The Lamp of Fate by Margaret Pedler
Chapter I. The Flowering
"You're very trying, Magda. Everyone is talking about you, and I'm tired of trying to explain you to people."
Lady Arabella paused in her knitting and spoke petulantly, but a secret gleam of admiration in her sharp old eyes as they rested upon her god-daughter belied the irritation of her tones.
Magda leaned back negligently against the big black velvet cushions in her chair and lit a cigarette.
"I want everyone to talk about me," she returned composedly. Her voice was oddly attractive--low-pitched and with a faint blur of huskiness about it that caught the ear with a distinctive charm. "It increases the box-office receipts. And there's no reason in the world for you to 'explain' me to people."
Her godmother regarded her with increasing irritation, yet at the same time acutely conscious of the arresting quality of the young, vividly alive face that gleamed at her from its black-velvet background.
Ten years had only served to emphasise the unusual characteristics of the child Magda. Her skin was wonderful, of a smooth, creamy-white texture which gave to the sharply angled face something of the pale, exotic perfection of a stephanotis bloom. Her eyes were long, the colour of black pansies--black with a suggestion of purple in their depths. They slanted upwards a little at the outer corners, and this together with the high cheek-bones, alone would have betrayed her Russian ancestry. When Lady Arabella wanted to be particularly obnoxious she told her that she had Mongolian eyes, and Magda would shrug her shoulders and, thrusting out a foot which was so perfect in shape that a painting of it by a certain famous artist had been the most talked-of picture of the year, would reply placidly: "Well, thank heaven, that's not English, anyway!"
"It certainly required some explanation when you chose to leave me and go off and live by yourself," pursued Lady Arabella, resuming her knitting. "A girl of twenty! Of course people have talked. Especially as half the men in town imagine themselves in love with you."
"Well, I'm perfectly respectable now. I've engaged a nice, tame pussy- cat person to take charge of my morals and chaperon me generally. Not --like you, Marraine--an Early Victorian autocrat with a twentieth- century tongue."
"If you mean Mrs. Grey, she doesn't give me the least impression of being a 'nice, tame pussy-cat,'" retorted Lady Arabella. "You'll find that out, my dear."
Magda regarded her thoughtfully.
"Do you think so?"
"Oh, Gillian is all right," affirmed Magda, dismissing the matter airily. "She's a gorgeous accompanist, anyway--almost as good as Davilof himself. Which reminds me--I must go home and rehearse my solo dance in the Swan-Maiden. I told Davilof I'd be ready for him at four o'clock; and it's half-past three now. I shall never get back to Hampstead through this ghastly fog in half an hour." She glanced towards the window through which was visible a discouraging fog of the "pea-soup" variety.
Lady Arabella sniffed.
"You'd better be careful for once in your life, Magda. Davilof is in love with you."
"Pouf! What if he is?"
Magda rose, and picking up her big black hat set it on her head at precisely the right angle, and proceeded to spear it through with a wonderful black-and-gold hatpin of Chinese workmanship.
Lady Arabella shot a swift glance at her.
"He's just one of a crowd?" she suggested tartly.
Magda assented indifferently.
"You're wrong--quite wrong," returned her godmother crisply. "Antoine Davilof is not one of a crowd--never will be! He's half a Pole, remember."
"And I'm half a Russian. It must be a case of deep calling to deep," she suggested mockingly.
Lady Arabella's shining needles clicked as they came to an abrupt stop.
"Does that mean you're in love with him?" she asked.
"Good gracious, no! I'm never in love. You know that."
"That doesn't prevent my hoping you may develop--some day--into a normal God-fearing woman," retorted the other.
"And learn to thank heaven, fasting, for a good man's love?" Magda laughed lightly. "I shan't. At least, I hope not. Judging from my friends and acquaintances, the condition of being in love is a most unpleasant one--reduces a woman to a humiliating sense of her own unworthiness and keeps her in a see-saw state of emotional uncertainty. No, thank you! No man is worth it!"
Lady Arabella looked away. Her hard, bright old eyes held a sudden wistfulness foreign to them.
"My dear--one man is. One man in every woman's life is worth it. Only we don't always find it out in time."
"Why, Marraine--you don't mean--you weren't ever----"
Lady Arabella rose suddenly and came across to where Magda stood by the fire, one narrow foot extended to the cheerful warmth.
"Never mind what I mean," she said, and her voice sounded a little uncertain. "Only, if it comes your way, don't miss the best thing this queer old world of ours has to offer. If it brings you nothing else, love at least leaves you memories. Even that's something."
Magda glanced at her curiously. Somehow she had never imagined that behind the worldly-wise old woman's sharp speeches and grim, ironic humour there lay the half-buried memory of some far-distant romance. Yet now in the uneven tones of her voice she recognised the throb of an old wound.
"And meanwhile"--Lady Arabella suddenly resumed in her usual curt manner--"meanwhile you might play fair with one or two of those boys you have trailing around--Kit Raynham for instance."
"I don't understand," began Magda.
"You understand perfectly. A man of the world's fair game. He can look after himself--and probably sizes you up for what you are--a phenomenally successful dancer, who regards her little court of admirers as one of the commonplaces of existence--like her morning cup of tea. But these boys--they look upon you as a woman, even a possible wife. And then they proceed to fall in love with you!"
Magda's foot tapped impatiently on the floor.
"What's this all leading up to?"
