Chapter XXVI
 

But if Keith missed the appreciation of his triumph at home, he received full meed of it downtown. In a corner of the Empire a dozen of the biggest men in town were gathered. They were Sam Brannan; Palmer, of Palmer, Cook & Co.; Colonel E. D. Baker, the original "silver-tongued orator"; Dick Blatchford, the contractor; Judge Terry, of the Supreme Court; oily, coarse Ned McGowan; Nugent and Rowlee, editors, and some others. They were doing an exceedingly important part of their daily business: sipping their late afternoon cocktails. Calhoun Bennett joined them.

"Little item of news to interest you-all," drawled the Southerner. "I've just come down from the recorder's office. The deeds for the water lots have just been recorded." He paused.

"Have a drink, Cal," urged Dick Blatchford, "and sit down. What of it?"

"They were recorded in the names of Malcolm Neil and young Keith. I'll have a cocktail."

"That so? Pretty shaky title. Which sale did they record under?"

"Both!" said Bennett.

He stood until he saw that the significance of this had soaked in; then he drew out a chair and sat down. Ned McGowan chuckled hoarsely.

"Pretty slick!" said he. "Wonder some of us didn't think of that! I suppose they went around and scared the purchasers until they got them, pretty cheap. Trust old Neil to drive a bargain!"

But Palmer, the banker, who had been thinking, here spoke up:

"The purchasers were undoubtedly their agents," he surmised quietly.

"By God, you're right!" cried Terry. "Old Malcolm is certainly the devil without a tail!"

"Speak of him and you get him," remarked Colonel Baker, pointing out Neil, who had just entered.

They raised a shout at him, until finally the old man, reluctantly and crabbedly, sidled over to join them.

"You're discovered, old fox!" cried Terry; "and the outraged dignity of the law demands a drink."

They plied him with half-facetious, half-envious congratulations. But Neil would have none of them.

"Not my scheme," he growled. "Entirely Keith's. I'm a sleeping partner only. He engineered it all, thought of it all, dragged me in."

"You must have made a good thing out of it, Mr. Neil," suggested Palmer respectfully.

The formidable old man eyed the speaker grumpily for a moment.

"About a quarter million, cool, between us," he vouchsafed finally. He was, for some reason, willing to brag a bit.

This statement was received in admiring silence by all but Terry. Everybody but that devil-may-care and lawless pillar of the law was afraid of Neil. But Terry would joke with anybody.

"I hope you're going to let him have a little of it, Neil," he laughed.

The old man shifted his eyes from Palmer to Terry with much the air of restraining heavy guns. Terry met the impact untroubled.

"Judge," grunted the financier at last, "that young man will get his due share. He has tied me up in a contract that even your honoured court would find difficulty in breaking."

With this parting shot he arose and stumped out.

"If Malcolm Neil acknowledges he is tied up," observed Terry, who had not been in the slightest degree disturbed, "he is certainly tied up!"

"Consider the man who tied him," begged Colonel Baker. "He must, in the language of the poets, be a lallapaloozer."

"He's worth getting hold of," said Dick Blatchford.

Therefore, when, a little later, Keith appeared, he was hailed jovially, and invited to drink. Everybody was very cordial. Within five minutes he was hail fellow with them all, joking with the most august of them on terms of equality. Judge Terry, in whose court he had stood abashed, plied him with cocktails; Colonel Baker told several stories, one of which was new; Sam Brannan, with the mixture of coarseness, overbearing manners, and fascination that made him personally attractive to men and some women, called him "my boy"; and the rest of the party had whole-heartedly taken him in and were treating him as one of themselves. Keith had known all these men, of course, but they had been several cuts above him in importance, and his relations with most of them had been formal. His whole being glowed and expanded. After the first cocktail or two, and after a little of this grateful petting, he had some difficulty in keeping himself from getting too expansive, in holding himself down to becoming modesty, in not talking too much. He quite realized the meaning of this sudden cordiality; but he welcomed it as another endorsement, from the highest, most unimpeachable sources, of his cleverness and legal acumen.

