When he had quite finished his story, there ensued a slight pause. Then said Carter:
"We believe Mr. Keith. If Mr. Ward and Frank Munro were there, of course there can be no doubt." Somehow Keith could not resent the implication; it was too impersonally delivered. Carter went on with cold formality and emphasis; "Mr. Keith had a very narrow escape. It was lucky for him that your hired men had 'sucked' your waterbox. In view of that we can, of course, no longer regret the fact."
"It was a dirty trick just the same!" growled a voice out of the crowd.
Carter turned a deliberate look in that direction, and nothing more was said. Bennett ignored the interruption, bowed frigidly, and turned away. The Eureka leaders nodded. In dead silence Keith and Bennett withdrew.
"That settles that!" observed Bennett, when at a little distance. "A lot of cheap shopkeepers! It makes me disgusted every time I have anythin' to do with them!"
As they walked away, one of the hangers-on of the police court approached, touching his hat.
"For you, Mr. Bennett," he said most respectfully, proffering a paper.
"Me?" observed Bennett, surprised. He unfolded the paper, glanced at it, and laughed. "I'm arrested for wingin' that 'shoulder-striker' up the street a while back," he told Keith.
"Anything I can do?" asked Keith anxiously.
"Not a thing, thank you. There'll be no trouble at all—just a little nuisance. May call you for a witness later."
He went away with the officer, but shortly after Keith saw him on the street again. The matter had been easily arranged.
Keith went to his office. In spite of himself he could not entirely take Bennett's point of view. Several of the men at Eureka headquarters looked interesting—he would like to know them—perhaps more than interesting, the potentiality of a reasoning and directed power.
The afternoon nap suggested by Mrs. Morrell was not enjoyed, and Keith returned home feeling pretty tired and inclined to a quiet evening. Nan had to remind him of his engagement.
"Oh, let's send a note over by Wing," he said, a little crossly. "I don't feel like making an effort to-night."
But Nan's convention could not approve of anything quite so radically a last-minute decision.
"It's a little late in the day for that," she pointed out. "She may have stayed in just to see us. We can leave early."
Keith went, grumbling. They found Mrs. Morrell in full evening dress, showing her neck and shoulders, which were her best points, for she was full bosomed and rounded without losing firmness of flesh. Nan was a trifle taken back at this gorgeousness, for she had not dressed. Keith, with his usual directness, made no secret of pretending to be utterly overwhelmed.
"I didn't know we were expected to dress for a real concert with flowers!" he cried, laughing.
Mrs. Morrell shrugged her fine shoulders indifferently.
"This old rag!" she said. "Don't let that bother you. I always like to put on something cool for the evening. It's such a relief."
It developed that Morrell had an engagement, and could not stay.
"He was so disappointed," purred Mrs. Morrell.
She was all eager for the music, brushing aside this and other preliminaries.
"You play, sing?" she asked Nan. "What a pity! I'm afraid you're going to be terribly bored."
She turned instantly to Keith, hurrying him to the piano, giving the impression of being too eager to wait—almost the eagerness of a drunkard in the presence of drink. And this in turn conveyed a vibrating feeling of magnetism, of temperament under restraint, of possibilities veiled. The impact struck Keith's responsive nature full. He waked up, approached the piano with reviving interest. She struck idle chords and flashed at him over her shoulder a brilliant smile.
"What shall it be?" she demanded, still with the undercurrent of eagerness. "You choose—a man's song—something soulful. I'm just in the mood."
"Do you know the 'Bedouin Love Song?'" he inquired.
"The 'Bedouin Love Song?' No—I'm afraid not. We are so far out of the world."
"It's a new thing. It goes like this."
He hummed the air, and she followed it hesitatingly, feeling out the accompaniment. Mrs. Morrell knew her instrument and had a quick ear. Occasionally Keith leaned over her shoulder to strike for her an elusive chord or modulation. In so doing he had to press close, and for all his honest absorption in the matter at hand, could not help becoming aware of her subtle perfume, the shine of her flesh, and the brightness of her crown of hair.
"You play it," she said suddenly.
But he disclaimed the ability.
"I don't know it any better than you do, and you improvise wonderfully."
They became entirely absorbed in this most fascinating of tasks, the working out little by little of a complicated accompaniment.
"There!" she cried gayly at last. "I believe I have it. Let's try."
Keith had a strong smooth baritone, not too well trained, but free from glaring faults and mannerisms. It filled the little drawing-room ringingly. He liked the song, and he sang it with fire and a certain defiance that suited it. At its conclusion Mrs. Morrell sprang to her feet, breathing quickly, her usual hard, quick artificiality of manner quite melted.
"It's wonderful!" she cried. "It lifts one right up! It makes me feel I'd run away——" She checked herself abruptly, and turned to where Nan sat in an armchair outside the circle of light, "Don't you just adore it?" she asked in a more restrained manner, and turned back to Keith, who was standing a little flushed and excited by the song, "You have just the voice for it—with that vibrating deep quality." She reseated herself at the piano and struck several loud chords. Under cover of them she added, half under her breath, as though to herself, but distinctly audible to the man at her shoulder; "Luck for us all that you are already taken."
Keith would have been no more than human if he had not followed this cue with a look. She did not lower her eyes, but gave him back his gaze directly. It was as though some secret understanding sprang up between them, though Keith,—in half-angry confusion, could not have analyzed it.
After this they compared notes until they found several songs they both knew. Mrs. Morrell brushed aside Keith's suggestion that she herself should sing, but she did it in a way that left the implication that he was the important one vocally.
"No, no! I've been starved too long. I'm as tired of my little reed of a voice as of the tinkle of a musical box."
The close of the evening was brought about only by the return of Morrell from his engagement. Keith had utterly forgotten his fatigue, and was tingling with the enthusiasm to which his nature always rose under stimulus. The Englishman, very self-contained, clean-cut, incisive, brought a new atmosphere. He was cordial and polite, but not expansive. Keith came down from the clouds. He remembered, with compunction, Nan sitting in the armchair, the lateness of the hour, his own fatigue.
"You should hear Mr. Keith's new song, Charley," said Mrs, Morrell. "It's the most wonderful thing! The 'Bedouin Love Song,' You must surely sing it at the Firemen's Ball. It will make a great hit. No, you surely must. With a voice like yours it is selfish not to use it for the benefit of all. Don't you agree with me, Mrs. Keith?"
"I'll sing it, if you will play my accompaniment," said Keith.
On their way home Keith's enthusiasm bubbled up again.
"Isn't it great luck to find somebody to practise with?" he cried— "Unexpected luck in a place like this! I wish you cared for music."
"Oh, I do," said Nan. "I love it. But I just can't do it, that's all."
"Did you like it to-night?"
"I liked it when you really sang" replied Nan with a little yawn, "but it always took you such a time to get at it."
A short silence fell.
"Are you really going to sing at the Firemen's Ball?" she asked curiously.
"I haven't been asked yet," he reminded her. "Don't you think it a good idea?"
"Oh, I don't know," said Nan, but her voice had a little edge. Keith felt it, and made the usual masculine blunder. He stopped short, thunderstruck at a new idea.
"Why, Nan," he cried reproachfully, "I don't believe you like her!"
"Like her!" she flashed back, her anger leaping to unreasonable proportions—"that old frump!"
No sooner had the door closed after them than Morrell's conventional smile faded, and his countenance fell into its usual hard, cold impassivity.
"Well, what is the game there?" he demanded.
"There is no game," she replied indifferently.
"There is very little money there, I warn you," he persisted.
She turned on him with sudden fury.
"Oh, shut up!" she cried. "I know my own business!"
"And I know mine," he told her, slowly and dangerously. "And I warn you to go slow unless I give the word."
She stared at him a moment, and he stared back. Then, quite deliberately, she walked over to him until her breast almost touched him. Her eyes were half closed, and a little smile parted her full lips.
"Charley," she drawled wickedly, "I warn you to go slow. And I warn you not to interfere with me—or I might interfere with you!"
Morrell shrugged his shoulders, and turned away with an assumption of indifference.
"Please yourself. But I can't afford a scandal just now."
"You can't afford a scandal!" she cried, and laughed hardly.
"Not just now," he repeated.
Perhaps this unwise antagonizing by her husband, perhaps the idleness with which the well-to-do woman was afflicted, perhaps a genuine liking for Keith, gave Mrs. Morrell just the impulse needed. At any rate, she used the common bond of music to bring him much into her company. This was not a difficult matter. Keith was extravagantly fond of just this sort of experimental amateur excursions into lighter music, and he liked Mrs. Morrell. She was a good sort, straightforward and honest and direct, no nonsense in her, but she knew her way about, and a man could have a sort of pleasing, harmless flirtation to which she knew how to play up. There was not, nor could there be—in Keith's mind—any harm in their relations. Nan was the woman for him; but that didn't mean that he was never to see anybody else, or that other women might not—of course in unessential and superficial ways—answer some of his varied needs.
Mrs. Morrell was skilful at keeping up his interest, and she was equally skilful in gradually excluding Nan. This was not difficult, for Nan was secretly bored by the eternal practising, and repelled by Mrs. Morrell's efforts to be fascinating. She saw them plainly enough, but was at first merely amused and faintly disgusted, for she was proud enough to believe absolutely that such crude methods could have no effect on Milton, overlooking the fact that the crudities of women never appear as plainly to a man as they do to another woman. For a woman is in the know. At first she offered one excuse or another, in an attempt to be both polite and plausible. She much preferred a book at home, or a whole free evening to work at making her house attractive. Later, Keith got into the habit of taking her attitude for granted.
