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Title: The Arms Of Chance
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1201671.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: March 2012
Date most recently updated: March 2012

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------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: The Arms Of Chance
Author: Fred M White


*

Author of "The Edge of the Sword." "The Secret of the Sands."
"Anonymous," "The Missing Blade." &c.

*

Published in The Queenslander, Brisbane, Qld. Saturday 27 July, 1918.

*


Opposite the window was a portrait of a young man; the lower part of the
canvas was a red splash, and the girl shivered as she noticed it.

For this was a portrait of Norman de Montfort, the author and playwright
whose tragic death had caused such a sensation in literary circles a
month or two ago. Why? He had written one or two one-act comedies, and
was looking forward eagerly to the success of a big drama that he had
just finished. When Cecile had seen him on the morning of his death he
had been in the highest possible spirits. He was rejoicing in the fact
that he had the cottage entirely to himself till midnight, at least; it
was his intention to devote the whole of the day to the completion of
the play, after which he was going to take an entire month's rest.

The play he had refused to discuss with any one, except to tell his
sister and his great friend, Philip Ayres, the artist and scene-painter,
that it was a play within a play, and that no one was going to see it
until it was actually finished. But from time to time Cecile had
elicited certain details without really seeing any of the script.

And then she had come down that spring evening with her brother's
friend, and, incidentally, the man she was going to marry, thinking only
of the pleasant Sunday they were going to spend together, and she had
suddenly found herself face to face with stark tragedy.

She had a task before her now, and that task she was going to see
through with the aid of Philip Ayres, whom she was waiting for at that
moment. He came presently, with an apology for the delay, but Cecile was
not listening.

"I daresay you will wonder why I asked you to come down here, Philip,"
she said. "But I am more than ever convinced that poor Norman was
murdered."

"Well," Ayres said, "you know I don't agree with you, though I never
could see the reason----"

"Oh, I know what you are going to say. Poor old Norman hadn't an enemy
in the world. You want to know what object the murderer had. Well, I'm
going to tell you. He came down here to steal Norman's play."

"Ah!" Ayres exclaimed. "It was very strange that no trace of the
manuscript should have been found, though we know that it was
practically finished."

"It has been found," Cecile said quietly.

"What! You mean to say that you've got it?"

"No, but I have a copy of it. You will ask if I know why it is a copy.
Well, perhaps I had better explain. Now, I have been at the Thespian for
over a year, not playing very big parts, but for the most part
understudying Stella Marx. As you know, she has been on tour for the
last month or so, playing repertory with Raynor Plunkett, previous to
her going to take up an engagement in America. Now, about a month ago
they produced a new drama in Liverpool called 'The Arms of Chance.'"

"Yes, I saw that. From all accounts it seems to have been a magnificent
success."

"Oh, indeed it was. Now my manager at the Thespian intends to produce
'The Arms of Chance' in London in about a month's time, with Raynor
Plunkett in the lead, and the repertory company which is now in the
North. And as Stella Marx is going to America I have been asked to play
her part in London. Oh, yes, I know it's a big thing tor me, but I'm not
thinking about that. I am going to tell you----"

"It's rather a funny thing, Cecile," Ayres said, "but I have been
engaged to paint the scenery for the new play. The scene plot reached me
only this morning."

"Yes, I know it did, Phil., and that is why I asked you to meet me here
this morning. In fact, after I had read the manuscript of 'The Arms of
Chance' it was I who suggested to Mr. Brentwood that he should give you
the commission. I have got the play in my pocket at the present moment,
and I want you to sit here for an hour or so and read it. And when you
have done so you will probably have some idea of what is in my mind."

Ayres sat down with the manuscript in his hand, and for an hour or so
read steadily on. Then he looked up eagerly. "By Jove! that's a funny
thing," he said. "Why, the two big scenes in the drama might have taken
place in this cottage. The conversation centres round a portrait of the
writer painted by Jean Sacks. And there is your brother looking down
upon us now in the shape of one of Sack's masterpieces. By Jove! I
notice the strange handles on that Jacobean sideboard which are
mentioned in the play."

"Raynor Plunkett, who himself appears in the leading character, is
supposed to have written the play. He used to come here from time to
time, and he would be well aware of the fact that Norman had discussed
his play with no one. Why, there is one little scene that could be known
only to Norman and myself."

"That is a very serious thing to say, Cecile," Ayres murmured. "Now,
what do you propose to do about it?"

