Twenty years later, toward the close of 1918, I stepped from the gangplank o_ China boat and for the first time in my life set foot in San Francisco. I_ou have always thought of San Francisco as the bonny merry city, the ga_ight-hearted city, I advise you not to enter it first when it is wrapped i_he gloom of fog. You will suffer a sad disappointment, such as I knew o_anding that dark December afternoon.
Heaven knows I ought to have been a happy man that day, fog or no fog, for _as coming back to my own land after four dreary years in China. Birds shoul_ave been singing, as the Chinese say, is the topmost branches of my heart; _hould have walked with a brisk, elated tread. Instead I crossed the diml_ighted pier shed, where yellow lamps burned wanly overhead, with laggin_tep, dragging my battered old bags after me. The injustice of the world la_eavy on my heart. For I was young, and I had been unfairly treated. Fou_ears earlier, just graduated from the engineering department of a bi_echnical institution in the East, I had set sail from Vancouver to tak_harge of a mine in China for Henry Drew. In Shanghai I met the old Sa_rancisco millionaire , a little yellow-faced man with snapping black eyes an_ong thin hands that must have begun, even in the cradle, to reach and seiz_nd hold.
The mine, he told me frankly, was little better than a joke so far. Its futur_as up to me. I would encounter many obstacles — inadequate pumping machinery, bribe-hunting officials, superstitious workmen fearful of disturbing the eart_ragon as our shaft sank deeper. If I could conquer in spite of everything, accomplish a miracle, and make the mine pay, then in addition to my salary _as to receive a third interest in the property. I suppose he really meant i_t the time. He said it more than once. I was very young, with boundles_aith. I did not get that part of it in writing.
Through four awful years I labored for Henry Drew down there in Yunnan, th_rovince of the cloudy south. One by one the obstacles gave way and coppe_egan to come from the mine. Now and then ugly disquieting rumors as to th_ense of honor of old Drew drifted to me, but I put them resolutely out of m_houghts.
I might seem guilty of boasting if I went into details regarding the result_f my work. It is enough to say that I succeeded. Again I met Henry Drew i_hanghai, and he told me he was proud of me. I ventured to remind him of hi_romise of an interest in the property. He said I must be dreaming. H_ecalled no such promise. I was appalled. Could such things be? Angrily and a_ength I told him what I thought of him. He listened in silence.
"I'll accept it," he said when I paused for breath.
"Accept what?" I asked.
He got it, along with further comments on his character. I went back to m_otel to take up the difficult task of securing accommodations on a homeboun_oat.
All liners were crowded to suffocation in those days, but I finally managed t_et a November sailing. I was informed that I, along with another mal_assenger, would be put into the cabin of the ship's doctor. Rumor had told m_hat old Henry Drew was sailing on the same boat, but I was hardly prepared, when I went on board and entered my stateroom, to find him bending over a_pen bag. Fate in playful mood had selected him as the third member of ou_arty.
He was more upset than I and made a strenuous effort to be assigned to som_ther room. But with all his money he could not manage it, and we set out o_ur homeward journey together. I would see him when I came in late at night, lying there in his berth with the light from the deck outside on his yello_ace, his eyes closed — but wide awake. I think he was afraid of me. He ha_eason to be.
Anyhow, I was rid of his slimy presence now, there in that dim pier shed. I_as one thing to be thankful for. And already the memory of what he had don_o me was fading — for I had suffered a later and deeper wound. In the mids_f the trouble with Drew, I had met the most wonderful girl in the world, an_nly a moment before, on the deck of the China boat, I had said good-bye t_er forever.
I left the pier shed and stepped to the sidewalk outside. The air was heav_nd wet with fog, the walk damp and slippery; water dripped down fro_elegraph wires overhead. I saw the blurred lights of the city, heard it_easeless grumble, the clang of street-cars, the clatter of wheels o_obblestones. Weird mysterious figures slipped by me; strange faces peere_nto mine and were gone. This was the Embarcadero, the old Barbary Coast fame_ound the world. Somewhere there, lost in the fog, were its dance-halls, wher_overs of the broad Pacific had, in the vanished past, made merry after _odden fashion. I stood, straining to see.
"Want a taxi, mister?" asked a dim figure at my side.
"If you can find one," I answered. "Things seem a bit thick."
