The Gray Dawn by Stewart Edward White
Keith returned to the hotel very late, and somewhat exalted. He was bubbling over with good stories, interesting information, and ideas; so he awakened Nan, and sat on the edge of the bed, and proceeded enthusiastically to tell her all about it. She was very sleepy. Also an exasperated inhabitant of the next room pounded on the thin partition. Reluctantly Keith desisted. It took him some time to get to sleep, as the excitement was seething in his veins.
He came to consciousness after a restless night. The sun was streaming in at the window. He felt dull and heavy, with a slight headache and a weariness in all his muscles. Worst of all, Nan, in a ravishing pink fluffy affair, was bending over him, her eyes dancing with amusement and mischief.
"And how is my little madcap this morning?" she inquired with mock solicitude. This stung Keith to some show of energy, and he got up.
The sun was really very bright. A dash of cold water made him feel better. Enthusiasm began to flow back like a tide. The importance of the evening before reasserted its claims on his imagination. As he dressed he told Nan all about it. In the midst of a glowing eulogy of their prospects, he checked himself with a chuckle.
"Guess what the Sherwoods are," said he.
Nan, who had been half listening up to this time, gave him her whole attention.
"A gambler! A common gambler!" she repeated after him, a little dismayed.
"I felt the same way for a minute or so," he answered her tone cheerfully. "But after all I remembered--you must remember--that society here is very mixed. And anyway, Sherwood is no 'common gambler'; I should say he was a most uncommon gambler!" He chuckled at his little joke. "All sorts of people are received here. We've got to get used to that. And certainly no one could hope anywhere to find nicer--more presentable--people."
She nodded, but with a reservation.
"Surely nowhere would you find kinder people," went on Keith. "See how they took us in!"
"Look out they don't take you in, Milton," she interjected suddenly.
Keith, brought up short, sobered at this.
"That is unjust, Nan," he said gravely.
She said nothing, but showed no signs of having been convinced. After her first need had passed, Nan Keith's natural reserve had asserted itself. This was the result of heredity and training, as part of herself, something she could not help. Its tendency was always to draw back from too great or too sudden intimacies. There was nothing snobbish in this; it was a sort of instinct, a natural reaction. She liked Mrs. Sherwood, admired her slow, complete poise, approved her air of breeding and the things by which she had surrounded herself. The older woman's kindness had struck in her a deep chord of appreciation. But somehow circumstances had hurried her too much. Her defensive antagonism, not to Mrs. Sherwood as a person, but to sudden intimacy as such, had been aroused. It had had, in her own mind, no excuse. She knew she ought to be grateful and cordial; she felt that she was not quite ready. The fact that the Sherwoods had proved to be "common gamblers" gave just the little excuse her conscience needed to draw back a trifle. This, it should be added, was also quite instinctive, not at all a formulated thought.
She said nothing for some time; then remarked mysteriously:
"Perhaps that's why they go to meet boats."
Keith, who was miles beyond the Sherwoods by now, looked bewildered.
Keith had letters of business introduction to Palmer, Cook & Co., a banking firm powerful and respected at the time, but destined to become involved in scandal. The most pressing need, both he and Nan had determined, was a house of their own; the hotel was at once uncomfortable and expensive. Accordingly a callow, chipper, self-confident, blond little clerk was assigned to show them about. He had arrived from the East only six months ago; but this was six months earlier than the Keiths, so he put on all the airs of an old-timer. In a two-seated calash, furnished by the bankers, they drove to the westerly part of the town. The plank streets soon ran out into sand or rutty earth roads. These bored their way relentlessly between sand hills in the process of removal. Steam paddies coughed and clanked in all directions. Many houses had, by these operations, been left perched high and dry far above the grade of the new streets. Often the sand was crumbling away from beneath their outer corners. All sorts of nondescript ramshackle and temporary stairs had been improvised to get their inhabitants in or out. The latter seemed to be clinging to their tenements as long as possible.
"They often cave in," explained the clerk, "and the whole kit and kaboodle comes sailing down into the street. Sometimes it happens at night," he added darkly.
"But isn't anybody hurt?" cried Nan.
"Lots of 'em," replied the clerk cheerfully "Git dap!"
