THE LAMP OF FATE
By Margaret Pedler
Then to the rolling Heav'n itself I cried, Asking, "What Lamp of Destiny to guide Her little Children stumbling in the Dark?" And—"A blind Understanding!" Heaven replied. The "Rubaiyat" of Omar Khayyam.
To AUDREY HEATH
DEAR AUDREY: I always feel that you have played the part of Fairy Godmother in a very special and delightful way to all my stories, and in particular to this one, the plot of which I outlined to you one afternoon in an old summer-house. So will you let me dedicate it to you? Yours always,
THE LAMP OF FATE
THE NINTH GENERATION
The house was very silent. An odour of disinfectants pervaded the atmosphere. Upstairs hushed, swift steps moved to and fro.
Hugh Vallincourt stood at the window of his study, staring out with unseeing eyes at the smooth, shaven lawns and well-kept paths with their background of leafless trees. It seemed to him that he had been standing thus for hours, waiting—waiting for someone to come and tell him that a son and heir was born to him.
He never doubted that it would be a son. By some freak of chance the first-born of the Vallincourts of Coverdale had been, for eight successive generations, a boy. Indeed, by this time, the thing had become so much a habit that no doubts or apprehensions concerning the sex of the eldest child were ever entertained. It was accepted as a foregone conclusion, and in the eyes of the family there was a certain gratifying propriety about such regularity. It was like a hall-mark of heavenly approval.
Hugh Vallincourt, therefore, was conscious at this critical moment of no questionings on that particular score. He was merely a prey to the normal tremors and agitations of a husband and prospective father.
For an ageless period, it seemed to him, his thoughts had clung about that upstairs room where his wife lay battling for her own life and another's. Suddenly they swung back to the time, a year ago, when he had first met her—an elusive feminine thing still reckoning her age in teens—beneath the glorious blue and gold canopy of the skies of Italy.
Their meeting and brief courtship had been pure romance—romance such as is bred in that land of mellow warmth and colour, where the flower of passion sometimes buds and blooms within the span of a single day.
In like manner had sprung to life the love between Hugh Vallincourt and Diane Wielitzska, and rarely has the web of love enmeshed two more dissimilar and ill-matched people—Hugh, a man of seven-and-thirty, the strict and somewhat self-conscious head of a conspicuously devout old English family, and Diane, a beautiful dancer of mixed origin, the illegitimate offspring of a Russian grand-duke and of a French artist's model of the Latin Quarter.
The three dread Sisters who determine the fate of men must have laughed amongst themselves at such an obvious mismating, knowing well how inevitably it would tangle the threads of many other lives than the two immediately concerned.
Vallincourt had been brought up on severely conventional lines, reared in the narrow tenets of a family whose salient characteristics were an overweening pride of race and a religious zeal amounting almost to fanaticism, while Diane had had no up-bringing worth speaking of. As for religious views, she hadn't any.
Yet neither the one nor the other had counted in the scale when the crucial moment came.
Perhaps it was by way of an ironical set-off against his environment that Fate had dowered Hugh with his crop of ruddy hair—and with the ardent temperament which usually accompanies the type. Be that as it may, he was swept completely off his feet by the dancer's magic beauty. The habits and training of a lifetime went by the board, and nothing was allowed to impede the swift (not to say violent) course of his love-making. Within a month from the day of their first meeting, he and Diane were man and wife.
The consequences were almost inevitable, and Hugh found that his married life speedily resolved itself into an endless struggle between the dictates of inclination and conscience. Everything that was man in him responded passionately to the appeal and charm of Diane's personality, whilst everything that was narrow and censorious disapproved her total inability to conform to the ingrained prejudices of the Vallincourts.
Not that Diane was in any sense of the word a bad woman. She was merely beautiful and irresponsible—a typical cigale of the stage—lovable and kind-hearted and pagan, and possessing but the haziest notions of self-control and self-discipline. Even so, left to themselves, husband and wife might ultimately have found the road to happiness across the bridge of their great love for one another.
But such freedom was denied them. Always at Hugh's elbow stood his sister, Catherine, a rigidly austere woman, in herself an epitome of all that Vallincourts had ever stood for.
Since the death of their parents, twenty years previously, Catherine had shared her brother's home, managing his house—and, on the strength of her four years' seniority in age, himself as well—with an iron hand. Nor had she seen fit to relinquish the reins of government when he married.
Privately, Hugh had hoped she might consider the propriety of withdrawing to the dower house attached to the Coverdale estates, but if the idea had occurred to her, she had never given it utterance, and Hugh himself had lacked the courage to propose such an innovation.
So it followed that Catherine was ever at hand to criticise and condemn. She disapproved of her brother's marriage wholly and consistently. In her eyes, he had committed an unpardonable sin in allying himself with Diane Wielitzska. It was his duty to have married a woman of the type conventionally termed "good," whose blood—and religious outlook—were alike unimpeachable; and since he had lamentably failed in this respect, she never ceased to reproach him. Diane she regarded with chronic disapprobation, exaggerating all her faults and opposing her joy-loving, butterfly nature with an aloofly puritanical disdain.
Amid the glacial atmosphere of disapproval into which marriage had thrust her, Diane found her only solace in Virginie, a devoted French servant who had formerly been her nurse, and who literally worshipped the ground she walked on. Conversely, Virginie's attitude towards Miss Vallincourt was one of frank hostility. And deep in the hearts of both Diane and Virginie lurked a confirmed belief that the birth of a child—a son—would serve to bring about a better understanding between husband and wife, and in the end assure Diane her rightful place as mistress of the house.
"Vois-tu, Virginie," the latter would say hopefully. "When I have a little baby, I shall have done my duty as the wife of a great English milord. Even Miss Catherine will no longer regard me as of no importance."
And Virginie would reply with infinite satisfaction:
"Of a certainty, when madame has a little son, Ma'moiselle Catherine will be returned to her place."
And now at last the great moment had arrived, and upstairs Catherine and Virginie were in attendance—both ousted from what each considered her own rightful place of authority by a slim, capable, and apparently quite unconcerned piece of femininity equipped against rebellion in all the starched panoply of a nurse's uniform, while downstairs Hugh stared dumbly out at the frosted lawns, with their background of bare, brown trees swaying to the wind from the north.
The door behind him opened suddenly. Hugh whirled round. He was a tall man with a certain rather formal air of stateliness about him, a suggestion of the grand seigneur, and the unwontedly impulsive movement was significant of the strain under which he was labouring.
Catherine was standing on the threshold of the room with something in her arms—something almost indistinguishable amid the downy, fleecy froth of whiteness amid which it lay.
Hugh was conscious of a new and strange sensation deep down inside himself. He felt rather as though all the blood in his body had rushed to one place—somewhere in the middle of it—and were pounding there against his ribs.
He tried to speak, failed, then instinctively stretched out his arms for the tiny, orris-scented bundle which Catherine carried.
The next thing of which he was conscious was Catherine's voice as she placed his child in his arms—very quiet, yet rasping across the tender silence of the room like a file.
"Here, Hugh, is the living seal which God Himself has set upon the sin of your marriage."
Hugh's eyes, bent upon the pink, crumpled features of the scrap of humanity nestled amid the bunchy whiteness in his arms, sought his sister's face. It was a thin, hard face, sharply cut like carved ivory; the eyes a light, cold blue, ablaze with hostility; the pale obstinate lips, usually folded so impassively one above the other, working spasmodically.
For a moment brother and sister stared at each other in silence. Then, all at once, Catherine's rigidly enforced composure snapped.
"A girl child, Hugh!" she jeered violently. "A girl—when you prayed for a boy!"
Hugh stared stupidly at the babe in his arms.
"Ay, a girl!" taunted Catherine, her voice cracking with rising hysteria. "A girl! . . . For eight generations the first-born has been a son. And the ninth is a girl! The daughter of a foreign dancing-woman! . . . God has indeed taken your punishment into His own Hands!"
THE WIDENING GULF
The birth of a daughter came upon Hugh in the light of an almost overwhelming shock. He was quite silent when, in response to Catherine's imperative gesture, he surrendered the child into her arms once more. As she took it from him he noticed that those thin, angular arms of hers seemed to close round the little swaddled body in an almost jealously possessive clasp. But there was none of the tender possessiveness of love about it. In some oddly repugnant way it reminded him of the motion of a bird of prey at last gripping triumphantly in its talons a victim that has hitherto eluded pursuit.
He turned back dully to his contemplation of the wintry garden, nor, in his absorption, did he hear the whimpering cry—almost of protest—that issued from the lips of his first-born as Catherine bore the child away.
For a space it seemed as though his mind were a blank, every thought and feeling wiped out of it by the stupendous, nullifying fact that his wife had given birth to a daughter. Then, with a rush as torturing as the return of blood to benumbed limbs, emotions crowded in upon him.
Catherine's incessant denunciations of his "sin" in marrying Diane Wielitzska—poured upon him without stint throughout this first year of his marriage—seemed to din in his ears anew. Such phrases as "selling your soul," "putting a woman of that type in our sainted mother's place," "mingling the blood of a foreign dancing-woman with our own," jangled against each other in his mind.