"It's the tule-fog," he told me. "Drifts down every year about this time fro_he tule-fields between here and Sacramento. Never knew one to stick around s_ate in the day before. Yes, sir — this is sure unusual."
In reply to my query he told me that the tule was a sort of bulrush. An_ittle Moses amid his bulrushes could have felt no more lost than I did a_hat moment.
"See what you can dig up," I ordered.
"You just wait here," he said. "It'll take time. Don't go away."
Again I stood alone amid the strange shadow-shapes that came and went.
Somewhere, behind that fog-curtain, the business of the town went on as usual.
I made a neat pile of my luggage close to a telegraph pole and sat down t_ait. My mind went back to the deck of the boat I had left, to Mary Wil_ellfair, that wonderful girl.
And she was wonderful — in courage and in charm. I had met her three week_efore in Shanghai; and it was her dark hour, as it was mine. For Mary Wil_ad come five thousand miles to marry Jack Paige, her sweetheart from a sleep_outhern town. She had not seen him for six years, but there had been man_etters, and life at home was dull. Then, too, she had been very fond of hi_nce, I judge. So there had been parties, and jokes, and tears, and Mary Wil_ad sailed for Shanghai and her wedding.
It has happened to other girls, no doubt. Young Paige met her boat. He wa_ery drunk, and there was in his face evidence of a fall to depth_nspeakable. Poor Mary Will saw at the first frightened look that the boy sh_ad known and loved was gone forever. Many of the other girls — helpless, without money, alone — marry the men and make the best of it. Not Mary Will.
Helpless, without money, alone, she was still brave enough to hold her hea_igh and refuse.
Henry Drew had heard of her plight and, whatever his motive, had done a kin_ct for once. He engaged Mary, Will as companion for his wife, and on the boa_oming over the girl and Mrs. Drew had occupied a cabin with a frail littl_issionary woman. For husbands and wives were ruthlessly torn apart, that eac_tateroom might have its full quota of three. As I sat there with the fo_ripping down upon me I pictured again our good-bye on the deck, where we ha_een lined up to await the port doctor and be frisked, as a frivolous ship'_fficer put it, for symptoms of yellow fever. By chance — more or less — I wa_aiting beside Mary Will.
"Too bad you can't see the harbor," said Mary Will. "Only six weeks ago _ailed away, and the sun was on it. It's beautiful. But this silly old fog — "
"Never mind the fog," I told her. "Please listen to me. What are you going t_o? Where are you going? Home?"
"Home!" A bitter look came into her clear blue eyes. "I can't go home."
"Don't you understand? There were showers — showers for the bride-to-be. And _issed everybody good-bye and hurried away to be married. Can I go bac_usbandless?"
"You don't have to. I told you last night — "
"I know. In the moonlight, with the band on the boat deck playing a waltz. Yo_aid you loved me — "
"And I do."
She shook her head.
"You pity me. And it seems like love to you. But pity — pity isn't love."
Confound the girl! This was her story, and she seemed determined to stick t_t.
"Ah, yes," said I scornfully. "What pearls of wisdom fall from youthful lips."
"You'll discover how very wise I was in time."
"Perhaps. But you haven't answered my question. What are you going to do? Yo_an't stay on with the Drews — that little rotter — "
"I know. He hasn't been nice to you. But he has been nice to me — very."
"No man could help but be. And it hasn't done that young wife of his any har_o have a companion like you for a change. But it's not a job I care to se_eld by the girl I mean to marry."
"If you mean me — I shan't go on being a companion. Mr. Drew has promised t_ind me a position in San Francisco. They say it's a charming city."
"I don't like to see you mixed up with Drew and his kind," I protested. "I'l_ot leave San Francisco until you do."
"Then you're going to settle down here. How nice!"
I could have slapped her. She was that sort of stubborn delightful child, an_oving her was often that sort of emotion. The port doctor had reached her no_n his passage down the line, and he stared firmly into her eyes, huntin_ymptoms. As he stared his hard face softened into a rather happy smile. _ould have told him that looking into Mary Will's eyes had always that effect.
"You're all right," he laughed, then turned and glared at me as though h_ared me to make public his lapse into a human being. He went on down th_ine. After him came Parker, the ship's doctor, with a wink at me, as much a_o say: "Red tape. What a bore!"
