Sleeping Fires by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Society went to the country to escape the screaming winds and dust clouds of summer. A few had built country houses, the rest found abundant amusement at the hotels of The Geysers, Warm Springs and Congress Springs, taking the waters dutifully.
As the city was constantly swept by epidemics Dr. Talbot rarely left his post for even a few days' shooting, and Madeleine remained with him as a matter of course. Moreover, she hoped for occasional long evenings with her husband and the opportunity to convince him that her companionship was more satisfying than that of his friends at the Club. She had not renounced the design of gradually converting him to her own love of literature, and pictured delightful hours during which they would discuss the world's masterpieces together.
But he merely hooted amiably and pinched her cheeks when she approached the subject tentatively. He was infernally over-worked and unless he had a few hours' relaxation at the Club he would be unfit for duty on the morrow. She was his heart's delight, the prettiest wife in San Francisco; he worked the better because she was always lovely at the breakfast table and he could look forward to a brief dinner in her always radiant company. Thank God, she never had the blues nor carried a bottle of smelling salts about with her. And she hadn't a nerve in her body! God! How he did hate women's nerves. No, she was a model wife and he adored her unceasingly. But companionship? When she timidly uttered the word, he first stared uncomprehendingly, then burst into loud laughter.
"Men don't find companionship in women, my dear. If they pretend to they're after something else. Take the word of an old stager for that. Of course there is no such thing as companionship among women as men understand the term, but you have Society, which is really all you want. Yearnings are merely a symptom of those accursed nerves. For God's sake forget them. Flirt all you choose--there are plenty of men in town; have them in for dinner if you like--but if any of those young bucks talks companionship to you put up your guard or come and tell me. I'll settle his hash."
"I don't want the companionship of any other man, but I'd like yours."
"You don't know how lucky you are. You have all of me you could stand. Three or four long evenings--well, we'd yawn in each other's faces and go to bed. A bull but true enough."
"Then I think I'll have the books unpacked, not only those I brought, but the new case papa sent to me. I have lost the resource of Society for several months, and I do not care to have men here after you have gone. That would mean gossip."
"You are above gossip and I prefer the men to the books. You'll ruin your pretty eyes, and you had the makings of a fine bluestocking when I rescued you. A successful woman--with her husband and with Society-- has only sparkling shallows in her pretty little head. Now, I must run. I really shouldn't have come all the way up here for lunch."
Madeleine wandered aimlessly to the window and looked down at the scurrying throngs on Montgomery Street. There were few women. The men bent against the wind, clutching at their hats, or chasing them along the uneven wooden sidewalks, tripping perhaps on a loose board. There were tiny whirlwinds of dust in the unpaved streets. The bustling little city that Madeleine had thought so picturesque in its novelty suddenly lost its glamour. It looked as if parts of it had been flung together in a night between solid blocks imported from the older communities; so furious was the desire to achieve immediate wealth there were only three or four buildings of architectural beauty in the city. The shop windows on Montgomery Street were attractive with the wares of Paris, but Madeleine coveted nothing in San Francisco.
She thought of Boston, New York, Washington, Europe, and for a moment nostalgia overwhelmed her. If Howard would only take her home for a visit! Alas! he was as little likely to do that as to give her the companionship she craved.
But she had no intention of taking refuge in tears. Nor would she stay at home and mope. Her friends were out of town. She made up her mind to go for a walk, although she hardly knew where to go. Between mud and dust and hills, walking was not popular in San Francisco. However, there might be some excitement in exploring.
She looped her brown cloth skirt over her balmoral petticoat, tied a veil round her small hat and set forth. Although the dust was flying she dared not lower her veil until she reached the environs, knowing that if she did she would be followed; or if recognized, accused of the unpardonable sin. The heavy veil in the San Francisco of that day, save when driving in aggressively respectable company, was almost an interchangeable term for assignation. It was as inconvenient for the virtuous as indiscreet for the carnal.
Madeleine reached the streets of straggling homes and those long impersonal rows depressing in their middle-class respectability, and lowered the veil over her smarting eyes. She also squared her shoulders and strode along with an independent swing that must convince the most investigating mind she was walking for exercise only.
Almost unconsciously she directed her steps toward the Cliff House Road where she had driven occasionally behind the doctor's spanking team. It was four o'clock when she entered it and the wind had fallen. The road was thronged with buggies, tandems, hacks, phaetons, and four-in-hands. Society might be out of town but the still gayer world was not. Madeleine, skirting the edge of the road to avoid disaster stared eagerly behind her veil. Here were the reckless and brilliant women of the demi-monde of whom she had heard so much, but to whom she had barely thrown a glance when driving with her husband. They were painted and dyed and kohled and their plumage would have excited the envy of birds in Paradise. San Francisco had lured these ladies "round the Horn" since the early Fifties: a different breed from the camp followers of the late Forties. Some had fallen from a high estate, others had been the mistresses of rich men in the East, or belles in the half world of New York or Paris. Never had they found life so free or pickings so easy as in San Francisco.
