"I have no words! It is almost too good to be true!"
Madeleine watched him curiously. His voice was trembling and his eyes were flashing. He was tall but had drawn himself up in his excitement and seemed quite an inch taller. He looked about to wave a sword and lead a charge. Establishing a newspaper meant a hard fight and he was eager for the fray.
She had had but few opportunities to study him in detail unobserved. She had never thought him handsome, for he was clean shaven, with deep vertical lines, and he wore his black hair very short. Her preference was for fair men with drooping moustaches and locks sweeping the collar; although her admiration for this somewhat standardized type had so far been wholly impersonal. Even the doctor clipped his moustache as it interfered with his soup, and his rusty brown hair was straight, although of the orthodox length. But she had not married Howard for his looks!
She noted the hard line of jaw and sharp incisive profile. His face had power as well as intellect, yet there was a hint of weakness somewhere. Possibly the lips of his well-cut mouth were a trifle too firmly set to be unselfconscious. And his broad forehead lacked serenity. There was a furrow between the eyes.
It was with the eyes she was most familiar. They were gray, brilliant, piercing, wide apart and deeply set. She had noted more than once something alert, watchful, in their expression, as if they were the guardians of the intellect above and defied the weakness the lower part of his face barely hinted to clash for a moment with his ambitions.
She heard little of his rapid fire of questions and Howard's answers; but when the doctor had pulled out his watch, kissed her hurriedly, snatched his bag and dashed from the room, Masters took her hands in his, his eyes glowing.
"Did you hear?" he cried. "Did you hear? I am to have my own newspaper. My dream has come true! A hundred thousand dollars are promised. I shall have as good a news service as any in New York."
Madeleine withdrew her hands but smiled brightly and made him a pretty speech of congratulation. She knew little of newspapers and cared less, but there must be something extraordinary about owning one to excite a man like Langdon Masters. She had never seen him excited before.
"Won't it mean a great deal harder work?"
"Oh, work! I thrive on work. I've never had enough. Come and sit down. Let me talk to you. Let me be egotistical and talk about myself. Let me tell you all my pent-up ambitions and hopes and desires—you wonderful little Egeria!"
And he poured himself out to her as he had never unbosomed himself before. He stayed on to dinner—she had no engagement—and left her only for the office. He had evidently forgotten the earlier episode, and he swept it from her own mind. That mind, subtle, feminine, yielding, melted into his. She shared those ambitions and hopes and desires. His brilliant and useful future was as real and imperative to her as to himself. It was a new, a wonderful, a thrilling experience. When she went to bed, smiling and happy, she slammed a little door in her mind and shot the bolt. A terrible fear had shaken her three hours before, but she refused to recall it. Once more the present sufficed.
Madeleine went to Mrs. Abbott's reception, but there was nothing conciliatory nor apologetic in her mien. She had intended to be merely natural, but when she met that battery of eyes, amused, mocking, sympathetic, encouraging, and realized that Mrs. Abbott's tongue had been wagging, she was filled with an anger and resentment that expressed itself in a cold pride of bearing and a militant sparkle of the eye. She was gracious and aloof and Mrs. McLane approved her audibly.
"Exactly as I should feel and look myself," she said to Mrs. Ballinger and Guadalupe Hathaway. "She's a royal creature and she has moved in the great world. No wonder she resents the petty gossip of this village."
"Well, I'll acquit her," said Mrs. Ballinger tartly. "A more cold-blooded and unattractive man I've never met."
"Langdon Masters is by no means unattractive," announced Miss Hathaway out of her ten years' experience as a belle and an unconscionable flirt. "I have sat in the conservatory with him several times. It may be that Mrs. Abbott stepped in before it was too late. And it may be that she did not."
"Oh, call no woman virtuous until she is dead," said Mrs. McLane lightly. "But I won't hear another insinuation against Madeleine Talbot."
Mrs. Abbott kissed the singed brand it had been her mission to snatch in the nick of time and detained her in conversation with unusual empressement. Madeleine responded with an excessive politeness, and Mrs. Abbott learned for the first time that sweet brown eyes could glitter as coldly as her own protuberant orbs when pronouncing judgment.
Madeleine remained for two hours, bored and disgusted, the more as Masters' name was ostentatiously avoided. Even Sally Ballinger, who kissed her warmly, told her that she looked as if she hadn't a care in the world and that it was because she had too much sense to bother about men!
She had never been treated with more friendly intimacy, and if she went home with a headache it was at least a satisfaction to know that her proud position was still scandal-proof.
She wisely modified her first program and drifted back into afternoon society by degrees; a plan of defensive campaign highly approved by Mrs. McLane, who detested lack of finesse. The winter was an unsatisfactory one for Madeleine altogether. Society would not have bored her so much perhaps if that secret enchanting background had remained intact. But her intercourse with Masters was necessarily sporadic. Her conscience had never troubled her for receiving his visits, for her husband not only had expressed his approval, but had always urged her to amuse herself with men. But she felt like an intriguante when she discussed her engagement lists with Masters, and she knew that he liked it as little. His visits were now a matter for "sandwiching," to be schemed and planned for, and she dared not ask herself whether the persistent sense of fear that haunted her was that they both must betray self-consciousness in time, or that the more difficult order would bore him: their earlier intimacy had coincided with his hours of leisure. After all, he was not her lover, to delight in intrigue; and in time, it might be, he would not think the game worth the candle. She dreaded that revived gossip might drive him from the hotel, and that would be the miserable beginning of an unthinkable end.
There were other interruptions. He paid a flying visit to Richmond to visit the death-bed of his mother, and he took a trip to the Sandwich Islands to recover from a severe cold on the chest. Moreover, his former placidity had left him, for one thing and another delayed the financing of his newspaper. One of its founders was temporarily embarrassed for ready money, another awaited an opportune moment to realize on some valuable stock. There was no doubt that the entire amount would be forthcoming in time, but meanwhile he fumed, and expressed himself freely to Madeleine. That he might have a more poisonous source of irritation did not occur to her.
Fortunately she did not suspect that gossip was still rife. Madeleine might have a subtle mind but she had a candid personality. It was quite patent to sharp eyes that she was unhappy once more, although this time her health was unaffected. And Society was quite aware that she still saw Langdon Masters, in spite of her perfunctory appearances; for suspicion once roused develops antennae that traverse space without effort and return with accumulated minute stores of evidence. Masters had been seen entering or leaving the Talbot parlor by luncheon guests in the hotel. Old Ben Travers, who had chosen to ignore his astonishing and humiliating experience and always treated Madeleine with exaggerated deference, called one afternoon on her (in company with Mrs. Ballinger) and observed cigarette ends in the ash tray. Talbot smoked only cigars. Masters was one of the few men in San Francisco who smoked cigarettes and there was no mistaking his imported brand. Mr. Travers paid an immediate round of visits, and called again a fortnight later, this time protected by Mrs. Abbott. There were several books on the table which he happened to know Masters had received within the week.
When the new wave reached Mrs. McLane she announced angrily that all the gossip in San Francisco originated in the Union Club, and refused to listen to details. But she was anxious, nevertheless, for she knew that Madeleine, whether she recognized the fact or not, was in love with Langdon Masters, and she more than suspected that he was with her. He went little into society, even before his mother's death, pleading press of work, but Mr. McLane often brought him home quietly to dinner and she saw more of him than any one did but Madeleine. Men had gone mad over her in her own time and she knew the stamp of baffled passions.
It was on New Year's Day, during Masters' absence in Richmond, that an incident occurred which turned Society's attention, diverted for the moment by an open divorce scandal, to Madeleine Talbot once more.
New Year's Day in San Francisco was one of pomp and triumphs, and much secret heart-burning. Every woman who had a house threw it open and the many that lived in hotels were equally hospitable. There was a constant procession of family barouches, livery stable buggies and hacks. The "whips" drove their mud-bespattered traps with as grand an air as if on the Cliff House Road in fine weather; and while none was ignored whose entertaining was lavish, those who could count only on admiration and friendship compared notes eagerly during the following week.
But young men in those days were more gallant or less snobbish than in these, and few pretty girls, however slenderly dowered, were forgotten by their waltzing partners. The older men went only to the great houses, and frankly for eggnog. Mrs. Abbott's was famous and so was Mrs. McLane's. Ladies who lived out of town the year round, that their husbands might "sleep in the country!" received with their more fortunate friends.