They drank and talked until twilight. Then Keith began to make his excuses. They shouted him down.

"You're going to dinner with us, my son," stated Brannan. "They've opened an oyster palace down the street, and we're going to sample it."

"But my wife--" began Keith.

"Permit me," interrupted Terry, bending his tall form in courtesy. "I am about to dispatch a messenger to Mrs. Terry, and shall be pleased to instruct him to call at your mansion also."

It was so arranged. Immediately they adjourned to the new "Oyster Palace," a very gaudy white and gilt monstrosity with mirrors and negro minstrels. There were small private rooms, it seemed, and one of these was bespoken from the smiling manager, flattered at the patronage of these substantial men.

San Francisco lived high in those days. It could pay, and for pay the best will go anywhere. The dinner was quite perfect. There were more cocktails and champagne. Under the influence of good fellowship and drinks, Keith was finally prevailed upon to give the details of the whole transaction. Perhaps this was a little indiscreet, but he was carried away by the occasion. The noisy crowd suddenly became quiet, and listened with the deepest attention. When Keith had finished, there ensued a short silence. Then Judge Terry delivered his opinion.

"Sound as a dollar," he pronounced at last. "Not a hole in it. Is that your opinion, Colonel Baker?"

"Clever piece of work," nodded the orator gravely. After this interim of sobriety the dinner proceeded more and more noisily. The drink affected the different men in different ways. A flush appeared high on the cheek bones of Terry's lean face and an added dignity in his courtly manner. Brannan became louder and more positive. On Blatchford his potations had no appreciable effect except that his round face grew redder. Ned McGowan dropped even his veneer of good breeding, became foul mouthed and profane, full of unpublishable reminiscence to which nobody paid any particular attention. Calhoun Bennett's speech became softer, more deliberate, more consciously Southern. Keith, who was really most unaccustomed to the heavy drinking then in vogue, was filled with a warm and friendly feeling toward everybody. His thoughts were a bit vague, and he had difficulty in focussing his mind sharply. The lights were very bright, and the room warm.

Suddenly they were all in the open air under the stars. There seemed to have been an unexplained interim. Everybody was smoking cigars. Keith was tugging at his pocket and expostulating something about payment--something to do with the dinner. Evidently some part of him had gone on talking and thinking. The fresh air brought him back to the command. Various suggestions were being proffered. Blatchford was for hiring rigs and driving out to the Mission; Calhoun Bennett suggested the El Dorado; but Sam Brannan's bull voice decided them.

"I'm going to Belle's!" he roared, and at once started off up the street. The idea was received with acclamation. They straggled up the street toward the residential portion of town.

Keith followed. The delayed action of the drink had thrown him into a delicious whirling haze. He felt that he could be completely master of himself at any moment merely by making the effort; only it did not at present seem worth while. He knew where Belle's was: it was the ornate house diagonally across the street from his own, the one concerning which the clerk had been so evasive when they were house hunting.

Belle's was a three-story frame building, differing in no outward essential from the fashionable residences around it. On warm evenings there sometimes came through the opened windows the sound of a piano, the clink of glasses, loud laughter or singing. The chance bystander might have heard identically the same from any other house in the neighbourhood. Only Belle's occasionally--rarely occasionally--contributed a crash or an oath. Such things were, however, quickly hushed. Belle's was run on respectable lines. Men went in and out quite openly, with the tolerance of most, but to the scandal of a few. Those curious, consulting the yellowed files of the newspapers, can read little protests--signed with nom de plumes--from young women, complaining that young men of their acquaintance, after calling decorously on them, would cross quite openly to the house over the way. Yet they were powerless, for a year or so at least, to break up the custom.

For Belle's was a carry-over from the 49-51 days when of social life there was none at all. It differed from the merely disreputable house. Belle prided herself on quiet conduct and many friends. In person she was a middle-aged, still attractive Frenchwoman. She had furnished her parlours very elaborately, and she insisted that both her employees and clients should behave in the public rooms with the greatest circumspection.

