Avinash Kothare, Tom Allen,Charles Franks and the Online Distributed
BY GERTRUDE ATHERTON
There was no Burlingame in the Sixties, the Western Addition was a desert of sand dunes and the goats gambolled through the rocky gulches of Nob Hill. But San Francisco had its Rincon Hill and South Park, Howard and Fulsom and Harrison Streets, coldly aloof from the tumultuous hot heart of the City north of Market Street.
In this residence section the sidewalks were also wooden and uneven and the streets muddy in winter and dusty in summer, but the houses, some of which had "come round the Horn," were large, simple, and stately. Those on the three long streets had deep gardens before them, with willow trees and oaks above the flower beds, quaint ugly statues, and fountains that were sometimes dry. The narrower houses of South Park crowded one another about the oval enclosure and their common garden was the smaller oval of green and roses.
On Rincon Hill the architecture was more varied and the houses that covered all sides of the hill were surrounded by high-walled gardens whose heavy bushes of Castilian roses were the only reminder in this already modern San Francisco of the Spain that had made California a land of romance for nearly a century; the last resting place on this planet of the Spirit of Arcadia ere she vanished into space before the gold-seekers.
On far-flung heights beyond the business section crowded between Market and Clay Streets were isolated mansions, built by prescient men whose belief in the rapid growth of the city to the north and west was justified in due course, but which sheltered at present amiable and sociable ladies who lamented their separation by vast spaces from that aristocratic quarter of the south.
But they had their carriages, and on a certain Sunday afternoon several of these arks drawn by stout horses might have been seen crawling fearfully down the steep hills or floundering through the sand until they reached Market Street; when the coachmen cracked their whips, the horses trotted briskly, and shortly after began to ascend Rincon Hill.
Mrs. Hunt McLane, the social dictator of her little world, had recently moved from South Park into a large house on Rincon Hill that had been built by an eminent citizen who had lost his fortune as abruptly as he had made it; and this was her housewarming. It was safe to say that her rooms would be crowded, and not merely because her Sunday receptions were the most important minor functions in San Francisco: it was possible that Dr. Talbot and his bride would be there. And if he were not it might be long before curiosity would be gratified by even a glance at the stranger; the doctor detested the theatre and had engaged a suite at the Occidental Hotel with a private dining-room.
Several weeks before a solemn conclave had been held at Mrs. McLane's house in South Park. Mrs. Abbott was there and Mrs. Ballinger, both second only to Mrs. McLane in social leadership; Mrs. Montgomery, Mrs. Brannan, and other women whose power was rooted in the Fifties; Maria and Sally Ballinger, Marguerite McLane, and Guadalupe Hathaway, whose blue large talking Spanish eyes had made her the belle of many seasons: all met to discuss the disquieting news of the marriage in Boston of the most popular and fashionable doctor in San Francisco, Howard Talbot. He had gone East for a vacation, and soon after had sent them a bald announcement of his marriage to one Madeleine Chilton of Boston.
Many high hopes had centered in Dr. Talbot. He was only forty, good-looking, with exuberant spirits, and well on the road to fortune. He had been surrounded in San Francisco by beautiful and vivacious girls, but had always proclaimed himself a man's man, avowed he had seen too much of babies and "blues," and should die an old bachelor. Besides he loved them all; when he did not damn them roundly, which he sometimes did to their secret delight.
And now he not only had affronted them by marrying some one he probably never had seen before, but he had taken a Northern wife; he had not even had the grace to go to his native South, if he must marry an outsider; he had gone to Boston—of all places!
San Francisco Society in the Sixties was composed almost entirely of Southerners. Even before the war it had been difficult for a Northerner to obtain entrance to that sacrosanct circle; the exceptions were due to sheer personality. Southerners were aristocrats. The North was plebeian. That was final. Since the war, Victorious North continued to admit defeat in California. The South had its last stronghold in San Francisco, and held it, haughty, unconquered, inflexible.
That Dr. Talbot, who was on a family footing in every home in San Francisco, should have placed his friends in such a delicate position (to say nothing of shattered hopes) was voted an outrage, and at Mrs. McLane's on that former Sunday afternoon, there had been no pretence at indifference. The subject was thoroughly discussed. It was possible that the creature might not even be a lady. Had any one ever heard of a Boston family named Chilton? No one had. They knew nothing of Boston and cared less. But the best would be bad enough.
It was more likely however that the doctor had married some obscure person with nothing in her favor but youth, or a widow of practiced wiles, or—horrid thought—a divorcee.
He had always been absurdly liberal in spite of his blue Southern blood; and a man's man wandering alone at the age of forty was almost foredoomed to disaster. No doubt the poor man had been homesick and lonesome.
Should they receive her or should they not? If not, would they lose their doctor. He would never speak to one of them again if they insulted his wife. But a Bostonian, a possible nobody! And homely, of course. Angular. Who had ever heard of a pretty woman raised on beans, codfish, and pie for breakfast?
Finally Mrs. McLane had announced that she should not make up her mind until the couple arrived and she sat in judgment upon the woman personally. She would call the day after they docked in San Francisco. If, by any chance, the woman were presentable, dressed herself with some regard to the fashion (which was more than Mrs. Abbott and Guadalupe Hathaway did), and had sufficient tact to avoid the subject of the war, she would stand sponsor and invite her to the first reception in the house on Rincon Hill.
"But if not," she said grimly—"well, not even for Howard Talbot's sake will I receive a woman who is not a lady, or who has been divorced. In this wild city we are a class apart, above. No loose fish enters our quiet bay. Only by the most rigid code and watchfulness have we formed and preserved a society similar to that we were accustomed to in the old South. If we lowered our barriers we should be submerged. If Howard Talbot has married a woman we do not find ourselves able to associate with in this intimate little society out here on the edge of the world, he will have to go."
Mrs. McLane had called on Mrs. Talbot. That was known to all San Francisco, for her carriage had stood in front of the Occidental Hotel for an hour. Kind friends had called to offer their services in setting the new house in order, but were dismissed at the door with the brief announcement that Mrs. McLane was having the blues. No one wasted time on a second effort to gossip with their leader; it was known that just so often Mrs. McLane drew down the blinds, informed her household that she was not to be disturbed, disposed herself on the sofa with her back to the room and indulged in the luxury of blues for three days. She took no nourishment but milk and broth and spoke to no one. Today this would be a rest cure and was equally beneficial. When the attack was over Mrs. McLane would arise with a clear complexion, serene nerves, and renewed strength for social duties. Her friends knew that her retirement on this occasion was timed to finish on the morning of her reception and had not the least misgiving that her doors would still be closed.
The great double parlors of her new mansion were thrown into one and the simple furniture covered with gray rep was pushed against soft gray walls hung with several old portraits in oil, ferrotypes and silhouettes. A magnificent crystal chandelier depended from the high and lightly frescoed ceiling and there were side brackets beside the doors and the low mantel piece. Mrs. McLane may not have been able to achieve beauty with the aid of the San Francisco shops, but at least she had managed to give her rooms a severe and stately simplicity, vastly different from the helpless surrenders of her friends to mid-victorian deformities.
The rooms filled early. Mrs. McLane stood before the north windows receiving her friends with her usual brilliant smile, her manner of high dignity and sweet cordiality. She was a majestic figure in spite of her short stature and increasing curves, for the majesty was within and her head above a flat back had a lofty poise. She wore her prematurely white hair in a tall pompadour, and this with the rich velvets she affected, ample and long, made her look like a French marquise of the eighteenth century, stepped down from the canvas. The effect was by no means accidental. Mrs. McLane's grandmother had been French and she resembled her.
Her hoopskirt was small, but the other women were inclined to the extreme of the fashion; as they saw it in the Godey's Lady's Book they or their dressmakers subscribed to. Their handsome gowns spread widely and the rooms hardly could have seemed to sway and undulate more if an earthquake had rocked it. The older women wore small bonnets and cashmere shawls, lace collars and cameos, the younger fichus and small flat hats above their "waterfalls" or curled chignons. The husbands had retired with Mr. McLane to the smoking room, but there were many beaux present, equally expectant when not too absorbed.
Unlike as a reception of that day was in background and costumes from the refinements of modern art and taste, it possessed one contrast that was wholly to its advantage. Its men were gentlemen and the sons and grandsons of gentlemen. To no one city has there ever been such an emigration of men of good family as to San Francisco in the Fifties and Sixties. Ambitious to push ahead in politics or the professions and appreciating the immediate opportunities of the new and famous city, or left with an insufficient inheritance (particularly after the war) and ashamed to work in communities where no gentleman had ever worked, they had set sail with a few hundreds to a land where a man, if he did not occupy himself lucratively, was unfit for the society of enterprising citizens.
Few had come in time for the gold diggings, but all, unless they had disappeared into the hot insatiable maw of the wicked little city, had succeeded in one field or another; and these, in their dandified clothes, made a fine appearance at fashionable gatherings. If they took up less room than the women they certainly were more decorative.
Dr. Talbot and his wife had not arrived. To all eager questions Mrs. McLane merely replied that "they" would "be here." She had the dramatic instinct of the true leader and had commanded the doctor not to bring his bride before four o'clock. The reception began at three. They should have an entrance. But Mrs. Abbott, a lady of three chins and an eagle eye, who had clung for twenty-five years to black satin and bugles, was too persistent to be denied. She extracted the information that the Bostonian had sent her own furniture by a previous steamer and that her drawing room was graceful, French, and exquisite.