Lady Arabella met her glance squarely.
"I want you to leave Kit Raynham alone. His mother has been to me-- Magda, I'm sick of having their mothers come to me!--and begged me to interfere. She says you're ruining the boy's prospects. He's a brilliant lad, and they expect him to do something rather special. And now he's slacking completely. He's always on your doorstep. If you care about him--do you, Magda?--tell him so. But, if you don't, for goodness' sake send him about his business."
She waited quietly for an answer. Magda slipped into a big fur-coat and caught up her gloves. Then she turned to her godmother abruptly.
"Lady Raynham is absurd. I can't prevent Kit's making a fool of himself if he wants to. And--and"--rather helplessly--"I can't help it if I don't fall in love to order." She kissed her godmother lightly. "So that's that."
A minute later Lady Arabella's butler had swung open the front door, and Magda crossed the pavement and entered her waiting car.
Outside, the fog hung like a thick pall over London--thick enough to curtain the windows of the car with a blank, grey veil and to make progress through the streets a difficult and somewhat dangerous process. Magda snuggled into her furs and leant back against the padded cushions. All sight of the outside world was cut off from her, except for the blurred gleam of an occasional street-lamp or the menacing shape of a motor-bus looming suddenly alongside, and she yielded herself to the train of thought provoked by her talk with Lady Arabella.
In a detached sort of way she felt sorry about Kit Raynham-- principally because Lady Arabella, of whom she was exceedingly fond, seemed vexed about the matter. It had not taken her long to discover, when as a child she had come to live with her godmother, the warm heart that concealed itself beneath the old lady's somewhat shrewish exterior. And to Lady Arabella the advent of her god-child had been a matter for pure rejoicing.
Having no children of her own, she lavished a pent-up wealth of affection upon Magda of which few would have thought her capable, and though she was by no means niggardly in her blame of Hugh Vallincourt for his method of shelving his responsibilities, she was grateful that his withdrawal into the monastic life had been the means of throwing Magda into her care. Five years later, when death claimed him, she found he had appointed her the child's sole guardian.
True to her intention, she had asked the opinion of Lydia Tchinova, the famous dancer, and under Madame Tchinova's guidance Magda had received such training that when she came to make her debut she leaped into fame at once. Hers was one of those rare cases where the initial drudgery and patient waiting that attends so many careers was practically eliminated, and at the age of twenty she was probably the most talked-of woman in London.
She had discarded the family surname for professional purposes, and appeared in public under the name of Wielitzska--"to save the reigning Vallincourts from a soul convulsion," as she observed with a twinkle. During the last year, influenced by the growing demands of her vocation, she had quitted her godmother's hospitable roof and established herself in a house of her own.
Nor had Lady Arabella sought to dissuade her. Although she and Magda were the best of friends, she had latterly found the onus of chaperoning her god-child an increasingly heavy burden. As she herself remarked: "You might as well attempt to chaperon a comet!"
It was almost inevitable that Magda, starred and feted wherever she went, should develop into a rather erratic and self-willed young person, but on the whole she had remained singularly unspoilt. Side by side with her gift for dancing she had also inherited something of her mother's sweetness and wholesomeness of nature. There was nothing petty or mean about her, and many a struggling member of her own profession had had good cause to thank "the Wielitzska" for a helping hand.
Women found in her a good pal; men, an elusive, provocative personality that bewitched and angered them in the same breath, coolly accepting all they had to offer of love and headlong worship--and giving nothing in return.
It was not in the least that Magda deliberately set herself to wile a man's heart out of his body. She seemed unable to help it! Apart from everything else, her dancing had taught her the whole magic of the art of charming by every look and gesture, and the passage of time had only added to the extraordinary physical allure which had been hers even as a child.
Yet for all the apparent warmth and ardour of her temperament, to which the men she knew succumbed in spite of themselves, she herself seemed untouched by any deeper emotion than that of a faintly amused desire to attract. The lessons of her early days, the tragedy of her mother's married life, had permeated her whole being, and her ability to remain emotionally unstirred was due to an instinctive reserve and self-withdrawal--an inherent distrust of the passion of love.
"Take everything. But do not give--anything--in return." Subconsciously Diane's words, wrested from her at a moment of poignant mental anguish, formed the credo of her daughter's life.
No man, so far, had ever actually counted for anything in Magda's scheme of existence, and as she drove slowly home from Lady Arabella's house in Park Lane she sincerely hoped none ever would. Certainly--she smiled a little at the bare idea--Kit Raynham was not destined to be the man! He was clever, and enthusiastic, and adoring, and she liked him quite a lot, but his hot-headed passion failed to waken in her breast the least spark of responsive emotion.
Her thoughts drifted idly backward, recalling this or that man who had wanted her. It was odd, but of all the men she had met the memory of one alone was still provocative of a genuine thrill of interest--and that was the unknown artist whom she had encountered in the woods at Coverdale.
Even now, after the lapse of ten years, she could remember the young, lean, square-jawed face with the grey eyes, "like eyes with little fires behind them," and hear again the sudden jerky note in the man's voice as he muttered, "Witch-child!"
That brief adventure with "Saint Michel"--she remembered calling him "Saint Michel"--stood out as one of the clearest memories of her childhood. That, and the memory of her mother, kneeling on the big bearskin rug and saying in a hard, dry voice: "Never give your heart to any man. Take everything. But do not give--anything--in return."