Part Two
Chapter XXIV. Gillian Intercedes
 

It was a bald, austere-looking room. Magda glanced about her curiously--at the plain, straight-backed chairs, at the meticulously tidy desk and bare, polished floor. Everything was scrupulously clean, but the total absence of anything remotely resembling luxury struck poignantly on eyes accustomed to all the ease and beauty of surroundings which unlimited money can procure.

By contrast with the severity of the room Magda felt uncomfortably conscious of her own attire. The exquisite gown she was wearing, the big velvet hat with its drooping plume, the French shoes with their buckles and curved Louis heels--all seemed acutely out of place in this austere, formal-looking chamber.

Her glance came back to the woman sitting opposite her, the Mother Superior of the Sisters of Penitence--tall, thin, undeniably impressive, with a stern, colourless face as clean-cut as a piece of ivory, out of which gleamed cold blue eyes that seemed to regard the dancer with a strange mixture of fervour and hostility.

Magda could imagine no reason for the antagonism which she sensed in the steady scrutiny of those light-blue eyes. As far as she was concerned, the Mother Superior was an entire stranger, without incentive either to like or dislike her.

But to the woman who, while she had been in the world, had been known as Catherine Vallincourt, the name of Magda Wielitzska was as familiar as her own. In the dark, slender girl before her, whose pale, beautiful face called to mind some rare and delicate flower, she recognised the living embodiment of her brother's transgression--that brother who had made Diane Wielitzska his wife and the mother of his child.

All she had anticipated of evil consequence at the time of the marriage had crystallised into hard fact. The child of the "foreign dancing-woman"--the being for whose existence Hugh's mad passion for Diane had been responsible--had on her own confession worked precisely such harm in the world as she, Catherine, had foreseen. And now, the years which had raised Catherine to the position of Mother Superior of the community she had entered had brought that child to her doors as a penitent waveringly willing to make expiation.

Catherine was conscious of a strange elevation of spirit. She felt ecstatically uplifted at the thought that it might be given to her to purge from Hugh's daughter, by severity of discipline and penance, the evil born within her. In some measure she would thus be instrumental in neutralising her brother's sin.

She was supremely conscious that to a certain extent--though by no means altogether--her zealous ardour had its origin in her rooted antipathy to Hugh's wife and hence to the child of the marriage. But, since beneath her sable habit there beat the heart of just an ordinary, natural woman, with many faults and failings still unconquered in spite of the austerities of her chosen life, a certain very human element of satisfaction mingled itself with her fervour for Magda's regeneration.

With a curious impassivity that masked the intensity of her desire she had told Magda that, by the rules of the community, penitents who desired to make expiation were admitted there, but that if once the step were taken, and the year's vow of penitence voluntarily assumed, there could be no return to the world until the expiration of the time appointed.

Somehow the irrevocability of such a vow, undertaken voluntarily, had not struck her in its full significance until Catherine had quietly, almost tonelessly, in the flat, level voice not infrequently acquired by the religious, affirmed it.

"Supposing"--Magda looked round the rigidly bare room with a new sense of apprehension--"supposing I felt I simply couldn't stand it any longer? Do you mean to say, then, that I should not be allowed to leave here?"

"No, you would not be permitted to. Vows are not toys to be broken at will."

"A year is a long time," murmured Magda.

The eyes beneath the coifed brow with its fine network of wrinkles were adamant.

"The body must be crucified that the soul may live," returned the cold voice unflinchingly.

Magda's thoughts drew her this way and that. A year! It was an eternity! And yet, if only she could emerge purified, a woman worthy to be Michael's wife, she felt she would be willing to go through with it.

It was as though the white-faced, passionless woman beside her read her thoughts.

"If you would be purified," said Catherine, "if you would cast out the devil that is within you, you will have to abide meekly by such penance as is ordained. You must submit yourself to pain."

At the words a memory of long ago stirred in Magda's mind. She remembered that when her father had beaten her as a child he had said: "If you hurt people enough you can stop them from committing sin."

Groping dimly for some light that might elucidate the problems which bewildered her, Magda clutched at the words as though they were a revelation. They seemed to point to the only way by which she might repair the past.

Catherine, watching closely the changes on the pale, sensitive face, spoke again.

"Of course, if you feel you have not the strength of will to keep your vow, you must not take it."

The words acted like a spur. Instantly, Magda's decision was taken.

"If I take the vow, I shall have strength of mind to keep it," she said.

