The Gray Dawn by Stewart Edward White
"I think we'll find most of the proper crowd down at the Empire," observed Sansome as the two picked their way across the Plaza. "That is one of the few old-fashioned, respectable gambling places left to us. The town is not what it used to be in a sporting way. It was certainly wide open in the good old days!"
The streets at night were ill lighted, except where a blaze of illumination poured from the bigger saloons. The interims were dark, and the side streets and alleys stygian. "None too safe, either," Sansome understated the case. Many people were abroad, but Keith noticed that there seemed to be no idlers; every one appeared to be going somewhere in particular. After a short stroll they entered the Empire, which, Sansome explained, was the most stylish and frequented gambling place in town, a sort of evening club for the well-to-do and powerful. Keith looked over a very large room or hall, at the lower end of which an alcove made a sort of raised stage with footlights. Here sat a dozen "nigger minstrels" with banjos strumming, and bawling away at top pressure. An elaborate rosewood bar ran down the whole length at one side--an impressive polished bar, perhaps sixty feet long, with a white-clad, immaculate barkeeper for every ten feet of it. Big mirrors of French plate reflected the whole room, and on the shelf in front of them glittered crystal glasses of all shapes and sizes, arranged in pyramids and cubes. The whole of the main floor was carpeted heavily. Down the centre were stationed two rows of gambling tables, where various games could be played--faro, keeno, roulette, stud poker, dice. Beyond these gambling tables, on the other side of the room from the bar, were small tables, easy chairs of ample proportions, lounges, and a fireplace. Everything was most ornate. The ceilings and walls were ivory white and much gilt. Heavy chandeliers, with the usual glass prisms and globes, revolved slowly or swayed from side to side. Huge oil paintings with shaded top and foot-lights occupied all vacant spaces in the walls. They were "valued" at from ten to thirty thousand dollars apiece, and that fact was advertised. "Leda and the Swan," "The Birth of Venus," "The Rape of the Sabines," "Cupid and Psyche" were some of the classic themes treated as having taken place in a warm climate. "Susannah and the Elders" and "Salome Dancing" gave the Biblical flavour. The "Bath of the Harem" finished the collection. No canvas was of less size than seven by ten feet.
The floor was filled with people. A haze of blue smoke hung in the air. There was no loud noise except from the minstrel stage at the end. A low hum of talk, occasionally accented, buzzed continuously. Many of the people wandering about, leaning against the bar, or integers of the compact groups around the gambling tables, were dressed in the height of fashion; but, on the other hand, certainly half were in the roughest sort of clothes--floppy old slouch hats, worn flannel shirts, top boots to which dried mud was clinging. These men were as well treated as the others.
Fascinated, Keith would, have liked to linger, but Sansome threaded his way toward the farther corner. As Keith passed near one of the close groups around a gambling table, it parted momentarily, and he looked into the eyes of the man in charge, cold, passionless, aloof, eyes neither friendly nor unfriendly. And he saw the pale skin; the weary, bored, immobile features; the meticulous neat dress; the long, deft fingers; and caught the withdrawn, deadly, exotic personality of the professional gambler on duty.
The whole place was unlike anything he had ever seen before. Whether it was primarily a bar, a gambling resort, or a sort of a public club with trimmings, he could not have determined. Many of those present, perhaps a majority, were neither gambling, nor drinking; they seemed not to be adding to the profits of the place in any way, but either wandered about or sat in the easy chairs, smoking, reading papers, or attending to the occasional outbreaks of the minstrels. It was most interesting.
