The Lamp of Fate by Margaret Pedler
Chapter IV. In the Mirror Room
Shouts of mirth came jubilantly from the Mirror Room as Davilof made his way thither one afternoon a few days later. The shrill peal of a child's laughter rose gaily above the lower note of women's voices, and when the accompanist opened the door it was to discover Magda completely engrossed in giving Coppertop a first dancing lesson, while Gillian sat stitching busily away at some small nether garments afflicted with rents and tears in sundry places. Every now and again she glanced up with softly amused eyes to watch her son's somewhat unsteady efforts in the Terpsichorean art.
Coppertop, a slim young reed in his bright green knitted jersey, was clinging with one hand to a wooden bar attached to the wall which served Magda for the "bar practice" which constitutes part of every dancer's daily work, while Magda, holding his other hand in hers, essayed to instruct him in the principle of "turning out"--that flexible turning of the knees towards the side which gives so much facility of movement.
"Point your toes sideways--so," directed Magda. "This one towards me-- like that." She stooped and placed his foot in position. "Now, kick out! Try to kick me!"
Coppertop tried--and succeeded, greeting his accomplishment with shrieks of delight.
It was just at this moment that Davilof appeared on the scene, pausing abruptly in the doorway as he caught sight of Magda's laughing face bent above the fiery red head. There was something very charming in her expression of eager, light-hearted abandonment to the fun of the moment.
At the sound of the opening door Coppertop wriggled out of her grasp like an eel, twisting his lithe young body round to see who the new arrival might be. His face fell woefully as he caught sight of Davilof.
"Oh, you can't never have come already to play for the Fairy Lady!" he exclaimed in accents of dire disappointment.
"Fairy Lady" was the name he had bestowed upon Magda when, very early in their acquaintance, she had performed for his sole and particular benefit a maturer edition of the dance she had evolved as a child--the dance with which she had so much astonished Lady Arabella. Nowadays it figured prominently on her programmes as "The Hamadryad," and was enormously popular.
"It's not never three o'clock!" wailed Coppertop disconsolately, as Davilof dangled his watch in front of him.
"I think it is, small son," interpolated Gillian, gathering together her sewing materials. "Come along. We must leave the Fairy Lady to practise now, because she's got to dance to half the people in London to-morrow."
"Must I really go?" appealed Coppertop, beseeching Magda with a pair of melting green eyes.
She dropped a light kiss on the top of his red curls.
"'Fraid so, Coppertop," she said. "You wouldn't want Fairy Lady to dance badly and tumble down, would you?"
But Coppertop was not to be taken in so easily.
"Huh!" he scoffed. "You couldn't tumble down--not never!"
"Still, you mustn't be greedy, Topkins," urged Magda persuasively. "Remember all the grown-up people who want me to dance to them! I can't keep it all for one little boy." He stared at her for a moment in silence. Suddenly he flung his arms round her slender hips, clutching her tightly, and hid his face against her skirt.
"Oh, Fairy Lady, you are so booful--so booful!" he whispered in a smothered voice. Then, with a big sigh: "But one little boy won't be greedy." He turned to his mother. "Come along, mummie!" he commanded superbly. And trotted out of the room beside her with his small head well up.
Left alone, Davilof and Magda smiled across at one another.
"Funny little person, isn't he?" she said.
The musician nodded.
"Grown-ups might possibly envy the freedom of speech permitted to childhood," he said quietly. Then, still more quietly: "'Fairy Lady, you are so beautiful!'"
"But you're not a child, so don't poach Coppertop's preserves!" retorted Magda swiftly. "Let's get to work, Antoine. I'll just change into my practice-kit and then I want to run through the 'Swan- Maiden's' dance. You fix the lighting."
She vanished into an adjoining room, while Davilof proceeded to switch off most of the burners, leaving only those which illumined the space in front of the great mirror. The remainder of the big room receded into a grey twilight encircling the patch of luminance.
Presently Magda reappeared wearing a loose tunic of some white silken material, girdled at the waist, but yet leaving her with perfect freedom of limb.
Davilof watched her as she came down the long room with the feather- light, floating walk of the trained dancer, and something leaped into his eyes that was very different from mere admiration--something that, taken in conjunction with Lady Arabella's caustic comments of a few days ago, might have warned Magda had she seen it.
But with her thoughts preoccupied by the work in hand she failed to notice it, and, advancing till she faced the great mirror, she executed a few steps in front of it, humming the motif of The Swan- Maiden music under her breath.
"Play, Antoine," she threw at him over her shoulder.
Davilof hesitated, made a movement towards her, then wheeled round abruptly and went to the piano. A moment later the exquisite, smoothly rippling music which he had himself written for the Swan-Maiden dance purled out into the room.
The story of the Swan-Maiden had been taken from an old legend which told of a beautiful maiden and the youth who loved her.