The foghorn was making a frightful din, and the scene was all confusion, impatience. It was no moment for what I was about to say. But I was desperate; this was my last chance.
"Turn round, Mary Will." I swung her about and pointed off into the fog. "Ove_here — don't you see?"
"See what?" she gasped.
"How I love you," I said in her ear, triumphing over the foghorn and th_uriosity of the woman just beyond her: "With all my heart and soul, my dear.
I'm an engineer — not up on sentimental stuff — can't talk it — just feel it.
Give me a chance to prove how much I care. Don't you think that in time — "
She shook her head.
"What is it? Are you still fond of that other boy — the poor fellow i_hanghai?"
"No," she answered seriously. "It isn't that. I've just sort of buried hi_way off in a corner of my heart. And I'm not sure that I ever did care a_uch as I should. On the boat coming out — I had doubts of myself — but — "
"Oh — can't you see? It's just as that old dowager said it would be."
"What old dowager?"
"That sharp-tongued Englishwoman who gave the dinner in Shanghai. She saw yo_alking and laughing with me, and she said: 'I fancy he'll be just like al_he other boys who are shut up in China for a few years. They think themselve_adly in love with the first white girl they meet who isn't positivel_eformed.'"
"The old cat!"
"It was catty — but it was true. It's exactly what has happened. That's why _ouldn't be so frightfully unfair to you as to seize you when this madness i_n you and bind you to me for life — before you have seen your own countr_gain, where there are millions of girls nicer than I am."
"No, it isn't. Go ashore and look them over. The streets of San Francisco ar_illed with them. Look them over from the Golden Gate to Fifth Avenue."
"And if, after I've looked them all over, I still come back to you? The_hat?"
"Then you will be a fool," laughed Mary Will.
The voice of the ship's doctor announced the end of inspection, and at onc_he deck was alive with an excited throng, all seeking to get somewhere els_mmediately. Carlotta Drew passed and called to Mary Will.
The girl held out her hand. "Good-bye," she said.
"Good-bye?" I took her hand perplexed. "Why do you say that? Surely we're t_eet again soon."
"Why should we?" she asked.
That hurt me. I dropped her hand. "Ah, yes, why should we?" I repeated coldly.
"No reason at all. Good-bye and good luck!" And Mary Will was gone.
As I sat now on my battered bags, leaning against a very damp pole in th_iddle of a very damp fog, it occurred to me that I had been wrong i_ermitting myself that moment of annoyance. I should have taken, instead, _irm uncompromising attitude. Too late now, however. She had gone from me, into the mystery of the fog. I would never see her again.
A tall slender figure loaded with baggage came and stood on the curb not tw_eet from where I waited. The light that struggled down from a lamp overhea_evealed in blurred but unmistakable outline the flat expressionless face o_ung Chin-chung, old Henry Drew's faithful body servant. I turned, for th_aster could not be far behind, and sure enough the fog disgorged the dappe_igure of the little millionaire. He ran smack into me.
"Why, it's young Winthrop," he cried, peering into my face. "Hello, son — _as looking for you. We've had some pretty harsh words — but there's no rea_eason why we shouldn't part as friends. Now, is there?"
His tone was wistful, but it made no appeal to me. No real reason? Th_resumptuous rascal! However, I was in no mood to quarrel.
"I'm waiting for a taxi," I said inanely,
"A taxi? You'll never get one in this fog." I suppose it was the truth. "Le_s give you a lift to your hotel, my boy. We'll be delighted."
I was naturally averse to accepting favors of this man, but at that instan_is wife and Mary Will emerged into our little circle of light, and I smile_t the idea of riding uptown with Mary Will, who had just dismissed me for al_ime. A big limousine with a light burning faintly inside slipped up to th_urb, and Hung was helping the women to enter.
"Come on, my boy," pleaded old Drew.
"All right," I answered rather ungraciously, and jumped in.
Drew followed, Hung piled my bags somewhere in back, and we crept off into th_og.
"Taking Mr. Winthrop to his hotel," explained Drew.
"How nice," his wife said in her cold hard voice. I looked toward Mary Will.
She seemed unaware of my presence.
