Chapter XVI
 

After Masters had assisted Mrs. Abbott's large bulk into her barouche, resisting the impulse to pitch it in headfirst, he walked slowly up the stairs. He was seething with fury, and he was also aghast. The woman had unquestionably precipitated the crisis he had hoped to avoid. To use her favorite expression, the fat was in the fire; and she would see to it that it was maintained at sizzling point. He ground his teeth as he thought of the inferences, the innuendos, the expectations, the constant linking of his name with Madeleine's. Madeleine!

It was true, of course, that the gossip might stop short of scandal if she entered the afternoon treadmill once more and showed herself so constantly that the most malignant must admit that she had no time for dalliance; it was well known that he spent the morning and late afternoon hours at the office.

But that would mean that he must give her up. She was the last woman to consent to stolen meetings, even were he to suggest them, for the raison d'etre of their companionship would be gone. And that phase could end in but one way.

What a dreamer he had been, he, a man of the world, to imagine that such an idyll could last. Perhaps four perfect months were as much as a man had any right to ask of life. Nevertheless, he experienced not the slightest symptom of resignation. He felt reckless enough to throw his future to the winds, kidnap Madeleine, and take the next boat to South America. But his unclouded mind drove inexorably to the end: her conscience and unremitting sense of disgrace would work the complete unhappiness of both. Divorce was equally out of the question.

As he approached her door he felt a strong inclination to pass it and defer the inevitable interview until the morrow. He must step warily with her as with the world, and he needed all his self-control. If he lost his head and told her that he loved her he would not save a crumb from his feast. Moreover, there was the possibility of revealing her to herself if she loved him, and that would mean utter misery for her.

Did she? He walked hastily past her door. His coolly reasoning brain felt suddenly full of hot vapors.

Then he cursed himself for a coward and turned back. She would feel herself deserted in her most trying hour, for she needed a reassuring friend at this moment if never before. He had rarely failed to keep his head when he chose and he would keep it now.

But when he entered the room his self-command was put to a severe test. She was huddled in a chair crying, and although he scoffed at woman's tears as roundly as Dr. Talbot, they never failed to rain on the softest spot in his nature. But he walked directly to the hearth rug and lit a cigarette.

"I hope you are not letting that old cat worry you." He managed to infuse his tones with an amiable contempt.

But Madeleine only cried the harder.

"Come, come. Of course you are bruised, you are such a sensitive little plant, but you know what women are, and more especially that old woman. But even she cannot find much to gossip about in the fact that you were receiving an afternoon caller."

"It--is--is--n't--only that!"

"What, then?"

"I--I'll be back in a moment."

She ran into her bedroom, and Masters took a batch of proofs from his pocket and deliberately read them during the ten minutes of her absence. When she returned she had bathed her eyes, and looked quite composed. In truth she had taken sal volatile, and if despair was still in her soul her nerves no longer jangled.

He rose to hand her a chair, but she shook her head and walked over to the window, then returned and stood by the table, leaning on it as if to steady herself.

"Shall I get you a glass of port wine?"

"No; more than one goes to my head."

He threw the proofs on the table and retreated to the hearth-rug.

"I suppose this means that you must not come here any more?"

"Does it? Are you going to turn me adrift to bore myself at the Club?"

"Oh, men have so many resources! And it is you who have given all. I had nothing to give you."

"You forget, my dear Mrs. Talbot, that man is never so flattered as when some woman thinks him an oracle. Besides, although yours is the best mind in any pretty woman's head I know of--in any woman's head for that matter--you still have much to learn, and I should feel very jealous if you learned it elsewhere."

"Oh, I could learn from books, I suppose. There are many more in the world than I shall ever be able to read. But--well, I had a friend for the first time--the kind of friend I wanted."

"You are in no danger of losing him. I haven't the least intention of giving you up. Real friendships are too rare, especially those founded on mental sympathy, and a man's life is barren indeed when his friends are only men."

"Have you had any woman friends before?" Her eyelids were lowered but she shot him a swift glance.

"Well--no--to be honest, I cannot say I have. Flirtations and all that, yes. During the last eight years, between the war and earning my bread, I've had little time. Everything went, of course. I wrote for a while for a Richmond paper and then went to New York. That was hard sledding for a time and Southerners are not welcome in New York Society. If I bore you with my personal affairs it is merely to give you a glimpse of a rather arid life, and, perhaps, some idea of how pleasant and profitable I have found our friendship."

She drooped her head. He ground his teeth and lit another cigarette. His hand trembled but his tones were even and formal.

"I shall go to Mrs. Abbott's tomorrow."

"Quite right. And if a man strays in flirt with him--if you know how."

"There are four other At Homes and kettledrums this week and I shall go to those also. I don't know that I mind silly gossip, but it would not be fair to Howard. I shouldn't like to put him in the position of some men in this town; although they seem to console themselves! But Howard is not like that."

"Not he. The best fellow in the world. I think your program admirable." He saw that he was trying her too far and added hastily: "It would be rather amusing to circumvent them, and it certainly would not amuse me to lose your charming companionship. I have fallen into the habit of imposing myself upon you from three until five or half-past. Perhaps you will admit me shortly after lunch and let me hang round until you are ready to go out?"

She looked up with faintly sparkling eyes; then her face fell.

"There are so many luncheons."

"But surely not every day. You could refuse the informal affairs on the plea of a previous engagement, and give me the list of the inevitable ones the first of the week. And at least you are free from impertinent intrusion before three o'clock."

"Yes, I'll do that! I will! It will be better than nothing."

"Oh, a long sight better. And nothing can alter the procession of the seasons. Summer will arrive again in due course, and if your friends are not far more interested in something else by that time it is hardly likely that even Mrs. Abbott will sacrifice the comforts of Alta to spy on any one."

"Not she! She has asthma in San Francisco in summer." Madeleine spoke gaily, but she avoided his eyes. Whether he was maintaining a pose or not she could only guess, but she had one of her own to keep up.

"You must have thought me very silly to cry--but--these people have all been quite angelic to me before, and Mrs. Abbott descended upon me like the Day of Judgment."

"I should think she did, the old she-devil, and if you hadn't cried you wouldn't have been a true woman! But we have a good half hour left. I'd like to read you--"

At this moment Dr. Talbot's loud voice was heard in the hall.

"All right. See you later. Sorry--"