Madeleine knew that many of the eminent citizens she met in Society kept their mistresses and flaunted them openly. It was, in fact, almost a convention. She was not surprised to see several men who had taken her in to dinner tooling these gorgeous cyprians and looking far prouder than when they played host in the world of fashion. On one of the gayest of the coaches she saw four of the young men who were among the most devoted of her cavaliers at dances: Alexander Groome, Amos Lawton, Ogden Bascom, and "Tom" Abbott, Jr. Groome was paying his addresses to Maria Ballinger, "a fine figure of a girl" who had inherited little of her mother's beauty but all of her virtue, and Madeleine wondered if he would reform and settle down. Abbott was engaged to Marguerite McLane and looked as if he were having his last glad fling. Ogden Bascom had proposed to Guadalupe Hathaway every month for five years. It was safe to say that he would toe the mark if he won her. But he did not appear to be nursing a blighted heart at present.
Madeleine's depression left her. That, at least, Howard would never do. She felt full of hope and buoyancy once more, not realizing that it is easier to win back a lover than change the nature of man.
When Madeleine reached the Cliff House, that shabby innocent-looking little building whose evil fame had run round the world, she stared at it fascinated. Its restaurant overhung the sea. On this side the blinds were down. It looked as if awaiting the undertaker. She pictured Howard's horror when she told him of her close contact with vice, and anticipated with a pleasurable thrill the scolding he would give her. They had never quarrelled and it would be delightful to make up.
"Not Mrs. Talbot! No! Assuredly not!"
Involuntarily Madeleine raised her veil. She recognized the voice of "Old" Ben Travers (he was only fifty but bald and yellow), the Union Club gossip, and the one man in San Francisco she thoroughly disliked. He stood with his hat in his hand, an expression of ludicrous astonishment on his face.
"Yes, it is I," said Madeleine coolly. "And I am very much interested."
"Ah? Interested?" He glanced about. If this were an assignation either the man was late or had lost courage. But he assumed an expression of deep respect. "That I can well imagine, cloistered as you are. But, if you will permit me to say so, it is hardly prudent. Surely you know that this is a place of ill repute and that your motives, however innocent, might easily be misconstrued."
"I am alone!" said Madeleine gaily, "and my veil is up! Not a man has glanced at me, I look so tiresomely respectable in these stout walking clothes. Even you, dear Mr. Travers, whom we accuse of being quite a gossip, understand perfectly."
"Oh, yes, indeed. I do understand. And Mrs. Talbot is like Caesar's wife, but nevertheless--there is a hack. It is waiting, but I think I can bribe him to take us in. You really must not remain here another moment--and you surely do not intend to walk back--six miles?"
"No, I'll be glad to drive--but if you will engage the hack--I shouldn't think of bothering you further."
"I shall take you home," said Travers firmly. "Howard never would forgive me if I did not--that is--that is--"
Madeleine laughed merrily. "If I intend to tell him! But of course I shall tell him. Why not?"
"Well, yes, it would be best. I'll speak to the man."
The Jehu was reluctant, but a bill passed and he drove up to Madeleine. "Guess I can do it," he said, "but I'll have to drive pretty fast."
Madeleine smiled at him and he touched his hat. She had employed him more than once. "The faster the better, Thomas," she said. "I walked out and am tired."
"I saw you come striding down the road, ma'am," he said deferentially, "and I knew you got off your own beat by mistake. I think I'd have screwed up my courage and said something if Mr. Travers hadn't happened along."
Madeleine nodded carelessly and entered the hack, followed by Travers, in spite of her protests.
"I too walked out here and intended to ask some one to give me a lift home. I am the unfortunate possessor of a liver, my dear young lady, and must walk six miles a day, although I loathe walking as I loathe drinking weak whiskey and water."
Madeleine shrugged her shoulders and attempted to raise one of the curtains. The interior was as dark as a cave. But Travers exclaimed in alarm.
"No! No! Not until we get out of this. When we have reached the city, but not here. In a hack on this road--"
"Oh, very well. Then entertain me, please, as I cannot look out. You always have something interesting to tell."
"I am flattered to think you find me entertaining. I've sometimes thought you didn't like me."
"Now you know that is nonsense. I always think myself fortunate if I sit next you at dinner." Madeleine spoke in her gayest tones, but in truth she dreaded what the man might make of this innocent escapade and intended to make a friend of him if possible.