Had he really been guilty of a sin against his conscience—satisfied his desires irrespective of all sense of duty?
He began to think he had, and to wonder in a disturbed fashion if God thought so too. What was it Catherine had said? "God has indeed taken your punishment into His own Hands."
Hugh was only too well aware of the facts which gave the speech its trenchant significance. He himself had inherited owing to the death of an elder brother in early childhood. But there was no younger brother to step into his own shoes, and failing an heir in the direct line of succession the title and entailed estate would of necessity go to Rupert Vallincourt, a cousin—a gay and debonair young rake of much charm of manner and equal absence of virtue. From both Catherine's and Hugh's point of view he was the last man in the world fitted to become the head of the family. Hence the eagerness with which they had anticipated the arrival of a son and heir.
And now, prompted by Catherine's bitter taunt, the birth of a daughter as his first-born—the first happening of the kind for eight successive generations—appeared to Hugh in the light of a direct manifestation of God's intention that no son born of Diane Wielitzska should be dowered with such influence as the heir to the Vallincourts must necessarily wield.
Better, even, that the title and estates should go to Rupert! Bad as his reputation might be, good blood ran in his veins on either side—an inherited tradition of right-doing which was bound to assert itself in succeeding generations. Whereas in the offspring of Diane heaven alone knew what hidden inherited tendencies towards evil might lie fallow, to develop later and work incalculable mischief in the world.
Hugh felt crushed by the unexpected blow which had befallen him. Since his marriage, he had opposed a forced indifference to his sister's irreconcilable attitude, finding compensation in the glowing moments of his passion for Diane. Nevertheless—since living in an atmosphere of disapproval tends to fray the strongest nerves—his temper had worn a little fine beneath the strain; and with Diane's faults and failings thrust continually on his notice he had unconsciously grown more critical of her.
And now, all at once, it seemed as though scales had been torn from his eyes. He saw his marriage for the first time from the same standpoint as Catherine saw it, and in the unlooked-for birth of a daughter he thought he recognised the Hand of God, sternly uprooting his most cherished hopes and minimising, as much as possible, the inevitable evil consequences of his weakness in marrying Diane.
He was conscious of a rising feeling of resentment against his wife. Words from an old Book flashed into his mind: "The woman tempted me."
With the immediate instinct of a weak nature—the very narrowness and rigidity of his views was a manifestation of weakness, had he but realised it—he was already looking for someone with whom to share the blame for his lapse from the Vallincourt standard of conduct, and in that handful of wayward charm, red lips, and soft, beguiling eyes which was Diane he found what he sought.
Again the room door opened. This time, instead of putting a longed-for end to a blank period of suspense, the little quiet clicking of the latch cut almost aggressively across the conflict of Hugh's thoughts. He turned round irritably.
"What is it?" he demanded.
A uniformed nurse was standing in the doorway. At the sound of his curtly-spoken question she glanced at him with a certain contemplative curiosity in her eyes. They might have held surprise as well as curiosity had she not lately stood beside that huge, canopied bed upstairs, listening pitifully to a woman's secret fears and longings, unveiled in the delirium of pain.
"I know you sometimes wish you hadn't married me. . . . I'm not good enough. And Catherine hates me. Yes, she does, she does! And she'll make you hate me too! But you won't hate me when my baby comes, will you, Hugh? You want a little son . . . a little son . . ."
Nurse Maynard could hear again the weary, complaining voice, trailing off at last in the silence of exhaustion, and an impulse of indignation added a sharp edge to her tone as she responded to Hugh's query.
"Her ladyship is asking to see you, Sir Hugh. She ought to rest now, but she is too excited. She has been expecting you."
There was no mistaking the implied rebuke in the last sentence, and Hugh's face darkened.
"I'll come," he said, briefly, and followed the crisp starched figure up the stairs and into a half-darkened room, smelling faintly of antiseptics.
Vaguely the white counterpane outlined the slim figure of Diane upon the bed. The nurse raised the blind a little, and the light of the westering sun fell across the pillow, revealing a small, dark head which turned eagerly at the sound of Hugh's entrance.
"Hugh!" The voice from the bed came faintly.
Hugh looked down at his wife. Probably never had Diane looked more beautiful.
The little worldly, sophisticated expression common to her features had been temporarily obliterated by the holy suffering of motherhood, and the face of the "foreign dancing-woman," born and bred in a quarter of the world where virtue is a cheap commodity, was as pure and serene as the face of a Madonna.
She held out her hands to her husband, her lips curving into a smile that was all love and tenderness.
The lover in him sent him swiftly to her side, and as he drew her into his arms she let her head fall back against his shoulder with a tremulous sigh of infinite content.
And then, from the firelit corner of the room, came the sound of a feeble wailing. Hugh started as though stung, and his eyes left his wife's face and riveted themselves upon the figure in the low chair by the hearth—Virginie, rocking a little as she sat, and crooning a Breton lullaby to the baby in her arms.
In a moment remembrance rushed upon him, cutting in twain as though with a dividing sword this exquisite moment of reunion with his wife. Insensibly his arms relaxed their clasp of the frail body they held, and Diane, sensing their slackening, looked up startled and disconcerted.
Her eyes followed the direction of his glance, then, coming back to his face, searched it wildly. Instantly she knew the meaning of that suddenly limp clasp and all that it implied.
"Hugh!" The throbbing tenderness had gone out of her voice, leaving it dry and toneless. "Hugh! You don't mean . . . you're angry that it's a girl?"
He looked down at her—at the frightened eyes, the lovely face fined by recent pain, and all his instinct was to reassure and comfort her. But something held him back. The old, narrow creed in which he had been reared, whose shackles he had broken through when he had recklessly followed the bidding of his heart and married Diane, was once more mastering him—bidding him resist the natural human impulses of love and kindliness evoked by his wife's appeal.
"God Himself has taken your punishment into His own Hands."
Again he seemed to hear Catherine's accusing tones, and the fanatical strain inbred in him answered like a boat to its helm. There must be no more compromise, no longer any evasion of the issues of right and wrong. He had sinned, and both he and the woman for whose sake he had defied his own creed, and that of his fathers before him, must make atonement. He drew himself up, and stood stiff and unbending beside the bed. In his light-grey eyes there shone that same indomitable ardour of the zealot which had shone in Catherine's.
"No," he said. "I am not angry that the child is a girl. I accept it as a just retribution."
No man possessed of the ordinary instincts of common humanity would have so greeted his wife just when she had emerged, spent and exhausted, from woman's supreme conflict with death. But the fanatic loses sight of normal values, and Hugh, obsessed by his newly conceived idea of atoning for the sin of his marriage, was utterly oblivious of the enormity of his conduct as viewed through unbiased eyes.
The woman who had just fought her way through the Valley of the Shadow stared at him uncomprehendingly.
"Retribution?" she repeated blankly.
"For my marriage—our marriage."
Diane's breath came faster.
"What—what do you mean?" she asked falteringly. Suddenly a look of sheer terror leaped into her eyes, and she clutched at Hugh's sleeve. "Oh, you're not going to be like Catherine? Say you're not! Hugh, you've always said she was crazy to call our marriage a sin. . . . A sin!" She tried to laugh, but the laugh stuck in her throat, caught and pinned there by the terror that gripped her.
"Yes, I've said that. I've said it because I wanted to think it," he returned remorselessly, "not because I really thought it."
Diane dragged herself up on to her elbow.
"I don't understand. You've not changed?" Then, as he made no answer: "Hugh, you're frightening me! What do you mean? What has Catherine been saying to you?"
Her voice rose excitedly. A patch of feverish colour appeared on either cheek. Old Virginie sprung up from her chair by the fire, alarmed.
"You excite madame!"
Hugh turned to leave the room.
"We'll discuss this another time, Diane," he said.
Diane moved her head fretfully.
"No. Now—now! Don't go! Hugh!"
Her voice rose almost to a scream and simultaneously the nurse came hurrying in from the adjoining room. She threw one glance at the patient, huddled flushed and excited against the pillows, then without more ado she marched up to Hugh and, taking him by the shoulders with her small, capable hands, she pushed him out of the room.
"Do you want to kill your wife?" she demanded in a low voice of concentrated anger. "If so, you're going the right way about it."
The next moment the door closed behind her, and Hugh found himself standing alone on the landing outside it.
Although the scene with her husband did not kill Diane, it went very near it. For some time she was dangerously ill, but at last the combined efforts of doctor and nurse restored her once more to a frail hold upon life, and the resiliency of youth accomplished the rest.
Curiously enough, the remembrance of Hugh's brief visit to her bedside held for her no force of reality. When the fever which had ensued abated, she described the whole scene in detail to Virginie and the nurse as an evil dream which she had had—and pitifully they let her continue in this belief.
Even Hugh himself had been compelled, under protest, to take part in this deception. The doctor, a personal friend of his, had not minced matters.
"You've acted the part of an unmitigated coward, Vallincourt—salving your own fool conscience at your wife's expense. Even if you no longer love her—"
"But I do love her," protested Hugh. "I—I worship her!"
Jim Lancaster stared. In common with most medical men he was more or less used to the odd vagaries of human nature, but Hugh's attitude struck him as altogether incomprehensible.
