Chapter LXXIII
 

But Sansome, although he had put up a brave front to the last moment, was not in reality feeling near the hero of romance he looked. In spite of Morrell's cleverness, the Englishman had failed to observe that Sansome had touched the fringe of that second stage of semi-drunkenness when the "drinks were dying on him." While outwardly fairly sober, inwardly he was verging toward the incoherent. First one phase or mood would come to the top, then another, without order; sequence, or logical reason. He was momentarily dangerous or harmless. Nan's abrupt entrance scattered his last coherences. For the moment he fell back on habit, and habit was with him conventional He smiled his best smile.

"Do sit down," he urged in his most society manner.

This immediately convinced Nan that Keith must be badly hurt.

"Tell me at once!" she demanded "Where is Milton? Is he--is--"

"As far as I know," replied Sansome, still in his courtly manner, "Mr. Keith is in perfect health. As to where he is"--he waved an airy hand--"I do not know. It does not matter, does it? The point is we are cozy here together. Do sit down."

"I don't understand," said she, advancing a step nearer, her brows knit, "Don't put me off. I got a note saying--"

"I know; I wrote it," boasted Sansome fatuously.

The blood mounted her face, her fists clenched, she advanced several steps fearlessly.

"I don't, quite understand," she repeated, in hard, crisp tones. "You wrote it?' Isn't it true? What did you do such a thing for?"

"To get you here, my dear, of course," rejoined Sansome gallantly. "I knew your puritanical scruples--I love them every one--but--"

"Do you mean to say you dared decoy me here!" challenged Nan, all aflame. Her whole emotion was one of rage. It did not occur to her to be afraid of Ben Sansome, the conventional, the dilettante exquisite, without the gumption to say boo to a goose!

This Sansome answered her, the habit of society strong within him. He became deprecatory, pleading, almost apologetic. His manners were on top and his rather weak nature quailed before the blaze of her anger.

"I know it was inexcusable," he babbled, "but what could I do? I am mad about you! Do forgive me! Just sit down for a few moments. I don't blame you for being angry--any one is angry at being deceived--but do forgive me. If you'll only consider why I did it, you won't be angry. That's right," he ended soothingly, seeing that she neither spoke nor moved, "Just sit right down here and be comfortable. It must be cold driving. Let me give you a glass of sherry." He fussed about, shoving forward an armchair, arranging pillows, unstopping the decanter.

"You fool!" she ejaculated in a low voice. She looked him all up and down, and turned to go.

The door was locked! For the first time she noticed that Mrs. Morrell had not followed her in. Her heart fluttered in sudden panic, which she subdued. She moved toward the other door.

The words, and especially the frustration of her intention, brought another mood to the surface of Sansome's intoxication. The polished society man with the habit of external unselfishness disappeared. Another Sansome, whom Nan did not recognize, sprang to take his place.

"No, you don't!" he snarled. "That door's locked, too. You don't get out of here until I choose to let you out!"

"You'll let me out; and you'll let me out right now, or I'll call for help," said Nan determinedly.

Sansome deliberately seated himself, stretching his legs out straight before him, his hands in his pockets. This was the masterful role he had seen himself playing, and he instinctively took the attitude approved by the best melodramatic masters.

"Call all you please," he sneered. "Nobody's going to pay any attention to your calls at Jake's Place!"

Nan's heart went cold as she realized the complete truth of this. She was beginning to know fear. This was a new sort of creature before her, one with which she was acquainted only by instinct. She did not know what to do next, except that she saw surely that open opposition would only aggravate the situation.

"I must gain time!" she told herself, though to what end she could not have said.

Her pulses beat wildly, but she forced herself to a specious calmness.

"But Ben," she said as naturally as she could, "why did you do so foolish a thing as this? It might make all kinds of trouble. You can always see me at the house; you know that. Why did you get me out on this mad expedition? If we were to be seen here by anybody we would be deeply compromised."

The words reminded her of Mrs. Morrell; but out of sheer terror she resolutely thrust that idea from her mind. At this appeal Sansome suddenly became maudlin.