She was growing accustomed to the gloom and saw him smile fatuously. "That sends me to the seventh heaven. How often since you came have I wished that my dancing days were not over."
"I'd far rather hear you talk. Tell me some news."
"News? News? San Francisco is as flat at present as spilled champagne. Let me see? Ah! Did you ever hear of Langdon Masters?"
"No. Who is he?"
"He is Virginian like myself--a distant cousin. He fought through the war, badly wounded twice, came home to find little left of the old estate--practically nothing for him. He tried to start a newspaper in Richmond but couldn't raise the capital. He went to New York and wrote for the newspapers there; also writes a good deal for the more intellectual magazines. Thought perhaps you had come across something of his. There is just a whisper, you know, that you were rather a bas bleu before you came to us."
"Because I was born and educated in Boston? Poor Boston! I do recall reading something of Mr. Masters' in the Atlantic--I suppose it was--but I have forgotten what. Here, I have grown too frivolous--and happy--to care to read at all. But what have you to tell me particularly about Mr. Masters?"
"I had a letter from him this morning asking me if there was an opening here. He resents the antagonism in the North that he meets at every turn, although they are glad enough of his exceptionally brilliant work. But he knows that San Francisco is the last stronghold of the South, and also that our people are generous and enterprising. I shall write him that I can see no opening for another paper at present, but will let him know if there happens to be one on an editorial staff. That is a long journey to take on an uncertainty."
"I should think so. Heavens, how this carriage does bounce. The horses must be galloping."
"Probably." He lifted a corner of the curtain. "We shall reach the city soon at this rate. Ah!"
Madeleine, in spite of the bouncing vehicle, had managed heretofore to prop herself firmly in her corner, but a violent lurch suddenly threw her against Travers. He caught her firmly in one of his lean wiry arms. At the moment she thought nothing of it, although she disliked the contact, but when she endeavored to disengage herself, he merely jerked her more closely to his side and she felt his hot breath upon her cheek. It was the fevered breath of a man who drinks much and late and almost nauseated her.
"Come come," whispered Travers. "I know you didn't go out there to meet any one; it was just a natural impulse for a little adventure, wasn't it? And I deserve my reward for getting you home safely. Give me a kiss."
Madeleine wrenched herself free, but he laughed and caught her again, this time in both arms. "Oh, you can't get away, and I'm going to have that kiss. Yes, a dozen, by Jove. You're the prettiest thing in San Francisco, and I'll get ahead of the other men there."
His yellow distorted face--he looked like a satyr--was almost on hers. She freed herself once more with a dexterous twisting motion of her supple body, leaped to the front of the carriage and pounded on the window behind the driver.
"For God's sake! You fool! What are you doing? Do you want a scandal?"
The carriage stopped its erratic course so abruptly that he was thrown to the floor. Madeleine already had the door open. She had all the strength of youth and perfect health, and he was worn out and shaken. He was scrambling to his feet. She put her arms under his shoulders and threw him out into the road.
"Go on!" she called to the driver. And as he whipped up the horses again, his Homeric laughter mingling with the curses of the man in the ditch, she sank back trembling and gasping. It was her first experience of the vileness of man, for the men of her day respected the women of their own class unless met half way, or, violently enamoured, given full opportunity to express their emotions.
Moreover she had made a venomous enemy.
What would Howard say? What would he do to the wretch? Horsewhip him? Would he stop to think of scandal? The road had been deserted. She knew that Travers would keep his humiliation to himself and the incidents that led up to it; but if she told her husband and he lost his head the story would come out and soon cease to bear any semblance to the truth. She wished she had some one to advise her. What did insulted women do?
But she could not think in this horrible carriage. It would be at least an hour before she saw Howard. She would bathe her face in cold water and try to think.
The hack stopped again and the coachman left the box.
"It's only a few blocks now, ma'am," he said, as he opened the door. "I haven't much time--"
Madeleine almost sprang out. She opened her purse. He accepted the large bill with a grin on his good-natured face.
"That's all right, Mrs. Talbot. I wouldn't have spoke of it nohow. The Doctor and me's old friends. But I'm just glad old Ben got what he deserved. The impudence of him! You--well!--Good day, ma'am."
He paused as he was climbing back to the box.
"If you don't mind my giving ye a bit of advice, Mrs. Talbot--I've seen a good bit of the world, I have--this is a hot city, all right-- I just wouldn't say anything to the doctor. Trouble makes trouble. Better let it stop right here."
"Thanks, Thomas. Good-by."
And Madeleine strode down the street as if the furies pursued her.