Chapter XVII
 

The afternoon nap suggested by Mrs. Morrell was not enjoyed, and Keith returned home feeling pretty tired and inclined to a quiet evening. Nan had to remind him of his engagement.

"Oh, let's send a note over by Wing," he said, a little crossly. "I don't feel like making an effort to-night."

But Nan's convention could not approve of anything quite so radically a last-minute decision.

"It's a little late in the day for that," she pointed out. "She may have stayed in just to see us. We can leave early."

Keith went, grumbling. They found Mrs. Morrell in full evening dress, showing her neck and shoulders, which were her best points, for she was full bosomed and rounded without losing firmness of flesh. Nan was a trifle taken back at this gorgeousness, for she had not dressed. Keith, with his usual directness, made no secret of pretending to be utterly overwhelmed.

"I didn't know we were expected to dress for a real concert with flowers!" he cried, laughing.

Mrs. Morrell shrugged her fine shoulders indifferently.

"This old rag!" she said. "Don't let that bother you. I always like to put on something cool for the evening. It's such a relief."

It developed that Morrell had an engagement, and could not stay.

"He was so disappointed," purred Mrs. Morrell.

She was all eager for the music, brushing aside this and other preliminaries.

"You play, sing?" she asked Nan. "What a pity! I'm afraid you're going to be terribly bored."

She turned instantly to Keith, hurrying him to the piano, giving the impression of being too eager to wait--almost the eagerness of a drunkard in the presence of drink. And this in turn conveyed a vibrating feeling of magnetism, of temperament under restraint, of possibilities veiled. The impact struck Keith's responsive nature full. He waked up, approached the piano with reviving interest. She struck idle chords and flashed at him over her shoulder a brilliant smile.

"What shall it be?" she demanded, still with the undercurrent of eagerness. "You choose--a man's song--something soulful. I'm just in the mood."

"Do you know the 'Bedouin Love Song?'" he inquired.

"The 'Bedouin Love Song?' No--I'm afraid not. We are so far out of the world."

"It's a new thing. It goes like this."

He hummed the air, and she followed it hesitatingly, feeling out the accompaniment. Mrs. Morrell knew her instrument and had a quick ear. Occasionally Keith leaned over her shoulder to strike for her an elusive chord or modulation. In so doing he had to press close, and for all his honest absorption in the matter at hand, could not help becoming aware of her subtle perfume, the shine of her flesh, and the brightness of her crown of hair.

"You play it," she said suddenly.

But he disclaimed the ability.

"I don't know it any better than you do, and you improvise wonderfully."

They became entirely absorbed in this most fascinating of tasks, the working out little by little of a complicated accompaniment.

"There!" she cried gayly at last. "I believe I have it. Let's try."

Keith had a strong smooth baritone, not too well trained, but free from glaring faults and mannerisms. It filled the little drawing-room ringingly. He liked the song, and he sang it with fire and a certain defiance that suited it. At its conclusion Mrs. Morrell sprang to her feet, breathing quickly, her usual hard, quick artificiality of manner quite melted.

"It's wonderful!" she cried. "It lifts one right up! It makes me feel I'd run away----" She checked herself abruptly, and turned to where Nan sat in an armchair outside the circle of light, "Don't you just adore it?" she asked in a more restrained manner, and turned back to Keith, who was standing a little flushed and excited by the song, "You have just the voice for it--with that vibrating deep quality." She reseated herself at the piano and struck several loud chords. Under cover of them she added, half under her breath, as though to herself, but distinctly audible to the man at her shoulder; "Luck for us all that you are already taken."

Keith would have been no more than human if he had not followed this cue with a look. She did not lower her eyes, but gave him back his gaze directly. It was as though some secret understanding sprang up between them, though Keith,--in half-angry confusion, could not have analyzed it.

After this they compared notes until they found several songs they both knew. Mrs. Morrell brushed aside Keith's suggestion that she herself should sing, but she did it in a way that left the implication that he was the important one vocally.

"No, no! I've been starved too long. I'm as tired of my little reed of a voice as of the tinkle of a musical box."

The close of the evening was brought about only by the return of Morrell from his engagement. Keith had utterly forgotten his fatigue, and was tingling with the enthusiasm to which his nature always rose under stimulus. The Englishman, very self-contained, clean-cut, incisive, brought a new atmosphere. He was cordial and polite, but not expansive. Keith came down from the clouds. He remembered, with compunction, Nan sitting in the armchair, the lateness of the hour, his own fatigue.

"You should hear Mr. Keith's new song, Charley," said Mrs, Morrell. "It's the most wonderful thing! The 'Bedouin Love Song,' You must surely sing it at the Firemen's Ball. It will make a great hit. No, you surely must. With a voice like yours it is selfish not to use it for the benefit of all. Don't you agree with me, Mrs. Keith?"

"I'll sing it, if you will play my accompaniment," said Keith.

On their way home Keith's enthusiasm bubbled up again.

"Isn't it great luck to find somebody to practise with?" he cried-- "Unexpected luck in a place like this! I wish you cared for music."

"Oh, I do," said Nan. "I love it. But I just can't do it, that's all."

"Did you like it to-night?"

"I liked it when you really sang" replied Nan with a little yawn, "but it always took you such a time to get at it."

A short silence fell.

"Are you really going to sing at the Firemen's Ball?" she asked curiously.

"I haven't been asked yet," he reminded her. "Don't you think it a good idea?"

"Oh, I don't know," said Nan, but her voice had a little edge. Keith felt it, and made the usual masculine blunder. He stopped short, thunderstruck at a new idea.

"Why, Nan," he cried reproachfully, "I don't believe you like her!"

"Like her!" she flashed back, her anger leaping to unreasonable proportions--"that old frump!"

No sooner had the door closed after them than Morrell's conventional smile faded, and his countenance fell into its usual hard, cold impassivity.

"Well, what is the game there?" he demanded.

"There is no game," she replied indifferently.

"There is very little money there, I warn you," he persisted.

She turned on him with sudden fury.

"Oh, shut up!" she cried. "I know my own business!"

"And I know mine," he told her, slowly and dangerously. "And I warn you to go slow unless I give the word."

She stared at him a moment, and he stared back. Then, quite deliberately, she walked over to him until her breast almost touched him. Her eyes were half closed, and a little smile parted her full lips.

"Charley," she drawled wickedly, "I warn you to go slow. And I warn you not to interfere with me--or I might interfere with you!"

Morrell shrugged his shoulders, and turned away with an assumption of indifference.

"Please yourself. But I can't afford a scandal just now."

"You can't afford a scandal!" she cried, and laughed hardly.

"Not just now," he repeated.