"Then what in the name of thunder have you been getting at?" he demanded.
"I both love and hate her," declared Hugh wretchedly.
"That's rot," retorted the other. "It's impossible."
"It's not impossible."
Hugh rose and began pacing backwards and forwards. Lancaster's eyes rested on him thoughtfully. The man had altered during the last few weeks—altered incredibly. He was a stone lighter to start with, and his blond, clear-cut face had the worn look born of mental conflict. His eyes were red-rimmed as though from insufficient sleep.
"It's not impossible." Hugh paused in his restless pacing to and fro. "I love her because I can't help myself. I hate her because I ought never to have married her—never made a woman of her type the mother of my child."
"All mothers are sacred," suggested the doctor quietly.
Hugh seemed not to hear him.
"How long is this pretence to go on, Lancaster?" he demanded irritably.
"This pretence that nothing is changed—nothing altered—between my wife and myself?"
"For ever, I hope. So that, after all, there will have been no pretence."
But the appeal of the speech was ineffectual. Hugh looked at the other man unmoved.
"It's no use hoping that you and I can see things from the same standpoint," he added stubbornly. "I've made my decision—laid down the lines of our future life together. I'm only waiting till you, as a medical man, tell me that Diane's health is sufficiently restored for me to inform her."
"No woman is ever in such health that you can break her heart with impunity."
Hugh's light-grey eyes gleamed like steel.
"Will you answer my question?" he said curtly.
Lancaster sprang up.
"Diane is in as good health now as ever she was," he said violently. And strode out of the room.
During the period of her convalescence Diane, attended by Nurse Maynard, had occupied rooms situated in a distant wing of the house, where the invalid was not likely to be disturbed by the coming and going of other members of the household, and it was with almost the excitement of a schoolgirl coming home for the holidays that, when she was at last released from the doctor's supervision, she retook possession of her own room. She superintended joyously the restoration to their accustomed place her various little personal possessions, and finally peeped into her husband's adjoining room, thinking she heard him moving there.
On the threshold she paused irresolutely, conscious of an odd sense of confusion. The room was vacant. But, beyond that, its whole aspect was different somehow, unfamiliar. Her eyes wandered to the dressing-table. Instead of holding its usual array of silver-backed brushes and polished shaving tackle, winking in the sunshine, it was empty. She stared at it blankly. Then her glance travelled slowly round the room. It had a strangely untenanted look. There was no sign of masculine attire left carelessly about—not a chair or table was a hairbreadth out of its appointed place.
Her hand, resting lightly on the door-handle, gripped it with a sudden tensity. The next moment she had crossed the room and torn open the doors of the great armoire where Hugh kept his clothes. This, too, was empty—shelves and hanger alike. Impulsively she rang the bell and, when a maid appeared in response, demanded to know the meaning of the alteration.
The girl glanced at her with the veiled curiosity of her class.
"It was made by Sir Hugh's orders, my lady."
With an effort, Diane hid the sudden tumult of bewilderment and fear that filled her. Her dream! Had it been only a dream? Or had it been an actual happening—that terrible little scene with her husband when, standing rigid and unbending beside her bed, he had told her that the birth of their daughter was a just retribution for a union he regarded as a sin?
Memories of their brief year of marriage came surging over her in a torrent—Catherine's narrow-minded opposition and disapproval, Hugh's own moodiness and irritability and, latterly, his not infrequent censure. There had been times when Diane—rebuked incessantly—had fancied she must be the Scarlet Woman herself, or at least a very near relative. And then had come moments when Hugh, carried away by his ardour, had once more played the lover as he alone knew how, with all the warmth and abandon of those days when he had wooed her in Italy, and Diane would forget her unhappiness and fears in the sure knowledge that she was a passionately beloved woman.
But always she was subconsciously aware of a sense of strife—of struggle, as though Hugh loved her in spite of himself, in defiance of some inner mandate of conscience which accused him.
And now, fear mastered her. Her dream had been a reality. And this—this sweeping away from what had been his room of every familiar little personal possession—was the symbol of some new and terribly changed relation between them.
Forcing herself to move composedly while the maid still watched her, she walked slowly out of the room, but the instant the door had closed behind her she flew downstairs to her husband's study and, not pausing to comply with the unwritten law which forbade entrance there without express permission, broke in upon him as he sat at his desk, busily occupied with his morning mail.
Hugh turned towards her with a cold light of astonished disapproval in his eyes.
"You know I don't like to be interrupted——"
"I know, I know. But I had to come. Something's happened. There's been a mistake. . . . Hugh, they've taken everything out of your room. All your things."
She stood beside him breathlessly awaiting his reply—her passionate dark eyes fixed on his face, two patches of brilliant colour showing on the high cheek-bones that bore witness to her Russian origin.
They made a curious contrast—husband and wife. She, a slender thing of fire and flame, hands clenched, lips quivering—woman every inch of her; he, immaculate and composed, his face coldly expressionless, yet with a hint of something warmer, a suppressed glow, beneath the deliberately chill glance of those curious light-grey eyes—the man and bigoted fanatic fighting for supremacy within him.
"Hugh! Answer me! Don't sit staring at me like that!" Diane's voice held a sharpened sound.
At last he spoke, very slowly and carefully.
"There has been no mistake, Diane. Everything that has been done has been with my sanction—by my order. Our marriage has been a culpable mistake. Catherine realised it from the beginning. I only realise my full guilt now that I am punished. But whatever I can do in atonement—reparation, that I have made up my mind to do. The first—the chief thing—is that our married life is at an end."
She heard him with a curious absence of surprise. Somehow, from the instant she had seen his dismantled room she had known, known surely, that the long fight between herself and Catherine was over. And that Catherine had won.
"At an end? Hugh, what do you mean? What are you going to do? You're not, you're not going to send me away?"
"No, not that. I've no right to punish you. You've been guilty of no fault—"
"Except the fault of being myself," she flung back bitterly.
"But I ought never to have married you. I did it, knowing you were not fit—suitable"—he corrected himself hastily. "So I alone am to blame. You will retain your position here as my wife—mistress of my home." Diane, remembering Catherine's despotic rule, smiled mirthlessly. "But henceforth you will be my wife in name only. I shall have no wife."
Diane caught that note of dull endurance in his voice, and seized upon it. He still cared!
"Hugh, you've listened to Catherine till you've lost all sense of truth." She spoke gently, pleadingly. "Don't do this thing. We've been guilty of no sin that needs atonement. It isn't wrong to love."
But he was implacable.
"No," he returned. "It isn't wrong to love—but sometimes love should be denied."
Diane drew nearer to him, and laid her hand on his arm.
"Not ours, Hugh," she whispered. "Not love like ours—"
Hugh sprang to his feet, his eyes ablaze, his voice hoarse and shaking.
"Don't tempt me! Do you think I've found it easy to decide on this? When every fibre of my body is calling out for you? My God, no!"
"Then don't do it! Hugh—dearest—"
With sudden violence he caught her by the arms.
"Be silent, I tell you! Don't tempt me! I'll make my penance, accept the burden laid on me—that my first-born should be a girl!"
Diane clung to him, resisting his attempt to thrust her from him.
"Hugh! Ah, wait! Listen to me! . . . Dear, some day there may be a little son, yours and mine—"
He flung her from him violently.
"There shall never be a son of ours! Never! It is the Will of God."
With an immense effort he checked the rising frenzy within him—the ecstasy of the martyr embracing the stake to which he shall be bound. He moved across to the door and held it open for her.
"And now, will you please go? That is my last word on the matter."
Diane turned hesitatingly towards the doorway, then paused.
There was an infinite appeal in her voice. Her eyes were those of a frightened, bewildered child.
"Go, please," he repeated mechanically.
A convulsive sob tore its way through her throat. She stepped blindly forward. The next moment the door closed inexorably between husband and wife.
SAINT-MICHAEL AND THE WONDER-CHILD
Day by day her husband's complete estrangement from her was rendered additionally bitter to Diane by Catherine's complacent air of triumph. The latter knew that she had won, severed the tie which bound her brother to "the foreign dancing-woman," and she did not scruple to let Diane see that she openly rejoiced in the fact.
At first Diane imagined that Catherine might rest content with what she had accomplished, but the grim, hard-featured woman still continued to exhibit the same self-righteous disapproval towards her brother's wife as hitherto.
Diane endured it in resentful silence for a time, but one day, stung by some more than usually acid speech of Catherine's, she turned on her, demanding passionately why she seemed to hate her even more since the birth of the child.
"I nearly gave my life for her," she protested with fierce simplicity. "I could do no more! Is it because le bon dieu has sent me a little daughter instead of a little son that you hate me so much?"
And Catherine had answered her in a voice of quiet, concentrated animosity:
"If you had died then—died childless—I should have thanked God day and night."
Diane, isolated and unhappy, turned to her baby for consolation. It was all that was left to her out of the wreck of her life, and the very fact that both Hugh and Catherine seemed to regard the little daughter with abhorrence only served to strengthen the passionate worship which she herself lavished upon her.
The child—they had called her Magda—was an odd little creature, as might have been expected from the violently opposing characteristics of her parents.