It had been Madeleine's intention to have her own reception at the hotel as usual, but when Mrs. McLane craved her assistance—Marguerite was receiving with Mrs. Abbott, now her mother-in-law—she consented willingly, as it would reduce her effort to entertain progressively illuminated men to the minimum. She felt disinclined to effort of any sort.
Mrs. McLane, after her daughter's marriage, had tired of the large house on Rincon Hill and the exorbitant wages of its staff of servants, and returned to her old home in South Park, furnishing her parlors with a red satin damask, which also covered the walls. She had made a trip to Paris meanwhile and brought back much light and graceful French furniture. The long double room was an admirable setting for her stately little figure in its trailing gown of wine-colored velvet trimmed with mellowed point lace (it had been privately dipped in coffee) and her white high-piled hair. There was no watchful anxiety in Mrs. McLane's lofty mien. She knew that the best, old and young, would come to her New Year's Day reception as a matter of course.
Mrs. Ballinger had also gratefully accepted Mrs. McLane's invitation, for Sally had recently married Harold Abbott and was receiving on Rincon Hill, and Maria was in modest retirement. She wore a long gown of silver gray poplin as shining as her silver hair; and as she was nearly a foot taller than her hostess, the two ladies stood at opposite ends of the mantelpiece in the front parlor with Annette McLane and two young friends between.
The reception was at its height at four o'clock. The rooms were crowded, and the equipages of the guests packed not only South Park but Third Street a block north and south.
Madeleine sat at the end of the long double room behind a table and served the eggnog. The men hovered about her, not, as commonly, in unqualified admiration, or passed on the goblets, slices of the monumental cakes, and Peter Job's famous cream pie.
She had taken a glass at once and raised her spirits to the necessary pitch; but its effect wore off in time and her hand began to tremble slightly as she ladled out the eggnog. She had not heard from Masters since he left and her days were as vacant as visible space. She had felt nervous and depressed since morning and would have spent the day in bed had she dared.
Mr. McLane, Mr. Abbott, Colonel "Jack" Belmont, Alexander Groome, Mr. Ballinger, Amos Lawton and several others were chatting with her when Ben Travers sauntered up to demand his potion. He had already paid several visits, and although he carried his liquor well, it was patent to the eyes of his friends he was in that particular stage of inebriation that swamped his meagre stock of good nature and the superficial cleverness which made him an agreeable companion, and set free all the maliciousness of a mind contracted with years and disappointments: he had never made "his pile" and it was current history that he had been refused by every belle of his youth.
He made Madeleine a courtly bow as he took the goblet from her hands, not forgetting to pay her a well-turned compliment on those hands, not the least of her physical perfections. Then he balanced himself on the edge of the table with a manifest intention of joining in the conversation. Madeleine felt an odd sense of terror, although she knew nothing of his discoveries and communications; there was a curious hard stare in his bleared eyes and it seemed to impale her.
He began amiably enough. "Best looking frocks in this house I've seen today. At least five from Paris. Mrs. McLane brought back four of them besides her own. Seen some awful old duds today. 'Lupie Hathaway had on an old black silk with a gaping placket and three buttons off in front. Some of the other things were new enough, but the dressmakers in this town need waking up. Of course yours came from New York, Mrs. Talbot. Charming, simply charming."
Madeleine wore a gown of amber-colored silk with a bertha of fine lace and mousseline de soie, exposing her beautiful shoulders. The color seemed reflected in her eyes and the bright waving masses of her hair.
"Madame Deforme made it," she said triumphantly. "Now don't criticize our dressmakers again."
"Never criticize anybody but can't help noticing things. Got the observing eye. Nothing escapes it. How are you off for books now that Masters has deserted us?"
Madeleine turned cold, for the inference was unmistakable, and she saw Mr. McLane scowl at him ferociously, But she replied smilingly that there was always the Mercantile Library.
"Never have anything new there, and even C. Beach hasn't had a new French novel for six months. If Masters were one of those considerate men, now, he'd have left you the key of his rooms. Nothing compromising in that. But it would be no wonder if he forgot it, for I hear it wasn't his mother's illness that took him to Richmond, but Betty Thornton who's still a reigning toast. Old flame and they say she's come round. Had a letter from my sister."
Madeleine, who was lifting a goblet, let it fall with a crash. She had turned white and was trembling, but she lifted another with an immediate return of self-control, and said, "How awkward of me! But I have had a headache for three days and the gas makes the room so warm."
And then she fainted.
Mr. McLane, who was more impulsive than tactful, took Travers by the arm and pushed him through the crowd surging toward the table, and out of the front door, almost flinging him down the front steps.
"Damn you for a liar and a scandalmonger and a malicious old woman!" he shouted, oblivious of many staring coachmen. "Never enter my house again."
But the undaunted Travers steadied himself and replied with a leer, "Well, I made her give herself dead away, whether you like it or not. And it'll be all over town in a week."
Mr. McLane turned his back, and ordering the astonished butler to take out the man's hat and greatcoat, returned to a scene of excitement. Madeleine had been placed full length on a sofa by an open window, and was evidently reviving. He asked the men who had overheard Travers' attack to follow him to his study.
"I want every one of you to promise me that you will not repeat what that little brute said," he commanded. "Fortunately there were no women about. Fainting women are no novelty. And if that cur tells the story of his dastardly assault, give him the lie. Swear that he never said it. Persuade him that he was too drunk to remember."
"I'll follow him and threaten to horsewhip him if he opens his mouth!" cried Colonel Belmont, who had been a dashing cavalry officer during the war. He revered all women of his own class, even his wife, who rarely saw him; and he was so critical of feminine perfections of any sort that he changed his mistresses oftener than any man in San Francisco. "I'll not lose a moment." And he left the room as if charging the enemy.
"Good. Will the rest of you promise?"
"Of course we'll promise."
But alas, wives have means of extracting secrets when their suspicions are alert and clamoring that no husband has the wit to elude, man being too ingenuous to follow the circumlocutory methods of the subtler sex. Not that there was ever anything subtle about Mrs. Abbott's methods. Mr. Abbott had a perpetual catarrh and it had long since weakened his fibre. It was commonly believed that when Mrs. Abbott, her large bulk arrayed in a red flannel nightgown, sat up in the connubial bed and threatened to pour hot mustard up his nose unless he opened his sluices of information he ingloriously succumbed.
At all events, how or wherefore, Travers' prediction was fulfilled, although he shiveringly held his own tongue. The story was all over town not in a week but in three days. But of this Madeleine knew nothing. The doctor, who feared typhoid fever, ordered her to keep quiet and see no one until he discovered what was the matter with her. Her return to Society and Masters' to San Francisco coincided, but at least her little world knew that Dr. Talbot had been responsible for her retirement. It awaited future developments with a painful and a pleasurable interest.
The rest of the season, however, passed without notable incident. But it was known that Madeleine saw Masters constantly, and she was so narrowly observed during his second absence that the nervousness it induced made her forced gaiety almost hysterical. During the late spring her spirits grew more even and her migraines less frequent; sustained as she was by the prospect of her old uninterrupted relations with Masters.
But more than Mrs. Abbott divined the cause of her ill-suppressed expectancy and never had she received so many invitations to the country. Mrs. McLane spent her summers at Congress Springs, but even she pressed Madeleine to visit her. Sally Abbott lived across the Bay on Lake Merritt and begged for three days a week at least; while as for Mrs. Abbott and Mr. and Mrs. Tom, who lived with her, they would harken to no excuses.
Madeleine was almost nonplussed, but if her firm and graceful refusals to leave the doctor had led to open war she would have accepted the consequences. She was determined that this summer she had lived for throughout seven long tormented months should be as unbroken and happy as the other fates would permit. She had a full presentiment that it would be the last.
Masters glided immediately into the old habit and saw her oftener when he could. Of course no phase ever quite repeats itself. The blithe unconsciousness of that first immortal summer was gone for ever; each was playing a part and dreading lest the other suspect it. Moreover, Masters was irritated almost beyond endurance at the constant postponement of the financial equipment for his newspaper. The man who had promised the largest contribution had died suddenly, and although his heir was more than eager to be associated with so illustrious an enterprise he must await the settlement of the estate.
