Chapter XII
 

He was disconcerted, but his sense of humor come to his rescue, and although he read that passionate poem with its ominous warning to hesitant lovers, with the proper emphasis and as much feeling as he dared, he managed to make it a wholly impersonal performance. When he finished he dropped the book and glanced over at his companion. She was sitting forward with a rapt expression, her cheeks flushed, her breath coming unevenly. But there was neither challenge nor self-consciousness in her eyes. The sparkle had left them, but it was their innocence, not their melting, that stirred him profoundly. With her palimpsest mind she was a poet for the moment, not a woman.

Her manners never left her and she paid him a conventional little compliment on his reading, then asked him if he believed that people who could love like that had ever lived, or if such dramas were the peculiar prerogative of the divinely gifted imagination.

He replied drily that a good many people in their own time loved recklessly and even more disastrously, and then asked her irresistibly (for he was a man if a wary one) if she had never loved herself.

"Oh, of course," she replied simply. "I love my husband. But domestic love--how different!"

"But have you never--domestic love does not always--well--"

She shrugged her shoulders and replied with the same disconcerting simplicity, "Oh, when you are married you are married. And now that your books have made me so happy I never find fault with Howard any more. I know that he cannot be changed and he loves me devotedly in his fashion. Mrs. McLane is always preaching philosophy and your books have shown me the way."

"And do you imagine that books will always fill your life? After the novelty has worn off?"

"Oh, that could never be! Even if you went away and took your books with you I should get others. I am quite emancipated now."

"This is the first time I ever heard a young and beautiful woman declare that books were an adequate substitute for life. And one sort of emancipation is very likely to lead to another."

She drew herself up and all her Puritan forefathers looked from her candid eyes. "If you mean that I would do the things that a few of our women do--not many (she was one of the loyal guardians of her anxious little circle)--if you think--but of course you do not. That is so completely out of the question that I have never given it consideration. If my husband should die--and I should feel terribly if he did--but if he should, while I was still young, I might, of course, love another man whose tastes were exactly like my own. But I'd never betray Howard--nor myself--even in thought."

The words and all they implied might have been an irresistible challenge to another man. But to Masters, whose career was inexorably mapped out,--he was determined that his own fame and that of California should be synchronous--and who fled at the first hint of seduction in a woman's eyes, they came as a pleasurable reassurance. After all, mental companionship with a woman was unique, and it was quite in keeping that he should find it in this unique city of his adoption. Moreover, it would be a very welcome recreation in his energetic life. If propinquity began to sprout its deadly fruit he fancied that she would close the episode abruptly. He was positive that he should, if for no other reason than because her husband was his friend. He might elope with the wife of a friend if he lost his head, but he would never dishonor himself in the secret intrigue. And he had not the least intention of leaving San Francisco. For the time being they were safe. It was like picking wild flowers in the field after a day's hot work.

"Now," she said serenely, "read me 'Pippa Passes.'"