She was slenderly made—built on the same lithe lines as her mother—and almost as soon as she was able to walk she manifested an amazing balance and suppleness of limb. By the time she was four years old she was trying to imitate, with uncertain little feet and dimpled, aimlessly waving arms, the movements of her mother, when to amuse the child, she would sometimes dance for her.
However big a tragedy had occurred in Magda's small world—whether it were a crack across the insipid china face of a favourite doll or the death of an adored Persian kitten—there was still balm in Gilead if "petite maman" would but dance for her. The tears shining in big drops on her cheeks, her small chest still heaving with the sobs that were a passionate protest against unkind fate, Magda would sit on the floor entranced, watching with adoring eyes every swift, graceful motion of the dancer, and murmuring in the quaint shibboleth of French and English she had imbibed from old Virginie.
On one of these occasions Hugh came upon the two unexpectedly and brought the performance to a summary conclusion.
"That will do, Diane," he said icily. "I should have thought you would have had more self-respect than to dance—in that fashion—in front of a child."
"It is, then, a sin to dance—as it is to be married?" demanded Diane bitterly, abruptly checked in an exquisite spring-flower dance of her own invention.
"I forbid it; that is sufficient," replied Hugh sternly.
His assumption of arrogant superiority was unbearable. Diane's self-control wavered under it and broke. She turned and upbraided him despairingly, alternately pleading and reproaching, battering all her slender forces uselessly against his inflexible determination.
"This is a waste of time, Diane—mine, anyway," he told her. And left her shaken with grief and anger.
Driven by a sense of utter revolt, she stormed her way to Catherine, who was composedly sorting sheets in the linen room.
"I will not bear it!" she burst out at her furiously. "What have I done that I should be treated as an outcast—a pariah?"
Catherine regarded the tense, quivering little figure with chill dislike.
"You married my brother," she replied imperturbably.
"And you have separated us! But for you, we should be happy together—he and baby and I! But you have spoilt it all. I suppose"—a hint of the Latin Quarter element in her asserting itself—"I suppose you think no one good enough to marry into your precious family!"
Catherine paused on her way to the cupboard, a pile of fine linen pillowslips in her hands.
"Yes," she said quietly. "It is I who have separated you—spoilt your happiness, if you like. And I am glad of it. I can't expect anyone like you to understand"—there was the familiar flavour of disparagement in her tones—"but I am thankful that my brother has seen the wickedness of his marriage with you, that he has repented of it, and that he is making the only atonement possible!"
She turned and composedly laid the pile of pillowslips in their appointed place on the shelf. A faint fragrance of dried lavender drifted out from the dark depths of the cupboard. Diane always afterwards associated the smell of lavender with her memories of Catherine Vallincourt, and the sweet, clean scent of it was spoiled for her henceforward.
"I hate you!" she exclaimed in a low voice of helpless rage. "I hate you—and I wish to God Hugh had never had a sister!"
"Well"—composedly—"he will not have one much longer."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that as far as our life together is concerned, it is very nearly over."
"Do you mean"—Diane bent towards her breathlessly—"do you mean that you are going away—going away from Coverdale?"
"Yes. I am entering a sisterhood—that of the Sisters of Penitence, a community Hugh is endowing with money that is urgently needed."
"As part of the penance he has set himself to perform." Catherine's steely glance met and held the younger woman's. "Thanks to you, the remainder of his life will be passed in expiation."
Diane shook her head carelessly. Such side-issues were of relatively small importance compared with the one outstanding, amazing fact: Catherine was going away! Going away from Coverdale—for ever!
"Yes"—Catherine read her thoughts shrewdly—"yes, you will be rid of me. I shall not be here much longer."
Diane struck her hands together. For once, not even the fear of Catherine's gibing tongue could hold her silent.
"I'm glad—glad—glad you're going away!" she exclaimed passionately. "When you are gone I will win back my husband."
"Do you think so?" was all she said.
But to Diane's keyed-up consciousness it was as though the four short words contained a threat—the germ of future disaster.
In due time Catherine quitted Coverdale for the austere seclusion of the sisterhood, and a very few weeks sufficed to convince Diane that her forebodings had been only too well founded.
Catherine had long been anxious to enter a community, restrained from doing so solely by Hugh's need of her as mistress of his house, and now that her wish was an accomplished fact, it seemed as though he were spurred on to increasing effort by the example of his sister's renunciation of the world. He withdrew himself even more completely from his wife, sometimes avoiding her company for days at a time, and adopted a stringently ascetic mode of life, denying himself all pleasure, fasting frequently, and praying and meditating for hours at a stretch in the private chapel which was attached to Coverdale. As far as it was possible, without actually entering a community, his existence resembled that of a monk, and Diane came to believe that he had voluntarily vowed himself to a certain form of penance and expiation for the marriage which the bigotry of his nature had led him to regard as a sin.
His life only impinged upon his wife's in so far as the upbringing of their child was concerned. He was unnecessarily severe with her, and, since Diane opposed his strict ruling at every opportunity, Magda's early life was passed in an atmosphere of fierce contradictions.
The child inherited her mother's beauty to the full, and, as she developed, exhibited an extraordinary faculty for getting her own way. Servants, playmates, and governesses all succumbed to the nameless charm she possessed, while her mother and old Virginie frankly worshipped her.
The love of dancing was instinctive with her, and this, unknown to Hugh, her mother cultivated assiduously, fostering in her everything that was imaginative and delicately fanciful. Magda believed firmly in the existence of fairies and regarded flowers as each possessed of a separate entity with personal characteristics of its own. The originality of the dances she invented for her own amusement was the outcome.
But, side by side with this love of all that was beautiful, she absorbed from her mother a certain sophisticated understanding of life which was somewhat startling in one of her tender years, and this, too, betrayed itself in her dancing. For it is an immutable law that everything—good, bad, and indifferent—which lies in the soul of an artist ultimately reveals itself in his work.
And Magda, inheriting the underlying ardour of her father's temperament and the gutter-child's sharp sense of values which was her mother's Latin Quarter garnering, at the age of eight danced, with all the beguilement and seductiveness of a trained and experienced dancer.
Even Hugh himself was not proof against the elusive lure of it. He chanced upon her one day, dancing in her nursery, and was so carried away by the charm of the performance that for the moment he forgot that she was transgressing one of his most rigid rules.
In the child's gracious, alluring gestures he was reminded of the first time that he had seen her mother dance, and of how it had thrilled him. Beneath the veneer with which his self-enforced austerity had overlaid his emotions, he felt his pulses leap, and was bitterly chagrined at being thus attracted.
He found himself brought up forcibly once more against the inevitable consequences of his marriage with Diane, and reasoned that through his weakness in making such a woman his wife, he had let loose on the world a feminine thing dowered with the seductiveness of a Delilah and backed—here came in the exaggerated family pride ingrained in him—by all the added weight and influence of her social position as a Vallincourt.
"Never let me see you dance again, Magda," he told her. "It is forbidden. If you disobey you will be severely punished."
Magda regarded him curiously out of a pair of long dark eyes the colour of black smoke. With that precociously sophisticated instinct of hers she realised that the man had been emotionally stirred, and divined in her funny child's mind that it was her dancing which had so stirred him. It gave her a curious sense of power.
"Sieur Hugh is afraid because he likes me to dance," she told her mother, with an impish little grin of enjoyment.
(On one occasion Hugh had narrated for her benefit the history of an ancestor, one Sieur Hugues de Vallincourt, whose effigy in stone adorned the church, and she had ever afterwards persisted in referring to her father as "Sieur Hugh"—considerably to his annoyance, since he regarded it as both disrespectful and unseemly.)
From this time onwards Magda seemed to take a diabolical delight in shocking her father—experimenting on him, as it were. In some mysterious way she had become conscious of her power to allure. Young as she was, the instinct of conquest was awakened within her, and she proceeded to "experiment" on certain of her father's friends—to their huge delight and Hugh's intense disgust. Once, in an outburst of fury, he epitomised her ruthlessly.
"The child has the soul of a courtesan!"
If this were so, Hugh had no knowledge of how to cope with it. His fulminations on the subject of dancing affected her not at all, and a few days after he had rebuked her with all the energy at his command he discovered her dancing on a table—this time for the delectation of an enraptured butler and staff in the servants' hall.
Without more ado Hugh lifted her down and carried her to his study, where he administered a sound smacking. The result astonished him considerably.
"Do you think you can stop me from dancing by beating me?"
Magda arraigned him with passionate scorn.
"I do," he returned grimly. "If you hurt people enough you can stop them from committing sin. That is the meaning of remedial punishment."
"I don't believe it!" she stormed at him. "You might hurt me till I died of hurting, but you couldn't make me good—not if I hated your hurting me all the time! Because it isn't good to hate," she added out of the depths of some instinctive wisdom.
"Then you'd better learn to like being punished—if that will make you good," retorted Hugh.
Magda sped out into the woods. Hugh's hand had been none too light, and she was feeling physically and spiritually sore. Her small soul was aflame with fierce revolt.
Just to assure herself of the liberty of the individual and of the fact that "hurting couldn't make her good," she executed a solitary little dance on the green, mossy sward beneath the trees. It was rather a painful process, since certain portions of her anatomy still tingled from the retributive strokes of justice, but she set her teeth and accomplished the dance with a consciousness of unholy glee that added appreciably to the quality of the performance.
