Sleeping Fires by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
She entered in some trepidation. She had never visited a restaurant alone before. And this one was crowded with men, the atmosphere thick with smoke. She asked the fat little proprietor if she might have a table alone, and he conducted her to the end of the room, astonished but flattered. A few women came to the restaurant occasionally to lunch with "their boys," but no such lady of the haut ton as this. A fashionable woman's caprice, no doubt.
Her seat faced the room, and as she felt the men staring at her, she studied the menu carefully and did not raise her eyes until she gave her order. In spite of her mission and its tragic cause she experienced a fleeting satisfaction that she was well and becomingly dressed. She had intended dropping in informally on Sibyl Forbes, still an outcast, in spite of her intercession, and wore a gown of dove-colored cashmere and a hat of the same shade with a long lilac feather.
She summoned her courage and glanced about the room, her eyes casual and remote. Would it be possible to recognize any one in that smoke? But she saw Holt almost immediately. He sat at a table not far from her own. She bowed cordially and received as frigid a response as Mrs. Abbott would have bestowed on Sibyl Forbes.
Madeleine colored and dropped her eyes again. Of course he knew her for the cause of Masters' desertion of the city that needed him, and the disappointment of his own hopes and ambitions. Moreover, she had inferred from his conversation the day they had all walked together for half an hour that he regarded Masters as little short of a god. He was several years younger, he was clever himself, and nothing like Masters had ever come his way. He had declared that the projected newspaper was to be the greatest in America. She had smiled at his boyish enthusiasm, but without it she would probably have forgotten him. She had resented his presence at the time.
Of course he hated her. But she had come too far to fail. He passed her table a few moments later and she held out her hand with her sweetest smile.
"Sit down a moment," she said with her pretty air of command; and although his face did not relax he could do no less than obey.
"I feel more comfortable," she said. "I had no idea I should be the only lady here. But Mr. Masters so often spoke to me of this restaurant that I have always meant to visit it." She did not flutter an eyelash as she uttered Masters' name, and her lovely eyes seemed wooing Holt to remain at her side.
"Heartless, like all the rest of them," thought the young man wrathfully. "Well, I'll give her one straight."
"Have you heard from him lately?" she asked, as the waiter placed the dishes on the table. "He hasn't written to one of his old friends since he left, and I've often wondered what has become of him."
"He's gone to the devil!" said Holt brutally. "And I guess you know where the blame lies--Oh!--Drink this!" He hastily poured out a glass of claret. "Here! Drink it! Brace up, for God's sake. Don't give yourself away before all these fellows."
Madeleine swallowed the claret but pushed back her chair. "Take me away quickly," she muttered. "I don't care what they think. Take me where you can tell me--"
He drew her hand through his arm, for he was afraid she would fall, and as he led her down the room he remarked audibly, "No wonder you feel faint. There's no air in the place, and you've probably never seen so much smoke in your life before."
At the door he nodded to the anxious proprietor, and when they reached the sidewalk asked if he should take her home.
"No. I must talk to you alone. There is a hack. Let us drive somewhere."
He handed her into the hack, telling the man to drive where he liked as long as he avoided the Cliff House Road. Madeleine shrank into a corner and began to cry wildly. He regarded her with anxiety, and less hostility in his bright blue eyes.
"I'm awfully sorry," he said. "I was a brute. But I thought you would know--I thought other things--"
"I knew nothing, but I can't believe it is true. There must be some mistake. He is not like that."
"That's what's happened. You see, his world went to smash. That was the opportunity of his life, and such opportunities don't come twice. He has no capital of his own, and he can't raise money in New York. Besides, he didn't want a newspaper anywhere else. And--and--of-course, you know, newspaper men hear all the talk--he was terribly hard hit. I couldn't help feeling a little sorry for you when I heard you were ill and all the rest; but today you looked as if you had forgotten poor Masters had ever lived--just a Society butterfly and a coquette."
"Oh, I'm not blaming you! Perhaps it is all my fault. I don't know!-- But that! I can't believe it. I never knew a man with as strong a character. He--he--always could control himself. And he had too much pride and ambition."
"I guess you don't know it, but he had a weak spot for liquor. That is the reason he drank less than the rest of us--and that did show strength of character: that he could drink at all. I only saw him half-seas over once. He told me then he was always on the watch lest it get the best of him. His father drank himself to death after the war, and his grandfather from mere love of his cups. Nothing but a hopeless smash-up, though, would ever have let it get the best of him.... He was terribly high-strung under all that fine repose of his, and although his mind was like polished metal in a way, it was full of quicksilver. When a man like that lets go--nothing left to hold on to--he goes down hill at ten times the pace of an ordinary chap. I--I--suppose I may as well tell you the whole truth. He never drew a sober breath on the steamer and he's been drunk more or less ever since he arrived in New York. Of course he writes--has to--but can't hold down any responsible position. They'd be glad to give him the best salary paid if he'd sober up, but he gets worse instead of better. He's been thrown off two papers already; and it's only because he can write better drunk than most men sober that he sells an article now and again when he has to."
Madeleine had torn her handkerchief to pieces. She no longer wept. Her eyes were wide with horror. He fancied he saw awful visions in them. Fearing she might faint or have hysterics, he hastily extracted a brandy flask from his pocket.
"Do you mind?" he asked diffidently. "Sorry I haven't a glass, but this is the first time I've taken the cork out."
