Title: Petticoat Loose Author: "Rita" (Eliza Margaret Jane Humphreys) * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1701021h.html Language: English Date first posted: October 2017 Most recent update: October 2017 This eBook was produced by: Maurie and Lyn Mulcahy Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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The "Ring" was shouting itself hoarse. The great race of the day was coming on. Anxious faces surveyed the beautiful, restless creatures held by indifferent grooms, and on whom so much depended.
A crowd of women and men had poured from the grandstand into the paddock, and the yells of the "bookies" and the buzzing murmurs of the bettors seemed to thrill the warm September air with a strange excitement. Last instructions were given to the jockeys, as they tried a stirrup or drew the reins in a firmer grip. One or two nodded with light-hearted recklessness. Not one glanced at sky or sunshine with any foreboding of what risk lay behind that frantic gallop—those furze-banks and hurdles—that wide water jump which was to tax the finishing power of horse and man. Not one. Not even Pat Rooney—reckless, maddest, and most dare-devil of all that reckless lot. He settled his orange and black cap on his chestnut curls, his blue eyes laughed at the anxious inquiring face beside him.
"It will be all right, sir, never fear. The horse isn't foaled yet that can beat Kilmorran. There, can't yer honour be aisy, for once? We'll win—or——"
A jerk at the rein—an impatient movement of the bright bay he was riding—cut short his words. He cantered on to take his place at the starting-post. To the left stretched the wide meadows crowded with the itinerant mob, the idle loafers, the motley mass of men, women, and children, never absent from an Irish racecourse.
Pat Rooney's eyes swept the crowd with a questioning glance. Suddenly his white teeth showed in a brilliant smile. The horse curvetted and reared as he waved one hand in greeting. A girl leaning against the dividing rails answered the smile and the hand-wave.
"He looks grand, doesn't he, Mickey?" she said, eagerly.
She spoke to a short, hunchbacked man by her side. A man with a sharp cut face and eager eyes, and a brow for ever crowned with gloom. The lightning gleams of the eyes were constantly subdued by the cloud on the broad, sun-tanned brow, beneath which they looked out on a churlish world. Nature had handicapped him at the start in life's race, and he could not forgive her, or be otherwise than resentful and bitter to a humanity that was better favoured than himself. To be pushed aside, ridiculed, condemned, does not tend to sweeten a nature already sensitive and ambitious and full of tender yearnings. Michael Croom had led a strange life. It looked to him like a patched and multi-colored fabric what time he gave himself up to the contemplation of the past. He had played so many parts, fallen on such vicissitudes of fortune, and he was so far down on the ladder that previous dreams of ascent looked the veriest mockery. He was now only the "handy man" of a travelling photographic show—a thing that hailed from the land of stars and stripes and was owned by a woman, and "run" by a woman, and had secured and attached him to itself by means of promises, and an occasional advance of salary when business was good. The owner of the show was an Americanised Irishwoman; a creature of shrewd intelligence, unlimited enterprise, and indifferent morality. She had a fair show of good looks, a loud voice and a violent temper. It was her niece who stood beside the hunchback and waved her hand to the handsome jockey.
"Oh, but he's fine to-day!" she went on. "He's bound to win, isn't he, Mickey? Why don't you answer? Ah, he's gone now like a flash! Is this a good place to watch them, Mickey?"
"Good enough," said the man, sulkily. "You'll see the finish. They go twice round the course."
"Do you mean to take the water jump twice?" gasped the girl, in sudden fright. "Oh, it's cruel, it's awful. They shouldn't be let."
A sardonic smile parted the hunchback's lips.
"Races are always cruel," he said. "Cruel on horse and man, on rider and owner. But what of that—isn't all sport cruel? Waste o' life, health, and money? 'A hell-hound that doth hunt us all to death? A foul defacer of God's handiwork?'"
"Is that Richard III, again?" asked the girl with a faint smile. "Oh, Mickey, look. There are the two Englishmen who were photographed this morning. They see us. They're coming here. Now, do be civil, if you can."
"Why should I be civil?" he asked doggedly. "They're none too polite to me. And as for you, Brianna——"
He paused abruptly. The girl's hand was on his arm. He felt the electric thrill of that light touch through all his veins.
"They're off!" she cried, in an excited hysterical whisper, and he turned his eyes to the starting place, and then stood perfectly still, watching that curving line of colour as it swept along the course.
On they came, neck and neck in that first round, so evenly were they matched. On, and over the hurdles, the furze bank. A blanket could have covered the nine who were in the race. On, and over the water, while the spectators held their breath and the loud pants of the galloping horses echoed on a silence of suspense. On—still on—lost to sight now as the girl's straining eyes gazed into the green distance. The line broke, it became straggling; the terrible pace, the stiff leaps began to tell on straining muscle and panting hearts. The flash of colour ceased to blend into a harmonious whole. Green and white, orange and black, crimson, blue, yellow, violet, stood out in separate blots against the emerald background.
Three abreast now. Three—and one the orange and black of Kilmorran's jockey. A hoarse about broke from the crowd.
"Kilmorran wins. Go it, Pat Rooney. Shure, didn't I say Pat was the boy for my money!"
The girl's face turned white as death, and her hand gripped the arm of the hunchback with a force that hurt him.
Another leap. The horse rose like a bird. Then . . . . What was it? A swerve? A pressure from the jockey behind him? None could tell; but a figure fell to the ground beyond the hurdle, and the hoof of Kilmorran's rival crushed the orange and black cap, while Kilmorran himself, free and riderless, swept on and leaped the water-jump and passed the winning-post—alone.
"A jockey off." "What's happened?" "Is it kilt he is?" So the voices buzzed and clamoured, as the crowd broke, and men rushed in and bore off a stiff and bleeding figure that a moment before had been all life, and nerve and motion.
The blue sky held no cloud, the sunshine smiled, and cries of triumph and the smothered curses at loss and defeat arose sounded the requiem of a dying soul. With a gasp of agony Pat Rooney's blue eyes looked up through mists of pain and death to the blue heavens that now seemed so strangely, strangely near.
"Kilmorran's not beaten," he whispered. "Not—beaten."
Then the curtain of an endless night fell between him and the living world beyond.
* * * * * *
Brianna stood like a stone statue, her straining eyes fixed on that fatal spot.
"Faith, that was a bad fall," muttered the hunchback, as he turned to look at her white face. "Poor Pat. I'm thinking he's ridden his last race this time."
"What happened? Could you see?" asked an eager voice.
It came from one of the young Englishmen whom Brianna had remarked. They had been standing near her during the race, but she had been too absorbed to notice their proximity.
Michael Croom turned his frowning face towards them.
"Only a jockey thrown," he answered. "Maybe he's not much hurt. It's not his first spill, I know. I'll go and ask about him."
He turned abruptly away. The Englishman looked at Brianna's white face and staring eyes with a sense of wonder. They had made acquaintance that morning at the caravan. A few idle jests and compliments, a sense of her wonderful beauty and its wonderful unfitness to her surroundings, had impressed him. Now he was absolutely startled by the tragic sorrow of her eyes as they met his own.
"Is anything the matter? Are you ill?" he asked, and instinctively he drew nearer.
She began to tremble suddenly. Then she raised one hand to her head and pushed back the black sailor hat that hid her rich-hued hair. Her eyes seemed to dilate and then grow dewy with tears that would not fall. Her lips quivered like that of a grieved child. Grief lent her an aspect at once youthful and appealing.
Max Lorrimer gazed at her, and every pulse of young manhood stirred in sympathy with her beauty and grief.
"Tell me, my child," he said, tenderly. "Let me help you."
Then the tears fell in large heavy drops, and a great sob burst from her throat.
"Oh, Pat, Pat!" she cried. "Oh, my heart, my darlin'! Oh, what shall I do without you! No one to speak a kind word, no one to love me; and not a moment ago it seems that you waved your hand and I saw you smile—and now——"
She buried her face in her hands, and shook from head to foot.
"Don't grieve so," pleaded her would-be comforter. "He mayn't be killed, after all. Lots of jockeys are thrown, you know, and they only break a collar-bone, or a rib, or something. Perhaps Pat, as you call him, has done the same."
She shook her head. The heavy clusters of her hair fell about her brow and ears. She turned away from the handsome, eager young face, and gazed sadly at the distant course.
Already the accident was forgotten—already the swaying crowd of well-dressed women and men had descended from their various seats and were hastening to the enclosure where the exhausted riders and panting horses were standing, or dismounting. Kilmorran's owner, his face set in grim hard lines, was standing by his horse. The animal had won the race but won it disqualified by the absence of his jockey.
It was hard on Desmond Mayne, already up to his ears in debts and difficulties. It was hard on many others who had backed the favourite to the full extent of limited banking accounts. And it had been such a near thing! That point of aggravation was on every tongue.
A woman, well known to racing circles, raised the point as to whether the horse or the jockey ran the race. It certainly was the former who was entered, and on whom the odds were laid and the bets made. Therefore, she maintained with perverse feminine logic, that if the horse won it didn't matter about the jockey. The question of weight did not seem to trouble her argument or enter into it. She had lost a great deal more money than she could afford to lose, and the fate of the unfortunate jockey left her unmoved. Nowhere does the innate selfishness of human nature show itself more plainly than at a race meeting. Risk of life, money, honour, nay, death itself, are disregarded for the time being—swept ruthlessly aside in the excitement of that feverish moment on which so much is staked, so much is lost. The faces tell their own story. It is not always a pleasant one.
Max Lorrimer stood there silently by the side of the girl whose acquaintance he had only made that morning. His friend had strolled on. They had tickets for the stand, but races were no novelty, and they were "doing Ireland" in a fashion that held preference for the study of the Irishman in congenial surroundings. Hence their choice of the meadows that faced the enclosure and the stand, where the crowd indulged in humours of its own particular kind, and made it's own bets, and gave vent to its own fancies and expressed its own opinions with that delightful candour so dear to the Irish soul.
Voices were discussing the accident to Pat Rooney. He was well known, and a general favourite. As yet no one knew that his fall had cost him his life. The girl listened eagerly, drinking in hope from that rough good-humour and buoyancy that try so often to disarm sorrow.
Max Lorrimer encouraged her to be less despondent. Beauty in distress had a certain charm, but beauty buoyant in life and hope and witchery, pleased him a thousand times more. Besides, he wanted her to talk to him—to hear her history. That morning he had seen her sitting on the steps of the wooden "house on wheels" which its owner had informed him was just "the natest and complatest and cunningest of its kind" ever made. She had herself planned it, and had it built according to her designs. It was her hobby, her delight. In it she could laugh to scorn the question of "rint," or locality, the call of the tax-collector and the intrusion of rates, and their representatives. Her long sojourn in the States had impressed her with the glories of freedom, and when she returned to her native land she gave all who would listen the benefit of her opinions. It was on this visit that she discovered she possessed a relative in an orphan niece—a wild slip of a girl, beautiful and untutored, with little prospect in life before her, and yet a certain handiness and capability that might be turned to account.
Her aunt resolved to turn them to her account and that of the show. She annexed the girl, as she had annexed the hunchback. They worked, and she directed. She was imperious and iron-headed. She drove her slaves mercilessly. The lash of her tongue could sting and smart; but at times she was kind and reasonable enough, and the girl was fairly happy. The "show," as its owner, Sally Dunne, called it, was well-known throughout the country towns, racecourses and seaside resorts of Ireland. So was the girl, with her wild hair, her untidy garments, and her strange beauty.
"Shure, 'tis Sally Dunne's show," the people would say. And they would crowd round for a gossip and spend to the value of threepence or sixpence on the marvels of Instantaneous Photography. Mrs. Dunne would photograph, develop and frame them—all in the space of five minutes; at any time, or in any weather. She hung a large signboard outside the caravan, announcing herself as "The Marvellous American Female Photographiste. Patronised by Royalty and all the Celebrities of Europe and the United States." She had cases of "purchased" photographs affixed to her canvas studio, and professed to have taken them herself. She made a fair income, lived well, and did just what seemed good unto her, and Brianna made friends with the hunchback, listened to his stage experiences, washed and cooked, and looked after the dogs, and was content enough with the life. At all events, it was better than those early days of vagabondage and starvation on the coal quay—better than the oaths and blows and drunken squabbles, and the filth and squalor of her parents' cellar. She had change, movement, the free air, the sweet, fair country. Her uncultured mind took tone and colour from Nature and Michael Croom educated her in his own fashion.
All this, and more, she told the young Englishman as they stood leaning over the low railings, awaiting Mickey's return. He listened with a curious interest; her voice held such music, her face such varied expression, her eyes grew so dark and deep. He had succeeded in drawing her attention from the jockey, and he was pleased at his success.
Suddenly, however, she came to an abrupt stop.
A fresh race was coming off. The stand was once more filling, and, crossing the green stretch of grass, threading his way between rows of cars, crowds of jarveys, sweet-stuff stalls, apple women, dogs and beggar children, came the figure of the hunchback.
Max Lorrimer saw the girl's cheek whiten and her lips set themselves in a firm line. He guessed her story, and a thrill of pity stirred him. He moved a little aside and watched Michael Groom's approach.
The girl watched him also, her whole figure tense and strained and still. She uttered no sound, asked no question; only looked and looked with all her heart in her eyes.
"To be loved like that!" thought Max. "Why it would be almost worth while to die!"
Nearer came the ungainly figure. The strange face lifted itself.
A sharp breath, that was half a sob, cut the silence like a knife.
"I know—I know. You needn't tell me, Mickey. He's dead!"
Then she turned and went swiftly away, as the roar and tumult of the new race broke from a thousand throats.
The caravan was of pine wood, polished and varnished to the verge of brilliance. It had a door at one end, a window at the other. In the day the interior formed a sitting-room, with table, seats and cooking stove. A cupboard held various utensils, such as plates cups, and saucepans. At night the table folded into a bedstead and another cupboard held mattress, sheets, and pillow.
The photographic apparatus and chemicals were kept in a portable canvas tent that was only erected when the caravan stopped for any length of time. The horse was blind of one eye, but strong and useful, and the two Irish terriers, Moll and Tim, were excellent watchdogs.
Brianna attended to the domestic duties of cleaning, washing, and cooking. Mickey Croom had charge of the horse and the tent, the preparation of glasses, frame cards, and chemicals, and Mrs. Dunne herself conducted the business and advertised it in that peculiarly appropriate and striking manner for which her adopted country is famous.
In her way Sally Dunne was a character, and a remarkable one. She had travelled much, and kept her eyes open to the ways of mankind in general. She had a knack of turning most things to account and knew the value of a red cent sufficiently well to get it, when nothing else could be got. She had a quick method of speech, many strange sayings, and delighted in what Mrs. Malaprop terms a curious "derangement of epitaphs."
A wordy war between herself and the hunchback was a battle ground on which much Queen's English would be slain, and strewn, and otherwise ill-treated. He had for years been attached to a theatrical travelling company, when he had played the melodramatic villain to nightly applause and appreciative hisses. Once, on a never-to-be-forgotten occasion, he had played Richard III. at a few hours' notice owing to the sudden illness of the "star." On the strength of this performance he had allowed ambition to get the better of discretion, fought with melodrama and subordinate parts, and finally torn himself from his beloved boards to follow Fortune under a new aspect.
Chance and Sally Dunne had been his tempters. Later on Brianna came upon the scene, and in the interest she awakened, and her admiration of his genius, he found that "balm in Gilead" for which his sick and lonely soul had yearned.
He taught her Shakespeare, and so educated her strange, untamed soul to appreciation of the grandest and loftiest ideals. She was quick to learn and retentive of memory. Her nature was volcanic, alternately smouldering and flaming. Life held all the wealth of possibility for her. In sixteen years she had had no youth, and had breathed but an atmosphere of menace and oppression. Then Hope's face showed itself round the corner of the stationed caravan, and life woke to pulsing glories in the smile and eyes of Pat Rooney. She loved him as Juliet loved, "at first sight," and he returned it with the temporary ardour of an Irish Romeo.
On the morning that he had waved his hand in an eternal farewell he had intended an unexplained departure. Fate stepped in with a different heart-break for the girl he left behind him. She sat desolate and alone on the steps of the deserted caravan, making a first acquaintance with grief, unenlightened by deception. Grief had hitherto been a stranger, for love had played no part as yet in her life. Its vicissitudes and hardships had been purely physical, and as such combated or succumbed to when occasion demanded.
She shut herself now into a heart loneliness that made her deaf to all the noise and turmoil so close at hand. Her hands were on her ears, her head was bowed. Her loosened hair fell like a cloud about her face and shut out the September sunlight.
She tried to think of Pat as dead, but it seemed impossible! He had been such a living image of vitality, mirth and motion that to picture him inanimate, gone from this world of sense and love and laughter, was a task beyond her own immediate sorrow. The blow had stunned her by its suddenness. Pain only beat in a feeble, numbed, pulseless fashion at the door of her heart.
Imagination had so recently awakened that its glories could not realise extinction. The cup of joy seemed still close to her thirsting lips. Not yet could the agony of parched and unslaked tongue herald the coming torture.
Life was still going on around her. The merry-go-rounds, the stalls, the shooting galleries, and hoarse cries of itinerant vendors, the far-off murmur of the Ring, the "k'rect card of the races," the bets and prophecies of waiting jarvies. All these fell on the air, in a curious and endless discordance, what time a girl's heart made first acquaintance with Despair.
The strangeness and "aloneness" of grief seemed to press on her and entomb her from all that living world beyond. In her ears was the sound of rushing waters; before her eyes a darkness as of endless night. Of Time she had no sense, and of Life no present consciousness.
The red of the sunset was burning low before she moved or stirred. A wind, chill with the breath of autumn, swept up from the river and crossed the meadows, and rustled among the treetops, and ruffled her fallen hair. She shivered and lifted her head from her knees, and gazed with dim, musing eyes at the scene before her.
Then memory came back. With quick, sharp stabs of pain it woke her numbed heart to feel. It told her of a face for ever gone, of a voice for ever silent—of something that had parted her from joy; of somewhere where tears and kisses and love and longing could force no entrance. And then she rose and faced grim reality in the shape of a strangely-clad figure advancing with swaying steps, and speaking in loud, incoherent tones, demanding whether tea was ready, and what she meant by sitting there, heaped up like a broody hen that was counting unhatched chickens?
Sally Dunne had been doing honour to the races in true Irish fashion, treating and being treated. She was slightly exhilarated, and more than usually loquacious. She had not backed the favourite, and owing to its disqualification had been a considerable winner. Brianna listened in silence. She set out the cups and saucers and made tea in that peculiarly mechanical fashion born of habit, which makes the body independent of the mind. Sally Dunne babbled on with loosened bonnet strings and an occasional hiccough. She was describing the attire of a well-known "horsey" lady who ran her own stables, and was proverbially unlucky.
"Such a gown—my stars! that never saw a Dublin workroom or a London either. French as France. I'd bet my bottom dollar, and a new-fashioned sort of water-back." (She probably meant watteau.) "Well, there warn't one woman in the place could keep her eyes off that gown—and never hitchin it up, but just sweeping along as if it weren't in the least consequential. I'd like to have took a picture of her. Guess she'd posay herself, and what an advertisement!"
She poured some tea into a saucer and drank it slowly, her elbows on the table. Then her eyes fell on the girl's face.
"My! What makes you look so queer?" she demanded. "And not a sup of tea have you touched. And where's that vagabond Mickey? I ain't seen him the whole living day. In mischief, I'll be bound. If he comes home drunk to-night I'll broomstick him as sure as I'm an Irishwoman—which, by the way, I'm not, for seems birth don't count in a Free Country when you domerciliate yourself there. But you haven't told me what's the matter?"
"Nothing," said the girl, brusquely, and she hastily swallowed some tea.
"'Spect you've been gallervanting," observed her astute relative. "There's the varmintest lot of men about this racecourse as I've ever seen. Not one honest face among 'em. If I thought one on 'em had been spyin' round here I'd let him know who was in command in the outside of five seconds. No sweetheartin' tricks for me. Keep that in your mind, my girl. I'll convey my caravan respectable, I promise you. And that remembers me, did you hear that Pat Rooney was thrown, just at the last jump? Broke his neck, or his spine, or something."
"Yes, I heard," said the girl mechanically.
"Dead as a door nail," continued Sally, turning her teacup round to examine the leaves. "Such a good-looking lad, too. But a bad lot all the same. It's a fact I've deduced from literal experience, Brianna, that them as has to do with horses is all vagabones more or less; chiefly more. Seems as how stables and sinfulness are born affinities. Cheating, thieving, lying and jockeying are the same thing without no manner of difference, 'cept the sayin' of them. Never you take up with an equin—equin—what in thunder, do they call it?—equinoxial person of any status whatever. Depend on it he'll turn out a blackleg in the long run. Yet it can't be the force of example, eh?—for the steed is nobler than the man, as Shakespeare says somewhere. And now if you're not going to have any more tea, just wash up and settle things, for I'm dead beat, and must have a snooze afore I recommence my peregrinations to-night."
"Did you! hear," asked Brianna, hesitatingly, "where they took Pat Rooney?"
"To the hospital, of course. At least, I don't know, now I come to think of it. Infirmary, or police court, or somewhere."
"But his mother lives in Mary-street," said the girl.
"Ah, so she does. Maybe 'twas there he was conveyanced. I'll step round and inquire after I've had my nap. 'Twill be neighbourly, though the widow Rooney is very much my inferior in the socialistic sphere. But one mustn't be proud when trouble flies like the sparks upwards. Now stop talking, girl, and let me go to sleep. The arms of Morphibious are waving me to slumber in the—Never mind the rest, pull out the bed, and if Mickey wants any tea he's not to have it, mind that. Bless Pat Rooney's broken neck, it's put twenty pounds in my pocket. Twenty pounds! Think of that, Brianna, and don't say Providence ain't good to us sometimes, and that other folks' misfortunes aren't a blessing in disguise?"
After which expression of Christian sentiment she turned in and went off to sleep without any difficulty.
The girl closed the door of the caravan and stood for a moment looking at the sky. The caravan was stationed in a corner of the meadows that lie beyond the Cork racecourse. The sloping hills, autumn-tinted, and crowned with villas and mansions, looked down in a twinkling radiance of light; the full tide of the river swept dark and dim between its banks. The evening star had risen, set in sapphire that still held some of the glow of sunset; a film of tawny gold lingered over the distant treetops, the air breathed a faint odour of peat smoke and damp mist and autumn flowers. Sounds of life—voices, laughter, gay bursts of music—filled the twilight pause.
In some dim way, to which her untutored soul could give no expression, the poetry of the scene affected the girl, and set her nerves thrilling as to strange music. Speech could not help her, and thought was chaos, yet she felt less unhappy and less alone than she had done since her first sense of loss.
The beauty of the world, the fullness and unrest of life, a longing to know and thrill and live it to its utmost, swept like a full resistless wave over her heart. She seemed to stand on the threshold of unknown mysteries. Love had chained, but Death had loosed the chain. Sorrow, and passion, and despair had held her life in check while memory opened its doors. Now every faculty of her nature was at its keenest. Sounds and whispers of mystery filled the air and haunted the faint chill mists beyond the winding river. She felt she could not live as she had lived. Her soul leaped strange barriers to the arms of that lover who had left her desolate. Then came a sense of peace to human agony. Terror and grief alike grew passive. All form or visible emotion passed and left her still and tense, and thrilling with sympathy for the vague, beautiful world at which she gazed.
Natures are disciplined by such moments as these. A spirit moves on the face of the waters, and the waters tremble and break, and their depths are stirred, and never more for them is the darkness of the unknown. Such a moment had come to this untutored Irish girl. She looked at the closed door of the caravan, the fluttering folds of the flag of which her aunt was so proud. Then yielding to some invisible influence, she descended the steps and moved swiftly away in the direction of the Marina.
Soon all was quiet about her. Most of the crowd who had come to the races had sped homewards by car, train or carriage. It was too early for the night's amusements. A silent bar emphasised the restless symphony of the day. The girl's swift, light feet bore her onwards to where the old castle stood out in bold relief, its beacon-light streaming over the river. It had always been a favourite resort of hers from the days of her starved and wretched childhood, and her steps turned there instinctively to-night.
The moon had risen. Its brilliance touched the white road and silvered the flowing water, making the shadowy background of tree-clad hills look mystical and remote. The Castle itself looked lonely and grim as some feudal fortress, its high tower guarding the river and the lough beyond. She slipped down the rugged pathway and reached a low stone wall, against which the tide lapped in broken waves. The place was quite deserted, but from the road above sounded the echoes of passing feet, the full-toned voices of men, the light ripple of girlish laughter. Brianna lost all count of time. It seemed as if long, long hours had passed, and still she stood there, leaning her elbows on the low stone wall, gazing with fixed, unwavering eyes at the beautiful scene.
The steps and the voices had grown quiet. The tide was ebbing seawards. The full bright moon still beamed in sweet tranquility. Suddenly, she grew conscious of a step approaching her resting-place. The fragrance of a cigar mingled with the autumn scents of dead moist leaves and drifted seaweed. The girl lifted her head, impatient of coming interruption. There were lurking tears in her eyes of which she was unaware. Her shawl had fallen back, and the damp mists had left light curls and tendrils of glittering hair about her forehead. Her face looked strangely white and spiritual in the clear moonlight. To the man approaching her it held all the beauty and beguilement of a vision. He was young and impressionable, and keenly alive to woman's loveliness and charm. His step quickened. There was a strange ring of gladness in his voice as he uttered her name:
"Why, Brianna! What on earth are you doing here? Who'd have thought of seeing you so far away from the show? And I hear there's no end of fun going on to-night. I've been dining up there," he nodded in the direction of the curving road. "Friends of friends of mine in England. Duty and all that. But do you know what the time is, child?"
"No," she said, somewhat listlessly. "Nine o'clock, perhaps."
"Nine! You'll never see ten again this side of to-morrow," he answered. "But tell me, do you often do this soft of thing?"
He tossed aside his cigar and pointed riverwards. Instinct made him respectful to her loneliness and youth as to his equal in station. She was feminine, and she was beautiful, and only "a daughter of the people," but Nature had created him chivalrous, and the world and society had not been able to break the mould yet.
"Not often," she said, slowly. "I have not the time. But to-night, 'twas no use. I had to come. I thought maybe it might comfort me."
"Comfort—are you unhappy? Ah, yes, I remember. That poor fellow was your sweetheart, wasn't he, Brianna?"
"He was," she said, simply, and without a flush or tremor. "'Twasn't much happiness my life had ever known, and cruel poverty sometimes, and aunt has a bitter tongue of her own, and she's not one to spare it. And then Pat came, and everything was changed. 'Tis just as if my heart was broken, now."
She had spoken slowly and carefully, but her voice broke over those last words, and the tears gathered and dropped one by one on her clasped hands.
Involuntarily his own touched them, closed on them.
"Poor girl—poor child!" he said, tenderly.
The sympathy in his voice touched her deeply. Her heart-beats quickened. She could find no words to answer him, and they stood side by side in a comprehensive silence, while the silver track of the moon broadened on the quivering surface of the river.
The girl first broke the silence. She drew her hands away from the firm yet gentle clasp that half-unconsciously imprisoned them.
"I must be going home," she said. "Aunt will be angry if I'm late."
"It's my way, too," he said. "May I walk with you?"
The calm scrutiny of her eyes swept his face in wonder.
"It's not for me to say no, sir," she answered. "But you're a gentleman, and I'm only a poor girl. You must please yourself."
"That means 'yes,' to my question, Brianna," he said, lightly. "But tell me, how is it you speak so well? You have the soft southern accent, but none of the idioms and expressions of the people about here."
"Oh, that's Mickey," she said. "He has taught me a great deal. Do you know he can repeat almost any play of Shakespeare, and he made me learn them too. It's saying over those grand words, I think, that's made me speak correctly. I know all Romeo and Juliet, and part of Hamlet, and The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, and The Tempest, and Much Ado About Nothing, and ever so many bits out of other plays. Sometimes Mickey and I act them." Her eyes sparkled, her whole face changed. "I love that," she said, "and sometimes he takes me to the theatre. Then I feel as if I want to act myself. Oh, the life seems splendid. To play to all those people, to make them forget you are you, and only see what you make them see. All the sorrow and the joy and the pain of it. Ah, that would be life indeed!"
Her bosom heaved, her large eyes shone like stars through the cloud of her loosened hair. The colour of a damask rose was on her warm cheeks and parted lips. The young man looked at her with something of wonder. Then a thought came to him and impulsively he spoke out on the strength of it.
"If you really wish to go on the stage, it could be easily managed," he said.
She stopped abruptly, and looked at him as if doubting what she had heard.
"Wish it! Of course I wish it. But Mickey says it's awfully hard. One has so much to learn, and for years and years you are kept back, and only allowed a line or two to speak, and you can't get the parts you feel you can act, and no manager cares to put on a play of Shakespere unless a big star is coming out in it."
"Mickey isn't far wrong," said Max Lorrimer, "and certainly if tragedy is your line, you'll have a hard tussle to get to the front. The public taste has altered since the days of Siddons, Helen Faucit, Kemble, Kean, Vestris, Macready—all that galaxy of genius which makes theatrical history now. People like comedy, burlesque, opéra-bouffe. Can you sing at all?"
"Oh, yes," she said, tranquilly. "I have a voice. But, of course, it's not like the singing one hears at concerts. I've been to them, too. Mickey took me."
"Mickey seems to have stood your friend and counsellor in most ways."
"Yes," she said, simply. "He has been very good. And he has had such a hard life himself. Oh, cruel! People think because he's deformed that they can abuse and despise him. But if they only knew him——"
She broke off abruptly.
"It's hard, isn't it?" she went on presently. "Hard to be ugly and ill-favoured, and yet have a beautiful soul that wants to live and be loved, and do great things."
"Yes," agreed the young man. "It must be very hard. And is Mickey like that?"
"He is, indeed. But I suppose no one knows him as I do. Most people think he's surly and disagreeable—and then he does drink sometimes. He's awful then. Like a raging lunatic. And Aunt Sal and he quarrel dreadfully, and I get frightened."
"What a life for you, Brianna."
"Oh! I don't mind it so very much. There's the going about, and one sees so many people and places, and Aunt is kind in her way, and after all it's better than the life I had in Cork before father and mother died, and I do get food, and no one beats me now."
His heart gave a sudden, quick throb.
"Beats you! I should hope not. Who'd dare?"
"Oh! Aunt often threatens it," she said, simply. "But Mickey won't allow that. Besides, I'm big and strong now. I can take care of myself."
He looked at the splendid young form, the proudly-balanced head, the firm, lithe grace of movement, the flash and brilliance of the beautiful eyes. Nature had been prodigal of gifts, yet Fate had frowned on circumstances that might have doubled their value. A sense of pity and helplessness came over him as he walked beside her. A man can do so little after all for a woman, and that little is always liable to misconstruction, if the woman is poor and friendless, and beautiful, and young.
"Tell me more," he entreated. "I like to hear you speak. I wish I could help you. I think I might, if you would let me. But you would have to give up this wandering life. To come over to my country. I suppose you would never do that?"
She looked at him doubtfully.
"Do you mean I might earn my living over there, be independent? Oh, it would be grand. But then I'm so ignorant. I know so little. I'm afraid I'm only fit for the life you know of. You'll think so yourself when you compare me with others."
He checked some words of recklessness, and for some moments they walked on in silence.
"I'm afraid it's very late," said Brianna, suddenly. "I hope Aunt won't have gone to bed and locked up the caravan. She's very queer in her temper sometimes."
"But surely she wouldn't lock you out?" exclaimed the Englishman. "That would be disgraceful."
She laughed somewhat constrainedly.
"Oh, Aunt Sal doesn't pick and choose when her temper's up."
"Well, you'll be out of breath long before you get within speaking distance," laughed the young man as he quickened his pace to keep up with her hurrying footsteps.
The girl seemed anxious and nervous now. A feeling of constraint crept between them. It struck her for the first time that betwixt her life and his there was a "great gulf fixed." She wondered at the ease and familiarity with which she had treated him. He was a gentleman, and she only a poor working-girl. She knew nothing of this world, and he would shrink with disgust from hers, did he but know it as she knew it.
If her soul had found wings and longed to soar beyond the sordid cares and common round of her daily life, yet none the less had that life its claims and duties and exactions. To cut herself adrift from them was a harder task than he imagined. Her heart was warm and loving, and full of generous impulse, but she had no opportunity of expending its powers save in that brief love-dream whose birth and death a month might date and embrace. It was love idealised and made beautiful on her side. She had yet to learn how little value it had held for her lover. She was pure and noble herself, and nothing less appealed to her. In the time before her she would perhaps suffer for that ideal, see it dethroned, abased; but as yet she believed in it and was ready to sacrifice all for it.
"I'm afraid you're coming far out of your way, sir," she said at last to her companion, as the trees of the Marina came into sight.
"Oh, no!" he said, lightly. "I can get to the Imperial this way, and indeed it's pleasanter than the Blackrock road. If my jarvey hadn't played me false I'd have been driving home. As it was, I felt an irresistible inclination to interview the Castle in the moonlight, and so found—you."
"It's good of you to make no favour of your company," she said, earnestly. "But, indeed, I feel it an honour. Maybe I should not have walked with you. I haven't my hat, and 'tis only working girls and such-like that wear shawls now."
"They are very picturesque," he said, "and, if I may say so, suit the wearers as a rule far better than hats."
"Pat liked me in a hat," she said, with sudden quivering lips.
"No doubt," he said, shortly. It was hard to be met with such an argument in defence of a taste that was strictly opposed to the picturesque. "But then I'm not Pat, so you must excuse my bad taste."
Something in his voice and manner hurt her. She was silent, and a dim uncomfortable feeling stole over her previous content. She paused under the trees. A pathway to the left ran under a sort of tunnel, and by it she could reach the caravan.
"My way's there, sir," she said, pointing in its direction. "And thank you kindly for your company."
He laughed softly.
"Oh, Brianna!" he said. "Has the blight of conventionality touched even you? Well, good-night, child. I shall see you to-morrow, perhaps; somewhere about the course, eh?"
"I don't know," she said. "It seems to me I shall never want to look at a race again."
"I—I beg your pardon, I forgot," he said, with quick compunction. "Well, good-bye for to-night. We shall meet again if Fate wills. Do you believe in Fate, child? I do."
A quick pressure of the hand and then he had turned and left her, walking city-wards along the broad avenue, while the moon gleamed through the trees, and the lights of the town were like beacons in the beckoning distance.
Brianna threaded her way swiftly through the motley crowd of vehicles and stands, and travelling shows that the Races had attracted to a temporary resting place. As she neared the spot where her aunt's caravan stood she saw it was all in darkness. Sitting on the bottom step of the vehicle was the hunchback. He rose as he saw her.
"So, it's you at last," he said, gruffly. "Do you know how late it is? Where have you been?"
"Down to the Castle," she answered wearily. "Where's Aunt Sal?"
"Gone to bed long ago," he said. "She was in a fine rage, too. Said she'd stop your gallivanting tricks for good and all. Has locked the door, too. Had taken a little drop; that accounts for it. What'll you do to-night?"
The girl shrugged her shapely shoulders.
"Sit out here," she said, coolly. "It won't harm me. I've got my shawl."
"Nonsense," he answered. "You must go into the studio. These mists and dews aren't good for you. You'll be quite safe. Leave Tim outside."
Tim was one of the ragged Irish terriers, who were the guardians of the caravan.
"You're very good, Mickey," said the girl, gratefully. "But what will you do yourself?"
"Oh, I'm all right," he said, gruffly. "It's not the first time I've slept under the stars, if need be. But I've a friend here. He'll give me a corner. Now, to bed, Brianna. It's past midnight—the witching hour when churchyards yawn, and graves give up their dead. Get thee gone, girl. Take thy share of curtained sleep. Farewell."
He waved his hand, and turned abruptly away.
Brianna slipped into the little canvas structure, called by courtesy the studio. It was littered with pails and bowls, and bottles of chemicals. A wooden truckle-bed in a corner, a straw-mattrass and an old horse rug were thrown upon it. Brianna looked at the bed, and a little shudder of distaste ran through her tired limbs. In some things she was fastidious, and through all her weariness of body and mind to-night this instinct was ungovernable.
She sat down on the edge of the rough couch, and rested her elbows on her knees, and her face on her hands. A dull stupor seized her. A belt of iron seemed about her heart, and her brain ached with thoughts impossible. She felt at war with her surroundings as if she had gazed through the chink of an open door into a new world. She longed to make further acquaintance with it, and yet she knew herself a captive, held fast by chains of obligation and of circumstance.
Gradually numbness and exhaustion stole over her. Her limbs relaxed. Unconscious of what she did, she fell back on the wretched bed and sleep took her in its warm embrace and comforted her.
The smoking-room of the Imperial was full of men when Max Lorrimer entered. The Cork races had drawn the usual betting and horsey crowd together, and mingled with them were such English and American tourists as generally benefit hotel-keepers, and uphold their respective nationalities with more or less discretion. The Bird of Freedom hovered over some half-dozen loud-voiced and loudly-dressed individuals who were drinking whisky, or concocting "cobblers" and "cocktails," and expressing disapproval of the Irish in the way they managed their scenery, and retarded progress, and generally kept things back from that plane of hurry, bustle and confusion so dear to the Transatlantic soul.
A strange-looking young man was lounging in negligent ease on one of the chairs. He had a colourless face, clean shaven and heavily moulded, deep, inscrutable eyes, and a mass of dark hair, unfashionably long. He was talking to Max Lorrimer's travelling companion, and they both looked up as he approached.
"Oh, so you've turned up at last?" said his friend. "Just talking about you. Let me introduce you to an old friend of mine; not seen him since we were at college. Raemore Clive—Mr. Lorrimer. We'd a bet about you, old man. You can just set us right. Clive, I must tell you, has adopted a strange profession, or rather the profession has adopted him. He's a professor of Palmistry, Clairvoyance and Occultism, unlicensed by Act of Parliament; isn't that it Clive? Well, he sort of sighted you, just by holding a letter of yours in his hand. He saw you walking along, under trees, beside a river (the Lea, of course), with a girl, young and beautiful, &c. I said it was impossible. You'd gone out to dine, and were no doubt driving home by the Blackrock-road in the prosaic guardianship of a jarvey. Now—who was right?"
A strange embarrassment showed itself for a moment in the frank face on which both the men's eyes were fixed. The odd green inscrutable orbs of Raemore Clive seemed to shoot out a curious spark, and then grow dull. Max felt compelled to answer.
"I was walking by the river," he said, reluctantly. "The jarvey never came for me and I took the Marina on my way."
"By Jove!" exclaimed his friend. "That's lost me a sovereign. What about the girl, though? I'd faith in your morality strong enough to back it. Don't say I've lost, that also!"
"I think there's no question of morality or the reverse—yet," said the strange, low voice, of the thought-reader. "Mr. Lorrimer's companion was one of accident, not of selection. Was it not so?"
Again that compelling glance forced reluctant admission.
"Yes, I met that girl who was with the photographic show, you know, Templeton—this morning, when we had our portraits taken by that singular female."
"Yes, by Jove, I do remember, she was a rare beauty, too. Well, you're in luck's way, Max, my boy. More than I am. Here's the sov., Clive—or shall we take it in champagne? A magnum between us, and you shall make our flesh creep and our hair emulate the fretful porcupine what time we listen to the tales you can unfold."
Raemore Clive smiled faintly.
"By all means," he said. "I have no call on my clairvoyant powers just now. I hope you are satisfied that I spoke truth?"
He handed back a letter as he spoke. It was folded in half. A few lines of writing and the signature were alone visible. Max Lorrimer saw they were his own.
"Do you mean to say that, just from looking at that, you were able to see my whereabouts?" he exclaimed, with wondering curiosity.
"I could have told a great deal more had I wished, or had it been necessary," answered Raemore Clive. "That is very little to do. But your friend here was very confident, and very sceptical. I only wished to convince him."
Under his full white lids he again shot one of those strange, inscrutable glances. Max Lorrimer felt suddenly cold and sick. A sense of uneasiness, of almost physical terror, came over him. He seated himself hurriedly. It was a relief when the waiter brought the wine and glasses and placed them on a table beside the young men. He drank off a glass of the foaming liquid and lit a cigarette. Raemore Clive did the same. Then he leant back against the chair; his eyelids drooped, only a faint gleam, like a thin line of light, shone through their half-closed barrier. It affected Max Lorrimer strangely. He felt as if he was watching a hidden flame playing behind some fragile fabric that at any moment might leap into a blaze. He tried to keep his gaze away, but time after time it was compelled to return, and be greeted by a mocking smile, that touched the full-curved lips of the thought-reader.
"Come, now," exclaimed Templeton, at last. "Unfold your tale of witchery and darkness. Tell me how you discovered you had this power. You seemed an ordinary boy enough at Charterhouse, if I remember right, and you were destined for a doctor, weren't you? At least your father wished it."
"Yes," said Raemore Clive, sending a faint spiral wreath of smoke upwards. "That is all true. My discovery of psychic faculties was quite unexpected. I shall not inflict on you the phrases that make our jargon of explanation. Sufficient to say that when with people, or talking to them, I became aware of things about them that were secret or apart from any confidence they gave. It was as if I looked through them and saw their real selves behind the curtain of their material existence. I grew interested. I went to a clairvoyant, a Frenchman, in Paris, and learnt of my power and how to exercise it. Palmistry is only an excuse for this faculty of second sight. Now, I have so perfected it that I find it quite an easy matter to tell people what I see about them: what has happened, or may happen, or will happen."
"Do you mean to say," exclaimed Max Lorrimer, "that you could tell me, or anyone here, what will occur, say, five, six, a dozen years hence?"
"Right to the end of your lives, if you wish," answered Raemore Clive coolly. "But I don't say I would do so. It might distress or hurt, or terrify you. Now, for instance, do you see that man over there? He is drinking some American abomination and talking as if it was his last chance on earth of using his tongue. Well, I can see this about him. He'll never reach America alive. The steamer he sails in is going down, with every soul on board."
"Good Heavens," cried Max in horror. "But why don't you tell him—warn him? This is terrible!"
"Did the dwellers on the earth believe in the coming of the Flood? Did the Jews believe in the birth of a Messiah? Does the world, this present-day world, believe that its vices and crimes are going to end in the terrors of a Last Judgment? No. People only believe what they wish to believe, and a warning that is founded on no basis of common sense is the last thing I would insult them by offering. I have no desire to see the inside of a lunatic asylum yet. Madness is the only excuse men offer for what soars a little beyond their earthbound comprehension."
Max drew a deep breath.
"It is wonderful," he said. "Wonderful. And yet it can't be a very pleasant power either?"
"It is not; believe me. When I am with certain people, the evil and the cross magnetism about them affect me as a vile stench, or loathsome sight, would affect a very sensitive nose or vision. I get positively ill. I try to switch off the current of my mental faculties and to put a dead wall, so to speak, between us. That is my only remedy. You look incredulous. Has anyone ever read your hand?"
"I can't offer to do so here, but come up to my room to-morrow morning, and I will give you a sitting, if you like. But even without that I can tell you something. You are easy to read. Beware of feelings, swiftly born, swift in results. Guard yourself against impulses that will lead to important consequences. When there seems least fear, then dread danger. There. Take it for what it is worth, and let us have some more champagne."
They filled their glasses, but a silence of constraint seemed to have fallen upon them. Max felt uncomfortable, and puzzled. He could not explain this man's power of divination in any satisfactory manner, yet he felt it was reliable, and an overwhelming curiosity seized him to know more. He looked at Raemore Clive's strange inscrutable face, and wondered how and whence came that faculty of clairvoyance.
The smoking-room was thinning rapidly. The noisy group of Americans had dispersed, and yawns and good-nights affected the air as one by one the tourists followed their example. Soon the three men were sole possessors of the room.
Raemore Clive began to talk. His voice was low and languid, but it held his listeners as a charm. He told them of things he had seen in the East—that land of mystery and magic—of strange legends, and dark histories, and perilous escapes, when curiosity had brought him too near to danger. Then he spoke of the magnetism of certain natures; of the curious attraction that draws some, of the equally curious antipathy that repels others, of the inexplicable power that rules by a wish, and commands by a look; of all the strange inner life that the soul keeps in a shrine of its own, that has nothing in common with the outer world.
Max Lorrimer listened with intense interest. Much that he heard had been felt by himself, yet never acknowledged. In the world one does not speak of such things. Only a part of ourselves is ever shown to those about us, even to those who think they know us best. And in some shamed, foolish way he had hidden the best part of himself always—the little touch of romance, the chivalrous belief in women, the vein of poetry and mysticism underlying his apparent light-heartedness.
But he felt that this stranger read all these, that no lock or bar was strong enough to close the door of his real self to that piercing gaze. It troubled and perplexed him. Yet the spell of a strange attraction held him powerless. He went to his room that night, impatient for the morrow, wondering what he would hear, what would be foretold.
* * * * * *
The hush and the quiet of the night was all about him, but he could not sleep. His brain seemed active and alert, as if it needed no rest.
An endless drama of many scenes unrolled itself to his memory. Events long past and half-forgotten grouped themselves together, and cause and effect and consequence rang up or dropped the curtain as the play progressed.
His eyes were closed, yet he saw; his ears were dulled, yet he heard. Astonished, perplexed, and pained, he gazed at the visions, heard unheeded warnings, sorrowed for painful results. And then it seemed to him as if he had lived through the like before. As if centuries and centuries had rolled over his head, and in different ways and under different aspects he had still held part in their dramas, and beheld from afar their results. Suddenly darkness overwhelmed him. He could see nothing more. And a voice stole to the ear of his soul and it whispered. "Wait—for the end is not yet—neither shall be. The Guide to the Future is the Guardian of the Past."
The warm September sun had swept the river clear of mist. The stir and bustle of waking life was everywhere apparent throughout that strange caravanserai encamped beyond the racecourse. The discordant brays and noisy barks of donkeys and dogs serenaded Sally Dunne's waking moments, and aroused her to the fact that she was the sole occupant of the bed. She smoothed some wisps of hair out of her eyes, and stared about her. The state of her mind on retiring the previous night had left its traces. Her garments were scattered over the floor of the caravan—one boot lay on the shelf among the cups and saucers, the other was on her own left foot. Her bonnet hung dejectedly from a nail, and her jacket embraced the space between cooking-stove and cupboard.
"Where's Brianna?" muttered Sally, as reflection threatened to become unpleasant. "She ain't gone out, for the door's locked. What's come to her?"
Forsaking the passive for the active mood she slipped out of bed and commenced the business of the toilet.
"Not home all night! Gallivantin' again! Guess this sort of thing won't suit my business. Wonder why my head aches so. I'd give something for a cup o' tea. I bet that girl's been up to some mischief. Ah! now I remember. I locked the door because she hadn't come. Here, you, Mickey, what the 'tarnation are you idling there for? I want a pail of water. And where's Brianna? In the tent? Guess I'd never ha' thought o' that. Tell her to slick up and get breakfast."
She had her head out of the door, and the fresh morning air was grateful to her aching brow. Mickey Croom had been standing at the foot of the steps. He now handed her up a bucket of water, and then strolled over to Brianna's resting-place.
"Old woman's up," he remarked, concisely. "Says she wants breakfast. Hurry up. I wouldn't rile her, if I were you."
"I'll be out in a minute," the girl answered, and she was as good as her word.
Owing to limited space, toilet preparations in the caravan had to await the disappearance of the bed. With a brief good morning Brianna set to work, folded up the clothes, packed away the bedstead, and then lit the fire, while her aunt was splashing cold water over her head and shoulders.
Sally's conscience was not quite at ease as to her own condition the previous evening. In the intervals of vigorous towelling she watched her niece with the corner of her eye, pondering if it would be safe to carry war into the enemy's quarters without fear of retaliation.
"Why didn't you come home in proper time?" she at last demanded. "What are you up to, I'd like to know."
"Nothing," said the girl, doggedly. "Only I went for a walk."
"A walk! What do you want to go walking for? You oughter have come to Widow Rooney's with me. She asked where you were. He'd been brought home. She would have him. He's going to have a grand funeral, and 'twon't cost her a penny. The place was crammed; and she was mighty full of herself, and whiskey warn't at no discount, I can tell you."
"So I suppose," said the girl, with a curl of her lips. "That's why you locked me out, wasn't it?"
"I locked the door at the usual time, on principle," answered Sally, sternly. "I am always overruled by principle. I wanted to teach you a lesson. By the way, where did you sleep last night?"
"In the tent, of course. Mickey gave up his bed to me."
"Jis' so. I knew he would. Well, I'll clear out and take a look round while you fix up this place. I'm of a forgiving disposition, so I won't make no complaints. But my head is peremptory, and a cup o' tea is the only thing that'll do me good. Hot and strong, and quick as you can get it. So long."
With which bit of Americanism she dropped down the steps and made her way to the tent for her usual morning skirmish with Mickey Croom.
Left alone, Brianna unloosed her bodice and sluiced her face and neck and arms with cold water, and coiled up her rich abundant hair. Then she tidied the caravan, and set the table, and opened the door and window to the fresh morning air. Just as her preparations were complete her aunt returned. She made for the teapot at once and poured herself out some tea, and drank it thirstily.
"No! I don't want any bread and butter," she said, as the girl cut a slice off the loaf, "Take it y'self. You look very glum. What's up?"
"All comes of gallervantin'! Now, this is the last of it. I won't have it. I've said so before, and Providence has stept in and circumscribed you. I suppose you're fretting after that good-for-nothing jockey. What a choice of a lover! Why, a jockey has as many sweethearts as there are races. More, if the truth was known. All the brains is galloped out of his head, and every new gal that makes up to him is better than the last. I guess I know something about men. I've laid in a store of experience, and I can oversee the benefits of it. Try to do you every way, that's all men are good for; and gals is fools mostly. Wal, now, I've slung enough tea into myself so I'll get out I guess, and see if there's any customers goin'. Give Mickey that teapot. That's good enough for him. He's that vexatious, this morning. Nothing ready in the studio. Doesn't care a cent about my inconvenience when he's took like this. Is my hat straight, Brianna?"
Her niece glanced at the article in question. It was of strange shape and trimmed with faded ribbon that had once been green. Sally Dunne always wore it during working hours.
"Yes, you're all right," said the girl. "Shall you want me?"
"Of course I shall. There'll be heaps of men loafing round before the races. You've got to bring 'em in as fast as you can; and don't you go slippin' off round the course, as you did yesterday. I won't have it—so mind."
Brianna listened with an indifference born of custom. She had no intention of going near the course to-day. It was too fraught with memories. Years seemed to have passed since that race that had cost her lover's life. She wondered that she felt so dull and cold. That grief seemed to have stilled instead of agonised her. Mechanically she performed her tasks, but there was no life in her movements, or any recognition of what she did in her eyes. Even when she had finished and followed her aunt to the so-called studio she was scarcely conscious of her actions.
Yet she soon saw that business was brisk. Chance comers attracted by the flag and the bold advertisement were examining the case of "Photographic Specimens," or asking terms, or bringing bashful sweethearts up to be "taken." The "Instantaneous Female Photographer" was in great form. Her garrulous tongue, her queer expressions, her audacious vivacity, had a certain compelling charm of their own.
The hunchback was kept busy framing the pictures, and she herself chaffed, joked and encouraged the sitters in a way that left no choice but to form groups, or be victimised singly, just as she chose to direct.
When Brianna appeared she ordered her off to invite fresh customers, bidding her take a "specimen" in her hand. It was a thing the girl hated. The coarse jokes and jeers, the familiarities and license of the men who thronged the racecourse were odious to her. To-day they seemed specially so. It was not yet time for the chief business of the day, but crowds of idlers were flocking on the scene, brought by early trains for a "day's divarsion" from all parts of the country, and ready to spend money on any pleasure that came in their way.
The fisher lads and farmers' sons from Youghal and Queenstown and Bandon and Kinsale and other outlying districts were not slow to recognise the beauty of this strange girl who moved to and fro, uttering her invitations so mechanically, yet enforcing their acceptance by a mere flash of her eyes, or movement of her hand. They were drawn by her as by a magnet to the photographic tent, and the coins dropped in, and Sally was in high good humour.
Towards noon the girl began to grow very weary, and even Sally Dunne acknowledged that she was feeling "dead beat," and that she meant shutting up business, for that day at all events. She emphasised her words by "switching off" her apparatus, to use her own phrase, ordering Mickey off for a pint of porter, and giving Brianna leave to prepare the midday meal of bread and cheese and cold bacon, for which she had discovered an appetite.
When that was over she dressed herself in gala attire and set out to find kindred souls, and enjoy the races in their company.
Brianna was left to her own devices. With a sigh of relief she saw her aunt depart. Then she seated herself on the top step of the caravan, and with her elbows resting on her knees watched the scene before her. It was some time before she became conscious that Mickey Croom was standing by her side. He had spoken to her, but she had not heard.
"Brianna," he repeated; "are you asleep? What's the matter?"
She dropped her arms wearily.
"Oh, is that you, Mickey? I thought you were watching the races."
