The Lamp of Fate by Margaret Pedler
Chapter VII. The Garden of Eden
Lady Arabella's big rooms were filling rapidly. The dinner to which only a few of the elect had been bidden was over, and now those who had been invited to the less exclusive reception which was to follow were eagerly wending their way towards Park Lane.
The programme for the evening promised to be an attractive one. A solo from Antoine Davilof, Lady Arabella's pet lion-cub of the moment; a song from the leading operatic tenor; and afterwards a single dance by the Wielitzska--who could never be persuaded to perform at any other private houses than those of her godmother and the Duchess of Lichbrooke--the former's half sister. So, in this respect, Lady Arabella enjoyed almost a monopoly, and such occasions as the present were enthusiastically sought after by her friends and acquaintances. Later, when the artistes had concluded their programme, there was to be a dance. The ballroom, the further end of which boasted a fair- sized stage, had been temporarily arranged with chairs to accommodate an audience, and in one of the anterooms Virginie, with loving, skilful fingers, was putting the finishing touches to Magda's toilette.
Magda submitted passively to her ministrations. She was thinking of Michael Quarrington, the man who had come into her life by such strange chance and who had so deliberately gone out of it again. By the very manner of his going he had succeeded in impressing himself on her mind as no other man had ever done. Other men did not shun her like the plague, she reflected bitterly!
But from the very beginning he had shown her that he disapproved of her fundamentally. She was the "type of woman he hated!" Night and day that curt little phrase had bitten into her thoughts, stinging her with its quiet contempt.
She felt irritated that she should care anything about his opinion. But if she were candid with herself she had to admit that she did care, intensely. More than that, his departure from England had left her conscious of an insistent and unaccountable little ache. The knowledge that there could be no more chance meetings, that he had gone right out of her ken, seemed like the sudden closing of a door which had just been opening to her. It had somehow taken the zest out of things.
"Voila!" Virginie drew back to survey the results of her labours, turning for approval to Gillian, who was in attendance in her capacity of accompanist. "Is it not that mademoiselle looks ravishing?"
"Quite ravishing, Virginie," agreed Gillian. "Did you expect her to look anything else by the time you had finished decking her out?" she added teasingly.
"It is nothing that I do," responded the old Frenchwoman seriously. "Mademoiselle cannot help but be beautiful to the eye--le bon dieu has created her like that."
"I believe He has," assented Gillian, smiling.
As she spoke the bell of the telephone instrument on the table beside her rang imperatively and she lifted the receiver. Magda, watching her face as she took the message, saw it suddenly blanch.
"Coppertop! . . . He's ill!" she gasped.
"Ill?" Magda could hardly credit it. Two hours ago they had left the child in perfect health.
"Yes." Gillian swallowed, moistening her dry lips. "They've sent for the doctor. It's croup. Oh!"--despairingly, and letting the receiver fall unheeded from her grasp--"What am I to do? What am I to do?"
Magda stepped forward, the filmy draperies of the dress in which she was to dance floating cloudily about her as she moved. She picked up the receiver as it hung dangling aimlessly from the stand and replaced it on its clip.
"Do?" she said quietly. "Why, you'll go straight home, of course. As quickly as the car can take you. Virginie"--turning to the maid--"fly and order the car round at once."
Gillian looked at her distractedly.
"But you? Who'll play for you? I can't go! I can't leave you!" Her voice was shaken by sobs. "Oh, Coppertop!"
Magda slipped a comforting arm round her shoulder.
"Of course you'll go--and at once, too. See, here's your coat"-- lifting it up from the back of the chair where Gillian had thrown it. "Put it on."
Hardly conscious of what was happening, Gillian allowed herself to be helped into the coat. Suddenly recollection returned.
"But your dance--your dance, Magda? You've forgotten!"
Magda shook her head.
"No. It will be all right," she said soothingly. "Don't worry, Gillyflower. You've forgotten that Davilof is playing here to-night."
"Antoine?" Gillian stared at her incredulously. "But you can't ask him to play for you! You'd hate asking him a favour after--after his refusal to accompany you any more."
Magda smiled at her reassuringly.
"My dear," she said, and there was an unaffected kindliness in her voice which few people ever heard. "My dear, I'm not going to let a little bit of cheap pride keep you away from Coppertop."
