The Gray Dawn by Stewart Edward White
A half hour later the two men, having deposited the women safely in the Sherwoods' rooms at the Bella Union, and having been unceremoniously dismissed by Mrs. Sherwood, strolled together to the veranda. They had not, until now, had a chance to exchange six words.
The newcomer, who announced himself as Milton Keith from Baltimore, proved to have a likable and engaging personality. He was bubbling with interest and enthusiasm; and these qualities, provided they are backed solidly, are always prepossessing. Sherwood, quietly studying him, concluded that such was the case. His jaw and mouth were set in firm lines; his eye, while dancing and mischievous, had depths of capability and reserves of forcefulness. But Sherwood was, by inclination and by the necessities of his profession, a close observer of men. Another, less practised, might have seen here merely an eager, rather talkative, apparently volatile, very friendly, quite unreserved young man of twenty-five. Any one, analytical or otherwise, could not have avoided feeling the attractive force of the youth's personality, the friendly quality that is nine tenths individual magnetism and one tenth the cast of mind that initially takes for granted the other man's friendliness.
At the moment Keith was boyishly avid for the sights of the new city. In these modern days of long journeys, a place so remote as San Francisco, in the most commonplace of circumstances, gathers to its reputation something of the fabulous. How much more true then of a city built from sand dunes in four years; five times swept by fire, yet rising again and better before its ashes were extinct; the resort of all the picturesque, unknown races of the earth--the Chinese, the Chileno, the Mexican, the Spanish, the Islander, the Moor, the Turk--not to speak of ordinary foreigners from Russia, England, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the out-of-the-way corners of Europe; the haunt of the wild and striking individuals of all these races. "Sydney ducks" from the criminal colonies; "shoulder strikers" direct from the tough wards of New York; long, lean, fever-haunted crackers from the Georgia mountains or the Louisiana canebrakes; Pike County desperadoes; long-haired men from the trapping countries; hard-fisted, sardonic state of Maine men fresh from their rivers; and Indian fighters from the Western Reserve; grasping, shrewd commercial Yankees; fire-eating Southern politicians; lawyers, doctors, merchants, chiefs, and thiefs, the well-educated and the ignorant, the high-minded and the scalawags, all dumped down together on a sand hill to work out their destinies; a city whose precedents, whose morals, whose laws, were made or adapted on the spot; where might in some form or another--revolver, money, influence--made its only right; whose history ranged in three years the gamut of human passion, strife, and development; whose background was the fabled El Dorado whence the gold in unending floods poured through its sluices. To the outside world tales of these things had come. They did not lose in the journey. The vast loom of actual occurrences rose above the horizon like mirages. Names and events borrowed a half-legendary quality from distances, as elsewhere from time. Keith had heard of Coleman, of Terry, of Broderick, Brannan, Gwin, Geary, as he had heard of the worthies of ancient history; he had visualized the fabled splendours of San Francisco's great gambling houses, of the excitements of her fervid, fevered life, as he might have visualized the magnificences of pagan Rome; he had listened to tales of her street brawls, her vast projects, the buccaneering raids of her big men, her Vigilance Committee of the year before, as he would have listened to the stories of one of Napoleon's veterans. Now, by the simple process of a voyage that had seemed literally interminable but now was past, he had landed in the very midst of fable. It was like dying, he told Sherwood eagerly, like going irretrievably to a new planet. All his old world now seemed as remote, as insubstantial, as phantomlike, as this had seemed.
"Even yet I can't believe it's all so," he cried, walking excitedly back and forth, and waving an extinct cigar. "I've got to see it, touch it! Why, I know it all in advance. That must be where the Jenny Lind Theatre stood-- before the fire--just opposite? I thought so! And the bay used to come up to Montgomery Street, only a block down! You see, I know it all! And when we came in, and I saw all those idle ships lying at anchor, just as they have lain since their crews deserted them in '49 to go to the mines--and I know why they haven't been used since, why they will continue to lie there at anchor until they rot or sink--"
"Do you?" said Sherwood, who was vastly amused and greatly taken by this fresh enthusiasm.
"Yes, the clipper ships!" Keith swept on. "The first cargoes in this new market make the money--the fastest clippers--poor old hulks--but you brought in the argonauts!"
