The Lamp of Fate by Margaret Pedler
Chapter XVIII. A Readjustment of Ideas
Magda glanced from the divan covered with a huge tiger-skin to Michael, wheeling his easel into place. A week's hard work on the part of the artist had witnessed the completion of Lady Arabella's portrait, and to-day he proposed to make some preliminary sketches for "Circe."
Magda felt oddly nervous and unsure of herself. This last fortnight passed in daily companionship with Quarrington had proved a considerable strain. Not withstanding that she had consented to sit for his picture of Circe, he had not deviated from the attitude which he had apparently determined upon from the first moment of her arrival at the Hermitage--an attitude of aloof indifference to which was added a bitterness of speech that continually thrust at her with its trenchant cynicism. It was as though he had erected a high wall between them which Magda found no effort of hers could break down, and she was beginning to ask herself whether he could ever really have cared for her at all. Surely no man who had once cared could be so hard--so implacably hard!
And now, alone with him in the big room which had been converted into a temporary studio, she found herself overwhelmed by a feeling of intense self-consciousness. She felt it would be impossible to bear the coolly neutral gaze of those grey eyes for hours at a time. She wished fervently that she had never consented to sit for the picture at all.
"How do you want me to pose?" she inquired at last, endeavouring to speak with her usual detachment and conscious that she was failing miserably. "You haven't told me yet."
He laughed a little.
"I haven't the least intention of telling you," he replied. "'The Wielitzska' doesn't need advice as to how to pose."
Magda looked at him uncertainly.
"But you've given me no idea of what you want," she protested. "I must have some idea to start from!"
"I want a recumbent Circe," he vouchsafed at last. "Hence the divan. Here is the goblet"--he held it out--"supposed to contain the fatal potion which transformed men into swine. I leave the rest to you. You posed very successfully for me some years ago--without my issuing any stage directions. Afterwards you played the part of a youthful Circe, I remember. You should be more experienced now."
She flushed under the cool, satirical tone. It seemed as though he neglected no opportunity of impressing on her the poor estimation in which he held her. Her thoughts flew back to a sunlit glade in a wood and to the grey-eyed, boyish-looking painter who had kissed her and called her "Witch-child!"
"You--you were kinder in those days," she said suddenly. She made a few steps towards him and stood looking up at him, her hands hanging loosely clasped in front of her, like a penitent school-girl.
"Saint Michel"--and at the sound of her old childish name for him he winced. "Saint Michel, I don't think I can sit for you if--if you're going to be unkind. I thought I could, but--but--I can't!"
"Unkind?" he muttered.
"Yes," she said desperately. "Since I came here you've said a good many hard things to me. I--I dare say I've deserved them. But"-- smiling up at him rather wanly--"it isn't always easy to accept one's deserts." She paused, then spoke quickly: "Couldn't we--while we're here together--behave like friends? Just friends? It's only for a short time."
His face had whitened while she was speaking. He was silent for a little and his hand, grasping the side of the big easel, slowly tightened its grip till the knuckles showed white like bone. At last he answered her.
"Very well--friends, then! So be it."
Impulsively she held out her hand. He took it in his and held it a moment, looking down at its slim whiteness. Then he bent his head and she felt his lips hot against her soft palm.
A little shaken, she drew away from him and moved towards the divan. She paused beside it and glanced down reflectively at the goblet she still carried in her hand, mentally formulating her conception of Circe before she posed. An instant later and her voice roused Quarrington from the momentary reverie into which he had fallen.
"How would this do?"
He looked up, and as his gaze absorbed the picture before him an eager light of pure aesthetic satisfaction leaped into his eyes.
"Hold that!" he exclaimed quickly. "Don't move, please!" And, snatching up a stick of charcoal, he began to sketch rapidly with swift, sure strokes.
