Chapter XIV
 

When people returned to town they were astonished at the change in Madeleine Talbot, especially after a summer in the city that would have "torn their own nerves out by the roots." More than one had wondered anxiously if she were going into the decline so common in those days. They had known the cause of the broken spring, but none save the incurably sanguine opined that Howard Talbot had mended it. But mended it was and her eyes had never sparkled so gaily, nor her laugh rung so lightly since her first winter among them. Mrs. McLane suggested charitably that her tedium vitae had run its course and she was become a philosopher.

But Madeleine reviva did not suggest the philosopher to the most charitable eye (not even to Mrs. McLane's), particularly as there was a "something" about her--was it repressed excitement?-- which had been quite absent from her old self, however vivacious.

It was Mrs. Abbott, a lady of unquenchable virtue, whose tongue was more feared than that of any woman in San Francisco, who first verbalized what every friend of Madeleine's secretly wondered: Was there a man in the case? Many loyally cried, Impossible. Madeleine was above suspicion. Above suspicion, yes. No one would accuse her of a liaison. But who was she or any other neglected young wife to be above falling in love if some fascinating creature laid siege? Love dammed up was apt to spring a leak in time, even if it did not overflow, and--well, it was known that water sought its level, even if it could not run uphill. Mrs. Abbott had lived for twenty years in San Francisco, and in New Orleans for thirty years before that, and she had seen a good many women in love in her time. This climate made a plaything of virtue. "Virtue--you said?--Precisely. She's not there or we'd see the signs of moral struggle, horror, in fact; for she's not one to succumb easily. But mark my words, she's on the way."

That point settled, and it was vastly interesting to believe it (Madeleine Talbot, of all people!), who was the man? Duty to mundane affairs had kept many of the liveliest blades and prowling husbands in town all summer; but Madeleine had known them all for three years or more. Besides, So and So was engaged to So and So, and So and So quite reprehensibly interested in Mrs. So and So.

The young gentlemen were discreetly sounded, but their lack of anything deeper than friendly interest in the "loveliest of her sex" was manifest. Husbands were ordered to retail the gossip of the Club, but exploded with fury when tactful pumping forced up the name of Madeleine Talbot. They were harridans, harpies, old-wives, infernal scandalmongers. If there was one completely blameless woman in San Francisco it was Howard Talbot's wife.

No one thought of Langdon Masters.

He appeared more rarely at dinners, and had never ventured in public with Madeleine even during the summer. When his acute news sense divined they were gossiping and speculating about her he took alarm and considered the wisdom of discontinuing his afternoon visits. But they had become as much a part of his life as his daily bread. Moreover, he could not withdraw without giving the reason, and it was a more intimate subject than he cared to discuss with her. Whether he was in love with her or not was a question he deliberately refused to face. If the present were destroyed there was no future to take its place, and he purposed to live in his Fool's Paradise as long as he could. It was an excellent substitute for tragedy.

But Society soon began to notice that she no longer honored kettledrums or the more formal afternoon receptions with her presence, and her calls were few and late. When attentive friends called on her she was "out." The clerk at the desk had been asked to protect her, as she "must rest in the afternoon." He suspected nothing and her word was his law.

When quizzed, Madeleine replied laughingly that she could keep her restored health only by curtailing her social activities; but she blushed, for lying came hardly. As calling was a serious business in San Francisco, she compromised by the ancient clearing-house device of an occasional large "At Home," besides her usual dinners and luncheons. When Masters was a dinner guest he paid her only the polite attentions due a hostess and flirted elaborately with the prettiest of the women. Madeleine, who was unconscious of the gossip, was sometimes a little hurt, and when he avoided her at other functions and was far too attentive to Sally Ballinger, or Annette McLane, a beautiful girl just out, she had an odd palpitation and wondered what ailed her. Jealous? Well, perhaps. Friends of the same sex were often jealous. Had not Sally been jealous at one time of poor Sibyl Geary? And Masters was the most complete friend a woman ever had. She thought sadly that perhaps he had enough of her in the afternoon and welcomed a change. Well, that was natural enough. She found herself enjoying the society of other bright men at dinners, now that life was fair again.

Nevertheless, she experienced a sensation of fright now and again, and not because she feared to lose him.