She bent suddenly and kissed Gillian's white, miserable face just as Virginie reappeared in the doorway to announce that the car was waiting.
"There, run along. Look, would you like to take Virginie with you?"
"No, no." Gillian shook her head decidedly. "I shall be quite all right. Oh, Magda!"--impulsively drawing the slender figure close into her arms a moment. "You are good!"
Magda laughed a trifle bitterly.
"That would be news to the world at large!" she replied. Then cheerfully: "Now, don't worry, Gillyflower. Remember they've got a doctor there. And 'phone me presently about Coppertop. If he's worse, I'll come home as early as I can get away. Send the car straight back here."
As soon as Gillian had gone, Magda flung a loose wrap over her diaphanous draperies and turned to Virginie.
"Where is Monsieur Davilof? Do you know?"
"Mais oui, mademoiselle! I saw him through the doorway as I came from ordering the car. He is in the library."
"Oui, mademoiselle!" Virginie nodded eloquently. "He smokes a cigarette--to steady the nerves, I suppose."
Magda went swiftly out of the room. She reached the hall by way of an unfrequented passage and slipped into the library closing the door behind her.
At the sound of her voice Davilof, who had been standing by the fire, wheeled round.
"You!" he exclaimed violently. "You!" And then remained silent, staring at her.
"You knew I was dancing here to-night," she said chidingly. "Why are you so startled? We were bound to meet, weren't we?"
"No, we were not. I proposed leaving the house the moment my solo was over."
Magda laughed a little.
"So afraid of me, Antoine?" she mocked gently.
He made no answer, but his hands, hanging at his sides, clenched suddenly.
Magda advanced a few steps towards him and paused.
"Davilof," she said quietly. "Will you play for me to-night?"
He looked at her, puzzled.
"Play for you?" he repeated. "But you have Mrs. Grey."
"No. She can't accompany me this evening."
"And you ask me?" His voice held blank amazement.
"Yes. Will you do it?"
"Do you remember what I told you the last time we met? That I would never play for you again?"
Magda drew her breath slowly. It was hurting her pride far more than Gillian knew or could imagine to ask a favour of this man. And he wasn't going to make it easy for her, either--that was evident. But she must ask it, nevertheless. For Gillian's sake; for the sake of poor little Coppertop fighting for breath and with no "mummie" at hand to help and comfort him; and for the sake of Lady Arabella, too. After promising to dance for her she couldn't let her godmother down by crying off at the last moment, when all the world and his wife had come crowding to her house on the strength of that promise.
So she bent her head in response to Davilof's contemptuous question.
"Yes, I remember," she said quietly.
"And you still ask me to play for you?"
"I still ask you."
"You amaze me! And supposing I reply by saying I refuse?"
"But you won't," dared Magda.
Davilof's eyes held something of cruelty in their hazel depths as he answered quietly:
"On the contrary--I do refuse."
Her hand went up to her throat. It was going to be more difficult than she had anticipated!
"There is no one else who can play for me as you do," she suggested.
"No," fiercely. "Because no one loves you as I do."
"What is the use of saying you love me when you won't do the one little thing I ask?" she retorted. "It is not often that I ask favours. And--and no one has ever refused me a request before."
Davilof could hear the note of proud resentment in her voice, and he realised to the full that, in view of all that had passed between them in the Mirror Room, it must have been a difficult matter for a woman of Magda's temperament to bring herself to ask his help.
But he had no intention of sparing her. None but himself knew how bitterly she had hurt him, how cruelly she had stung his pride, when she had flung him that contemptuous command: "I shall want you to-morrow, Davilof!--same time." He had unveiled his very soul before her--and in return she had tossed him an order as though he were a lackey who had taken a liberty. All his pain and brooding resentment came boiling up to the surface.
"If I meant anything to you," he said slowly, "if you had even looked upon me as a friend, you could have asked what you liked of me. But you showed me once--very clearly--that in your eyes I was nothing more than your paid accompanist. Very well, then! Pay me--and I'll play for you to-night."
"Oh, not in money"--with a short laugh.
"Then--then what do you mean?" Her face had whitened a little.
"It's quite simple. Later on there is a dance. Give me a dance with you!"
