Sleeping Fires by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
In the winter of 1878-79 Mrs. Ballinger gave a luncheon in honor of Mrs. McLane, who had arrived in San Francisco the day before after a long visit in Europe. The city was growing toward the west, but Ballinger House still looked like an outpost on its solitary hill and was almost surrounded by a grove of eucalyptus trees.
Mrs. Abbott grumbled as she always did at the long journey, skirting far higher hills, and through sand dunes still unsubdued by man and awaiting the first dry wind of summer to transform themselves into clouds of dust. But a sand storm would not have kept her away. The others invited were her daughter-in-law, who had met Mrs. McLane at Sacramento, Guadalupe Hathaway, now Mrs. Ogden Bascom, Mrs. Montgomery, Mrs. Yorba, whose husband had recently built the largest and ugliest house in San Francisco, perched aloft on Nob Hill; several more of Mrs. McLane's favorites, old and young, and Maria Groome, born Ballinger, now a proud pillar of San Francisco Society.
The dining-room of Ballinger House was long and narrow and from its bow window commanded a view of the Bay. It was as uncomely with its black walnut furniture and brown walls as the rest of that aristocratic abode, across whose threshold no loose fish had ever darted; but its dingy walls were more or less concealed by paintings of the martial Virginia ancestors of Mrs. Ballinger and her husband, the table linen had been woven for her in Ireland, the cut glass blown for her in England; the fragile china came from Sevres, and the massive silver had travelled from England to Virginia in the reign of Elizabeth. The room may have been ugly, nay, ponderous, but it had an air!
The women who graced the board were dressed, with one or two exceptions, in the height of the mode. Save Maria Groome each had made at least one trip to Europe and left her measurements with Worth. Maria did not begin her pilgrimages to Europe until the eighties, and then it was old carved furniture she brought home; dress she always held in disdain, possibly because her husband's mistresses were ever attired in the excess of the fashion.
Mrs. Ballinger was now in her fifties but still one of the most beautiful women in San Francisco; and she still wore shining gray gowns that matched the bright silver of her hair to a shade. Her descendants had inherited little of her beauty (Alexina Groome as yet roaming space, and, no doubt, having her subtle way with ghosts old and new).
Mrs. McLane had discharged commissions for every woman present except Maria, and their gowns had been unpacked on the moment, that they might be displayed at this notable function. They wore the new long basque and overskirt made of cloth or cashmere, combined with satin, velvet or brocade, and with the exception of Mrs. Abbott they had removed their hats. Chignons had disappeared. Hair was elaborately dressed at the back or arranged in high puffs with two long curls suspended. Marguerite Abbott and Annette wore the new plaids. Mrs. Abbott had graduated from black satin and bugles to cloth, but her bonnet was of jet.
"Now!" exclaimed Mrs. McLane, who had been plied with eager questions from oysters to dessert. "I've told you all the news about the fashions, the salon, the plays, the opera, all the scandals of Paris I can remember but you'll never guess my piece de resistance."
"What--what--" Tea was forgotten.
"Well--as you know, I was in Berlin during the Congress--"
"Did you see Bismark--Disraeli--"
"I did and met them. But they are not of half as much interest to you as some one else--two people--I met."
"Can't you guess?"
"I know!" cried Guadalupe Bascom. "Langdon and Madeleine Masters."
"No! What would they be doing in Berlin?" demanded Mrs. Ballinger. "I thought he was editing some paper in New York."
"'Lupie has guessed correctly. It's evident that you don't keep up. We're just the same old stick-in-the-muds. 'Lupie, how did you guess? I'll wager you never see a New York newspaper yourself."
"Not I. But one does hear a little Eastern news now and again. I happen to know that Masters has made a success of his paper and it would be just like him to go to the Congress of Berlin. What was he doing there?"
"Oh, nothing in particular. Merely corresponding with his paper, and, in the eyes of many, eclipsing Blowitz."
"Who is Blowitz?"
