Part 3 out of 8
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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_
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"Well, she's going to, if the Morrell woman has her way," observed Ben
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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.
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"You can go!" she cried hoarsely. "Get out! Don't dare enter this house
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
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.
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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