Chapter XXXI
 

"I tell you it's true. You needn't pooh-pooh at me, Antoinette McLane. I have it on the best authority."

"Old Ben Travers, I suppose!"

"No, it's not Ben Travers, although he'll find it out soon enough. Her chambermaid knows my cook. She is devoted to Madeleine, evidently, and cried after she had told it, but--well, I suppose it was too good for any mere female to keep."

"Servants' gossip," replied Mrs. McLane witheringly. "I should think it would be beneath your self-respect to listen to it. Fancy gossiping with one's cook."

"I didn't," replied Mrs. Abbott with dignity. "She told my maid, and if we didn't listen to our maids' gossip how much would we really know about what goes on in this town?"

Mrs. McLane, Mrs. Ballinger, Guadalupe Hathaway and Sally Abbott were sitting in Mrs. Abbott's large and hideous front parlor after luncheon, and she had tormented them throughout the meal with a promise of "something that would make their hair stand on end."

She had succeeded beyond her happy expectations. Mrs. McLane's eyes were flashing. Mrs. Ballinger looked like a proud silver poplar that had been seared by lightning. Sally burst into tears, and Miss Hathaway's large cold Spanish blue eyes saw visions of Nina Randolph, a brilliant creature of the early sixties, whom she had tried to save from the same fate.

"Be sure the bell boys will find it out," continued Mrs. Abbott unctuously. "And when it gets to the Union Club--well, no use for us to try to hush it up."

"As you are trying to do now!"

"You needn't spit fire at me. I feel as badly as you do about it. If I've told just you four it's only to talk over what can be done."

"I don't believe there's a word of truth in the story. Probably that wretched servant is down on her for some reason. Madeleine Talbot! Why, she's the proudest creature that ever lived."

"She might have the bluest blood of the South in her veins," conceded Mrs. Ballinger handsomely. "I pride myself on my imagination but I simply cannot see her in such a condition."

"If it's true, it's Masters, of course," said Miss Hathaway. "The only reason I didn't fall in love with him was because it was no use. But he's the sort of man--there are not many of them!--who would make a woman love him to desperation if he loved her himself. And she'd never forget him."

"I don't believe it," said Mrs. Ballinger coldly. "I never believed that Madeleine was in love with Langdon Masters. A good woman loves only her husband."

"Oh, mamma!" wailed Sally. "Madeleine is young, and the doctor's a dear but he wasn't the sort of a man for her at all. He just attracted her when she was a girl because he was so different from the men she knew. But Langdon is exactly suited to her. I guessed it before any of you did. It worried me dreadfully, but I sympathized--I always admired Langdon--if he'd looked at me before I fell in love with Hal I believe I'd have married him--but I wish, oh, how I wish, Madeleine could get a divorce."

"Sally Ballinger!" Her mother's voice quavered. "This terrible California! If you had been brought up in Virginia--"

"But I wasn't. And I mean what I say. And--and--it's true about Madeleine. I went there the other day and she saw me--and--oh, I never meant to tell it--it's too terrible!"

"So," said Mrs. McLane. "So," She added thoughtfully after a moment. "It's a curious coincidence. Langdon Masters is drinking himself to death in New York. Jack Belmont returned the other day--he told Mr. McLane."

She had been interrupted several times, Madeleine for the moment forgotten.

"Why didn't Alexander Groome know? He's his cousin and bad enough himself, heaven knows."

"Oh, poor Langdon! Poor Langdon! I knew he could love a woman like that--"

"He has remarkable powers of concentration!"

"I'll wager Mr. Abbott heard it himself at the Club, the wretch! He'll hear from me!"

"Oh, it's too awful," wailed Sally again. "What an end to a romance. It was quite perfect before--in a way. And now instead of pitying poor Madeleine and wishing we were her--she--which is it?--we'll all be despising her!"

"It's loathsome," said Mrs. Ballinger. "I wish I had not heard it. I prefer to believe that such things do not exist."