"I promised to run over to the Morrells' this evening," he would say, "More music. Of course you won't care to come. You won't be lonely? I won't be gone late."
"Of course not," she laughed. "I'm thankful for the chance to get through with the blue room."
Nevertheless, after a time she began to experience a faint, unreasonable resentment; and Keith an equally faint, equally unreasonable feeling of guilt.
Left to itself this situation would, therefore, have righted itself, but Mrs. Morrell was keen enough to give it the required directing touches:
"Too bad we can't tear your wife away from her house and garden."
"If you only had some one to practise with regularly at home! Your voice ought to be systematically cultivated. It is wonderful!"
"You ought not to come here so much, I suppose—" rather doubtfully, "Any sort of practice and accompaniment—even my poor efforts—does you so much good! You or I would understand perfectly, but it is sometimes so difficult for the inexperienced domestic type to comprehend! An older woman who understands men knows—but come, we must sing that once more."
The effect of these and a thousand similar speeches injected apparently at random here and there in the tide of other things was at once to intensify Keith's vague feeling of guilt, and to put it in the light somehow of an injustice to himself. He had an unformulated notion that if Nan would or could only understand the situation and be a good fellow that every one would be happy; but as she was a mere woman, with a woman's prejudices, this was impossible. It was absurd to expect him to give up his music just because she wanted to be different! He had really nothing whatever to conceal; and yet it actually seemed that difficulty and concealment would be necessary if this sort of unspoken reproach were kept up. Women were so confoundedly single-minded!
And as the normal, healthy, non-introspective male tends to avoid discomfort, even of his own making, it thus came about that Keith spent less and less time at home. He did not explain to himself why. It was certainly no lessening of his affection for Nan. Only he felt absolutely sure of her, and the mental situation sketched above left him more open to the lure of downtown, which to any live man was in those days especially great. Every evening the "fellows" got together, jawed things over, played pool, had a drink or so, wandered from one place to another, looked with the vivid interest of the young and able-bodied on the seething, colourful, vital life of the new community. It was all harmless and mighty pleasant. Keith argued that he was "establishing connections" and meeting men who could do his profession good, which was more or less true; but it took him from home evenings.
Nan, at first, quite innocently played into his hands. She really preferred to stay at home rather than be bored at the Morrells'. Later, when this tradition had been established, she began to be disturbed, not by any suspicion that Milton's interest was straying, but by a feeling of neglect. She was hurt. And little by little, in spite of herself, a jealousy of the woman next door began to tinge her solitude. Her nature was too noble and generous to harbour such a sentiment without a struggle. She blamed herself for unworthy and wretched jealousy, and yet she could not help herself. Often, especially at first, Keith in an impulse would throw over his plans, and ask her to go to the theatre or a concert, of which there were many and excellent. She generally declined, not because she did not want to go, but because of that impelling desire, universal in the feminine soul, to be a little wooed to it, to be compelled by gentle persuasion that should at once make up for the past and be an earnest for the future. Only Keith took her refusal at its face value. Nan was lonely and hurt.
Her refusals to respond to his rather spasmodic attempts to be nice to her were adopted by Keith's subconscious needs for comfort. If she didn't want to see anything of life, she shouldn't expect him to bury himself. His restless mind gradually adopted the fiction persistently held before him by Mrs. Morrell that his wife was indeed a domestic little body, fond only of her home and garden. As soon as he had hypnotized himself into the full acceptance of this, he felt much happier, His uneasiness fell from him, and he continued life with zest. If any one had told him that he was neglecting Nan, he probably would have been surprised. They were busy; they met amicably; there were no reproaches; they managed to get about and enjoy things together quite a lot.
The basis for the latter illusion rested on the Sunday excursions and picnics. Both the Keiths always attended them. There was invariably the same crowd—the Morrells; Dick Blatchford, the contractor, and his fat, coarse-grained, good-natured Irish wife; Calhoun Bennett; Ben Sansome: Sally Warner, a dashing grass widow, whose unknown elderly husband seemed to be always away "at the mines"; Teeny McFarlane, small, dainty, precise, blond, exquisite, cool, with very self-possessed manners and decided ways, but with the capacity for occasionally and with deliberation outdoing the worst of them, about whom were whispered furtive things the rumour of which died before her armoured front; her husband, a fat, jolly, round-faced, somewhat pop-eyed man who adored her and was absolutely ignorant of one side of her. These and a sprinkling of "fast" youths made the party. Sometimes the celebrated Sam Brannan went along, loud, coarse, shrewd, bull voiced, kindly when not crossed, unscrupulous, dictatorial, and overbearing, They all got to know each other very well and to be very free in one another's society,
The usual procedure was to drive in buggies, sometimes to the beach, sometimes down the peninsula, starting rather early, and staying out all day. Occasionally rather elaborate lunches were brought, with servants to spread them; but the usual custom was to stop at one of the numerous road houses. No man drove, walked, or talked with his own wife; nevertheless, these affairs though rowdy, noisy, and "fast" enough, were essentially harmless. The respectable members of the community were sufficiently shocked, however. Gay dresses, gay laughter, gay behaviour, gay scorn of convention, above all, the resort to the mysterious naughty road houses were enough. It must be confessed that at times things seemed to go a bit far; but Nan, who was at first bewildered and shocked, noticed that the women did many things in public and nothing in private. As already her mind and tolerance were adapting themselves to new things, she was able to accept it all philosophically as part of a new phase of life.
These people had no misgivings about themselves, and they passed judgment on others with entire assurance. In their slang all with whom they came into contact were either "hearses" or "live Mollies." There was nothing racial, local, or social in this division. A family might be divided, one member being a live Molly, and all the rest the most dismal of hearses. Occasionally a stranger might be brought along. He did not know it, but always he was very carefully watched and appraised: his status discussed and decided at the supper to which the same people—minus all strangers— gathered later. At one of these discussions a third estate came into being.
Teeny McFarlane had that day brought with her a young man of about twenty- four or twenty-five, well dressed, of pleasant features, agreeable in manner, well spoken, but quiet.
"He isn't a live Molly," stated Sally positively.
"Well, Sally took a walk with him," observed Sam Brannan dryly; "she ought to know!"
"Don't need to take a walk with him," countered Sally; "just take a talk with him—or try to.".
"I did try to," interpolated Mrs. Morrell.
"May as well make it unanimous, looks like," said Sam. "He goes for a hearse."
But Teeny McFarlane interposed in her positive, precise little way.
"I object," she drawled. "He certainly isn't as bad as all that. He's a nice boy, and he never bored anybody in his life. Did he bore you, Sally?"
"I can't say he did, now you mention it. He's one of those nice doggy people you don't mind having around."
They discussed the matter animatedly. Teeny McFarlane developed an unexpected obstinacy. She did not suggest that the young man was to be included in any of the future parties; indeed, she answered the direct question decidedly in the negative; no, there was no use trying to include anybody unless they decidedly "belonged."
"You wouldn't call him a live Molly, now would you, Teeny?" implored Cal Bennett.
"No," she answered slowly, "I suppose not. But he is not a hearse."
The men, all but Popsy McFarlane, were inspecting Teeny's cool, unrevealing exterior with covert curiosity. She was always an enigma to them. Each man was asking himself why her interest in the mere labelling of this stranger.
"He isn't a live Molly and she objects to his being a hearse," laughed Sally. "He must be something between them. What," she inquired, with the air of propounding a conundrum, "is between a live Molly and a hearse?"
"Give it up!" they cried unanimously.
Sally looked nonplussed, then shrieked: "Why, the pallbearers, of course!"
The silly phrase caught. Thereafter, those who were acknowledged to be all right enough but not of their feather were known as "pallbearers."
The Keiths were live Mollies. He was decidedly one. His appearance alone inspired good nature and high spirits, he looked so clean, vividly coloured, enthusiastic, alive to his finger tips. He was always game for anything, no matter how ridiculous it made him, or in what sort of a so- called false position it might place him. When he had reached a certain state of dancing-eyed joyous recklessness, Nan was always athrill as to what he might do next. And Nan, spite of her quieter ways and the reserves imposed on her by her breeding, was altogether too pretty and too much of a real person ever to be classed as a hearse. With her ravishing Eastern toilettes, her clear, creamy complexion, and the clean-cut lines of her throat, chin, and cheeks, she always made the other women look a little too vividly accented. The men all admired her on sight, and at first did their best to interest her. They succeeded, for in general they were of vital stuff, but not in the intimately personal way they desired. Her nature found no thrill in experiment. One by one they gave her up in the favour of less attractive but livelier or more complaisant companions; but they continued to like her and to pay her much general attention. She never, in any nuance of manner, even tried to make a difference; nevertheless, their attitude toward her was always more deferential than to the other women.