They joined a group in the far corner. A white-clad negro instantly brought them chairs, and hovered discreetly near. Among those sitting about Keith recognized several he had met in the afternoon; and to several more he was introduced. Of these the one who most instantly impressed him was called Morrell. This was evidently a young Englishman, a being of a type raised quite abundantly in England, but more rarely seen in native Americans--the lean-faced, rather flat-cheeked, high-cheek-boned, aquiline-nosed, florid- complexioned, silent, clean-built sort that would seem to represent the high-bred, finely drawn product of a long social evolution. These traits when seen in the person of a native-born American generally do represent this fineness; but the English, having been longer at the production of their race, can often produce the outward semblance without necessarily the inner reality. Many of us even now do not quite realize that fact; certainly in 1852 most of us did not. Morrell was dressed in riding breeches, carried a short bamboo crop, smiled engagingly to exhibit even, strong, white teeth, and had little to say.
"A beverage seems called for," remarked Judge Caldwell, a gross, explosive, tobacco-chewing man, with a merry, reckless eye. The order given, the conversation swung back to the topic that had occupied it before Keith and Sansome had arrived.
It seemed that an individual there present, Markle by name--a tall, histrionic, dark man with a tossing mane--conceived himself to have been insulted by some one whose name Keith did not catch, and had that very afternoon issued warning that he would "shoot on sight." Some of the older men were advising him to go slow.
"But, gentlemen," cried Markle heatedly, "none of you would stand such conduct from anybody! What are we coming to? I'll get that----as sure as God made little apples."
"That's all right; I don't blame yo'," argued Calhoun. Bennett. "Do not misunderstand me, suh. I agree with yo', lock, stock, an' barrel. My point is that yo' must be circumspect. Challenge him, that's the way."
"He isn't worth my challenge, sir, nor the challenge of any decent man. You know that, sir,"
"Well, street shootings have got to be a little, a little----"
He fell silent, and Keith, looked up in surprise to see why. A man was slowly passing the table. He was a thick, tall, strong man, moving with a freedom that bespoke smoothly working muscles. His complexion was florid; and this, in conjunction with a sweeping blue-black moustache, gave him exactly the appearance of a gambler or bartender. Only as he passed the table and responded gravely to the formal salutes, Keith caught a flash of his eye. It was gray, hard as steel, forceful, but so far from being cold it seemed to glow and change with an inner fire, The bartender impression was swept into limbo forever.
"That's one good reason why," said Calhoun Bennett, when this man had gone on.
But Markle overflowed with a torrent of vituperative profanity. His face was congested and purple with the violence of his emotions. Keith stared in astonishment at the depth of hatred stirred. He turned for explanation to the man next him, Judge Girvin, a gentleman of the old school, weighty, authoritative, a little pompous.
"That is Coleman," Judge Girvin told him. "W.T. Coleman, the leader of the vigilance movement of last year."
"That's why," repeated Calhoun Bennett, with quiet vindictiveness, "lawlessness, disrespect foh law and order, mob rule. Since this strangler business, no man can predict what the lawless element may do!"
This speech was the signal for an outburst against the Vigilance Committee, so unanimous and hearty that Keith was rather taken aback. He voiced his bewilderment.
"Why, gentlemen, I am, of course, only in the most distant touch with these events; but the impression East is certainly very general that the Vigilantes did rather a good piece of work in clearing the city of crime."
They turned on him with a savagery that took his breath. Keith, laughing, held up both hands.
"Don't shoot, don't shoot! I'll come down!" he cried. "I told you I didn't know anything about it!"
They checked themselves, suddenly ashamed of their heat. Calhoun Bennett voiced their feeling of apology.
"Yo' must accept our excuses, Mr, Keith, but this is a mattah on which we feel strongly. Our indignation was naturally not directed against yo', suh."
But Judge Girvin, ponderous, formal, dignified, was making a pronouncement.