The following evening Magda composedly informed Gillian that she proposed to take a vow of expiation and retire into the community of the Sisters of Penitence for a year. Gillian was frankly aghast; she had never dreamed of any such upshot to the whole miserable business of Magda's broken engagement.

"But it is madness!" she protested. "You would hate it!"

Magda nodded.

"That's just it. I've done what I liked all my life. And you know what the result has been! Now I propose to do what I don't like for a year."

Neither persuasion nor exhortation availed to shake her resolution, and in despair Gillian referred the matter to Lady Arabella, hoping she might induce Magda to change her mind.

Lady Arabella accepted the news with unexpected composure.

"It is just what one might expect from the child of Hugh Vallincourt," she said thoughtfully. "It's the swing of the pendulum. There's always been that tendency in the Vallincourts--the tendency towards atonement by some sort of violent self-immolation. They are invariably excessive--either excessively bad like the present man, Rupert, or excessively devout like Hugh and Catherine! By the way, the Sisters of Penitence is the community Catherine first joined. I wonder if she is there still? Probably she's dead by now, though. I remember hearing some years ago that she was seriously ill--somewhere about the time of Hugh's death. That's the last I ever heard of her. I've been out of touch with the whole Vallincourt family for so many years now that I don't know what has become of them."

"You don't mean to say that you're going to let Magda do what she proposes?" exclaimed Gillian, in dismayed astonishment.

"There's never much question of 'letting' Magda do things, is there?" retorted Lady Arabella. "If she's made up her mind to be penitential-- penitential she'll be! I dare say it won't do her any harm."

"I don't see how it can do her any good," protested Gillian. "Magda isn't cut out for a sisterhood."

"That's just why it may be good for her."

"I don't believe in mortification of the flesh and all that sort of thing, either," continued Gillian obstinately.

"My dear, we must all work out our own salvation--each in his own way. Prayer and fasting would never be my method. But for some people it's the only way. I believe it is for the Vallincourts. In any case, it's only for a year. And a year is very little time out of life."

Nevertheless, at Gillian's urgent request, Lady Arabella made an effort to dissuade Magda from her intention.

"If you live long enough, my dear," she told her crispy, "providence will see to it that you get your deserts. You needn't be so anxious to make sure of them. Retribution is a very sure-footed traveller."

"It isn't only retribution, punishment, I'm looking for," returned Magda. "It is--I can't quite explain it, Marraine, but even though Michael never sees me or speaks to me again, I'd like to feel I'd made myself into the sort of woman he would speak to."

From that standpoint she refused to move, declining even to discuss the matter further, but proceeded quietly and unswervingly with her arrangements. The failure to complete her contract at the Imperial Theatre involved her in a large sum of money by way of forfeit, but this she paid ungrudgingly, feeling as though it were the first step along the new road of renunciation she designed to tread.

To the manager she offered no further explanation than that she proposed to give up dancing, "at any rate for a year or so," and although he was nearly distracted over the idea, he found his arguments and persuasions were no more effective than those King Canute optimistically addressed to the encroaching waves. The utmost concession he could extract from Magda was her assent to giving a farewell appearance--for which occasion the astute manager privately decided to quadruple the price of the seats. He only wished it were possible to quadruple the seating capacity of the theatre as well!

Meanwhile Gillian, whose normal, healthy young mind recoiled from the idea of Magda's self-imposed year of discipline, had secretly resolved upon making a final desperate venture in the hope of straightening out the tangle of her friend's life. She would go herself and see Michael and plead with him. Surely, if he loved Magda as he had once seemed to do, he would not remain obdurate when he realised how bitterly she had repented--and how much she loved him!

It was not easy for Gillian to come to this decision. She held very strong opinions on the subject of the rights of the individual to manage his own affairs without interference, and as she passed out of the busy main street into the quiet little old-world court where Michael had his rooms and studio she felt as guilty as a small boy caught trespassing in an orchard.

The landlady who opened the door in response to her somewhat timid ring regarded her with a curiously surprised expression when she inquired if Mr. Quarrington were in.

"I'll see, miss," she answered non-committally, "if you'll step inside."

The unusual appearance of the big double studio where she was left to wait puzzled Gillian. All the familiar tapestries and cushions and rare knick-knacks which wontedly converted the further end of it into a charming reception room were gone. The chairs were covered in plain holland, the piano sheeted. But the big easel, standing like a tall cross in the cold north light, was swathed in a dust-sheet. Gillian's heart misgave her. Was she too late? Had Michael--gone away?

