Chapter XXX
 

To his surprise Ben Sansome found himself warming to what he considered a real passion. At least it was as real a passion as he was capable of feeling. Sansome had always been spoiled. Accustomed as he was to easy conquests, especially of late among the faster San Francisco women of the early days, Nan Keith's very aloofness attracted him. She dwelt in a serene atmosphere of unsuspicion, going about freely with him, taking their right relations for granted, and not thinking about them. Contemplating this, Sansome was clever enough to see that, a false move at the wrong time would do for him. Therefore, he occupied himself at first merely in making himself useful. He accepted Keith's role for him, becoming the friend of the family, dropping in often and informally, happening on the spot at just the right time to relieve Keith of the necessity of escorting Nan to this or that tea or ball. So well did he play his part that at last there came a time when Keith said:

"I'm dead tired to-night, Nan. Seems as if I couldn't stand chatter. Can't you send a note around to Ben and see if he can't get you there and back?"

This came to be a regular thing. If Sansome did not happen to be there, he was sent for. And his engagements were never such that he failed to accept.

He and Keith called each other by their given names; but even after a close intimacy had been established, he never addressed Nan by hers.

"You sound very formal," she hinted to him at last.

"To me the privilege of calling you by your 'little name' is so great an evidence of friendship, that it actually seems like flaunting that friendship to call you so before others" he replied.

Always after that he called her "Nan" when they were alone together, but "Mrs. Keith" when a third, even Keith himself, was present. In that way their tete-a-tetes were marked off a little. When alone with her he maintained the pose of one struggling manfully against tremendous temptations held back only by her sweet influence. But he never overdid it. As they came to know each other better, he talked ever the more freely of men's mysterious temptations. Nan could not define to herself exactly what they might be.

"Yesterday I couldn't see you," he told her. "I struggled with myself all day. Good God, what does a woman like you know of a man's weaknesses and temptations--But I conquered."

Nan was uneasy. She did not know quite what it was all about, but her instincts warned her.

"I am glad," she replied; and went on hastily, "but you must tell me what you think about having the tea served in the arbour on the seventh, I've been dying to ask you."

With an obvious effort to be cheerful about this fresh subject, he wrenched himself into a new mood. They consulted on the party for the seventh. He broke off abruptly to say: "Do you know you're an extraordinary person--but you are!" he overrode her protests. "Don't I know the ordinary kind? Women have a deep strength of their own that men cannot understand."

He stayed only a few minutes after that. On parting he for the first time permitted himself a lingering gaze into her eyes as he reluctantly relinquished her hand. She turned away, distinctly uneasy. Yet so skilfully had he woven, his illusion of dependence on her that she shook it off with a tender and maternal smile.

"Poor boy," she murmured. "He is so unhappy and alone!"

Sansome was an accomplished equestrian. Finding that Nan knew nothing whatever about riding, he procured her a gentle horse, and took the greatest trouble and pleasure in teaching her. She proved apt, for she had good natural control of her body. After the first uncertainty and the first stiffness had worn off, she delighted in long rides toward different parts of the peninsula. Gringo, now a full-grown dog inclining toward the shepherd more than anything else, delighted in them, too. He ranged far and wide in front of the horses, exploring every ditch and thicket, wallowing happily in every mudhole, returning occasionally to roll his comical eyes at them as though to say, "Aren't we having a good time?" for Gringo was a dog with a sense of humour. On these excursions she renewed acquaintance with the sand dunes, and the little canons with birds, and the broad beach at low tide on which it was glorious to gallop. Once or twice they even stopped at the little rancho where the Keiths had lunched. There Nan, through Sansome, who talked Spanish, was able to communicate with her kindly hosts; and Gringo met his honoured but rather snappy mother. The mother disowned him utterly. As the days grew shorter they often rode on the Presidio hills, watching the sun set beyond the Golden Gate.

One such evening they had reined up their horses atop one of the hills next the Gate. The sun had set somewhere beyond the headlands. Tamalpais was deep pink with the glow; the water in the Gate was pale lilac; the sky close to the horizon burned orange, but above turned to a pale green that made with its lucent colour alone infinite depths and spaces. Below, the darker waters twisted and turned with the tide. The western headlands were black silhouettes.

