The Gray Dawn by Stewart Edward White
The Keiths arrived to find the Morrells' informal party in full blast. The front parlour was filled with a number of people making a great noise. Out of the confusion Mrs. Morrell arose and came to them, as they stood where the China-man had abandoned them.
"Mimi" Morrell was a tall woman, not fat, but amply built, with a full bust and hips. Her hair was of the peculiar metallic golden blond that might or might not have been natural; her skin smooth and white, but coarse in grain, would look better at night than by daylight. Her handsome, regular features were rather hard and set in their expression when in absolute repose, but absolute repose was rare to them. In action they softened to a very considerable feminine allurement. She moved with decision, and possibly her general attitude smacked the least bit of running things. She gave the impression of keeping an eye open for everything going on about her. To Nan she seemed tremendous, overwhelming, and a little magnificent.
Immediately, without introductions, the whole party moved through the double doors into the dining-room. There they took their places at a table set out lavishly with food and drink in great quantity. Mrs. Morrell explained in her high level voice that servants and service were always dispensed with at her Sunday nights. She rather carelessly indicated a seat to Mrs. Keith, and remarked to Keith that he was to sit next herself. Otherwise the party distributed itself. Ben Sansome promptly annexed the chair next to Nan, and started in to make himself agreeable.
A complete freemasonry obtained among all the party. There was a great deal of shouting back and forth, from one end of the table to the other. Each seemed to have a nickname. One young man was known exclusively as "Popsy," another answered as "Zou-zou," a third was called "Billy Goat"; a very vivid, flashing young woman was "Teeny," and so on. They conversed, or rather shouted, to a great extent by means of catch words or phrases, alluding evidently to events the purport of which the Keiths could by no possibility guess. There were a great many private jokes, the points of which were obvious to only one or two. Every once in a while some one would say "Number Seven!" and everybody would go off into convulsions of laughter. The vivid young woman called Teeny suddenly shrieked, "How about Friday, the twenty-third?" at Popsy, to Popsy's obvious consternation and confusion. Immediately every one turned on either Popsy or Teeny, demanding the true inwardness of the remark. Popsy defended himself, rather pink and embarrassed. The young woman, a devilish knowing glint in her eyes, her red underlip caught between her teeth, refused to answer.
Keith warmed to this free and easy atmosphere. He was friendly and sympathetic with the lively crowd. But in vain he tried for a point of contact. All this badinage depended on a previous knowledge and intimacy, and that, of course, he lacked. Mrs. Morrell, sitting beside him very straight and commanding, delivered her general remarks in a high, clear voice, turning her attention impartially now to one part of the noisy table, now to another.
Suddenly she abandoned the company to its own devices, and leaning her left elbow on the table, she turned squarely to Keith, enveloping him with a magnetic all-for-you look.
"Do you know," she said abruptly, "something tells me you are musical."
"Why, I am, a little," admitted Keith, surprised. "But how could you tell?"
"La, now, I was sure you had a voice the first time I heard you speak. I adore music, and I can always tell."
"Do you sing, too?" asked Keith.
"I? No, unfortunately. I have no more voice than a crow. I strum a bit, but even that has been a good deal neglected lately. There's no temptation to keep up one's music here. I don't know a single soul in all this city who cares a snap of their finger for it."
"We'll have to have some music together," suggested Keith.
"I'd adore it. Isn't it lucky we're neighbours? I've been so interested"-- she said it as though she had almost intended to say "amused"--"in watching you this past week. You are the most domestic man I know. I never saw a man work so singlemindedly at his house and home. Domesticity is a rare outworn virtue here, I assure you. It is really quite touching to see a man so devoted these days."
She said these things idly, a little disjointedly, looking at him steadily all the while. Her manner was detached, and yet somehow it impelled him strongly to protest that he was really not a bit domestic.
"Have you met any of the people of the place?" she shifted suddenly,
"Well--I really haven't had much chance yet--a few of the men."
"Well--you'll find things pretty mixed. Don't expect much; one has to take things pretty much as one finds them."
To this simple speech was appended one gesture only--a slight raising of the eyebrows. Yet the effect was to sweep Keith into the intimacy of an inner circle, to suggest that she, too, found society mixed, and to imply-- very remotely--that at least certain members of the present company itself were not quite what he--or she--would choose in another environment. In unconscious response to this unspoken thought, Keith glanced about the table. There was a good deal of drinking going on; and the fun was becoming even more obvious and noisy. Mrs. Morrell occasionally sipped at her champagne. She emitted a slight but rather disturbing perfume.
