The marvel she inspired in him deepened daily, so wonderful seemed her purposefulness, her energy, her faith in herself. And though, beside these qualities of hers, his diffidence compelled him to self-effacement, he yet seemed to draw something from her very superabundance.
From the beginning he had given up all the money to her, only too pleased to be rid of the control of it. But when the arrangements were fairly advanced, she insisted on his mastering the details of the expenditure she was making and on going into the figures with him each time she drew up what she considered a likely profit and loss account, which she did at least once each evening. The result was always on the right side and always large, and he was not quite clear that it did not necessarily represent a sure fact, if a future one. Figures had always irritated him, but, as she performed all the arithmetical processes and he simply had to exert his intelligence to the extent of grasping what each item stood for, he was pleased to find himself equal to the effort.
Their three hundred pounds in the meantime had dwindled considerably, but, as Cleo showed no signs of anxiety, it never occurred to Morgan to feel uneasy. Cleo, who, for the sake of simplicity and also to enhance her authority over the people she should employ, was making every arrangement in her name only, had had to pay a large sum down before she had been allowed to take possession of the theatre, for she had been preceded by some other enterprising actress, with whom the lessees had been less stringent, and who had come to grief, much to their disgust. The costumers and the printers, too, were shy of unknown dames with stage ambitions, and their co-operation was not to be obtained without a show of bank notes.
Nor was Cleo unprepared in the all-important question of the play itself. She had employed some of her past leisure at Hampstead in translating many pieces from the French, and she now gave Morgan half a dozen to read, saying she had already formed her own opinion as to which one contained the best part for her and she wanted to see if his judgment would tally with hers. Morgan was glad to have this quiet task to keep him occupied for a few days. He took it, however, very solemnly, for he wished to arrive at an honest decision, but he did not wish it to be different from hers. However, he could not say he liked any of the plays. Half of them were modern, half Oriental; all artificial and stilted, and full of long-winded inanity. Eventually he selected one of the Oriental, which he thought would at any rate give Cleo an opportunity of displaying her dresses—to such Machiavellian extent had she already influenced him. To his delight, she declared that his choice was hers. He timidly ventured on a little criticism, but she laughed and assured him that the play itself signified nothing—plays were mere excuses for acting. This one provided a part which, if not the ideal one for her, would at least enable her to display herself and her genius to some advantage. Of course, she was well aware she was not making the debut that befitted her genius, as that would have involved a play written specially for her in which every other part was artistically subordinated to her own, a vast theatre such as the one she had dreamed of, and a lavish expenditure; her brain, moreover, being entirely relieved of all material considerations and her spirit left unfettered. Under the present make-shift circumstances she must be content with such humble beginning as the poor funds at her disposal would allow her. And Morgan felt quite guilty at his inability to provide the ideal debut she described, feeling she had quite a right to despise this mean and unworthy beginning, and that it was really generous of her to face the difficulties occasioned by their narrow means without complaint.
That there were difficulties he could not help knowing, for Cleo was at no pains to conceal the fact. Rather was she intent on showing that she was perfectly capable of vanquishing them. When the open-handed policy she had been compelled to adopt had reduced their resources to about fifty pounds, Cleo withdrew the money from the bank, saying it would be safer in her pocket. But by this time her unhesitating payments had begun to produce their effect, and it had got about that she was no mere penniless adventuress, but a wealthy stage-struck dame. As a mysterious personage, suddenly springing from nowhere into the theatrical world, she began to arouse a good deal of interest, and the flaneurs in those circles obtained kudos by pretending to precise information about her. The rumour of riches spread. Tradespeople became sweet and pliant—the plucking of a goose with golden feathers was not an every-day event.
Cleo, who could afford to pay anything out of the profits of the huge success to come, cleverly betrayed the rich amateur's ignorance of charges, varying it by the occasional query: "Isn't that rather dear?" Her delight at securing an abatement of a few shillings was so undisguised that it caused much amusement to complaisant tradesmen.
The transaction of all this preliminary business afforded Cleo an immense enjoyment. Her front to the world throughout had been the perfection of boldness.
And now Morgan found himself doing quite a deal of work, arranging parts for typewriting, reading proofs and trying to understand something of the—to him—intricate system of theatrical accounts. He was proud when he succeeded in following business details, astonished to find they were not beyond his intelligence. He passed to and from the theatre several times a day, curiously glad to feel himself a working part of all this complex machinery. But he was never quite comfortable in the building, wandering uneasily about its corridors and almost feeling as though he ought to explain his presence to one or other of its scattered population he encountered in odd corners. Everybody about the building seemed vaguely respectful to him, as though possessed of some faint notion that he was attached to Cleo in some incomprehensible way or other.
So far Cleo had behaved with perfect sang-froid. If at home she had occasionally allowed her natural excitement to appear, it had been of a pleasurable kind and fully sympathised with by Morgan. In the mere commercial transactions that had relation to the enterprise, she had shown herself as calm and unshakable as a rock, but as soon as the actual fact of her chosen art began to be concerned, she commenced to reveal other sides of her nature that disturbed Morgan's blind worship in no little degree.
The first thing that began to stir his doubts was her method of engaging the players, for she put on the airs of a grand patron, and such pleasure did this part of the business give her that she prolonged it unduly. She made actors and actresses wait upon her time after time when she had not the slightest intention of engaging them. She liked to have a crowd waiting in her anteroom at the theatre and admitted to her august presence one at a time. It behoved her, she explained to Morgan, to impress people from the beginning, and, though this was the first time she had had a theatre of her own, she wanted to appear as if to the manner born. Moreover, when he took the opportunity, by way of expostulation, to express his sympathy with the rejected applicants, who had been kept "hanging about" in vain, she was able to make a show of justification, urging it had been necessary for her to have the widest latitude of choice.
When the company was complete she laughingly admitted it was none of the finest, but it would make an excellent foil for herself.
But it was only when the rehearsals began that Morgan discovered Cleo possessed attributes, frequently associated with genius, it is true, but by no means certain symptoms of it. Her patience was astonishingly short and she possessed a temper that was perfectly ungovernable, once it was roused. He likewise observed that there was a certain domineering spirit in the whole control of the theatre.
His eyes were first opened to this state of affairs one day when he had wandered on to the stage and stood surveying the desolate emptiness of the house, in the vague spaces of which cleaners flitted about or busied themselves amid the dim tiers of swathed seats. Orchestra practice was proceeding in the band room, and Morgan stayed to listen for awhile. A sudden high-pitched brutal comment gave him the first inkling of the conductor's bullying methods.
The discovery soon followed that the stage manager was worse than the conductor, and that, when Cleo once lost her head, which she did very easily at rehearsals, she became almost hysteric. She was, however, always ready to explain away her exhibitions of temper, saying that the stupidity of the players and the worry of making things go right were trying beyond human endurance. Which explanation he had perforce to accept.
It was in apprehension of witnessing her outbreaks that he dared not stay at the theatre during rehearsal hours for more than a few minutes at a time. He could not help knowing, however, lounging about the house as he did, that Cleo was disliked by all the company, she and the stage manager being bracketed together as a pair of bullies. He was aware he himself was better liked, for he got on very well indeed with a couple of the men and thought them "very decent fellows." Though their poverty forced them to borrow occasional half-crowns of him, that only made him sympathise with them the more.
Morgan himself would have been puzzled to tell what difference the new light in which Cleo was showing herself was making in his attitude towards her. Her personality, taken as a whole, remained fully as wonderful and impressive for him as before, and in the hours of her calm he could scarcely believe he had ever seen her worked up into such tense, nervous states. At such times there seemed possibilities of indulgent explanation, for in all else she was living up to his conception and to his expectations of her. His faith in her genius was unshaken. Nothing had occurred to make him doubt the glorious successes to come. Yet were the shortcomings she had so far displayed distinct and tormenting drawbacks to the enthusiasm with which he had begun.
The frenzy of activity grew greater as the time of opening approached. The three weeks allotted for the rehearsal swept by for Morgan in tempestuous flight—an impression which he got from watching the feverish evolutions of his Cleo. He found himself, too, drawn into London night life, assisting at restaurant supper parties and sitting down with men in evening dress who affected cloaks and crush hats, and who were scarcely names to him. Cleo presided, sometimes as hostess, sometimes as guest; Morgan, who figured as "my husband," having the feeling that the others were just civilly tolerant to him. As for himself, he was inclined to be taciturn, being little versed in the matters on which the rest discoursed so racily. Cleo gave him to understand that these men, and others he had stumbled against in the corridors of the theatre and who seemed to have an easy entree to her, were those whose good will it was necessary to secure—critics, journalists and the like. She further confided to him that she considered she had achieved a triumph in drawing them round her. Asked if they were of the first importance, she had to confess most of them were attached to various weekly papers, whose influence, however, she thought must be considerable. The names of the sheets were but dimly familiar to Morgan and had that equivocal ring about them that suggested vagueness of circulation. He did not quite approve of this fawning on critics and hinted as much, whereupon Cleo insisted the critics were only too glad to fawn on her.
"Do you suppose they have no insight?" she asked, "that they are incapable of recognising beauty and genius? They can read the future in my face, and for the sake of their own reputation they dare not overlook or ignore me at the outset."
