The Gray Dawn by Stewart Edward White
Up to this time Nan Keith had undergone the experience of nine out of ten married women in early California: that is, she had been neglected. Neglect in some form or other was the common lot of the legally attached feminine. How could it logically be otherwise? In the turbulent, varied, restless, intensely interesting, deeply exciting life of the pioneer city only a poor-spirited, bloodless, nerveless man would have thought to settle down to domesticity. A quiet evening at home stands small chance, even in an old-established community, against a dog fight on the corner or a fire in the next block; and here were men fights instead, and a great, splendid, conflagration of desires, appetites, and passions, a grand clash of interests and wills that burned out men's lives in the space of a few years. It was a restless time, full of neglected women. This neglect varied in degree to be sure. Nan was lucky there. No other woman had thrust her way in, no other attraction lured Keith from her, as had happened to so many others. She possessed all his interest. But at present that interest seemed so attenuated, so remote!
After her revulsion of feeing the afternoon the Vigilantes first rose in their might, she withdrew within her pride. Nan was no meek and humble spirit. But the scales had dropped from her eyes as to affairs about her. San Francisco suddenly became something besides a crude collection of buildings. For the first time she saw it as a living entity, strong in the throes of growth. She devoured eagerly all the newspapers, collected avidly all the rumours. Whenever possible, she discussed the state of affairs; but this was difficult, for nearly every one was strongly partisan for one side or another, and incapable of anything but excitement and vituperation. The Sherwoods were a great comfort to her here. While approving of the new movement, they nevertheless refused to become heated, and retained a spirit of humour. Sherwood was not a member of the Committee of Vigilance, but he had subscribed heavily--and openly--to its funds; he had assisted it with his counsels; and it was hinted that, sub-rosa, he had taken part in some of the more obscure but dangerous operations.
"I am an elderly, peace-loving, respectable citizen," he told Nan, "and I stand unequivocably for law and order and for justice, for the orderly doing of things; and against violence, mob spirit, and high-handedness."
"Why, John Sherwood!" cried Nan, up in arms at once. "I'd never have believed you could be on the side of Judge Terry and that stripe."
"Oho!" cried Sherwood, delighted to have drawn her. "Now we have it! But what made you think I was on that side?"
"Why--didn't you just say--"
"Oh," said Sherwood comfortably, "I was using real meanings, not just word tags. In my opinion real law and order, orderly doing of things, et cetera, are all on the other side."
"And the men--" cried Nan, aglow.
"The men are of course all noble, self-sacrificing, patriotic, immaculate demigods who--" He broke off, chuckling at Nan's expression. "No, seriously, I think they are doing a fine work, and that they'll go down in history."
"You're an old dear!" cried Nan, impulsively kissing his cheek.
"Take care," he warned, "you're endangering my glasses and making my wife jealous."
Nan drew back, a little ashamed at having shown her feelings; and rather astonished herself at their intensity.
In the course of these conversations the pendulum with her began again to quiver at the descent. Through the calmly philosophical eye of the ex- gambler, John Sherwood, she partly envisaged the significance of what was happening--the struggling forth of real government from the sham. Her own troubles grew small by comparison. She began to feel nearer Keith in spirit than for some time past, to understand him better, even--though this was difficult--to get occasionally a glimpse of his relations toward herself. It was all very inchoate, instinctive, unformed; rather an instinct than a clear view. She became restless; for she had no outlet either for her own excitement or the communicated excitement of the times. It was difficult to wait, and yet wait she must. For what? She did not know!
On the crucial June evening she sat by the lamp trying in vain to concentrate her attention on a book. The sound of the door bell made her jump. She heard Wing Sam's shuffle, and his cheerful greeting which all her training had been unable to eliminate. Wing Sam always met every caller with a smiling "Hello!" A moment later she arose in some surprise as Mrs. Morrell entered the room.
Relations between the women had never been broken off, though the pretence of ordinary cordiality had long since been dropped. When Mrs. Morrell found it expedient to make this call, she spent several hours trying to invent a plausible excuse. She was unable to do so. Finally she gave it up in angry despair.
"As long as it is not too bald, what difference does it make?" she said to herself cynically.
And out of this desperation, and by no means from cleverness, she hit on the cleverest thing possible. Instead of coming to make a friendly call, she pretended to be on an errand of protest.
