Again Keith's predictions were fulfilled to the letter. Nobody wanted to buy a lawsuit. There were a few bidders, it is true, but they were faint hearted. Another set of Malcolm's secret agents bid all the lots in at a nominal figure. That very afternoon they all met in Neil's stuffy little back office. Keith had the deeds prepared. All that was necessary was to affix the signatures. The purchasers under both sales conveyed their rights to Neil and Keith. The latter now possessed uncontested and incontestable title.
Having personally delivered the deeds to the recorder's office, Keith went home. In the relief from pressure, the triumph, and the exaltation, his instinct carried him to the actual background of his life—his genuine but preoccupied affection for Nan. The constraint, that had been so real to her, had never been anything but nebulous to him.
He burst into the house, capered around the room boyishly, seized her, and waltzed her gayly about. Quite taken by surprise, Nan's first thought was that he had been drinking too much; so naturally she failed to rise instantly to the occasion.
"Stop it, Milton!" she cried. "What has got into you! You're tearing me to ribbons!"
He laughed heartily.
"You must think I'm crazy," he acknowledged. "Sit down here, and learn what a great man your husband is." He poured out the story of the transaction, omitting no details of the clever schemes by which it had been worked. He was, above all, proud of his legal address and acumen—there was something in Eastern training, after all; this lay right under their noses, but none of them saw it until he came along and picked it up. "And there are some pretty smart men out here, too, let me tell you that," he added. "They're from all parts of the world, and they've had a hard practical education, their eye teeth are cut!" His egotism over being keener than the acknowledged big men was very fresh and charming. The money gained he mentioned as an afterthought, only when the other aspect of the situation had been exhausted. "The cold hard dollars are pretty welcome just now," he told her. "There's about a quarter million in those lots—and we can realize on all or part of them at any time. All came out of here!" He tapped his forehead, and paused in his rapid pacing to and fro to look down at her In the easy chair, "We are well off now. We needn't scrimp and save"—it did not for the moment occur to him that they had not been doing so—"I'm going to get you eight new gowns, and twelve new hats, and a bushel of diamonds——"
"I'm glad, very glad!" she cried, catching his enthusiasm, her mind for the first time occupying itself seriously with the mechanism of the deal. At first, when he had been explaining, she had not thrown off the impression that he had been drinking, and so had paid little attention to his explanations. "It sounds like magic. Tell me again—how you did it,"
Nothing loath, he went over it again, making clear the double clouding of the titles.
But Nan, being much alone, had the habit, shared with few women of that time, of reading the newspapers. She had followed Rowlee's campaign, and she had taken seriously the editor's diatribes, Rowlee had been talking for effect. The ideals of ultimate civic honesty were yet fifty years in the future, but he had stumbled on their principle. Nan's mind, untrained in any business ethics, caught them; and her sure natural instincts had accepted their essential justice. In recognizing Milton's connection as promoter with just this deal, she was suddenly called upon to make adjustments for which there was no time. She knew Milton would do nothing wrong, and yet—he was waiting in triumph for her response.
"It was very clever. And yet, somehow, it doesn't sound right—" she puzzled, "Are you sure it's honest?"
"Honest?" he snorted, halted in mid-career, "Of course it's honest! Why isn't it honest?"
Confronted with the direct question, she really did not know. She groped, proffering tentatively some of the arguments half remembered from Rowlee's editorial columns. But she confronted now a lawyer, sure of himself. Keith explosively, and contemptuously demolished her contentions. Everything was absolutely legal, every step of it. If a man hadn't a right to buy in property at any sale and sell it again where he wanted, where in thunder was our boasted liberty? Just the kind of fool notion women get! Keith in his honest pride and triumph had come for sympathy and admiration. Turned back on himself, he became vaguely resentful, and shortly left the house.
Hardly had the front door closed after him when Nan burst into tears. She had not meant it to come out that way at all. Of course she had had no real thought that Milton would do anything dishonest; how absurd of him to take it that way! She had simply expressed a queer instinctive thought that had flashed across her mind; and now she could not for the life of her guess how she had come to do so. Miserably and passionately she realized that she had bungled it.
But if Keith missed the appreciation of his triumph at home, he received full meed of it downtown. In a corner of the Empire a dozen of the biggest men in town were gathered. They were Sam Brannan; Palmer, of Palmer, Cook & Co.; Colonel E. D. Baker, the original "silver-tongued orator"; Dick Blatchford, the contractor; Judge Terry, of the Supreme Court; oily, coarse Ned McGowan; Nugent and Rowlee, editors, and some others. They were doing an exceedingly important part of their daily business: sipping their late afternoon cocktails. Calhoun Bennett joined them.
"Little item of news to interest you-all," drawled the Southerner. "I've just come down from the recorder's office. The deeds for the water lots have just been recorded." He paused.
"Have a drink, Cal," urged Dick Blatchford, "and sit down. What of it?"
"They were recorded in the names of Malcolm Neil and young Keith. I'll have a cocktail."
"That so? Pretty shaky title. Which sale did they record under?"
"Both!" said Bennett.
He stood until he saw that the significance of this had soaked in; then he drew out a chair and sat down. Ned McGowan chuckled hoarsely.
"Pretty slick!" said he. "Wonder some of us didn't think of that! I suppose they went around and scared the purchasers until they got them, pretty cheap. Trust old Neil to drive a bargain!"
But Palmer, the banker, who had been thinking, here spoke up:
"The purchasers were undoubtedly their agents," he surmised quietly.
"By God, you're right!" cried Terry. "Old Malcolm is certainly the devil without a tail!"
"Speak of him and you get him," remarked Colonel Baker, pointing out Neil, who had just entered.
They raised a shout at him, until finally the old man, reluctantly and crabbedly, sidled over to join them.
"You're discovered, old fox!" cried Terry; "and the outraged dignity of the law demands a drink."
They plied him with half-facetious, half-envious congratulations. But Neil would have none of them.
"Not my scheme," he growled. "Entirely Keith's. I'm a sleeping partner only. He engineered it all, thought of it all, dragged me in."
"You must have made a good thing out of it, Mr. Neil," suggested Palmer respectfully.
The formidable old man eyed the speaker grumpily for a moment.
"About a quarter million, cool, between us," he vouchsafed finally. He was, for some reason, willing to brag a bit.
This statement was received in admiring silence by all but Terry. Everybody but that devil-may-care and lawless pillar of the law was afraid of Neil. But Terry would joke with anybody.
"I hope you're going to let him have a little of it, Neil," he laughed.
The old man shifted his eyes from Palmer to Terry with much the air of restraining heavy guns. Terry met the impact untroubled.
"Judge," grunted the financier at last, "that young man will get his due share. He has tied me up in a contract that even your honoured court would find difficulty in breaking."
With this parting shot he arose and stumped out.
"If Malcolm Neil acknowledges he is tied up," observed Terry, who had not been in the slightest degree disturbed, "he is certainly tied up!"
"Consider the man who tied him," begged Colonel Baker. "He must, in the language of the poets, be a lallapaloozer."
"He's worth getting hold of," said Dick Blatchford.
Therefore, when, a little later, Keith appeared, he was hailed jovially, and invited to drink. Everybody was very cordial. Within five minutes he was hail fellow with them all, joking with the most august of them on terms of equality. Judge Terry, in whose court he had stood abashed, plied him with cocktails; Colonel Baker told several stories, one of which was new; Sam Brannan, with the mixture of coarseness, overbearing manners, and fascination that made him personally attractive to men and some women, called him "my boy"; and the rest of the party had whole-heartedly taken him in and were treating him as one of themselves. Keith had known all these men, of course, but they had been several cuts above him in importance, and his relations with most of them had been formal. His whole being glowed and expanded. After the first cocktail or two, and after a little of this grateful petting, he had some difficulty in keeping himself from getting too expansive, in holding himself down to becoming modesty, in not talking too much. He quite realized the meaning of this sudden cordiality; but he welcomed it as another endorsement, from the highest, most unimpeachable sources, of his cleverness and legal acumen.
They drank and talked until twilight. Then Keith began to make his excuses. They shouted him down.
"You're going to dinner with us, my son," stated Brannan. "They've opened an oyster palace down the street, and we're going to sample it."
"But my wife—" began Keith.
"Permit me," interrupted Terry, bending his tall form in courtesy. "I am about to dispatch a messenger to Mrs. Terry, and shall be pleased to instruct him to call at your mansion also."
