray broadcloth skirt of her tailor-made suit. She wished the journey were over. Not that there wouldn't be problems waiting for her in San Francisco, but now she wanted to get home and face them.

The fact that they were problems of her own making caused her to feel all the more uncomfortable. She turned a page of her novel by Rudyard Kipling and realized that she hadn't understood a word she'd been reading.

In the green plush Pullman seat opposite, Mrs. Forrest regarded her with disturbing curiosity. Melora had gone east to Chicago to attend the marriage of a cousin. As an old friend of the family, Nell Forrest had been happy to pick her up on her own way home from New York to San Francisco. Even in this enlightened year of 1906, with the old century behind them, it would scarcely be suitable for a well brought up girl of nineteen to travel alone on so long a trip.

But Melora could have wished for a less curious companion. Mrs. Forrest liked people and she was talkative. Her large feathered hat bobbed energetically to emphasize her words, and not since Chicago had she given up her effort to penetrate the guard Melora tried to hold against her.

The main focus of her interest was plainly the fine solitaire which sparkled on the engagement finger of Melora's left hand. Mrs. Forrest probably expected her to be bubbling with anticipation over seeing Quent Seymour again. The whole family had been delighted over this engagement, yet Melora's gray eyes were unsmiling, her lips fixed in a determined line as she thought of how upset her mother was going to be when she knew the truth.

Mrs. Forrest placed her handsome alligator handbag on the seat beside her and leaned forward to tap Melora's knee. "Did you enjoy Chicago so much that you dislike going home?"

Melora looked up from the book she was pretending to read. "Oh, no. I love San Francisco. I've been homesick for it."

"Mm," said Mrs. Forrest doubtfully. "I suppose you'll be impatient for your own wedding now, after all this excitement at your cousin's. Your sister Cora must be as thrilled as you over the prospect of all the parties and showers and preparations. Have you set the date yet?"

"Not yet," Melora said a trifle quickly. "I didn't want—that is. Mama agreed that it would be better to wait until Papa's ship gets home from the Orient sometime in June before we make an announcement. We'd like to—to talk everything over with him."

Mrs. Forrest looked as though she wondered about that. And well she might. Adelina Cranby would certainly have consulted Captain Cranby every step of the way if she'd had any doubt about this marriage. But Melora knew—and so did Mrs. Forrest—that Quentin Seymour had always been regarded as an ideal match. The Seymours were old friends with a mansion on Nob Hill and all that bonanza money behind them. To say nothing of Will Seymour's profitable insurance business. It must have seemed to Mrs. Forrest that there was no possible reason for this delay in making an announcement.

Melora gave up pretending to look at the book. She twisted the ring on her finger and stared uneasily at the changing scene which brought them always nearer to the Oakland mole, where the ferries docked. Sometimes she wished she were more like her sixteen-year-old sister Cora, who took things gayly in her stride and had thus far had little reason for unhappy introspection. Alec too, her small brother who was only eight, had the ability to storm his problems and solve them in a headlong fashion that had been foreign to Melora, even as a child.

Perhaps if she gave Mrs. Forrest some inkling of what was wrong—tried to talk a little, instead of sitting here resisting her friendly interest—?

She spoke suddenly without shifting the direction of her gaze from the window. "When you were young, didn't you ever want to get away? I mean didn't you want to sail the seas and meet people who were different from the everyday people around you? Didn't you ever want to do something, or be somebody? Something or somebody a long way from what Nob Hill stands for."

"Well!" said Mrs. Forrest, decidedly taken aback, "What is it you would like to be, Melora?"

"That's the trouble—I don't know." The answer certainly didn't lie in marrying Quent Seymour and going to live on Nob Hill "I've wondered about the sort of life you've lived. Mama says you're frightfully independent and you go anywhere you want as you choose."

"No one does exactly what he chooses," said Mrs. Forrest. "But don't forget that I'm an old woman with a grown-up son. I've earned the right to do as I please to some extent. Besides, when my husband was alive and a state senator, we lived an unusual sort of existence and met all sorts of people, I suppose I still do, with my son Howard editing Mission Bells Magazine and inviting so many professional people to our home."

