Poppy threw her head back against the yellowish red cushions of the settee, her teeth showing white as she laughed.
"Boys aren't worth having. They're too crude, too callow. Moreover, it isn't playing the game. One doesn't want to make a mess of their futures, poor little chaps. And grown men, except as I say of the very preengaged sort, are not to be had. So don't you understand, most delightful lunatic, how it comes to pass that you and your friendship are precious to me beyond words? When you go I could cry. When you come I could dance."
Her tone changed, becoming defiant, almost fierce.
"And it is all right," she said, "thank heaven, right,—right, clean, and honest, and good for one's soul. Now I've done. Only we are very happy in our own quaint way, aren't we? And we can leave it at that. Oh, yes, we can very well leave it at that if"—she looked sideways at Mr. Iglesias, her expression half-humorous, half-pathetic—"if only it will stay at that and not play the mischief and scuttle off into something quite else."
She got up quickly, with a little air of daring and bravado.
"I must move about. I must do something—there, I'll make up the fire. No, sit still, dear man"—as Dominic prepared to rise also—"I like doing little odd jobs with you here. It takes off the company feeling, and makes it seem as if you belonged, and like the bicycle, had 'come to stay.'"
Poppy threw a couple of driftwood logs upon the smouldering fire. Around them sharp tongues of flame—rose and saffron, amber, sea- green, and heliotrope, glories as of a tropic sunset—leaped upward. She stood watching these, her left hand resting on the edge of the mantelpiece, her right holding up the front of her black skirt. Her right foot rested on the fender curb, thereby displaying a discreet interval of openwork silk stocking and a neatly cut steel-buckled shoe. The many-hued firelight flickered over her dark figure; over the soft lace jabot at her throat and ruffles at her wrists; over her pale profile; and glinted in the heavy masses of her hair. The room, facing east, was cold with shadow, which the thin fantastic colours of the flames appeared to emphasise rather than to relieve. And Iglesias, obedient to her entreaty, sat quietly waiting until it should again please her to speak. For he had begun to accept her many changes of mood as an integral element of her personality—a personality rich in rapid and subtle contradictions. Often he had no clue to the meaning of these many changes. But he did not mind that. Not absence of vulgar curiosity alone, but an unwilling sub-conscious shrinking from any too close acquaintance with the details of her life contributed to render him passive. He had a conviction, though he had never formulated it even in thought, that ignorance in relation to her made for security and content. And there was a refined charm in this—namely, that each to the other, even while friendship deepened, should remain something of an undiscovered country. Moreover, had she not told him that he rested her? To ask questions, however sympathetic, to volunteer consolation, however delicately worded, is to risk being officious; and to be officious, in however mild a degree, is to drive away the shy and illusive spirit of rest. And so Dominic Iglesias was coming, in the good nautical reading of that phrase, simply "to stand by" and wait where this woman was concerned. After all, it was but the reapplication of a lesson learned long ago for the support and solace of another woman, by him supremely loved. To act thus was, therefore, not only natural but poignantly sweet to him, as a new and gentle offering laid upon the dear altar of his dead. It rejoiced him to find that now, as of old, the demand created a supply of silent but sustaining moral force, ready to pass into the sphere of active help should necessity arise.
Nevertheless as the minutes passed, while daylight and firelight alike began to fade, Dominic Iglesias grew somewhat troubled and sad. And it was with a distinct movement of relief that he, at last, saw Poppy draw herself up, push the soft masses of her hair back from her forehead with a petulant gesture, and turn towards him. As she did so she let her hands drop at her sides, as though she had finished with and dismissed some unwelcome form of thought, while her face showed wan, and her eyes large and vague, as though they saw beyond and through all that which they actually looked on.
"There, there," she said harshly, with an angry lift of her head, "what a silly fool I am, wasting time like this when you are here. But my soul went out of my body; and I could afford to let it go, just because you were here, and I felt safe." Her tone softened. "Sure I don't bore you?" she asked.
Dominic shook his head, smiling.
"Very sure," he said.
"Bless you, then that's all right." Poppy strolled back and sat down languidly. "I've gone confoundedly tired," she said. "You see, I sat up half the night acting Gamp to Cappadocia—if you excuse my again alluding to the domestic event.—Oh! my being tired doesn't matter. My dear man, I'm never ill. I'm as strong as a horse. Let's talk of something more interesting—let's review the topics of the hour—only for the life of me I can't remember what the topics of the hour are! Yes, I know though—the management of the Twentieth Century Theatre has given Dot Parris a leading part. Does that leave you cold? Impossible! Why, in theatrical circles it's a world-shaking event. I own I'm curious to see how she does in legitimate drama, after her career in musical comedy and at the halls, myself. I'm really very fond of her, poor little Dot. She's going to call herself Miss Charlotte Colthurst in the future, I understand. Did you ever hear such cheek? But then she always had the cheek of the old gentleman himself, and that makes for success. Cheek does go an awfully long way towards bringing you through, don't you think so?"
"Probably," Dominic said. "My opportunities of exercising that particular form of virtue have been so limited that I am quite prepared to accept your ruling on the point."
Poppy laughed softly, looking at him with a great friendliness.
"Ah! but it wouldn't have been cheek in your case, anyhow. It would merely have been that you stepped into your right place, ascended any throne that happened to be right divine. I can see you doing it, so statelily and yet so innocently. It would be a perfectly delicious sight. I believe you will do it yet, some day, somehow, and make a lot of people sit up. But that reminds me, joking apart, there is a topic of the hour I wanted to ask you about. Tell me what you think of this war."
And Dominic Iglesias, once more obedient to her changing mood, replied with quiet sincerity:
"I am told I am an alarmist. I hope I may prove to be so, for in this matter I should much prefer the optimists to be in the right. But I confess I do not like the outlook. Both on public and private grounds this war makes me anxious."
Poppy's languor had vanished. She had grown very much alive again. Now she leaned forward, pressing her hands together, palm to palm, between her knees, and making herself small, as a child does when it is deeply in earnest and wants to think.
"You're right," she assented. "I'm perfectly certain all this cocksure Johnny-head-in-air business, 'sail to-day and see you again at tea tomorrow, so it's not worth while saying good-by'—you know the style?—is fatuous and idiotic. It is not bluff, because the English officer-man doesn't bluff. He hasn't the brains, to begin with, and then he is a very sound sort of an animal. He doesn't need to hide his fright for the simple reason that he's not frightened. A friend of mine was talking about it all yesterday. He thinks as you do, and he's no silly, though he is a member of the House of Lords.—After all, he can't help that, poor dear old chap," she added apologetically, looking sideways at Mr. Iglesias. "But there, you've seen him, I believe. You met him the first time you came here. Don't you remember, I had to turn you out because I had to see him on business, and you ran across him in the hall as you were going?"
"I remember meeting someone," Dominic said, rather loftily. He did not want to hear any more. The conversation had become displeasing to him, though he could have given no reason for his displeasure. But Poppy suddenly turned mischievous and naughty. She patted her hands gently together between her knees and swayed with rather impish merriment.
"Ah, of course you were much too grand to take any particular notice of him, poor brute. But he wasn't a bit too grand to take a lot of notice of you. He was fearfully impressed. Yes, I tell you he was. Don't be cross. I am speaking the veracious truth. I give you my word I'm not gassing. He was awfully keen to know who you were, and where you came from, and how I met you. And it was the sweetest thing out to be able to reply that I'd been introduced to you on a bench—a mighty uncomfortable one, too, with no back to it!—on Barnes Common by Cappadocia; and that as to your name and local habitation I hadn't the faintest ghost of a notion what they were. Are you cross? Don't be cross," Poppy pleaded.
"No, no, of course not," Mr. Iglesias answered, goaded from his habitual calm and speaking almost sharply.
Poppy patted her palms together again, swaying backwards and forwards. Her eyes were dancing.
"Oh! but you are, though," she cried. "You're just a wee bit jealous. You are—you know you are, and I'm not a scrap sorry. On the contrary, I'm enchanted. For it shows that you are human after all, and must have a name and address tucked away somewhere about you. I don't want to know what they are, but it's comfortable to be assured of their existence. It shows you don't drop straight down from heaven—as I was beginning to be afraid you did—once a week, into the Mortlake Road, and then go straight up again. It shows that I could get on to you by post, or telephone, or other means of communication common to mortals, if I was in a tight place and really wanted you, without walking as far as Hammersmith Bridge and waiting in the wind and the wet on the bare chance you might take it into your august head to materialise, and break out of paradise, and take a little stroll round our sublunary sphere."
For a moment Poppy laid her hand lightly on Mr. Iglesias' shoulder.