It was so arranged. Immediately they adjourned to the new "Oyster Palace," a very gaudy white and gilt monstrosity with mirrors and negro minstrels. There were small private rooms, it seemed, and one of these was bespoken from the smiling manager, flattered at the patronage of these substantial men.
San Francisco lived high in those days. It could pay, and for pay the best will go anywhere. The dinner was quite perfect. There were more cocktails and champagne. Under the influence of good fellowship and drinks, Keith was finally prevailed upon to give the details of the whole transaction. Perhaps this was a little indiscreet, but he was carried away by the occasion. The noisy crowd suddenly became quiet, and listened with the deepest attention. When Keith had finished, there ensued a short silence. Then Judge Terry delivered his opinion.
"Sound as a dollar," he pronounced at last. "Not a hole in it. Is that your opinion, Colonel Baker?"
"Clever piece of work," nodded the orator gravely. After this interim of sobriety the dinner proceeded more and more noisily. The drink affected the different men in different ways. A flush appeared high on the cheek bones of Terry's lean face and an added dignity in his courtly manner. Brannan became louder and more positive. On Blatchford his potations had no appreciable effect except that his round face grew redder. Ned McGowan dropped even his veneer of good breeding, became foul mouthed and profane, full of unpublishable reminiscence to which nobody paid any particular attention. Calhoun Bennett's speech became softer, more deliberate, more consciously Southern. Keith, who was really most unaccustomed to the heavy drinking then in vogue, was filled with a warm and friendly feeling toward everybody. His thoughts were a bit vague, and he had difficulty in focussing his mind sharply. The lights were very bright, and the room warm.
Suddenly they were all in the open air under the stars. There seemed to have been an unexplained interim. Everybody was smoking cigars. Keith was tugging at his pocket and expostulating something about payment—something to do with the dinner. Evidently some part of him had gone on talking and thinking. The fresh air brought him back to the command. Various suggestions were being proffered. Blatchford was for hiring rigs and driving out to the Mission; Calhoun Bennett suggested the El Dorado; but Sam Brannan's bull voice decided them.
"I'm going to Belle's!" he roared, and at once started off up the street. The idea was received with acclamation. They straggled up the street toward the residential portion of town.
Keith followed. The delayed action of the drink had thrown him into a delicious whirling haze. He felt that he could be completely master of himself at any moment merely by making the effort; only it did not at present seem worth while. He knew where Belle's was: it was the ornate house diagonally across the street from his own, the one concerning which the clerk had been so evasive when they were house hunting.
Belle's was a three-story frame building, differing in no outward essential from the fashionable residences around it. On warm evenings there sometimes came through the opened windows the sound of a piano, the clink of glasses, loud laughter or singing. The chance bystander might have heard identically the same from any other house in the neighbourhood. Only Belle's occasionally—rarely occasionally—contributed a crash or an oath. Such things were, however, quickly hushed. Belle's was run on respectable lines. Men went in and out quite openly, with the tolerance of most, but to the scandal of a few. Those curious, consulting the yellowed files of the newspapers, can read little protests—signed with nom de plumes—from young women, complaining that young men of their acquaintance, after calling decorously on them, would cross quite openly to the house over the way. Yet they were powerless, for a year or so at least, to break up the custom.
For Belle's was a carry-over from the 49-51 days when of social life there was none at all. It differed from the merely disreputable house. Belle prided herself on quiet conduct and many friends. In person she was a middle-aged, still attractive Frenchwoman. She had furnished her parlours very elaborately, and she insisted that both her employees and clients should behave in the public rooms with the greatest circumspection.
Indeed, a casual visitor, unacquainted with the character of the place, might well have been deceived. The women sitting about were made up and very decollete, to be sure, but their conduct, while not always of the highest tone, was nevertheless quite devoid of freedom. Belle permitted no overt word or action; nor was any visitor subjected to another expectation than the occasional opening of a bottle of wine "for the good of the house."
But outside of the one fundamental rule of decency, the caller could make himself comfortable in his own way. He could lounge, pound the piano, joke, play games, smoke where he pleased, and enjoy what was then a rarity—the company and conversation of nimble-witted, well-dressed, beautiful women whose ideas were not narrow. Ultimate possibilities were always kept very much in the background, but that there were possibilities made for present relaxation or freedom.
Twice a year Belle was in the habit of giving a grand party. The invitations were engraved. Entertainment was on a sumptuous scale. There were dancing, all sorts of card games, an elaborate supper, the best of music, often professional entertainers of great merit. Everything was free except wine. Nearly the whole masculine population turned out for Belle's big party—judges, legislators, bankers, merchants, as well as the professional politicians and the gamblers. The most prominent men of the city frequented Belle's at other times openly, without fear of public opinion—many of them merely for the sense of freedom and relaxation they there enjoyed. Everybody was welcome.
Keith, however, knowing the character of the place, had never been inside its doors. Now, enveloped in his rosy haze, exceedingly contented with his company, he followed where they led. At the door a neat coloured maid relieved him of his hat and coat, and smiled a welcome. His dazzled vision took in a long drawing-room, soft red carpets, red brocade curtains of heavy material, with edges of gold fringe and with gold cords, chandeliers of many dangling prisms, a white marble mantel, a grand piano, a few pictures of the nude, and many chairs. Ravishingly beautiful, wonderfully dressed women sat about in indolent attitudes.
The hilarious party at once scattered through the room, Calhoun Bennett went to the piano and began to play sentimental airs. Ned McGowan, his face very red, enthroned himself in an easy chair, clasping girls who perched on either arm. He talked to them in a low voice. They leaned over to hear, and every moment or so they burst into shrieks of laughter. Judge Terry was listening intently to some serious communication Belle herself was making to him. Sam Brannan was roaring for champagne. The others were circulating here and there, talking, playing practical jokes. Altogether, to Keith's rosy vision, a colourful and delightful scene. Nobody paid him the least attention.
How long he stood there he did not know. The groups before him shifted and changed confusedly. The lights seemed to blaze and to dim, and then to blaze again. After a long interval he became aware of a touch on his arm. He looked down. A piquant, dark-eyed, tilt-nosed girl was smiling up at him.
"Wat you do?" she was begging. "You come wiz me?"
He focussed his attention on the room. It was almost empty. He saw the back of Judge Terry disappearing into the street. He passed his hand across his eyes.
"Where are the others?" he asked confusedly.
She laughed with significance. He looked down at her again. Her complexion was a sort of dead white, her lips were red and glistening, her eyes were darkened. He turned suddenly and left the house. The coloured maid, disappointed in a tip, stood in the doorway, his hat and coat in her hands, staring after him. The cool air a little cleared his brain. He stopped short in the middle of the street, trying to collect himself.
"I'm drunk," he solved finally, and proceeded very carefully toward his own house. After each dozen steps he paused to collect his thoughts before proceeding. In one of these pauses he distinctly heard a window slam shut; there were plenty of louder things, he heard only the window. He hadn't the least idea of the time of night, except that it must be very late. As a matter of fact, it was not more than half-past ten. Near his own gate he nearly ran into a woman strolling. With some instinct of apology, he turned in her direction. As his bare head was revealed in the dim light, the woman uttered a low laugh.
"And was Belle as charming as ever?" demanded Mrs. Morrell sweetly but icily. "Go in carefully now, so dear little wifey won't know."
She laughed again and moved past him. He stared after her with a vague sense of injustice, somehow; then went on.
Keith was sorry next morning, but he was not repentant, in the sense of feeling that he had done anything fatally wrong. He was disgusted with himself. He wasted no regrets, but did register a very definite intention not to let that happen again! It was all harmless enough, once in a way, but it was not his sort of thing. Nan would not understand it a bit—why should she? His head ached, and he was feeling a little conscience-stricken about Nan, anyway. He must take her around more, see more of her. Business had been very absorbing lately, but now that this deal had been brought off successfully, it was only due her and himself that he take a little time off. In his present mood he convinced himself, as do most American business or professional men, that he was being driven in his work, and that he wanted nothing better than a let-up from the grind. As a matter of fact, he—and they—love their work.
In this frame of mind he started downtown, rather late. On the street he met a number of his friends. A good many of them chaffed him good-naturedly about the night before. By the time he reached his office he was feeling much better. Things were assuming more of an everyday comfortable aspect. He had not been seated ten minutes before Dick Blatchford drifted in, smoking a black cigar that gave Keith a slight qualmish feeling. Dick seemed quite unaffected by the evening before.