"I am beginning to believe I never shall have that newspaper," Masters said gloomily to Madeleine. "It looks like Fate. When the subject was first broached there was every prospect that I should get the money at once. It has an ugly look. Any man who has been through a war is something of a fatalist."
They were less circumspect than of old and were walking out the old Mission Road. In such moods it was impossible for him to idle before a fire and read aloud. Madeleine had told her husband she would like to join Masters in his walks occasionally, and he had replied heartily: "Do you good. He'll lead you some pretty tramps! I can't keep up with him. You don't walk half enough. Neither do these other women, although my income would be cut in half if they did."
It was a cool bracing day without dust or wind and Madeleine had started out in high spirits, induced in part by a new and vastly becoming walking suit of forest green poplin and a hat of the same shade rolled up on one side and trimmed with a drooping grey feather. Her gloves and shoes were of grey suede, there was soft lace about her white throat and a coquettish little veil that covered only her eyes.
She always knew what to say when Masters was in one of his black moods, and today she reminded him of the various biographies of great men they had read together. Had not all of them suffered every disappointment and discouragement in the beginning of their careers? Overcome innumerable obstacles? Many had been called upon to endure grinding poverty as well until they forced recognition from the world, and he at least was spared that. If Life took with one hand while she gave with the other, the reverse was equally true; and also no doubt it was a part of her beneficence that she not only strengthened the character by preliminary hardships, but amiably planned them that success might be all the sweeter when it came.
Masters laughed. "Incontrovertible. Mind you practice your own philosophy when you need it. All reverses should be temporary if people are strong enough."
She lost her color for a moment, but answered lightly: "That is an easy philosophy for you. If one thing failed you would simply move on to another. Men like you never really fail, for your rare abilities give you the strength and resource of ten men."
"I wonder! The roots of strength sometimes lie in slimy and corrupting waters that spread their miasma upward when Life frowns too long and too darkly. Sometimes misfortunes pile up so remorselessly, this miasma whispers that a man's chief strength consists in going straight to the devil and be done with it all. A resounding slap on Life's face. An insolent assertion of the individual will against Society. Or perhaps it is merely a disposition to run full tilt, hoping for the coup de grace—much as I felt when I lay neglected on the battlefield for twenty-four hours and longed for some Yank to come along and blow out my brains."
"That is no comparison," she said scornfully. "When the body is whole nothing is impossible. I should feel that the Universe was reeling if I saw you go down before adversity. I could as readily imagine myself letting go, and I am only a woman."
"Oh, I should never fear for you," he said bitterly. "What with your immutable principles, your religion, and your proud position in the Society of San Francisco to sustain you, you would come through the fiery furnace unscathed."
"Yes, but the furnace! The furnace!"
She threw out her hands with a gesture of despair, her high spirits routed before a sudden blinding vision of the future. "Does any woman ever escape that?"
One of her hands brushed his and he caught it irresistibly. But he dropped it at once. There was a sound of horses' hoofs behind them. He had been vaguely aware of cantering hoof-beats in the distance for several minutes.
Two men passed, and one of them took off his hat with a low mocking sweep and bowed almost to the saddle. It was old Ben Travers.
"What on earth is he doing in town?" muttered Masters in exasperation. No one had told him of the New Year's Day episode, but he knew him for what he was.
Madeleine was fallowing the small trim figure on the large chestnut with expanded eyes, but she answered evenly enough: "He has some ailment and is remaining in town under Howard's care."
"Liver, no doubt," said Masters viciously. "Too bad his spleen doesn't burst once for all."
He continued unguardedly, "Well, if he tries to make mischief, Howard will tell him bluntly that we walk together with his permission and invite him to go to the devil."
Her own guard was up at once, although it was not any gossip carried to Howard she feared. "He has probably already forgotten us," she said coldly. "Have you finished that paper for Putnam's?"
"Three days ago, and begun another for the Edinburgh Review. That is the first time I have been invited to write for an English review."
"You see!" she cried gaily. "You are famous already. And ambitious! You were once thinking of writing for our Overland Monthly only. Bret Harte told me you had promised him three papers this year."
"I shall write them."
"Perfunctory patriotism. You'd have to write the entire magazine and bring it out weekly to get rid of all your ideas and superfluous energy."
"Well, and wouldn't the good Californians rather read any magazine but their own? Even Harte is far better known in the East than here. I doubt if I've heard one of his things mentioned but 'The Heathen Chinee.' He has been here so long they regard him as a mere native. If I am advancing my reputation in the East I am making it much faster than if I depended upon the local reputation alone. San Francisco is remarkably human."
"When I first came here—it seems a lifetime ago!—I never saw an Eastern magazine of the higher class and rarely a book. I believe you have done as much to wake them up as even the march of time. They read newspapers if they won't read their own poor little Overland. And you are popular personally and inspire a sort of uneasy emulation. You are a sort of illuminated bridge. Now tell me what your new paper is about."
A while later they came to the old Mission Dolores, long ago the center of a flourishing colony of native Indians, who, under the driving energy of the padres, manufactured practically every simple necessity known to Spain. There was nothing left but the crumbling church and its neglected graveyard, alone in a waste of sand. The graves of the priests and grandees were overrun with periwinkle, and the only other flower was the indestructible Castilian rose. The heavy dull green bushes with their fluted dull pink blooms surrounded by tight little buds, were as dusty as the memory of the Spaniard in California.
They went into the church to rest. Madeleine had never taken any interest in the history of her adopted state, and as they sat in a pew at the back, surrounded by silence and a deep twilight gloom, Masters told her the tragic story of Rezanov and Concha Arguello, who would have married before that humble altar and the history of California changed if the ironic fates had permitted. The story had been told him by Mrs. Hathaway, who was the daughter of one of the last of the grandees, and whose mother had lived in the Presidio when Rezanov sailed in through the Golden Gate and Concha Arguello had been La Favorita of Alta California.
The little church was very quiet. The rest of the world seemed far away. Madeleine's fervid yielding imagination swept her back to that long-forgotten past when a woman to whom the earlier fates had been as kind as to herself had scaled all but the highest peaks of happiness and descended into the profoundest depths of despair. Her sympathies, enhanced by her own haunting premonition of disaster, shattered her guard. She dropped her head into her hands and wept hopelessly. Masters felt his own moorings shake. He half rose to flee. But he too had been living in the romantic and passionate past and he too had been visited by moments of black forebodings. Love had tormented him to the breaking point before this and his ambition had often been submerged in his impatience for the excess of work which his newspaper would demand, exhausting to body and imagination alike. He had long ceased to doubt that she loved him, but her self-command had protected them both. He had believed it would never desert her and when it did his pulses had their way. He took her in his arms and strained her to him as if with the strength of his muscles and his will he would defy the blundering fates.
Madeleine made no resistance. She was oblivious of everything but the ecstasy of the moment. When he kissed her she clung to him as ardently, and felt as mortals may, when, in dissolution, they have the vision of unmortal bliss. She had the genius for completion and neither the past nor the future intruded upon the perfect moment when love was all.
But the moment was brief. A priest entered and knelt before the altar. She disengaged herself and adjusted her hat with hands that trembled violently, then almost ran out of the church. Masters followed her. As they descended the steps Travers and his companion passed again, after their short canter down the peninsula. He stared so hard at Madeleine's revealing face that he almost forgot to take off his hat, and half reined in as if he would pause and gratify his curiosity; but thought better of it and rode on.
Masters and Madeleine did not exchange a word until they had walked nearly a mile. But his brain was working as clearly as if passion had never clouded it, and although he could see no hope for the future he was determined to gain time and sacrifice anything rather than lose what little he might still have of her. He said finally, in a matter- of-fact voice:
"I want you to use your will and imagination and forget that we ever entered that church."
"Forget! The memory of it will scourge me as long as I live. I have been unfaithful to my husband!"
"Oh, not quite as bad as that!"
"What difference? I had surrendered completely and forgotten my vows, my religion, every principle that has guided my life. If—if— circumstances had been different that would not have been the end. I am a bad wicked woman."
"Oh, no, you are not. You are a terribly good one. If you were not you would take your life in your hands and make it over."
He did not dare mention the word divorce, and lest it travel from his mind to hers and cause his immediate repudiation, he added hastily:
"You were immortal for a moment and it should be your glory, not a whip to scourge you. The time will come when you will remember it with gratitude and without a blush. You know now what you could be and feel. If we part at least you will have been saved from the complete aridity—"
"Part?" She looked at him for the first time, and although she had believed she never could look at him again without turning scarlet, there was only terror in her eyes.
