The Lamp of Fate by Margaret Pedler
Chapter VI. Michael Changes His Mind
Magda's dressing-room at the Imperial Theatre was something rather special in the way of dressing-rooms. It had been designed expressly for her by the management, and boasted a beautifully appointed bathroom adjoining it where she could luxuriate in a refreshing dip immediately after the strain and fatigue of her work on the stage.
She had been very firm about the bathroom, airily dismissing a plaintive murmur from the manager to the effect that they were "somewhat crowded for space at the Imperial."
"Then take another theatre, my dear man," she had told him. "Or build! Or give the corps de ballet one less dressing-room amongst them. But if you want me, I must have a bathroom. If I dance, I bathe afterwards. If not, I don't dance."
Being a star of the first magnitude, the Wielitzska could dictate her own terms, and accordingly a bathroom she had.
She had just emerged from its white-tiled, silver-tapped luxury a few minutes before Lady Arabella, together with Gillian and Michael Quarrington, presented themselves at her dressing-room door, and they found her ensconced in an easy-chair by the fire, sipping a cup of steaming hot tea.
"I've brought Mr. Quarrington to see you," announced Lady Arabella. "I thought perhaps you'd like some other congratulations besides family ones."
"Am I permitted?" asked Quarrington, taking the hand Magda held out to him. "Or are you too tired to be bothered with an outsider?"
Magda looked up at him.
"I've very glad to see you," she said quietly.
She appeared unwontedly sweet and girlish as she sat there, clad in a negligee of some soft silken stuff that clung about the lissom lines of her figure, and with her satiny hair coiled in a simple knot at the nape of her neck. There was little or nothing about her to remind one of the successful ballerina, and Michael found himself poignantly recalling the innocent, appealing charm of the Swan-Maiden. It was difficult to associate this woman with that other who had so unconsciously turned down his pal--the man who had loved her.
"Well? Did it go all right?"
Magda's eyes sought Gillian's eagerly as she put the question.
"Did it go?" Mrs. Grey's voice held all the unqualified enthusiasm any artiste could desire.
"Oh, Magda! It was wonderful! The most wonderful, beautiful dance I've ever seen."
"And you know it as well as we do," interpolated Lady Arabella tartly, but smiling pridefully in spite of herself.
"Still, of course, she likes to hear us say it." Gillian championed her friend stoutly.
"The whole world will be saying it to-morrow," observed Quarrington quietly.
Here Virginie created a diversion by handing round cups of freshly brewed tea.
"You'll get nerves--drinking tea at this hour of the night," commented Lady Arabella, accepting a cup with alacrity, nevertheless.
"I take it very weak," protested Magda, smiling faintly. "It's the only thing I like after dancing."
But Lady Arabella was already deep in conversation with Gillian and Virginie--a conversation which resolved itself chiefly into a laudatory chorus regarding the evening's performance. In the background Magda's maid moved quietly to and fro, carefully putting away her mistress's dancing dresses. For the moment Michael and Magda were to all intents and purposes alone.
"I shall not easily forget to-night," he said rather low, drawing a chair up beside her.
"You liked it, then?" she asked hesitatingly--almost shyly.
"'Like' is hardly the word."
Magda flashed him a swift glance.
"And yet," she said slowly, "I'm the 'type of woman you hate.'"
"You make it rather difficult to maintain the point of view," he admitted.
She was silent a moment.
"You were very unkind to me that day," she said at last.
Their eyes met and in hers was something soft and dangerously disarming. Quarrington got up suddenly from his chair.
"Perhaps I was unkind to you so that I might not be unkind to myself," he replied curtly.
Magda's soft laugh rippled out.
"But how selfish! And--and aren't you being rather mysterious?"
"Am I?" he returned pointedly. "Surely self-preservation is the first instinct of the human species?"
She picked up the challenge and tossed it lightly back to him.
"Is the danger, then, very great?"
"I think it is. So, like a wise man, I propose to avoid it."
"Why, by quitting the danger zone. I go to Paris to-morrow."
Magda experienced a sudden feeling of blankness. It was inexplicable, but somehow the knowledge that Quarrington was going away seemed to take all the savour out of things. It was only by a supreme effort that she contrived to keep her tone as light and unconcerned as his own as she continued:
"And then--after Paris?"