"It's about your dog," she told Nan, "he's a dear good dog, and a great friend of ours. But cannot you shut him up nights? He's inclined to prowl around under my windows, and just the sound of him there keeps me awake. I know it's foolish; but I am so nervous these days--"
"Why, of course," said Nan with real contrition. "I'd no idea--"
Gringo was at the moment ingratiating himself with Wing Sam in re one soup bone of no use to anybody but dogs. If he could have heard Mrs. Morrell's indictment, he would have been both grieved and surprised: Gringo never prowled anywhere. Like most rather meaty individuals, he was a very sound sleeper; and in the morning he often felt a little uneasy in his conscience as to the matter of stray trespassing cats or such small fry. He had every confidence that his instincts would warn him of really important things, like burglars. Still, the important things are not all of life, nor burglars all the duty of a dog.
Having slandered the innocent Gringo, Mrs. Morrell stayed for a chat. Apparently she was always just on the point of departure, but never went. Nan, being, as she thought, in the wrong as to the worthy Gringo, tried her best to be polite, but was miserably conscious of being snippy.
At the end of an hour the door bell rang again. If Nan had been watching, she might have seen Mrs. Morrell's body relax as though from a tension. After a moment Wing Sam shuffled into the room carrying a soiled folded paper.
"Man he tell you lead this chop-chop," said he.
Murmuring an apology, Nan opened the paper. With a cry she sprang to her feet. Her face had gone white.
"What is it?" cried Mrs. Morrell in apparent anxiety.
Without a word Nan extended the paper. Written in pencil were these words:
For an instant Mrs. Morrell did not dare look up. She was thoroughly angry at what she thought to be her husband's stupidity.
"Why, that wouldn't deceive a child!" she thought contemptuously.
"How dreadful! Who is Alder?" she said, merely to say something.
Nan shook her head.
"I don't know," she replied rather wildly. "One of the Vigilantes, I suppose. I must go out there. At once!"
She ran to the hall where she began to rummage for cloaks. Mrs. Morrell followed her in wonderment. She was going to take this crude bait after all! Mrs. Morrell had not the slightest idea Nan still loved her husband.
"You can't go alone!" she cried in apparent sympathy. "You poor child! Jake's Place--at this time of night!"
"I'd go to hell if he needed me there!" cried Nan.
Mrs. Morrell became suddenly capable and commanding.
"Then I shall go with you," she announced firmly.
"Oh, you're good to me!" cried Nan, full of contrition, and feeling, beneath her anxiety, that she had misjudged her neighbour's heart.
Mrs. Morrell took charge. She lit the lantern, led the way to the stable, did the most toward harnessing the horse. They made rather a mess of it, but the horse was gentle and reliable. When they had backed the buggy out of the barn, she insisted on driving.
"You're in no fit condition," she told Nan, and Nan obediently climbed in beside her.
The drive was made in silence, except that occasionally Nan urged hurry. She sat bolt upright, her hands clasped in her lap, her figure rigid, trying to keep hold of herself. At Jake's Place a surly hostler appeared and led away their horse. Jake's Place was in darkness save for one lighted room on the ground floor and a dimly illuminated bar at the other end.
It is but just to a celebrated resort that had seen and was still to see much of life to say that it knew nothing of the plot. Sansome had engaged the ground-floor parlour, and ordered a fire and drinks. Morrell had commanded a little supper for later. Now two ladies appeared. This was all normal. Without drinks, little suppers, and the subsequent appearance of ladies, Jake's Place would soon have languished.
Nan leaped over the wheel to the ground as soon as the buggy had stopped, and before the dilatory hostler had cramped aside the wheel.
"Where is he?" she demanded breathlessly. The hostler jerked a thumb at the lighted windows. Without a word Nan ran up the steps and to the door. The hostler looked after her flying figure, then grinned up at Mrs. Morrell.
"Yum! yum!" said he, "but she's the eager little piece!"
Mrs. Morrell gave him a coin, and as he moved away with the horse, she, too, ran up the steps. Nan had entered the parlour door, leaving it open behind her. Mrs. Morrell closed it again, and locked it. Then, with a certainty that proved her familiarity with the place, she walked down the length of the veranda to a hall, which she entered.
Nan had burst into a parlour with an open fire. Before it stood a small table crowded with bottles and glasses. Sansome rose, rather unsteadily, from one of the easy chairs. Nan uttered an exclamation of relief as she recognized him.
"Oh, I'm glad you're here!" she cried. "This is kind! How is he? Where is he?"