They now executed a flank attack on the "fashionable" quarter of the town.
"They're grading the street down below," the clerk justified his roundabout course.
Here were a number of isolated, scattered wooden houses, of some size and of much scroll and jigsaw work. Some of them had little ornamental iron fencelets running along their ridgepoles, or lightning rods on the chimneys or at the corners, although thunderstorms were practically unknown. The clerk at once began to talk of these as "mansions." He drew up before one of them, hitched the horse, and invited his clients to descend. Nan looked at the exterior a trifle doubtfully. It was a high-peaked, slender house, drawn together as though it felt cold; with carved wooden panels over each window, miniature balconies with elaborate spindly columns beneath, and a haughty, high, narrow porch partially clothing a varnished front door flanked with narrow strips of coloured glass.
The clerk produced a key. The interior also was high and narrow. Much glistening varnish characterized the front hall. They inspected one after another the various rooms. The house was partly furnished. In the showrooms hung heavy red curtains held back by cords with gilt tassels. Each fireplace was framed by a mantel of white marble. But the glory was the drawing-room. This had been frescoed in pale blue, and all about the wall and even across part of the ceiling had been draped festoon after festoon of fishnet. Only this was not real fishnet, as a closer inspection showed. It had been cunningly painted! In the dim light, and to a person with an optimistic imagination, the illusion was almost perfect. Nan choked suddenly at the sight of this; then her eyes widened to a baby stare, and she become preternaturally solemn.
They looked it all over from top to bottom; the clerk fairly tiptoeing about with the bent-backed air of one who handles a precious jade vase. From the front windows he showed them a really magnificent view, with the blue waters of the bay shining, and the Contra Costa shore shimmering in the haze.
"In the residence next door to the west dwell most desirable neighbours," he urged, "the Morrells. They are English, or at least he is."
"I met him last night," said Keith to Nan; "he looked like a good sort."
"Who is in the big house over there?" asked Nan, indicating a very elaborate structure diagonally opposite.
"That--oh, that--well, that is in rather a state of transition, as it were," stammered the little clerk, and at once rattled on about something else. This magnificent mansion, he explained, was the only one Palmer, Cook & Co. had on their lists for the moment.
Therefore he drove them back to the Bella Union. Keith departed with him to look up a suitable office downtown,
Nan bowed solemnly to his solemn salutation in farewell, and turned as quickly as she could to the interior of the hotel. Sherwood sat in his accustomed place, his big steel spectacles on his nose, his paper spread out before him. He arose and bowed. She nodded, but did not pause. Once inside the hall, she picked up her skirts and fairly flew up the stairs to her room. Slamming the door shut, she locked it, then sank on the edge of the bed and laughed--laughed until she wiped the tears from her cheeks, rocking back and forth and hugging herself in an ecstasy. Every few moments she would pull up; then some unconsidered enormity would strike her afresh and she would go off into another paroxysm. After a while, much relieved, she wiped her eyes and arose.
"This place will be the death of me yet," she told her distorted image in the mirror.
She rummaged in one of her trunks, produced writing materials, and started a letter to an Eastern friend. This occupied her fully for two hours. At that period it was customary to "indite epistles" with a "literary flavour," a practice that immensely tickled those who did the inditing. Nan became wholly interested and quite pleased with herself. Her first impressions, she found when she came to write them down, were stimulating and interesting. She was full of enthusiasm; but had she been capable of a real analysis she would have found it quite different from Keith's enthusiasm. She looked on this strange, uncouth, vital city from the outside, from the superior standpoint. She appreciated it as she would have appreciated the "quaintness" of the villagers in some foreign town.
About noon Keith returned.
"I've looked into every possibility," he told her. "Honest, Nan, I don't see exactly what we are to do unless we build for ourselves. That Boyle house is the only house in town for rent--that is of any size and in a respectable quarter. You see they are too new out here to have built houses for rent yet; and if you find any vacant at all, it is sheer good fortune. Of course to stay in this little box is impossible, and--"
She had been contemplating him, her eyes dancing with amusement.
"You've taken it!" she accused him.
"Well--I--yes," he admitted, a little red.
"I knew it," she said. "When can we move in? I want to get started."