The world seemed to hold its breath on the last day, and Morgan was conscious of a strange hush that seemed to hang over the crowded, grinding thoroughfares. The last of the money had been spent in advertising, and every portable effect, including his own watch, had gone to raise more. All day long he lounged about the theatre in feverish suspense. From the box office man—an incommunicative individual with an absurd mustache, who spoke with an air of resentment at being accosted—he learned that the advance booking had been very slight, that, so far, the announcements and the various odd paragraphs from the pen of Bohemian acquaintances, who had spoken very favourably of Cleo's beauty, had failed to attract more than seven or eight pounds.
But never for a moment did Cleo lose faith in the venture—that would have been to lose faith in herself. Of course she knew her name was absolutely unfamiliar to the public, she explained, in anticipation of unsatisfactory takings, and, therefore, she could not expect to draw a full house the first night. She had, however, taken steps to secure appearances by an extensive distribution of paper. But she expected the effect of her performance to be magnetic. She alone would stand forth and the play and the rest of the players would scarcely obtrude on the consciousness of the spectators. After the first evening or two they would certainly have to turn away business.
The near approach of the moment when the realisation of his panoramic visions was at last to begin, freshened again in Morgan all his sense of the romance of the situation. There had been times in the last few days when he had suffered from despondency. There were sides to theatrical life that were little to his taste. He had long since known, for instance, that the stage manager was addicted to obscene talk; and when, one day, just as in the middle of a rehearsal he was about to step from the wings on to the stage, he was arrested by a torrent of vileness that came from that same individual, he was not very much surprised at the mere fact. But he was vexed and disgusted that the fellow should not have restrained himself in the presence of Cleo. What was worse, Cleo herself seemed to be perfectly unaware of anything exceptionable, for she made not the least protest; from which Morgan gathered that the sort of thing must be quite usual and that, had he not shunned the rehearsals so persistently, he would have known it before. Thus, there were moments when he felt utterly alone in this strange life, when he longed for real, human sympathy. He yearned for some other being who was not Cleo, to whom to turn, to whom to pour out the human emotion that was in him; some being who belonged to the life from which he had cut himself off, and to which he looked back almost as from another world. Yet these were only momentary longings that mastered him. His whole interest, his whole imagination, were bound up with his present life; and the fascination exerted over him by Cleo and the wonderful future he believed was to be hers sufficed to attach him enthusiastically to her career.
Thus, as the rising of the curtain approached, so did the excitement in him overcome every other emotion; so did he become absolutely a creature of this region into which he had plunged, breathing its air with avidity and entranced by the prospect.
"I've a surprise in store for you, dear," Cleo confided to him that day at lunch. "I've arranged a special scene at the beginning of the second act, in which I alone appear. No one has any suspicion of it, but I tell you, dear, the effect will be wonderful. Coming after I shall have charmed everybody with my acting in the first act, it will carry the audience off its feet with enthusiasm."
Morgan, installed in a box, all by himself, was eagerly interested in the audience as it came straggling into the house, which, thanks to the paper distributed, ultimately presented a pretty compact appearance. He himself was ignorant how much real business had been done, but, so far as he could judge, the gallery and pit were being fairly well patronised. No doubt a good many had been drawn by the gorgeous poster representing Cleo, twice her natural size, and dressed in a costume somewhat like the one she had worn when he had first made her acquaintance. Appropriately huge ornamental letter-press declared her to be "The Basha's Favourite;" and it was on the first act of "The Basha's Favourite" that the audience was now waiting for the curtain to rise.
And at this moment of culminating excitement the scene impressed Morgan curiously. His mood was essentially one of romance. That the play itself was full of inanities was forgotten; but its title and Egyptian colour together with Cleo's personality had somehow got inter-blent and interwoven with the enterprise itself, making even its commercial and prosaic sides instinct with mystery and unreality. He seemed to have wandered into an Arabian Nights' tale. The figures that filled the stalls, pit, and galleries took on the aspect of a crowd that might people a dream or the visions a child seeks in its pillow. He was conscious of the shapeless totality of myriad conversations—a blur of sound, mystic and bewildering.
Now, too, the front rows of stalls, which he knew were reserved for the critics, began to fill, and a waft of unpleasantness came to him as he recognised a few of the acquaintances he had made at recent supper parties. The disturbance was fatal to his mood. He felt suddenly unstrung. A strange sense of unhappiness invaded him—a bitter, far-embracing uncertainty. He was uncertain of himself, of his life, of all life. The solid scene faded from before his eyes. He became self-centred. All his consciousness of living and having lived—his consciousness of all he had ever felt and all he had ever thought and all he had ever done—was with him as a vast bitterness that gave him a sense as of an infinite nebula. And then, as in a flash, this nebula concentred itself into a point—a point that was his whole sense of life and consciousness. He was now as in a black tomb, without past, without future, without sense of direction, without an active thought; with only a mere awareness of existing, with only the cognizance of the present time-point on the flowingness of his consciousness.
The tuning of instruments began just then, and the rasping sound tore at him, dragging him back to a consciousness of externals. Then, as his eyes rested again on the stalls, he drew right back instinctively into the shadow of his box. For he had caught sight of Lady Thiselton.
She was in the fourth row from the orchestra and by her side he recognised Mrs. Blackstone. They could only have just entered, for he was sure those two seats had been empty but the moment before. He felt tolerably certain Helen had not yet seen him, and he intended to take care she should not see him. Yet he had an intuition that she knew all.
In his altered position in the box he was fairly safe from recognition by her, even whilst he could watch her closely, noting the quick, eager glances she cast about her from time to time as if she thought it possible he might be seated amid the audience. Eventually, however, she lapsed into a sort of listless immobility.
And even though he shrank from her, her advent brought back to him a yearning wistfulness; it awakened and half-appeased a sense akin to home-sickness. In that moment he would have liked to fly to her—how much had she stood for in his life! She symbolized for him all that of humanness which is comprised in the word "comradeship;" she represented the truth, attachment and loyalty in human relations even as Margaret represented the perfume, the sweetness, and the perfection.
The rise of the curtain forced him to take his eyes off her. The background of the scene on the stage was apparently the pillared exterior of a palace, yet the foreground was a carpeted space in which a many-coloured medley of yataghaned men with baggy breeches and beautiful slave-girls in Oriental costumes kept re-forming in ever-shifting kaleidoscopic grouping. And then the audience suddenly were aware that the medley had divided into two harmonious sub-medleys, whilst, in the chasm left towards the front, Cleo stood majestically and addressed a verbose harangue to the Basha, her relation to whom was known from the title of the play. In full view and hearing of so heterogeneous a crowd did the Basha in return reproach her with coldness and indifference to him, which she vehemently denied, playing the femme incomprise and by her perfect self-assurance cloaking an intrigue, which Morgan knew she was carrying on with a handsome Christian, because, having read the play, he knew what was coming.
In the unfolding of the plot, Morgan was quite uninterested. In fact, he had long since lost all grasp of its movement and meaning, and, instead of taking in the dialogue, he contented himself with judging effects and their impression on the audience.
Though he had seen a little of the rehearsals, he had not yet acquired any notion of Cleo's abilities, for she had been busy directing and criticising, simply reading her part as a "fill-in." He had all along taken it for granted that she must be a great actress. At his most despondent moments he had never doubted that, simply because it had never occurred to him to doubt it. However, he was not without some notion of what good acting should be, and he felt something like a murderous bludgeon blow when, at the end of five minutes, it began to be forced on him that she had not even the least glimmer of instinct for her art.
Despite all her magnificence and the absence of any gaucherie in her movements when off the stage, all natural grace disappeared the moment she attempted to be somebody else. Her delivery was unnatural and pompous; her motions were stiff, strained, ridiculous. The whole of the first act was unsatisfying to the intelligence, but instead of dominating it by the force of her personality, Cleo, by the incompetence of her acting, set up its silliness in relief. If she had not talked as much as all the other characters put together—for every word that even the Basha managed to steal in elicited ten against it—there would have been nothing to suggest she was the leading character. At one point, indeed, her absurd strutting about the stage drew a chuckle from somewhere among the ranks of the critics. To watch her became so painful that Morgan at last turned away his eyes.
All was over. His beautiful visions had gone. His eyes were suddenly opened and he found himself transported from dreamland, not to reality—for he could not yet believe this was reality—but into what seemed a horrible nightmare.
The act ended at last and the curtain fell amid a frigid silence. Then there was a little clapping in the gallery—the colour had no doubt pleased a few of the spectators. But it died away immediately in discouragement.
There were the usual noises of shuffling and disarrangement and talking and exits. Morgan drew back as far as he could into the shadow. He was glad to be thus isolated—he could overhear no criticism or comments. Naturally his looks stole towards Helen. She had not moved. He could see that a strange, sad expression had come over her face. Then she seemed to smile as Mrs. Blackstone made some remark to her and a reply fell languidly from her lips, after which a desultory conversation sprang up between the two.
In that moment it seemed to Morgan that Helen had some wondrous power against fate and he seemed to be wishing with the intensity of prayer that she might raise her hand and release him from his nightmare.
But he knew that was only a yearning fancy!
