Sleeping Fires by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
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 that she had and was glad to read again. He sent her books on art and she re-lived her days in the galleries of Europe, understanding for the first time what she had instinctively admired.
It was not only the sense of mental growth and expansion that exhilarated her, after her long drought, but the translation to a new world. She lived in the past in these lives of dead men; and as she read the biographies of great painters and musicians she shared their disappointments and forgot her own. Her emotional nature was in constant vibration, and this phenomenon was the more dangerous, as she would have argued--had she thought about it at all--that having been diverted to the intellect it must necessarily remain there.
If she had belonged to a later generation no doubt she would have taken to the pen herself, and artistic expression would--possibly-- have absorbed and safe-guarded her during the remainder of her genetic years; but such a thing never occurred to her. She was too modest in the face of master work, and only queer freakish women wrote, anyhow, not ladies of her social status.
Although her thoughts rarely strayed to Masters, he hovered a sort of beneficent god in the background of her consciousness, the author of her new freedom and content; but it was only after an unusually long talk with him at a large dinner given to a party of distinguished visitors from Europe, shortly before Society left town, that she found herself longing to discuss with him books that a week before would have been sufficient in themselves.
The opportunity did not arise however until she had been for more than a fortnight "alone" in San Francisco. She was returning from her daily brisk walk when she met him at the door of the hotel. They naturally entered and walked up the stairs together. She had immediately begun to ply him with questions, and as she unlocked the door of her parlor she invited him to enter.
He hesitated a moment. Nothing was farther from his intention than to permit his interest in this charming lonely woman to deepen; entanglements had proved fatal before to ambitious men; moreover he was almost an intimate friend of her husband. But he had no reasonable excuse, he had manifestly been sauntering when they met, and he had all the fine courtesy of the South. He followed her into the hotel parlor she had made unlike any other room in San Francisco, with the delicate French furniture and hangings her mother had bought in Paris and given her as a wedding present. A log fire was blazing. She waved her hand toward an easy chair beside the hearth, threw aside her hat and lifted her shining crushed hair with both hands, then ran over to a panelled chest which the doctor had conceded to be handsome, but quite useless as it was not even lined with cedar.
"I keep them in here," she exclaimed as gleefully as a naughty child; and he had the uneasy sense of sharing a secret with her that isolated them on a little oasis of their own in this lawless waste of San Francisco.
She had opened the chest and was rummaging.
"What shall it be first? How I have longed to talk with you about a dozen. On the whole I think I'd rather you'd read a poem to me. Do you mind? I know you are not lazy--oh, no!--and I am sure you read delightfully."
"I don't mind in the least," he said gallantly. (At all events he was in for it.) "And I rather like the sound of my own voice. What shall it be?"
And, alas, she chose "The Statue and the Bust."