Sleeping Fires by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Ralph Holt ran down the steps of a famous night restaurant in north Montgomery Street on the edge of Chinatown. It was a disreputable place but it had a certain air of brilliancy, although below the sidewalk, and was favored by men that worked late on newspapers, not only for its excellent cuisine but because there was likely to be some garish bit of drama to refresh the jaded mind.
The large room was handsomely furnished with mahogany and lit by three large crystal chandeliers and many side brackets. It was about two thirds full. A band was playing and on a platform a woman in a Spanish costume of sorts was dancing the can-can, to the noisy appreciation of the male guests. Along one side of the room was a bar with a large painting above it of bathing nymphs. The waiters were Chinese.
Holt found an unoccupied table and ordered an oyster stew, then glanced about him for possible centres of interest. There were many women present, gaudily attired, but they were not the elite of the half-world. Neither did the gentlemen who made life gay and care-free for the haughty ladies of the lower ten thousand patronize anything so blatant. They were far too high-toned themselves. Their standards were elevated, all things considered.
But the women of commerce, of whatever status, had no interest for young Holt save as possible heroines of living drama. He had a lively news sense, and although an editor, and of a highly respectable sheet at that, he could become as keen on the track of a "story" as if he were still a reporter.
But although the night birds were eating little and drinking a great deal, at this hour of two in the morning, the only excitement was the marvellous high kicking of the black-eyed scantily clad young woman on the stage and the ribald applause of her admirers.
His eye was arrested by the slender back of a woman who sat at a table alone drinking champagne. She was so simply dressed that she was far more noticeable than if she had crowned herself with jewels. His lunch arrived at the moment, and it was not until he had satisfied his usual morning appetite that he remembered the woman and glanced her way again. Two men were sitting at her table, apparently endeavoring to engage her in conversation. They belonged to the type loosely known as men about town, of no definite position, but with money to spend and a turn for adventure.
It was equally apparent that they received no response to their amiable overtures, for they shrugged their shoulders in a moment, laughed, and went elsewhere. More than one woman sat alone and these were amenable enough. They came for no other purpose.
Holt paid his account and strolled over to the table. When he took one of the chairs he was shocked but not particularly surprised to see that the woman was Mrs. Talbot. The town had rung with her story all winter, and he had heard several months since that she had obtained money in some way and left her husband. The report was that Dr. Talbot had traced her to lodgings on the Plaza, but she had not only refused to return to him but to tell him where she had obtained her funds. She had informed him that she had sufficient money to keep her "long enough," but the doctor had his misgivings and directed his lawyers to pay the rent of the room and make an arrangement with a neighboring restaurant to send in her meals. Then he had gone off on a sea voyage. Holt had seen him driving his double team the day before, evidently on a round of visits. The sea, apparently, had done him little good. Nothing but age, no doubt, would shatter that superb constitution, but he had lost his ruddy color and his face was drawn and lined.
Madeleine had not raised her eyes. She looked like an effigy of well-bred contempt, and Holt did not wonder that she suffered briefly from the attentions of predatory males in search of amusement. Moreover, she was very thin, and the sirens of that day were voluptuous. They fed on cream and sweets until the proper curves of bust and hips were achieved, and those that appeared in the wrong place were held flat with a broad "wooden whalebone."
Holt was surprised to find her so little changed. It was evident she was one of those drinkers whom liquor made pallid not red; her skin was still smooth and her face had not lost its fine oval. But it was only a matter of time!
She raised her eyes with a faint start and with an expression of haughty disdain. But as she recognized him the expression faded and she regarded him sadly.
"You see," she said.
"It's a crime, you know."
"Have you any news of him?"
"Nothing new. It takes time to kill a man like that."
"I hope he is more fortunate than I am! It hasn't the effect that it did. It keeps my nerves sodden, but my brain is horribly clear. I no longer forget! And death is a long time coming. I am tired always, but I don't break."
"You shouldn't come to such places as this. If a man was drunk enough you couldn't discourage him."
"Oh, I have been spoken to in places like this and on the street by men in every stage of intoxication and by men who were quite sober. But I am able to take care of myself. This sort of man--the only sort I meet now--likes gay clothes and gay women."