"No; I wanted to speak to you about something. I came across some of my old company this morning; they're touring. It appears there a hitch in the cast. Two of the girls have bolted. One's a small part of a dozen lines or so. The other's 'Jessica.' It's The Merchant of Venice. They're only here to-night and to-morrow. As we were talking it occurred to me you might have a try at it. You've got Portia and Jessica by heart. I could teach you the acting part in a couple of hours. Would you try it?"
"Try it!" The girl's whole face blazed with excitement. "Oh, Mickey, is it true? Could I go on? Act—really act? Seems as if I'd die with joy at such a chance."
"I've always said you were born for the boards," said Mickey; "but as for chance, bedad, this isn't so much to boast of. Only, I'd like to see you do it. A first appearance is like the first time you try to swim. A flounder in the water and strike out for land. Here," and he tossed her a ragged book. "You're on third scene, second act. They'll cut out a lot I expect. Get your lines perfect while I go round and get the acting part, with cues. The manager knows your appearance; he saw you yesterday. They'll give you the dress. Now, mind you're letter perfect when I come back, and I'll run through the scenes with you."
The girl had seized the book. Her hands trembled with excitement, as she turned over the leaves to find the part indicated. She had seen the play with Mickey more than once. As she glanced over the printed lines the whole, scene rose before her eyes. She saw the stage, she heard the voices, recognised the cues, thrilled with the triumphs and sorrowed with the sorrows represented. To learn Jessica's part was easy enough. She shut the book and paced the floor of the caravan, living for the time being in the play she remembered so well, and acting out the part with an individuality that stamped even its slight importance with character. The girl was in reality a genius, and the hunchback had long ago recognised that fact. She could not read or recite the smallest part without investing it with life, passion, meaning. It came to her as naturally as to speak. Her declamation was excellent, and Mickey had been a careful tutor.
The tones of her voice had that irresistible sweetness and thrill that is positive magnetism, and without which the greatest art is a failure. She was unconscious yet of her powers. She could only "let herself go" and revel in that self-forgetfulness. Much might have to be excused before she won her way to success. Patience and study, and untiring devotion to her art would be necessary to perfect what Nature had, as yet, only indicated. But she had strength and force. She would shrink from nothing. Her whole soul seemed afire now, her whole life changed. She saw herself in that great gallery of heroines to whom Mickey Croom had introduced her first. Might it not be possible in some glorious future that she might play some or all of those brilliant and beautiful sovereigns who reigned over men's souls and senses, and for whom Fame's undying laurels ever bloomed.
Meanwhile Mickey Croom threaded his way through crowded streets and unceasing traffic to the stage door of the Cork Theatre. A rehearsal was just over. Painted, tawdry figures of women, unshaven, dirty men, supers, scene-shifters, propertymen, were pouring out into the warm sunshine with blinking eyes, and tired, care-worn faces. A sudden pang stirred the hunchback's heart. "If she should grow like them? Saints in glory keep her! I'd rather see her dead. But she won't. She can't. I've not studied stage art for twenty years for nothing. Ah, my pretty you'll show them your power yet—the power of genius. For that's what you've got in that clever head of yours; and it's not Mickey Croom is going to stand by and see you put upon by caravan owners or anybody else. No, my girl, Mickey stood your friend from the first, and he'll stand it to the last, even though your feet are treading his heart into the dust."
Then he was summoned to the manager's room, and left it a quarter of an hour later more elated by a triumph he had won for another than by anything he might have claimed for himself. Yet, midway between the city and the road that led back to the caravan he paused suddenly.
"I've done it, and if a first step counts, then the second depends on herself. And every step upwards takes her further from me—takes her glory and her beauty, and her great warm, strong heart, and puts me aside into the cold and shadow. Why did I do it? She is poor and friendless now, and I am in her life. When she is great and famous I shall be out of it. You're a fool, Mickey Croom. You're hurting yourself that you may help another. Is there gratitude in woman's heart? What'll you gain?—the bite of the serpent's tooth—the sting of the adder. Holy Mother, pity me! 'Tis I am the fool—the poor witless fool. She will escape. Her wings are folded now, but 'tis my hand opens the cage, and then she'll fly far, far away. She'll never come back to me. I know it—never come back to me."
The theatre was crammed from floor to ceiling.
It is a curious fact that no audience appreciates Shakespeare like an Irish audience. They have learnt him at good hands, studied his best under his best interpreters, and no one is more critical of a faulty or unorthodox representation than an old Irish play-goer.
The touring company at present performing had come to Cork for the race week, and had given Othello, As You Like It, and Macbeth, with great success. To-night had been fixed for The Merchant of Venice. Foremost in the dress circle sat the young men who had been the last occupants of the smoking-room at the Imperial Hotel the previous night.
Just before the curtain rose the manager came forward to ask indulgence of the audience on behalf of a new actress who had consented to take the part of Jessica on very short notice. There had been no time to alter play bills or programmes, but printed slips informed the occupants of dress seats that the girl's name was "Miss Brianna Lynch."
"I wonder if that's a common Irish name?" remarked Max Lorrimer to Raemore Clive who sat next to him. "I've come across it twice in the short time I've been here."
The thought-reader narrowed his eyes for a moment and looked at the slip of paper. "It's odd," he said slowly, "but when I look there I see the face of a girl with a shawl over her head. She has very bright hair, tumbling about her face. I think you know her."
Max Lorrimer gave him a quick startled glance.
"It would be the wildest improbability," he exclaimed, "if—if I did."
"We will see," observed Raemore Clive quietly. "We won't have long to wait."
The curtain drew up almost on his words The first act was very brief, and the pause between Antonio's last speech and the scene at Belmont in Portia's room was simply signalised by the descent and rising of the curtain in some few moments. The scene between Gobbo and Launcelot, and the following colloquies were distinguished by "cuts." Then came the entrance of Jessica and her first speech to Launcelot—I am sorry thou wilt leave my father so. Our house is hell, and thou a merry devil.
Max Lorrimer drew a sharp breath. He could not believe his eyes. There stood the girl of the caravan, his companion of the previous night. A warning pressure of his arm kept him still, but his excitement deepened with every word she spoke.
There was no sign of nervousness or timidity. Her voice was perfectly modulated, her gestures natural, and full of grace. The brief scene won the audience at once; though none recognised her in her new dress and make-up, for Brianna of the caravan.
"By Jove!" muttered the Englishman. "Who'd have thought it? She's a born actress; there's no doubt of that."
It seemed to him that all the interest of the play passed away with her. He grew restless and impatient. That lovely face, that lovely voice impressed him a thousand times more in this new aspect than they had done in the girl's own natural sphere.
"She was quite right. She has a genius for the stage," he said, as the act concluded, and in spite of Portia's triumph and recall, he lent voice and hand to the applause that had recognised the worth and beauty of the young novice. She was led before the curtain trembling and unstrung, with scarce sufficient self-command to bow acknowledgements.
Then Max Lorrimer's tongue was unloosed, and he and his friend discussed this unexpected episode with keen interest. Conjecture was rife in both minds. How had she come here? By what chance, what luck, and how in the name of all that was wonderful had she acquired this stage-knowledge, this self-possession, this beauty of elocution, this charm of delivery, this simple yet admirable grace of action? It seemed miraculous—incredible—and yet it was true. Max Lorrimer recalled her words, and her acknowledgement of Mickey Croom's instructions, but allowing all this, the girl must be a heaven-born genius.
The play went on, but excellent as were Portia and Shylock, the three young men were too keenly interested in Jessica to appreciate them. Faults, of course, the girl had. To a critical mind, they might have been innumerable, but she possessed a power, a charm, a magnetism that carried all before her. She loved with Jessica, and she was Jessica for the time. She went by no traditions, she copied no one. She simply played the part as it had shown itself to her; artless, innocent, subtle by turns, with no elation in her success, no consciousness of her own personality, until for the last time the curtain fell and the manager and the principal actor were holding her hands and uttering warm congratulations and prophecies for the future. Then her heart seemed to swell, and a wave of gratitude went out to the poor, deformed, unhappy creature who had been her tutor and her friend.
The tears streamed from her eyes.
"It's all Mickey," she cried. "All Mickey. Oh, where is he? I've never thanked him yet."
He was waiting at the stage-door for her—grim and grey and silent, his heart too full to trust itself to speak, his whole soul thrilling with her triumph, and proud of her success.
There she found him when she had changed her dress and gone out. There, too, were three figures pacing to and fro, and scenting the air with cigarettes. One approached her. She shrank back a little as the uplifted hat revealed the face of her English acquaintance.
"It is you," he exclaimed. "I knew it. I felt it. But by what miracle have you sprung from your caravan into the midst of legitimate drama? What Genius of the Lamp has done this for you?"
She laughed, disarmed by the frankness of voice and manner.
"It is all Mickey," she said proudly. "He taught me, he helped me, he encouraged me, and when this chance came and he heard of it, he got me the part. Indeed, it's grateful and happy I am to-night. Oh, sir! how did I do? Was I really worth all that applause they gave me?"
"Indeed, you were, Brianna," said the young man, heartily. "Do you know, I and my friends were waiting here to ask you to come to supper with us. Do, and we'll drink success and long life to you, and Mickey here. Besides, there's something to be said about your future. I told you I had some interest in London. If you once got on there your fortune will be made."
"I'd like to go to supper with you," said the girl reluctantly. "Do you think I might, Mickey?"
"Please yourself," said the hunchback, coldly. "It's no business of mine."
"Nonsense. You come along, too," said the young Englishman, heartily. "Miss Brianna is your pupil, and you have to look after her interests."
"I'll do that in my own way," muttered Mickey. "It won't be yours, I think, sir. Suppers and champagne don't often help a woman to much good."
"Mickey, you're rude and cross," said the girl, quickly. "This gentleman only meant to be kind to us——"
"That I can assure you is true," said a deep voice, suddenly.
The girl started. She looked up and met the strange inscrutable eyes of Raemore Clive. They held hers for a moment. She felt sick and cold, yet fascinated, despite herself. Suddenly, too, she recognised that she would give worlds to refuse that invitation, but that it was no longer in her power.
"You will come, won't you?" pleaded Max Lorrimer, persuasively, and, half-regretful, half-repelled, she saw the hunchback turn and leave them at her murmured "Yes."
Brianna was plainly and neatly dressed in a dark serge gown and black straw sailor hat, but her tall figure and beautiful brilliant face were none the less remarkable because of her attire.
She walked on by Max Lorrimer's side; Clive and Templeton followed behind. The restaurant where they ordered supper was almost empty. They secured a table at the far end of the room, and Brianna looked round at the novel scene with intense curiosity. She had never been in such a place, or seen a meal served with the luxurious additions of flowers and glass and silver and delicate napery. That quickness of observation and ready adaptability so peculiar to the Irish character stood her friend now. She was neither awkward nor bold. The three men who were keenly observant of her every action could detect unfamiliarity with her surroundings, but nothing coarse or objectionable.
"Now," said Max, cheerfully, as he filled her glass with champagne. "Now, tell us how it came to pass that you were in the caste to-night, and acquitted yourself so admirably. I assure you I found it a difficult matter to convince myself or my friends that Jessica was really you."
Her eyes shone with excitement.
"It was just as wonderful to me," she said. "You remember I told you that Mickey used to be an actor, and that he knew almost every play of Shakespeare's, and had taught me ever so many parts?"
"Yes, I remember that."
"Well, he knows the manager of this company, and learnt that two of the girls had suddenly left, and they did not know what to do for a Jessica to-night. He thought of me. I knew every line of the part, and they said, even if I was letter perfect it would do for the emergency. But Mickey made me act it, and feel it, and we had a rehearsal on the stage before the performance, and the manager said I would do very well. That was all."
"All!" said Raemore Clive, looking at her with his strange eyes. "You don't make much of it, but it seems incredible that a girl with no experience, scarcely any teaching, and only one rehearsal, could go on and act as you acted to-night."
"It seemed very easy," she said, simply. "You see, I knew it all so well. It wasn't a bit strange. Indeed, I could have repeated all Portia's part also, though I would not have dared to act it."
"You are a born actress, I am sure," said Raemore Clive. "No one could doubt that."
A waiter placed a dish of cutlets before Max Lorrimer, and he handed her one. She was hungry and ate it with evident enjoyment. Clive watched her with languid interest. She was a new study to him, this daughter of the people, with her frankness and unconventionality and utter ignorance of his own world. He led her on to speak of her life in the caravan, and she described Sally Dunne and mimicked her oddities of speech in a way that at once set the original before their eyes. The champagne exhilarated her, but Max was watchful and careful, and took care that she should have no cause to regret the acceptance of his invitation. Certainly, she had no reason to complain of want of respect on the part of his companions.
But Raemore Clive drew her out as no one else could. She bared her nature, her feelings, her ambitions, her very soul at his bidding. It angered Max Lorrimer to hear such naked confessions, but he could not stay them. Finally, at the thought-reader's bidding, she held out her hand, brown, coarsened by work, hard of palm, with no redeeming quality save its slender shape. He took it in his own and examined the lines carefully.
"A hard life," he said. "And you are not one to take things easily. You are emotional, headstrong, and passionate. You crave fame, and it will be yours; but the path is thorny, and your feet will bleed and blister as they tread it. You have courage and strength; you will need them. Men will love you, but love will always be less to you than your art and your ambitions."
He released her hand and her eyes met his in wonder.
"Do you mean that you can really tell what will be?" she asked. "That you see it written here?"
"Yes," he said. "The lines of destiny are easily translated when one has learnt the alphabet."
She shuddered and turned pale. Lorrimer interposed.
"Come, come, Clive," he said, "you are frightening the child. Enough of this. Have some fruit, Brianna, and tell us how you are going to break with caravan life. Will your aunt allow you to go on the stage? You say she knows nothing of this appearance to-night, or the offer made to join the company."
"No, sir, but I shall tell her I am going. She can't keep me. Why, 'tis the most glorious chance that could happen. Indeed, it's hard to believe it myself."
"Everything must have a beginning," observed Lorrimer. "I am glad, Brianna, that I have seen yours."
She clasped her hands and leant suddenly forward, her soul in her eyes.
"Oh, I can hardly believe it," she said, brokenly. "To have dreamt and thought and thought of one thing for so long, and then to wake up one day and find it is yours. . . . Oh, it is too much even to speak of."
"You make me feel ungrateful," said Templeton languidly. "Providence has dowered me with a fair share of this world's goods, and yet I fancy I have never looked upon them as anything but my right."
Her brilliant eyes flashed on him.
"I don't understand," she said. "But then, of course, men are different. The world seems made for them. Now, a woman, she must take what she can get."
"I fancy a good many of them take what they want, and are not too particular as to the means employed," sneered Clive. "The world is composed of two classes. Those who drive and those who are driven. You had better seize whip and reins at your first chance and keep them."
"Don't bring your cynical, worldly wisdom here, Clive," said Max Lorrimer. "It's a pure atmosphere as yet."
The girl glanced from one face to the other in some perplexity.
"It must be late," she said, suddenly. "I ought to be getting home."
"Do you call that caravan on wheels home?" asked Templeton.
"It is the only one I have had," she answered simply. "And it wasn't such a bad life after all, when Aunt Sal was in a good temper. And there was always Mickey."
She rose, and her eyes looked regretful.
"It has been very pleasant here," she said. "But I am sure he didn't think it right of me to come. I wonder why?"
The three young men exchanged looks. How odd and embarrassing innocence can be. Then Max rose, setting aside a proffered cigarette from Raemore Clive.
"I'll see you home," he said. "You fellows go back to the smoking-room. We'll meet there later."
The girl shook hands.
"Thank you all," she said, "and good night."
"A wonderful piece of nature," observed Raemore Clive, as he and Templeton watched the retreating figure. "Nature pure and simple. Unspoilt, untampered with, fed on ideals, educated on Shakespeare. How one wonders what the woman will develop into! It would be interesting to watch that career."
"She is wonderfully beautiful," said Templeton, between puffs of languid enjoyment. "I hope poor old Max isn't caught. He's such a Quixotic sort of fellow, and beauty in distress always appeals to him. But of all mistakes a man can make there's no mistake so irretrievable as that of a marriage beneath him."
"There speaks the conventional worldling," said Clive. "The voice of one who has never looked beneath the surface. Social equality is often the merest veneer. It is the nature of a man or woman that alone creates the title of nobility. Here is a case in point. That girl comes of obscure parents, was brought up in poverty and ignorance, yet the innate delicacy of feeling is unharmed, the soul illumines the body like a clear, burning lamp, and Nature will mould her, will fit her to take a place in the world, that at present seems beyond her hopes or her powers."
"The voice of the prophet!" observed Templeton. "It must be a strange thing, Clive, to have that faculty of foreseeing. Not altogether pleasant either, I should imagine."
"You are right. It is not altogether pleasant—sometimes. Come, let us get back to the smoking-room. How the moon shines. On such a night as this did Jessica steal to Lorenzo's arms. Let us hope our Jessica and Lorenzo are not drifting on to the usual romance, the way of a man with a maid, as saith Solomon. Poor human nature, unchanged for centuries past, and unchangeable for centuries to come! Do you know, Templeton, I came here—to Ireland—for a mere whim, and almost by a mere accident, and I find myself suddenly the spectator of a drama whose very first act is so replete with interest that I long to see the whole."
"Why should there be a drama?" asked Templeton. "It might be only farce, comedy, burlesque, for aught we know."
"I think otherwise. The pulse of youth stirs to thrilling music. It can't laugh or jest at the obstacles in its path. Romance is a cup of tragedy filled to the brim with sweetness and pain. The boy writhes as a victim to every petty sting which manhood would ignore. Yet manhood envies the boy. For when time has deadened the power of feeling, the longing to feel may awaken. I—I have forgotten how to feel. My feet move over a frozen sea. I cannot gaze into its depths again. What I killed out of myself I alone know. You are happy, and Max is happy, and that girl is happy. But I? To look at happiness through the eyes of others is sadder than any loss in life, believe me."
Templeton looked and listened with that surprise of the prosaic temperament at anything beyond prosaic comprehension that is often a fatal barrier to confidence. This sort of talk was Greek to him, and Greek had ever been the bugbear of his student days. All he hoped was that Max didn't intend making a fool of himself over the girl, and that hope led him to resolve on a speedy departure from Cork. On the morrow the races ended. They would hurry on to Killarney, and return by way of Glengarriff and Bantry, to Dublin. Then back to England, and duty.
He drew a deep breath. Raemore Clive looked at him and smiled oddly.
"What a Philistine you are still!" he said.
To-night, the half-door of the caravan was open as Brianna approached. She had parted from her escort at the railings, and then run with fleet steps the remaining distance. The lamp was lit, and she could see into the interior. Sally Dunne was leaning over the door, and two voices in angry colloquy reached her ears.
"The like of your impudence, you good-for-nothing, play-acting, ranting, melodramatic ruffian! Leading my niece astray, and cockering her up with notions of independence! I'll have the law of you, see if I don't. Guess things is come to a pretty pass when after bringing up and supporting the girl like as if she was my own child, I'm to see her turn and rend the hand that's fed her, owing to your marplotting. And where is she now? That's what I want to know. I'll put a stop to this gallervanting, as sure as I'm a living woman."
"I'm here, aunt," said Brianna, quietly.
"Oh, indeed; are you?" returned that lady with irate sarcasm. "And what have you to say for yourself? That's what I want to know. You come in straight along this minute, and I'll have it out with you."
"If you dare lay a finger on her, or ill-use her as you've done before in your drunken tantrums, I'll smash your old caravan into firewood, and you along with it, you old harridan," muttered Mickey Croom. "The girl's fit for something better than your tyranny, and she's going to have it, too. Don't you talk about claims in my hearing. I'll have something to tell the magistrates if you ever do bring it into court. You've no proof she is your niece, if it comes to proof. My word's as good as your's, and I'll swear she's mine."
"What!" shrieked Sally Dunne.
"Oh, you needn't yell and be disturbing all your neighbours. If it's going to be a fight I warn you my weapons are ready. Don't you be a fool, Sally Dunne. Why, the girl is a gold mine if you only look at it properly. She'll make hundreds of pounds on the stage. You go up and see the manager to-morrow and hear what he says about her."
Sally Dunne drew back, and the anger died out of her face. She was the last woman to quarrel with her bread and butter, and Mickey's words impressed her greatly. Meanwhile, Brianna quietly ascended the steps, and pushed open the little half-door.
"Come, aunt," she said, "don't let us quarrel. If you had been here I'd have told you; but you weren't, and I had to go without your leave. And I'm going to stick to it. I can act, and I mean to act. I've been offered a place in the company, and payment. It's only £1 a week, but it'll keep me, and you've always been saying I was an expense and a trouble, so you ought to be glad to get rid of both."
"A pound a week, and for acting! You——. Sakes alive, what next!"
Sally positively gasped. She sank back on the bed and surveyed her niece with an expression in which incredulity and amazement were comically mingled.
Brianna made no answer. She closed the door of the caravan, drew the curtain, and then began to remove her hat and dress.
Sally sat there staring and muttering. The variety and novelty of her emotions rendered speech difficult. She launched forth into prophecies and warnings, at which Brianna laughed. Pitfalls and snares had no meaning for her. Her faith in the future was illimitable. To-night all was rose-coloured, beautiful as a dream. It was only when a certain expression of her aunt's pierced the veil of excited fancies that a cold chill touched her heart and set an old wound throbbing.
She had forgotten Pat. Pat, who lay dead in the city beyond. Pat, who had been the first love of her heart. Pat, who had brought into her starved and lonely life all the colour and vitality of his own. She stood quite still, and her face grew white. There was no life or lustre in her tearless eyes.
To-night she had told herself she would go and see him, lay a flower on his pulseless heart, gaze for the last time at the handsome face whose last glance and smile on earth had been hers. To-night; and she had forgotten him entirely. Had flung herself heart and soul into a new excitement, listened to the honeyed praises and flattering homage of new friends, planned out life for herself on a new scale.
A sense of heartlessness and shame swept over her, but yet nothing seemed to waken the old throbbing warmth in her heart. Pat was dead. Her brief love-dream had ended. For the future she would live for fame, for glory, for the splendours of that new, strange, enchanting life on whose threshold she stood waiting.
* * * * * *
Sally Dunne grew weary of talking at last. She yawned, kicked off her boots, made her toilet for the night, and got into bed. Slowly and silently the girl followed. She could not sleep. She only lay there staring at the space of moonlight through the little window, going over her past life with all its sordid squalor and misery, and wondering about her future.
How swiftly one event had followed another. How important these days had been to her. She remembered how reluctantly she had come to Cork. How hard Pat had found it to persuade her to watch him in that fatal race which was to have been a glorious triumph, and had held instead a tragedy so awful. And now the desire of her heart was given her. Without struggle or effort on her part Fate had laid this chance at her feet. Of drawbacks and sufferings, of toil and hardship, enmity and rivalry she never thought. To-night had won for her a victory so easy that she could not believe any future might come in which she would have to face failure, or disapprobation from less kindly critics.
All the glamour and glory of that life which from the first days of "sock and buskin" has possessed a charm irresistible for its followers, shone about the path of this untutored girl. She was lifted into a new world, and there her imagination and her hopes held revel, during which time Sally Dunne snored and grunted the long hours through, and vented in dreams the wrath of her honest soul.
With dawn the girl fell asleep, wearied with thought and exhausted by so many varied emotions. It was broad daylight when she awoke. For a moment or two she lay there passive, trying to collect her thoughts, to piece together the incidents that had marked a bygone day and night. Then a thrill of delight ran through her. She remembered all. She sprang up and tossed back the thick bright waves of hair from her brow, and, for the first time in her life, felt that life was to be lived—was to become a thing of action and struggle, full to the brim with energy and endeavour, offering wondrous prizes and stimulating hope into active existence at last. It was glorious. It made the blood rush like quicksilver through her veins. It set every pulse leaping and throbbing. It set imagination afire with ineffable aspirations.
The narrow boundary of the caravan seemed like a prison. She opened the upper half of the door, and the cool, soft air, damp with transient showers, stole in like a whispered welcome. Afar off the hills held passing rain-shadows, but above this caravanserai of life and hubub all was blue and bright and golden. The girl drank in the fragrance and sunlight with thirsting breath. Then, with swift fingers, she dressed herself, and stole out to the arms of Nature for the consolation and sympathy she had never found in humanity.
Under the trees all was still and peaceful. The rhythmical flow of the river, the movement of a passing boat, the beat of a paddle-wheel carrying a sea-bound freight, alone swelled the harmony without disturbing it. How beautiful seemed life, how beautiful this world around. She snatched off her hat and lifted her face to the kiss of the sweet air, the caress of the glad warm sunlight. Pity it is that kiss or caress less pure should ever touch the lips or brow of youth.
Her fleet feet broke into a run. She flew along the deserted Marina as a laywing skims the ground. Nothing mattered, nothing troubled her. It was supreme joy just to live and to be. Her swift flight came to a sudden pause as she almost ran into an advancing cyclist. She stopped abruptly, her face aglow, the short uneven breaths coming through her parted lips in little panting gasps.
The man swung himself off his "wheel," and stood facing her. She saw he was the strange-looking individual who had been one of the supper-party the previous night.
"Well met," he said, as he lifted his cap. "You are out early. Did you dream of last night's triumph, or are you meditating on the future?"
She drew back. Some of the glow and warmth faded out of her face. The mockery in his voice was to her like a foreign language, and his strange eyes had the same curious repellent effect as on the occasion of their first meeting.
"I have been to the Long Rock for a swim," he went on. "I, too, felt the need of the morning air. It is the only real elixir vitae, if we were wise enough to believe it. Nature offers us a draught of new life with every dawn, and we poor fools of civilisation close our eyes and roll up our stupid bodies in blankets, and leave the beauty and magic of the potion to the birds and beasts, and the tillers of the soil. I am glad to recognise in you a wisdom kindred to my own. To share a common virtue is almost, if not quite as gratifying, as to acknowledge a common vice. May I share your walk, or shall I disturb it?"
"I don't know," she said, bluntly. "You see, sir, you are very clever, and I am only a poor girl, brought up anyhow, and not used to people who talk as you do."
"You are one of Nature's divinities, and a pupil of the immortals," he said, in the same mock-serious tone. "Who am I to quarrel with such companionship? In the world behind us I can have as much artificiality as I desire, as much sport with the puppets of Fashion as my leisure or inclination demand. But is is not every day that one finds a coin fresh from Nature's mint among the hanselled pieces the world passes to and fro. I should like to hold that coin a little while before it is sent out for circulation."
He was strolling beside her, wheeling his bicycle with easy grace with one hand, and glancing at her puzzled face from time to time as the light words fell from his lips. What an interesting study she was! How utterly natural and simple and unspoilt, and yet what gifts of genius were locked away in that unopened casket of her soul.
"You act again to-night, do you not?" he asked presently.
"I? Oh, yes. They offered me the part for the rest of the tour, you know."
"For once," he said satirically, "the natural obtuseness of a theatrical manager has found its exception to the rule. They are making a good bargain, I have no doubt. But everything must have a beginning. Even this great glorious world was once only an atom whirling in clouds of chaos, if we are to believe scientific explanation. At present, my child of genius, you are an atom, and chaos is represented by the obstacles and rivalries of a glorious and most unvirtuous profession. Poor atom! How will it emerge, I wonder? Transformed, no doubt. Are your ambitions speakable as yet, or do they lie awaiting a birth-struggle in that sleep-bound nature of yours? For ignorance is the sleep of youth, and you are very young, sweet Jessica."
She flushed to her very temples. His mocking voice, his strange glances troubled and perplexed her. No one had over spoken to her as this man spoke! or looked at her with eyes that seemed to read her very soul.
"I know I am young," she said at last. "But yet I have never felt young. The poor have no playtime. From the moment I could run alone I have had to work."
"Your playtime will come," he answered. "And then you can look on while others work for you. Believe me, that is the height of physical enjoyment. The butterfly has laughed at the ant from the days of Eden onwards. Not that you will ever be a butterfly." And again his strange glance plunged into her earnest eyes. "No, you will want to live, and feel, and enjoy, and triumph, and all these things you will do. Let us sit down on this seat and talk. The day is ours and Nature's. Let us enjoy it. We can only be spendthrifts of leisure when we are young. I was young once, Jessica. It was long ago, centuries, I think. You make me remember and regret it—all in one."
"Why do you call me that?" she asked, colouring shyly, as she took the seat he indicated.
"Because you are 'Jessica' to me. That was my introduction to you. You will never know what that first glimpse of you meant. The embodiment of a creation, a vision, a living poem, a sudden human ecstasy. For you were genius as I have pictured it. A fresh, pure, untrammelled soul spreading its wings to the ether of existence as a bird in its fight heavenwards. I wish you could remain as you are. But that is impossible. It is the one thing that spoils all life—the passing of the moment. For no other can be quite the same. If we try to make it the same we only succeed in a poor imitation, and imitation is insincere and ineffective, No, all things, however beautiful and divine, are ruled by the law of change. Do you understand? Yes, your soul is comprehensive, though it lacks expression yet."
"I think I understand," she said. "But I find it hard to speak."
"That is what makes you such a divine listener. Soul and body are like two antagonisms chained together, for ever at warfare, and for ever apart. When speech enters one channel the other is closed. I prefer to speak to you through the channel that is perforce dumb. It cannot answer. I master it: I hold it. It is mine. There will be plenty of others to force that other channel, and it will be responsive, and learn, too, all the sex's arts of subterfuge and fence. Yes, Jessica, that, too, will be your lot, and so I have spoken to you first, and forget you cannot. For that with which you have listened is the spirit in touch with mine. Do you hear me? Are you listening? To the world at large, to those fishermen yonder, we are only two human personalities. A man and a woman. The prose of the situation embraces your sailor hat and my modern machine yonder. But the poetry and the spirit of it concern us alone, and you will remember and I shall remember. For centuries ago we knew and met and—loved. Yes, Jessica, we loved, and through the ages I hear a voice stealing back to me through the echoes of your own, and it tells of suffering and of joy, of division and of death! Can you hear it? You shake your head. Your eyes are full of wonder and perplexity. But you will hear it, Jessica; you will. Fate has spoken, and its voice cannot lie!"
He rose. She sat there dumb and spell-bound, and all the music and glory of the morning seemed like a dim, discordant sound. She saw him lift his cap. Then he sprang lightly to the saddle-bar, and with a wave of his hand flashed down the path and was out of sight in a moment.
Brianna sat on where her strange companion had left her, half-bewildered by this extraordinary conversation. What had he meant—what could he mean by affirming that they had met and known each other and loved in some past time? What voice had spoken to him that she too was to hear? What mystery attracted and repelled her when she met his strange eyes, or listened to the odd deep vibrations of his voice?
She asked herself these questions but heard no answer. Yet she felt this past half-hour had had an influence upon her life. A wave of new feeling had lifted her on its crest far above the level of common-place things. Her soul had begun to live, her mind would never sleep again in placid assurance that what was, was; that it had always been, and would always be, unaffected by human hopes and desires.
She lost all sense of time and place. Passing footsteps seemed only the echoes of a dream, figures and faces looked vague and shadowy. When at last she roused herself she felt it must be late; far later than the usual breakfast hour. But even the thought of her aunt's anger did not disturb her, and she walked tranquilly back to where the "vials of wrath" awaited her, feeling that with all the wide wonderful future before her a little inconvenience in the present might easily be endured.
Sally Dunne was irate, and letting everyone in the vicinity know it. To be left in this fashion to light the fire, to get the breakfast, to do all that had long been relegated to Brianna's useful hands, had aroused a fair amount of her hot Irish temper, and Mickey Croom had felt the lash of her tongue despite his offers of assistance.
When Brianna really put in an appearance at last she had so exhausted her vocabulary of vituperation that she had little to say, and took refuge in sarcasm of a distant and polite nature.
Would the Tragedy Queen partake of breakfast? Might she offer the humble refreshment of her poor dwelling to one so gifted and superior? She feared the tea was cold, but if, on another occasion, information was given as to what hour breakfast would be convenient, she would do her humble endeavours to have it ready.
Brianna listened silently as she drank a cup of tea and ate a morsel of dry bread. It all seemed so mean and so insignificant, fussing over trifles like this, when the world was so beautiful, and life so full of promise.
"Oh, do be quiet, aunt!" she exclaimed at last. "After all, you only had to do what you will have to go on doing; for if I go away on this tour you must shift for yourself, unless you engage a servant to work as I've worked without wage or thanks for the last five years."
"Oh, indeed!" answered Sally, loftily. "And 'twas wages you expected? And what of your keep, you ungrateful cannibal, you? And your clothes, and the wear and tear of my constitution teaching and putting up with the like o' you? For our social grades were very different. I was never a ragamuffin, and boot and shoe to my foot was never wanting; and that's more than you can say! But there; your head is just turned topsy-turvy with this play-ranting nonsense. But take my word, the day will come when your pride will be broke, and like the stricken heart that panteth for the water-brooks, so will your wounded spirit turn hankering after the safety and comforts of my caravan, and you'll cry, 'Oh, for the shelter of my wandering home, and the plain but honest victuals that awaited me there.'"
"And which I always had to cook."
"Better is it to cook than to gallervant," answered Sally; "and an honest mouthful with quietness is preferable to a stalled ox on the housetop, which is metaphorical but spoken with good intention, and no call either to be received with a sneer or a sniff!"
"I'm not doing either," said Brianna, meekly, "and I'll wash up these things now, and you can go to the studio if you want to."
"Dear me! How mighty condescending we are! And no compunctions, which I suppose is to be expected, and your benefactress only fit to be trampled in the dust. Well, I guess you'll have your fall yet, Brianna, for pride is bound to suffer; and so lay that to your heart while I attend to my duties, and unroll the panorama of art in my humble, though ostentatious, fashion."
"Instantaneous, you mean," laughed Brianna.
"Oh! I insinuate nothing," said Sally, loftily. "Words are but empty sounds, and I must, of course, stand corrected when play-actresses come on the scene. But, let me tell you, Brianna, that in that great and glorious land where I made myself name and fame, my language was accounted one or my universal accomplishments, and no trally-wagging, gallervanting chit of a girl would ever have dared to pass her criticalisms upon it."
She tossed her head. All the "stars and stripes" seemed to flutter in her faded ribbons, and sound in her shrill voice. Brianna's face grew grave. She said no more, and with the majesty of a Siddons, Sally Dunne marched out of the caravan and down the steps, and thence to what she fondly called her studio.
The idea of Brianna's independence was gall and wormwood to her. She could not bear to think of it. Yet she felt that she was powerless to restrain the girl. "The liberty of the subject" could not be infringed lightly, even in a less law-abiding country than Ireland. If the girl had a craze for the footlights, to the footlights she would go. It annoyed Sally to think that she had secured an engagement, had actually undergone the ordeal of a first appearance, without consulting herself. And done it creditably, too. She had seen the announcement in the morning paper. Mickey had bought one and shown it her, and the testimony of print was very convincing. She had said nothing of it to the girl, not being desirous of "cockering up her vanity," as she expressed it. Still, it rankled in her mind, and spoilt the sunshine that was so good for business, and made her curt and uncomplimentary to female customers. As luck would have it a great many of the minor "stars" of the company had strolled down to the caravan that morning, some to be photographed, some to criticise the habitation of the new recruit to their ranks. Her history had got about and curiosity was rife, so they dragged their tumbled skirts and badly-shod feet, and general aspect of unwashed powdered impropriety to this strange domicile. They succeeded in thoroughly rousing the ire of Sally Dunne, and hearing some home-truths about themselves and their profession that were too uncomplimentary to pass for playfulness.
When Brianna heard sounds of warfare in the vicinity, she guessed that the redoubtable Sally was to blame. Curiosity impelled her to learn what was the matter. She was astonished to find her aunt being "baited" by a lot of loud-voiced rowdy-looking girls. She recognised some of the faces as belonging to the touring company, and wondered what had brought them there. When they saw her, they ceased their fusilade of compliments. One or two greeted her in friendly fashion, but the others examined her with the curiosity they would have bestowed on a strange animal.
"So you're going to be one of us?" "My, ain't she good-looking, though." "No wonder old Monty took a fancy to her!" "Engaged right straight off, ain't you, my dear?" "What's this your name is? Brianna Lynch, I heard."
"What a mouthful! Well, Brianna, you did uncommon well last night. I'm the girl who might have had your part if I'd been a quick study, but I'm not, especially in the legitimate line. Shakespere's awfully hard. My name's Phyllis D'Eyncourt—at your service. Pretty, ain't it? Phyllis I got out of a book and D'Eyncourt from a play I once acted in. Everyone calls me 'Phil' in the company. So can you, if you like. Now, tell me who's the old party in the tent? Heavy old woman? Leading lady? Got a rough side to her tongue and no mistake."
She was a tall fair girl who had spoken, with a certain air of jaunty, self-assurance about her manner that told of long knocking about in the by-world of adventure to which the stage offers an open door. Brianna looked at her critically. There was something she liked in the large frank blue eyes, the smiling mouth, the good-humoured expression.
"That is my aunt, Mrs. Dunne," she said. "Why don't you let her take your photograph?"
"Been done by too many good artists, my dear. See me in the windows here, if you look. No, your three-penny-done-while-you-wait and frame-given-in don't suit my ticket. I told the old lady that, and it riled her, I think. But I came to see you and have a talk. You know we leave to-night. Are you ready? We'll have to catch the 11.45 train, and not a moment to pack up. All the private luggage has to be sent on this afternoon."
"Well, I've not much," said Brianna, ruefully. "And nothing to pack it in," she added.
"What's that?" queried Sally Dunne's sharp tongue. "My niece ain't going to disgrace herself trallywaggin' with a lot like you. There isn't a respectable coloured head among the whole pack. I refuse my consent."
"I shall do without it, as I told you last night," said Brianna.
"Then you don't take a rag to your back save what you stand in!" exclaimed Sally. "And a nice show you'll make, going about with a touring company. Fine company, indeed! Set of painted Medusas, with your serpent locks and bold eyes!"
"Come, you stop that," said Phil indignantly. "I'd have you know we're just as respectable, and more, too, than any travelling caravan owners. Your niece doesn't appear to have much to boast of in the way of relatives, anyhow. Why, a decent-sized scarecrow in a cornfield would be ashamed to stand alongside of you!"
This sally was greeted with a shout of laughter from her friends, which had the effect of still further increasing Mrs. Dunne's temper.
She let fly a broadside of abuse in which Irish and American idioms were graphically mingled. This effectually routed the enemy. The girls fled, laughing, and shouting, and calling back to her, and bidding Brianna flee for her life if she wanted to show an uninjured face to the stage-dresser that evening. The girl stood there pale and trembling and humiliated.
"I'm ashamed of you, and I hate you!" she cried at last, half-choked with passion. "I wouldn't stay another hour here if I could help it. What have I to thank you for? Food, for which I've worked and slaved from morning till night. Clothes, that were your own cast-off leavings. This frock Mickey gave me last Christmas, and it's the only decent one I ever possessed. For the rest, I've been abused, scolded and beaten; never a kind word in all these years; and now, if you could, you would chain me here, your slave still, though you know I can make my way in the world without a cent of yours. But you can't do it—you can't. The Saints be praised for that!"
"The Saints, indeed. It's little enough the Saints will be troubling their heads about you. A vile, ungrateful, headstrong hussy, only fit for the company of painted warlocks like that lot I've just sent off. Well, take my word for it, a judgment there'll be on you, Brianna, and a bad end you'll come to us, sure as I say it."
Her niece gave a scornful shrug of her shoulders and turned away. But all the beauty of the day, and all the visions of a rosy future were spoilt and dimmed for the time. Her new life, as represented by the society of what Sally termed "painted warlocks," looked less inviting than it had done the previous night. Would she ever become like those girls? Would she, too, flaunt in paint and powder, and "second-hand" finery that looked infinitely less respectable than her old patched rags?
She had hardly wondered at Sally Dunne's aspersions. There was something about these girls that repelled her instincts—the jokes, the gestures, the coarse laughter. And yet they belonged to the most glorious and beautiful profession in the world.
A halo of mystery still surrounded that life of the stage. The thought of failure was hateful to her. The fires of ambition so recently lit burned fiercely within her heart and refused to be quenched.
She called to Mickey, who was loitering at some distance.
"Come away from here," she said. "I want to talk to you."
He followed her swift steps at his own limping pace. His eyes took in every line of her figure, the poise of her head, the lithe grace of movement. How splendid she was he thought, and how good it was to think that he—he—poor, despised, deformed Mickey Croom—had been the helper of her fortunes. There was no saying what glories might be hers in future, and to him she would owe everything—everything; her education, her training, her first appearance. All these. True they were only stepping stones as yet, but still without stepping-stones even a brook is impassable, save to sure feet. Brianna's feet would never have been sure but for him—so he told himself—and when she paused abruptly now, and, beckoned him to her side, his pride and his triumph and his glory in her swelled like a tide within his heart and made speech impossible.
But she scarcely heeded his silence. Eagerly she poured out her soul to her patient listener—a soul like a tempestuous sea, full of cross currents and vague restless motion. Had she chosen rightly? Did he think it was in her to act, to become great? Nothing less would satisfy her. If she thought she would degenerate into anything like those frivolous chatterers of the morning she would rather stick to the caravan and the life she had known.
When her breathless words ceased he tried to pacify and reassure her. He had tales of other beginners, histories of theatrical struggles, difficulties surmounted, hardships endured. One thing he assured her she possessed that no training, nor any art could give. It was a voice. A voice capable of expressing every human emotion, full of tender tones, and wonderful inflections. A pipe of melody and infinite charm. Had she not noted its power the previous evening? Why—her very first speech had struck on the attention of the audience; held them, entranced them.
"You must succeed if you work," he went on. "You must. You can't help it."
"Oh, Mickey!" she cried. "I wish you were coming with me. I shan't know what to do without you."
There was a moment's silence. Then he said very quietly:
"Do you mean that, child? Can I help you? Do you feel you want me?"
"Oh, indeed, indeed I do!" she said, earnestly. "You are my only friend, Mickey; you know that."
"But there will be new friends for you now, Brianna. Your life will drift away from mine. And then you'll be ashamed of me. You'll be sorry if I claim your notice."
She turned and looked at him, and then laughed aloud.
"If that day ever comes," she said, "remind me of last night. Do you think I can ever forget what I owe to you?"
"Your hand on that!" he said hoarsely.
She gave it silently. Their eyes met. Something she saw in his arrested her attention.
"Why, Mickey," she said, "you're not crying?"
He jerked out a laugh, and drew his sleeve across his eyes.
"Sure, child, isn't the sun just shining straight into my two eyes?" he said.
Then he rose abruptly.
"You'd better get back and see about the dinner. It's the last time, you know."
She sprang to her feet, and stretched out her arms, and laughed joyously.
"The last time!" she echoed. "Oh, think of that, Mickey. Isn't it glorious! Slavery, tyranny, misery all over! The last time!"
And how could he find it in his heart to warn her that even among those evils she enumerated, there had still lurked one good that the new life might withhold—safety!
The murky light of a November sky was adding its gloom to the general squalor and dinginess of one of the narrow streets that lead out of the Strand. Fog shrouded the city, and curtained the river. A thick, damp moisture oozed from the pavements; the panting breaths of struggling horses sounded through the darkness; lights flashed redly like demoniacal eyes that mocked at human and animal discomfort. Hoarse shouts of warning rang out ever and anon to the alarm of groping pedestrians.
A girl was making her way through the darkness and confusion, diving under horses' heads and steering through the disorganised traffic. She reached a narrow street where the fog from the river was soaring up in a black mass of vapour, made her way to a door marked No. 41, let herself in with a key, and ran lightly up the stairs to a dingy little top room.
A girl crouching over the fire turned at her entrance.
"Ugh! What a day! However did you find your way back? I had almost given you up. Well, any luck?"
"Yes, I've got the part."
"Nonsense!" The indifference left her face, and she sprang to her feet. "You're not joking, Brianna?"
"Do I look as if I was joking?" said the rich, full voice. "No, Phil, it is true, quite true. The most wonderful thing has happened, but I'll tell you when we're having tea. I brought some in, by the way. Has Mickey come home?"
"No, not yet. I expect he'll come soon. It's about his time. Well, this is good news, Brianna. I declare you're in luck. I wish I was."
"Your time will come," said the Irish girl. "Never say die, Phil. Look at me. Who'd have thought I'd ever get on to a London theatre after just one year's experience in the provinces?"
"But you're down-right clever. There's no doubt about it," said the other gloomily. "And such a quick study, too! I haven't a spark of real talent, I'm sure of it."
Brianna was laying the cloth and setting out the tea things which she took out of a cupboard.
"We'll have some toast for a treat," she said, as she took up the loaf and began to cut thick rounds of bread. "Oh, there's no butter. Never mind, Mickey shall fetch some when he comes in. There he is; run down, Phil, and tell him before he comes upstairs. See, here's sixpence."
The other girl hurried off, and Brianna slipped out of a worn cloth jacket, and removed her hat. She was very much altered. She had lost her rustic look, and much of her beautiful colouring, but the red of her lips accentuated the slight pallor of her cheek, and her eyes were full and glowing, and her rich-hued hair seemed more luxuriant than ever.
She carefully stirred the fire, and then knelt down to make the toast. In a moment Phil returned.
"Well," she said, "begin. I'm dying to hear. Was it the agent got it for you?"
"No; that's the strange part. I saw him as usual, and as usual heard the same old story. He said it would be useless to apply. There were fifty or more before me. So I left, and went back to the fog and was groping along when I suddenly groped myself into the arms of a man coming from the opposite direction. He apologised. I did the same. We looked at each other as far as the gleam of a street lamp would allow. We recognised one another immediately. We had met at the Cork races a year ago. He is a gentleman—a lieutenant in the Dragoons, I think. He remembered me, and insisted on hearing how I had got on. He saw me ... The Merchant that first time I ever 'took the boards.' Well, I told him how I had toured with Monty's Company and taken all sorts of parts and been a general utility actress for the last year, and that I had got tired of it, and wanted a London engagement. He was much interested. Asked me what agents I had been to and all the rest of it! He abused old Whitmore for all the rogues and villains you ever heard of. I told him about this vacancy at the Delphic. As luck would have it he knows the principal actress, Miss St. Vincent, quite well. Great friends. She's a lady, you know—the daughter of a clergyman in the Isle of Wight."
"Oh! Stow that!" exclaimed Phil, impatiently. "There are some nine hundred actresses at present in London, and eight hundred and ninety-nine of them are clergymen's daughters. Do vary it a bit, my dear."
"I only know what Mr. Lorrimer told me. Well, let's go on. He offered to take me straight off to Miss St. Vincent and introduce me. She is everything at the theatre. Her word is law, and if she told them to engage me, why they would. So off we went. Oh, Phil, such a love of a flat down Chelsea way. Perfect! And she the most perfect thing of all. And so kind. I told her my story, and she was interested, and she made me do one or two of my parts, and said I had the makings of a real good actress in me. Wasn't that praise from her?"
"Yes," said Phil gloomily. "But it's quite true. Everyone who has seen you says the same."
"Ah, here's Mickey!" cried Brianna, springing to her feet. She seized the butter, threw it on the table, then took Mickey Croom's two hands, and whirled him round and round.
"I've got it. At least, as good as got it!" she cried, laughing and crying at the same moment. "Oh, Mickey, dear, isn't it wonderful? Was there ever such luck? Your Brianna will appear at a real London theatre. There's for you! After all the anxiety and waiting, and agents' swindling, the chance has come to me. Isn't it glorious—unbelievable! How astonished you look! There, sit down, poor old dear, and get your breath, and the Happy Family shall have tea, and I'll tell you all about it."
She rapidly repeated what she had already told Phil D'Eyncourt.
"And when I had done my famous little Jessica bit, she said to me, 'You shall have the part, certainly. I'll write to the manager to-night.' There, good people, what do you say to that? And I'm on in the great scene with her. Fancy poor Brianna Lynch appearing with the great star at the Delphic! I suppose I am awake, eh, Phil? Would you mind pinching my arm? Ah—h—not so hard! Yes, it's all right. And, oh! I'm so hungry. Phil, that's enough toast to begin with. We'll make it as we go on. Hot and hot between two plates, like Mrs. Pipchin's chops!"
She dragged a chair up to the table. She was wild with excitement. Her two companions watched her with affectionate delight. They both adored her in different ways; Phil D'Eyncourt in a feminine, admiring, and half-envious fashion, Mickey Croom with the ungrudging, worshipping passion of a great soul held in bondage by a weak, deformed personality.
"Miss St. Vincent is just lovely," continued Brianna, as Phil handed her a cup of tea. "I don't wonder people rave about her. And so clever. But I wonder if she likes melodrama?"
"She's first in pieces of the Delphic sort," said Phil; "and gets a big salary. I think she's wise to keep to it."
"I should always choose the highest in Art if I could," said Brianna.
"But it is not always possible, child," said Mickey, looking at her. "There are many rungs to the ladder of Fame, but you can't jump to the top. You must climb."
"Yes, I know," said the girl, with a sigh. "How hard it was, for a time, wasn't it, Mickey? And what would we have done this last month but for you getting on to the halls. However, it's my turn now to help, and perhaps Phil will get something soon. Miss St. Vincent asked where I lived, and with whom, and I told her all, even to the stage-uncle relationship, Mickey. Dear me, what a rock of strength that has been to us, hasn't it, Phil?"
They laughed gaily, and Brianna began to recount past episodes and incidents that had a humorous as well as a pathetic side to them. It was so pleasant to look back on storms when the ship was at last in quiet seas. The vivid Irish fancy pictured the future in colours of prismatic certainty. All hardships and toil were but shadows to a brilliant foreground.
They lingered over their meal. Brianna told them of the new piece that was to be put on for rehearsal immediately. She was to ask for Miss St. Vincent at the stage door at eleven o'clock the next morning, and be introduced to the manager, and he sent her part.
"I have to thank you, Mickey," she said, earnestly, "for teaching me to speak. That was one of the first things Miss St. Vincent said before I had repeated half-a-dozen lines. 'Thank goodness you know the rules of elocution. Oh! what I have had to endure from mumbling.' I said I had been taught by a great Shakespearian student. I did, indeed, Mickey. 'No better school,' she answered, 'and you will have nothing to unlearn when you leave it.'"
A spot of red crept into the hunchback's sallow cheek. Praise like this was so sweet to him. Other reward he could not and would not expect.
He moved away from the table and sat by the fire, smoking his pipe and watching the movements of the two girls as they washed up the tea things and tidied the room. What a happy year this last year had been! Not even poverty, hardships, struggles, had dimmed its romance for him. He had been Brianna's guardian and protector, and when Phil D'Eyncourt had thrown in her lot with them, he had accepted the responsibility with perfect goodwill. He had saved Brianna from much of the coarseness of stage experiences, had sheltered her youth and beauty in a hundred ways of which she was entirely ignorant, and when she had prayed and entreated to come to London he had taken an engagement at a music-hall—a thing he hated and despised—in order to support the two girls until something turned up. His make-up as an Irish character, and his singing of Irish songs, had made him the rage, and before a month was over he had a couple of nightly engagements at his disposal.
It was humiliating, but satisfactory. It was also eminently characteristic of an epoch that has turned Shakespeare into scenic display, and aided the apotheosis of the music-hall artist.
Mickey Croom would never allow Brianna to witness his performance. He hated to think that her eyes should witness his buffoonery, or her lips laugh at his exaggerations of character.
"The bigger fool I make myself the more they like me," he muttered, savagely, as night after night the applause of witless youths and the laughter of light women greeted his efforts. But the pay was good, and Brianna must be fed and sheltered until such time as she could secure the long-talked-of "appearance" that was to bring Fame to her feet at last!
Poor Fame! Fair mirage, that mocks the artist soul again and again. What great things have been done in your name, and what poor rewards you have granted!
As Mickey Croom smoked on, the frown on his brow deepened. In Brianna's story she had touched very lightly on her meeting with Max Lorrimer. He remembered that. It was gall and wormwood to him to think that another man should have helped her—another succeeded where he had failed. He had spared neither trouble nor expense, had paid agents' fees, sought out theatrical managers, bribed interviews, stood drinks and lunches out of his salary, yet all without success. Then suddenly this young soldier had flashed across her path once more, and done in an hour what he had laboured vainly for during months of anxious suspense.
It was hard, but nevertheless it was an accomplished fact. As he watched her radiant face and heard the joyous ring in her voice a fierce jealousy gnawed at his heart. He had told himself he could be nothing to her ever, schooled himself to believe it, but all the same it hurt him to think that anyone else might be. He wanted her in his life. He could not bear to think of a time when she should have passed out of it. Fame he never would grudge her; but it must be a fame that would never lift her above his reach, never raise her to any altitude whither he might not follow.
She owed so much to him. Was it altogether selfish to expect a little in return? He tried to think it was not. Yet her light words, her careless affection, her present exhilaration, hurt him, and the gloom on his brow deepened as that lithe figure moved to and fro, and from the girlish lips came snatches of Irish song, gay, plaintive, tender, the songs he had taught her while they had trudged beside the caravan in far-off days of which she never spoke now. He rose at last.
