The Gray Dawn by Stewart Edward White
Mrs. Sherwood prepared herself first of all by powdering her nose. This simple operation, could it have been seen by the "respectable" members of the community, would in itself have branded her as "fast," In those days cosmetics of any sort were by most considered inventions of the devil. It took extraordinary firmness of character even to protect one's self against sunburn by anything more artificial than the shadow of a hat or a parasol. Then she assumed a fascinating little round hat that fitted well down over her small head. This, innocent of pins, was held on by an elastic at the back. A ribbon, hanging down directly in front, could be utilized to steady it in a breeze.
"All ready," she announced, picking up a tiny parasol, about big enough for a modern doll. "You may carry my mantle."
Near the foot of the veranda steps waited Sam at the heads of a pair of beautiful, slim, satiny horses. Their bay coats had been groomed until they rippled and sparkled with every movement of the muscles beneath. Wide red- lined nostrils softly expanded and contracted with a restrained eagerness; and soft eyes rolled in the direction of the Sherwoods--keen, lithe, nervous, high-strung creatures, gently stamping little hoofs, impatiently tossing dainty heads, but nevertheless making no movement that would stir the vehicle that stood "cramped" at the steps. Their harness carried no blinders; their tails, undocked, swept the ground; but their heads were pulled into the air by the old stupid overhead check reins until their noses pointed almost straight ahead. It gave them rather a haughty air.
Sherwood stepped in first, took the reins in one hand, and offered his other hand to his wife. Sam instantly left the horses' heads to hold a wicker contrivance against the arc of the wheels. This was to protect skirts from dusty tires. Mrs. Sherwood settled as gracefully to her place as a butterfly on its flower. Sam snatched away the wicker guards. Sherwood spoke to the horses. With a purring little snort they moved smoothly away. The gossamerlike wheels threw the light from their swift spokes. Sam, half choked by the swirl of dust, gazed after them. Sherwood, leaning slightly forward against the first eagerness of the animals, showed a strong, competent, arresting figure, with his beaver hat, his keen grim face, his snow-white linen, and the blue of his brass-buttoned-coat. The beautiful horses were stepping as one, a delight to the eye, making nothing whatever of the frail vehicle at their heels. But Sam's eye lingered longest on the small stately figure of his mistress. She sat very straight, her head high, the little parasol poised against the sun, the other hand clasping the hat ribbon.
"Dem's quality foh sure!" said Sam with conviction.
Sherwood drove rapidly around the edge of the Plaza and, so into Kearney Street. From here to the water front were by now many fireproof brick and stone structures, with double doors and iron shatters, like fortresses. So much had San Francisco learned from her five disastrous fires. The stone had come from China, the brick also from overseas. Down side streets one caught glimpses of huge warehouses--already in this year of 1852 men talked of the open-air auctions of three years before as of something in history inconceivably remote. The streets, where formerly mule teams had literally been drowned in mud, now were covered with planking. This made a fine resounding pavement. Horses' hoofs went merrily klop, klop, klop, and the wheels rumbled a dull undertone. San Francisco had been very proud of this pavement when it was new. She was very grateful for it even now, for in the upper part of town the mud and dust were still something awful. Unfortunately the planks were beginning to wear out in places; and a city government, trying to give the least possible for its taxes, had made no repairs.
There were many holes, large or small: jagged, splintered, ugly holes going down to indeterminate blackness either of depth or mud. Private philanthropists had fenced or covered these. Private facetiousness had labelled most of them with signboards. These were rough pictures of disaster painted from the marking pot, and various screeds--"Head of Navigation," "No Bottom," "Horse and Dray Lost Here," "Take Soundings," "Storage, Inquire Below," "Good Fishing for Teal," and the like.
Among these obstructions Sherwood guided his team skilfully, dodging not only them, but other vehicles darting or crawling in the same direction. There were no rules of the road. Omnibuses careered along, every window rattling loudly; drays creaked and strained, their horses' hoofs slipping against wet planks; horsemen threaded their way; nondescript delivery wagons tried to outrattle the omnibuses. The din was something extraordinary--hoofs drumming, wheels rumbling, oaths and shouts, and from the sidewalks the blare and bray of brass bands in front of the various auction shops. Newsboys and bootblacks darted in all directions, shouting raucously as they do to-day. Cigar boys, an institution of the time, added to the hubbub. Everybody was going in the same direction, some sauntering with an air of leisure, some hurrying as though their fortunes were at stake.
