The Lamp of Fate by Margaret Pedler
Chapter VIII. The First Reaping
At breakfast, some hours later, Magda was in a curiously petulant and uncertain mood. To some extent her fractiousness was due to natural reaction after the emotional excitement of the previous evening. Granted the discovery of the Garden of Eden, and add to this the almost immediate intrusion of outsiders therein--for everybody else is an "outsider" to the pair in possession--and any woman might be forgiven for suffering from slightly frayed nerves the following day. And in Magda's case she had been already rather keyed up by finding the preceding few days punctuated by unwelcome and unaccustomed happenings.
They all dated from the day of the accident which had befallen her in the fog. It almost seemed as though that grey curtain of fog had been a symbol of the shadow which was beginning to dog her footsteps--the shadow which stern moralists designate "unpleasant consequences."
First there had been Michael Quarrington's plain and candid utterance of his opinion of her. Then had followed Davilof's headlong wooing and his refusal, when thwarted, to play for her again. He, too, had not precisely glossed things over in that tirade of accusation and reproach which he had levelled at her!
And now, just when it seemed as though she had put these other ugly happenings behind her, Kit Raynham, who for the last six months had been one of the little court of admirers which surrounded her, had seen fit to complicate matters by vanishing without explanation; while his mother, in an absurd maternal flurry of anxiety as to what had become of him, must needs write to her as though it inevitably followed that she was responsible for his disappearance!
Magda was conscious of an irritated sense of injury, which Gillian's rather apprehensive little comments on the absence of further news concerning young Raynham scarcely tended to allay.
"Oh, don't be tiresome, Gillian!" she exclaimed. "The boy's all right. I expect he's been having a joy-day--which has prolonged itself a bit."
"It seems he hasn't been seen or heard of since the day before yesterday," responded Gillian gravely. "They're afraid he may--may have committed suicide"--she brought out the word with a rush. "They've been dragging the lake at his home."
"Where did you hear all this--this nonsense? You said nothing about it last night."
"Lady Raynham told me. She rang up half an hour ago--before you were down--to ask if by any chance we had had any news of him," replied Gillian gently.
Magda pushed away her plate and, leaving her breakfast unfinished, moved restlessly across to the window.
"There's nothing about it in this morning's paper, is there?" she asked. Her tone sounded apprehensive.
Gillian's eyes grew suddenly compassionate.
"Yes. There is--something," she returned, laying her hand quickly over the newspaper as though to withhold it.
But Magda swung round and snatched it from her. Gillian half rose from her chair.
"Don't look--don't read it, Magda!" she entreated hastily.
The other made no response. Instead, she deliberately searched the columns of the paper until she found a paragraph headed: Disappearance of the Honourable Kit Raynham.
No exception could reasonably be taken to the paragraph in question. It gave a brief resume of Kit Raynham's short life up to date, referred to the distinguished career which had been predicted for him, and, in mentioning that he was one of the set of brilliant young folks of whom Magda Wielitzska, the well-known dancer, was the acknowledged leader, it conveyed a very slightly veiled hint that he, in particular, was accounted one of her most devoted satellites. The sting of the paragraph lay in its tail:
"It will be tragic indeed if it should eventually transpire that a young life so full of exceptional promise has foundered in seas that only a seasoned swimmer should essay."
It was easy enough for Magda to read between the lines. If anything had happened to Kit Raynham--if it were ultimately found that he had taken his own life--society at large was prepared to censure her as more or less responsible for the catastrophe!
Side by side with this paragraph was another--a panegyric on the perfection of Wielitzska's dancing as a whole, and dwelling particularly upon her brilliant performance in The Swan-Maiden.
To Magda, the juxtaposition of the two paragraphs was almost unendurable. That this supreme success should be marred and overshadowed by a possible tragedy! She flung the newspaper to the ground.
"I think--I think the world's going mad!" she exclaimed in a choked voice.
Gillian looked across at her. Intuitively she apprehended the mental conflict through which her friend was passing--the nervous apprehension and resentment of the artiste that any extraneous happening should infringe upon her success contending with the genuine regret she would feel if some untoward accident had really befallen Kit Raynham. And behind both these that strange, aloof detachment which seemed part of the very fibre of her nature, and which Gillian knew would render it almost impossible for her to admit or even realise that she was in any way responsible for Kit Raynham's fate-- whatever it might be.