"I must be off," he said, and laid his pipe down on the mantelshelf, and glanced for a moment at his face in the little dingy mirror. The furrowed brow, the iron-grey waves of hair, the eyes dark and gloomy as a starless night, all seemed to mock him with that ever-recurring sense of physical disgust to which he was subject. As he glanced, there flashed from behind him another face, flushed, brilliant, beneath a shower of loosened hair. The two looked at one another from the dull, cracked glass. Greater contrast could not be imagined. With a sudden savage flash the dark eyes met the blue. For one unspoken moment they held them by sheer force of will, searched them, spoke to them. Then they were released. A shadow seemed to pass from the mirror's surface, and Brianna heard the sound of a closing door.
"When you have quite done admiring yourself, my dear——" said a mocking voice, and the girl started and looked round.
"Has Mickey gone?"
"Mickey has certainly gone. Didn't you hear the door? And now what are we two forlorn females going to do to-night? A gallery in the Strand, or a prowl? I vote for the Empire. I'm dying to see the new ballet. After all, why need you mind what Mickey says? He's not your father or your husband, and indeed even if he were you would not be bound to obey him in these days of Emancipated Female Unions! He never asks if we go out. I wonder how the fog is." She went over to the window and lifted the blind. "It's quite clear, I declare. Come, Bri., my dear, where shall we go?"
Brianna hesitated a moment.
"I don't care to go anywhere, really, and as for the Empire, well—what things you've told me! And Mickey advises us never to go to the promenade of any music-hall by ourselves."
"You little prude! My dear, do begin to look on life sensibly. No one can go through it with eyes bandaged. There's no more harm in a music-hall than in the gallery of a theatre, though I grant you the entertainment is slightly different."
"Slightly, I should imagine!" agreed Brianna, with some contempt.
"But as hundreds of thousands of people want to be amused without the trouble of thinking what amuses them, the halls are packed and the theatres half-empty. Still, I won't force your inclination. There are half-a-dozen theatres within the reach of as many minutes, and Monty's passes are good for any. Which shall it be?"
Brianna considered for a moment, and then gave it as her opinion that the Lyceum would be advisable.
"It's as good as a lesson," she said, "and I want lessons."
Phil shrugged her shoulders. She leaned to burlesque and comic opera. The serious side of the drama never appealed to her. But she did not dispute Brianna's choice, and the front row of the upper circle found them eager and expectant as the curtain drew up on Henry VIII. Whenever Brianna was at a theatre she had eyes and ears for nothing but the stage. No detail, however insignificant, escaped her. For the time being she lived in the parts that were represented; sorrowed, joyed, laughed, desponded, or criticised. Her instincts were very keen, and her taste and judgment singularly correct. Mickey had trained her eye, as well as her mind, and now that training showed itself of good service.
When the first act was over she began to look about the house. In the second row of the stalls a décoletté back and a tower of golden hair attracted her attention.
"Look Phil," she said, and then suddenly stopped, while a cold strange feeling crept over her. Someone in the same row of stalls had stood up, and was glancing carelessly over the different parts of the house. The girl saw and recognised him, widely separated as they were.
A whole scene rushed back to her memory. An early morning, the sunlight on a river, the dawn of hope and triumph in her own young life, a mocking voice, two eyes that seemed to read her soul, the sound of strange words she could not comprehend. Before her was the speaker. There were the same strange eyes, and into her heart had crept the same strange fear of them. She shrank back instinctively. Phil was chattering loudly beside her, giving the cheap free criticism of an unbiassed mind to the follies of a fashionable audience.
"Why, they're as much 'made-up' as any of us on the stage," she said. "Look at that old thing in the box, in the green satin! My, what diamonds; pity she hasn't a decent neck to hang them on. There's a pretty woman over there, in white. No, too much powder, and too much flesh. She'd be the better for some of the diamonds; regular beauty unadorned she is! What a pack of old frumps over there; I expect they're Duchesses. The sort of Duchesses 'Punch' always shows up. Rather a nice looking girl in the box there. Do you see? With the stout old party in black satin, and the young man who looks as if he had polished his hair as well as his hat. Don't it shine, just. Do you see, Brianna? Why, what's the matter?"
"I—I know him," said the Irish girl, slowly. "That's the young officer I told you about—Mr. Lorrimer."
"He looks quite a swell," said Phil, wonderingly. "Fancy his being here. I suppose you don't want him to see you. Well, you don't think he'd look for you in dress circle or stalls yet, do you?"
"I don't mind if he sees me," said Brianna. "He knows what I am. He can't expect me to be among the swells of the audience."
"I wonder what's become of your aunt and the caravan," said Phil, suddenly. "Never heard or seen anything of her since you left, have you?"
"Not a word," answered Brianna. "She was so angry, you know; and the idea of Mickey coming too just made her mad."
"A good thing for you that Mickey did come," said Phil. "Wish I had had an uncle like that to look after me when I first started touring."
"But he's not my uncle, really," said Brianna. "He only called himself that because of lodgings and places."
"You kept it up very well," observed Phil. "Though I've thought uncles weren't often as fond of their nieces as Mickey is of you. He just worships, you, Brianna."
"He is very good and true and helpful," she said earnestly. "What a noble heart beats in that poor disfigured body. Phil, have you ever thought how cruel life is? What had Mickey done, that Nature should serve him so?"
"Nature in the shape of drunken mothers often serves us so," answered Phil shrewdly. "Look at the streets of any big town or city. The wonder is that any child survives its first year. It's no fault of the mothers that they do."
"Oh, I know; it's horrible, cruel, vile. One wonders God lets such things be."
"And the churches and the missions, and the slum-workers can't make matters better," continued Phil, gloomily. "Were you ever in a hospital ward? I was once. Oh, the sights and scenes, and the pitiful, awful stories! But there, don't let's talk of such things! Better look at the house. Where's your swell friend gone? Why, he's down in the stalls—look, at the end row there, talking to another man. What a strange face. Do look, Brianna! What's the matter? You look quite pale!"
"It's so hot here," murmured the girl, leaning back and fanning herself with her folded programme. "It makes me feel faint."
"Can I get you anything? Coffee, soda-water, lemonade? See, they're bringing some round."
"No, no. I don't want anything, I'll be all right in a moment."
But she did not lean forward again, and kept her extemporised fan well between her and the railings.
The play went on, but much of her interest had evaporated. Try as she might her eyes would wander to that figure below. Of Max Lorrimer she did not think, but the dominating personality of Raemore Clive was not to be gainsaid by any effort. Strange she should have met both on the same day. That the broken links of the chain were united at the same period.
Attraction and repulsion were alternately swaying her mental faculties. The memory of those strange words haunted her once more, she grew restless and ill at ease. As the third act ended she begged Phil to come away. The theatre was stifling, she was faint and tired. Any excuse that came to her mind found utterance.
Phil made no objection. They rose and elbowed their way out, and were soon in the street. Once in the open air, amongst the bustling crowd of the Strand, all Brianna's fears vanished. It was as if she had thrown aside some heavy covering that weighed her down—that stifled free action or free thought. The reaction was so welcome that she could have laughed for sheer relief. She took Phil's arm, and they walked quickly home, laughing and jesting in frivolous girl fashion, discussing what they would have for supper, and planning to surprise Mickey as they loved to do.
Brianna had much of the Hibernian lightness and hilarity of spirit, especially after a fit of depression. Away from the tyranny of Sally Dunne, she had expanded into a totally different being. Happiness is both a tonic and a beautifier. And in spite of hard work, poor wages, and severe study Brianna had been very happy during this past year.
"Only a few hours, and then to-morrow!" she exclaimed, as she gave Phil's arm a squeeze. "Glorious to-morrow! I feel as if I could skip out of my skin like a snake, as Ben Johnson has it. I wonder if snakes ever do skip out of their skins. I suppose it's a fact in natural history. Here's our shop, though, Phil. Let us see how far half-a-crown will go. Positive extravagance, isn't it? But one isn't in luck every day."
"You haven't got your luck yet. I wouldn't be too sure," said Phil, cautiously. "Half-a-crown's too much for a possibility."
"We'll reserve sixpence for beer and ginger-beer," laughed Brianna. "To be sent in on the stroke of twelve."
They completed their purchases and let themselves in at the door of their dingy lodgings. Brianna ran lightly up the stairs and opened the parlour door. The radiant light of a blitzing fire and a turned-up lamp greeted her astonished eyes. Seated in front of the fire, her gown turned up to avoid scorching, and her bonnet tilted rakishly on one side, was Sally Dunne.
Brianna stood still in the doorway, and gasped out an exclamation that was echoed by Phil. The occupant of the chair turned her head and surveyed the girl critically.
"Wal, Brianna," she said at last, "guess you're astonished at seeing me here, and considering we parted on the very threshold of ructions it is a marvel that I am embracing you in a spirit of forgiveness, forgetful of my own identity and not even seeking to condemn you for your ungrateful conduct. Now, come and kiss me."
Brianna advanced slowly, but she did not offer any salutation.
"How did you find me out?" she asked.
"How?" returned Sally, airily. "Oh that was easy enough. The company could easily be traced, and one gal had Miss D'Eyncourt's address here on account of some philandering love affair, which I will spare her blushes."
"I don't know what you're talking about," interposed Phil, angrily. "No one had my permission to give my address, that I know."
"All the same, I got it, you see," said Sally, with a triumphant grin. "But now you have come in, permit me to remind you that my long waiting here has given me an appetite, and as hospitality is Heaven's first law, in the words of the great Shakespeare, Stand not on the order of supper, but let us sup. There's a pub, round the corner that I noticed, and half-and-half is what I'm at present taking, it suiting London air, and a constitution that the wear and tear of caravans and ungrateful friends, not to mention others, has long left unimpaired."
"People who are self-invited," remarked Phil, "are not expected to give orders as if they were in an hotel. Some beer will arrive for Mickey's supper about five minutes to 12, but no one here stirs out to public-houses for any half-and-half, let me tell you."
"Oh, indeed!" exclaimed Sally. "And who may you be, giving your orders in this caravan, as if you were its mistress."
"She is as much its mistress as I am," said Brianna, quietly. "We all go shares here. Or course, aunt, as you have come to see me, I'll get what you want, but you must wait till Mickey comes in. He won't allow either of us to enter a public-house."
"My sakes! What next! He'll be cockering you up to believe you're ladies, just as his drunken old foster-mother used to declare he was a gentleman; only an accident, of course. But that's his little mystery, or hers. It don't concern us. But if you mean to insinuate that our social positions are variegated in any way since you left my world-famous show, Brianna, let me tell you that you at least have no penny historical romance about you. Plain Brianna Lynch you were and are and will be, and Moll Murphy was your mother, and Patsy Lynch your father, and there's nothing to be proud of in that, so far as I can see."
"I never said I was proud of my parents," said Brianna.
A vivid picture of a bare-footed, ragged child running wild about the Coal Quay flashed back to her mind. It seemed hardly possible that she and that child were one and the same. Poverty, hardships, and brutality had been the chief factors in her early education, and yet she had conquered them. They were left far behind her now on a road she had traversed in sorrow and bitterness of spirit.
"Your mother was my youngest sister, and I by rights of primogentiure have a claim to your respect," continued Sally Dunne, loftily. "Though its not much of a welcome you've given me," she added, relapsing into the vernacular of caravan life, "and not a drop of anything handy to drink your health. When does that idle vagabond you've chosen for a protector come home."
"He has an engagement at a music-hall," said Brianna. "He will be home about 12 o'clock."
"Fine company, indeed!" sniffed Sally. "And my show despised and looked down upon us as contemptuous, though patronised by the nobility and gentry of all countries! And are you on at a music-hall, too?" she demanded, abruptly.
"I? Oh, no. I am doing nothing at present. But I have an engagement at a good London theatre coming off. Five pounds a week and my dresses!"
"Lord sakes!" exclaimed Sally, opening her eyes. "You! a chit, a vagabond, an ignoramus like you! Are they all mad people here? Five pounds a week! Why, I'll go on the stage myself, if that's to be made on it. Give up my caravan, sell the whole show, and play leading lady as they call it to a London audience!"
"There's just one slight difficulty in the way of that, Mrs. Dunne," interposed Phil, who had been laying the table, and listening in great amusement to the discussion. "There might not be a theatre, even in London, sufficiently impressed by your singular merits to offer you the part you seem so capable of filling!"
"Young woman," said Sally, solemnly, "when your opinion's asked for it's time enough to give it. My versatile talents qualify me for anything in life, as has been foretold of me. My caravan is but lonely since deserted by my own flesh and blood in Nature's dire ingratitude. That's why I've studied the Queen Mother in Hamlet. Would you like to hear me go through it? I've had many an audience outside my caravan most omniferous in their appreciation. I'm one of Nature's geniuses, and my instincts are unfaulty. You shall judge for yourselves. Now—I'll begin——
"Hamlet, thou thy father hast much defended. Nay, then I'll speak. What, I must not budge! Then straightway I'll depart and send those to you that can speak. Aye, and set you up a glass that shall show the inmost part of you yourself to you. What ho! Who comes? You will not murder me? Ah—h—h!"
A rippling peal of laughter shook the room.
"But, aunt, you're saying Hamlet's part as well as the Queen's," exclaimed Brianna.
"That's the way I make it unintelligible. I give my own cues. Oh, I assure you, girls, I was most beset by assiduities to recite the part again whenever I had done it once."
"I can quite believe that," said Phil, still laughing.
"But lo! I hear a footstep," burst out Sally, melodramatically. "Stop, beshrew me, but I know its halting tread. 'Tis Mickey Croom! Is this the traitor that I see before me? Come, let me clutch thee!"
She darted towards the door and threw it open, revealing the astonished face of the hunchback.
Few things are more chaotic, complicated, and unsatisfactory than the first rehearsal of a new play. To one uninitiated in stage mysteries it would seem impossible that anything acceptable to the public could ever be evolved from such chaos.
The first rehearsal of The Unpardoned Sin at the Delphic proved no exception to the rule. Disorder, wrangling, and fault-finding seemed the order of the day. The stage manager and the joint authors were perpetually at loggerheads. Some of the minor characters had not put in an appearance at all, and the hero, who was extremely self-opinionated, was perpetually arguing over speeches and situations with the heroine, who, on the strength of popularity, a fine presence, and a vast experience of high-class melodrama, was a power not to be resisted even by leading gentlemen.
Brianna had put in an appearance at the stage door at the time agreed, and been introduced to the manager as the young Irish actress who would take the part suddenly thrown up by a girl with whom Miss St. Vincent had quarrelled. She was to read her part, and then the question of suitability would be determined. Meanwhile, she stood at the wings and listened to the wrangling, and felt all impatience at the continual interruptions, the suggestions of "cuts," the alterations in "lines," the disputes over an entrance or exit to right or left, all the petty stage conventions with which she was now so familiar.
Amidst it all the beautiful face and figure of Ray St. Vincent stood out, a dominating personality. She was a born actress, and had won her laurels long since. Generous and enthusiastic by nature, she was a favourite off as well as on the boards. She loved the stage, and loved her life on it, and in response to public adoration she gave her best and most brilliant gifts.
Above all, she had an intense sympathy with the young and enthusiastic strugglers of her own sex. Never had she turned a deaf ear, or withheld a helping hand, when an appeal was made to either. She had a positive faculty of intuition, and never made a mistake where true talent was concerned. Her manager had illimitable faith in her, and often asked for her advice in preference to trusting his own judgment.
The part that Brianna was to play in the new melodrama had been offered to and accepted by a far more experienced actress; but after studying it through she declined to act it, as her best scenes were to be dwarfed by Ray St. Vincent's share in them. The great actress could afford to laugh at the petty jealousy of a minor one. She took her at her word, however, with surprising promptness, and Fate threw Brianna Lynch in her way just at a critical moment. She seemed the very girl she wanted. Gifted, yet malleable, a quick study, and utterly free from the paltry jealousy that it had so often been her fate to meet. A word to the manager and all was done. He knew that his leading actress would never play with an incompetent support, and two scenes in the play brought out the best qualities of each of these two characters.
When it came to Brianna's turn to read her part she had had time enough to learn it. She kept the book in her hand, but scarcely glanced at it. She obeyed Ray St. Vincent's stage directions at once, because she saw that they were correct, and the brilliance of the "star" seemed only to bring out her own best qualities in response. Their first scene went so well that the company forgot their grievances and united in a burst of applause.
The manager addressed Brianna as she retired to the wings.
"Wherever you got your training, it's excellent," he said. "And you can speak, thank God. Every line tells."
"Do you think I shall do?" asked the girl timidly.
"Yes," he said, "I'll give you a trial. If you're not nervous the first night you'll make a hit. But stage fright would spoil all, and you've no experience of a London theatre, I'm told."
"No," she said. "But I've acted in Liverpool and Manchester, and other big towns, and I suppose audiences are much the same. I've heard that Manchester is more critical than London."
"Wait till you try London," he said.
He moved off, and a young actor took his place. There is a frank "camaraderie" about the stage that makes its professors independent of social etiquette. Introductions are as unnecessary as chaperons.
"You did that very well," he remarked to Brianna. "Had much experience?"
"Only the provinces," she answered. "Montague's Company, you know; old comedies and Shakespearian parts."
"Oh, the old school," he said loftily. "Yes, I know. Not in my line. I keep to the modern. Light comedy is my strong point. I've never played off the London boards, thank goodness!"
"Then you have a great deal to learn," said Brianna quietly.
"What?" he exclaimed, looking at her as if he could not credit his powers of hearing.
"Yes," she said, "it is far and away the best school. It trains memory and versatility. It gives you so many chances, and above all if there's the right stuff in you it brings it out!"
He laughed scornfully.
"Keeps it in," he said, "is more likely. Why, I know a man who was cast once for the part of Captain Absolute and had to play it and nothing else for seven years! Fancy that, seven years! Of course, now he's one of the grooviest actors on the boards. You simply can't act with him."
"Oh, I've known people like that," said Brianna. "But then they weren't intelligent, can't help being 'groovy,' as you call it. Haven't you heard of old Mrs. Seyton, the Irish actress, who was so letter-perfect in Shakespeare that she could act even when blind drunk, without prompting? Why she was taken out of the Workhouse sometimes to play the Queen in Hamlet, and after the performance would have to go back to Skahabeg!"
"No," said the young man. "I never heard of her, or Skahabeg. I don't know anything about Ireland or the Irish. You're Irish, aren't you? I guessed so by your accent."
"I am," said Brianna. "Cork's my birthplace. Have I a very strong accent?" she asked, anxiously.
"Oh, no," answered the young fellow. "It's very pretty, in my opinion; and when you're acting one doesn't notice it, except in a certain mellowness of tone, that English voices lack. Ah, excuse, me, that's my cue."
He left her, and she stood there in the wings quietly observant of all that was going on, and marvelling what the play was like as a whole. Actors rarely judge a play on its merits as a play. To them it is merely a series of parts, and their own individual part is of paramount importance. Perhaps this is as well, when it comes to a question of production.
The "star," of course, is always perfectly convinced that by his or her part the piece may command failure or success. Its merits, taken as a whole, are comparatively insignificant. It is criticised in theatrical parlance as a play, "with a rattling fine part for so and so." "Me," in large capitals, is what the principals look for, and "me," often describes a circle of very limited intelligence.
When the long rehearsal was over Brianna felt tired and exhausted. She had had nothing to eat since her early breakfast, and excitement and fatigue made her pale and faint.
She was surprised, when Ray St. Vincent came up to her.
"How tired you look, child," she said. "Come home with me and have something to eat. I want to talk your part over with you."
Before Brianna had quite collected her senses, it seemed to her that she was being whirled along the murky streets in a hansom, and was listening like one in a dream to the pleasant chat of her companion.
A sense of peace, of comfort, came over her, to which she had hitherto been a stranger. All her cherished dreams looked back at her from a new standpoint of hope. The bitterness of first struggles, of poverty and hardships were all forgotten. She had the fortunate Celtic capacity of throwing herself into the joy of the immediate moment. The old horrors of her life seemed like incidents in a nightmare. They had passed. They were over. The dawn had broken, the day was at hand, and her heart swelled with joy and glad relief, and the tears glistened in her eyes, as she followed her new friend into the dining-room of her pretty flat and sank down in one of the big inviting chairs before the bright wood fire.
"Now, we'll make ourselves comfortable," said the actress, as she tossed her sealskin cloak aside and removed her hat. "Just some hot soup and a cutlet, and then we'll talk. I always 'talk' my part over until I get into it. I hope you won't mind. I've tired out lots of my stage friends before this. Now I'm going to experiment on you."
"You will not tire me," said Brianna, earnestly.
"No? I really believe you mean it."
She dropped her jesting tone, and leaned forward, holding her while slender hands out to the blaze.
"It's not fair to ask your history," she said, "but I should think it was interesting."
Brianna shrank back, and her colour changed.
"Interesting! Oh, no, it is horrible. You know, of course, I am not a lady, only a——"
"A daughter of the people," interrupted Ray St. Vincent, quickly. "What of that? You have unusual gifts, let me tell you, and they are no mean inheritance."
"I was going to say only a common girl."
The actress looked at the beautiful face and pathetic eyes, then lightly touched one of the brown, work-coarsened hands, lying idly in the girl's lap.
"What God has created, that call not thou common or unclean," she quoted, softly. "Ah, child, for aught you know our lives may be much in accord with each other. I was not sixteen when I faced the world on my own account, sick of the irksome restraints and iron discipline of an uncongenial home. I was cast off. My name is never mentioned there now. I had to work my way from the first rung of the ladder up to where I stand now. It has taken twelve years to do it, Brianna. Twelve years? Does it seem a very long time? Oh, the tragedy of those years. Dropped into a gulf of despair, left behind for ever, and only one thing left to me—work. It is my own religion, my salvation. It is the only salvation for a woman who has a heart, and a face that men call fair. You have both, child—and youth—and a great gift, I wonder what life will mean for you. Ah, here comes the soup at least. Draw your chair up to the table. You must be famished."
Brianna obeyed. A sense of wonder and of interest seized upon her. She seemed to stand on the threshold of a new experience. This beautiful woman, surrounded by wealth and luxury, crowned by fame, the idol of a public, the queen of many men's worship, this marvellous being was treating her as an equal. The charm of her personality vanquished the girl. There is always something wonderful in womanhood to its expectant possessor.
Brianna felt as if some new self, of which she had been but dimly conscious, had unfurled wings in expectation, and poised, waiting and exultant, for the joy of flight. An ecstasy of emotion swayed her senses. The beauty and luxury around appealed to some vague want her life had always craved and missed. The food, the service, the appointments, how different to anything she had ever known, and yet how naturally she accepted them.
Would such things ever be hers? Did they lie within her powers of attainment, even as they had lain in the power of this woman?
Then the first flash of wonder passed, and left her waiting for what would follow. She felt as if something was about to happen; something that would alter her life henceforward.
They drew their chairs up to the fire and sat silently enjoying its warmth, while without the gloom gathered and deepened in street, and river, and sky.
Miss St. Vincent had the acting part of the new play in her hand, and the plot in her head. It was of the plot she talked, giving a rapid, concise account of its varied embroglio, and sketching the heroine in vivid colours for Brianna's wondering eyes.
"A man never draws a woman quite completely," she said, "either in a book or a play. The characters I have represented have never been what the author intended originally. He gives me the skeleton, and I give it the flesh and blood. I think it, talk it, feel it, until it becomes a real person, or rather until I become its reality. Now, here,"—she paused, then stirred the fire to a brighter blaze, and began turning over the typed pages of MSS.—"this woman is altogether impossible. She has loved the man when both were young and free, and sees him desert her for another woman, whom he marries. She swears never to forgive, and she marries, nursing her revenge, and, resolved to gain it, she makes mischief and misery, and the man's wife appeals to her—about the last thing on earth a woman would do, except on the stage. Never mind, it gives us a fine chance for a scene, though I fear you won't look weak enough for the part. The husband hears this appeal, and his hatred and humiliation are intensified. He drives his wife to desperation and poison, when in comes the Revengeful Woman, saves her rival, and reconciles them, and goes out to her own life—broken-hearted. In real life the whole thing would be impossible, but you'll find the audience tearful and enthusiastic and ready to swear it is true to nature."
"But the stage has to exaggerate," said Brianna. "If there was no violent passion or emotion, no over-virtuous virtue and over-vicious vice, the audience wouldn't grasp the meaning of what they saw."
"That," said Ray St. Vincent, "is the opinion that the stage-world has of its audience. It gives its theories to them. It cannot realise a change—the change of education and culture. It clings to old traditions and believes in old faults. Melodrama is of all stage work the most burdened with these traditions and these faults. The fine speeches are mere clap-trap to catch the gallery and pit, or the traditional middle-class audience—the retired city folk, the aristocrats of Clapham Rise and Peckham, and Maida Vale. Oh, how sick I am of it all!"
Brianna raised surprised eyes to the beautiful impatient face.
"Then why do you do it?" she asked. "Surely you are famous enough now to choose your own kind of work."
"That is just what I am not," said Ray St. Vincent, bitterly. "I got into a groove and there I must stick. No one, no manager or dramatist, will believe I can do any other part than those with which my name has been associated. 'Keep to that line. No one can touch you at it,' they say, and plays are written for me, and parts brought to me, and again and again I am forced from the art of the stage to its conventions. I know so well the old routine, the exact look, gesture, break in the voice, tear in the eye, but never yet have I played as I could play, or had the part I wish to act."
Brianna looked at her again.
"I thought you so famous, so happy," she said.
"Call no one happy till they're dead," quoted the actress, scornfully. "Least of all we puppets of the public, made to dance and mimic for its amusement, bear its displeasures, hear its censure, and suffer at its will."
She clasped her hands and leant back in her chair. The MSS. slid from her lap and lay disregarded on the floor.
"Oh! what dreams I dreamt once," she said. "Once, a girl, in the old rectory parlour, living on ideas, feeding every sense on poetry and romance. What dreams. . . . My God! . . . And now—where are they? What use were they? What does the world care for anything beautiful, simple, pure, idyllic? It loves its vices and its pleasures, its follies and its shams. Those who would teach it anything better are mocked at, or stoned, as the Jews of old stoned their great Teacher. I'm not going to preach, child. I'm not a religious woman, far from it, but, oh! how my heart aches for something true and great and comprehensible in this life of mine! But, there, enough of me. Now, tell me all about yourself; all that you care to tell, of course. Don't be afraid to trust me. I'm sure you're good. I can feel that your eyes have never looked shame in the face yet, and whether you came from gutter or throne makes no difference. You carry within you that spark of divine fire which illumines life, and lifts its possessor far above the world's outer darkness."
So in the soft dusk the firelight illumined, Brianna told her story, its pitiful beginning, its neglected childhood, its misery and hardships and vicissitudes. She told it simply, and with no attempt to waken sympathy. She was surprised to feel the sudden warm clasp of a hand, to see tears standing in the beautiful eyes that met her own.
"You brave, wonderful child!" said Ray St. Vincent suddenly. "What you must have borne and suffered! . . . . And yet never discouraged. I am glad Fate threw you in my way, though I feel you were bound to succeed. If it hadn't been I who helped you it would have been another. Now, tell me, what do you think of Mr. Lorrimer?"
"Of Mr. Lorrimer?" echoed Brianna. "Only that he is very kind, and doesn't seem a bit stuck up or proud. But I know very little of him, very little. Why do you ask me?"
"Perhaps to hear how he has behaved to you," was the answer. "I have so little faith in men. There are so few one can trust or believe. So few who look upon a woman as anything better than an excuse for their vices, or an appendage of their comfort."
"I know nothing about them," said Brianna. "Mickey has always taken care of that."
"I should like to see Mickey. You must bring him here some day."
"May I? I should love you to know him! I could never tell you one half his goodness to me."
"Don't repay it by ingratitude, child. . . . Wasn't that a ring? I hope no one is coming to disturb our solitude. I forgot to deny myself. Oh! It's Max Lorrimer's voice. Shall we see him?"
"That is for you to say, surely," answered Brianna in surprise.
"Well. Yes, I'm at home, Parkes, and bring in the lamp."
She rose and picked up the play in its stiff cover, and then held out a welcoming hand to her visitor.
"We are enjoying a little blind man's holiday," she said. "That shadowy form is Miss Lynch, if you wish to know. I brought her home with me after rehearsal. I wanted to talk the play over with her."
Brianna rose, and the entrance of the lamp at the same moment showed her to the young man as he had never seen her yet. A slender figure in a close-fitting dress of dark serge, a mass of light chestnut hair coiled about her head, a slight flush warming the delicate oval of her cheek. He was startled at the change in her, at the new air of refinement and ease that made her greeting of him so natural, yet so perfectly unobtrusive.
"If you are talking the play over I hope that means that you have secured a part in it," he said, eagerly.
"Yes," said Brianna. "Thanks to Miss St. Vincent's influence, they have given it to me. Oh, I am so proud, so pleased. If you only knew what it means!"
He took a chair, and Ray St. Vincent rang for tea.
"I had no idea it was five o'clock," she said. "Now, Max, did you come for refreshment, or out of curiosity?"
"Neither," he said, smiling. "The truth is I have another favour to ask you. I seem to be always doing that, don't I? But this is one that may benefit yourself at some future time."
"Indeed! Well, what is it?"
"A friend of mine," he commenced, "has written a play——"
She laughed. "Oh, fie, Max! That is such an old trick. The Jew and his partner, you know."
"Really, I am in earnest," said the young man. "I could not pretend to be clever to you. You'd find me out directly. This man is really wonderful. You should hear him talk."
"I've no faith in talkers," she said, turning to the little tea-table her maid set out.
"Well, the long and short of it is, he has written a play—the most marvellous thing I ever heard. Wait till you hear it, or read it. And the part of the woman is simply grand."
"Is there only one woman in this marvellous play?"
"Yes; one woman and four men. It's most original, as I told you."
"Then it speaks failure at once. The play-going public won't stand originality. It makes them exercise their brains; and they don't go to the theatre for that. How many acts?"
"Two. I tell you he read it to a few fellows in my rooms last night, and it held us simply breathless. Would you let him read it to you?"
"For what purpose? I'm not independent. It's not as if I was a manager. I could not accept a play with any view to production. And a two-act play is impossible."
"The public want educating. They've run in the same groove long enough, and the critics help them to do it. Why shouldn't a play be in two acts as well as a musical comedy or a farce?"
"No reason, except the thick-headedness of managers, the conventional rules of companies, the obstinacy of actors, and the general obtuseness of the British public. Vanquish these and your play may be a success. With the stage, the press, and the public in its present condition, I venture to say it won't."
"Poor old Clive!" sighed Lorrimer, as he sipped his tea. "It's a shame to think of such good stuff wasted, and he's made up his mind you're the one woman who can do the heroine."
"A good many other amateur dramatists have honoured me with a similar opinion!" she answered.
"Clive—is it Mr. Raemore Clive who has written this play?" asked Brianna, suddenly.
They both looked at her.
"Yes," said Lorrimer. "You don't know him, do you?"
"I met him in Cork, don't you remember?"
"Of course I do. Queer chap, isn't he? Metaphysical—no, psychical, that's the word. Sees things; reads your hand, and your thoughts, and all that. Do let me bring him here, Ray. He'd be quite a study for you. And even if the play isn't regularly produced you might do it at a matinee, you know. Create the part, or whatever they call it. Do hear him read it. I assure you I wouldn't bother about it, only I feel it's great, and unlike anything I ever heard.
"Very well, bring him here on Sunday evening, and you must come too, Brianna. You see I've dropped the Miss Lynch. If the play is so wonderful does he intend to produce it himself at a matinee?"
"I shouldn't wonder. It depends on whether he can get a cast to please him. I don't believe he can. The four men are very difficult parts."
"It's an odd idea," said Ray, musingly. "One woman and four men, and in two acts. I really begin to feel interested."
"You'll be a thousand times more interested when you hear it."
"Is this man a recent acquaintance of yours?"
"Yes. I first met him when I was touring Ireland with Templeton. He and Templeton were at school or college together. This chap Raemore Clive is a mystic or clairvoyant. He can tell what's going to happen to you. It's most extraordinary."
"I should certainly like to see him," observed Ray thoughtfully. "I am interested in those out-of-the-way sciences, if they are sciences. I believe in personal magnetism. No one can sway an audience of any sort without it."
"As you sway yours?"
"Yes, and as that child yonder will sway her's. She is full of it. Bernhardt has it. Ellen Terry has it. It is a sort of footlight delirium that rushes from you to your hearers. You feel and they are bound to feel with you. They are not able to think, or cavil, or criticise. They must do just what you want them to do for the time being."
"It seems very wonderful," said Max Lorrimer, tugging at his long moustache thoughtfully. "But I'm sure you're right, for I've seen the effect as you say."
"The Public is a soft-headed fool at best," said Ray scornfully. "It will rush after anything it is told to rush after. A two-headed monstrosity, or an armless 'What is it,' will draw them as surely as any genius. In fact, they seem to prefer them. How many stage successes have been made, not by merit, but by some eccentricity on the part of the actor—some trick of manner or peculiarity of voice. I could name popular comedies that have run three or four hundred nights merely owing to some little trick or mannerism that has caught on. The actor may have been quite unconscious of it, but one person tells another and then everyone rushes to see or hear this oddism. What made the success of the Private Secretary? Simply the way Penley said 'D'you know-w?' A week later all London was saying it. It's the same with Roberts, and Brough, and Paulton, and Grosssmith. They simply play themselves. They are born comedians. They don't need to act. Then dramatists write parts round their eccentricities or mannerisms, and fame is theirs. It is a great art to utilise your own advantages. It is the new policy of the stage. Half the comedians at whom we all laugh are not actors or actresses. They are simply eccentrics, and cannot help playing what they are. The mistake would be if they played any other part. I daresay they sigh to be Romeo or Hamlet or Macbeth, but Nature has wisely prevented it. To be a legitimate laughing-stock may not be art, but there is no doubt it pays much better."
She poured herself out some more tea, and laughed as she met Brianna's admiring glance. "I was off at a tangent, wasn't I?" she said. "I hope I haven't bored you both. Max, this piece is going to be a big hit, let me tell you. There's grit in it, and Brianna, there, will wake up to find herself famous, if I'm not much mistaken. Letty Peraut will be mad at her folly in throwing up the part when she sees what can be made of it."
"I'm so glad," said the young man, his face aglow with genuine feeling. "Ever since I saw Miss Lynch act that night as 'Jessica,' I felt she'd make a hit some day. I told her so, and to see her on the London boards so soon seems like a prophecy fulfilled."
He looked at the beautiful face, and Ray St. Vincent, caught the look. A sudden chill, a sense of loss and pain, touched her heart.
"Must I lose this, too," she thought, "the friend of years, the hope, the dream? She has so much that I have lost. How quick men are to recognise gifts of soul when they are united in a beautiful body."
With a sigh she turned aside and busied herself with the teacups. Brianna rose suddenly.
"I am sure it is late, I ought to be getting home," she said. "They will wonder what has become of me."
"You remember the hour for rehearsal to-morrow?" asked Ray St. Vincent.
"Oh, yes. I shall devote this evening to studying my part."
"How do you go home?" questioned Max Lorrimer, rising also. "Couldn't I give you a lift in my cab?"
"Thank you, no," she said, quietly.
And Ray St. Vincent felt an odd little thrill of pleasure at the sound of that decisive negative, and at the serene unconsciousness of the beautiful face.
She took the girl's hand in her own and kissed her warmly.
Max Lorrimer looked on with a sudden sense of rebuff that was both unusual and unpleasant.
With jubilant steps and a voice that unconsciously broke into song Brianna ran up the stairs of the dingy lodgings and burst into the room where Phil D'Eyncourt and Sally Dunne were seated.
"Oh, such a day!" she cried. "Everything's happening at once. Fancy, where I've been. Miss St. Vincent took me home with her, and we had dinner together, and talked over our parts in the two scenes, you know. Phil, we're on together, and I have such a splendid bit. And she is so kind and helpful, and for all her fame and name not a bit stuck up. Just as sweet and natural as if she were nobody in particular."
"You lucky girl," said Phil, with a sigh. "I wish my turn would come."
Then she put down her work and bubbled over into sudden laughter. "I took your aunt to an agent," she said. "He thinks she would do for the halls; but she is ambitious—leading lady or nothing, isn't it, Mrs. Dunne?"
Sally looked at the two girlish faces and frowned.
"It's well for chattering magpies to be strutting and preening themselves," she remarked. "But noise don't count against weight. An able-bodied woman like me with my vast stores of experience and my versatility of talent is bound to succeed some day."
"She made a great impression on old Whitehead," observed Phil, demurely. "He chucked her under the chin, didn't he, Mrs. Dunne?"
"He had the impertinence to offer overtures of familiarity," said Sally, with dignity, "which I naturally rescinded with scorn. Love is to me an oft-told tale," she added. "So I don't pay much heed to men's lamentations. Sally Dunne knows her own value, and I tell you, girls, that until a woman does that she is neither more nor less than a shiftless delusion, blown here and there by every chance breeze that sweeps her path."
"You're a caution, you are," exclaimed Phil, laughing boisterously. "A real down-right character, isn't she, Brianna? Why don't you go on the 'halls?' You'd make a fortune, and you need only be yourself, and do a song or a recitation. You don't half recognise your value."
"There you make a mistake, miss," rejoined Sally, sharply. "It's my value that has my entire comprehension. I never disremember a time when I was blind to my own superiority. But life has been hard to me, and my nature is soured by adversity and the unnatural asperity of my much-tried spirit. But my poor interests must take a back seat now before the Tragedy Queen. Go on, Brianna, tell us all about it. Or wait till Mickey comes in. He's gone for a bottle of Kinahan to oblige me, and keep out the damp of this pestillenthal chamber. What a place to live in! Why, the paper's rotting off the walls, and you can't open a window without being rheumaticised with river mist. Ugh! Give me my caravan, I say, for choice—no one's leave necessitated. I think I hear Mickey, and the kettle's on the boil. Now for a drop o' comfort, while you can your tale unfold."
Mickey made his appearance at this moment laden with parcels. Brianna relieved him of them, and answered the welcome of his eyes with a brilliant smile. Yet the contrast between this dingy room, this shabby housekeeping, and all the comfort and beauty of her new friend's surroundings struck sharply on her notice. A new fastidiousness had crept into her natural sense of refinement. The parcels of grocery, the untidiness of Phil D'Eyncourt, the slovenly attire of her aunt, all bore a new and distasteful aspect.
Hurriedly she put the parcels aside into the cupboard, and took out glasses and spoons and sugar for the concocting of the "drop o' comfort" mentioned by Sally Dunne.
"I have to study my new part," she said. "And I must give two or three hours to it, aunt. Why don't you and Phil go with Mickey to-night? It will pass the time."
"The discourteousness of such a request is its only excuse," exclaimed Sally, bridling with righteous indignation. "I to be turned out to a low immoral place of amusement by her I've reared and upraised to this station in life! What next?"
"I can't study unless I'm perfectly quiet," answered Brianna; "and you know, aunt, you can no more stop talking than a clock can help ticking when it's wound up."
"That's true," observed Mickey gruffly. "Brianna's got to be considered now, Mrs. Dunne, and as you've come here self-invited, why you must fall in with our ways or—take yourself off again. I suppose you're sensible enough to see that."
"Never were my senses maligned," exclaimed Sally. "And I'd have you know that I understand the proprieties of life as well and better than you, Mickey Croom. I am proud of my niece. She will be elated on a pinnacle of success one day, and I shall not be behindhand in my acclamations. Now, Brianna, my dear, one more tumbler of punch and then I'm off to the gilded halls of pleasure, as you desire. It will be a super-abundant gratification to see Mickey making a fool of himself."
Mickey's scornful glance passed over her unobserved. Sally Dunne was, at present, enjoying herself immensely. The caravan was all very well in the summer, but in the winter, that was a very different matter. Besides, she loved London, and having quartered herself on the Happy Family, as they called themselves, she determined to stay with them as long as she possibly could. She had secured an attic at the top of the house, and had brought there her few belongings. Phil D'Eyncourt had intimated that in the present straitened condition of finances she must pay for her own board, and her willingness in that respect had resulted in Mickey's packhorse condition, and the abundant replenishing of the store cupboard. They felt it was useless to raise more objections at present, and that Sally Dunne must be added to the family menagerie much as an eccentric cat or a mischievous parrot would have been.
She was amusing, and in Phil's vernacular, "wouldn't be able to boss the show any longer," and as long as she kept her temper under control they could make no very strong objection to her presence.
Mickey Croom's dislike to her was as strong as ever; but, after all, she was Brianna's only relative, and it was for the girl to object, not for him.
He shared the punch with her, and listened eagerly to Brianna's account of her day's adventures.
He listened to her rich, full voice, he looked at her sparkling eyes, he read the hopes and triumphs of her heart. Then, suddenly, his head drooped, and he groaned aloud. Brianna stopped in her recital.
In a moment she was beside him.
"Why, Mickey, Mickey dear, are you ill?" she cried, and as he lifted his head and looked at her, something new and human and beautiful in his eyes struck her with a sense of wonder.
"No, child, no. I'm not ill," he said, hoarsely. "Only a sudden spasm. It's nothing; it's gone."
"Working too long on an empty stomach!" interjected Sally Dunne. "Well I know those spasms. Peppermint and gin, Mickey, that's the best for remedial action. I've got some, now I come to think of it. I'll go and fetch it."
"No, no, don't," exclaimed Mickey, impatiently. "I'm all right."
He drew himself up, and away from the girls arms, and gave himself a shake like a dog who had swum to land through deep waters.
He felt angered and ashamed at this self-betrayal. It was weak and unmanly, and altogether unworthy of the part he had determined to play in life.
"Come, it's time for us to be off," he said, suddenly. "You've two minutes to get your bonnets on."
Sally Dunne rose and left the room, taking one of the candles with her. Phil, laughing and joking, retired into the adjoining bedroom she and Brianna shared. The hunchback stirred the fire to a blaze, and stretched his hands towards it. As the red glow leaped upwards Brianna noticed for the first time how thin and white and well-shaped those hands were. They looked almost transparent in the firelight. The hand of the artist, not of the worker.
A wave of pity and of tenderness swept over the girl's heart. She came closer, and leant her arm on the mantelshelf, and stood there looking down on the worn, rugged face that seemed, in this moment of rest, to wear an infinite pathos.
"Life has been very hard for you, Mickey, hasn't it?" she asked, suddenly.
"Hard!" he echoed, and the bitterness of his voice said more than his words. "Hard, indeed, child. I don't even know who I am."
"Do you mean you don't know your parents?" she asked.
He shook his head.
"My earliest recollections are only of a drunken old woman to whose charge I had been given, and to whose care I owe this—deformity," he said, with a sudden, savage frankness that startled the girl. "Childhood, boyhood, what were they but humiliation and torture? Manhood—what is it but shame? I move among my fellows strong, able, keen of wit, firm of purpose, true of heart as any of them, and I see myself shunned and scorned and abhorred. I have to fall behind in the race, to suffer contumely, to watch the horror in women's eyes, the mockery in men's, to see little children shrink from me, unknowing the wealth of love the poor hunchback holds, and all that is beautiful in life passes me by. I only know its cruelty and pain."
"Oh, no, Mickey!" she said, and sudden rare tears sprang to her eyes at the unconscious pathos of his voice. "Not altogether cruel. I have never shrunk from you. I have always loved you, Mickey, and I always shall. You were my only friend when I was friendless, and no other can take your place."
"Not my place, but a better one. Child, don't think I claim anything from you but a memory. And even that only if it is a free gift. I am not exacting, only faithful."
The deep, dark eyes looked up at her from under their rugged brows with the patient, dog-like fidelity she knew so well. Her own gazed back, and seemed to plunge into a well of clear water. The faithful heart, the steadfast nature, the great loyal unselfish soul, all these she saw and recognised.
She trembled suddenly as one on the threshold of a new world.
"Oh, Mickey!" she cried, softly. "What injustice you have done yourself."
One of the long, slender hands dropped on to his knee. The bright flame died into a deep red glow, and shone on his white, sad face. Involuntarily she sank on her knees and took the hand in her own. Suddenly the velvet softness of her mouth touched and lingered on it in the first caress she had ever given.
He sat very still. He was afraid to move, afraid to speak. Something thrilled to his heart's core, wild as pain, sweet as joy, desolate as death. Then a sigh that was half a sob stirred the silence.
The door opened suddenly, and Sally Dunne entered.
The little squalid room was quiet at last. Brianna paced to and fro ceaselessly, restlessly, the book in her hand, but all her mind and brain a series of pictures in which her own personality stood out, suffering, pleading, forgiving, as the part demanded.
All else was forgotten. For the time being she was the wronged wife pleading with her husband, then with her rival. Her voice thrilled and quivered on the silence. Her face flushed and paled with overwrought feeling. She caught sight of its reflection in the dull glass over the mantelshelf, and was startled into sudden wonder.
"If I could only look like that on the night!" she said. "Oh!—If I should fail after all."
The thought fell like the chill of ice on her passionate enthusiasm. No success has failed to touch the possibility of failure in its probationary hours.
Again she returned to her part, tossing the book aside, for she was letter perfect in the first act. She thought it all out. The positions, the movements, the modes of entrance and exit. There would be a long and arduous rehearsal on the morrow, and she had determined to show something of what she could do.
It was nearly eleven o'clock before she ceased and flung herself into the ricketty old chair by the fire. She was very tired. The emotions and excitement of the day began to tell upon her, and that old sense of loneliness and discouragement returned.
Involuntarily her thoughts turned to her meeting with Max Lorrimer. How good he was! How friendly and hopeful! How he seemed to believe in her! How pleasant it must be to hold his friendship as Ray St. Vincent held it! She remembered they called each other by their Christian names. That surely argued terms of long intimacy. From this point her thoughts wandered onwards to the forthcoming Sunday. She would meet that strange man again. Would he remember her and the morning when he had spoken in that wild fashion? She could recollect his words still. How often she had puzzled over them. Had they meant anything, or had he only spoken in order to mystify and bewilder her? She knew he held a strange fascination for her. The fact of his having written a play which she was to hear sent a curious thrill of excitement through her veins. It seemed to draw him nearer to herself, to place them on a ground of united interests.
She leant back in the shabby chair, and closed her eyes and went over in memory all the incidents and accidents that had beset her life since that day of the races. The two men connected with that brief drama were once more associated with her career. Could it only be a simple chance that had directed this, or was there really a Fate controlling human lives and forcing them to play a part in the scheme of existence whether they would or no?
She grew perplexed. How strange it was. How impossible to know with any certainty of conviction. Life was in us, and about us, and we drifted on taking the evil with the good, the dark days with the bright, and in the end it was all the same. The dropping of a curtain that could never again be raised, the passing on to a stage whose mysteries were unrevealable.
Her thoughts were abruptly disturbed by the entrance of the other members of the Happy Family. Sally Dunne burst into wild complaints at finding the fire nearly out, and no preparation for supper. She was cold, and tired, and hungry. If this was the treatment she had to expect she would return to the caravan.
Brianna rose wearily. Her aunt always brought back memories of the old wretched life. She seemed to feel the fetters of obligation on her wrists once more. Phil D'Eyncourt was less ceremonious. She pushed Sally into a chair and bade her 'shut up.' "Brianna's not to be worried," she went on. "She's our show piece, and has to be considered. You shall have your supper in five minutes, and if a knuckle bone of ham, a pound of best Cheddar, and a quart of six ale don't content you, why you'd best go back to your caravan, as you say. We never asked you here, you know."
Sally Dunne unloosened her bonnet strings in silence. Some of Phil's home truths were unanswerable.
Meanwhile Mickey attended to the fire and the two girls laid the table. The sight of the food restored Sally's good humour, and the arrival of the ale, frothing and thirst-inspiring, still further assisted the renewal of harmony. They all sat down to supper with good will.
* * * * * *
Day after day the rehearsals went on—arduous, lengthy, full of squabbles and disputes, turning the stage into a playground for loosened jealousies and long-hidden animosities.
Brianna stood aloof and looked on in wonder. Her reserve stood her in good stead, for, if she made few friends, neither had she any enemies. By Mickey's advice she held back the full interpretation of her part until the date of the performance should be at hand, contenting herself with mere accuracy of word and action; Ray St. Vincent did the same. But she watched Brianna carefully, and every day felt more convinced of the girl's rare abilities.
"You don't forget to come to-morrow evening?" she said, as they were parting after the Saturday rehearsal. "Come in about eight; you've no evening dress, I suppose?"
"No," said Brianna. "I've never needed one off the stage yet."
Ray St. Vincent's eyes swept the slight figure with easy measurement.
"I'll fix you up," she said, with a smile. "Be with me at half-past seven instead of eight. You're not too proud, I hope. I always think the stage should uphold St. Paul's advice to 'have all things in common.'"
"It's very good of you," she said, with a glance at her well-worn black serge. "And why should I be proud? I don't want your guests to be ashamed of me."
"That's a sensible girl," said Ray, approvingly. "I've half a theatrical wardrobe at anyone's service if they need it. You shall have your choice."
She nodded and passed on. Brianna followed shortly afterwards. Ray St. Vincent puzzled her a little. After that first outbreak of frank familiarity she seemed to have withdrawn into a background of reserve. She treated Brianna merely as one of the company; suggested "business" in their scenes, or gave hints as to improvements, but never relapsed into anything resembling friendliness.
The girl felt hurt by the sudden change, and cased herself with the humility of an inferior. After all, why should she have expected any other treatment, she asked herself. She must win her spurs first before she could claim equality with any star in the profession. She squared her shoulders, and drew herself up as she passed through the narrow dark passages and labyrinths of mystery that lead to the stage-door.
A voice at her elbow startled her.
"May I walk home with you, Miss Lynch?" it said, and with a rapid glance round she recognised Ashton Leigh, the young actor who had talked to her at the first rehearsal. Since then they had merely exchanged nods and smiles, or brief greetings, as they stood at the wings, or passed each other behind the stage.
"I am going up the Strand," she said. "Is that your way?"
"For to-day, yes," he answered, as they passed on through the darkness and emerged into the street.
Brianna looked at him curiously. She was wondering what he had to say to her.
"You're getting on uncommonly well," was what he did say, as they dodged the traffic and finally crossed the muddy street. "I expect you'll make a hit. Of course it's a poor party, a namby-pamby affair, but you seem to turn it into something. Cis Harrison, one of the authors, is a great friend of mine, and we were talking about you at the Savage last night. He wrote most of your lines, so he's naturally interested. Curious how egotistic those writer chaps are, isn't it? However, he's immensely pleased, because his collaborator would have all the plums for Vincey. We always call her Vincey behind, you know. By the bye, is your name your own? It's so uncommon. I thought all Irish girls were Norahs or Biddys."
"It's my own, certainly," said Brianna. "I'm glad you like it. I think it's horrid."
"And—ah—where do you live?"
"——Street. We are almost there."
"You might ask me in, you know. It would be friendly. And I might coach you up in a point or two that would catch on with a London audience. Bless you, I know them! Took their measure long ago."
"Oh, certainly come in!" said Brianna. "It's a wretched place, though, but we can give you a cup of tea if you like, and I should be very glad to hear what you suggest. I don't mind confessing to you I'm very nervous. This is the house. I wonder if the others are in?"
"The others? Don't you live alone?"
"Oh, no," she said, smiling. "We're quite a family—an uncle and aunt and a friend. She's an actress also. Perhaps you've heard of her—Miss D'Eyncourt?"
"No," he answered, somewhat gruffly. "Not that pleasure."
He watched the girl open the door and looked in at the dingy entrance and dark staircase with measurable disgust. Was the game worth the candle? This wasn't at all the sort of thing he had expected. However, he followed her up the stairs, and into the parlour. For once that apartment was looking respectable, not to say festive. Mickey had celebrated "treasury day" by the purchase of a quantity of chrysanthemums and a scarlet shade for the lamp. Phil had set out the tea things, and a brilliant fire made the room look cosy and inviting.
Sally Dunne was toasting muffins, and Phil was telling some anecdotes to Mickey, at which they were both laughing.
There was something homelike and innocent about the scene, and Brianna introduced her visitor with the simplicity of perfect ease.
Phil D'Eyncourt gave a hurried glance at her fringe and then extended her hand. Mickey Croom flashed a suspicious interrogation from beneath his frowning brows. Sally looked up from the half-toasted muffin and recognised the guest as something superior to caravan patronisers. She therefore expressed her pleasure by a dignified salute and a carefully misworded greeting.
"Mr. Leigh has kindly come in to give me some hints about my new part," said Brianna, as she drew forward a ricketty chair for the visitor. "I asked him to tea! so I hope it's ready. Do sit down, Mr. Leigh. I won't ask you to excuse anything, because we're all Irish, and Irish people expect you to take them as they are."