"I have been afraid of banishment."
"It was my fault as much as yours."
"I am not so sure. We won't argue that point. Is anything perfect arguable? But if I am to stay in San Francisco I must see you."
"I'll never see you alone again."
"I have no intention of pressing that point! But the open is safe and you must walk with me every day."
"I don't know! Oh—I don't know! And I think that I should tell Howard."
"You will not tell Howard because you are neither cowardly nor cruel. Nor will you ruin a perfect memory that belongs to us alone. You do love me and that is the end of it—or the beginning of God knows what!"
"Love!" She shivered. "Yes, I love you. Why do poets waste so many beautiful words over love? It is the most terrible thing in the world."
"Let us try to forget it for the present," he said harshly. "Forget everything we cannot have—"
"You have your work. You have only to work harder than ever. What have I?"
"We will walk together every day. We can take a book out on the beach and sit on the rocks. Read more fiction. That is its mission— to translate one for a time from the terrible realities of life. Your religion should be of some use to you. It is almost a pity there is no poverty out here. Sink your prejudices and seek out poor Sibyl Forbes. Every woman in town has cut her. In healing her wounds you could forget your own. Above all, use your will. We are neither of us weaklings, and it could be a thousand times worse. Nothing shall take from us what we have, and there may be a way out."
"There is none," she said sadly. "But I will do as you tell me. And I'll forget—not remember—if I can."
The end came swiftly. The next day Ben Travers drove down to Rincona. Mrs. Abbott listened to his garnished tale with bulging eyes and her three chins quivering with excitement. She had heard no gossip worth mentioning since she left town, and privately she hated the summer and Alta.
"You should have seen her face when she came out of that church," cried Travers for the third time; he was falling into the senile habit of repeating himself. "It was fairly distorted and she looked as if she had been crying for a week. Mark my words, Masters had been making the hottest kind of love to her—he was little more composed than she. Bet you an eagle to a dime they elope within a week."
"Serve Howard Talbot right for marrying a woman twenty years younger than himself and a Northerner to boot. Do you think he suspects?"
"Not he. Now, I must be off. If I didn't call on the Hathaways and Montgomerys while I'm down here they'd never forgive me."
"Both have house parties," said Mrs. Abbott enviously. "Just like you to get it first! I'd go with you but I must write to Antoinette McLane. She'll have to believe that her paragon is headed for the rocks this time."
Mrs. McLane was having an attack of the blues when the letter arrived and did not open her mail until two days later. Then she drove at once to San Francisco. She was too wise in women to remonstrate with Madeleine, but she went directly to Dr. Talbot's office. It was the most unpleasant duty she had ever undertaken, but she knew that Talbot would not doubt his wife's fidelity, and she was determined to save Madeleine. She had considered the alternative of going to Masters, but even her strong spirit quailed before the prospect of that interview. Besides, if he were as deeply in love with Madeleine as she believed him to be, it would do no good. She had little faith in the self-abnegation of men where their passions were concerned.
Dr. Talbot was in his office and saw her at once, and they talked for an hour. His face was purple and she feared a stroke. But he heard her quietly, and told her she had proved her friendship by coming to him before it was too late. When she left him he sat for another hour, alone.
It was six o'clock. San Francisco was enjoying one of its rare heat waves and Madeleine had put on a frock of white lawn made with a low neck and short sleeves, and tied a soft blue sash round her waist. As the hour of her husband's reasonably prompt homing approached she seated herself at the piano. She could not trust herself to sing, and played the "Adelaide." The past three days had not been as unhappy as she had expected. She had visited Sibyl Forbes, living in lonely splendor, and listened enthralled to that rebellious young woman (who had received her with passionate gratitude) as she poured out humiliations, bitter resentment, and matrimonial felicity. Madeleine had consoled and rejoiced and promised to talk to the all-powerful Mrs. McLane.
Twice she had gone to hear John McCullough at his new California Theatre, with another dutiful doctor's wife who lived in the hotel, and she had walked for three hours with Masters every afternoon. He had always found it easy to turn her mind into any channel he chose, and he had never exerted himself to be more entertaining even with her.
Today he had been jubilant and had swept her with him on his high tide of anticipation and triumph. Another patriotic San Franciscan had come to the rescue and the hundred thousand dollars lay to Masters' credit in the Bank of California. He had taken his offices an hour after the deposit was made; his business manager was engaged, and every writer of ability on the other newspapers was his to command. "Masters' Newspaper" had been the talk of the journalistic world for months. He had picked his staff and he now awaited only the presses he had ordered that morning from New York.
Madeleine had sighed as she listened to him dilate upon an active brilliant future in which she had no place, but she was in tune with him always and she could only be happy with him now. Moreover, it was an additional safeguard. He would be too busy for dreams and human longings. As for herself she would go along somehow. Tears, after all, were a wonderful solace. Fear had driven her down a light romantic by-way of her nature. Even if days passed without a glimpse of him she could dwell on the pleasant thought that he was not far away, and now and then they would take a long walk together.
The door opened and Dr. Talbot entered. His face was no longer purple. It was sallow and drawn. Her hands trailed off the keys, her arms fell limply. Not even during an epidemic, when he found little time for sleep, had his round face lost its ruddy brightness, his black eyes their look of jovial good-fellowship, his mouth its amiable cynicism.
"Something has happened," she said faintly. "What is it?"
"Would you mind sitting here?" He fell heavily into a chair and motioned to one opposite. She left the shelter of the piano with dragging feet, her own face drained of its color. Ben Travers! She knew what was coming.
His arms lay limply along the arms of his chair. As she gazed at him fascinated it seemed to her that he grew older every minute. And she had never seen any one look as sad.
"I have been a bad husband to you," he said. And the life had gone out of even his voice.
"Oh! No! No! you have been the best, the kindest and most indulgent of husbands."
"I have been worse than a bad husband," he went on in the same monotonous voice. "I have been a failure. I never tried to understand you. I didn't want to understand what might interfere with my own selfish life. You have a mind and I ordered you to feed it husks. You asked me for the companionship that was your right and I told you to go and amuse yourself as best you could. I fooled myself with the excuse that you were perfect as you were, but the bald truth was that I liked the society of men better, and hated any form of mental exertion unconnected with my profession. I plucked the rarest flower a good-for-nothing man ever found and I didn't even remember to give it fresh water. It is a wonder you didn't wilt before you did. You were wilting—dying mentally—when Masters came along. You found in him all that I had denied you. And now I have the punishment I deserve. You no longer love me. You love him."
"Oh—Oh—" Madeleine twisted her hands in her lap and stared at them. "You—you—cannot help being what you are. I long since ceased to find fault with you—"
"Yes, when you ceased to love me! When you found that we were hopelessly mismated. When you gave up."
"I—I'm very fond of you still. How could I help it when you are so good to me?"
"I have no doubt of your friendship—or of your fidelity. But you love Masters. Can you deny it?"
"Are you preparing to elope with him?"
"Oh! No! No! How could you dream of such a thing?"
"I am told that every one is expecting it."
"I would no more elope than I would ask for a divorce. I may be sinful enough to love a man who is not my husband, but I am not bad enough for that. And people are very stupid. They know that Langdon Masters' future lies here. If I were as wicked a woman as that, at least he is not a fool. Why, only today he received the capital for his newspaper."
"And do you know so little of men and women as to imagine that you two could go on indefinitely content with the mere fact that you love each other? I may not have known my own wife because I chose to be blind, but a doctor knows as much about women in general as a father confessor. Men and women are not made like that! It seems that every one but myself has known for months that Masters is in love with you; and Masters is a man of strong passions and relentless will. He has used his will so far to curb his passions, principally, no doubt, on my account; he is my friend and a man of honor. But there are moments in life when honor as well as virtue goes overboard."
"But—but—we have agreed never to see each other alone again— except out of doors."
"That is all very well, but there are always unexpected moments of isolation. The devil sees to that. And while I have every confidence in your virtue—under normal conditions—I know the helpless yielding of women and the ruthless passions of men. It would be only a question of time. I may have been a bad husband but I am mercifully permitted to save you, and I shall do so."
He rose heavily from his chair. "Do you know where I can find Masters?"
