Chapter XVIII
 

Madeleine went to Mrs. Abbott's reception, but there was nothing conciliatory nor apologetic in her mien. She had intended to be merely natural, but when she met that battery of eyes, amused, mocking, sympathetic, encouraging, and realized that Mrs. Abbott's tongue had been wagging, she was filled with an anger and resentment that expressed itself in a cold pride of bearing and a militant sparkle of the eye. She was gracious and aloof and Mrs. McLane approved her audibly.

"Exactly as I should feel and look myself," she said to Mrs. Ballinger and Guadalupe Hathaway. "She's a royal creature and she has moved in the great world. No wonder she resents the petty gossip of this village."

"Well, I'll acquit her," said Mrs. Ballinger tartly. "A more cold-blooded and unattractive man I've never met."

"Langdon Masters is by no means unattractive," announced Miss Hathaway out of her ten years' experience as a belle and an unconscionable flirt. "I have sat in the conservatory with him several times. It may be that Mrs. Abbott stepped in before it was too late. And it may be that she did not."

"Oh, call no woman virtuous until she is dead," said Mrs. McLane lightly. "But I won't hear another insinuation against Madeleine Talbot."

Mrs. Abbott kissed the singed brand it had been her mission to snatch in the nick of time and detained her in conversation with unusual empressement. Madeleine responded with an excessive politeness, and Mrs. Abbott learned for the first time that sweet brown eyes could glitter as coldly as her own protuberant orbs when pronouncing judgment.

Madeleine remained for two hours, bored and disgusted, the more as Masters' name was ostentatiously avoided. Even Sally Ballinger, who kissed her warmly, told her that she looked as if she hadn't a care in the world and that it was because she had too much sense to bother about men!

She had never been treated with more friendly intimacy, and if she went home with a headache it was at least a satisfaction to know that her proud position was still scandal-proof.

She wisely modified her first program and drifted back into afternoon society by degrees; a plan of defensive campaign highly approved by Mrs. McLane, who detested lack of finesse. The winter was an unsatisfactory one for Madeleine altogether. Society would not have bored her so much perhaps if that secret enchanting background had remained intact. But her intercourse with Masters was necessarily sporadic. Her conscience had never troubled her for receiving his visits, for her husband not only had expressed his approval, but had always urged her to amuse herself with men. But she felt like an intriguante when she discussed her engagement lists with Masters, and she knew that he liked it as little. His visits were now a matter for "sandwiching," to be schemed and planned for, and she dared not ask herself whether the persistent sense of fear that haunted her was that they both must betray self-consciousness in time, or that the more difficult order would bore him: their earlier intimacy had coincided with his hours of leisure. After all, he was not her lover, to delight in intrigue; and in time, it might be, he would not think the game worth the candle. She dreaded that revived gossip might drive him from the hotel, and that would be the miserable beginning of an unthinkable end.

There were other interruptions. He paid a flying visit to Richmond to visit the death-bed of his mother, and he took a trip to the Sandwich Islands to recover from a severe cold on the chest. Moreover, his former placidity had left him, for one thing and another delayed the financing of his newspaper. One of its founders was temporarily embarrassed for ready money, another awaited an opportune moment to realize on some valuable stock. There was no doubt that the entire amount would be forthcoming in time, but meanwhile he fumed, and expressed himself freely to Madeleine. That he might have a more poisonous source of irritation did not occur to her.

Fortunately she did not suspect that gossip was still rife. Madeleine might have a subtle mind but she had a candid personality. It was quite patent to sharp eyes that she was unhappy once more, although this time her health was unaffected. And Society was quite aware that she still saw Langdon Masters, in spite of her perfunctory appearances; for suspicion once roused develops antennae that traverse space without effort and return with accumulated minute stores of evidence. Masters had been seen entering or leaving the Talbot parlor by luncheon guests in the hotel. Old Ben Travers, who had chosen to ignore his astonishing and humiliating experience and always treated Madeleine with exaggerated deference, called one afternoon on her (in company with Mrs. Ballinger) and observed cigarette ends in the ash tray. Talbot smoked only cigars. Masters was one of the few men in San Francisco who smoked cigarettes and there was no mistaking his imported brand. Mr. Travers paid an immediate round of visits, and called again a fortnight later, this time protected by Mrs. Abbott. There were several books on the table which he happened to know Masters had received within the week.

When the new wave reached Mrs. McLane she announced angrily that all the gossip in San Francisco originated in the Union Club, and refused to listen to details. But she was anxious, nevertheless, for she knew that Madeleine, whether she recognized the fact or not, was in love with Langdon Masters, and she more than suspected that he was with her. He went little into society, even before his mother's death, pleading press of work, but Mr. McLane often brought him home quietly to dinner and she saw more of him than any one did but Madeleine. Men had gone mad over her in her own time and she knew the stamp of baffled passions.

It was on New Year's Day, during Masters' absence in Richmond, that an incident occurred which turned Society's attention, diverted for the moment by an open divorce scandal, to Madeleine Talbot once more.