"Hullo, Milt!" he boomed, rolling his heavy form into a chair, his round, red face beaming. "How's the wild Injin this morning? Say, you're a wonder when you get started! You needn't deny it; wasn't I there?" He shook his head, chuckling fatly. "Look here," he went on, "I'm busy this morning—got to get down to North Beach to see Harry Meigs—and I guess you are." He tossed over a package of papers that he produced from an inside pocket. "Look those over at your leisure. I think we better sue the sons of guns. Let me know what you think." He fished about in a tight-drawn waistcoat pocket with a chubby thumb and forefinger, pulled out a strip of paper, and flipped it to Keith as casually as though it were a cigarette paper. "There's a little something as a retainer," said he. "Well, be good!"
After he had lumbered out, Keith examined the check. It was for one thousand dollars. If anything were needed to restore his entire confidence in himself, this retainer would have sufficed. The little spree was regrettable, of course, but it had brought him a client—and a good one!
Two days later Keith, who now had reason to spend more time in his office, received another and less welcome visitor: this was Morrell. The young Englishman, his clean-cut face composed to wooden immobility, his too- close-set eyes squinting watchfully, came in as though on a social call.
"Just dropped around to look at your diggin's," he told the surprised Keith. "Not badly fixed here; good light and all.".
He accepted a cigar, and sat for some moments, his hat and stick carefully disposed on his knees.
"Look here, Keith," he broke into a desultory chat after a few minutes. "Deucedly awkward, and all that, of course; but I've been wondering whether you would, be willing to tide me over—remittances late, and all that sort of thing. Stony for the moment. Everything lovely when the mails arrive. Neighbours, see a lot of each other, and that sort, you know."
Keith was totally unprepared for this, and floundered. Morrell, watching him calmly, went on:
"Of course I wouldn't think of coming to you, old chap—plenty of people glad to bank for me temporarily—but I wanted you to know just how we stand—Mrs. Morrell and I—that we feel friendly to you, and all that sort of thing, you know! You can rely on us—no uneasiness, you know."
"Why, that's very kind of you," returned Keith, puzzled.
"Not a bit! The way I looked at it was that a chap wouldn't borrow from a man he wasn't friendly with, it isn't done." He laughed his high, cackling laugh, "So I said to Mimi, 'the dear man must be worryin' his head off.' It was lucky for you, old top, that a woman of the world with some sense saw you the other night instead of some feather-headed gossipin' fool. But Mimi's not that."
Keith was slowly beginning to suspect, but as yet he considered his suspicion unjust.
"How much do you need?" he asked,
"Five hundred dollars," replied Morrell coolly.
"I doubt I have that sum free in ready cash."
Morrell looked him in the eye.
"I fancy you will be able to raise it," he said very deliberately.
The men looked at each other.
"This is blackmail, then," said Keith without excitement.
Morrell became very stiff and English in manner.
"Words do not frighten me, sir. This is a personal loan. It is an action between friends, just as my silence on the subject of your peccadillo is a friendly action. I mention that silence, not as a threat, but as an evidence of my own friendly feeling. I see I have made a mistake."
He arose, his bearing very frigid. Keith was naturally not in the least deceived by this assumption of injured innocence, but he had been thinking.
"Hold on!" he said. "You must forgive my being startled; and you must admit you were a little unfortunate in your presentation. For this loan, what security?"
"My personal note," replied Morrell calmly.
"I must look into my resources. I will let you know to-morrow."
"Not later than to-morrow. I'll call at this hour," said Morrell with meaning.
After the Englishman had gone Keith considered the matter at leisure. Although of a sanguine and excitable temperament When only little things were involved, he was clear headed and uninfluenced by personal feeling in real emergencies.
First, would the Morrells carry out the implied threat? His instinct supplied that answer. Of Morrell himself he had never had any trust. Now he remembered what had never really struck him before: that Morrell, even in this fast and loose society, had never been more than tolerated, and that, apparently, only because of the liveliness of his wife. He had the indefinable air of a bad 'un. And Keith's knowledge of women was broad enough to tell him that Mrs. Morrell would be relentless.
Second, would a denial avail against their story? His commonsense told him that if the Morrells started this thing they would carry it through to a finish. There was no sense in it otherwise, for such an attack would mean the burning of most of their social bridges. Morrell could get witnesses from Belle's—say, the coloured maid whom he had not tipped—and there were his hat and coat.
Third, could he afford to let them tell the tale? As far as his position in the city, either professionally or socially, most decidedly yes. But at home, as decidedly no. In her calmest, most judicial, trusting, loving mood, Nan could never understand. Her breeding and upbringing were against it. She could never comprehend the difference between such a place as Belle's and any disreputable house—if there was a difference. This point needed little argument.
Then he must pay.
Having definitely decided this, he repressed his natural inclinations toward anger, drew the money, laid it aside in his drawer, and went on with his work. When Morrell came, in next morning, very easy and debonair, he handed out the gold pieces and took in return the man's note, without relaxing the extreme gravity and formality of his manner.
"Thanks, old chap!" cried Morrell. "You've saved my life. I won't forget." He paused; then cackled harshly: "Good joke that! No, I won't forget!"
Keith bowed coldly, waiting. Morrell, with, a final cackle, made leisurely for the door. As he laid his hand on the knob, Keith spoke:
"By the way, Morrell."
"Take care you don't overdo this," advised Keith, very deliberately.
Morrell examined him. Keith's face was grim. He smiled enigmatically.
"Tact is a blessed gift, old top," said he, and went out.
This whole episode proved to be a turning-point in Keith's career. His revulsion against the feminine—hence society—side of life brought about by the affair of Mrs. Morrell, might soon have passed, and he might soon have returned to the old round of picnics, excursions, dinners, and parties, were it not that coincidentally a new and absorbing occupation was thrust upon him. Dick Blatchford's case was only one of many that came to him. He became completely immersed in the fascinating intricacies of the law.
As has been previously pointed out, nowhere before nor since has pure legality been made such a fetish. It was a game played by lawyers, not an attempt to get justice done. Since, in all criminal cases at least, the prosecution was carried on by one man and his associates, poorly paid and hence of mediocre ability, and the defence conducted by the keenest brains in the profession, it followed that convictions were rare. Homicide in various forms was little frowned upon. Duels were of frequent occurrence, and, in several instances, regular excursions, with tickets, were organized to see them. Street shootings of a more informal nature were too numerous to count. Invariably an attempt, generally successful, was made to arrest the homicide. If he had money, he hired the best lawyers, and rested secure. If he had no money, he disappeared for a time. Almost everybody had enough money, or enough friends with money, to adopt the former course. Of 1,200 murders—or "killings"—committed in the San Francisco of those days, there was just one legal conviction!
It was a point of professional pride with a lawyer to get his client free. Indeed, to fail would be equivalent to losing a very easy game. The whole battery of technical delays, demurrers, etc., was at his command; a much larger battery than even the absurd criminal courts of our present day can muster. Delays to allow the dispersal of witnesses were easily arranged for, as were changes of venue to courts either prejudiced in favour of the strict interpretation of "law" or frankly venal. Of shadier expedients, such as packing juries, there seemed no end.
Your honourable, high-minded lawyers—which meant the well-dressed and prosperous—had nothing to do with such dirty work; that is, directly. There were plenty of lawyers not so honourable and high minded called in as "counsel." These little lawyers, shoulder strikers, bribe givers and takers, were held in good-humoured contempt by the legal stars—who employed them! Actual dishonesty was diluted through a number of men. Packing a jury was a fine art. Initially was needed connivance at the sheriff's office. Hence lawyers, as a class, were in politics. Neither the stellar lawyer nor the sheriff knew any of the details of the transaction. A sum of money went to the former's "counsel" as expenses, and emerged, considerably diminished, in the sheriff's office as "perquisites." It had gone from the counsel to somebody like Mex Ryan, from him to various plug- uglies, ward heelers, shoulder strikers, from them to one or another of the professional jurymen, and then on the upward curve through the sheriff's underlings who made out the jury lists to Webb himself. The thing was done.