According to the narrative, the pair were unfortunate enough to incur the displeasure of the evil fairy Ritmagar, and the latter, in order to punish them, transformed the maiden into a white swan, thus separating the hapless lovers for ever. Afterwards, the disconsolate youth, bemoaning the cruelty of fate, used to wander daily along the shores of the lake where the maiden was compelled to dwell in her guise of a swan, and eventually Ritmagar, apparently touched to a limited compassion, permitted the Swan-Maiden to resume her human form once a day during the hour immediately preceding sunset. But the condition was attached that she must always return to the lake ere the sun sank below the horizon, when she would be compelled to reassume her shape of a swan. Should she fail to return by the appointed time, death would be the inevitable consequence.
Every reader of fairy tales--and certainly anyone who knows anything at all about being in love--can guess the sequel. Comes a day when the lovers, absorbed in their love-making, forget the flight of time, so that the unhappy maiden returns to the shore of the lake to find that the sun has already dipped below the horizon. She falls on her knees, beseeching the witch Ritmagar for mercy, but no answer is vouchsafed, and gradually the Swan-Maiden finds herself growing weaker and weaker, until at last death claims her.
A dance, based upon this legend, had been devised for Magda in conjunction with Vladimir Ravinski, the brilliant Russian dancer, he taking the lover's part, and the whole tragic little drama was designed to terminate with a solo dance by Magda as the dying Swan- Maiden. Davilof had written the music for it, and the dance was to be performed at the Imperial Theatre for the first time the following week.
Davilof played ever more and more softly as the dance drew to its close. The note of lament sounded with increasing insistence through the slowing ripple of the accompaniment, and at last, as Magda sank to the ground in a piteous attitude that somehow suggested both the drooping grace of a dying swan and the innocence and helplessness of the hapless maiden, the music died away into silence.
There was a little pause. Then Davilof sprang to this feet.
"By God, Magda! You're magnificent!" he exclaimed with the spontaneous appreciation of one genuine artist for another.
Magda raised her head and looked up at him with vague, startled eyes. She still preserved the pose on which the dance had ceased, and had hardly yet returned to the world of reality from that magic world into which her art had transported her.
The burning enthusiasm in Davilof's excited tones recalled her abruptly.
"Was it good--was it really good?" she asked a little shakily.
"Good?" he said. "It was superb!"
He held out his hands and she laid hers in them without thinking, allowing him to draw her to her feet beside him.
She stood quite still, breathing rather quickly from her recent exertions and supported by the close clasp of his hands on hers. Her lips were a little parted, her slight breast rose and fell unevenly, and a faint rose-colour glowed beneath the ivory pallor of her skin.
Suddenly Davilof's grip tightened.
"You beautiful thing!" he exclaimed huskily. "Magda----"
The next moment, with a swift, ungoverned movement, he caught her to him and was crushing her in his arms.
"Antoine! . . . Let me go!"
But the pressure of her soft, pulsing body against his own sent the blood racing through his veins. He smothered the words with his mouth on hers, kissing her breathless with a headlong passion that defied restraint--slaking his longing for her as a man denied water may at last slake his thirst at some suddenly discovered pool.
Magda felt herself powerless as a leaf caught up in a whirlwind--swept suddenly into the hot vehemence of a man's desire while she was yet unstrung and quivering from the emotional strain of the Swan-Maiden's dance, every nerve of her quickened to a tingling sentience by the underlying passion of the music.
With an effort she wrenched herself out of his arms and ran from him blindly into the furthest corner of the room. She had no clear idea of making for the door, but only of getting away--anywhere--heedless of direction. An instant later she was standing with her back to the wall, leaning helplessly against the ancient tapestry that clothed it. In that dim corner of the vast room her slim figure showed faintly limned against its blurred greens and greys like that of some pallid statue.
"Go . . . go away!" she gasped.
Davilof laughed triumphantly. Nothing could hold him now. The barriers of use and habit were down irrevocably.
"Go away?" he said. "No, I'm not going away."
He strode straight across the space that intervened between them. She watched his coming with dilated eyes. Her hands, palms downwards, were pressed hard against the woven surface of the tapestry on either side of her.
As he approached she shrank back, her whole body taut and straining against the wall. Then she bent her head and flung up her arms, curving them to shield her face. Davilof could just see the rounded whiteness of them, glimmering like pale pearl next the satin sheen of night-black hair.
With a stifled cry he sprang forward and gripped them in his strong, supple hands, drawing them down inexorably.
"Kiss me!" he demanded fiercely. "Magda, kiss me!"
She shook her head, struggling for speech.
"No!" she gasped. "No!"
She glanced desperately round, but he had her hemmed in, prisoned against the wall.
"Kiss me!" he repeated unsteadily. "You--you'd better, Magda."
"And if I don't?" she forced the words through her stiff lips.
"But you will!" he said hoarsely. "You will!"
There was a dangerous note in his voice. The man had got beyond the stage to be played with. In the silence of the room Magda could hear his laboured breathing, feel his heart leaping against her own soft breast crushed against his. It frightened her.
"You'll let me go if I do?" The words seemed to run into each other in her helpless haste.
"I'll let you go."
Slowly, reluctantly she lifted her face to his and kissed him. But the touch of her lips on his scattered the last vestige of his self- control.