Of what had taken place in the winter-garden at Lady Arabella's Gillian was, of course, in ignorance, and she had therefore no idea that the intrusion of Kit Raynham's affairs at this particular juncture was doubly unwelcome. But she could easily see that Magda was shaken out of her customary sang-froid.
"Don't worry, Magda." The words sprang consolingly to her lips, but before she could give them utterance Melrose opened the door and announced that Lady Raynham was in the library. Would Mademoiselle Wielitzska see her?
The old man's face wore a look of concern. They had heard all about the disappearance of Lady Raynham's son in the servants' hall--the evening papers had had it. Moreover, it always seems as though there exists a species of wireless telepathy by which the domestic staff of any household, great or small, speedily becomes acquainted with everything good, bad, or indifferent--and particularly bad!--which affects the folks "above-stairs."
A brief uncomfortable pause succeeded Melrose's announcement; then Magda walked quietly out of the room into the library.
Lady Raynham rose from a low chair near the fire. She was a little, insignificant woman, rather unfashionably attired, with neat grey hair and an entirely undistinguished face, but as she stood there, motionless, waiting for Magda to come up to her, she was quite unconsciously impressive--transformed by that tragic dignity with which great sorrow invests even the most commonplace of people.
Her thin, middle-aged features looked drawn and puckered by long hours of strain. Her eyes were red-rimmed with sleeplessness. They searched Magda's face accusingly before she spoke.
"What have you done to my son?"
"Where is he?" Magda's answering question came in almost breathless haste.
"You don't know!"
Lady Raynham sat down suddenly. Her legs were trembling beneath her-- had been trembling uncontrollably even as she nerved herself to stand and confront the woman at whose door she laid the ruin of her son. But now the spurt of nervous energy was exhausted, and she sank back into her chair, thankful for its support.
"I don't know where he is," she said tonelessly. "I don't even know whether he is alive or dead."
She fumbled in the wrist-bag she carried, and withdrawing a crumpled sheet of notepaper held it out. Magda took it from her mechanically, recognising, with a queer tightening of the muscles of her throat, the boyish handwriting which sprawled across it.
"You want me to read this?" she asked.
"You've got to read it," replied the other harshly. "It is written to you. I found it--after he'd gone."
Her gaze fastened on Magda's face and clung there unwaveringly while she read the letter.
It was a wild, incoherent outpouring--the headlong confession of a boy's half-crazed infatuation for a beautiful woman. A pathetic enough document in its confused medley of passionate demand and boyish humbleness. The tragic significance of it was summed up in a few lines at the end--lines which seemed to burn themselves into Magda's brain:
"I suppose it was cheek my hoping you could ever care, but you were so sweet to me you made me think you did. I know now that you don't--that you never really cared a brass farthing, and I'm going right away. The same world can't hold us both any longer. So I'm going out of it."
Magda looked up from the scrawled page and met the gaze of the sad, merciless eyes that were fixed on her.
"Couldn't you have left him alone?" Lady Raynham spoke in a low, difficult voice. "You have men enough to pay you compliments and run your errands. I'd only Kit. Couldn't you have let me keep him? What did you want with my boy's love. You'd nothing to give him in return?"
"I had!" protested Magda indignantly. "You're wrong. I was very fond of Kit. I gave him my friendship."
Her indignation was perfectly sincere. To her, it seemed that Lady Raynham was taking up a most unwarrantable attitude.
"Friendship?" repeated the latter with bitter scorn. "Friendship? Then God help the boys to whom you give it! Before Kit ever met you he was the best and dearest son a woman could have had. He was keen on his work--wild to get on. And he was so gifted it looked as if there were nothing in his profession that he might not do. . . . Then you came! You turned his head, filled his thoughts to the exclusion of all else --work, duty, everything that matters to a lad of two-and-twenty. You spoilt his chances--spoilt his whole life. And now I've lost him. I don't know where he is--whether he is dead or alive." She paused. "I think he's dead," she said dully.
"I'm sorry if--"
"Sorry!" Lady Raynham interrupted hysterically. Her composure was giving way under the strain of the interview. "Sorry if my son has taken his own life--"
"He hasn't," asserted Magda desperately. "He was far too sensible and --and ordinary."
