Chapter XXIV
 

Dr. Talbot turned toward the stairs, but it occurred to him that Masters might still be in his rooms and he walked to the other end of the hall. A ringing voice answered his knock. He entered. Masters grasped him by the hand, exclaiming, "I was going to look you up tonight and tell you the good news. Has Madeleine told you? I have my capital! And I have just received a telegram from New York saying that my presses will start by freight tomorrow. That means we'll have our newspaper in three weeks at the outside--But what is the matter, old chap? I never saw you look seedy before. Suppose we take a week off and go on a bear hunt? It's the last vacation I can have in a month of Sundays."

"I have come to tell you that you must leave San Francisco."

"Oh!" Masters' exuberance dropped like a shining cloak from a figure of steel. He walked to his citadel, the hearth rug, and lit a cigarette.

"I suppose you have been listening to the chatter of that infernal old gossip, Ben Travers."

"Ben Travers knows me too well to bring any of his gossip to me. But he has carried his stories up and down the state; not only his--more recent discoveries, but evidence he appears to have been collecting for months. But he is only one of many. It seems the whole town has known for a year or more that you see Madeleine for three or four hours every day, that you have managed to have those hours together, no matter what her engagements, that you are desperately in love with each other. The gossip has been infernal. I do not deny that a good deal of the blame rests on my shoulders. I not only neglected her but I encouraged her to see you. But I thought her above scandal or even gossip, and I never dreamed it was in her to love--to lose her head over any man. She was sweet and affectionate but cold--my fault again. Any man who had the good fortune to be married to Madeleine could make her love him if he were not a selfish fool. Well, I have been punished; but if I have lost her I can save her--and her reputation. You must go. There is no other way."

"That is nonsense. You exaggerate because you are suffering from a shock. You know that I cannot leave San Francisco with this great newspaper about to be launched. If it is as bad as you make out I will give you my word not to see Madeleine again. And as I shall be too busy for Society it will quickly forget me."

"Oh, no, it will not. It will say that you are both cleverer than you have been in the past. If you leave San Francisco--California --for good and all--it may forget you; not otherwise."

"Do you know that you are asking me to give up my career? That I shall never have such an opportunity in my life again? My whole future--for usefulness as well as for the realization of my not ignoble ambitions--lies in San Francisco and nowhere else?"

"Don't imagine I have not thought of that. And San Francisco can ill afford to spare you. You are one of the greatest assets this city ever had. But she will have to do without you even if you never can be replaced. I had the whole history of the affair from Mrs. McLane this afternoon. No one believes--yet--that things have reached a climax between you and Madeleine. On the contrary, they are expecting an elopement. But if you remain, nothing on God's earth can prevent an abominable scandal. Madeleine's name will be dragged through the mud. She will be cut, cast out of Society. Even I could not protect her; I should be regarded as a blind fool, or worse, for it will be known that Mrs. McLane warned me. No woman can keep her mouth shut. She and other powerful women--even that damned old cut-throat, Mrs. Abbott--are standing by Madeleine loyally, but they are all alert for a denouement nevertheless. If you go, that will satisfy them. Madeleine will be merely the heroine of an unhappy love-affair, and although nothing will stop their damned clacking tongues for a time, they will pity her and do their best to make her forget."

"I cannot go. It is impossible. You are asking too much. And, I repeat, I'll never see her again. Mrs. McLane can be made to understand the truth. I'll leave the hotel tomorrow."

"You love Madeleine, do you not?"

"Yes--I do."

"Then will you save her from ruin in the only way possible. It is not only her reputation that I fear. You know yourself, I fancy. You may avoid her, but you will hardly deny that if circumstances threw you together, alone, temptation would be irresistible--the more so as you would have ached for the mere sound of her voice every minute. I know now what it means to love Madeleine."

Masters turned his back on Talbot and leaned his arms on the mantel-shelf. He saw hideous pictures in the empty grate.

The doctor had not sat down. Not a muscle of his big strong body had moved as he stood and pronounced what was worse than a sentence of death on Langdon Masters. He averted his dull inexorable eyes, for he dared not give way to sympathy. For the moment he wished himself dead --and for more reasons than one! But he was far too healthy and practical to contemplate a dramatic exit. No end would be served if he did. Madeleine's sensitive spirit would recoil in horror from a union haunted by the memory of the crime and anguish of the husband she had vowed to love and obey. Not Madeleine! His remorseless solution was the only one.

Masters turned after a time and his face looked as old as Talbot's.

"I'll go if you are quite sure it is necessary. If you have not spoken in the heat of the moment."

"If I thought for a month it would make no difference. If you remain, no matter what your circumspection Madeleine will rank in the eyes of the world with those harlots over on Dupont Street. And be as much of an outcast. You know this town. You've lived in it for a year and a half. It's not London, nor even New York. Nothing is hidden here. It lives on itself; it has nothing else to live on. It is almost fanatically loyal to its own until its loyalty is thrown in its face. Then it is bitterer than the wrath of God. You understand all this, don't you?"

"Yes, I understand. But--couldn't you send Madeleine to her parents in Boston for six months--she has never paid them a visit--but no, I suppose the scandal would be worse--"

"Far worse. It would look either as if she had run away from me or as if I had packed her off in disgrace. If I could leave my practice I'd take her abroad for two years, but I cannot. Nor--to be frank--do I see why I should be sacrificed further."

"Oh, assuredly not." Masters' tones were even and excessively polite.

"You will take the train tomorrow morning for New York?"

"I cannot leave San Francisco until after the opening of the banks. The money must be refunded. Besides, I prefer to go by steamer. There is one leaving tomorrow, I believe. I want time to think before I arrive in New York."

"And you will promise to have no correspondence with Madeleine whatever?"

"You might leave us that much!"

"The affair shall end here and now. Do you promise?"

"Very well. But I should like to see her once more."

"That you shall not! I shall not leave her until you are outside the Golden Gate."

"Very well. If that is all--"

"Good-by. You have behaved--well, as our code commands you to behave. I expected nothing less. Don't imagine I don't appreciate what this means to you. But you are a man of great ability. You will find as hospitable a field for your talents elsewhere. San Francisco is the chief loser. I wish you the best of luck."

And he returned to Madeleine.