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- Sleeping Fires - 20/32 -


"Oh, it's too awful," wailed Sally again. "What an end to a romance. It was quite perfect before--in a way. And now instead of pitying poor Madeleine and wishing we were her--she--which is it?--we'll all be despising her!"

"It's loathsome," said Mrs. Ballinger. "I wish I had not heard it. I prefer to believe that such things do not exist."

"Good heavens, mamma, I've heard that gentlemen in the good old South were as drunk as lords, oftener than not."

"As lords, yes. Langdon Masters is in no position to emulate his ancestors. And Madeleine! No one ever heard of a lady in the South taking to drink from disappointed love or anything else. When life was too hard for them they went into a beautiful decline and died in the odor of sanctity."

"They get terribly skinny and yellow in the last stages--"

"Sally!"

"Well, I don't care anything about Langdon Masters," announced Mrs. Abbott. "He's left here anyway, and like as not we'll never see him again. This is what I want to know: Can anything be done about Madeleine Talbot? Of course Howard poured whiskey down her throat until it got the best of her. But he should know how to cure her. That is if he knows the worst."

"You may be sure he knows the worst," said Mrs. McLane. "How could he help it?"

"That maid said she bought it on the sly all the time. Don't you suppose he'd put a stop to that if he knew it?"

"Well, he will find it out. And I'll not be the one to tell him. One ordeal of that sort is enough for a lifetime."

"Why not give her a talking to? She has always seemed to defer more to you than to any one else." Mrs. Abbott made the admission grudgingly.

"I am willing to try, if she will see me. But--if she knows what has happened to Masters--and ten to one she does--he may have written to her--I don't believe it will do any good. Alas! Why does youth take life so tragically? When she is as old as I am she will know that no man is worth the loss of a night's sleep."

"Yes, but Madeleine isn't old!" cried Sally. "She's young--young-- and she can't live without him. I don't know whether she's weaker or stronger than Sibyl, but at any rate Sibyl is happy--"

"How do you know?"

"Can't you see it in her face at the theatre? Oh, I don't care! I'll tell it! Madeleine asked me to lunch to meet her one day last winter and I went. We had a splendid time. After lunch we sat on the rug before the fire and popped corn. Oh, you needn't all glare at me as if I'd committed a crime. It's hard to _be_ hard when you're young, and Sibyl was my other intimate friend. But that's not the question at present. I've had an idea. Perhaps I could persuade Madeleine to stay with me. Now that I know, perhaps she won't mind so much. I only got in by accident. There's a new man at the desk and he let me go up--"

"Well, what is your idea?" asked Mrs. McLane impatiently. "What could you do with her if she did visit you--which she probably will not."

"I might be able to cure her. She wouldn't see anything to drink. Hal has sworn off. There's not a drop in sight, and not only on his account but because the last butler got drunk and fell in the lake. We'll not have any company while she's there. And I'd lock her in at night and never leave her alone in the daytime."

"That is not a bad idea at all," said Mrs. McLane emphatically. "But don't waste your time trying to persuade her. Go to Howard. Tell him the truth. He will give her a dose of valerian and take her over in a hack at night."

"I don't like the idea of Sally coming into contact with such a dreadful side of life--"

"But if I can save her, mamma?"

"Maria is Alexander Groome's wife and she has no influence over him."

"Oh, Maria! If he were my husband I'd lead him such a dance that he'd behave himself in self-defence. Maria is too much like you--"

"Sally Ballinger!"

"I only meant that you are an angel, mamma dear. And of course you are so enchanting and beautiful papa has always toed the mark. But Maria is good without being any too fascinating--"

"Sally is right," interrupted Mrs. McLane. "I am not sure that her plan will succeed. But no one has thought of a better. If Madeleine has a deeper necessity for stupefying her brain than shattered nerves, I doubt if any one could save her. But at least Sally can try. We'd be brutes if we left her to drown without throwing her a plank."

"Just what I said," remarked Mrs. Abbott complacently. "Was I not justified in telling you? And when you get her over there, Sally, and her mind is quite clear, warn her that while she may do what she chooses in private, if she elects to die that way, just let her once be seen in public in a state unbecoming a lady, and that is the end of her as far as we are concerned."

"Yes," said Mrs. McLane with a sigh. "We should have no choice. Poor Madeleine!"

XXXII

Madeleine awoke from a heavy drugged sleep and reached out her hand automatically for the drawer of her commode. It fumbled in the air for a moment and then she raised herself on her elbow. She glanced about the room. It was not her own.

She sprang out of bed. A key turned and Sally Abbott entered.

"What does this mean?" cried Madeleine. "What are you doing here, Sally? Why did Howard move me into another room?"

"He didn't. You are over at my house. He thought the country would be good for you for a while and I was simply dying to have you--"

"Where are my clothes? I am going back to the city at once."

"Now, Madeleine, dear." Sally put her arm round the tall form which was as rigid as steel in her embrace. But she was a valiant little person and strong with health and much life in the open. "You are going to stay with me until--until--you are better."

"I'll not. I must get back. At once! You don't understand--"

"Yes, I do. And I've something for you." She took a flask from the capacious pocket of her black silk apron and poured brandy into a glass.

Madeleine drank it, then sank heavily into a chair.

"That is more than he has been giving me," she said suspiciously. "How often did he tell you to give me that?"

"Four times a day."

"He's found out! He's found out!"

"That chambermaid blabbed, and of course he heard it. I--I--saw him just after. He felt so terribly, Madeleine dear! Your heart would have ached for him. And when I asked him to let you come over here he seemed to brighten up, and said it was the best thing to do."

Madeleine burst into tears, the first she had shed in many months. "Poor Howard! Poor Howard! But it will do no good."

"Oh, yes, it will. Now, let me help you dress. Or would you rather stay in bed today?"

"I'll dress. And I'm not going to stay, Sally. I give you fair warning."

"Oh, but you are. I've locked up your outdoor things--and my own! I'll only let you have them when we go out together."

"So you have turned yourself into my jailer?"

"Yes, I have. And don't try to look like an outraged empress until your stays are covered up. Put on your dress and we'll have a game of battledore and shuttlecock in the hall. It's raining. Then we'll have some music this afternoon. My alto used to go beautifully with your soprano, and I'll get out our duets. I haven't forgotten one of the accompaniments--What are you doing?"

Madeleine was undressing rapidly. "I haven't had my bath. I seldom forget that, even--where is the bath room? I forget."

"Across the hall. And leave your clothes here. Although you'd break your bones if you tried to jump out of the window. When you've finished I'll have a cup of strong coffee ready for you. Run along."

XXXIII

Lake Merritt, a small sheet of water near the little town of Oakland, was surrounded by handsome houses whose lawns sloped down to its rim. Most them were closed in summer, but a few of the owners, like the Harold Abbotts, lived there the year round. At all times, however, the lawns and gardens were carefully tended, for this was one of Fashion's chosen spots, and there must be no criticism from outsiders in Oakland. The statues on the lawns were rubbed down after the heavy rains and dusted as carefully in summer. There were grape-vine arbors and wild rose hedges, and the wide verandas were embowered.


Sleeping Fires - 20/32

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