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Title: The Arms of Chance
Author: Fred M. White
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eBook No.: 1201671h.html
Language: English
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The Arms of Chance

by

Fred M. White

Published in The Queenslander, Brisbane, Australia, 27 Jul 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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