She sprang to her feet and for the first time in her life her voice was shrill.
"You are not going to kill him?"
"Oh, no. I am not going to kill him. There has been scandal enough already. And I have no desire to kill him. He has behaved very well, all things considered. I am almost as sorry for him as I am for you— and myself! Do you know where he is?"
"He is probably dining at the Union Club—or he may be at his new offices. They are somewhere on Commercial Street."
He went out and Madeleine sat staring at the door with wide eyes and parted lips. She felt no inclination to tears, nor even to faint, although her body could hardly have been colder in death. She felt suspended in a vacuum, awaiting something more dreadful than even this interview with her husband had been.
Dr. Talbot turned toward the stairs, but it occurred to him that Masters might still be in his rooms and he walked to the other end of the hall. A ringing voice answered his knock. He entered. Masters grasped him by the hand, exclaiming, "I was going to look you up tonight and tell you the good news. Has Madeleine told you? I have my capital! And I have just received a telegram from New York saying that my presses will start by freight tomorrow. That means we'll have our newspaper in three weeks at the outside—But what is the matter, old chap? I never saw you look seedy before. Suppose we take a week off and go on a bear hunt? It's the last vacation I can have in a month of Sundays."
"I have come to tell you that you must leave San Francisco."
"Oh!" Masters' exuberance dropped like a shining cloak from a figure of steel. He walked to his citadel, the hearth rug, and lit a cigarette.
"I suppose you have been listening to the chatter of that infernal old gossip, Ben Travers."
"Ben Travers knows me too well to bring any of his gossip to me. But he has carried his stories up and down the state; not only his—more recent discoveries, but evidence he appears to have been collecting for months. But he is only one of many. It seems the whole town has known for a year or more that you see Madeleine for three or four hours every day, that you have managed to have those hours together, no matter what her engagements, that you are desperately in love with each other. The gossip has been infernal. I do not deny that a good deal of the blame rests on my shoulders. I not only neglected her but I encouraged her to see you. But I thought her above scandal or even gossip, and I never dreamed it was in her to love—to lose her head over any man. She was sweet and affectionate but cold—my fault again. Any man who had the good fortune to be married to Madeleine could make her love him if he were not a selfish fool. Well, I have been punished; but if I have lost her I can save her—and her reputation. You must go. There is no other way."
"That is nonsense. You exaggerate because you are suffering from a shock. You know that I cannot leave San Francisco with this great newspaper about to be launched. If it is as bad as you make out I will give you my word not to see Madeleine again. And as I shall be too busy for Society it will quickly forget me."
"Oh, no, it will not. It will say that you are both cleverer than you have been in the past. If you leave San Francisco—California —for good and all—it may forget you; not otherwise."
"Do you know that you are asking me to give up my career? That I shall never have such an opportunity in my life again? My whole future—for usefulness as well as for the realization of my not ignoble ambitions—lies in San Francisco and nowhere else?"
"Don't imagine I have not thought of that. And San Francisco can ill afford to spare you. You are one of the greatest assets this city ever had. But she will have to do without you even if you never can be replaced. I had the whole history of the affair from Mrs. McLane this afternoon. No one believes—yet—that things have reached a climax between you and Madeleine. On the contrary, they are expecting an elopement. But if you remain, nothing on God's earth can prevent an abominable scandal. Madeleine's name will be dragged through the mud. She will be cut, cast out of Society. Even I could not protect her; I should be regarded as a blind fool, or worse, for it will be known that Mrs. McLane warned me. No woman can keep her mouth shut. She and other powerful women—even that damned old cut-throat, Mrs. Abbott—are standing by Madeleine loyally, but they are all alert for a denouement nevertheless. If you go, that will satisfy them. Madeleine will be merely the heroine of an unhappy love-affair, and although nothing will stop their damned clacking tongues for a time, they will pity her and do their best to make her forget."
"I cannot go. It is impossible. You are asking too much. And, I repeat, I'll never see her again. Mrs. McLane can be made to understand the truth. I'll leave the hotel tomorrow."
"You love Madeleine, do you not?"
"Then will you save her from ruin in the only way possible. It is not only her reputation that I fear. You know yourself, I fancy. You may avoid her, but you will hardly deny that if circumstances threw you together, alone, temptation would be irresistible—the more so as you would have ached for the mere sound of her voice every minute. I know now what it means to love Madeleine."
Masters turned his back on Talbot and leaned his arms on the mantel-shelf. He saw hideous pictures in the empty grate.
The doctor had not sat down. Not a muscle of his big strong body had moved as he stood and pronounced what was worse than a sentence of death on Langdon Masters. He averted his dull inexorable eyes, for he dared not give way to sympathy. For the moment he wished himself dead —and for more reasons than one! But he was far too healthy and practical to contemplate a dramatic exit. No end would be served if he did. Madeleine's sensitive spirit would recoil in horror from a union haunted by the memory of the crime and anguish of the husband she had vowed to love and obey. Not Madeleine! His remorseless solution was the only one.
Masters turned after a time and his face looked as old as Talbot's.
"I'll go if you are quite sure it is necessary. If you have not spoken in the heat of the moment."
"If I thought for a month it would make no difference. If you remain, no matter what your circumspection Madeleine will rank in the eyes of the world with those harlots over on Dupont Street. And be as much of an outcast. You know this town. You've lived in it for a year and a half. It's not London, nor even New York. Nothing is hidden here. It lives on itself; it has nothing else to live on. It is almost fanatically loyal to its own until its loyalty is thrown in its face. Then it is bitterer than the wrath of God. You understand all this, don't you?"
"Yes, I understand. But—couldn't you send Madeleine to her parents in Boston for six months—she has never paid them a visit—but no, I suppose the scandal would be worse—"
"Far worse. It would look either as if she had run away from me or as if I had packed her off in disgrace. If I could leave my practice I'd take her abroad for two years, but I cannot. Nor—to be frank—do I see why I should be sacrificed further."
"Oh, assuredly not." Masters' tones were even and excessively polite.
"You will take the train tomorrow morning for New York?"
"I cannot leave San Francisco until after the opening of the banks. The money must be refunded. Besides, I prefer to go by steamer. There is one leaving tomorrow, I believe. I want time to think before I arrive in New York."
"And you will promise to have no correspondence with Madeleine whatever?"
"You might leave us that much!"
"The affair shall end here and now. Do you promise?"
"Very well. But I should like to see her once more."
"That you shall not! I shall not leave her until you are outside the Golden Gate."
"Very well. If that is all—"
"Good-by. You have behaved—well, as our code commands you to behave. I expected nothing less. Don't imagine I don't appreciate what this means to you. But you are a man of great ability. You will find as hospitable a field for your talents elsewhere. San Francisco is the chief loser. I wish you the best of luck."
And he returned to Madeleine.
Madeleine came of a brave race and she was a woman of intense pride. She spent a week at Congress Springs and she took her courage in her teeth and spent another at Rincona. There was a house party and they amused themselves in the somnolent way peculiar to Alta. Bret Harte was there, a dapper little man, whose shoes were always a size too small, but popular with women as he played an excellent game of croquet and talked as delightfully as he wrote. His good humor could be counted on if no one mentioned "The Heathen Chinee." He had always admired Madeleine and did his best to divert her.
Both Mrs. McLane and Mrs. Abbott were disappointed that they were given no opportunity to condole with her; but although she gave a fair imitation of the old Madeleine Talbot, and even mentioned Masters' name with a casual indifference, no one was deceived for a moment. That her nerves were on the rack was as evident as that her watchful pride was in arms, and although it was obvious that she had foresworn the luxury of tears, her eyes had a curious habit of looking through and beyond these good ladies until they had the uncomfortable sensation that they were not there and some one else was. They wondered if Langdon Masters were dead and she saw his ghost.