Ben Sansome was the one exception to the first part of the above statement. Her gentle but obvious withdrawals from his advances piqued his conceit. Ben was a spoiled youth, with plenty of money; and he had always been a spoiled youth, with plenty of money. Why he had come to San Francisco no one knew. Possibly he did not know himself; for as his affairs had always been idle, he had drifted much, and might have drifted here. Whatever the reason, the fact remained that in this busy, new, and ambitious community he was the one example professionally of the gilded youth. His waistcoats, gloves, varnished boots, jewellery, handkerchiefs were always patterns to the other amateur, gilded youths who had also other things to do. His social tact was enormous, and a recognized institution. If there had been cotillons, he would have led them; but as there were no cotillons, he contented himself with being an arbiter elegantiarum. He rather prided himself on his knowledge of such things as jades, old prints, and obscure poets of whom nobody else had ever heard. Naturally he had always been a great success with women, both as harmless parlour ornaments, and in more dangerous ways. In San Francisco he had probably carried farther than he would have carried anywhere else. He had sustained no serious reverses, because difficult game had not heretofore interested him. Entering half interestedly with Nan into what he vaguely intended as one of his numerous, harmless, artistic, perfumed flirtationlets, he had found himself unexpectedly held at arm's length. Just this was needed to fillip his fancy. He went into the game as a game. Sansome made himself useful. By dint of being on hand whenever Keith's carelessness had left her in need of an escort, and only then, he managed to establish himself on a recognized footing as a sort of privileged, charming, useful, harmless family friend.
Outside this small, rather lively coterie the Keiths had very few friends. It must be confessed that the mothers of the future leaders of San Francisco society, and the bearers of what were to be her proudest names, were mostly "hearses." Their husbands were the forceful, able men of the city, but they themselves were conventional as only conventional women can be when goaded into it by a general free-and-easy, unconventional atmosphere. That was their only method of showing disapproval. The effect was worthy but dull. It was a pity, for among them were many intelligent, charming women who needed only a different atmosphere, to expand. The Keiths never saw them, and gained their ideas of them only from the merciless raillery of the "live Mollies."
All this implied more or less entertaining, and entertaining was expensive. The Boyle house was expensive for that matter; and about everything else, save Chinese servants, and, temporarily, whatever the latest clipper ship had glutted the market with. Keith had brought with him a fair sum of money with which to make his start; but under this constant drainage, it dwindled to what was for those times a comparatively small sum. Clients did not come. There were more men practising law than all the other professions. In spite of wide acquaintance and an attractive popular personality, Keith had not as yet made a start. He did not worry—that was not his nature—but he began to realize that he must do one of two things: either make some money, somehow, or give up his present mode of living. The latter course was unthinkable!
One morning Keith was sitting in his office cogitating these things. His door opened and a meek, mild little wisp of a man sidled in. He held his hat in his hand, revealing clearly sandy hair and a narrow forehead. His eyebrows and lashes were sandy, his eyes pale blue, his mouth weak but obstinate. On invitation he seated himself on the edge of the chair, and laid his hat carefully beside him on the floor.
"I am Dr. Jacob Jones," he said, blinking at Keith. "You have heard of me?"
"I am afraid I have not," said Keith pleasantly.
The little man sighed.
"I have held the City Hospital contract for three years," he explained, "and they owe me a lot of money. I thought you might collect some of it."
"I think if you'd put in a claim through the usual channels you'd receive your dues," advised Keith, somewhat puzzled. He had not heard that the city was refusing to pay legitimate claims.
"I've done that, and they've given me these," said Doctor Jones, handing Keith a bundle of papers.
Keith glanced at them.
"This is 'scrip,'" he said. "It's perfectly good. When the city is without current funds it issues this scrip, bearing interest at 3 per cent. a month. It's all right."
"Yes, I know," said the little man ineffectually, "but I don't want scrip."
Keith ran it over. It amounted to something like eleven thousand dollars.
"What do you want done about it?" he asked,
"I want you to collect the money for me."
But Keith, had recollected something.
"Just wait a minute, please," he begged, and darted across the hall to a friend's office, returning after a moment with a file of legislative reports. "I thought I'd heard something about it; here it is. The State Legislature has voted an issue of 10 per cent. bonds to take up the scrip."
"I don't understand," said Doctor Jones.
"Why, you take your scrip to the proper official and exchange it for an equal value of State bonds."
"But what good does that do me?" cried Jones excitedly. "It doesn't get me my money. They don't guarantee I can sell the bonds at par, do they? And answer me this: isn't it just a scheme to cheat me of my interest? As I understand it, instead of 3 per cent. a month I'm to get 10 per cent. a year?"
"That's the effect," corroborated Keith.
"Well, I don't want bonds, I want money, as is my due."
"Wait a minute," said Keith. He read the report again slowly. "This says that holders of scrip may exchange, for bonds; it does not say they must exchange," he said finally. "If that interpretation is made of the law, suit and judgment would lie against the city. Do you want to try that?"
"Of course I want to try it!" cried Jones.
"Well, bring me your contract and vouchers, and any other papers to do with the case, and I'll see what can be done."
"I have them right here," said Doctor Jones.
This, as Keith's first case, interested him more than its intrinsic worth warranted. It amused him to bring all his powers to bear, fighting strongly for the technical point, and finally establishing it in court. In spite of the evident intention of the Legislature that city scrip should be retired in favour of bonds, it was ruled that the word may in place of the word must practically nullified that intention. Judgment was obtained against the city for eleven thousand dollars, and the sheriff was formally instructed to sell certain water-front lots in order to satisfy that judgment. The sale was duly advertised in the papers.
Next morning, after the first insertion of this advertisement, Keith had three more callers. These were men of importance: namely, John Geary, the first postmaster and last alcalde of the new city; William Hooper, and James King of William, at that time still a banker. These were grave, solid, and weighty citizens, plainly dressed, earnest, and forceful. They responded politely but formally to Keith's salute, and seated themselves.
"You were, I understand, counsel for Doctor Jones in obtaining judgment on the hospital scrip?" inquired Geary.
"That is correct," acknowledged Keith.
"We have called to inform you of a fact that perhaps escaped your notice: namely, that these gentlemen and myself have been appointed by the Legislature as commissioners to manage the funded debt of the city; that, for that purpose, title of all city lands has been put in our hands."
"No, I did not know that," said Keith.
"Therefore, you see," went on Geary, "the sheriff cannot pass title to any lots that might be sold to satisfy Doctor Jones's judgment."
Keith pondered, his alert mind seizing with avidity on this new and interesting situation.
"No, I cannot quite see that," he said at last; "the actual title is in the city. It owns its property. You gentlemen do not claim to own it, as individuals. You have delegated to you the power to pass title, just as the sheriff and one or two others have that power; but you have not the sole power."
"We have advice that title conveyed under this judgment will be invalid."
"That is a matter for the courts to settle."
"The courts——" began Hooper explosively, but Geary overrode him.
"If all the creditors of the city were to adopt the course pursued by Doctor Jones, the city would soon be bankrupt of resources."
"That is true," agreed Keith.
"Then cannot I appeal to your sense of civic patriotism?"
"Gentlemen," replied Keith, "you seem to forget that in this matter I am not acting for myself, but for a client. If it were my affair, I might feel inclined to discuss the matter with you more in detail. But I am only an agent."
"But——" interrupted Hooper again.
"That is quite true," interjected James King of William.
"Well, we shall see your client," went on Geary, "But I might state that on the side of his own best interests he would do well to go slow. There is at least a considerable doubt as to the legality of this sale. It is unlikely that people will care to bid."
After some further polite conversation they took their leave. Keith quickly discovered that the opinion held by the commissioners was shared by most of his friends. They acknowledged the brilliance of his legal victory, admired it heartily, and congratulated him; but they considered that victory barren.
"Nobody will buy; you won't get two bits a lot bid," they all told him.
Little Doctor Jones came to him much depressed. The commissioners had talked with him.
"Do you want my advice?" asked Keith, "Then do this: stick to your guns."
But little Jones was scared.
"I want my money," said he; "perhaps I'd better take those bonds after all."
"Look here," suddenly said Keith, who had been making up his mind. "I'll guarantee you the full amount in cash, within, say, two weeks, but only on this condition: that you go out now, and spread it about everywhere that you are going to stand pat. Tell 'em all you are going to push through this sale."
"How do I know——"
"Take a chance," interrupted Keith. "If at the end of two weeks I don't pay you cash, you can do what you please. Call off the sheriff's sale at the last minute; I'll pay the costs myself. Come, that's fair enough. You can't lose a cent."
"All right," agreed Jones after a minute.
"Remember: it's part of the bargain that you state everywhere that you're going to force this sale, and that you don't let anybody bluff you."
The affair made quite a little stir. Men like Sam Brannan, Dick Blatchford, the contractor, and Jim Polk discussed Keith and his ability.
"Got a pretty wife, too," added Brannan. "—never heard of the fall of man."
"Well, she's going to, if the Morrell woman has her way," observed Ben Sansome dryly.
Polk stretched his long legs, and smiled his desiccated little smile.
"He's a pretty enterprising youngster—more ways than one," said he.
On the evening of the third day after his latest interview with Doctor Jones, Keith threw down his paper with a cry of triumph. He had been scanning the columns of every issue with minute care, combing even the fine print for the auctioneer's advertisements. Here was what he wanted: top of column, third page, where every one would be sure to see it. The commissioners issued a signed statement, calling public attention to the details of their appointment, and warning that titles issued under sheriff's sale would be considered invalid.