"Yes, be cross," she repeated. "Just as cross as ever you like, so long as you don't keep it up too protractedly. It's the most engaging piece of flattery I've come across for a month of Sundays. Only you needn't worry in this particular instance, dear man, I give you my word you needn't. It's a sheer waste of feeling. For Fallowfeild's always been perfectly decent with me. I know people think him an awfully risky lot, but they're noodles. He's racketed in his day—of course he has. But if he'd been more of a hypocrite, people would have talked less. As the man says in the play, it's not the sin but the being found out which makes the scandal. And Fallowfeild was too honest. He never pretended to be better than he was. He is a man of good nature who has done wrong things, which is quite different to being a man of bad nature who does wrong things, and still more different to being a man of weak nature who pretends to do right things. That last is the sort I hate most, and I speak out of beastly intimate experience."
She made a most expressive grimace, as though she had a remarkably disagreeable taste in her mouth.
"No salvation for that sort, I believe," she went on, "either here or hereafter. Now, are you better? You do believe it has always been perfectly square and above-board between Fallowfeild and me, don't you?"
"Unquestionably, I believe it," Dominic answered. He spoke slowly.
Poppy turned her head sharply and looked hard at him.
"Ah! but I don't quite like that," she said. "I've muddled it somehow —I see I have. I've hurt and offended you. You're farther off than you were ten minutes ago. In spirit you've got up and gone away. I have muddled it. I have made you distrust me."
"No," Dominic answered, "you have not made me distrust you; but you have perplexed me. It is the result of my own dulness, no doubt. My imagination is not agile enough to follow you, and so—"
He hesitated. That which he had in his mind was not easy to put into words without discourtesy. He would far rather have left it unsaid; but to do so would have been, in truth, to stand farther off, to erect a barrier which might prove insuperable to happy companionship in the future.
"Yes?" Poppy queried. Her voice shook just perceptibly. In the deepening dusk neither could see the other distinctly, and this contributed to Dominic's decision to speak.
"It pains me," he said at last, "if you will pardon my frankness, that you should think it necessary to account for yourself and justify yourself as you often appear to do."
"Yes?" Poppy queried again.
"That you should do so distresses and disturbs me."
"Yes," Poppy murmured.
"I am afraid I grow selfish," Iglesias went on gently; "but you have been good enough to tell me that my poor friendship is of value to you. Does it not occur to you that yours is of far greater value to me? And that for many and obvious reasons—these among others, that while you are young, and have a wide circle of acquaintances, and in a future to which, brilliant as you are, you may look forward with hope and assurance, I am absolutely alone in the world. Save for one old school-fellow, who has been very faithful to me, there is no one to whom it matters, except in the most superficial degree, whether I live or die."
"Ah!" Poppy said softly.
"Do not misunderstand me, I do not complain," Iglesias added. "I entertain no doubt but that the circumstances in which I find myself are the right and profitable ones for me, if I only lay to heart the lessons they teach, and use the opportunities which they afford me."
"I don't know about that—I doubt that," Poppy put in hastily.
"You doubt it because you are young," he answered, "and your circumstances are capable of alteration and development. Except under very exceptional conditions, resignation is no virtue in the young. It is more often an excuse for cowardice and sloth. But at my age the world changes its complexion. My circumstances are incapable of alteration and development. They are final. Therefore I do well to accept them unreservedly. The work of my life is done. I do not say that it has been a failure, for I fulfilled the main object I had in view. But it has certainly been obscure and inglorious. The sun will sink dimly enough into a bank of fog. My present is meagre in interest and activity. My future, a brief enough one in all probability, must of necessity be meagre likewise. Therefore your friendship is of supreme importance to me."
Iglesias paused. His voice was grave, distinct, weighted with feeling. He did not look at his companion; he could not trust himself to do so, for he had discovered in himself unexpected depths of emotion.
"And just on that account," he went on, "I grow childishly nervous, childishly apprehensive if anything arises which seems to cloud or, in however small a measure, to endanger the serenity of our intercourse."
He turned and looked at her.
"This constitutes no slight to you, dear friend."
"No," she said, "very certainly it is no slight. On the contrary, it is very beautiful; but it's an awful responsibility, too."
She sat quite still, her head carried high, her hands clasped in her lap.
"I've underrated the position, I see. I've only thought of myself so far and how you pleased me. But though I'm pretty cheeky, too—almost as cheeky as little Dot—I never had the presumption to put the affair the other way about."
Poppy began to sway slightly again and pat the palms of her hands together between her knees.
"It's been a game, the finest game I've ever played; and I swore by all my gods to play fair. But, as you look at it, our friendship amounts to a good deal more than a game. It goes very deep. And I'm not sure—. no, I'm not—whether I'm equal to it."
She glanced at Iglesias strangely through the clinging grey of the dusk.
"Dear unknown," she said, "I give you my word I'm frightened—I who've never been frightened at any man yet. In my own little way I've played pitch and toss with their hearts and made footballs of them—except that poor young fellow—I told you about him the first time we met— who gave me the scarf, and whose people wouldn't let him marry me. But this affair with you is different. It goes very far, it means—it means nothing short of revolution for me, of putting away and renouncing very much."
Poppy got up, stood pushing her hair back with both hands from her forehead. Then she moved across to the further side of the fireplace. Dominic had risen also. He stood on the near side of the hearth. He was penetrated with the conviction that a crisis was upon them both, involving all the happiness of their future relation to one another.
"You don't understand," Poppy cried passionately. "And I don't want you to understand—that's half the trouble. I want to keep you. Your friendship's the loveliest thing I've ever had. And yet I don't know. For I'm not one woman—I'm half-a-dozen women, and they all pull all sorts of ways so that I daren't trust myself. I want to keep you, I tell you, I want horribly to keep you. Yet I'm ghastly afraid I'm not equal to it. The price is too big."
As she spoke Poppy dashed her hand against the push of the electric bell, and held it there, ringing a prolonged alarum, in quick response to which Phillimore, the respectable elderly parlour maid, appeared, bearing two rose-shaded lamps. Noiselessly and deftly—as one accustomed to agitations, whose eyes did not see or ears hear if it should be unadvisable to permit them to do so—she drew the curtains, made up the fire, set out the tea-table. And with that change of scene and shutting out of the dusk, Poppy seemed to change also; gravity and strength of purpose departing from her, and leaving her— notwithstanding her sober dress—unreal, fictitious, artificial, the red-lipped carmine-tinted lady of the footlights, of the windswept dust and embroidered dragons again. She chattered, moreover, ceaselessly, careless of interruption, and of criticism alike.
"Here, let's hark back to the ordinary conduct of material existence," she said. "Tea? Won't you sit down? No—well, just as you like best. Take it standing. Let me see, what were we discussing when we got switched on to unexpectedly personal lines of conversation? The war— yes, I remember. I was just going to tell you that Fallowfeild believes it's going to be a nasty dragging unsatisfactory business. Everyone gasses about the Boers being a simple pastoral people. But Fallowfeild says their simplicity is just another name for guile, and that he anyway can't conceive a more disconcerting job than fighting a nation of farmers and huntsmen and gamekeepers in their own country, every inch of which they know. People say they've no military science. But so jolly much the better for them. They can be unfettered opportunists, with nothing to think of but outwitting the enemy and saving their property and their skins. The poor British Tommy will be no match for them; nor will the British officer-man either, till he's unlearned his parade-ground etiquette, and his haw-haw red-tape methods and manner, and learned their very primitive but very cute and foxy ones. By which time, Fallowfeild says, the mourning warehouses here at home will have made a record turnover, and there will be altogether too many new graveyards for comfort in South Africa."
Poppy paused in her harangue, for Dominic Iglesias had set down his cup, its contents untasted. He was sad at heart.
"Are you going?" she asked.
"Yes," he answered. "It grows late. It's time I went, I think."
"Perhaps it is." Poppy's eyes had become inscrutable. "I really ought to attend to my Gamping, and pass the time of day with Cappadocia. Her snappishness has scared the maids. They refuse to go within a measured furlong of her."
Poppy bent down over the tea-table, arranging the teacups with elaborate neatness.
"Good-by," she said. "I don't quite know when we shall meet again."
"Why?" Iglesias asked. The muscles of his throat were rigid. He had much ado to speak plainly and naturally. "Are you leaving home?"
"Home?" she answered. "Yes, I'm leaving it. Good-by again. Don't let me keep you. Certainly I'm leaving home. Indeed, I believe I have left it already—for good."
And she threw back her head and laughed.