"Are you the Fairy Queen?"
The voice came suddenly out of the dim, enfolding silence of the woods, and Magda paused in the midst of a final pirouette. A man was standing leaning against the trunk of a tree, watching her with whimsical grey eyes. Behind him, set up in the middle of a clearing amongst the trees, an easel and stool evidenced his recent occupation.
Magda returned the scrutiny of the grey eyes. She was no whit embarrassed and slowly lowered her foot—she had been toe-dancing—to its normal position while she surveyed the newcomer with interest.
He was a tall, lean specimen of mankind, and the sunlight, quivering between the interlacing boughs above his head, flickered on to kinky fair hair that looked almost absurdly golden contrasted with the brown tan of the face beneath it. It was a nice face, Magda decided, with a dogged, squarish jaw that appealed to a certain tenacity of spirit which was one of her own unchildish characteristics, and the keen dark-grey eyes she encountered were so unlike the cold light-grey of her father's that it seemed ridiculous the English language could only supply the one word "grey" to describe things that were so totally dissimilar.
"They're like eyes with little fires behind them," Magda told herself. Then smiled at their owner radiantly.
"Are you the Fairy Queen?" he repeated gravely.
She regarded him with increasing approval.
"Yes," she assented graciously. "These are my woods."
"Then I'm afraid I've been trespassing in your majesty's domain," admitted the grey-eyed man. "But your woods are so beautiful I simply had to try and make a sketch of them."
Magda came back to earth with promptitude.
"Oh, are you an artist?" she demanded eagerly.
He nodded, smiling.
"I'm trying to be."
"Let me look." She flashed past him and planted herself in front of the easel.
"Mais, c'est bon!" she commented coolly. "Me, I know. We have good pictures at home. This is a good picture."
The man with the grey eyes looked suitably impressed.
"I'm glad you find it so," he replied meekly. "I think it wants just one thing more. If"—he spoke abstractly—"if the Fairy Queen were resting just there"—his finger indicated the exact point on the canvas—"tired, you know, because she had been dancing to one of the Mortals—lucky beggar, wasn't he?—why, I think the picture would be complete."
Magda shot him a swift glance of comprehension. Then, without a word, she moved towards the bole of a tree and flung herself down with all the supple grace of a young faun. The artist snatched up his palette; the pose she had assumed without a hint from him was inimitable—the slender limbs relaxed and drooping exactly as though from sheer fatigue. He painted furiously, blocking in the limp little figure with swift, sure strokes of his brush.
When at last he desisted he flung a question at her.
"Who taught you to pose—and to dance like that, you wonder-child?"
Magda surveyed him with that mixture of saint and devil in her long, suddenly narrow eyes which, when she grew to womanhood, was the measure of her charm and the curse of her tempestuous life.
"Le bon dieu," she responded demurely.
The man smiled and shook his head. It was a crooked little smile, oddly humorous and attractive.
"No," he said with conviction. "No. I don't think so."
The daylight was beginning to fade, and he started to pack up his belongings.
"What's your name?" asked Magda suddenly.
She looked at him with sudden awe.
"Not—not Saint Michel?" she asked breathlessly.
Virginie had told her all about "Saint Michel." He was a very great angel indeed. It would be tremendously exciting to find she had been talking to him all this time without knowing it! And the grey-eyed man had fair hair; it shone in the glinting sunset-light almost like a halo!
He quenched her hopes with that brief, one-sided smile of his.
"No," he said. "I'm not Saint Michael. I'm only a poor devil of a painter who's got his way to make in the world. Perhaps, you've helped me, Fairy Queen."
And seeing that "The Repose of Titania" was the first of his paintings to bring Michael Quarrington that meed of praise and recognition which was later his in such full measure, perhaps she had.
"I think I'm glad you're not a saint, after all," remarked Magda thoughtfully. "Saint's are dreadfully dull and superior."
He smiled down at her.
"Are they? How do you know?"
"Because Sieur Hugh is preparing to be one. At least Virginie says so—and she sniffs when she says it. So you see, I know all about it."
"I see," he replied seriously. "And who are Sieur Hugh and Virginie?"
"Sieur Hugh is my father. And Virginie is next best to petite maman. Me, I love Virginie."
Magda made no answer, but she stood looking at him with an odd, unchildlike deviltry in her sombre eyes.
"Fairy Queen, I should like to kiss you," said the man suddenly. Then he jerked his head back. "No, I wouldn't!" he added quickly to himself. "By Jove, it's uncanny!"
Magda remained motionless, still staring at him with those long dark eyes of hers. He noticed that just at the outer corners they slanted upwards a little, giving her small, thin face a curiously Eastern look.
"Please kiss me, Saint Michael," she said.
For a moment he hesitated, a half-rueful, half-whimsical smile on his lips, rather as though he were laughing at himself. Then, with a shrug of his shoulders, he stooped quickly and kissed her.
"Witch-child!" he muttered as he strode away through the woods.
THE SEED OF EVIL
Diane sat in the twilight, brooding. Winter had come round again, gripping the world with icy fingers, and she shivered a little as she crouched in front of the fire.
She felt cold—cold in body and soul. The passage of time had brought no cheery warmth of love or loving-kindness to her starved heart, and the estrangement between herself and Hugh was as definite and absolute as it had been the day Catherine quitted Coverdale for the Sisterhood of Penitence.
But the years which had elapsed since then had taken their inevitable toll. Hugh had continued along the lines he had laid down for himself, rigidly ascetic and austere, and his mode of life now revealed itself unmistakably in his thin, emaciated face and eyes ablaze with fanatical fervour.
Diane, thrust into a compulsory isolation utterly foreign to her temperament, debarred the fulfilment of her womanhood which her spontaneous, impetuous nature craved, had drooped and pined, gradually losing both her buoyant spirit and her health in the loveless atmosphere to which her husband had condemned her.
She had so counted on the prospect that a better understanding between herself and Hugh would ensue after Catherine's departure that the downfall of her hopes had come upon her as a bitter disappointment. Once she had stifled her pride and begged him to live no longer as a stranger to her. But he had repulsed her harshly, refusing her pleading with an inexorable decision there was no combating.
Afterwards she had given herself up to despair, and gradually—almost imperceptibly at first—her health had declined until finally, at the urgent representations of Virginie, Hugh had called in Dr. Lancaster.
"There is no specific disease," he had said. "But none the less"—looking very directly at Hugh—"your wife is dying, Vallincourt."
Diane had been told the first part of the doctor's pronouncement, and recommended by her husband to "rouse herself" out of her apathetic state.
"'No specific disease!'" she repeated bitterly, as she sat brooding in the firelight. "No—only this death in life which I have had to endure. Well, it will be over soon—and the sooner the better."
The door burst open suddenly and Magda came in to the room, checking abruptly, with a child's stumbling consciousness of pain, as she caught sight of her mother curled up in front of the fire, staring mutely into its glowing heart.
"Maman?" she begin timidly. "Petite maman?"
Diane turned round.
"Cherie, is it thou?"
She kneeled up on the hearthrug and, taking the child in her arms, searched her face with dry, bright eyes.
"Baby," she said. "Listen! And when thou art older, remember always what I have said."
Magda stared at her, listening intently.
"Never, never give your heart to any man," continued Diane. "If you do, he will only break it for you—break it into little pieces like the glass scent-bottle which you dropped yesterday. Take everything. But do not give—anything—in return. Will you remember?"
And Magda answered her gravely.
"Oui, maman, I will remember."
What happened after that remained always a confused blur in Magda's memory—a series of pictures standing out against a dark background of haste and confusion, and whispered fears.
Suddenly her mother gave a sharp little cry and her hands went up to her breast, while for a moment her eyes, dilated and frightened-looking, stared agonisingly ahead. Then she toppled over sideways and lay in a little heap on the great bearskin rung in front of the fire.
After that Virginie came running, followed by a drove of scared-looking servants and, last of all, by Hugh himself, his face very white and working strangely.
The car was sent off in frantic haste in search of Dr. Lancaster, and later in the day two white-capped nurses appeared on the scene. Then followed hours of hushed uncertainty, when people went to and fro with hurried, muffled footsteps and spoke together in whispers, while Virginie's face grew yellow and drawn-looking, and the tears trickled down her wrinkled-apple cheeks whenever one spoke to her.
Last of all someone told Magda that "petite maman" had gone away—and on further inquiry Virginie vouchsafed that she had gone to somewhere called Paradise to be with the blessed saints.
"When will she come back again?" demanded Magda practically.
Upon which Virginie had made an unpleasant choking noise in her throat and declared:
Magda was frankly incredulous. Petite maman would never go away like that and leave her behind! Of that she felt convinced, and said so. Gulping back her sobs, Virginie explained that in this case madame had been given no choice, but added that if Magda comported herself like a good little girl, she would one day go to be with her in Paradise. Magda found it all very puzzling.
But when, later, she was taken into her mother's room and saw the slender, sheeted figure lying straight and still on the great bed, hands meekly crossed upon the young, motionless breast, while tall white candles burned at head and foot, the knowledge that petite maman had really gone from her seemed all at once to penetrate her childish mind.
