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At four o'clock Isabel was awakened by suspicious sounds at the key-hole of the front door. She reached out for her pistol, but withdrew her hand as she heard the careless laugh of her brother-in-law. A few moments later the two explorers, after an instant's hesitation at the head of the stair—which they had climbed like cats—walked past her door with a brisk swaggering preternaturally steady gait that invoked the memory of former occupants of the mansion. Then Gwynne's door opened and shut as if by sleight of hand. Stone's was at the end of the hall. Isabel inferred that he went through it, and a sound between a hiss and a smothered roar shot down the hall as he would seem to pick up the door and bang it into place.
Mr. Hofer had mentioned his luncheon hour as half-past one. Isabel had Gwynne called an hour before. She was sitting on the veranda, as he emerged. He was as well groomed as usual, but he was unmistakably pale beneath his new coat of tan. She laughed wickedly.
"Oh yes," he said, imperturbably, "I was drunk. If I had not been I never could have got through it, not being a seasoned San Franciscan. I thought I knew vice. I have seen a good many variations, and in places where protection was necessary. But I had not guessed at the combination of ancient civilization and the crudities of the mining-camp in the heart of a modern city. Stone is not a tank, but a camel. I befuddled myself successfully in those dives under the pavements—and we had by no means begun there: I should say we had patronized at least half the saloons in San Francisco before we started for the underworld. As we finally supported each other up the hill—we hadn't the price of a cab left between us—it seemed to me that I was ascending from a jungle of antediluvian men and women and beasts for ever and ever on the rampage. San Francisco is the most wonderful city in the world inasmuch as she not only exists but thrives on the top of such outrageous rottenness. And no wonder that the men like Hofer are desperate. We were escorted by a policeman after all, and he seemed to enjoy himself. The flash of knives—I saw two men stuck—made as little impression upon him as the awful abandonment of—well, of the females. Good God!—Well, I hope another variety is in store to-day. Hofer, at least, does not appear to be dissipated."
"Oh no, it is the fashion in that set to be domestic and good citizens. All you'll hear of the underworld to-day will be its relation to politics. They have been making a desperate fight to defeat the present mayor's reëlection and have been overwhelmingly defeated. The mayor is popularly supposed to be a criminal at large, and the party that supports him call themselves socialists, and are labor unions more greedy and tyrannical than any Trust in the country. Nice town. But we are optimists. No doubt Mr. Hofer and his party are already planning for the next campaign. If I were a man, I'd go back to the tactics of the Fifties and lynch. The city had good government for twenty years after the operations of that Vigilance Committee. You might suggest it."
"I cannot say that I am in a suggesting mood. Shall you be here to dinner?"
"Probably. But you are to accept whatever offers. No doubt Mr. Hofer will motor you out to the Country Club or down to Burlingame, where he has a house."
Gwynne nodded gratefully and left her. As he reached the top of the steps leading down the hill, Isabel saw him pause and speak to a very tall very smart young woman, whom she recognized in a moment as Mrs. Hofer. Then the young matron advanced along the board walk with a sort of trembling stride. It was evident from her charming blushing face that she was as embarrassed as any one so young and buoyant, so successful and so Irish, could be. Isabel ran down the steps to meet her.
"Oh!" cried Mrs. Hofer, in a light, high, cultivated, but nasal voice, with a slightly English accent. "You are sweet! I had intended to call in state the first time I could think of a decent excuse, for I have simply been mad—mad—to know you. But last night I told Mr. Hofer that my slender stock of patience had gone—flown—evaporated. I could hardly wait till this afternoon! Do you think I'm unconventional? I'm not really, except when I'm abroad—never here. Nobody is so conventional as the San Franciscan at home."
Isabel was smiling and trying to guide her up the steps. "I am more glad than I can say to know you, at last," she said. "Do come into my house."
"Let me rest a bit. The breath is out of me with the climb and the fright. Yes, fright, and it takes a good deal to phaze me. But you're the sensation of the town, my dear. There have been all sorts of plans to get hold of you. People are simply mad—mad! I was just bound I'd be the first. Not petty social ambition, not a bit of it. I wanted to know you. And I stayed in a country-house in England just after you, last year. To think that you could have married Lord Hexam. Oh, what a jewel of a house! I went simply mad over those white rooms in London."
Isabel had firmly piloted her up the steps and into the house, and Mrs. Hofer sat on the edge of a chair like a bird on a bough, her merry shrewd sweet eyes devouring Isabel's face.
"Oh, but I've wanted to know you! You don't know what this means to me!"
"But why?" asked Isabel, much amused. "I am nobody."
"Oh, just aren't you, though? Why, you're almost the last of the old San Francisco Knickerbockers, so to speak. That is, the last that has inherited any of the beauty one is always hearing about from the old beaux. And most of them have gone under anyhow—in the cheerful California fashion: three generations from shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves. Of course there are some left, but the most interesting thing about them is that they have been forced to open their houses to the likes of us—or sit down and talk to empty chairs. But the old Spanish blood is what interests us most. It was quite forgotten—all that old life—for about two generations; but now it's the fashion to remember it, and everything else early Californian. To think that you are a niece, so to speak, of the first nun in California, who had that romantic love affair with that Russian—I never could pronounce his name. That's not what interests me most, though. It's you. To think what you've done! Those chickens! My man in the market has orders to send me Old Inn chickens and eggs, on penalty of losing my custom. All the blasée girls—the San Francisco girls do get so blasée, poor things—are threatening to go in for chickens. It would be a lot better for them than bridge. It is quite shocking the way they do gamble. Talk about early times!"
"Fancy chickens becoming a fad!" Mrs. Hofer had paused for breath. "Poor chickens! Tell your friends that they will have to get up at all hours of the night, and at six o'clock in winter, and five in summer, and spend a large part of their time in overalls and rubber boots. I fancy that will cure them."
"It would! No more flirtations! No more Paris gowns! No more paint! I'll tell them. But they admire you, all the same. And we are all dying to see you en grande tenue. I am giving a ball the night before Christmas. Say you will come—right here, on the spot."
"I shall love to come. I had intended to reopen this house as soon as I could afford it, and had hardly expected to pick up my mother's old threads until then. But a ball! I haven't danced for a year."
"It is simply fine to hear you say things just like other girls, when you look the concentrated essence of all our bewigged and bepowdered ancestors. To think that you've got that old colonial blood in you too, and are related to a lot of those old duffers one sees in the public parks. The next time I go East I'll look at them with more interest."
Then she sat still farther forward, and her bright face took on an expression of coaxing eagerness.
"If it hadn't been a man's luncheon to-day I should have asked you to join us. But won't you come down to The St. Francis with me? My automobile is at the foot of the bluff. We can motor afterward through the park a bit, and out on the boulevard. It is a simply heavenly day."
Isabel hesitated, and lifted an ear to the floor above. There was not a sound, nor was it likely that Lyster would make his appearance before dinner. Paula had announced her intention of visiting her children in the course of the afternoon; she would hardly awaken for luncheon. While she hesitated Mrs. Hofer began to coax in her eager commanding fashion.
"Oh, do come! Please come! I'm mad, mad to have you all to myself for one day. Chloroform them—"
"You wouldn't lunch with me?"
"I will entertain you first. Please, please, come!"
"Very well," said Isabel, laughing. "I doubt if they ever know the difference. I won't be a minute getting ready."
She ran up-stairs, and during the half-hour of her toilette Mrs. Hofer examined everything in the down-stairs rooms and nodded an emphatic approval.
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