At ten minutes after the hour the buzz and chatter stopped abruptly and every face was turned, every neck craned toward the door. The colored butler had announced with a grand flourish:
"Dr. and Mrs. Talbot."
The doctor looked as rubicund, as jovial, as cynical as ever. But few cast him more than a passing glance. Then they gave an audible gasp, induced by an ingenuous compound of amazement, disappointment, and admiration. They had been prepared to forgive, to endure, to make every allowance. The poor thing could no more help being plain and dowdy than born in Boston, and as their leader had satisfied herself that she "would do," they would never let her know how deeply they deplored her disabilities.
But they found nothing to deplore but the agonizing necessity for immediate readjustment. Mrs. Talbot was unquestionably a product of the best society. The South could have done no better. She was tall and supple and self-possessed. She was exquisitely dressed in dark blue velvet with a high collar of point lace tapering almost to her bust, and revealing a long white throat clasped at the base by a string of pearls. On her head, as proudly poised as Mrs. McLane's, was a blue velvet hat, higher in the crown than the prevailing fashion, rolled up on one side and trimmed only with a drooping gray feather. And her figure, her face, her profile! The young men crowded forward more swiftly than the still almost paralyzed women. She was no more than twenty. Her skin was as white as the San Francisco fogs, her lips were scarlet, her cheeks pink, her hair and eyes a bright golden brown. Her features were delicate and regular, the mouth not too small, curved and sensitive; her refinement was almost excessive. Oh, she was "high-toned," no doubt of that! As she moved forward and stood in front of Mrs. McLane, or acknowledged introductions to those that stood near, the women gave another gasp, this time of consternation. She wore neither hoop-skirt nor crinoline. Could it be that the most elegant fashion ever invented had been discarded by Paris? Or was this lovely creature of surpassing elegance, a law unto herself?
Her skirt was full but straight and did not disguise the lines of her graceful figure; above her small waist it fitted as closely as a riding habit. She was even more becomingly dressed than any woman in the room. Mrs. Abbott, who was given to primitive sounds, snorted. Maria Ballinger, whose finely developed figure might as well have been the trunk of a tree, sniffed. Her sister Sally almost danced with excitement, and even Miss Hathaway straightened her fichu. Mrs. Ballinger, who had been the belle of Richmond and was still adjudged the handsomest woman in San Francisco, lifted the eyebrows to which sonnets had been written with an air of haughty resignation; but made up her mind to abate her scorn of the North and order her gowns from New York hereafter.
But the San Franciscans on the whole were an amiable people and they were sometimes conscious of their isolation; in a few moments they felt a pleasant titillation of the nerves, as if the great world they might never see again had sent them one of her most precious gifts.
They all met her in the course of the afternoon. She was sweet and gracious, but although there was not a hint of embarrassment she made no attempt to shine, and they liked her the better for that. The young men soon discovered they could make no impression on this lovely importation, for her eyes strayed constantly to her husband; until he disappeared in search of cronies, whiskey, and a cigar: then she looked depressed for a moment, but gave a still closer attention to the women about her.
In love with her husband but a woman-of-the-world. Manners as fine as Mrs. McLane's, but too aloof and sensitive to care for leadership. She had made the grand tour in Europe, they discovered, and enjoyed a season in Washington. She should continue to live at the Occidental Hotel as her husband would be out so much at night and she was rather timid. And she was bright, unaffected, responsive. Could anything be more reassuring? There was nothing to be apprehended by the socially ambitious, the proud housewives, or those prudent dames whose amours were conducted with such secrecy that they might too easily be supplanted by a predatory coquette. The girls drew little unconscious sighs of relief. Sally Ballinger vowed she would become her intimate friend, Sibyl Geary that she would copy her gowns. Mrs. Abbott succumbed. In short they all took her to their hearts. She was one of them from that time forth and the reign of crinoline was over.
The Talbots remained to supper and arrived at the Occidental Hotel at the dissipated hour of half past nine. As they entered their suite the bride took her sweeping skirts in either hand and executed a pas seul down the long parlor.
"I was a success!" she cried. "You were proud of me. I could see it. And even at the table, although I talked nearly all the time to Mr. McLane, I never mentioned a book."
She danced over and threw her arms about his neck. "Say you were proud of me. I'd love to hear it."
He gave her a bear-like hug. "Of course. You are the prettiest and the most animated woman in San Francisco, and that's saying a good deal. And I've given them all a mighty surprise."
"I believe that is the longest compliment you ever paid me—and because I made a good impression on some one else. What irony!"
She pouted charmingly, but her eyes were wistful. "Now sit down and talk to me. I've scarcely seen you since we arrived."
"Oh! Remember you are married to this old ruffian. You'll see enough of me in the next thirty or forty years. Run to bed and get your beauty sleep. I promised to go to the Union Club."
"The Club? You went to the Club last night and the night before and the night before that. Every night since we arrived—"
"I haven't seen half my old cronies yet and they are waiting for a good old poker game. Sleep is what you want after such an exciting day. Remember, I doctor the nerves of all the women in San Francisco and this is a hard climate on nerves. Wonder more women don't go to the devil."
He kissed her again and escaped hurriedly. Those were the days when women wept facilely, "swooned," inhaled hartshorn, calmed themselves with sal volatile, and even went into hysterics upon slight provocation. Madeleine Talbot merely wept. She believed herself to be profoundly in love with her jovial magnetic if rather rough husband. He was so different from the correct reserved men she had been associated with during her anchored life in Boston. In Washington she had met only the staid old families, and senators of a benignant formality. In Europe she had run across no one she knew who might have introduced her to interesting foreigners, and Mrs. Chilton would as willingly have caressed a tiger as spoken to a stranger no matter how prepossessing. Howard Talbot, whom she had met at the house of a common friend, had taken her by storm. Her family had disapproved, not only because he was by birth a Southerner, but for the same reason that had attracted their Madeleine. He was entirely too different. Moreover, he would take her to a barbarous country where there was no Society and people dared not venture into the streets lest they be shot. But she had overruled them and been very happy—at times. He was charming and adorable and it was manifest that for him no other woman existed.
But she could not flatter herself that she was indispensable. He openly preferred the society of men, and during that interminable sea voyage she had seen little of him save at the table or when he came to their stateroom late at night. For her mind he appeared to have a good-natured masculine contempt. He talked to her as he would to a fascinating little girl. If he cared for mental recreation he found it in men.
She went into her bedroom and bathed her eyes with eau de cologne. At least he had given her no cause for jealousy. That was one compensation. And a wise married friend had told her that the only way to manage a husband was to give him his head and never to indulge in the luxury of reproaches. She was sorry she had forgotten herself tonight.
Dr. Talbot had confided to Mrs. McLane that his wife was inclined to be a bas bleu and he wanted her broken of an unfeminine love of books. Mrs. McLane, who knew that a reputation for bookishness would be fatal in a community that regarded "Lucile" as a great poem and read little but the few novels that drifted their way (or the continued stories in Godey's Lady's Book), promised him that Madeleine's intellectual aspirations should be submerged in the social gaieties of the season.
She kept her word. Dinners, receptions, luncheons, theatre parties, in honor of the bride, followed in rapid succession, and when all had entertained her, the less personal invitations followed as rapidly. Her popularity was not founded on novelty.
No girl in her first season had ever enjoyed herself more naively and she brought to every entertainment eager sparkling eyes and dancing feet that never tired. She became the "reigning toast." At parties she was surrounded by a bevy of admirers or forced to divide her dances; for it was soon patent there was no jealousy in Talbot's composition and that he took an equally naive pride in his wife's success. When alone with women she was quite as animated and interested, and, moreover, invited them to copy her gowns. Some had been made in Paris, others in New York. The local dressmakers felt the stirrings of ambition, and the shops sent for a more varied assortment of fabrics.
Madeleine Talbot at this time was very happy, or, at least, too busy to recall her earlier dreams of happiness. The whole-hearted devotion to gaiety of this stranded little community, its elegance, despite its limitations, its unbounded hospitality to all within its guarded portals, its very absence of intellectual criticism, made the formal life of her brief past appear dull and drab in the retrospect. The spirit of Puritanism seemed to have lost heart in those trackless wastes between the Atlantic and the Pacific and turned back. True, the moral code was rigid (on the surface); but far from too much enjoyment of life, of quaffing eagerly at the brimming cup, being sinful, they would have held it to be a far greater sin not to have accepted all that the genius of San Francisco so lavishly provided.
Wildness and recklessness were in the air, the night life of San Francisco was probably the maddest in the world; nor did the gambling houses close their doors by day, nor the women of Dupont Street cease from leering through their shuttered windows; a city born in delirium and nourished on crime, whose very atmosphere was electrified and whose very foundations were restless, would take a quarter of a century at least to manufacture a decent thick surface of conventionality, and its self-conscious respectable wing could no more escape its spirit than its fogs and winds. But evil excitement was tempered to irresponsible gaiety, a constant whirl of innocent pleasures. When the spirit passed the portals untempered, and drove women too highly-strung, too unhappy, or too easily bored, to the divorce courts, to drink, or to reckless adventure, they were summarily dropped. No woman, however guiltless, could divorce her husband and remain a member of that vigilant court. It was all or nothing. If a married woman were clever enough to take a lover undetected and merely furnish interesting surmise, there was no attempt to ferret out and punish her; for no society can exist without gossip.