"Mon dieu! Mon dieu! But after all London is farther off than New York, and I don't fancy you read the Times when you are there-- which is briefly and seldom. Paris is our Mecca. Well, Blowitz--"
"But Madeleine? Madeleine? It is about her we want to hear. What do we care about tiresome political letters in solemn old newspapers? How did she look? How dressed? Was she ahead of the mode as ever? Does she look much older? Does she show what she has been through.... Oh, Antoinette--Mrs. McLane--Mamma--how tiresome you are!"
Mrs. Abbott had not joined in this chorus. She had emitted a series of grunts--no less primitive word expressing her vocal emissions when disgusted. She now had four chins, her eyes were alarmingly protuberant, and her face, what with the tight lacing in vogue, much good food and wine, and a pious disapproval of powder or any care of a complexion which should remain as God made it, was of a deep mahogany tint; but her hand still held the iron rod, and if its veins had risen its muscles had never grown flaccid.
"Abominable!" she ejaculated when she could make herself heard. "To think that a man and a woman like that should be rewarded by fame and prosperity. They were thoroughly bad and should have been punished accordingly."
"Oh, no, they were not bad, ma chere," said Mrs. McLane lightly. "They were much too good. That was the whole trouble. And you must admit that for their temporary fall from grace they were sufficiently punished, poor things."
"Antoinette, I am surprised." Mrs. Ballinger spoke as severely as Mrs. Abbott. She looked less the Southerner for the moment than the Puritan. "They disgraced both themselves and Society. I was glad to hear of their reform, but they should have continued to live in sackcloth for the rest of their lives. For such to enjoy happiness and success is to shake the whole social structure, and it is a blow to the fundamental laws of religion and morality."
"But perhaps they are not happy, mamma." Maria spoke hopefully, although the fates seemed to have nothing in pickle for her erratic mate. "Mrs. McLane has not yet told us--"
"Oh, but they are! Quite the happiest couple I have ever seen, and likely to remain so. That's a case of true love if ever there was one. I mislaid my skepticism all the time I was in Berlin--a whole month!"
"Abominable!" rumbled Mrs. Abbott. "And when I think of poor Howard-- dead of apoplexy--"
"Howard ate too much, was too fond of Burgundy, and grew fatter every year. Madeleine could reclaim Masters, but she never had any influence over Howard."
"Well, she could have waited--"
"Masters was pulled up in the nick of time. A year more of that horrible life he was leading and he would have been either unreclaimable or dead. It makes me believe in Fate--and I am a good Churchwoman."
"It's a sad world," commented Mrs. Ballinger with a sigh. "I confess I don't understand it. When I think of Sally--"
Mrs. Montgomery, a good kind woman, whose purse was always open to her less fortunate friends, shook her head. "I do not like such a sequel. I agree with Alexina and Charlotte. They disgraced themselves and our proud little Society; they should have been more severely punished. Possibly they will be."
"I doubt it," said Mrs. Bascom drily. "And not only because I am a woman of the world and have looked at life with both eyes open, but because Masters had success in him. I'll wager he's had his troubles all in one great landslide. And Madeleine was born to be some man's poem. The luxe binding got badly torn and stained, but no doubt she's got a finer one than ever, and is unchanged--or even improved--inside."
"Oh, do let me get in a word edgeways," cried young Mrs. Abbott. "Tell me, Mamma--what does Madeleine look like? Has she lost her beauty?"
"She looked to me more beautiful than ever. I'd vow Masters thinks so."
"Has she wrinkles? Lines?"
"Not one. Have we grown old since she left us? It's not so many years ago?"
"Oh, I know. But after all she went through.... How was she dressed?"
"What are her favorite colors?"
"Who makes her gowns?"
"Has she as much elegance and style as ever?"
"Did she get her mother's jewels? Did she wear them in Berlin?"
"Is she in Society there? Is her grand air as noticeable among all those court people as it was here?"
"Oh, mamma, mamma, you are so tiresome!"
Mrs. McLane had had time to drink a second cup of tea.