The summer was almost over. After a visit to Sally Abbott on Lake Merritt, she returned to town with the rest of the fashionable world. People had never been kinder to her; and if their persistent attentions were strongly diluted with curiosity, who shall blame them? It was not every day they had a blighted heroine of romance, who, moreover, looked as if she were going into a decline. She grew thinner every day. Her white skin was colorless and transparent. They might not have her for long, poor darling! How they pitied her! But they never wished they had let her alone. It was all for the best. And what woman ever had so devoted a husband? He went with her everywhere. He, too, looked as if he had been through the mill, poor dear, but at least he had won a close race, and he deserved and received the sympathy of his faithful friends. As for that ungrateful brute, Langdon Masters, he had not written a line to any one in San Francisco since he left. Not one had an idea what had become of him. Did he secretly correspond with Madeleine? (They would have permitted her that much.) Would he blow out his brains if she died of consumption? He was no philanderer. If he hadn't really loved her nothing would have torn him from San Francisco and his brilliant career; of course. Duelling days were over, and the doctor was not the man to shoot another down in cold blood, with no better excuse than the poor things had given him. It was all very thrilling and romantic. Even the girls talked of little else, and regarded their complacent prosperous swains with disfavor. "The Long Long Weary Day" was their favorite song. They wished that Madeleine lived in a moated grange instead of the Occidental Hotel.
Madeleine had had her own room from the beginning of her married life in San Francisco, as the doctor was frequently called out at night. When Howard had returned and told her that Masters would leave on the morrow and that she was not to see him again, she had walked quietly into her bedroom and locked the door that led to his; and she had never turned the key since.
Talbot made no protest. He had no spirit left where Madeleine was concerned, but it was his humble hope to win her back by unceasing devotion and consideration, aided by time. He not only never mentioned Masters' name, but he wooed her in blundering male fashion. Not a day passed that he did not send her flowers. He bought her trinkets and several valuable jewels, and he presented her with a victoria, drawn by a fine sorrel mare, and a coachman in livery on the box.
Madeleine treated him exactly as she treated her host at a dinner. She was as amiable as ever at the breakfast table, and when he deserted his club of an evening, she sat at her embroidery frame and told him the gossip of the day.
One evening at the end of two long hours, when he had heroically suppressed his longing for a game of poker, he said hesitatingly, "I thought you were so fond of reading. I don't see any books about. All the women are reading a novel called 'Quits.' I'll send it up to you in the morning if you haven't read it."
For the first time since Masters' departure the blood rose in Madeleine's face, but she answered calmly:
"Thanks. I have little time for reading, as I have developed quite a passion for embroidery and I practice a good deal. This is a handkerchief-case for Mrs. McLane. Of course I must read 'Quits,' however, and also 'The Initials.' One mustn't be behind the times. If you'll step into Beach's tomorrow and order them I'll be grateful."
"Of course I will. Should—should—you like me to read to you? I'm a pretty bad reader, I guess, but I'll do my best."
"Oh—is there an earthquake?"
"No! But your nerves are in a bad state. I'll get you a glass of port wine."
He went heavily over to the cupboard, but his hand was shaking as he poured out the wine. He drank a glass himself before returning to her.
"Thanks. You take very good care of me." And she gave him the gracious smile of a grateful patient.
"I don't think you'd better go out any more at night for a while. You are far from well, you know, and you're not picking up."
"A call for you, I suppose. Too bad."
There had been a peremptory knock on the door. A coachman stood without. Would Dr. Talbot come at once? A new San Franciscan was imminent via Mrs. Alexander Groome on Ballinger Hill.
The doctor grumbled.
"And raining cats and dogs. Why couldn't she wait until tomorrow? We'll probably get stuck in the mud. Damn women and their everlasting babies."
She helped him into his overcoat and wished him a pleasant good-night. It was long since she had lifted her cheek for his old hasty kiss, and he made no protest. He had time on his side.
She did not return to her embroidery frame but stood for several moments looking at the chest near the fireplace. She had not opened it since Masters left. His library had been packed and sent after him by one of his friends, but no one had known of the books in her possession. Masters certainly had not thought of them and she was in no condition to remember them herself at the time.
She had not dared to look at them! Tonight, however, she moved slowly toward the chest. She looked like a sleep-walker. When she reached it she knelt down and opened it and gathered the books in her arms. When her husband returned two hours later she lay on the floor in a dead faint, the books scattered about her.
It was morning before he could revive her, and two days before she could leave her bed. Then she developed the hacking cough he dreaded. He took her to the Sandwich Islands and kept her there for a month. The even climate and the sea voyage seemed to relieve her, but when they returned to San Francisco she began to cough again.
Do women go into a decline these days from corroding love and hope in ruins? If so, one never hears of it and the disease is unfashionable in modern fiction. But in that era woman was woman and little besides. If a woman of the fashionable world she had Society besides her family and housekeeping. She rarely travelled, certainly not from California, and if one of her band fell upon evil days and was forced to teach school, knit baby sacques, or keep a boarding-house, she was pitied but by no means emulated. Madeleine had neither house nor children, and more money than she could spend. She had nothing to ask of life but happiness and that was for ever denied her. Masters had never been out of her mind for a moment during her waking hours, and she had slept little. She ate still less, and kept herself up in Society with punch in the afternoon and champagne at night. Only in the solitude of her room did she give way briefly to excoriated nerves; but the source of her once ready tears seemed dry. There are more scientific terms for her condition these days, but she was poisoned by love and despair. Her collapse was only a matter of time.
Dr. Talbot knew nothing about psychology but he knew a good deal about consumption. He had also arrested it in its earlier stages more than once. He plied Madeleine with the good old remedies: eggnog, a raw egg in a glass of sherry, port wine, mellow Bourbon whiskey and cream. She had no desire to recover and he stood over her while she drank his potions lest she pour them down the washstand; and some measure of her strength returned. She fainted no more and her cough disappeared. The stimulants gave her color and her figure began to fill out again. But her thoughts, save when muddled by her tonics, never wandered from Masters for a moment.
The longing to hear from him grew uncontrollable with her returning vitality. She had hoped that he would break his promise and write to her once at least. He knew her too well not to measure the extent of her sufferings, and common humanity would have justified him. But his ship might have sunk with all on board for any sign he gave. Others had ceased to grumble at his silence; his name was rarely mentioned.
If she had known his address she would have written to him and demanded one letter. She had given no promise. Her husband had commanded and she had obeyed. She had always obeyed him, as she had vowed at the altar. But she had her share of feminine guile, and if she had known where to address Masters she would have quieted her conscience with the assurance that a letter from him was a necessary part of her cure. She felt that the mere sight of his handwriting on an envelope addressed to herself would transport her back to that hour in Dolores, and if she could correspond with him life would no longer be unendurable. But although he had casually alluded to his club in New York she could not recall the name, if he had mentioned it.
She went to the Mercantile Library one day and looked over files of magazines and reviews. His name appeared in none of them. It was useless to look over newspaper files, as editorials were not signed. But he must be writing for one of them. He had his immediate living to make.
What should she do?
As she groped her way down the dark staircase of the library she remembered the newspaper friend, Ralph Holt, who had packed his books —so the chambermaid had informed her casually—and whom she had met once when walking with Masters. He, if any one, would know Masters' address. But how meet him? He did not go in Society, and she had never seen him since. She could think of no excuse to ask him to call. Nor was it possible—to her, at least—to write a note and ask him for information outright.
But by this time she was desperate. See Holt she would, and after a few moments' hard thinking her feminine ingenuity flashed a beacon. Holt was one of the sub-editors of his newspaper and although he had been about to resign and join Masters, no doubt he was on the staff still. Madeleine remembered that Masters had often spoken of a French restaurant in the neighborhood of the Alta offices, patronized by newspaper men. The cooking was excellent. He often lunched there himself.
She glanced at her watch. It was one o'clock. She walked quickly toward the restaurant.
She entered in some trepidation. She had never visited a restaurant alone before. And this one was crowded with men, the atmosphere thick with smoke. She asked the fat little proprietor if she might have a table alone, and he conducted her to the end of the room, astonished but flattered. A few women came to the restaurant occasionally to lunch with "their boys," but no such lady of the haut ton as this. A fashionable woman's caprice, no doubt.
Her seat faced the room, and as she felt the men staring at her, she studied the menu carefully and did not raise her eyes until she gave her order. In spite of her mission and its tragic cause she experienced a fleeting satisfaction that she was well and becomingly dressed. She had intended dropping in informally on Sibyl Forbes, still an outcast, in spite of her intercession, and wore a gown of dove-colored cashmere and a hat of the same shade with a long lilac feather.
She summoned her courage and glanced about the room, her eyes casual and remote. Would it be possible to recognize any one in that smoke? But she saw Holt almost immediately. He sat at a table not far from her own. She bowed cordially and received as frigid a response as Mrs. Abbott would have bestowed on Sibyl Forbes.