And as the thought came to him that the curtain was to rise again in a moment, it brought back to his memory the precious confidence Cleo had whispered to him at lunch time.
"I've a surprise in store for you, dear"—the words surged up again in his ears—"I've arranged a special scene at the beginning of the second act, in which I alone appear. No one has any suspicion of it, but I tell you, dear, that the effect will be wonderful. Coming after I shall have charmed everybody with my acting in the first act, it will carry the audience off its feet with enthusiasm."
As nobody had the air of having been charmed by the first act, he wondered how the predicted effect would be altered in consequence.
Morgan, of course, could not guess the nature of the new scene that Cleo was now going to introduce. The stage during the second act was to represent "a private apartment in the palace," and here the action assumed some dramatic semblance, taking the following course: The Christian lover manages to effect an entry into this same private apartment and to hold a long, loving discourse with the Basha's favourite, and when eventually the two are about to embrace, in comes no less a personage than the Basha himself, and advances quietly on tip-toe and listens for awhile. Suddenly he stamps his foot on the ground and the room is filled, as by magic, with eunuchs and soldiers. The audience once more get kaleidoscopic impressions, and Cleo and the Christian are seized and bound, both spitting defiance and declaring their mutual eternal love, on hearing which the Basha turns pale under his Oriental skin. The curtain falls as he bids his myrmidons put her into a sack and heave her into the Nile, and his favourite is carried off, loudly bidding her lover take heart, for she loves him and will love him always.
Morgan could not see what Cleo could possibly add to this, and his curiosity gave him some little temporary spurt of interest as the curtain rose. Up it went, slowly, slowly, and the apartment in the palace stood revealed in all the glory of gilded pillars and mirrors and rugs. In front of a huge stretch of mirror on the right was a couch, on which sat Cleo, wrapped in a sort of yellow silk cloak which fell about her in pleasing folds. Morgan was beginning to think that she must have deemed it best to omit the innovation, when Cleo rose languorously, took a step towards the great mirror, and, standing erect, inspected herself therein. "Yes, I am worthy of him," she said to herself proudly, then, with a brusque movement, she disengaged the garment from her shoulders and it slipped to the ground and lay there in a soft heap. The spectators then became aware that, save for a sort of transparent web of floating serpentine drapery, it had been her sole covering, and Cleo herself remained gazing into the mirror, regarding her gleaming reflection with evident admiration, whilst the other mirrors likewise gave back the sinuous grace and superb modelling of her body.
The silence for a moment was profound and painful. Cleo's audacity had caught the audience by the throat so that it could not breathe. Her all-consuming egotism had driven her to this device for satisfying her rage for the world's admiration. And as she stood there in statuesque pose, her rich golden-red hair falling over her shoulders and the full scarlet of her lips gleaming startlingly, awaiting a great storm of charmed applause, for which the audience seemed to be gathering its forces in the interval, again she sent that strange loose softness of her voice floating through the theatre like a hot wind: "Yes, I am worthy of him."
But she had scarcely got through the phrase when a piercing cat-call shrilled through the house from the back of the pit. Almost simultaneously a derisive howl came from the gallery; and then an appalling hissing, hooting, and groaning broke on Cleo with the force of a tempest that drove towards her from all points. She turned a defiant face to it and gave the house a blazing look of contempt. But a whole chorus of cat-calls now sprang up, dominating a sort of see-saw of dissonant disapprobation. The stalls alone sat in solemn, wondering silence, not unmixed with apprehension. And suddenly the curtain began to descend, whereupon the uproar ceased abruptly in favour of a mighty spontaneous outbreak of cheering, unmistakably ironic.
Those behind the scenes had been as much astonished as those in front, and the stage manager, as soon as he had collected his wits, had adopted the only sensible alternative the situation afforded.
A silence fell again upon the theatre. Not a person stirred. An obvious curiosity as to what was to follow possessed the house. In a minute the curtain rose again—on the same apartment in the palace. Cleo reclined on the same couch, robed in a terra-cotta gown which Morgan recognised at once. And then there came a tapping at a little window, and, after much appropriate dramatic business, this window was opened by Cleo, and her lover leaped into the room, man-like and adventurous.
But Cleo's audacious mistake had wrought a miracle on the audience, destroying the stage-illusion, and rousing its dormant light of intelligence. Its capacity for being profoundly played upon and emotionally excited by the inartistic unrealities of absurd characterisation and of absurd combinations of circumstance had been rendered unresponsive. In vain did the play appeal to its ethical sense, striving to enlist its hope for the ultimate triumph of the Good, the True, and the Wronged. It had begun to view "The Basha's Favourite" in an extremely critical mood, and to manifest its keen sense of the utter impossibility of a play, which in years gone by had enchanted and moved to tears average audiences, not only in its native land, but in London as well, where it had been a sort of fountain-head for multitudinous adaptation.
Cleo, however, went straight on with the performance, carrying it through with an indomitable defiance, caring not at all that the intensest passages, which otherwise would have thrilled, were received with scorn and laughter and ironical cheers and cries of "Go it, old girl!" Each time a servant made an entry he was received with an enormous ovation. Single voices were heard again and again in sarcastic comment, now from the top of the house, now from the back. As the curtain fell at the end of each act, the disorder became volcanic, but the stage manager knew better than to allow the curtain to go up again in response to the continued applause.
Certain it was that the audience thoroughly enjoyed its evening, and, when the curtain fell for the last time, surpassed itself in a great demonstration of its frolicsome mood. It had been obvious throughout that the house had been quite conscious of its own superior intellectuality, of its immeasurable elevation above the fare offered. But Morgan derived his sense of the ghastly failure of the whole business, not so much from the demeanour of the audience as from that of one of the critics, who somehow summed it up for him. This critic, whose bald pate had fascinated his eye, had a curiously irritating, spasmodic chuckle, and Morgan in vain tried to be unaware of him.
In the intervals of the acts he had remained numbed and dazed, only gathering to himself a grain of sympathy from the piteous look in Helen's face. Her demeanour confirmed his intuition, that she must know everything. She had sat rigid and mournfully attentive in contrast to Mrs. Blackstone, who had laughed with decorous unrestraint the whole evening. But he could not prevail upon himself to let her discover him, and at once plunged behind the scenes to get to Cleo.
He found her in her dressing-room with her maid, who had come to the theatre to help her, and he had a thrill of disgust as he watched her rub the cleansing grease over her painted cheeks. It now struck him as horrible—this pollution of the human face night after night with filthy cosmetics that could only be removed by a filthier grease. He felt that all she had so far restrained was going to break forth and he stood by with subdued mien. Such shattering as had befallen himself he was strong enough not to consider for the moment. His immediate feeling was one of pity for her. He fancied he saw her now, not as the heroine of his fantasy, but just as she was. Sympathy in him there was none, and he could not make a hypocritical show of any. But he soon understood that she took it for granted his faith in her was as unshaken as her own; that she really believed her performance had been a great one. Her self-illusion was pitiable. She burst forth into bitter invective against the public, he listening without being able to find his tongue, but with the consciousness that, even if she had behaved madly that evening, the audience deserved at least some of her censure. Why had it sat there, so determined to have its evening's fun out, cruelly hounding and torturing a creature who, from her very temperament, must have found the punishment a hellish one? Why, if people had really been shocked, had they not quietly left the theatre? That surely would have been sufficient indication of their disapproval. "I am not beaten yet!" cried Cleo, with frenzy. "The day will come when these people will fight and trample over one another's bodies to catch the least glimpse of me. To-day they have rejected me with scorn, as they have always rejected the greatest. Read the early careers of the actresses the world now worships! But I am a hundred times more determined than before. The public shall treasure the dust my feet have trod on. They shall look back on to-night as a blot on their lives. My genius shall triumph! My genius shall force them to submission!"
However, he induced her to come and have a little supper alone with him. As they passed out through the stage door the man handed him a twisted note, which Cleo was too absorbed to notice. A glance sufficed to enable him to recognize Helen's writing, though it was but hastily scrawled in lead. The fact that it was addressed to him in his newly-assumed name was the final confirmation of her knowledge of his fate. He put it away till he could read it, trying not to wonder at its contents.
Meanwhile, he was shutting his eyes as to what was to follow. He knew very well that even if he opened them he would equally see nothing, but it gave him some comfort to imagine he was shutting out a view it were better not to look at. He managed to get Cleo to eat and drink a little, and when she was calmer she told him the theatre was to open the next evening just as if they had scored a great success. He knew better than to make any show of opposition or disapproval just then, though his heart became still heavier at this announcement of hers. He mentally vowed, however, he would take care to remain behind the scenes. He did not venture to ask her whether she intended to repeat "the innovation" that had done the mischief, because he feared her pride might force her to defiant assertion that she would most certainly repeat it; whereas, if no reference were made to it, she would, in all probability, quietly omit it.
She ended by a great fit of hysteric weeping that lasted half the night.
"My poor, dear Morgan," read Lady Thiselton's note. "My heart is a-bleeding. The moment I saw her appear I understood everything. Of course, I don't know how you came to meet her, but such a creature was bound to be fatal to you. Your marriage to her can only be considered as the veriest mockery. It would be a crime against Heaven—observe that this crisis has made me religious—to look upon it seriously at all. Won't you come to see me, Morgan? You must need a friend and surely I have the right to be that friend. Why not come to-morrow afternoon; or when you will, if you will send me a message. H. T."