"Yes. Till you turned his head!"
Lady Raynham rose and walked towards the door as though she had said all she came to say. Magda sprang to her feet.
"I won't--I won't be blamed like this!" she exclaimed rebelliously. "It's unfair! Can I help it if your son chose to fall in love with me? You--you might as well hold me responsible because he is tall or short--or good or bad!"
The other stopped suddenly on her way to the door as though arrested by that last defiant phrase.
"I do," she said sternly. "It's women like you who are responsible whether men are good--or bad."
In silence Magda watched the small, unassuming figure disappear through the doorway. She felt powerless to frame a reply, nor had Lady Raynham waited for one. If her boy were indeed dead--dead by his own hand--she had at least cleared his memory, laid the burden of the mad, rash act he had committed on the shoulders that deserved to bear it.
Normally a shy, retiring kind of woman, loathing anything in the nature of a scene, the tragedy which had befallen her son had inspired Alicia Raynham with the reckless courage of a tigress defending its young. And now that the strain was over and she found herself once more in her brougham, driving homeward with the familiar clip-clop of the fat old carriage-horse's hoofs in her ears, she shrank back against the cushions marvelling at the temerity which had swept her into the Wielitzska's presence and endowed her with words that cut like a two-edged sword.
Like a two-edged sword in very truth! Lady Raynham's final thrust, stabbing at her with its stern denunciation, brought back vividly to Magda Michael Quarrington's bitter speech--"I've no place for your kind of woman."
Side by side with the recollection came a sudden dart of fear. How would all this stir about Kit Raynham--the impending gossip and censure which seemed likely to be accorded her--affect him? Would he judge her again--as he had judged her before?
She was conscious of a fresh impulse of anger against Lady Raynham. She wanted to forget the past--blot it all out of her memory--and out of the memory of the man whose contempt had hurt her more than anything in her whole life before. And now it seemed as though everything were combining to emphasise those very things which had earned his scorn.
But, apart from a certain apprehension as to how the whole affair might appear in Michael's eyes, she was characteristically unimpressed by her interview with Lady Raynham.
"I don't see," she told Gillian indignantly, "that I'm to blame because the boy lost his head. His mother was--stupid."
Gillian regarded her consideringly. To her, the whole pitiful tragedy was so clear. She could envisage the point of view of Kit's mother only too well, and sympathise with it. Yet, understanding Magda better than most people did, she realised that the dancer was hardly as culpable as Lady Raynham thought her.
Homage and admiration were as natural to Magda as the air she breathed, and it made very little impression on her whether a man more or less lost his heart to her or not. Moreover, as Gillian recognised it was almost inevitable that this should be the case. The influences by which Magda had been surrounded during the first ten plastic years of childhood had all tended to imbue her with the idea that men were only to be regarded as playthings, and that from the simple standpoint of self-defence it was wiser not to take them seriously. If you did, they invariably showed a disposition to become tyrants. Gillian made allowance for this; nevertheless she had no intention of letting Magda down lightly.
"I believe you were created without a soul," she informed her candidly.
Magda smiled a little.
"Do you know you're the second person to tell me that?" she said. "The idea's not a bit original. Michael Quarrington told me the same thing in other words. Perhaps, perhaps it's true."
"Of course, it's not true!" Gillian contradicted her warmly. "I only said it because I was so out of patience with you."
"Everybody seems to be hating me rather badly just now." Magda spoke somewhat forlornly. "And yet--I don't think I'm any different from usual."
"I don't think you are," retorted Gillian. "But it's your 'usual' that's so disastrous. You go sailing through life like a beautiful cold star--perfectly impassive and heartless."
"I'm not heartless. I love you--and Marraine. You surely don't blame me because I don't 'fall in love'? . . . I don't want to fall in love," she added with sudden vehemence.
"I wish to goodness you would!" exclaimed Gillian impatiently. "If only you cared enough about anybody to do something really outrageous --run off with another woman's husband, even--I believe I should respect you more than I do now."
"Gillyflower, I'm afraid you've no morals. And you here in the capacity of watchdog and duenna, too!"