"Oh, but it is beautiful!" she said at last.

"Yes, it is beautiful," he agreed somberly; "but when one is lonely, somehow it hurts."

There ensued a short, tense silence, broken only by the soft rolling of the bit wheels in the horses' mouths.

"Yes," she agreed softly, after a moment, "I feel that, too. Yet sometimes I wonder if one doesn't see and feel more keenly when one is not too happy--" She hesitated.

"Yes, yes! Go on!" he urged in a low voice. His tone, his attitude, suddenly seemed to envelop her with understanding. He appeared to offer her aid, chivalrous aid, although no word was spoken. She had not quite meant it that way; in fact, her thought was to offer him sympathy. But somehow it was grateful. It would do no harm to enjoy it, secretly, for a moment. His unexpressed sympathy--for what she would have been unable to say--was attractive to her isolation.

Often on returning from these rides she asked him in for a cup of tea. Occasionally, when she was overheated, or damp from the fog, she would excuse herself and slip into a soft negligee. With lamp and fire lit they made a very cozy tete-a-tete. He smoked contemplatively; she stitched at the inevitable embroidery of the period. Occasionally they talked animatedly; quite as frequently they sat in sociable silence. Gringo slept by the fire dreaming of rabbits and things, his hind legs twitching as he triumphantly ran them down. One evening she caught sight of a rip in the sewing of his tobacco pouch. In spite of his protests, she insisted on sewing it up for him. She was conscious of his eyes on her while she plied the needle, and felt somehow very feminine and sure of her power.

"There!" she cried, when she had finished. "You certainly do need somebody to take care of you!"

He took it without spoken thanks, and put it slowly away in his pocket--as though, he would have kissed it. A pregnant silence followed, he sitting staring at her, she jabbing the needle idly into the arm of her chair. Suddenly, as though taking a tremendous resolution, he spoke:

"Nan, I am going to ask you a question. You must not be offended. Do you really love your husband?" At her hasty movement he hurried on: "I imagine I feel something unsatisfied about you--besides, lots of women don't."

As he probably expected, her indignation was thoroughly aroused. He took his castigation and dismissal meekly, and found some interest in the ensuing negotiations toward reconciliation. No one knew better than he how to sue for forgiveness. But he was quite satisfied to have implanted the idea, for Ben Sansome was content with slow coral-insect progress. A busy man, engaged in men's occupations, would never have had the patience for this leisurely establishment of atmosphere and influence; his impatience or passion would have betrayed him to an early outbreak. But with Sansome it was the practice of a fine art. He knew just how far to go. No one could more skilfully ingratiate himself in small ways. He always knew what gown she should wear or had worn, and always commented appreciatively on what she had on. Keith merely knew vaguely whether she looked well or ill. Sansome noticed and praised little things--her well-shod feet, the red lights in her hair, an unusual flower in her belt. He knew every hat she owned, and he had his well-marked preferences. He never made direct love, nor attempted to touch her. She felt the growing attraction, enjoyed it, but did not analyze it. She merely considered Ben Sansome as "nice," as needing guidance, as romantic----

Occasionally, after seeing more than usual of him, some feeling of reaction or some faint stirring of conscience would impel her--perhaps to convince herself of the harmlessness of it all--to make an especial effort to draw her husband out of his preoccupation into more human relations. She dressed with great care, earlier than usual; she gathered flowers for the vases, she fussed about lighting lamps, placing ash trays and chairs, generally arranging the setting for his welcome home. The preparations kindled her own enthusiasm. She became herself quite worked up in anticipation. When she heard his step, she ran to meet him in the hall. Keith happened to be tired to the point of exhaustion.

"Good heavens!" was his comment; "are we having company to-night? Why all the clothes and illumination?"

His relaxed, dispirited manner of removing and hanging up his coat reacted upon her instantly. Her high spirits sank to the depths. They ate their meal in almost complete silence. Nan could not help visualizing Sansome's appreciation of such an occasion.