"P. S.—I hope she'll see this so that she quarrels with you and casts you off."
He knew he must go to her, but he shrank from doing so as yet, though he did not try to explain to himself the shrinking. So he sent her a line saying he would come one afternoon when he felt he had the courage. After posting the letter he had a great longing to cry.
He realised the ugliness of the position now, his terrible relation to this strange, hysteric woman, and the thought kept darting through his mind like a whizzing shaft of flame: "I am married to her, I am married to her!"
To weave poetry out of life! That was simply to attempt what poets and philosophers and even imaginative men of affairs, seduced by the apparent novelty of the notion, had attempted before him. At a certain point of existence, such men find it easy to tell themselves—as if in unsuspecting answer to some dim foresight of what the experiment might lead to—that it does not matter much what happens to one in life, so long as it is a series of interesting happenings; interesting, that is, to each according to his temperament. But poems woven of reality are not the same detached products as poems written on paper. They are an integral part of life, and, as such, related to its great forward sweep. All the consequences that attach to human action must attach to the particular weaving, however fantastic and pleasing the immediate pattern.
Morgan was now face to face with the consequences of this attitude he had taken towards existence, though it had been forced on him by his temperament. And they were consequences that were not goodly to look upon.
Cleo had gone early to the theatre to go into the accounts and to show everybody she was not in the least disconcerted. When he himself arrived some time later she informed him that last night's takings were about twenty-five pounds, but she had already paid away the bulk of it for fresh advertising. She was once more calm and business-like, despite that their funds were exhausted, and besides various liabilities there were the salaries and wages to be paid at the end of the week. As yet, however, nobody about the house had any suspicion of the emptiness of the treasury.
The newspapers, he was glad to find, had dealt with Cleo very gently. The notices were short and cold, just giving an outline of the play, which, they said, was indifferently acted and practically a failure. No mention was made of her indiscretion and it was perfectly obvious from the tone of these notices that the writers had felt she had been sufficiently punished, and that, for the rest, she was not to be taken seriously. There came, too, a message from the censor, to whom, somehow, last night's occurrence had got known, to the effect that the beginning of the second act must be omitted, else he must forbid the play to be repeated. From his letter it was clear the censor was taking the same charitable view as the critics, and that he foresaw the piece would very soon die a natural death. Cleo shrugged her shoulders and wrote the necessary undertaking. Morgan understood that her "innovation" might have got her into serious trouble, had not the entire hopelessness of her acting proclaimed her as a person to be pitied.
That same day Morgan could not help broaching the subject of the finances. The money side of the enterprise had by now got stamped on his brain. He had a grasp of the various items of their liabilities, and he felt the responsibility for them to rest upon him. No longer might he repose at ease in the secure shade of her mighty presence. She, however, refused to bow her head under the weight of business difficulties.
"We have till the week's end," she said. "There is nothing to worry about now."
He did not find this reply reassuring and felt impelled to make out for himself a list of the debts, including the salaries and wages that would have to be provided for by the Saturday. The total amount was about three hundred pounds, the same as the sum already expended. He carefully put the list away in his pocket-book, with what end he knew not.
In the evening the house presented a rather more than half-filled appearance, a result which had been mainly achieved by paper. At the box office the takings were only about seven pounds. It was quite clear that Cleo, whatever gossip she might have caused in professional circles, had created no profound sensation in the town, so that not even a succes de scandale was decreed to her. The play itself went very fairly indeed this second time, though it was acted scarcely a whit better than the evening before. Cleo perhaps put a trifle more ornamentation into her part, but the audience showed no critical tendencies.
On the third evening the theatre was two-thirds empty, and two pounds four and sixpence represented the seats actually paid for. On the fourth evening they played almost to empty benches, the takings amounting to seventeen shillings and sixpence. This ended the experiment.
The fifth day—Friday—was an eventful one, for duns began to arrive early in the morning. The creditors had suddenly become assailed with doubts, which were now deepened by the return of their emissaries, who not only had been unable to obtain access to Cleo, but who had furtively been warned by the traitorous stage manager "to look sharp after their money." The camaraderie that had hitherto subsisted between that gentleman and Cleo had come to an abrupt end, she cutting him short impatiently in the course of some discussion and bidding him not to argue. In further token of his annoyance he had worded a notice she had told him to put up as follows:
"The curtain will not rise to-night. Treasury to-morrow at mid-day, if possible."
The actors and actresses looked very sad, indeed, as their eye stumbled on the last two words. Cleo, in ignorance that the stage manager had exceeded her directions, for he had inserted the "treasury" part of the announcement on his own responsibility, was invaded by the company in a body. Being pressed by the ladies and gentlemen for some definite statement about their salaries—for several of them were in great need, having long been out of an engagement—she turned on them in towering fury and asked how they dared insult her by questioning her bona fides in that way. But as soon as she learned what had dictated their action, she at once sent for the stage manager and, in presence of all assembled, curtly ordered him to leave "her theatre" immediately. At first he stood dumfounded, and, on her repeating her injunction more vehemently, he began to bluster back at her. A pretty scene ensued, he, with much Billingsgate, lustily demanding his money, she insisting he must come for it at the right time and place. In the end, she sent for the police, and the astonished stage manager found himself forcibly ejected. She next proceeded to tear down the offensive notice, and soon afterwards the company departed, leaving Cleo and Morgan in sole possession.
"What's going to happen to-morrow?" he could not help saying, when Cleo had at length finished telling him her estimate of the stage manager's character.
"When mid-day comes, the salaries shall be paid without fail," replied Cleo unhesitatingly. "You just don't trouble your mind," she added. "Leave me to arrange everything."
He pressed her for details. But beyond a general assurance, conveyed with an air of mystery that on the morrow he would find their coffers quite replete, she would tell him nothing. They went to lunch together, for there was always some small silver at the bottom of Cleo's purse, and she then gave him to understand she had business to transact here and there during the afternoon, and that he must amuse himself alone as best he could.
Vaguely supposing that this secret business had reference to the raising of funds, Morgan separated from her and went back to their rooms, where, at least, he felt he was hidden away from the world. A little later he had an idea. He would go and see Helen.
Helen looked wonderfully sweet to-day and an atmosphere of quiet calm seemed to pervade the room. It seemed to Morgan as if he had entered into a haven. Helen wore a simple grey gown that went well with her subdued demeanour. The sanity and soundness that underlay her occasional frolicsomeness and high spirits became in that moment accentuated for him; and the almost superstitious feeling he had experienced at seeing her at the theatre now returned to him, the feeling that she was possessed of some magic power to redeem him.
"I have been too shame-faced to come before," he began. "I knew I did not deserve to see you again."
"Don't, please," said Helen. "If you make speeches of that kind you will force me to be flippant, quite against my sense of the fitness of things at this moment. Not that I want to be too tragic, but my state of mind is rather a complex one. What's yours?"
"Mine is a very simple one. I am just conscious of mere existence and of a heavy weight on my head."
"I don't like your symptoms, Morgan. If I diagnose correctly, they mean nascent 'desperation.' Now, so long as I am in the world, you ought never to develop that disease."
"But I omitted one important factor of my state of mind," he confessed; "and that is the knowledge that you are in the world."
"And does it take your attention off the weight of the load—just a little?"
"It is the one pleasant fact I have to dwell upon. But please talk a little about yourself. It will do me good."
She, however, had little to tell him. His letter had dealt her a heavy blow. His silence about the details of his sudden action had made her the prey of her imagination, which had created frightful possibilities. Her favourite theory had been—an indiscretion committed by him in some moment of depression and a remorse that had resulted in a marriage with some vile person. But she had been somewhat reassured at seeing him go into the theatre one day in company with Cleo. That had been a pure accident, of course, but it had enabled her to divine a good deal. Cleo's appearance—she had taken particular notice of her face—had at least narrowed that vast dreadfulness which had till then tortured her. But it was a face that by no means pleased her.
"However," continued Helen, "it seems I've been talking about you instead of about myself. I have been living, I suppose, in the usual conventional routine. My conduct has been really most exemplary and the austerest chaperon would have patted me on the head approvingly. Oh, no, I forget. There's one little matter over which I should have got lectured and that is my rejection of so eligible a bachelor as Mr. Ingram, on the mere ground that I couldn't overlook his past life. Anyhow, he hasn't committed suicide, though I fancy he has done something worse."
"You mean he has followed my example?" suggested Morgan.
"Not anything as bad as that. You know I'm only the daughter of a country gentleman and the widow of a baronet. Well, he has consoled himself by marrying the genuine brand of aristocracy, though she's a divorcee. Her income's double mine; her intelligence one-tenth of mine."
"She must be a very brilliant woman, indeed."
"You have developed courtly qualities, I perceive. But I am quite ready to concede, on re-consideration, that her intellect is only the hundredth part of mine. You know I am frightfully conceited about my brains. But now tell me how everything came to happen? Where did you meet her?"
