"So you are really going home to Feldwick, Joan?" he asked.
"Yes. Since I left it I have done nothing but make mistakes. I think that the old life is best for me."
He glanced at her curiously a moment or two later as they crossed the street. She had grown older during the last few months, and there were streaks of grey in her hair. Yet the lines in her face were softer, the narrowness and suspicion were smoothed away; her eyes were still keen, but with a kindlier light. At her door, where he parted from her, she looked away across his shoulder.
"It is a wonderful city, this, Douglas," she said. "It has made a great man of you and a happy woman of Cissy."
"And you?" he asked gently.
"Well, it has taught me a little tolerance, I think," she said. "You know we Strongs are hill folk, our loves and hates are lasting and perhaps narrow. I have been a mistaken woman, but I have much to be thankful for. I came to my senses before any one was made to suffer through me. So now, good night, and good-by, Douglas. You bear me no ill-will, I know?"
"Not a shred," he answered, taking her hand into his. "You will miss Cissy, I am afraid."
She sighed, and he saw something in her eyes which haunted him for long afterwards.
"Some of us," she said, "are born to be lonely—to see those whom we care for drift away. There's no help for it, I'm afraid. So good-by, Douglas, and good fortune to you."
The door closed sharply upon her sob. Douglas walked slowly away westwards.
A CALL BEFORE THE CURTAIN
They passed out from the stuffy atmosphere of the dimly-lit theatre to the sunlit squares and streets, Drexley and Douglas arm in arm, the former voluble, Douglas curiously silent. For it had been an afternoon of events, the final rehearsal of a play of which great things were expected, and which was to take London by storm. Drexley had always had faith in his friend. He believed him to be a clever, even a brilliant, writer—witty, original, unique in his own vivid and picturesque style. But even Drexley had never believed him capable of such work as this. Without the accessories of costume, and lights, and continuity, the story which flashed out into the shadows of the dark and empty stalls from the lips of those human puppets, wholly fascinated and completely absorbed him. Douglas had forsaken all traditions. He had been fettered with only a small knowledge of the stage and its workings, and he had escaped the fatal tribute to the conventionalities paid by almost every contemporary playwright. It was a sweet and passionate story which leaped out from the lips of those fashionably dressed but earnest men and women, grandly human, exquisitely told. Here and there the touches were lurid enough, but there was plenty of graceful relief, every sentence seemed pervaded with that unerring sense of the truthful and artistic which was the outcome of the man's genius. Drexley's words were ready enough in the open streets with the fresh wind in their faces and the sunshine streaming around. In the theatre and immediately afterwards in the manager's room, where a famous actress had dispensed tea, and compliments and congratulations were the order of the day, he had been spellbound and silent.
"Douglas," he cried, "already you are known and recognised. To-morrow you will be famous. You are a genius, man. Nothing like this or anything approaching it has been produced for years."
"Don't be too sure, Drexley," Douglas said, smiling. "The public must decide, you know. They may not like it as you do. A first-night audience takes strange whims sometimes."
Drexley shook his head.
"Disappointed playwrights may tell you so, but don't believe it," he answered. "A London audience as a rule is absolutely infallible. But then such a play as this lays itself open to no two opinions. It is of the best, and the best all can recognise when it is shown them. To-night will be a great triumph for you. My congratulations you have already. Cissy and I together will shout them to you later."
"Well," he said, "I believe the play will be a success. I have had a curious sense with me all day that something pleasant is going to happen. I feel as though fortune had taken me by the hand. What does it mean, I wonder?"
Drexley laughed heartily. He had grown years younger. Happiness had taken hold of him and he was a changed being.
"A man may doubt his own work sometimes," he said; "but when he has struck an imperishable and everlasting note of music, well—he hears it as surely as other people hear it. Until to-night then, my friend."
Douglas shook him by the hand.
"There will be some sort of a kickup behind after the show," he remarked. "Champagne and sandwiches and a little Royalty. Remember that I am relying upon you to bring Cicely."
"We are as likely to forget our own existence," Drexley laughed. "For a few hours then, au revoir."
Douglas walked down the broad street to his rooms, smoking a cigarette and humming an opera tune. His eyes were bright, his head thrown back; a touch of the Spring seemed to have found its way into his blood, for he was curiously lighthearted. He let himself in with a latchkey and entered his study for a moment or two, intending to dress early and dine at his club. On his writing-table were several letters, a couple of cards, and an orange-coloured envelope. He took the latter into his fingers, hesitated for a moment, and then tore it open.