He smiled, and expressed his willingness to fall in with that fashion. It was all quite different to what he had expected, but he liked novelty. Besides, the girl was lovely enough to make anything excusable in her surroundings. He wished, however, that the surly-looking hunchback would not stare at him so. Those dark, piercing eyes made him uncomfortable, and when one's motives are quite beyond reproach, well——
"The tea is ready," interposed the voice of Sally Dunne. "If the gentleman will condescend to anticipate our humble meal he's kindly welcome. As the great bard says, 'Tis not the poverty, but the will consents. Still, had I known visitors were expected, a kipper or a bloater should not have been begrudged to disgrace our humble board. Such suspicious occasions are not too numerable that we should despise them."
Ashton Leigh listened, in such undisguised astonishment to this harangue that it almost upset Phil's gravity.
"Isn't it a dear old Malaprop?" she whispered between suppressed giggles as she arranged the chairs. "Make her fortune on the stage, you know, if she'd only go on like that."
"Phil D'Eyncourt! Whisperings isn't manners," interposed Sally. "Hand the gentleman some muffings, and behave yourself grandiloquently."
Probably to behave "grandiloquently" was beyond Phil D'Eyncourt's powers. In any case, the tact of a young man, a good-looking man, and above all one who belonged to the same profession, being seated at what Sally Dunne termed their "humble board," was sufficient to exhilarate her spirits to an unusual degree.
She talked the latest theatrical gossip and the slangiest of theatrical slang, evidently unconscious that these were just the very things Ashton Leigh most disliked. Besides, she herself was the type of girl familiarised by Gaiety burlesque and comic operas, a type Ashton Leigh had always been very well content to leave alone as something altogether too rare and expensive for an income less than a Duke's. He had had a surfeit of golden hair and kohl-washed eyelids, of hare's-foot complexions and pearl powder. He was annoyed that he had come here; annoyed because Brianna spoke so little and her friend so much. The hunchback, too, was a puzzle to him. He was so surly and so horribly observant. What odd surroundings for the girl! And yet she seemed perfectly content. There seemed no opportunity of throwing an apple of discord into their family circle. He thought it was the very oddest he had ever seen, and his experience had not been limited, but still Brianna stood out from them all as so entirely different that he could not imagine her being contented to remain there.
"How did you get on at the Delphic?" he asked her at last. "Agent, was it?"
"Oh, no," said Brianna. "I had an introduction to Miss St. Vincent, and she got me the part at once."
"Oh! I know she and Letty fell out," he answered. "But you were lucky to please her, I can tell you. She doesn't, as a rule, like anyone better looking than herself to play with her."
Brianna looked calmly at him.
"It would be difficult to find anyone who was that, I should say," she answered.
"And younger," he went on, remorselessly. "Of course, you are quite different styles, though."
"Oh, great actresses aren't as silly as all that!" exclaimed Phil. "Besides, they must know when they're beginning to go off."
"I knew an actress," said Ashton Leigh, "who had reached the ripe age of fifty summers and yet insisted on playing ingénue parts in every piece. But she was an oddity altogether."
"What's her name?" asked Phil, eagerly.
"Mrs. Curran," he said. "But really she was Lady Skibbereen. She ran away from her first husband, went on the stage, divorced him, and married Lord Skibbereen, retired for a year or two, then came back to the boards."
"Skibbereen, did you say?" exclaimed Sally Dunne. "Guess I know her then! She went back to the stage, and no one knew what became of her child, or if there ever was a living child born, and now the estate's in Chancery, or I was misinformed so."
Ashton Leigh nodded.
"That's so," he said. "And I believe she could put the whole thing straight if she chose, but she doesn't choose. She's as giddy and skittish as ever, and believes she's just as charming."
"There's no fool like an old fool," growled Mickey. "And some of the best actresses exemplify that. They'd turn away the finest part ever written if they had to play a woman of forty in it. Just as if that isn't the most interesting and dramatic age. What's the life of a woman who has had no experience and no history?"
"You're quite right," said the young fellow eagerly, looking at him with some interest for the first time. "Love is for girls and youths, but passion, power, strength, influence, they are for the drama of life played on the stage of experience and illuminated by past hopes."
"I guess that's very fine talk," observed Sally, resting her elbows on the table and poising her saucer of tea delicately on the tips of her fingers. "Sounds like something out of a play. Shakespeare, I surmise. All the same, if you ask me what catches on with men I should say—gals. But go on, Mr. Leigh, I'm much interested about this same Lady Skibbereen. If I knew where she was I'd look her up for old acquaintanceship. I came nearer to finding out her mystery than anyone, and it's only because I had no clue that I promiscuously followed it. Still there are things, as Shakespeare says, that are as rosemary to remembrance. But enough of the past. Do you know where she is now?"
"Acting at the Grand, Islington, last I heard of her. But haven't you an 'Era?' You can trace any theatrical person through that unless they've changed their name."
"Yes, I forgot that. I'll hunt her up anon. Dear me, girls, how silent you are. I have to do all the infra dignities of the table. Some more muffins, Mr. Leigh?"
"Thank you, no," he said, rising. "I—I'm afraid I must be going home."
"Going home? But I thought you were here for rehearsing your parts?" exclaimed Sally. "Did I misunderstand as much? It will give us all so much pleasure. Brianna there, she won't let out the synopsis of the play by any manner of dissuasion. She turns us all out when she's studying."
Ashton Leigh devoutly wished that she would take it into her head to turn them all out there and then, but politeness forbade his saying so. As Brianna appeared perfectly indifferent whether he stayed or went he again excused himself, and having shaken hands with them all, was shown downstairs and out of the front door by Phil D'Eyncourt.
"He was a pleasant, personating young man," said Sally Dunne, rising from the table at last. "But he talked a deal of nonsense. Women of forty, indeed! I'd like to know who'd look at them after thirty save them as owns them and can't help it. Interest! Stuff and nonsense. What's interest beside a pretty face, a pair of bright eyes, and a good shape. So you two girls, don't go playing no grasshopper tricks. Youth is youth, and beauty's only skin deep, and while you have 'em make the best of 'em, for oh, it is not always May, as the bard says. Brianna might marry a peer. They mostly takes their wives from the stage or the halls nowadays, and proud should I be to tread her gilded halls, and be relevated to a menial position that I might well adorn!"
"You would adorn any position, Aunt Sal," said Brianna, gravely. "But I should be very sorry to marry a peer for your sake. I don't think 'gilded halls' are much in my line."
"Wait till you get the chance of them," said Phil, piling up the teacups preparatory to washing them.
"That was a very curious story," went on Sally Dunne, seating herself by the fire. "Very curious. It's put me back on a track I'd like to follow. Lady Skibbereen did have a child, after she left the old man. I know that for certain. Now, what became of it?"
"I should say that was no concern of yours," said the hunchback, in somewhat surly fashion.
"Perhaps not?" said Sally. "But the abnominal curiosity of my sex is such that I'd like to explore that little mystery. To think of that property all going to waste, and good money only lining the pockets of thieving lawyers, is enough to make one's blood boil. It is thus morality prospers."
"There doesn't seem much morality about Lady Skibbereen," observed Phil. "Not that she's any exception. Actors and actresses live a life so totally different to anyone else that it's absurd to think the same rules should govern them."
"It's a life of thankless struggle," said Mickey Croom.
"Oh, no! not thankless!" exclaimed Brianna. "There are great rewards."
"They are not worth the pain and the struggle of getting."
"Don't discourage the girl on the threshing fold of her career," exclaimed Sally Dunne. "She can be good if she chooses. If she doesn't choose that is her own look out. It is not for want of warning and good advice, I shouldn't take up with that young popinjay if I were Brianna. He thinks too much of himself. I can read character as well as anyone, and I guess I know who can be trusted and who can't. So don't flatter yourself with false hopes. He who despises the humble surroundings of another, may live to be despised himself. Which may be Shakespeare or a proverb, but in any case is the application of it."
"The application has nothing to do with me," said Brianna, as she put away the tea things, and closed the cupboard door. "There's no man living who could draw me away from my art. I have determined to devote my life to it, and I mean to succeed."
The dark, melancholy eyes of the hunchback searched her face with sad scrutiny. She meant what she said—then. Would she mean it when time and the hour were ripe for temptation, when the struggle for mimetic honours would be hampered with conditions; when, worst possibility of all, her heart would learn its own weakness, and she would know herself before and above all else—a woman?
"I haven't told you," said Brianna suddenly, "that I am going to Miss St. Vincent's to-morrow evening."
The announcement focussed all their eyes in her direction.
"Is it a party?" asked Phil, with jealousy in her tone.
"She might have inconcluded me," said Sally, huffily. "As your lawful chaperon I ought to encompany you everywhere."
"Actresses don't require chaperons," said Brianna quietly. "No, it's not a party, Phil. Someone is going to read a play, and Miss St. Vincent has asked a few listeners, that's all."
"But you haven't got a decent gown to go in!" exclaimed Phil. "Those sort of people always dress for the evening."
"I know," said Brianna, colouring, "but Miss St. Vincent is going to lend me one. At least, I am to buy one out of my salary. She has heaps of stage dresses she doesn't want."
"How lovely!" exclaimed Phil, enviously. "Oh, do get a gorgeous one as you're about it, Brianna. You want striking colours. But I suppose you'll choose black. That is so like you."
"I shall certainly choose black, if I can," answered Brianna. "I hate to be conspicuous."
"Some people never do make the best of their chances," said Phil. "Wish I had the pick of dresses like Ray St. Vincent has worn. She's the best dressed woman on the stage."
"Any diamonds?" asked Sally, looking up.
Phil laughed, and Brianna was conscious of a feeling of deep annoyance.
"Ah!" murmured Sally, shaking her head mournfully. "It's the old story—Ignim fatus! Ignim fatus!"
Brianna was shown into Ray St. Vincent's dressing-room on her arrival. The actress was sitting before her toilet glass adjusting the coils and curls of her beautiful hair, and attired in an elaborately-lace-frill underskirt and a dressing jacket of pale blue silk and Valenciennes lace. Her evening gown of white satin lay on the adjoining couch.
"Ah, my dear! So you are in good time," she said, as she held out a hand of greeting. "I've not forgotten. Open that wardrobe there—the one fitted into the wall. That's my 'property cupboard.' You'll see three dresses—a pink satin, a black net with a high transparent bodice, and a yellow embossed silk, rather the worse for wear. Take which you please."
She bent forward and began to touch up her eyelashes slightly, while Brianna opened the wardrobe door. Then she took up a powder puff and dusted her face and neck thickly, removing the powder afterwards with a soft handkerchief. This done she rose and threw aside her dressing jacket and stood before the mirror, a lovely vision in white satin corsets and lace skirts. Brianna looked at her enviously. The exquisite blending of Art and Nature made up a combination that seemed wholly irresistible. A sense of her own inferiority—of something missing—the lack of some subtle feminine charm, came to her in that moment.
Her plain, untrimmed underwear, her ill-fitting stays, her warm, coarse petticoat—how common they seemed before this vision of Parisian lingerie, these scented, cobwebby laces and cambrics.
"I think I should like this," she said, taking down the black net from its peg. "I—I'm not used to low-necked dresses, you know."
"Haven't you decent shoulders? You look all right," said the beautiful actress, carelessly. "Very well, take the black. Let me see how you look out of your gown."
It was with some sense of shame that Brianna unbuttoned her serge bodice and unhooked her simple skirt. She had never appraised her own charms as mercilessly as this feminine judge was about to do.
"Why, you're all right!" exclaimed Ray St. Vincent. "What are you blushing and trembling for? My dear child, your neck and arms are simply perfect; not your hands. You'll have to train them mercilessly; but they'll pass to-night in gloves. Now, get into that gown. Wait a moment. What a petticoat. You can't possibly wear that. Here, take this black silk one with the flounces. You can keep it afterwards; it's no use to me. And as for the gown, well, the wardrobe keeper wouldn't give two guineas for it, so you may have it for what you like. Why, really, Brianna, you look very nice. It fits perfectly, considering your corsets. My dear child, do get a decent pair first salary. I wonder you're any shape at all! Here, pull you together in a few minutes. You don't understand the way that bodice fastens!"
She drew the delicate transparent net over the firm, white shoulders and bare arms, hooked and pulled and pinned the folds into shape, draped the glittering jet fringe that fell from bust to waist, and arranged the loose grace of the skirt over its black silk foundation.
"Now!" she exclaimed, triumphantly, and turned the girl round to face her own reflection in the long glass panel of the wardrobe. "Now, what do you think of yourself?"
Brianna surveyed a tall, slight shape in its dusky draperies. The warm flush of youth and excitement was on the cheeks, and the bright glance of pleasant surprise in the eyes. She felt as if she was surveying a stranger. "What a difference!" she cried, breathlessly.
Miss St. Vincent laughed.
"Yes; the grub and the butterfly, isn't it? I remember when I first learnt the power of dress transformation. It's the only magician that can serve a woman not dependent on art. Will you have a touche of poudre de riz. No? Perhaps you're right. Time enough for that. We all come to it sooner or later. Well, now I must hurry on myself. Go into the drawing-room and wait. I'll be ready in ten minutes."
She pushed the girl gently through the doorway, and called out to her maid to come and help in the completion of her toilet.
Brianna passed on through the dining-room, where the table was laid for supper, and into the pretty, lamp-lit drawing-room beyond. It was the first time she had seen it, and she glanced round on the hundred and one objects of art, refinement, and luxury with a sort of awe. Tables were littered with bric-a-brac, screens broke up the lines of furniture into nooks and corners, flowers were everywhere, and a huge palm worthy of Kew's glasshouses touched the ceiling in one corner. The ensemble was delightful. Eye and senses were alike satisfied, and the rose-hued light of a standard lamp threw a lovely glow of becoming colour around.
Brianna went up to the fire, where a few logs burned on the tiled hearth. She seated herself on a low cushioned chair, and leant back with a delightful sense of comfort and pleasure. It was altogether novel, and she revelled in the novelty of the sensation.
Her eyes closed in dreamy content. Her thoughts floated off on a stream of exquisite imaginings. The sound of an opening door at last disturbed her. She heard a voice say "Miss St. Vincent will be here directly."
Then she looked round and saw Raemore Clive.
She rose slowly from the chair, and watched the strange green eyes glow and scintillate and then smile in sudden surprised recognition.
"I am sure it is 'Jessica'—no other!" he said, and crossed the room and took her hands in both his own. "Do you remember me? Yes, I see you do. And my prophesies—they were correct, you see. You are no longer Fate's football, but Fate is your footstool. How you have changed."
"Have I?" site said, stupidly.
She felt awkward and uncomfortable. She wished he would not look at her so strangely; above all, that he would not recall that morning on the Marina when he had sat beside her and talked the strange, incomprehensible jargon of his profession.
"Have you?" he echoed. "I should think so. Do you know I have had an impression lately that we should meet soon? Once or twice, it seemed to me, we were within reachable distance, breathing the same atmosphere; but I am keeping you standing. Won't you sit down?"
Brianna did so, and he took a chair near her own.
"And you will hear my first play," he went on, smoothing back his dark hair with one long white hand. "How strange, and yet how fortunate. There is no one to whom I would sooner reveal that weird and mystic side of myself, that creative faculty crystallised into shape by intense thought and intense feeling than you, sweet Jessica. You will always be Jessica to me, you know. Now, tell me, how have you got on? And how comes it I find you here?"
Brianna gave him a rapid sketch of her theatrical experiences and her introduction to Miss St. Vincent. He listened with eager interest.
"So it was Max Lorrimer again," he murmured. "Strange! By the bye, he should be here. He was to meet me at eight o'clock. I have not the honour of Miss St. Vincent's personal acquaintance. I know her on the stage, that is all."
The rustle of a skirt cut short his sentence, and he turned and rose to greet the beautiful woman who had entered the room.
"How do you do, Mr. Clive. I am delighted to make your acquaintance. Max is late as usual. Did you ever know him in time? Have you made the acquaintance of Miss Lynch, or must I introduce you?"
"We have found out we are old acquaintances," said Clive, as he released her hand, and drew forward a chair. "I made Miss Lynch's acquaintance as Jessica the first time she ever appeared on any stage. I prophesied success for her from that moment. I am delighted to find I was correct."
Ray St. Vincent flashed an eager glance at his strange face.
"Are you a seer?" she asked laughingly. "That makes you doubly interesting. Max did not tell me that. I hope you have brought your play, by the way. I am quite curious to hear it. Your friend spoke most highly of it. Is this you first attempt?"
"Yes," he said. "I have made a long study of the stage in many countries, and I have come to the conclusion that it stands in great need of reform in every particular. It is conventional, it is inartistic. It is a mass of errors and tyrannies. It is hopelessly and crudely false to any just proportion of fact or emotion, and the fault lies not with those who write for it, but those who interpret what is written."
Miss St. Vincent lifted her delicately arched brows in some surprise.
"You are very candid," she said. "And that is a very sweeping assertion."
"Yes," he said, calmly. "It is. But I speak from long experience, and absolute conviction. What was good enough for a past generation is not good enough for us. We are more cultivated, more critical, and more fastidious. We want to see ourselves on the stage, not strutting, mouthing travesties of humanity, a burlesque on its passions and emotions. Look at the expression of love, grief, despair, hate, revenge; the a, b, c of drama. Is it anything like reality? Has any actor or actress the courage to be silent on the stage? Yet how much silence can express! What sympathy it can stir! Why, if they went into the streets of a great city and studied its tragedies, watched the faces, listened to the voices, they would learn a lesson that neither book nor instruction could ever bestow. But they won't. They take their lessons from tradition, just as they make their stage doors open outside instead of inside a room. It is quite wrong, but it has always been done, and therefore it must continue to be done."
Ray St. Vincent looked at him with some interest.
"Do you know," she said. "I never thought of that! Of course, it is wrong. But then the stage cannot be like reality. People want broad outlines, violent contrasts, vivid colour."
"Excuse me," he said, coldly. "That is just what all theatrical people say they want, because it suits their purpose to give it. The directors of the stage treat their public much as the Board of Guardians treats its paupers. They lay down rules of diet and recreation for them which they are bound to accept. You have taught the public certain fallacies connected with the stage, and they look for them—the stage moon, the stage thunder, the stage peasant and the stage villain, the aiming of a clap-trap heroism at the gallery, the false sentiment of virtue, the preposterous exaggeration of vice, the dressing of a part, as laid down by dead-and-gone 'stars.' Oh, I could go on for ever, and yet not end this catalogue of criminal imbecility miscalled Art."
He turned to Brianna.
"Now, I will ask you, as a new beginner, whether a stage manager ever permitted a gesture or an action of yours to be natural? To be your own interpretation of what you felt? You shake your head. I was sure of it. Genius is forever trammelled by ignorance and absurdity generally representing power, and poor Genius' has to bow its head—or starve. The consequence is that on the stage nothing appeals to one's imagination. Everything is done for our eyes, ears, and brains, and we are treated en masse like children in a nursery. The plot is explained at once, the secret is no secret, the error or crime is as patent as daylight in the first act yet supposed to come as a revelation in the last. The prologue is done away with. True, but its trail is over every play and drama and comedy that the 19th century has known. Modern dramatists have just escaped originality and modern audiences have just escaped intelligence. I have witnessed plays that simply set my teeth on edge, so false they were to every canon of art, and every conception or truth. I have seen the interior of a cottage situated in a country village lit by electricity! I have witnessed the elopement of a married woman, who leaves her husband asleep on a couch and walks out of the window in full evening dress, without a bonnet or a hand bag! Every woman in the audience laughed as she pictured the arrival at an hotel! But that special theatre was ruled by a fashionable millinery firm, and the rule was 'latest Paris fashions' in every act!"
"Really, Mr. Clive, you are pitiless!" exclaimed Ray St. Vincent, "though what you say is quite true. Only it never occurs to us, I'm sure. We accept a certain set of rules in the profession, just as a child accepts the five finger exercises as a prelude to piano-playing. We must, or else we'll never get a chance of the piano-playing."
"That," said the new censor, "is why you should all make a stand against it. Everyone who has won a name or taken a position has a right to speak his or her convictions."
"And become utterly unpopular," said Ray St. Vincent.
But Brianna looked up with kindling eyes.
"I think you are quite right," she said. "Quite. It is horrible, idiotic, to think of going on with errors, and sticking to old prejudices and old traditions year after year simply because it has been done before! But if you knew as much of life on the stage, Mr. Clive, as you do of life off it, you would soon understand why so little improvement is possible."
"Yes," said Raemore Clive; "most tragedians are brainless puppets, trained to act and speak as hundreds of other puppets have acted and spoken. The few original and really gifted actors are powerless against the bugbear of tradition. I've known one member of a company to fight tooth and nail for a certain exit or a certain position. The whole dramatic incidents of the play were to him centred just in that particular fad. If he had power he won the day; if he hadn't, well, he could spoil the scene for the author. Few playwrights have any voice in the arrangement of their pieces. At first they insist, then they grow weak or tired, or indifferent. The company for whom, or around whom, it is written worry, and perplex, and hamper them until in sheer desperation they say, 'Do what you please,' and that to the intelligence of an actor, or, pardon me, an actress, usually means, 'Do exactly what somebody else has done in a similar situation.' Ah! here is Lorrimer at last. How do, old boy? I have been inflicting my views on the errors of the stage on our friends here. I am sure they will hail you as a relief."
"Mr. Clive is absolutely merciless," said Ray, as she and Max Lorrimer shook hands. "He is a new St. George about to fight the Dragon of stage conventions. I'm afraid he'll find it has too many heads even for the strong sword of his convictions."
"That's what I tell him," said Max. "He forgets that all art in the British Isles has its commercial side. And that is the side which appeals to managers and directors, as well as to the profession generally. An unsuccessful piece is a greater bugbear than an inartistic one. Errors and bad taste are easily forgiven, but an empty treasury spells ruin!"
Raemore Clive gave a weary sigh, and settled himself in an artistic pose, which greatly impressed the maidservant who came in with coffee, liqueurs and cigarettes.
"I have asked one or two friends in," observed Ray. "I hope you don't object, Mr. Clive? They are connected with the theatrical world. One is critic on the Footlight."
"Ah, those —— critics," said Raemore Clive, with a languid smile. "How dearly they do love their self-importance. How much they think they know, and how poverty-stricken is their intellect."
"I shouldn't advise you to tell Tom Rafferty his intellect is poverty-stricken," laughed Lorrimer. "He'd open his vials of wrath, I can promise. He's an Irishman."
"I should imagine so. Irish names leave little to the imagination. I know what to expect from him. He will be impetuous and incapable of argument except from the standpoint of his own limited intelligence."
"You have hit him off exactly," said Ray, taking a cup of coffee from the tray. "All the same, you must remember we are in duty bound to respect the august body of critics. They are a power, and we can't ignore it."
"You could if you chose," he answered.
She shook her head. "Ah, Mr. Clive, wait till your play is produced. You will have to change your opinions then."
"I shall never do that," he answered quietly. "Is it permitted to smoke here?"
"Yes. I'll set the example," she said, lighting a cigarette from the tongue of flame that issued from the mouth of a silver monster. "Now I hope the others won't be long, for I'm dying to hear your play after your views on plays. What is the title, by the way? You have not told me."
"I have simply named it The Opal," he answered.
"Unlucky on the face of it."
"Yes," he said, suavely. "That is why I chose the title. I am nothing if not unconventional. I hate superstitions. They are the fetters man fastens on the few senses he is allowed to use."
There was a momentary silence. Brianna had listened in fascinated wonder to the conversation. Ray St. Vincent was deeply interested in this strange being. He saw he had impressed the women, and found a curious pleasure in playing on their emotions. He loved to feel that his personality dominated others. He had no belief in himself, but he had determined that the world in general should never know it. He defined himself as "a bundle of sensibilities with no common senses and a great many uncommon ones."
In the silence that followed he drew from his coat pocket a small roll of paper tied with flame-coloured ribbon. It was the MSS. of his play, written in the most exquisite and minute handwriting. He looked at it with a gracious and tender smile, as if it were something human and loveable.
"My child," he said, softly. "My first-born. The creation of many thoughts, the subtle embodiment of that evanescent flame called 'Genius.' Ah, what birthright am I giving you? To what sponsors do I entrust your tender soul?"
The door opened on the announcement of "Mr. Gayling and Mr. Rafferty."
A tall, burly man, with a red face, a badly-fitting coat, and a head of hair that advertised antagonism to barbers' shears or prevailing fashion, entered the drawing-room, much as a bull might enter a china shop. He was closely followed by a small, weak-looking individual of the prevailing pattern of manhood. He was neutral tinted, and would have been overlooked in any crowd of half a dozen people. Perhaps it was by reason of his own negative qualities that he had chosen to be the shadow and echo of his Hibernian friend. One was seldom seen without the other, and Gayling and Rafferty were coupled like a company or a partnership, in their clubs, or among their associates.
"And how are you, my dear lady!" exclaimed the critic, extending a hand, and kicking aside a footstool which was in his way. "Excuse me, but why do you have such a lot of furniture in your rooms. Ah, Lorrimer, the top o' the morning to you. How's every bit of you? Miss Lynch, did you say? Delighted. Surely we're compatriots, or I'm no judge of an Irish face. Ah, I thought so. The ould country hasn't forgot to turn out beauty yet, has she, gentlemen? There, don't blush, my darlin'! I might be your father for the years between us, and if I'm not, sure that's my loss, for your mother must have been a rare jewel of a girl if you're anything like her!"
The eyes of Raemore Clive had been fastened on this noisy personage ever since his entrance.
"And to a boor and Goth like this I am to confide the delicate subtleties of my composition," he reflected. "It is to him, and dozens of his compeers, that the ignorant public look for opinions on drama, literature, music! How much that explains!"
He heard his name pronounced, and bowed in response to the introduction. He and Tom Rafferty measured each other with a glance of mutual antipathy. Swords were in rest for a time, but each hand went to the scabbard in anticipation.
"And is it long since you left Ireland, Miss Lynch?" asked Rafferty, swallowing the contents of his coffee cup at a gulp, and putting the delicate china down with a force that made the girl start nervously. "Bedad, I was forgetting it wasn't my landlady's 'unbreakable' I was handling. My apologies, madam. You see, I'm not much used to lady's knick-knacks. No damage done. Well, Miss Lynch, as I was saying, but are you one of John Walter Lynch's daughters, of County Clare? I knew him well, and his father and mine were college chums. He married a Miss O'Connor. The belle of the county she was, and had three sisters as lovely as herself; which is saying a great deal, and that puts me in mind of a good story about O'Connor's maiden aunt. 'Feathers' we used to call her when we were boys. I don't know why, I'm sure, except that she had a fancy for that fluffy, shimmery stuff that old ladies wore in their caps. What's this the name is? Marabout. Well, as I was saying—but perhaps the story isn't quite fit for ladies' ears, so I'll reserve it."
He took a chair, which creaked beneath his weight, and in the confusion Brianna's attempt to dissociate her name from any connection with the Lynchs of County Clare was quite lost upon him.
"Ah, well," he resumed, "now tell us the latest ong dits of the theatrical world, Miss St. Vincent. How's the new play getting on, and when is it going to be produced? Hope it won't clash with Prothero's new comedy Hot Potatoes! Awful title, isn't it? Told him so. Know it'll be a dead failure."
"Write your criticism on those lines," drawled Raemore Clive. "It'll save you and the public so much trouble."
Rafferty turned swiftly in his direction, and flashed a searchlight glance at the impassive face.
"Mr. Raemore Clive is also a dramatic author," interposed Ray quickly. "It is to hear his play that I asked you all to-night."
"Oh!" said Rafferty, putting forth a hundred quills of porcupine importance and dropping Hibernianism for critical attention. "I'm not acquainted with your name, Mr. Clive. Produced anything yet?"
"No. I have kept aloof from that imbecility as yet," answered Clive, coolly. "The banality of the stage and the unwisdom of criticism are barriers that no sane mind would attempt to scale."
"That's your opinion, is it?"
"It is. I am not ashamed of it."
Rafferty took up a cigarette, lighted it, rose from his chair, and selected larger and less fragile accommodation. Then he seated himself and looked straight at this censor of established rules.
"I'd like to hear your play," he said.
"You won't like it," observed Raemore Clive. "None of your cult are sufficiently educated to appreciate a new departure. You would first have to forget everything you have learned, everything you have believed, and everything your own brains claim as original, critical and intelligent. Having done this, you would have to listen with an unbiassed mind, a thing no critic ever possessed. After having lived in the belief that you know everything connected with dramatic art, from the first original Punch and Judy show in the Garden of Eden down to Sarah Bernhardt as Tosca, you would have to grasp the humiliating fact that you know absolutely nothing. You have all declared that life is the reality, and acting the sham. I am going to prove that life is the sham and acting the reality."
The attention of everyone in the room was concentrated on the speaker. He felt perfectly happy.
"I propose introducing you not to new emotions, but to old emotions newly represented," he went on, flicking off the ash of his cigarette into a silver shell at his elbow. "Also I will show to an indiscriminating public that nothing is perfect that satisfies. My play will satisfy no one; therefore, it will be a type of perfect pleasure. It will create a longing that nothing can satiate. It will be as the first kiss to the lover, the first brandy and soda to the society inebriate. They will cry, 'More, more!'" He sighed, and laid down his finished cigarette. "But there will be no more," he added. "The perfection of Art is the Incomplete."
Rafferty gazed at him with the nearest approach to bewilderment his well-balanced brain had ever known. He could not make out whether the man was humbugging or in earnest; whether he was laughing at them in his sleeve or deceiving himself by overweening vanity.
"Do you mean all that seriously?" he demanded at last.
Raemore Clive's smile was worthy of a Raphaelistic cherub.
"Mean it, of course I do! Life is too short, for pretence. That is why I am so frank. Art is divine beyond all else life holds. She has been my teacher, goddess, friend. In my poor way I have tried to interpret some of her teachings. I do not expect to be appreciated except by some rare soul—some unit in a crowd of inanities."
His eyes rested softly on Brianna. He watched the colour waver in her face with a subtle enjoyment.
"Some rare soul," he went on, in his deep melodious voice. "But its sympathy and its comprehension will be my best reward. I ask, I expect nothing more."
"Well, your expectations are likely to be gratified," grunted Rafferty. "But don't you think you'd better get to business? Having such a mighty good opinion of yourself naturally makes one anxious to hear what your work is like."
"I have created a heroine," explained Clive, looking at his roll of MSS., "who can be interpreted by one woman only."
"Well, we don't usually have two of them playing the same part,"—interpolated Rafferty.
Clive waived aside the objection with a delicate hand, that drew attention to his beautifully manicured nails.
"I am not jesting," he said—"I will read you the first act. Then, if you please, you may all criticise or suggest. I only ask silence while I am reading. Interruption of any sort will snap the delicate threads that link the story, the interpreter, and the listeners, for a brief space."
For half-an-hour the voice of the interpreter rolled on in deep changeful cadence. For half-an-hour uninterrupted attention was given to the weirdest, wildest, most impossible piece of dramatic work that anyone present had ever heard.
Then the MSS. was laid down, and the author looked round at the circle of faces.
"I'll have another cigarette," he observed, "and you can express your opinions."
Rafferty gave a short laugh.
"Of course, you know it's all utterly impossible on the face of it."
"Utterly impossible!" murmured his echo, nodding a sleek head in approval of so sweeping a denunciation.
"For stage purposes," corrected Ray St. Vincent.
"Well, wasn't it intended for the stage?" demanded Rafferty.
"I think it is the most beautiful thing I ever heard!" exclaimed Brianna, raising a flushed face and brilliant eyes to the author's tranquil gaze.
"Beauty has nothing to do with the question," growled Rafferty. "What the stage wants is plot. Incident, movement, life. This is simply a dramatic dialogue—a poem in blank verse. As I said before, it is impossible. It goes against every canon of art."
"No," interrupted Clive. "There I must differ from you. Not against every canon of art, only against the false conception of art that has been canonised and pandered to so long. I have no intention of producing my play at Drury Lane, or staging it on the boards of the Lyceum, or burlesquing it at the Gaiety, or offering it to Young Men's Christian Societies at the Lyric. You, my dear sir, have played the critic at most of these popular resorts. You immediately regard my work with the prejudiced eye of your position. I have endeavoured to explain that it will be caviare to the multitude. The quotation is perhaps more familiar to you than the article in question."
"But, really, Mr. Clive!" exclaimed Ray, hastily, "do you think it would act?"
"No, my dear lady. I only expect that it will be acted; and by yourself, if I may be so bold as to express the wish."
"Oh, I could never do such a part," said Ray St. Vincent. "Why, Opal, as you call her, is a different woman in every scene."
"She is true to her name, and her sex," said Clive. "Changeful, variable, erratic, exquisite through all. Not so much a woman as the essence of all womanhood. It is a great part."
"That I grant," answered the actress; "but you'll find no one to play it. You throw the whole burden of your drama on the shoulders of one woman. The four men seem to me but foils to the different sides of her character."
"Exactly. In the first act she is the ideal of the real to each man. In the second she becomes the real of that ideal to each man. It was a great conception, you must grant."
"It sounds like d——nonsense," muttered the Irishman.
"Very much so indeed," echoed the Echo, rubbing his thin hands together.
Lorrimer rose and stretched out his long limbs and laughed.
"I confess it's all Greek to me," he said. "But, then, I never pretended to be clever."
"I wish Mickey could have heard it," murmured Brianna involuntarily.
All eyes turned to her.
"Is he a critic?" asked Raemore Clive.
"Oh, no. He is only a student of Shakespeare, and he taught me everything I know."
"Taught you!" Clive's eyes grew brilliant. He leant forward. "You got your conception of Jessica from him? I wish I had known. I would rather read my play to him than to all the managers and critics of London! I can recognise originality when I see it. It is the rarest of gifts, and the least valued. We are all copyists—writers, artists, musicians, playwrights. It is the same old story. The British public has listened for half a century to The Last Rose of Summer and Home, Sweet Home, and at last believes it appreciates music. The director of the Kailyard concerts will insist that the only two comprehensible ballads of Thistleland are Scots Wha Hae and Auld Lang Syne. A representative Irish artist would be hooted as an ignoramus if he refused to place The Minstrel Boy on his programme. My dear Mr. Rafferty, don't glare like that! It is quite true I assure you. You are only a dramatic critic. Your friend Gayling here is a musical one, I accept his word, as I accept yours. Every shoemaker makes best on his own last, of course. The great fascination of a critic, to ordinary minds, lies in their belief that he knows everything. It is only the extraordinary mind that has dared to peer below the surface, and whisper surprise at—shallow depths."
Rafferty sprang to his feet, upsetting the table at his elbow and scattering cigarettes and bric-a-brac over the carpet.
"Bedad, sir!" he exclaimed, "this is worse than bull-baiting. Do you want to insult my fellow-critics through me, or is it at meself you're pointing you're malice? I'd have you know, sir——"
"Calm yourself; pray calm yourself, my dear friend," urged Clive, persuasively. "We're not on Stephen's Green, you know, but in a lady's drawing-room. And, really, considering how much the world of art and literature has had to bear from your brethren of the quill, it is time someone drew a lance in their defence."
"Don't you mind him, Rafferty," said Lorrimer, trying to calm down Hibernian excitement. "He doesn't mean half he says. He only wants to get a rise out of you!"
"Begorra! The man that does that will have to pay for it," fumed the Irishman, too excited now to mind manners or guests.
"Name your price, my dear sir," Clive answered, with his sweetest smile. "Your pound of flesh will be ready whenever you choose to call for it."
"Now, Clive, give over," urged Lorrimer. "What's the use of spoiling our evening and losing our tempers?"
"Since you put it in the plural sense, none," answered Clive. "I apologise individually and indiscriminately, and I'm sure Mr. O'Rafferty will do the same."
"There's no 'O' in my name, sir, I'd have you know," thundered the Irishman.
"I beg pardon. I forgot you dropped it on leaving Queenstown, let me see—ah! yes, five years ago, was it not?"
Rafferty's face grew suddenly ashey grey, his jaw dropped, his eyes glared at the impassive face of his persecutor with an expression of fear and attempted defiance. He tried to speak, but no words would come. Through the narrow slit of his half-closed lids Clive watched him with amused content.
"I am a clairvoyant. Perhaps I ought to have explained," he said, languidly. "I can tell you all your past history, if you wish, Mr. O'Rafferty!"
That challenge was not accepted, but to restore harmony was impossible. Ray St. Vincent was annoyed, but Rafferty was no favourite of hers. He only represented a power that was better conciliated by champagne suppers than offended by serene indifference.
She did her best to smooth matters over, but it was a relief to all when the memory of a club appointment drew the Irishman's attention to the hour. She took him into the dining-room and threw the oil of whisky and soda on the troubled waters of hurt pride and justly incensed dignity. The Echo chirruped in sympathy, and finally he and Rafferty left the actress's flat with the comforting conviction that she, at least, quite shared their opinion of the self-asserting upstart, as they called him.
She returned to the drawing-room laughing.
"It was too bad of you, Mr. Clive," she said. "You forget Irish people are very touchy and an Irish critic the human apotheosis of a hedgehog. I really trembled once. I feared it would be a case of the Boulogne sands and newspaper paragraphs."
"The man is an insufferable ass," said Clive.
"Did you notice anything about him?" asked Lorrimer, curiously.
"I saw it in his aura," he answered.
Ray St. Vincent turned to him with wide eyes of surprise.
"Do you mean you really see things about people? That you can tell what has happened to them, or will happen?"
"Yes. Ask Lorrimer there if I'm to be believed or not."
Max looked uncomfortable.
"He certainly has told me things which have come true," he answered. "I don't know how he does it. He seemed to hit the right nail on the head, too, with Rafferty. He looked like a cur with his tail between his legs when he slunk out of the room."
"Could you tell me anything about myself?" asked Ray St. Vincent, smiling up at the strange face.
She was leaning over the back of a chair. Her white satin dress, severely simple, clung in lustrous folds about her beautiful figure. The bared loveliness of throat and shoulders took a rosy tinge under the delicate shading of the lamplight. She was a picture of beautiful seductive womanhood, and for a moment the man gleamed out of the strange green eyes she challenged, and the seer was forgotten.
"Oh, yes, I could tell you a good deal," he answered, brutally. "But you'd better not ask me to do it—here. Wait till we're alone."
She laughed and a little embarrassed flush rose to her cheek.
"Very well," she said, "and now what about the second part of your play? Are we to hear it?"
"No," he answered. "The thread of harmony is broken. I cannot weave the web of illusion for you afresh. But there is no need for haste. You acknowledge you cannot play the part I was about to lay at your feet; the offering of intelligence to a genius it has recognised and compassionated you for uncongenial surroundings. Perhaps the time is not yet ripe. The shams and hollowness of conventionality are still about you. Art is to you only as a reflection in muddy water. You recognise what might be, but you lack courage to embody it. You are a part of your time and your surroundings. Some day you will know you worshipped an error. That is all."
She laughed and shrugged her beautiful shoulders.
"We all do that, Mr. Clive, in some form or another. Meanwhile, let us go in to supper. I am sorry the harmony of the evening is destroyed, but another time I will select my guests with more regard to their magnetic affinity. Isn't that the right expression?"
The conversation became general, and the arrival of the authors of the new Delphic drama, and two actresses in the self-same drama, brought a new and attractive element into the scene.
At supper Clive sat beside Brianna.
"Tell me," he said, "what you thought of my play."
"It is difficult to express what it seemed to me," she answered. "That wonderful, changeful creature, neither wholly good nor wholly bad, emotional, variable, enchanting, and her part in those four lives, and then your scene in Egypt—it breathes mystery and incomprehensibility. It was altogether wonderful."
"Would you create it for me?" he asked. "It seems to me you alone understand what I meant. And you have genius. I always told you so. Undeveloped, held in leading strings by the inartistic follies of tradition. Here is your opportunity to display it. Rise above prejudice. Show what can be done by courage of true art. Interpret what I have conceived. Together we might create a new art—might rule the world, might overthrow one at least of its many Temples of Error. How pale you are. Do you fear your powers? You need not. I can tell you that."
"It is not that I fear," she stammered. "It is only my inexperience. If the part is beyond Miss St. Vincent, how could I have the courage to perform it?"
"Because," he said, eagerly, "you come to it unbiassed, free from the host of prejudices that hamper her. Your mind is fresh, your gifts are great. Poetry and inspiration thrill your veins. You were in my mind when I dreamt of the opal, but I had no thought of meeting you."
"Had you forgotten what you said to me that morning on the Marina?" asked Brianna, bluntly. "I couldn't half understand you, but certainly you prophesied we should meet again. Why should it have surprised you?"
"I had not looked to the ages. The immediate present was lost to me," he answered. "There are times when the veil of the flesh obscures my senses. I suffer it to do so for fear I should lose touch with my fellow-man. If I cultivated only the spiritual side of my nature I should be unfit for the physical existence whose needs are at times imperative. The delights of life are also its compensations. Wine, sociality, beauty, amusement, all have their use and their charm. At times I can do without them, but at others I abandon myself to each and all as they allure or arouse sense, or satisfy an awkward passion. But now, tell me where you live. I will come and see you. I will read the conclusion of my play, and we will study it together. Then I shall produce it."
"Oh, you must let Mickey hear it first," she said, eagerly. "His judgment is wonderfully correct on theatrical matters. Of course, he may not quite understand your method of construction, but he will know instinctively if it is true art."
"Will he?" said Raemore Clive, half-closing his eyes. "That will be extremely interesting. I shall be glad to make the acquaintance of—Mickey."
An hour later he was strolling homewards, having got rid of Max Lorrimer and the dramatist, whose nervous hopes about the forthcoming play had irritated and bored him unaccountably. For this man had secured Brianna. Her first bow to a London audience would be made as one of the puppets of his show. It vexed Clive to think of it, and yet he was forced to do so. It seemed a desecration of her genius, this part in a common-place melodrama. He could not understand why she was so proud and pleased about it.
He mounted the stairs of his bachelor flat in Piccadilly in a very ill-humour. He touched the knob of the electric light in the vestibule and passed from there into his sitting-room. An odour of violets filled the air from two large bowls of Benares work that stood on the table. A divan of Persian saddle-bags stood in one corner. Quaint chairs and carved cabinets and bookcases of Indian workmanship composed the furniture. The tall windows were shrouded in straight-falling draperies of thick, dull gold silk. A few pictures in massive Florentine frames stood out from the olive-tinted falls. The general colour was sombre but rich, and an air of sensuous luxury pervaded the whole place.
Clive tossed his soft felt hat aside, threw down his overcoat on the nearest chair and then lit a cigarette. On a carved stand near the divan was a tray with cut-glass spirit bottles, glasses, and soda-water. He mixed a glass, and drank it off almost at a draught. Then he threw himself down on the cushions of the divan and began to smoke. Suddenly he started up, threw his half-finished cigarette aside, and crossed the room to where a small inlaid cabinet stood in the companionship of an Indian jogi, whose arms were stretched upwards in the phantasy of an abnormal growth. Clive unlocked the cabinet and took out from a drawer a small crystal.
With this in his hand he returned to his seat, and leant back for some moments, his gaze bent in fixed, stern immobility on the shining surface. Moments passed and were succeeded. No sound disturbed the stillness save the low even breathing of that solitary figure. His eyes dilated, a curious pallor crept over his face. Still his gaze burned down like a living flame into those clear depths. At last a deep painful sigh burst from him. He threw the crystal aside with a smothered curse.
"Has my power gone?" he muttered, "or have I no power here in this one instance? It isn't often I ask in vain."
He threw himself back on the cushions, and, closed his eyes. The clock chimed the half-hour, then the hour after midnight. Still he remained in that trance-like stillness. When at last he opened his eyes there was a curious hard look within their depths. His lips wore an expression of cruelty, a determination that seemed almost vicious. Again he seized the crystal and searched its depths.
"For every aeon of torture, for every decade of separation, for the joy I have coveted and the anguish I have borne I demand you as recompense," he whispered. "Come back to me, fulfil my dreams. Look up and meet my eyes. I claim you."
A dull film crept over the shining surface of the crystal ball. It seemed to grow thick and opaque. His eyes glowed like flame, his hands trembled, strange incoherent words fell from his lips. Then the shadow passed once more. No face looked back, no picture showed itself to his burning desire. Again he dropped the thing, and passed his hand over his damp brow.
"What was it Abdullah promised?" he muttered aloud. "So long as your will is your own, so long as heart and brain are poised in equal balance, so long shall you command the destinies of others. But the hour will come when another fate will seek to master yours, another will combat your own. Then shall you seek the secrets of the crystal in vain. It will show you—nothing."
He rose and replaced it in the cabinet, and then began to pace the room with slow, uneven steps.
"I cannot understand it," he said. "No will has mastered mine, no other fate has yet grown dear to me. Alone I have lived, and mean to live. Love is the dream of boys and fools. The wise brain spurns such folly. Then why has my power left me? Why is the vision dimmed and the future veiled?"
He went to the bookcase and stood there looking at title after title of the strange volumes it contained. Mystic lore of all countries and in all tongues, treatises on physiognomy, on palmistry, on cheirology, and cheiromancy, the sciences of strange religions, the history of celebrated necromancers. Among them all he seemed to find nothing suitable, nothing that he wanted. With a stifled sigh he turned away at last, leaving the glass door unopened.
"Always miserable, always unsatisfied," he murmured. "Is culture the worst form of mental corruption after all? Am I deceiving myself as I have so long deceived others? Does my day of reckoning approach?"
His glance wandered round the luxurious room.
"Faust sold his soul to the Devil for a woman's sake—a woman's sake. At least he had love to console him. For what have I sold mine?"
Sally Dunne felt herself a person of extreme importance. Brianna had informed her that the real author of a real play was coming there that afternoon to read it to her and Mickey Croom.
"If you have no objection, I shall disassociate myself from you, and listen, as the auditorium," answered Sally. "There may be delusions, not to speak of obscenities, in a modern play, that necessitate my presence as a married woman representing proprieties. You are a girl, and Mickey is a man. I would not have any play-writing gentleman disabused of the idea that you are unprotected. I apprehend the feminine delicacies above all things."
"You are perfectly welcome to play audience, and so is Phil, if Mr. Clive has no objection," said Brianna. "But he is a very strange man. Whatever you do, don't interrupt him while he is reading."
"I should not dream of such familiarity," answered Sally. "Preferences are not in my line."
What this ambiguous phrase meant Brianna did not attempt to fathom. She was busy tidying up the room, and preparing the tea table. Phil was dressing herself, and Mickey was not expected till five o'clock.
"It is a disgusting little hole to ask him into," said the girl, suddenly looking around with dissatisfied eyes. "If you only saw Miss St. Vincent's rooms!"
"Oh!" bridled Mrs. Dunne. "Far be it from me to wish for such introspections. I'm not fit, of course, to obtrude myself where my niece is invited. Still, I suffer my own reflections, Brianna, though you think fit to trample on me now."
The girl looked at her odd relative with a sort of wondering amusement. How long ago it seemed since she had been afraid of Sally, afraid of the tyranny that had made her life odious. Now all was changed.
As she moved to and fro dusting the shabby chairs, arranging a flower here and there, altering the position of the lamp, and the folds of the dull green moreen curtains, her thoughts ranged back to the caravan days. Could she possibly be the same Brianna, the unkempt, ragged child, loose of hair and skirt, the bullied, chidden creature who had loved the dogs and horses better than any living creature, better even than Mickey, who had oft-times been surly and harsh, and whose bouts of drunkenness had used to distress her even more than her aunt's failing in that line.
"What are you going to offer the gentleman?" asked Sally, suddenly. "Not tea, surely! Poetists have no fancy for cat-lap. They like the sparkling cup, the flowing bowl, the ruby wine; or I don't know them by their fruits, as the Scripture has it. Whisky and soda is what I would suggestify. Reading is dry work."
"Mr. Clive will have tea and nothing else here," said Brianna, firmly. "I don't choose to encourage orgies. So, just keep an eye on that kettle, aunt. I won't make the tea till he arrives."
"Which, indeed, the spirit of tyranny is breathed o'er us all," misquoted Sally, discontentedly. "Drinks given out by measurement, and all the laws of hospitality supervisioned. Why in my caravan, there was always the glass of whisky for the asking, and 'kindly welcome' to it. But you're not a bit of Irish in your ways, Brianna. Sure, a little drop o' drink never hurt anyone yet."
"Not if they stopped at the 'little drop,'" said Brianna. "But I never knew an Irish person who did. Now, aunt, I'm just going to wash my hands. If you hear a knock you might go down to the next flight, and if it's Mr. Clive, ask him up. You know what that servant is."
Sally's expression showed that she did know what the servant was. Indeed, they had had many a breezy interview. She spent a few blissful moments recalling those excitements, and watching the kettle, which was just on the boil. Then a loud knock at the door startled her, and she remembered Brianna's instructions. She opened the door, groped her way to the next landing, and looked over the stairs. A tall figure in a fur-lined coat was ascending, guided by husky instructions from the background.
"Descend to your own departments, Emma," commanded Mrs. Dunne, in stentorian tones. "I will usher the visitor to his destination."
Raemore Clive looked up, and was somewhat surprised at the strange figure who, with "nods and becks and wreathed smiles," was inviting his ascent.
"Just up here, sir; next flight. You have come to see my niece, Brianna, I believe. Yes, she expects you. Will you kindly follow me and I will anticipate you to her apartments. Though humble and apologising for excuse, yet they are respectable and no arrears of rent."
She was talking over her shoulder and leading the way at the same moment. Raemore Clive felt somewhat mystified, but Sally Dunne carried her own interest along with her, and the fascination of her colloquial powers was apt to more than delight a stranger.
Clive glanced round the room, and a sense of wonder swept over him. So she lived here—in this common-place little room, with this extraordinary relative. Genius, beauty, talent, buried in obscurity like a lost jewel that has fallen in a dunghill. How strange and how horrible it seemed to his ultra-refined senses. Luxury and beauty were as the breath of life to him. He had all the sybarite's enjoyment of colour, fragrance, harmony, and here everything was an offence to sense and taste.
But at the moment Brianna entered, followed by Phil D'Eyncourt, and he forgot his disgust as he looked at the glowing loveliness of the young Irish girl, and the suggestive and more pronounced charms of her companion. Brianna greeted him with the frankness of her natural manner. Then she introduced her friend, and explained that Mickey Croom would arrive shortly. She made no apologies for her surroundings. He had invited himself, and must put up with what he found. The magnificence of a sable-lined coat in nowise affected her, and she hung it up on a nail behind the door with an indifference that brought Sally's wrath upon her head.
"Take care, Brianna," she cried, sharply, "If that nail cuts the sable (Sibernian, or I'm no judge), Mr. Clive will be amply justified in recriminations. Gals is so careless, sir. Permit me to ameliorise for them."
"Oh, it's all right, aunt," exclaimed Brianna. "Please don't, fuss. Mr. Clive, may I give you some tea? I'm just going to make it."
He accepted, and took a chair near the table, feeling he was suffering voluntary martyrdom in a good cause.
Phil D'Eyncourt was studying him all the time with keen disappointment. He was so ugly, she thought; so big and massive, and with such strange eyes. They gave her what she termed "the creeps," whenever she caught their green glow from between the half-closed lids. Their strange scintillations shot out inquiries in a manner that reminded her of a snake's tongue as it darts to and fro. A fear that was almost awe crept over her whenever she was near him. All the slang and persiflage of her usual conversation failed her for once. She would have given anything to get away, and yet it seemed foolish to have such feelings. To Brianna and Sally Dunne he was only an ordinary man drinking ordinary tea, and talking—well, no, it was not ordinary talk, any more than the voice was an ordinary voice. It was like the roll of the sea, the chords of an organ. It made listening a pleasure, and grouped common-place words into harmonious phrases.
As they were drinking their tea Mickey Croom entered. Raemore Clive remembered the night of the supper at the Imperial, and how this man had objected to Brianna's accompanying Lorrimer and himself.
"We have met before. I suppose you remember?" he said, and his eyes swept the powerful face and deformed figure with an eager curiosity.
"Yes, I remember," said Mickey. "The world's gone on much the same, but our places are changed in it."
"Well, I have proved less churlish than you, Mr. Croom," answered Clive. "I did not refuse your hospitality as you did mine, or was it my friend's?"
"Maybe I had my own reasons," answered Mickey. "However, that's neither here nor there. I'm pleased to see you again. Brianna has been full of your play. It is a great honour to us that you should come to this humble place to read it."
"I am anxious for an opinion that is thoroughly unbiassed, and thoroughly reliable," answered Clive. "My faith in Miss Lynch is the faith of a seer, who can pierce the future and behold what it promises. She has a career before her. I told her so when first we met."
"Did you really, now?" burst out Sally. "And she never to say a word! Brianna, you are a fraudulent receiver. I'm ashamed of you!"
"Do you mean to say you can foretell things, Mr. Clive?" exclaimed Phil. "How interesting!"
"It is not always interesting," he said, "nor pleasant to hear. For instance—you," he half-closed his eyes, and she felt herself growing chill and sick and faint, "you are destined for a tragic termination to your stage life. Beware of fire! And you, madam," and he turned swiftly to Sally Dunne, "your fate is threatened by the sister element, water—of a strong nature," he added below his breath. "But you will be fortunate and—almost rich." Then he turned to Mickey. "You have drawn the shutters over the windows of your soul," he said. "You fear me. But you need not. I will only read your fate at your own desire."