Upon the doorstep a cold rush of air met Mr. Iglesias. Above, the sky was blue-black and very clear. The road was vacant and grey with frost. The flame of the gaslamps quivered, giving off a sharp brightness in the keen atmosphere. Mr. Iglesias turned up the collar of his coat and descended the steps. Just then a hansom emerged from the distance and drew up with a rattle and grind against the curb some twenty paces ahead. The occupant, a young man, flung back the doors with a thud, and stood a moment on the footboard paying the driver, who raised himself, leaning forward with outstretched hand across the glistening black roof of the cab. Then the young man turned round, swung himself down on to the asphalt pavement, and came forward as rapidly as a long motor-coat, reaching to his heels, would permit. He was tall and fair, well-favoured, preoccupied, not to say morose. He did not vouchsafe Mr. Iglesias so much as a glance as he brushed past him. The road was still vacant, and in the frosty air sounds carried. Mr. Iglesias distinctly heard him race up a neighbouring flight of steps, heard the click and turn of a latchkey in a lock, heard the slam of a front door pulled to violently. And so doing Dominic turned cold and a little faint. He would not condescend to look back; but he had recognised Alaric Barking, and was in no doubt which house he had entered.
"Keb, sir? 'Ere yer are, sir," the cabby called cheerily. "Very cold night. Just set one gentleman down, and 'appy to tike another up. Want to get back to my comfy little West End shelter, so I'll tike yer for 'alf fares, sir, though we are outside the blooming radius."
But Iglesias shook his head. The horse stood limply in a cloud of steam. Alaric Barking had evidently pushed the pace. But even had the animal been in better condition, Iglesias had no desire to drive in that particular cab. He would rather have walked the whole way to Cedar Lodge.
Opposite the Bell Inn, where the roads fork—one turning away through Mortlake, the other leading to Barnes Common, Roehampton, and Sheen— the row of smart little houses degenerates into shops. By the time he reached these Mr. Iglesias discovered that he was unaccountably tired. The keen air oppressed his chest, making his breath come short. It was useless to attempt to go home on foot. Then, with a sense of relief, he saw that on the far side of the road a couple of omnibuses stood, the horses' heads turned Londonwards. He crossed, climbed the stairway of the leading vehicle slowly, and sank into a seat. The 'bustop was unoccupied, yet Dominic was not by himself. Two companions had climbed the winding stairway with him and taken their places beside him, Old Age on his left hand, Loneliness on his right. All up the long suburban road, while the omnibus bumped and jolted and the fallen leaves whirled and scurried before the searching breath of the night wind Iglesias' two companions seemed to lean across him, talking. There were tones of mockery in their talk, while behind and through it, as some discordant refrain, he heard the ring of a young man's eager footsteps, the click and turn of a latchkey, and the slam of a door as it shut. On nearing the river the cold grew intense. Crossing the bridge, the waterside lights were reflected in the surface of the stream, which ran full and strong from the autumn rains, swirling seaward with an ebbing tide. To Iglesias' eyes the reflections converted themselves into fiery dragons, writhing in the heat of deadly conflict, as upon Poppy St. John's oriental scarf. A glare hung over London, palpitating as with multitudinous and angry life; and when the omnibus slowed up in Hammersmith Broadway the voice of the streets grew loud—the monstrous city, so it seemed to Dominic Iglesias, shouting defiance to the majestic calm and solemnity of the eternal stars.
"He says it is nothing serious, only a slight chill; and sends kind regards and many thanks for kind inquiries, and hopes to be out in a day or two, when he will call and thank you in person."
This from George Lovegrove to his wife, the latter arrayed in garments of ceremony and seated upon the Chesterfield sofa awaiting guests. It was her afternoon at-home.
"Well, I'm sure I hope it is no more than that, Georgie," she answered comfortably. "Chills are always going about in November, and very often gentlemen encourage them—especially bachelors—by not changing into their winter vests and pants early enough. A great deal of illness is contracted that way."
Here Serena rustled audibly. She stood by the window, holding the lace curtain just sufficiently aside to get a narrow and attenuated view of the fog-enshrouded Green. The outlook was far from inspiriting, and Serena was keenly interested in the conversation going forward between her host and hostess. But it was not in her programme to let this appear. She, while straining her ears to listen, therefore maintained an air of detachment. The word "pants" was, however, too much for her fortitude, and she rustled. "Really, Rhoda does use the most dreadfully unladylike expressions sometimes," she commented inwardly. "She never seems to remember that everyone is not married, though even if they were I should hope they would not mention those sort of things. Rhoda is wanting in refinement. I wonder if George notices that and feels it. If he does notice it, I think he ought to tell her about it, because—"
But here she fell to listening again, since the said George took up his parable once more.
"Still, I own I don't like his looks somehow. His face is so thin and drawn. It reminds me of the time his mother, poor Mrs. Iglesias, died. I told him, just jocularly, that his appearance surprised me, but he put it all aside—you know he has a very high aristocratic manner at times that makes you feel you have been intrusive—and then talked of other things."
"He has lived too solitary," Mrs. Lovegrove said judicially, "too solitary, and that tells on any one in middle life. I should never forgive myself if we left him to mope. You must just try to coax him over here to stay, Georgie, and I'll nurse him up and humour him, and fortunately Serena's here, you see, for pleasant company."
Mrs. Lovegrove looked meaningly at her spouse, while the figure at the window again rustled.
"I am sure you would exert yourself to help cheer poor Mr. Iglesias up, if he came over to stay, would you not now, Serena?" she inquired insinuatingly.
"Are you speaking to me, Rhoda?"
"Yes, about Mr. Iglesias coming here to stay."
Serena turned her head and answered over her shoulder.
"Of course you and George are quite at liberty to ask anyone here whom you like. And if Mrs. Iglesias came I should be perfectly civil to him. But I should not care, Rhoda, to bind myself to anything more than that, because I do not find him an easy person to get on with."
She turned to her contemplation of the fog with a renewed assumption of indifference. George Lovegrove's shiny forehead puckered into little lines. He looked anxiously at his wife. The good lady, however, laid a fat forefinger upon her lips and nodded her head at him in the most archly reassuring manner.
"That's funny," she said, "because Mr. Iglesias is quite the cleverest of all Georgie's gentlemen friends—except, of course, the dear vicar —and so I always took for granted anyone like yourself was sure to get on nicely with him, Serena. Even I hardly ever find him difficult to talk with."
"I never talk easily to strangers," Serena put in loftily.
"Oh! but you'd hardly call Mr. Iglesias a stranger."
"Yes, I should," Serena declared with emphasis. "I should certainly call him a stranger. I always call everyone a stranger till I know them intimately. It is much safer to do so. And it would be absurd to pretend that I know Mr. Iglesias intimately. You, of course, do, but I do not. You and George may have seen him frequently since I have been here, but I have really seen him very seldom, four or five times at the outside. He has generally appeared to call when I was likely to be out. I could not help observing that. It may be a coincidence, of course. But I cannot pretend that I have not thought it rather marked."
Serena had advanced into the centre of the room. She held herself erect. She enjoyed making a demonstration. "Rhoda may think I am a cipher," she said to herself, "but she is mistaken. She may think I can be hoodwinked and used as a mere tool, but I will let her see that I cannot." She felt daring and dangerous, and her eyes snapped. The rustling of her skirts and the emphatic tones of her voice aroused the parrot, which had been dosing on its perch, its head sunk between its shoulders and its breast-feathers fluffed out into a little green apron over its grey claws.
"Pollie's own pet girlie," it murmured drowsily, with dry clickings of its tongue against its beak, the words jolting out in foolish twos and threes. "Hi! p'liceman—murder! fire! thieves!—there's another jolly row downstairs."
Poor George Lovegrove gazed in bewilderment from Serena to the parrot, from the parrot to his wife, and then back to Serena again.
"You do surprise me! And I am more mortified than I can say that you should have the most distant reason, Serena—or Susan either—ever to feel the least slighted in this house. You do surprise me—I can't believe it has been the least intentional on Iglesias' part. But I would not have had anything of the kind happen for twenty pounds."
"Pray don't apologise, George," Serena cried, "or I shall feel quite annoyed. Of course everyone has a right to their own preferences; but I had been led to expect something different. As I say, it may only be a coincidence. Nothing may have really been meant. Only it has seemed rather marked. But in any case it has not been your fault, George."
"I am very glad you allow that, Serena," the good creature said humbly.
"Oh! yes. I quite excuse you of any intentional slight, George. I quite trust you. Still, nothing could be more unpleasant than for me to feel that my being here put any restriction upon your friends coming to the house. Of course I know Susan and I move in rather different society from Rhoda and yourself."
"Yes," he assented hurriedly, agonised as to the wife's feelings— "yes, yes."
