Chapter XV
 

There is nothing so carking as the pangs of unsatisfied curiosity. They may not cause the acute distress of love and hate, but no tooth ever ached more incessantly nor more insistently demanded relief. That doughty warrior, Mrs. Abbott, in her own homely language determined to take the bull by the horns. She sailed into the Occidental Hotel one afternoon and up the stairs without pausing at the desk. The clerk gave her a cursory glance. Mrs. Abbott went where she listed, and, moreover, was obviously expected.

When she reached the Talbot parlor she halted a moment, and then knocked loudly. Madeleine, who often received parcels, innocently invited entrance. Mrs. Abbott promptly accepted the invitation and walked in upon Masters and his hostess seated before the fire. The former had a book in his hand, and, judging from the murmur that had penetrated her applied ear before announcing herself, had been reading aloud. ("As cozy as two bugs in a rug," she told her friends afterward.)

"Oh, Mrs. Abbott! How kind of you!" Madeleine was annoyed to find herself blushing, but she kept her head and entered into no explanation. Masters, with his most politely aloof air, handed the smiling guest to the sofa, and as she immediately announced that the room was too warm for her, Madeleine removed her dolman. Mrs. Abbott as ever was clad in righteous black satin trimmed with bugles and fringe, and a small flat bonnet whose strings indifferently supported her chins. She fixed her sharp small eyes immediately on Madeleine's beautiful house gown of nile green camel's hair, made with her usual sweeping lines and without trimming of any sort.

"Charming--charming--and so becoming with that lovely color you have. New York, I suppose--"

"Oh, no, a seamstress made it. You must let me get you cake and a glass of wine." The unwilling hostess crossed over to the hospitable cupboard and Mrs. Abbott amiably accepted a glass of port, the while her eyes could hardly tear themselves from the books on the table by the fire. There were at least a dozen of them and her astute old mind leapt straight at the truth.

"I thought you had given all your books to the Mercantile Library," she remarked wonderingly. "We all thought it so hard on you, but Howard is set in his ways, poor old thing. He was much too old for you anyhow. I always said so. But I see he has relented. Have you been patronizing C. Beach? Nice little book store. I go there myself at Christmas time--get a set in nice bindings for one of the children every year."

"Oh, these are borrowed," said Madeleine lightly. "Mr. Masters has been kind enough to lend them to me."

"Oh--h--h, naughty puss! What would Howard say if he found you out?"

Masters, who stood on the hearth rug, looked down at her with an expression, which, she afterward confessed, sent shivers up her spine. "Talbot is a great friend of mine," he said with deliberate emphasis, "and not likely to object to his wife's sharing my library."

"Don't be too sure. The whole town knows that Howard detests bluestockings and would rather his wife had a good honest flirtation than stuffed her brains.... Pretty little head." She tweaked Madeleine's scarlet ear. "Mustn't put too much in it."

"I'm afraid it doesn't hold much," said Madeleine smiling; and fancied she heard a bell in her depths toll: "It's going to end! It's going to end!" And for the first time in her life she felt like fainting.

She went hurriedly over to the cupboard and poured herself out a glass of port wine. "I had almost forgotten my tonic," she said. "It has made me quite well again."

"Your improvement is nothing short of miraculous," said the old lady drily. "It is the talk of the town. But you are ungrateful if you don't give all those interesting books some of the credit. I hope Howard is properly grateful to Mr. Masters.... By the way, my young friend, the men complain that you are never seen at the Club during the afternoon any more. That is ungrateful, if you like!--for they all think you are the brightest man out here, and would rather hear you talk than eat--or drink, which is more to the point. Now, I must go, dear. I won't intrude any longer. It has been delightful, meeting two such clever people at once. You are coming to my 'At Home' tomorrow. I won't take no for an answer."

There was a warning note in her voice. Her pointed remarks had not been inspired by sheer felinity. It was her purpose to let Madeleine know that she was in danger of scandal or worse, and that the sooner she scrambled back to terra firma the better. Of course she could not refrain from an immediate round of calls upon impatient friends, but she salved her conscience by asserting roundly (and with entire honesty) that there was nothing in it as yet. She had seen too much of the world to be deceived on that point.