Keith read this with great attention, then drew his personal check against Palmer, Cook & Co. for eleven thousand dollars in favour of Doctor Jones. After some search he unearthed the little man in a downtown rookery, and from him obtained an assignment of his judgment against the city. Doctor Jones lost no time spreading the news, with the additional statement that he considered himself well out of the mess. He proceeded to order himself a long-coveted microscope, and was thenceforth lost to sight among low-tide rocks and marine algae. The sheriff's sale came off at the advertised date. There were no bidders; the commissioners' warning had had its effect. Keith himself bought in the lots for $5,000. This check about exhausted his resources. This, less costs, was, of course, paid back to himself as holder of the judgment. He had title, such as it was, for about what he had given Jones.
The bargain amused Keith's acquaintance hugely. Whenever he appeared he was deluged with chaff, all of which he took, good naturedly. He was considered, in a moment of aberration, to have bought an exceedingly doubtful equity. Some thought, he must have a great deal of money, arguing that only the owner of a fat bank account could afford to take such fliers; others considered that he must have very little sense. Keith was apparently unperturbed. He at once began to look about him, considering the next step in his scheme. Since this investment had taken nearly every cent he had left, it was incumbent to raise more money at once.
He called on John Sherwood at the Empire. The gambler listened to him attentively.
"I can't go into it," he said, when Keith had finished. A slight smile sketched itself on his strong, impassive face. "Not that I do not believe it will work; I think it will. But I have long made it a rule never to try to make money outside my own business—which is gambling. I never adopt ordinary honest methods."
Keith's honest but legally trained mind failed to notice the quiet sarcasm of this. "Well, you know everybody in town. Where can I go?"
Sherwood thought a moment.
"I'll take you to Malcolm Neil," he said at last. It was Keith's turn to look thoughtful.
"All right," he said at last. "But not just right away. Give me a couple of days to get ready."
At the appointed time Sherwood escorted Keith to Malcolm Neil's office, introduced and left him. Keith took the proffered wooden chair, examining his man with the keenest attention.
Malcolm Neil, spite of his Scotch name, was a New Englander by birth. He had come out in '49, intending, like everybody else, to go to the mines, but had never gone farther than San Francisco. The new city offered ample scope for his talents, and he speedily became, not only rich, but a dominating personality among financial circles. He accomplished this by supplementing his natural ability with absolute singleness of purpose. It was known that his sole idea was the making of money. He was reputed to be hard, devoid of sentiment, unscrupulous. Naturally he enjoyed no popularity, but a vast respect. More people had heard of him, or felt his power, than had seen him; for he went little abroad, and preferred to work through agents. John Sherwood's service in obtaining for Keith a personal interview was a very real one. Neil's offices were small, dingy, and ill lighted, at the back of one of the older and cheaper buildings. In the outer of the two were three bookkeepers; the other contained only a desk, two chairs, and an engraving of Daniel Webster addressing the Senate.
The man himself sat humped over slightly, his head thrust a little forward as though on the point of launching a truculent challenge. He was lean, gray, with bushy, overhanging brows, eyes with glinting metallic surfaces, had long sinewy hands, and a carved granite and inscrutable face, His few words of greeting revealed his voice as harsh, grating and domineering.
Keith, reading his man, wasted no time in preliminaries.
"Mr. Neil," he said, "I have a scheme by which a great deal of money can be made."
Neil grunted. If it had not been for the fact that John Sherwood had introduced the maker of that speech, the interview would have here terminated. Malcolm Neil deeply distrusted men with schemes to make large sums of money. After a time, as Keith still waited, he growled;
"What is it?"
"That," said Keith, "I shall not disclose until my standing in the matter is assured."
"What do you want?" growled Neil.
"Fifty per cent of the profits, if you go in."
"What do you want of me?"
"What is the scheme?"
"That I cannot tell you without some assurance of your good intention."
"What do you expect?" rasped Neil, "that I go into this blind?"
"I have prepared this paper," said Keith, handing him a document.
Neil glanced over the paper, then read it through slowly, with great care. When he had finished, he looked up at Keith, and there was a gleam of admiration in his frosty eye.
"You are a lawyer, I take it?" he surmised.
Keith nodded. Neil went over the document for the third time.
"And a good one," added Neil. "This is watertight. It seems to be a contract agreeing to the division you suggest, providing I go into the scheme. Very well, I'll sign this." He raised his voice. "Samuels, come in and witness this. Now, what is the scheme?"
Keith produced another paper.
"It is written out in detail here."
Neil reached for it, but Keith drew it back.
He turned it over on the blank side and wrote:
"This is in full the financial deal referred to in contract entered into this 7th of June, 1852, by Malcolm Neil and Milton Keith."
To this he appended his signature, then handed the pen to Neil.
"Sign," he requested.
Neil took the pen, but hesitated for some moments, his alert brain seeking some way out. Finally and grudgingly he signed. Then he leaned back in his chair, eying Keith with rather a wintry humour, though he made no comment. He reached again for the paper, but Keith put his hand on it.
"What more do you want?" inquired Neil in amused tones. His sense of humour had been touched on its only vulnerable point. He appreciated keen and subtle practice when he saw it,
"Not a thing," laughed Keith, "but a few words of explanation before you read that will make it more easily understood. Can you tell me how much water lots are worth?"
"Five to eight thousand for fifty varas."
"All right. I've bought ten fifty vara lots at sheriff's sale for five thousand dollars."
Neil's eye went cold.
"I've heard of that. Your title is no good. The reason you got them so cheaply was that nobody would bid because of that."
"That's for the courts to decide. The fact remains that I've a title, even though clouded, at $500 per lot."
"Well, the commissioners are now advertising a sale of these same lots at auction on the 15th."
"So I see."
"Well," said Keith softly, "it strikes me that whoever buys these lots then is due for a heap of trouble."
"My title from the sheriff may be clouded, but it will be contested against the title given at that sale. The purchaser will have to defend himself up to the highest court. I can promise him a good fight."
Neil was now watching him steadily,
"If that fact could be widely advertised," went on Keith slowly, "by way of a threat, so to speak, it strikes me it would be very apt to discourage bidding at the commissioners' sale. Nobody wants to buy a lot of lawsuits, at any price. In absence of competition, a fifty vara lot might be sold for as low as—say $500."
Neil nodded, Keith leaned forward.
"Now here's my real idea: suppose I buy in against this timid bidding. Suppose I am the one who gets the commissioners' title for $500. Then I have both titles. And I am not likely to contest against myself. It's cost me $1,000 per lot—$500 at each sale—a profit of from $4,000 to $7,000 on each lot."
He leaned back. Malcolm Neil sat like a graven image, no expression showing on his flintlike face nor in his eyes. At length he chuckled harshly. Then, and not until then, Keith proceeded:
"But that isn't all. There's plenty more scrip afloat. If you can buy up as much of it as you can scrape together, I'll get judgment for it in the courts, and we can enlarge the deal until somebody smells a rat. We need several things."
Neil made no reply, but the lines of his mouth straightened.
"Influence to push matters along in official circles."
"Matters will be pushed along."
"Leave that to me."
"Agents—not known to be connected with us."
"Working capital—but that is provided for in the contract. And"—he hesitated—"it will not harm to have these matters brought before a court whose judge is not unfriendly."
"I can arrange for that, Mr. Keith."
"Then that is settled." He picked up the duplicate copy of the contract. "There remains only one other formality."
"Your check for $12,000."
"For my expenses in this matter up to date."
"What!" cried Neil.
"The contract specifies that you are to furnish the working capital," Keith pointed out.
"But that means the future—"
"It doesn't say so."
Neil paused a moment.
"This contract would not hold in law, and you know it," he asserted boldly. "It would be held to be an illegal conspiracy."
"I would be pleased to have you point out the illegality in court," said Keith coldly, his manner as frosty as Neil's. "And if conspiracy exists, your name is affixed to it."
Neil pondered this point a moment, then drew his checkbook toward him with a grim little smile.
"Young man, you win," said he.
Keith thawed to sunniness at once.
"Oh, we'll work together all right, once we understand each other," he laughed. "Send your man out after scrip. Let him report to me."
Neil arose rather stiffly, and extended his hand.
"All right, all right!" he muttered, as though impatient. "Keep In touch. Good-day. Good-day."
The time for the annual Firemen's Ball was now at hand. At this period the Firemen's Ball was an institution of the first social importance. As has been shown, the various organizations were voluntary associations, and in their ranks birds of a feather flocked together. On the common meeting ground of the big annual function all elements met, even—if they did not mingle as freely as they might.
In any case, the affair was very elaborate and very gorgeous. Preparations were in the hands of special committees months in advance. One company had charge of the refreshments, another of the music, a third of the floor arrangements, and so on. There was much jealous anxiety that each should do its part thoroughly and lavishly, for the honour of its organization. The members of each committee were distinguished by coloured ribbons, which they wore importantly everywhere. An air of preoccupied business was the proper thing for days before the event.
