Chapter XXIII
 

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 sadness.

"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 so?"

"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 it all----"

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 lighting slowly.

"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 emotion.

"Yes, do come," she assented softly.