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- Sleeping Fires - 30/32 -
"Desertion. There was worse behind."
"Do you mean to tell me there was another man? I'll break your neck."
"There was no other man. I'll give you a few drops of digitalis, although you must have the heart of an ox--"
"Give me a drink. I'm sick of your damn physic. Don't worry. I'm out of that, and I shan't go back."
Holt poured him out a small quantity of old Bourbon and diluted it with water. Masters regarded it with a look of scorn but tossed it off.
"What was the worse behind?"
"When she heard what had become of you--she got it out of me--she deliberately made a drunkard of herself. She became the scandal of the town. She was cast out, neck and crop. Every friend she ever had cut her, avoided her as if she were a leper. She left the doctor and lived by herself in one room on the Plaza. I met her again in one of the worst dives in San Francisco--"
"Stop!" Masters' voice rose to a scream. He tried to get out of bed but fell back on the pillows. "You are a liar--you--you--"
"You shall listen whether you relish the facts or not. I have given her my promise." And he told the story in all its abominable details, sparing the writhing man on the bed nothing. He drew upon his imagination for scenes between Madeleine and the doctor, of whose misery he gave a harrowing picture. He described the episode on the boat after her drinking bout at Blazes', of the futile attempts of Sally Abbott and Talbot to cure her. He gave graphic and hideous pictures of the dives she had frequented alone, the risks she had run in the most vicious resorts on Barbary Coast. Not until he had seared Masters' brain indelibly did he pass to Madeleine's gradual rise from her depths, the restoration of her beauty and charm and sanity. It was when she was almost herself again that Talbot had offered to forgive her and take her to Europe to live, offering divorce as the alternative.
"Of course she accepted the divorce," Holt concluded. "That meant freedom to go to you."
Masters had grown calm by degrees. "I should never have dreamed even Madeleine was capable of that," he said. "And there was a time when I believed there was no height to which she could not soar. She is a great woman and a great lover, and I am no more worthy of her now than I was in that sink where you found me. Nor ever shall be. Go out and bring in a barber."
Holt laughed. "At least you are yourself again and I fancy she'll ask no more than that. Shall I tell her you will see her in an hour?"
"Yes, I'll see her. God! What a woman."
Madeleine made her toilette with trembling hands, nevertheless with no detail neglected. Her beautiful chestnut hair was softly parted and arranged in a mass of graceful curls at the back of the head. She wore a house-gown of white muslin sprigged with violets, and a long Marie Antoinette fichu, pale green and diaphanous. Where it crossed she fastened a bunch of violets. She looked like a vision of spring, a grateful vision for a sick room.
When Holt tapped on her door on his way out the second time, muttering characteristically: "Coast clear. All serene," she walked down the hall with nothing of the primitive fierce courage she had exhibited in Five Points. She was terrified at the ordeal before her, afraid of appearing sentimental and silly; that he would find her less beautiful than his memory of her, or gone off and no longer desirable. What if he should die suddenly? Holt had told her of his agitation. This visit should have been postponed until he had slept and recuperated. She had sent him word to that effect but he had replied that he had no intention of waiting.
She stood still for a few moments until she felt calmer, then turned the knob of Masters' door and walked in.
He was sitting propped up in bed and she had an agreeable shock of surprise. In spite of all efforts of will her imagination had persisted in picturing him with a violent red face and red injected eyes, a loose sardonic mouth and lines like scars. His face was very pale, his eyes clear and bright, his hair trimmed in its old close fashion, his mouth grimly set. Although he was very thin the lines in his cheeks were less pronounced. He looked years older, of course, and the life he had led had set its indelible seal upon him, but he was Langdon Masters again nevertheless.
His eyes dilated when he saw her, but he smiled whimsically.
"So you want what is left of this battered old husk, Madeleine?" he asked. "You in the prime of your beauty and your youth! Better think it over."
She smiled a little, too.