It was held this year in one of the armouries. The decoration committee had done its most desperate. Flags of all nations and strips of coloured bunting draped the rafters; greens from the Sausalito Hills framed the windows and doors; huge oiled Chinese lanterns swayed from the roofs. The floor shone like glass. At either end bowers of green half concealed the orchestras—two of them, that the music might never cease. The side rooms were set for refreshments. Many chairs lined the walls. Hundreds of lamps and reflectors had been nailed up in every conceivable place. It took a negro over an hour to light them all. Near the door stood a wide, flat table piled high with programs for the dancers. These were elaborate affairs, and had cost a mint of money—vellum folders, emblazoned in colour outside, with a sort of fireman heraldry and the motto: "We strive to save." Gilded pencils on short silken tasselled cords dangled from their corners.
At eight o'clock the lights were all blazing, the orchestras were tuning, and the floor fluttered with anxious labelled committeemen dashing to and fro. There was nothing for them to do, but they were nervous. By half-past eight the first arrivals could be seen hesitating at the outer door, as though reluctant to make a plunge; herded finally to the right and left of men's and women's dressing-rooms. After a long, chattering interval, encouraged by the slow accumulation of numbers, a little group debouched on the main, floor. Its members all talked and laughed feverishly, and tried with varying success to assume an accustomed ease they did not feel. Most of the women, somehow, seemed all white gloves and dancing slippers, and bore themselves rather like affable, slightly scared rabbits. The men suddenly became very facetious, swapping jokes in loud tones.
The orchestra at the far end immediately struck up, but nobody ventured on the huge and empty floor. Masters of ceremonies, much bebadged, rather conscious of white gloves, strove earnestly with hurried, ingratiating smiles to induce the younger members to break the ice. Ben Sansome, remarkable among them for his social ease and the unobtrusive correctness of his appointments, responsible head of the reception committee, masterfully seized a blushing, protesting damsel and whirled her away. This, however, was merely an informal sort of opening. The real bail could start only with the grand march; and the grand march was a pompous and intricate affair, possible only after the arrival of the city's elite. Partners for the grand march had been bespoken months before.
The Keiths arrived about half-past nine. Nan was looking particularly well in her girlish fashion. Her usual delicate colour was heightened by anticipation, for she intended ardently to "have a good time." For this occasion, too, she had put on the best of her new Eastern clothes, and was confident of the sensation they would create in the feminine breast. The gown was of silk the colour of pomegranate blossoms, light and filmy, with the wide skirts of the day, the short sleeves, the low neck. Over bodice and skirt had been gracefully trailed long sprays of blossoms. Similar flowers wreathed her head, on which the hair was done low and smooth, with a golden arrow securing it. A fine golden chain spanned her waist. From it dangled smaller chains at the ends of which depended little golden hands. These held up the front of the skirt artistically, at just the right height for dancing and to show flounces and ravishing petticoats beneath. It was an innovation of the sort the feminine heart delights in, a brand-new thing straight from Paris. Nan's gloves were of half length, the backs of the hands embroidered and displaying each several small sparkling jewels. The broad golden bracelets had been clasped outside the gloves. Around her little finger was a ring from which depended, on the end of a chain, a larger ring, and through this larger ring hung her dainty lace handkerchief. This was innovation number two. The men all stared at her proud, delicate, flowerlike effect of fresh beauty; but every woman present, and Nan knew it, noted first, the cut of her gown, second, the dangling little golden hands, and third, the handkerchief ring. She knew that not later than to-morrow at least a half-dozen urgent orders would be booked at Palmerston's; but she knew, also, that at least six months must elapse before those orders could be filled. As for the rest, her stockings were white, her slippers ribboned with cross-ties up the ankles, she carried a stiff and formal bouquet, as big around as a plate, composed of wired flowers ornamented with a "cape" of lace paper; but those things were common.
Altogether, Nan looked extraordinarily well, made a sensation. Keith was pleased and proud of her. He picked one of the blazoned vellum cards from the table and scrawled his initials opposite half a dozen dances.
"I'm going to hold you to those, you know," he said.
They proceeded, leisurely across the floor, and Keith established her in one of the chairs.
"I'll go get some of the men I want you to meet," said he. When he returned with Bernard Black he found Nan already surrounded, Ben Sansome was there, and Calhoun Bennett, and a half-dozen others, either acquaintances made on some of the Sundays, or young men brought up by Sansome in his capacity of Master of Ceremonies. She was having a good time laughing, her colour high, Keith looked about him with the intention of filling his own card.
Mrs, Morrell, surrounded by a hilarious group of the younger fry, was just entering the room. She was dressed in flame colour, and her gown was cut very low, plainly to reveal the swell of her ample bosom. Her evening gloves and slippers were golden, as was a broad metallic woven band around her waist. Altogether, striking, rather a conspicuous effort than an artistic success, any woman would have said; but there could be no doubt that she had provided a glittering bait for the attentions of the men.
Keith immediately made his way across to her.
"You are ravishing this evening," he said, reaching for her card. It was full. Keith was chopfallen.
"Take me to Mrs. Keith," asked Mrs. Morrell, taking the card again, "She looks charming to-night; that simple style just suits her wide-eyed innocence."
She placed her fingers lightly on Keith's arm and moved away, nodding over her shoulder at the rather nonplussed young men who had come in with her. Thus rid of them, she turned again to Keith.
"You didn't think I'd forget you!" she said, as though, reproachfully. "See, I kept you four dances. I put down those initials myself. Now don't you think I'm a pretty good sort?"
"Indeed I do! Which ones are they?" asked Keith, opening his own card.
"The third, seventh, ninth, and eleventh."
Keith hesitated for an appreciable instant. The seventh and eleventh he had put down for Nan. But somehow in the face of this smiling, cynical-looking, vivid creature, he rather shrank from saying that he had them with his wife. He swiftly reflected that, after all, he had four others with Nan, that she was so surrounded with admirers that she could not go partnerless, and that he would explain.
"Delightful!" he cried, pencilling his program.
Mrs. Morrell fluttered down alongside Mrs. Keith with much small talk. After a moment the music started for the grand march. Everybody took the floor.
"Where can Charley be!" cried Mrs. Morrell in apparent distress. "Don't wait here with me. I assure you I do not in the least mind sitting alone."
But she said it in a fashion that made it impossible, and in this manner Nan lost her first engagement with her husband. Not that it mattered particularly, she told herself, grand marches were rather silly things, and yet she could not avoid a feeling of thwarted pique at being so tied to the wall.
At the close of the march, and after the couples had pretty well resumed their seats, Mrs. Sherwood entered, unattended and very leisurely. She made, in her quieter manner, a greater sensation than had Mrs. Morrell. Quite self-possessed, carrying herself with her customary poise, dressed unobtrusively in black and gold, but with the distinction of an indubitable Parisian model, moving without self-consciousness in contrast to many of the other women, her small head high, her direct gaze a-smoulder with lazy amusement, she glided across the middle of the floor. The eyes of every woman in the ballroom were upon her. The "respectable" element stared shamelessly, making comments aside. Those a little declasse, on the fringe of society, or the "faster" women like Mrs. Morrell—who might in a way be considered her rivals—were apparently quite unaware of her. She made her unhasting way to a vacant chair, sat down, and looked calmly about her.
Immediately she was surrounded by a swarm of the unattached men. The attached men became very attentive to their partners.
"Hullo," remarked Keith cheerfully. "There's Mrs. Sherwood. I must go over and say good-evening to her."
On sudden impulse Nan rose with him. She instinctively disliked her present company and the situation; and a sudden pang of conscience had told her that not once since she had left the Bella Union had she laid eyes on the woman who had received her with so much kindness.
"Take me with you," she said to Keith.
"My dear!" cried Mrs. Morrell. "You wouldn't! Take my advice—you're young and innocent!"
She sought one of those exclusive, private-joke glances at Keith, but failed to catch his eye.
"She was very kind to me when I arrived," said Nan serenely. Keith, hesitated; then his impulsive, warm-hearted loyalty spoke.
"Good for you, Nan!" he cried.
They moved away, leaving Mrs. Morrell alone, biting her lip and planning revenges.
The group around Mrs. Sherwood fell away at their approach. Nan sat down next her, leaning forward with a pretty and girlish, impulsiveness.
"It's ages since I have seen you, and I have no excuse to offer," she said. "The days slip by."
"I know," said Mrs. Sherwood. "New house, new Chinaman, even new dog— enough to drive the most important thoughts out of one's head. But you've come out to-night like a flower, my dear. Your gown is charming, and it suits you so well!"
She chatted on, speaking of the floor, the music, the decorations, the crowd.
"I love this sort of thing," she remarked. "People in the mass amuse me. Jack couldn't get away until midnight, but I wouldn't wait for him. I told him it didn't worry me a bit to come without an escort," smoothing away what little embarrassment might linger. The music started up again. The Keiths arose and made their adieux. Mrs, Sherwood looked after them, her bright eyes tender. Mrs. Keith was the only woman who had yet spoken to her.
"Isn't she simply stunning?" cried Keith. "She has something about her that makes most of these others look cheap."
"She's really wonderfully attractive and distinguished looking," agreed Nan.
"If she were only a little less practical—a little softer; more feminine— she'd be a sure-enough man killer. As it is, she needs a little more—you know what I mean—"
"More after Mrs. Morrell's fashion," suggested Nan a trifle wickedly. It popped out on the impulse, and the next instant Nan would have given anything if the words had not been said. Keith was arrested in mid- enthusiasm as though by cold water. He checked himself, looked at her sharply, then accepted the pseudo-challenge.
"Well, Mrs. Morrell, for all her little vulgarities, impresses you as being a very human sort of person."