Like a living thing, the car felt its way cautiously through the mist. Abou_s sounded a constant symphony of automobile horns, truckmen's repartee, th_lank of hoofs, the rattle of wheels. From where I sat I could see the clear- cut beautiful silhouette of Carlotta Drew's face, shrouded in fog, against th_indow. I wondered what she was thinking — this woman whose exploits ha_urnished the gossips of the China coast with a serial story running throug_any mad years. Of her first husband, perhaps; that gallant army man whos_eart she had soon broken as she leapt to the arms of another. They had com_nd gone, the men, until, her beauty fading, she had accepted the offer of ol_rew's millions, though she hated him in her heart. What a fool the old ma_ad been! On our trip across the gossips had played once more with her rathe_rail reputation, linking her name with that of the ship's doctor, handsom_ero of many a fleeting romance.
"Home again," chuckled old Drew. An unaccustomed gaiety seemed to have take_old of him. "I tell you, it's good. This is my town. This is where I belong.
The history of our family, my boy, is woven into the story of San Francisco.
By the way — what I wanted to see you about. Er — I want to ask a favor."
He stopped. I said nothing. A favor of me! One had to admire his nerve.
"It is nothing much," he went on. "Only — I'm giving a little dinner part_onight. A birthday party, as a matter of fact. I'd like to have you come. On_f my guests will be my partner in the mine. We can talk over that littl_atter of business."
"Hardly the time or the place," I suggested.
This was like him. A gay party — plenty to eat and drink — and my affai_astily disposed of amid the general conviviality. I was not to be trappe_ike that.
"Well, perhaps not," he admitted. "We won't talk business, then. Just a ga_ittle party — to brighten up the old house — to get things going in _riendly way again. Eh, Carlotta?"
"Oh, of course," said Carlotta Drew wearily.
"You'll come?" the old man insisted. I have often wondered since why he was s_ager. He had wronged me, he knew, but he was that type of man who wishes t_e on friendly terms with his victim. A plentiful type.
"I'm sure Miss Mary Will wishes you to accept," he added.
"She hasn't said so," I said.
"It's not my birthday," said Mary Will, "nor my party."
"Not your birthday," cackled old Drew. "I should say not. But your party, _ope. Everybody's party. What do you say, my boy?"
Mary Will's indifference had maddened me, and nothing could keep me from tha_arty now.
"I'll be delighted to come," I said firmly. It was to Drew I spoke, but m_aze was on Mary Will's scornful profile.
"That's fine!" cried the old man. He peered out the window. "Where are we? Ah, yes — Post and Grant — there's a shop near here." He ordered his chauffeur t_top. "I'll be only a minute," he said as the car drew up to the curb. "Mus_ave candles — candles for my party." And he hopped out. We stood there in th_og with the Wagnerian symphony fierce about us. It was after five now, an_ll San Francisco, to say nothing of Oakland and Berkeley, was stumbling hom_hrough the murk.
"Your husband seems in a gay humor tonight," I remarked to Carlotta Drew. Sh_odded, but said nothing. "Probably the effect of San Francisco," I went on.
"I've always heard of it as a merry town. Life and color and romance — "
"And dozens of beautiful girls," put in Mary Will.
"I don't see them."
"Wait till the fog lifts," she answered.
Henry Drew was again at the door. He ordered the driver to stop at my hotel, then popped back into his seat. In his hand he carried a small package.
"Candles for the party," he laughed. "Fifty little pink candles."
Fifty! I stared at him there in that dim-lit car. Fifty — why, the old bo_ust be seventy if he was a day. Did he hope by this silly ruse to win bac_is middle age, in our eyes at least? Or wait a minute! Was he only fifty, after all? If rumor were true, he had lived a wild, reckless life. Perhap_hat life had played a trick upon him — had made his fifty look like seventy.
We drew up before my hotel, and Hung Chin-chung was instantly on the sidewal_ith my bags.
"I'll send the car for you at seven," Drew said. "We'll have a merry party.
Don't fail me."
I thanked him, and amid muttered _au revoirs_ the car went on its way.
Standing on the curb, I stared after it. This was incredible! My first nigh_ack on American soil, the night I had been dreaming of for four years — and _as to spend it celebrating the birthday of my bitterest enemy! But there wa_ary Will. She had dismissed me forever, and I was bound to show her she coul_ot do that.