But none centered about Madeleine Talbot. Her little coquetries were impartial and her devotion to her husband was patent to the most infatuated eye. Life was made very pleasant for her. Howard, during that first winter, accompanied her to all the dinners and parties, and she gave several entertainments in her large suite at the Occidental Hotel. Sally Ballinger was a lively companion for the mornings and was as devoted a friend as youth could demand. Mrs. Abbott petted her, and Mrs. Ballinger forgot that she had been born in Boston.
When it was discovered that she had a sweet lyric soprano, charmingly cultivated, her popularity winged another flight; San Francisco from its earliest days was musical, and she made a brilliant success as La Belle Helene in the amateur light opera company organized by Mrs. McLane. It was rarely that she spent an evening alone, and the cases of books she had brought from Boston remained in the cellars of the Hotel.
Society went to the country to escape the screaming winds and dust clouds of summer. A few had built country houses, the rest found abundant amusement at the hotels of The Geysers, Warm Springs and Congress Springs, taking the waters dutifully.
As the city was constantly swept by epidemics Dr. Talbot rarely left his post for even a few days' shooting, and Madeleine remained with him as a matter of course. Moreover, she hoped for occasional long evenings with her husband and the opportunity to convince him that her companionship was more satisfying than that of his friends at the Club. She had not renounced the design of gradually converting him to her own love of literature, and pictured delightful hours during which they would discuss the world's masterpieces together.
But he merely hooted amiably and pinched her cheeks when she approached the subject tentatively. He was infernally over-worked and unless he had a few hours' relaxation at the Club he would be unfit for duty on the morrow. She was his heart's delight, the prettiest wife in San Francisco; he worked the better because she was always lovely at the breakfast table and he could look forward to a brief dinner in her always radiant company. Thank God, she never had the blues nor carried a bottle of smelling salts about with her. And she hadn't a nerve in her body! God! How he did hate women's nerves. No, she was a model wife and he adored her unceasingly. But companionship? When she timidly uttered the word, he first stared uncomprehendingly, then burst into loud laughter.
"Men don't find companionship in women, my dear. If they pretend to they're after something else. Take the word of an old stager for that. Of course there is no such thing as companionship among women as men understand the term, but you have Society, which is really all you want. Yearnings are merely a symptom of those accursed nerves. For God's sake forget them. Flirt all you choose—there are plenty of men in town; have them in for dinner if you like—but if any of those young bucks talks companionship to you put up your guard or come and tell me. I'll settle his hash."
"I don't want the companionship of any other man, but I'd like yours."
"You don't know how lucky you are. You have all of me you could stand. Three or four long evenings—well, we'd yawn in each other's faces and go to bed. A bull but true enough."
"Then I think I'll have the books unpacked, not only those I brought, but the new case papa sent to me. I have lost the resource of Society for several months, and I do not care to have men here after you have gone. That would mean gossip."
"You are above gossip and I prefer the men to the books. You'll ruin your pretty eyes, and you had the makings of a fine bluestocking when I rescued you. A successful woman—with her husband and with Society— has only sparkling shallows in her pretty little head. Now, I must run. I really shouldn't have come all the way up here for lunch."
Madeleine wandered aimlessly to the window and looked down at the scurrying throngs on Montgomery Street. There were few women. The men bent against the wind, clutching at their hats, or chasing them along the uneven wooden sidewalks, tripping perhaps on a loose board. There were tiny whirlwinds of dust in the unpaved streets. The bustling little city that Madeleine had thought so picturesque in its novelty suddenly lost its glamour. It looked as if parts of it had been flung together in a night between solid blocks imported from the older communities; so furious was the desire to achieve immediate wealth there were only three or four buildings of architectural beauty in the city. The shop windows on Montgomery Street were attractive with the wares of Paris, but Madeleine coveted nothing in San Francisco.
She thought of Boston, New York, Washington, Europe, and for a moment nostalgia overwhelmed her. If Howard would only take her home for a visit! Alas! he was as little likely to do that as to give her the companionship she craved.
But she had no intention of taking refuge in tears. Nor would she stay at home and mope. Her friends were out of town. She made up her mind to go for a walk, although she hardly knew where to go. Between mud and dust and hills, walking was not popular in San Francisco. However, there might be some excitement in exploring.
She looped her brown cloth skirt over her balmoral petticoat, tied a veil round her small hat and set forth. Although the dust was flying she dared not lower her veil until she reached the environs, knowing that if she did she would be followed; or if recognized, accused of the unpardonable sin. The heavy veil in the San Francisco of that day, save when driving in aggressively respectable company, was almost an interchangeable term for assignation. It was as inconvenient for the virtuous as indiscreet for the carnal.
Madeleine reached the streets of straggling homes and those long impersonal rows depressing in their middle-class respectability, and lowered the veil over her smarting eyes. She also squared her shoulders and strode along with an independent swing that must convince the most investigating mind she was walking for exercise only.
Almost unconsciously she directed her steps toward the Cliff House Road where she had driven occasionally behind the doctor's spanking team. It was four o'clock when she entered it and the wind had fallen. The road was thronged with buggies, tandems, hacks, phaetons, and four-in-hands. Society might be out of town but the still gayer world was not. Madeleine, skirting the edge of the road to avoid disaster stared eagerly behind her veil. Here were the reckless and brilliant women of the demi-monde of whom she had heard so much, but to whom she had barely thrown a glance when driving with her husband. They were painted and dyed and kohled and their plumage would have excited the envy of birds in Paradise. San Francisco had lured these ladies "round the Horn" since the early Fifties: a different breed from the camp followers of the late Forties. Some had fallen from a high estate, others had been the mistresses of rich men in the East, or belles in the half world of New York or Paris. Never had they found life so free or pickings so easy as in San Francisco.
Madeleine knew that many of the eminent citizens she met in Society kept their mistresses and flaunted them openly. It was, in fact, almost a convention. She was not surprised to see several men who had taken her in to dinner tooling these gorgeous cyprians and looking far prouder than when they played host in the world of fashion. On one of the gayest of the coaches she saw four of the young men who were among the most devoted of her cavaliers at dances: Alexander Groome, Amos Lawton, Ogden Bascom, and "Tom" Abbott, Jr. Groome was paying his addresses to Maria Ballinger, "a fine figure of a girl" who had inherited little of her mother's beauty but all of her virtue, and Madeleine wondered if he would reform and settle down. Abbott was engaged to Marguerite McLane and looked as if he were having his last glad fling. Ogden Bascom had proposed to Guadalupe Hathaway every month for five years. It was safe to say that he would toe the mark if he won her. But he did not appear to be nursing a blighted heart at present.
Madeleine's depression left her. That, at least, Howard would never do. She felt full of hope and buoyancy once more, not realizing that it is easier to win back a lover than change the nature of man.
When Madeleine reached the Cliff House, that shabby innocent-looking little building whose evil fame had run round the world, she stared at it fascinated. Its restaurant overhung the sea. On this side the blinds were down. It looked as if awaiting the undertaker. She pictured Howard's horror when she told him of her close contact with vice, and anticipated with a pleasurable thrill the scolding he would give her. They had never quarrelled and it would be delightful to make up.
"Not Mrs. Talbot! No! Assuredly not!"
Involuntarily Madeleine raised her veil. She recognized the voice of "Old" Ben Travers (he was only fifty but bald and yellow), the Union Club gossip, and the one man in San Francisco she thoroughly disliked. He stood with his hat in his hand, an expression of ludicrous astonishment on his face.
"Yes, it is I," said Madeleine coolly. "And I am very much interested."
"Ah? Interested?" He glanced about. If this were an assignation either the man was late or had lost courage. But he assumed an expression of deep respect. "That I can well imagine, cloistered as you are. But, if you will permit me to say so, it is hardly prudent. Surely you know that this is a place of ill repute and that your motives, however innocent, might easily be misconstrued."
"I am alone!" said Madeleine gaily, "and my veil is up! Not a man has glanced at me, I look so tiresomely respectable in these stout walking clothes. Even you, dear Mr. Travers, whom we accuse of being quite a gossip, understand perfectly."
"Oh, yes, indeed. I do understand. And Mrs. Talbot is like Caesar's wife, but nevertheless—there is a hack. It is waiting, but I think I can bribe him to take us in. You really must not remain here another moment—and you surely do not intend to walk back—six miles?"
"No, I'll be glad to drive—but if you will engage the hack—I shouldn't think of bothering you further."
"I shall take you home," said Travers firmly. "Howard never would forgive me if I did not—that is—that is—"
Madeleine laughed merrily. "If I intend to tell him! But of course I shall tell him. Why not?"
"Well, yes, it would be best. I'll speak to the man."
The Jehu was reluctant, but a bill passed and he drove up to Madeleine. "Guess I can do it," he said, "but I'll have to drive pretty fast."
Madeleine smiled at him and he touched his hat. She had employed him more than once. "The faster the better, Thomas," she said. "I walked out and am tired."
"I saw you come striding down the road, ma'am," he said deferentially, "and I knew you got off your own beat by mistake. I think I'd have screwed up my courage and said something if Mr. Travers hadn't happened along."