A wild shriek arose, and everybody made room for the steam sand shovel on its way to dump the sand hills into the bay. It was called the "steam paddy" to distinguish it from the "hand paddy"--out of Cork or Dublin. It rumbled by on its track, very much like juggernaut in its calm indifference as to how many it ran over. Sherwood's horses looked at it nervously askance; but he spoke to them, and though they trembled they stood.
Now they debouched on the Central Wharf, and the sound of the hoofs and the wheels changed its tone. Central Wharf extended a full mile into the bay. It was lined on either side its narrow roadway by small shacks, in which were offered fowls, fish, vegetables, candy, refreshments. Some of them were tiny saloons or gambling houses. But by far the majority were the cubicles where the Jewish slop sellers displayed their wares. Men returning from the mines here landed, and here replenished their wardrobes. Everything was exposed to view outside, like clothes hung out after a rain.
The narrow way between this long row of shops was crowded almost dangerously. Magnificent dray horses, with long hair on the fetlocks above their big heavy hoofs, bridling in conscious pride of silver-mounted harness and curled or braided manes, rose above the ruck as their ancestors, the warhorses, must have risen in medieval battle. The crowd parted before them and closed in behind them. Here and there, too, a horseman could be seen--with a little cleared space at his heels. Or a private calash picking its way circumspectly.
From her point of vantage on the elevated seat Mrs. Sherwood could see over the heads of people. She sat very quietly, her body upright, but in the poised repose characteristic of her. Many admiring glances were directed at her. She seemed to be unconscious of them. Nevertheless, nothing escaped her. She saw, and appreciated and enjoyed, every phase of that heterogeneous crowd--miners in their exaggeratedly rough clothes, brocaded or cotton clad Chinese, gorgeous Spaniards or Chilenos, drunken men, sober men, excited men, empty cans or cases kicking around underfoot, frantic runners for hotels or steamboats trying to push their way by, newsboys and cigar boys darting about and miraculously worming their way through impenetrable places. Atop a portable pair of steps a pale, well-dressed young man was playing thimble-rig on his knees with a gilt pea. From an upturned keg a preacher was exhorting. And occasionally, through gaps between the shacks, she caught glimpses of blue water; or of ships at anchor; or, more often, of the tall pile drivers whose hammers went steadily up and down.
Sherwood guided his glossy team and light spidery vehicle with the greatest delicacy and skill. He was wholly absorbed in his task. Suddenly up ahead a wild turmoil broke out. People crowded to right and left, clambering, shouting, screaming. A runaway horse hitched to a light buggy came careering down the way.
A collision seemed inevitable. Sherwood turned his horses' heads directly at an open shop front. They hesitated, their small pointed ears working nervously. Sherwood spoke to them. They moved forward, quivering, picking their way daintily. Sherwood spoke again. They stopped. The runaway hurtled by, missing the tail of the buggy by two feet. A moment later a grand crash marked the end of its career farther down the line. Again Sherwood spoke to his horses, and exerted the slightest pressure on the reins. Daintily, slowly, their ears twitching back and forth, their fine eyes rolling, they backed out of the opening.
Throughout all this exciting little incident the woman had not altered her pose nor the expression of her face. Her head high, her eye ruminative, she had looked on it all as one quite detached from possible consequences. The little parasol did not change its angle. Only, quite deliberately, she had relinquished the ribbon by which she held on her hat, and had placed her slender hand steadyingly on the side of the vehicle.
The bystanders, already leaping down from their places of refuge and again crowding the narrow way, directed admiring eyes toward the beautiful, nervous, docile horses, the calm and dominating man, and the poised, dainty creature at his side. One drunken individual cheered her personally. At this a faint shell pink appeared in her cheeks, though she gave no other sign that she had heard. Sherwood glanced down at her, amused.
But now emerged the Jew slop seller, very voluble. He had darted like a rat to some mysterious inner recess of his burrow; but now he was out again filling the air with lamentations, claims, appeals for justice. Sherwood did not even glance toward him; but in the very act of tooling his horses into the roadway tossed the man some silver. Immediately, with shouts and cheers and laughter, the hoodlums nearby began a scramble.