So he ran on, venting his impatience, so plainly divided between his sense of duty in staying near his wife and his great desire to slip the leash, that Sherwood smiled to himself. Once again he mentioned Coleman and the Vigilantes of '51.
"I suppose he's around here? I may see him?"
"Oh, yes," said Sherwood, "you'll see him. But if you would accept a bit of advice, go slow. You must remember that such a movement makes enemies, arouses opposition. A great many excellent people--whom you will know--are a little doubtful about all that."
Keith mentioned other names.
"I know them all. They are among the most influential members of the bar." He glanced at a large watch. "Just at this hour we might find them at the Monumental engine house. What do you say?"
"I should like nothing better!" cried Keith.
"Your wife's illness is not likely to require immediate attendance?" suggested Sherwood inquiringly.
"She's only seasick--horrible voyage--she's always under the weather on shipboard--three weeks of it from Panama--Nan's as strong as a horse," replied Keith, with obvious impatience.
They walked across the Plaza to the Monumental fire engine house, a square brick structure of two stories, with wide folding doors, and a bell cupola apart. Keith paused to admire the engine. It was of the type usual in those days, consisting of a waterbox with inlet and outlet connections, a pump atop, and parallel pump rails on either side, by the hand manipulation of which the water was thrown with force from the box. The vehicle was drawn by means of a long rope, carried on a drum. This could be slacked off at need to accommodate as high as a hundred men or as few as would suffice to move her. So far this engine differed in no manner from those Keith had seen in the East. But this machine belonged to a volunteer company, one of many and all rivals. It was gayly coloured. On the sides of its waterbox were scenic paintings of some little merit. The woodwork was all mahogany. Its brass ornamentation was heavy and brought to a high state of polish. From a light rack along its centre dangled two beautifully chased speaking trumpets, and a row of heavy red-leather helmets. Axes nestled in sockets. A screaming gilt eagle, with wings outspread, hovered atop. Alongside the engine stood the hook and ladder truck and the hose cart. These smaller and less important vehicles were painted in the same scheme of colour, were equally glittering and polished. Keith commented on all this admiringly.
"Yes," said Sherwood, "you see, since the big fires, it has become a good deal a matter of pride. There are eleven volunteer companies, and they are great rivals in everything, political and social, as well as in the line of regular business, so to speak. Mighty efficient. You'll have to join a company, of course; and you better look around a little before deciding. Each represents something different--some different element. They are really as much clubs as fire companies."
They mounted to the upper story, where Keith found himself in a long room, comfortably fitted with chairs, tables, books, and papers. A double door showed a billiard table in action. Sherwood indicated a closed door across the hall.
"Card rooms," said he briefly.
The air was blue with smoke and noisy with rather vociferative conversation and laughter. Several groups of men were gathered in little knots. A negro in white duck moved here and there carrying a tray.
Sherwood promptly introduced Keith to many of these men, and he was as promptly asked to name his drink. Keith caught few of the names, but he liked the hearty, instant cordiality. Remarking on the beauty and order of the machines, loud cries arose for "Taylor! Bert Taylor!" After a moment's delay a short, stocky, very red-faced man, with rather a fussy manner, came forward.
"Mr. Keith," said a tall, dark youth, with a pronounced Southern accent, "I want foh to make you acquainted with Mr. Tayloh. Mr. Tayloh is at once the patron saint of the Monumentals, but to a large extent its 'angel' as well --I hope you understand the theatrical significance of that term, suh. He is motheh, fatheh, guardeen, and dry nurse to every stick, stone, and brick, every piece of wood, brass, or rubbah, every inch of hose, and every man and Irishman on these premises." Taylor had turned an embarrassed brick red. "Mr. Keith," went on the dark youth, explanatorily, "was just sayin' that though he had inspected carefully many fire equipments, per'fessional and amateur, he had nevah feasted his eyes on so complete an outfit as that of our Monumentals."
Keith had not said all this, but possibly he had meant it. The brick-red, stocky little man was so plainly embarrassed and anxious to depart that Keith racked his brains for something to say. All he could remember was the manufacturer's nameplate on the machine downstairs.