Madeleine nodded carelessly and entered the hack, followed by Travers, in spite of her protests.
"I too walked out here and intended to ask some one to give me a lift home. I am the unfortunate possessor of a liver, my dear young lady, and must walk six miles a day, although I loathe walking as I loathe drinking weak whiskey and water."
Madeleine shrugged her shoulders and attempted to raise one of the curtains. The interior was as dark as a cave. But Travers exclaimed in alarm.
"No! No! Not until we get out of this. When we have reached the city, but not here. In a hack on this road—"
"Oh, very well. Then entertain me, please, as I cannot look out. You always have something interesting to tell."
"I am flattered to think you find me entertaining. I've sometimes thought you didn't like me."
"Now you know that is nonsense. I always think myself fortunate if I sit next you at dinner." Madeleine spoke in her gayest tones, but in truth she dreaded what the man might make of this innocent escapade and intended to make a friend of him if possible.
She was growing accustomed to the gloom and saw him smile fatuously. "That sends me to the seventh heaven. How often since you came have I wished that my dancing days were not over."
"I'd far rather hear you talk. Tell me some news."
"News? News? San Francisco is as flat at present as spilled champagne. Let me see? Ah! Did you ever hear of Langdon Masters?"
"No. Who is he?"
"He is Virginian like myself—a distant cousin. He fought through the war, badly wounded twice, came home to find little left of the old estate—practically nothing for him. He tried to start a newspaper in Richmond but couldn't raise the capital. He went to New York and wrote for the newspapers there; also writes a good deal for the more intellectual magazines. Thought perhaps you had come across something of his. There is just a whisper, you know, that you were rather a bas bleu before you came to us."
"Because I was born and educated in Boston? Poor Boston! I do recall reading something of Mr. Masters' in the Atlantic—I suppose it was—but I have forgotten what. Here, I have grown too frivolous—and happy—to care to read at all. But what have you to tell me particularly about Mr. Masters?"
"I had a letter from him this morning asking me if there was an opening here. He resents the antagonism in the North that he meets at every turn, although they are glad enough of his exceptionally brilliant work. But he knows that San Francisco is the last stronghold of the South, and also that our people are generous and enterprising. I shall write him that I can see no opening for another paper at present, but will let him know if there happens to be one on an editorial staff. That is a long journey to take on an uncertainty."
"I should think so. Heavens, how this carriage does bounce. The horses must be galloping."
"Probably." He lifted a corner of the curtain. "We shall reach the city soon at this rate. Ah!"
Madeleine, in spite of the bouncing vehicle, had managed heretofore to prop herself firmly in her corner, but a violent lurch suddenly threw her against Travers. He caught her firmly in one of his lean wiry arms. At the moment she thought nothing of it, although she disliked the contact, but when she endeavored to disengage herself, he merely jerked her more closely to his side and she felt his hot breath upon her cheek. It was the fevered breath of a man who drinks much and late and almost nauseated her.
"Come come," whispered Travers. "I know you didn't go out there to meet any one; it was just a natural impulse for a little adventure, wasn't it? And I deserve my reward for getting you home safely. Give me a kiss."
Madeleine wrenched herself free, but he laughed and caught her again, this time in both arms. "Oh, you can't get away, and I'm going to have that kiss. Yes, a dozen, by Jove. You're the prettiest thing in San Francisco, and I'll get ahead of the other men there."
His yellow distorted face—he looked like a satyr—was almost on hers. She freed herself once more with a dexterous twisting motion of her supple body, leaped to the front of the carriage and pounded on the window behind the driver.
"For God's sake! You fool! What are you doing? Do you want a scandal?"
The carriage stopped its erratic course so abruptly that he was thrown to the floor. Madeleine already had the door open. She had all the strength of youth and perfect health, and he was worn out and shaken. He was scrambling to his feet. She put her arms under his shoulders and threw him out into the road.
"Go on!" she called to the driver. And as he whipped up the horses again, his Homeric laughter mingling with the curses of the man in the ditch, she sank back trembling and gasping. It was her first experience of the vileness of man, for the men of her day respected the women of their own class unless met half way, or, violently enamoured, given full opportunity to express their emotions.
Moreover she had made a venomous enemy.
What would Howard say? What would he do to the wretch? Horsewhip him? Would he stop to think of scandal? The road had been deserted. She knew that Travers would keep his humiliation to himself and the incidents that led up to it; but if she told her husband and he lost his head the story would come out and soon cease to bear any semblance to the truth. She wished she had some one to advise her. What did insulted women do?
But she could not think in this horrible carriage. It would be at least an hour before she saw Howard. She would bathe her face in cold water and try to think.
The hack stopped again and the coachman left the box.
"It's only a few blocks now, ma'am," he said, as he opened the door. "I haven't much time—"
Madeleine almost sprang out. She opened her purse. He accepted the large bill with a grin on his good-natured face.
"That's all right, Mrs. Talbot. I wouldn't have spoke of it nohow. The Doctor and me's old friends. But I'm just glad old Ben got what he deserved. The impudence of him! You—well!—Good day, ma'am."
He paused as he was climbing back to the box.
"If you don't mind my giving ye a bit of advice, Mrs. Talbot—I've seen a good bit of the world, I have—this is a hot city, all right— I just wouldn't say anything to the doctor. Trouble makes trouble. Better let it stop right here."
"Thanks, Thomas. Good-by."
And Madeleine strode down the street as if the furies pursued her.
Madeleine was spared the ordeal of confession; it was six weeks before she saw her husband again. He telegraphed at six o'clock that he had a small-pox patient and could not subject her to the risk of contagion. The disease most dreaded in San Francisco had arrived some time before and the pest house outside the city limits was already crowded. The next day yellow flags appeared before several houses. Before a week passed they had multiplied all over the city. People went about with visible camphor bags suspended from their necks, and Madeleine heard the galloping death wagon at all hours of the night. Howard telegraphed frequently and sent a doctor to revaccinate her, as the virus he had administered himself had not taken. She was not to worry about him as he vaccinated himself every day. Finally he commanded her to leave town, and she made a round of visits.
She spent a fortnight at Rincona, Mrs. Abbott's place at Alta, in the San Mateo valley, and another with the Hathaways near by. Then, after a fortnight at the different "Springs" she settled down for the rest of the summer on the Ballinger ranch in the Santa Clara valley. All her hostesses had house parties, there were picnics by day and dancing or hay-rides at night. For the first time she saw the beautiful California country; the redwood forests on the mountains, the bare brown and golden hills, the great valleys with their forests of oaks and madronas cleared here and there for orchard and vineyard; knowing that Howard was safe she gave herself to pleasure once more. After all there was a certain satisfaction in the assurance that her husband could not be with her if he would. She was not deliberately neglected and it was positive that he never entered the Club. She told no one but Sally Ballinger of her adventure, and although Travers was a favorite of her mother, this devoted friend adroitly managed that the gentleman to whom she applied many excoriating adjectives should not be invited that summer to "the ranch."
Langdon Masters arrived in San Francisco during Madeleine's third winter. He did not come unheralded, for Travers bragged about him constantly and asserted that San Francisco could thank him for an editorial writer second to none in the United States of America. As a matter of fact it was on Masters' achievement alone that the editor of the Alta California had invited him to become a member of his staff.
Masters was also a cousin of Alexander Groome, and arrived in San Francisco as a guest at the house on Ballinger Hill, a lonely outpost in the wastes of rock and sand in the west.
There was no excitement in the female breast over his arrival for young men were abundant; but Society was prepared to welcome him not only on account of his distinguished connections but because his deliberate choice of San Francisco for his future career was a compliment they were quick to appreciate.
He came gaily to his fate filled with high hopes of owning his own newspaper before long and ranking as the leading journalist in the great little city made famous by gold and Bret Harte. He was one of many in New York; he knew that with his brilliant gifts and the immediate prominence his new position would give him the future was his to mould. No man, then or since, has brought so rare an assortment of talents to the erratic journalism of San Francisco; not even James King of William, the murdered editor of the Evening Bulletin. Perhaps he too would have been murdered had he remained long enough to own and edit the newspaper of his dreams, for he had a merciless irony, a fearless spirit, and an utter contempt for the prejudices of small men. But for a time at least it looked as if the history of journalism in San Francisco was to be one of California's proudest boasts.
Masters was a practical visionary, a dreamer whose dreams never confused his metallic intellect, a stylist who fascinated even the poor mind forced to express itself in colloquialisms, a man of immense erudition for his years (he was only thirty); and he was insatiably interested in the affairs of the world and in every phase of life. He was a poet by nature, and a journalist by profession because he believed the press was destined to become the greatest power in the country, and he craved not only power but the utmost opportunity for self-expression.
His character possessed as many antitheses. He was a natural lover of women and avoided them not only because he feared entanglements and enervations but because he had little respect for their brains. He was, by his Virginian inheritance, if for no simpler reason, a bon vivant, but the preoccupations and ordinary conversational subjects of men irritated him, and he cultivated their society and that of women only in so far as they were essential to his deeper understanding of life. His code was noblesse oblige and he privately damned it as a superstition foisted upon him by his ancestors. He was sentimental and ironic, passionate and indifferent, frank and subtle, proud and democratic, with a warm capacity for friendship and none whatever for intimacy, a hard worker with a strong taste for loafing— in the open country, book in hand. He prided himself upon his iron will and turned uneasily from the weeds growing among the fine flowers of his nature.
