The Gray Dawn by Stewart Edward White
Both Mrs. Sherwood and Sansome applied themselves to relieving whatever embarrassment Nan might feel over this unusual situation. Sansome was possessed of great charm and social experience. He could play the game of light conversation to perfection. By way of bridging the pause in events, he set himself to describing the society in which the Keiths would shortly find themselves launched. His remarks were practically a monologue, interspersed by irrepressible gurgles of laughter from Nan. Mrs. Sherwood sat quietly by. She did not laugh, but it was evident she was amused. In this congenial atmosphere Sansome outdid himself.
"They are all afraid of each other," he told her, "because they don't know anything about each other. Each ex-washerwoman thinks the other ex- washerwoman must have been at least a duchess at home. It's terribly funny. If they can get hold of six porcelain statuettes, a half-dozen antimacassars, some gilt chairs, and a glass bell of wax flowers, they imagine they're elegantly furnished. And their functions! I give you my word, I'd as soon attend a reasonably pleasant funeral! Some of them try to entertain by playing intellectual games--you know, rhyming or spelling games--seriously!" He went on to describe some of the women, mentioning no names, however. "You'll recognize them when you meet them," he assured her. "There's one we'll call the Social Agitator--she isn't happy unless she is running things. I believe she spent two weeks once in London--or else she buys her boots there--anyway, when discussions get lively she squelches them by saying, 'Of course, my dear, that may be absolutely au fait in New York--but in London--' It corks them up every time. And 'pon honour, three quarters of the time she's quite wrong! Then there's the Lady Thug, Square jaw, square shoulder, sort of bulging out at the top--you know--in decollete one cannot help thinking 'one more struggle and she'll be free!'"
"Oh, fie, Mr. Sansome," laughed Nan, half shocked.
Sansome rattled on. The ultimate effect was to convey an impression of San Francisco society--such as existed at all--as stodgy, stupid, pretentious, unattractive. Nan was immensely amused, but inclined to take it all with a grain of salt.
"Mrs. Sherwood doesn't bear you out," she told him, "and she's the only one I've seen yet. I think we're going to have a pretty good time."
But at this point Keith returned. He was quite sobered from his temporary exhilaration, but still most cordial and enthusiastic over his little party, Sansome noted with quiet amusement that his light curly hair was damp. Evidently he had taken his own prescription as to the pump.
"Well," he announced, "I have a room--such as it is. Can't say much for it. The baggage is all here; nothing missing for a wonder. I've spoken to the manager about dinner for five." He turned to Nan with brightening interest. "Guess what I saw on the bill of fare! Grizzly bear steak! Think of that! I ordered some."
Sansome groaned comically.
"What's the matter?" inquired Keith.
"Did you ever try it before? Tough, stringy, unfit for human consumption."
But Keith was fascinated by the name of the thing.
"There's plenty else," he urged defensively, "and I always try everything once."
It was agreed that they should all meet again after an hour. Sansome renewed his promises to be on hand.
The room Keith had engaged was on the second story, and quite a different sort of affair from that of the Sherwoods'. Indeed it was little more than a pine box, containing only the bare necessities. One window looked out on an unkempt backyard, now mercifully hidden by darkness.
"This is pretty tough," said Keith, "but it is the very best I could do. And the price is horrible. We'll have to hunt up a living place about the first thing we do."
"Oh, it's all right," said Nan indifferently. The lassitude of seasickness had left her, and the excitement of new surroundings was beginning. She felt gently stirred by the give and take of the light conversation in the Sherwoods' room; and, although she did not quite realize it, she was responding to the stimulation of having made a good impression. Her subconscious self was perfectly aware that in the silken negligee, under the pink-shaded lamp, her clear soft skin, the pure lines of her radiant childlike beauty, the shadows of her tumbled hair, had been very appealing and effective. She moved about a trifle restlessly, looking at things without seeing them. "I'm glad to see the brown trunk. Open it, will you, dear? Heavens, what a mirror!" She surveyed herself in the flawed glass, moving from side to side, fascinated at the strange distortions.
"I call it positive extortion, charging what they do for a room like this," grumbled Keith, busy at the trunk. "The Sherwoods must pay a mint of money for theirs. I wonder what he does!"
Her attention attracted by this subject, she arrested her posing before the mirror.
"They certainly are quick to take the stranger in," she commented lightly.
Something in her tone arrested Keith's attention, and he stopped fussing at his keys. Nan had meant little by the remark. It had expressed the vague instinctive recoil of the woman brought up in rather conventional circumstances and in a conservative community from too sudden intimacy, nothing more. She did not herself understand this.