"I see you have selected the Hunaman engine, sir," said he. The little man's eye brightened.
"It may be, sir, that you favour the piano-box type--of the sort made by Smith or Van Ness?" he inquired politely.
"It is a point on which my opinion is still-suspended," replied Keith with great gravity.
The little man moved nearer, and his shyness fell from him.
"Oh, but really there is no choice, none whatever!" he cried. "I'm sure, sir, I can convince you in five minutes. I assure you we have gone into the subject thoroughly--this Hunaman cost us over five thousand dollars; and you may be certain we went very thoroughly into the matter before making the investment----"
He went on talking in his self-effacing, deprecatory, but very earnest fashion. The other men in the group, Keith felt, were watching with covert amusement. Occasionally, he thought to catch half-concealed grins at his predicament. In less than the five minutes the claims of the piano box were utterly demolished. Followed a dissertation on methods of fighting fire; and then a history of the Monumental Company--its members, its officers, and its proud record. "And our bell--did you know that?--is the bell used by the Vigilantes--" He broke off suddenly in confusion, his embarrassment descending on him again. A moment later he sidled away.
"But I found him very interesting!" protested Keith, in answer to implied apologies.
"Bert is invaluable here; but he's a lunatic on fire apparatus. We couldn't get along without him, but it's sometimes mighty difficult to get on with him," said some one.
Keith was making a good impression without consciously trying to do so. His high spirits of youth and enthusiasm were in his favour; and as yet he had no interests to come into conflict with those of any one present. More drinks were ordered and fresh cigars lighted. From Sherwood they now learned that Keith had but just landed, and intended to settle as a permanent resident. As one man they uprose.
"And yo' wastin' of yo' time indoors!" mourned the dark Southerner. "And so much to see!"
Enthusiastically they surrounded him and led him forth. Only a very old, very small, very decadent village is devoid of what is modernly called the "booster" spirit. In those early days of slow transportation and isolated communities, local patriotism was much stronger than it is now. And something about the air's wine of the Pacific slope has always, and probably will always, make of every man an earnest proselyte for whatever patch of soil he calls home. But add to these general considerations the indubitable facts of harbour, hill, health, opportunity, activity, and a genuine history, if of only three years, one can no longer marvel that every man, each in his own way, saw visions.
In the course of the next few hours Keith got confused and mixed impressions of many things. The fortresslike warehouses; the plank roads; the new Jenny Lind Theatre; the steam paddies eating steadily into the sand hills at the edge of town; the Dramatic Museum; houses perched on the crumbling edges of hills; houses sunk far below the level of new streets, with tin cans and ducks floating around them; new office buildings; places where new office buildings were going to be or merely ought to be; land that in five years was going to be worth fabulous sums; unlikely looking spots where historic things had stood or had happened--all these were pointed out to him. He was called upon to exercise the eye of faith; to reconstruct; to eliminate the unfinished, the mean, the sordid; to overlook the inadequate; to build the city as it was sure to be; and to concern himself with that and that only. He admired Mount Tamalpais over the way. He was taken up a high hill--a laborious journey--to gaze on the spot where he would have been able to see Mount Diabolo, if only Mount Diabolo had been visible. And every few blocks he was halted and made to shake hands with some one who was always immediately characterized to him impressively, under the breath--"Colonel Baker, sir, one of the most divinely endowed men with the gift of eloquence, sir"; "Mr. Rowlee, sir, editor of one of our leading journals"; "Judge Caldwell, sir at present one of the ornaments of our bench"; "Mr. Ben Sansome, sir, a leadin' young man in our young but vigorous social life"; and so on.
These introductions safely and ceremoniously accomplished, each newcomer insisted on leading the way to the nearest bar.
"I insist, sir. It is just the hour for my afternoon toddy."
After some murmuring of expostulation, the invitation was invariably accepted.