He recollected that Ingram was implicated in the recital and could not be kept out. But he was in a mood when he could no longer keep back anything. He hungered for every crumb of sympathy he could get, and, besides, he looked upon things now with such changed eyes that such reservations relating to his personal life as he had before set up seemed futile and meaningless. Very soon Helen had learned how his connection with Ingram had begun and developed, by what strange chance the letter he had written to him had spun the first thread of the web in which he was now floundering, and how he had sought to lose himself in the apparent dreamland before him. Helen's eyes were fixed on him as her quick brain seized on every point. The narration came to her as a complete revelation.
"And if I hadn't insisted on your dining that evening," she cried, "you would never have got into this purgatory of a dreamland."
"I think I should have got there all the same," he answered, smiling, conscious of how much good it was doing him to talk to his dear friend again. "I must have met Ingram sooner or later and then the same thing would have happened."
"Ingram is a blackguard!" said Helen severely. "With all his thick-headed cleverness, he had yet insight enough to know that you would be taken with that creature. Probably he knew already how your letter had impressed her and that she was curious about you. And so he reckoned to play on your temperament, hoping that might prove an easy method of ending his connection with her. Why, he must have jumped at the idea of taking you to her."
Morgan was rather apologetic on Ingram's behalf, pleading that he must have yielded to the sudden temptation and was not really such a Machiavellian fellow.
"There have been times when, I feel sure, he spoke to me from his heart. But I do not feel revengeful against him, so let him be dead and buried, so far as we are concerned."
"With all my heart," said Helen. "But I confess," she went on laughingly, "it annoys me to think you saw more of the game than I that evening. That is a fact that wounds my vanity. And now about this theatre business. You must be in a terrible plight. Was there ever such a man as you, Morgan, for getting into scrapes?"
"When a man is born into the wrong world—" he began.
"He must be a very interesting sort of person to know," concluded Helen.
When Morgan went on to relate the history of the enterprise he seemed to get a saner adjustment of his mental focus. In the telling he had sight of the whole business as a lamentable, real piece of his personal life, even perceiving as he described the stormy incidents of that morning—more dramatic than anything in "The Basha's Favourite"—that it had not been without its humorous elements. He understood quite well, of course, that unless Cleo now found the requisite money, she would be hopelessly bankrupt.
"And so she's confident of finding it," observed Helen.
"I am quite in the dark," said Morgan.
"Perhaps she intends opening the theatre again."
"You don't expect she'd take any notice of the prohibition! Now Morgan, dear, I think you've treated her handsomely and she has cause to be grateful to you. You offered her the incense of a profound faith in her genius and a profound admiration of her person. Not content with that, she needs must have the same incense—compounded of the same two essentials, observe you—from the world at large. For this purpose you made her a nice little money present and enabled her to realise her dreams of a theatre. You gave her the greatest joy of her life. In return—what has she given you? A few kisses, a pretence of love, and a heavy burden on your poor head! If the madcap hadn't tied you to her, the worst criticism to be made would have been that you could have got the kisses and the rest very much cheaper. But as it is—well, I think you'd better say good-bye to her."
Morgan shook his head. "Impossible!" he said.
"She wouldn't grieve very much," insisted Helen. "She certainly couldn't go on doing anything for long except thinking of herself. You may be sure that once she realises your present estimate of her, she will not wish to keep you longer. She is not wicked—as I am, you know—she is simply an exaggerated incarnation of the most unsatisfactory sides of feminine nature. All women have something of her in them, but the less of her they have the more charming you'll find them. In the sham, tawdry world of the footlights she feels something akin to her whole being. It calls to such a woman almost from her very cradle, and fly to it she must. It is true that, in her case, this stage-infatuation was a real misfortune, for in some other walk she might have made a furore. That nude scene, in fact, was symbolic of the temperament, and, had she taken to writing, would have come out as an autobiographic novel. There are women who cannot make themselves interesting to men without the confidence-trick, who cannot even talk to a man for the first time without laying bare their whole souls. Should a woman you scarcely know try the trick on you—shun her. She also is afflicted with the same disease as your Cleo, with the same rage for displaying her interesting self; though it may find a more refined—and certainly a more decent—expression. I am giving you so long a lecture because you sadly need it. I am giving away my sisters to you, because you must be protected against them. If I had given you a few such sermons in the past, you would not have had to undergo the punishment of listening to this one now. Now, having well lectured you, let us proceed to be practical. I am going to pay the debts she has incurred and after that she ought to leave you free."
"No, Helen!" exclaimed Morgan. "You have paid enough already. I feel utterly contemptible when I think of the use to which I have put your money."
"Why will you persist in taking such unphilosophic views? For a poet, you have a singular grip on the world. To me money is not such a reality. And if it were, what is it between you and me? If the position were reversed, Morgan—it may be a shocking admission to make—I should not hesitate to take money from you, you conventional Philistine. I thought you were above such petty considerations—to say nothing of their coarseness."
"It's unkind of you to overload me with debt and employ specious arguments to persuade me the load doesn't weigh."
"How can there be such a thing as a debt between us? I don't really believe you're going to punish me by not behaving sensibly."
And so the battle continued, each fighting doggedly. He kept dragging in the five hundred pounds he had already had, and she insisting that mustn't count, even if regarded from a strict business point of view. For she claimed that he had caused her unspeakable torture of late, at least as great as that of a lady plaintiff in a breach of promise case, and she was, therefore, entitled to damages. The pleasure he would give her by his agreeing to the cancelling of the old debt would only be fair compensation. Then, since this old debt had been wiped out, there was no reason why she should not help now.
He ended by compromising on both points. The repayment of the five hundred pounds was to be deferred indefinitely, the debt itself being absolutely cancelled in the meanwhile, but it was to revive if he should ever have the means to satisfy it. And also Helen was to be allowed to pay the theatrical liabilities, provided Cleo agreed to her doing so, though her identity was not to be divulged.
"And now that we have at last come to an understanding, I think we deserve some tea after our exertions," she declared, rising to ring for it. "Practically I have gained my points, though not verbally. I have profound faith in woman's dogged persistence. It can achieve anything—even win your love, Morgan. Let me see. How far had we got? You were to kiss me on the forehead once each time? And this stage has four months to run before any advance can be made."
Her reference to her love for him chilled him. Somehow he now believed in it as real, though he had always taken it as a toying pretence. He had come to her to-day as to a comrade—to feel himself in shelter for a little while, and for the luxury of opening his heart to her. And now there came upon him a great sense of guilt towards Helen, perhaps accentuated at that moment when his consciousness of her worth had arrived at its fullest and had endeared her to him more than ever before. He was filled with remorse as he remembered he had taken pleasure in keeping from her the knowledge of Margaret's very existence, when Margaret was for him all that Helen aspired to be.
His habit of keeping the various threads of his life distinct had led him to omit the consideration of what might be involved in their subtle relation, for they were all necessarily related since they were merged in the wholeness of his life; and it seemed to him now, all a-thrill as he was with Helen's sympathy, he had behaved abominably in not telling her that his spirit vibrated only for Margaret, that the thought of Margaret brought him all the magic emotion that floats and palpitates, like some wondrous sweet perfume, and that the elect who love true alone may know.
He had already told her to-day much of what he had hidden from her. Let him complete the confession and reveal even what was most sacred to him. Even now he was conscious of certain instincts that made for reservation, but he fought against them.
"Helen," he called, "I wonder whether you would care to listen to the sentimental chapters."
She had been watching his face whilst he had hesitated and she now grew white.
"You know we used to talk quite a deal about those sentimental chapters," he went on. "There was a sweet little girl, too, whose existence you suspected."
"I remember," said Helen faintly. "We did talk about those chapters, but you would never let me get a glimpse of what was inside them. And then I could never really learn whether they were real or imaginary. As a woman of the world, I believed there must be such chapters in the biography of a young man who had lived twenty-eight whole years; as a woman in love with the young man of twenty-eight, I longed to disbelieve in them. Which shows that the real nature of the individual is finer than life is. Life would make us all cynics if the noble in some of us did not find truth too plebeian a fellow to keep company with. I have long since suspected that truth is not that beautiful nude young person one sees rising out of wells at Academy Exhibitions. Illusion, at any rate, is every whit as real a factor of the universe, and it is far more agreeable to live with. So, naturally, Morgan, I chose it to live with, hoping, of course, it was not illusion. However, there was a sweet, little girl?"
"Your inference from my poem was perfectly correct."
"Farewell, my fine dreams," said Helen, in mock-heroic declamation, which did not blind him to the pain beneath. "But you'll introduce me to her, won't you?"
"It's the sweet little girl's sister," he corrected; "but I can't introduce you to her, because I shall never see her again."
"You shall see her again," said Helen. "Don't be such a faint heart."
"Even if I were free, I am not fit even to look at her."
"The sooner you get a more appreciative conception of yourself, the better."
"Truth has too great a hold over me for that."
"How fine it must be to be loved by you," half-mused Helen. "With you it is first love and everlasting."
"Yes, it is everlasting. It is a quality of my fibre, divinely inwoven like mind in matter. It is something immortal, so that even if Margaret change and forget me wholly, she can never take away the living fragrance that came to me in the first times. I have loved her and shall love her always."
"What nice things you say. If they could only have been inspired by me! But all that is over now. So her name's Margaret. I am sure she will never change, nor even begin to forget you, Morgan. But won't you begin to read those chapters now? I do so want to hear them."