Madeleine colored and dropped her eyes again. Of course he knew her for the cause of Masters' desertion of the city that needed him, and the disappointment of his own hopes and ambitions. Moreover, she had inferred from his conversation the day they had all walked together for half an hour that he regarded Masters as little short of a god. He was several years younger, he was clever himself, and nothing like Masters had ever come his way. He had declared that the projected newspaper was to be the greatest in America. She had smiled at his boyish enthusiasm, but without it she would probably have forgotten him. She had resented his presence at the time.
Of course he hated her. But she had come too far to fail. He passed her table a few moments later and she held out her hand with her sweetest smile.
"Sit down a moment," she said with her pretty air of command; and although his face did not relax he could do no less than obey.
"I feel more comfortable," she said. "I had no idea I should be the only lady here. But Mr. Masters so often spoke to me of this restaurant that I have always meant to visit it." She did not flutter an eyelash as she uttered Masters' name, and her lovely eyes seemed wooing Holt to remain at her side.
"Heartless, like all the rest of them," thought the young man wrathfully. "Well, I'll give her one straight."
"Have you heard from him lately?" she asked, as the waiter placed the dishes on the table. "He hasn't written to one of his old friends since he left, and I've often wondered what has become of him."
"He's gone to the devil!" said Holt brutally. "And I guess you know where the blame lies—Oh!—Drink this!" He hastily poured out a glass of claret. "Here! Drink it! Brace up, for God's sake. Don't give yourself away before all these fellows."
Madeleine swallowed the claret but pushed back her chair. "Take me away quickly," she muttered. "I don't care what they think. Take me where you can tell me—"
He drew her hand through his arm, for he was afraid she would fall, and as he led her down the room he remarked audibly, "No wonder you feel faint. There's no air in the place, and you've probably never seen so much smoke in your life before."
At the door he nodded to the anxious proprietor, and when they reached the sidewalk asked if he should take her home.
"No. I must talk to you alone. There is a hack. Let us drive somewhere."
He handed her into the hack, telling the man to drive where he liked as long as he avoided the Cliff House Road. Madeleine shrank into a corner and began to cry wildly. He regarded her with anxiety, and less hostility in his bright blue eyes.
"I'm awfully sorry," he said. "I was a brute. But I thought you would know—I thought other things—"
"I knew nothing, but I can't believe it is true. There must be some mistake. He is not like that."
"That's what's happened. You see, his world went to smash. That was the opportunity of his life, and such opportunities don't come twice. He has no capital of his own, and he can't raise money in New York. Besides, he didn't want a newspaper anywhere else. And—and—of-course, you know, newspaper men hear all the talk—he was terribly hard hit. I couldn't help feeling a little sorry for you when I heard you were ill and all the rest; but today you looked as if you had forgotten poor Masters had ever lived—just a Society butterfly and a coquette."
"Oh, I'm not blaming you! Perhaps it is all my fault. I don't know!— But that! I can't believe it. I never knew a man with as strong a character. He—he—always could control himself. And he had too much pride and ambition."
"I guess you don't know it, but he had a weak spot for liquor. That is the reason he drank less than the rest of us—and that did show strength of character: that he could drink at all. I only saw him half-seas over once. He told me then he was always on the watch lest it get the best of him. His father drank himself to death after the war, and his grandfather from mere love of his cups. Nothing but a hopeless smash-up, though, would ever have let it get the best of him.... He was terribly high-strung under all that fine repose of his, and although his mind was like polished metal in a way, it was full of quicksilver. When a man like that lets go—nothing left to hold on to—he goes down hill at ten times the pace of an ordinary chap. I—I—suppose I may as well tell you the whole truth. He never drew a sober breath on the steamer and he's been drunk more or less ever since he arrived in New York. Of course he writes—has to—but can't hold down any responsible position. They'd be glad to give him the best salary paid if he'd sober up, but he gets worse instead of better. He's been thrown off two papers already; and it's only because he can write better drunk than most men sober that he sells an article now and again when he has to."
Madeleine had torn her handkerchief to pieces. She no longer wept. Her eyes were wide with horror. He fancied he saw awful visions in them. Fearing she might faint or have hysterics, he hastily extracted a brandy flask from his pocket.
"Do you mind?" he asked diffidently. "Sorry I haven't a glass, but this is the first time I've taken the cork out."
She lifted the flask obediently and took a draught that commanded his respect.
She smiled faintly as she met his wide-eyed regard. "My husband makes me live on this stuff. I was threatened with consumption. It affects me very little, but it helps me in more ways than one."
"Well, don't let it help you too much. I suppose the doctor knows best—but—well, it gets a hold on you when you are down on your luck."
"If it ever 'gets a hold' on me it will because I deliberately wish it to," she said haughtily. "If Langdon Masters—has gone as far as you say, I don't believe it is through any inherited weakness. He has done it deliberately."
"I grant that. And I'm sorry if I offended you—"
"I am only grateful to you. I feel better now and can think a little. Something must be done. Surely he can be saved."
"I doubt it. When a man starts scientifically drinking himself to death nothing can be done when there is nothing better to offer him. May I be frank?"
"I have been frank enough!"
"Masters told me nothing of course, but I heard all the talk. Old Travers let out his part of it in his cups, and news travels from the Clubs like water out of a sieve. We don't publish that sort of muck, but there were innuendoes in that blackguard sheet, The Boom. They stopped suddenly and I fancy the editor had a taste of the horsewhip. It wouldn't be the first time.... When Masters sent for me and told me he was leaving San Francisco for good and all, he looked like a man who had been through Dore's Hell—was there still, for that matter. Of course I knew what had happened; if I hadn't I'd have known it the next day when I saw the doctor. He looked bad enough, but nothing to Masters. He had less reason! Of course Masters threw his career to the winds to save your good name. Noblesse oblige. Too bad he wasn't more of a villain and less of a great gentleman. It, might have been better all round. This town certainly needs him."
"If he were not a great gentleman nothing would have happened in the first place," she said with cool pride. "But I asked you if there were no way to save him."
"I can think of only two ways. If your husband would write and ask him to return to San Francisco—"
"He'd never do that."
"Then you might—you might—" He was fair and blushed easily. Being secretly a sentimental youth he was shy of any of the verbal expressions of sentiment; but he swallowed and continued heroically. "You—you—I think you love him. I can see you are not heartless, that you are terribly cut up. If you love him enough you might save him. A man like Masters can quit cold no matter how far he has gone if the inducement is great enough. If you went to New York—"
He paused and glanced at her apprehensively, but although she had gasped she only shook her head sadly.
"I'll never break my husband's heart and the vows I made at the altar, no matter what happens."
"Oh, you good women! I believe you are at the root of more disaster than all the strumpets put together!"
"It may be. I remember he once said something of the sort. But he loved me for what I am and I cannot change myself."
"You could get a divorce."
"I have no ground. And I would not if I had. He knows that."
"No wonder he is without hope! But I don't pretend to understand women. You'll leave him in the gutter then?"
"Well, if he isn't there literally he soon will be. I've seen men of your set in the gutter here when they'd only been on a spree for a week. Take Alexander Groome and Jack Belmont, for instance. And after the gutter it is sometimes the calaboose."
"You are cruel, and perhaps I deserve it. But if you will give me his address I will write to him."
"I wouldn't. He might be too drunk to read your letter, and lose it. Or he might tear it up in a fury. I don't fancy even drink could make Langdon Masters maudlin, and the sight of your handwriting would be more likely to make him empty the bottle with a curse than to awaken tender sentiment. Anyhow, it would be a risk. Some blackguard might get hold of it."
"Very well, I'll not write. Will you tell the man to drive to the Occidental Hotel?"
He gave the order and when he drew in his head she laid her hand on his and said in her sweet voice and with her soft eyes raised to his (he no longer wondered that Masters had lost his head over her), "I want to thank you for the kindness you have shown me and the care you took of me in that restaurant. What you have told me has destroyed the little peace of mind I had left, but at least I'm no longer in the dark. I will confess that I went to that restaurant in the hope of seeing you and learning something about Masters. Nor do I mind that I have revealed myself to you without shame. I have had no confidant throughout all this terrible time and it has been a relief. I suppose it is always easier to be frank with a stranger than with even the best of friends."