"Why did you come out here, anyway?" she asked him. "I can't make out. I'm curious."
"Why shouldn't I?" demanded Keith.
"Well, men come here either for money, for adventure, or to make a career." She marked each on the tablecloth with the end of a fork. "Which is it?"
"Guess," laughed Keith.
"You don't need money--or else you have a wonderful nerve to take the Boyle house. I believe you have the nerve, all right. Men with your sort of close curly hair are never--bashful!" she laughed shortly.
"Boyle's rent is safe--for a while," admitted Keith.
"Career?" she went on, looking him in the eyes speculatively, and allowing her gaze to sink deep into his. He noticed that her eyes were a gray green, like semi-precious stones of some sorts, with surface lights, but also with grayer radiations that seemed to go below the surface to smouldering depths--disturbing eyes, like the perfume. "Career?" she repeated. "I think you hold yourself better--a career in the riff-raff of this town." She shook her head archly. "But adventure! Oh, la! There's plenty of that--all sorts!" She gave the impression of meaning a great deal more than she said. "I wish I were a man!" she exclaimed, and laughed.
"I'm glad you're not," rejoined Keith sincerely.
She tapped him lightly on the arm with her fan.
"Oh, la!" she cried.
Keith laughed meaningly and mischievously. He was feeling entirely at home --in his mental shirtsleeves--thoroughly at ease.
"You're a lawyer, are you not?" she asked him.
"Try to be."
"Going to practise?"
"If any practice comes my way."
She looked at him, smiling slowly.
"Oh, it'll come fast enough." She seized her glass and held it to him. "Here's to your career!" she cried. "Bottoms up!"
They clinked glasses and drank.
"You must meet people--influential people," she told him. "We must see what we can do; I'll have some of them in."
"You're simply fine to take all this trouble for me!"
She tapped him again on the arm.
"Silly! We take care of our own people, of course! Let's plan it. Have you any connections in town at all?"
"Well, I've met quite a few people about town, and I have some letters."
"Casual acquaintances are well enough, but your letters?"
"I have one to Calhoun Bennett, and to Mr. Dempster, and Mr. Farwell, and Truett--"
But she was making a wry face.
"What's the matter with, them?" he demanded.
"Cal Bennett's all right--but the others--oh, I suppose they're all right in a business way--but--"
She made a helpless little gesture.
"I can't describe it--you know--the sort that are always so keen on doing their duty!"
She laughed; and to his subconscious surprise Keith found himself saying sympathetically:
"I know the sort of people who always pay their debts!"
They looked into each other's eyes and laughed in comradeship. In sober life Keith did his duty reasonably well, and was never far behind financially.
She fell silent for a moment; then with a muttered "excuse me," she leaned directly across his shoulder to impart something low-voiced and giggly to the woman on his right. To do this she leaned her breast against his arm and shoulder. The conversation lasted some seconds. Keith could not hear a word of it; but he was disturbingly aware of her perfume, the softness of her body, and the warmth that struck even through the intervening clothing. She drew back with a half apology.
"Feminine nonsense," she told him. "Mere man couldn't be expected to understand." She was herself a little flushed from leaning over, but she appeared not to notice Keith's rather breathless state. He muttered something, and gulped at his champagne.
"Do you know Mrs. Sherwood?" he asked, merely to say something,
But to his surprise Mrs, Morrell answered him shortly, her manner changing:
"No, I don't. We draw the line somewhere!"
Again she addressed the woman on the right, but this time without leaning across:
"Oh, Amy, the fair Patricia has another victim!" and laughed rather shrilly. Suddenly she rapped the table with the handle of a knife. "Stop it!" she cried to the company at large. "You're making too much noise!"
They all turned to her except one youth who was too noisily busy with his partner to have heard her. Failing in another attempt to get his attention, Mrs. Morrell picked up a chunk of French bread and hurled it at him.
"Good shot!" "Bravo!" "Encore!" came a burst of applause, as the bread, largely by accident, took him squarely between the eyes.
The youth, though astonished, was game. He retaliated in kind. Keith whipped up an empty plate and intercepted it. The youth's partner came to his assistance. Keith, a plate in either hand, deftly protected Mrs. Morrell from the flying missiles. The implied challenge was instantly accepted by all. The air was full of bread. Keith's dexterity was tested to the utmost, but he came through the battle with flying colours. Everybody threw bread. There was much explosive laughter, that soon became fairly exhausting. The battle ceased, both because the combatants were out of ammunition, and because they were too weak from mirth to proceed. Keith with elaborate mock gallantry turned and presented Mrs. Morrell with the two plates.