He placed them before her unreservedly and she at length had his life complete. But when he had finished he was alarmed at her pallor.
"You are not well, Helen," he cried impulsively.
"'Tis nothing. I shall be all right in a moment." She drew her breath heavily. "It feels like pins and needles," she added. "I want to get the transition over now, though it is rather an abrupt one."
"The transition!" he repeated, only half-comprehending.
"Yes. It is attended with queer sensations. Pins and needles, thousands of them—and something feels tight. But I shall emerge all the better for it. So far I have only loved you; henceforth I want to love you and Margaret as well."
"How I have made you suffer!" he murmured brokenly. His hand sought hers. "My good angel!"
She drew her hand back.
"No—not angel, but only a simple prophet; and as a prophet I tell you you were born to be happy."
He shook his head, bethinking himself he must go back to his Cleo.
"Now I hope you won't make me miserable again," said Helen, as he rose to go, "by leaving me in the dark about you. And mind you let me know at once if you have need of me to-morrow. A special messenger will be sure to find me, as I shall not be leaving the house till four o'clock. Keep a stout heart and let the light of hope vanquish the vapours and fogs. Above all, bear my prophecy in mind."
When Morgan got back to their lodgings he had the sensation of entering the atmosphere of a charnel house. Cleo had not come home yet, and he had leisure to ponder on Helen's attitude towards him and her bearing when she had learned all. Of course, he told himself, he must not take any notice of her wild suggestion that he and Cleo must part and that their marriage didn't count; nor did he permit himself to be allured by her optimistic pre-perception of the future. Noble heart that she was, she had been striving to lessen his pain. He felt he understood what had prompted her every word. And the readiness with which she had bowed her head in acceptance of the emotional position as soon as she knew about Margaret compelled his admiration. Not a word of rebellion, but only a quick gasp of breath; and then he was conscious he had won a sturdy ally.
Ally! When there was to be no battle, was not the word an empty one? Yet no; surely it was a blessed thing to know of a ready and willing heart, even if its services could not avail one! That which signified naught in practical light signified much humanly.
He was awake now, could see the exact bearings of things, and he felt a desperate courage to stand his ground. All his sense of suffering, of the shipwreck he had made, and of what he might have to face in the next few days, had become fused into one large poignant emotion. It was an extra poignancy to be aware that Helen would continue to suffer because of his determination to face the consequences. But he was married to Cleo, and, unless she expressly left him, he must stand by her.
Cleo returned about half-past five and ordered some tea. She said she was just a little tired, but her face was jubilant as she handed him two weekly papers that had appeared that day containing laudatory notices of "The Basha's Favourite," In spite of her attempting to appear calm, he could see she was very much excited about them, and when he had read the strings of unblushing falsehood and handed them back to her in silence, she lovingly let her eye run over them again. Over the tea, she grew eloquent once more, especially drawing his attention to the truth of particular phrases and to the admirable insight and appreciation of the writers. But she volunteered no information about the business which had occupied her afternoon. Morgan was somewhat puzzled. He was still inclined to hold to his belief that she had gone on some harum-scarum chase after money, but as she did not manifest the least sign of disappointment or dejection, it was hard to think that her pockets were as empty as before. He refrained from questioning her, however, for in a grim way he had begun to derive entertainment from watching her, and he, therefore, did not wish to interfere with her. He preferred to wait and see what coup it was she was now preparing.
After tea, Cleo suggested it would be a good idea if she had her effects removed from the theatre. Her costumes, in particular, she was eager to have safe at home. So Morgan accompanied her to the theatre. She had already packed everything in a large trunk, which she now had carried down. But in the corridor the two commissionaires attached to the house sternly blocked the way. They were very sorry, but the lessees' orders were that nothing was to be allowed to pass out, having regard to the amount still due under the contract for the theatre.
Cleo passionately ordered them to stand aside. The men insisted that though the obligation of paying their wages rested on her, they were still the lessees' servants, and had to obey their orders. Morgan argued with them quietly, but found them obdurate. He did not know if this action of the lessees was legal or not, but anyhow money was owing to them and there seemed to be a show of justice on their side. He took Cleo aside and besought her to let the matter rest for the moment, pointing out that, as the men were so determined, there was nothing else to be done, short of a physical set-to. "Besides," he added, "if you are quite confident of settling everything to-morrow, the trunk may just as well stay here over night."
To this Cleo ultimately agreed, won over by Morgan's last argument. But none the less did she give loud expression to all that was in her mind anent the lessees and the commissionaires. She went home again with Morgan in the worst of humours at having been thus baffled. But later in the evening she attired herself gaily and carried him off to a little restaurant supper party, given by a gentleman he had met before, but about whose occupation he possessed no information, though he had gathered that the theatre was his chief interest. There was one other lady, plentifully powdered, and two other men of the party, but the host was the most garrulous of all, pouring out the most fulsome flattery of Cleo's acting and assuring her the critics hadn't treated her fairly and that all artistic aspiration was wasted on the British public. The same ground was traversed again and again, the bulk of the conversation centering round Cleo.
To Morgan it seemed that Cleo had made an enormous number of acquaintances in the few weeks that had elapsed since their marriage, and with many of them she appeared to be on terms of easy camaraderie. Every day during the week scores of visitors had dropped in to see her and to chat familiarly—all sorts of strange men and women that seemed to flock round her, anomalous citizens of Bohemia, vague hangers-on of the theatrical cosmos; all that strange melange of the happy-go-lucky, the eccentric, the ill-balanced, the blackguardly, the unprincipled, the hapless, the shiftless, the unclassed, the sensual and the besotted that shoulder and hustle one another in the world of the theatre; all the riff-raff recruited from the greater world without by the fascinating glare of the footlights.
The supper was a gay one, and Cleo, drawing new life from the stream of adulation, strolled home on Morgan's arm, overflowing with the wonder of her own personality, was it in regard to her genius as an actress, or was it in regard to the magnetism of her beauty. Her step seemed to have recovered all its old springiness; her defeat was as if it had not been. She was very optimistic about her career and again spoke of Morgan one day writing the play of her life. That would be, of course, after they had travelled in Egypt and the East. He was sufficiently taken off his guard by her demeanour to begin to think it was impossible she should not have some mysterious financial resource to fall back upon for the morrow.
"We shall not want to be very long at the theatre," were her last words to him that night. "Let us try and get there by ten. I shall pay the salaries at twelve o'clock and we can leave the house soon after."
Morgan's attitude in the morning was one of interested expectancy. Cleo was as full of vitality as ever. Perhaps it was that, as she entered the theatre, the sight of her trunk, waiting in the corridor for redemption, stimulated her masterfulness afresh, for she found pretext for asserting her authority over everybody on the premises. Up to the last moment she revelled in the enjoyment of all the powers and privileges that one acquires over other human beings by engaging to pay them a wage.
As the time went by and Morgan saw no sign of the appearance of the requisite cash, he ventured at last to broach the subject to her, and she replied firmly and clearly:
"At twelve o'clock the salaries shall be paid."
But at the time specified, Cleo, who was sitting with him in her private room, hid her face in her hands and began to sob hysterically. Then he was able to elicit the truth. She had passed the last afternoon interviewing moneylenders, but they had all laughed in her face—which had simply called forth her contempt for them. As a matter of fact, she had been expecting a miracle to happen!
A conviction had come to her that, when the moment for making payment arrived, she would have the necessary money. How or whence it was to come she had not considered; her belief was simply a blind one. Though she had not found it waiting for her on her arrival at the theatre, her faith that the powers that worked the universe could not possibly allow her to undergo the great humiliation of being a defaulter towards those she had employed, was still unshaken. In her the sense of the Ego was so great that, if rightly interpreted, her feeling about the world would have been found to be that it was created specially for her and carefully shaped and subordinated to suit the needs of her existence. She could not understand her being so utterly beaten as she really was. Her half-crazy, superstitious notion could only have been combatted by its non-realisation. At her hesitating confession that she had been expecting the money to come somehow, Morgan had at once grasped the whole working of her mind, for he understood now what manner of woman it was that he had made his wife.
He knew that the company and employes were assembled, expecting to be called momentarily.
"Cleo," he said, "I have had the offer of enough money to pay all that is owing. You must decide whether I am to avail myself of it. If you say 'yes,' it shall be here within an hour."
But she scarcely heeded, for in that moment she rose as if following up some train of thought, and pulled out every drawer of the bureau, looking carefully into each as though in search of something. When at last the perception was forced on her that the miracle had still not happened, she sat down again with a sigh.
He repeated his statement and she wanted to know from whom the offer came.
"A friend," he answered.
"It is some woman who loves you," she flashed at him.
He could not repress a start.
"It is! It is!" she exclaimed excitedly, her eyes ablaze. "Do not attempt to deny it; I can read it in your face. Ah, I understand now; it is the same friend who helped you before. And you led me to believe it was a man."
"I made no mention of the sex."
"But you knew I was deceived all the same. How dared you conceal from me that you had had the money from a woman you had loved? Did I not return Mr. Ingram all he had given me, because I felt it would be a desecration to use a penny of it? And I thought you were fine, Morgan, I thought you were fine."