"It's all very well to make a joke of everything. But I know--I'm sure this business about Kit Raynham is going to be more serious than you think. It's bound to affect you."
Magda stared at her blankly.
"What nonsense! Affect me--why should it? How can it?"
"How can it?"--with bitterness. "Everyone will talk--more than usual! You can't smash up people's only sons--not lovable, popular boys like Kit--without there being a fuss. You--you should have left a kid like that alone."
And she went out of the room, banging the door behind her like a big full-stop.
Gillian's prophecy proved only too accurate. People did talk. Kit Raynham had been a general favourite in society, and his disappearance, taken in conjunction with the well-known fact of his infatuation for Magda, created a sensation.
Even when the theory of suicide was finally disproved by his mother's receiving a letter from Australia, whither it appeared, the boy had betaken himself and his disappointment, people seemed at first disinclined to overlook Magda's share in the matter. For a time even her immense prestige as a dancer suffered some eclipse, but this, with a performer of her supreme artistry, was bound to be only a passing phase.
The world will always condone where it wants to be amused. And--now that the gloom of young Raynham's supposed suicide was lifted from the affair--there was a definite aroma of romance about it which was not without its appeal to the younger generation.
So that gradually the pendulum swung back and Magda's audiences were once again as big and enthusiastic as ever. Perhaps even more enthusiastic, since the existence of a romantic and dramatic attachment sheds a certain glamour about any well-known artiste.
All of which affected Magda herself comparatively little--though it irritated her that her actions should be criticised. What did affect her, however, absorbing her thoughts to the exclusion of all other matters, was that since the night of Lady Arabella's reception she had received neither word nor sign from Michael Quarrington.
She could not understand it. Had he been a different type of man she might have credited him with having yielded to a sudden impulse, kissing her as some men will kiss women--lightly and without giving or asking more than the moment's caress.
But Quarrington was essentially not the man to be carried away by a passing fancy. That he had cared for her against his will, against his better judgment, Magda could not but realise. But he had cared! She was sure of it. And he was the only man for whom her own pulses had ever beaten one whit the faster.
His touch, the sound of his voice, the swift, hawk-like glance of those grey eyes of his, had power to wake in her a vague tumult of emotion at once sweet and frightening; and in that brief moment in the "Garden of Eden," when he had held her in his arms, she had been tremulously ready to yield--to surrender to the love which claimed her.
But the days had multiplied to weeks and still the silence which had followed remained unbroken. As far as Magda was concerned, Michael seemed to have walked straight out of her life, and she was too proud --and too much hurt--to inquire amongst her friends for news of him. It was her godmother who finally tersely enlightened her as to his whereabouts.
Characteristically, Lady Arabella had withheld her judgment regarding the Kit Raynham affair until it was found that he had betaken himself off to Australia. But when the whole of the facts were evident, she allowed nothing--neither the romantic dreams of the episode nor her own warm affection for her god-daughter--to obscure her clear-sighted vision.
Magda twisted her slim shoulders irritably when taken to task.
"I think I'm tired of being blamed for Kit Raynham's idiocy," she said, a note of resentment in her voice. "No one seems to consider my side of the question! I was merely nice to him in an ordinary sort of way, and there wasn't the least need for him to have chucked up everything and rushed off to the other side of the world like that. I couldn't help it!"
Lady Arabella made a gesture of despair.
"I don't believe you could," she acknowledged helplessly. "I'm really beginning to have a sneaking sympathy with poor Hugh for shelving the responsibility of having brought you into the world. But at least you might refrain from baby-snatching!" she added wrathfully.
"Marraine! You're abominable! Kit is four-and-twenty if he's a day. And I'm barely twenty."
"That has nothing whatever to do with it," retorted Lady Arabella incisively. "Kit is a babe in arms, while you--you're as old as Eve." She paused. "Anyway, you've broken his heart and driven him to the ends of the earth."
"Where he'll probably paste together the pieces and offer the repaired article to someone else."
Lady Arabella looked up sharply. Cynicism was usually far enough away from Magda. She was too full of the joy of life and of the genuine delight an artist finds in his art to have place for it. Egoist she might be, with the unthinking egotism of youth, irresponsible in her gay acceptance of the love and admiration showered on her, but there was nothing bitter or sour in her composition. Lady Arabella, seeking an explanation for the unwonted, cast her mind back on the events of the last few weeks--and smiled to herself.