A moment later a quick, resolute footstep reassured her. The door opened and Michael himself came in. He paused on the threshold as he perceived who his visitor was, then came forward and shook hands with his usual grave courtesy. After that, he seemed to wait as though for some explanation of her visit.

Gillian found herself nervously unready. All the little opening speeches she had prepared for the interview deserted her suddenly, driven away by her shocked realisation of the transformation which the few days since she had last seen him had wrought in the man beside her.

His face was lined and worn. The grey eyes were sunken and burned with a strange, bitter brilliance. Only the dogged, out-thrust jaw remained the same as ever--obstinate and unconquerable. Twice she essayed to speak and twice failed. The third time the words came stumblingly.

"Michael, what--what does it mean--all this?" She indicated the holland-sheeted studio with a gesture.

"It means that I'm going away," he replied. "I'm packing now. I leave England to-morrow."

"You mustn't go!"

The words broke from her imperatively, like a mandate.

He glanced at her quickly and into his eyes came a look of comprehension.

"You're a good friend," he said quietly. "But I must go."

"No, no, you mustn't! Listen--"

"Nothing can alter my decision," he interrupted in a tone of absolute finality. "Nothing you could say, Gillian--so don't say it."

"But I must!" she insisted. "Oh, Michael, I'm not going to pretend that Magda hasn't been to blame--that it isn't all terrible! But if you saw her--now--you'd have to forgive her and love her again." She spoke with a simple sincerity that was infinitely appealing.

"I've never ceased to love her," he replied, still in that quiet voice of repressed determination.

"Then if you love, her, can't you forgive her? She's had everything against her from the beginning, both temperament and upbringing, and on top of that there's been the wild success she's had as a dancer. You can't judge her by ordinary standards of conduct. You can't! It isn't fair."

"I don't presume to judge her"--icily. "I simply say I can't marry her."

"If you could see her now, Michael----" Her voice shook a little. "It hurts me to see Magda--like that. She's broken----"

"And my sister, June, is dead," he said in level, unemotional tones.

Gillian wrung her hands.

"But even so----! Magda didn't kill her, Michael. She couldn't tell-- she didn't know that June----" She halted, faltering into silence.

"That June was soon to have a child?" Michael finished her sentence for her. "No. But she knew she loved her husband. And she stole him from her. When I think of it all, of June . . . little June! . . . And Storran--gone under! Oh, what's the use of talking?"--savagely. "You know--and I know--that there's nothing left. Nothing!"

"If you loved her, Michael--"

"If I loved her!" he broke out stormily. "You're not a man, and you don't know what it means to want the woman you love night and day, to ache for her with every fibre of your body--and to know that you can't have her and keep your self-respect!"

"Oh--self-respect!" There was a note of contempt in Gillian's voice. "If you set your 'self-respect' above your love--"

"You don't understand!" he interrupted violently. "You're a woman and you can't understand! I must honour the woman I love--it's the kernel of the whole thing. I must look up to her--not down!"

Gillian clasped her hands.

"Oh!" she said in a low, vehement voice. "I don't think we women want to be 'looked up to.' It sets us so far away. We're not goddesses. We're only women, Michael, with all our little weaknesses just the same as men. And we want the men who love us to be comrades-- not worshippers. Good pals, who'll forgive us and help us up when we tumble down, just as we'd be ready to forgive them and help them up. Can't you--can't you do that for Magda?"

"No," he said shortly. "I can't."

Gillian was at the end of her resources. She would not tell him that Magda proposed joining the Sisters of Penitence for a year. Somehow she felt she would not wish him to know this or to be influenced by it.

She had made her appeal to Michael himself, to his sheer love for the woman he had intended to make his wife. And she had failed because the man was too bitter, too sore, to see clearly through the pain that blinded him.

His voice, curt and clipped, broke the silence which had fallen.

"Have you said all you came to say?" he asked with frigid politeness.

"All," she returned sadly.

He moved slowly towards the door.

"Good-bye," she said, holding out her hand.

He took it and held it in his. For a moment the hard eyes softened a little.

"I'm sorry I can't do what you ask," he said abruptly.

Gillian opened her lips to speak, but no words came. Instead, a sudden lump rose in her throat, choking her into silence, at the sight of the man's wrung face, with its bitter, pain-ridden eyes and the jaw that was squared implacably against love and forgiveness, and against his own overwhelming desire.