Chapter XVIII
 

Perhaps this unwise antagonizing by her husband, perhaps the idleness with which the well-to-do woman was afflicted, perhaps a genuine liking for Keith, gave Mrs. Morrell just the impulse needed. At any rate, she used the common bond of music to bring him much into her company. This was not a difficult matter. Keith was extravagantly fond of just this sort of experimental amateur excursions into lighter music, and he liked Mrs. Morrell. She was a good sort, straightforward and honest and direct, no nonsense in her, but she knew her way about, and a man could have a sort of pleasing, harmless flirtation to which she knew how to play up. There was not, nor could there be--in Keith's mind--any harm in their relations. Nan was the woman for him; but that didn't mean that he was never to see anybody else, or that other women might not--of course in unessential and superficial ways--answer some of his varied needs.

Mrs. Morrell was skilful at keeping up his interest, and she was equally skilful in gradually excluding Nan. This was not difficult, for Nan was secretly bored by the eternal practising, and repelled by Mrs. Morrell's efforts to be fascinating. She saw them plainly enough, but was at first merely amused and faintly disgusted, for she was proud enough to believe absolutely that such crude methods could have no effect on Milton, overlooking the fact that the crudities of women never appear as plainly to a man as they do to another woman. For a woman is in the know. At first she offered one excuse or another, in an attempt to be both polite and plausible. She much preferred a book at home, or a whole free evening to work at making her house attractive. Later, Keith got into the habit of taking her attitude for granted.

"I promised to run over to the Morrells' this evening," he would say, "More music. Of course you won't care to come. You won't be lonely? I won't be gone late."

"Of course not," she laughed. "I'm thankful for the chance to get through with the blue room."

Nevertheless, after a time she began to experience a faint, unreasonable resentment; and Keith an equally faint, equally unreasonable feeling of guilt.

Left to itself this situation would, therefore, have righted itself, but 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!"

And later:

"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 confoundedly single-minded!

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 to know!"

"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 hearse."

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 Bennett.

"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 unthinkable!