The Gray Dawn by Stewart Edward White
Keith was sorry next morning, but he was not repentant, in the sense of feeling that he had done anything fatally wrong. He was disgusted with himself. He wasted no regrets, but did register a very definite intention not to let that happen again! It was all harmless enough, once in a way, but it was not his sort of thing. Nan would not understand it a bit--why should she? His head ached, and he was feeling a little conscience-stricken about Nan, anyway. He must take her around more, see more of her. Business had been very absorbing lately, but now that this deal had been brought off successfully, it was only due her and himself that he take a little time off. In his present mood he convinced himself, as do most American business or professional men, that he was being driven in his work, and that he wanted nothing better than a let-up from the grind. As a matter of fact, he--and they--love their work.
In this frame of mind he started downtown, rather late. On the street he met a number of his friends. A good many of them chaffed him good-naturedly about the night before. By the time he reached his office he was feeling much better. Things were assuming more of an everyday comfortable aspect. He had not been seated ten minutes before Dick Blatchford drifted in, smoking a black cigar that gave Keith a slight qualmish feeling. Dick seemed quite unaffected by the evening before.
"Hullo, Milt!" he boomed, rolling his heavy form into a chair, his round, red face beaming. "How's the wild Injin this morning? Say, you're a wonder when you get started! You needn't deny it; wasn't I there?" He shook his head, chuckling fatly. "Look here," he went on, "I'm busy this morning--got to get down to North Beach to see Harry Meigs--and I guess you are." He tossed over a package of papers that he produced from an inside pocket. "Look those over at your leisure. I think we better sue the sons of guns. Let me know what you think." He fished about in a tight-drawn waistcoat pocket with a chubby thumb and forefinger, pulled out a strip of paper, and flipped it to Keith as casually as though it were a cigarette paper. "There's a little something as a retainer," said he. "Well, be good!"
After he had lumbered out, Keith examined the check. It was for one thousand dollars. If anything were needed to restore his entire confidence in himself, this retainer would have sufficed. The little spree was regrettable, of course, but it had brought him a client--and a good one!
Two days later Keith, who now had reason to spend more time in his office, received another and less welcome visitor: this was Morrell. The young Englishman, his clean-cut face composed to wooden immobility, his too- close-set eyes squinting watchfully, came in as though on a social call.
"Just dropped around to look at your diggin's," he told the surprised Keith. "Not badly fixed here; good light and all.".
He accepted a cigar, and sat for some moments, his hat and stick carefully disposed on his knees.
"Look here, Keith," he broke into a desultory chat after a few minutes. "Deucedly awkward, and all that, of course; but I've been wondering whether you would, be willing to tide me over--remittances late, and all that sort of thing. Stony for the moment. Everything lovely when the mails arrive. Neighbours, see a lot of each other, and that sort, you know."
Keith was totally unprepared for this, and floundered. Morrell, watching him calmly, went on:
"Of course I wouldn't think of coming to you, old chap--plenty of people glad to bank for me temporarily--but I wanted you to know just how we stand--Mrs. Morrell and I--that we feel friendly to you, and all that sort of thing, you know! You can rely on us--no uneasiness, you know."
"Why, that's very kind of you," returned Keith, puzzled.
"Not a bit! The way I looked at it was that a chap wouldn't borrow from a man he wasn't friendly with, it isn't done." He laughed his high, cackling laugh, "So I said to Mimi, 'the dear man must be worryin' his head off.' It was lucky for you, old top, that a woman of the world with some sense saw you the other night instead of some feather-headed gossipin' fool. But Mimi's not that."
Keith was slowly beginning to suspect, but as yet he considered his suspicion unjust.
"How much do you need?" he asked,
"Five hundred dollars," replied Morrell coolly.
"I doubt I have that sum free in ready cash."
Morrell looked him in the eye.
"I fancy you will be able to raise it," he said very deliberately.
The men looked at each other.
"This is blackmail, then," said Keith without excitement.
Morrell became very stiff and English in manner.
"Words do not frighten me, sir. This is a personal loan. It is an action between friends, just as my silence on the subject of your peccadillo is a friendly action. I mention that silence, not as a threat, but as an evidence of my own friendly feeling. I see I have made a mistake."
He arose, his bearing very frigid. Keith was naturally not in the least deceived by this assumption of injured innocence, but he had been thinking.
"Hold on!" he said. "You must forgive my being startled; and you must admit you were a little unfortunate in your presentation. For this loan, what security?"
"My personal note," replied Morrell calmly.
"I must look into my resources. I will let you know to-morrow."
"Not later than to-morrow. I'll call at this hour," said Morrell with meaning.
After the Englishman had gone Keith considered the matter at leisure. Although of a sanguine and excitable temperament When only little things were involved, he was clear headed and uninfluenced by personal feeling in real emergencies.
First, would the Morrells carry out the implied threat? His instinct supplied that answer. Of Morrell himself he had never had any trust. Now he remembered what had never really struck him before: that Morrell, even in this fast and loose society, had never been more than tolerated, and that, apparently, only because of the liveliness of his wife. He had the indefinable air of a bad 'un. And Keith's knowledge of women was broad enough to tell him that Mrs. Morrell would be relentless.
Second, would a denial avail against their story? His commonsense told him that if the Morrells started this thing they would carry it through to a finish. There was no sense in it otherwise, for such an attack would mean the burning of most of their social bridges. Morrell could get witnesses from Belle's--say, the coloured maid whom he had not tipped--and there were his hat and coat.
Third, could he afford to let them tell the tale? As far as his position in the city, either professionally or socially, most decidedly yes. But at home, as decidedly no. In her calmest, most judicial, trusting, loving mood, Nan could never understand. Her breeding and upbringing were against it. She could never comprehend the difference between such a place as Belle's and any disreputable house--if there was a difference. This point needed little argument.
Then he must pay.
Having definitely decided this, he repressed his natural inclinations toward anger, drew the money, laid it aside in his drawer, and went on with his work. When Morrell came, in next morning, very easy and debonair, he handed out the gold pieces and took in return the man's note, without relaxing the extreme gravity and formality of his manner.
"Thanks, old chap!" cried Morrell. "You've saved my life. I won't forget." He paused; then cackled harshly: "Good joke that! No, I won't forget!"
Keith bowed coldly, waiting. Morrell, with, a final cackle, made leisurely for the door. As he laid his hand on the knob, Keith spoke:
"By the way, Morrell."
"Take care you don't overdo this," advised Keith, very deliberately.
Morrell examined him. Keith's face was grim. He smiled enigmatically.
"Tact is a blessed gift, old top," said he, and went out.