That aloofly silent figure could not be her gay, pretty petite maman—the one who had played and laughed with her and danced so exquisitely that sometimes Magda's small soul had ached with the sheer beauty and loveliness of it. . . .
She met Dr. Lancaster as she came out from the candle-lit room and clutched him convulsively by the hand.
"Is that—being dead?" she whispered, pointing to the room she had just quitted.
Very gently he tried to explain things to her. Afterwards Magda overheard the family lawyer asking him in appropriately shocked tones of what complaint Lady Vallincourt had died, and there had been a curious grim twist to Lancaster's mouth as he made answer.
"Heart," he said tersely.
"Ah! Very sad. Very sad indeed," rejoined the lawyer feelingly. "These heart complaints are very obscure sometimes, I believe?"
"Sometimes," said Lancaster. "Not always."
The next happening that impressed itself on Magda's cognisance as an event was the coming of Lady Arabella Winter. She arrived on a day of heavy snow, and Magda's first impression of her, as she came into the hall muffled up to the tip of her patrician nose in a magnificent sable wrap, was of a small, alert-eyed bird huddled into its nest.
But when the newcomer had laid aside her furs Magda's impression qualified itself. Lady Arabella was not in the least of the "small bird" type, but rather suggested a hawk endowed with a grim sense of humour—quick and decisive in movement, with eyes that held an incalculable wisdom and laughed a thought cynically because they saw so clearly.
Her hair was perfectly white, as white as the snow outside, but her complexion was soft and fine-grained as that of a girl of sixteen—pink and white like summer roses. She had the manner of an empress with extremely modern ideas.
Magda was instructed that this great little personage was her godmother and that she would in future live with her instead of at Coverdale. She accepted the information without surprise though with considerable interest.
"Think you'll like it?" Lady Arabella shot at her keenly.
"Yes," Magda replied unhesitatingly. "But why am I going to live with you? Sieur Hugh isn't dead, too, is he?"—with impersonal interest.
"And who in the name of fortune is Sieur Hugh?"
Lady Arabella looked around helplessly, and Virginia, who was hovering in the background, hastened to explain the relationship.
"Then, no," replied Lady Arabella. "Sieur Hugh is not dead—though to be sure he's the next thing to it!"
Magda eyed her solemnly.
"Is he very ill?" she asked.
"No, merely cranky like all the Vallincourts. He's in a community, joined a brotherhood, you know, and proposes to spend the rest of his days repenting his sins and making his peace with heaven. I've no patience with the fool!" continued the old lady irascibly. "He marries to please himself and then hasn't the pluck of a rabbit to see the thing through decently. So you're to be my responsibility in future—and a pretty big one, too, to judge by the look of you."
Magda hardly comprehended the full meaning of this speech. Still she gathered that her father had left her—though not quite in the same way as petite maman had done—and that henceforth this autocratic old lady with the hawk's eyes and quick, darting movements was to be the arbiter of her fate. She also divined, beneath Lady Arabella's prickly exterior, a humanness and ability to understand which had been totally lacking in Sieur Hugh. She proceeded to put it to the test.
"Will you let me dance?" she asked.
"Tchah!" snorted the old woman. "So the Wielitzska blood is coming out after all!" She turned to Virginia. "Can she dance?" she demanded abruptly.
"Mais oui, madame!" cried Virginie, clasping her hands ecstatically. "Like a veritable angel!"
"I shouldn't have thought it," commented her ladyship drily.
Her shrewd eyes swept the child's tense little face with its long, Eastern eyes and the mouth that showed so vividly scarlet against its unchildish pallor.
"Less like an angel than anything, I should imagine," muttered the old woman to herself with a wicked little grin. Then aloud: "Show me what you can do, then, child."
"Very well." Magda paused, reflecting. Then she ran forward and laid her hand lightly on Lady Arabella's knee. "Look! This is the story of a Fairy who came to earth and lost her way in the woods. She met one of the Mortals, and he loved her so much that he wouldn't show her the way back to Fairyland. So"—abruptly—"she died."
Lady Arabella watched the child dance in astonished silence. Technique, of course, was lacking, but the interpretation, the telling of the story, was amazing. It was all there—the Fairy's first wonder and delight in finding herself in the woods, then her realisation that she was lost and her frantic efforts to find the way back to Fairyland. Followed her meeting with the Mortal and supplication to him to guide her, and finally the Fairy's despair and death. Magda's slight little figure sank to the ground, drooping slowly like a storm-bent snowdrop, and lay still.
Lady Arabella sat up with a jerk.
"Good gracious! The child's a born dancer! Lydia Tchinova must see her. She'll have to train. Poor Hugh!" She chuckled enjoyably. "This will be the last straw! He'll be compelled to invent a new penance."
"You're very trying, Magda. Everyone is talking about you, and I'm tired of trying to explain you to people."
Lady Arabella paused in her knitting and spoke petulantly, but a secret gleam of admiration in her sharp old eyes as they rested upon her god-daughter belied the irritation of her tones.
Magda leaned back negligently against the big black velvet cushions in her chair and lit a cigarette.
"I want everyone to talk about me," she returned composedly. Her voice was oddly attractive—low-pitched and with a faint blur of huskiness about it that caught the ear with a distinctive charm. "It increases the box-office receipts. And there's no reason in the world for you to 'explain' me to people."
Her godmother regarded her with increasing irritation, yet at the same time acutely conscious of the arresting quality of the young, vividly alive face that gleamed at her from its black-velvet background.
Ten years had only served to emphasise the unusual characteristics of the child Magda. Her skin was wonderful, of a smooth, creamy-white texture which gave to the sharply angled face something of the pale, exotic perfection of a stephanotis bloom. Her eyes were long, the colour of black pansies—black with a suggestion of purple in their depths. They slanted upwards a little at the outer corners, and this together with the high cheek-bones, alone would have betrayed her Russian ancestry. When Lady Arabella wanted to be particularly obnoxious she told her that she had Mongolian eyes, and Magda would shrug her shoulders and, thrusting out a foot which was so perfect in shape that a painting of it by a certain famous artist had been the most talked-of picture of the year, would reply placidly: "Well, thank heaven, that's not English, anyway!"
"It certainly required some explanation when you chose to leave me and go off and live by yourself," pursued Lady Arabella, resuming her knitting. "A girl of twenty! Of course people have talked. Especially as half the men in town imagine themselves in love with you."
"Well, I'm perfectly respectable now. I've engaged a nice, tame pussy-cat person to take charge of my morals and chaperon me generally. Not—like you, Marraine—an Early Victorian autocrat with a twentieth-century tongue."
"If you mean Mrs. Grey, she doesn't give me the least impression of being a 'nice, tame pussy-cat,'" retorted Lady Arabella. "You'll find that out, my dear."
Magda regarded her thoughtfully.
"Do you think so?"
"Oh, Gillian is all right," affirmed Magda, dismissing the matter airily. "She's a gorgeous accompanist, anyway—almost as good as Davilof himself. Which reminds me—I must go home and rehearse my solo dance in the Swan-Maiden. I told Davilof I'd be ready for him at four o'clock; and it's half-past three now. I shall never get back to Hampstead through this ghastly fog in half an hour." She glanced towards the window through which was visible a discouraging fog of the "pea-soup" variety.
Lady Arabella sniffed.
"You'd better be careful for once in your life, Magda. Davilof is in love with you."
"Pouf! What if he is?"
Magda rose, and picking up her big black hat set it on her head at precisely the right angle, and proceeded to spear it through with a wonderful black-and-gold hatpin of Chinese workmanship.
Lady Arabella shot a swift glance at her.
"He's just one of a crowd?" she suggested tartly.
Magda assented indifferently.
"You're wrong—quite wrong," returned her godmother crisply. "Antoine Davilof is not one of a crowd—never will be! He's half a Pole, remember."
"And I'm half a Russian. It must be a case of deep calling to deep," she suggested mockingly.
Lady Arabella's shining needles clicked as they came to an abrupt stop.
"Does that mean you're in love with him?" she asked.
"Good gracious, no! I'm never in love. You know that."
"That doesn't prevent my hoping you may develop—some day—into a normal God-fearing woman," retorted the other.
"And learn to thank heaven, fasting, for a good man's love?" Magda laughed lightly. "I shan't. At least, I hope not. Judging from my friends and acquaintances, the condition of being in love is a most unpleasant one—reduces a woman to a humiliating sense of her own unworthiness and keeps her in a see-saw state of emotional uncertainty. No, thank you! No man is worth it!"
Lady Arabella looked away. Her hard, bright old eyes held a sudden wistfulness foreign to them.
"My dear—one man is. One man in every woman's life is worth it. Only we don't always find it out in time."
"Why, Marraine—you don't mean—you weren't ever——"
Lady Arabella rose suddenly and came across to where Magda stood by the fire, one narrow foot extended to the cheerful warmth.
"Never mind what I mean," she said, and her voice sounded a little uncertain. "Only, if it comes your way, don't miss the best thing this queer old world of ours has to offer. If it brings you nothing else, love at least leaves you memories. Even that's something."
