The Gray Dawn by Stewart Edward White
After this interview Keith experienced a marked and formal coldness from nearly all of his old associates, Those with whom he came into direct personal contact showed him scrupulous politeness, but confined their conversation to the briefest necessary words, and quit him as soon as possible. He found himself very much alone, for at this period he had lost the confidence of one faction and had not yet gained that of the other.
His investigations encountered always increasing difficulties. In his own department he could obtain little assistance. A dead inertia opposed all his efforts. Nevertheless, he went ahead doggedly, using Krafft and some of Krafft's proteges to considerable effect.
But soon pressure was brought on him from a new direction: his opponents struck at him through his home.
For some days Nan had been aware of a changed atmosphere in the society she frequented and had heretofore led. The change was subtle, defied analysis, but was to the woman's sensitive instincts indubitable. At first she had been inclined to consider it subjective, to imagine that something wrong with herself must be projecting itself through her imagination; but finally she realized that the impression was well based. In people's attitude there was nothing overt; it was rather a withdrawl of intimacy, a puzzling touch of formality. She seemed overnight to have lost in popularity.
Truth to tell, she paid little attention to this. By now she was experienced enough in human nature to understand and to be able to gauge the slight fluctuations, the ebbs and flows of esteem, the kaleidoscopic shiftings and realignments of the elements of frivolous and formal society. Mrs. Brown had hired away Mrs. Smith's best servant; for an hour they looked askance on Mrs. Brown; then, the episode forgotten, Mrs. Brown's cork bobbed to the surface company of all the other corks. It was very trivial. Besides, just at this moment, Nan was wholly occupied with preparations for her first "afternoon" of the year. She intended as usual to give three of these formal affairs, and from them the season took its tone. The list was necessarily far from exclusive, but Nan made up for that by the care she gave her most original arrangements. She prided herself on doing things simply, but with a difference, calling heavily on her resources of correspondence, her memory, and her very good imagination for some novelty of food or entertainment. At the first of these receptions, too, she wore always for the first time some new and marvellous toilet straight from Paris, the style of which had not been shown to even her most intimate friends. This year, for example, she had done the most obvious and, therefore, the most unlikely thing: she had turned to the contemporaneous Spanish for her theme. Nobody had thought of that. The Colonial, the Moorish, the German, the Russian, the Hungarian--all the rest of the individual or "picturesque"--but nobody had thought to look next door. Nan had decorated the rooms with yellow and red, hung the walls with riatas, strings of red peppers and the like, obtained Spanish guitar players, and added enough fiery Mexican dishes to the more digestible refreshments to emphasize the Spanish flavour. She wore a dress of golden satin, a wreath of coral flowers about her hair, and morocco slippers matched in hue.
The afternoon was fine. People were slow in coming. A few of the nondescripts that must be invited on such occasions put in an appearance, responded hastily to their hostess's greeting, and wandered about furtively but interminably. Patricia Sherwood, who had come early, circulated nobly, trying to break up the frozen little groups, but in vain. The time passed. More non-descripts--and not a soul else! As five o'clock neared, a cold fear clutched at Nan's heart. No one was coming!
She worked hard to cover with light graciousness the cold-hearted dismay that filled her breast as the party dragged its weary length away. All her elaborate preparations and decorations seemed to mock her. The Spanish orchestra tinkled away gayly until she felt she could throw something at them; the caterer's servants served solemnly the awed nondescripts. Nan's cheeks burned and her throat choked with unshed tears. She could not bear to look at Patsy Sherwood, who remained tactfully distant.
About five-thirty the door opened to admit a little group, at the sight of whom Nan uttered a short, hysterical chuckle. Then she glided to meet them, both hands outstretched in welcome, Mrs. Sherwood watched her with admiration. Nan was game.
There were three in the party: Mrs. Morrell, Sally Warner, and Mrs. Scattergood. Sally Warner was of the gushing type of tall, rather desiccated femininity who always knows you so much better than you know her, who cultivates you every moment for a week and forgets you for months on end, who is hard up and worldly and therefore calculating, whose job is to amuse people and who will therefore sacrifice her best, perhaps not most useful, friend to an epigram, whose wit is barbed, who has a fine nose for trouble, and who is always in at the death. Mrs. Scattergood was a small blond woman, high voiced, precise in manner, very positive in her statements which she delivered in a drawling tone, humourless, inquisitive about petty affairs, the sort of "good woman" with whom no fault can be found, but who drives men to crime. Mrs. Morrell we know.
These three, after greeting their hostess gushingly, circulated compactly, talking to each other in low voices. Nan knew they were watching her, and that they had come for the sole purpose of getting first-hand details of her fiasco for later recounting in drawing-rooms where, undoubtedly, even now awaited eager auditors. She came to a decision. The matter could not be worse. When, the three came to make their farewells, she detained them.
"No, I'm not going to let you go yet," she told them, perhaps a little imperiously. "I haven't had half a visit with you. Wait until this rabble clears out."
She hesitated a moment over Mrs. Sherwood, but finally let her go without protest. When the last guest had departed she sank into a chair. As she was already on the verge of hysterics, she easily kept up an air of gayety.
"Girls, what an awful party!" she cried. "I could tear my hair! It was a perfect nightmare." Struggling to control her voice and keep back her tears, she added abruptly: "Now tell me what it is all about."
Mrs. Morrell and Sally Warner were plainly uneasy and at a loss how to meet this situation, but Mrs. Scattergood remained quite composed in her small, compact way.
"What's what all about, Nan, dear?" asked Sally Warner in her most vivacious manner. She keenly felt the dramatic situation and was already visualizing herself in the role of raconteuse.