He felt a sudden and unreasoning anger, possibly because the shot had hit a tender place.
"Shall we dance?" he suggested formally.
"I'm sorry," replied Nan, "I have this with Mr. Sansome; there he comes."
For the first time Keith felt a little irritated at the ubiquitous Sansome; but his sense of justice, while it could not smooth his ruffled feelings, nevertheless made itself heard.
"What I need is a drink," he told himself.
At the buffet he found a crowd of the non-dancing men, or those who had failed to get the early numbers. Here were many of his acquaintances; among them, to his surprise, he recognized the grim features of Malcolm Neil. All were drinking champagne. Keith joined them. They chaffed him unmercifully about his purchases of clouded titles in water lots, and he answered them in kind, aware of Neil's sardonically humorous eye fixed on him. But at the first bars of the next dance he bolted in search of Mrs. Morrell, with whom, he remembered, he had this number.
Mrs. Morrell danced smoothly and lightly for a woman of her size, but was inclined to snuggle up too close, to permit undistracted guidance to her partner. It was almost impossible to avoid collisions with other couples, unless one possessed a Spartan mind and an iron will. In spite of himself, Keith became increasingly aware of her breast pressing against his chest; her smooth arm against his shoulder; the occasional passing contact of her, scarcely veiled from the sense of touch by the thin flame-coloured silk; the perfume she affected; the faint odour of her bright blond hair. In an attempt to break the spell he made some banal remark, but she shook her head impatiently. She danced with her eyes half closed. When the music stopped she drew a deep sighing breath.
"You dance—oh, divinely!" she cried. "I might have known it."
She moved away, and Keith followed her, a trifle intoxicated.
"Let me see your card," she demanded abruptly. "Why, you haven't done your duty; this is hardly a third filled!"
"I hadn't started to fill it—and then you came in," breathed Keith.
They were opposite the door leading into one of the numerous small rooms off the main floor of the armoury.
"Let's sit here—and you can get me a punch," she suggested.
He brought the punch, and she drank it slowly, leaning back in an easy chair. The place was dimly lighted, and her blond, full beauty was more effective than in the more brilliantly lighted ballroom. Mrs. Morrell exerted all her fascination. The next dance was half over before either Keith or—apparently—Mrs. Morrell became aware of the fact.
"Oh, you must run!" she cried, apparently greatly exercised. "Don't mind me; go and find your partner."
Keith replied, that he had this dance free, a fact of which her inspection of his card had perfectly informed her. In answer to his return solicitation as to her own partner, she shrugged her shoulders.
"Oh, he'll find me," she said indifferently. "This is very cozy here."
They resumed what had become an ardent flirtation. Toward the end of the dance Mrs. Morrell's partner came in, looking very flurried. Before he could say a word, Mrs. Morrell began reproachfully to chide him with lack of diligence.
"I've been waiting just rooted to this spot!" she said truthfully.
"Shall we dance?" suggested the unfortunate young man.
"It's nearly over," replied Mrs. Morrell carelessly. "Do sit down with us. Get yourself something to drink. Don't go!" she commanded Keith fiercely under her breath.
At the beginning of the fourth dance, however, her next partner found her and led her away. She "made a face" over her shoulder at Keith.
When a woman makes up her mind to monopolize a man who has not acquired the fine arts of rudeness and escape she generally succeeds. Keith's cordial nature was incapable of rudeness. Besides, being a perfectly normal man, and Mrs. Morrell experienced and attractive, he liked being monopolized. It crossed his mind once or twice that he might be in for a scolding when he got home. Nan might be absurd. But he was so secure in his essential loyalty to Nan that his present conduct was more in the nature of a delightfully naughty escapade than anything else. He stole the apples now, and later would go dutifully for his licking. Men of Keith's nature are easily held and managed by a wise woman, but the woman must be very wise. Keith loved celebrations. On the wings of an occasion he rose joyfully and readily to incredible altitudes of high-spirited but harmless recklessness. Birthdays, anniversaries, New Years, Christmas, arrivals, departures, he seized upon with rapture. Each had its appropriate ceremonial, its traditional drink, the painstaking brewing of which was a sacred rite. On such occasions he tossed aside the cloak of the everyday. A "celebration" meant that you were different. Humdrum life and habits must be relegated to the background. It was permitted that, unabashed, you be as silly, as frivolous, as inconsequential, as boisterous, as lighthearted, as delightfully irresponsible as your ordinary concealed boyishness pleased. Customary repressions had nothing to do here. This was a celebration! And in the aforementioned our very wise woman would have seen—a safety valve.
Keith was off on a celebration to-night: an unpremeditated, freakish, impish, essentially harmless celebration, with a faint flavour of mischief in it because he had Nan in the back of his head all the time. He played up to Mrs. Morrell with exuberance, with honestly no thought except that he was having a whacking good time, and that old Nan was being teased. It was characteristic that for the time being he fell completely under Mrs. Morrell's fascination. They were together fully half the time, appearing on the floor only occasionally, then disappearing in one or the other of the many nooks. Mrs. Morrell "bolted" her dances shamelessly. Keith thought her awfully amusing and ingenious in the way she managed this. Sometimes they hid in out-of-the-way places. Sometimes she pretended to have mistaken the dance. "The sixth, are you very sure? I'm convinced it is only the fifth." Keith's conscience troubled him a little concerning the few names on his own card.
"I have this with Mrs. Wilkins," said he. "I really ought to go and look her up."
She took his card from him and deliberately tore it to small bits which she blew from the palm of her gloved hand. He protested in real dismay, but she looked him challengingly, recklessly, in the eye, until he laughed, too.
All this was, of course, well noticed. Keith, again characteristically, had not taken into consideration the great public. Nan might have remained comparatively indifferent to Keith's philandering about for an evening with the Morrell creature—she had by now a dim but growing understanding of "celebrations"—but that he should deliberately neglect and insult her in the face of all San Francisco was too much. Her high, young enjoyment of the evening fell to ashes. She was furiously angry, but she was a thoroughbred. Only a heightened colour and a sparkling eye might have betrayed her to an astute woman. Observing her, Ben Sansome took heart. It was evident to him that the Keiths had long since reached an absolute indifference in their relations, that they lived the conventional, tolerant, separate lives of the majority of married couples in Ben Sansome's smart acquaintance. He ventured to apply himself more assiduously, and was by no means badly received.
Keith remembered the next dance with his wife. He could not find her, although, a trifle conscience stricken, he searched everywhere. After the music had finished, she emerged from the dressing-room; the next time she could not be found at all. Evidently she was avoiding him with intention.
Mrs. Sherwood, after each dance, returned invariably to the same chair near the middle of one wall. There, owing to the fact that the "respectables" withdrew from the chairs on either side, withdrew gradually and without open rudeness, she held centre of a little court of her own. This made of it a sort of post of observation from which she could review all that was going on. She had no lack of partners, for she danced wonderfully, and in looks was quite the most distinguished woman there. Keith's dance with her came and went, but no Keith appeared to claim it. Mrs. Sherwood smiled a little grimly, and her glance strayed down the wall opposite until it rested on Nan. She examined the girl speculatively. Nan was apparently completely absorbed in Ben Sansome; but there was in her manner something feverish, hectic, a mere nothing, which did not escape Mrs. Sherwood's keen eye.
About midnight Sherwood appeared, and at once made his way to his wife's side. He was punctiliously dressed in the mode: a "swallowtail," bright, soft silk tie of ample proportions, frilled linen, and sparkling studs. He bent with an old-world formality over his wife's hand. She swept away her skirts from the chair at her side, her eyes sparkling softly with pleasure.
"You won't mind," she said carelessly to the young men surrounding her, "I want to talk to Jack for a minute."
They arose, laughing a little.
"That is your one fault, Mrs. Sherwood," said one, "you are altogether too fond of your husband."
"Well, how are things going?" asked Sherwood, as they moved away.
"I'm having a good time. But you're very late, Jack,"
"I know—I wanted to come earlier. Everything all right?"
At the question a little frown sketched itself on her clear brow.
"In general, yes," she said. "But they've got that Lewis boy out in the bar filling him up on champagne."
"That's a pity."
"It's a burning shame!" said she, "And I'd like to shake young Keith. He's dangled after the Morrell woman from start to finish in a manner scandalous to behold."
"The 'Morrell woman' will do his education good," he remarked.
"Well, she isn't doing that poor little Mrs. Keith's education any good," returned Mrs. Sherwood rather tartly.
Sherwood surveyed Nan and Ben Sansome leisurely.
"I must say she doesn't look crushed," he said, after a moment.
"Do you expect her to weep violently?" asked Mrs. Sherwood.
He accepted good naturedly the customary feminine scorn for the customary masculine obtuseness.
"Well, I don't know that we can help it," said he, philosophically.
Mrs. Sherwood appeared to come to a sudden resolution. She arose.
"You go get that Lewis boy away from the bar," she commanded.
Deliberately she shook and arranged her full skirts. The man with whom she had this dance, and who had been waiting dutifully for the conference to close, darted forward. She shook her head at him smilingly.
"I'm going to let you off," she told him. "You won't mind. I have something extra special to do."
She swept quite alone across the middle of the ballroom, serene, self- possessed; and walked directly toward Keith and Mrs.
