The Gray Dawn by Stewart Edward White
On the veranda of the unoccupied house above the jail Nan Keith stood rigid, her hand upon her heart. During the period of the committee's absence inside the jail she did not alter her position by a hair's breadth. She was in the hypnosis of a portentous waiting. Time fell into the abyss of eternity: whether it were ten minutes or ten hours did not matter in the least.
For this was to Nan in the nature of a revelation so sudden and so complete that it filled her whole soul. Had she known what Mrs. Sherwood was taking her to see, she would have pre-visualized a drunken, disorderly, howling, bloodthirsty mob; a huge composite of brawling antagonisms, of blind fury, of vulgar irrationalisms. Here were men filled with purpose; This was what caught at her breath--the grim silent purpose of it! The orderly progression of events, moving with the certainty of a fate, was like the steady crescendo of solemn music. And this crescendo rose in her as a tide of emotion that overflowed and drowned her. The right and wrong--as she had examined them intellectually or through, the darkened glasses of her caste prejudices--were quite lost. This was merely something primitive, wonderful, beautiful. The spectacle was at the moment of suspense, yet she felt so impatience--the wheel must turn in its own majestic circle--but only an intense expectation. And in this she felt, subconsciously, that she was one with the multitude.
The jail door swung open. The committee came out. In the middle of their compact group walked a stranger.
"Casey!" breathed a vast voice from the crowd.
An indescribable burst of grateful relief fluttered across the upturned faces as a breeze across water. It was almost timid at first, but gathered strength as it spread. It rolled up the hillside. A great, deep breath seemed to fill the lungs of the throng. The murmur swelled suddenly, was on the point of bursting into the frantic cheering of twenty thousand men.
But Coleman, his hat removed, raised his hand. In obedience to the simple gesture the cheer was stifled. In an instant all was still. The little group entered the carriages, which immediately wheeled and drove away.
Nan, standing bolt upright, her attitude still unchanged, caught her breath at the inhibition of the cheer. She did not even try to wink away the tears that rolled down her cheeks. Through them she saw the troops wheel with the precision of veterans, and march away after the carriages. The crowd melted slowly. Soon were left only the inscrutable jail, the gun still pointed at its door, the rigid ranks of Olney's Sixty, who had evidently been left on guard, and a few stragglers.
Suddenly she turned and walked away. Mrs. Sherwood followed her as rapidly as she could, but did not succeed in catching up with her. At the corner below the Keiths' house she stopped, watched until Nan had gained her own dooryard, then turned toward home, a smile sketching her lips, a light in her eyes.
Nan flung open her door and went directly to the parlour. She stood in the doorway contemplating the scene. It was very cozy. The afternoon sun slanted through the high-narrow windows of the period, gilding the dust motes floating lazily to and fro. The tea table, set with a snowy doth, glittered invitingly, its silver and porcelain, its plates of dainty sandwiches and thin waferlike cookies--Wing Sam's specialty--enticingly displayed. Two easy chairs had been drawn close, and, before the unoccupied one a low footstool had been placed. Ben Sansome sat in the other. He was, as usual, exquisitely dressed. All his little appointments were not only correct but worn easily. The varicoloured waistcoat, the sparkling studs and cravat pins, the bright, soft silk tie, were all subdued from their ordinary too-vivid effect by the grace with which they were carried. Nan saw all this, and appreciated it dispassionately, appraising him anew through clarified vision. Especially she noticed the waxed ends of his small moustache. He had, at the sound of her entrance, lighted the tea kettle; and as she came in he smiled up at her brightly.
"You see," he cried gayly, "I am doing your task for you! I have the lamp all lit!"
She paid no attention to this, but advanced two steps into the room.
"Which side are you on, anyway?" she asked abruptly and a little harshly.
Sansome raised his eyebrows in faint and fastidious surprise.
"Dear lady, what do you mean?"
"The only thing I can mean in these times: are you with the Law and Order, or with the Committee of Vigilance?"
Sansome shrugged his shoulders whimsically and sank back into his chair.
"How can you ask that, dear lady?" he begged pathetically. "You would not class me with the rabble, I hope."
But Nan did not in the slightest degree respond to the lightness of his tone. Her own was cold and detached.
"I do not know how to class you," she said. "But I asked you a question."
Sansome arose to his feet again. His manner now became sympathetic, but into it had crept the least hint of resentment,
"I don't understand your mood" he told her. "You are overwrought."
Nan's self-control slipped by ever so little. She did not actually stamp her foot, but her delivery of her next speech achieved that for her.
"Will you answer me?" she demanded. "Which side, are you on?"
"I am on the side every gentleman is on," replied Sansome, a trifle stung. "The side of the law."
"Then," she cried, with a sudden intensity, "why weren't you there--on your side--defending the jail?' Why are you here?"
Ben Sansome's knowledge of women was wide, and he therefore imagined it profound. Here he recognized the symptoms of hysteria; cause unknown. He adopted the lightly soothing.
"I thought I was asked here!" he cried with quizzical mock pathos.
She stared at him a contemplative instant so steadily that he coloured. She was not seeing him, however; she was seeing Keith, standing with his fellows in the open, under the walls of the jail and its hidden guns. With a short laugh she turned away.
"You were," said she. "Help yourself to tea. As you say, I am overwrought. I am going to lie down."
Her one compelling instinct now was to get away from him before something in her brain snapped. He became soothing.
"Won't you have a cup of tea first?" he urged. "It will do you good."
"A cup of tea!" she repeated with deadly calm. It seemed such an ending to such a day! She tried to laugh, but strangled in her throat; and she bolted wildly from the room, leaving Ben Sansome staring.