"And so it is quite possible that I may not suit some of your acquaintances."
"Excuse me," he panted—"no, Serena, I cannot think that."
"I am not sure," she returned argumentatively. "Not at all sure, George. And nothing could be more unpleasant to me than to feel I was the least in the way. Of course, I should never have come back if I had supposed I should be in the way; but Rhoda made such a point of it."
Here the parrot broke forth into prolonged and earpiercing shriekings, flapping its wings violently and nearly tumbled backwards off its perch.
"Throw a handkerchief over the poor bird's cage, Georgie dear," cried Mrs. Lovegrove from the sofa. Her face was red. She had become distressingly hot and flustered.—"And just as I was flattering myself it was all turning out so nicely, too," she said to herself.—"No, not your own, Georgie dear"—this aloud—"you may need it later. The red bandana out of the right-hand corner of the top drawer of the work- table."
"I think it would be much simpler for me to go," Serena continued, her voice pitched in a high key to combat the cries of the parrot and the rattle of the table drawer, which George Lovegrove in his present state of agitation found it impossible to shut with accuracy and despatch.
"Of course, it may inconvenience Susan to have me return sooner than she expected. She is away speaking at a number of missionary meetings in the North. And the maids will be on board wages, and the drawing- room furniture will have been put into holland covers. She counted on my staying here till I go to my cousin, Lady Samuelson, in Ladbroke Square, the third week in December. But, of course, all that must be arranged. I can give up my visit. Lady Samuelson will be annoyed, and I don't know what excuse I can make to her. Still, I think I had really much better go; and then you can have Mr. Iglesias, or any other of your and Rhoda's friends, to stop here without my feeling that I am in the way. Nothing could be more odious to me than feeling I was encroaching or forcing myself upon you. Mamma would never have countenanced such behaviour. It is the sort of thing we were always brought up to have the greatest horror of. It is a thing I never have done and never could do. I hope you understand that, George. Nothing could be further from my thoughts when I accepted Rhoda's invitation to——"
"Miss Hart, please, ma'am," the little house-parlour-maid trumpeted, her face very pink from the exertion of attracting her mistress's attention and making herself heard. Mrs. Lovegrove bounced up from the sofa. Usually, it must be allowed, the great Eliza was rather at a discount. Now she was astonishingly welcome. Her hostess's greeting, though silent, was effusively cordial. She clutched at her guest's hand as one in imminent risk of drowning at a lifebelt. The said guest was in her sprightliest humour. She was also in a scarlet flannel blouse thickly powdered with gradated black discs. This, in conjunction with purple chrysanthemums in a black hat, her tawny hair and freckled complexion, did not constitute a wholly delicious scheme of colour; but to this fact Mrs. Lovegrove was supremely indifferent.
"Good-afternoon," Miss Hart said in a stage whisper, glancing towards Serena, still bright-eyed and erect. "Don't let me interrupt, pray. My conversation will keep. I will just sit and listen."
"Listen to what?" Serena cried, almost inarticulate with indignation.
"Why, to your recitation. Our gentlemen often treat us to a little in that line of an evening, Mrs. Lovegrove, after dinner. I dote on recitation. Pieces of a comic nature specially, when well delivered."
"I should never dream of reciting," Serena declared heatedly.
"No, really now," Miss Hart returned. "That seems quite a pity. It is such a pleasant occupation for a dull afternoon like this, do you not think so, Miss Lovegrove? I declare I was quite sure, from the moment I came into the hall—while I was taking off my waterproof—that your cousin was giving you a little entertainment of that kind, Mr. Lovegrove. Her voice was running up and down in such a very telling manner."
If glances could scorch, Miss Hart would unquestionably have been reduced to a cinder, for rage possessed Serena. She had worked herself up into a fine fume of anger over purely imaginary injuries. And now, that Eliza Hart, of all people in the world, should intervene with suggestions of comic recitations!
"Detestable person!" Serena said to herself. "Her conduct is positively outrageous. Of course she knew perfectly well I was doing nothing of the kind. Really, I believe anybody would feel her manner quite insulting. I wonder how George and Rhoda can tolerate her. It shows George has deteriorated much that he should tolerate her. I am not so surprised at Rhoda. Of course she never had good taste. I think I ought to go to my room. That would mark my displeasure. But then she may have come on purpose to say something particular. I wonder if she has done so? Of course if she has, she wants to get rid of me. That is her object. But she is mistaken if she thinks that I shall gratify her. I think I owe it to myself to make sure exactly what is going on. I will certainly stay. That will show her I am on the watch."
During this protracted, though silent, colloquy, Serena had remained standing in the middle of the room. Now she rustled back to the window, held aside the lace curtain and resumed her contemplation of the fog-enshrouded Green. Good George Lovegrove gazed after her in deep dejection and perplexity. Somebody, it appeared to him, had been extremely unreasonable and disagreeable; but who that somebody was for the very life of him he could not tell. The wife was out of the question; while to suppose it Serena approached high treason. Still he was very sure it could not be that most scrupulously courteous personage Dominic Iglesias. There remained himself—"Yet I wouldn't knowingly vex a fly," he thought, "and as to vexing Serena! Sometimes ones does wish females were not quite so sensitive."
Miss Hart, meanwhile, had taken the unaccustomed post of honour beside her hostess upon the sofa. She was enjoying herself immensely. She had a conviction of marching to victory.
"Yes," she said, "Mrs. Lovegrove, dear Peachie Porcher asked me just to run across as she has missed your last two afternoons, lest you should think her neglectful. I am well aware I am but a poor substitute for Peachie—no compliments now, Mr. Lovegrove, if you please!"
"Mrs. Porcher is in good health, I trust"—this from Rhoda.
"At present, yes, I am happy to say, thank you. But how long it will continue," Miss Hart spoke impressively—"at this rate I am sure I cannot tell."
"Indeed," George Lovegrove inquired anxiously. "You don't tell me so? Nothing wrong, I trust."
"Well, as I always tell her, her sense of duty amounts almost to a fault—so unselfish, so conscientious, it brings tears to my eyes often at times. I hope it is appreciated in the right quarter—I do hope that, Mr. Lovegrove."
Here Rhoda's bosom heaved with a generous sigh.
"There is much ingratitude in the world, Miss Hart, I fear," she said pensively.
Her husband looked at her in an anguish of apology—whether for his own sins or those of others he knew not exactly.
"So there is, Mrs. Lovegrove," Eliza responded warmly. "And nobody is a more speaking example of that truth than Peachie Porcher. When I think of all she went through during her married life, and yet so unsuspicious, so trusting—it is enough to melt an iceberg, that it is, Mrs. Lovegrove. Now, as I was saying to her only this morning, 'You must study yourself a little, get out in the air, take a peep at the shops, and have some amusement.' But her reply is always the same.—'No, Liz, dear,' she says, 'not at the present time, thank you. I know the duties of my position as mistress of Cedar Lodge. When any one of our gentlemen is ailing, my place is at home. I must remain in the house in case of a sudden emergency. I should not have an easy moment away from the place,' she says."
Miss Hart looked around upon her hearers demanding approbation and sympathy.
"Very affecting, is it not?" she inquired.
After a moment's embarrassed silence, George Lovegrove murmured a suitable, if timid, assent. His wife assumed a bolder attitude. Goaded by provocations recently received, she went over—temporarily—to the side of the enemy.
"I always have maintained Mrs. Porcher was full of heart," she declared, throwing the assertion across the room, much as though it was a stone, in the direction of the figure at the window.
Serena drew herself up with a rustle.
"I wonder exactly what Rhoda means by that?" she commented inwardly. "I think it very odd. Of course, she must have some meaning, and I wonder what it is. She seems to be changing her line. I am glad I stayed. I am afraid Rhoda is rather deceitful. I excuse George of deceit. I believe George to be true; but he is sadly influenced by Rhoda. I am rather sorry for George."
"So she is, Mrs. Lovegrove," Eliza Hart resumed—"Peachie's too full of heart, as I tell her. She is forever thinking of others and their comforts. She grudges neither time nor money, does not Peachie. There is nothing calculating or cheese-paring about her—not enough, I often think. Fish, sweetbreads, game, poultry, and all of the very best— where the profits are to come from with a bill of fare like that passes my powers of arithmetic, and so I point out to her. I hope it is appreciated—yes, I do hope that, Mr. Lovegrove"—there the speaker became extremely coy and playful. "A little bird sometimes seems to twitter to me that it is. And yet I am sure I don't know. The members of your sex are very misleading, Mr. Lovegrove. Do not perjure yourself now. You cannot take me in. And a certain gentleman is very close, you know, and stand-offish. It is not easy to get at his real sentiments, is it, now?"
