AN INVITATION FROM CARMEN
Carmen had been following from San Francisco, a day late, because once, in losing the trail, she had lost twenty-four hours. To-day she had arrived at Wawona in the afternoon, and learning that Mr. Nickson Hilliard had gone to the Mariposa Grove, she asked for a carriage to take her there too.
“You’ll reach the woods just about the time he’s coming away,” she was advised. “He ought to be back by ten o’clock at latest, maybe earlier.” But Carmen insisted. She could not wait. Business made it necessary for her to see Mr. Hilliard as soon as possible, without wasting a moment. She looked sallow and hollow-eyed; for she had been travelling hard. Long ago now she had put away her widow’s weeds; yet in the warm June sunlight she had the aspect of a mourner. It was as if she had drunk the blackness of night, and it ran in her veins. In full sunshine she seemed to bleed shadow.
The name of Gaylor was well known in California; and here at Wawona—far from the Gaylor ranch as it was—those with whom she spoke were aware of her importance. Carmen had no fear that she would be gossiped about and misunderstood. She was Mrs. Eldridge Gaylor, the rich widow of old Grizzly Gaylor. Everyone knew that Nick Hilliard, of Lucky Star Gusher fame, had been her husband’s foreman, and that the land which had made his fortune had been sold to him by her. No one would doubt her or laugh behind her back when she stated that the need of a business discussion with Hilliard was pressing. People would think that perhaps another gusher had started into being, or that some question of investments must be decided. But even if her coming “made talk,” Carmen was in no mood to care. In her mind a searchlight shone fiercely upon three figures: her own, Nick Hilliard’s, Angela May’s. Others were as shadows. A buckboard and horses, with a good driver, were found for Mrs. Gaylor after a slight delay. But she had been wandering on foot among the great redwoods for half an hour when Nick heard her voice calling his name.
Mrs. May had not been mentioned at the hotel. Carmen had been informed simply that Mr. Hilliard was showing a friend through the forest, and that they had gone out in the morning with the intention of staying to see the sunset. But Carmen had found in the visitor’s book the name of “Mrs. May and maid.” She had been certain of finding them there, for she knew only too well that all three, with a “black cat for luck,” had left San Francisco together.
Every day since Theo Dene had told her of Angela May’s existence she had “cut the cards,” and had invariably come upon a “fair woman” close to the King of Hearts. Madame Vestris also had seen the “fair woman” in the crystal, and had described her. “She is beautiful and young, and stands in the sunshine,” said the seeress, in whose visions Carmen had implicit faith; “but suddenly she is blotted out of my sight, as if by a dark cloud that swallows her up.”