The hunchback grew suddenly pale. For the first time since his entrance Brianna looked at him. She almost started. Instead of his usual careless attire he wore a loose black velvet coat, and from beneath his turned-down collar escaped a white silk necktie. His iron-grey hair fell in its usual picturesque confusion about his head and throat. There was something distinguished and superior about his whole appearance. Something she had never yet recognised.
"Ah, do let Mr. Clive tell you, Mickey," she entreated. "How often you've said you wished you could unravel the mystery of your birth."
A sudden silence fell on them all. The full gleam of those green phosphorescent eyes suddenly flashed upon the hunchback's face, and compelled the answer of his own.
"Stretch out your hand," said Clive, in his low, deep voice. "What is written there you surely need not fear to know."
Mickey obeyed. The thought-reader took the long, slender fingers in his own, and turned the palm upwards.
No one spoke while his eyes traversed line after line in a tranquil scrutiny. Suddenly he looked up.
"You have been cruelly wronged," he said. "You are the child of great people. Fortune and rank should be, nay they are, yours. You have had a strange life, full of vicissitudes. It is over. Your fate is at your feet, waiting your acceptance. I cannot tell you its shape or form. But it means entire change of destiny!"
There was a moment's dead silence. Sally Dunne gave one gasping breath, then clasped her hands tight in an attitude of strained attention. For once words failed her.
Mickey Croom first broke the silence.
"Enough of this foolery!" he cried sternly. "You don't suppose I believe it."
Raemore Clive laughed softly.
"People take good news in different ways," he said.
"But if it's true," cried Sally, breathlessly. "If good fortune is coming to you, Mickey, what then?"
The hunchback looked at her vaguely.
"It can't be true," he muttered. "It's impossible. Besides, what can it matter now? My life's lived, my heart is hardened. I care for nothing. What could wealth buy for me, and what," with a shrug of his shapeless shoulder, "what sort of figure would I cut among great folk?"
Clive's eyes rested searchingly on his figure.
"In this age of science and research," he said, "there is no limit to what can be done for humanity, provided humanity can pay for it."
For a moment the hunchback's face grew eager. His eyes burned with a sudden, fierce glow.
"Do you mean," he said, "that I—that money could bribe science to make a man other than he is by nature?"
"I do mean it. I know a Russian doctor whose sole practice has been among malformed or disfigured patients. He has made more cures than I could mention. I have seen patients of his, and I am sure of what I say. Have you been like this from your birth, or was it an accident?"
"'Twas an accident, that I can testify," interrupted Sally. "Don't I know the drunken old harridan who had a hand in it? Moll Flannagan she was, and took them from the birth or month. Indeed, she wasn't particular how, as long as the dollars were forthcomin'. Why, Mickey there was a lovely boy, and as straight as a dart up to three years of age, and even then he'd have been cured had there been anyone to look after him. Oh, the injustice of it all. A disgrace to the irresponsibilities of life I call it!"
In her own mind she was considering the possibility of discovering this same Moll Flannagan. A new and unexpected interest attached itself to Mickey Croom and his fortunes. Her astute brain followed up a clue, winding in and out through mazes of speculation, and illumined by the rosy light of prophecy. She deemed it wise, however, to keep her own counsel as yet.
The real reason of Raemore Clive's visit seemed the last thing anyone thought of. Brianna at last cleared away the tea things, and made some attempt to draw attention to the flight of time.
Mickey Croom seemed lost in thought. What he had heard was so unexpected that he could not credit, and yet could not altogether disbelieve it. The reading of his hand alone would not have seriously impressed him, for he had an instinctive dislike of Clive, but that reading, coupled with the mystery of his own origin, and his long-rooted discontent with his low and coarse surroundings, forced him to give it some attention. His rebellion against those surroundings had been instinctive. His own moral deterioration was the result of physical misery and physical despair. He had suffered intensely—suffered in body and in mind. It was such suffering that had driven him to seek forgetfulness in drunken orgies and the excitement of the stage. All professions and most employments had been closed to him. Poverty and deformity have a poor chance in the race of life. He had been pushed aside, derided, despised, trampled on; the sport of vicious lives, the Punchinello of an unfeeling crowd, a poor marionette whom no one wanted, and whose feelings or sufferings were no one's concern.
He thought of all this now as he sat by the fire, his eyes fixed on the thin white hands marked with the rugged lines of Fate that had been read for him. How much credence was he to place on that reading? Could his destiny really be at the turning-point—his future at that tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune?
Clive watched him with curious interest. He knew that his object in coming here to-night was thwarted by the strange impulse that had led him on to exercise his clairvoyant powers. But this drama, to which he had spoken the prologue, promised to be so interesting that he was content to forego the pleasure of introducing his own.
When Brianna timidly suggested that he should begin to read his play he shook his head.
"No," he said, "not to-night. Influences are against it. The air is rife with conflicting passions. Harmony is destroyed. I could not read, and you could not appreciate. Mr. Croom is unnerved by this strange news. I am not surprised."
"If it were true—if it were true," muttered Mickey, raising his gloomy eyes from the hands he had been studying, and searching Clive's impassive face as if he thought it might aid his distracted senses. "What is written here that you alone can read?"
"My dear sir," said Clive compassionately, "we do not all possess the same gifts or abilities. Mine lie in one line, yours in another. I have spent many years in perfecting a faculty of nature. It is as easy for me to read human fates by certain signs as for you to read your beloved Shakespeare. Electricity is a problem whose nature is even now only partially understood, yet it has been the motive force of space for all time. Magnetism is only another uncomprehended force. The evolution of occult science from depths of ignorance is marvellous only to those who have never cared to consider it as a factor in the scheme of creation. The revival of cheiromancy and cheirosophy in the present age is only a sign of enlightenment. To those who profess them, and have made them a study, they have long ceased to be mysterious. Everything in life has a meaning and a use. It is only fools who hug ignorance and deride everything they cannot understand. But the fools are in the majority."
"You talk like a book. It's quite surpassing to hear you," observed Sally. "And certainly if Mickey gets a fortune I'll believe in necromancy and chiropody, as you call it, all the rest of my days."
Clive rose abruptly.
"I must wish you all 'good evening,'" he said. "I am afraid my news has been somewhat disturbing. But when you have calmed down and discussed possibilities you will acknowledge I was correct."
"But your play—arn't we to hear it, after all?" exclaimed Sally.
"Not to-night, as I explained before."
"Oh, about the inferences—so you did. Well, I am most regretful. I hope it's no fault of mine. There's nothing would have given me greater pleasure than to hear you dilate upon it. But perhaps you will come round again, though postponement is the thief of time, they say."
Clive had turned to Brianna, and was holding her hand in his own.
"You must come to me," he whispered. "Here all is antagonistic, unsuitable. It clashes. I am not in harmony. Bring Mickey to my rooms next Sunday evening. This is the address, and meanwhile, if I can be of any service in these researches, command me."
Mickey rose, and took down the sable-lined overcoat from its nail, and quietly assisted its owner into it. The girls stood by, Phil in wondering envy of the luxurious garment, Brianna, perplexed and musing, thrilled by that touch on her hand, repelled, and yet attracted by the magnetism of this strange being.
Then suddenly he was gone, accompanied by Mickey, and the three women looked at each other through a mist of wonder, whilst over the small, close room swept the living fragrance of violets.
* * * * * *
Mickey Croom returned in a few moments. The time was at hand for his evening engagement. The prospects of the future were limited by the necessities of the present.
Sally Dunne had recovered from her first excitement. Her mind was busy with a scheme by which her own personal interests might be served. She felt she must lay claim to Mickey's gratitude, a claim strong enough to render her latter days independent of the caravan or those histrionic ambitions which had lately seemed so alluring. The scheme wanted a good deal of consideration, and she determined to take no one into her confidence regarding it. When all was ripe for action then she would tell Mickey. She had but a poor opinion of him, as indeed she had of most men. Her despotic temper had easily ruled those of the sex with whom she had been connected, and her somewhat coarse and unillumined mind prevented her from discovering any difference between tyranny and influence.
"What is your opinion of all this, Mickey?" she asked him, breaking the long silence at last. "Come, let's have it out. Do you believe in the chiropodist's foretelling, or do you not?"
"I can't say," was the curt answer.
"But you must have some opinion. You used to worry enough at one time as to who you belonged to, and now that a designing Providence throws the information into your very hands, so to speak, you won't trouble yourself to follow it up. I'll tell you what, Mickey," she leant forward and dropped her voice to the key of persuasion, "I tell you what; I'll take the trouble off your hands if you'll just provide a reasonable document setting forth what I am to expect for my investigrinations. I think I know where to begin, and that's more than you do. The time isn't ripe yet for lawyers interloping. Their fingers will have a pull out of the pie, of course, but not more than can be prevented by my altercations, I promise you."
Mickey lit his own briar-root and began to smoke with a serene indifference to this alluring prospect that, to say the least of it, was trying to a feminine temperament.
"Do you hear what I'm saying?" persisted Sally. "What are you looking at Brianna for? She's only a sawdust doll in comparison to me. She can't help you."
"No," said the girl softly. "I wish I could."
"Do you believe in that man, Brianna?" asked Mickey, suddenly. "Does he believe in himself? I can't understand him."
"Mr. Lorrimer says he is able to foretell anyone's future by the lines of their hand," said Brianna. "He is not only a palmist, but he has what is called the clairvoyant faculty. Have you ever noticed his eyes? They look through you, and yet beyond you. They seem always to be seeing something else beside yourself."
Phil D'Eyncourt shivered.
"That is so," she said, "He gave me the creeps."
"Nonsense," interposed Sally Dunne. "The gentleman is quite irrational, I'm sure. As for his chiropody, as he called it, why I've known gipsies tell fortunes in the same way. And I remember old Moll Flannagan had a pretty trick at reading the cards, which brought her in quite a superfluous income in support of her other occupations."
"Well," said Mickey, sending a cloud of smoke to the dingy ceiling. "I'll think the matter over. There's no hurry," he added, somewhat bitterly.
"No hurry!" screamed Sally, rising in her wrath. "No hurry! And you suffering chancellors and exchequeries to have the use of what might be your own lawful income. No hurry. And all these years you may have been disenfranchised of a noble estate."
She started up, her eyes aflame and her face wrathful. The picture she had drawn appealed so strongly to her fancy that it almost ceased to be a picture.
Mickey's grim laugh startled her.
"A pretty fool I should look," he exclaimed. "Laying claim to a title and fortune I never heard of on the strength of some fortune-telling jargon. I'd like to see a lawyer's face when I came to his office with the lines of my hand as the title deeds of an estate!"
Sally Dunne shut her lips with a tight snap. There were times when talking was a waste of breath. She knew what she knew, and it wouldn't be her fault if Chancery wasn't made to disgorge its ill-gotten gains in one instance. In her estimation that august Court of Equity and Justice was nothing but a fraudulent institution that robbed the widow and the fatherless without compunction, and offered stone for bread to litigious claimants! She was going to have a tussle with it on her own account some day, and she plumed herself on the prospect with agreeable anticipation of results.
For the present the subject dropped, but when Mickey returned that night, tired and disgusted with attempts to amuse an enlightened music hall audience, she informed the little community that she was thinking of going back to her caravan.
"Fogs don't suit my constitution," she added. "And the ways of agents and stage managers is deletiginous to womanly feelings. The call of art is stronger than the voice of syrens, and hinstantaneous photography has superior allurements to my mind. I shall pack my satchel and retire to my tented home, and make a reformed debutt in my old line. As for you, Mickey, I leave you to the potential finger of Fate, on whose threshold you stand. Take care of the girls, and don't let Brianna there get her head turned with flatterings or epingsodes of an amatory nature. Phil D'Eyncourt can look after herself. My blessings on you all. When next you see me it will be at the portentious call of Fate, if I mistake not!"
This somewhat ambiguous speech left only a sense of relief to the minds of Brianna and Mickey. They were not sorry to hear of Sally Dunne's contemplated departure. Phil D'Eyncourt alone expressed any regret, but then Phil did not consider she had had half enough fun out of her.
But no one attempted to change Sally's determination, and she returned to her native shores leaving a strange peace and quiet behind her, and with five pounds in her pockets, borrowed from Mickey Croom.
It was the opening night of the Caviare Theatre. Everyone who knew anything about the mercantile side of the stage had prophesied failure for the theatre, the piece, and the syndicate of the New Noodles who were running the whole thing.
The New Noodles were a section of the young nobility who had elected to raise the stage to the rank of the aristocracy, by marriage and—other forms of patronage.
Their announcement had crept into newspapers of every grade, and been discussed in every drawing-room and boudoir. Society had done so many strange things of late that really it had almost thought of turning "proper" by way of excitement. Then it heard of the Caviare Theatre, and grew once more interested. The name of the first piece to be produced had been kept an entire secret. It was known to be the work of a new dramatist, and rumour had described it as daring and original beyond anything the stage had ever seen. Neither bribery nor corruption had been able to get beyond these bald statements. The rehearsals were conducted with a privacy that was absolutely indelicate, and the names of the actors and actresses were almost unknown.
The Noodles had decided on being original, and so the morning newspapers contained merely the names of the theatre, the play and the cast, but not the names of the performers. They would appear only in the programme of the evening.
It had at first been decided that no critics should be admitted; but the worthlessness of their opinion being too well known for any verdict to affect either the play or the public the objection was waived, and the usual stall tickets forwarded. Every newspaper of any standing sent its representative. The ladies' journals, the fashionable magazines, the critical reviews, the great dailies, the weekly world-wide circulators, all were there in the shape of shabby dress clothes, well-worn black silks, note-books and eyeglasses.
A subtle excitement filled the atmosphere. The rustle of passing dresses, the perfumes of laces and flowers, the glitter of diamonds in the boxes, the gleaming busts and shoulders in the grand circle, made up an impressive picture of beauty and fashion and wealth. Society had actually altered its dinner hour, or foregone its dessert and coffee in order to be in time for once. It had been informed that the interest commenced with the rising of the curtain, and that late comers would not be permitted to disturb attention by getting to their seats over the patent leather toes and trailing satins that were in the way. So, with a laugh and a shrug, and a good deal of grumbling, Society had emulated the better manners of a less superior class, and been punctual.
Five minutes before the prescribed hour the pretty little theatre was filled from floor to ceiling. Prohibition prices had kept the gallery free from the usual riff-raff of orange suckers, and lovers of picturesque language. It was filled with a critical and attentive and highly curious audience—an audience who could appreciate Ibsen, and had learnt to distinguish the subtle difference between Bernhardt and Duse.
Two boxes on the second tier had been converted into one. Many eyes turned curiously towards it. It was there that the syndicate would be enthroned, and a whisper had circulated that among them was the author of the play.
Six impassive faces moulded into a beautiful vacuity of expression, six faultlessly fitting dress coats, and white satin cummerbunds, six exquisite buttonholes of the latest monstrosity in orchids, were framed by the cream mouldings and gold silk hangings of the box.
The cynosure of all eyes, they bore five minutes of public scrutiny with the indifference of statues. Not a flutter of interest or nervousness gave them away. Six tailor's dummies could not have behaved more creditably, or evinced less excitement. Their languid gaze swept the house, surveyed that noble army of martyrs yclept "The Critics," and then turned approvingly on each other. "This is our work," they seemed to say, "and yet an ungrateful mobocracy calls us 'useless.'" Conscious virtue warmed the waxen pallor of cheeks paled by the arduous tasks of Society. The ghost of a feeble smile lifted, the waxed moustache ends to a less acute angle.
Then the first bars of the overture sounded, and a hush fell upon the house. A weird melody throbbed through the darkness, and noiselessly the curtains parted on either side and showed the stage.
A woman lay on a couch of leopard skins in a room that was the perfection of modern upholstery in all its details. The couch and the figure lent a bizarre touch to the prevailing modernity. There was something fantastic and barbaric about them. Large windows opened on to a wide balcony, in the background, and beyond gleamed the blue and gold of an Egyptian sky, while a single palm reared itself against the paling rose tints of sunset. The music wailed on, now loud, now soft. On the stage all was silence. Yet so exquisite was the picture, so intense the interest in the motionless figure, that neither eye nor ear asked for anything more.
The dreamy repose and artistic stillness of such an opening scene made people ask themselves if, after all, it had been wise to put up so long with the conventional servant laying a table, or the pert chambermaid whisking a feather brush over perfectly dustless furniture, what time they mouthed or gabbled over the opening business of the play as directed by the dramatist.
So absorbed was the audience in watching for what was to come that they failed to notice a seventh figure in the box of the syndicate. A man had come quietly in as the curtain rose and taken a seat a little behind that stirless group.
No one spoke. Every eye was bent on that lovely, indolent form, and a stifled sigh of excitement burst forth as it moved, and raising itself on one arm, left bare by falling drapery, looked straight at the crowded house. Even then she did not speak. She seemed as one awakening from a dream, spell-bound by its memories and half afraid of what the awakening might mean. Without, the light darkened with the suddenness of Eastern nights, but the room within grew bright and the gleaming tissues of the woman's dress flashed into showers of silver as she suddenly sprang to her feet and rushed to the open window. A Nubian page, clad in scarlet and gold, entered by another door. He carried a letter on a golden salver. Glancing round and seeing no one, he laid the letter on one of the inlaid tables scattered about, and then retired. People began to look at each other. Was it going to be a dumb show; a play without words?
There had been something hopeful in the appearance of the page and the letter. They were old stage friends in a new dress; but when the picturesque Nubian had nothing to say, and the letter faced them blank and unaddressed they grew restive, and a few eyes turned inquiringly to the box of the syndicate. But the very suspicion of a practical joke was banished by the calm and deep attention of that motionless group.
The vulgarity of mere humour could find no entrance there.
With a sigh of relief, attention returned to the stage, and the entrance of a man in common-place tweeds struck a note of modernity that once more aroused expectation. His brief speech, his ordinary lighting of a cigarette, his stroll towards the open window, and then the crude challenge of his greeting to the white figure leaning negligently against the rails, signalised the opening of the play.
It was disappointing that they should talk just like ordinary people, she from without, he from within the room, but the audience had to learn, as scene followed scene, that just the very things they had been accustomed to in the stage translation of human actions were the things that the new play would have none of. Yet so brilliant was the dialogue, so subtle the by-play, so skilful the hints of dramatic interest, of the hidden savagery of human nature underlying the culture and courtliness and even the conventionality of the principal actors in the drama, that attention was claimed irresistibly.
The part of the woman was marvellous. It was contradictory, impulsive, feminine with cruelty, fascinating, yet repellent. A nature swayed by passing breaths of passion and regret, sowing tragedy with outstretched hands which men's kisses had seared.
When the curtain fell a storm of applause burst forth, as wild, as impulsive, and as unlike the usual languid approval of a cultured audience as the play, and the acting had been unlike any other play, or any other acting of modern times.
"The woman is a revelation," muttered the critics, thronging the foyer, thirsty and smoke-famished, by an hour of self-compelled sacrifice. "A revelation!" they repeated, washing down the verdict with draughts of whisky and soda.
"The play, of course, is impossible. Oh! quite impossible. But it has been written round her; anyone could see that. Who is she? Anyone ever heard of her?"
No one had, until a small, still voice chirruped in the interests of its special journal that surely she had played something—something quite unimportant in a play produced at the Delphic some time in the past year. Then references were made to note-books or memories, and "Jessica Lynch" might have found herself famous could she have played the part of listener.
"Wonder why the man calls it The Opal?" observed a tall, thin individual. "There's nothing about an opal in it?"
"Perhaps that will come out in the second act," suggested another.
"Very bad form." "Utterly against all traditions." "Dead failure on the face of it." "Neither form nor meaning." "Won't draw after the first week."
Such was the verdict of the august body who had elected to be the voice of the public, and believed they alone could feel its pulse and diagnose its weakness or its strength.
"Splendidly mounted, too, and wonderfully thought out. Couldn't detect a mistake or anachronism, for a wonder. Who's done that?"
"Oh, the author! He's one of those artistic Johnnies, don't you know," lisped a little man who had the ears of the clubs, and was intimately connected with a large bill-broking firm, whose opinion of society was scarcely fit for publication.
"Don't know him at all—never heard of him! Raemore Clive—nom de guerre, of course."
"I met him about a year ago," announced a deep voice. "He came to read that very play to me, and, bedad, a more conceited and impertinent fellow I never met in the whole course of me life!"
"What did he want to read it to you for, eh, Rafferty? Or is that one of your stretchers? You didn't seem to remember the play a bit."
"Because he's altered so much of it. I told him straight it would never do as he had it."
"It's a wonder you didn't offer to collaborate," sneered the little man.
"Is he in the house to-night?" asked 'The Stage' autocrat. "You might point him out."
"I will," said Rafferty. "I think I spotted him up in the gallery. He's trying to keep out of sight."
"People seemed impressed," murmured The Era.
"Oh, anything new goes down, you know," announced the critic of the Minerva languidly. "Just that odd way of beginning gave them something to talk about."
"There's the bell! It's mighty punctual they are for a first night," grumbled Rafferty throwing aside a half-smoked cigarette. "I wonder if the opening of this act is going to be as queer as the other?"
"I thought you said you had heard the play," observed The Era.
"Only the first act, and, bedad! 'twas near a case of wigs on the green after it, too. He couldn't argue, and he wouldn't listen, and so he got abusive. Was it Tom Rafferty would stand being told he didn't know his own business? Not likely, and by a young upstart who hadn't learnt the a, b, c of his trade! So he had me opinion, and, be jabers, if it's done nothing else it's kept him quiet for a twelvemonth."
Then they filed back to their places as the curtain rose. The beautiful complexity who was beloved by four men and married to one was again on the stage. The scene represented her boudoir in an hotel at Cairo. She was going to a fancy ball as an Egyptian dancer, and had taken it into her lovely erratic head that she must learn a certain dance for the occasion. In order to acquire its technique with perfect accuracy she had engaged a professional danseuse from the Khedive's Court to give her a lesson.
A troupe of female musicians entered, playing strange music on still stranger instruments. Then a dancer glided in, veiled and shrouded in semi-transparent tissues. A brief dialogue ensued, then she threw them aside and stood with bare sandalled ankles, swaying and twisting her lithe figure to the sound of the weird fantastic music. The strain grew quicker and more impassioned. The movements of the dancer answered its demands. She looked like a mist of white and silver, rising, falling, twisting; her long transparent scarf flying here and there with the rapid motion of her agile limbs.
Suddenly, a sheet of flame burst forth from the right wing of the stage. There was a sudden cry, then a wild shriek of horror rent the stillness. The flying scarf was caught by the fire, and in a moment the dancer was enveloped in flames. The audience sprang up like one man. There was a rush for the doors, shrieks of terror rent the air, the whole stage was a glow of lurid brightness. The shrieks of the burning girl had been suddenly quelled, for the actress recovering from a momentary paralysis of terror, had seized the rug that lay on the couch and wrapped it tightly round the struggling figure. But meanwhile the flames were spreading. They caught at cobwebby tissues and fantastic draperies—all the brittle, fragile litter that had looked so artistic a few moments before.
In the midst of the wild commotion a man suddenly sprang from a box, and clambered down to the footlights. The fire was yet confined to one wing only. He pulled down the flimsy tissues, shouting orders and commands to the panic-stricken scene-shifters, catching up the rugs which lay on the floor and smothering down the burning mass by their means. Assistance was at hand, and in a few moments the danger was over.
But the panic-stricken crowd in the house were beyond hearing or reasoning with. Pushing, crushing, shrieking, they blocked the doors and crammed the passages, making useless all attempts to assist egress; mad and blind in the selfish struggle that is the one dominating rule of panic.
Someone had carried the charred and blackened figure to the actress's dressing-room. A blissful, unconsciousness had followed the terror and deadened the agony. The smell of the burnt fabrics and the scorched flesh seemed to fill the little room. Someone had gone for a doctor. A few women stood weeping and compassionate by the door, and the beautiful actress, forgetful of her own injuries, knelt by the couch, white and pitiful and silent. They dared not touch the sufferer. The flimsy gauzes still fluttered about the blackened limbs. It was impossible even to guess at the extent of the injuries. It seemed hours before a doctor arrived, but it was in reality but a very few moments. The girl was still unconscious.
"This is no case for private attention," he said. "She must be taken to the nearest hospital and have these burns properly dressed and attended to. She is frightfully injured. I doubt if she will ever recover."
He turned to the women and gave some necessary directions.
"And you, Miss Lynch," he said. "I hear you extinguished the flames. Are you injured at all?"
Brianna looked at her hands and arms for the first time. She had not felt her own pain in the excitement of the terrible scene.
"I think I am burnt," she faltered, and suffered him to examine her and apply the remedies he had brought.
"It was very brave of you," he said. "But for your presence of mind she would have been burnt to death."
"Do you think she will recover?" asked Brianna anxiously.
"Impossible to say. The shock must have been terrible, and she will suffer a great deal. Fortunately her face has escaped. But I can say nothing until these burnt rags are removed. Now, if I may advise you, just change your clothes, and take this dose of sal volatile. I will return in a few moments."
Brianna summoned the dresser, and by her aid was soon in her ordinary garments. Shortly afterwards a nursing sister arrived, and under her charge the charred and disfigured body of the injured girl was removed to the Charing Cross Hospital.
Meanwhile the stage manager and a host of supernumeraries were on the stage discussing the accident and furnishing an ever-increasing crowd of reporters with news of the disaster and its probable cause. One or two of the syndicate, whose nerves had survived the panic were also present. All were unanimous in declaring that but for Raemore Clive's plucky deed the theatre might have been burnt to the ground. As it was the damage could be repaired, and the building reopened in a few days.
"But that will make no difference!" exclaimed the author, bitterly. "The public won't come here again. I know what brainless idiots they are. This opening catastrophe will stamp the theatre as unlucky. That's quite enough. The play is ruined. There seems a fatality about that second act," he muttered, under his breath.
The syndicate murmured a duet of hope in voices that belied such anticipation. Their delicate nerves and susceptibilities had received a severe shock. The suddenness of the catastrophe and the terror of that awful rush for life were things that had brought them face to face with the tragic side of existence and left them unnerved and uncomfortable.
One of them had taken a special interest in the pretty dancer, Phil D'Eyncourt. It seemed horrible that she was represented by that black and inanimate mass from which his shuddering sense had recoiled, that she might never again dance and laugh and jest, and form an excuse for indigestible suppers and unlimited champagne.
In the midst of the discussion Brianna Lynch appeared on the stage. She was dressed for the street. Her face was deadly pale, but her voice and manner had regained composure.
Raemore Clive hastened to meet her.
"You are not injured; you escaped?" he cried, eagerly.
She threw back her cloak, showing her bandaged arm and hands.
"Only slightly," she said. "I heard you were here. I came to know what was to be done."
"It is impossible to decide anything to-night," he answered. "The stage has suffered a good deal of damage, and, of course, there is a question whether the public won't be too scared to come for some time. It was most unfortunate. Just when everything promised success. And you were simply magnificent!"
"It is unfortunate," she said, and a sigh escaped her pale lips. "It was such a glorious chance. One feels it might never come again!"
"I will see you home now," he said. "I am not wanted here; and we must wait the result of this accident with what patience we can."
He nodded good-bye to the distressed lordlings, and left the scene of the disaster without more words. A cab was waiting at the stage door. He put Brianna in and gave the address. For some moments neither of them spoke. Then she said:
"Do you remember your prophecy about Phil D'Eyncourt? It all rushed back to me suddenly when I saw her lying there."
"No," he said vaguely. "I can't remember."
"You told her to beware of fire. It was a year ago. The same night you foretold Mickey's change of fortune. Only a year and both are realised. There is something terrible about your power."
"Yes," he said gloomily, "and I can't help it. These impressions come to me at times even without my will. But tell me about Mickey—is the case decided?"
"He wrote me to say it soon would be. His mother had given the necessary evidence, so had the nurse, and the old foster mother. The lawyers say his claim is quite clear. Of course, the legal decision will take time, but he is with his mother, and they have furnished him with money. In another six months at least he will be at Croom Castle. It seems incredible."
"Who found it all out?"
"Oh, Sally Dunne. She left us abruptly without saying a word, and went to work on a system of her own. I haven't had full particulars yet. But there's no doubt she set the machinery in motion."
"Ah, well," he said, wearily, "I wish some good luck would fall my way. The secret of my own fortunes is a sealed book."
His voice suddenly took a note of tenderness. His strange eyes looked into hers as she leant back pale and suffering under the lighted lamp of the hansom.
"And yours," he said, "marches with it. Side by side our fates move. We may not control them. The fires lit in past centuries have not burned out in either heart. I told you long ago we had met, lived, loved together. The life of the soul is eternal. Physical existence claims for itself only a passing passage on this earth plane. But that is brief—the school time of its life. Our school time was passed long ago, Jessica. We live now on a plan of cultured and far nobler emotions. Our dreams and hopes are not bound by any material chains. They are limitless. Far-reaching as heaven, boundless as space. Your power and mine are true mates. What I create and what you achieve are fruits of their union."
A curious sensation of faintness and giddiness came over the girl as she listened. She longed to tell him that this power of which he spoke so confidently was only one-sided, that he compelled and she resisted. But words would not come.
The sky and the stars and the lamps grew suddenly a blurred, chaotic mass of moving light, then lost themselves in darkness, thick and shrouding and horrible. All sense of feeling was engulfed in this deep gloom. Her head fell heavily against his shoulder.
* * * * * *
When Brianna regained consciousness she was lying on a couch in her own little sitting-room.
She and Phil had moved from their lodgings after Sally Dunne's departure, and rented a tiny flat in a quiet street in Chelsea. An elderly woman did their housework and lent an air of sober respectability to the little ménage which, as Phil laughingly said, it was quite beyond wages to recompense. She was now bending anxiously over her young mistress, and applying such remedies as were at hand.
Raemore Clive stood a short distance away, quietly anxious, but not alarmed. He had acquainted Mr. Underwood with the accident. He knew this sudden fainting was but the natural result of the shock and excitement of the evening. The good woman was terribly upset by the recital. Yet amidst all her expressed horror she was glad that the accident had claimed Phil D'Eyncourt for its victim, not Brianna. The Irish girl was her favourite, and she had taken a great interest to her career.
Brianna soon opened her eyes and glanced round with a sigh of relief at the familiar surroundings.
"What is it? Did I faint?" she asked feebly. "Why I never did such a thing in my life."
"No, my dear, and no cause too, perhaps," murmured her attendant, soothingly. "There now, you're better. Let me get you a glass of wine, and then you must go to bed. What a merciful escape. The Lord be praised. And to think I was so bent on going to that theatre to-night, only you wouldn't let me! Well, well, things do happen for the best sometimes."
Brianna raised herself to a sitting position. They had removed her hat and heavy cloak. Her hair clung damply about her brow. She still felt weak and giddy.
"How foolish of me!" she said.
"How natural of you," he answered. "You have few of the weaknesses of women!"
He threw himself suddenly at her feet and kissed the wounded hands.
"You are brave as you are beautiful. How I adore you!" he cried with passion.
She looked at him strangely. Fear and anger seemed to gather in her eyes.
"Ah, no!" she cried passionately, and drew herself away. "You must not speak like that. It angers me. I hate it."
He rose slowly and looked down at her. His strange eyes glowed like a flame.
"You will not always hate it," he said. "Love is a woman's sweetest prize. Even you, with your wonderful gifts, your heaven-born genius, are but a woman. You give shape and substance to Art, but Art alone will not content you always. Your heart sleeps still, but it will wake one day. It will awake for me, Jessica—for me. It is written in the stars. They cannot lie."
She shivered as with sudden cold. The woman entered with the wine at that moment and Raemore Clive withdrew to a short distance.
"I will go now," he said, in a voice strangely calm and clear. "Rest and sleep if you can, and do not come down to the theatre to-morrow morning. I will let you know what happens."
A sudden gesture of hers arrested him as he was turning away.
"Do you know," she asked eagerly, "if there was any accident among the audience? There were several people I knew. Did they all escape unhurt? That rush was so awful."
"Oh," he said indifferently, "they've only their own cowardice to blame. Why didn't the fools sit still! But if there is anyone about whose fate you are anxious I will call and make inquires and let you know. Have you the address?"
"No," she said, and a sudden colour came into her pale checks. "No. I will not trouble you. I can wait till the morning. The papers will have full accounts of it."
His eyes searched her as if they would read her soul.
"You are interested in some one," he said slowly. "I wonder who it is?"
She made no answer, and he left the room.
As he walked along the Embankment his face looked hard and almost cruel in the moonlight. He pushed, aside the begging waifs and whining match-sellers. His soul was the battleground of conflict, and the struggle showed itself on his usually impassive features. His heart was afire with fierce passions, and yet beneath the fire lurked a cold dread! He was mastered and controlled by something stronger than his own will.
"And though I read all other fates," he muttered, "to my own I am blind. I desire and I cannot read the answer. Art, pride, work, fame, all these I would give, asking but her love in recompense. And will she give it? Will she answer my claim, and make existence for me the sweet and hopeful thing it might be it was once?"
He bared his head and stood by the darkly flowing water. He looked from it to the glittering opal of the sky and sought one by one the planets, and their shining satellites.
But what he read was no answer to what he sought. The darkness of his own soul had obscured the book of Fate and closed its pages to his passion-blind eyes.
It was nine o'clock next morning before Brianna awoke. She rang the bell and the woman entered with her tea and letters, and a sheaf of newspapers.
Brianna seized the first one of the pile, scarcely answering the woman's enquiries as to her own health in her eagerness to read of the catastrophe.
There it faced her headed in large capitals: TERRIBLE CATASTROPHE AT THE NEW THEATRE! and then the usual penny-a-liner's account of the fire, the panic, the accident to poor Phil D'Eyncourt, the bravery of the leading actress, and a brief summary of the play and its possibilities.
Paper after paper she scanned eagerly and with haste. The critics one and all agreed in condemning the play on the ground of unconventionality.
It was altogether wrong. Wrong in construction, in design, in probability. No one had ever done anything like it before, and having no precedent to follow they had come to the conclusion that it must be pronounced a failure. Brianna's performance, however, was highly praised, and her bravery in the awful tragedy that had signalised the evening was spoken of in each journal as a striking proof of courage and presence of mind.
She threw the paper's aside and drank her tea. The woman chattered garrulously as was her way, for all things theatrical had a strong fascination for her. She had once been a wardrobe keeper at a big theatre, and her interest in the footlight world had never waned since then.
"I wish I could hear how poor Phil is!" exclaimed Brianna impatiently. "As soon as the doctor has been I must go to the Hospital."
"Indeed, you'll be doing nothing of the sort," exclaimed Mrs. Underwood. "You'll lie there and keep quiet to-day. Lord a mussy! I wonder you're alive after such a shock. There'll be plenty to tell you how things is going on, and for the matter of that I'll go round and inquire for Miss Phil presently. But you just take my advice and rest yourself. You're of more importance than any of them. You've got your career to think of."
Mrs. Underwood always spoke of the profession as their "career." But she had a special interest in Brianna, and unlimited faith in her capabilities.
This catastrophe had quite upset the good woman. It seemed so unlucky; and "luck" at a first start meant a great deal. However, she did not wish to discourage her favourite so she made no comment on that side of the case.
Brianna, despite her reluctance to give in, was soon obliged to confess that rest and quiet were best for her. Her hands and one arm were very much burnt, and the excitement of the past night began to tell on her nerves. Mrs. Underwood attended to her with zealous care. The doctor's arrival, and examination of the injuries, resulted in an opinion that confirmed her own. Rest and quiet were absolutely essential and theatrical matters must stand aside for the present. He brought news of Phil D'Eyncourt. She was still alive, but serious doubts were entertained of her recovery.
Brianna was greatly distressed. She and Phil had lived together for over two years; had shared the struggles and make-shifts of the profession, taking the rough with the smooth, the hope, and the despair, the triumphs and disappointments as they came. She had grown fond of the good-hearted erratic girl, whose experiences had been so varied, and whose adventures would have filled a good-sized volume. She was such good company too; and not an atom small-minded. She never envied Brianna her superior talents or her superior beauty. She admired both with frank heartiness, and grudged no triumph that befell her. Their frank comrade help had been quite destitute of spites or jealousies, and Brianna felt that her absence would make a terrible blank in her life.
She lay back on the pillows with closed eyes and throbbing head and pictured the poor girl's sufferings with agonised remorse. For it was her interest and her persuasion that had procured Phil's engagement. Indeed that little scene had been added to the original version specially for the girl. The very dance had been learnt and practised with untiring patience, and after all what had it resulted in? Brianna shuddered as she thought of that fateful prophecy. What was the power of this strange man? Whence came his gift of foretelling? Proof after proof had been given of its reality—in her own case, in Mickey Croom's, in Phil D'Eyncourt's. Her heart grew chill within her as she thought of them. Of occult science she knew nothing. It was bewildering and incomprehensible, yet she felt what she did not know, and to which she could give no expression.
The chill oppression of presentiment had been upon her when the curtain rose on that strange piece. All the succeeding horror had only proved its reality. Raemore Clive alternately fascinated and repelled her. She could not understand him. Physically he alarmed her, mentally he charmed. Wild and strange, and at times incomprehensible, yet he had that force and fire of something akin to genius that irresistibly compels attention. He was unlike all other men she had met. The silly "dudes," the bar-haunting "Johnnies," the moneyed spendthrifts, the titled noodles, these and such as these she had met and scorned and affronted a hundred times. The two men who had played important parts in her life were Max Lorrimer and Raemore Clive.
Both had attracted her in totally different ways. Yet neither had aroused in her any feeling of sentiment. To Brianna men had as yet proved only something to despise, or to fear. Those who had "made love" to her had only succeeded in impressing the tedious idiocy of their sex upon the indifferences of her own. They had passed through her life as butterflies of a summer. She scarcely even remembered their names. Lorrimer alone had treated her with respect. She had not met him often, but every meeting had possessed a charm inexpressible. She rarely dwelt on them. They were pushed aside into a secret cell of memory—a sacred chamber into which her soul entered as a devotee enters a shrine. He was something afar and apart from her actual life. Even to call him friend seemed something of a liberty when she remembered the circumstances of their first meeting.
How much had happened since then!
She thought of it all now as she lay in the darkened room, her eyes closed to the pale wintry sunshine, and her brain throbbing with the passage of many thoughts.
The door opened softly, and disturbed her. There came a rustle of silk-lined skirts across the room, a perfume of violets, and a radiant vision in furs and velvets met her surprised eyes.
"My dear child! How awful! How terrible! I came at once, directly I read the papers. Your woman tells me you are badly hurt! Was ever such a misfortune—and following on such a chance! Poor dear! are you suffering much?"
The speaker was Ray St. Vincent. Brianna's eyes grew tender as she looked at the beautiful face.
"How good of you to come!" she said, faintly. "No, I am not much hurt. My right arm has a bad burn, and both my hands got scorched, but it might have been a great deal worse. And think of poor Phil!"
"Yes. I sent to inquire about her at once. I'm afraid her career is done for, even if she ever recovers. What an awful thing! And no one knows how it happened! Poor Clive's play! Of course it's slated in every paper, though they had only one act of it to criticise. Shall I sit with you a while, or is it too much for you?"
"No, indeed. I am delighted to have you. It was good of you to come."
"My dear child, don't talk nonsense! And so you got on splendidly. How I wish I could have seen you. I had a letter from Max this morning, telling me he was there. He was nearly crushed to death in the panic. He had to go with the crowd, and got jammed in a doorway. Oh, the fools! Why couldn't they sit still? They wouldn't even listen to the manager's speech."
She had thrown aside her furs, and now took a chair by the bed. Her eyes rested on Brianna's white face.
"Do you know," she said, "this will be very serious for you? It was such a splendid chance, too!"
"Perhaps," said Brianna, "the piece will go on again. There wasn't so very much damage done. It can soon be repaired."
"Yes, but you don't know what the British public is! If it gets into its head that the theatre isn't safe, or is unlucky, or something equally idiotic, the place will be shunned. And Clive put such a lot of money into it, too!"
Brianna raised herself on her uninjured arm and looked anxiously at the beautiful actress.
"Do you really think it won't be revived? Oh, what shall I do?"
"I can't say positively; don't get discouraged. The syndicate believe in it, and possibly they mean to prove their independence. Unfortunately, though, independence never yet spelt 'success.' And people can't go on losing money for ever. Have you seen Clive since? But, of course, you couldn't."
"Yes, he came home with me last night. And he was going down to the theatre this morning."
"What did he think about it?"
"That the piece would be resumed as soon as the damage to the stage allowed of it."
"He had much better take it to another theatre."
"But he can't. The syndicate bought it, you know."
"True. I'm awfully sorry for Clive. But I knew the piece would never do."
"Everyone says that," answered Brianna. "But the first act went splendidly, and the applause was tremendous. I'm sure if the play had been seen as a whole it would have proved a success."
"My dear child, my experience of the stage is a vast deal longer than yours. It has and it always will cling to conventionalities. Novelty may endure for a night, but loss of money comes with the morning—so says the box office. People may be allured for a time by something unusual, but if it taxes their brains they'll have none of it. The first duty of the playhouse is to amuse. It is a recreation ground, not a school."
"And oh! the rubbish that goes down."
"Precisely. But the rubbish brings an audience. Do you think I care for the pieces I have to play at the Delphic? They are simply odious, judged from the standpoint of art. But they pay, and I should never get such a salary anywhere else. Besides, I know my audience, and only an actress can tell what a safe feeling that is!"
She drew some of the papers towards her and began to scan them hastily.
"You seem to have done very well," she said. "What a pity if the thing is withdrawn."
"But they have other plays," said Brianna.
Ray's lips curled scornfully.
"Mostly by unknown dramatists, and of the highly-flavoured sort. Better come back to me and the Delphic and the ills we know."
"It may seem presumptuous of me," said Brianna, "but I feel I must act what is best and truest to art."
"Why, child, we all feel that at first. But by the time we get our chance we are too tired, or too old, or too 'groovy,' to put any fire or feeling into it. I drudged for six years in the provinces, as I told you, playing only small parts, understudying great ones, yet never getting an opportunity of playing as I could play."
She sighed. Brianna looked gravely and questioningly at her. They had grown very friendly of late, and yet she often thought how little she really knew of this woman, or her life.
"It must be very hard—for some," she said, slowly. "And then, the temptations are so great, and it is hard to be lonely and poor, and hungry, and see others with everything you crave and yet are denied!"
"Hard!" exclaimed Ray St. Vincent, "it is hell, Brianna! And the worst of it is no one cares if you are good, and very few believe it. The worse a woman's life is the more the public rush to see her, hear her, applaud her."
She sprang to her feet with sudden restlessness, and began to pace the room.
Brianna watched her silently.
"But, Ray," she said at last, "why trouble your head about such things? Your position lifts you high above the mire. Let those wallow in it who please!"
The beautiful actress shook her head.
"You don't understand," she said. "One has to know them. In our profession we can't afford to give ourselves airs. We must be popular at any cost, even of self-respect."
The troubled look deepened in Brianna's eyes.
"Is that so?" she said. "I never thought it mattered."
"Everything matters in a profession whose raison d'être is publicity. Even a small thing is powerful. An unfriendly hand can push you into the background, and keep you there! Look at the mob who come to my house. Do you think I like them or respect them? But they are of use, or were. And if I don't count them as friends I don't want to make them enemies. Every stupid little ink-slinger has it in his power to snub, insult, or besmirch you. The press is the public standard of judgment, and red-haired Rafferty is more powerful in his way than the Prince of Wales." She stopped suddenly. "How foolish of me to excite myself, and how bad for you. Underwood said that the doctor had ordered you to be kept perfectly quiet. Well, I'll be off. Shall I go down to the theatre for news, or do you expect Clive here?"
"No, I don't expect him. I couldn't see him," said Brianna. "But I am very anxious to know what will be done. I shall be all right to-morrow, I'm sure, if—if the theatre is repaired sufficiently for a performance."
"You would have to appear with your arm in a sling. But perhaps that would draw. People would rush to see the heroine of the fire. Well, I'll go and make inquiries, and let you know. Meanwhile, don't let yourself out of the papers. Puff is everything nowadays. Send in bulletins of your health, and hints of your intention. . . . . You know the sort of stuffing that dear old goose, the public, requires! And now, good-bye. I'll either come back this afternoon, or write."
Left alone, Brianna closed her eyes, and gave herself up to reflections. She followed in thought her varying fortunes, and regarded herself with a sort of wonder. In a few brief years so much had happened that the girl of the caravan, the half-wild gipsy creature at whom people had mocked, looked like a stranger to her own eyes. She seemed to turn a separate face to each stage of her existence, to gaze down a long, long road whose end she might not see, or even dimly guess.
Her restless, untamed soul, had escaped coercion, and rejoiced in freedom as a wild bird rejoices when freed from its captor's hands. Every impulse of her nature was fired by genius. To achieve and to conquer, less for fame's sake than for the feeling that spelt "must," was like a power that drew her onwards to some hidden goal. In her veins ran the impetuous blood of an impetuous and hot-headed people. Culture had not softened, and Time had not yet chilled these impulses. The wings of her soul beat strongly as ever against any obstacle, longing only to conquer, never to evade it. Dissatisfaction lay at the root of her nature, urging her ever onward and forward. Rest and peace were strangers to her life, the hunger of achievement had never been appeased save in some small degree.
Now, as she lay and thought, a sort of despair seized her. To be inert, to lie here like a maimed and helpless creature just when success had smiled on her, seemed a cruel stroke of misfortune. She had worked, studied, planned, lived that strange woman's character in The Opal. It was her chance at last. And the chance had come and gone, and the cruel, slighting words of the Press lay like a stone upon its grave.
Slow hot tears of pain and disappointment welled from her closed lids. It was so new to her to weep that they trickled down unheeded. The entrance of Mrs. Underwood drew attention to the fact.
"Why, my dearie, what are you a-frettin' for?" demanded the good woman. "See, I've just brought you some beef tea; and here's a letter come. But drink your beef tea first. The doctor said you was to have nourishment, and letters can wait. Come, come, cheer up. Crying only spoils your good looks, and then where are you? And lookin' as pretty as a picture, too, with all that beautiful hair. Talk of advertisements! What a Lady Godiva you'd make for a pantomime!"
Brianna could not restrain a smile at so unique an appraisal of her charms. She held out her hand for the letter. It was large and thick, and her address was traced with elaborate care that made the writing seem strange. She laid it down and drank the cup of beef tea with an obedience that delighted the good Underwood. Then she bade her open the envelope, as her hand was too painful to use. Two large sheets of notepaper were laid before her.
"Why, it's from Mickey," she exclaimed gladly, and began to read the closely-covered pages.
For a few moment Brianna read on quietly. Then the blood leaped to her face, and her eyes sparkled.
"Oh, how wonderful, how splendid!" she cried, impulsively. "Oh, if Phil was only here to hear this."
The letter was a concise and yet a full account of Mickey's law suit. It had ended in his favour. His rights had been proved beyond doubt. His mother had confessed her reasons for concealing this birth after leaving her husband's house, and his old foster-mother, Moll Flannagan, had been discovered by Sally Dunne, and had given her evidence, which went far to prove the truth of his mother's statement. That erratic lady had been severely reprimanded for an indifference that seemed absolutely criminal to legal minds. The more so as no direct heir could be found to the estate, and even a distant one had vanished into regions that are limited to Polar bears and explorers.
"Of course," said Mickey, in conclusion, "there is a great deal to
be done yet before I am actually installed at the Castle. It sounds
grand, Brianna, but it is a lonely, dreary place, and one half is
quite uninhabitable. However, Sally Dunne is queening it everywhere
on the strength of her discovery, and I am going to give her one of
the lodges; the only thing she will take in the way of recompense. How
strange it seems to write and talk like this—how strange you will
think it, my dear. And now, there is one thing more I want to say. I
want to make your future bright and easy, Brianna. I want to share some
of my unexpected fortune with you. We have borne so much together, my
child, have shared strange bits of good and ill fortune, that I know
you will see in my offer nothing but what a father or a brother might
propose. For I shall never marry, child. There will be no one in my
life so near and dear as yourself. . . . I have read of your engagement
at the new theatre. . . . it is a great chance. All my heart is with
you. I wish I could have been in London to see you, but I am likely
to be detained here for some time yet. And now, good-bye, my child.
Remember there are to be no more struggles or hardships. What is mine
is yours—home and fortune, and a heart that holds you as the dearest
thing in life.
"Yours ever faithfully,
"P.S.—Will you send me Mr. Raemore Clive's address? I have forgotten it."
The paper fluttered in the girl's grasp. Her excitement was so great that she forgot pain, trouble, disappointment, everything, for the moment. She was so glad and yet so sorry. Mickey had been her friend ever since she had joined her aunt's wandering life—the associate of her youth and girlhood. She could not imagine him as raised to rank and honours. It was like a fairy story.
The generosity of his offer was like himself. To her he had always been so kind, so considerate. Friend, helper, protector—everything. She tried to picture him as a lord, the owner of a real castle, and a real estate. But she only laughed when she thought of it. How could he be anything else but—Mickey? As for his offer, she shook her head in imaginary refusal. As long as they had been working and struggling together a joint commonwealth was all right and fair, but now—everything was altered. She had no claim on his purse, or his fortunes. She had chosen her life, won a foothold on the ladder she had determined to climb, and she would be beholden to no man's charity any longer. "Even if this fails, I shall get something else," she thought. "But I could not accept any help from Mickey. He must never think I need it. It is different with Aunt Sal. Besides, she is getting old, and must be tired of that wandering life."
She left the letter lying on the white quilt and closed her eyes, and tried to picture Mickey Croom as a lord, and Sally Dunne as a lodge-keeper in charge. She could not fancy that erratic person treating him with any sort of respect; dropping curtsies as he passed in or out, calling him by his title, receiving and obeying orders. No doubt her own self-importance would be great, and she would shine out in the glory shed by Mickey's rank, and her own share in tracing his right to it. Some day she would pay them a visit in County Waterford, and judge for herself how far this change of fortune had affected their respective individuality. As she reached this point in her reflections Ray St. Vincent came back again.
"I thought I would let you know," she said. "You might be worrying yourself, lying here so helpless. In the first place, Phil has recovered consciousness. She is more scorched than burnt, and they hope she will get over it in a few weeks. Next, the damage to the theatre is being rapidly repaired, and the piece is to be continued. The syndicate are going to paragraph and puff in every possible way. I saw Clive there. He sent all sorts of messages. You can imagine them delivered. He hopes you'll be all right in a few days, and able to take up your part. We all told him the play was unlucky, from its name downwards, but he won't believe it. He seems to think you'll pull it through. What have you there, my dear? A love letter, or the MS. of a new comedy?"
"Neither," said Brianna, smiling. "Only a letter from dear old Mickey. Such good news. He has proved his claim. He is really the owner of Croom Castle. In a short time he'll be living there as its rightful owner. Isn't it wonderful?"
"It is indeed," she said, gravely. "And do you really think Clive guessed nothing, knew nothing, when he foretold this? I am very sceptical, Brianna. I don't believe in these palmists and clairvoyants. Anyone with a power of reading character, a shrewd knowledge of human nature, and a knack of piecing circumstances together, can make a very good guess as to the future of certain people. As for being able to tell it with absolute certainty that I don't and can't believe."
"I have told you," said Brianna, "that Clive read Mickey's hand, and from that told him who he was, and what he had to expect. And now it has all happened."
"He must have known something," said Ray, doggedly. "He had had some hint of it from someone. You don't know how sharp that class of person is. It is their business to know everything. They have private sources of information which their victims can't guess. Nothing is too small or too unimportant to interest them. They keep a sort of private detective office. That is really the secret of their knowledge. If you could see into Clive's mind you would find that he is one-half charlatan and one-half detective. He is a keen observer and has a marvellous memory. On these, he trades."
She laughed slightingly as she took out a bunch of violets from her coat and laid them beside Brianna.
"He will need all his charlatanism now," she said. "For he's gone into the most money-losing concern of the present day, theatrical management. It generally spells ruin. However, as long as you get your salary you needn't care. It's only his own look out."
Brianna sighed and raised the violets in her face!
"Did you bring these? How kind of you."
"Oh, no! Clive sent them. He will come round this evening on the chance of seeing you. Do you think you'll be able to get up?"
"Of course," said the girl, laughing. "Why, I've never been ill all my life. I'm not going to play the invalid for this little hurt. I shall get Underwood to help me dress by and by and go into the next room."
"Be careful," urged Ray, seriously. "It's not so much your injuries as the shock to your nerves, you know. You'll only feel that afterwards."
"Nerves!" said Brianna, contemptuously. "I don't know what they are. You must remember I am no fine lady. My life hasn't been one to encourage delicacy of feeling or fancy, and they make up 'nerves.' I'm tough and hard. You need have no fear of me. Why I could act to-night if it was necessary!"
"No doubt," said Ray. "But you wouldn't act to-morrow, or for many to-morrows afterwards. Don't be foolhardy, my dear. Even the toughest woman has fibres of sentiment and weakness in her composition. It's nature. She can't help it. Oh! Brianna, what despicable things we are at best!"