In this tortuous way many influences were needed. The most honest lawyer's limit as to the queer things he would do depended on his individual conscience. It is extraordinary what long training and the moral support of a whole profession will do toward educating a conscience. Do not despise unduly the lawyers of that day. We have all of us good friends in the legal profession who will defend in court a criminal they know to be guilty as charged. They will urge that no man should go undefended; and will argue themselves into a belief that in such a case "defence" means not merely fair play, but a desperate effort to get him off anyhow—trained conscience. If such sophistries are sincerely believed by honest men nowadays, it cannot be wondered at that queerer sophistries passed current in a community not five years old. It was difficult to draw the line between the men who mistakenly believed themselves honest and those who knew themselves dishonest.
But once in politics there could be no end. In this field the law rubbed shoulders with big contracts, big operations. A city was being built, in a few years, out of nothing, by a busy, careless, and shifting population. The opportunities for making money on public works—either honestly or by jobbery—were almost unlimited. The mood of the times was extravagant. From the still unexhausted placers poured a flood of gold, hard money, tangible wealth; and a large percentage of it paused in San Francisco, changed hands before continuing its journey. Immigrants brought with them a lesser but still significant sum. Money was easy. People could and would pay high taxes without a thought, for they would rather pay well to be let alone than bother with public affairs. The city treasury should have been full to bursting. In addition, the municipality was rich in its real estate. The value of all land had gone up immensely; any time more cash was needed it could quickly be raised by the sale of public lots. The supply seemed inexhaustible.
Like hyenas to a kill the public contractors gathered. Immense public works were undertaken at enormous prices. Paving, sewers, grading, filling, lighting, wharves, buildings Were all voted; and the work completed in the quickest, flimsiest, most slipshod fashion; and at terrible prices. The Graham House, a pretentious frail structure that had failed as a hotel because a swamp lay between it and the city, was bought at a huge price to serve as city hall. It was a veritable white elephant, and even the busy populace spared time to grumble at the flagrant steal. Nobody knew what it would cost to make the thing habitable even. Soon, to every one's relief, it burned down. The property was then swindled over to Peter Smith. The Jenny Lind Theatre, an impossible, ramshackle structure, was purchased over the vigorous protest of every decent citizen, for the enormous sum of $300,000. Another $100,000 was alleged to have been spent in remodelling and furnishing it. Then it was solemnly declared "unsuited to the purpose." It also burned down in one of the numerous fires. But the money was safe!
To get such deals as these through "legally" it was of course necessary that officials, councilmen, engineers, etc., should be sympathetic. Naturally the big operators, as well as the big lawyers, had to go into politics. Elections came soon to be so many farces. In some wards no decent citizen dared show his face. "Shoulder strikers" were openly hired for purposes of intimidation. Bribery was scarcely concealed. And if things looked doubtful, there were always the election inspectors and judges in reserve who could be relied upon to make things come out right in the final count. The proper men were always returned as elected. If violence or fraud were alleged, lawyers always got the accused off in a strictly legal manner.
In these matters, it must be repeated, no opprobrium ever rested on either the big lawyers or the big operators. "Expenses" went to the underlings, and after some mysterious subterranean manipulation, of which the big fellows remained blandly unconscious, results came back.
In the world of public works Keith rapidly made himself a position. He was leading counsel for Dick Blatchford and one or two others. His job was to know all the rules of the game so well that there were no comebacks; to set the machinery in motion by which the contracts were procured; and to straighten out any irregularities that might arise afterward. His position was almost academic. The matters he fought and decided were so detached from actuality, as far as he was concerned, that they might have been hypothetical cases. When Dick wanted anything specific, Keith instructed Patsy Corrigan to see that the proper officials awarded the contract. If the matter ever came to the courts, Keith furnished the brains and Patsy somehow "saw" the sheriff and whoever was necessary from the mysterious underworld. Everybody was doing the same thing. In the minds of men profits of any sort were legitimate provided they were "legal," but especially against so vague an entity as a community. Civic consciousness had not been born in them, for the simple reason that the city was constituted perfectly to suit them. Only when men are dissatisfied with their government do they seek to become responsible for it. There was no active public opinion against them. Men were too busy to bother with such things. Occasionally a fairly vigorous protest against some peculiarly outrageous steal made itself heard, but the men who made it were either cranks or it was suspected they had been pinched in some way. They merely represented the opposition any active man expects.
And every last one of these merry, jovial pirates was inordinately proud of the ship he was helping to scuttle! That one fact, attentively considered, explains much.
The city was growing, it was taking on a permanent character. In spite of waste, shoddy work, and frequent fires, its vitality was triumphant. The sand hills had all been graded flat, and the material from them had filled in the water lots of the bay; miles of fireproof brick structures had been built on four or five streets; there were now a half score of long wharves instead of one; omnibuses ran everywhere; fine steamers plied to fashionable watering places about the bay; the planks in the streets were being replaced by cobblestones; telegraph service had been inaugurated to San Jose and Sacramento; several new theatres had been built; gas lamps were being placed about the streets; huge wooden palaces with much scrollwork ornamentation were being built on Stockton Street and the Rincon Hill. All these things, as well as the climate, the mines, the agricultural resources, the commerce, the scenery, were fully appreciated and enthusiastically made the most of by every mother's son. Any man among them was ready at a moment's notice to wax enthusiastic about the resources and the future of the place. They were "boosters" in the modern acceptation of the term.
In this eager, fast-living, nervous, high-strung man's world Keith took to himself a prominent part. He was so fully-occupied in other directions that his practice did not lead him into criminal law, so he missed an influence that must have either ended by blunting or repelling him. He corresponded to what nowadays would be called a corporation lawyer. His clients were few, but wealthy, powerful, and remunerative; his cases were subtle and hard fought, He enjoyed the intricate game for its own sake, and he enjoyed his success in it. In the inevitable give and take of a complicated world he knew, of course, of shady doings beneath; but he was not personally involved; he accepted them as part of the make-up of society, human nature, the medium—of work.
But Nan was necessarily left more and more to her own devices. And, further, she was left alone without even the preoccupation furnished her domestic side by such an affair as that with Mrs. Morrell. She knew that Keith was wholly absorbed in his business. She was loyal to his unexpressed idea that in these propitious beginnings he must devote all his energies to his career. She was loyal to his preoccupation. It was the only way in which she could help. And yet, without being given cause for grievance, she was temporarily thrust outside his life, put in cold storage, as it were, until she should be wanted. He bolted immediately after breakfast; often he did not come home to lunch; was quite likely to go out again in the evening.
It followed that Nan had to make her own life out of the materials at hand. This was at first difficult, for all the materials were novel to her. Gradually, however, she fitted herself into the social transformation that was taking place.
Heretofore, society had not existed. Now, vaguely, it was beginning to take coherence and form. A transition period was on. The "nobs" were evolving from chaos. People of the fast Morrell type were losing their influence and ascendency, were being pushed aside to the fringes by the more "solid" elements. Wealth and arrogant dignity were coming into their innings. Formal functions, often on an elaborate scale, were taking the place of the harum-scarum informal parties. There came up some questions of social leadership. In short, social life was developing into the usual game. Lacking other interests, Nan found it amused her to play at it, to contend with the leaders, to form alliances, to declare war, to assume by right and talent her place among the best.
This pleased Keith. Social standing helped him in business; and he enjoyed the sight of his beautiful young wife queening it serenely over the city's best. He was always eager to advance money for new gowns or expensive parties. At first he went out with her, but soon found that three o'clock in the morning meant a next day's brain dulled of its keenest edge. But he would not hear of her staying at home on his account.
"I'm tired, and I'm going to bed right away," he told her. "You go and uphold the splendour of the family. Get Ben to take you."
Ben Sansome was to Keith a tremendous convenience. He was the only idle man in town, always on tap, ready to stay out any and every night until the cocks crowed. Why shouldn't he? He had nothing to do all next day, except, perhaps, to decide which stick he should carry! With a busy man's good- humoured contempt for the mere idler, Keith looked upon Sansome as a harmless household-pet sort of person; good natured, accommodating, pleasant to talk to, good looking, foppish in dress, but beneath any serious human being's notice. Sansome was on easy terms of intimacy with the Keiths. It was mighty good of him to look out for Nan. If he did not, Keith would have to.
In this formative period Ben Sansome was, however, a very important figure in the woman's world. Social construction was a ticklish matter. There were so many things to be decided; small items of etiquette, the "proper thing" —procedure, decorations, good form, larger matters as to whether so-and-so should be received, and if so, how extensively. Ben Sansome was past master of such things. He was the only man in town who knew—or cared—how to "draw lines." He became truly a modern arbiter elegantiarum. For San Francisco had begun in real earnest to "draw lines."
