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Title: A Crowning Christmas
Author:  Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1601281.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: Nov 2016
Date most recently updated: Dec 2016

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

Title: A Crowning Christmas
Author:  Fred M White



A CROWNING CHRISTMAS.


By


FRED M. WHITE,


Author of "A Christmas in Peril," "An Eye for An Eye," "When the Moon
Set," "The Swashbuckler," &c., &c.



Published in the Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1895 - 1954), Saturday 11
December 1926.



JOAN Barrington sat up in a nest of pillows and contemplated the pile
of presents that lay on her bed. For it was a crisp, bright Christmas
morning, with a powder of snow on the window ledge, where an impudent
robin sat with his head on one side, as if he, too, would have liked to
investigate the cosiness of that luxurious bedroom. A sound of bells
drifted on the air, Christmas bells that rang in Joan's head and mixed
confusedly with the thoughts that rushed through her brain.

Christmas Day! And yesterday Joan Barrington had been little more than
a well-known actress. And yet since 24 hours ago, she had jumped to the
pinnacle of fame. It seemed only yesterday that she had been struggling
with managers here and there to get an opening for "Corn in Egypt,"
and now the name of that play was on everybody's lips. It had been a
tremendous triumph both for her and the author, Gerald Aspen. Three
times had she faced an audience as Gerald Aspen's heroine in the plays
he had written and always with a certain mead of success.

But not like last night at the Melpomene Theatre. That had been a
blazing triumph from the first moment that she had walked on the stage
to the fall of the curtain, as she had felt, in her heart of hearts,
that it always would be. What a night for herself and Gerald! And that
was not all. Was not Gerald going to marry her only child, Cecilie,
the little girl for whom she had fought so hard and suffered so many
privations?

And, goodness knows, she had struggled hard. Married before she was
19 to a handsome scamp, she had been cruelly abandoned somewhere in
Australia, where she was touring with a travelling company, and, since
then, she had fought a lone hand.

But that was all over now, and the glorious part of it was that she
had still retained all her charm and beauty, because she had come into
her own before she had reached her 40th year. Fame and fortune in the
thirties; what more could any woman ask?

She was still pondering over this question when the door of the bedroom
flew open and Cecilie Barrington rushed impetuously into the room.
She was just a younger edition of her mother, with all her unspoilt
loveliness and charm.

"Hello, mother," Cecilia, cried. "A happy Christmas. And what a
Christmas, too! A well-known actress at 8 o'clock last night, and a
world-wide celebrity at 11. You were absolutely splendid. I tried to
get into your dressing-room after the fall of the curtain, but there
was no room for poor little me, so I asked Gerald to drive me home and
I was asleep long before you got back. Mother, you are wonderful. What
a lucky thing that you had Geoffrey Fair for your leading man."

A momentary shadow lay on Joan Barrington's face.

"Yes, I suppose so," she said rather coldly. "Still, he had only to
be his natural self. His handsome face and picturesque grey hair were
wonderfully effective."

"Is that all you have to say?" Cecilie asked with a smile. "How
ungrateful these great actresses are! Have you forgotten that it was I
who persuaded Geoffrey Fair to accept the part of leading man in 'Corn
in Egypt?' There is no other actor on the stage who could have played
the part half as well. I did manage to have a few words with him last
night, and what do you think he did?"

"Well, my child, what did he do?"

"Why, offered me the part of leading lady in the play he is taking to
America next autumn. I knew it was coming, but I thought I would keep
the fact a secret. I can tell you now that I met Mr. Fair last summer
when I was staying with the Mortimers, at Prestley. He told me he had
known you for years and that he had acted with you more than once. And
he told me more than that, mummy. He said that I had inherited all your
talent, and that in the course of time I should achieve a triumph as
great as yours. And now the chance has come, Mother, you won't stand in
my way, will you? I can go to America, can't I?"

Joan Barrington lay there very silently for a moment or two.

"This comes rather as a shock, Cecilie," she said, presently. "Don't
say anything more about it just yet. I will speak to Mr. Fair.
Reverting to more immediate matters, I shan't be able to go with you to
dine at the Pennington's to-night. You see, if it hadn't been for the
kindness of Lord Romney, I should never have had the chance of taking
over the Melpomene for the production of my play. So, when he insists
upon some of us dining with him to-night, I could not very well refuse.
So you will have to go to the Penningtons with Gerald."

A little flush of color crept into Cecilie's cheeks.

"But I can't, mother," she said. "Gerald isn't going."

"Gerald isn't going? Why not?"

"Well, you see mother, we had a difference of opinion when he was
driving me home last night. He doesn't like Mr. Fair. He went so far as
to say that he was a dissolute scoundrel who lived on his good looks
and other people's generosity. And he wasn't a bit grateful to Mr. Fair
for playing the hero in 'Corn in Egypt.' So, you see, one word led
to another, and--and--Gerald and myself are not going to be married,
that's all."

"Then there is no more to be said," Joan Barrington smiled faintly.
"Now run away and I will get up."