Magda hesitated. In other circumstances she would have refused point- blank. Davilof had offended her--and more than that, the revelation of the upsettingly vehement order of his passion for her that day in the Mirror Room had frightened her not a little. There was something stormy and elemental about it. To the caloric Pole, love was love, and the fulfilment of his passion for the adored woman the supreme necessity of life.
Realising that she had to withstand an ardour essentially unEnglish in its violently inflammable quality, Magda was loth to add fuel to the flame. And if she promised to dance with Davilof she must let him hold her in his arms, risk that dangerous proximity which, she knew now, would set the man's wild pulses racing unsteadily and probably serve as the preliminary to another tempestuous scene.
"Well?" Davilof broke in upon her self-communings. "Have I asked too high a price?"
Time was flying. She must decide, and decide quickly. She took her courage in both hands.
"No," she returned quickly. "I will dance with you, Antoine."
"Our bargain is complete, then," he said ironically. "I shall be charmed to play for you, mademoiselle."
An hour or so later the last burst of applause had died away, and the well-dressed crowd which had sat in enthralled silence while the Wielitzska danced emerged chattering and laughing from the great ballroom.
Their place was immediately taken by deft, felt-slippered men, who proceeded swiftly to clear away the seats and the drugget which had been laid to protect the surface of the dancing floor. In the twinkling of an eye, as it were, they transformed what had been to all intents and purposes a concert-hall into a flower-decked ballroom, while the members of the band engaged for the dance began climbing agilely into their allotted places on the raised platform preparatory to tuning up for the evening's work.
Magda, released at last from Virginie's worshipfully careful hands, came slowly down the main staircase. She was in black, diaphanous and elusive, from which her flower-pale face and shoulders emerged like a water-lily starring the dark pool on which it floats. A crimson rose glowed just above her heart--that and her softly scarlet lips the only touches of colour against the rare black-and-white loveliness of her.
She was descending the stairs reluctantly, mentally occupied in screwing up courage to fulfil her promise to Davilof. A 'phone message from Friars' Holm had come through saying that Coppertop was better. All danger was passed and there was no longer any need for her to return early. So it remained, now, for her to keep her pact with the musician.
As she rounded the last bend in the staircase, she saw that a man was standing with bent head at the foot of the stairs, apparently waiting for someone, and she threw a quick, nervous glance in the direction of the motionless figure, thinking it might be Davilof himself. It would be like his eager impatience to await her coming there. Then, as the lights gleamed on fair, crisply waving hair she realised that the man was Michael--Michael, whom she believed to be on his way to Spain!
Perhaps it was merely chance, or perhaps it was at the direct inspiration of Lady Arabella, but, whatever may have been the cause, Gillian had not confided to Magda that Quarrington was to be at her godmother's reception. The sudden, totally unexpected meeting with him--with this man who had contrived to dominate her thoughts so inexplicably--startled a little cry of surprise from her lips. She drew back abruptly, and then--quite how it happened she could not tell--but she missed her footing and fell.
For the fraction of a second she experienced a horrible sensation of utter helplessness to save herself; then Michael's arms closed round her as he caught her before she reached the ground.
The shock of the fall stupefied her for a moment. She lay against his breast like a terrified child, clinging to him convulsively.
"It's all right," he murmured soothingly. "You're quite safe."
Unconsciously his arms tightened round her. His breath quickened. The satin-soft hair had brushed his cheek as she fell; the pale, exquisite face and warm white throat lay close beneath his lips--all the fragrant beauty of her gathered unresisting against his heart. He had only to stoop his head----
With a stifled exclamation he jerked himself backward, squaring his shoulders, and released her, though he still steadied her with a hand beneath her arm.
"There, you are all right," he said reassuringly. "No bones broken."
The commonplace words helped to restore her poise.
"Oh! Thank you!" The words came a little gaspingly still. "I--I don't know how I came to fall like that. I think you startled me--I didn't expect to see you here."
"I didn't expect to be," he returned, smiling a little.
Magda did not ask how it had come to pass. For the moment it was enough for her that he was there--that he had not gone away! She was conscious of a sudden incomprehensible sense of tumult within her.
"It was lucky for me you happened to be standing just at the foot of the stairs," she said a little unsteadily.
"I didn't 'happen.' I was there of malice prepense"--the familiar crooked smile flashed out--"waiting for you."