They were rather strange lines at times. Of course such people as the Brannans, Montgomerys, Terrys, Bushs, Bakers, Caldwells, and other "old families" (three or four years old), went without saying. Also were included the greater merchants and their feminine representatives, such as Palmer, Cook, Adams, Wilkins, and the like. Also there seemed to be a solid foundation of those respectable and powerful with plenty of wealth—"but hopeless, my dear, absolutely hopeless!" groaned some of the livelier members.
Lightning struck capriciously at those on whom this new society might frown, on those who as lately as last year had ridden the crest of the wave. For example, it spared Sally Warner, with her spotted veils drawn close around her face, her red belts, and her red tufts on her small toques, but it blasted the Morrells. Mrs. Morrell clung tenaciously to the outskirts, but she knew only too well that she did not "belong." In her heart she ascribed this fact to Mrs. Keith. This was unjust, but it added to her bitterness against her neighbours.
Perhaps her suspicions were not unnatural, for Nan won easily in this game. She was undoubtedly the social leader. It seemed eminently fitting that, lacking her husband, she should go out much with Ben Sansome. Most women thought her lucky to have acquired so valuable a social acquisition. Some people, like fat, coarse, sensible Mrs. Dick Blatchford, were a little doubtful.
"Shucks!" snorted Sally Warner, slapping her little riding boot dashingly with her latest novelty, an English hunting crop, "Nan Keith impresses me as one who knows her way about. And, anyway, as long as Mr. Keith is satisfied, I'm sure we should be!"
To his surprise Ben Sansome found himself warming to what he considered a real passion. At least it was as real a passion as he was capable of feeling. Sansome had always been spoiled. Accustomed as he was to easy conquests, especially of late among the faster San Francisco women of the early days, Nan Keith's very aloofness attracted him. She dwelt in a serene atmosphere of unsuspicion, going about freely with him, taking their right relations for granted, and not thinking about them. Contemplating this, Sansome was clever enough to see that, a false move at the wrong time would do for him. Therefore, he occupied himself at first merely in making himself useful. He accepted Keith's role for him, becoming the friend of the family, dropping in often and informally, happening on the spot at just the right time to relieve Keith of the necessity of escorting Nan to this or that tea or ball. So well did he play his part that at last there came a time when Keith said:
"I'm dead tired to-night, Nan. Seems as if I couldn't stand chatter. Can't you send a note around to Ben and see if he can't get you there and back?"
This came to be a regular thing. If Sansome did not happen to be there, he was sent for. And his engagements were never such that he failed to accept.
He and Keith called each other by their given names; but even after a close intimacy had been established, he never addressed Nan by hers.
"You sound very formal," she hinted to him at last.
"To me the privilege of calling you by your 'little name' is so great an evidence of friendship, that it actually seems like flaunting that friendship to call you so before others" he replied.
Always after that he called her "Nan" when they were alone together, but "Mrs. Keith" when a third, even Keith himself, was present. In that way their tete-a-tetes were marked off a little. When alone with her he maintained the pose of one struggling manfully against tremendous temptations held back only by her sweet influence. But he never overdid it. As they came to know each other better, he talked ever the more freely of men's mysterious temptations. Nan could not define to herself exactly what they might be.
"Yesterday I couldn't see you," he told her. "I struggled with myself all day. Good God, what does a woman like you know of a man's weaknesses and temptations—But I conquered."
Nan was uneasy. She did not know quite what it was all about, but her instincts warned her.
"I am glad," she replied; and went on hastily, "but you must tell me what you think about having the tea served in the arbour on the seventh, I've been dying to ask you."
With an obvious effort to be cheerful about this fresh subject, he wrenched himself into a new mood. They consulted on the party for the seventh. He broke off abruptly to say: "Do you know you're an extraordinary person—but you are!" he overrode her protests. "Don't I know the ordinary kind? Women have a deep strength of their own that men cannot understand."
He stayed only a few minutes after that. On parting he for the first time permitted himself a lingering gaze into her eyes as he reluctantly relinquished her hand. She turned away, distinctly uneasy. Yet so skilfully had he woven, his illusion of dependence on her that she shook it off with a tender and maternal smile.
"Poor boy," she murmured. "He is so unhappy and alone!"
Sansome was an accomplished equestrian. Finding that Nan knew nothing whatever about riding, he procured her a gentle horse, and took the greatest trouble and pleasure in teaching her. She proved apt, for she had good natural control of her body. After the first uncertainty and the first stiffness had worn off, she delighted in long rides toward different parts of the peninsula. Gringo, now a full-grown dog inclining toward the shepherd more than anything else, delighted in them, too. He ranged far and wide in front of the horses, exploring every ditch and thicket, wallowing happily in every mudhole, returning occasionally to roll his comical eyes at them as though to say, "Aren't we having a good time?" for Gringo was a dog with a sense of humour. On these excursions she renewed acquaintance with the sand dunes, and the little canons with birds, and the broad beach at low tide on which it was glorious to gallop. Once or twice they even stopped at the little rancho where the Keiths had lunched. There Nan, through Sansome, who talked Spanish, was able to communicate with her kindly hosts; and Gringo met his honoured but rather snappy mother. The mother disowned him utterly. As the days grew shorter they often rode on the Presidio hills, watching the sun set beyond the Golden Gate.
One such evening they had reined up their horses atop one of the hills next the Gate. The sun had set somewhere beyond the headlands. Tamalpais was deep pink with the glow; the water in the Gate was pale lilac; the sky close to the horizon burned orange, but above turned to a pale green that made with its lucent colour alone infinite depths and spaces. Below, the darker waters twisted and turned with the tide. The western headlands were black silhouettes.
"Oh, but it is beautiful!" she said at last.
"Yes, it is beautiful," he agreed somberly; "but when one is lonely, somehow it hurts."
There ensued a short, tense silence, broken only by the soft rolling of the bit wheels in the horses' mouths.
"Yes," she agreed softly, after a moment, "I feel that, too. Yet sometimes I wonder if one doesn't see and feel more keenly when one is not too happy—" She hesitated.
"Yes, yes! Go on!" he urged in a low voice. His tone, his attitude, suddenly seemed to envelop her with understanding. He appeared to offer her aid, chivalrous aid, although no word was spoken. She had not quite meant it that way; in fact, her thought was to offer him sympathy. But somehow it was grateful. It would do no harm to enjoy it, secretly, for a moment. His unexpressed sympathy—for what she would have been unable to say—was attractive to her isolation.
Often on returning from these rides she asked him in for a cup of tea. Occasionally, when she was overheated, or damp from the fog, she would excuse herself and slip into a soft negligee. With lamp and fire lit they made a very cozy tete-a-tete. He smoked contemplatively; she stitched at the inevitable embroidery of the period. Occasionally they talked animatedly; quite as frequently they sat in sociable silence. Gringo slept by the fire dreaming of rabbits and things, his hind legs twitching as he triumphantly ran them down. One evening she caught sight of a rip in the sewing of his tobacco pouch. In spite of his protests, she insisted on sewing it up for him. She was conscious of his eyes on her while she plied the needle, and felt somehow very feminine and sure of her power.
"There!" she cried, when she had finished. "You certainly do need somebody to take care of you!"
He took it without spoken thanks, and put it slowly away in his pocket—as though, he would have kissed it. A pregnant silence followed, he sitting staring at her, she jabbing the needle idly into the arm of her chair. Suddenly, as though taking a tremendous resolution, he spoke:
"Nan, I am going to ask you a question. You must not be offended. Do you really love your husband?" At her hasty movement he hurried on: "I imagine I feel something unsatisfied about you—besides, lots of women don't."
