Sleeping Fires by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
New Year's Day in San Francisco was one of pomp and triumphs, and much secret heart-burning. Every woman who had a house threw it open and the many that lived in hotels were equally hospitable. There was a constant procession of family barouches, livery stable buggies and hacks. The "whips" drove their mud-bespattered traps with as grand an air as if on the Cliff House Road in fine weather; and while none was ignored whose entertaining was lavish, those who could count only on admiration and friendship compared notes eagerly during the following week.
But young men in those days were more gallant or less snobbish than in these, and few pretty girls, however slenderly dowered, were forgotten by their waltzing partners. The older men went only to the great houses, and frankly for eggnog. Mrs. Abbott's was famous and so was Mrs. McLane's. Ladies who lived out of town the year round, that their husbands might "sleep in the country!" received with their more fortunate friends.
It had been Madeleine's intention to have her own reception at the hotel as usual, but when Mrs. McLane craved her assistance--Marguerite was receiving with Mrs. Abbott, now her mother-in-law--she consented willingly, as it would reduce her effort to entertain progressively illuminated men to the minimum. She felt disinclined to effort of any sort.
Mrs. McLane, after her daughter's marriage, had tired of the large house on Rincon Hill and the exorbitant wages of its staff of servants, and returned to her old home in South Park, furnishing her parlors with a red satin damask, which also covered the walls. She had made a trip to Paris meanwhile and brought back much light and graceful French furniture. The long double room was an admirable setting for her stately little figure in its trailing gown of wine-colored velvet trimmed with mellowed point lace (it had been privately dipped in coffee) and her white high-piled hair. There was no watchful anxiety in Mrs. McLane's lofty mien. She knew that the best, old and young, would come to her New Year's Day reception as a matter of course.
Mrs. Ballinger had also gratefully accepted Mrs. McLane's invitation, for Sally had recently married Harold Abbott and was receiving on Rincon Hill, and Maria was in modest retirement. She wore a long gown of silver gray poplin as shining as her silver hair; and as she was nearly a foot taller than her hostess, the two ladies stood at opposite ends of the mantelpiece in the front parlor with Annette McLane and two young friends between.
The reception was at its height at four o'clock. The rooms were crowded, and the equipages of the guests packed not only South Park but Third Street a block north and south.
Madeleine sat at the end of the long double room behind a table and served the eggnog. The men hovered about her, not, as commonly, in unqualified admiration, or passed on the goblets, slices of the monumental cakes, and Peter Job's famous cream pie.
She had taken a glass at once and raised her spirits to the necessary pitch; but its effect wore off in time and her hand began to tremble slightly as she ladled out the eggnog. She had not heard from Masters since he left and her days were as vacant as visible space. She had felt nervous and depressed since morning and would have spent the day in bed had she dared.
Mr. McLane, Mr. Abbott, Colonel "Jack" Belmont, Alexander Groome, Mr. Ballinger, Amos Lawton and several others were chatting with her when Ben Travers sauntered up to demand his potion. He had already paid several visits, and although he carried his liquor well, it was patent to the eyes of his friends he was in that particular stage of inebriation that swamped his meagre stock of good nature and the superficial cleverness which made him an agreeable companion, and set free all the maliciousness of a mind contracted with years and disappointments: he had never made "his pile" and it was current history that he had been refused by every belle of his youth.
He made Madeleine a courtly bow as he took the goblet from her hands, not forgetting to pay her a well-turned compliment on those hands, not the least of her physical perfections. Then he balanced himself on the edge of the table with a manifest intention of joining in the conversation. Madeleine felt an odd sense of terror, although she knew nothing of his discoveries and communications; there was a curious hard stare in his bleared eyes and it seemed to impale her.
He began amiably enough. "Best looking frocks in this house I've seen today. At least five from Paris. Mrs. McLane brought back four of them besides her own. Seen some awful old duds today. 'Lupie Hathaway had on an old black silk with a gaping placket and three buttons off in front. Some of the other things were new enough, but the dressmakers in this town need waking up. Of course yours came from New York, Mrs. Talbot. Charming, simply charming."
Madeleine wore a gown of amber-colored silk with a bertha of fine lace and mousseline de soie, exposing her beautiful shoulders. The color seemed reflected in her eyes and the bright waving masses of her hair.
"Madame Deforme made it," she said triumphantly. "Now don't criticize our dressmakers again."
"Never criticize anybody but can't help noticing things. Got the observing eye. Nothing escapes it. How are you off for books now that Masters has deserted us?"
Madeleine turned cold, for the inference was unmistakable, and she saw Mr. McLane scowl at him ferociously, But she replied smilingly that there was always the Mercantile Library.
"Never have anything new there, and even C. Beach hasn't had a new French novel for six months. If Masters were one of those considerate men, now, he'd have left you the key of his rooms. Nothing compromising in that. But it would be no wonder if he forgot it, for I hear it wasn't his mother's illness that took him to Richmond, but Betty Thornton who's still a reigning toast. Old flame and they say she's come round. Had a letter from my sister."
Madeleine, who was lifting a goblet, let it fall with a crash. She had turned white and was trembling, but she lifted another with an immediate return of self-control, and said, "How awkward of me! But I have had a headache for three days and the gas makes the room so warm."
And then she fainted.
Mr. McLane, who was more impulsive than tactful, took Travers by the arm and pushed him through the crowd surging toward the table, and out of the front door, almost flinging him down the front steps.
"Damn you for a liar and a scandalmonger and a malicious old woman!" he shouted, oblivious of many staring coachmen. "Never enter my house again."
But the undaunted Travers steadied himself and replied with a leer, "Well, I made her give herself dead away, whether you like it or not. And it'll be all over town in a week."
Mr. McLane turned his back, and ordering the astonished butler to take out the man's hat and greatcoat, returned to a scene of excitement. Madeleine had been placed full length on a sofa by an open window, and was evidently reviving. He asked the men who had overheard Travers' attack to follow him to his study.
"I want every one of you to promise me that you will not repeat what that little brute said," he commanded. "Fortunately there were no women about. Fainting women are no novelty. And if that cur tells the story of his dastardly assault, give him the lie. Swear that he never said it. Persuade him that he was too drunk to remember."
"I'll follow him and threaten to horsewhip him if he opens his mouth!" cried Colonel Belmont, who had been a dashing cavalry officer during the war. He revered all women of his own class, even his wife, who rarely saw him; and he was so critical of feminine perfections of any sort that he changed his mistresses oftener than any man in San Francisco. "I'll not lose a moment." And he left the room as if charging the enemy.
"Good. Will the rest of you promise?"
"Of course we'll promise."
But alas, wives have means of extracting secrets when their suspicions are alert and clamoring that no husband has the wit to elude, man being too ingenuous to follow the circumlocutory methods of the subtler sex. Not that there was ever anything subtle about Mrs. Abbott's methods. Mr. Abbott had a perpetual catarrh and it had long since weakened his fibre. It was commonly believed that when Mrs. Abbott, her large bulk arrayed in a red flannel nightgown, sat up in the connubial bed and threatened to pour hot mustard up his nose unless he opened his sluices of information he ingloriously succumbed.
At all events, how or wherefore, Travers' prediction was fulfilled, although he shiveringly held his own tongue. The story was all over town not in a week but in three days. But of this Madeleine knew nothing. The doctor, who feared typhoid fever, ordered her to keep quiet and see no one until he discovered what was the matter with her. Her return to Society and Masters' to San Francisco coincided, but at least her little world knew that Dr. Talbot had been responsible for her retirement. It awaited future developments with a painful and a pleasurable interest.