Such was Langdon Masters when he came to San Francisco and Madeleine Talbot.
He soon tired of plunging through the sand hills between the city and Ballinger Hill either on horseback or in a hack whose driver, if the hour were late, was commonly drunk; and took a suite of rooms in the Occidental Hotel. He had brought his library with him and one side of his parlor was immediately furnished with books to the ceiling. It was some time before Society saw anything of him. He had a quick reputation to make, many articles promised to Eastern periodicals and newspapers, no mind for distractions.
But his brilliant and daring editorials, not only on the pestiferous politics of San Francisco, but upon national topics, soon attracted the attention of the men; who, moreover, were fascinated by his conversation during his occasional visits to the Union Club. Several times he was cornered, royally treated to the best the cellar afforded, and upon one occasion talked for two hours, prodded merely with a question when he showed a tendency to drop into revery. But as a matter of fact he liked to talk, knowing that he could outshine other intelligent men, and a responsive palate put him in good humor with all men and inspired him with unwonted desire to please.
Husbands spoke of him enthusiastically at home and wives determined to know him. They besieged Alexina Ballinger. Why had she not done her duty? Langdon Masters had lived in her house for weeks. Mrs. Ballinger replied that she had barely seen the man. He rarely honored them at dinner, sat up until four in the morning with her son-in-law (if she were not mistaken he and Alexander Groome were two of a feather), breakfasted at all hours, and then went directly to the city. What possible use could such a man be to Society? He had barely looked at Sally, much less the uxoriously married Maria, and might have been merely an inconsiderate boarder who had given nothing but unimpaired Virginian manners in return for so much upsetting of a household. No doubt the servants would have rebelled had he not tipped them immoderately. "Moreover," she concluded, "he is quite unlike our men, if he is a Southerner. And not handsome at all. His hair is black but he wears it too short, and he had no mustache, nor even sideboards. His face has deep lines and his eyes are like steel. He rarely smiles and I don't believe he ever laughed in his life."
Society, however, had made up its mind, and as the women had no particular desire to make that terrible journey to Alexina Ballinger's any oftener than was necessary, it was determined (in conclave) that Mrs. Hunt McLane should have the honor of capturing and introducing this difficult and desirable person.
Mr. McLane, who had met him at the Club, called on him formally and invited him to dinner. Hunt McLane was the greatest lawyer and one of the greatest gentlemen in San Francisco. Masters was too much a man of the world not to appreciate the compliment; moreover, he had now been in San Francisco for two months and his social instincts were stirring. He accepted the invitation and many others.
People dined early in those simple days and the hours he spent in the most natural and agreeable society he had ever entered did not interfere with his work. Sometimes he talked, at others merely listened with a pleasant sense of relaxation to the chatter of pretty women; with whom he was quite willing to flirt as long as there was no hint of the heavy vail. He thought it quite possible he should fall in love with and marry one of these vivacious pretty girls; when his future was assured in the city of his enthusiastic adoption.
He met Madeleine at all these gatherings, but it so happened that he never sat beside her and he had no taste for kettledrums or balls. He thought her very lovely to look at and wondered why so young and handsome a woman with a notoriously faithful husband should have so sad an expression. Possibly because it rather became her style of beauty.
He saw a good deal of Dr. Talbot at the Club however and asked them both to one of the little dinners in his rooms with which he paid his social debts. These dinners were very popular, for he was a connoisseur in wines, the dinner was sent from a French restaurant, and he was never more entertaining than at his own table. His guests were as carefully assorted as his wines, and if he did not know intuitively whose minds and tastes were most in harmony, or what lady did not happen to be speaking to another at the moment, he had always the delicate hints of Mrs. McLane to guide him. She was his social sponsor and vastly proud of him.
Madeline went impassively to the dinner. His brilliancy had impressed her but she was indifferent to everything these days and her intellect was torpid; although when in society and under the influence of the lights and wine she could be almost as animated as ever. But the novelty of that society had worn thin long since; she continued to go out partly as a matter of routine, more perhaps because she had no other resource. She saw less of her husband than ever, for his practice as well as his masculine acquaintance grew with the city—and that was swarming over the hills of the north and out toward the sand dunes of the west. But she was resigned, and inappetent. She had even ceased to wish for children. The future stretched before her interminable and dull. A railroad had been built across the continent and she had asked permission recently of her husband to visit her parents: her mother was now an invalid and Mr. Chilton would not leave her.
But the doctor was more nearly angry than she had ever seen him. He couldn't live without her. He must always know she was "there." Moreover, she was run down, she was thin and pale, he must keep her under his eye. But if he was worried about her health he was still more worried at her apparent desire to leave him for months. Did she no longer love him? Her response was not emphatic and he went out and bought her a diamond bracelet. At least she was thankful that it had been bought for her and not sent to his wife by mistake, an experience that had happened the other day to Maria Groome. The town had rocked with laughter and Groome had made a hurried trip East on business. But Madeleine no longer found consolation in the reflection that things might be worse. The sensation of jealousy would have been a welcome relief from this spiritual and mental inertia.
She wore a dress of bright golden-green grosgrain silk trimmed with crepe leaves a shade deeper. The pointed bodice displayed her shoulders in a fashion still beloved of royal ladies, and her soft golden-brown hair was dressed in a high chignon with a long curl descending over the left side of her bust. A few still clung to the low chignon, others had adopted a fashion set by the Empress Eugenie and wore their hair in a mass of curls on the nape of the neck; but Madeleine received the latest advices from a sister-in-law who lived in New York; and as femininity dies hard she still felt a mild pleasure in introducing the latest cry in fashion. As she was the last to arrive she would have been less than woman if she had not felt a glow at the sensation she made. The color came back to her cheeks as the women surrounded her with ecstatic compliments and peered at the coiffure from all sides. The diamond bracelet was barely noticed.
"I adopt it tomorrow," said Mrs. McLane emphatically. "With my white hair I shall look more like an old marquise than ever."
One of the other women ran into Masters' bedroom where they had left their wraps and emerged in a few moments with a lifted chignon and a straggling curl. Amid exclamations and laughter two more followed suit, while the host and the other men waited patiently for their dinner. It was a lively party that finally sat down, and it was the gayest if the most momentous of Masters' little functions.
His eyes strayed toward Madeleine more than once, for her success had excited her and she had never looked lovelier. She was at the other end of the table and Mrs. McLane and Mrs. Ballinger sat beside him. She interested him for the first time and he adroitly drew her history from his mentor (not that he deluded that astute lady for an instant, but she dearly loved to gossip).
"She is going through one of those crises that all young wives must expect," she concluded. "If it isn't one thing it's another. She is still very young, and inclined to be romantic. She expected too much— of a husband, mon dieu! Of course she is lonely or thinks she is. Too bad youth never can realize that it is enough to be young. And with beauty, and means, and position, and charming frocks! She will grow philosophical—when it is too late. Meanwhile a little flirtation would not hurt her and Howard Talbot does not know the meaning of the word jealousy. Why don't you take her in hand?"
"Not my line. But it seems odd that Talbot should neglect her. She looks intelligent and she is certainly beautiful."
"Oh, Howard! He is the best of men but the worst of husbands."
Her attention was claimed by the man on her right and at the same moment Madeleine's had evidently been drawn to the wall of books behind her. She turned, craned her neck, forgetting her partner.
Then, Masters saw a strange thing. Her eyes filled with tears and she continued to stare at the books in complete absorption until her attention was laughingly recalled.
"Now, that is odd," thought Masters. "Very odd."
She felt his keen gaze and laughed with a curious eagerness as she met his eyes. He guessed that for the first time he had interested her.
After dinner the men went into his den to smoke, but before his cigar was half finished he muttered something about his duty to the ladies and returned to the parlor. As he had half expected, Madeleine was standing before the books scanning their titles, and as he approached she drew her hand caressingly across a shelf devoted to the poets. The other women were gossiping at the end of the long room.
"You are fond of books!" he said abruptly.
She had not noticed his reappearance. She was startled and exclaimed passionately, "I loved them—once! But it is a long time since I have read anything but an occasional novel."
"But why? Why?"
He had powerful gray eyes and they magnetized the truth out of her.
"My husband thinks it is a woman's sole duty to look charming. He was afraid I would become a bluestocking and lose my charm and spoil my looks. I brought many books with me, but I never opened the cases and finally gave them to the Mercantile Library. I have never gone to look at them."
"Good heaven!" He had never felt sorrier for a woman who had asked alms of him in the street.
She was looking at him eagerly. "Perhaps—you won't mind—you will lend me—I don't think my husband would notice now—he is never at home except for breakfast and dinner—"
"Will I? For heaven's sake look upon them as your own. What will you take with you to-night?"
"Oh! Nothing! Perhaps you will send me one tomorrow?"
"One? I'll send a dozen. Let us select them now."
But at this moment the other men entered and she whispered hurriedly, "Will you select and send them? Any—any—I don't care what."
The doctor came toward them full of good wine and laughter. The books meant nothing to him. He had forgotten his wife's inexplicable taste for serious literature. He now found her quite perfect but was worried about her health. The tonics and horseback riding he had prescribed seemed to have little effect.