As he probably expected, her indignation was thoroughly aroused. He took his castigation and dismissal meekly, and found some interest in the ensuing negotiations toward reconciliation. No one knew better than he how to sue for forgiveness. But he was quite satisfied to have implanted the idea, for Ben Sansome was content with slow coral-insect progress. A busy man, engaged in men's occupations, would never have had the patience for this leisurely establishment of atmosphere and influence; his impatience or passion would have betrayed him to an early outbreak. But with Sansome it was the practice of a fine art. He knew just how far to go. No one could more skilfully ingratiate himself in small ways. He always knew what gown she should wear or had worn, and always commented appreciatively on what she had on. Keith merely knew vaguely whether she looked well or ill. Sansome noticed and praised little things—her well-shod feet, the red lights in her hair, an unusual flower in her belt. He knew every hat she owned, and he had his well-marked preferences. He never made direct love, nor attempted to touch her. She felt the growing attraction, enjoyed it, but did not analyze it. She merely considered Ben Sansome as "nice," as needing guidance, as romantic——
Occasionally, after seeing more than usual of him, some feeling of reaction or some faint stirring of conscience would impel her—perhaps to convince herself of the harmlessness of it all—to make an especial effort to draw her husband out of his preoccupation into more human relations. She dressed with great care, earlier than usual; she gathered flowers for the vases, she fussed about lighting lamps, placing ash trays and chairs, generally arranging the setting for his welcome home. The preparations kindled her own enthusiasm. She became herself quite worked up in anticipation. When she heard his step, she ran to meet him in the hall. Keith happened to be tired to the point of exhaustion.
"Good heavens!" was his comment; "are we having company to-night? Why all the clothes and illumination?"
His relaxed, dispirited manner of removing and hanging up his coat reacted upon her instantly. Her high spirits sank to the depths. They ate their meal in almost complete silence. Nan could not help visualizing Sansome's appreciation of such an occasion.
The new coherence in society began to manifest itself in one important way: public gambling declined. In the "old days" it was said that everybody but clergymen frequented the big gambling halls. They were a sort of club. But now the most influential citizens began to stay away. Probably they gambled as much as ever, but they took such pleasures in private. Two or three only of the larger places remained in business. Save for them, open gambling was confined to the low dives near the water front. There was no definite movement against the practice. It merely fell off gradually.
During these busy years the Sherwoods had quite methodically continued to lead their customary lives. He read his morning paper on the veranda of the Bella Union, talked his leisurely politics, drove his horses, and in the evening attended to his business. She drove abroad, received her men friends, gave them impartial advice and help in their difficulties, dressed well, and carried on a life of many small activities. The Sherwoods were always an attractive looking and imposing couple, whenever they appeared. About three or four times a year they drove into the residential part of town and made a half-dozen formal calls—on the Keiths among others. Probably their lives were more nearly ordered on a routine than those of any other people in the new city.
One afternoon Sherwood came in at the usual hour, deposited his high hat carefully on the table, flicked the dust off his boots, and remarked casually:
"Patsy, I've sold the business."
Mrs. Sherwood was pinning on her hat. She stopped short, her hand halfway to her head, as though turned to marble. After a moment she asked in a quick, stifled voice:
"What do you mean?"
"Well," replied Sherwood, continuing methodically to readjust his dress, "I've been thinking for some time that times were changing. The gambling business is losing tone. I don't see the same class of people I used to see. Public sentiment—of the very best people, I mean—is drifting away from it. In the future, in my judgment, it's not going to pay as it ought. I've been thinking these things for some time. So when a bona fide purchaser came along——"
But he got no further. With a smothered cry she let her arms drop. Her customary poise had vanished. She flung herself on him, laughing, crying, gasping.
"Why, Patsy! Patsy!" he cried, patting her small, sleek head as it pressed against his shoulder. "What is it, dearie? Tell me? What's wrong?"
He was vastly perturbed and anxious, for she was not at all the type that loses control readily.
"Nothing! nothing!" she gasped. "I'll be all right in a minute. Don't mind me. Just let me alone. Only you told me so suddenly——"
"Don't you want me to sell?" he asked, utterly bewildered.
Gradually he gathered from her disjointed exclamations that this was just the one thing she had wanted, secretly, for years; the thing she had schooled herself not to hope for; the last thing in the world she had expected. And to his astonishment he gathered further that now she was free she could take her place with the other women——
"But I hadn't the slightest idea you wanted to!" he interrupted at this point. "You've never showed any signs of paying the slightest attention to them before!"
She was drying her eyes, and looking a little happily foolish.
"I knew better than to give them a chance to snub me," she told him. "Now I'm respectable."
But at this Sherwood reared his crest.
"Respectable!" he snorted, "What do you mean? Haven't you always been respectable? I'd like to see anybody who would hint—"
"You're a dear, but you're a man," she broke in more calmly. "Don't you know that a gambler's wife isn't respectable—in their sense of the word?"
"But every mother's son of them gambles!" cried Sherwood. "It's a perfectly legal and legitimate occupation!"
"The men do; we'd always get along if it was only a question of the men. But the women make distinctions—"
"Look here!" he broke out wrathfully. "There's Dick Blatchford mixed up in dirty work for dirty money I wouldn't lay my fingers on; and Terry, or Brannan, or McGowan, or all the rest of the boodling, land-grabbing, pettifogging crew! Why, if I made my living or spare cash the way that gang of pirates and cutthroats do I'd carry a pair of handcuffs for myself. Honest! Respectable! I've got no kick on their methods; it's, none of my business. But their wives are all right. I don't see it!"
"It's all names, I acknowledge," she soothed, "just names, I attach no more weight to them than you do. Don't you suppose I'd have said something if I had thought you were doing anything wrong? But that's the way they play the game, and it is their game. If we play it we've got to accept their rules. Don't you see?"
"Well, it's a mighty poor game," grumbled Sherwood, "and they strike me as an exceptionally stupid lot of women. They'd drive me to drink. I don't see what you want to bother with them for."
"They are," she agreed. "They won't amuse me much—you couldn't understand —it's just the idea of it—But I won't be looked down on, even by my inferiors! Tell me, Jack, when we sell the business are we going to be wealthy, will we have plenty of money?"
A hurt look came into his fine, straightforward eyes.
"Haven't you always had all you wanted, Patsy?" he inquired.
"Of course I have, you old goose! But I want to know what our resources are before I plan my campaign."
"Going in up to your neck, are you?" he commented ruefully.
She nodded. Her eyes were bright, and a spot of colour glowed in either cheek.
"Course I am. What can I spend?"
"You can have whatever you want."
"That's too vague, too indefinite. How rich—or poor—are we going to be?"
"We'll be rich enough."
"Well—yes, very. The business has paid, investments have panned out. I got a good cash purchase price."
"How much can I spend a year?" she persisted. "It doesn't matter whether it's much or little, but I want to know."
"What a mercenary little creature!" he cried facetiously, then sobered as he saw by the expression of her face that this, apparently trivial thing meant a great deal to her. "Oh, fifty thousand or so won't cripple us."
"A year?" she breathed, awed.
"Oh!" she cried rapidly. "Then we'll have a house—a house built for our very own selves, our very own plans!"
"Why, I thought we were very comfortable here!" he protested, a little dismayed. "Haven't we room enough? I'll make Rebinot cut a door——"
"No! no! no! a house of my own!" She was on fire with excitement, walking restlessly up and down. He watched her a moment or so. His slower imagination was kindling. He was beginning to grasp the symbolism of it, what it meant to her, the release of long-pent secret desires. As she passed him, he seized her and drew her gently to his knee.
"Patsy!" he cried contritely, "I didn't realize! I didn't guess you weren't perfectly contented here!"
She brushed his cheek with hers.
"Of course you didn't," she reassured him.
"If you'd the slightest——"
She threw her head back proudly, her breast swelled.
"I married you to lead your life. Jack, whatever it was," she told him, "to be your helpmate."
"You're the game little sportsman in this town!" he cried. "And if you want to make those flub-dubs crawl, by God you sail in! I'll back you!"
Ten minutes later she asked him:
"What are you going to do, yourself, Jack? Somehow, I can't imagine you idle."
"Well," said Sherwood, "the boys are organizing a stock exchange, and it struck me that it might be a good idea if I went into that."
She began to laugh softly, in affectionate amusement.
"Stop it!" he commanded indignantly. "I know that laugh, What have I done now?"
"I was just thinking what a nice, respectable gambler you are going to be now," she said, "It's in your blood, Jack, and I love it—but it's funny!"
But now, at the very sources, the full flood of the somewhat turbid tide of prosperity was beginning to fail. The ebb had not yet reached the civic consciousness. It would have required a philosopher, and a detached philosopher at that, to have connected cause and effect, to have forecast the inevitable trend of events. If there were any philosophers they were not detached! Nobody had discovered the simple truth that extravagance, graft, waste, cost money; and that the money must come from somewhere. Realization on its property and taxes were the twin sources of the city's revenues. The property was now about all sold or swindled away. Remained the taxes. And it is a self-evident truth that people will pay high taxes cheerfully only so long as they themselves are making plenty of money easily.