The girl looked at her surprised.
Brianna was sitting in a big cushioned chair in the tiny sitting-room of her flat. She wore a loose gown of soft woollen stuff, in hue a rich crimson, and girdled at the waist by a thick cord. Her arm was in a sling, and her hair, which it had been quite beyond Underwood's power to dress, hung in one long, thick plait down her back. Her face was very pale, she looked strangely young and girlish in the soft lamplight. So thought the two men who were suddenly ushered in by the said Underwood; announced merely as "Two gents as wish to see you, dearie!"
She turned, a little surprised. She saw Clive and Max Lorrimer.
"We met at the door," said Max, half-apologetically. "Clive told me he was coming in, so I thought I would venture also. I have been so anxious. I feared you were dreadfully hurt? What a brave thing to do!"
"Not at all," she said, "It was only natural. You must excuse my shaking hands. You see, I am invalided. But pray sit down, and we'll have some tea; only you must pour it out for yourselves."
"You are better, I hope," said Raemore Clive's deep voice. "I heard of you this morning from Miss St. Vincent. Did she tell you I would call?"
"Yes. I was expecting you. What about the theatre?"
"We shall open at the end of the week. Next Saturday, I think, if you can manage."
"Of course I can. I was telling Ray to-day that I had never known what it was to be ill."
"But your arm?" said Lorrimer. "Burns don't heal so quickly. You must be careful. What does the doctor say?"
"I never asked him. I shall be guided by my own feelings."
She turned to Clive.
"I am so glad," she went on, "that the play will go on. It's such nonsense about it's being unlucky. I believe it will be a great success; especially after such a sensational introduction."
Lorrimer looked and listened in a sort of admiring wonder. Every time he saw this girl she astonished him more. Her rapid development, the quickness and ease with which she had adapted herself to different circumstances, her mode of speech, the simplicity and naturalness of her manner, all filled him with amazement. She was so frank and simple. There was no coquetry or nonsense about her. Cultured women are almost always artificial. Modesty is often as unreal as complexions. The mask of bashfulness is as easily adapted as a blush. He had seen enough of such women to read design behind simplicity, but in Brianna he failed to detect even the ABC of artifice. She concealed nothing, because she had nothing to conceal. To all men she showed the same cool indifference. She cared for none of them. Flattery disgusted her, and only won what the Irish call "a slap of the tongue" in return. Vanity and jealousy were alike strangers to her nature. Her profession held all of heart and soul that she possessed. For that she lived, and served and worked. It was hard for men to believe this. For to men the genius and the worker are still the woman before all else—the frail, tempting, attractive thing, whose very self must needs be theirs, and to whom any aim or achievement must be secondary to sex and its duties. So to Lorrimer, as indeed to many others, Brianna was a revelation and a novelty.
The discourse dealt entirely with matters theatrical, and tea was brought, and the two men waited on her and on themselves, and time sped swiftly along, and even the most straight-laced of Mrs. Grundys could have found nothing to cavil at, though probably she would have taken no one's word for that. They discussed Mickey last of all. His strange story was full of interest, for the two men, especially Clive. Lorrimer knew enough of Irish peerages and properties to be less envious than sympathetic over forthcoming troubles.
"It is certainly a queer story," he said. "By the way, Mickey's quite old, isn't he?"
"Oh, no!" exclaimed the girl. "At least, I never thought about his actual age. He isn't much over thirty, so Aunt Sal said."
"I thought he was long past forty," said Lorrimer. "May one smoke?"
"Certainly. I forgot to tell you, but you know I don't mind."
"No use offering you one, Brianna?" he said, taking out his cigarette case. "You are determined to be uncommon."
"I hate to see women smoking," she said, indifferently. "I have no particular reason, only I don't like it. If I did, I suppose I should do the same."
"You allow no guide but your instincts. Yet how true they are!" murmured Clive.
"Oh! I don't know that. I feel strongly on certain points, and if I feel I must act in accordance."
"You have given me a new ideal of life," he said. "You represent something in womanhood that no woman has ever shown me. You are so strong, too. I wonder if you have a single weakness of your sex?"
She looked at him with grave, unsmiling eyes.
"I don't know much about other women," she said, "and a great deal of what I do know I dislike."
"They are delightfully fascinating—as theories," he observed. "I wish you could see some of those who come to my rooms. Dear, timid, frightened doves! So anxious to know, so afraid to ask. Jove! they go away with their feathers considerably ruffled sometimes. I give them a pretty catalogue of committed and uncommitted sins to take back with them."
"You really make a profession of palmistry then?" said Brianna, curiously.
"I do. Why not? I have turned the vulgar trade of fortune-telling into an art. I find human nature in the higher classes just as insatiably curious about the future as any kitchen Moll who gloats over a fortune-teller's greasy cards. I have autographs of statesmen, actors, clergymen, authors, peers of the realm, women of high rank and women of none. Disguise is no mask, and subterfuge no cloak. I know them and read them, and they fear me!"
His brow darkened and his eyes flashed strangely.
"It is better to rule by fear than love!" he said. "I wonder how many reputations I hold in the hollow of my hand—how many secrets have fluttered forth from pretty frightened lips, unlocked by a chance word, or a direct accusation."
"But isn't it rather—unmanly?" said Brianna, bluntly.
He took the cigarette from between his lips, and puffed a cloud of smoke towards the ceiling. A dark flush rose to his cheek—and the lids drooped over his eyes.
"I don't ask them to come," he said at last, "and for what I tell, they alone are to blame. The folly of fools is the one sure thing that the world has always held, and will hold until it ceases to be a world."
"But do you like the life?" asked Lorrimer, suddenly.
He shrugged his shoulders and replaced the cigarette.
"Like it? Does one like anything one has to do? I began as a freak, and I find myself bound to go on with it. After all, it makes life more dramatic and uncommon, to deal with its occult instead of its common-place side." He rose abruptly. "We must not tire you, Jessica," he said. "You will have to face another ordeal. Odd, to have a first night divided into two halves. What rot those idiots of critics have written! But then I knew they couldn't help themselves. Do you remember that red-haired Irishman. He has spluttered out a column and a half of venom in the Footlights. I hope he feels the better for it. I suppose it paid for half a gallon of whisky, so it did good to somebody! And then the Era and the Stage and the Minerva. God bless my soul! How seriously they have taken it. It must have been like indigestion to the poor devils. I don't know how they'll stand another attack. But I'm not to be beaten easily, and you, Jessica, if I read you right, are of like spirit."
"Yes," she said, her eyes flashing. "I think it is a fine piece, and I am sure people will come to see it again and again."
"Especially if they are told not to do so," laughed Lorrimer. "The critics played into your hands there, Clive, at all events."
He rose also. The two men stood side by side, and the girl's eyes looked gravely from one to the other. They had entered her life at the same time. They had both served a purpose in it. The clasp of friendship held their hands in mutual grasp, and yet how widely different were her feelings for each.
"I know what you are thinking," said Clive suddenly. "The beginning of the play we know. What will the end be? Who will be on the stage in the last scene? It is an interesting question, is it not, Jessica?"
Lorrimer made a sudden impatient movement. He hated that familiar cynical mode of speech Clive so often employed to this girl.
"Come, Clive," he said, "what is the use of speculating about such things? What is to be will be. Kismet."
"Yes," said Clive, with a little melancholy smile. "Kismet. Tragedy or Comedy, it will be all the same one day. The end must be."
Then they left, and she was once more alone, the odour of cigarette smoke perfuming the tiny room, the memory of Raemore Clive's words echoing still in her ears: 'The End must be.' The End. And this was only the Beginning. How much would have to be lived through before that end was reached! The end—that meant peace and rest—the sleep of tired limbs and tired heart. Destiny must fulfil itself. She closed her eyes and let Fancy show its veiled face, and tried to peer beneath the covering. Yet something held her back. She feared that shrouded figure. Words—strange, and mad, and fierce, rushed back to her memory. To hate and love, to toil and to suffer, was that the fate of womanhood? This man had said so. He had told her that some strange power drew him to her, and must in turn draw her to him. She would not believe it. Yet she had felt the spell of his will and the strength of his fascination. At times she could escape him, but at others he compelled an unwilling yielding on her part that vanquished rebellion. Could it be that in some far-off age, in another existence, they had been mated together, and yet again must meet and join and complete that unity which is co-eternal? He had told her that theory of twin-souls, parting but to meet, severed but to unite. Visiting a lower plane in some brief birth-struggle, that was but one link in an endless chain. She felt the thought was unbearable. She was strong and firm of purpose and stubborn of will. She would not yield herself to this tyrannical force—she could not.
She opened her eyes, and sprang hastily to her feet and began to pace restlessly to and fro. The small space of the room seemed like a cage, and she a wild, untamed thing that longed for freedom.
"Never!" she cried, and then shut her teeth firm, and in her heart again repeated the passionate denial. "Never! Never! I will not yield. I will be no man's slave, least of all would I be his, for I hate him—I hate him."
The theatre was reopened, and by the end of the week all London was talking of The Opal and the wonderful actress who played in it. For once it mattered not that critics stormed and abused. Clubland rushed to see it as one man, and the talk of Clubland finds a ready echo in Society. Besides it was such an extraordinary piece that it was worth seeing, if only for the sake of being able to abuse it. The idea of a solitary actress carrying the whole burden of a play on her shoulders was enough to make everyone anxious to see how she did it.
A new dancer had been found for Phil D'Eyncourt's part. She was slowly recovering from the effects of her injuries, but the doctor declared she would never be fit to appear on the stage again. Brianna paid her constant visits, and tried to cheer her by every means. But the poor girl was in a very low and despondent state of mind.
She bore no grudge against her more fortunate companion, but her rapid success and rising fame naturally presented her own misfortune as an unenviable contrast. After four weeks in the hospital she was allowed to return to the flat once more, but she was still too much of an invalid to do anything but lie on the couch and be waited upon. Her helplessness awoke in Brianna a sympathy and tenderness altogether new to her.
The call upon her patience and her services never seemed a tax. It would have surprised the world "before the scenes" to see the brilliant young actress, about whom the town was raving, tending so patiently this peevish and suffering girl who had no claim on her save that of charity, the charity that suffereth, long and is kind.
Ray St. Vincent came in very often. Brianna's success had surprised her greatly. She had never expected the piece to "catch on" in theatrical parlance, but there was no denying that it had done so. The names of Raemore Clive and Brianna Lynch were on every tongue, and that capricious fickle thing, the Public, had elected to throne both on high in its favour.
One night Brianna was half through the first act when she caught sight of a face, far back in the stalls. Two dark, glowing eyes were fixed on her, with an eager scrutiny that was familiar and yet strange. Her heart gave a sudden, quick throb. Her own eyes flashed back greeting. It was Mickey she saw. She had not known he was in London, but she felt he had come to see her act. The thought put her on her mettle. She called forth every energy and impulse, every subtlety and tone of expression in her beautiful voice. She woke tears and laughter and dread. She ran through the gamut of every feeling, passion and emotion in this strange woman's character. Never had she played with such consummate art; never looked so lovely or held her audience with so strong a hand. Again and again they called her back. The storm of applause bewildered her, and the rain of flowers at her feet transformed the stage into a garden of bloom.
But amidst all those excited faces and waving hands she saw only Mickey's burning eyes. They wore a look she had never seen in them before. It pleased and yet it hurt her. She was thankful when the ordeal was over, and bade her dresser hurry over her toilet with all possible speed, A note was brought to her. She had half expected it.
"I will wait for you, Brianna," it said. "I find no words yet to praise
you, dear. Perhaps they will come—later.
She smiled the tender pleased smile of a child whose teacher praises it. So lovely and so radiant she looked that the woman forgot her duties, and only stood and stared in admiring wonder. When at last she was ready she hurried to the stage door. Midway in the dingy passage she found herself confronted by Raemore Clive.
"I had to wait. I felt I must speak to you," he said. "You were incomparable to-night. An enchantress, a revelation! Jessica, I worship you. My ideal, my creation lives in you. Nay, rather it is you. Words are poor thanks, and you care so little for what pleases most women. If I poured gold and diamonds into your lap you would only throw them back to me as you have done to others."
"How do you know that?" she asked, flushing beneath his passionate gaze.
"I know it, as I know all that concerns you, Jessica. You can hide nothing from me. My soul reads yours—near or apart. Have I not told you so before?"
She moved on hastily.
"Let me pass," she said. "Mickey is waiting for me. I saw him in the house to-night."
"Mickey!" he said, and his brows frowned darkly. "Is he here? I thought he was in Ireland?"
"So did I, but I saw him, and he has written to say he will wait for me."
"He will go home with you, I suppose?"
"Of course—why not? It is more than six months since I have seen him."
"You won't let me come, too, Jessica?"
"No, I would rather not. I want a long, long talk with Mickey. We have so much to tell one another."
"And he is Lord of Croom now," he muttered, "and I, blind fool of Destiny, placed such a rival in my path."
He stepped aside.
"Go!" he said bitterly. "But if he was your first friend, remember it was I who have given you Fame."
"Perhaps Friendship is sweeter and surer," she said in her heart as she passed into the cool darkness of the night to where a patient figure stood, as she had so often seen it stand, alone and watchful beside that little dingy door through which Fame and Beauty, Vice and Virtue, alike pass, indifferent to or impatient for the realities that claim them in the world beyond.
The figure moved forward. Their hands clasped.
"Oh, Mickey!" she cried, and then wondered that her voice trembled, and words failed, and that her eyes only saw a worn patient face through a mist of tears.
"My dear!" he said, and then was silent, and she felt the tremor of his hands and gently withdrew her own. "The time has been so long," he muttered, brokenly. "I know that now when I look at you."
"Let us walk home," she said. "It will be like old times. You must have so much to tell me, Mickey. Oh, I beg your pardon. Perhaps I should not call you that any longer."
"Brianna," he said, "that was a false note you struck. You know that between us nothing is changed—save in the way of worldly fortunes."
"Yes," she said humbly. "I was not true. Forgive me, Mickey. And now, tell me all. Are your affairs settled. Are you really a lord?"
"Yes," he said, "lord of a half-ruined, dilapidated old castle in a bleak and remote district; of a name tarnished by debt and dishonour, of beggarly acres, and an income sorely crippled by legal expenses. Not much to be proud of, after all, my child."
"Oh, nonsense," she said, laughing. "It sounds quite grand to me, Mickey. And what does Aunt Sall say to it all? Isn't she proud?"
"You must come and see her," he said. "Your first holiday is to be spent with us, mind that."
"Indeed, yes. I'll mind it fast enough," she said, gaily. "And poor Phil. She may come too, mayn't she? She talks of nothing else but you. It is like a fairy tale to her."
"Never mind me," he said. "I want to hear about yourself. How wonderful you were to-night, child. I could not believe it was you—sometimes. How you have worked and improved."
"To hear you say that," she cried, "is worth all. Oh, Mickey, was I really good? I feel so strongly that I cannot judge myself. It is a wonderful piece. Who ever had such a chance, such luck as mine? The first catastrophe seems only an added attraction. The one blot on the whole thing is poor Phil's accident."
"If it had been—you!" he said. "Oh, I can't tell you, child, what I felt when I read the account in the papers."
He did not say that that shock and horror had added those lines to his brow, those threads of silver to his hair.
"It was very awful," she said softly. "And poor Phil will never be fit for anything more in that way, so they say. But you must come in and see her, Mickey. Where are you staying?"
"Charing Cross Hotel," he answered. "Will you come somewhere to supper with me, or do you wish me to come home with you?"
"Oh, come with me," she said eagerly. "Phil always sits up, and it will be like the dear old days over again. Here let us take this hansom. We shall be there in ten minutes."
They jumped into a passing cab, and sped along the embankment, Chelseawards. They did not speak much. Their hearts were too full. In these months of separation so much had happened. They had drifted so far apart that now there seemed a difficulty in taking up the broken threads of life again.
The cab stopped, and they got out, and he slowly followed the girl as she ran lightly up the public staircase to her own little tenement. She opened the door with her key, and they went in.
Phil was lying on a couch drawn up near the fireplace. The small table was laid for supper, lit by a crimson-shaded lamp. A bright fire burnt in the tiny grate, and its reflection flashed on the quaint and simple decorations of the room.
All was so homely and cosy that Mickey stood in the doorway looking at every detail with glad and welcoming eyes. For it was he who had found this nest for his wandering birds, and it pleased him by its looks of home and peace. Phil's cry of amazement woke him from his reverie. She half rose, and he saw the delight of her face, the eager gesture of her welcoming hands. All else was forgotten in the gladness of reunion.
Brianna, as hostess, bustled about, bringing in things from the kitchen, for Underwood never sat up unless specially desired, and Mickey sat by Phil's side and watched her with wondering eyes. It seemed hardly possible that this girl in her simple gown, and with her eager housewifely ways, could be one and the same with that gifted wayward creature who had held an audience spell-bound by her powers.
When supper was ready she bade Mickey draw up his chair to the table, and the merry, pleasant meal went on as it had been used to do of old. He told them stories of his life in Ireland, anecdotes of Sally Dunne, and of his tenants. He described his old castle, with its gloomy rooms, and its view of the wild sea coast. He pictured for them that forthcoming holiday time when they should all be there together. His mother had promised to come and stay with him, and they must know his mother. His deep voice took a strange note of tenderness, and Brianna looked at him eagerly.
"I wish you would tell me about her," she cried. "I have often wondered——"
"Yes," he said. "I suppose so. I did the same, until I knew her."
There was a humorous twitch about the corners of his mouth.
"There are women," he said, "who have never been young, and there are others who can never be old. My mother belongs to the latter class."
"Has she left the stage yet?" asked Phil.
"Yes, she is tired of it. At present she is staying at the Castle. She said she wanted a rest—herself being the antithesis of repose. I often think she has lost sight of her own identity. That is how she impresses me. Whatever she does, or says, represents a part she has thought out, and determined to play. Her present role is that of devoted maternity."
"It is a bit late in the day for that," said Phil, sarcastically.
"I have thought so—sometimes," he said, gravely. "But she is good at heart. Oh, very good. Her remorse and sorrow were most touching. And, after all," he added, suddenly, "my life wasn't as bad as it might have been. There were hardships, certainly, but then there were compensations."
Brianna's hand went suddenly out to his with an involuntary tenderness.
"Oh, Mickey," she said softly; "it was hard; it was horrible. You forget——"
"There are things it is best to forget," he said quietly, and he looked down at the slender hand, grown white now in a life of ease and comfort. He held it for a moment, but his eyes did not meet hers. Phil watched him. There was something in his patience and restraint that were infinitely pathetic. A little space of silence held them all. She broke it first.
"I am a little tired, Brianna," she said. "I will go to bed and leave you and Mickey to have your talk out. You must have so much to say to each other."
"Do you care to wait a little longer?" asked Brianna. "Because I always help Phil to undress. She is still an invalid you know."
"I will wait, certainly," he said, "if it is not too late."
"We were never famous for early hours," laughed the girl. "Don't let that bother you. Do you still smoke a pipe, or isn't it grand enough."
She had gone over to the girl's side, and slipped her arm round the slight figure. Mickey started forward.
"No, I can manage," she said. "I am used to her. Ah, it is the pipe still, I see. Well, make yourself comfortable. I'll be back in a quarter of an hour."
Left alone, Mickey went over to the fireplace, and stood there, looking down at the dull red glow. He made no attempt to light the pipe that he had drawn out of his coat pocket. He simply laid it down on the mantel-board above his head. The room was very quiet; so quiet that he could hear his own heart-beats—the swift, quick throbs that spoke of agitation, masked by that outer quiet of face and figure. He never moved till the opening of the door roused him. Then he lifted his head, and looked at his reflection in the glass above him.
Brianna was smiling. She pushed aside the table, drew up the big basket chair to the fire, and then seated herself on the couch.
"Now," she said, "for our talk, Mickey. But why aren't you smoking? You don't look like yourself somehow without that pipe!"
He took the chair she had placed for him, but he made no attempt to reach the well-coloured meerschaum on the mantel.
"No," he said, "I won't smoke now, Brianna; not to-night. I have something more serious to talk about."
"Serious?" she echoed. "Well, I am all attention. You are not going to scold me, are you?"
The infinite sadness of the smile that hovered round his lips was answer sufficient.
"All that is over and done with, Brianna. You are far ahead of your master, now. To-night I can only sit at your feet, and wonder."
Her face paled, and the smile died out of her eyes.
"Oh, Mickey," she said, "not that. You can't mean it."
"You must feel it yourself, my child," he said gently. "The voice that speaks to you, the impulse you obey—they are the voice and impulse of your own God-given gifts. I have nothing in common with them. They have lifted you far above me, Brianna. But if they bring you happiness, all is well."
She was silent, and the hands resting on her lap trembled slightly. His anxious gaze forced her eyes to meet his own, and over his face come a cloud of doubt.
"Do they content you? They say to a man Art means all, but never to a woman."
"I think they content me," she said. "Only I am never satisfied. I want to do so much more—not for any vain-glorious reason, but for the sake of all that is high and great and beautiful. I seem to see it and feel it, but I can't express it."
"That is always so," he answered. "The divine discontent of genius is the sign manual of its existence. Brianna, why did you never answer my letter?"
"Which? I thought I had always answered them all."
"No, not that one. I told you that whatever was mine was yours also. That wealth and rank were nothing to me unshared by your delight in them. Oh, child, our lives have been knit together so closely that severance means torture to me."
His head drooped on his hands. She looked at him, startled and pained. The attitude showed his deformity in all its terrible plainness, and the quick beats of his heart were audible as she leant forward.
"I don't quite understand you, Mickey," she said gently. "Do you wish me to give up my life, my profession—now? Surely not. It has become second nature. It is everything to me. Besides, I have no claim on you. It was different when we worked and struggled together. But now, a new life has come to us; new duties, new hopes, new ambitions. I—I could not answer that letter, Mickey, because it was so hard to explain what I felt. I—I thought you would understand my silence."
"Perhaps I did," he said slowly. "Perhaps I did."
His hand dropped, and he lifted his head and straightened himself.
"Brianna," he said suddenly, "tell me. Have you ever cared for anyone—any man yet?"
"Never!" she said emphatically. "I hope that day is far off, Mickey. I know who I am. Who would care to marry me, knowing that also? And I could never deceive, I must speak the plain truth."
"If a man loved you," he said hoarsely, "nothing else would matter; neither birth, nor position, nor profession—nothing. For you are yourself. A queen might be proud of your beauty and your gifts. There are few men worthy of winning them."
She shook her head with a sad little smile.
"No, Mickey," she said. "There are men to whom birth is more than all these, and I could never be a lady. There is something I lack—something I recognise in others, yet cannot name. And it says to me, You are not of us. You are only a girl of the people. And so I am, Mickey. Nothing can alter that."
"And I?" he said, bitterly. "What better am I?"
"You have never lost your birthright," she answered. "Even in our poor wretched caravan life, Mickey, I could feel your superiority to others about us. I couldn't express it, but I felt it. And now," she looked at him with a loyal, tender pride in her beautiful eyes that went to his heart, "now, you seem to step naturally into your new place. I—I could never have done that, Mickey."
"I came to you to-night," he said, slowly, "to ask you to do it. To say to you, Share my life, my home, my name. It will be but for a few years, Brianna, for life and I will not long be fellow-travellers; but you might make those years Heaven for me, if you only would."
He saw the amazement in her face, and read in it an answer more sure than words. This was all new to her, this history of devotion, of patient love, of passion that to him had been so long the motive power of existence.
"Wait," he said breathlessly. "Don't answer me yet. It may be a new tale to you, dear, that I should love you as—as I think no other man in all this world will ever love you, but to me it is old enough. I wonder sometimes you did not guess."
"Never!" she said breathlessly. "Never! Oh, Mickey, what am I to say?"
"Nothing that your heart does not prompt," he answered, gently. "But think for a little while, Brianna. I force no claim upon your notice. I only bid you remember how long I have been your friend. How I stood aside and waited. How I watched your first love given to a worthless scamp, and suffered. . . . God! how I suffered then."
"Oh, Mickey!" she said, brokenly. "Not even—then."
"Yes," he said, "always—always, Brianna. There has been no other."
He covered his eyes for a moment, and she felt her own grow dim with the sorrow that she felt and could not express. The moments ticked by unheeded. With a sudden faint flicker the lamp went out. She half-rose, but in the gloom his hand stopped her. The flicker of the firelight shone on his upturned face.
"One moment," he entreated. "There is light enough. And what I have to say is easier said in the darkness."
She seated herself again, suffering him to retain the hand he had clasped.
"I know," he said, "how women shrink from all that is painful to their sight and sense. I know what I must seem to you in your beautiful youth. But, Brianna, that can be remedied."
His voice grew eager. She felt the nervous tension of his clasp tighten upon her wrist.
"I might be even as other men," he went on in a low breathless way. "And I would count suffering as a joy, and laugh at pain, if—if it would please you to see me so, Brianna."
A sudden quick sob escaped the girl. She had not known how near tears were, but now their glittering rain streamed down her cheeks, and she sank on her knees beside him.
"Oh, Mickey!" she cried. "You break my heart. Oh, why do you care? Why do you give all this great unselfish love to me? And, oh, don't talk of—of what that accident made you. To me it matters nothing. It never did. When I was a little child did I love you less because you were not straight of limb, tall of figure—did I care that others mocked you?"
"No," he said. "You were not of that sort, Brianna."
"And why should I change? You will always be Mickey to me. The same Mickey, just as I am the same Brianna."
"But not in that one way. You don't love me as I love you."
"It is not in me to love any man, I think," she cried, bitterly. "All they say and do and are leaves me unmoved. I cannot help it. I want to be myself; live for myself, my art, my future. Is it selfish? I hope not, but Nature made me hard of heart, I think. What pleases most women has no charm for me."
The firelight broke into sudden brightness, and he saw the trouble of her face, the glitter of her tears. A heavy sigh escaped him.
"I wanted to make life easier for you," he said, "I hate to think of you fighting its battles unprotected. And all men's friendship is not safe, Brianna."
"I know that. Believe me, my armour is not fashioned out of ignorance."
"You may need help," he said, "some day. Would you come to me then?"
"Before anyone else in the world," she said. "That I will promise you, Mickey."
"I must be content with that promise. I shall not fail you, dear, when you need me."
"I—I want to ask you a question," she said, suddenly.
"Yes," came the quiet response.
"It is only—Do you think it possible that one could be forced to care for someone whom one really disliked—won even against one's own feelings? I express it badly, I hardly know how to put it. But take all there is of fear, and loathing, and distrust, and set them against the will of someone stronger than yourself. Do you think that in the end that will would conquer you?"
"No," he said simply. "But I am not a woman."
There was a brief silence. He had released her hand and sat gazing into the fire. How often they had sat like that in the old days when she was a child and he was teacher! Now, it seemed to him, positions were reversed; for all he cared to learn of life or happiness to come could only be learnt at her feet.
She rose abruptly, and stood up tall and straight, her hand on the mantel-shelf, her eyes no longer soft or appealing.
"If only a woman could answer that question," she said. "Be thankful you are not one."
"There is something that troubles you," he said, gently. "Can you tell me—can I help you?"
She shook her head.
"No, Mickey," she said. "There is nothing to tell, and I need no help. Now I will light the candles. It must he very late."
He rose then, and watched her as she found matches and candlestick, and once more illumined the little room.
Then she looked at him. At the worn face softened and made tender by this great love; at the tragic lines about the mouth, the threads of silver in the heavy iron-grey hair. With a sudden, uncontrollable impulse she stretched out both hands and her head drooped upon his shoulder. He felt the tremor of her yielding figure and the sob that burst from her lips.
"Oh, Mickey," she cried, "if only I could be—the child again, and you my friend as of old!"
She could not see the look that came into the wide sad eyes staring beyond into the shadows and the darkness.
"Your friend I shall always be," he said, gently. "But the child—it is the child who has changed, Brianna. It had to be—I do not blame her. Life is so—a thing of chance, of lives that meet and part. And pain is always lurking in the background, for ourselves, or others."
"I have given it to you," she said, bitterly. "I who would do anything to make you happy, Mickey."
"It is not to be my fate. I ought to be used to it by this time. But, child, this confession of mine must make no difference between us. I have told you all my feelings. That you should return them I never expected. But you must trust me always, Brianna; remember that. When I say my life is yours I mean it. For there is nothing in that life of joy, or beauty, or content, that does not come from you, or breathe your memory."
She lifted her head. The tears still hung on her lashes, and her trembling lips were pale.
"You make me ashamed of my ingratitude," she said. "Oh, if I could trample out this wretched, dissatisfied, heartless thing that is me, and yet not me. If I could give up my life to you, Mickey, it would be better, a thousand times. I am sure of it. But I can't—I can't."
"I want no sacrifice," he said. "Some day you will learn the woman's lesson, and so only that you are happy in the learning I—I can go my way content."
He turned away and crossed the room, a little unsteadily. After a moment's pause she followed him into the vestibule beyond. She took his coat from the stand, and helped him on with it, as she had done scores and scores of times in the old days of tramp and tour. The memory came back to both. It touched him inexpressibly. The striking of a clock somewhere in the quiet house fell on the empty silence. "One, two."
"The day breaks, and the shadows flee away," he quoted, and looked at her with a smile that could not quite banish the shadow of his own pain.
"I shall think of that, Brianna, as I go home in the grey dawn."
"The shadows flee away."
He closed the door, and she went back to the room.
It looked strangely empty. She sank on her knees beside the empty chair, and folded her arms, and laid her head upon them.
There the grey dawn found her, pale and sleepless, the tears still wet upon her cheeks.
When Brianna awoke on the morning, after Mickey's visit, she was conscious still of pain and remorse. She had not been as kind to him as she might have been. The thought of that faithful and protecting love oppressed her with a sense of ingratitude.
"But who would have thought it?" she said to herself, lying awake, and watching the pale sunlight tracing patterns on the blind. "Who would have thought that he too would care for me in that way? The one way I do not wish any man to care for me."
She sighed heavily. Life seemed to have gained another burden since yesterday and she was still young enough to believe that dejection would be enduring.
Underwood came in with her letters and tea, and set open the door between her room and Phil D'Eyncourt's, so that they might talk to one another as usual during that lazy, pleasant half-hour before dressing-time.
"Did Mickey stay long?" asked Phil, piling up her pillows behind her and looking across at Brianna, who was opening her letters.
"About an hour, I think," she answered. "Did you think he was much altered, Phil?"
"Very much. He looks older; but there is something in his face quite different. I don't know how to express it. It is something noble, and yet hopeless; like a soldier going to battle who knows he carries his death-warrant with him. I never thought Mickey handsome, but there was something splendid about him last night. The curious part, too, is that no one would say he was not a gentleman. All that past life seems as if it had never belonged to him."
"It never did," said Brianna. "He was always far above it."
"I should love to see his mother," continued Phil. "She must be an extraordinary woman."
"We are both invited to Croom for the summer," said Brianna. "That will put strength into you again, Phil. Sea air, sea-bathing, out-door life, that is what you need. I'm sure it will do you more good than physic or doctors."
"How good you have been to me, Brianna," cried the girl suddenly. "What should I have done but for you?"
"Nonsense. Between us there must never be any question of that sort. If it had been my fate to suffer you would have helped and looked after me."
"If I could," said the girl, eagerly. "But, oh, my dear, where and how could I earn such a salary as you do? You are miles ahead of me, Brianna, and yet, I was on the stage long before you ever thought of it."
Brianna was silent. She had thrown aside her letters; none of them were of any importance, and she looked now across the intervening space to where that eager face was resting on its frilled and snowy pillows.
"Yes, that is true, Phil," she said. "But our lines were different. And I had such a chance. Not one girl in a thousand gets the opportunity I did that night at Cork. Of course, everything must have a beginning, but then there are different kinds of beginnings. Luck has befriended me from that moment."
"Yes," said Phil. "Luck meaning Mickey and Raemore Clive. Brianna, I wonder if you will ever fall in love? You are—how old? Eighteen—nineteen is it? Why, my dear, long before that I had had one serious affair, and half-a-dozen ordinary ones."
"But you," went on Phil, with persistent curiosity. "Have you cared for no one, Brianna . . . really? You are surrounded by men. I am sure two or three love you—in—in well, in a perfectly good way. There'd be no use trying on the other. But what about yourself?"
"If prayer, and will, and strength, and desire could keep me from ever committing that fatal error of falling in love, as you call it, none would be spared," said Brianna, bitterly. "I have tried to make you understand that. Is it quite impossible?"
"When I look at you, yes. You are so beautiful I can't help telling you. No one could be blind to it. And you'll never be able to keep men in the background, try as you may. Of course, you are fortunate in not really wanting anything from them, even criticism. But there, I musn't talk like this. I know you hate it. Tell me about Mickey. Ought I to call him that, or 'My Lord'? It seems so funny."
Brianna pushed aside the clothes and sprang out of bed.
"I'm going to dress now," she said. "I can't talk any more. Do you know it's half-past nine, and the doctor is coming to see you this morning."
She closed the door on Phil and her questions. They grated on her ear. She and life were out of tune. She heard nothing but discords. The little trivial duties, the claim on her time and attention, worried her as the day went on.
She half expected Mickey to call, but he did not do so. Time drifted on towards five o'clock. She and Phil were, as usual, in the little sitting-room, Phil on the couch, supported by cushions, Brianna in the big chair beside the little tea-table, waiting for the appearance of Underwood, and hot cakes and bread and butter.
It was the pleasantest hour of the day for the two girls. Sometimes it was unshared by any visitor, but oftener Clive, or Lorrimer, or some member of the theatrical world, would drop in to drink a cup of "Indian or Ceylon," and chat over professional matters.
The clock was on the stroke of five when an unusually loud clamour of the electric bell startled the two girls. Brianna's heart gave a quick throb. Surely it was Mickey at last.
The door was opened, but Underwood's announcement of a name was lost in a rustle of skirts and the sweep of a vigorous presence.
"Me dear, Miss Lynch—me dear Brianna, if I may call you that. I seem to know you so well. Isn't your name in me dear boy's mouth from morning till night. And how are you? I must introduce myself. I'm Mickey's mother. There, that saves a heap of trouble, and names, too; for I've had a good share of them in my day!"
Brianna rose hastily. She was astonished at such an unexpected visitor, but her outstretched hand was seized and shaken, and her new acquaintance's voluble tongue rattled on apace before she could say a word.
"Delighted to meet you at last! Why, I seem to have known you for years. And where's me boy? What have you done with him? He was to meet me here at five o'clock. But there, sure we're not needing any ceremonies to make us known to one another. And is this your friend? I know her, too—name and fame, and all that! We've trodden the same boards many a time, metaphorically speaking. How are you, me dear? What a terrible accident. Sure, don't I know the way of those scene-shifters and people. It's many a narrow escape I've had me own self. And so Mickey's not here, Brianna? You don't mind me calling you Brianna? No, I thought not. I've always heard of you as that, you know. And a wonderful creature you are. But I'm not envious. I had my day, and I had my ambitions also. But luck isn't for everyone. You've had a good slice of it, though, me child."
"Yes," said Brianna, in a breathless pause that barely allowed of response.
"Oh, it's a grand life. Grand! Nothing ever equals it. The sight of the stage is to me like the trumpet call to the war horse. I'll take a chair, me dear, if you don't mind. I'm a little bit fatigued. I travelled over from Ireland yesterday. Only arrived at six o'clock this morning, and what with trains and steamers, and the noise of the streets outside me window, for the wretches gave me one of their worst apartments, I've not closed my eyes all the time. I'll be glad of a cup of tea; or indeed a glass of wine, if it comes handier, while the kettle boils. Feelings are as exhausting as legitimate art. That's your line, isn't it, me dear? Mine had a tendency to the tighter side of the drama. This sort of thing, you know."
She sprang up, caught a silken skirt in one hand, and made a quick pirouette, ending with a kick that allowed a good deal of lingerie to escape from the background of imagination.
Phil meanwhile was regarding her with a sort of awed amazement.
A golden head, a toreador hat, a waist of twenty-two inches, and a face of sixty summers represented Mickey's mother. An odour of vitality and restlessness made an atmosphere about her, and gave her presence an importance all its own. To see her was to lose all sense of repose or stillness, and be launched on a sea of wonder. Face, voice, movements, gestures were as veering winds that blew her to all points of the compass without warning.
She suddenly released her skirts, kissed her hand to an imaginary audience, and sank gracefully into the chair vacated by Brianna.
"Not legitimate, of course," she said, panting slightly. "But, oh, my dears, it pays so much better. Thank you, me dear. That's as good a glass of port as ever I tasted. Your own selection or—a friend's?"
"It's a present to Phil," said Brianna, bluntly. "I rarely drink wine myself, but I'm glad to have some to offer my friends."
"Of course, me dear." The still bright eyes actually winked at Phil D'Eyncourt. "Why, the real worth of anything is just the pleasure it brings to ourselves or others. There are—others, of course, as the Americans say. Now, where is that boy of mine, I wonder. Did you ever know an Irish person, Brianna, who wasn't famous for unpunctuality? I don't mind it myself, but I object to it in anyone who keeps me waiting. My late dear husband and I often fell out over that matter, among other trifles. My dear girls, if either of you intend to get married try and find out how long he intends to wait for you when you're going anywhere together! Half the women shipwreck their lives on that one point. Impatience, anger, rudeness, reproach, recrimination, then—ructions! That's the way of it. Ah, Brianna, do I see tea? And mighty welcome it is, too. I'm not a great hand at meals. I take them when the fancy takes me. But those cakes look good. I'll peck at them en passant; which reminds me I'm on my way to Paris, and I want Mickey to come with me. But he won't decide one way or other. I wish you'd come, too, me dear. Let us make up a party of pleasure, as the Cook's people say. Is that shake negative? You've got a fine head of hair of your own, Brianna; is it all—ahem! don't blush, me dear. I'm sure it never bought a guinea 'switch' in its life. Hard to match, I should say. Stay, what's that?"
"The bell, I think," said Brianna, smiling. "Perhaps it is Mickey."
"Ah, then, let me give him a surprise," cried the playful sexagenarian, springing up and rushing behind the door.
"But suppose——" began Brianna.
Her words were cut short abruptly. Underwood threw open the door, and the visitor had scarcely made a step forward when he was overwhelmed in a confusion of clasping arms, laces and silks, breathing a stifling odour of opoponax.
"Naughty, naughty truant, would it keep it's mamsey waiting?" breathed a fond voice, in soft reproach.
There came a peal of laughter from Phil, as the toreador hat was somewhat roughly displaced from a manly shoulder and with a gesture, more forcible than polite, the clinging arms were shaken from the neck of Raemore Clive!
"I'm overwhelmed with confusion, pray believe me, sir. Oh! me dear Brianna, what shall I do? I thought 'twas Mickey. I mistook this gentleman for me own dear boy."
"Pray don't distress yourself. I see it was a mistake," said Clive, regarding this fascinating vision with undisguised amazement.
"Let me introduce you," said Brianna, hurriedly. "Mr. Clive, this is Lady Skibbereen; you know—the mother of Mickey Croom."
"Yes, the mother of Mickey. It has such a sweet and homely sound," murmured the lady, plaintively. "The wronged and injured mother of a long-lost son. The heroine of a tragedy and the wife of a villain. Excuse these personalities, but I believe I am addressing a friend of the family."
"Certainly," said Clive. "I have the pleasure of knowing your son; indeed, if I mistake not, I was the first person who enlightened him on the point of his legal expectations."
"What a blessing in disguise you must have seemed," cried Lady Skibbereen, ambiguously. "And so you sent him to me arms once more. Let me hail you as a benefactor. Really, now, it's quite a pleasant party. I feel among old friends. If only Mickey would drop in we should be complete."
Almost on her words the bell sounded hopefully. This time the lively syren did not attempt hiding behind the door. She waited for it to open, and then pounced on the unfortunate Mickey with a hawk-like swoop that rendered him invisible for a moment or two.
"Have you been here long?" he asked, when he could elude the waving arms, and sweeping draperies of his affectionate relative.
"Long! Half-an-hour at the least, isn't it, Brianna! Oh, you see we quite made friends, Brianna and meself. And Mr. Clive, too—the friend of the family I call him. Our preserver, Mickey, or at least something in that line. I know, it was a stroke of luck your meeting him. Well, now, we'll sit down and have our tea. Brianna, me dear, I'm sure you love a good Irish gossip. You shall tell us all the theatrical news. By the way, I'm going to see you act to-night. Mickey, did you get a box? That's right. Perhaps Mr. Clive will honour us with his company?"
"Considering it is Mr. Clive's play," said Mickey, drily, "he has the theatre at his disposal, I presume, as far as a seat is concerned."
"Mr. Clive's play! How interesting!" She clasped her hands and leant forward in an appealing attitude. "Do tell me all about it. I've been buried in the wilds of Ireland, you know, attending to this naughty boy's business, and not a paper or a book, or a bit of London news to be had! I know the name of your piece, but nothing more."
"If you see it to-night you will he able to give an unbiassed opinion of its merits," said Clive, looking at Brianna.
"Indeed, I'm sure it's very fine," said Lady Skibbereen. "Ah, Mr. Clive, it's sorry I am that my stage days are over. There's no life like the footlights. Brianna, me dear, another cup of tea, if the pot will run it. As I was saying, Mr. Clive, the changes and chances of this mortal stage are numerous indeed. But there, I've had my day, and I musn't complain. Though I'd go back to-morrow if it wasn't for my boy there. He thinks it's hardly the right thing for me, eh, Mickey, darling? He says the stage is a wicked place, and, indeed, I could tell some stories; but there, never mind, no tales out of school. There's black sheep everywhere, in society and out of it, and people always look at the stage with a magnifying glass for its vices."
"Mother!" interrupted Mickey, suddenly, "are you aware you never locked your room door at the hotel, and that your jewel case was on the dressing-table?"
Lady Skibbereen looked slowly round at the circle of faces, and gave a portentous wink.
"Stage jewellery," she murmured, tragically. "The real things are safe in my bank."
"Well," said Mickey, "I took the box and locked it up in my own trunk. I thought it was very careless of you."
"Ah, now, me dear boy, I was ever giddy and thoughtless. You will have to look after me, I see. Still, in the weary march of life it's something to have kept a youthful heart; mine is as keen for a frolic, and a bit of divarsion as ever it was. Why 'tis Mickey there is the sobersides. Sure he might be my own father with his solemn ways, and his lectures. But I'm always saying there's no youth in people nowadays."
"No," said Clive, gravely. "You are right. It is only one's grandparents who are young. They lived life, and never studied it. We study, and never live it."
"Dear me, Mr. Clive! Now, that's very well said. It's what you call an epigram, I suppose. Modern plays are full of things like that, and I notice the actor says them in just that slow, cool way, and waits for the laugh to come in. Have you ever been 'on,' Mr. Clive?"
"In a certain sense," he answered, "I have never been 'off.' I am a public character. My stage is absolutely unlimited. It holds all the scenery of modern life as represented by superstition, and all its tragedy as represented by faith."
"Indeed, you seem very clever, and quite enigmatical too!" observed the lady. "It must be so nice to go about saying things no one can quite understand. I'm sure I shall enjoy your play, to-night. Brianna, me dear, how quiet you are. Are you tired? I should take a nip of brandy and lie down till it was time for the theatre, if I were you. Dear, dear! How I do envy you, child. It makes me long to be on the boards once more."
"You haven't given Brianna a chance of speaking," observed Mickey. "It's no wonder she looks tired."
"Oh," laughed, the girl, "I'm not in the least tired, I assure you. I have enjoyed listening to your mother. She tells me you are both going to Paris. Is that so?"
A dark flush swept the pallor from Mickey's face.
"I am not sure now," he said, very low. "I told you my reason."
He saw her lips quiver slightly. She gave no answer.
The irrepressible Lady Skibbereen burst forth again. She possessed more than the average loquacity of her race, and to hold her tongue was a task she had never been able to accomplish.
Raemore Clive leant back in his chair and studied her in his usual fashion. She represented both a new interest and a verification of his powers. He read her character with unusual facility—the good-hearted recklessness, the spendthrift extravagance, the utter lack of moral principle and moral strength, the foolish vanity counterbalanced by a certain shrewd knowledge of her own value, the whole curious and complex contradictions that went to make up her personality. After coolly deserting her child and ignoring his rights she had as coolly accepted and upheld both, shaking off any possible blame as lightly as a duck shakes the water from its feathers. Clive wondered what Mickey himself thought of this strange parent. It was not easy to read that inscrutable face. It gave no clue to his feelings. He sat there by the fire apparently indifferent to the conversation or to his frisky mother's anecdotes.
The latter appeared to afford boundless delight to Phil D'Eyncourt, and she capped them from her own stores whenever there seemed a chance. Lady Skibbereen and herself had graduated for the profession on very similar lines. Their confessions were naturally full of mutual interest.
In the midst of the hubbub Mickey bent closer to Brianna.
"I hope," he said, softly, "you will forget what I was foolish enough to say last night. Let all be as of old between us. I could not bear to think I had lost your friendship."
"You could never do that, Mickey," she answered.
"I hoped to have a little quiet talk with you, but I see it is impossible. Will you come back with us to supper to-night, and then I'll see you home?"
"It's so long to leave Phil," she objected, a little unspoken dread of another tête-à-tête lurking in her heart.
"But Phil you have always with you, and I am soon going away, Brianna."
"Very well, I will come."
"Brianna, me dear," burst forth the lively dowager, "I forgot to give you some of your aunt's messages. She's a queer creature is Sally Dunne, and mighty hot-tempered, too, in the matter of rights and wrongs. What with the priests and the tenants she was keeping herself comfortably warm when I left her. But let me see, what was I to tell you? Oh, yes! Now she has a settled home, and only the caravan in the yard behind the lodge, just for old acquaintance sake, she wants you to give up the stage, and live with her. That's off my mind. But don't you do it, my dear. You'd be moped to death in that old, rat-eaten ghastly place. I know it nearly sent me out of my mind when I lived there as a young woman. And we'd an elegant household, too. But, indeed, I barely kept meself alive, and that was by quarrelling with me old lord, your father, Mickey, and a cantankerous piece of goods he was, too, let me tell you that. 'Twas very well as long as the jealousy and the gout didn't attack him together, but if they did, Holy St. Bridget! No woman could stand him, Why stone-breaking was an easy life to what I had. Small wonder if I bolted at last and went back to my native heath—I mean profession. And indeed it was a great temptation to use me name—such a draw. Lady Skibbereen. But I knew the old man would be mad, and I didn't want any scenes, beyond the set ones, of course. Ah! me dear girls, never you get married, either one of you! What's the love and sympathy of one man to a woman who has had the adoration of hundreds! It's like playing to a solitary creature in the stalls instead of to a full house. When you've once drawn the full house you'd like to pelt the audacious 'one' who thinks his applause is sufficient. But dear me, I'm forgetting the time. And we've got to dine and I must dress. I'll be very resplendent to-night, me dear Brianna, in your honour. And don't be nervous, child. I've always been an indulgent critic of me own sex."
"I am afraid I shall be nervous," she said, "unless I forget you're there."
"You needn't look at the box, you know. Only I'd like your opinion on me gown afterwards. It's from Manners, in Dublin; and a pretty penny it cost, but I was determined to do Mickey honour, though the ungrateful boy does say I'm too fond of exposing me charms. But when a woman has a fine pair of shoulders—eh, Brianna? Well, well, Mickey, don't be frowning at me. I'm quite ready to go, and a most pleasant visit it has been, and we must see a great deal of each other, Brianna. I won't forget your epigrams, Mr. Clive. I really have enjoyed your conversation immensely."
"Perhaps observation would be a better word, my dear Madam," said Clive, bowing over an outstretched hand. "It expresses—limitations."
"Ah, now, don't be poking fun at me. You're too clever for my poor wits to take you in all at once. Now, Brianna, don't forget about Paris. Take a week's holiday and give your understudy a chance."
"I fear I should object to that," said Clive. "When you have once seen Miss Lynch act in The Opal you will recognise the peculiar unfitness of the part for any—understudy."
"Ah! Is that so? Well, there were some pretty things written for me, too, in my time. Brianna, be wise, me dear, and make hay while the sun shines. It won't be always May for you any more than it was for me. I am aware of the disparity between us—not in feeling, of course—but in the matter or a few years on the wrong side."
"I'm ready, mother," interposed Mickey. "Brianna will come to supper with us after the performance, so you will have plenty of opportunity for discussing disparities."
"Indeed, that's good news. How London does wake one up. I was a perfect Rip Van Winkle at Croom. Talk of self-sacrifice, but then I never did like rural life except as a stage scene with painted harvest fields and a limelight moon. Good-bye, Brianna, for the present. Good-bye, Miss D'Eyncourt, and—au revoir, Mr. Clive. You must come to our box. I insist on it; and do be as epigrammatic as you can. It makes one feel so absolutely brainless to listen to you. Clever people always do affect me like that."
She took herself off at last; a whirlwind of rustling skirts and rippling laughter.
Clive looked at Brianna, and sank back into his chair as the door closed.
"Interesting," he said. "But exhausting."
"And to think," exclaimed Phil D'Eyncourt, "that that is Mickey's mother!"
"That, is vague, but expressive," said Clive, dreamily. "Yes. Truth is always stranger than fiction. To think that—that—is Mickey's mother!"
When the individuality of an actress once stamps a part, it is subject to subtle variations—to changes for which her mood, her health, or her feelings are responsible. People who have seen a piece three or four times begin to note this.
"To-night she was incomparable." "To-night she was not so good." "She acted better than ever." "She alters the part every time I see it," are remarks that are frequently heard on leaving a theatre. But these very variations are the strongest proofs of genius. To strike the dead level of sameness is fatal to Art.
When, Brianna saw that old-young face, in a box on the first tier, and felt herself focussed by a tortoise-shell lorgnette, she was conscious of a nervous discomfort that made her voice uncertain and her actions stagey. The weird music of the orchestra sounded like a monotonous discord. She thought of the sea breaking on the wild Irish coast; of a lonely dreary house, and a lonely man whose stooping figure made one with the shadows that peopled it.
Her voice trembled and grew uncertain. The audience were conscious of a vague surprise. Raemore Clive drew back into the dimness of the stage box, and asked himself if she were going to break down for once in her life. What had happened? He thought of her lively visitor, but surely Brianna was not nervous of appearing before her. He glanced up to where she sat; a vision in white satin and black velvet; a glitter of mock stones emphasising her ample charms, her golden head nodding, and her painted lips smiling is absolute self-approval. No, he told himself. It could have nothing to do with her. Perhaps the girl would pull herself together presently. She was listless, nervous, unlike herself. But she had never looked more lovely. She moved to and fro, the silvery transparent tissues swaying with every movement of her swaying form. The curves of her throat were like the curves of a statue. Her arms and hands looked like ivory: their gestures were exquisite. Yet in some way she failed to touch or thrill her audience, and the curtain fell on a sense of disappointment.
"She's as beautiful as an angel, Mickey," said his mother. "But I don't call her a fine actress."
"She's different to-night, somehow. I can't understand it. There seems no life, no soul in her. I wouldn't know her for the same creature whom I saw last night."
"Ah, well, perhaps, she'll wake up later on. 'Tis a very strange play, Mickey. Just a lot of men saying clever things, and one woman between them all. I don't know what it means at all. Whose wife is she?"
"Lord Ingersoll's, the grey-haired man."
"But what a strange way he treats her. And such things as he says. When you wish to be faithful to a woman it is a sure sign you are going to be faithless. And, again, when he tells Mr. Vane that they have only met at Society dinner tables during their married life. And then about Art being cosmopolitan, which accounts for so many foreign Englishmen. Of course, that's Mr. Clive. He is really very clever. If I were Brianna I should be quite in love with him."
Mickey sat very still. A curious grey haze floated momentarily between him and the stage. Then it passed away, and he knew his eyes were on the curtain, and had been fixed on it for many moments. All the while some words were sounding on and on in his ears. "In love with him!" In love with the genius, the charlatan, the odd incomprehensible being who had come so strangely into their lives! Oh, impossible! Yet as he thought of Clive's singular charm, his undoubted cleverness, his interest in the girl, and the fame that interest had bought for her, he asked himself why it should be impossible?
In this past year she had drifted into a totally different life. A life that was an education in itself. She was associated with men who were publicly famous, or privately infamous, and with women whose lives knew no wider boundary than a stage success, no, deeper tragedy than a "first night's" failure. She had become the friend of Ray St. Vincent, and he knew well the sort of people she would meet at her house.
In love with Clive! Well, why not? Clive or another. It must come to that some day. She must share the common fate of womanhood. She was too lovely and too gifted to escape. The surging passions of his own soul swept self-control away as he thought of it. He felt within him the giant strength of a mighty love, that cared nought for obstacles; that had staked its all on one woman's heart and meant to win it.