"Phil., I am more concerned for my brother's reputation. Why should he
be robbed of the fruits of his genius? Why should a man who is nothing
but a mere picturesque actor cloak himself in a dead man's fame? I
believe that that was the term that inspired Plunkett to murder. But
never mind about that for the moment. What I want you to do is to make
the scene of the two big acts an exact copy of this cottage. I even want
you to take the furniture away and put it on the stage of the Thespian."

"What, just as it is?" Ayres exclaimed.

"Absolutely. And see that my brother's portrait by Sacks hangs in a
prominent position. Now do you begin to understand, Phil.?"

"Yes, I think I do," Ayres murmured. "And so you are going to
reconstruct the crime, Cecile?"

"I want nothing else," she cried. "It is the best plan, Phil., and I am
sure you are going to help me."

"Of course I will," Ayres responded. "But there are many difficulties in
the way. If I grasp your scheme, it is intensely dramatic, and a sudden
surprise is at the bottom of it. When you come to rehearse with
Plunkett----"

"But I shan't," Cecile said, eagerly. "At least, not in the proper sense
of the word. You see, I am the one new member of the company which has
already made the reputation of the piece. Raynor Plunkett may pay me the
compliment of giving me a couple of hours in his dressing-room or on the
bare stage one morning but there will be no dress rehearsal--there will
not be time. And if you do your part properly, then I have no fear of
the result."

There had been a great deal of talk, of course, about the play by that
eminent actor, Raynor Plunkett, which had been so successful in the
North, and which was to be produced within the next week or two at the
Thespian Theatre. He had come down from the North with the rest of the
company, and in his own large way had proclaimed to the manager,
Brentwood, that he wanted nothing besides the assurance that Stella
Marx's part would be adequately filled. Not that he attached much
importance to the heroine--he was too assured of his own personal
triumph for that.

Nevertheless, he stared and frowned when he heard who had been cast for
the part of the heroine. He would see her, of course, in the
dressing-room for an hour or two for a couple of mornings before the
production of the piece, and that, no doubt, would be quite sufficient.
As to the rest of the company, he was perfectly satisfied.

The house was packed from floor to ceiling, of course. The mere fact
that Raynor Plunkett was appearing in a new play would have been enough
in itself to fill any theatre in London. The story of the Northern
triumph had gone abroad, so that that critical audience were looking for
something out of the common. The curtain went up presently, and the
opening act with its subtle developments proceeded smoothly enough to
its close. It was more a brilliant analysis of character than anything
else, closely reasoned and intimately written, and it held the audience
in a close grip from the start. It was the story of a play within a
play, the history of a perverted genius who, after many attempts, has at
last found himself and his proper medium of expression. But he is poor
and struggling, and cannot find an opening for his great work. Then on
the scene comes the great popular actor in the shape of the leading
character, who tempts the author to sell his work out and out and
dissociate himself entirely from the authorship. This he indignantly
refuses to do, and eventually, in the seclusion of the author's cottage
the actor does him to death when they are roughly rehearsing one of the
big scenes, and sets off with the only copy of the manuscript that
exists.

Then followed the second act, actually in the cottage where the main
scenes of the play take place. The author is seated at work putting the
final touches to the last page of his manuscript when the actor comes
in. He came, of course, in the shape of Raynor Plunkett, easy and
assured, and posing in a characteristic attitude for the applause to
subside. Then, as he stood there, glancing easily about him, he suddenly
stiffened and his whole expression changed. It was as if he had been
snatched away from his surroundings and carried back to some scene that
he was striving to forget. He stumbled forward and put his hand over his
eyes. He was so palpably disturbed and so shaken that a thrill went
through the house, and people in the stalls began to whisper together.

What was the matter with Plunkett, they asked--was he going to faint or
collapse altogether? It was only for a moment, then the man on the stage
pulled himself together again, and began to go through his part. But it
was plain enough to the most inexperienced of theatre-goers that all the
life had gone out of the part, and that the colour and light and shade
had vanished. It was not at Raynor Plunkett that those people were
looking, but some amateur suffering from stage fright, who paused from
time to time and glanced about him as if certain objects in that cottage
interior fascinated and paralysed him. There was one portrait on the
wall that seemed to freeze him and tie his tongue every time he glanced
at it. Ever and again the voice of the prompter could be clearly heard.