Up to this period such had been the case. Prices had been high, wages had been high, opportunities had been many. Enormous profits had been the rule. Everybody had invariably made money. These conditions upset the mental balance of the shipping merchants back East. A madness seemed to obsess them for sending goods to California. The mere rumour of a want or a lack was answered by immense shipments of that particular commodity. The first cargo to arrive supplied the want; all the rest simply broke the market. It was a gamble as to who should get there first. The immediate and picturesque consequence was a fleet of beautiful clipper ships, built like racing yachts, with long clean lines and snowy sails. They made extraordinarily fast voyages, and they promptly condemned to death the old- fashioned, slow freight carriers. Indeed, four-hundred odd of these actually rotted at anchor in the bay; it had not paid to move them! Some of these clippers gained vast reputations: the Flying Cloud, the White Squall, the Typhoon, the Trade Wind. The markets were continually in a state of glut with goods sold at auction. This condition tightened the money market, which in turn reacted on other branches of industry. Again, the great fires of '49-'53 resulted in the erection of too many fireproof buildings. Storage was needed, and rentals were high, so everybody plunged on storehouses. By '54 many hundreds of them stood vacant, representing loss. At that period the first abundance of the placers began to fall off.
Agriculture was beginning to be undertaken seriously; and while this would be an ultimate source of wealth, its immediate effect was to diminish the demand for imported foodstuffs—another blow to a purely mercantile city.
All this made for excitement, some immediate gain, but a sure ultimate loss. Markets fluctuated wildly. A ship in sight threw operators into a fever. No one knew what she might be carrying, or how she would, affect prices. It was, therefore, positively unsafe to keep-many goods is stock. Quick, immediate sales were the rule. And failures were many.
Now in these middle fifties the pinch was beginning at last to itself felt. Everybody was a little vague about it all, and nobody had gone so far as to formulate his dissatisfactions or his remedies. The tangible result was the formation of two as yet inchoate elements, representing the extremes of ideas and of interests.
The first of these elements—that can with equal justice be called the parasitic or the middleman class—consisted in itself of several sorts of people. The nucleus was a small, intellectually honest set of men who believed, in the law per se, in the sacredness of formal institutions in the constitution, and in the subservience of the individual to the institution. This was temperamental. Behind them were many much larger groups of those needed either the interpretation or the protection of the law for their private interests. These were of all sorts from honest literal-minded dealers, through shady contractors and operators, down to grafters and the very lowest type of strong-arm bullies. The tone and respectability came from the first, the practical results from the second. The first class had a genuine intellectual contempt for men whose minds could not see—or at least would not accept—the same subtleties that it did. Its members were fond of such phrases as the "lawless mob," or the "subversion of time-honoured institutions." This small, subjectively honest, conservative, specially trained element must not be forgotten in the final estimate of what later came to be known as the "Law and Order" party.
On the other hand was first of all an equally small nucleus of thinking men whose respect for the law, merely as law, was not so profound; men who were, reluctantly, willing to admit that when law completely broke down in encompassing justice, individualism was justified in stepping in. Behind them was a vast body of more or less unthinking men who recognized the indubitable facts that the law had become a farce, that justice had degenerated to tricks, and who were, therefore, instinctively against law, lawyers, and everybody who had anything to do with them.
Strangely enough this made for lawlessness on both sides. Those who believed in "law and order" committed crime or misdemeanour or mere injustice, sure of escape through some technicality. Those who distrusted courts administered justice illegally with their own hands! Nor was this merely in theory. San Francisco at that time was undoubtedly the most corrupt and lawless city in the world. Street shootings, duels, robberies, ballot-box stuffing, bribery, all the crimes traceable to a supine police and venal or technical courts were actually so commonplace as to command but two or three lines in the daily papers. Justice was completely smothered under technicalities and delays.
The situation would have been intolerable to any people less busy than the people of that time. For political corruption in a vigorous body politic is not, as pessimists would have us believer an indication of incipient decay, but only an indication that a busy people are willing to pay that price to be left alone, to be relieved of the administration of their public affairs, When they get less busy, or the price in corruption becomes too high, then they refuse to pay. The price Francisco was paying becoming very high, not only in money, but in other and spiritual things. She could still afford to pay it; but at the least pressure she would no longer afford it. Then she would act.
In the second year of his residence Keith had a minor adventure that shifted a portion of his activities to other fields. He was in attendance at a council meeting, following the interests of certain clients. The evening was warm, the proceedings dull. Opened windows let in the sounds from the Plaza and a night air that occasionally flared the smoky lamps. The clerk's voice was droning away at some routine when the outer door opened and a most extraordinary quartette entered the chamber. Three of these were the ordinary, ragged, discouraged, emaciated, diseased "bums," only too common in that city. In early California a man either succeeded or he failed into a dark abyss of complete discouragement; the new civilization had little use for weaklings. The fourth man can be no better described than in the words of a chronicler of the period. Says the worthy diarist:
"He was a man of medium stature, slender but very graceful, with almost effeminate hands and feet—the former scrupulously kept, the latter neatly shod—and with a certain air of fragility; very soft blue eyes with sleepy lids; a classically correct nose; short upper lip; rosy, moist lips. His clothes: a claret-coloured coat, neither dress nor frock, but mixed of both fashions, with a velvet collar and brass buttons; a black vest, double breasted; iron-gray pantaloons; fresh, well-starched, and very fine linen; plain black cravat, negligently tied; a cambric handkerchief; and dark kid gloves. He wore gold spectacles, and carried a malacca cane."
Instead of slipping into the seats provided for spectators, this striking individual marched boldly to the open space before the mayor's chair, followed, shamefaced and shambling, by the three bums.
"Your honours and gentlemen," he cried in a clear, ringing voice, to the scandal of the interrupted legislators, "we are very sick and hungry and helpless and wretched. If somebody does not do something for us, we shall die; and that would be bad, considering how far we have come, and how hard it was to get here, and how short a time we have been here, and that we have not had a fair chance. All we ask is a fair chance, and we say again, upon our honour, gentlemen, if somebody does not do something for us, we shall die, or we shall be setting fire to the town first and cutting all our throats."
He stood leaning lightly against his malacca cane, surveying them through his sleepy blue eyes. The first astonishment over, they took up a collection, after the customary careless, generous fashion. The young man saluted with his cane, and herded his three exhibits out.
Keith, much struck, followed them, overtaking the quartette on the street.
"My name is Keith," he said, "I should like to make your acquaintance."
"Mine is Krafft," replied the unknown, "and I am delighted to accept your proffer."
He said nothing more until he had marshalled his charges, into a cheap eating-house, ordered and paid for a supper, and divided the remainder of the amount collected. Then he dusted his fingers daintily with a fine handkerchief, and sauntered out into the street, swinging his malacca cane.
"Incidents of that sort restore one's faith in the generosity of our people," Keith remarked, in order to say something.
"Nobody has been generous," denied Krafft categorically, "and no particular good has been accomplished. Filled their bellies for this evening; given them a place to sleep for this night; that's all."
"That's something," ventured Keith. "It helps."
"The only way to help we have not undertaken. We have done nothing toward finding out why there are such creatures—in a place like this. That's the only way to help them: find out why they are, and then remove the why."
This commonplace of modern charity was then a brand-new thought. Keith had never heard it expressed, and he was much interested.
"I suppose there are always the weak and the useless," he said vaguely.
"If those men were wholly weak and useless, how did they get out here?" countered Krafft. "To compass such a journey takes a certain energy, a certain sum of money, a certain fund of hope. The money goes, the energy drains, the hope fades. Why?"
They stopped at a corner.
"I live just near here," said Krafft. "If you will honour me."
He led the way down a narrow dark alley, along which they had fairly to grope their way. It debouched, however, into the forgotten centre of the square. All the edges had been built close with brick stores, warehouses, and office buildings. But in the very middle had been left a waste piece of ground, occupied only by a garden and a low one-room abode, with a veranda and a red-tiled roof. Under the moonlight and the black shadows from the modern buildings it slept amid its bright flowers with the ancient air of another world. Krafft turned a key and lighted a lamp. Keith found himself in a small, neat room, with heavy beams, fireplace, and deep embrasured windows. An iron bed, two chairs, a table, a screen, a shelf of books, and a wardrobe were its sole furnishings. In the fireplace had been laid, but not lighted, a fire of sagebrush roots.