"I am going to take you away and send you to bed," he said jovially. "No sitting up after nine o'clock until you are yourself again, and not another ball this winter. A wife is a great responsibility, Masters. Any other woman is easier to prescribe for, but the wife of your bosom knows you so well she can fool you, as no woman who expects a bill twice a year would dare to do. Still, she's pretty good, pretty good. She's never had an attack of nerves, nor fainted yet. And as for 'blues' she doesn't know the meaning of the word. Come along, sweetheart."
Madeleine smiled half cynically, half wistfully, shook hands with her host and made him a pretty little speech, nodded to the others and went obediently to bed. The doctor, whose manners were courtly, escorted her to the door of their parlor and returned to Masters' rooms. The other women left immediately afterward, and as it was Saturday night, he and his host and Mr. McLane talked until nearly morning.
By the first of June Fashion had deserted the city with its winds and fogs and dust, and Madeleine was one of the few that remained. Her husband had intended to send her to Congress Springs in the mountains of the Santa Clara Valley, but she seemed to be so much better that he willingly let her stay on, congratulating himself on the results of his treatment. She was no longer listless and was always singing at the piano when he rushed in for his dinner.
If he had been told that the cure was effected by books he would have been profoundly skeptical, and perhaps wisely so. But although Madeleine felt an almost passionate gratitude for Masters, she gave him little thought except when a new package of books arrived, or when she discussed them briefly with him in Society. He had never called.
But her mind flowered like a bit of tropical country long neglected by rain. She had thought that the very seeds of her mental desires were dead, but they sprouted during a long uninterrupted afternoon and grew so rapidly they intoxicated her. Masters had sent her in that first offering poets who had not become fashionable in Boston when she left it: Browning, Matthew Arnold and Swinburne; besides the Byron and Shelley and Keats of her girlhood. He sent her Letters and Essays and Memoirs and Biographies that she had never read and those that she had and was glad to read again. He sent her books on art and she re-lived her days in the galleries of Europe, understanding for the first time what she had instinctively admired.
It was not only the sense of mental growth and expansion that exhilarated her, after her long drought, but the translation to a new world. She lived in the past in these lives of dead men; and as she read the biographies of great painters and musicians she shared their disappointments and forgot her own. Her emotional nature was in constant vibration, and this phenomenon was the more dangerous, as she would have argued—had she thought about it at all—that having been diverted to the intellect it must necessarily remain there.
If she had belonged to a later generation no doubt she would have taken to the pen herself, and artistic expression would—possibly— have absorbed and safe-guarded her during the remainder of her genetic years; but such a thing never occurred to her. She was too modest in the face of master work, and only queer freakish women wrote, anyhow, not ladies of her social status.
Although her thoughts rarely strayed to Masters, he hovered a sort of beneficent god in the background of her consciousness, the author of her new freedom and content; but it was only after an unusually long talk with him at a large dinner given to a party of distinguished visitors from Europe, shortly before Society left town, that she found herself longing to discuss with him books that a week before would have been sufficient in themselves.
The opportunity did not arise however until she had been for more than a fortnight "alone" in San Francisco. She was returning from her daily brisk walk when she met him at the door of the hotel. They naturally entered and walked up the stairs together. She had immediately begun to ply him with questions, and as she unlocked the door of her parlor she invited him to enter.
He hesitated a moment. Nothing was farther from his intention than to permit his interest in this charming lonely woman to deepen; entanglements had proved fatal before to ambitious men; moreover he was almost an intimate friend of her husband. But he had no reasonable excuse, he had manifestly been sauntering when they met, and he had all the fine courtesy of the South. He followed her into the hotel parlor she had made unlike any other room in San Francisco, with the delicate French furniture and hangings her mother had bought in Paris and given her as a wedding present. A log fire was blazing. She waved her hand toward an easy chair beside the hearth, threw aside her hat and lifted her shining crushed hair with both hands, then ran over to a panelled chest which the doctor had conceded to be handsome, but quite useless as it was not even lined with cedar.
"I keep them in here," she exclaimed as gleefully as a naughty child; and he had the uneasy sense of sharing a secret with her that isolated them on a little oasis of their own in this lawless waste of San Francisco.
She had opened the chest and was rummaging.
"What shall it be first? How I have longed to talk with you about a dozen. On the whole I think I'd rather you'd read a poem to me. Do you mind? I know you are not lazy—oh, no!—and I am sure you read delightfully."
"I don't mind in the least," he said gallantly. (At all events he was in for it.) "And I rather like the sound of my own voice. What shall it be?"
And, alas, she chose "The Statue and the Bust."
He was disconcerted, but his sense of humor come to his rescue, and although he read that passionate poem with its ominous warning to hesitant lovers, with the proper emphasis and as much feeling as he dared, he managed to make it a wholly impersonal performance. When he finished he dropped the book and glanced over at his companion. She was sitting forward with a rapt expression, her cheeks flushed, her breath coming unevenly. But there was neither challenge nor self-consciousness in her eyes. The sparkle had left them, but it was their innocence, not their melting, that stirred him profoundly. With her palimpsest mind she was a poet for the moment, not a woman.
Her manners never left her and she paid him a conventional little compliment on his reading, then asked him if he believed that people who could love like that had ever lived, or if such dramas were the peculiar prerogative of the divinely gifted imagination.
He replied drily that a good many people in their own time loved recklessly and even more disastrously, and then asked her irresistibly (for he was a man if a wary one) if she had never loved herself.
"Oh, of course," she replied simply. "I love my husband. But domestic love—how different!"
"But have you never—domestic love does not always—well—"
She shrugged her shoulders and replied with the same disconcerting simplicity, "Oh, when you are married you are married. And now that your books have made me so happy I never find fault with Howard any more. I know that he cannot be changed and he loves me devotedly in his fashion. Mrs. McLane is always preaching philosophy and your books have shown me the way."
"And do you imagine that books will always fill your life? After the novelty has worn off?"
"Oh, that could never be! Even if you went away and took your books with you I should get others. I am quite emancipated now."
"This is the first time I ever heard a young and beautiful woman declare that books were an adequate substitute for life. And one sort of emancipation is very likely to lead to another."
She drew herself up and all her Puritan forefathers looked from her candid eyes. "If you mean that I would do the things that a few of our women do—not many (she was one of the loyal guardians of her anxious little circle)—if you think—but of course you do not. That is so completely out of the question that I have never given it consideration. If my husband should die—and I should feel terribly if he did—but if he should, while I was still young, I might, of course, love another man whose tastes were exactly like my own. But I'd never betray Howard—nor myself—even in thought."
The words and all they implied might have been an irresistible challenge to another man. But to Masters, whose career was inexorably mapped out,—he was determined that his own fame and that of California should be synchronous—and who fled at the first hint of seduction in a woman's eyes, they came as a pleasurable reassurance. After all, mental companionship with a woman was unique, and it was quite in keeping that he should find it in this unique city of his adoption. Moreover, it would be a very welcome recreation in his energetic life. If propinquity began to sprout its deadly fruit he fancied that she would close the episode abruptly. He was positive that he should, if for no other reason than because her husband was his friend. He might elope with the wife of a friend if he lost his head, but he would never dishonor himself in the secret intrigue. And he had not the least intention of leaving San Francisco. For the time being they were safe. It was like picking wild flowers in the field after a day's hot work.
"Now," she said serenely, "read me 'Pippa Passes.'"
Nevertheless, he stayed away from her for a week. At the end of that time he received a peremptory little note bidding him call and expound Newman's "Apologia" to her. She could not understand it and she must.
He smiled at the pretty imperiousness of the note so like herself; for her circle had spoiled her, and whatever her husband's idiosyncrasies she was certainly his petted darling.
He went, of course. And before long he was spending every afternoon in the charming room so like a French salon of the Eighteenth Century that the raucous sounds of San Francisco beyond the closed and curtained windows beat upon it faintly like the distant traffic of a great city.
Masters had asked himself humorously, Why not? and succumbed. There was no other place to go except the Club, and Mrs. Talbot was an infinitely more interesting companion than men who discussed little besides their business, professional, or demi-monde engrossments. It was a complete relaxation from his own driving work. He was writing the entire editorial page of his newspaper, the demand for his articles from Eastern magazines and weekly journals was incessant; which not only contributed to his pride and income, but to the glory of California. He was making her known for something besides gold, gamblers, and Sierra pines.
But above all he was instructing and expanding a feminine but really fine mind. She sat at his feet and there was no doubt in that mind, both naive and gifted, that his was the most remarkable intellect in the world and that from no book ever written could she learn as much. He would have been more than mortal had he renounced his pedestal and he was far too humane for the cruelty of depriving her of the stimulating happiness he had brought into her lonely life. There was no one, man or woman, to take his place.
Nor was there any one to criticize. The world was out of town. They lived in the same hotel, and he rarely met any one in their common corridor. At first she mentioned his visits casually to her husband, and Howard grunted approvingly. Several times he took Masters snipe shooting in the marshes near Ravenswood, but he accepted his friend's attitude to his wife too much as a matter of course even to mention it. To him, a far better judge of men than of women, Langdon Masters was ambition epitomized, and if he wondered why such a man wasted time in any woman's salon, he concluded it was because, like men of any calling but his own (who saw far too much of women and their infernal ailments) he enjoyed a chat now and then with as charming a woman of the world as Madeleine. If anyone had suggested that Langdon Masters enjoyed Madeleine's intellect he would have told it about town as the joke of the season.
