Part Second. Mrs. Sin
Chapter XV. Metamorphosis
 

As Irvin seized her hands and looked at her eagerly, half-fearfully, Rita achieved sufficient composure to speak.

"Oh, Mr. Irvin," she said, and found that her voice was not entirely normal, "what must you think--"

He continued to hold her hands, and:

"I think you are very indiscreet to be out alone at three o'clock in the morning," he answered gently. "I was recalled to London by urgent business, and returned by road--fortunately, since I have met you."

"How can I explain--"

"I don't ask you to explain--Miss Dresden. I have no right and no desire to ask. But I wish I had the right to advise you."

"How good you are," she began, "and I--"

Her voice failed her completely, and her sensitive lips began to tremble. Monte Irvin drew her arm under his own and led her back to meet the car, which the chauffeur had turned and which was now approaching.

"I will drive you home," he said, "and if I may call in the morning. I should like to do so."

Rita nodded. She could not trust herself to speak again. And having placed her in the car, Monte Irvin sat beside her, reclaiming her hand and grasping it reassuringly and sympathetically throughout the short drive. They parted at her door.

"Good night," said Irvin, speaking very deliberately because of an almost uncontrollable desire which possessed him to take Rita in his arms, to hold her fast, to protect her from her own pathetic self and from those influences, dimly perceived about her, but which intuitively he knew to be evil.

"If I call at eleven will that be too early?"

"No," she whispered. "Please come early. There is a matinee tomorrow."

"You mean today," he corrected. "Poor little girl, how tired you will be. Good night."

"Good night," she said, almost inaudibly.

She entered, and, having closed the door, stood leaning against it for several minutes. Bleakness and nausea threatened to overcome her anew, and she felt that if she essayed another step she must collapse upon the floor. Her maid was in bed, and had not been awakened by Rita's entrance. After a time she managed to grope her way to her bedroom, where, turning up the light, she sank down helplessly upon the bed.

Her mental state was peculiar, and her thoughts revolved about the journey from Oxford Street homeward. A thousand times she mentally repeated the journey, speaking the same words over and over again, and hearing Monte Irvin's replies.

In those few minutes during which they had been together her sentiments in regard to him had undergone a change. She had always respected Irvin, but this respect had been curiously compounded of the personal and the mercenary; his well-ordered establishment at Prince's Gate had loomed behind the figure of the man forming a pleasing background to the portrait. Without being showy he was a splendid "match" for any woman. His wife would have access to good society, and would enjoy every luxury that wealth could procure. This was the picture lovingly painted and constantly retouched by Rita's mother.

Now it had vanished. The background was gone, and only the man remained; the strong, reserved man whose deep voice had spoken so gently, whose devotion was so true and unselfish that he only sought to shield and protect her from follies the nature of which he did not even seek to learn. She was stripped of her vanity, and felt loathsome and unworthy of such a love.

"Oh," she moaned, rocking to and fro. "I hate myself--I hate myself!"

Now that the victory so long desired seemed at last about to be won, she hesitated to grasp the prize. One solacing reflection she had. She would put the errors of the past behind her. Many times of late she had found herself longing to be done with the feverish life of the stage. Envied by those who had been her companions in the old chorus days, and any one of whom would have counted ambition crowned could she have played The Maid of the Masque, Rita thought otherwise. The ducal mansions and rose-bowered Riviera hotels through which she moved nightly had no charm for her; she sighed for reality, and had wearied long ago of the canvas palaces and the artificial Southern moonlight. In fact, stage life had never truly appealed to her--save as a means to an end.

Again and yet again her weary brain reviewed the episodes of the night since she had left Cyrus Kilfane's flat, so that nearly an hour had elapsed before she felt capable of the operation of undressing. Finally, however, she undressed, shuddering although the room was warmed by an electric radiator. The weakness and sickness had left her, but she was quite wide awake, although her brain demanded rest from that incessant review of the events of the evening.

She put on a warm wrap and seated herself at the dressing-table, studying her face critically. She saw that she was somewhat pale and that she had an indefinable air of dishevelment. Also she detected shadows beneath her eyes, the pupils of which were curiously contracted. Automatically, as a result of habit, she unlocked her jewel-case and took out a tiny phial containing minute cachets. She shook several out on to the palm of her hand, and then paused, staring at her reflection in the mirror.

For fully half a minute she hesitated, then:

"I shall never close my eyes all night if I don't!" she whispered, as if in reply to a spoken protest, "and I should be a wreck in the morning."

Thus, in the very apogee of her resolve to reform, did she drive one more rivet into the manacles which held her captive to Kazmah and Company.

Upon a little spirit-stove stood a covered vessel containing milk, which was placed there nightly by Rita's maid. She lighted the burner and warmed the milk. Then, swallowing three of the cachets from the phial, she drank the milk. Each cachet contained three decigrams of malourea, the insidious drug notorious under its trade name of Veronal.