"Good heavens, mamma, I've heard that gentlemen in the good old South were as drunk as lords, oftener than not."

"As lords, yes. Langdon Masters is in no position to emulate his ancestors. And Madeleine! No one ever heard of a lady in the South taking to drink from disappointed love or anything else. When life was too hard for them they went into a beautiful decline and died in the odor of sanctity."

"They get terribly skinny and yellow in the last stages--"

"Sally!"

"Well, I don't care anything about Langdon Masters," announced Mrs. Abbott. "He's left here anyway, and like as not we'll never see him again. This is what I want to know: Can anything be done about Madeleine Talbot? Of course Howard poured whiskey down her throat until it got the best of her. But he should know how to cure her. That is if he knows the worst."

"You may be sure he knows the worst," said Mrs. McLane. "How could he help it?"

"That maid said she bought it on the sly all the time. Don't you suppose he'd put a stop to that if he knew it?"

"Well, he will find it out. And I'll not be the one to tell him. One ordeal of that sort is enough for a lifetime."

"Why not give her a talking to? She has always seemed to defer more to you than to any one else." Mrs. Abbott made the admission grudgingly.

"I am willing to try, if she will see me. But--if she knows what has happened to Masters--and ten to one she does--he may have written to her--I don't believe it will do any good. Alas! Why does youth take life so tragically? When she is as old as I am she will know that no man is worth the loss of a night's sleep."

"Yes, but Madeleine isn't old!" cried Sally. "She's young--young-- and she can't live without him. I don't know whether she's weaker or stronger than Sibyl, but at any rate Sibyl is happy--"

"How do you know?"

"Can't you see it in her face at the theatre? Oh, I don't care! I'll tell it! Madeleine asked me to lunch to meet her one day last winter and I went. We had a splendid time. After lunch we sat on the rug before the fire and popped corn. Oh, you needn't all glare at me as if I'd committed a crime. It's hard to be hard when you're young, and Sibyl was my other intimate friend. But that's not the question at present. I've had an idea. Perhaps I could persuade Madeleine to stay with me. Now that I know, perhaps she won't mind so much. I only got in by accident. There's a new man at the desk and he let me go up--"

"Well, what is your idea?" asked Mrs. McLane impatiently. "What could you do with her if she did visit you--which she probably will not."

"I might be able to cure her. She wouldn't see anything to drink. Hal has sworn off. There's not a drop in sight, and not only on his account but because the last butler got drunk and fell in the lake. We'll not have any company while she's there. And I'd lock her in at night and never leave her alone in the daytime."

"That is not a bad idea at all," said Mrs. McLane emphatically. "But don't waste your time trying to persuade her. Go to Howard. Tell him the truth. He will give her a dose of valerian and take her over in a hack at night."

"I don't like the idea of Sally coming into contact with such a dreadful side of life--"

"But if I can save her, mamma?"

"Maria is Alexander Groome's wife and she has no influence over him."

"Oh, Maria! If he were my husband I'd lead him such a dance that he'd behave himself in self-defence. Maria is too much like you--"

"Sally Ballinger!"

"I only meant that you are an angel, mamma dear. And of course you are so enchanting and beautiful papa has always toed the mark. But Maria is good without being any too fascinating--"

"Sally is right," interrupted Mrs. McLane. "I am not sure that her plan will succeed. But no one has thought of a better. If Madeleine has a deeper necessity for stupefying her brain than shattered nerves, I doubt if any one could save her. But at least Sally can try. We'd be brutes if we left her to drown without throwing her a plank."

"Just what I said," remarked Mrs. Abbott complacently. "Was I not justified in telling you? And when you get her over there, Sally, and her mind is quite clear, warn her that while she may do what she chooses in private, if she elects to die that way, just let her once be seen in public in a state unbecoming a lady, and that is the end of her as far as we are concerned."

"Yes," said Mrs. McLane with a sigh. "We should have no choice. Poor Madeleine!"