Madeleine indulged in no introspection. She had suffered too much in the past not to quaff eagerly of the goblet when it was full and ask for nothing more. If she paused to realize how dependent she had become on the constant society of Langdon Masters and that literature was now no more than the background of life, she would have shrugged her shoulders gaily and admitted that she was having a mental flirtation, and that, at least, was as original as became them both. They were safe. The code protected them. He was her husband's friend and they were married. What was, was.
But in truth she never went so far as to admit that Masters and the books she loved were not one and inseparable. She could not imagine herself talking with him for long on any other subject, save, perhaps, the politics of the nation—which, in truth, rather bored her. As for small talk she would as readily have thought of inflicting the Almighty in her prayers.
Nor was it often they drifted into personalities or the human problems. One day, however, he did ask her tentatively if she did not think that divorce was justifiable in certain circumstances.
She merely stared at him in horror.
"Well, there is your erstwhile friend, Sibyl Geary. She fell in love with another man, her husband was a sot, she got her divorce without legal opposition, and married Forbes—finest kind of fellow."
"Divorce is against the canons of Church and Society. No woman should break her solemn vows, no matter what her provocation. Look at Maria Groome. Do you think she would divorce Alexander? She has provocation enough."
"You are both High Church, but all women are not. Mrs. Geary is a mere Presbyterian. And at least she is as happy as she was wretched before."
"No woman can be happy who has lost the respect of Society."
"I thought you were bored with Society."
"Yes, but it is mine to have. Being bored is quite different from being cast out like a pariah."
"Oh! And you think love a poor substitute?"
"Love, of course, is the most wonderful thing in the world. (She might be talking of maternal or filial love, thought Masters.) But it must have the sanction of one's principles, one's creed and one's traditions. Otherwise, it weighs nothing in the balance."
"You are a delectable little Puritan," said Masters with a laugh that was not wholly mirthful. "I shall now read you Tennyson's 'Maud,' as you approve of sentiment, at least. Tennyson will never cause the downfall of any woman, but if you ever see lightning on the horizon don't read 'The Statue and the Bust' with the battery therof."
When people returned to town they were astonished at the change in Madeleine Talbot, especially after a summer in the city that would have "torn their own nerves out by the roots." More than one had wondered anxiously if she were going into the decline so common in those days. They had known the cause of the broken spring, but none save the incurably sanguine opined that Howard Talbot had mended it. But mended it was and her eyes had never sparkled so gaily, nor her laugh rung so lightly since her first winter among them. Mrs. McLane suggested charitably that her tedium vitae had run its course and she was become a philosopher.
But Madeleine reviva did not suggest the philosopher to the most charitable eye (not even to Mrs. McLane's), particularly as there was a "something" about her—was it repressed excitement?— which had been quite absent from her old self, however vivacious.
It was Mrs. Abbott, a lady of unquenchable virtue, whose tongue was more feared than that of any woman in San Francisco, who first verbalized what every friend of Madeleine's secretly wondered: Was there a man in the case? Many loyally cried, Impossible. Madeleine was above suspicion. Above suspicion, yes. No one would accuse her of a liaison. But who was she or any other neglected young wife to be above falling in love if some fascinating creature laid siege? Love dammed up was apt to spring a leak in time, even if it did not overflow, and—well, it was known that water sought its level, even if it could not run uphill. Mrs. Abbott had lived for twenty years in San Francisco, and in New Orleans for thirty years before that, and she had seen a good many women in love in her time. This climate made a plaything of virtue. "Virtue—you said?—Precisely. She's not there or we'd see the signs of moral struggle, horror, in fact; for she's not one to succumb easily. But mark my words, she's on the way."
That point settled, and it was vastly interesting to believe it (Madeleine Talbot, of all people!), who was the man? Duty to mundane affairs had kept many of the liveliest blades and prowling husbands in town all summer; but Madeleine had known them all for three years or more. Besides, So and So was engaged to So and So, and So and So quite reprehensibly interested in Mrs. So and So.
The young gentlemen were discreetly sounded, but their lack of anything deeper than friendly interest in the "loveliest of her sex" was manifest. Husbands were ordered to retail the gossip of the Club, but exploded with fury when tactful pumping forced up the name of Madeleine Talbot. They were harridans, harpies, old-wives, infernal scandalmongers. If there was one completely blameless woman in San Francisco it was Howard Talbot's wife.
No one thought of Langdon Masters.
He appeared more rarely at dinners, and had never ventured in public with Madeleine even during the summer. When his acute news sense divined they were gossiping and speculating about her he took alarm and considered the wisdom of discontinuing his afternoon visits. But they had become as much a part of his life as his daily bread. Moreover, he could not withdraw without giving the reason, and it was a more intimate subject than he cared to discuss with her. Whether he was in love with her or not was a question he deliberately refused to face. If the present were destroyed there was no future to take its place, and he purposed to live in his Fool's Paradise as long as he could. It was an excellent substitute for tragedy.
But Society soon began to notice that she no longer honored kettledrums or the more formal afternoon receptions with her presence, and her calls were few and late. When attentive friends called on her she was "out." The clerk at the desk had been asked to protect her, as she "must rest in the afternoon." He suspected nothing and her word was his law.
When quizzed, Madeleine replied laughingly that she could keep her restored health only by curtailing her social activities; but she blushed, for lying came hardly. As calling was a serious business in San Francisco, she compromised by the ancient clearing-house device of an occasional large "At Home," besides her usual dinners and luncheons. When Masters was a dinner guest he paid her only the polite attentions due a hostess and flirted elaborately with the prettiest of the women. Madeleine, who was unconscious of the gossip, was sometimes a little hurt, and when he avoided her at other functions and was far too attentive to Sally Ballinger, or Annette McLane, a beautiful girl just out, she had an odd palpitation and wondered what ailed her. Jealous? Well, perhaps. Friends of the same sex were often jealous. Had not Sally been jealous at one time of poor Sibyl Geary? And Masters was the most complete friend a woman ever had. She thought sadly that perhaps he had enough of her in the afternoon and welcomed a change. Well, that was natural enough. She found herself enjoying the society of other bright men at dinners, now that life was fair again.
Nevertheless, she experienced a sensation of fright now and again, and not because she feared to lose him.
There is nothing so carking as the pangs of unsatisfied curiosity. They may not cause the acute distress of love and hate, but no tooth ever ached more incessantly nor more insistently demanded relief. That doughty warrior, Mrs. Abbott, in her own homely language determined to take the bull by the horns. She sailed into the Occidental Hotel one afternoon and up the stairs without pausing at the desk. The clerk gave her a cursory glance. Mrs. Abbott went where she listed, and, moreover, was obviously expected.
When she reached the Talbot parlor she halted a moment, and then knocked loudly. Madeleine, who often received parcels, innocently invited entrance. Mrs. Abbott promptly accepted the invitation and walked in upon Masters and his hostess seated before the fire. The former had a book in his hand, and, judging from the murmur that had penetrated her applied ear before announcing herself, had been reading aloud. ("As cozy as two bugs in a rug," she told her friends afterward.)
"Oh, Mrs. Abbott! How kind of you!" Madeleine was annoyed to find herself blushing, but she kept her head and entered into no explanation. Masters, with his most politely aloof air, handed the smiling guest to the sofa, and as she immediately announced that the room was too warm for her, Madeleine removed her dolman. Mrs. Abbott as ever was clad in righteous black satin trimmed with bugles and fringe, and a small flat bonnet whose strings indifferently supported her chins. She fixed her sharp small eyes immediately on Madeleine's beautiful house gown of nile green camel's hair, made with her usual sweeping lines and without trimming of any sort.
"Charming—charming—and so becoming with that lovely color you have. New York, I suppose—"
"Oh, no, a seamstress made it. You must let me get you cake and a glass of wine." The unwilling hostess crossed over to the hospitable cupboard and Mrs. Abbott amiably accepted a glass of port, the while her eyes could hardly tear themselves from the books on the table by the fire. There were at least a dozen of them and her astute old mind leapt straight at the truth.
"I thought you had given all your books to the Mercantile Library," she remarked wonderingly. "We all thought it so hard on you, but Howard is set in his ways, poor old thing. He was much too old for you anyhow. I always said so. But I see he has relented. Have you been patronizing C. Beach? Nice little book store. I go there myself at Christmas time—get a set in nice bindings for one of the children every year."
"Oh, these are borrowed," said Madeleine lightly. "Mr. Masters has been kind enough to lend them to me."
"Oh—h—h, naughty puss! What would Howard say if he found you out?"
Masters, who stood on the hearth rug, looked down at her with an expression, which, she afterward confessed, sent shivers up her spine. "Talbot is a great friend of mine," he said with deliberate emphasis, "and not likely to object to his wife's sharing my library."
"Don't be too sure. The whole town knows that Howard detests bluestockings and would rather his wife had a good honest flirtation than stuffed her brains.... Pretty little head." She tweaked Madeleine's scarlet ear. "Mustn't put too much in it."
"I'm afraid it doesn't hold much," said Madeleine smiling; and fancied she heard a bell in her depths toll: "It's going to end! It's going to end!" And for the first time in her life she felt like fainting.