"My head spins. Where shall I begin? The gowns she wore in Berlin were made at Worth's. Where else? She still wears golden-brown, and amber, and green--sometimes azure--blue at night. She looked like a fairy queen in blue gauze and diamond stars in her hair one night at the American Legation--"
"How does she wear her hair?"
"There she is not so much a la mode. She has studied her own style, and has found several ways of dressing it that become her--sometimes in a low coil, almost on her neck, sometimes on top of her head in a braid like a coronet, sometimes in a soft psyche knot. There never was anything monotonous about Madeleine."
"I'm going to try every one tomorrow. Has she any children?"
"One. She left him at their place in Virginia. I saw his picture. A beauty, of course."
Mrs. Ballinger raised her pencilled eyebrows and glanced at Maria. Mrs. Abbott gave a deep rumbling groan.
"He dreed his weird," said Mrs. McLane indifferently. "He couldn't help it. Neither could Madeleine."
"Well, I'd like to hear something more about Langdon Masters," announced Guadalupe Bascom. "That is, if you have all satisfied your curiosity about Madeleine's clothes. He is the one man I never could twist around my finger and I've never forgotten him. How does he look? He certainly should carry some stamp of the life he led."
"Oh, he looks older, of course, and he has deeper lines and some gray hairs. But he's thin, at least. His figure did not suffer if his face did--somewhat. He looks even more interesting--at least women would think so. You know we good women always have a fatal weakness for the man who has lived too much."
"Speak for yourself, Antoinette." Mrs. Ballinger looked like an effigy of virtue in silver. "And at your age you should be ashamed to utter such a sentiment even if you felt it."
"My hair may be as white as yours," rejoined Mrs. McLane tartly. "But I remain a woman, and for that reason attract men to this day."
"Is Masters as brilliant as ever--in conversation, I mean? Is he gay? Lively?"
"I cannot say that I found him gay, and I really saw very little of him except at functions. He was very busy. But Mr. McLane was with him a good deal, and said that although he was rather grim and quiet at times, at others he was as brilliant as his letters."
"Does he drink at all, or is he forced to be a teetotaller?"
"Not a bit of it. He drinks at table as others do; no more, no less."
"Then he is cured," said Mrs. Bascom contentedly. "Well, I for one am glad that it's all right. Still, if he had fallen in love with me he would have remained an eminent citizen--without a hideous interval he hardly can care to recall--and become the greatest editor in California. Have they any social position in New York?"
"Probably. I did not ask. They hardly looked like outcasts. You must remember their story is wholly unknown in fashionable New York. Scarcely any one here knows any one in New York Society; or has time for it when passing through.... But I don't fancy they care particularly for Society. In Berlin, whenever it was possible, they went off by themselves. But of course it was necessary for both to go in Society there, and she must have been able to help him a good deal."
"European Society! I suppose she'll be presented to the Queen of England next!--But no! Thank heaven she can't be. Good Queen Victoria is as rigid about divorce as we are. Nor shall she ever cross my threshold if she returns here." And Mrs. Abbott scalded herself with her third cup of tea and emitted terrible sounds.
Mrs. Yorba, a tall, spare, severe-looking woman, who had taught school in New England in her youth, and never even powdered her nose, spoke for the first time. Her tones were slow and portentious, as became one who, owing to her unfortunate nativity, had sailed slowly into this castellated harbor, albeit on her husband's golden ship.
"We may no longer have it in our power to punish Mrs. Langdon Masters," she said. "But at least we shall punish others who violate our code, even as we have done in the past. San Francisco Society shall always be a model for the rest of the world."
"I hope so!" cried Mrs. McLane. "But the world has a queer fashion of changing and moving."
Mrs. Ballinger rose. "I have no misgivings for the future of our Society, Antoinette McLane. Our grandchildren will uphold the traditions we have created, for our children will pass on to them our own immutable laws. Shall we go into the front parlor? I do so want to show it to you. I have a new set of blue satin damask and a crystal chandelier."