"All the same it's not safe. Do you only go out at night?"
"Yes--I--I sleep in the daytime."
"Look here--I have a plan--I won't tell you what it is now--but meanwhile I wish you would promise me that you will not go out alone-- to hells of this sort--again. I can make an arrangement for a while at the office to get off earlier, and I'll take you wherever you want to go. Is it a bargain?"
"Very well," she said indifferently. Then she smiled for the first time, and her face looked sweet and almost girlish once more. "You are very kind. Why do you take so much interest? I am only one more derelict. You must have seen many."
"Well, I'm just built that way. I took a shine to you the day in that old ark we ambled about in, and then I'm as fond of Masters as ever. D'you see? Now, let's get out of this. I'm going to see you home."
"Well, I'm glad the word gives you a shock, anyway. It's where you ought to be."
They left the restaurant and although, when they reached the sidewalk, she took his arm, he noticed that she did not stagger.
They walked up the hill past the north side of the Plaza. The gambling houses of the fifties and early sixties had moved elsewhere, and although there were low-browed shops on the east side with flaring gas jets before them even at this hour, the other three sides, devoted to offices and rooming-houses, were respectable. There were a few drunken sailors on the grass, who had wandered too far from Barbary Coast, but they were asleep.
"I never am molested here," she said. "I don't think I have ever met any one. Sometimes I have stood in the shadow up there and looked down Dupont Street. What a sight! Respectable Montgomery Street is never so crowded at four in the afternoon. And the women! Sometimes I have envied them, for life has never meant anything to them but just that. I never saw one of those painted harlots who looked as if she had even the remnants of a mind."
"Well, for heaven's sake keep your distance from Dupont Street. If some drunken brute caught you lurking in the shadows it might appeal to his sense of humor to toss you on his shoulder and run the length of the street with you--possibly fling you through one of the windows of those awful cottages into some harlot's lap, if she happened to be soliciting at the moment. Then she'd scratch your eyes out.... You know a lot about taking care of yourself," he fumed.
"Oh, I never go there any more," she said indifferently. "I'm tired of it."
"I can understand you leaving your husband and wishing to live alone --natural enough!--but what I cannot understand is that you, the quintessence of delicate breeding, should walk the streets at night and sit in dives. I wonder you can stand being in the room with such women, to say nothing of the men."
"It has been my hope to forget all I represented before, and danger means nothing to me. Moreover, there are other reasons. I must have exercise and air. I do not care to risk meeting any of my old friends. I must get away from myself--from solitude--during some part of the twenty-four hours. And--well--the die was cast. I was publicly disgraced. It doesn't matter what I do now, and when I sit in that sort of place I can imagine that he is in similar ones on the other side of the continent. I told you that I intended to be no better than he--and of course as I am a woman I am worse."
"I suppose you would not be half so charming if you were not so completely feminine. But just how many of these night hells have you been to?"
"I can't tell. I've been to far worse dives than that. I've even been in saloons over on Barbary Coast. But although I've been hurt accidentally several times in scuffles, and a bullet nearly hit me once, I seem to bear a charmed life. I suppose those do that want to die. And although they treat me with no respect they seem to regard me as a harmless lunatic, and--and--I take very little when I am out. I have just enough pride left not to care to be taken to the calaboose by a policeman."
"Good God! How can you even talk of such things? Some day you will regret all this horribly."
"I'll never regret anything except that I was born."
"Well, here we are. I'll not take you up to your rooms. Don't give them a chance at that sort of scandal whatever you do. It's lucky for you that alcohol doesn't send you along a still livelier road to perdition. It does most women."
"I see him every moment. Even if I did not, I do not think--well, of course if things were different I should not be an outcast of any sort. And don't imagine that my refinement suffers in these new contacts. The underworld interests me; I had never even tried to imagine it before. I am permitted to remain aloof and a spectator. At times it is all as unreal as I seem to myself, sitting there. But I never feel so close to vice as to complete honesty. I have often had glimpses of blacker sins in Society."
"Well, I'm glad it's no worse. To tell you the truth, I've avoided looking you up, for I didn't know--well, I didn't want to see you again if you were too different. Good-night. I'll meet you at this door tonight at twelve sharp."