Chapter XV
 

Keith got home about daylight to find Nan, terribly anxious, waiting up for him. He brushed away her anxiety with the usual masculine impatience at being made a fuss over, gave a brief account of the fire--omitting mention of his narrow escape--and insisted that she go to bed. After a few moments she obeyed, and immediately fell asleep. Keith bathed himself and changed, made a cup of coffee, and wandered about rather impatiently waiting for time to go downtown. Wing Sam appeared, the morning paper came. The sun gained strength, and finally tempted him outside.

For some time he prowled around, examining Nan's efforts at gardening. There was not much to show as yet, but Keith had already the eye of faith so essential to the Californian, and saw plainly trees, shrubs, and flowers where now only spears of green were visible. The Morrells' garden next door was already well grown, and he cast on it an appraising eye. No sign of life showed about the place except a thread of smoke from the kitchen chimney. It was still early.

Nevertheless, five minutes later Mrs. Morrell opened the side door and stepped forth. She had on a wide leghorn hat, and carried a basket and scissors as though to gather flowers. Immediately she caught sight of Keith and waved him a gay greeting. He vaulted the fence and joined her.

"Aren't these early morning hours perfect? Isn't this glorious sunshine?" she greeted him.

As a matter of fact Mrs. Morrell seldom rose before noon, and detested early morning hours and glorious sunshine. She was inclined to consider the usual remarks in their praise as sheer affectation. But she adored fires, and often went to them when they promised well enough. Sometimes she attended in company with certain of her men friends; and sometimes alone, cloaked as a man. She liked the destruction and stimulation of them. She had been to the fire just extinguished, and seeing Keith in the garden, had put on her fluffiest and gone out to him. It was time this most attractive young man next door paid her more attention.

"How does the hero of the fire survive?" she asked him archly.

"Hero?"

"Don't pretend ignorance. Charles told me all about it. He heard your tale at the Monumental."

"It's hardly heroism to get out of a scrape the best way possible."

"It's heroic to save lives, I think; but especially heroic to keep your head in an emergency."

"Mr. Morrell all right?" asked Keith, to change the subject.

"He is sleeping off the fire--and the after effects. You men need watching every minute--even when we think you must be in danger of your lives."

She laughed and clipped a few flowers at random.

"Have you been moving furniture all these days? We've seen nothing of you. I thought we were going to have some music. I do my little five-finger exercises all by myself and nobody knows but I am playing Beethoven. You ought in Christian charity to help me out--whether you want to or not. What do you think of our garden? Don't you adore flowers?"

"No, I don't believe I do," replied Keith bluntly. "I like to see a pretty woman amongst 'em," he went on gallantly, "they set her off. It's like dresses. No good to show me pretty frocks--unless they're filled."

"La! You are so clever; at times I'm really afraid of you," said she.

She went on tossing a few blooms into her basket. Under the stimulus of the fire she had acted on impulse in going out into the garden. She realized it as perhaps a mistake. Keith's early morning freshness and fitness made her feel less sure of herself than usual. She had an uneasy impression that she was not at her best, and this reacted on her ability to exercise her usual magnetism. In fact, Keith, the least observant of men in such things, could not avoid noticing her rather second-hand looking skin, and that her features were more pronounced than he had thought.

"Do come over this evening for some music," she begged. "You can take a nap this afternoon, and you can go home early."

Keith had been just a little uneasy over this second interview with Mrs. Morrell. His straightforward nature was inclined to look back on the impression she had made on him at the supper party with a half-guilty sense of some sort of vague disloyalty he could not formulate. Now he felt much satisfied with himself, and quite relieved. Therefore, he accepted.

"I shall be very glad to," said he.

At breakfast, which was rather late, he told Nan of the meeting and the invitation. Nan's clear lines, fresh creamy skin, bright young eyes, looked more than usually attractive to him.

"Perhaps she can play," he said. "Let's go find out. And you must wear your prettiest gown; I'm proud of my wife, and I want her to look her very best."

A little later he remarked:

"I wonder if she isn't considerably older than Morrell."