"I suppose you know you've driven someone else out of England besides Kit Raynham?" she said.
"Whom do you mean?"
Magda spoke mechanically. A faint colour crept up under her white skin, and she avoided her godmother's keen gaze.
"That charming artist-man--Michael Quarrington."
"Has--he left England?" Magda's throat felt suddenly parched. Then with an effort she went on: "You're surely not going to put the entire steamship's passenger list down to me, Marraine?"
"Only those names for which I happen to know you're responsible."
"You don't know about Saint Mi--about Mr. Quarrington. It's mere guesswork on your part."
"Most of the things we really know in life are mere guesswork," replied Lady Arabella sagely. "But in this case----"
"Yes. In this case?"
There was a long pause. Then Lady Arabella answered slowly:
"In this case I'm speaking from first-hand information."
Magda's slender figure tautened. She moistened her lips.
"Do you mean that Mr. Quarrington told you he was leaving England on my account?" she asked.
"I don't often meddle, Magda--not really meddle." Lady Arabella's voice sounded unusually deprecating. "But I did in this instance. Because--oh, my dear, he's the only man I've ever seen to whom I'd be glad to give you up. He'd--he'd manage you, Magda."
Magda's head was turned away, but the sudden scarlet flush that flew up into her face surged over even the white nape of her neck.
"And he loves you," went on Lady Arabella, her voice softening incredibly. "It's only a man here or there who really loves a woman, my dear. Most of them whip up a hotch-potch of quite commonplace feelings with a dash of passion and call it love, while all they actually want is a good housekeeper and presentable hostess and someone to carry on the name."
No answer came from Magda, unless a stifled murmur could be regarded as such, and after a few minutes Lady Arabella spoke again, irritably.
"Why couldn't you have left Kit alone?"
Magda raised her head.
"What has that to do with it?"
"Everything"--succinctly. "I told you I meddled. Michael Quarrington came to see me before he went away--and I know precisely why he left England. I asked him to go and see you before he sailed."
"What did he say?" The words were almost inaudible.
Lady Arabella hesitated. Then she quoted quickly: "'There is no need. She will understand.'"
To Magda the brief sentence held all the finality of the bolting and barring of a door. So Quarrington, like everyone else, had heard the story of Kit Raynham! And he had judged and sentenced her.
That night in the winter-garden he had been on the verge of trusting her, ready to believe in her, and she had vowed to herself that she would prove worthy of his trust. She had meant never to fall short of all that Michael demanded in the woman he loved. And now, before she had had a chance to justify his hardly-won belief, the past had risen up to destroy her, surging over her like a great tidal wave and sweeping away the whole fabric of the happiness she had visioned.
She had not wholly realised before that she loved. But she knew now. As the empty weeks dragged along she learned what it meant to long for the beloved one's presence--the sound and touch of voice or hand--with an aching, unassuagable longing that seems to fuse body and soul into a single entity of pain.
Outwardly she appeared unchanged. Her pride was indomitable, and exactly how much Michael's going had meant to her not even Gillian suspected--though the latter was too sensitive and sympathetic not to realise that Magda had passed through some experience which had touched her keenly. Ignorant of the incidents that had occurred on the night of Lady Arabella's party, she was disposed to assign the soreness of spirit she discerned in her friend to the general happenings which had followed from the Raynham episode. And amongst these she gave a certain definite place to the abrupt withdrawal of Quarrington's friendship, and resented it. She felt curiously disappointed in the man. With such fine perceptive faculty as he possessed she would have expected him to be more tolerant--more merciful in his judgment.
Once she had tentatively approached the subject, but Magda had clearly indicated that she had no intention of discussing it.
Not even to Gillian, whom she had gradually come to look upon as her closest friend, could Magda unveil the wound to her pride. No one, no one in the whole world, should know that she had been ready to give her love--and that the offering had been silently, but none the less decisively, rejected.
Diane's warning now found its echo in her own heart: "Never give your heart to any man. If you do he will only break it for you--break it into little pieces like the glass scent-bottle which you dropped yesterday."
"She was right," Magda told herself bitterly. "A thousand times right!"