Morrell, who were seated together at the other end. A perceptible pause seemed to descend. The music kept on playing, couples kept on dancing, but, nevertheless, suddenly the air was charged with attention. Sherwood looked after her with mingled astonishment and fond pride.
"A frontal attack, egad!" said he to himself.
Keith and Mrs. Morrell pretended, as long as they decently could, not to see her. She swam leisurely toward them. Finally Keith arose hastily; Mrs. Morrell stared straight ahead.
"Young man," accused Mrs. Sherwood, with a faint amusement in her rich, low voice, "do you know that this is our dance?"
Keith excused his apparent lapse volubly, telling several times over that his program had been destroyed, that he was abject when he thought of the light this put him in.
"It is only when angels like yourself condescend to reach me a helping hand that I have even a chance to right myself," he added. He thought this rather a good touch.
Mrs. Sherwood stood before him easily, in perfect repose of manner, the half smile still sketching her lips. She said just nothing at all in response to his glib excuses; but when he had quite finished she laid her hand in his arm. Mrs. Morrell, her colour high, continued to stare straight ahead, immobile except for the tapping of one foot. To Keith's request to be excused she vouchsafed a stiff half nod, partly in his direction.
They danced. Mrs. Sherwood, like most people who have command enough of their muscles to be able to keep them in graceful repose, danced marvellously well. When she stopped after a single turn of the room, Keith expostulated vigorously.
"You are a perfect partner," he told her.
"Take me in here and get me a sherbet," she commanded, without replying to his protests. "That's good," she said, when she had tasted it. "Now sit down and listen to me. You are making a perfect spectacle of yourself. Don't you know it?"
Keith stiffened to an extreme formality.
"I beg your pardon!" said he freezingly.
"That may be your personal individual right"—went on Mrs. Sherwood's low, rich voice evenly. She was not even looking at him, but rather idly toward the open door into the ballroom. Her fan swung from one finger; every line of her body was relaxed. She might have been tossing him ordinary commonplaces from the surface of a detached mind—"making a spectacle of yourself," she explained; "but you're making a perfect spectacle of your wife as well—and in public. That is not your right at all."
Keith sprang to his feet, furious.
"You are meddling with what is really my own business, madam," said he.
For the first time she looked up at him, dearly and steadily. In the eyes.
"Very well. That is true. Stop a moment and think. Are you attending to your business yourself, even decently? Yes, I understand; you are angry with me. If I were a man, you would challenge me to a duel and all that sort of thing." She smiled indifferently. "Let's take that for granted and get on. Sweep it aside. You are man enough to do it, or I mistake you greatly. Look down into yourself for even one second. Are you playing fair all around? Aren't you a little ashamed?"
She held him with, her clear, level gaze. His own did not fall before it, and his head went back, but slowly his face and neck turned red. Thus they stared at each other for a full half minute, she smiling slightly, perfectly cool; he seething with a suppressed emotion of some sort. Then she turned indolently away.
"You're too fine to do things like that," she said, with a new softness in her voice; "we all have too much faith in you. The common tricks would not appeal to you, except in idleness; is it not so?"
She smiled up at him, a little sidewise. Keith caught his breath. For a fleeting instant this extraordinary woman deigned to exert her feminine charms for the first time the coquette looked from her eyes; for the first time he saw mysteriously deep in her veiled nature a depth of possibility, of rich possibility—he could not grasp it—it was gone. But in spite of himself his pulses leaped like a flame. But now she was gazing again at the ballroom door, cool, indolent, aloof, unapproachable. Yet just at that instant, somehow, the other woman looked shallow, superficial, cold. His glance fell on Mrs. Morrell still sitting where he had left her. Something was wrong with her effect——
Analysis was submerged in a blaze of anger. This anger was not now against the woman before him; his instinct prevented that. Nor against Mrs. Morrell nor his wife; reluctant justice prevented that. Nor against himself—where it really belonged. Things were out of joint; he felt cross-grained and ugly. Mrs. Sherwood rose.
"You may take me back now," said she.
As they glided across the floor together, her small sleek head came just above his shoulder. No embarrassment disturbed her manner. Keith could not find in him a spark of resentment against her. She moved by his side with an air of poise and detachment as a woman whose mind had long since weighed and settled the affairs of her own cosmos so that trifles could not disturb her.
Leaving her in her accustomed chair, where Sherwood waited, Keith loyally returned to Mrs. Morrell, who still sat alone. Subconsciously he noticed something wrong with Mrs. Morrell. Her gowning was indeed rather a conspicuous effort than an artistic success. She had badly torn her dress— perhaps that was it.
Mrs. Morrell received him with every appearance of sympathy.
"You poor thing!" she cried. "What a fearful situation! Of course I know you couldn't help it."
But Keith was grumpy and monosyllabic. He refused to discuss the situation or Mrs. Sherwood, returning with an obvious effort to commonplaces. Mrs. Morrell exerted all her fascination to get him back to the former level. A little cold imp sat in the back of Keith's brain and criticised sardonically; Why will big women persist in being kittenish? Why doesn't she mend that awful rent, it's fairly sloppy! Suppose she thinks that kind of talk is funny! I do wish she wouldn't laugh in that shrill, cackling fashion! In short, the very tricks that an hour ago were jolly and amusing were now tiresome. Having been distrait, ungallant, masculinely put out for another fifteen minutes, he abruptly excused himself, sought out Nan, and went home.
From her point of observation, Mrs. Sherwood watched them go. Nan looked very tired, and every line of Keith's figure expressed a grumpy moroseness.
"Congratulations," said Sherwood.
"He certainly is a child of nature," returned his wife. "Look at him! He is cross, so he looks cross. That this is a ballroom and that all San Francisco is present is a mere detail."
"How did you break it up?" asked Sherwood curiously.
"Men are so utterly ridiculous! He had built up a lot of illusions for himself, but his instincts are true and good. It needed only a touch. It was absurdly simple."
"He'll go back to the Morrell to-morrow," asserted Sherwood confidently.
She shook her head.
"Not to her. He sees her now. And not to-morrow. But eventually to somebody, perhaps. He has curly hair."
"Shear him, like Sampson," he suggested. "But it strikes me he has about the most attractive woman—bar one—in town right at home."
"She'd have no trouble in holding him if she were only awake. But she's only a dear little child—and about as helpless. She has very little subtlety. I'm afraid she'll follow the instincts of her training. She'll be too proud to do anything herself to attract her husband, once his attentions to her seem to drop off. She'll just become cold and proud—and perhaps eventually turn elsewhere."
"I don't believe she's a bit that kind," asserted Sherwood positively.
"Nor do I. But, Jack, a woman lonely enough has fancies, that in the long run may become convictions."
Mrs. Sherwood was completely right. Keith had seen Mrs. Morrell. The glamour had fallen from her at a touch. He did not in the least understand how this had happened, and considered that it was his own fault. Mrs. Morrell had not changed in the least, but he had, somehow. He looked upon himself as fickle, disloyal, altogether despicable. Yet for the life of him he could not get up the slightest spark of enthusiasm for musical evenings, Sunday night suppers, or week-end excursions into the country. They had fallen dead to his taste; and with the sudden revolt to which such temperaments as his are subject, he could not bear even the thought of them without a feeling of incipient boredom. The blow administered to his self- respect put him quite out of conceit with himself and the world in general. If he had followed his natural instinct, he would instanter have thrown, overboard all the Morrell episode, bag and baggage.
But that was, of course, impossible. Keith felt his obligations; he was a man of honour; he had respect for the feelings of others; he could not make friendly people the victims of his own outrageous freaks. That was out of the question!
Mrs. Morrell sent for him. She had been puzzled by the episode of the evening before. It would have been absolutely incredible to her that a hundred words from a woman who was not her rival could have destroyed her influence over this man. She had considerable knowledge of men, and she had played her cards carefully. But she realized that something was the matter; and she thought that the time had come to use the power she had gained. A note dispatched by the Chinaman would do.
Keith obeyed the summons. He knew himself well enough to realize that the intimacy, such as it was, must come to a pretty abrupt termination. Otherwise, he would shortly get very bored; and when he got very bored he became, in spite of himself, reserved and self-contained to the point of rudeness. For the exact reason that he saw thus clearly, his conscience was smiting him hard. Mrs. Morrell had done nothing to deserve this treatment. He was a dastard, a coward, ashamed of himself. If she wanted to see him, it was her due that he obey her summons promptly. He went with the vague idea of making amends by doing whatever she seemed to require—for this once.
She entered the dim sitting-room clad in a flowing silken negligee, which she excused on the ground of laziness.
"I'm still a little tired from last night," she said, with a laugh.
The soft material and informal cut clung to and defined the lines of her figure, showing to especial advantage the long sweep of her hips, the pliancy of her waist, the swell of her fine bust. A soft lilac colour set off the glint of her fair hair. She was, in fact, feeling a little languid from the reaction of the ball and in a sudden rush of emotion she admired Keith's crisp freshness. Her eyes swam a little and her breast heaved.
But the preliminary conversation went by jerks. Keith answered her advances with an effort toward ease and cordiality, but with a guarded, unnatural manner that sent a sudden premonitory chill to the woman's heart. Her instinct warned her. As the minutes passed, her uneasiness grew to the point of fear. Was she losing him? Why? This was no time for ordinary methods.