"Don't you like the Sherwoods?" he instantly demanded, with the masculine insistence on dissecting every butterfly.
"Why, she's charming!" said Nan, opening her eyes in surprise. "Of course, I like her immensely!"
"I should think so," grumbled Keith. "They certainly have been mighty good to us."
But Nan had dropped her negligee about her feet, and was convulsed at the figure made of her slim young body by the distorted mirror.
"Come here, Milt," she gasped.
She clung to him, gurgling with laughter, pointing one shaking finger at the monstrosity in the glass.
"Look--look what you married!"
They dressed gayly. His optimism and enthusiasm boiled over again. It was a shame, his leaving her all that afternoon, he reiterated; but she had no idea what giant strides he had made. He told her of the city, and he enumerated some of the acquaintances he had made--Calhoun Bennett, Bert Taylor, Major Marmaduke Miles, Michael Rowlee, Judge Caldwell, and others. They had been most cordial to him, most kind; they had taken him in without delay.
"It's the spirit of the West, Nan," he cried, "hospitable, unsuspicious, free, eager to welcome! Oh, this is going to be the place for me; opportunity waits at every corner. They are not tied down by conventions, by the way somebody else has done things--"
He went on rapidly to detail to her some of the things he had been told-- the contemplated public improvements, the levelling of the sand hills, the building of a city out of nothing.
"Why, Nan, do you realize that only four years ago this very Plaza had only six small buildings around it, that there were only three two-story structures in town, that the population was only about five hundred--there are thirty-five thousand now, that--" he rattled on, detailing his recently acquired statistics. Oh, potent influence of the Western spirit--already, eight hours after his landing on California's shores, Milton Keith was a "booster."
With an expansion of relief that only a woman could fully appreciate, Nan unpacked and put on a frock that had nothing whatever to do with the sea voyage, and which she had not for some time seen. In ordinary accustomed circumstances she would never have thought of donning so elaborate a toilette for a hotel dining-room, but she was yielding to reaction. In her way she was "celebrating," just as was Keith. Her hair she did low after the fashion of the time, and bound it to her brow by a bandeau of pearls. The gown itself was pale green and filmy. It lent her a flowerlike semblance that was very fresh and lovely.
"By Jove, Nan, you certainly have recovered from the sea!" cried Keith, and insisted on kissing her.
"Look how you've mussed me all up!" chided Nan, but without irritation.
They found the other three waiting for them, and without delay entered the dining-room. This, as indeed all the lower story, was in marked contrast of luxury with the bare pine bedrooms upstairs. Long red velvet curtains, held back by tasselled silken cords, draped the long windows; fluted columns at regular intervals upheld the ceiling; the floor was polished and slippery; the tables shone with white and silver. An obese and tremendous darkey in swallowtail waved a white-gloved hand at them, turned ponderously, and preceded them down the aisle with the pomp of a drum major. His dignity was colossal, awe inspiring, remote. Their progress became a procession, a triumphal procession, such as few of Caesar's generals had ever known. Arrived at the predestined table, he stood one side while menials drew out the chairs. Then he marched tremendously back to the main door, his chin high, his expression haughty, his backbone rigid. This head waiter was the feature of the Bella Union Hotel, just as the glass columns were the feature of the Empire, or the clockwork mechanism of the El Dorado.
The dinner itself went well. Everybody seemed to be friendly and at ease, but by one of those strange and sudden social transitions it was rather subdued. This was for various reasons. Nan Keith, after her brief reaction, found herself again suffering from the lassitude and fatigue of a long voyage; she needed a night's rest and knew it. Keith himself was a trifle sleepy as an after affect to the earlier drinking. Sherwood was naturally reserved and coolly observing; Mrs. Sherwood was apparently somehow on guard; and Sansome, as always, took his tone from those about him. The wild spirits of the hour before had taken their flight. It was, however, a pleasant dinner--without constraint, as among old friends. After the meal they went to the public parlour, a splendid but rather dismal place. Sherwood almost immediately excused himself. After a short and somewhat awkward interval, Nan decided she would go to bed for her needed rest.
"You won't think me rude, I know." said she.
Keith, whose buoyant temper had been sadly divided between a genuine wish to do the proper and dutiful thing by his wife and a great desire to see more of this fascinating city, rose with so evident an alacrity under restraint that Mrs. Sherwood scarcely, concealed a smile. She said her adieux at the same time, and left the room, troubling herself only to the extent of that ancient platitude about "letters to write."