She went hurriedly over to the cupboard and poured herself out a glass of port wine. "I had almost forgotten my tonic," she said. "It has made me quite well again."
"Your improvement is nothing short of miraculous," said the old lady drily. "It is the talk of the town. But you are ungrateful if you don't give all those interesting books some of the credit. I hope Howard is properly grateful to Mr. Masters.... By the way, my young friend, the men complain that you are never seen at the Club during the afternoon any more. That is ungrateful, if you like!—for they all think you are the brightest man out here, and would rather hear you talk than eat—or drink, which is more to the point. Now, I must go, dear. I won't intrude any longer. It has been delightful, meeting two such clever people at once. You are coming to my 'At Home' tomorrow. I won't take no for an answer."
There was a warning note in her voice. Her pointed remarks had not been inspired by sheer felinity. It was her purpose to let Madeleine know that she was in danger of scandal or worse, and that the sooner she scrambled back to terra firma the better. Of course she could not refrain from an immediate round of calls upon impatient friends, but she salved her conscience by asserting roundly (and with entire honesty) that there was nothing in it as yet. She had seen too much of the world to be deceived on that point.
After Masters had assisted Mrs. Abbott's large bulk into her barouche, resisting the impulse to pitch it in headfirst, he walked slowly up the stairs. He was seething with fury, and he was also aghast. The woman had unquestionably precipitated the crisis he had hoped to avoid. To use her favorite expression, the fat was in the fire; and she would see to it that it was maintained at sizzling point. He ground his teeth as he thought of the inferences, the innuendos, the expectations, the constant linking of his name with Madeleine's. Madeleine!
It was true, of course, that the gossip might stop short of scandal if she entered the afternoon treadmill once more and showed herself so constantly that the most malignant must admit that she had no time for dalliance; it was well known that he spent the morning and late afternoon hours at the office.
But that would mean that he must give her up. She was the last woman to consent to stolen meetings, even were he to suggest them, for the raison d'etre of their companionship would be gone. And that phase could end in but one way.
What a dreamer he had been, he, a man of the world, to imagine that such an idyll could last. Perhaps four perfect months were as much as a man had any right to ask of life. Nevertheless, he experienced not the slightest symptom of resignation. He felt reckless enough to throw his future to the winds, kidnap Madeleine, and take the next boat to South America. But his unclouded mind drove inexorably to the end: her conscience and unremitting sense of disgrace would work the complete unhappiness of both. Divorce was equally out of the question.
As he approached her door he felt a strong inclination to pass it and defer the inevitable interview until the morrow. He must step warily with her as with the world, and he needed all his self-control. If he lost his head and told her that he loved her he would not save a crumb from his feast. Moreover, there was the possibility of revealing her to herself if she loved him, and that would mean utter misery for her.
Did she? He walked hastily past her door. His coolly reasoning brain felt suddenly full of hot vapors.
Then he cursed himself for a coward and turned back. She would feel herself deserted in her most trying hour, for she needed a reassuring friend at this moment if never before. He had rarely failed to keep his head when he chose and he would keep it now.
But when he entered the room his self-command was put to a severe test. She was huddled in a chair crying, and although he scoffed at woman's tears as roundly as Dr. Talbot, they never failed to rain on the softest spot in his nature. But he walked directly to the hearth rug and lit a cigarette.
"I hope you are not letting that old cat worry you." He managed to infuse his tones with an amiable contempt.
But Madeleine only cried the harder.
"Come, come. Of course you are bruised, you are such a sensitive little plant, but you know what women are, and more especially that old woman. But even she cannot find much to gossip about in the fact that you were receiving an afternoon caller."
"I—I'll be back in a moment."
She ran into her bedroom, and Masters took a batch of proofs from his pocket and deliberately read them during the ten minutes of her absence. When she returned she had bathed her eyes, and looked quite composed. In truth she had taken sal volatile, and if despair was still in her soul her nerves no longer jangled.
He rose to hand her a chair, but she shook her head and walked over to the window, then returned and stood by the table, leaning on it as if to steady herself.
"Shall I get you a glass of port wine?"
"No; more than one goes to my head."
He threw the proofs on the table and retreated to the hearth-rug.
"I suppose this means that you must not come here any more?"
"Does it? Are you going to turn me adrift to bore myself at the Club?"
"Oh, men have so many resources! And it is you who have given all. I had nothing to give you."
"You forget, my dear Mrs. Talbot, that man is never so flattered as when some woman thinks him an oracle. Besides, although yours is the best mind in any pretty woman's head I know of—in any woman's head for that matter—you still have much to learn, and I should feel very jealous if you learned it elsewhere."
"Oh, I could learn from books, I suppose. There are many more in the world than I shall ever be able to read. But—well, I had a friend for the first time—the kind of friend I wanted."
"You are in no danger of losing him. I haven't the least intention of giving you up. Real friendships are too rare, especially those founded on mental sympathy, and a man's life is barren indeed when his friends are only men."
"Have you had any woman friends before?" Her eyelids were lowered but she shot him a swift glance.
"Well—no—to be honest, I cannot say I have. Flirtations and all that, yes. During the last eight years, between the war and earning my bread, I've had little time. Everything went, of course. I wrote for a while for a Richmond paper and then went to New York. That was hard sledding for a time and Southerners are not welcome in New York Society. If I bore you with my personal affairs it is merely to give you a glimpse of a rather arid life, and, perhaps, some idea of how pleasant and profitable I have found our friendship."
She drooped her head. He ground his teeth and lit another cigarette. His hand trembled but his tones were even and formal.
"I shall go to Mrs. Abbott's tomorrow."
"Quite right. And if a man strays in flirt with him—if you know how."
"There are four other At Homes and kettledrums this week and I shall go to those also. I don't know that I mind silly gossip, but it would not be fair to Howard. I shouldn't like to put him in the position of some men in this town; although they seem to console themselves! But Howard is not like that."
"Not he. The best fellow in the world. I think your program admirable." He saw that he was trying her too far and added hastily: "It would be rather amusing to circumvent them, and it certainly would not amuse me to lose your charming companionship. I have fallen into the habit of imposing myself upon you from three until five or half-past. Perhaps you will admit me shortly after lunch and let me hang round until you are ready to go out?"
She looked up with faintly sparkling eyes; then her face fell.
"There are so many luncheons."
"But surely not every day. You could refuse the informal affairs on the plea of a previous engagement, and give me the list of the inevitable ones the first of the week. And at least you are free from impertinent intrusion before three o'clock."
"Yes, I'll do that! I will! It will be better than nothing."
"Oh, a long sight better. And nothing can alter the procession of the seasons. Summer will arrive again in due course, and if your friends are not far more interested in something else by that time it is hardly likely that even Mrs. Abbott will sacrifice the comforts of Alta to spy on any one."
"Not she! She has asthma in San Francisco in summer." Madeleine spoke gaily, but she avoided his eyes. Whether he was maintaining a pose or not she could only guess, but she had one of her own to keep up.
"You must have thought me very silly to cry—but—these people have all been quite angelic to me before, and Mrs. Abbott descended upon me like the Day of Judgment."
"I should think she did, the old she-devil, and if you hadn't cried you wouldn't have been a true woman! But we have a good half hour left. I'd like to read you—"
At this moment Dr. Talbot's loud voice was heard in the hall.
"All right. See you later. Sorry—"
Madeline caught at the edge of the table. Had he met Mrs. Abbott? But even in this moment of consternation she avoided a glance of too intimate understanding with Masters. She was reassured immediately, however. The Doctor burst into the room and exclaimed jovially:
"You here? What luck. Thought you would be at some infernal At Home or other. Just got a call to San Jose—consultation—must take the next train. Come, help me pack. Hello, Masters. If I'd had time I'd have looked you up. Got some news for you. Wait a moment."
He disappeared into his bedroom and Madeleine followed. He had not noticed the books and Masters' first impulse was to gather them up and replace them in the chest. But he sat down to his proofs instead. The Doctor returned in a few moments.
"Madeleine will finish. She's a wonder at packing. Hello! What's this?" He had caught sight of the books.
"Some of mine. Mrs. Talbot expressed a wish—"
"Why in thunder don't you call her Madeleine? You're as much her friend as mine.... Well, I don't mind as much as I did, for I find women are all reading more than they used to, and I'm bound to say they don't have the blues while a good novel lasts. Ouida's a pretty good dose and lasts about a week. But don't give her too much serious stuff. It will only addle her brains."
"Oh, she has very good brains. Mrs. Abbott was here just now, and although she is not what I should call literary—or too literate— she seemed to think your wife was just the sort of woman who should read."
"Mrs. Abbott's a damned old nuisance. You must have been overjoyed at the interruption. But if Madeleine has to put on pincenez—"
"Oh, never fear!" Madeleine was smiling radiantly as she entered. Her volatile spirits were soaring. "My eyes are the strongest part of me. What did you have to tell Mr. Masters?" "Jove! I'd almost forgotten, and it's great news, too. What would you say, Masters, to editing a paper of your own?"
"There's a conspiracy abroad—I won't deny I had a hand in it—no light under the bushel for me—to raise the necessary capital and have a really first-class newspaper in this town. San Francisco deserves the best, and if we've had nothing but rags, so far—barring poor James King of William's Bulletin—it's because we've never had a man before big enough to edit a great one."