Indeed, a casual visitor, unacquainted with the character of the place, might well have been deceived. The women sitting about were made up and very decollete, to be sure, but their conduct, while not always of the highest tone, was nevertheless quite devoid of freedom. Belle permitted no overt word or action; nor was any visitor subjected to another expectation than the occasional opening of a bottle of wine "for the good of the house."

But outside of the one fundamental rule of decency, the caller could make himself comfortable in his own way. He could lounge, pound the piano, joke, play games, smoke where he pleased, and enjoy what was then a rarity--the company and conversation of nimble-witted, well-dressed, beautiful women whose ideas were not narrow. Ultimate possibilities were always kept very much in the background, but that there were possibilities made for present relaxation or freedom.

Twice a year Belle was in the habit of giving a grand party. The invitations were engraved. Entertainment was on a sumptuous scale. There were dancing, all sorts of card games, an elaborate supper, the best of music, often professional entertainers of great merit. Everything was free except wine. Nearly the whole masculine population turned out for Belle's big party--judges, legislators, bankers, merchants, as well as the professional politicians and the gamblers. The most prominent men of the city frequented Belle's at other times openly, without fear of public opinion--many of them merely for the sense of freedom and relaxation they there enjoyed. Everybody was welcome.

Keith, however, knowing the character of the place, had never been inside its doors. Now, enveloped in his rosy haze, exceedingly contented with his company, he followed where they led. At the door a neat coloured maid relieved him of his hat and coat, and smiled a welcome. His dazzled vision took in a long drawing-room, soft red carpets, red brocade curtains of heavy material, with edges of gold fringe and with gold cords, chandeliers of many dangling prisms, a white marble mantel, a grand piano, a few pictures of the nude, and many chairs. Ravishingly beautiful, wonderfully dressed women sat about in indolent attitudes.

The hilarious party at once scattered through the room, Calhoun Bennett went to the piano and began to play sentimental airs. Ned McGowan, his face very red, enthroned himself in an easy chair, clasping girls who perched on either arm. He talked to them in a low voice. They leaned over to hear, and every moment or so they burst into shrieks of laughter. Judge Terry was listening intently to some serious communication Belle herself was making to him. Sam Brannan was roaring for champagne. The others were circulating here and there, talking, playing practical jokes. Altogether, to Keith's rosy vision, a colourful and delightful scene. Nobody paid him the least attention.

How long he stood there he did not know. The groups before him shifted and changed confusedly. The lights seemed to blaze and to dim, and then to blaze again. After a long interval he became aware of a touch on his arm. He looked down. A piquant, dark-eyed, tilt-nosed girl was smiling up at him.

"Wat you do?" she was begging. "You come wiz me?"

He focussed his attention on the room. It was almost empty. He saw the back of Judge Terry disappearing into the street. He passed his hand across his eyes.

"Where are the others?" he asked confusedly.

She laughed with significance. He looked down at her again. Her complexion was a sort of dead white, her lips were red and glistening, her eyes were darkened. He turned suddenly and left the house. The coloured maid, disappointed in a tip, stood in the doorway, his hat and coat in her hands, staring after him. The cool air a little cleared his brain. He stopped short in the middle of the street, trying to collect himself.

"I'm drunk," he solved finally, and proceeded very carefully toward his own house. After each dozen steps he paused to collect his thoughts before proceeding. In one of these pauses he distinctly heard a window slam shut; there were plenty of louder things, he heard only the window. He hadn't the least idea of the time of night, except that it must be very late. As a matter of fact, it was not more than half-past ten. Near his own gate he nearly ran into a woman strolling. With some instinct of apology, he turned in her direction. As his bare head was revealed in the dim light, the woman uttered a low laugh.

"And was Belle as charming as ever?" demanded Mrs. Morrell sweetly but icily. "Go in carefully now, so dear little wifey won't know."

She laughed again and moved past him. He stared after her with a vague sense of injustice, somehow; then went on.