Magda glanced at her curiously. Somehow she had never imagined that behind the worldly-wise old woman's sharp speeches and grim, ironic humour there lay the half-buried memory of some far-distant romance. Yet now in the uneven tones of her voice she recognised the throb of an old wound.
"And meanwhile"—Lady Arabella suddenly resumed in her usual curt manner—"meanwhile you might play fair with one or two of those boys you have trailing around—Kit Raynham for instance."
"I don't understand," began Magda.
"You understand perfectly. A man of the world's fair game. He can look after himself—and probably sizes you up for what you are—a phenomenally successful dancer, who regards her little court of admirers as one of the commonplaces of existence—like her morning cup of tea. But these boys—they look upon you as a woman, even a possible wife. And then they proceed to fall in love with you!"
Magda's foot tapped impatiently on the floor.
"What's this all leading up to?"
Lady Arabella met her glance squarely.
"I want you to leave Kit Raynham alone. His mother has been to me—Magda, I'm sick of having their mothers come to me!—and begged me to interfere. She says you're ruining the boy's prospects. He's a brilliant lad, and they expect him to do something rather special. And now he's slacking completely. He's always on your doorstep. If you care about him—do you, Magda?—tell him so. But, if you don't, for goodness' sake send him about his business."
She waited quietly for an answer. Magda slipped into a big fur-coat and caught up her gloves. Then she turned to her godmother abruptly.
"Lady Raynham is absurd. I can't prevent Kit's making a fool of himself if he wants to. And—and"—rather helplessly—"I can't help it if I don't fall in love to order." She kissed her godmother lightly. "So that's that."
A minute later Lady Arabella's butler had swung open the front door, and Magda crossed the pavement and entered her waiting car.
Outside, the fog hung like a thick pall over London—thick enough to curtain the windows of the car with a blank, grey veil and to make progress through the streets a difficult and somewhat dangerous process. Magda snuggled into her furs and leant back against the padded cushions. All sight of the outside world was cut off from her, except for the blurred gleam of an occasional street-lamp or the menacing shape of a motor-bus looming suddenly alongside, and she yielded herself to the train of thought provoked by her talk with Lady Arabella.
In a detached sort of way she felt sorry about Kit Raynham—principally because Lady Arabella, of whom she was exceedingly fond, seemed vexed about the matter. It had not taken her long to discover, when as a child she had come to live with her godmother, the warm heart that concealed itself beneath the old lady's somewhat shrewish exterior. And to Lady Arabella the advent of her god-child had been a matter for pure rejoicing.
Having no children of her own, she lavished a pent-up wealth of affection upon Magda of which few would have thought her capable, and though she was by no means niggardly in her blame of Hugh Vallincourt for his method of shelving his responsibilities, she was grateful that his withdrawal into the monastic life had been the means of throwing Magda into her care. Five years later, when death claimed him, she found he had appointed her the child's sole guardian.
True to her intention, she had asked the opinion of Lydia Tchinova, the famous dancer, and under Madame Tchinova's guidance Magda had received such training that when she came to make her debut she leaped into fame at once. Hers was one of those rare cases where the initial drudgery and patient waiting that attends so many careers was practically eliminated, and at the age of twenty she was probably the most talked-of woman in London.
She had discarded the family surname for professional purposes, and appeared in public under the name of Wielitzska—"to save the reigning Vallincourts from a soul convulsion," as she observed with a twinkle. During the last year, influenced by the growing demands of her vocation, she had quitted her godmother's hospitable roof and established herself in a house of her own.
Nor had Lady Arabella sought to dissuade her. Although she and Magda were the best of friends, she had latterly found the onus of chaperoning her god-child an increasingly heavy burden. As she herself remarked: "You might as well attempt to chaperon a comet!"
It was almost inevitable that Magda, starred and feted wherever she went, should develop into a rather erratic and self-willed young person, but on the whole she had remained singularly unspoilt. Side by side with her gift for dancing she had also inherited something of her mother's sweetness and wholesomeness of nature. There was nothing petty or mean about her, and many a struggling member of her own profession had had good cause to thank "the Wielitzska" for a helping hand.
Women found in her a good pal; men, an elusive, provocative personality that bewitched and angered them in the same breath, coolly accepting all they had to offer of love and headlong worship—and giving nothing in return.
It was not in the least that Magda deliberately set herself to wile a man's heart out of his body. She seemed unable to help it! Apart from everything else, her dancing had taught her the whole magic of the art of charming by every look and gesture, and the passage of time had only added to the extraordinary physical allure which had been hers even as a child.
Yet for all the apparent warmth and ardour of her temperament, to which the men she knew succumbed in spite of themselves, she herself seemed untouched by any deeper emotion than that of a faintly amused desire to attract. The lessons of her early days, the tragedy of her mother's married life, had permeated her whole being, and her ability to remain emotionally unstirred was due to an instinctive reserve and self-withdrawal—an inherent distrust of the passion of love.
"Take everything. But do not give—anything—in return." Subconsciously Diane's words, wrested from her at a moment of poignant mental anguish, formed the credo of her daughter's life.
No man, so far, had ever actually counted for anything in Magda's scheme of existence, and as she drove slowly home from Lady Arabella's house in Park Lane she sincerely hoped none ever would. Certainly—she smiled a little at the bare idea—Kit Raynham was not destined to be the man! He was clever, and enthusiastic, and adoring, and she liked him quite a lot, but his hot-headed passion failed to waken in her breast the least spark of responsive emotion.
Her thoughts drifted idly backward, recalling this or that man who had wanted her. It was odd, but of all the men she had met the memory of one alone was still provocative of a genuine thrill of interest—and that was the unknown artist whom she had encountered in the woods at Coverdale.
Even now, after the lapse of ten years, she could remember the young, lean, square-jawed face with the grey eyes, "like eyes with little fires behind them," and hear again the sudden jerky note in the man's voice as he muttered, "Witch-child!"
That brief adventure with "Saint Michel"—she remembered calling him "Saint Michel"—stood out as one of the clearest memories of her childhood. That, and the memory of her mother, kneeling on the big bearskin rug and saying in a hard, dry voice: "Never give your heart to any man. Take everything. But do not give—anything—in return."
OUT OF THE FOG
A sudden warning shout, the transient glare of fog-blurred headlights, then a crash and a staggering blow on the car's near side which sent it reeling like a drunken thing, bonnet foremost, straight into a motor-omnibus.
Magda felt herself pitched violently forward off the seat, striking her head as she fell, and while the car yet rocked with the force of its collision with the motor-bus another vehicle drove blindly into it from the rear. It lurched sickeningly and jammed at a precarious angle, canted up on two wheels.
Shouts and cries, the frenzied hooting of horns, the grinding of brakes and clash of splintered glass combined into a pandemonium of terrifying hubbub.
Magda, half-dazed with shock, crouched on the floor of the car where she had been flung. She could see the lights appearing and disappearing in the fog like baleful eyes opening and shutting spasmodically. A tumult of hoarse cries, cursing and bellowing instructions, crossed by the thin scream of women's cries, battered against her ears.
Then out of the medley of raucous noise came a cool, assured voice:
"Don't be frightened. I'll get you out."
Magda was conscious of a sudden reaction from the numbed sense of bewildered terror which had overwhelmed her. The sound of that unknown voice—quiet, commanding, and infinitely reassuring—was like a hand laid on her heart and stilling its terrified throbbing.
She heard someone tugging at the handle of the door. There came a moment's pause while the strained woodwork resisted the pull, then with a scrape of jarring fittings the door jerked open and a man's figure loomed in the aperture.
"Where are you?" he asked, peering through the dense gloom. "Ah!" She felt his outstretched hands close on her shoulders as she knelt huddled on the floor. "Can you get up? Or are you hurt?"
Magda tested her limbs cautiously, to discover that no bones were broken, though her head ached horribly, so that she felt sick and giddy with the pain.
"No, I'm not hurt," she answered.
"Then come along. The car's heeled up a bit, but I'll lift you out if you can get to the door."
She stumbled forward obediently, groping her way towards the vague panel of lighter grey revealed by the open door.
Once more, out of the swathing fog, hands touched her.
"There you are! That's right. Now lean forward."
She found herself clasped by arms like steel—so strong, so sure, that she felt as safe and secure as when Vladimir Ravinski, the amazingly clever young Russian who partnered her in several of her dances, sometimes lifted her, lightly and easily as a feather, and bore her triumphantly off the stage aloft on his shoulder.
"You're very strong," she murmured, as the unknown owner of the arms swung her down from the tilted car.
"You're not very heavy," came the answer. There was a kind of laughter in the voice.
As the man spoke he set her down on her feet, and then, just as Magda was opening her lips to thank him, the fog seemed to grow suddenly denser, swirling round her in great murky waves and surging in her ears with a noise like the boom of the ocean. Higher and higher rose the waves, a resistless sea of blackness, and at last they swept right over her head and she sank into the utter darkness of oblivion.
Someone was holding a glass to her lips and the pungent smell of sal volatile pricked her nostrils. Magda shrank back, her eyes still shut, and pressed her head further into the cushions against which it rested. She detested the smell of sal volatile.
"Drink it! Do you hear?"
