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- Sleeping Fires - 6/32 -
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
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