"You know perfectly well. Why this funeral? Where are they all? Why did they stay away? I have a right to know."
"I'm sure there's nothing I can think of!" replied Sally artificially. "The idea!"
But Mrs. Scattergood, with all the relish of performing a noble and disagreeable duty, broke in:
"You know, dear," she said in her didactic, slow voice, "as well as we do, what the world is. Of course we understand, but people will talk!"
"In heaven's name what are you driving at? What are they talking about?" demanded Nan, as Mrs. Scattergood apparently came to a full stop.
A pause ensued while Sally and Mrs, Scattergood exchanged glances with Mrs. Morrell.
"Well," at last said Sally, judicially, buttoning her glove, her head on one side, "if I had a nice husband like yours, I wouldn't let him run around getting himself disliked for nothing."
"You ought to use your influence with him before it is too late," added Mrs. Morrell.
Nan looked helplessly from one to the other, too uncertain of her ground now to risk another step,
"So that's it," she ventured at last. "Some one has been telling lies about us!"
"Oh, dear no!" disclaimed Mrs. Scattergood, "It is only that your friends cannot understand your taking sides against them. Naturally they feel hurt. Forgive me, dear--you know I say it with all affection--but don't you think it a mistake?"
Nan was thoroughly dazed and mystified, but afraid to press the matter further. She had a suspicion Mrs. Morrell was again responsible for her difficulties, but was too uncertain to urge them to stay for further elucidation. They arose. These were the days of hoop skirts, and the set of the outer skirt had to be carefully adjusted before going out. As they posed in turn before the hall pier glass they chattered. "How lovely the house looks." "You certainly have worked hard, and must be tired, poor dear!" "Well, we'll see you to-morrow at Mrs. Terry's. You're not asked? Surely there is some mistake! Well, those things always happen in a big affair, don't they?" "See you soon." "Good-bye." "Good-bye."
Outside the house they paused at the head of the steps.
"Well, what do you think of that?" said Sally. "I really believe the poor thing doesn't know, I believe I'll just drop in for a minute at Mrs. Caldwell's. Sorry you're not going my way."
After a fashion Nan felt relieved by this interview, for she thought she discerned only Mrs. Morrell's influence, and this, she knew, she could easily overcome. While she waited for Keith's return from whatever inaccessible fastnesses he always occupied during these big afternoon receptions, she reviewed the situation, her indignation mounting. Downstairs, Wing Sam and his temporary assistants were clearing things away. Usually Nan superintended this, but to-day she did not care. When Keith finally entered the room, she burst out on him with a rapid and angry account of the whole situation as she saw it; but to her surprise he did not rise to it. His weary, spiritless, uninterested: acceptance of it astonished her to the last degree. To him her entanglement with the Cora affair--for at once he saw the trend of it all--seemed the last straw. Not even his own home was sacred. His spirit was so bruised and wearied that he actually could not rise to an explanation. He seemed to realize an utter hopelessness of making her see his point of view. This was not so strange when it is considered that this point of view, however firmly settled, was still a new and unexplained fact with himself. He contented himself with saying: "The Morrells had nothing whatever to do with it." It was the only thing that occurred to him as worth saying; but it was unfortunate, for it left Nan's irritation without logical support. Naturally that irritation was promptly transferred to him.
"Then what, in heaven's name, is it?" she demanded. "My friends are all treating me as if I had the smallpox."
"Cheerful lot of friends we've made in this town!" he said bitterly.
"What is the matter with them?" she persisted.
"The matter is they've taken me for a fool they could order around to suit themselves. They found they couldn't. Now they're through with me, even Cal Bennett," he added in a lower tone that revealed his hurt.
She paused, biting her underlip.
"Is the trouble anything to do with this Cora case?" she asked, suddenly enlightened by some vague, stray recollection.
"Of course!" he replied crossly, exasperated at the nagging necessity of arousing himself to explanations. "There's no use arguing about it. I'm going to see it through in spite of that hound McDougall and his whole pack of curs!"
"But why have you turned so against your friends?" she asked more gently, struck by his careworn look as he sprawled in the easy chair under the lamp. "I don't see! You'll get yourself disliked!"
She did not press the matter further for the moment, but three days later she brought up the topic again. In the interim she had heard considerable direct and indirect opinion. She selected after dinner as the most propitious time for discussion. As a matter of fact, earlier in the day would have been better, before Keith's soul had been rubbed raw by downtown attrition.
"I don't believe you quite realize how strongly people feel about the Cora case," she began. "Isn't it possible to drop it or compromise it or something, Milton?"
In the reaction from argument and--coldness downtown he felt he could stand no more of it at home.
"I wish you'd let that matter drop!" he said decidedly. "You couldn't understand it."
She hesitated. A red spot appeared in either cheek.
"I must say I don't understand!" she countered. "It is inconceivable to me that a man like you should turn so easily against his class!"
"My class?" he echoed wearily.
"What do such creatures as Cora and Yankee Sullivan amount to?" she cried hotly, "I suppose you'll say they are in your class next! How you can consider them of sufficient importance to go dead against your best friends on their account!"
"It is because I am right and they are wrong."
She was a little carried beyond herself.
"Well, they all think the same way," she pointed out. "Aren't you a little --a little--"
"Pig-headed," supplied Keith bitterly.
"--to put your opinion against theirs?" she finished.
Keith did not reply.
This was Nan's last attempt. She did not bring up the subject again. But she withdrew proudly and completely from all participation in society. She refused herself to callers. Once the situation was thoroughly defined, she accepted it. If her husband decided to play the game in this way, she, too, would follow, whether she approved or not. Nan was loyal and a thoroughbred. And she was either too proud or too indifferent to fight it out with the other women, in the rough and tumble of social ambition.