She slept deeply, and was not awakened until ten o'clock. Her breakfast consisted of a cup of strong coffee; but when Monte Irvin arrived at eleven Rita exhibited no sign of nerve exhaustion. She looked bright and charming, and Irvin's heart leapt hotly in his breast at sight of her.

Following some desultory and unnatural conversation:

"May I speak quite frankly to you?" he said, drawing his chair nearer to the settee upon which Rita was seated.

She glanced at him swiftly. "Of course," she replied. "Is it--about my late hours?"

He shook his head, smiling rather sadly.

"That is only one phase of your rather feverish life, little girl," he said. "I don't mean that I want to lecture you or reproach you. I only want to ask you if you are satisfied?"

"Satisfied?" echoed Rita, twirling a tassel that hung from a cushion beside her.

"Yes. You have achieved success in your profession." He strove in vain to banish bitterness from his voice. "You are a 'star,' and your photograph is to be seen frequently in the smartest illustrated papers. You are clever and beautiful and have hosts of admirers. But-- are you satisfied?"

She stared absently at the silk tassel, twirling it about her white fingers more and more rapidly. Then:

"No," she answered softly.

Monte Irvin hesitated for a moment ere bending forward and grasping her hands.

"I am glad you are not satisfied," he whispered. "I always knew you had a soul for something higher--better."

She avoided his ardent gaze, but he moved to the settee beside her and looked into the bewitching face.

"Would it be a great sacrifice to give it all up?" he whispered in a yet lower tone.

Rita shook her head, persistently staring at the tassel.

"For me?"

She gave him a swift, half-frightened glance, pressing her hands against his breast and leaning, back.

"Oh, you don't know me--you don't know me!" she said, the good that was in her touched to life by the man's sincerity. "I--don't deserve it."

"Rita!" he murmured. "I won't hear you say that!"

"You know nothing about my friends--about my life--"

"I know that I want you for my wife, so that I can protect you from those 'friends.'" He took her in his arms, and she surrendered her lips to him.

"My sweet little girl," he whispered. "I cannot believe it--yet."

But the die was cast, and when Rita went to the theatre to dress for the afternoon performance she was pledged to sever her connection with the stage on the termination of her contract. She had luncheon with Monte Irvin, and had listened almost dazedly to his plans for the future. His wealth was even greater than her mother had estimated it to be, and Rita's most cherished dreams were dwarfed by the prospects which Monte Irvin opened up before her. It almost seemed as though he knew and shared her dearest ambitions. She was to winter beneath real Southern palms and to possess a cruising yacht, not one of boards and canvas like that which figured in The Maid of the Masque.

Real Southern palms, she mused guiltily, not those conjured up by opium. That he was solicitous for her health the nature of his schemes revealed. They were to visit Switzerland, and proceed thence to a villa which he owned in Italy. Christmas they would spend in Cairo, explore the Nile to Assouan in a private dahabiyeh, and return home via the Riviera in time to greet the English spring. Rita's delicate, swiftly changing color, her almost ethereal figure, her intense nervous energy he ascribed to a delicate constitution.

She wondered if she would ever dare to tell him the truth; if she ought to tell him.

Pyne came to her dressing-room just before the performance began. He had telephoned at an early hour in the morning, and had learned from her maid that Rita had come home safely and was asleep. Rita had expected him; but the influence of Monte Irvin, from whom she had parted at the stage-door, had prevailed until she actually heard Sir Lucien's voice in the corridor. She had resolutely refrained from looking at the little jewelled casket, engraved "From Lucy to Rita," which lay in her make-up box upon the table. But the imminence of an ordeal which she dreaded intensely weakened her resolution. She swiftly dipped a little nail-file into the white powder which the box contained, and when Pyne came in she turned to him composedly.

"I am so sorry if I gave you a scare last night Lucy," she said. "But I woke up feeling sick, and I had to go out into the fresh air."

"I was certainly alarmed," drawled Pyne, whose swarthy face looked more than usually worn in the hard light created by the competition between the dressing-room lamps and the grey wintry daylight which crept through the windows. "Do you feel quite fit again?"

"Quite, thanks." Rita glanced at a ring which she had not possessed three hours before. "Oh, Lucy--I don't know how to tell you--"

She turned in her chair, looking up wistfully at Pyne, who was standing behind her. His jaw hardened, and his glance sought the white hand upon which the costly gems glittered. He coughed nervously.

"Perhaps"--his drawling manner of speech temporarily deserted him; he spoke jerkily--"perhaps--I can guess."

She watched him in a pathetic way, and there was a threat of tears in her beautiful eyes; for whatever his earlier intentions may have been, Sir Lucien had proved a staunch friend and, according to his own peculiar code, an honorable lover.

"Is it--Irvin?" he asked jerkily.

Rita nodded, and a tear glistened upon her darkened lashes.

Sir Lucien cleared his throat again, then coolly extended his hand, once more master of his emotions.

"Congratulations, Rita," he said. "The better man wins. I hope you will be very happy."

He turned and walked quietly out of the dressing-room.