"Waiting for me?"
"Yes. Lady Arabella asked me to shepherd you into the supper-room and see that you had a glass of champagne and a sandwich before the dancing begins."
"Orders from headquarters?"--smiling up at him.
He held out his arm and they moved away together. As they passed through the crowded rooms one man murmured ironically to another:
"Quarrington's got it badly, I should say."
The second man glanced after the pair with amused eyes.
"So he's the latest victim, is he? I head young Raynham's nose was out of joint."
"You don't mean she's fired him?"
The other nodded.
"Got the push the day before yesterday," he answered tersely.
"Poor devil! He'll take it hard. He's a hotheaded youngster. Just the sort to go off and blow his brains out."
Meanwhile Quarrington had established Magda at a corner table in the empty supper-room and was seeing to it that Lady Arabella's commands were obeyed, in spite of Magda's assurances that she was not in the least hungry.
"Then you ought to be," he replied. "After dancing. Besides, unlike the rest of us, you had no dinner."
"Oh, I had a light meal at six o'clock. But naturally, you can't consume a solid dinner just before giving a performance."
"I'm not going to pay you compliments about your dancing," he observed quietly, after a pause. "You must receive a surfeit of them. But"-- looking at her with those direct grey eyes of his--"I'm glad I didn't leave England when I intended to."
"Why didn't you?" she asked impulsively.
"Because it's so much easier to yield to temptation than to resist," he answered, not taking his eyes from her face.
She flushed a little.
"What was the temptation?" she asked uncertainly.
He waited an instant, then answered with deliberation:
"The temptation of seeing you again."
"I should have thought you disapproved of me far too much for that to be the case! Saint Michel, don't you think you're rather hard on me?"
"Am I? I had an old-fashioned mother, you see. Perhaps my ideas about women are out of date."
"Tell me them."
He regarded her reflectively.
"Shall I? Well, I like to think of a woman as something sweet and fragrant, infinitely tender and compassionate--not as a marauder and despoiler. Wherever she comes, the place should be the happier for her coming--not bereft by it. She should be the helper and healer in this battered old world. That's the sort of woman I should want my wife to be; that's the sort of woman my mother was."
"And you think I'm--not like that? I'm the marauder, I suppose?"
He remained silent, and Magda sat with her bent head, fingering the stem of her wine-glass restlessly.
"You like my dancing?" she said at last.
"You know I do."
"Well"--she looked at him with a mixture of defiance and appeal. "My dancing is me--the real me."
He shook his head.
"You're not the 'Swan-Maiden,' whose love was so great that she forgot everything except the man she loved--and paid for it with her life."
"The process doesn't sound exactly encouraging," she retorted with a flash of dry humour. "But how do you know I'm not--like that?"
"How do I know? Because, if you knew anything at all about love, you couldn't pay with it as you do. Even the love you've no use for is the biggest thing the poor devil who loves you has to offer you; you've no right to play battledore and shuttlecock with it."
He spoke lightly, but Magda could hear the stern accusation that underlay the words. She rose from the table abruptly.
"I think," she said, "I think I'm afraid of love."
As she spoke, she made a movement as though to quit the supper-room, but, either by accident or design, Michael barred her way.
"Love," he said, watching her face intently, "means sacrifice-- surrender."
"And you believe I'm not capable of it?"
"I think," he replied slowly, drawing aside to let her pass, "I think I'm afraid to believe."
Something in the deep tones of his voice sent a thrill of consciousness through her. She felt her breath come and go unevenly and, afraid to trust herself to speak, she moved forward without response in the direction of the door. A moment later they were drawn into the stream of people wending their way by twos and threes towards the ballroom.
As they entered, Antoine Davilof broke away from a little group of men with whom he had been conversing and came to Magda's side.
"The next dance is just beginning," he said. "Are you engaged? Or may I have it?"
"No, I'm not engaged," she answered.
She spoke flurriedly. She was dreading this dance with Antoine. She felt as though the evening had drained her of her strength and left her unequal to a battle of wills should Antoine prove to be in one of his hotheaded moods.
She glanced round her with a hint of desperation in her eyes. If only Michael had asked her to dance with him instead! But he had bowed and left her as soon as the musician joined them, so that there was no escape to be hoped for that way.