"You've treated me like a dog lately--a yellow dog!" he mourned. "What good did it do to go to your house and be treated like a yellow dog?"

Nan's faculties were beginning to rally after the first panic. Her heart was still thumping violently, but her eyes were bright, and her fighting courage was flowing back. For the first time his obvious condition registered on her brain.

"He's drunk!" she thought.

This discovery at first induced in her another, small panic. Then her courage boldly took it as a point of attack. The man was drunk and dangerous; very well, let us make him more drunk and less dangerous. That was a desperate enough expedient, but at least it was definite. She crossed deliberately to the other easy chair, and sat down.

"Well, let's sit down," she agreed. "No!" more decidedly, "you sit there, on the other side. It's more cozy," she continued, at just the right moment to get her effect on his instinct of good manners. "Now, I will have that sherry. No, don't bother; it is next my hand. You must drink with me. Let me pour it for you--with my own hands--aren't you flattered?"

She smiled across at him. This sudden reversion to an easy every-day plane had brought Sansome's first mood again to the surface. In this atmosphere of orderly tete-a-tete he was again the society man. Nan breathed freer. He murmured something inane and conventional about Hebe.

"Meaning you're a little tin god?" she chaffed.

He said something still more involved, to the effect that her presence would make a god out of the most unworthy mortal. It was all vapid, unreal, elaborate, artificial.

"If I can only keep him at this!" thought she desperately.

She had drunk her glass of sherry because she felt she needed it. Now she poured another, and without comment, refilled Sansome's whiskey glass.

"Here's to us!" she cried, lifting her glass.

Nan's plan of getting him so drunk that he would not interfere with her escape had the merit of simplicity, and also of endorsement by such excellent authority as melodrama and the novel. It had the defect of being entirely theoretical. Nan's innocence of the matter in hand had not taken into account the intermediate stages of drunkenness, nor did she realize the strength inherent in the association of ideas. As she leaned forward to fill the glasses, Sansome's eyes brightened. He had seen women pouring wine many times before. The picture before him reminded him of a dozen similar pictures taken from the gallery of his rather disreputable past. His elaborate complimentary mood vanished. He pledged her ardently, and deep in his eyes began to burn a secret covetous flame. Nan poured her, sherry under the table.

"This really is a cozy party!" she cried. "Will you have another with me?"

The third glass of neat whiskey whirled in Sansome's head. He was verging toward complete drunkenness, but in the meantime became amorous. His eyes burned, his lips fell apart. Nan tried in desperation to keep on a plane of light persiflage, to hold him to his chair and to the impersonal. Deep fear entered her. She urged more drink on him, hoping that he would be overpowered. It was like a desperate race between this man's passions and the deep oblivion that reached for them. Her mouth was dry, and her brain whirled. Only by the greatest effort could she prevent herself from flying to pieces. Sansome hardly appeared to hear her. He wagged his head at her, looking upon her with swimming, benevolent eyes. Suddenly, without warning, he sprang up, overturning with a crash the small table and the bottles and glasses.

"By God, you're the most beautiful woman I ever saw!" he cried. "Come here!"

He advanced on her, his eyes alight. She saw that the crisis had come, and threw aside all pretence.

"Keep away! Keep away!" she warned him through, gritted teeth; then, as he continued to stumble toward her, she struck at him viciously again and again with one of the small light chairs.

For a moment or so she actually managed to beat him off; but he lunged through the blows and seized her around the shoulders.

"Reg'lar little tiger cat!" he murmured with fond admiration.

His reeking breath was on her neck as he sought her mouth. She threw her head back and to one side, fighting desperately and silently, tearing at him with her hands, writhing her body, lowering her head as he forced her around, kicking at his shin. The man's strength was as horrible as it was unexpected. The efforts to which she was giving her every ounce did not appear to have the slightest effect on him, His handsome weak face continued to smile foolishly and fondly down on her.

"Reg'lar little tiger cat!" he repeated over and over.

The terrible realization dawned on her that he was too much for her. Her body suddenly went lax. She threw back her and screamed.