"Thanks. But I'd like you to know that I am your friend. I'd do anything I could for you—for Masters' sake as well as your own. It's an awful mess. Perhaps you'll think of some solution."
"I've thought of one as far as I am concerned. I shall drink myself to death."
"What?" He was sitting sideways, embracing his knees, and he just managed to save himself from toppling over. "Have you gone clean out of your head?"
"Oh, no. Not yet, But I shall do as I said. If I cannot follow him I can follow his example. Why should he go to the dogs and I go through life with the respect and approval of the world? He is far greater than I—and better. I can at least share his disgrace, and I shall also forget—and, it may be, delude myself that I am with him at times."
"My God! The logic of women! How happy do you think that will make your husband? Good old sport, the doctor—and as for religion— and vows!"
"One can stand so much and no more. I have reached the breaking point here in this carriage. It is that or suicide, and that would bring open disgrace on my husband. The other would only be suspected. And I'll not last long."
The hack stopped in front of the hotel. She gave him her hand after he had escorted her to the door. "Thank you once more. And I'd be grateful if you would come and tell me if you have any further news of him—no matter what. Will you?"
"Yes," he said. "But I feel like going off and getting drunk, myself. I wish I hadn't told you a thing."
"It wouldn't have made much difference. If you know it others must, and I'd have heard it sooner or later. I hope you'll call in any case."
He promised; but the next time he saw her it was not in a drawing-room.
Madeleine had reached the calmness of despair once more, and this time without a glimmer of hope. Life had showered its gifts sardonically upon her before breaking her in her youth, and there was still a resource in its budget that it had no power to withhold. She was a firm believer in the dogmas of the Church and knew that she would be punished hereafter. Well, so would he. It might be they would be permitted to endure their punishment together. And meanwhile, there was oblivion, delusions possibly, and then death.
It was summer and there were no engagements to break. The doctor was caught in the whirlwind of another small-pox epidemic and lived in rooms he reserved for the purpose. He did not insist upon her departure from town as he knew her to be immune, and he thought it best she should remain where she could pursue her regimen uninterrupted; and tax her strength as little as possible. If he did not dismiss her from his mind at least he had not a misgiving. She had never disobeyed him, she appeared to have forgotten Masters at last, she took her tonics automatically, and there were good plays in town. In a few months she would be restored to health and himself.
He returned to the hotel at the end of six weeks. It was the dinner hour but his wife was not at the piano. He tapped on the door that led from the parlor to her bedroom, and although there was no response he turned the knob and entered.
Madeleine was lying on the bed, asleep apparently.
He went forward anxiously; he had never known her to sleep at this hour before. He touched her lightly on the shoulder, but she did not awaken. Then he bent over her, and drew back with a frown. But although horrified he was far from suspecting the whole truth. He had been compelled to break more than one patient of too ardent a fidelity to his prescriptions.
He forced an emetic down her throat, but it had no effect. Then he picked her up and carried her into the bath room and held her head under the shower. The blood flowed down from her congested brain. She struggled out of his arms and looked at him with dull angry eyes.
"What do you mean?" she demanded. "How dared you do such a thing to me?"
"You had taken too much, my dear," he said kindly. "Or else it affects you more than it did—possibly because you no longer need it. I shall taper you off by degrees, and then I think we can do without it."
"Without it? I couldn't live without it. I need more—and more—" She looked about wildly.
"Oh, that is all right. They always think so at first. In six months you will have forgotten it. Remember, I am a doctor—and a good one, if I say so myself."
She dropped her eyes. "Very well," she said humbly. "Of course you know best."
"Now, put on dry clothes and let us have dinner. It seems a year since I dined with you."
"I haven't the strength."
He went into the parlor and returned with a small glass of cognac. "This will brace you up, and, as I said, you must taper off. But I'll measure the doses myself, hereafter."
She put on an evening gown, but with none of her old niceness of detail. She merely put it on. Her wet hair she twisted into a knot without glancing at the mirror. As she entered the parlor she staggered slightly. Talbot averted his eyes. He may have had similar cases, and, as a doctor, become hardened to all manifestations of human weakness, but this patient was his wife. It was only temporary, of course, and a not unnatural sequel. But Madeleine! He felt as a priest might if a statue of the Virgin opened its mouth and poured forth a stream of blasphemy.
Then he went forward and put his arm about her. "Brace up," he said. "I hear the waiters in the dining-room. They must not see you like this. Where—where have you taken your meals?"
"In my bedroom."
"I hoped so. Has any one seen you?"
"I don't know—no. I think not. I have been careful enough. I do not wish to disgrace you."
He was obliged to give her another glass of cognac, and she sat through the dinner without betraying herself, although she would eat nothing. She was sullen and talked little, and when the meal was over she went directly to bed.
Dr. Talbot followed her, however, and searched her wardrobe and bureau drawers. He found nothing. When he returned to the parlor he locked the cupboard where he kept his hospitable stores and put the key in his pocket. But he did not go out, and toward midnight he heard her moving restlessly about her room. She invited him eagerly to enter when he tapped.
"I'm nervous, horribly nervous," she said. "Give me some more cognac —anything."
"You'll have nothing more tonight. I shall give you a dose of valerian."
She swallowed the noxious mixture with a grimace and was asleep in a few moments.
The doctor was still very busy but he returned to the hotel four times a day and gave her small doses of whatever liquor she demanded. In a short time he diluted them with Napa Soda water. She was always pacing the room when he entered and looked at him like a wild animal at bay. But she never mentioned Masters' name, even when her nerves whipped her suddenly to hysterics; and although he sometimes thought he should go mad with the horror of it all, he had faith in his method, and in her own pride, as soon as the first torments wore down. She refused to walk out of doors or to wear anything but a dressing gown; she took her slender meals in her room.
But Madeleine's sufferings were more mental than physical, although she was willing the doctor should form the natural conclusion. She was possessed by the fear that a cure would be forced upon her; she was indifferent even to the taste of liquor, and had merely preferred it formerly to bitter or nauseous tonics; in Society it had been a necessary stimulant, when her strength began to fail, nothing more. After her grim decision she had forced large quantities down her throat by sheer strength of will. But she had found the result all that she had expected, she had alternated between exhilaration and oblivion, and was sure that it was killing her by inches. Now, she could indulge in neither wild imaginings nor forget. And if he cured her!—but her will when she chose to exert it was as strong as his, and her resource seldom failed her.
One day in her eternal pacing she paused and stared at the keyhole of the cupboard, then took a hairpin from her head and tried to pick the lock. It was large and complicated and she could do nothing with it. She glanced at the clock. The doctor would not return for an hour. She dressed hastily and went out and bought a lump of soft wax. She took an impress of the keyhole and waited with what patience she could summon until her husband had come and gone. Then she went out again. The next day she had the key and that night she needed no valerian.
Doctor Talbot paced the parlor himself until morning. But he did not despair. He had had not dissimilar experiences before. He removed his supplies to the cellar of the hotel and carried a flask in his pocket from which he measured her daily drams.
The same chambermaid had been on her floor for years, and was devoted to her. She sent her out for gin on one pretext or another, although the woman was not deceived for a moment; she had "seen how it was" long since. But she was middle-aged, Irish, and sympathetic. If the poor lady had sorrows let her drown them.
Madeleine was more wary this time. She told her husband she was determined to take her potions only at noon and at night; in the daytime she restrained herself after four o'clock, although she took enough to keep up her spirits at the dinner-table to which she had thought it best to return.
The doctor, thankful, no longer neglected his practice, and left immediately after dinner for the Club as she went to her room at once and locked the door. There was no doubt of her hostility, but that, too, was not unnatural, and he was content to wait.
Society returned to town, but she flatly refused to enter it. Nor would she receive any one who called. The doctor remonstrated in vain. He trusted her perfectly and a glass of champagne at dinner would not hurt her. If she expected to become quite herself again she must have diversions. She was leading an unnatural life.
She deigned no answer.
He warned her that tongues would wag. He had met several of the women during the summer and told them her lungs were healed.... No doubt he had been over-anxious, mistaken—in the beginning. He wished he had given her a tonic of iron arsenic and strychnine, alternated with cod-liver oil. But it was too late for regrets, and at least she was well on the road to recovery; if she snubbed people now they would take their revenge when she would be eager for the pleasures of Society again.