The pose she had assumed was matchless. She was half-sitting, half- lying on the divan, the swathing draperies of her tunic outlining the wonderful modelling of her limbs. The upper part of her body, twisting a little from the waist, was thrown back as she leaned upon one arm, hand pressed palm downward on the tiger-skin. In her other hand she held a golden goblet, proffering the fatal draught, and her tilted face with its strange, enigmatic smile and narrowed lids held all the seductive entreaty and beguilement, and the deep, cynical knowledge of mankind, which are the garnerings of the Circes of this world.
At length Quarrington laid down his charcoal.
"It's a splendid pose," he said enthusiastically. "That sideways bend you've given to your body--it's wonderful! But can you stand it, do you think? Of course I'll give you rests as often as I can, but even so it will be a very trying pose to hold."
Magda sat up, letting her feet slide slowly over the edge of the divan. The "feet of Aurora" someone had once called them--white and arched, with rosy-tipped toes curved like the petals of a flower.
"I can hold it for a good while, I think," she answered evasively.
She did not tell him that even to her trained muscles the preservation of this particular pose, with its sinuous twist of the body, was likely to prove somewhat of a strain. If the pose was so exactly what he wanted for his Circe, he should have it, whatever the cost to herself.
And without knowing it, yielding to an impulse which she hardly recognised, Magda had taken the first step along the pathway of service and sacrifice trodden by those who love.
"It seems as though you were destined to be the model of my two 'turning-point' pictures," commented Quarrington some days later, during one of the intervals when Magda was taking a brief rest. "It was the 'Repose of Titania' which first established my reputation, you know."
"But this can't be a 'turning-point,' " objected Magda. "When you've reached the top of the pinnacle of fame, so to speak, there isn't any 'turning-point'--unless"--laughing--"you're going to turn round and climb down again!"
"There's no top to the pinnacle of work--of achievement," he answered quietly. "At least, there shouldn't be. One just goes on--slipping back a bit, sometimes, then scrambling on again." His glance returned to the picture and Magda watched the ardour of the creative artist light itself anew in his eyes. "That"--he nodded towards the canvas-- "is going to be the best bit of work I've done."
"What made you"--she hesitated a moment--"what made you choose Circe as the subject?"
His face clouded over.
"The experience of a friend of mine."
Magda caught her breath.
"Not--you don't mean-----"
"Oh, no"--divining her thought--"not the friend of whom you know--who loved the dancer. She hurt him"--looking at her significantly--"but she didn't injure him to that extent. Circe turned men into swine, you remember. My friend was too fine a character for her to spoil like that."
"I'm glad." Magda spoke very low, her head bent. She felt unable to meet his eyes. After a short silence she asked: "Then what inspired-- this picture?"
Was it some woman-episode that had occurred while he was abroad which had scored those new lines on his face, embittering the mouth and implanting that sternly sad expression in the grey eyes? She must know --at all hazards, she must know!
Quarrington lit a cigarette.
"It's not a pretty story," he remarked harshly.
Magda glanced towards the picture. The enchanting, tilted face smiled at her from the canvas, faintly derisive.
"Tell it me," was all she said.
"There's very little to tell," he answered briefly. "There was a man and his wife--and another woman. Till the latter came along they were absolutely happy together--sufficient unto each other. The other woman was one of the Circe type, and she broke the man. Broke him utterly. I happened to be in Paris at the time, and he came to see me there on his way out to South America. He'd left his wife, left his work-- everything. Just quitted! Since then I believe 'Frisco has seen more of him than any other place. A man I know ran across him there and told me he'd gone under--utterly."
"And the wife?"
"Dead"--shortly. "She'd no heart to go on living--no wish to. She died when their first child was born--she and the child together--a few months after her husband had left her."
Magda uttered a stifled cry of pity, but Quarrington seemed not to hear it.
"That woman was a twentieth-century Circe." He paused, then added with grim conviction: "There's no forgiveness for a woman like that."
"Ah! Don't say that!"
The words broke impulsively from Magda's lips. The recollection of the summer she had spent at Stockleigh rushed over her accusingly--and she realised that actually she had come between Dan Storran and his wife very much as the Circe woman of Michael's story had come between some other husband and wife.
