This is to be a story of a battle, at least one murder, and several sudden deaths. For that reason it begins with a pink tea and among the mingled odors of many delicate perfumes and the hale, frank smell of Caroline Testout roses.
There had been a great number of debutantes "coming out" that season in San Francisco by means of afternoon teas, pink, lavender, and otherwise. This particular tea was intended to celebrate the fact that Josie Herrick had arrived at that time of her life when she was to wear her hair high and her gowns long, and to have a "day" of her own quite distinct from that of her mother.
Ross Wilbur presented himself at the Herrick house on Pacific Avenue much too early upon the afternoon of Miss Herrick's tea. As he made, his way up the canvased stairs he was aware of a terrifying array of millinery and a disquieting staccato chatter of feminine voices in the parlors and reception-rooms on either side of the hallway. A single high hat in the room that had been set apart for the men's use confirmed him in his suspicions.
"Might have known it would be a hen party till six, anyhow," he muttered, swinging out of his overcoat. "Bet I don't know one girl in twenty down there now—all mamma's friends at this hour, and papa's maiden sisters, and Jo's school-teachers and governesses and music-teachers, and I don't know what all."
When he went down he found it precisely as he expected. He went up to Miss Herrick, where she stood receiving with her mother and two of the other girls, and allowed them to chaff him on his forlornness.
"Maybe I seem at my ease," said Ross Wilbur to them, "but really I am very much frightened. I'm going to run away as soon as it is decently possible, even before, unless you feed me."
"I believe you had luncheon not two hours ago," said Miss Herrick. "Come along, though, and I'll give you some chocolate, and perhaps, if you're good, a stuffed olive. I got them just because I knew you liked them. I ought to stay here and receive, so I can't look after you for long."
The two fought their way through the crowded rooms to the luncheon-table, and Miss Herrick got Wilbur his chocolate and his stuffed olives. They sat down and talked in a window recess for a moment, Wilbur toeing-in in absurd fashion as he tried to make a lap for his plate.
"I thought," said Miss Herrick, "that you were going on the Ridgeways' yachting party this afternoon. Mrs. Ridgeway said she was counting on you. They are going out with the 'Petrel.'"
"She didn't count above a hundred, though," answered Wilbur. "I got your bid first, so I regretted the yachting party; and I guess I'd have regretted it anyhow," and he grinned at her over his cup.
"Nice man," she said—adding on the instant, "I must go now, Ross."
"Wait till I eat the sugar out of my cup," complained Wilbur. "Tell me," he added, scraping vigorously at the bottom of the cup with the inadequate spoon; "tell me, you're going to the hoe-down to-night?"
"If you mean the Assembly, yes, I am."
"Will you give me the first and last?"
"I'll give you the first, and you can ask for the last then."
"Let's put it down; I know you'll forget it." Wilbur drew a couple of cards from his case....