Sleeping Fires by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
It was six o'clock. San Francisco was enjoying one of its rare heat waves and Madeleine had put on a frock of white lawn made with a low neck and short sleeves, and tied a soft blue sash round her waist. As the hour of her husband's reasonably prompt homing approached she seated herself at the piano. She could not trust herself to sing, and played the "Adelaide." The past three days had not been as unhappy as she had expected. She had visited Sibyl Forbes, living in lonely splendor, and listened enthralled to that rebellious young woman (who had received her with passionate gratitude) as she poured out humiliations, bitter resentment, and matrimonial felicity. Madeleine had consoled and rejoiced and promised to talk to the all-powerful Mrs. McLane.
Twice she had gone to hear John McCullough at his new California Theatre, with another dutiful doctor's wife who lived in the hotel, and she had walked for three hours with Masters every afternoon. He had always found it easy to turn her mind into any channel he chose, and he had never exerted himself to be more entertaining even with her.
Today he had been jubilant and had swept her with him on his high tide of anticipation and triumph. Another patriotic San Franciscan had come to the rescue and the hundred thousand dollars lay to Masters' credit in the Bank of California. He had taken his offices an hour after the deposit was made; his business manager was engaged, and every writer of ability on the other newspapers was his to command. "Masters' Newspaper" had been the talk of the journalistic world for months. He had picked his staff and he now awaited only the presses he had ordered that morning from New York.
Madeleine had sighed as she listened to him dilate upon an active brilliant future in which she had no place, but she was in tune with him always and she could only be happy with him now. Moreover, it was an additional safeguard. He would be too busy for dreams and human longings. As for herself she would go along somehow. Tears, after all, were a wonderful solace. Fear had driven her down a light romantic by-way of her nature. Even if days passed without a glimpse of him she could dwell on the pleasant thought that he was not far away, and now and then they would take a long walk together.
The door opened and Dr. Talbot entered. His face was no longer purple. It was sallow and drawn. Her hands trailed off the keys, her arms fell limply. Not even during an epidemic, when he found little time for sleep, had his round face lost its ruddy brightness, his black eyes their look of jovial good-fellowship, his mouth its amiable cynicism.
"Something has happened," she said faintly. "What is it?"
"Would you mind sitting here?" He fell heavily into a chair and motioned to one opposite. She left the shelter of the piano with dragging feet, her own face drained of its color. Ben Travers! She knew what was coming.
His arms lay limply along the arms of his chair. As she gazed at him fascinated it seemed to her that he grew older every minute. And she had never seen any one look as sad.
"I have been a bad husband to you," he said. And the life had gone out of even his voice.
"Oh! No! No! you have been the best, the kindest and most indulgent of husbands."
"I have been worse than a bad husband," he went on in the same monotonous voice. "I have been a failure. I never tried to understand you. I didn't want to understand what might interfere with my own selfish life. You have a mind and I ordered you to feed it husks. You asked me for the companionship that was your right and I told you to go and amuse yourself as best you could. I fooled myself with the excuse that you were perfect as you were, but the bald truth was that I liked the society of men better, and hated any form of mental exertion unconnected with my profession. I plucked the rarest flower a good-for-nothing man ever found and I didn't even remember to give it fresh water. It is a wonder you didn't wilt before you did. You were wilting--dying mentally--when Masters came along. You found in him all that I had denied you. And now I have the punishment I deserve. You no longer love me. You love him."
"Oh--Oh--" Madeleine twisted her hands in her lap and stared at them. "You--you--cannot help being what you are. I long since ceased to find fault with you--"
"Yes, when you ceased to love me! When you found that we were hopelessly mismated. When you gave up."
"I--I'm very fond of you still. How could I help it when you are so good to me?"
"I have no doubt of your friendship--or of your fidelity. But you love Masters. Can you deny it?"
"Are you preparing to elope with him?"
"Oh! No! No! How could you dream of such a thing?"
"I am told that every one is expecting it."
"I would no more elope than I would ask for a divorce. I may be sinful enough to love a man who is not my husband, but I am not bad enough for that. And people are very stupid. They know that Langdon Masters' future lies here. If I were as wicked a woman as that, at least he is not a fool. Why, only today he received the capital for his newspaper."
"And do you know so little of men and women as to imagine that you two could go on indefinitely content with the mere fact that you love each other? I may not have known my own wife because I chose to be blind, but a doctor knows as much about women in general as a father confessor. Men and women are not made like that! It seems that every one but myself has known for months that Masters is in love with you; and Masters is a man of strong passions and relentless will. He has used his will so far to curb his passions, principally, no doubt, on my account; he is my friend and a man of honor. But there are moments in life when honor as well as virtue goes overboard."
"But--but--we have agreed never to see each other alone again-- except out of doors."
"That is all very well, but there are always unexpected moments of isolation. The devil sees to that. And while I have every confidence in your virtue--under normal conditions--I know the helpless yielding of women and the ruthless passions of men. It would be only a question of time. I may have been a bad husband but I am mercifully permitted to save you, and I shall do so."
He rose heavily from his chair. "Do you know where I can find Masters?"
She sprang to her feet and for the first time in her life her voice was shrill.
"You are not going to kill him?"
"Oh, no. I am not going to kill him. There has been scandal enough already. And I have no desire to kill him. He has behaved very well, all things considered. I am almost as sorry for him as I am for you-- and myself! Do you know where he is?"
"He is probably dining at the Union Club--or he may be at his new offices. They are somewhere on Commercial Street."
He went out and Madeleine sat staring at the door with wide eyes and parted lips. She felt no inclination to tears, nor even to faint, although her body could hardly have been colder in death. She felt suspended in a vacuum, awaiting something more dreadful than even this interview with her husband had been.