Her home, Melora knew, was a sumptuous family suite on an upper residential floor of the Palace Hotel. Melora had been there to tea more than once with her mother and found it a place where interesting people talked about fascinating topics and one had a tantalizing sense of the outside world coming in. But how could she ever taste the outside world, except through books, within the tight little walls of her mother's San Francisco? Papa had it, and talked about it, but his daughter could hardly run away to sea. Gran had had it too.

"Grandmother lived a different sort of life." Melora put her thought into words.

Grandmother Melora Bonner, for whom she had been named, had lived in Virginia City when the Corn-stock Lode was in full bonanza. Gran often spoke of how hard she had worked in her mother's boarding house in the days before she married Henry Bonner. She had worked after marrying Henry too, because he had been a nobody until his luck came in and he practically rolled in silver wealth. Then he'd been able to build a fine home with a view of the bay out on Washington Street in San Francisco. A home that was now leased to tenants, much to her mother's distress.

"You mustn't forget," Mrs. Forrest reminded her, "that your grandmother belongs to an old southern family and lived her girlhood on a South Carolina plantation. Your mother feels you have a good deal of family to live up to."

"But the Civil War changed all that," Melora pointed out. "Grandmother's family fortune was wiped out and she moved away with her father and mother when the carpetbaggers came in. I don't think she holds so much with that fine-old-name sort of thing some of Mama's friends dote on."

Besides, she thought, when Grandfather had died with most of his fortune lost m a crash, they'd had little money left to speak of. Now there was just Papa's salary as captain of a merchant vessel, and Papa preferred to live quietly in an unfashionable little house not far from Market Street. Mama had really hated that. But she kept her society friends and she was ambitious for her daughters. Almost frighteningly ambitious, Melora thought uncomfortably.

Unexpectedly the train had begun to slow its rocking pace and Melora glanced out the window with a start. There was supposed to be no scheduled stop before Oakland and they were due there around noon— an hour or so away.

"It's a small station of some sort," Mrs. Forrest said, putting her head out the window as the train halted at a wooden platform with a shed beside it. "Look at the people! I wonder what's happening."

She tried to catch the attention of a small boy who ran beneath her window to join the crowd near the engine, but he paid no attention, so she settled back to wait.

"I wish we could have reached home a day or two earlier, Melora," she said. "I'd have given anything to hear Caruso and Fremstad sing Carmen last night at the Opera House."

Melora made no comment, lost again in her own musings. She twisted the diamond on her finger once more, thinking of Quentin Seymour. He had always been part of her life, as familiar to her everyday scene as a pair of old shoes. She smiled to herself, wondering how Quent would feel about such a comparison. Probably he wouldn't be surprised. Most likely he regarded her as an old-shoe sort of person too.

How do I love thee, she thought in wry amusement and yearned again for the unknown, the unfamiliar. Elizabeth Barrett Browning had lived a romance and adventure even though she'd been an invalid. She hadn't been shoved into a make-believe engagement with a boy who hardly ever opened a book and who had kicked her on the shins most ungallantly at the age of six.

The trouble was that Quent's mother and Melora's had always been close friends. From the time Melora was fourteen the two had begun thrusting son and daughter together most annoyingly. But nothing would have happened if it hadn't been for that lunatic idea of Quent's. She and Cora and Mama had been invited by the Seymours to attend a performance at the open-air Greek theater in Berkeley, and on the ferry coming home Mrs. Seymour and her own mother had sent Quent and Melora off to walk the deck by themselves. Melora had squirmed over the knowing looks that passed between the two women and Quent had been quick to see her expression.

"Look here, Melora," he said with mischief alight in his eyes, "there's a way to end this matchmaking business and get ourselves some freedom at the same time. That is, if you're game."

A pale half-moon was shining over San Francisco Bay that night and its light touched Quent's fair hair to gold as he leaned on the rail at her side.