Scorn rang in her tones, but he did not answer, because he wished to avoid a scene. It were better, he thought, to let the storm exhaust itself. The unassuming introduction of the "woman you had loved," in place of the reverse, did not, however, escape him.
"Had I suspected the truth," she went on, admirably dramatic now that she was not on the stage, "I should rather have taken some deadly poison than have touched this filthy money of hers. Did you take me for some vile creature? I shall pay back every farthing. Oh, to throw it all in her face! No, no! this is my affair. How dare you suggest that I, your wife, should accept more of her money! As if I could fall so low! These debts are mine. You are not to interfere."
He could only bow to her will. In the first moment of disillusion he had not been without a certain apprehension that she might wish to take advantage of the fact that he belonged to a wealthy family. But he saw now the thought had done her an injustice. Creature of rich, luscious sentiment, of gorgeous emotions, she scorned to be untrue to the equatorial magnificence of her nature. Nor had she yet finished expressing her resentment. All the untamable tiger in her had been roused, all the fiery, indomitable pride that was as essentially a part of her as her fixed conception of her genius. She was not to be browbeaten by adverse fortune into whining and accepting charity from her husband's mistresses—she had slipped into using the plural now. She turned at bay against the whole situation. Let these people go unpaid for the present—she would pay them when she could. She wanted to go out at once and make a speech to them, but Morgan, fearful of some great uproar, managed to prevail on her to let him make the announcement that money engagements could not be kept.
Very much to his astonishment, everybody took the news quietly enough. "Is there no chance of getting anything?" he was asked, and sad indeed were all faces when he assured them every penny had been lost, and that, though his wife had been confident of raising some more money—he mentioned this possibly with the idea of softening the bitterness against Cleo—her hope had been quite disappointed. Morgan himself almost trembled with emotion, for he knew how eagerly some of them had sought the engagement. Three weeks of rehearsal and a week of acting under most trying and disheartening circumstances, and then to receive nothing! And all that time they had submitted to be bullied and blustered at. If the whole affair had not been so piteous it would have seemed grotesque.
The stage manager, arriving just then, was less tractable, and Morgan feared his vehemence would excite the others.
"And she had the——impudence to chuck me out of her——theatre," he screamed; "and now I can't get a——penny out of her!"
He announced his intention of breaking her head forthwith, and threatened "to do for" Morgan, who barred his way.
Cleo left the theatre a little later, followed by abuse from the stage manager, who was forcibly held back by some of the company. She looked longingly at the trunk in the hall, but had apparently resigned herself to the loss of her costumes, for she passed by in silence.
In the afternoon, Morgan was astonished at being served at their rooms with a writ, which concerned both him and Cleo, and which had been taken out on behalf of one of the creditors. Though Cleo had run the theatre on her own responsibility only, it had been thought possible that he might possess resources, with the result that he had been made co-defendant.
Cleo seized the paper and calmly tore it up.
Then followed a long consultation, Cleo manifesting some signs of depression at the sum total of the results of her efforts, beside which her unshaken belief in the future contrasted curiously. Everything had been against her. She had had a bad company and a stupid first-night audience, and had from the first been crippled by want of money. She recapitulated all her disadvantages, dwelling on each and making the most of it. But this was only by way of beginning a long wail of lament. The undisguised coldness of his demeanour towards her ever since the night of her debut had wounded her deeply, though she had been too proud to say anything. Her indictment against him was bitter and severe. The discontinuance of his slavish admiration for her and of his blind belief in her genius was in her eyes an unpardonable sin. As soon as the public had turned against her, she averred, he sheep-like, had followed their example. And he was the one human being in the whole world whom she had trusted and believed in, the one she would have looked to for sympathy and comfort. She had shown her trust in him by marrying him—a privilege she would not lightly have accorded to another—and he should have stood by her in her misfortunes. Why, so-and-so had told her her acting had never been surpassed on the English stage; and he had seen every piece played in London during the last thirty years. She repeated the flattery and fawning that had been bestowed upon her by the men who had been fluttering around her, accepting all as the natural outpour of their sincerity; she quoted with unction the lying notices she had shown him the day before.
Morgan knew better than to expect her to have one thought of sympathy for him, to utter one word of sorrow for the plight into which her stage-madness had brought him. She seemed to think that his dominating sentiment should be, throughout all and despite all, one of gratitude to her for having married him. In proof of which she now mentioned that she had won the admiration of millionaires, of foreign counts by the score, of Indian princes and Eastern potentates, all of whom had written her letters of sympathy at her shameful treatment by the public, had declared their love for her, and had offered to place their whole fortunes at her disposal. She had indignantly destroyed these letters without showing them to him, and would not have thought of claiming any credit for this had he not forced her to do so by his brutality towards her. The Indian prince, in particular, had proved persistent, and even now it was open to her to become mistress of a gorgeous palace and a regiment of servants.
By way of contrasting the fineness of her own conduct with the coarseness of his, she did her best to exasperate him about Helen, applying terrible epithets to her and vowing, in a burst of tiger-like tragedy, she would destroy the beauty of this woman he had loved with vitriol, should their paths ever cross. In addition to Helen, there were general allusions to his mistresses, for Cleo, having begun by converting singular into plural, now retained both singular and plural. Lastly, quieting down somewhat amid a flood of tears, she claimed that Ingram would not have acted in so dastardly a fashion—he, at least, had always valued her at her true worth. It was his misfortune, not his fault, that his money affairs had not turned out well and that he had been unable to build for her the promised theatre. It was his very sense of the dignity of her genius that made him object to giving her a less impressive debut. Ingram, too, had had no thought but for her, and he had been undoubtedly heartbroken at her leaving him.
And when, in the end, he prevailed upon her to say what she purposed doing, she informed him that to mark her sense of the degradation that would be involved in the acceptance of the aid offered by her rival, she had preferred to borrow five pounds of her maid, who was at least an old and faithful servant—she had taken her with her from Hampstead—and who stood by her loyally. Out of these five pounds she intended to pay the landlady's bill for the week, and the balance would bring them within the shelter of her parents' home.
Whatever feeling of humiliation Morgan might have had at the confession of this loan was all but lost in his surprise at her sudden mention of parents. He had never thought of her at all in relation to parents or in relation to other human beings whose blood flowed in her veins. She had pre-eminently struck him as a figure to be taken as "detached"; his feeling about her, though he had never precisely formulated it, was that she had not come into existence as other people, but that, in her case, there had been a special act of creation. Her parents had got impasted into the vagueness of that background, out of which she had come floating into his life.
The position, however, was a difficult one for him. He could scarcely chide her for borrowing, grotesque as the borrowing was. The maid, he learnt, was leaving her that same afternoon and was to be married soon. What helped him to decide was the great curiosity that had come upon him to make the acquaintance of the people who had given her to the world. Something of his old attitude came back to him. The desire to see what strange thing was to follow next stirred in him again. But this time a greater bitterness was mixed with it, a better grip on the wholeness of life, an active consciousness that, though he might now derive a grim sort of enjoyment from watching the unfolding of circumstance, the experience would be nevertheless real, would represent so much of his personal life. No longer would it be a mere desperate submission to idle drifting amid the scenes of a dreamland; though the same temperament as before was at the back of his decision. Of course, his general determination to face the full responsibility of his relation to Cleo likewise counted for a good deal in his assenting to accompany her on this visit she purposed to her parents.
He questioned her about her family, and she told him that her father was a printer at Dover; that her mother was simply her mother; that she had a brother and two sisters, all unmarried, all living at home. She was barely eighteen when she had left Dover, but she had ceased communicating with her family as soon as she had made Ingram's acquaintance. However, in anticipation of a great success, she had written to them again a few weeks back, informing them of her marriage and of the theatre of her own which she was to have immediately. Her father, in reply, had written her a cordial letter, and had, in fact, suggested she should bring her husband to see them if she should ever find a suitable opportunity. They would therefore be likely to meet with a warm welcome, and they could stay at Dover till her plans were mature, which would be very shortly. What these plans were likely to be he could not elicit, though he gathered some vague millionaire was connected with them, and that they would enable her to clear off all the debts almost immediately. But since, at the moment, they were entirely without resources, it would be useless, she pointed out, for them to take any notice of the writ that had been served. Creditors would obviously be putting themselves to vain expense in suing them now, and it was therefore best for them to go for a little while where at least they would be free from being worried.
During the evening Morgan managed to find an opportunity of writing to Helen a brief account of the day, saying he would look for her answer at the Dover post-office.
And he and Cleo left London by an early train in the morning.
END OF BOOK III.
The son and daughters of the Kettering family were out taking the air, as the Sunday morning was a fine one, and Morgan sat talking with his father-in-law in a front room, that was depressing with horse-hair upholstery and wax fruit under glass shades and a series of prints representing certain emotional moments in the life of a young blue-jacket. Cleo was in some distant region of the house with her mother, who had beamed on Morgan with a most unaccountable friendliness.
Mr. Simon Kettering himself was a mild-featured little man, whose Sunday broad-cloth was but a thin disguise of the fact that all the week he worked amid his journeymen in apron and shirt-sleeves. He wore spectacles with light steel frames that seemed to cut deep into his flesh; his hair was fast greying and his face was much lined, which, however, interfered little with the benevolence of his expression. His hands were large and coarse-grained and of a tint that no longer yields to ablutions.