The end of the long wharf widened to a great square, free of all buildings but a sort of warehouse near one end. Here a rope divided off a landing space. Close to the rope the multitude crowded, ready for its entertainment. Here also stood in stately grandeur the three livery hacks of which San Francisco boasted. They were magnificent affairs, the like of which has never elsewhere been seen plying for public hire, brightly painted, highly varnished, lined with silks, trimmed with solid silver. The harnesses were heavily mounted with the same metal. On their boxes sat fashionable creatures, dressed, not in livery, but throughout in the very latest of the late styles, shod with varnished leather, gloved with softest kid. Sherwood drove skilfully to the very edge of the roped space, pushing aside the crowd on foot. They growled at him savagely. He paid no attention to them, and they gave way. The buggy came to a stop. The horses, tossing their heads, rolling their eyes, stamping their little hoofs, nevertheless stood without need of further attention.
Now the brass bands blared with a sudden overwhelming blast of sound, the crowd cheered noisily; the runners for the hotels began to bark like a pack of dogs. With a vast turmoil of paddle wheels, swirling of white and green waters, bellowing of speaking trumpets, throwing of handlines and scurrying of deck hands and dock hands, the Panama came to rest. After considerable delay the gangplank was placed. The passengers began to disembark, facing the din much as they would have faced the buffeting of a strong wind. This was the cream of the entertainment for which the crowd had gathered; for which, indeed, the Sherwoods had made their excursion. Each individual received his meed of comment, sometimes audible and by no means always flattering. Certainly in variety both of character and of circumstance they offered plenty of material. From wild, half-civilized denizens of Louisiana's canebrakes, clinging closely to their little bundles and their long rifles, to the most polished exquisites of fashion they offered all grades and intermediates. Some of them looked rather bewildered. Some seemed to know just what to do and where to go. Most dove into the crowd with the apparent idea of losing their identity as soon as possible. The three magnificent hacks were filled, and managed, with much plunging and excitement, to plow a way through the crowd and so depart. Amusing things happened to which the Sherwoods called each other's attention. Thus a man, burdened with a single valise, ducked under the ropes near them. A paper boy happened to be standing near. The passenger offered the boy a fifty- cent piece.
"Here, boy," said he, "just carry this valise for me."
The paper boy gravely contemplated the fifty cents, dove into his pocket, and produced another.
"Here, man," said he, handing them both to the traveller, "take this and carry it yourself."
One by one the omnibuses filled and departed. The stream of passengers down the gangplank had ceased. The crowd began to thin. Sherwood gathered his reins to go. Mrs. Sherwood suddenly laid her hand on his forearm.
"Oh, the poor thing!" she cried, her voice thrilling with compassion.
A young man and a steward were supporting a girl down the gangplank. Evidently she was very weak and ill. Her face was chalky white, with dark rings under the eyes, her lips were pale, and she leaned heavily on the men. Although she could not have heard Mrs. Sherwood's exclamation of pity, she happened to look up at that instant, revealing a pair of large, dark, and appealing eyes. Her figure, too, dressed in a plain travelling dress, strikingly simple but bearing the unmistakable mark of distinction, was appealing; as were her exquisite, smooth baby skin and the downward drooping, almost childlike, curves of her lips. The inequalities of the ribbed gangplank were sufficient to cause her to stumble.
"She is very weak," commented Mrs. Sherwood.
"She is--or would be--remarkably pretty," added Sherwood. "I wonder what ails her."
Arrived at the foot of the gangplank the young man removed his hat with an air of perplexity, and looked about him. He was of the rather florid, always boyish type; and the removal of his hat had revealed a mat of close- curling brown hair, like a cap over his well-shaped head. The normal expression of his face was probably quizzically humorous, for already the little lines of habitual half laughter were sketched about his eyes.
"A plunger," said John Sherwood to himself, out of his knowledge of men; then as the young man glanced directly toward him, disclosing the colour and expression of his eyes, "a plunger in something," he amended, revising his first impression.
But now the humorous element was quite in abeyance, and a faint dismay had taken its place. One arm supporting the drooping girl, he was looking up and down the wharf. Not a vehicle remained save the heavy drays already backing up to receive their loads of freight. The dock hands had dropped and were coiling the line that had separated the crowd from the landing stage.
With another exclamation the woman in the carriage rose, and before Sherwood could make a move to assist her, had poised on the rim of the wheel and leaped lightly to the dock. Like a thistledown she floated to the little group at the foot of the gangplank. The steward instantly gave way to her evident intention. She passed her arm around the girl's waist. The three moved slowly toward the buggy, Mrs. Sherwood, her head bent charmingly forward, murmuring compassionate, broken, little phrases, supporting the newcomer's reviving footsteps.
Sherwood, a faint, fond amusement lurking in the depths of his eyes, quietly cramped the wheels of the buggy.