Chapter XLIII
 

Morrell went directly from Keith's office to Keith's house. He was not particularly angry; for some time he had expected just this result, but since he had threatened, he intended to accomplish. Finding Nan Keith at home, he plunged directly at the subject in his most direct and English fashion. She listened to him steadily until he had finished.

"Is that all?" she then asked him quietly,

"That's all," he acknowledged.

She arose.

"Then I will say, Mr. Morrell, that I do not believe you. I know my husband thoroughly, and I am beginning to know you. I believe that is my only comment. Good afternoon."

He made a half attempt to point to her the way to corroborative evidence, but she swept this superbly aside, Finally he took his correct leave, half angry, half amused, wholly cynical, for to his mind the reason for her indifference to the news he brought lay in what he supposed to be her relations with Ben Sansome.

"Bally ass!" he apostrophized himself. "Might have known how she'd take it."

His reading of Nan's motives was, of course, incorrect. Her first feeling was merely a white heat of anger against Morrell, whom she had never liked. Perhaps after a little this emotion might have carried over into, not distrust, but an uneasiness as to the main issue; but before she had arrived at this point Keith came in to deliver an ill-timed warning. As ill luck would have it, and as such coincidences often come about in the most perverse fashion, Keith had, down the street, met some malicious fool who had dropped a laughing remark about Sansome. It was nothing in itself. Ordinarily, Keith would have paid no attention to it. To-day it clashed with his mood. Even now his jealousy was not stirred in the least, but his sense of appearances was irritated. By the time he had reached home he had worked up a proper indignation.

"Look here, Nan," he blurted out as soon as he had closed the door behind him, "you're seeing too much of Sansome. Everybody's talking."

"Who is everybody?" she asked very quietly.

"Of course I know it's all right," he blundered ahead tactlessly--the gleam in her eye should have warned him that he might have omitted that reassurance--"but just the looks of the thing. And he's such a weak and wishy-washy little nonentity!"

Her sense of justice aroused by this, she sprang to the defence of Sansome.

"You are quite mistaken there," she said with dignity. "Men of that type are never understood by men of yours. He is my friend--and yours. And he has been very kind to both of us."

"Well, just the same, you ought not to get yourself talked about," repeated Keith stubbornly.

"Do you distrust me?" she demanded.

"Heavens, no! But you don't realize how it looks to others. He's coming here morning, noon, and night."

"It seems to me I may be the best judge of my own conduct."

"Well," said Keith deliberately, "I don't know that you are. You must remember that you are my wife, and that you bear my name. I have something to say about it. I'm telling you; but if you cannot manage the matter properly, I'll just have to drop a hint to Sansome."

At that she blazed out.

"Do that and you will regret it to the last day of your life!" she flared. "If you'd be as careful with the name of Keith as I am, it would not suffer!"

"What do you mean by that?" he asked? after a blank pause.

She had not intended to use that weapon, but now she persisted placidly.

"I mean that if our name has been talked about, it has not been because of any action of mine."

His heart was beating wildly. In the multiplicity of fighting interests he had actually forgotten (for the moment) all about his office visitor. But he, too, had pluck.

"I see you have had a call from our friend Morrell," he ventured.

"Well!" she challenged.

Her head was back, and her breath was short. This crisis had come upon them swiftly, unexpectedly, unwanted by either. Now it loomed over them in a terrible, because unknown, portent. Each realized that a misstep might mean irreparable consequences, but each felt constrained to go on. The situation must now be developed. Keith, faced with this new problem, lost his heat, and became cool, careful, wary, as when in court his faculties marshalled themselves. Nan, on the other hand, while well in control of her mind, poised on a brink.

"I don't know what he told you," said Keith, the blood suffusing his face and spreading over his ears and neck, "but I'm going to tell you everything he would be justified in telling you. One evening a number of years ago, in company with a crowd, I went inside the doors of a disreputable place, and immediately came out again. It was part of a spree, and harmless. That was all there was to it. You believe me?" In spite of his iron control, a deep note of anxiety vibrated in his voice as he proffered the question.

Her heart gave a leap for pride as he made this confession, his face very red, but his head back, She knew he spoke the truth, the whole truth.

"Of course I believe you," she said, trying to speak naturally, but with a mad impulse to laugh or cry. She swallowed, gripped her nerves, and went on. "But, naturally," she told him,

"I consider myself as good a custodian of the family reputation as yourself."

There the matter rested. By mutual but tacit consent they withdrew cautiously from the debated ground, each curiously haunted by a feeling that catastrophe had been fortunately and narrowly averted.