But still Plunkett struggled on, his long experience and perfect stage
training keeping him from utter collapse. The lengthy scene came to an
end presently with the author of the play lying dead on the floor with a
bullet through his brain, and a woman in her night-clothing, with her
hair hanging over her shoulders, standing in the doorway looking on,
with an expression of one who walks in her sleep. Then, almost to the
relief of everybody in the house, the curtain came down, and a thrill
ran through the audience.

They would have thrilled more, perhaps, could they have seen what was
taking place behind those closed tapestries. For Plunkett stood there
shaking like a leaf from head to foot, his face wet and ghastly as he
looked into a pair of burning eyes that seemed to pierce through him as
Cecile de Montfort came nearer to him with an accusing question on her
face. She did not speak, she turned slowly presently, and faced the
portrait of her dead brother on the wall. She was strung up to it now,
cool and calm enough, and yet inwardly raging, but outwardly she was a
white avenging spirit. He faced her quietly enough.

But he could see that she was determined; he could see that he was up
against something more than a crisis in his life. She was so cool and
quiet, too, so obviously collected, so like an animal that has tracked
its prey down and knows only too well that the victim is beyond the
power of escape. It seemed strange to the man, fighting for his life, as
he knew he was, that he should be baffled and bruised and beaten by a
mere girl, just an ordinary actress that he tossed a smile or a nod to
and expected her to be grateful for.

And this little bit of a thing with her reputation still to make held
him and his fortune in the hollow of her hands. Just for a moment he
wondered whether or not it was possible to make some compromise with
her, whether or not she might be disposed to put her future before the
call of nature and her desire to be avenged. But this was only for a
moment, and as he looked into the girl's eyes he could see no shadow of
an escape that way. And, for the life of him, he could not speak, he
could not shape those cool, insolent words that played about at the back
of his brain and trembled at the tip of his tongue. The situation was
fast becoming intolerable. It was Cecile who broke the silence at
length.

"Well," she said coldly. "It's for you to speak. Go on, I am waiting.
What are you going to do?"

The man broke way and headed off the stage in the direction of the
dressing-room, past a dozen curious eyes, and past the manager, who
would have detained him.

"Don't stop me," he said hoarsely. "A sudden illness--a very old trouble
of mine. A little brandy, perhaps, and I shall be all right again."

He tumbled almost headlong into his dressing-room, and the uneasy
Brentwood heard the key turn in the lock. There would be a long wait
now, and perhaps by the time the next act began all would be well.
Meanwhile, a half-frightened company stood huddled in the wings, shaken
and uneasy, and wondering what was going to happen next. And then a
call-boy came along and put a note in Cecile's hand. She recognised
Plunkett's straggling scrawl, and, without opening the envelope, handed
it to Brentwood, who was standing by her side.

"I think you had better see this, Mr. Brentwood," she said. "I am very
sorry for all this trouble, but there was no other way. I want you to
read that letter."

With unsteady fingers Brentwood opened it. He glanced down the shaky
characters, then he burst out suddenly.

"What's this?" he cried. "In the name of Heaven what's happened?
Apparently this is a confession from Plunkett that he murdered your
brother for the sake of the play, and got away safely with it. Ah, I
begin to understand. You are in this, Ayres, I suppose? Then the scene
we have just witnessed is real? The crime has been reconstructed on the
spot. I take it that we have been witnessing the crime over again in
your brother's cottage, Miss de Montfort? But why, why all this
elaboration? Why did you not come forward and make your accusation
openly? And what--what are we going to do? What am I to tell the
audience?"

"It's a long story," Cecile said. "And, believe me, Mr. Brentwood, there
was no other way, or assuredly I would have taken it. And as to your
audience----"

From somewhere in the back of the theatre there came a dull, sullen
sound that drove the blood from the manager's cheeks and froze him for a
moment as he stood there. Then he broke away and hurried headlong down
the corridor in the direction of the dressing-rooms. There was a murmur
of broken conversation in the distance, and presently the flutter of the
curtain as Brentwood, white as the shirt on his breast, stood in front
of his audience and made an announcement.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, in a voice that barely reached the
gallery. "A most terrible thing has happened. The performance must come
to an end. With deep regret I have to tell you that the body of Mr.
Raynor Plunkett has just been found in his dressing-room. There is not
the slightest doubt that the unfortunate gentleman committed suicide.
There is a painful story attached to the rash act which I cannot go into
now, but which you will probably learn all about in due course. I must
therefore ask you to leave the theatre."



THE END



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