A deep compassion for that unknown woman surged up within her. Surely her burden of remorse must be almost more than she could endure! And Magda--to whom penalties and consequences had hitherto been but very unimportant factors with which she concerned herself as little as possible--was all at once conscious of an intense thankfulness that she had not been thus punished, that she had quitted Stockleigh leaving husband and wife still together. Together, they would find the way back into each other's hearts!
"Don't say that!" she repeated imploringly. "It sounds so hard--so relentless!"
"I don't think that it is a case for relenting. But I oughtn't to have told you about it. After all, neither the husband nor wife were friends of yours. And you're looking quite upset over it. I didn't imagine that you were so easily moved to sympathy."
She looked away. Of late she had been puzzled herself at the new and unwonted emotions which stirred her.
"I don't think--I used to be," she said at last, uncertainly.
"Well, please don't take the matter too much to heart or you won't be able to assume the personality of Circe again when you've rested. I don't want to paint the picture of a model of propriety!"
It seemed as though he were anxious to restore the conversation to a lighter vein, and Magda responded gladly.
"I'm quite rested now. Shall I pose again?" she suggested a few minutes later.
Michael assented and, picking up his palette, began squeezing out fresh shining little worms of paint on to it while Magda reassumed her pose. For a while he chatted intermittently, but presently he fell silent, becoming more and more deeply absorbed in his work. Finally, when some remark of hers repeated a second time still remained unanswered, she realised that he had completely forgotten her existence. As far as he was concerned she was no longer Magda Wielitzska, posing for him, but Circe, the enchantress, whose amazing beauty he was transferring to his canvas in glowing brushstrokes. As with all genius, the impulse of creative work had seized him suddenly and was driving him on regardless of everything exterior to his art.
Time had ceased to matter to him, and Magda, with little nervous pains shooting first through one limb, then another, was wondering how much longer she could maintain the pose. She was determined not to give in, not to check him while that fervour of creation was upon him.
The pain was increasing. She felt as though she were being stabbed with red-hot knives. Tiny beads of sweat broke out on her forehead, and her breath came gaspingly between her lips.
All at once the big easel at which Michael was standing receded out of sight, and when it reappeared again it was quite close to her, swaying and nodding like a mandarin. Instinctively she put out her hand to steady it, but it leaned nearer and nearer and finally gave a huge lurch and swooped down on top of her, and the studio and everything in it faded out of sight. . . .
The metallic tinkle of the gold goblet as it fell from her hand and rolled along the floor startled Michael out of his absorption. With a sharp exclamation he flung down his brush and palette and strode hurriedly to the divan. Magda was lying half across it in a little crumpled heap, unconscious.
His first impulse to lift her up was arrested by something in her attitude, and he stood quite still, looking down at her, his face suddenly drawn and very weary.
In the limp figure with its upturned face and the purple shadows which fatigue had painted below the closed eyelids, there was an irresistible appeal. She looked so young, so helpless, and the knowledge that she had done this for him--forced her limbs into agonised subjection until at last conscious endurance had failed her-- moved him indescribably.
Surely this was a new Magda! Or else he had never known her. Had he been too hard--hard to her and pitilessly hard to himself--when he had allowed the ugly facts of her flirtation with Kit Raynham to drive him from her?
Eighteen months ago! And in all those eighteen months no word of gossip, no lightest breath of scandal against her, had reached his ears. Had he been merely a self-righteous Pharisee, enforcing the penalty of old sins, bygone failings? A grim smile twisted his lips. If so, and he had made her suffer, he had at least suffered equally himself!
He stooped over the prone figure on the divan. Lower, lower still, till a tendril of dark hair that had strayed across her forehead quivered beneath his breath. Then suddenly he drew back, jerking himself upright. Striding across the room he pealed the bell and, when a neat maidservant appeared in response, ordered sharply:
"Bring some brandy--quick! And ask Mrs. Grey to come here. Mademoiselle Wielitzska has fainted."