She lifted the flask obediently and took a draught that commanded his respect.
She smiled faintly as she met his wide-eyed regard. "My husband makes me live on this stuff. I was threatened with consumption. It affects me very little, but it helps me in more ways than one."
"Well, don't let it help you too much. I suppose the doctor knows best--but--well, it gets a hold on you when you are down on your luck."
"If it ever 'gets a hold' on me it will because I deliberately wish it to," she said haughtily. "If Langdon Masters--has gone as far as you say, I don't believe it is through any inherited weakness. He has done it deliberately."
"I grant that. And I'm sorry if I offended you--"
"I am only grateful to you. I feel better now and can think a little. Something must be done. Surely he can be saved."
"I doubt it. When a man starts scientifically drinking himself to death nothing can be done when there is nothing better to offer him. May I be frank?"
"I have been frank enough!"
"Masters told me nothing of course, but I heard all the talk. Old Travers let out his part of it in his cups, and news travels from the Clubs like water out of a sieve. We don't publish that sort of muck, but there were innuendoes in that blackguard sheet, The Boom. They stopped suddenly and I fancy the editor had a taste of the horsewhip. It wouldn't be the first time.... When Masters sent for me and told me he was leaving San Francisco for good and all, he looked like a man who had been through Dore's Hell--was there still, for that matter. Of course I knew what had happened; if I hadn't I'd have known it the next day when I saw the doctor. He looked bad enough, but nothing to Masters. He had less reason! Of course Masters threw his career to the winds to save your good name. Noblesse oblige. Too bad he wasn't more of a villain and less of a great gentleman. It, might have been better all round. This town certainly needs him."
"If he were not a great gentleman nothing would have happened in the first place," she said with cool pride. "But I asked you if there were no way to save him."
"I can think of only two ways. If your husband would write and ask him to return to San Francisco--"
"He'd never do that."
"Then you might--you might--" He was fair and blushed easily. Being secretly a sentimental youth he was shy of any of the verbal expressions of sentiment; but he swallowed and continued heroically. "You--you--I think you love him. I can see you are not heartless, that you are terribly cut up. If you love him enough you might save him. A man like Masters can quit cold no matter how far he has gone if the inducement is great enough. If you went to New York--"
He paused and glanced at her apprehensively, but although she had gasped she only shook her head sadly.
"I'll never break my husband's heart and the vows I made at the altar, no matter what happens."
"Oh, you good women! I believe you are at the root of more disaster than all the strumpets put together!"
"It may be. I remember he once said something of the sort. But he loved me for what I am and I cannot change myself."
"You could get a divorce."
"I have no ground. And I would not if I had. He knows that."
"No wonder he is without hope! But I don't pretend to understand women. You'll leave him in the gutter then?"
"Well, if he isn't there literally he soon will be. I've seen men of your set in the gutter here when they'd only been on a spree for a week. Take Alexander Groome and Jack Belmont, for instance. And after the gutter it is sometimes the calaboose."
"You are cruel, and perhaps I deserve it. But if you will give me his address I will write to him."
"I wouldn't. He might be too drunk to read your letter, and lose it. Or he might tear it up in a fury. I don't fancy even drink could make Langdon Masters maudlin, and the sight of your handwriting would be more likely to make him empty the bottle with a curse than to awaken tender sentiment. Anyhow, it would be a risk. Some blackguard might get hold of it."
"Very well, I'll not write. Will you tell the man to drive to the Occidental Hotel?"
He gave the order and when he drew in his head she laid her hand on his and said in her sweet voice and with her soft eyes raised to his (he no longer wondered that Masters had lost his head over her), "I want to thank you for the kindness you have shown me and the care you took of me in that restaurant. What you have told me has destroyed the little peace of mind I had left, but at least I'm no longer in the dark. I will confess that I went to that restaurant in the hope of seeing you and learning something about Masters. Nor do I mind that I have revealed myself to you without shame. I have had no confidant throughout all this terrible time and it has been a relief. I suppose it is always easier to be frank with a stranger than with even the best of friends."
"Thanks. But I'd like you to know that I am your friend. I'd do anything I could for you--for Masters' sake as well as your own. It's an awful mess. Perhaps you'll think of some solution."
"I've thought of one as far as I am concerned. I shall drink myself to death."
"What?" He was sitting sideways, embracing his knees, and he just managed to save himself from toppling over. "Have you gone clean out of your head?"
"Oh, no. Not yet, But I shall do as I said. If I cannot follow him I can follow his example. Why should he go to the dogs and I go through life with the respect and approval of the world? He is far greater than I--and better. I can at least share his disgrace, and I shall also forget--and, it may be, delude myself that I am with him at times."
"My God! The logic of women! How happy do you think that will make your husband? Good old sport, the doctor--and as for religion-- and vows!"
"One can stand so much and no more. I have reached the breaking point here in this carriage. It is that or suicide, and that would bring open disgrace on my husband. The other would only be suspected. And I'll not last long."
The hack stopped in front of the hotel. She gave him her hand after he had escorted her to the door. "Thank you once more. And I'd be grateful if you would come and tell me if you have any further news of him--no matter what. Will you?"
"Yes," he said. "But I feel like going off and getting drunk, myself. I wish I hadn't told you a thing."
"It wouldn't have made much difference. If you know it others must, and I'd have heard it sooner or later. I hope you'll call in any case."
He promised; but the next time he saw her it was not in a drawing-room.