"Undoubtedly, young sir," he rolled forth at Keith, "undoubtedly a great many scoundrels were cleared from the city at that time. That no one would have the temerity to deny. But you, sir, as a lawyer, realize with us that even pure and equitable justice without due process of law is against the interests of society as a coherent whole. Infringement of law, even for a good purpose, invariably brings about ultimate contempt, for all law. In the absence of regularly constituted tribunals, as in a primitive society-- such as that prior to the Constitutional Convention of September, 1849--it may become necessary that informal plebiscites be countenanced. But in the presence of regularly constituted and appointed tribunals, extra-legal functions are not to be undertaken by the chance comer. If defects occur in the administration of the law, the remedy is in the hand of the public. The voter----" he went on at length, elaborating the legal view. Everybody listened with respect and approval until he had finished. But then up spoke Judge Caldwell, the round, shining, perspiring, untidy, jovial, Silenus- like jurist with the blunt fingers.
"We all agree with you theoretically, Judge," said he. "What these other fellows object to, I imagine, is that the law has such a hell of a hang fire to it."
Judge Girvin's eyes flashed, and he tossed back his white mane. "The due forms of the law are our heritage from the ages!" he thundered back. "The so-called delays and technicalities are the checks devised by human experience against the rash judgments and rasher actions by the volatile element of society! They are the safeguards, the bulwarks of society! It is better that a hundred guilty men escape than that one innocent man should suffer!"
The old judge was magnificent, his eyes alight, his nostrils expanded, his head reared back defiantly, all the great power of his magnetism and his authority brought to bear. Keith was thrilled. He considered that the discussion had been lifted to a high moral plane.
By rights Judge Caldwell should have been crushed, but he seemed undisturbed,
"Well," he remarked comfortably, "on that low average we must have quite a few innocent men among us after all."
"What do you mean, sir?" demanded Judge Girvin, halted in mid career and not catching the allusion.
"Surely, Judge, you don't mean to imply that you endorse Coleman and his gang?" put in Calhoun Bennett courteously but incredulously.
"Endorse them? Certainly not!" disclaimed Caldwell. "I need my job," he added with a chuckle.
Bennett tossed back his hair, and a faint disgust appeared in his dark eyes, but he said nothing more. Caldwell lit a cigar with pudgy fingers.
"My advice to you," he said to Markle, "is that if you think you're going to have to kill this man in self-defence"--he rolled an unabashed and comical eye at the company--"you be sure to see our old friend, Sheriff Webb, gets you to jail promptly." He heaved to his feet, "Might even send him advance word," he suggested, and waddled away toward the bar.
A dead silence succeeded his departure. None of the younger men ventured a word. Finally Judge Girvin, with a belated idea of upholding the honour of the bench, turned to Keith.
"Judge Caldwell's humour is a little trying at times, but he is essentially sound."
The young Englishman, Morrell, uttered a high cackle.
"Quite right," he observed; "he'll fix it all right for you, Markle."
At the bad taste of what they thought an example of English stupidity every one sat aghast. Keith managed to cover the situation by ordering another round of drinks. Morrell seemed quite pleased with himself.
"Got a rise out of the old Johnny, what?" he remarked to Keith aside.
Judge Caldwell returned. The conversation became general. Vast projects were discussed with the light touch--public works, the purchase of a theatre for the town hall, the sale by auction of city or state lands, the extension of wharves, the granting of franchises, and many other affairs, involving, apparently, millions of money. All these things were spoken of as from the inside. Keith, sipping his drinks quietly, sat apart and listened. He felt himself in the current of big affairs. Occasionally, men sauntered by, paused a moment. Keith noticed that they greeted his companions with respect and deference. He experienced a feeling of being at the centre of things. The evening drifted by pleasantly.
Along toward midnight, John Sherwood, without a hat, stopped long enough to exchange a few joking remarks, then sauntered on.
"I know him," Keith told Calhoun Bennett. "That's John Sherwood. He's at our hotel. What does he do?"
"Oh, don't you know who he is?" replied Bennett. "He's the owner of this place."
"A gambler?" cried Keith, a trifle dashed.
"Biggest in town. But square."
Keith for a moment was a little nonplussed. The sudden intimacy rose up to confront him. They were kind people, and Mrs. Sherwood was apparently everything she should be--but a public gambler! Of course he had no prejudices--but Nan--