She arose and went to sit by his side.
"What's the matter, dear?" she asked.
"Why are you acting in this manner? What have I done?"
"I'm not; you haven't done anything—of course."
She suddenly leaned forward, looking into his eyes, projecting all the force of her magnetism. She had before seen him respond, felt him quiver to her tentative, mischievous advances,
"Kiss me," she breathed.
Poor Keith was having a miserable enough time. He clung to his first thought—that this evening was her due, that he was in some way bound, in ending everything, to pay whatever coin he had left. He obeyed her, touching her lips lightly and coldly with his own. Never was chaster caress bestowed on melting mood!
She flung him violently aside, her face writhing and contorted with fury. She was enlightened, completely, as she could have been enlightened in no other manner.
"You can go!" she cried hoarsely. "Get out! Don't dare enter this house again!"
He made some sort of spiritless, feeble protest, trying his best to put some convincing quality into it. But she did not even listen. The ungoverned tiger-cat part of her nature was in the ascendant, the fierce pride of the woman living near the edge of the half-world. She would gladly have killed him. At length he went, very confused, bewildered, miserable— and relieved! He left behind him a bitter enemy.
In complete revulsion, Keith scuttled the frivolous world of women. As he expressed it, he was sick of women. They made him tired. Too much fuss trying to keep even with their vagaries. A man liked something he could bite on. He plunged with all the enthusiasm and energy of his vivid personality into his business deal of the water lots and into the fascinating downtown life of the pioneer city. The mere fact that he had ended that asinine Morrell affair somehow made him think he had made it all up to Nan, and he settled back tacitly and without further preliminaries into what his mood considered a most satisfactory domestic basis. That is, he took his home and his home life for granted. It was there when he needed it. He admired Nan greatly, and supplied her with plenty of money, and took her to places when he could get the time. Some day, when things were not quite so lively, they would go somewhere together. In the meantime he never failed to ask her every evening if she had enjoyed herself that day; and she never failed to reply that she had. Everything was most comfortable.
After the Firemen's Ball Nan, somehow relieved of any definite uneasiness, felt that she should be made much of, should be a little wooed, that Keith should make up a little for having been somewhat of a naughty boy. When, instead, she was left more alone than before, she was hurt and depressed. Of course, Milton did not realize—but what was there for her? Wing Sam ran the house; she worked a good deal in the garden, assisted by Gringo. Probably at no time in modern history have wives been left so much alone and so free as during this period. The man's world was so absorbing; the woman's so empty.
Ben Sansome dropped in quite often. He was always amusing, always agreeable, interested in all sorts of things, ready to give his undivided attention to any sort of a problem, no matter how trivial, to consider it attentively, and to find for it a fair and square deliberate solution. This is exceedingly comforting to the feminine mind. He taught Gringo not to "jump up"; he found out what was the matter with the Gold of Ophir cutting; he discovered and took her to see just the shade of hangings she had long sought for the blue room. Within a very short time he had established himself on the footing of the casual old-time caller, happening by, dropping in, commenting and advising detachedly, drifting on again before his little visit had assumed rememberable proportions. He had always the air of just leaning over the fence for a moment's chat; yet he contrived to spend the most of an afternoon. He spoke of Keith often, always in affectionate terms, as of a sort of pal, much as though he and Nan both owned him, he, of course, in a lesser degree.
One afternoon, after he had actually been digging away at a bulb bed for half an hour, Nan suggested that he come in for refreshment. Gradually this became a habit. Sansome and Nan sat cozily either side the little Chinese tea table. He visibly luxuriated.
"You don't know what a privilege this is for me—for any lonesome bachelor in this crude city—to have a home like this to come to occasionally."
He hinted at his situation, but made of its details a dark mystery. The final impression was one of surface lightness and gayety, but of inner sadness.
"It is a terrible city for a man without an anchor!" he said. "Keith is a lucky fellow! If I only had some one, as he has, I might amount to something." A gesture implied what a discouraged butterfly sort of person he really was.
"You ought to marry," said Nan gently.
"Marry!" he cried. "Dear lady, whom? Where in this awful mixture they call society could one find a woman to marry?"
"There are plenty of nice women here," chided Nan.
"Yes—and all of them taken by luckier fellows! You wouldn't have me marry Sally Warner, would you—or any of the other half-dozen Sally Warners? I might as well marry a gas chandelier, a grand piano, and a code of immorals—but the standard of such women is so different from the standard of women like yourself."
Nan might pertinently have inquired what Ben Sansome did in this gallery, anyhow; but so cold-blooded and direct an attack would have required a cool detachment incompatible with his dark, good looks, his winning, appealing manners, his thoughtfulness in little things, his almost helpless reliance on her sympathy; in other words, it presupposed a rather cynical, elderly person. And Nan was young, romantic, easily stirred.
"All you need is to believe in yourself a little more," she said earnestly and prettily. "Why don't you undertake something instead of drifting? Some of the people you go with are not especially good for you—do you think so?"
"Good for me?" he laughed bitterly. "Who cares if I go to the dogs? They'd rather like me to; it would keep them company! And I don't know that I care much myself!" he muttered in a lower tone.
She leaned forward, distressed, her eyes shining with expostulation.
"You mustn't hold yourself so low," she told him vehemently. "You mustn't! There are a great many people who believe in you. For their sake you should try. If you would only be just a little bit serious—in regard to yourself, I mean. A gay life is all very well——"
"Gay?" he interrupted, then caught himself. "Yes, I suppose I do seem gay— God knows I try not to cry out—but, really, sometimes I'm near to ending it all——"
She was excited to a panic of negation.
"Oh, no! no!" she expostulated vehemently. ("Egad, she's stunning when she's aroused!" thought Sansome.) "You mustn't talk like that! It isn't fair to yourself; it isn't fair to your manhood! Oh, how you do need some one to pull you up! If I could only help!"
He raised his head and looked directly at her, his dark, melancholy eyes lighting slowly.
"You have helped; you are helping," he murmured. "I suppose I have been weak and a coward, I will try."
"That's right. I am so glad," she said, glowing with sweetness and a desire to aid. "Now you must turn over a new leaf," she hesitated. "Every way, I mean," she added with a little blush.
"I know I drink more than I ought," he supplied in accents of regret.
"Don't you suppose you could do without?" she begged very gently.
"Will you help me?" He turned on her quickly; then, his delicate instincts perceiving a faint, instinctive recoil at his advance, he added: "Just let me come here occasionally, into this quiet atmosphere, when it gets too hard and I can see no light; just to get your help, the strength I shall need to tide me over."
He looked very handsome and romantic and young. He was apparently very, deeply in earnest. Nan experienced a rash of pity, of protective maternal emotion.
"Yes, do come," she assented softly.
All this time Keith was busy every minute of the day. The water-lot matter was absorbing all his attention. Through skilful and secret agents Neil had acquired a great deal of scrip issued by the city for various public works and services which the holders had not yet exchanged for the new bonds. These he turned over to Keith. Very quietly, by prearrangement, the latter sued and obtained judgments. When all this had been fully accomplished—and not before then—the veil of secrecy was rent. Rowlee's paper advertised a forthcoming sale of water lots to satisfy the judgments.
Then followed, for Keith, an anxious period of three days. But at the end of that time the commissioners issued a signed warning that the titles conveyed by this sale would not be considered legal. On seeing this, Keith at once rushed around to Neil's office.
"Here it is," he announced jubilantly. "They held off so long that I began to be afraid they did not intend to play our game for us. But it's all right."
The matter was widely discussed; but next morning placards, bearing the text of the commissioners' warning, were posted on every blank wall in town and distributed as dodgers. These were attributed by the public to zeal on the part of those officials; but the commissioners knew nothing about it.
"Some anonymous friend of the city must have done it," Hooper told his friends, and added, "We are delighted!"
The unknown friend was Malcolm Neil himself.
This warning had its effect. As Keith had predicted, nobody cared to put good money into what was officially and authoritatively announced as a bad title. At the sheriff's sale there were no bona fide bidders except the secret agents of Malcolm Neil. The sheriff's titles—such as they were— went for a song. Immediately the ostensible purchasers were personally warned by the commission; but they seemed satisfied.
So matters rested until, a little later, the commissioners inserted in all the papers the customary legal advertisements setting forth a sale by them, under the State law, of these same water lots to satisfy the interest and fill the sinking fund for the bonds. The next morning appeared a statement signed by all the ostensible purchasers under the sheriff's sale. This stated dearly and succinctly the intention to contest any titles given by the commissioners, even to the highest courts. This was marked advt, to indicate the newspaper's neutrality in the matter. Rowlee commented on the situation editorially, He took the righteous and indignant attitude, expressing extreme journalistic horror that such a hold-up should be possible in a modern, civilized community, hurling editorial contempt on the dastardly robbers who were thus intending to shake down the innocent purchasers, etc. In fact, he laid it on thick, But he managed to insinuate a doubt. Between the lines the least astute reader could read Rowlee's belief that perhaps these first purchasers might have a case, iniquitous but legal. He hammered away at this for a week. By the end of that time he had, by the most effective, indirect methods—purporting all the time to be attacking the signers of the warning—succeeded in instilling into the public mind a substantial distrust of the stability of the titles to be conveyed at the commissioners' sale. Malcolm Neil complimented him highly at their final and secret interview.