"After Paris? Oh, Spain possibly. Or the Antipodes!"--with a short laugh.
"Who's talking about the Antipodes?" suddenly chimed in Lady Arabella. "Home to bed's my next move. Gillian, you come with me--the car can take you on to Hampstead after dropping me in Park Lane. And Virginie can drive back with Magda."
"Yes, do go with Marraine," said Magda, nodding acquiescence in reply to Gillian's glance of interrogation. "I have to dress yet."
There was a general move towards the door.
"Good-bye"--Magda's slim hand lay for a moment in Quarrington's. "I-- I'm sorry you're going away, Saint Michel."
Only Michael heard the last two words, uttered in that trainante, slightly husky voice that held so much of music and appeal. He turned abruptly and made his way out of the room in the wake of Gillian and Lady Arabella.
"You'd better postpone your visit to the Antipodes, Mr. Quarrington," said the latter, as presently they all three stood together in the vestibule, halted by the stream of people pouring out from the theatre. "I'm giving a dinner-party next week, with a 'crush' to follow. Stay and come to it."
"It's awfully kind of you, Lady Arabella, but I'm afraid it's impossible."
"Fiddlesticks! You're a free agent, aren't you?"--looking at him keenly.
A whimsical light gleamed for an instant in the grey eyes.
"I sometimes wonder if I am," he returned.
"There's only one cord I know of that can't be either unknotted--or cut. And that's lack of money. That's not your complaint"-- significantly.
"So you'll come?"
"I'm afraid not."
"Magda has promised to dance for me," proceeded Lady Arabella, entirely disregarding his quietly uttered negative. "They're not giving The Swan-Maiden that night at the Imperial. She can't dine, of course, poor dear. Really, dancers have a lot to put up with--or rather, to put up without! Magda never dares to enjoy a good square meal. Afraid of getting fat, of course! After all, a dancer's figure's her fortune."
Like a low, insistent undertone beneath the rattle of Lady Arabella's volubility Michael could hear again the murmur of a soft, dragging voice: "I'm sorry you're going away, Saint Michel."
It seemed almost as though Lady Arabella, with that uncanny shrewdness of hers, divined it.
"You'll come, then?" She smiled at him over her shoulder, moving forward as the crush in the vestibule lessened a little.
And Michael, with an odd expression in his eyes, answered suddenly:
"Yes, I'll come."
Later, as Lady Arabella and Gillian drove home together, the former laughed quietly. There was an element of pride and triumph in the laughter. Probably the hen who has reared a duckling and sees it sail off into the water experiences, alongside her natural apprehension and astonishment, a somewhat similar pride in the startling proclivities evinced by her nurseling.
"That nice artist-man is in love with Magda," crowed Lady Arabella contentedly.
"Do you think so?"
"I do. Only it's very much against his will, for some reason or other. Crossing from Dover to-morrow, forsooth!"--with a broad smile. "Not he! He'll be at my party--and asking Magda to marry him before the week's out, bar accidents! . . . After all, it's not surprising that the men are falling over each other to marry her. She's really rather wonderful. Where do you think she gets it all from, Gillian, my dear? Not from the Vallincourts, I'll swear!"--chuckling.
Mrs. Grey shook her head.
"I don't know. But I think Magda is a standing argument in favour of the doctrine of reincarnation! She always seems to me to be a kind of modern embodiment of Helen of Troy or Cleopatra."
"Only without the capacity for falling in love! She's as chilly as an iceberg and yet somehow gives you the idea she's all fire and passion. No wonder the men get misled, poor lambs!"
"She's not cold, really," asserted Gillian positively. "Of that I'm sure. No one could dance as she does--and be an iceberg."
Lady Arabella chuckled again, wickedly.
"A woman who can dance like that ought to be preceded through life by a red flag. She positively stirs my old blood--that's been at a comfortably tepid temperature for the last thirty years!"
"Some day," said Gillian, "she'll fall in love. And then--"
"Then there'll be fireworks."
Lady Arabella completed the sentence briskly just as the car pulled up in front of her house. She skipped nimbly out on to the pavement.
"Fireworks, my dear," she repeated emphatically. "And a very fine display, too! Good-night."
The car slid away north with Gillian inside it reflecting rather ruefully upon the very great amount of probability contained in Lady Arabella's parting comment.