Davilof was watching her curiously.
"I believe," he said, "that you're afraid to dance with me!"
On an impulse she answered him with perfect candour.
"I believe I am."
"Then why did you promise? You did promise, you know."
"I know. I promised. I promised because Coppertop had croup and they had telephoned down for his mother to go to him. And you wouldn't accompany me unless I gave you this dance. So I promised it."
Davilof's eyes held a curiously concentrated expression.
"And you did this so that Mrs. Grey could go to her little boy--to nurse him?"
Magda inclined her head.
"Yes," she said simply.
"But you hated asking me--loathed it!"
"Yes," she said again.
He was silent for a moment. Then he drew back from her. "That was kind. Extraordinarily kind," he commented slowly. His expression was one of frank amazement. "I did not believe you could be so kind--so womanly."
"Womanly?" she queried, puzzled.
"Yes. For is not a woman--a good woman--always ready to sacrifice herself for those she loves?"
Magda almost jumped. It was as though she were listening to an echo of Quarrington's own words.
"And you sacrificed yourself," continued Davilof. "Sacrificed your pride--crushed it down for the sake of Mrs. Grey and little Coppertop. Mademoiselle"--he bowed gravely--"I kiss your hands. And see, I too, I can be generous. I release you from your promise. I do not claim that dance."
If any single thing could have astonished Magda more than another, it was that Davilof should voluntarily, in the circumstances, renounce the dance she had promised him. It argued a fineness of perception and a generosity for which she would never have given him credit. She felt a little warm rush of gratitude towards him.
"No, no!" she cried impulsively, "you shan't give up your dance." Then, as he still hesitated: "I should like to dance with you-- really I should, Antoine. You've been so--so decent."
Davilof's face lit up. He looked radiant--like a child that has been patted on the back and told it is good.
"No wonder we are all in love with you!" he exclaimed in low, vehement tones; adding quickly, as he detected a flicker of apprehension in Magda's eyes: "But you need not fear to dance with me. I will be as your brother--I will go on being 'decent.'"
And he was. He danced as perfectly as any of his music-loving nationality can dance, but there was a restraint, a punctilious deference about him that, even while it amazed, availed to reassure Magda and restore her shaken confidence in the man.
She did not realise or suspect that just those two simple actions of hers--the good turn she had done Gillian at some considerable cost to herself in the matter of personal pride, and her quick recognition of the musician's sense of fair play in renouncing his dance with her when he knew the circumstances which had impelled her to promise it-- these two things had sufficed to turn Davilof's heady, emotional devotion into something more enduring and perhaps more dangerous, an abiding, deeply rooted love and passion for her which was stronger than the man himself.
He left the house immediately after the conclusion of his dance with her, and Magda was speedily surrounded by a crowd of would-be partners. But she felt disinclined to dance again, and, always chary of her favours in this respect, she remained watching the dancing in preference to taking any part in it, exchanging small-talk with the men who, finding she could not be induced to reconsider her decision, clustered round her chair like bees round a honey-pot.
It was towards the end of the evening that Michael Quarrington finally joined the group. Magda's eyes rested on him with a mixture of annoyance and approval--annoyance because she had expected him to ask her for a dance quite early in the course of the programme and he had failed to do so, and approval because he was of that clean-cut, fair- haired type of man who invariably contrives to look particularly well- groomed and thoroughbred in evening kit.
She had no intention of permitting him to request a dance at this late hour, however, and rose from her seat as he approached.
"Ah! You, Mr. Quarrington?" she said gaily. "I am just going home. It's been a charming evening, hasn't it?"
"Charming," he rejoined courteously. "May I see you to your car?"
He offered his arm and Magda, dismissing her little court of disgruntled admirers with a small gracious nod, laid her slim hand on his sleeve. As they moved away together the orchestra broke into the swinging seductive rhythm of a waltz.
Quarrington paused abruptly.
"Don't go yet!" he said. "Dance this with me."
His voice sounded strained and uneven. It was as though the words were dragged from him without his own volition.
For an instant the two pairs of eyes met--the long, dark ones with their slumbrous fire brooding beneath white lids, and the keen, hawk- like grey ones. Then:
"Very well," she answered a trifle breathlessly.
