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- Sleeping Fires - 10/32 -


"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--"

XVII

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?"

"What?"

"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."

"I have no words! It is almost too good to be true!"

Madeleine watched him curiously. His voice was trembling and his eyes were flashing. He was tall but had drawn himself up in his excitement and seemed quite an inch taller. He looked about to wave a sword and lead a charge. Establishing a newspaper meant a hard fight and he was eager for the fray.

She had had but few opportunities to study him in detail unobserved. She had never thought him handsome, for he was clean shaven, with deep vertical lines, and he wore his black hair very short. Her preference was for fair men with drooping moustaches and locks sweeping the collar; although her admiration for this somewhat standardized type had so far been wholly impersonal. Even the doctor clipped his moustache as it interfered with his soup, and his rusty brown hair was straight, although of the orthodox length. But she had not married Howard for his looks!

She noted the hard line of jaw and sharp incisive profile. His face had power as well as intellect, yet there was a hint of weakness somewhere. Possibly the lips of his well-cut mouth were a trifle too firmly set to be unselfconscious. And his broad forehead lacked serenity. There was a furrow between the eyes.

It was with the eyes she was most familiar. They were gray, brilliant, piercing, wide apart and deeply set. She had noted more than once something alert, watchful, in their expression, as if they were the guardians of the intellect above and defied the weakness the lower part of his face barely hinted to clash for a moment with his ambitions.

She heard little of his rapid fire of questions and Howard's answers; but when the doctor had pulled out his watch, kissed her hurriedly, snatched his bag and dashed from the room, Masters took her hands in his, his eyes glowing.

"Did you hear?" he cried. "Did you hear? I am to have my own newspaper. My dream has come true! A hundred thousand dollars are promised. I shall have as good a news service as any in New York."

Madeleine withdrew her hands but smiled brightly and made him a pretty speech of congratulation. She knew little of newspapers and cared less, but there must be something extraordinary about owning one to excite a man like Langdon Masters. She had never seen him excited before.

"Won't it mean a great deal harder work?"

"Oh, work! I thrive on work. I've never had enough. Come and sit down. Let me talk to you. Let me be egotistical and talk about myself. Let me tell you all my pent-up ambitions and hopes and desires--you wonderful little Egeria!"

And he poured himself out to her as he had never unbosomed himself before. He stayed on to dinner--she had no engagement--and left her only for the office. He had evidently forgotten the earlier episode, and he swept it from her own mind. That mind, subtle, feminine, yielding, melted into his. She shared those ambitions and hopes and desires. His brilliant and useful future was as real and imperative to her as to himself. It was a new, a wonderful, a thrilling experience. When she went to bed, smiling and happy, she slammed a little door in her mind and shot the bolt. A terrible fear had shaken her three hours before, but she refused to recall it. Once more the present sufficed.

XVIII

Madeleine went to Mrs. Abbott's reception, but there was nothing conciliatory nor apologetic in her mien. She had intended to be merely natural, but when she met that battery of eyes, amused, mocking, sympathetic, encouraging, and realized that Mrs. Abbott's tongue had been wagging, she was filled with an anger and resentment that expressed itself in a cold pride of bearing and a militant sparkle of the eye. She was gracious and aloof and Mrs. McLane approved her audibly.

"Exactly as I should feel and look myself," she said to Mrs. Ballinger and Guadalupe Hathaway. "She's a royal creature and she has moved in the great world. No wonder she resents the petty gossip of this village."

"Well, I'll acquit her," said Mrs. Ballinger tartly. "A more cold-blooded and unattractive man I've never met."

"Langdon Masters is by no means unattractive," announced Miss Hathaway out of her ten years' experience as a belle and an unconscionable flirt. "I have sat in the conservatory with him several times. It may be that Mrs. Abbott stepped in before it was too late. And it may be that she did not."

"Oh, call no woman virtuous until she is dead," said Mrs. McLane lightly. "But I won't hear another insinuation against Madeleine Talbot."

Mrs. Abbott kissed the singed brand it had been her mission to snatch in the nick of time and detained her in conversation with unusual empressement. Madeleine responded with an excessive politeness, and Mrs. Abbott learned for the first time that sweet brown eyes could glitter as coldly as her own protuberant orbs when pronouncing judgment.

Madeleine remained for two hours, bored and disgusted, the more as Masters' name was ostentatiously avoided. Even Sally Ballinger, who kissed her warmly, told her that she looked as if she hadn't a care in the world and that it was because she had too much sense to bother about men!

She had never been treated with more friendly intimacy, and if she went home with a headache it was at least a satisfaction to know that her proud position was still scandal-proof.


Sleeping Fires - 10/32

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