"No one can love her as I love her," he thought, and while his mother babbled on like a noisy water brook he closed his eyes and went back in fancy to the old days. He saw the wild, half-tamed creature he had befriended, and watched her answer to his training, and live, and laugh, and mock and love, now as Rosalind, now as Juliet, now as Portia, delighting in a school so enchanting, forgetful of the common things of life when he threw open for her the gates of romance. How much they had been to one another. It was impossible to forget it. She had been like a wilful sunbeam dancing through grey days of gloom and unhappiness. She had embodied all he had ever known of tenderness or joy. And could he see her drift from him now? Drift away on the sea of another man's fascination to a life beyond the touch of his own?
"Certainly, me dear Mickey, you are not worth the trouble of entertaining," said his mother at last, giving an impatient tap at his arm. "Not a word have you had to throw at me by way of answer. I have asked you where we are to go for supper at least a dozen times. I don't know why it is, but the play always make me hungry. The Café Royal—Oh! All right. I prefer the Criterion myself, but it's all a matter of taste, and the champagne's equally dear at any of them. I told Brianna I'd go behind and fetch her. Oh! is this the second act? Be quiet now, Mickey. I want to reserve all my attention for the epigrams. Sure, the play's a perfect plum pudding of them. I wish I could remember half."
Mickey drew back. His heart was beating with mingled dread and hope. He wondered how Brianna would acquit herself in the test scene of this act. She had simply electrified him on the previous night. He was aware that the door of the box opened softly. Someone came in and dropped into the chair behind his own. A glance showed him Raemore Clive. They greeted each other with a silent nod. Lady Skibbereen was leaning over the front of the box, too absorbed in the dancing scene to notice Clive's entrance.
"I don't know what is the matter with her to-night," he whispered softly, to Mickey. "Never knew her act so tamely."
Mickey shook back his hair with an impatient gesture. He hated to discuss Brianna with this supercilious playwright. He said nothing, and both men turned their attention to the stage. The first movement, the first word of Brianna showed that the old power, the old magnetism, were in full force once more. She had shaken off her previous apathy, and now rose, newly strung, to the work before her. The dreary dawn of suspicion, the subtle pretence of indifference that masked a heart's agony, the outburst of grief ruthlessly stifled, the doubts and terrors of a woman's love, down to the lurid climax of self-destruction, all these she painted on the living canvas of her own personality. The house sat still and breathless, held in mute wonder by this perfect art. A wave of visible emotion swept all criticism into a passion of sympathy. A breathless sob beat on the silence when at last the curtain fell. It came from Lady Skibbereen. She had forgotten everything for the moment, even the destructive effects of tears upon rouge-tinted cheeks.
"Oh, Mickey, she's grand! Grand!" That was all she could say for a moment as she stood back in the box listening to the thunders of applause. Mickey was quite silent. Only his full heart ached and throbbed with a pain that was actually physical.
The curtains were swept aside. He saw her standing there, lovely, smiling, trembling. Saw her eyes turn eagerly to where he sat, and then a wave of hopelessness swept over his brain, and all the mockery of life, the inexorable decrees of Fate, the surging agony of memory, rushed like a tide over his desperate soul, and for a moment he was overwhelmed by misery.
The curtain fell. The audience rose. The noise of rustling silks and trampling feet and murmuring voices passed on and left the house to emptiness and gloom. He looked round as one in a dream. His mother had rushed off on Clive's arm. She was going behind the scenes. He remembered the supper party to come, and stood there for a moment longer, fighting for self-control.
Long habits of suppression and endurance came to his aid as he fought down the raging demon of jealousy within his breast. The fierce heart-throbs grew quiet, his face took back its natural hue. Only within his eyes was pain. Pain that thrilled each quivering nerve, and spoke as the eyes of dumb brutes speak of agony well-nigh unendurable.
He turned away, the lights were nearly all extinguished, the coverings were being drawn over the cushions and seats and curtains of the boxes.
The house had a chill and ghostly look in the dim light. It seemed to him emblematic of his own life as he passed out to where the waiting brougham stood at the stage door.
Raemore Clive had found a new element of amusement in Lady Skibbereen. She gave the supper a zest far beyond the powers of caviare or devilled oysters. She discussed his play from a totally novel point of view, and took it so seriously that she seemed positively enchanting. The manner in which she found fault with his epigrams, and abused his lack of stage conventions was a supreme joy to the author. He drew her out and threw her off her guard, and made her the butt of his cynical wit, in a manner that would have annoyed Mickey at any other time. But to-night he was too absorbed by the sense of Brianna's presence and the dull ache of his own misery to pay much heed to the discussion. Besides, he knew Clive's views on the drama so well.
"If I wanted to be that most obnoxious of beings, a popular dramatist," he observed, filling his glass with the très sec of Deutz and Gelderman, "I should, of course, write my play round a company, and never expect a company to suit itself to my play. I should study the principal actor and his leading lady, and give them the same parts that they have performed in ninety-nine out of every hundred plays they have appeared in. The one sure thing about a play is that it will be discussed not on its merits as a piece of dramatic art, but on the grounds of suitability to the particular cast who revolve as satellites round the actor-manager. That is why modern plays are in the hands of a clique of writers who have public permission to repeat themselves ad nauseam. Repetition is the public idea of style. It is so easily recognised; and has a nice familiar sound about it as comforting as God Save the Queen and Home, Sweet Home."
"Really, Mr. Clive, you are too severe," exclaimed Lady Skibbereen. "Meself I know I've played many entirely new parts in my theatrical days, and many's the poor play-writer to whom I've given a helping hand and a word of encouragement. Yes, indeed, you needn't be looking at me in that quizzical way of yours. And I say again about your own play, Mr. Clive, that if it wasn't for Brianna there it wouldn't hold the boards a week. It's so absolutely unreal, and unlike anything else."
"I intended it to be so," said Clive. "In recognising my meaning, dear lady, you display an acumen I could scarcely have credited you with possessing. Nothing dulls the critical faculty like a long experience of melodrama, unless indeed it be a brief experience of burlesque."
"Well, I've had a good deal of both in my time," said Lady Skibbereen complacently. "And they've not spoilt my appreciation of a good play, or good acting. But Brianna, me dear, have you thought what you'll do next, for I'm sure this piece won't have a long run, and it's a part that will spoil you for most others? You have it all in your own hands here entirely, I may say."
Clive's eyes swept Brianna's face with a strange embracing look.
"She has many other chance's in her own hand," he said. "Her future is quite safe."
"Indeed, then, it's well to be so assured. I wish you'd tell me of my own luck, Mr. Clive. I've often wanted to ask you. Do you turn the cards now, or what?"
"I read human destinies from humanity itself."
"Do you now? Well, you must be very clever," said Lady Skibbereen. "All the same, I think I like the cards the best. It's wonderful the things I've heard from them, and all true; and indeed, as I was telling Mickey there, before we left Ireland, I knew I'd find him again. Yes, indeed, Mickey, and if I'd only have known how to set about it, 'twould have all happened long ago. But that's no matter now Brianna, how pale you look. Are you tired, me dear? Ah, give the creature some more wine, Mickey, and don't be staring at her as if you were a raw gossoon from the bogs of Kerry."
"I'm not at all tired," said Brianna. "And I'd rather not have any more champagne. It makes my head ache."
"Ah! that's a pity now. Well, well, the mercies of Providence are wasted on some people. Divil a headache did I ever get (saving your presence, Mr. Clive, but me Irish will out sometimes) except the first time, and then I was just a little queer if I remember, and me boots next morning in the wash-hand basin! But sure, use is second nature, and I didn't want to be beat, and so I just went on until I got the better of me weakness; and me own conscience is me reward now, though there are people who look at virtues through a fog, and won't give anyone credit for perseverance."
Clive was leaning back in his chair smiling quietly.
"Your son does not appear to inherit your remarkable virtue," he said. "He has scarcely touched his wine."
"Oh! I know he's a poor hand at the drink. Why, 'tis only mineral waters at the Hotel; and the best of everything to be had for the ordering."
"Which you do very liberally, mother," said Mickey.
"And why shouldn't I? It's for the credit of the family. Why, they wouldn't think we were a lord and lady at all if we drank water with our dinner or luncheon. But aren't you gentlemen going to smoke? Oh, not allowed here, isn't it? Well, you've my permission, if that's any satisfaction. Getting late is it? That's no matter, Mickey. Haven't I turned night into day the best part of my life? But, of course, there's Paris to-morrow. I wish I could take you, Brianna, and you, Mr. Clive. How are you going home, child? Oh, with Mickey. That's all right. Mr. Clive, is a seat in the brougham any use to you?"
"Thank you, no. I have only to cross to Piccadilly, and I'm at my rooms."
"Well, we're sure to meet again soon. And it's given me a great deal of pleasure to make your acquaintance, and yours too, Brianna. Just give me a hand with my cloak, will you, Mr. Clive? Indeed, then, you're quite the cavalier. It's a pity Mickey there can't learn some of your pretty ways. He generally knocks me coiffure to one side, or steps on me train, or catches me cloak collar on his button; but you've quite the art, Mr. Clive."
Then they all went downstairs, and Mickey put his mother into the waiting carriage, and called a hansom for Brianna.
Clive stood on the pavement and watched them drive off. Then he lit a cigarette, and sauntered across the street.
The hansom sped smoothly on. Brianna leant back with a tired sigh that held a strange pathos for Mickey. For some moments neither spoke.
"I did very badly to-night, I'm afraid," she said, at last. "Somehow, when I came on first I could not act. I felt heavy and stupid. Something seemed to have gone out of me."
"You were unequal," he said, frankly, "but you made up by that last scene. You perfectly electrified my mother. What do you think of her, Brianna?"
"She is very—Irish," said the girl, with a faint smile.
"Which means eccentric, in English minds. She is a warm-hearted, good creature, though, in spite of her eccentricities. You know she was only a second-rate burlesque actress when my father married her. He was very old then, and they were utterly unsuited to one another. She has led a strange life. I never saw anyone so stage mad. I believe she would go back to the theatre to-morrow if anyone would take her. Fortunately, she is beyond the age and the figure for burlesque. I am glad you know her, though. She has taken a great fancy to you, Brianna. When you can come to us—to stay I mean—you will understand each other better. She shows to more advantage in her own house, and her own country, than here, where every second person breathes contrast."
"Dear Mickey," said the girl, earnestly, "you, surely, are not excusing your mother to me. Why should you?"
"I hardly know. Unless it is that you have acquired a refinement she, with double your opportunities, has never been able to adopt. No one could make you their butt or sport, Brianna."
"Ah, you think Mr. Clive was making fun of her. I am sure he wasn't, Mickey. It's just his way of drawing people out. And she is really very amusing."
"I suppose so," he said, gloomily. "Still, one doesn't care to see one's own performing poodle called out to do tricks for a stranger. Brianna, tell me—do you like this man, Clive?"
The girl hesitated a moment. "Yes, and no," she answered. "I can hardly express the feeling. He attracts and yet repels me. I am half afraid of him sometimes. He fills me with a strange terror. He has a way of treating women as if they were slaves; as if some barbaric taint lingered in their blood. He compels, without seeming to command."
"I dislike him," said Mickey, coldly. "I dislike his looks and his character. He is half-charlatan, half-mystic. He is unscrupulous, too, Brianna."
His voice faltered. He looked at her leaning back, the light of the lamp above her head showing the pale troubled beauty of her face.
"My child," he went on, steadying his voice by an effort, "don't trust this man too far. I know he has done a great deal for you, but that gives him no claim save that of gratitude, for have you not equally benefited him? Is there another woman in London could act that play of his as you act it? My dear, you don't know what it is to me to have to leave you unprotected, unguarded—I, who know men's vileness, and the snares and pitfalls of public life. Dear, it is very hard. If I could only guard you, protect you, as I have done hitherto."
"Nonsense, Mickey," she said, with some impatience. "Remember, I am no child. I have not walked through life blindfold. My natural distrust of men almost amounts to dislike. You forget what I hear behind the scenes, what I have heard even in Ray St. Vincent's drawing-room. But it makes no difference to me. None whatever. My heart and soul are given to my art. It can have no rival. Do you think I care for praise or flattery of myself? I am glad I possess beauty, as they say, because that tells in the picture. But, to the public I am only the picture, and to myself the sad-hearted, dissatisfied, cold-blooded girl who turned from the racecourse to the theatre, and could forget that her lover lay dead while the praises of the mob rang in her ears!"
"Do you remember that still, Brianna? I never heard you mention Pat Rooney since that day."
"Do you think a woman forgets because she doesn't speak of what is in her heart? I knew later that he had never really loved me—that there was another worse off than myself—but still I had loved him. He was the first who had brought sunshine into my life, who had seemed to care for me. And afterwards—afterwards it all came back."
There were a few moments of silence. The thoughts of both were back in the past. How far away it looked now. What strange vicissitudes they had faced and conquered. Mickey turned his eyes from the street and the moving figures and the lamps that flitted hazily by. Their sad gaze rested on the girl beside him, and her own returned it with equal sadness. He had learned many lessons in the school of sadness, but he was learning the hardest now, in his own helplessness to avert sorrow from the girl he loved.
The cab stopped. He sprang out and assisted here to alight.
"May I come in, just for a moment?" he asked. "I can't say good-bye to you here."
She nodded, and passed in as the porter opened the door.
Phil had gone to bed long since. The fire had burnt low in the grate, and the lamp shone on the tidy loneliness of the little room. Brianna threw off her wrap and stirred the coals to a sudden blaze.
"I have nothing to offer you," she said, smiling. "But sit down, and warm yourself. You look quite pale and cold."
She herself took her usual chair, and leant forward, stretching her hands to the blaze.
"Not 'brown' any longer," he said, looking down at the white shapely fingers through which the red glow flamed. "How changed you are, Brianna!"
She looked at her hands somewhat wistfully.
"Nothing could make them a lady's," she said. "I read that in Ray St. Vincent's eyes whenever she looks at them."
"I wish you were not so friendly with her," said Mickey, abruptly. "I don't like her."
"She has been a very good friend to me," said Brianna. "And I never forget old friends. I may be cold-hearted, but I am not ungrateful."
"No," he said, "that was never a failing of yours. Now, Brianna, for a few last words. I may not see you for many months after to-night. I want before I go, to have one promise from you."
"Yes?'" she said, and looked up at him with her lovely questioning eyes.
"It is that in any trouble, in any emergency, you will at once write to me. I have the first and chief right to help you. Above all, do not enter into any engagement with Raemore Clive. I mean that he may wish to marry you for a purpose of his own. May try to bind you to himself so that your genius may aid his career. Let your instincts guide you, my child, and remember that always through life, to death itself, I am at your service, body and soul. These are no light words, dear. A man, such as I am, cannot love half-heartedly. It is all, everything—I told you so last night. If my life were of any use to you not one hour of its service would be grudged. If by dying I could save you a pang or a sorrow, I would welcome death as a friend. You can ask nothing I would deny, and I want nothing in return. Only your memory, for it is a faithful one, Brianna, and my place in it can yield to none."
"You are right, Mickey," she said. "No one has such a place in it, or ever can."
He rose abruptly.
"You must forget what I said last night. It was only a dream of madness, but unhappiness makes one mad sometimes. How could I hope to win youth and beauty like yours, Brianna? I——"
"Oh!" she said. "It was not that—not that. It is the same with anyone. I cannot love. And I would rather die than give myself to any man for—for just mere safety, or convenience, or wealth, or any of the foolish things for which women sell themselves every day!"
"You are right," he said. "For you hold a treasure that is sacred. The treasure of genius. It must not be bartered, or sold, or lightly shared with any of life's passions. Be true to it, and you will be true to yourself. A queen of womanhood, daughter of the people as you are!"
Her heart throbbed. His words stirred in her some pulse of feeling that no words could express. He stood there a moment longer, looking down at her bent head, and the clasped hand lying idly in her lap.
"If I could see the end," he thought. "The end for her."
His hand smoothed her rich hair with the embracing tender touch of old. She looked up, then suddenly rose and seized the caressing hand, and held it close to her throbbing heart.
"Oh," she cried bitterly, "what an ungrateful wretch I am! I have taken everything from you all my life, and I can't even give you hope or comfort. Mickey, you ought to hate me. Why don't you?"
"It would be a little beyond my power," he said, sadly. "Though hate and love they say are near akin. No, child, I have no blame for you. Why should I? Had Nature made me as other men I might have persevered in the struggle, for a man often knows what is best for a woman when she does not know it herself. But as things are, Brianna, it is best that we remain only friends—only friends."
A sigh escaped her. She released his hand.
"That—always," she said, "whatever comes."
"I will not speak again of foolish hopes," he said. "They are buried in the grave of yesterday, and the dreams of many yesterdays lie with them. A new life has begun for me, my child. We may not share it, as of old, but who shall say that it may not hold some joy or some sweetness? Meanwhile, I have your promise."
"Yes," she said.
"And you know you can trust me, whatever happens. There is no more to be said, Brianna, except good-bye. All is dark and cold about us now, but when we meet again, it will be summer-time. Summer-time in my own home, and you will be there to make it sunshine for me."
That there were tear's in her eyes he scarcely knew for the sudden dimness of his own.
A mist rose between him and that short space between the door and where he stood. When it cleared he was alone, and deep down in his heart ached the pain of a dull foreboding.
The night porter handed Mickey a card as he entered the hotel.
"The gentleman said it was important. He is waiting for you in the coffee-room, sir."
Mickey glanced at the card and started slightly. Then he nodded to the man and passed on. The coffee-room was deserted at that hour. Its only occupant rose as Mickey entered, and stood awaiting his approach.
"I suppose you are surprised to see me," he said. "But you know I do strange things. I am ruled by impulses. When I left you to-night I fully intended going to my own rooms—yet I am here. Being here, I suppose you will listen to what I have to say to you."
"Certainly. Won't you sit down? Come over to the fire."
They moved over in that direction, and both seated themselves.
"It is too late, or too early rather, for conventionality. I will go straight to the point. You remember writing me a letter from Ireland asking for the address of a certain doctor in Paris whom I once mentioned to you?"
"I refused to give it you without your reasons."
"And I refused to give them."
"Yes, you did. Well, to-night, when I heard you were going to Paris, it struck me that you had that purpose still in your mind. Am I right?"
Mickey's face paled. His eyes sought the dull glow of the firelight.
"Why do you ask? I can find the address without your aid If I wish to."
"Of course, I know that. But you will have some difficulty. This man has a strange practice. He is not a favourite with his confrères. You will not find his name in any medical directory. You may find him, for to the obstinate seeker nothing is impossible, but it will be a work of time and trouble. I have resolved to give you the address and leave you free to follow out your own inclinations."
"Why have you changed your mind, Mr. Clive?"
"I am not accountable for my impulses. The rules that guide my life are unlike those that control ordinary mortals. Here is the address, but I believe you are about to do a very unwise thing, and one that places your life in jeopardy."
Mickey took the slip of paper and glanced at the address. His hand shook, and the pallor of his face looked ghastly in the firelight.
"Can he do—what you said?" he asked, hoarsely.
"He can do anything short of a miracle. And, indeed, some of his cures are almost miraculous. Still, if l were you——"
"If you were me!" The fierce tone, the blaze of fiery wrath, cut short the words. For a moment the black eyes challenged that cruel, sleepy glance of Raemore Clive's. "If you were me!" came in quick, hissing breaths. "Thank God, if you believe in God, that you're not! Thank Him every day of your life for your height, your strength, your manhood. Think, if you can, what a man is without such things. Think what it is to be stunted, misshapen, hideous, and yet to hold within that shapeless form a soul that dreams of and covets all that is noblest, fairest, best. Oh, could one hide the vile covering and show only that soul, who would dare to scoff and make mock of God's handiwork? I have been in hell all my life, I tell you; and now, to get out of it, to be as you, as others are, for even one year, I would sell my very soul as Faust of old!"
"Faust desired a woman. Are you of the same mind?"
Mickey clenched his teeth with sudden savagery. He felt as if some barrier had been broken down, as if some long pent-up torrent was rising, rushing; lashed to fury by past obstacles but now strong to overwhelm them in a new and mighty strength. And the cruel green eyes seemed to draw it forth, to hold and fascinate and dominate him so that he must speak what was in his mind—what had held his soul in thrall for long and bitter years.
"Go on; tell me all," said that compelling glance, and the wild words poured out in a flood of passionate resentment.
"Mine was no dwarf soul, imprisoned in a like body. I worshipped beauty, greatness, nobility, strength. I have longed to do what was in man to do; what physical imperfection forbade; and I was held in chains, imprisoned by circumstances! So have my years drifted on. Now it seems as if light, the light of hope, shone feebly in my path. If by any pain, any sacrifice, I could cast aside this misshapen body, take, for ever so brief a space, the semblance of what I desire, I would not count the cost, nor weigh the suffering in the balance with release."
"And if even that did not win you the woman?"
A sudden tremor shook the hunchback's frame. He sank into the chair from which he had risen. He covered his face with his hands. Pitiless as ever, Raemore Clive's eyes watched him, and Raemore Clive's will compelled the confession of his weakness.
"I have loved her so long. All her life—when no other was her friend, when poverty and misery were all she knew. In common gratitude she would listen to my prayer, once I stood before her as something of which she need feel no shame."
"A woman's gratitude is not a woman's love. It is but a chill draught at best."
"No man will win more from her."
The green eyes grew black and stormy. A sudden silence fell between the two men.
"You are determined then?" Clive said, in a low, harsh voice.
"Yes. What is life that I should fear to stake it on one last chance of joy?"
"You believe women are won only through their eyes? It is the outward man for whom they care? I think you are right—though, unlike you, I have not had to wade through seas of misery to discover that fact. Well, I wish you luck. It is hard you should not have your chance. But, have you calculated how long this business will take? No cure I know of has ever been completed under from six to twelve months. Much may happen in that time. Women are caught like moths in a flame. Love has scorched their wings ere they even acknowledge the flame is Love. Have you told her of your intention?"
Mickey shook his head. His hands dropped listlessly to his side, and in the dim light his face looked lined and haggard.
"You will take your chance? Do you fear no rival?"
"No. She is heart-whole. She belongs only to Art. For men she cares nothing."
"Not yet—not now perhaps. But she will care. She will love as other women have loved. That untamed, restless heart will seek it's mate, and nestle to his side with folded wings that care no more for flight. It is the common fate of womanhood. It will be hers. Why should she alone escape?"
Mickey rose. They faced each other, and eye searched eye as if it sought to read the very depths of the soul beyond.
Something in that mocking face struck chill on the hunchback's excited nerves. What he read there filled him with a sudden fear.
"You, too," he said. "You care for her?"
"It is a poor word. It doesn't convey much. But it will serve. Yes, my friend, I, too, care for this woman. And what is more, mean to win her. But I am in no haste. I will take no unfair advantage of you. I can wait until we are more equally matched. Life has been a sorry thing for you, and as I first waved the magic wand of change over its surface I have a curiosity to see the result. After all, it will be amusing to watch the game."
"It is life and death to me," muttered Mickey. "But her hand gives or withholds. I only ask a fair chance."
"You shall have it. I will be honest with you, I swear."
He held out his hand. Mickey took it. A moment later he was alone, holding in a fierce grasp a little slip of paper on which was written:
Dr. Jules Chapuye,
17 Rue du Petit Champs,
* * * * * *
Clive sat alone in his room till the daylight was brightening the opposite roofs and the stir and noise of waking life had begun to fill the streets. In his hand he held the crystal ball and into its clear depths his eyes had plunged again and again with thirsty longing.
Scenes, figures, a long procession had come and gone as he gazed, but the one face he craved to see there had still refused to appear.
Restless and fevered, he had passed the sleepless hours, holding that strange vigil with himself and the mysteries of his craft. Now in the grey, wintry morning he looked pale, and old, and feeble. A sense of exhaustion and helplessness was upon him.
"To think that I, even I, should be no wiser, no stronger, than that miserable fool yonder," he cried aloud. "I who vowed that love should never rule my life, to be drawn by a woman's eyes into this poisoned whirlpool; to lose sense and reason, in the witchery of her presence, to lie, strangled as a trapped hare in his net, in the meshes of her hair! To feel strong brain and pulse quickened by a look, maddened by a smile! Yet for me the past and the present are alike brewers of this potent spell. She was mine once, and again, and yet again, shall be. I need fear no rival. Love me she must. It is written."
He thrust the crystal aside into its drawer in the cabinet, and went over to the window and drew aside the silk hangings and looked out. With an impatient longing for air he threw up the sash and leaned forwards, gazing down at the misty street and the passing figures. The street lamps were still alight, and cast fantastic shadows on the closed windows of the shops. A chill wind sighed through the great thoroughfare, deserted now by all that made its life and fashion to the sleeping world.
Raemore Clive threw back his heavy locks, and drew in thirsty gulps of the damp air. It seemed to soothe the fever of nerve and brain, and a curious calmness stole over him.
"It is no fault of mine," he said, half to himself. "I do not send him to his fate. He will die, and I—Oh! if I could only see that. But the curtain always falls between. Yet I am sure—I am sure. Life must be full, complete, exquisite before I reach its end, and she will complete it. This wild, untamed thing, this genius I have wooed and wedded to my own art, she will give me the joy my senses crave, for which I have sacrificed heart and soul so that I might conquer self, and learn the mysteries of Nature."
He drew back suddenly and closed the window. His pallid face and sunken eyes looked back at him from one of the mirrors. He gazed at himself with a sense of unreality. Everything in the room looked shadowy and grotesque in the dull, chill light, and in every corner a filmy shadow lurked. A sort of horror of this place and of his life in it crept over him. The powers on which he had prided himself took a threatening form. He was haunted by secrets more or less shameful. By a sense of loss in his own part in life, an incompleteness that left an ache behind his memory. He had lived, studied laboured for such little purpose. He was lonely and unloved. He was feared, and also he was despised. He thought of the men and women whose lives lay entangled in the meshes of his own, whose fates he had read, whose futures he knew. How easily he had read them, save only in that one instance. By some irony the special fate with which his own was interwoven defied his closest scrutiny. He passed them all in review. Lorrimer, Mickey Croom, his mother, Phil D'Eyncourt, Ray St. Vincent; Brianna, last, yet chief of all. The year to come lay before him, like a chessboard, and these were the figures who would play the game. A year—a strange, eventful year, and yet the crystal told him nought of his own fate. He thought, too, of that fearful curiosity which had set him on this path, and led him on by skilful hints of ultimate gratification. The curiosity was still unappeased. His life knew moments of ardent craving hunger that nothing could satisfy. The veil was still too thick for his eye to pierce; the cloud of mystery too dense for his hand to lift.
There was always a Beyond. He stood on its Borderland, but further he could not pass.
Like one in a dream he moved across the room, and passed the shadowy phantoms his fancy had conjured up. All was strangely still. But suddenly through the chamber of his brain swept the echoes of a stormy sea. He saw white cliffs and heard the beating of paddle wheels, and the movement of pacing unsteady feet.
A strange smile crept to his lips. "The battle to the strong," he muttered. "To the strong. He will give his life for the poor semblance of manhood Fate has denied. But I—I have a power beyond even that. I will teach her what Love is while that poor tortured frame is stretched upon the rack. And when he returns it will be too late, though I have kept my word—to the letter."
A late afternoon on the west coast of Ireland. Storm and rain and gusty winds were heralding the birth of September. A grim, red light, where the sunset lingered, gave a sinister glow to masses of dark clouds plied up in the west like far-reaching mountain tops. The woods had been ravaged by gales, and branches and leaves strewed the damp ground in dismal wreckage. Crested waves rode high over a heaving sea, and broke in echoing thunder against the cliffs. Tangled heaps of seaweed strewed the beach, and all the air held the wild warfare of mysterious forces waging destruction, with that supreme indifference to life and property and beauty that is one of Nature's ironies.
The woods sloped to the cliff edge, and a narrow zig-zag path led downwards to the shore. On the summit of the cliff stood a little brown wooden hut. Its door was open to the wild seascape, yet the thick trees gave it shelter. Within it sat a girl watching the stormy scene with eyes that held something of its storm and unrest.
The fierce gusts shook the little structure. The withered autumn leaves lay in heaps at her feet, blown in by vagrant breezes. The air was briny with spray, and chill with autumn's breath. A sense of desolation brooded over the whole wild scene.
The girl's eyes turned from the gloom and the tossing sea to a letter in her hand. She had read it many times, but she read it again now, here in this wild solitude, while sky and sea and land held high festival of mingled powers.
There was no glow or fervour in her face, only a dull calm, and that hopelessness of indecision, which is almost despair.
"What to say? What to do?" she thought, and then, with sudden impatience, crushed the sheets of paper together and thrust them into the pocket of her dress.
Then she rose and went to the doorway and stood looking right and left as if in expectation. The glow in the west had deepened to crimson. Fiery bars of gold crossed the clouds at intervals. The moan of the sea was like a dirge in her ears. Listening intently she caught the sound of approaching footsteps, and instinctively shrank back into the shelter of the little structure. A moment later a shadow darkened the entrance and a man's tall figure stooped beneath it and passed within.
"You are here? When I saw the storm increasing I feared you would not come. I should have remembered you have no foolish womanly fears, Jessica."
"Of wind and rain I certainly have no fear," she said. "They were nurse and cradle to me, and friends too. But why did you wish me to meet you here? When did you arrive?"
"Early this morning. Mickey will be here to-night. I was determined not to enter the Castle (save the mark) until his arrival. I promised as much."
"Our host, of course. Not all Lady Skibbereen's blandishment could make me break my word and join your party. There is a compact between us, Jessica; did you know it? No; how should you? We are rivals for your favour. That, of course, is no news. But we are each to have a fair chance. Why do you look so scornful? We have worked for you each in our own way. May I sit down? I have a great deal to say to you. It is long since we met, you know. You don't ask where I have spent those months, Jessica?"
"It does not concern me."
"Yes, it does. What if I told you I had been in Paris? That I had seen Mickey. Mickey, who disappeared so mysteriously; who has sent no word or sign of his existence to his anxious friends; whose very mother has been in ignorance of his fate? What then, Jessica?"
"He has no doubt had good reasons for his silence."
"How trustful you are. I wish you believed in me as you do in Mickey—I beg his pardon, Lord Skibbereen, Master of Croom Castle and a noble estate of pigstyes and hovels. How long since you came here, Jessica?"
"Only two weeks," she said.
Her face was resentful, her manner impatient. The old dislike and fear of this man showed themselves plainly. He suddenly dropped his mocking voice, and his face adopted an aspect of gravity.
"Jessica," he said. "I am tired of suspense. For two years I have waited on your moods. For the first hour of our meeting was the hour of our soul's betrothal. I told you so. You would not listen, but now, Jessica, now—you must. You shall! Patience has limitations, and I am man as well as fatalist."
He rose and drew himself up to his full height. The faint red glow from without fell on his face and lit the depths of his flaming eyes.
For the first time in all their strange acquaintanceship the girl felt afraid. Old haunting thoughts leaped hack to memory; a numbing terror held her in its grasp. His gaze held her fascinated and still; the gaze of the hypnotist on the subject; the subtle force of one will exercising its masterful power over another.
"What is it you want?" she asked mechanically.
"I want you—you, Jessica—you only; you, who were mine in the past of dead ages. Have I not told you so again and again? You, whom Fate led to me in such strange fashion. You, whose genius compels all men's adoration; even mine, to whom genius so long meant but a crank of brain organisation. Yes, Jessica, the time has come at last. I am your master. You must acknowledge it. I gave you Fame, and I withheld it. You have known success, and failure; for, after my play was withdrawn, you could act no other. Is not that true, Jessica?"
A sob broke from her swelling throat, rage and weakness struggled for the mastery. Her hatred of this man strained and fought against the leash with which he held her faculties, yet strained in vain.
"It was you then," she cried passionately; "you who paralysed my force and weakened my power, held me up to ridicule, saw me trampled in the dust of men's scorn! Oh, shame on you. Shame! It was the work of a fiend!"
"It was the work of my will, and the fault of your obstinacy. I warned you, Jessica, it was useless to rebel, and you gave the warning no heed. Do you think I have sacrificed so much to gain this power of mine, only to know it vanquished by a woman's whim? Do you think I have not read your heart like an open book? No, Jessica, no, it cannot be. Fate is too strong for you, and Fate has decreed you shall be mine."
Their eyes met in the gathering gloom. In hers glowed the fire of rebellion, in his lay the deep calm of assurance.
"I hate you!" she muttered, sullenly.
He shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
"I know you do. It makes no difference. In barbaric times I was your master—you my slave. I need my slave again. There is a future before us, Jessica. A future in which my power shall mould your genius, and together we shall rule the poor fools who claim the world's good things and leave us beggars. We shall be rich, Jessica—rich and great and powerful. The magic of gold shall make the world an enchanted garden, and all its pleasures and delights will be as fruit our hands may gather at will. Cease to frown, and teach your wild heart obedience. Believe me, it is useless to fret and chafe against my power, useless as the spent fury of those waves on the shores below! Are you content? Do you believe it now?"
She tried to speak, but no words would come. Yet the look in her flashing eyes and the stormy beats of her pulsing heart were not eloquent of submission.
"I do not believe it," she said, at last.
Again he made a gesture of indifference.
"You are hard to convince, yet I do not despair. I have held Love at bay so long that I did not expect an easy conquest. But I mean to win you, and what I mean I always do; Jessica, you will reach greatness through my power alone. I can place you on a pedestal of gold for the world to worship. Who among the men you have known have wooed you honourably, save only this poor hunchbacked deformity to whom your position and birth meant nothing. But they mean a great deal in the world you have known, Jessica. They are barriers few care to cross even to possess beauty such as yours."
The colour ebbed from her face. It grew cold and still as a mask.
"Let me pass," she said, hoarsely. "I will not listen to you," and she rushed wildly into the wooded gloom beyond.
The least gloomy of all the gloomy old rooms of the Castle was the hall.
On this stormy autumn night a huge fire leaped and roared in the wide old fireplace. The flames shone on carved oak and faded tattered tapestries; on rugs and seats and gay-coloured cushions, on autumn spoils of berry and leaf and trailing ivy. They showed up the contrast of modern comfort and ancient picturesqueness—the low chairs, the Turkish rugs, the great blue china jars, and the background of quaint carving, and antiquated picture frames.
Three women and one man were seated round the fire chatting and laughing over their teacups. The women were Lady Skibbereen, Ray St. Vincent, recently married to old Lord Farningham, and Phil D'Eyncourt. The man was Max Lorrimer.
"How late Brianna is," exclaimed Phil, suddenly. "And what could have possessed her to go out in such a storm?"
"Indeed, yes; and a bad journey it must have been for my poor boy. He's an hour late already. Not that the trains are ever punctual, and then there's the ferry if he came by Cork. The saints have him in their keeping! Though I don't know why I should ask them for I'm a bad Catholic at the best of times, according to Father McFadyean."
Lady Skibbereen shook her golden head and laughed her airy laugh and glanced round the circle as if for approval.
"And why hasn't Mr. Clive come in, as he promised? 'Twas the strangest idea of his, staying at the lodge instead of coming here. But no, wild horses wouldn't draw him. 'Not till Mickey's there to welcome me,' he said; and sure, what would Mickey care one way or another? Now, me dear Lady Farningham, have another cup of tea. Do. It will sustain you; and goodness knows when we shall have dinner to-night, for I said to keep it back for Mickey, and—Ah! wasn't that the bell I heard? Here he is at last!"
A footman crossed the outer hall, and a moment later the door opened, and Raemore Clive entered half-leading, half-carrying, a drenched and fainting figure. The women sprang to their feet with a simultaneous cry.
"It's Brianna. What's happened?"
"I found her in the woods. I think a bough had struck her. She was unconscious," said Clive. "There, she's coming round. She'll be all right in a moment. Have you some brandy? That will pull her together. Don't crowd round her like that. She wants air."
He laid the girl's helpless figure on an oaken settle. Her hat had fallen off, her loosened hair swept the ground. Her face looked like death! Her clenched teeth had closed on her under lip, and the blood was slowly trickling down the white chin and neck. On her temple was a large purple bruise.
"My God! she looks like death," muttered Lorrimer, as he bent over her, the glass with brandy in his trembling hand.
"Nonsense! Stand aside, and leave her to me," said Clive, sternly.
His commanding voice, his fierce gaze, struck awe into the startled group. They drew aside, and watched him as he raised the girl's head, and tried to force the spirit through her clenched teeth.
The smart of the liquid on her wounded lip seemed to recall her senses. With a faint moan she opened her eyes, and gazed at the faces around her.
"Drink this," said Clive, in her ear. And his hand made a quick gesture that drew her eyes to his own.
She obeyed without a word, then sank back against the cushions they had piled behind her head. The lids fell over her eyes. A long shuddering sigh shook her frame, her nerveless hands fell one on either side, and she lay still and inert as one in a trance. Clive drew back.
"Leave her alone," he said. "She will be all right in a few moments. She was caught in the storm. It was fearful. You have no idea in here what the force of the wind is like. I thought we should never reach the Castle. She had no right to go out on such a day!"
"I told her so, my own self," said Lady Skibbereen. "But, you know Brianna; when she means to do a thing it's as good as done. Ah, she's sitting up, the darling! How are you now, Brianna—better?"
"Yes, quite well, I think," said the girl, raising herself to a sitting position. "What was the matter? You all look frightened."
"Well we may," said Ray. "You looked more like a corpse than a living woman when Clive brought you in."
"Mr. Clive?" Her voice faltered. A puzzled distressed look crept over her white face. She lifted her arm and pushed back her disordered hair. It was all wet with rain, and among its loosened tangles glistened the gold and crimson of autumn leaves. She made an effort to rise, then sank back once more and closed her eyes and seemed to think. Lorrimer, standing a little to one side, saw the colour waver, then leap like a burning flame to her cheek and brow, saw the sudden quiver of her lip, and then the blank, wide terror of her gaze as she met Clive's eyes.
"I will go to my room. I—I want to be alone," she muttered. "No, not you," as Lorrimer approached. "Ray, come with me—come."
Fear and entreaty rang in her voice, fear so strange and awful that Lorrimer felt its echo in his own heart, and stood like one turned to stone. Ray had advanced and put her arm round the girl and supported her to her feet.
"You poor dear!" she murmured tenderly. "Why, you are wet to the skin."
Brianna rose. Her trailing skirts hung limp and soaked about her tall, slight figure. She shook as with an ague fit. Lady Skibbereen, all sorrow and concern and fussy sympathy, followed them out of the hall. Clive turned to the fire and stretched his hands to the blaze. The heat acting on the damp of his clothes enveloped him in a sudden mist of steam.
"You are wet also. Hadn't you better change your clothes? They are here. Sally Dunne sent them up this afternoon," said Phil D'Eyncourt.
"Yes," he said, absently. "I will. Give me some tea. No, stay; I'll have brandy. I feel chilled to the bone. Has—has Mickey arrived yet?"
"No. We think the storm has delayed him."
He crossed over to one of the tables where the spirit decanter stood and poured himself out half a tumbler of brandy. It was so unusual for him to touch any stimulant that Lorrimer was conscious of a thrill of surprise.
He went back to the fire, apparently forgetful of his wet clothes. The fiery liquid coursed through his veins, his blood began to glow, and the colour sprang to his face. He stood for a few moments gazing into the leaping flames, then suddenly, without a word to either, he turned on his heel and left the hall. A servant showed him his own room. He locked the door and then lit the candles on the dressing-table and stood looking at his own reflection in the glass.
"I know myself, villain as well as knave. How do I look? No, nothing is changed; strange that one's sins should not stamp their footprints as they pass!" He passed his hand over his brow and swept the dark hair back. "Mickey will be here in an hour. In one hour. Sixty minutes in which to learn my part and teach her hers. Well, I have had harder tasks than that in my time and never quailed. I fear no one but him. The eye of love is keen as second sight. He will know I have broken faith after all. Why did I? It is but a year's life he has purchased. A year—twelve little months—at what a cost! I might have given him his chance of happiness. What possessed me?"
Again he scrutinised his face. It seemed to him that a devil mocked in either eye. That a new touch of cruelty lurked about the mouth. With a shudder of loathing he turned away, and began to divest himself of his wet clothing.
"She must come down to dinner. She must seem as usual. No one must guess. After to-night it will be all plain sailing. Everyone may know that she will be my wife. My Wife! . . . . I suppose it must come to that. Conventional scruples must be appeased. Well, I have won her from these fools who love her. That is triumph enough."
A loud reverberating ring sounded suddenly through the stillness of the gloomy old house. He started. His keen ears strained every power of hearing, his very heart-beats seemed to cease.
"It is Mickey—the transformed, glorified Mickey whom I scarcely recognised. What will she say? How will they meet? I must be present. Not for a fortune would I leave those two alone to-night!"
With quick strong fingers he unstrapped the leather portmanteau, and took out his evening clothes. Rapidly his toilet was made. Then he stood still in the centre of the room and closed his eyes and stretched his arms out with that gesture of command that seemed a part of himself. So still and motionless he seemed that anyone entering would have taken him for a statue. Yet it was only the stillness of supreme effort directing all his will force towards one object.
* * * * * *
Brianna lay on the bed in the room she shared with Phil. Ray stood beside her, her face full of alarm. She had removed the girl's wet clothes and wrapped her in a warm dressing-gown, and piled blankets upon her, but nothing seemed to bring heat to her chilled frame or stay her shivering. Her eyes were closed, the bruise on her temple stood out black and swollen above her arched brows.
"It looks like a blow," thought Ray.
As the loud peal that had startled Clive rang through the silence, Brianna suddenly sprang up. Her eyes, wide and terrified, turned to Ray.
"It is Mickey," she cried. "How can I meet him—how can I?"
"My dear child, what has happened?" exclaimed Ray in deep concern. "You look as full of tragedy as a Siddons. If you don't want to meet Mickey, you need not come down. Indeed, you don't look fit for it. I wish you'd get right into bed, and I'll tell our worthy hostess to send you up something hot. Good strong soup and a glass of wine—that will do you good. You've taken a chill, I'm sure."
But Brianna only shook her head.
"I must go down," she repeated. "I promised."
"Well, dinner isn't for an hour yet," said Ray. "I'll run off and dress and then come back and help you. Put on that white tea-gown of yours; it's less trouble, and warmer too, than evening dress. Lie still now, and try and get warm. How foolish of you to go out in that storm."
"I had to go," moaned the girl. She pressed her hands to her brow as if to still its throbbing. "Had to go!" she repeated. "And it is the same now. I feel I must go downstairs and meet Mickey. And, oh, I don't want to. What has happened, Ray? What has he done to me?"
"Raemore Clive," she whispered. "I feel so weak. All my power has gone. It left me in the woods. He said I was—his slave. Oh, Ray! It isn't true, it isn't true?"
Her voice had a ring of terror, and her eyes held a look of despair.
"What isn't true? My dear, you are feverish and excited. Do try and calm yourself or you will be ill. There, lie back on the pillows. Promise me you won't attempt to get up till I come back."
"Yes, I promise you," said the girl wearily. "I feel too tired to move. But I know I shall have to get up presently. Something is drawing—forcing—willing me. He said it should be so again—and it is."
"Who said? Has Clive been at any of his hypnotic tricks. I told you he had come back from Paris, nine parts demon and one part man. Was I right?"
"I think you were. How strange I feel! As if nothing mattered. As if I had reached the end of everything. My heart seems frozen in my bosom. Oh, this deadly, deadly cold."
She shivered again, but then suddenly a warm glow stole over her, a slumbrous calm enveloped her senses. The colour came back to her face and lips, and her hands grew less chill. "I shall sleep," she murmured drowsily, and before Ray could answer she fell into a deep child-like slumber. Her breath came evenly, her limbs grew perfectly still, and all the pain and trouble left her face.
Ray watched her for a few moments in deep perplexity. Then seeing that she really was asleep, she left the room and went into her own, which adjoined it.
"It is most extraordinary," she repeated. "Brianna, usually so strong and self-possessed to be like this! What can have happened?"
She dressed very hurriedly, making an unusually simple toilet. She had joined the party at the urgent invitation of Lady Skibbereen, and also because Lorrimer was to be at the Castle. Lord Farningham had absolutely declined to set foot in Ireland. It represented to him a country of savages, who left dynamite in the cellars, and fired guns from behind hedges at any passer-by who had the misfortune to be mistaken for a landlord.
Ray had been at Croom only a week. She had not found it particularly attractive, and Lorrimer spent most of his time shooting, and seemed to have grown morose and indifferent. Brianna, too, was changed. She had come there pale and spiritless. A reverse of fortune had followed the brief success of The Opal, and the two pieces which had succeeded that strange production had been utter failures. For three months she had done nothing, and when she came to Ireland it was in a mood of despondency, from which even Lady Skibbereen's liveliness could not rouse her.
In vain that good lady assured her that such reverses were the life and soul of the profession; were in reality a benefit to it, because they made hope doubly alluring, and gave a fresh zest to the next success. Brianna only listened apathetically. Her pride and delight seemed utterly vanquished, and that hopelessness which is the worst feature of failure, seemed to have marked her for its prey.
All this Ray remembered, and thanked her stars that her days of toil and reverses, of fluctuating fortune and hard-won triumphs were over. It was true matrimony had not proved an exhilarating exchange for life of the stage. Her social triumphs had not been in any degree as brilliant as those of certain music-hall rivals, but still she had a fine home, plenty of money, and her father's blessing to boot. Reconciliation had been easily brought about. The Church is less obdurate to the peerage—even in a damaged edition—than to the stage.
For a brief period of grass-widowhood Ray meant to enjoy herself. It was somewhat hard that the enjoyment did not promise a ready fulfilment. She looked at herself when her toilet was completed, and was conscious that she was handsomer than ever. Excitement lent a flush to her cheeks, a sparkle to her eyes. The pale pink and shimmering green of her gown made a delicious and becoming contrast. To-night she felt she had no need to fear even Brianna's rivalry. With a satisfied smile she returned to the girl's room.
Phil D'Eyncourt was just putting the finishing touches to her luxuriant fringe. Brianna was standing by the fire dressed in a loose tea-gown of white serge. Her face had the flush of fever, her eyes looked wild and strange. She answered Ray's questions absently and as if her mind was far away. She seemed to have recovered from the shock and chill of the afternoon, and Ray felt that her anxiety was groundless. As the second bell rang the three women left the room together, and went down the broad staircase to the hall. Clive was there alone, standing with his back to the flaming logs.
"Well," cried Ray, gaily, "what of our truant? Have you seen him?"
"No. But I hear he has arrived. I was in my room——"
A slight noise, the sound of an opening door, and involuntarily they all turned. It was the library door that had opened, and standing within the light falling on his iron-grey hair and pale grave face, was—Mickey. And yet, was it Mickey? The three women stared. Could this be the man they remembered; the man who eight months before had left them deformed and misshapen? Why, this man was taller by inches. He held himself straight and erect as even Clive, his eyes had lost their gloom, his lips smiled welcome.
He came forward, and his outstretched hands went to Brianna, and his eyes sought hers as if to read something in their startled depths.
"Child," he whispered, "are you well—happy? Ah, I needn't ask."
For the flush and joy of her face were answer enough, and he turned to the others, leaving her bewilderment unanswered.
Clive stepped forward.
"Dr. Chapuye has done his work well," he said. "I congratulate you, Lord Skibbereen."
"Is it really—really you, Mickey?" faltered Brianna.
His answer was cut short. A whirling avalanche of skirts descended the staircase, and he was suddenly clasped in his mother's impetuous embrace.
"It is me boy—me own noble, handsome boy! And indeed I'm the proud mother to-day, Mickey, darling, and not one out of the many hundreds of pound notes I've sent that French medecin, as they call him, do I begrudge. It's the grandest miracle since the days of Moses. Now isn't it?" She turned and faced the group. "Look at him all of you. There's me own true, handsome son for you again; and the very living image of his father and his grandfather, if the family portraits are to be believed!"
"Oh, hush mother!" interposed Mickey, sternly, "you won't give me an opportunity to explain."
"And what would you be explaining, I'd like to know? Can't they see for themselves that you're a new creature? And never a word did I breathe of it, Mickey, as I promised. No, not even to Sally Dunne; who's as curious as Eve herself before she ate the apple. There, me dears, now you all know about it. The French doctor put him in a frame, wasn't it, Mickey?—and his limbs were stretched, and some tendons or something cut. But that's neither here nor there. It was a wonderful operation, though mighty risky, all the same; but sure the boy's heart was set on it, and that's all about it."
She was laughing and crying, and kissing Mickey at intervals.
The group behind only stared at them in utter silence. It did indeed seem as if a miracle had been performed; this pale, slight, aristocratic-looking man was so unlike the Mickey Croom they had known.
But Brianna, as she met the deep sadness of his eyes, shuddered and shrank aside. For in them was the look of one who sees his doom and goes bravely forth to face it.
It was a strange uncomfortable dinner. Lady Skibbereen talked enough for a dozen people, and grew affectionately maudlin over the champagne. Brianna was flushed and feverish. She could eat nothing. Food seemed to choke her, and she started and trembled when anyone spoke to her. Never once did she look at Mickey. Lorrimer and Ray conversed in low tones together, under cover of Clive's devoted boisterous talk. He, too, ate little and devoted himself to the champagne. His eyes rarely left Brianna, and she seemed uneasily conscious of their watchfulness.
Mickey sat at the head of the table, beside his mother, trying to stem the tide of her garrulity while the servants were present.
It was a relief when they withdrew, and the conversation became general. Phil's improved health, Brianna's theatrical experiences, Ray St. Vincent's marriage, Lorrimer's sudden retirement from the army, Clive's mystical popularity, these formed the topics of discussion. Mickey listened with the interest and ardour of one to whom news of the outside world has long been denied.
For long months he had lived isolated in that strange hospital where Dr. Jules Chapuye worked his cures and performed his terrible operations. For those months life had been blank of all save pain and terror and uncertainty. Now, like a prisoner released, he sat there in painless freedom and gazed at familiar faces and heard familiar tongues. He longed to speak to Brianna, but it was impossible. Well, he must have patience. He had been patient so long, and now it need only be a question of hours. Surely that was not so very hard. Meanwhile his eyes gazed their full at her beauty, noting its changes, and wondering a little at the new look of fear, almost, indeed, of terror, that at times shadowed her face.
Raemore Clive talked on in his usual mocking, irrelevant way. That mingling of cynicism and brutality, wit and coarseness, were second nature to him now. He was relating some hypnotic experiments he had seen in Paris, and held the table in breathless silence as he described a murder committed as one of these experiments. He painted a tawdry room, a girl asleep, the dawn creeping in through tattered window curtains. They almost saw the scene, so graphic was his description—saw the bed and the half-nude figure, the clothes in an untidy heap upon the floor, and the candle flickering in its socket beside an empty bottle and a broken glass. They seemed to hear the opening of the door, and catch the glitter of cruel eyes in a white, cruel face. He made them see a lean, brown hand holding something in its clasp. He made them hear the stealthy footsteps, and shudder at the murderous purpose in those gleaming eyes. They caught the flash of the upraised knife, its sharp, keen blade, its swift descent, the rush of blood that stained the white flesh, the quiver, and the awful stillness. So real and so awful was the scene that even Lorrimer turned white, and sick, and Phil D'Eyncourt fainted. Mickey rose suddenly from the table.
"You should not tell such horrible tales before ladies," he said. "You have made my mother quite hysterical."
He led Lady Skibbereen sobbing and trembling from the room, and Ray tried to revive her fainting neighbour. Brianna alone sat still and white and calm.
"What a scene in a play!" she said. "Only it should be the woman who killed the man!"
"You would act it well," said Clive. "Perhaps I may write the play one day—who knows?"
Lorrimer shuddered visibly.
"I hope you won't," he said. "The story is bad enough without being put into living shape. You've frightened the wits out of Phil D'Eyncourt."
The girl did, indeed, look scared, as, leaning on his arm, she tottered from the table, Ray supporting her on the other side.
Clive crossed over to Brianna. His hand clasped her arm.
"Tell me you forgive me," he muttered. "I warned you not to drive me desperate. Now, you know why."
Like a hunted thing her head turned from side to side, her eyes looked piteous as those of a child, imploring help where no help is. A sense of injustice, of cruel wrong, of rage, and yet of feebleness, filled her heart. A new feeling struggled for birth, amidst throes of fierce agony. It was the desire for revenge. Revenge, ruthless and brutal as the nature that sought to coerce her own. Unbound passions, the fruits of seed sown in her neglected and brutalised childhood, sprang into hot, quick life, beneath the sun of hate. Yet to give them any expression was beyond her power.
"Let me go!" she cried fiercely, and wrenched her arm from his grasp and rushed from the room.
His first impulse was to follow her, but he restrained it. The door closed. He returned to his seat, and taking out his cigarette case lit one and commenced to smoke.
"What a wild cat she is at heart," he muttered. "But I shall tame her yet. The harder the fight the sweeter the triumph. Now—for Mickey."
* * * * * *
Mickey and Lorrimer returned in a few moments. They found Clive smoking, cool and impassive as ever.
"How are our hysterical friends?" he asked. "I really did not intend to produce such an effect. It was absolutely unrehearsed. Why, Lorrimer, you look quite upset. What's the matter?"