"My beloved . . . Beloved!"
He seized her roughly in his arms. She felt his kisses overwhelming her, burning against her closed eyelids, bruising her soft mouth and throat.
"I love you . . . worship you----"
"Let me go!" she cried shrilly, struggling against him. "Let me go-- you promised it!"
He released her, drawing slowly back, his arms falling unwillingly away from her.
"Oh, yes," he muttered confusedly. "I did promise."
The instant she felt his grip relax, Magda sprang forward and switched on the centre burners, flooding the room with a blaze of light, and in the sudden glare she and Davilof stood staring silently at each other.
With the springing up of the lights it was as though a spell had broken. The strained, hunted expression left Magda's face. She wasn't frightened any longer. Davilof was no more the man whose sudden passion had surged about her, threatening to break down all defences and overwhelm her. He was just Davilof, her accompanist, who, like half the men of her acquaintance, was more or less in love with her and who had overstepped the boundary which she had very definitely marked out between herself and him.
She regarded him stormily.
"Have you gone mad?" she asked contemptuously.
He returned her look, his eyes curiously brilliant. Then he laughed suddenly.
"Mad?" he said. "Yes, I think I am mad. Mad with love for you! Magda"--he came and stood close beside her--"don't send me away! Don't say you can't care for me! You don't love me now--but I could teach you." His voice deepened. "I love you so much. Oh, sweetest!--Soul of me! Love is so beautiful. Let me teach you how beautiful it is!"
Magda drew back.
"No," she said. The brief negative fell clear and distinct as a bell.
"I won't take no," he returned hotly. "I won't take no. I want you. Good God! Don't you understand? My love for you isn't just a boy's infatuation that you can dismiss with a word. It's all of me. I worship you! Haven't I been with you day after day, worked with you, followed your every mood--shared your very soul with you? You're mine! Mine, because I understand you. You've shown me all you thought, all you felt. You couldn't have done that if I hadn't meant something to you."
"Certainly you meant something to me. You meant an almost perfect accompanist. Why should you have imagined you meant more? I gave you no reason to think so."
It was as though the two short words were the key which unlocked the floodgates of some raging torrent. Magda could never afterwards recall the words he used. She only knew they beat upon her with the cruel, lancinating sharpness of hail driven by the wind.
She had treated him much as other men, evoking the love of his ardent temperament by that subtle witchery which was second nature to her and which can be such a potent weapon in the hands of a woman whose own emotions remain untouched. And now the thwarted passion of the lover and the savage anger of a man who felt himself deceived and duped broke over her in a resistless storm--an outburst so bitter and so trenchant that for the moment she remained speechless before it, buffeted into helpless, resentful silence. When he ceased, he had stripped her of every rag of feminine defence.
"Have you finished?" she asked in a stifled voice.
She made no attempt to palliate matters or to refute anything he had said. In his present frame of mind it would have been useless pointing out to him that she had treated him no differently from other men. He was a Pole, and he had caught fire where others would merely have glowed smoulderingly.
"Yes," he rejoined sullenly. "I've finished."
"So much the better."
He regarded her speculatively.
"What are you made of, I wonder? Does it mean nothing to you that a man has given you his very best--all that he has?"
She appeared to reflect a moment.
"I'm afraid it doesn't. There's only one thing really means much to me --and that is my art. And Lady Arabella," she added after a pause. "She'll always mean a good deal."
She sat down by the fire and held out her hands to its warmth. The slender fingers seemed almost transparent, glowing rosily in the firelight. Davilof turned to go.
"Good-bye, then," he said curtly.
"Good-bye." Magda nodded indifferently. Then, carelessly: "I shall want you to-morrow, Davilof--same time."
He swung round.
"I will never play for you again. Did you imagine I should?"
She smiled at him--that slow, subtle smile of hers with its hint of mockery.
"You won't be able to keep away," she replied.
"I will never play for you again," he repeated. "Never! I will teach myself to hate you."
She shook her head lightly.
"It's not impossible. There's very little difference between love and hate--sometimes. And I want all or nothing."
"I'm afraid it must be nothing, then."
"We shall see. But if I can't have you, I swear no other man shall!"
She glanced up at him, lifting her brows a little.
"Aren't you going too far, Antoine? You can hate me, if you like, or love me--it's a matter of indifference to me which you do. But I don't propose to allow you to arrange my life for me. And in any case"-- after a moment--"I'm not likely to fall in love--with you or anyone else."
"You think not?" He stood looking down at her sombrely. "You'll fall in love right enough some day. And when you do it will be all or nothing with you, too. You're that kind. Love will take you--and break you, Magda."
He spoke slowly, with an odd kind of tensity. To Magda it seemed almost as if his quiet speech held the gravity of prophecy, and she shivered a little.
"And when that time comes, then you'll come back to me," he added.
Magda threw up her head, defying him.
"You propose to be waiting round to pick up the pieces, then?" she suggested nonchalantly.
But only the sound of the closing door answered her. Davilof had gone.