She was a wise mother in her day and generation, so she prudently
refrained from saying anything that might stand in the way of a
reconciliation between the lovers. She had the highest regard for
Gerald Aspen, and she would have been happy enough in the engagement
of the young couple. But, all the same, she was deeply troubled in her
mind and inclined to resent this semi-tragedy which threatened to spoil
the happiest day she had known for many years. Still, she was not going
to ruin everything by a premature show of displeasure. She waited until
Cecilie had left the house on a little round of visit to various young
friends in the neighborhood with a view to exchanging the compliments
of the season, then she consulted the telephone directory and called up
a certain number. Immediately a man's voice answered--the well-known
accents of Geoffrey Fair.

"Very well," he said. "I will come round."

It was just a quarter of an hour later that Fair entered the
drawing-room of Joan's flat and seated himself in a comfortable chair
in a characteristic and elegant pose. He faced Joan with a charming
smile on his handsome face.

"This is quite an unexpected honor, my dear Joan," he drawled. "But you
have only to command and I obey."

"Always the perfect knight," Joan said with a touch of ice in her
voice, "and always the same pose. But we are not on the stage now, nor
are we anything more than mere acquaintances. This is the first time
I have met you alone, and truth compels me to say that I hope it will
be the last. And you will be good enough not to call me your dear Joan
again."

"Ah, well, time brings many changes," Fair smiled. "And, upon my word,
you seem to grow younger and handsomer every day. Little Cecilie will
never be in the same class."

"Precisely," Joan responded. "And that is one of the reasons why I have
asked you to come here this morning. Why can't you leave the child
alone? Why do you come between us? Perhaps I can guess. But for the
moment we need not go into that. You know that she has no real talent
for the stage."

"Not a scrap," Fair agreed easily. "She never will reach a rung on the
ladder higher than that of a parlor-maid. But she is so sweetly pretty
that I could not resist the temptation of watching her face when I
suggested America."

"You lie," Joan said coldly. "I don't believe you have made any
arrangement to go to America in the autumn. You are too indolent
to face the journey. And as for you spending months in the land of
prohibition--why, the mere thought amuses me."

"Ah, there," Fair smiled, "you are mistaken. I am not saying that
anything is settled yet."

"For the present, you are drawing the highest salary in your career.
And there are other pecuniary considerations. Really, on the whole,
as lessee of the Melpomene, I am finding Mr. Geoffrey Fair a rather
expensive luxury."

"Luxuries are always expensive," Fair said amiably.

"Still, they can be dispensed with. For instance, there is nothing
to prevent me calling in 'Corn in Egypt,' and thus terminating your
contract. I am sick to death of the stage. In any case, I am through
with it in the next two years. I shall be through with it in less if
you push me too far."

"Do you know," Fair said whimsically, "that that sounds very like a
threat. And threats to me, my dear Joan, are likely to prove rather
dangerous. Of course, if the scandal----"

"Scandal! What does any mother worthy of the name care about that sort
of thing where the welfare of her only child is concerned? Cecilie is
still all I have in the world. For her sake I have suffered privations
that I shudder to think of. And now you are trying to take my child
away from me. Why? Because you think you can make still better terms
for yourself. But you won't. If the child goes to America, our compact
comes to an end. And you won't like it. You won't like giving up your
luxurious flat and your nice income, and you won't like to find certain
country houses closed to you in future. Because that is what it means."

"My dear Joan," Fair protested. "Why all this heat?"

The fascinating smile was still on his lips, the easy pose was there,
but the man was beaten and both of them knew it.

"Now, what you have to do is this," Joan went on. "You are to tell
Cecilie the truth. Say that you lied to her. Oh, I don't want to
humiliate you any more than you have humiliated yourself. You need not
see Cecilie unless you like. Write her one of those charming letters of
yours, making the position clear, and letting her know definitely that
you have no intention whatever of going to America. That is all I have
to say."

"And meanwhile?" Fair asked as he rose.

"And, meanwhile, the shameful bargain can go on. Now go, or shall I
ring the bell and ask my man----"

But Fair needed no further bidding. The handsomest man on the stage
crept from the room with little of his usual fine assurance. A moment
later Joan was alone.

But not for long. Cecilie burst into the room, her cheeks aflame and
her eyes dim with what might have been angry tears.

"I--I didn't want to listen," she panted. "But you had not closed the
door behind you, and I got back sooner than I expected. And then, when
certain words came to my ears, I just had to listen. Mother, what does
it all mean? What is there between you and that man that you can treat
him like a dog and he dare not resent it? And he promised me a great
future! He told me that I should be as fine an actress as yourself. Why
did he lie to me like that?"

Cecilie threw herself down on a couch and dissolved into a flood of
tears. The moment was not yet when she would realise that wounded pride
and vanity were at the bottom of her grief.

"And he told me I was an actress," she sobbed. "He spoke as if he meant
it! I shall never believe what any man says again as long as I live.
And all the time he was laughing at me."