Krafft touched a match to the roots, which instantly leaped into eager and aromatic flames. From a shelf he took a new clay pipe which he handed to Keith.
"Tobacco is in that jar," he said.
He himself filled and lighted a big porcelain pipe with wexelwood stem.
"What would you do about it?" asked Keith, continuing the discussion.
"What would you most want, if you were those poor men?" retorted Krafft, blowing a huge cloud.
"Drink, food, clothes, bed," he stated succinctly.
"And work wherewith to get them," supplemented Krafft.
Keith laughed again.
"Not if I know their sort! Work is the one thing they don't want."
Krafft leaned forward, and tapped the table with one of his long forefingers,
"The lazy part of them, the earthen part of them, the dross of them—yes, perhaps. But let us concede to them a spark that smoulders, way down deep within them—a spark of which they think they are ashamed, which they do not themselves realize the existence of except occasionally. What is the deep need of them? It is to feel that they are still of use, that they amount to something, that they are men. That more than mere food and warmth. Is it not so?"
"I believe you're right," said Keith, impressed.
"Then," said Krafft triumphantly, "it is work they want, work that is useful and worth paying for."
"But there's plenty of work to be had," objected Keith, after a moment. "In fact, there's more work in this town than there are men to do it."
"True, But it is the hard work these men have failed at. It is too hard. They try; they are discouraged; they fall again, and perhaps they never get up. Such men must be led, must be watched, must be stopped within their strength."
"Who's there to do that sort of dry nursing of bums?" demanded Keith with a half laugh.
"He who would help," said Krafft quietly.
They smoked for some time in silence; then Keith arose to go.
"It is a big idea; it requires thought," said he ruminativeiy. "You are a recent arrival, Mr. Krafft? What is your line of activity?"
The slight, elegant little man smiled.
"I am one of the—what is it you called, them—bums of whom we talk. I try to do what is within my power, within my strength-lest I, too, become discouraged, lest I, too, fall again—and not get up."
"I have not seen you about anywhere," said Keith, puzzled by this speech.
"I do not go anywhere; I should be eaten. You do not understand me, and I am a poor host to talk in riddles. I am a philosopher, not a man of action; egotist, not an egoist; one who cannot swim in your strong waters. As I said, one of that same class whom your bounty helped this evening."
"Good Lord, man!" cried Keith, looking about the little room. "You're not in want?"
Krafft laughed gently.
"In your sense, no. I have my meals. Enough of me. Go, and think of what I say."
Keith did so, and the result was the first organized charity in San Francisco. Since 1849 men had always been exceptionally generous in responding to appeals for money. Huge sums could easily be raised at any time. Hospitals and almshouses dated from the first. But having given, these pioneers invariably forgot. The erection of the buildings cost more than they should, and management being venal, conditions soon became disgraceful. Alms reached the professional pauper. The miner or immigrant, diseased, discouraged, out of luck, more often died—either actually or morally.
So much had this first interview caught his interest that Keith dropped in on his new acquaintance quite often. It soon became evident that Krafft lived in what might be called decent poverty. The one fine rig-out in which he made his public appearances was most carefully preserved. Indoors he always promptly assumed a dressing-gown, a skull cap with a gold tassel, and his great porcelain pipe. His meals he cooked for himself. Never did he leave his house until about three o'clock. Then, spick and span, exquisitely appointed, he sauntered forth swinging his malacca cane. After a promenade of several hours he returned again to his dressing-gown, his porcelain pipe, and his books. Keith enjoyed hugely his detached, reflective, philosophical, spectator-of-life conversation. They talked on many subjects besides sociology. At his fourth visit Krafft made a suggestion.
"You shall come with me and see," said he.
He led the way to the water front under Telegraph Hill, the newest and the most squalid part of town. The shallow water was in slow process of being filled in by sand from the grading uptown and with all sorts of miscellaneous debris, Pending solidity, this sketchy real estate swarmed with squatters. There were lots sunken below the street level, filled with stagnant water, discarded garments, old boxes, ashes, and rubbish; houses huddled closely together with stale water beneath; there were muddy alleys; murderous cheap saloons; cheaper gambling joints; rickety, sagging tenements. The people corresponded to their habitations. All the low elements lurked here, the thugs, strong-arm men, the hold-ups, the heelers, the weaklings, the bums, the diseased. In ordinary times they here dwelt in a twilight existence; but at periods of excitement—as when the city burned—they swarmed out like rats for plunder.
Krafft held his way steadily to the wharves. There he left the causeway and descended to the level of the beach. Beneath the pilings, and above the high-water mark, was a little hut. It was not over six feet square, constructed of all sorts of old pieces of boxes, scraps of tin, or remnants of canvas. Overhead rumbled continuously the heavy drays, shaking down, through the cracks the dust of the roadway. Against one outside wall of this crazy structure an old man sat, chair tilted in the sun. Even the chair was a curiosity, miraculously held together by wires. The man was very old, and very feeble, his knotted hands clasping a short, black clay pipe. Inside the hut Keith, saw a rough bunk on which lay jumbled a quilt and a piece of canvas.
"Well, John," greeted Krafft cheerfully, "I've brought a friend to see you."
The old man turned on Keith a twinkling blue eye.
"Glad to see you," he said briefly.
"Getting on?" pursued Krafft.
"Here's a new kind of tobacco I want you to try. I should value your opinion."
Keith's hand wandered toward his pocket, but stopped at a sharp look from Krafft. After a moment's chat they withdrew.
"What a pathetic old figure! What utter misery!" cried Keith.
"No!" said Krafft positively. "There you are wrong. Old John is in no need of us. He has his house and his bed, and he gets his food. How, I do not know, but he gets it. The spark is burning clear and steady. He has not lost his grip. He gets his living with confidence. Let him alone."
"But he must be very miserable—especially when it rains," persisted Keith.
Krafft shrugged his shoulders.
"As to that, I know not," he returned indifferently. "That does not matter to the soul. I will now show you another man."
They retraced their steps. On a corner of Montgomery Street Krafft stopped before a one-armed beggar, the stump exposed, a placard around his neck.
"Now here's another John," said Krafft. "What he wants is work, and somebody to see that he does it."
The one-armed beggar, who was fat, with a good-natured countenance, evidently considered this a joke. He grinned cheerfully.
"Don't have to, guvenor," said he.
"How much did you take in yesterday, John?" asked Krafft; then, catching the beggar's look of suspicion, he added, "This is a friend of mine; he's all right."
"Twenty-two dollars," replied the beggar proudly. "Pretty good day's wages!"
"I'm afraid the spark is about out with you, John," said Krafft thoughtfully. He walked on a few steps, then turned back. "John," he asked, "what is your contribution to society?"
The beggar stared, uncertain of this new chaff.
"The true theory of business, John, is that traffic which does not result In reciprocal advantages to buyer and seller is illegitimate, or at least abnormal."
They walked on, Keith laughing at the expression on the beggar's face.
"That was considerably over his head," he observed.
Nothing more was said for half a block.
"I wonder if it was over yours," then said Krafft, unexpectedly.
"Eh?" ejaculated Keith, bewildered.
These walks with Krafft finally resulted in the institution of a fund which Keith raised and put into Krafft's hands for intelligent use. The effects were so interesting that Keith, thoroughly fascinated, began to pester his friends for positions for some of his proteges. As he was well-liked and in earnest, these efforts were taken good-humourediy.
"Here comes Milt Keith," said John Webb to Bert Taylor. "Bet you a beaver hat he's got a highly educated college professor that he wants a job for."
"'A light job, not beyond his powers,'" quoted Taylor.
"Like cleaning genteel spittoons," supplemented Webb.
"The engine house is full of 'em polishing brass," complained Taylor.
"Well, he's a young felly, and I like him," concluded Webb heartily.
Of course many of the experiments failed, but fewer than might have been anticipated. Part of Krafft's task was to keep in touch with the men. His detached, philosophical method of encouragement and analysis of the situation seemed just the thing they needed.
These activities gave Keith just the required door out into a world other than his own. Were it not for something of the sort he might, like many modern corporation lawyers, have confined himself entirely to his own class. And this, of course, would eventually have meant narrowness.