Serena laid back her ears, so to speak. "I was quite right to stay," she reflected wrathfully.
"I think Mr. Iglesias is unusually considerate, Miss Hart," George Lovegrove said tentatively. "He is quite sensible of Mrs. Porcher's kind attentions. But naturally he is very tenacious of upsetting her household arrangements and giving additional trouble."
"And then the position of a bachelor is delicate, Miss Hart, you must admit," Mrs. Lovegrove chimed in. "That's what I always tell Georgie. It may do all very well in their younger days to be unattached, but as gentlemen get on in life they do need their own private establishments. I am sure I am sorry for them in chambers, or even in good rooms like those at Cedar Lodge. For it is not the same as a home, Miss Hart, and never can be. There must be awkwardnesses on both sides at times, especially when, it comes to illness."
Then the great Eliza gathered herself together, for it appeared to her her forecast had been just and that she was indeed marching to victory.
"Yes, there is no denying all that," she said, "and I am more than glad you see it in that light, Mrs. Lovegrove. Between ourselves, I have more and more ever since a certain gentleman gave up work in the City. It would be premature to speak freely; but, just between friends and under the rose, you being interested in one party and I in the other, there can be no harm in dropping a hint and ascertaining how the land lies. Of course if it came to pass, it would be to my own disadvantage, for I do not know how I should ever bear to part with Peachie Porcher. Still, I could put myself aside, if I felt it was for her happiness."
"You do surprise me," George Lovegrove exclaimed. He was filled with consternation, his hair nearly rising on his head. "I had no notion. Dear me, you fairly take away my breath." He could almost have wept. "To think of it!" he repeated. "Only to think of it! Miss Hart, you do surprise me."
"Oh! you must not run away with the notion anything is really settled yet," she replied. "And I could not say Mrs. Porcher really would, when it came to the point, after the experiences she had in her first marriage. She is very reserved, is Peachie. Still, she might. And very fortunate a certain gentleman would be if she did—it does not take more than half an eye to see that."
"Dr. Nevington, please, ma'am," announced the parlour-maid, and the fine clerical voice and clerical presence filled all the room. Thereupon Serena graciously joined the circle. She was unusually self- possessed and definite. She embarked in a quite spirited conversation with the newcomer. And when Eliza Hart, after a few pleasantries of a parochial tendency with the said newcomer—in whose favour she had vacated the place of honour upon the sofa—rose to depart, Serena bowed to her in the most royally distant and superior manner. Her amiability remained a constant quantity during the rest of the evening; and when an opportunity occurred of speaking in private to her cousin, she did so with the utmost cordiality.
"I do hope, George," she said, "you will not think any more of our little unpleasantness. I can truly say I never bear malice. I own I was annoyed, for I felt I had not been quite fairly treated by Rhoda. But, of course, I may have been mistaken. I am quite willing to believe so and to let bygones be bygones, and stay, as Rhoda pressed me to do, until I go to my cousin, Lady Samuelson, in December. Of course it would be more convenient to me in some ways. But I am not thinking of that. I am thinking of you and Rhoda. I should not like to disappoint her by leaving her when she wants me to help entertain your friend, Mr. Iglesias. Of course, I cannot pretend I take easily to strangers. Mamma was very particular whom we associated with, and so I have always been unaccustomed to strangers, and I cannot pretend I am partial to making new acquaintances. Still, I should be very sorry to seem unaccommodating, or to hurt you and Rhoda by refusing to stay and assist you."
"Thank you truly, Serena; I am sure you are very kind," the good man answered. And the best, or the worst, of it was he actually believed he was speaking the truth!
The easterly wind blew strong and shattering, bleak and dreary, against the windows of the bedchamber at the back of the house. The complaint of the cedar tree, as the branches sawed upon one another, was long-drawn and loud. These sounds reached Iglesias in the sitting- room, where he sat, alone and unoccupied, before the fire. For more than a week now he had been confined to the house. He had set the door of communication between the two rooms open, so as to gain a greater sense of space and that he might take a little exercise by walking the whole length of them. The cry of the wind and the moan of the sawing branches was very comfortless, yet he made no effort to shut it out. To begin with, he was so weak that it was too much trouble to move. To go on with, the melancholy sounds were not ill-suited to his present humour. For a great depression was upon him, a weariness of spirit which might be felt. Out of doors London shivered, houses and sky and the expanse of Trimmer's Green, with its leafless trees and iron railings, livid, a greyness upon them as of fear. Dominic had no quarrel with this either. Indeed it gave him a certain bitter satisfaction, as offering a not inharmonious setting to his own thought.
Though not robust he was tough and wiry, so that illness of such a nature as to necessitate his remaining within doors was a new and trying experience. Crossing Hammersmith Bridge on the 'bustop ten days previously, the chill of the river had struck through him. Yet this, in all reasonable probability, would merely have resulted in passing physical discomfort, but for the moral and spiritual hurt immediately preceding it. How far the mind has power to cure the body is still an open question. But that the mind can actively predispose the body to sickness is indubitable. To realise and analyse, in their several bearings, the causes and consequences of that same moral hurt Iglesias' pride and loyalty alike refused. In respect of them he set his jaw and sternly averted his eyes. Yet, though the will may be steady to resist and to abstain, the tides of feeling ebb and flow, contemptuous of control as those of some unquiet sea. They defy volition, notably in illness when vitality is low. Refuse as he might to go behind the fact, it remained indisputable that the Lady of the Windswept Dust had given him his dismissal. Out of his daily life a joy had gone, a constant object of thought and interest. Out of his heart a living presence had gone, leaving a void more harsh than death. And all this had happened in a connection peculiarly painful and distasteful to him; so that it was as though a foul miasma had arisen, and, drifting across the face of his fair friendship, distorted its proportions, rendering all his memories of it suspect. Further, in this discrediting of friendship his hope of the discovery of that language of the soul which can alone effect a true adjustment between the exterior and interior life had suffered violent eclipse. He had been thrown back into the prison-house of the obvious and the material. The world had lost its poetry, had grown narrow, sordid, dim, and gross. His own life had grown more than ever barren of opportunity and inept. In short, Dominic Iglesias had lost sight of the far horizon which is touched by the glory of the Uncreated Light; and, so doing, dwelt in outer darkness once again, infinitely desolate.
On the afternoon in question he had reached the nadir of disillusion and distrust. He leaned back in the red-covered chair, his shapely hands lying, palms downward, along the two arms of it, his vision of the room and its familiar contents blurred by unshed tears. It was an hour of supreme discouragement.
"Nothing is left," he said, half aloud, "nothing. The future is as blank as the present. If this is to grow old, then indeed those whom the gods love have need enough to die young."
For a space he listened to the shattering wind as it cried in the window-sashes, to the branches of the cedar sawing upon one another and moaning as in self-inflicted pain. Newsboys were calling early specials. The coarse cockney voices, strangled by the easterly blast, met and crossed one another, died away in a side street, to emerge again and again encounter. Such words as were distinguishable seemed of sinister import, agitating to the imagination. Then de Courcy Smyth's shuffling footsteps crossed the floor of the room overhead. The wire-wove mattress of his bed creaked as he sat on the edge of it, kicking off his slippers and putting on walking boots, as might be gathered from floppings followed by an equally nerveless but heavier tread. A door opened, closed, and the footsteps descended the stairs. On the landing without they paused for an appreciable time; but, to Mr. Iglesias's great relief, deciding against attempt of entry, continued their cheerless progress down to the hall below. Yet, just now Iglesias could have found it in his heart to envy the man, notwithstanding his unsavouriness of attitude and aspect. For in him ambition still stirred. He had still definite work to do, and the hope of eventual fame to support him during the doing of it; had the triumph of the theatre, the applause of an audience in the white heat of enthusiasm to dream of and strive after.
"But, for me, nothing," Iglesias repeated, "whether vital as of those far-away southern battle-fields, or fictitious and close at hand as of the stage. Not even the sting of poverty to whet appetite and give an edge to bodily hunger. Nothing, either of fear or of hope. The measure of my obscurity is the measure of my immunity from change of fortune, bad or good. I am worthless even as food for powder. Danger herself will have none of me, and passes me by."
With that he raised his hands and let them drop despairingly along the arms of the chair again, while the unbidden tears overflowed. For a minute or more he remained thus, weeping silently with bowed head. Then, a movement of self-contempt taking him, he regained his calm, sat upright, brushing away the tears.