The voice seemed to drive at her with its ring of command. She opened her eyes and looked straight up into other eyes—dark-grey ones, these—that were bent on her intently. To her confused consciousness they appeared to blaze down at her.
"No," she muttered, feebly trying to push the glass away.
The effort of moving her arm seemed stupendous. Her head swam with it. The sea of fog came rolling back again, and this time she sank under it at once.
Then—after an immensity of time, she was sure—she felt herself struggling up to the surface once more. She was lying rocking gently on the top of the waves now; the sensation was very peaceful and pleasant. A little breeze played across her face. She drew in deep breaths of the cool air, but she did not open her eyes. Presently a murmur of voices penetrated her consciousness.
"She's coming round again." A man was speaking. "Go on fanning her."
"Poor young thing! She's had a shaking up and no mistake!" This in a woman's voice, very kindly and commiserating. A hand lightly smoothed the fur of her coat-sleeve. "Looks as if she was a rich young lady. Her people must be anxious about her."
Someone laughed a little, softly.
"Oh, yes, she's a rich enough young lady, Mrs. Braithwaite. Don't you know who it is we've rescued?"
"I, sir? No. How should I?"
"Then I'll tell you. This is Mademoiselle Wielitzska, the famous dancer."
"Never, sir! Well, I do declare——"
"Now, drink this at once, please." The man's voice cut sharply across the impending flow of garrulous interest, and Magda, who had not gathered the actual sense of the murmured conversation, felt an arm pass behind her head, raising it a little, while once more that hateful glass of sal volatile was held to her lips.
Her eyes unclosed fretfully.
"Take it away," she was beginning.
"Drink it! Do you hear? Do as you're told!"
The sharp, authoritative tones startled her into sudden compliance. She opened her mouth and swallowed the contents of the glass with a gulp. Then she looked resentfully at the man whose curt command she had obeyed in such unexpected fashion. Magda Wielitzska was more used to giving orders than to taking them.
"There, that's better," he observed, regarding the empty glass with satisfaction. "No, lie still"—as she attempted to rise. "You'll feel better in a few minutes."
"I'm better now," declared Magda sulkily.
Her head was growing clearer every minute. She was even able to feel an intense irritation against this man who had just compelled her to drink the sal volatile.
He looked at her unperturbedly.
"Are you? That's good. Still, you'll stay where you are till I tell you that you may get up." He turned to a comfortable-looking woman who was standing at the foot of the couch on which Magda lay—a housekeeper of the nice old-fashioned black-satin kind. "Now, Mrs. Braithwaite, I think this lady will be glad of a cup of tea by the time you can have one ready."
"Very good, sir."
With a last, admiring glance at the slender figure on the couch the good woman bustled away, leaving Magda alone with her unknown host and burning with indignation at the cool way in which he had ordered her to remain where she was.
He had his back to her for the moment, having turned to poke up the fire, and Magda raised herself on her elbow, preparatory to getting off the couch. He swung round instantly.
"I told you to stay where you were," he said peremptorily.
"I don't always do as I'm told," she retorted with spirit.
"You will in this instance, though," he rejoined, crossing the room swiftly towards her.
But quick though he was, she was still quicker. Her eyes blazing defiance, she slipped from the couch and stood up before he could reach her side. She took a step forward.
"There!" she began defiantly. The next moment the whole room seemed to swim round her as she tottered weakly and would have fallen had he not caught her.
"What did I tell you?" he said sharply. "You're not fit to stand."
Without more ado he lifted her up in his arms and deposited her again on the couch.
"I—I only turned a little giddy," she protested feebly.
"Precisely. Just as I thought you would. Another time, perhaps, you'll obey orders."
He stood looking down at her with curiously brilliant grey eyes. Magda almost winced under their penetrating glance. She felt as though they could see into her very soul, and she summoned up all her courage to combat the man's strange force.
"I'm not used to obeying orders," she said impatiently.
"No?"—with complete indifference. "Then it will be a salutary experience for you. Now, lie still until tea comes. I have a letter to write."
He walked away and, seating himself at a desk in the window, appeared to forget all about her, while his pen travelled swiftly over the sheet of notepaper he had drawn towards him.
Magda watched him with rebellious eyes. Gradually, however, the rebellion died out of them, replaced by a puzzled look of interest. There was something vaguely familiar about the man. Had she ever seen him before? Or was it merely one of those chance resemblances which one comes across occasionally? That fair hair with its crisp wave, the lean, square-jawed face, above all, the dark-grey eyes with their bright, penetrating glance—why did she feel as though every detail of the face were already known to her?
She failed to place the resemblance, however, and finally, with a little sigh of fatigue, she gave up the attempt. Her brain still felt muddled and confused from the blow she had received. Perhaps later she would be able to think things out more clearly.
Meanwhile she lay still, her eyes resting languidly on the face that so puzzled her. It was not precisely a handsome face, but there was a certain rugged fineness in its lines that lifted it altogether out of the ruck of the ordinary. It held its contradictions, too. Notwithstanding the powerful, determined jaw, the mouth had a sensitive upward curve at the corners which gave it an expression of singular sweetness, and beneath the eyes were little lines which qualified their dominating glance with a hint of whimsical humour.
The clock ticked on solemnly. Presently Mrs. Braithwaite bustled in with the tea and withdrew again. But the man remained absorbed in his writing, apparently oblivious of everything else.
Magda, who was rapidly recovering, eyed the teapot longingly. She was just wondering whether she dared venture to draw his attention to its arrival or whether he would snap her head off if she did, when he looked up suddenly with that swift, hawk-like glance of his.
"Ready for some tea?" he queried.
"Yes. Am I"—sarcastically—"allowed to get up now?"
He surveyed her consideringly.
"No, I think not," he said at last. "But as the mountain can't go to Mahomet, Mahomet shall come to the mountain."
He crossed the room and, while Magda was still wondering what he proposed to do, he stooped and dexterously wheeled the couch with its light burden close up to the tea-table.
"Now, I'll fix these cushions," he said. And with deft hands he rearranged the cushions so that they should support her comfortably while she drank her tea.
"You would make a very good nurse, I should think," commented Magda, somewhat mollified.
"Thanks," was all he vouchsafed in answer.
He busied himself pouring out tea, then brought her cup and placed it beside her on a quaint little table of Chinese Chippendale.
"Mrs. Braithwaite—my housekeeper—is looking after your chauffeur in the kitchen," he observed presently. "Possibly you may be interested to hear"—sarcastically—"that he wasn't hurt in the smash-up."
Magda felt herself flushing a little under the implied rebuke—as much with annoyance as anything else. She knew that she was not really the heartless type of woman he inferred her to be, to whom the fate of her dependents was only of importance in so far as it affected her own personal comfort, and she resented the injustice of his assumption that she was.
She had been so bewildered and dazed by the suddenness of the accident and by the blow she herself had received that she had hardly yet collected her thoughts sufficiently to envisage the possible consequences to others.
With feminine perverseness she promptly decided that nothing would induce her to explain matters. If this detestably superior individual chose to think her utterly heartless and selfish—why, let him think so!
"And the car?" she asked in a tone of deliberate indifference. "That's quite as important as the chauffeur."
"More so, surely?"—with polite irony. "The car, I am sorry to say, will take a good deal of repairing. At present it's still in the middle of the street with red lights fore and aft. It can't be moved till the fog lifts."
"What a nuisance! How on earth am I to get home?"
"There are such things as taxis"—suggestively. "Later, when it clears a bit, I'll send out for one."
"Thanks. I'm afraid I'm giving you a lot of trouble."
He did not hastily disclaim the idea as most men would have done.
"That can't be helped," he returned bluntly.
Magda felt herself colouring again. This man was insufferable!
"Evidently the role of knight-errant is new to you," she observed.
"Quite true. I'm not in the habit of rescuing damsels in distress. But how did you guess?"—with interest.
"Because you do it with such a very bad grace," she flashed at him.
He smiled—and once more Magda was aware of the sense of familiarity even with that whimsical, crooked smile.
"I see," he replied composedly. "Then you think I ought to have been overwhelmed with delight that your car cannoned into my bus—incidentally I barked my shins badly in the general mix-up—and that I had to haul you out and bring you round from a faint and so on?"
The question—without trimmings—was unanswerable. But to Magda, London's spoiled child, conscious that there were men who would have given half their fortune for the chance to render a like service, and then counted themselves amply rewarded by the subsequent hour or two alone with her, the question was merely provocative.
"Some men would have been," she returned calmly.
"Ah! Just because you are the Wielitzska, I suppose?"
She stared at him in blank astonishment.
"You knew—you knew who I was all the time?" she gasped.
"Certainly I knew."
"Then why wasn't I suitably impressed?" he suggested drily.
She sprang to her feet.
"Oh! you are intolerable!" she exclaimed hotly. "You know I didn't mean that!"
He regarded her quite placidly.
"You did. That is precisely what you were thinking. Only you funked putting it into plain words."
He got up and came to her side and stood looking down at her.
"Isn't it a fact?" he insisted. "Isn't it?"
Magda looked up, tried to answer in the negative and failed. He had spoken the simple truth and she knew it. But none the less she hated him for it—hated him for driving her up into a corner and trying to force an acknowledgment from her. She remained obstinately silent.