"The spoils of war!" he told her.
"He should be decorated for conspicuous gallantry on the field of battle!" cried some one.
The idea took. But they could find nothing appropriate until Teeny McFarlane deliberately stepped up on the table and broke from the glass chandelier one of its numerous dangling prisms. This called forth a mild protest from Morrell--"Oh, I say!"--which was drowned in a wild shriek of delight. The process of stepping down from the table tilted Teeny's wide skirts so that for an instant a slim silken leg was plainly visible as far as the knee. "Oh! oh!" cried every one. Some pretended to be shocked, and covered their faces with spread fingers; others feigned to try for another look. Teeny was quite unperturbed.
Keith was the centre of attention and a great success. But there were no more tete-a-tetes. Mrs. Morrell managed to convey the idea that she was displeased, and Keith was of a sufficiently generous and ingenuous disposition to be intrigued by the fact. He had no chance to probe the matter. In a moment or so Mrs. Morrell rose and strolled toward the drawing-room. The others straggled after her. She rather liked thus to emphasize her lack of convention as a hostess, making a pose of never remembering the proper thing to do. Now she moved here and there, laughing her shrill rather mirthless laugh, calling everybody "dearie," uttering abrupt little platitudes. Keith found himself left behind, and rather out in the cold. The company had quite frankly segregated itself into couples. The room was well adapted to this, filled as it was with comfortable chairs arranged with apparent carelessness two by two. The men lighted cigars. Keith saw Nan's eyes widen at this. She was sitting near the fire, and Sansome had penned her in beyond the possibility of invasion by a third. At this date smoking was a more or less doubtfully considered habit, and in the best society men smoked only in certain rigidly specified circumstances. In a drawing-room such an action might be considered the fair equivalent to powdering the feminine nose.
In such a condition, Keith was left rather awkwardly alone, and was fairly thrust upon a fictitious interest in a photograph album, at which he glowered for some moments. Then by a well-planned and skilfully executed flank movement he caught Mrs. Morrell.
"Look here," he demanded; "what has the standing army done to deserve abandonment in a hostile country?"
But she looked at him directly, without response to his playful manner.
"My friend," she said, "this is a pretty free and easy town, as no doubt you have observed, and society is very mixed. But we haven't yet come to receiving women like Mrs. Sherwood, or relishing their being mentioned to us."
"Why, what's the matter with her?" demanded Keith, astonished. "Is she as far from respectability as all that?"
"Respectable! That word isn't understood in San Francisco." She appeared suddenly to soften. "You're a dear innocent boy, so you are, and you've got a dear innocent little wife, and I'll have to look out for you."
Before the deliberate and superior mockery in her eyes as well as in her voice, Keith felt somehow like a small boy. He was stung to a momentary astonishing fury.
"By God--" he began, and checked himself with difficulty.
She smiled at him slowly.
"Perhaps I didn't mean all of that," she said; "perhaps only half of it," she added with significance. "My personal opinion is that you are likely to be a curly haired little devil; and when you look at me like that, I'm glad we're not alone."
She looked at him an enigmatic moment, then turned away from the table near which they had been standing. "Come, help me break up some of this 'twosing,'" she said.
Shortly after this the party dispersed. Mrs. Morrell said good-bye to them carelessly, or not at all, according as it happened.
"You must come again, come often," she told the Keiths. "It's pretty dull unless you make your own fun." She was half sleepily conventional, her lids heavy. "Perhaps we can have some music soon," she added. The words were careless, but she shot Keith an especial gleam.
The Keiths walked sociably home together, almost in silence. Keith, after his habit, super-excited with all the fun, the row, and the half-guilty boyish feeling of having done a little something he ought not to have done, did not want to seem too enthusiastic.
"Jolly crowd," he remarked.
"They were certainly noisy enough," said Nan indifferently; then after a moment, "Where do you suppose some of them get their clothes?"
Keith's mind was full of the excitement of the evening. He found himself reviewing the company, appraising it, wondering about it. Was Teeny McFarlane as gay as she appeared? He had never seen women smoke before; but that dark girl with the red thing in her hair puffed a cigarette. Perhaps she was Spanish--he had not met her. And Mrs. Morrell--hanged if he quite dared make her out--it wouldn't do to jump to conclusions nor too hastily to apply Eastern standards; this was a new country, fatal to make a fool mistake; well-built creature, by gad--
Nan interrupted his thoughts. He came to with a start.
"I think we'd better put the big armchair in the front room, after all," she was saying.