And it was as though, in thus regaining a clearer physical vision, he regained a clearer mental vision likewise. Purpose asserted itself as against mere blind acquiescence. Iglesias looked up, demanding as of right some measure of consolation, some object promising help. So doing, his eyes sought a certain carven oak panel set in an ebony frame. From his earliest childhood he remembered it, for it had hung in his mother's bedchamber; and in those far-away years, while she still had sufficient force to disregard opposition and make an open practice of prayer, she had kneeled before it when engaged in her devotions. Waking at night—when as a baby-child, during his father's long absences, he slept in her room—Dominic had often seen the delicate kneeling figure, wrapped in some loose-flowing garment, the hands outstretched in supplication. Even then, in the first push of conscious intelligence, the carven picture had spoken to him as something masterful, for all its rigidity and sadness, and very strong to help. It had given him a sense of protection and security, so that his little soul was satisfied; and he could go to sleep again in peace, sure that his mother was in safe keeping while—as he said—she "talked to it." In the long interval which had elapsed since then he had lost touch with the spirit of it, though preserving it as among the most cherished of his family relics. His appreciation of it had become aesthetic rather than religious. But now, as it hung on the dimly white wall above his writing-table on the window side of the fireplace, the dreary London afternoon light took the surface of it, bringing all the details of the scene into prominence. Suddenly, unexpectedly, the old power declared itself. The picture came alive as to the intention and meaning of it. It spoke to him once again, and that with no uncertain voice.
Three tall narrow crosses uplifted against a cloudless sky. Below, a multitude of men, women, and horses, carved in varying degrees of relief. Some starting into bold definiteness, some barely indicated and as though imprisoned in the thickness of the wood; but all grave, energetic, and, whether inspired by compassion or by mockery, fierce. These grouped around a great web of linen—upheld by some of them at the four corners, hammock-wise, high at the head, low at the foot— wherein lay the corpse of a man in the very flower of his age, of heroic proportions, spare yet muscular, long and finely angular of limb, the articulations notably slender, the head borne proudly though bent, the features severely beautiful, the whole virile, indomitable even in the physical abjection of death.
In this Spanish presentment of the closing act of the Divine Tragedy the sensuous pagan element, which mars too many otherwise admirable works of religious art, was absent. Its appeal was to the intellect rather than to the emotions, inculcating effort rather than inviting any sentimental passion of pity. Its message was that of conquest, of iron self-mastery and self-restraint. This was bracing and courage- begetting even when viewed from the exclusively artistic standpoint. But now not merely the presentment of the event held Iglesias' attention, but the event presented, the thing in itself. His heart and intelligence grasped the meaning of it, not only as a matter of supreme historic interest in view of its astonishing influence upon human development during the last two thousand years; but as an ever- present reality, as an exposition of the Absolute, of that which everlastingly has been, and everlastingly will be, and hence of incalculable and immediate importance to himself. It spoke to him of no vague and general truth; but of a truth intimate and individual, coming to him as the call to enter upon a personal inheritance. Of obedience to the dictates of natural religion, and faithful practice of the pieties of it, Dominic Iglesias had, all his life, been a remarkable if unconscious exponent. But this awakening of the spirit to the actualities of supernatural religion, this crossing of that dark immensity of space which appears to interpose between Almighty God and the mind of man, was new to him. He had sought a language of the soul which might effect an adjustment between the exterior and interior life. Here, in the Word made Flesh, with reverent amazement he found it. He had sought it through the instrumentality of the things of time and sense; and they, though full with promise, had proved illusory. He had fixed his hope on relation to the creature. But here, all the while, close beside him, waiting till the scales should fall from his eyes and he should see and understand, had stood the Creator. Fair, very fair—while it lasted—was human friendship. But here, had he but strength and daring to meet it, was a friendship infinitely fairer, immutable, eternal—namely, the friendship of Almighty God.
The easterly wind still cried in the window-sashes, harsh and shattering. The branches of the exiled cedar tree sawed upon one another, uttering their long-drawn complaint. The voices of the newsboys, hoarse and raucous, shouting their sinister message, still came and went. The livid light of the winter afternoon grew more dreary as it sank into, and was absorbed by, the deepening dusk. But to Dominic Iglesias these things had ceased to matter. Dazzled, enchanted, confounded, alike by the magnitude and the simplicity of his discovery, he remained gazing at the carven panel; gazing through and beyond it to that of which it was the medium and symbol, gazing, clear-eyed and fearlessly, away to the far horizon radiant with the surpassing glory of the Uncreated Light.
The Black Week had just ended; but the humiliation of it lay, as a dead weight, upon the heart of London. Three crushing reverses in eight days—Stormberg, Magersfontein, and finally Colenso! There was no getting rid of the facts, or the meaning of them in respect of incapacity, blundering, and reckless waste of personal valour. It was a sorry tale, and one over which Europe at large chuckled. It has been universally assumed that the English are a serious nation. This is an error. They are not serious, but indifferent, a nation of individualists, each mainly, not to say exclusively, occupied with his own private affairs. With the vast majority unity of sentiment is suspect, and patriotism a passive rather than an active virtue. But at this juncture, under the stress of repeated disaster, unity of sentiment and patriotism—that is, a sense of the national honour and necessity for the vindication of it—became strongly evident. London was profoundly and visibly moved. Not with excitement—that came later, manifesting itself in hysterical outcries of relief—but with a grim anger and sadness of astonishment that such things could indeed be. Strangers, passing in the street, looked one another in the eyes questioningly, a common anxiety forging unexpected bonds of kinship. The town was curiously hushed, as though listening, always listening, for those ugly messages rushed so perpetually by cable from overseas. Men's faces were strained by the effort to hear, and, hearing, to judge justly the extent and the bearings of both national and individual damage. Already mourning struck a sensible note in women's dress. If the Little Englander capered, he was careful to do so at home, or in meeting-places frequented only by persons likeminded with himself. It may be questioned whether he is not ever most courageous when under covert thus; since shooting out of windows or from behind hedges would appear to be his inherent, and not particularly gallant, notion of sport. The newsboys alone openly and blatantly rejoiced, dominating the situation—as on Derby Day or Boat-race Night—and putting a gilded dome to the horror by yelling highly seasoned lies when truth proved insufficiently evil to stimulate custom to the extent of his desires. Depression, as of storm, permeated the social atmosphere. Churches were full, places of amusement comparatively empty. To laugh seemed an indiscretion trenching on indecency.
Amid surrounding bravery of imperial purple, cream-colour, and gold, Poppy St. John sat at the extreme end of the first row of balcony stalls in the newly opened Twentieth Century Theatre. This was a calm and secluded spot, since the partition, dividing off the boxes, flanked it on the right. Partly on this account Poppy had selected it. Partly, also, because it afforded an excellent view of the left of the stage; and it was on the left—looking from the body of the house— that the principal action of the piece, as far as Dot Parris's part was concerned, took place. Poppy was unattended. She wanted an evening's rest, an evening free of conversation and effort; but she wanted something to look at, too, something affording just sufficient emotional stimulus to keep importunate thought at bay. This the theatre supplied. It had ceased long ago to tire her. She knew the ways of it from both sides of the footlights uncommonly well, and loved them indifferently much. She was a shrewd and cynical critic. Nevertheless, to go to the play was a sort of going home to her—a home neither very socially nor morally exalted, perhaps, but one offering the advantages of perfect familiarity.
Huddled in a black velvet fur-lined sacque, reaching to her feet and abundantly trimmed with jet embroidery and black lace, she settled herself in her place. The soft fur was cosey against her bare neck. She felt chilly. Later she might peel, thereby exhibiting the values of the rest of her costume. But it was not worth while to do so yet. The first piece was over, but the house was still a poor one. It might fill up. She hoped it would for Dot's sake; for few things are more disheartening than to play to empty benches. But, at present, the audience was altogether too sparse for it to be worth while to sacrifice comfort to effect. In point of fact, Poppy was cold from sheer fatigue. For the last month, to employ her own rather variegated phraseology, she had racketed, had persistently and pertinaciously been "going the pace." No doubt they do these things better in France; yet, as she reflected, provided you are unhampered by prejudice, are fairly in funds and know the ropes, even grimy fog-bound London is, in this particular connection, by no means to be sneezed at. And truly Poppy's autobiography during the said month would have made extremely merry reading, amounting in some aspects to a positive classic—though of the kind hardly suited as a basis of instruction for the pupils of a young ladies' school. Setting aside adventures of a more questionable character, a positively alarming good luck had pursued her, everything she touched turning to gold. Even in this hour of financial depression the market favoured her both in buying and selling. If she put money on a horse, that horse was sure to win. If she played cards—and she had played pretty constantly—she inevitably plundered her opponents. This last alone, of all her doubtful doings, really troubled her; for her opponents had frequently been youthful, and it was contrary to Poppy's principles to pluck the but half-fledged chick.
