Sleeping Fires by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
That afternoon Holt called on Dr. Talbot in his office. Half an hour later, looking flushed and angry, he strolled frowning down Bush street, then turned abruptly and walked in the direction of South Park. He did not know Mrs. McLane but he believed she would see him.
He called at midnight--and on many succeeding nights--for Madeleine and took her to several of the dives that seemed to afford her amusement. He noticed that she drank little, and had a glimmering of the truth. Newspaper men have several extra senses. It was also apparent that the life she had led had not made her callous. As he insisted upon "treating" her she would have none of champagne but ordered ponies of brandy.
Now that she had a cavalier she was stared at more than formerly, and there was some audible ribald comment which Holt did his best to ignore; but as time wore on those bent on hilarity or stupor ceased to notice two people uninterestingly sober.
Holt talked of Masters constantly, relating every incident of his sojourn in San Francisco he could recall, and of his past that had come to his knowledge; expatiating bitterly upon his wasted gifts and blasted life. The more Madeleine winced the further he drove in the knife.
One night they were sitting on a balcony in Chinatown. In the restaurant behind them a banquet was being given by a party of Chinese merchants, and Holt had thought the scene might amuse her. The round table was covered with dishes no larger than those played with in childhood and the portions were as minute. The sleek merchants wore gorgeously embroidered costumes, and behind them were women of their own race, dressed plainly in the national garb, their stiff oiled hair stuck with long pins lobed with glass. They were evidently an orchestra, for they sang, or rather chanted, in high monotonous voices, as mournful as their gray expressionless faces. In two recesses, extended on teakwood couches, were Chinamen presumably of the same class as the diners, but wearing their daily blue silk unadorned and leisurely smoking the opium pipe. The room was heavily gilded and decorated and on the third floor as befitted its rank. Chinamen of humbler status dined on the floor below, and the ground restaurant accommodated the coolies.
On the little balcony, their chairs wedged between large vases of growing plants, Madeleine could watch the function without attracting attention; or lean over the railing and look down upon the narrow street hung with gay paper lanterns above the open doors of shops that flaunted the wares of the Orient under strange gilt signs. There were many little balconies high above the street and they were as brilliantly lit as for a festival. From several came the sound of raucous instrumental music or that same thin chant as of lost souls wandering in outer darkness. The street was thronged with Chinamen of the lower caste in dark blue cotton smocks, pendent pigtails, and round coolie hats.
It was eight o'clock, but it was Holt's "night off" and as he had told her that morning he could get a pass for the dinner, and that it was time she "changed her bill," she had risen early and met him at her door.
It was apparent that she took a lively interest in this bit of Shanghai but a step out of the Occident, for her face had lost its heavy brooding and she asked him many questions. It was an hour before Masters' name was mentioned, and then she said abruptly:
"You tell me much of his life out here and before he came, but you hardly ever say anything about the present."
"That sort of life is much of a muchness."
"How do you hear?"
"One of the Bulletin men--Tom Lacey--went East just after Masters did. He is on the Times. Several of us correspond with him."
"Has--has he ever been--literally, I mean--in the gutter?"
"Probably. He was in a hospital for a time and when he came out several of his friends tried to buck him up. But it was no use. He did work on one of the newspapers--the Tribune, I believe--about half sober until he had paid his hospital bill with something to spare. Then he went to work in the same old steady painstaking way to drink himself to death."
"Wh--why did he go to the hospital? Was he very ill?"
"Busted the crust of a policeman and got his own busted at the same time."
"How is it you spared me this before?"
He pretended not to see her tears, or her working hands.
"Didn't want to give you too heavy doses at once, but you are so much stronger that I chanced it. He's been in more than one spectacular affair. One night, in front of the City Prison, he tossed the driver off a van as if the man had been a dead leaf, and before the guard had time to jump to his seat he was on the box and had lashed the horses. He drove like mad all over New York for hours, the prisoners inside yelling and cursing at the top of their lungs. They thought it was a new and devilishly ingenious mode of punishment. When the horses dropped he left the van where it stood and went home. There was a frightful row over the affair. Masters was arrested, of course, but bailed out. He has friends still and some of them are influential. The trial was postponed a few times and then dropped. His rows are too numerous to mention. When he was here and sober he betrayed anger only in his eyes, which looked like steel blades run through fire, and with the most caustic tongue ever put in a man's head. But when he's in certain stages of insobriety his fighting instincts appear to take their own sweet way. At other times, Lacey writes, he is as interesting as ever and men sit round eagerly and listen to him talk. At others he simply disappears. Did I tell you he had come into a little money--just recently?"
"No, you did not. Why doesn't he start a newspaper?"
"He's probably forgotten he ever wanted one--no, I don't fancy he ever forgets anything. Only death will destroy that brain no matter how he may obfuscate it. And I guess there are times when he can't, poor devil. But he couldn't start a newspaper on what he's got. It's just enough to buy him all he wants without the necessity for work."
"How did he get it?"
"His elder brother--only remaining member of the immediate family-- died and left him the old plantation in Virgina--what there is left of it; and a small income from two or three old houses in Richmond. Masters told me once that when the war left them high and dry he agreed to waive his share in the estate provided his brother would take care of his mother and the old place. The estate comes to him now, but in trust. At his death, without legal heir, it goes to a cousin."
"Oh, take me home, please. I can't stand those wailing women any longer."