On their arrival, about a quarter of an hour previously, Cleo had left Morgan in the hall and had gone up to see her parents, returning for him some five minutes later and introducing him to them in the room in which he now sat. As he was not present at the actual meeting of Cleo and the old people, he now asked Mr. Kettering if the sudden appearance of his daughter after all these years hadn't startled him.
"Me!" exclaimed his father-in-law. "Why, not a bit! When she was only that big, I soon found out it wasn't any use taking notice of her goings and comings. The missus has been worrying about her a good deal. But I always said to her: 'Selina's a girl who can take care of herself, and sure enough she'll turn up all right one of these fine days.' It was very wrong of her, though, not to let us have a line from her for nigh on six years. But I fancy she was always a bit ashamed of us. Her notions were always so grand, and plain, hard-working people weren't good enough for her. I'm very sorry indeed that things have turned out so disastrously. My Selina, to tell the truth, is a queer creature, sir, and, if I may take the liberty of saying so, I think you were a fool to marry her."
Cleo, at her first interview with her parents, had made a clean breast of the fact that her theatre had been a failure and that they had lost all their money, though she did not omit to mention she was conducting negotiations which would soon put them on their feet again. Morgan smiled at Mr. Kettering's bluntness, and he somehow divined that there was a shrewd pair of eyes behind those spectacles that took in far more than they appeared to do.
"I'm hanged if I'd ever have married her," pursued the master-printer, "and that's telling you the plain truth, sir. You see what she has done for you already. Why did you give her all that money? You should have let her go on acting and drawing a regular salary, instead of risking all that capital in that monstrously foolish way. You'll excuse my freedom, I know, sir."
From which Morgan deduced that Cleo's version of the whole affair had not been entirely coloured by truth. From the way Mr. Kettering dropped his voice and looked reverential as he mentioned "all that money," it was quite clear Cleo's imagination had magnified the loss to accord with her sense of the fitness of things. A great loss of money was the next glorious thing to a great success.
Mr. Kettering proceeded to lay it down as a general maxim that there was nothing in life like drawing a regular salary. Ever since he had been a master-printer on his own account, he had been regretting the fact. A workman knew exactly how much he had to spend and how to spend it. But in these days when competition was so severe and trade so uncertain, the master had much to be thankful for if he could pay his way at all. Not that he himself was not perfectly able to earn a living at all times, he added in some haste, as if to reassure his son-in-law; and certainly his daughter and her husband were quite welcome to be his guests as long as they chose to stay under his roof.
Morgan felt drawn towards the old man, though he perceived that Simon Kettering's soul could not take wing out of the atmosphere of his workshop, and that whosoever wished to commune with him must descend into it. But it was from this very atmosphere that Cleo had emerged—Cleo, with her vitriolic notions and her pretentious scents! This, then, was that mystic past against which her figure had stood out!
Cleo and her mother returned a few minutes later, interrupting Mr. Kettering's account of the many vexations that preyed on him—his troubles with his men, the heavy expense of constantly renewing the composition on his machine rollers, the idleness and wantonness of the apprentice, the perpetual ordering of "sorts" from the type-founder, the inconsiderateness of customers who kept his type locked up, and the carelessness of everybody but himself in the handling of his material.
"We've been getting along capitally, Mr. Druce and I," he broke off to explain to the two women. "It's well on towards dinner-time, and the children ought to be coming in soon."
Cleo seemed relieved to find that Morgan hadn't been bored. Her mother, in whose strange, deep-cut features was suggested something of the spirit of Cleo's face, was a brisk-looking, homely matron of fifty.
"So Cleo is really married!" she repeated for the tenth time, her face aglow with satisfaction. And her eyes rested wonderingly on Morgan till he almost fancied he could hear her mental exclamation: "A real live husband!"
Soon the other members of the family arrived, Mary and Alice and their brother Mark, a young man of thirty, who looked hard-working and reticent, and had large moustachios. They stopped almost on the threshold as they perceived there were strangers in the parlour, then they recognised their long-lost sister; but, embarrassed by the presence of the strange gentleman, as well as by the startling fact of her presence, they stood hesitant and rather shame-faced. Cleo smiled at them encouragingly, whereupon her sisters came tripping over and smothered her with kisses. Their expressions of love were so loud and so flowery that Morgan began to recognise the family blood. When, a moment later, he was introduced to them as Cleo's husband, their faces became of a fiery red, as though there were something discreditable in the fact of matrimony, and they exhibited a stiff shyness that was almost stupid. The introduction completed, they stood looking at him, giggling and giggling. But Mark now came forward with outstretched hand, saying quietly: "I am glad to know you, sir."
"Let us go in to dinner, children," said Mr. Kettering.
They dined in the back room on the same floor, for the ground floor and the basement were devoted to the trade. It was a long, narrow room, lighted by one window at the end, and almost filled by the table. Morgan found himself between Alice and Mark, whilst Mary sat opposite him. Both the girls were young, Mary about twenty, whilst Alice did not seem more than seventeen. In appearance they struck him as inferior imitations of their sister. They were much shorter and far less well-proportioned than Cleo, their red hair was coarser than hers, and their features were duller. Their voices, too, were reminiscent of hers. Altogether, though it was abundantly evident that they were Cleo's sisters, they were perfectly unarrestive. Nature had made a success of Cleo, but had egregiously failed to repeat the performance.
The one servant of the house waited at table, prim, sedate, formal. A corresponding air of restraint seemed to prevail during the whole meal. It was not till afterwards that he realised that they were somewhat in awe of him as being obviously a "fine gentleman," and that they were feeling they had to live up to him. Cleo showed no inclination to speak, and the other women would not venture to begin. Mr. Kettering, on whom lay the onus of entertaining, at length strove to face his responsibilities, and, addressing himself to Morgan, discussed the comparative fineness of the weather at London and Dover. Morgan, in return, asked questions about the town and the harbour and the boats, managing to keep up some sort of a conversation with him. Eventually the situation began to depress him, so terribly stiff were they all in their attempt to be genteel. Besides, his appetite was of the poorest, though he was somewhat astonished to find the fare so plentiful. Mrs. Kettering kept pressing him to eat more and more, and apparently found it hard to understand that his refusals were final. "Are you sure?" she asked him each time; and once she plucked up courage to assure him he must not stand on ceremony with them, and that he need not hesitate to eat his fill. Morgan thought it extraordinary she should so persistently refuse to believe in the sincerity of his small consumption of food, but, attributing her solicitude to sheer good-nature, he was sorry to cause her such evident dissatisfaction.
He was glad when the meal was over, for he was beginning to feel stifled. The family did not disperse, coffee now being served, of so curious a flavour that Morgan could not get further than the first sip.
"Don't you like coffee, sir?" asked Mrs. Kettering.
He began to feel a little bit persecuted. He did not hesitate to reply in the negative, since the question was put from Mrs. Kettering's point of view and the answer had only to apply to her conception of the beverage.
At length Cleo said she was going to take him for a stroll, and he willingly fell in with the idea. But they did not go far, taking possession of a seat as soon as they arrived on the sea-front. They seemed to have nothing to say to each other. Cleo appeared lost in thought, and he, after gazing idly at the few promenaders and the children playing on the shingle and at the white cliffs of France gleaming across the straits, relapsed into a half reverie. He had somewhat of a sense of physical relief at being able to breathe here at his ease; of temporary respite and security from being hunted by creditors. But he was intensely miserable all the same, the one immediate gleam of light being the hope of a letter from Helen.
As yet the Kettering family was a new experience to him, and though the stiff gentility and aggressive hospitality so far exhibited had made him somewhat uncomfortable, his judgment of these people was favourable enough. Still, he was possessed of the idea that he was not going to stay in that house more than a few days. Not that he had the least conception of what else he was going to do, but events had been following each other in such quick succession that he could not believe in a cessation of them. The last two days, in particular, had seemed very crowded. Yesterday all those dramatic events in the theatre—though not on its stage; to-day their departure from London and their incursion into the reality of that poetic nebulousness from which Cleo had originally emerged.
He was glad that Kettering had not addressed to him any personal questions, for he wished to tell neither truth nor falsehood about himself. The anticipation of the topic arising was not an agreeable one, and it was likewise unpleasant to dwell upon the possibility of embarrassment arising from Cleo's habit of embellishment. He wondered what her schemes were, though he could not take them seriously. And this train of thought ultimately brought back to him the fear that perhaps after all pressure might be brought to bear on him to make him avail himself of his father's purse. The thought of his father gave him now—as it had given him throughout all this time of trial—an uncontrollable emotion, but he would not let his mind speculate about the grief and attitude of his family, forcibly interposing a veil between himself and them. Tired out at length, he let his reverie merge into mere uncritical perception. He was conscious of afternoon sunshine, of a great stretch of sky, with a continent of white cloud containing big blue lakes; his eye took in the expanse of sea, glistening, streaked, patched, lined, and shaded, with the pier in his centre of vision, a mass of kiosks, pole-lamps, and conventional iron-work. And in the foreground parasols dotted here and there made spots of black, brown, green, and red against the yellowish shingle.