"Nothing much. Only I should like a few words with you alone presently."
"That sounds mysterious. I hope you are not going to challenge me to mortal combat. I never fired a pistol, or handled a rapier in my life."
"No. You employ other weapons as deadly, and far less scrupulous."
"I don't understand you."
"Then by heaven you shall!" thundered Lorrimer. "I can't sit at table with you and hear your diabolical stories, and your sneers at virtue and honour, and not ask what you mean by—this."
He threw a crumpled letter down on the table. Clive snatched it. Mickey made a quick step forward.
"Mr. Lorrimer," he said, "you appear to forget that this is my house. I demand an explanation of such a scene with one of my guests."
"You shall have it soon enough," said Lorrimer, watching Clive's white face with blazing eyes. "I found that letter on the floor of the hall by the settle where he had laid Brianna. I remembered his words that she had no business to be out in that awful storm to-day, yet who wrote that letter? Who was with her for hours in the summer-house on the cliffs, yet pretended only to have met her by accident? Who wrote that masterful order? Come to me. I command you!"
"I wrote it," said Clive, coolly. "Since you are not above reading other people's letters with all your professions of honour, I may as well tell you that your surmise is correct. I bade Brianna come to me. I had something of importance to communicate to her. Since when have you constituted yourself the guardian of her actions, may I ask?"
Cold and still, his face like death, Mickey leant against the chair at the head of the table and looked at the two men.
"There is something—something behind all this!" cried Lorrimer furiously. "Brianna is not the sort of girl to make appointments with—with any man!"
"Not with you, perhaps, lady-killer as you are, but with me—that's a different matter. Permit me to say, however, that I object to being catechised in this fashion. I am not responsible to you for my actions. Kindly remember that in future."
He turned away and poured himself out some more champagne. But Mickey's enforced calm gave way as he noticed the cool insolence of face and action.
"Stop, Mr. Clive," he said. "I at least have a right to an explanation. Brianna is in my house, under my charge, in a way. By what right do you force her to keep appointments with you?"
"I will it," said Clive.
"Faugh! The old hateful sickening phrase. The story of your power—your cursed compelling influence. Your devilish arts working on her will and overmastering it."
A flash of pain shot across Mickey's face. The horror in his eyes awoke a thrill of pity in Lorrimer's heart as he caught its flash. Then there was a cry, a spring, a horrible choking sound, and ere Max could move to intervene, he had thrown himself on Clive, and his strong, sinewy hands were at his throat.
"Villain!" he cried, "and again villain! Is it thus you keep your word?"
"My God, Mickey! Stop! You'll kill him!"
Panting, gasping, Clive reeled forward into a chair. His face was horrible, and yet amidst its horror there lingered something grotesque, as if he marked the inartistic effects of so crude an outburst of men's passions.
"You—you might have listened," he said, between panting breaths. "But you Irishmen are so impetuous. She is—my promised wife!"
Those words fell like a blow on the hearts of the two men who heard them.
They stood and looked at that panting, disordered figure in absolute silence. Was it true, or had he spoken out of the vain boastfulness so much a part of himself.
Mickey first broke the painful silence.
"Is it true?" he said.
"Yes. Ask her."
"Then you have broken your word to me."
"Love is stronger than honour. She was helpless, alone, in trouble. She came to me. I consoled her."
"That is a lie, and you know it," cried Lorrimer, fiercely. "She fears you—she dislikes you. It is not by fair means you have won her."
Clive sprang suddenly to his feet.
"Enough of this melodramatic nonsense," he cried. "Let him win who may, and keep who can. You had your chances and I had mine. If I have made better use of them than you I deserve my success."
"You are a trickster, a charlatan, and a liar," shouted Mickey, fiercely. "You have not won Brianna's heart; you could not. You have terrorised and coerced her. You to marry! You, who have made a mock and sport of the marriage tie all your life! It is monstrous. It shall never be."
The old evil gleam showed itself through the narrowed slit of Clive's drooped eyelids.
"It shall be," he said coolly. "Who can prevent it? Whether she loves or hates me makes no difference. Our destinies are united. I knew it from the first hour we met. She knows it, too, at last. I bear you no ill-will. The natural savage in man rather commands my respect when it leaps the bounds of civilisation. I can make allowance for your indignation, but indeed I kept faith with you till to-day. You should have returned yesterday, Mickey. The time was up."
The insolence of his tone and look stung Mickey like the touch of a lash. He turned away. As he reached the door he paused. Then he looked back to where Clive still stood, that smile of triumph on his lips.
"You will leave this house to-night," he said. "The same roof cannot shelter us."
"I regret that courtesy has not found a place in your new honours," said Clive, in the same mocking voice. "Perhaps they are too—new. One cannot, of course, adopt the habits and instincts of a gentleman as rapidly as his position. I came here as your mother's guest. Will you kindly convey to her my regrets for such an abrupt departure? And I must also trespass on your hospitality half an hour longer. I cannot leave without an interview with Brianna. In what room may I see her alone?"
The white rage of Mickey's face was awful. Lorrimer glanced from one to the other, fearful of another outburst. But suddenly, with a great effort, Mickey calmed himself. His face grew hard and still as beaten iron.
"I will give her your message," he said, and left the room.
Without a word Lorrimer followed.
Clive seated himself, and rested his arms on the polished mahogany table, with its dishes of fruit and bowls of wild flowers, and cut-glass decanters. He was shaking from head to foot. Absolute physical cowardice mastered him now. He had faced a murderer's desperate hate when Mickey's hands had well nigh choked the life out of him. He could not forget it.
"If there is a hell I have looked on it to-night," he thought. "What fools men can be, and for a woman's sake!"
His hands went to his throat. It ached and throbbed still as if that awful pressure held it unreleased.
"Supposing he had killed me," he reflected. "But, no, I should have read it. My hour is not yet."
The opening of the door roused him. He lifted his head. A servant stood there.
"Miss Lynch will see you in the library, if you plaze, sir," he said, "I was sint to tell you."
Clive rose languidly. He still felt dazed and weak. He caught sight of his face in the glass and started. He stopped a moment to arrange his collar and tie, and smooth back his disordered hair. Then he followed the man to the library.
It was a dingy, dreary room. Neither fires nor lights could make it cheerful. High oaken bookcases ran round the walls, and almost touched the celling. The carpet was threadbare, the chairs of hard, stiff leather. Hangings of musty, moth-eaten tapestry hung in desolate folds before the long windows. A neglected-looking fire was burning itself out on the hearth, and seated on one of the stiff leather-backed chairs was Brianna.
His heart gave a quick throb as he saw her. It seemed to him that he both loved and hated her in that moment. Two passions were struggling for the mastery in his breast, and neither was certain of victory. Her face was as white as her gown, and the deep scorn in her eyes, as she lifted her head and looked at him, was more eloquent than any words.
"I was told that you were leaving her to-night, otherwise I would not have seen you," she said.
"You would have seen me to-night, or any night, had I wished it," he said. "But come, I have no wish to waste words. I want to know when you will marry me?"
"Marry you! Marry——"
"It is conventional, and respectable, and all that," he said. "And not a very alluring prospect. But we must bow to prejudices, I have told your self-constituted guardian that you will be my wife, and he is quite content. I shall have to return to London to-morrow. When may I expect you?"
"You have told Mickey?" she faltered.
"And Mr. Lorrimer—have they not offered congratulations yet? How remiss."
The blood flushed to her brow. She sprang to her feet, and faced him.
"I shall not marry you," she said. "Do you hear? Never—never!"
"Very well," he said, coolly, "if you prefer——"
"How dare you!" she panted. "You know what I feel—what I said—I hate you! Can you never understand?"
"Nonsense!" he said. "It is you who don't understand your own feelings; and even if you do hate me, it is of no use."
"What shall I do?" she moaned. "Oh, what shall I do? Have you no mercy?"
"Where you are concerned, no. It is not so much that I love you as that I need you. My life is incomplete. There is something it lacks, and I told you long ago you were my fate, even as I am yours, Brianna."
"Oh, no!" she cried, and then her hands dropped, and her wild eyes turned to his face. "Fate you may call it, but for me it has another meaning. You are not a man. You have given yourself to some evil power that makes you half-brute, half-devil. What you claim and force from me is not myself. It is only a weakness that hates and loathes and rebels, and will rebel all my life."
"I like that rebellion," he said, "it gives the zest of the Sultan to my rights in my slave. You poor frightened thing, even your genius is at my mercy."
She shuddered. Her lips grew hard and firm, and her eyes took back some of their old defiance.
"There is wild blood in me," she said. "Take care how you rouse it."
"I love that wild blood, my beautiful panther. It shall beat and throb with mine, even as your will shall bend and bow to my bidding. The world will be the richer for a union like ours."
His mocking voice maddened her. Her brain grew dizzy with the force and stress of emotion. She felt the loud beats of her heart, and pressed her hand against her side as if to stifle them.
"What do you want with me?" she said, fiercely.
"I have told you as much as I dare tell. The rest you will learn when your life is linked with mine, as linked it must be."
"Links can be broken," she said. "I have warned you."
"I am not afraid of risk. When will you come to me, Brianna?"
His glance compelled her, his strange face came nearer, nearer, as in that awful moment in the summer house. She flung out her arms, but he caught them, and drew them round his throat, and kissed her on the lips.
"Mine!" he said, triumphantly. "Did I not tell you rebellion was useless!"
But there was something stronger than rebellion, more terrible than hate. In the face that suddenly flashed back its white and desperate fury to his own.
That kiss seemed the seal of desecration. She flung him from her with a force that had naught of woman in it. He staggered and clutched the chair on which she had been seated. With one swift movement she was at the door, and turned and looked at him.
"The hour you touch me again, the hour I feel your hateful power compelling me," she cried, "is your last hour of life—or mine!"
Then the door closed, and his bloodshot eyes gazed in baffled fury at the place where she had stood and defied him.
* * * * * *
Blind and mad, scarce knowing what she did, she flew up the wide oak stairs and reached her room. She locked and double locked the door, and then flung her arms above her head, and like a wild thing paced the room in maddened frenzy. The fetters of restraint, the schooling of discipline, she threw aside as once she had thrown her childish foes to right and left on the Coal Quay. Nothing mattered. Nothing held her save that sense of outrage and disgust, the loathing of that forced embrace.
"That his lips should have touched me," she cried, and wiped her own lips with her handkerchief with a force that made them bleed, and then tore the flimsy cambric to shreds, and flung it into the fire in very impotence of rage.
The awful tempest swept over her unchecked. To and fro she paced the room with the fierce striding of a madwoman. Curses, words awful and unwomanly, leapt to her lips. The graces of civilisation shrank abashed into some dim retreat. She wanted none of them now. She had gone back to the old, wild, untutored savagery that Sally Dunne had rescued, and Mickey had restrained.
How long she raved thus, how long that passionate madness held her, she never knew. Only she found herself at last staring hopelessly in the glass at something that faced her. Something white and wild with eyes like flame, from which great tears rolled helplessly down.
In honour of Mickey his mother had decreed that the chill, comfortless drawing-room should be used instead of the more comfortable hall. The three women sat round the fire after Brianna had left, and made spasmodic attempts at conversation. They had heard nothing of the scene in the dining-room, and Mickey's message to Brianna had conveyed no special meaning to any one except Ray.
She looked keenly at Lorrimer, and noticed signs of disturbance on his face. Mickey had drawn a chair up beside his mother, and was listening patiently to her affectionate tattle. His eyes were fixed on the fire. That mask of iron stillness still seemed to hold his features in its expressionless calm. His ears were strained for the sound of a closing door, for the echo of the light step that had once made his life's music.
How had this awful thing come to pass? How had she been brought to accept this man's love? Was it for sake of ambition, for wealth, for future fame, for any of the incomprehensible reasons that make women sell themselves into bondage? Underlying his outward calm raged the fires of fierce jealousy.
It was less pain that he had lost her than that this man should have won her. His latent distrust of him increased tenfold in his absence. Clive's visit to him in Paris had been unwelcome, and Dr. Chapuye had hinted that he was in that city for no very good purpose. Still, it was a purpose that detained him three months from Brianna's side. Yet now this was the outcome of it. An increase of his strange powers, a wider field of development for his fiendish knowledge. As he sat there in the home that this man had, in a way, restored to him, he felt he had behaved like the savage his enemy had called him; that the traditions of his ancestry had no root in his nature; that only the brute instinct had recognised a rival and thirsted for his destruction.
"What makes you so low-spirited, Mickey, darling?" asked his mother at last. "Is it in love you are with some of those French ladies you've been meeting? Don't be bringing a foreign daughter to my arms, if you love me, Mickey. Their country can't be my country, nor their ways my ways. But, indeed, we seem all in the dumps together. Perhaps it's the room. I hate this room. I always did. It's full of ghosts. There's a story of a lady who haunts the Castle and walks through here at midnight with her throat cut and the blood trickling down her white gown. Mighty uncomfortable I should say. And how the blood can be flowing still when she was murdered a hundred years ago puzzles me. But then ghosts always were contrary creatures. They won't do anything that's comfortable or rational. Where's Brianna all this time? And Mr. Clive, too? Surely he's proposing to her, for what else would they be talking about so long?"
Mickey sprang suddenly to his feet.
"Mother," he said, "you invited that man here as your guest. Circumstances render it impossible that he should stay on as mine. He is leaving Croom to-night, if, indeed, he has not left already."
"But, Mickey," she gasped, "what's the meaning of it? Why, you wouldn't turn a dog out on such a night."
"Perhaps not," he said. "There are dogs far nobler than many men."
"Have you quarrelled?"
"Never mind. I can answer no questions. He recognises the impossibility of staying under my roof. No more need be said."
"Indeed, that's very well for you, but it doesn't satisfy me at all. Mr. Clive and I were great friends, and he amuses me more than anybody. What's he done to be treated in this uncivil fashion? And, indeed, Mickey, it's very strange conduct on your part I must say, and not the way a gentleman should act at all, leaving alone an Irish gentleman, who, as your poor father used to say, is the model of courtesy all the world over."
"You'll drive me mad, mother," exclaimed Mickey. "Once for all, I'm master here, and I mean to show myself so. This cowardly villain has insulted Brianna. I have avenged that insult in my own fashion. No more need be said."
"But, sure, isn't Brianna with him now?"
The loud reverberating clang of the great door rang suddenly through the house. Someone had evidently passed through, closing it violently.
"Is that him—gone? And I never to say good-bye?" exclaimed Lady Skibbereen, and she rushed impetuously into the hall.
No one was there. Mickey followed her, and laid his hand on her arm.
"Go up to Brianna's room," he said, sternly. "See if she's there. And for God's sake don't worry her with questions! Come back and let me know. I'll wait here."
Awed by his look and tone she went silently up the stairs. He stood by the fireplace looking down into the heart of the dull red embers. His face had the calm of death, but not its painlessness.
It seemed a long time before Lady Skibbereen returned.
"She won't let me in. She was crying; I heard her. But nothing would induce her to open the door."
Mickey raised his head.
"Crying? Well, what of it? Women cry for so little." Yet the ache in his heart took the sharpness of a new pain as he turned silently away.
"Indeed, it's a perfect Castle of Otranto with mysteries and quarrels, and one thing and another," exclaimed his mother, as she watched him move slowly down the hall. All his movements were slow now. A certain mechanical effort seemed to direct them. All physical energy was gone.
She made one of her impetuous swoops in the direction of the drawing-room.
"Come out, all of you!" she said. "We've had enough of ghosts and gloom and horrors. Let's make up the fire and sit in the hall and give ceremony the go-by! It doesn't seem to agree with any of us. Here, I'll ring for Murphy, and he shall bring up the punch bowl and we'll brew it ourselves and forget our troubles. Indeed, if I thought Mickey's home-coming was to be like this I'd have as lief had him postpone it. What's come to the men? I'm sure I don't know! Look even at Mr. Lorrimer! His face is as gloomy as a churchyard."
Phil and Lady Farningham rose with alacrity. The evening had certainly been most depressing, and Lorrimer was a perfect wet blanket overlying that depression. To exchange the stiff gloomy drawing-room for the warm and familiar hall was a welcome relief. Equally welcome was the entrance of the footman with big silver bowl and tray of glasses, lemons and spirits necessary for the "brew" on whose manufacture their hostess specially prided herself.
"Now, where's that boy of mine gone?" she exclaimed as she began to ladle out the steaming beverage into the waiting tumblers. "Did anyone ever know the like of him? If these are all the manners he learnt in Paris, it's sorry I am he ever went there."
"And where's Brianna?" exclaimed Ray. "Don't tell me she has eloped with Clive."
"No, I can answer for that. She's in her room; suffering from lowness of spirits, too. But, indeed, I'm forgetting about her accident in the storm. No wonder she's a little bit upset."
"That was a horrid bruise on her forehead," said Phil, suddenly. "I had to do her hair! for her, and she complained of the pain. It didn't show much because I cut one lock of hair to cover it. It only made her look prettier."
"Yes, indeed. She's a rare beauty, is Brianna," exclaimed Lady Skibbereen, "and as good and honest a girl as ever drew breath. I'm as fond of her as if she was my own child. Only I wish she wouldn't be so mysterious with herself. Mr. Lorrimer, do go and find Mickey, will you? Tell him he's entirely neglecting the duties of hospitality, and we're all ashamed of him!"
Lorrimer, nothing loth, put down his glass and left. He found Mickey in the library. He was standing in the middle of the room, his eyes fixed on a vacancy. He started visibly as Lorrimer entered.
"I've been sent to fetch you. They are all in the hall——" He paused and glanced round. "Has he gone—really?"
"Yes. I wonder what happened?"
"You've not seen Brianna?"
"No, but I must. Things cannot rest as they are. Perhaps to-morrow——"
He put his hand to his forehead in a vague uncertain way. Lorrimer sank into a chair. For the moment his errand was forgotten.
"Tell me," said Mickey, hoarsely, "what the scene this afternoon conveyed to you."
"You mean when he brought her home?"
Lorrimer averted his eyes. A spasm of pain shot across his usually impassive face.
"I think," he said, in a low even tone, "you stand to her in place of guardian by virtue of all you have done for her in the past. Ask her—what happened."
Mickey said nothing. Only he seated himself by the table and covered his eyes with his hands. Lorrimer glancing up at last saw that his teeth had clenched on his lower lip as if they would bite it through.
"No," he said, hoarsely, and his hand fell and struck the table as if in utter helplessness, "I can't do that. She—she must speak herself."
Lorrimer rose, and began to pace the room with restless strides.
"It seems impossible that she can mean to marry him," he said. "Of course I can understand his eagerness. He wants a subject for hypnotic experiments. She is an admirable one. By marriage he can secure her legally. The question is, who can break the spell that binds her will to his?"
"Only a man she loved," said Mickey, slowly.
"But does she love anyone? That is the question. I confess she has always given me the impression that all men are alike indifferent to her. You, who know her so well, what is your opinion?"
"I can form no opinion. It is long since I last saw her. I know nothing of her life or what friends she has made during that time. It doesn't seem very long, but time counts for so little when——" His voice broke. "You, Lorrimer," he said presently, "you—too, love her?"
"I have been fighting against it these two years. I would not acknowledge it. I—was afraid. It was the old story of position. My father is so proud, and I his only son. But I knew to-night that I had been a fool. You remember what Clive said: 'You have had your chances. Let him keep who—wins.'"
"But, she—she?" repeated Mickey, restlessly.
"I have never said a word that could betray myself. And she has always treated me with the same calm friendliness. Always said that for her Art meant, and should be, all. She is so utterly unlike other women."
"That has not saved her," said Mickey, bitterly. "What I read in her eyes to-night told me so much. It made me long to kill the brute who has made her suffer."
"What can we do?" asked Lorrimer, helplessly. "If he meant what he said he will marry her, even against her will. And, oh, to think of the life."
"Hush!" cried Mickey, stormily. "There must be a way out of it. There shall. She must be saved from such a fate. Think of her. Think of her beauty, her genius, her undeveloped powers. God! it's maddening!"
"Hark!" cried Lorrimer. "What's that?"
It was a soft tap at the door. A voice, broken and entreating.
"Mickey," it said. "Mickey, are you there?"
He started to his feet, and the blood rushed in a warm torrent to his face. He was at the door ere the soft voice ceased its plaintive questioning. He threw it open, and Brianna entered.
She wore still the white gown, but her long hair was unloosed, and hung in wavy ripples to her feet. Her face was colourless, and her eyes had the spent and woeful look of one weary with weeping. When she saw Lorrimer she started, and a faint colour swept her cheeks.
"I wanted to see Mickey," she faltered.
"I—I am just going," Lorrimer answered; and he crossed to the door. He closed it, and went slowly away.
The noise of voices in the hall broke on his ears, and reminded him of an unfulfilled mission.
"I must tell them I could not find Mickey," he thought, "and then keep them away from—there."
He looked at the closed door of the library. As he looked he heard the sound of a key turned in the lock.
Brianna had sunk down on her knees before the fire as the door closed.
Mickey turned the key and then came slowly back and drew a chair up to the fire and stirred the smouldering logs. She stretched out her hand to the blaze, and he saw her shiver.
"Are you cold, dear?" he asked gently. "Won't you sit down?"
"No. Let me be here," she said. "I have been fighting against coming to you, Mickey, but it was no use. I had to do it."
"I am glad of that. I wanted to hear all from your own lips."
"All? Do you mean from when you left, Mickey? It is a long story."
"I am very patient," he said.
He took the chair he had placed for her, and she leant against his knee in the old attitude of her childish days.
"I must try to remember," she said. "But to-night my thoughts seem all confused. . . Do you recollect, Mickey, how, from the first, I always spoke of that strange power Clive had over me? I felt it that very first night I met him, when the mere glance of his eye forced me to accept that supper invitation. Again and again I felt it—when I acted or when he was anywhere near. He always sat in that stage box every night of The Opal, and I could feel him influencing me in the strangest way. Yet all the time I disliked him so. . . . I told you that, Mickey?"
"Yes. But you promised to let me know if——"
"I know. I know. But I couldn't. There seemed nothing to lay hold upon. Then the piece was withdrawn, and everything I did turned out a failure, and he went away, and for many months it was the old thing—trying agents and managers without success. Ray had married and left London, Phil was helpless, your mother was in Ireland, and you—you told me that you had to stay in Paris."
She suddenly lifted her head and looked at him.
"Was it worth while?" she asked. "You must have suffered cruelly."
"I paid my price," he said; "I do not regret it. Go on."
"Money began to get scarce," she continued. "Of course we had our home secure—that you had done for us, Mickey, but still—Well, I was not sorry when your mother made us come here. Phil was almost well, and even talked about going back to the stage. I thought you would soon be with us again. Every day we looked for you. And then a letter came from Mr. Clive saying he would be here on a certain date. He would not stay at the Castle, but at the lodge with Aunt Sal, because you were not here. I thought it strange, and your mother was vexed; but then he never did things like anybody else."
She began to tremble, and he put his arm round her. She leant back against it with a sigh of utter weariness.
"Oh, Mickey!" she said. "It is hard to go on."
He smoothed back the loosened shower of her hair. As he did so the large black bruise on her temple became visible.
"How did that happen?" he said hoarsely, and his finger touched the discoloured flesh.
"If I could remember," she sobbed; "if I could be sure. He sent me a letter. It was so strange, so incomprehensible, and yet I felt I must obey it. In vain I said I would not go. I had to go. I met him in the little hut on the cliffs; you know?"
"Yes. Go on."
"It was the old tale over again—his love for me, the power of destiny, the futility of my resistance. For I have always resisted him, Mickey. I hate him even as I fear him. And to-day I felt stronger, for I knew you were on your way and would help me. We were there in all that wild storm. He raved and swore and I grew terrified. I remember trying to pass him as he stood in the entrance, and that he seized me, and that something struck me, and all grew black and void, and when I recovered he was carrying me through the woods and I was soaked with the falling rain. And then I think I must have fainted again; for I don't remember getting to the Castle or anything till they were all round me in the hall and I met his eyes, and then——"
A fierce sob racked her frame, her head fell against his knees, and the silence of dumb agony completed her story.
"Shall you marry him then?"
"I would sooner die. I told him so to-night."
"Then, Brianna," he said, and his voice was strangely calm, "there is only one thing I can do to help you. You must take my name. You must give me the right to protect you."
She grew still as death. Then she lifted her head and looked up at his face.
"You!" she said. "You would do this for me?"
"There is nothing in the world I would not do for you, child," he answered. "Nothing: even though it cost my life here, or my soul hereafter."
"Oh, Mickey, Mickey!" she cried, and the blinding tears shut out his face with its patient tenderness and deep unfathomable love. "I can't bear it," she said. "I'm not worth such love, such sacrifice. And now——"
She shook back her hair and looked up at him.
"Now—when you might win any woman's love."
"I told you I should never want any love but yours, Brianna. But—there need be no question of that. You can trust me surely now. I shall make no claim on you, dear. Only help and protection you must have, and who would give them to you as l can, and will—asking nothing in return?"
"Nothing?" she gasped, incredulous.
"Save what you choose to give. Dear, will you never believe that my love for you seeks only what is for your happiness? Had you loved this man, or any other——"
"Or any other," she cried, with sudden passion. "Or any other!" And she laughed wildly.
"Hush!" he said, sternly. "You are overwrought. Lie quiet there a little while. Try and think you are a little child again, Brianna, and I only your faithful old Mickey—faithful to the end."
"To the end!" she echoed, and laid her head against his knee once more, and covered her face from his sight.
The time slipped on. They neither moved nor spoke.
"Dear, it is almost midnight," he said at last.
She rose suddenly and stood there slim and straight, her face white as her gown, her eyes piteous as a child's in their perplexity.
"The day is dead!" she said, and counted the strokes from the chiming timepiece. "The black, horrible day of torture. To-morrow——"
"You must decide now," he said sternly. "It is already to-morrow."
"Oh, I can't, I can't," she cried piteously. "It is unfair to you, Mickey."
"You are not very merciful," he said, as he rose and faced her with that new gain of height and strength that seemed so strange, and had been purchased at a cost so terrible. "You need not be shamed of me now," he went on. "And you will be safe, Brianna. Neither man nor devil shall have power to wrench you from my keeping, once you give me that charge."
"Can I come to you," she cried, "bankrupt of all men crave from women they love? Take love, honour, safety at your hands and give you nothing but gratitude and a child's faithful memory? Oh, Mickey, it is too little."
"It is enough," he said, and his eyes met hers with that passionate fidelity one sees sometimes in the eyes of a dog. It is rare to humanity.
"I told him," she said huskily, "that it meant death to him or me should he force me again to his side. Death! and it will be death, Mickey. But I am young, and life is sweet, and it meant—oh, what did it not mean just a few months ago?"
"It shall mean all that again," he said. "Have no fear."
"Can you keep him from me, Mickey? Shall I be safe?"
"Safe as love and human strength and human power can make you."
"Then—let it be as you wish, Mickey."
The triumph and the glory, and yet the deep strange sorrow of his face, were hidden in the gold of loosened hair that swept his breast as his arms drew her head to rest against his heart.
Then he released her. Such glory and such rapture were in his eyes that she could scarcely bear their gaze.
"You must go now," he whispered. "Have no fear. Get to your room by the other staircase, no one will see you then. And say nothing, Brianna, to anyone. You are in my hands now. I will act only in your interests."
"You are too good—far too good. What have I ever done that you should sacrifice yourself for me? And yet, as far back as I can remember, it was always the same with you, Mickey."
He crossed to the door and opened it. Words were beyond him. She passed out, and from sight; one long look exchanged as she reached the further passage. Then he returned and stood for a moment where they had stood together, and lived again that scene.
The vehement emotion through which he had passed had left him weak. Every nerve ached and throbbed. Sheer physical pain held him in its power, and to think clearly became impossible.
"I must try to sleep," he said to himself. "I can do nothing more to-night."
A sigh so deep and heavy burst from him that it startled him almost as another person's presence might have done. He unlocked the door and looked out. All was quiet. Evidently everyone had retired for the night. Lorrimer must have excused his absence very effectually.
He extinguished the lights in the library, and went into the hall. A lamp still burned there, and Lorrimer was sitting by the fire smoking. He looked eagerly up at Mickey's step, and rose.
"Well?" he said.
A little enigmatic smile touched Mickey's lips.
"Well?" he echoed. "Yes, I hope it is well. That man's story was a lie, Lorrimer. Brianna will never marry him."
"Thank God!" burst involuntarily from Lorrimer's heart. "But how dared he say so if he knew that it was untrue?" he added.
"His reasons need not concern us any longer. Brianna has given me the right to guard her honour and her fame. She will be my wife."
Lorrimer stared at him; his face grew suddenly white.
"Mine," said Mickey; "and in future her traducers will have a man to deal with, not a weak girl. And now, Lorrimer, if it's all the same to you, I'll be going to bed. I'm deadly tired. You must acknowledge my home-coming has been a somewhat exciting one."
He held out his hand, and the young man took it, and for a moment their eyes read each other's face in silent questioning. No word was uttered. That strong quiet pressure said enough.
If the pain in Lorrimer's breast changed from sharp agony to a dull, ceaseless ache that was his own affair. He went up to his own room, but he lay awake the whole night through—and the whole night only held for him a dark and unsatisfied wonder.
Silence and melancholy brooded over the old castle as the dark and stormy months passed on. Anything less like a bridal home could not well be imagined. The shadow of tragedy and of doom seemed to flit across the dreary rooms and lurk in the depths of the woods where sunlight never penetrated.
Mickey's mother had long since departed to gayer scenes, Brianna and Mickey lived as of old, and Phil D'Eyncourt, who had remained at their urgent persuasion, often declared it was the old "Happy Family" existence over again. But there was a difference—a perceptible difference. Mickey's devotion held something of fear in its protecting tenderness, and Brianna had grown strangely listless and melancholy. She missed the excitement of her footlight life, the noise and clamour of London, the sense of living each hour of the day that comes with work. Her present peaceful existence meant mental starvation; and all the reading and studying which Mickey insisted on, as part of her future education, could not charm her into forgetfulness of the living triumphs she had known.
Their strange marriage had not pleased the county, and they were left severely alone in their dismal retreat. Not that that fact troubled either of them; for Mickey had no strong affection for his country-folk, and Brianna frankly detested that class of persons to whom birth and position meant the only social gods worth worshipping.
Yet she grew more and more restless as time went on, and melancholy gave way to fierce resentment against the man who had spoilt her life out of sheer wanton brutality. She loathed and yet she feared him. The fact that he had made no sign, that never a word had come from him since his abrupt departure, puzzled her.
At times she slipped out of the dreary house and wandered off to that hut on the cliffs, and stood looking out at the wild sea with eyes as wild and passionate as itself. She hated the place, and yet, ever and again, she felt herself drawn to it as by a compelling hand. It was as if he was once more near her, as if the old fatal power swayed and bent her hostile resistance as the wind bends the bough of the strongest tree. She grew thin, and the bloom and freshness of her beauty began to pale, and Mickey's watchful eyes noted every change in the beloved face, and his heart ached with a dull foreboding.
For human love is so powerless after all. It cannot avert one sorrow, or turn aside one blow, and though it may wait on every wish, and fathom every desire, and give all its own deep abundance of tender devotion, yet there will always be something it cannot do. And as the days drifted by Mickey heard his own warning sound in every hastening day. He asked himself again and again what would happen to her when he could no longer serve or protect her, but the answer of his own dread was all he heard.
He had not had courage to approach the subject with her. From the hour of their marriage there had been a tacit agreement that one name should never be spoken between them; yet had there been more frankness there had also been less harm. In his morbid dread of anything happening to her Mickey had entreated her to limit her walks and rambles to the extent of his own domains. The only exception he granted was to her riding; for she and Phil would sometimes go for wild, mad gallops that lasted half a day, returning tired and yet exhilarated to the dull routine of the Castle. Mickey could not share in those rides. He had not the strength; and what little he could yet claim he stored and treasured with miserly care; for he knew his hours were numbered. As he had once said to Lorrimer, "Science demands a heavy price for its experiments."
One dull grey afternoon in February Brianna had gone for a ride alone. Phil D'Eyncourt was laid up with a severe cold, and could not leave her room. Brianna had dressed and gone down to the stables, and ordered out her little Irish blood mare, refusing the attendance of any of the men who occasionally acted as unliveried grooms. She rode far and long, and only the waning daylight warned her that she must be a score of miles from her home.
She drew rein and looked about. To the right were ploughed fields, showing a faint feathering of green. The far-off hills were touched by violet shadows. A soft sound of dripping rain from a recent shower came from the swaying branches above the hedge. Faint filmy clouds drifted seawards; the sun showed darkly crimson against the lowering sky. She turned her little mare's head seawards, resolving to take the cliff road back. It was rough, and not very safe, but it was quicker, and would save some miles.
She held the reins loosely; her thoughts were absorbed. The silence around her was unbroken by sound of living creature. She reached the cliffs, and looked through the bare branches to where the sea rolled shore-wards in unbroken monotony. A flock of gulls wheeled lazily over the broken rocks. The sun was sinking rapidly. She quickened her horse's pace to a canter. It would be better to be out of the wood before it grew quite dark.
Suddenly the animal started and reared, nearly unseating her. Her strong wrist tightened on the rein, and held the excited creature well in hand, as her eyes peered through the gloom to see what had frightened it.
Then she saw before her another horse drawn across the pathway, and looking straight at her was the white hated face of Raemore Clive. For a moment she caught her breath, and all her body grew nerveless and inert. Then her heart began to beat with quick painful throbs. In one hateful instant she seemed to live a lifetime of mental agony and intolerable shame.
"Let me pass," she said. "What are you doing here?"
"Waiting for you. Confess I have been very patient. But the farce has lasted long enough. I have come to claim my own."
"Your own?" she echoed, and laughed aloud. There was a mocking defiance in her voice and in her eyes; the blood in her veins seemed like a throbbing torrent struggling for release.
"You have been a long time making your claim," she said. "Perhaps you will present it in the proper quarter. Are you aware that I am married?"
"Perfectly," he said. "I did not wish you joy of your bargain, because I knew why you did this thing. You sought to defy me—to escape. I chose to let you believe you were doing so. Besides, as I told you before, I was not particularly desirous of marrying you. However, I am leaving London. I am going to the East. I want a companion, and so I——"
"You have spied on me, followed me to tell me this?"
"Yes. Did you particularly wish for an audience?"
"Do you remember my last words to you?"
"I remember you were in a very pretty rage which, after all, was excusable. But a woman's threats are but soap bubbles. What man ever heeded them?"
"I think," she said, "you will find mine worth heeding. I would not advise you to try."
Her left hand tightened on the rein, her right clutched her riding whip, and slowly drew the tapering end up into her palm. Her eye measured the road, but to pass him was impossible unless he moved his horse.
"No," he said, mockingly, "you don't escape. You'll have to listen. Have I not told you that I am your fate and you are mine? You may fret and fume and writhe as you will, but you cannot evade me. I gave you freedom. I gave you fame. Love alone I withheld, but that love you shall know, and know for me."
"Never!" she panted. "Hate and hate alone."
"So you say now, because you are strong and you think you don't know fear. But the beaten dog creeps back to lick the hand that has beaten it, the restive horse loves best the master that has tamed it, and so in like manner the weakest loves what is strongest. The time has come for me to prove my strength, Brianna, and I mean to do it."
She laughed aloud. The hand that held the whip travelled swiftly down, and the silver-headed top now rested against her saddle.
"You may laugh," he said, "but you will come to me—when I bid you."
She grew cold and faint as she met his eyes, and the blood seemed to surge to her brain. She swerved as if about to faint; and seeing her sway so giddily he drew his horse beside her own, and his arm went out to support her. Swift as thought she straightened herself and lifted the whip.
She was blind and mad with rage and the indignity of his words and look. The whip flashed, and fell with all the force that passion could lend to womanly strength. It missed his head, but struck the wrist that held his bridle, and the horse, stung by the shock, reared and snorted, and in a second was dashing riderless along the road. Something—something dark and very still, lay before her horse's feet, and as the startled creature rushed forward she knew its hoof had struck that inert mass. But to stop or control it was impossible. Like a whirlwind it swept along, following the flying hoofs that echoed far ahead. She clung with desperate effort to the saddle and the reins. Her breath came in panting gasps, and her eyes were like a flame. She had no fear, but the pace was terrific, and the road one of danger. Her hat had fallen, her loosened hair streamed behind her. She wondered dimly how long strength would last, or if Death was to meet her in this wise.
* * * * * *
Mickey had grown strangely restless as the daylight waned. Some love has a magnetic consciousness of danger threatening what it loves, and this consciousness had been with him ever since he learnt that Brianna had started on that lonely ride. He had haunted the woods and paced the avenue with restless steps since sunset. He felt keenly alert to every sound. He seemed to himself to be hanging in space, with nerves strung to highest tension, and ever and always in the growing darkness sounded the bent of flying hoofs.
Suddenly he rushed to the lodge gates and threw them open. A riderless steed was galloping towards them with trailing reins, its neck flecked with foam, its nostrils blood-red in the fading light.
As it saw the open gate it slackened speed. It seemed well nigh exhausted. Mickey caught the reins, and the creature stood trembling by his side. His heart seemed to stop beating as the icy hand of fear touched it coldly. Then he started, and a voiceless cry surged to his lips. The saddle was a man's saddle, and the horse none of his. He called one of the lodge-keeper's boys and bade him take the exhausted creature round to the stables, and once again his strained ears listened for that long delayed sound.
It came at last, slowly, haltingly. Yet never was music sweeter than its echoes. But he saw something had happened. The animal was lame and in a state of exhaustion equalling that of its predecessor, and Brianna hung limply in the saddle, her hat off, her hair like a veil around her. As his eager arms went out she fell forwards, and her eyes closed. He bore her into the lodge and laid her down and called hoarsely for water.
She soon revived, however, and sat up, gazing in bewilderment around her.
"It was an accident," she said, faintly, and then again her eyes closed, and she rested helplessly against Mickey's shoulder.
She could feel the throbs of his heart, and the tremor of his encircling arms. A sense of peace and security came back, and the deadly faintness left her.
The lodge-keeper was pouring out ejaculations and inquiries. Mickey waved her aside. In all his life it seemed to him he had known no sweeter moment than this. Brianna was safe, was nestling in his arms as a child in some loved shelter. He did not speak. Life had given him but one or two rare moments of happiness where others had counted joy by years. He could not afford to spoil one moment rarer and sweeter than all.
Suddenly she moved, and turning hid her face on his breast, and the ache of his strained arms seemed but one throb of glad content.
"I am safe," she said. "I—I never thought I should see you again, Mickey. I looked Death in the face, for myself, and I thought—I thought——"
She trembled so that he could hardly hold her, then swiftly pushed aside his arms and sprang to her feet.
"Is he dead?" she said, and glanced around, and he saw fear in her eyes and in her trembling lips.
"Who—the horse? It was Colleen Bawn you were riding, dear," he said. "She is lame, slightly. But don't distress yourself. So long as you are safe, nothing else matters."
She looked round, and saw the woman in the background watching her.
"Let us go home," she said. "I can walk now. I am only shaken. The mare bolted. Something frightened her. Another horse."
"That must be the one that returned first. I was wondering to whom it belonged," said Mickey. "Are you sure you can walk? Your hat is gone, will you have a shawl?"
"No," she said, "the air won't harm my head. It will do me good."
She twisted her hair up in a loose coil, and then after a word or two to the lodge-keeper they left. She leant on Mickey's arm, and they moved slowly up the avenue. She was debating in her own mind whether she would tell him. Finally she decided not to do so. It would only anger and distress him. If—if the worst had happened it would appear as an accident. She need only repeat the story of the runaway horse that had suddenly dashed past and startled her own.
News from the outer world rarely reached the recluses of Croom Castle. To local papers and local gossip they were alike indifferent. The story of a gentleman who had been living quietly at a little inn in Ardmore, and had hired a horse for a week, and spent most of his time scouring the country, yet who had never hunted and knew no one, was not a story they were likely to hear.
The disappearance of the man and horse did, however, reach the hangers-on at the stables, and one of them sought his master's permission to take the animal back to the inn and ascertain if he was the missing steed. This being proved beyond doubt, a search was instituted for the rider; but being conducted in the most approved method of Irish procrastination the result was not successful until a sufficient period had elapsed to render identification a matter of extreme difficulty. He had given the name of Mr. Clarke, had brought very little luggage, and had never received any letters. The inquest held on the body proved death from injuries, caused by a fall from his horse; and as no one appeared to claim the rights of interment his clothes and watch and one valuable ring were sold, and the proceeds applied to pay his debt at the inn and his funeral expenses. But of all this Mickey knew nothing, and Brianna shrank in morbid horror from asking a question on the subject.
Since that afternoon of the accident there had come a change over her attitude towards Mickey that touched and startled him often. She was so gentle, so solicitous, so watchful, of his strength, that at times he felt himself wondering if it could be possible that she had grown less cold, and was beginning to care as women do care—sometimes—when a great love is laid at their feet, and by its very patience and silence compels their own at last. But it was only fear for him that lent her this new tenderness. For she saw that each day took something from his strength, and made the effort to appear his usual self a harder trial.
The June days came bright with sunshine, blue of sky, and sweet with soft falling showers. And then the change became more marked. His frame was racked with incessant pain. It seemed to shrink and waste as with some wasting fever, and she watched him with an hourly dread of coming parting—a parting that would leave her lonely and desolate as never yet had she been left.
One afternoon he had been writing letters, and the exertion had tried him greatly. He left them on the library table and asked her to address them for him. She noted one was to Lorrimer at his club in London. She wished she knew the contents of that one envelope, but her very anxiety kept her silent.
She finished the addresses and took the letters away and dropped them into the postbag. When she returned Mickey was lying back on the couch drawn up to the open window, his great sombre eyes gazing yearningly at the blue sky and waving tree tops. She sat down by his side, and followed his gaze, looking out perhaps at a horizon well-nigh as hopeless as his own. As the sun sank and the shadows lengthened he turned suddenly towards her.
"I have asked Lorrimer to come here," he said, abruptly. "Do you mind?"
"Mind!" she said, and her eyes met his wonderingly. "Of course not. Why should I?"
"It was a foolish question. I don't know why I asked it. Only—I should like to see him once more. There are very few men I have ever liked in my life. He is one of the few. I think he is true. A woman might well trust him."
She felt her face grow warm. Her heart echoed that belief so strongly that she could not speak.
"Lying here," went on Mickey, dreamily, "one sees life so differently. Things that were once all-important seem insignificant; troubles—well, they look not worth fretting over. Dear, you have been very good and patient with me. Was it altogether unhappiness?"
"Never!" she said, and her voice trembled—trembled and broke into a fuller sweetness. "Never!" she repeated, "for one single moment!"
"I am well repaid," he said. "It has been a dull and lonely time, Brianna, but at least you were safe. I broke that fatal power for you. Never let it re-assert itself. Never give that brute and trickster the chance of coming within reachable distance."
"If I can help it I never will," she said. But she trembled, and her heart grew sick as she remembered that last meeting, the fall of the heavy body, the fierce blow of a spurning hoof she could no longer guide.
"I wonder where he is," went on Mickey. "I thought he would have made some sign. He isn't one to take a beating patiently. And in this race he came in a bad second. Lorrimer will know," he added, vaguely.
She rose. She could not bear to speak of this man, for always she saw him lying face downwards in that wood, and asked herself what had happened—afterwards.
When some days later Lorrimer appeared he was startled at the change in Mickey. In vain he urged the necessity of medical treatment. Mickey only shook his head.
"I knew it must come," he said. "I told you I had paid the price. I have nearly come to my year's end. Three more months—perhaps not even so long. It is good of you to come," he added. "I wonder if you guess why I asked you?"
Lorrimer's eyes met his full and straight.
"It was to speak about her?"
"You are right. By my will I have done all I can for her, but, of course, the property goes to a cousin, who, by the way, has never seemed to recognise my existence. I fear, I am almost sure, she will want to go back to the stage. I dread it; less for the life—though God knows that is bad enough for a woman—than because she will once more become a target for that brute's hateful powers. What has become of him? Do you know?"
"He disappeared rather suddenly. There was some rumour about the police—I don't know exactly. Only one day his rooms were shut up, and it was announced that he had gone to the East. Since then nothing has been heard of him."
"That is welcome news, if true. I must tell Brianna. How long ago since he left?"
"Last February, I believe. I can't be quite sure."
"It was in February she met with that accident. She has never mounted a horse since. She says her nerves are quite gone. The very sight of a horse makes her tremble."
"What accident? I never heard——"
Mickey told the story of the runaway horse, and Lorrimer listened intently.
"But what became of the other rider?" he asked. "Someone must have been on the animal. Was he thrown? Did you never hear any more?"
"No," said Mickey, indifferently. "The horse was claimed and taken back to Ardmore. We heard no more about it."
No more was said on the subject. The two men sat silent and thoughtful until the sound of the dinner bell roused them.
It often amused the "Happy Family" to recall the contrast of lodging-house meals and irate landladies, and the general "pigging" of touring companies with their present surroundings. Not that Croom was kept up with anything approaching "style" as translated by the Irish mind, but there was an ancient butler and several maids, and gardeners, and stable helps. The table was a liberal one, and the servants' hall offered little ground for complaint. Mickey's mother had set all the domestic machinery going before she gave up the reins of government. Sometimes Brianna thought of instituting Sally Dunne as housekeeper; but as she and Mickey avowed a partiality for "quiet life" she gave up the idea. A vivid remembrance of Sally's disquieting possibilities aided her in the self-sacrifice.
To-night the shabby old dining-room was looking its best. Flowers and wax lights and cut glass and old-fashioned silver made an attractive display. The shabby livery of the ancient butler looked less a discredit than a distinction. It harmonised with the faded splendours, and contrasted with the vivid beauty of the young hostess, the manly, handsome face of Lorrimer, and the stylish figure of Phil D'Eyncourt who had "dressed the part" of non-paying guest very effectively.
The conversation dwelt much on matters theatrical, that being the main part of London life to the two girls. Lorrimer introduced the name of Raemore Clive in connection with the Caviare Theatre, and mentioned his sudden disappearance. In speaking he chanced to look across at Brianna, and saw her face grow wan and colourless with a suddenness that surprised him. It gave him a shock, and as he met her frightened yet defiant glance a great fear thrilled to his heart and turned him cold.
"She knows—something," he said to himself, and he stammered and tried to change the subject, and rushed into a description of Lady Farningham and her entertainments and splendours and the way in which she set the county by the ears and mocked at the Mrs. Grundys of social importance, who held that the very word "stage" spelt immorality, if not worse.
But he saw that Brianna spoke with effort and the ease of her manner had gone, and in her brilliant eyes lurked the shadow of a fear as yet unbreathed.
After dinner they had chairs brought out on the lawn, and sat there until late, the men smoking, the women talking or listening.
Mickey seemed better than he had been for long; but Lorrimer noted the passionate longing of his gaze as it rested upon Brianna's face, and read its meaning all too well. When, however, she insisted that it was time to go within he gently refused. Dews and night air could not hurt him, he said, besides, he wanted to talk to Lorrimer. Brianna and Phil took this as a hint and left them together.
"I can speak better out here, under sky and moon, than between four walls," said Mickey. "You remember what I was telling you before dinner?"
"Yes. You fear Clive's power over Brianna. But how is it to be averted? Even here she would not be safe if he were determined to exercise it."
Mickey laughed grimly.
"He knew I would kill him if he did. I should have no more compunction about that than if he were a mad dog. He is as dangerous in a way."
Lorrimer was silent. In his heart he agreed with Mickey, but he felt he could not have carried out his threat.
"I sent for you," continued Mickey, presently, "because I—I want to give up this trust to you. That you love her I know; that you will shield her as safely as lies in man's power I know also. And, perhaps, you may win from her what no man yet has won—her love. It would be worth the winning. Child, girl, woman, I have known her; her heart is pure as it is strong. Happy the man who gains it."
"You think you failed to do that?"
"She loves me as a child loves a father, a sister a brother. More I never asked, nor expected."
"But—if she does not love me? I have never had cause to believe otherwise."
"She would not be likely to wear her heart on her sleeve. I cannot read her—quite. But I have an instinct strong as faith that she loves you, Lorrimer."
His heart gave a sudden, quick throb. His whole nature seemed to break and burst the iron chains of habit and reserve, and float out like a vessel freed from its moorings on to the deep sweet sea beyond.
"Loves me—me? Why, should she? What am I to deserve it?"
"That is for her to answer. Women love because they must; not because what they love is worthy of what they give."
He closed his eyes and lay back in sudden weariness. "I have said enough; it is for you to answer, Lorrimer."
"My life and soul and all my heart's worship are at her service. More I cannot say."
"You know all?" continued Mickey, huskily. "You know why I saved her from the fate that brute threatened?"
"Yes," said Lorrimer, in a faint, uncertain voice, "I think it was the noblest thing that ever man did."
"Not nobler than you would have done, for it will be the same for you, Lorrimer."
"Yes, if she wills it."
"I should like to know before—before my last hour comes. It is a strange thing to ask, that you should take my wife to your heart, and I be content to let her go. But I have looked on death so long that sometimes I think that I am already dead. Yet, being conscious of thought and feeling, I would look on her happiness while I can see it."
"You are too noble. You shame mere men."
"I am as God made me, and as my love for her has taught me to be. That is all."
He rose, somewhat unsteadily, and stood with one hand resting on the back of the chair, his eyes turned to where the slivered radiance of the moon touched the tree tops. In the silence they could hear the sound of the sea. That, and the quivering leaves, and the beating of their own full hearts, filled the night with solemn meaning.
Mickey stretched out his hand. The look in his eyes was one of peace, deep and full, beyond all earthly expression.
"I have fought the fight," he said. "It has been long, and I am tired. The crown is for—others."
And he turned and went within, dragging his limbs painfully and slowly along, through what seemed to him a gathering mist that shut out all but living consciousness of pain.
"Mickey has sent me to you. He said you had a message for me."
Lorrimer started and looked round at the white figure standing under the sliver radiance of moonlight.
"Already?" he said. Then something leaped into his eyes, and she saw and shrank back trembling like a leaf. "Brianna," he whispered, "I know why Mickey married you."
The crimson of her face swept in so hot and shamed a flood to brow and throat that a reflection of its own touched the man, and the pain and anger and humiliation of her heart fired his own.
"I would I had killed the villain," he said, fiercely. "But perhaps Fate has done that for us. He will not trouble you again."
"No . . . he will not," she said. "What no man had courage to do this weak hand of mine has done." And she stood up straight and tall and told him all the story.
He heard, and thrilled and grew hot and cold by turns, and when she told of the blow and the rearing horse and the fall of that dastardly body his heart held no thought of blame.
"I would have done it, too!" he cried. "God! my blood boils to think you should have suffered such insults."
"It could not happen twice," she said. "It was more than woman could endure. And Fate has rid me of him."
"You know that?" he questioned.
"I learnt it a few weeks ago. I heard the maids speaking of some story, and I asked, and they brought me a newspaper, and it told me of the discovery and the inquest. He is buried at Ardmore. That is all."
"And enough," he cried. "For you are safe now, and I may speak of what has been in my heart so long."
"Oh, not yet," she said. "Remember——"
"I do remember. I am not disloyal, any more than yourself, Brianna. But he bade me speak. It will not make him unhappy to know that you are loved and cared for when he has resigned the charge."
Her large deep eyes met his wonderingly, and in them he read the struggle of her heart.
"Dear," he said, softly, "I have so much to say, and I hardly know where to begin, or how to tell it you. Come and walk with me under the trees yonder, and let me speak at last. We wrong neither the dead nor the living now."
"But I——" she said. "Oh, you must blame me! I have taken all he gave—always. His life has been sacrificed for me. Oh, was ever love so great, and yet I gave him nothing—nothing."
"Love cannot be compelled, even by gratitude," said Lorrimer, sadly. "He told me all, and now, knowing that his days are numbered, he gave me leave to speak of what he has long known. He wants to be sure that your happiness is complete, Brianna, and if my love can make it so——"
Her face grew white.
"You love me—you! I always thought you cared for Ray—no other."
"For Ray!" he said, and laughed aloud. "Never for one single moment. We were friends—friends only. And you filled my heart from the first hour I saw you. It has been a long struggle with pride, and circumstance, and Fate. I have thought sometimes I would never have courage to tell you. Mickey knew, always. He told me so to-night. And there is no cloud between us now. Choose your life, dear, give your genius freedom. I am too proud of your great gifts to wish to hide them from the world. But tell me once that your heart has some place for me, and I am content."
She held out her hand, and in her face was a look that no living man had ever seen yet. He took the hand and drew it within his arm, and they passed together over the lawn, and all the splendour of sky and moon seemed to fall like a radiant blessing on their path.
Above, from a window, a pale face looked out and watched their progress to the shrubbery beyond. The lips twitched involuntarily; then the tired frame seemed suddenly to relax, and the weak knees bent, under it.
So, kneeling, with bowed head, and lips on which a strange smile yet hovered, the master of Croom looked his last on happiness through another's eyes.
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