She was almost glad when the waltz came to an end. They had danced it in utter silence--a tense, packed silence, vibrant with significances half-hidden, half-understood, and she found herself quivering with a strange uncertainty and nervousness as she and Quarrington together made their way into the dim-lit quiet of the winter-garden opening off the ballroom.
Overhead the green, shining leaves of stephanotis spread a canopy, pale clusters of its white, heavy-scented bloom gleaming star-like in the faint light of Chinese lanterns swung from the leaf-clad roof. From somewhere near at hand came the silvery, showering plash of a fountain playing--a delicate and aerial little sound against the robust harmonies of the band, like the notes of a harp.
It seemed to Magda as though she and Michael had left the world behind them and were quite alone, enfolded in the sweet-scented, tender silence of some Garden of Eden.
They stood together without speaking. In every tingling nerve of her she was acutely conscious of his proximity and of some rapidly rising tide of emotion mounting within him. She knew the barrier against which it beat and a little cry escaped her, forced from her by some impulse that was stronger than herself.
"Oh, Saint Michel! Can't you--can't you believe in me?"
He swung round at the sound of her voice and the next moment she was crushed against his breast, his mouth on hers, his kisses burning their way to her very heart. . . .
Then voices, quick, light footsteps--someone else had discovered the Eden of the winter-garden, and Michael released her abruptly.
Behind the chimneystacks the grey fingers of dawn were creeping up in the sky as Magda drove home. In the wan light her face looked unusually pale, and beneath the soft lace at her breast her heart throbbed unevenly.
Five minutes ago Michael had held her in his arms and she had felt herself stirred to a sudden passionate surrender and response that frightened her.
Was this love--the love against which Diane had warned her? It had all happened so suddenly--that last, unpremeditated dance, those tense, vibrant moments in the winter-garden, then the jarring interruption of other couples seeking its fragrant coolness. And she and Michael suddenly apart.
Afterwards, only the barest conventionalities had passed between them. Nothing else had seemed possible. Their solitude had been ruthlessly destroyed; the outside world had thrust itself upon them without warning, jerking them back to the self-consciousness of suddenly arrested emotion.
"I must be going." The stilted, banal little phrase had fallen awkwardly from Magda's lips, and Quarrington had assented without comment.
She felt confused and bewildered. What had he meant? Had he meant anything at all? Was it possible that he believed in her now--trusted her? It had been in answer to that low, imploring cry of hers--"Saint Michel, can't you believe in me?"--that he had taken her in his arms.
Looking out through the mist-blurred window at the pale streamers of dawnlight penciling the sky, Magda's eyes grew wistful--wonderingly questioning the future. Was she, too, only waiting for the revelation of dawn--the dawn of that mysterious thing called love which can transmute this everyday old world of ours into heaven or hell?
Gillian was at the door to welcome her when at length the car pulled up at Friars' Holm. She looked rather white and there were purple shadows under her eyes, but her lips smiled happily.
"Coppertop? How is he?" asked Magda quickly.
"Sleeping, thank God! He's safe now! But--oh, Magda! It's been awful!"
And quite suddenly Gillian, who had faced Death and fought him with a dogged courage and determination that had won the grave-eyed doctor's rare approval, broke down and burst into tears.
Magda petted and soothed her, until at last her sobs ceased and she smiled through her tears.
"I am a fool!" she said, dabbing at her eyes with a moist, screwed- up ball of something that had once been a cambric handkerchief. "But I've quite recovered now--really. Come and tell me about everything. Did Davilof play for you all right? And did you enjoy the dance afterwards? And, oh, I forgot! There's a letter for you on the mantelpiece. It was delivered by hand while we were both at Lady Arabella's."
Mechanically, as she responded to Gillian's rapid fire of questions, Magda picked up the square envelope propped against the clock and slit open the flap. It was probably only some note of urgent invitation-- she received dozens of them. An instant later a half-stifled cry broke from her. Gillian turned swiftly.
"What is it?" she asked, a note of apprehension sharpening her voice.
Magda stared at her dumbly. Then she held out the letter.
"Read it," she said flatly. "It's from Kit Raynham's mother."
Gillian's eyes flew along the two brief lines of writing:
"Kit has disappeared. Do you know where he is?-- ALICIA RAYNHAM."