"What are you talking about?" she asked, her eyes

on the tiered lights that marched up the hills of the city, and shone in its tall downtown buildings.

"We could get engaged," he said bluntly. "That would put a stop to all this. They could just relax and sit back and feel their job was done. Then you and I could have some fun and not be so self-conscious because we know what they're up to."

She'd forgotten the beautiful city and turned to look at him directly. "Quent! If you think for one moment that I'd— ""

He waved his hands at her. "Don't be so hasty, lady. I'm not proposing marriage. Goodness knows, when I marry I want a gal with some mystery and allure. Not somebody who's been practically a sister all my life. I'm only suggesting a way to put a stop to the matchmaking. I wouldn't even have to buy a ring, since my grandmother willed me hers to be used when I got engaged. It's a beaut too. You can flash it under everyone's nose and your mother will be tickled pink."

Somehow his words had annoyed her. Particularly the part about her lacking mystery and allure.

He sensed her annoyance at once. "Aw, Missy M'lory, don't be mad. You know I like you fine. You've got heaps of sense and gumption. And you don't chatter all the time."

"Missy M'lory" was what Quong Sam, the Cranbys' Chinese cook, always called her and it made her smile as Quent used it.

But she remained unmollified. It was like Quent to be irresponsible about such things.

"You don't know mothers," she pointed out. "Give them a notion of this kind and they'd start notices to the papers, announcements, parties—goodness knows what. And there'd be the showers and the trousseau and the business of setting the date. We'd be in such deep water we'd never swim out. No thank you, I don't want to go through all that."

Quent stared disconsolately at the lights across the bay. "I suppose you're right. I didn't think of all that part of it."

"You could go out with other girls," Melora suggested.

"You think I don't? But all my mother does is make odious comparisons. With you. Never have I seen a more single-minded woman." He looked at Melora suddenly, grinning. "Why can't I see you the way she does? It might simplify everything."

"It would not!" said Melora flatly, and he laughed, "At least," she went on, "I'll be escaping for a while."

"You mean because of your trip to Chicago? Lucky you. But I'll still be here for them to work on. Say—maybe that's the answer!"

She listened then, tempted in spite of herself. The plea, he explained, would be that since Melora was going away shortly, no formal announcement should be made until her return. Even better, let the whole thing remain quiet until her father came home in June. If they could sell this idea to their mothers, perhaps they could be left alone for a few months. At the end of that time they could quietly "break" the engagement and the matchmaking would have to stop for good. It was really a masterful idea, Quent insisted.

In the end Melora gave in, not altogether convinced, and far from comfortable about the deception involved, but swayed by Quent's enthusiasm and by her own restlessness and desire for a change.

When they rejoined their mothers they had to endure a good deal of gushing. But after the first excitement died down it had seemed as though the thing might work out and even be rather amusing. It hadn't been easy to persuade two such delighted women to suppress their desire for immediate publicity, but Quent and Melora had managed to bargain. It was to be a quiet engagement for right now, or nothing, they said. So both women had reluctantly consented.

The one duty Melora disliked most was writing about it to her father, as Mama had instructed her to do. She had always been completely honest with her father, and since she liked to put words on paper, her letters were usually long ones. But this letter had been hard.

After tearing up three attempts, Melora had wanted to set the whole thing down exactly as it had happened. But she suspected that her father would not approve, and more than anything she wanted his approval and love. So in the end she had written mostly about other matters, and at the very close, in a postscript, she had put down a single sentence: "Quentin Seymour and I are engaged." That was true enough. The letter had gone off to him six weeks before she left for her visit to Chicago, and she rather dreaded his answer.

In Chicago she'd had time to think and she meant to end the whole silly performance the minute she could get hold of Quent and talk some sense into him. In spite of any "bargain" Mama was taking this seriously, and there was already sewing and trousseau preparing going on. It had to be stopped before it became more than Melora could deal with.

BOOK: The fire and the gold
13.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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