Chapter LIV
 

On this same afternoon of King's assassination Nan Keith, was expecting Sansome in for tea. Afternoon tea was then an exotic institution, practically unknown in California society. Ben Sansome was about the only man of Nan's acquaintance who took it as a matter of course, without either awkwardness, embarrassment, or ill-timed jest. The day had been fine, and several times she had regretted her promise as she cast an eye at the glow over the gilt-edged tops of the western hills. The sunset through the Golden Gate must to-day be very fine.

And Ben Sansome had failed her! She had made certain little especial preparations--picked flowers, herself cut the sandwiches thin, put on her most becoming tea gown. As time passed she became more and more annoyed. She was disappointed not so much at the absence of Ben Sansome as a person as at the waste of her efforts.

But at six o'clock, when she had given him up, and was about to change from her tea gown, he came in, full of apologies, very flustered, and bursting with news.

"King was shot on the street by Casey," he told her, trying not unsuccessfully for his habitual detached manner. "I stopped to get the news for you. King is not dead, but probably fatally wounded. Casey is in jail. There is a great public excitement--a mob is forming. I've been expecting something of the sort. King has been pretty free with his comments."

At seven o'clock Nan jumped to her feet in a sudden panic.

"Why, I wonder where Milton is!" she cried. "He's never been so late as this before!"

"He's probably stayed downtown to follow the course of the excitement. Naturally he would. He may not get home to supper at all."

Wing Sam announced supper. He was unheeded. Even Gringo, his ears cocked, watched the door, getting up uneasily, whining, sniffing inquiringly, and lying down again. At half-past seven Sansome firmly intervened.

"You're going to make yourself ill," he insisted, "if you don't eat something. I am hungry, anyway, and I'm not going to leave you until he comes back."

"Oh, you must be starved! How thoughtless I am!" she cried.

Sansome, who, it must be confessed, had been somewhat chagrined at the apparent intensity of her anxiety, was, within the next two hours, considerably reassured. Nan never did things halfway. For the moment she had forgotten her guest. He was certainly very kind, very thoughtful--as always--to stay here with her. She must not oppress his spirits. But the inner tension was terrible. She felt that shortly something must snap. And after supper, when they had returned to the drawing-room, a queer, low, growling, distant roar, borne on a chance shift of wind, broke one of her sentences in the middle.

"What's that?" she cried, but before Sansome had replied, she knew what It was, the roar of the mob! And Milton was somewhere there!

Suddenly a wave of reaction swept her, of anger. Why was he there? Why wasn't he at home? Why had he made no attempt to relieve her cruel anxiety? A messenger--it would have been very simple! And Ben Sansome was so kind-- as always. She turned to him with a new decision.

"I know you are dying to go see what is going on," she said. "You simply must not stay here any longer on my account. I insist! Indeed, I think I'll go to bed." But Ben Sansome, his manner becoming almost caressingly protective, would not listen.

"It isn't safe to leave you alone," he told her. "All the worst elements of the city will be out. No woman should be left alone in times of such danger. I should feel most uneasy at leaving you before your husband comes in."

His words were correct enough, but he managed to convey his opinion that he was only fulfilling what should have been Keith's first and manifest duty. She made no reply. The conversation languished and died. They sat in the lamplight opposite each other, occasionally exchanging a word or so. Sansome was content and enjoying himself. He conceived that the stars were fighting for him, and he was enjoying the hour. Nan, a prey alternately to almost uncontrollable fits of anxiety and flaming resentment, could hardly sit still.

About midnight Gringo pricked up his ears and barked sharply. A moment later Keith came in.

He was evidently dead tired and wholly preoccupied. He hung up his hat absently. Nan had sprung to her feet.

"Oh, how could you!" she cried, the pent exasperation in her voice. "I've been so anxious! I didn't know what might have happened!"

"I'm all right," replied Keith briefly. "Sorry you were worried. No chance to send you word."

His apparent indifference added fuel to Nan's irritation.

"If it hadn't been for Ben, I should have been stark, staring crazy, here all alone!".

Keith for the first time appeared to notice Sansome's presence. He nodded at him wearily.

"Mighty good of you," said he. "I appreciate it."

"I thought some man ought to be in the house at a time of such public excitement," rejoined Sansome significantly.

Keith failed to catch, or elected not to notice, the implication. Nan's cheeks turned red.

Without further remark Keith walked across to lock the window; returning, he extinguished a small lamp on the side table. He was tired out, knew he must be up early, and wanted above everything to get to bed. The hint was sufficiently obvious. Sansome rose. Nan's flush deepened with mortification.

"Well, I'll just run along," said Sansome cheerfully. He did not ask for news of the evening, nor did Keith volunteer it. Keith nodded at him briefly and indifferently. He did not mean to be rude, but his wearied mind was filled to the exclusion of everything else with the significance of this day.

Nan, feeling that she must make amends, followed Sansome into the hall. Her anxiety for Keith's safety relieved, her whole reaction was indignantly toward Sansome.

"I'm sorry to have you go," she said, with a feeling that other circumstances could not have called out, "I don't know what I'd have done without you!"

Sansome's sensitive intuitions thrilled to the feeling.

"Your husband is here to take care of you--now," he murmured. "I must be off." He took her hand, and bent over her, gazing into her eyes with the concentration of a professional hypnotist, "Good-night," he said, with a world of unexpressed meaning. "Try to get some sleep--Nan," He said her name in a lower tone, almost lingeringly, then turned abruptly and went out.

Nan stood looking for a moment at the closed door. The effect of his personality was on her spirit, the mantle of his care for her, his consideration for her every mood, wrapped her about gratefully.

She found the lights all out, and Keith already half undressed.

"I must say, Milton," she said, "you might have been a little less rude to Mr. Sansome. It would have only been decent after he had sat up here until all hours."

Keith, whose wide eyes would have showed him to be wholly preoccupied with some inner vision or problem, answered impatiently from the surface of his mind:

"What in the world did I do to Sansome?"

"You didn't do anything, that's the trouble. Do you realize he waited here over six hours for you to come in?"

"Oh, I guess he'll pull through," said Keith a little contemptuously.

Nan became indignant.

"At least," she retorted, "you ought to be grateful that he stayed to protect the place!"

"The place was in no danger," said Keith, yawning.

She checked herself, and made a fresh start.

"What's it all about? What's happened? Where have you been?" she asked.

Keith roused himself with an effort.

"I've been a little of everywhere. Lord, I'm tired! There's a mob about trying to get up nerve to hang Casey. I suppose you've heard that Casey shot King this afternoon?"

"Yes, I heard that."

"Well, when I saw nothing was going to happen, I came home, though I'm not sure the trouble is over."

Having said this, Keith fell gratefully to his pillow. Nan was nervous, wide-awake, curious. She asked a number of questions. Keith answered with extreme brevity. He was temporarily exhausted. Shortly he fell asleep between two sentences.