There was always a barroom immediately adjacent. Keith was struck by the number and splendour of these places. Although San Francisco was only three years removed from the tent stage, and although the freightage from the centres of civilization was appalling, there was no lack of luxury. Mahogany bars with brass rails, huge mirrors with gilt frames, pyramids of delicate crystal, rich hangings, oil paintings of doubtful merit but indisputable interest, heavy chandeliers of prism glasses, most elaborate free lunches, and white-clad barkeepers--such matters were common to all. In addition, certain of the more pretentious boasted special attractions. Thus, one place supported its ceiling on crystal pillars; another--and this was crowded--had dashing young women to serve the drinks, though the mixing was done by men; a third offered one of the new large musical boxes capable of playing several very noisy tunes; a fourth had imported a marvellous piece of mechanism: a piece of machinery run by clockwork, exhibiting the sea in motion, a ship tossing on its bosom; on shore, a water mill in action, a train of cars passing over a bridge, a deer chase with hounds, huntsmen, and game, all in pursuit or flight, and the like. The barkeepers were marvels of dexterity and of especial knowledge. At command they would deftly and skilfully mix a great variety of drinks--cocktails, sangarees, juleps, bounces, swizzles, and many others. In mixing these drinks it was their especial pride to pass them at arm's length from one tall glass to another, the fluid describing a long curve through the air, but spilling never a drop.
In these places Keith pledged in turn each of his new acquaintances, and was pledged by them. Never, he thought, had he met so jolly, so interesting, so experienced a lot of men. They had not only lived history, they had made it. They were so full of high spirits and the spirit of play. His heart warmed to them mightily; and over and over he told himself that he had made no mistake in his long voyage to new fields of endeavour. On the other hand, he, too, made a good impression. Naturally the numerous drinks had something to do with this mutual esteem; but also it was a fact that his boyish, laughing, half-reckless spirit had much in common with the spirit of the times. Quite accidentally he discovered that the tall, dark Southern youth was Calhoun Bennett. This then seemed to him a remarkable coincidence.
"Why, I have a letter of introduction to you!" he said.
Again and again he recurred to this point, insisting on telling everybody how extraordinary the situation was.
"Here I've been talking to him for three hours," he exclaimed, "and never knew who he was, and all the time I had a letter of introduction to him!"
This and a warm irresponsible glow of comradeship were the sole indications of the drinks he had had. Keith possessed a strong head. Some of the others were not so fortunate. Little Rowlee was frankly verging on drunkenness.
The afternoon wind was beginning to die, and the wisps of high fog that had, since two o'clock, been flying before it, now paused and forgathered to veil the sky. Dusk was falling.
"Look here," suggested Rowlee suddenly; "let's go to Allen's Branch and have a good dinner, and then drift around to Belle's place and see if there's any excitement to be had thereabouts."
"Belle--our local Aspasia, sah," breathed a very elaborate, pompous, elderly Southerner, who had been introduced as Major Marmaduke Miles.
But this suggestion brought to Keith a sudden realization of the lateness of the hour, the duration of his absence, and the fact that, not only had he not yet settled his wife in rooms of her own, but had left her on the hands of strangers. For the first time he noticed that Sherwood was not of the party.
"When did Sherwood leave?" he cried.
"Oh, a right sma't time ago," said Bennett.
Keith started to his feet.
"I should like to join you," said he, "but it is impossible now."
A chorus of expostulation went up at this.
"But I haven't settled down yet!" persisted Keith. "I don't know even whether my baggage is at the hotel."
They waived aside his objections; but finding him obdurate, perhaps a little panicky over the situation, they gave over urging the point.
"But you must join us later in the evening," said they.
The idea grew.
"I tell you what," said Rowlee, with half-drunken gravity; "he's got to come back. We can't afford to lose him this early. And he can't afford to lose us. The best life of this glorious commonwealth is as yet a sealed book to him. It is our sacred duty, gentlemen, to break those seals. What does he know of our temples of Terpsichore? Our altars to the gods of chance? Our bowers of the Cyprians?"
He would have gone on at length, but Keith, laughingly protesting, trying to disengage himself from the detaining hands, broke in with a promise to return. But little Rowlee was not satisfied.
"I think we should take no chances," he stated. "How would it be to appoint a committee to 'company him and see that he gets back?"
Keith's head was clear enough to realize with dismay that this brilliant idea was about to take. But Ben Sansome, seizing the situation, locked his arm firmly in Keith's.
"I'll see personally that he gets back," said he.