Joan said nothing until the first violence of the storm had died away.
Perhaps, on the whole, it was just as well that Cecilie had overheard
the conversation. Then, suddenly, the poor child sat up and wiped the
tears from her eyes.

"Why was that man so frightened of you?" she demanded.

"So you noticed that," Joan smiled. "It is rather a long story,
darling, but I will make it as short as possible. It concerns two
girl-friends of mine, one of whom was very like you at one time. They
were sisters, one being an actress and the other--well, on the stage.
The one who was merely on the stage died. The tragedy of her life lay
in the fact that she thought she was an actress--and she wasn't. And
that is why she practically perished of starvation. Only her sister,
who was an actress, did not know it till after she was dead. Not that
the actress sister was in much better case. Hers was a hard life. She
endured the most bitter poverty and distress for years before she got
her chance, and, after that, she never looked back."

"And then, just as the promised land was in sight, she did a very
foolish thing. She married. He was an actor, of course, and one who
might have gone far but for his weakness for pleasure and a hatred
of hard work. Also, he drank. Quite in a gentlemanly way, but the
fact remains. And, in the course of time, he quarrelled with most of
the managers who were ready to help him, and so, gradually, he began
to live on the earnings of his wife. Occasionally he would take a
character if he happened to approve of it, but, for the most part, he
preferred to take most of his wife's money and waste it in reckless
extravagance. He was a handsome man, and people envied the couple their
happiness. Ah, they little knew! And then came the inevitable parting."

"It had to come, or the woman would have been ruined. Her position was
assured, and her ambition was to make a competence and retire from the
stage, where she had never been happy. Those early struggles had left
a sore in her soul that no lapse of time ever wiped out. So she made
the man an allowance, of a thousand a year, on condition that he kept
away from her, and that the matter of the unhappy marriage should be
kept a secret, which was not difficult, seeing that all I am telling
you happened in Australia almost twenty years ago. You see, my child,
that arrangement suited the man, because he could pose as a bachelor
and lead the sybaritic life he loved. And that is why he has kept to
his side of the bargain ever since. Once he breaks it he will be thrown
on his own resources again--and well he knows it. If the story becomes
public, every decent man whose good opinion he values would turn from
him in contempt, the country houses would know him no more, and, for
once in a way, the woman in the case would not suffer. The sympathy
would be hers. Are you beginning to understand what I am leading up to,
Cecilie?"

"I--I think so," Cecilie choked. "Oh, mummy----"

"Just a moment, dear. In a way this sorry business began to be a sort
of fight for the child. I forgot to mention that the actress had a
child. A girl whom she thanked God had never been, and never would be
an actress. But it suited the man I am talking about to tell her so,
because it gratified his spite against the woman who had so humiliated
him. For it is humiliating to live on the charity of a woman who
despises the recipient. But I don't think I shall be troubled any
further with that man, Cecilie. Of course, if you still want to go on
the stage after what I have recently had to say----"

"But I don't," Cecilie almost wailed. "I should hate it. And you really
mean to say that Mr. Fair is----"

"Your father," Joan said quietly. "Yes. But we will keep the secret,
because that is part of the contract. I know you thought you were
doing a clever thing when you induced the man of whom we are speaking
to offer his services to me, and I accepted them because your Gerald
thought he was the only man----"

"And you can actually play opposite him every night?" Cecilie cried.
"Oh, mother, how can you?"

"That, my child," Joan smiled, "is one of the crosses we have to bear.
One of the horrors of the profession that I was so anxious to guard you
from. One of the things one has to get used to. It is said that the fox
enjoys the chase, but I doubt it. And now, let us talk about something
else. I thought that this was going to be my happiest Christmas Day,
and now that I have had to tell you what you should have known long
ago, I am sure that it is going to be my crowning Christmas. No one
need know anything about this--with one exception----"

"And who is that?" Cecilie asked.

"Why, Gerald, of course. But then, you are not going to marry him. He
isn't even going to take you out to dinner to-night."

Cecilie flamed scarlet.

"I had quite forgotten Gerald," she said contritely. "But I am going to
be brave, mother, like you were just now. I am going to ring up Gerald
and tell him how sorry I am. Perhaps----"

"There will be no perhaps about it," Joan smiled. "Now, run along and
make your Christmas as happy as mine."

It was only a small, still voice that spoke through the telephone, but
the man at the other end heard every word or it.

"Cecilie," he cried. "Oh, yes, I hear you. Go on. What's all that?
Chucking the idea of the stage? Very sorry? What for? Dear girl, I
can't make head or tail of what you are saying. Want me to come round
and make it up? Rather. And what on earth are you crying about? Eh? Oh,
yes, you are. As soon as I can get hold of a taxi I'll be round in a
flash."

"It's all right, mother," Cecilie cried, as she burst into the room. "He
didn't say much, but he behaved like a perfect darling. And I'm glad,
glad I am not going to America. Oh, what a happy Christmas we are both
going to spend."


THE END.


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