Barring this solitary deflection from her somewhat latitudinarian code of ethics, she had, on the face of it, ample cause for self- congratulation. Never had she been more gaily audacious in word or deed. Never had she been better company, keeping her audience—an almost exclusively masculine one—in a roar, all the louder perhaps because of inward defiance of the news from over-seas, the humiliation of which had now culminated in the disasters of the Black Week. Flame only shows the brighter for a sombre background. And Poppy, during this ill-starred period, had been as a flame to her admirers and associates—a fitful, prankish flame, full of provocation and bedevilment, the light of it inciting to all manner of wild doings and, in the end, not infrequently scorching those pretty shrewdly who were over-bold in warming themselves at the heat of it. For fires of the sort lighted by Poppy are not precisely such as contribute to the peace and security of the domestic hearth.
But now she was tired. The fun seemed fun no longer; so that, notwithstanding her successes, she found herself a prey to dissatisfaction, discontent, and a disposition to recall all the less happy episodes of her varied career. She yawned quite loudly, as she laid opera-glasses and play-bill upon the velvet cushion in front of her, and pulled the soft fur-lined garment up closer about her shoulders.
"The first act's safe to be poorish anyhow, and Dot does not come on till just the end of it. I wonder if I dare go to sleep?" she asked herself, gently rubbing her eyes. "It would be awfully nice to forget the whole blooming show, past, present, and to come, for a little while and plunge in the waters of oblivion. Oblivion with a capital O —a dose of that's what I want. Beautiful roomy consolation-stakes of a word, oblivion, if one could only believe in the existence of it—which, unluckily, some-how I can't."
Here the strains of the orchestra ceased. The lights were turned low in the body of the house. The curtain went up. As it did so a cold draught drew from regions behind the stage, laden with that indefinable odour of gas, glue, humanity, flagged stair and alleyways, paint, canvas, carpentry, and underground places the sun never penetrates, which haunts the working part of every theatre. Poppy smiled as she snuffed it, with a queer mingling of enjoyment and repulsion. For as is the smell of ocean to the seafarer, of mother- earth to the peasant, of incense to the priest, so is the smell of the theatre to the player. Nature may revolt; but the spell holds. Once an actor always an actor. The mark of the calling is indelible. Even to the third and fourth generation there is no rubbing it out.
"I suppose it would have been wiser if I had stuck to the profession," Poppy commented to herself. "I should have been a leading lady by now, drawing my thirty to forty pounds a week. I had the root of the matter in me. Have it still, worse luck; for it's the sort of root which asserts its continued existence by aching at times like that of a broken tooth. It was a wrench to give it all up. But then those rotten plays of his, inflated impossible stuff, which would never act— couldn't act!—and I carrying them round to manager after manager and using all the gentle arts I knew to get them accepted. Oh! it was very dignified, it was very pretty! And then his perpetual persecutions for money, his jealousy and spite, and his fine feelings, his infernal superiority—yes, that was what really did the job. Flesh and blood couldn't stand it. To prove to a woman, at three meals daily, that she couldn't hold a candle to you in birth, or brains, or education; and then expect her to slave for you—and make it jolly hot for her if she didn't, too—while you sat at home and caressed the delusion of your own heaven-born genius in the only decently comfortable chair in the house! No, it was not good enough—that it was not."
Poppy surveyed the stage, unseeing, her great eyes wide with unlovely memories.
"I wonder what's become of him," she said presently. "He hasn't dunned me for months. Has he found some other poor wretch to bleed? Must have, I imagine, for he always declared he was on the edge of starvation. Supposing that was true, though—supposing he has starved?"
Her thought sank away into a wordless reverie of the dreariest description. Suddenly she roused herself, clenching her hands in her lap.
"Well, supposing he has, what does it matter to me? If ever a man deserved to starve, he did, vain, lazy, cowardly, self-seeking jackal of a fellow. Why in the name of reason should I trouble about him— specially to-night? But then why, whenever I am a bit done, does the remembrance of him always come back?"
Poppy yawned again, staring blankly at the persons on the stage, hearing the sound of their speech but knowing only the sense of her own thought.
"Why? Because it's like him, because it's altogether in the part. He was always on the watch for his opportunity; wheedling or blackguarding, directly he saw one had no fight left in one, till he got his own way."
She leaned forward, resting her hands on the velvet cushion.
"I am confoundedly tired," she said. "All the same, it's rather horrible. If the thing came over again, which mercifully it can't, I should do precisely the same as I did. And yet I'm never quite sure which of us was really in the right. And, therefore, I suppose just as long as I live, whenever I'm dished—as I am to-night—I shall work the whole hateful business through again, and the remembrance of him will always come back."
She pushed the soft heavy masses of hair up from her forehead with both hands.
"In the main it was your own fault, de Courcy Smyth, and you know that it was. Most women would not have held out nearly as long as I did. So lie quiet. Let me be. Starve, if you've got as far on the downgrade as that. What do I care? I owe you nothing. You never gave me a child. So starve, if you must—yes, starve," she said.
Then she gathered herself back into her stall. Her expression changed.
"Ah, there's Dot. They're giving her a reception. Bless them—how awfully sweet! Hurrah for poor little Dot!" Her hands went up to applaud. And for the ensuing ten minutes her fatigue was forgotten. She became absorbed in the action of the piece.
Dot Parris earned a recall at the end of the first act, conquering by sheer force of personality that gloomy and half-hearted audience. And Poppy St. John—among whose many faults lack of generosity certainly could not be counted—standing up, leaned right out over the velvet- cushioned barrier of the dress circle, crying "Brava!" and clapping her hands. To achieve the latter demonstration with befitting resonance she had stripped off her gloves. Then as the lights were turned up and the curtain swung into the place, she proceeded to further stripping—namely, that of her black embroidered sacque, which she threw across the back of the empty stall beside her, thereby revealing a startling costume. For she was clothed in rose-scarlet from shoulder to foot; and that without ornament of any description to break up the daring uniformity of colour, save the stiff unstanding black aigrette in her hair, tipped with diamond points which flashed and glittered as she moved. The soft mousseline-de-soie of which her dress was made swathed her figure, cross-wise, without apparent fastening, moulding it to the turn of the hips. Thence the skirt flowed down in a froth of rose-scarlet gaugings and fluted frills, which trailed behind her far. The bodice was cut in a deep V back and front, showing her bare neck. Her arms were bare, too, from the elbow. Her skin, somewhat sallow by day, took on a delicate ivory whiteness under the electric light. By accident or design she had omitted to tinge her cheeks to-night; and the even pallor of her face emphasised the largeness of her eyes—luminous, just now, with sympathy and enthusiasm. For the artist in Poppy dominated all else, vibrant and alert. The glamour of the actor's life was upon her; the seamy side of it forgotten—its unworthy rivalries and bickerings, the slangings and prolonged weariness of rehearsals, its many disappointments, heart-burnings, and sordid shifts. These were as though they were not; so that the stage called her, even as the sea calls one, and mother-earth another, and religion a third.
"Pou-ah! aren't I just hot, though!" she said, half aloud, as she flung off her sacque. "And what a changeling imp of a creature Dot is, after all! An imp of genius.—well, she's every right to that, as one knows when one looks at James Colthurst's pictures. He'd genius. He didn't shirk living. My stars! there was a man capable of adding to the number of one's emotions! And she's inherited his gifts on her own lines. What a voice, what gestures! She is as clever as she can stick. Oh! she's a real joy of a demon of a thing, bless her; and she's nothing like come to her full strength yet."
Then growing aware that she herself and her vivid attire were beginning to attract more attention than, in the interests of a quiet evening, she desired, Poppy subsided languidly into her stall, and, picking up her opera-glasses, slowly surveyed the occupants of the house.
There to begin with was Bobby Saville in the second row of the stalls, flanked on either hand by a contingent of followers. His round dark head and the set of his tremendous shoulders were unmistakable. Saville was very far from being a model young man, yet Poppy had a soft spot in her heart for this aristocratic bruiser and bravo. His constancy to Dot Parris was really touching. With a dog-like faithfulness and docility, this otherwise most turbulent of his sex had followed the object of his affections from music-hall to comic opera, from comic opera to the high places of legitimate drama. And Dot meanwhile remained serenely invulnerable, tricking and mocking her high-born heavy-weight lover, telling him cheerfully she really had no use for him, though his intentions were strictly honourable. Twenty- five years hence, she added, when he was an elderly peer, and she had begun to grow broad in the beam, and the public had begun to grow tired of her, she might perhaps contemplate the thraldom of wedlock. But not yet awhile—no, thank you. Her art held all her love, satisfied all her passions; she had none to waste upon mankind. Two days hence, as Poppy knew, Bobby Saville would sail for South Africa, to offer an extensive target to Boer bullets. He had come to bid farewell, to-night, to the obdurate object of his affections. And his followers—some of whom were also bound for the seat of war—had come to support him during those pathetic proceedings.