"Do you mean that?"
"No, I don't! Come here! Come here!"
In the winter of 1878-79 Mrs. Ballinger gave a luncheon in honor of Mrs. McLane, who had arrived in San Francisco the day before after a long visit in Europe. The city was growing toward the west, but Ballinger House still looked like an outpost on its solitary hill and was almost surrounded by a grove of eucalyptus trees.
Mrs. Abbott grumbled as she always did at the long journey, skirting far higher hills, and through sand dunes still unsubdued by man and awaiting the first dry wind of summer to transform themselves into clouds of dust. But a sand storm would not have kept her away. The others invited were her daughter-in-law, who had met Mrs. McLane at Sacramento, Guadalupe Hathaway, now Mrs. Ogden Bascom, Mrs. Montgomery, Mrs. Yorba, whose husband had recently built the largest and ugliest house in San Francisco, perched aloft on Nob Hill; several more of Mrs. McLane's favorites, old and young, and Maria Groome, born Ballinger, now a proud pillar of San Francisco Society.
The dining-room of Ballinger House was long and narrow and from its bow window commanded a view of the Bay. It was as uncomely with its black walnut furniture and brown walls as the rest of that aristocratic abode, across whose threshold no loose fish had ever darted; but its dingy walls were more or less concealed by paintings of the martial Virginia ancestors of Mrs. Ballinger and her husband, the table linen had been woven for her in Ireland, the cut glass blown for her in England; the fragile china came from Sevres, and the massive silver had travelled from England to Virginia in the reign of Elizabeth. The room may have been ugly, nay, ponderous, but it had an air!
The women who graced the board were dressed, with one or two exceptions, in the height of the mode. Save Maria Groome each had made at least one trip to Europe and left her measurements with Worth. Maria did not begin her pilgrimages to Europe until the eighties, and then it was old carved furniture she brought home; dress she always held in disdain, possibly because her husband's mistresses were ever attired in the excess of the fashion.
Mrs. Ballinger was now in her fifties but still one of the most beautiful women in San Francisco; and she still wore shining gray gowns that matched the bright silver of her hair to a shade. Her descendants had inherited little of her beauty (Alexina Groome as yet roaming space, and, no doubt, having her subtle way with ghosts old and new).
Mrs. McLane had discharged commissions for every woman present except Maria, and their gowns had been unpacked on the moment, that they might be displayed at this notable function. They wore the new long basque and overskirt made of cloth or cashmere, combined with satin, velvet or brocade, and with the exception of Mrs. Abbott they had removed their hats. Chignons had disappeared. Hair was elaborately dressed at the back or arranged in high puffs with two long curls suspended. Marguerite Abbott and Annette wore the new plaids. Mrs. Abbott had graduated from black satin and bugles to cloth, but her bonnet was of jet.
"Now!" exclaimed Mrs. McLane, who had been plied with eager questions from oysters to dessert. "I've told you all the news about the fashions, the salon, the plays, the opera, all the scandals of Paris I can remember but you'll never guess my _piece de resistance_."
"What--what--" Tea was forgotten.
"Well--as you know, I was in Berlin during the Congress--"
"Did you see Bismark--Disraeli--"
"I did and met them. But they are not of half as much interest to you as some one else--two people--I met."
"Can't you guess?"
"I know!" cried Guadalupe Bascom. "Langdon and Madeleine Masters."
"No! What would they be doing in Berlin?" demanded Mrs. Ballinger. "I thought he was editing some paper in New York."
"'Lupie has guessed correctly. It's evident that you don't keep up. We're just the same old stick-in-the-muds. 'Lupie, how did you guess? I'll wager you never see a New York newspaper yourself."
"Not I. But one does hear a little Eastern news now and again. I happen to know that Masters has made a success of his paper and it would be just like him to go to the Congress of Berlin. What was he doing there?"
"Oh, nothing in particular. Merely corresponding with his paper,
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