The Gray Dawn by Stewart Edward White
She was a slender woman, of medium height, with a small, well-poised head, on which the hair lay smooth and glossy. Her age was somewhere between thirty and thirty-five years. A stranger would have been first of all impressed by the imperious carriage of her head and shoulders, the repose of her attitude. Become a friend or a longer acquaintance, he would have noticed more particularly her wide low brow, her steady gray eyes and her grave but humorous lips. But inevitably he would have gone back at last to her more general impression. Ben Sansome, the only man in town who did nothing, made society and dress a profession and the judgment of women a religion, had long since summed her up: "She carries her head charmingly."
This poised, wise serenity of carriage was well set off by the costume of the early fifties--a low collar, above which her neck rose like a flower stem; flowing sleeves; full skirts with many silken petticoats that whispered and rustled; low sandalled shoes, their ties crossed and recrossed around white slender ankles. A cameo locket, hung on a heavy gold chain, rose and fell with her breast; a cameo brooch pinned together the folds of her bodice; massive and wide bracelets of gold clasped her wrists and vastly set off her rounded, slender forearms.
She stood quite motionless in the doorway, nodding with a little smile in response to the men's sweeping salutes.
"You will excuse me gentlemen, I am sure," said Sherwood formally, and instantly turned aside.
The woman in the doorway thereupon preceded him down a narrow, bare, unlighted hallway, opened another door, and entered a room. Sherwood followed, closing the door after him.
"Want something, Patsy?" he inquired.
The room was obviously one of the best of the Bella Union. That is to say, it was fairly large, the morning sun streamed in through its two windows, and it contained a small iron stove. In all other respects it differed quite from any other hotel room in the San Francisco of that time. A heavy carpet covered the floor, the upholstery was of leather or tapestry, wall paper adorned the walls, a large table supported a bronze lamp and numerous books and papers, a canary, in a brass cage, hung in the sunshine of one of the windows, flitted from perch to perch, occasionally uttering a few liquid notes under its breath.
"Just a little change, Jack, if you have some with you," said the woman. Her speaking voice was rich and low.
Sherwood thrust a forefinger into his waistcoat pocket, and produced one of the hexagonal slugs of gold current at that time.
"Oh, not so much!" she protested.
"All I've got. What are you up to to-day, Patsy?"
"I thought of going down to Yet Lee's--unless there is something better to do."
"Doesn't sound inspiring. Did you go to that fair or bazaar thing yesterday?"
She smiled with her lips, but her eyes darkened.
"Yes, I went. It was not altogether enjoyable. I doubt if I'll try that sort of thing again."
Sherwood's eye suddenly became cold and dangerous.
"If they didn't treat you right--"
She smiled, genuinely this time, at his sudden truculence.
"They didn't mob me," she rejoined equably, "and, anyway, I suppose it is to be expected."
"It's that cat of Morrell's," he surmised.
"Oh, she--and others. I ought not to have spoken of it, Jack. It's really beneath the contempt of sensible people."
"I'll get after Morrell, if he doesn't make that woman behave," said Sherwood, without attention to her last speech.
She smiled at him again, entirely calm and reasonable.
"And what good would it do to get after Morrell?" she asked. "Mrs. Morrell only stands for what most of them feel. I don't care, anyway. I get along splendidly without them." She sauntered over to the window, where she began idly to poke one finger at the canary.
"For the life of me, Patsy," confessed Sherwood, "I can't see that they're an inspiring lot, anyway. From what little I've seen of them, they haven't more than an idea apiece. They'd bore me to death in a week."
"I know that. They'd bore me, too. Don't talk about them. When do they expect the Panama--do you know?"
But with masculine persistence he refused to abandon the topic.
"I must confess I don't see the point," he insisted. "You've got more brains than the whole lot of them together, you've got more sense, you're a lot better looking"--he surveyed her, standing in the full light by the canary's cage, her little glossy head thrown back, her pink lips pouted teasingly at the charmed and agitated bird, her fine clear features profiled in the gold of the sunshine--"and you're a thoroughbred, egad, which most of them are not."
"Oh, thank you, kind sir." She threw him a humourous glance. "But of course that is not the point."
"Oh, isn't it? Well, perhaps you'll tell me the point."
She left the canary and came to face him.
"I'm not respectable," she said.
At the word he exploded.
"Respectable? What are you talking about? You talk as though--as though we weren't married, egad!"
"Well, Jack," she replied, a faint mocking smile curving the corners of her mouth, "when it comes to that, we did elope, you'll have to acknowledge. And we weren't married for quite a long time afterward."
"We got married as soon as we could, didn't we?" he cried indignantly. "Was it our fault that we didn't get married sooner? And what difference did it make, anyway?"
"Now don't get all worked up," she chided. "I'm just telling you why, in the eyes of some of these people, I'm not 'respectable.' You asked me, you know."
"Go on," he conceded to this last.
"Well, we ran away and weren't married. That's item one. Then perhaps you've forgotten that I sat on lookout for some of your games in the early days in the mining camps?"
"Forgotten?" said Sherwood, the light of reminiscence springing to his eyes.
The same light had come into hers.
"Will you ever forget," she murmured, "the camps by the summer streams, the log towns, the lights, the smoke, the freedom--the comradeship--"
"Homesick for the old rough days?" he teased.
"Kind of," she confessed. "But it wasn't 'respectable'--a--well, a fairly good-looking woman in a miner's saloon."
He flared again.
"Do you mean to tell me they dare say--"
"They dare say anything--behind our backs," she said, with cool contempt. "It's all drivelling nonsense. I care nothing about it. But you asked me. Don't bother your head about it. Have you anything to suggest doing this morning, instead of Yet Lee's?" She turned away from him toward the door leading into another room. "I'll get my hat," she said over her shoulder.
"Look here, Patsy," said Sherwood, rather grimly, "if you want to get in with that lot, you shall."
She stopped at this, and turned square around.
"If I do--when I do--I will," she replied. "But, John Sherwood, you mustn't interfere--never in the world! Promise!" She stood there, almost menacing in her insistence, evidently resolved to nip this particularly masculine resolution in the bud.
"Egad, Patsy," cried Sherwood, "you are certainly a raving beauty!"
He covered the ground between them in two strides, and crushed her in his arms. She threw her head back for his kiss.
A knock sounded, and almost immediately a very black, very bullet-headed young negro thrust his head in at the door.
"Sam," said Sherwood deliberately, "some day I'm going to kill you!"
"Yes, sah! yes, sah!" agreed Sam heartily.
"Well, what the devil do you want?"
"Th' Panama done been, signalled; yes, sah!" said the negro, but without following his head through the door.
"Well, what the devil do you suppose I care, you black limb?" roared Sherwood, "and what do you mean coming in here before you're told?"
"Yes, sah! yes, sah, dat's right," ducked Sam, "Shell I awdah the team, sah?"
"I suppose we might as well go see her docked. Would you like it?" he asked his wife.
"I'd love it."
"Then get the team. And some day I'm going to kill you."