In the boxes she recognised more than one woman whose rank of riches had rendered her appearance common property through the medium of the illustrated papers. But upon these social favourites she bestowed scant scrutiny. To her they did not matter, since she had a comfortable conviction that, given their chances, she might safely have backed herself to beat them at their own game. One large and gentle-looking lady did attract her, by the innocence of her mild eyes set noticeably wide apart, and by the beauty of her small mouth. Her light brown hair, touched with grey, rippled back from her low forehead under a drapery of delicate lace. She was calm, yet there was an engaging timidity in her aspect as she sheltered behind the farther curtain of the box. Beside her sat a young girl, white-clad, deliciously fresh in appearance, an expression of happy half-shy expectation upon her charming face. Behind them, in the shadow, kindly, handsome, debonnair, stood Lord Fallowfeild. His resemblance to the large and gentle lady declared them brother and sister. Poppy St. John watched the little party with a movement of tenderness. She perceived that they were very fond of one another; moreover they were so delightfully simple in bearing and manner, so excellently well- bred. But of what was the pretty maiden so shyly expectant? Of something, or somebody, far more immediately interesting to her than players or play—so Poppy judged.
Turning from the contemplation of these pleasant people with a sigh she could hardly have explained—even to herself—Poppy swept the dress circle with her opera-glasses. Presently she paused, and with a lift of surprise looked steadily again, then let both hands and glasses drop upon her rose-scarlet cap. Four rows up and back, on the far side, in a stall next the stepped gang-way, a man sat. His face was turned away, his shoulder being towards her, as he leaned sideways talking to the woman beside him—a slender, faded, yet elegant person of uncertain age, dressed in fluffy black. In the seat beyond, also leaning forward and taking part in the conversation, was another man of so whimsical an appearance as very nearly to make Poppy laugh aloud. She would unquestionably have done so had she been at leisure; but she was not at leisure. Her eyes travelled back to the figure beside the gang-way, which intrigued both her interest and her memory. Tall, spare, faultlessly dressed, yet with an effect of something exotic, aloof, unusual about him, he provoked her curiosity with suggestions of times and places quite other than of the present.
"Who is it?" Poppy said to herself. "Surely I know him. Who the Dickens is it?"
The conversation ceased. The man drew himself up, turned his head; and Poppy gave a little choking cry, as she found herself staring Dominic Iglesias straight in the face.
Whether he recognised her she did not know, did not want to know just yet. For she needed a minute or two to reckon with the position. It was so wholly unexpected. It affected her more deeply than she could have anticipated. Not without amusement she realised that she had never, heretofore, quite believed in him as an ordinary mortal, who ate and drank, went to plays, had relations with human beings other than herself, and conducted himself generally on the commonplace lines of modern humanity. Therefore to see him under existing circumstances was, in a sense, a shock to her. She did not like it. Absurd and unreasonable though it undoubtedly was to feel it so, yet his presence here struck her as in a way unseemly, derogatory. She had never thought of him in this connection, and it took a little time to get accustom to this aspect of him. Then she discovered, with half- humorous annoyance, that she was called upon to get accustomed to something else as well—namely, to her memories of the past month since she parted from him. For it was undeniable that the said memories took on a queer enough complexion in the light of this sudden encounter with Dominic Iglesias. If an hour ago they had been unsatisfactory, now they were very near odious. And that seemed hardly fair. Poppy turned wicked.
"For what's the worry, after all?" she asked herself. "Why on earth am I either disappointed or penitent? Is he no better than the rest of us, or am I no worse? And with what am I quarrelling, in any case—his being less of a saint, or I less of a sinner than I'd been pleased to imagine? I'm sure I don't know."
Instinctively her eyes sought that kindly worlding, Lord Fallowfeild. With him at least, as she reflected, one knew exactly where one was, since his feet were always very much upon the floor. But here again discomfiture, alas! awaited her. For another person, and evidently a welcome one, had joined that pleasant little party. Standing beside the large and gentle lady, speaking quickly, gaily, his face keen and eager, she beheld Alaric Barking. Lord Fallowfeild, smiling, patted the young man affectionately on the shoulder. And then, with a shudder of pain gnawing right through her, Poppy St. John, glancing at the graceful white-clad maiden, understood of whose coming this one had been so sweetly and gladly expectant.
To the strong there is something exhilarating in all certainty, even certainty of disaster. And it was very characteristic of Poppy that at this juncture no cry came to her lips, no sob to her throat. She shuddered that once, it is true. But then, setting her teeth, the whole daring of her nature rose to the situation, as a high-mettled horse rises to a heavy fence. What lay on the other side of that fence she did not know as yet, nor did she stop to consider. Desperate though it looked, she took it gallantly without fuss or funking.
"Well, there's no ambiguity about this affair, anyhow," she said grimly. "Of course it had to come sooner or later, and I knew it had to come. Well, here it is, that's all, and there's no use whining. And that's why he's been so jumpy lately: he had a bad conscience. Poor old chap, he must have been having a beastly bad time of it."
Poppy mused a little.
"Still, it's a facer," she added, "and a precious nasty one, too."
She stretched herself, shaking back her head, while the diamond points of her aigrette danced and glittered. Took a deep breath, filling her lungs; listened to herself, so to speak, noting with satisfaction that neither heart nor pulse fluttered.
"No serious damage," she commented. "I must have the nerves of a locomotive. Here I am perfectly sound, perfectly sober, standing at the parting of the ways, between the dear old devil of love and the deep sea of friendship. Poppy Smyth, my good soul, you've always been rather fatally addicted to drama. Are you satisfied at last? For just now, heaven knows, you've jolly well got your fill of it."
Then, for a space, she sat staring out into the house, thinking hard, intently, yet without words. The future, as she knew, hung in the balance, for herself and for others; but, as yet, she could not decide into which scale to throw the determining weight. Presently she looked steadily at Dominic Iglesias. He was again engaged in conversation, trying, with his air of fine old-world courtesy, suitably to entertain his strangely assorted neighbours. Poppy had an idea he found it rather hard work. She was not in the least sorry. That faded piece of feminine elegance, in fluffy black, bored her. She entertained a malicious hope that the said piece of feminine elegance bored Mr. Iglesias also. Finally, with rather bitter courage, she turned her eyes once more upon Lord Fallowfeild and his companions.
"Poor little girl, poor little girl," she said, quite gently, "so that's your heaven on earth, is it? I'm afraid a mighty big crop of wild oats is on show in your Garden of Eden. Still to you, apparently, it is a blissful place enough. Only the question is, do I intend to relinquish my rights in that particular property and make it over to you in fee simple, my pretty baby, or do I not? Shall I give it you, or shall I keep it? For it is mine to give or to keep still—very much mine, if I choose to make a fight for it, I fancy."
Yet even as she communed thus with herself, the white-clad maiden and the other occupants of the box became indistinct and shadowy. The buzz of conversation in the theatre had ceased; so had the strains of the orchestra. The lights had been turned low and the curtain had risen upon the second act.
About half-way through that act Poppy St. John got up, threw her velvet sacque over her arm, and, slipping past the three intervening stalls, made her way up the steps of the near gang-way to the swing- doors opening out to the couloir. Her movements, though studiously quiet, were, owing to the vivid hue of her attire, very perceptible even in the penumbra of the dress circle, provoking attention and smothered comment. The lady in fluffy black, for example, followed her with glances of undisguised and condemnatory interest, finally calling the attention of both her cavaliers to the progress of this glowing figure.
The New Century Theatre is one of those enterprises of trans-Atlantic origin, undertaken with the praiseworthy and disinterested object of teaching the Old World "how to do it," and is built and furnished regardless of expense. The couloirs are wide, lofty, richly carpeted; the walls of them encrusted with pale highly polished marbles, pilasters of which, with heavily gilded capitals, flank vast panels of looking-glass. The moulded ceilings are studded with electric lights, the glare of which is agreeably softened by pineapple-shaped globes of crystal glass. The scheme of colour, ranging from imperial purple through crimson and rose-pink to softest flesh tints, formed an harmonious setting to the rose-scarlet of Poppy's dress, with its froth of trailing frills and flounces, as she stood discoursing to a smart, black-gowned, white-aproned box-keeper.