"GARD DE NORD, PARIS.
"I shall arrive at Dover at eight this evening. Will you meet me?—EMILY."
Then he knew what this curious premonition of coming happiness had meant, and his heart leaped like a boy's, whilst the colour burned in his cheeks. She was coming home, coming back to him, the days of her exile were over—the days of her exile and his probation. He snatched at a time-table with trembling fingers, called for his servant, ordered a hansom. He forgot his play, and did not even send a message to the theatre. A galloping hansom, with the prospect of a half-sovereign fare, seemed to him to crawl to Charing Cross like a snail across a window-pane. He caught the train—had he missed it he would have ordered out a special—and even the express rushing seawards with mails and a full load of Continental passengers seemed like a stage-coach. He paced up and down the narrow corridor till the steward looked at him curiously, and people began to regard him with suspicion as a possible criminal. He made himself a nuisance to the ticket-inspector, and when they waited for ten minutes outside the harbour station he dragged out his watch every few moments, and made scathing comments upon the railway company and every one connected with it. Nevertheless, he found himself in ample time to smoke a dozen spasmodic cigarettes before the stream of passengers from the boat at last crossed the gangway—and amongst them Emily de Reuss.
So little changed—her voice, her smile, even her style of travelling dress was the same as ever. He held out his hands, and words seemed ridiculous. Nevertheless, in a moment or two they found themselves exchanging conventional remarks about the journey, the weather, the crossing, as he piloted her along the platform to the carriage which he had reserved. Her maid arranged the wraps and discreetly withdrew. Her old luxurious habits had evidently survived her exile, for a courier was in charge of her luggage. She had come, she told him, direct from St. Petersburg. They sat opposite to one another, whilst all around them was the bustle of incoming passengers. Conversation was impossible—silence alone was eloquent.
"You have changed so little," she said, smiling at him as the train swept away from the station.
"And you, surely not at all," he answered.
"You knew—that he was dead?" she asked softly.
"The Duchess told me so—six months ago. I wondered why you stayed there."
"I have been a woman of many luxuries," she said, "yet I think the sweetest of them all I experienced at Molchavano. I really think that I did a little good. After his death I sent to Petersburg for nurses and I stayed at the hospital till they came.
"The luxury of doing good can be indulged in here as well as Molchavano," he murmured.
* * * * *
They were nearing London. Far away on either side was an amphitheatre of lights. She leaned forward and gazed thoughtfully out of the window.
"Douglas," she said, "do you remember our first journey together?"
"Shall I ever forget it!"
"How young you were," she murmured—"how eager and how ambitious. Life was like a fairy tale to you, full of wonderful things which no one believes in nowadays. I wonder, have you found the truth yet? Have you learnt your lesson?"
"Life is more like a fairy tale than ever to-night," he answered gaily. "As to the rest, I will answer you presently. Only remember, that if I have jealously preserved a few illusions it is because they are the flowers which grow along the byeways of life. You may smile at them, if you will, but not unkindly."
Their way led past the theatre. He glanced at his watch—the last act was still in full swing. He pulled the check cord.
"Do you mind," he asked, "for five minutes? My answer is waiting here."
"In my travelling dress?" she asked.
He handed her out.
"It will not matter," he assured her. "I can find a seat where your dress will be unnoticed."
They passed into the stage box, where their entrance, although they kept as far as possible in the background, excited much comment. They felt at once that they had come into an atmosphere charged with electric emotion. Little ripples of excitement were floating through the theatre. Interest had become strained—almost painful. A brilliant house had been worked up into a state of breathless absorption. A little man burst in upon them.
"Thank God you've come, Guest! They nearly had the house down after the last act shouting for you. Oh! I beg your pardon."
He retreated, closing the door. They neither of them noticed him. Up from the stage the triumphant cry of a great actor, carried away by the inspiration of a great part, answered her in her lover's own words—
"Philosophy is selfishness and ambition a shadow—the lesson of life is the lesson of love."
The curtain fell and the storm burst. She looked into his face with a brilliant smile.
"I am very sweetly answered, Mr. Author," she said. "Now let me efface myself."
Douglas could not escape, for he had been recognised, and the house rang with his name. He bowed his acknowledgments time after time from the front of the box, and every one wondered at his late arrival and morning clothes, and at the woman in a long travelling coat, who sat by his side half hidden by the curtain. Only the Duchess, whose box was exactly opposite, and who had remarkably good eyesight, suddenly understood. She leaned over and waved her hand gaily.
"Gracious!" she exclaimed. "It's Emily."