Chapter XLVI
 

In this voluntary seclusion Nan saw laterally only two persons. One of these was Mrs. Sherwood. The ex-gambler's wife called frequently; and, for some reason, Nan never refused to see her, although she did not make her visitor particularly welcome. Often an almost overmastering impulse seized her to open her soul to this charming, sympathetic, tactful woman, but something always restrained her. Her heart was too sore. And since an inhibited impulse usually expresses itself by contraries, her attitude was of studied and aloof politeness. Mrs. Sherwood never seemed to notice this. She sat in the high-ceilinged "parlour," with its strange fresco of painted fish-nets, and chatted on in a cheerful monologue, detailing small gossipy items of news. She always said goodbye cordially, and went out with a wonderful assumption of ignorance that anything was wrong. Her visits did Nan good, although never could the latter break through the ice wall of reserve. Nan's conscience often hurt her that she could answer this genuine friendship with so little cordiality. She wondered dully how Mrs. Sherwood could bring herself to be so good to so cross-grained a creature as herself. As a matter of fact, the women were marking time in their relations--Mrs. Sherwood consciously, Nan unconsciously--until better days.

The other regular caller was Ben Sansome. His attitude was in some sense detached. He was quietly, deeply sympathetic in his manner, never obtrusive, never even hinting in words at his knowledge of the state of affairs, but managing in some subtle manner to convey the impression that he alone fully understood. Nan found that, without her realization, almost in spite of herself, Sansome had managed to isolate her with himself on a little island of mutual understanding, apart from all the rest of the world.

Her life was now becoming circumscribed. Household, books, some small individual charities, and long afternoon walks filled her days. At first Sansome had accompanied her on these tramps, but the unfailing, almost uncanny insight of the man told him that at such times her spirit really craved solitude, so he soon tactfully ceased all attempts to join her. Her usual walk was over the cliffs toward the bay, where, from some of the elevations near Russian Hill, she could look out to the Golden Gate, or across to Tamalpais or the Contra Costa shores. The crawl of the distant blue water, the flash of wing or sail, the taste of salt rime, the canon shadows of the hills, the flying murk, or the last majestic and magnificent blotting out of the world as the legions of sea fog overtoiled it, all answered or soothed moods in her spirit. Sometimes she forgot herself and overstayed the daylight. At such times she scuttled home half fearfully for the great city, like a jungle beast, was most dangerous at night.

One evening, returning thus in haste, she was lured aside by the clang of bells and the glare of a fire. No child ever resisted that combination, and Nan was still a good deal of a child. Almost before she knew, it she was wedged fast in a crowd. The pressure was suffocating; and, to her alarm, she found herself surrounded by a rough-looking set of men. They were probably harmless workingmen, but Nan did not know that. She became frightened, and tried to escape, but her strength was not equal to it. Near the verge of panic, she was fairly on the point of struggling, when she felt an arm thrown around her shoulder. She looked up with a cry, to meet Ben Sansome's brown eyes.

"Don't be afraid; I'm here," he said soothingly.

In the revulsion Nan fairly thrilled under the touch of his manly, protection. This impulse was followed instantly, by an instinct of withdrawal from the embrace about her shoulder, which was in turn succeeded by a fierce scorn of being prudish in such circumstances. Sansome masterfully worked her out through the press. At the last tactful moment he withdrew his arm. She thanked him, still a little frightened.

"It was certainly lucky you happened to be here!" she ended.

"Lucky!" he laughed briefly. "I knew that sooner or later you'd need me."

He stopped at that, but allowed her questions to elicit the fact that every afternoon he had followed her at a discreet distance, scrupulously respecting her privacy, but ready for the need that sooner or later must surely arrive. Nan was touched.

"You have no right to endanger yourself this way!" he cried, as though carried away. "It is not just to those who care for you!" and by the tone of his voice, the look of his eye, the slight emphasizing pressure of his hand he managed to convey to her, but in a manner to which she could not possibly object, his belief that his last phrase referred more to himself than to any one else in the world.

It was about this period that John Sherwood, dressing for dinner, remarked to his wife:

"Patsy, the more I see of you the more I admire you. Do you remember that Firemen's Ball when you started in to break up that Keith-Morrell affair? He dropped her so far that I haven't heard her plunk yet! I don't know what made me think of it--it was a long time ago."

"Yes, that was all right," she replied thoughtfully, "but I'm not as pleased as I might be with the Keith situation."

Sherwood stopped tying his cravat and turned to face her.

"He's perfectly straight, I assure you," he said earnestly. "I don't believe he knows that any other woman but his wife exists. I know that. But I wish he'd go a little easier with the men."

"Oh, I wasn't thinking of him. She's the culprit now."

"What!" cried Sherwood, astonished, "that little innocent baby!"

"That 'little innocent baby' is seeing altogether too much of Ben Sansome."

Sherwood uttered a snort of masculine scorn.

"Ho! Ben Sansome?"

"Yes, Ben Sansome."

"Why, he's a notorious butterfly."

"Well, it looks now as though he intended to alight."

"Seriously?"

She nodded. Sherwood slowly went on with his dressing.

"I like that little creature," he said at last. "She's the sort that strikes me as born to be treated well and to be happy. Some people are that way, you know; just as others are born painters or plumbers." She nodded in appreciation. "And if you give the word, Patsy, I'll go around and have a word with Keith--or spoil Sansome--whichever you say----"

She laughed.

"You're a dear, Jack, but if you love me, keep your hands off here."

"Are you bossing this job?" he asked gravely.

"I'm bossing this job," she repeated, with equal gravity.

He said nothing more for a time, but his eyes twinkled.