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- Sleeping Fires - 4/32 -
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.
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