Part Two
Chapter V. The Swan-Maiden
 

Lady Arabella was in her element. She had two brilliant and unattached young men dining with her--one, Michael Quarrington, a lion in the artistic world, and the other, Antoine Davilof, who showed unmistakable symptoms of developing sooner or later into a lion in the musical world.

It was Davilof who was responsible for the artist's presence at Lady Arabella's dinner table. She had expressed--in her usual autocratic manner--a wish that he should be presented to her, and had determined upon the evening of the first performance of The Swan-Maiden as the appointed time.

Davilof appeared doubtful, and declared that Quarrington was leaving England and had already fixed the date of his departure.

"He's crossing from Dover the very day before the one you want him to dine with you," he told her.

But Lady Arabella swept his objections aside with regal indifference.

"Crossing, is he?" she snapped. "Well, tell him I want him to dine here and go to the show with us afterwards. He'll cross the day after, you'll find--if he crosses at all!" she wound up enigmatically.

So it came about that her two lions, the last-arrived artist and the soon-to-arrive musician, were both dining with her on the appointed evening.

Lady Arabella adored lions. Also, notwithstanding her seventy years, she retained as much original Eve in her composition as a girl of seventeen, and she adored young men.

In particular, she decided that she approved of Michael Quarrington. She liked the clean English build of him. She liked his lean, square jaw and the fair hair with the unruly kink in it which reminded her of a certain other young man--who had been young when she was young--and to whom she had bade farewell at her parents' inflexible decree more than fifty years ago. Above all, she liked the artist's eyes--those grey, steady eyes with their look of reticence so characteristic of the man himself.

Reticence was an asset in her ladyship's estimation. It showed good sense--and it offered provocative opportunities for a battle of wits such as her soul loved.

"Have you seen my god-daughter dance, Mr. Quarrington?" she asked him.

"Yes, several times."

His tone was non-committal and she eyed him sharply.

"Don't admire dancing, do you?" she threw at him.

Quarrington regarded her with a humorous twinkle.

"And I an artist? How can you ask, Lady Arabella?"

"Well, you sounded supremely detached," she grumbled.

"I think Mademoiselle Wielitzska's dancing the loveliest thing I have ever seen," he returned simply.

The old woman vouchsafed him a smile.

"Thank you," she answered. "I enjoyed that quite as much as I used to enjoy being told I'd a pretty dimple when I was a girl."

"You have now," rejoined Quarrington audaciously.

Lady Arabella's eyes sparkled. She loved a neatly turned compliment.

"Thank you again. But it's a pity to waste your pretty speeches on an old woman of seventy."

"I don't," retorted the artist gravely. "I reserve them for the young people I know of that age."

She laughed delightedly. Then, turning to Davilof, she drew him into the conversation and the talk became general.

Later, as they were all three standing in the hall preparatory to departure, she flashed another of her sudden remarks at Quarrington.

"I understand you came to my god-daughter's rescue in that bad fog last week?"

The quiet grey eyes revealed nothing.

"I was privileged to be some little use," he replied lightly.

"I hardly gathered you regarded it as a privilege," observed her ladyship drily.

The shaft went home. A fleeting light gleamed for a moment in the grey eyes. Davilof was standing a few paces away, being helped into his coat by a man-servant, and Quarrington spoke low and quickly.

"She told you?" he said. There was astonishment--resentment, almost-- in his voice.

"No, no." Lady Arabella, smiling to herself, reassured him hastily. "It was a shot in the dark on my part. Magda never confides details. She hands you out an unadorned slice of fact and leaves you to interpret it as you choose. But if you know her rather well--as I do-- and can add two and two together and make five or any unlikely number of them, why, then you can fill in some of the blanks for yourself."

She glanced at him with impish amusement as she moved towards the door.

"Come along, Davilof," she said. "I suppose you want to hear your own music--even if Magda's dancing no longer interests you?"

Davilof gave her his arm down the steps.

"What do you mean, miladi?" he asked. "There is no more beautiful dancing in the world."

"Then why have you jacked up your job of accompanist? Shoes beginning to pinch a little, eh?"--shrewdly.

"You mean I grow too big for my boots? No, madame. If I were the greatest musician in Europe, instead of being merely Antoine Davilof, it could only be a source of pride to be asked to accompany the Wielitzska."

Lady Arabella paused on the pavement, her foot on the step of the limousine.

"Then how is it that Mrs. Grey accompanies her now? She was playing for her at the Duchess of Lichbrooke's the other evening.

"Magda didn't tell you, then?"

"No, she didn't; or I'd not be wasting my breath in asking you. I asked her, and she said you had taken to playing wrong notes."

A faint smile curved the lips above the small golden beard.

"Then it must be true. Undoubtedly I played wrong notes, miladi."

"Very careless of you, I'm sure." Under the garish light of a neighbouring street-lamp her keen old eyes met his significantly. "Or --very imprudent, Davilof. You need the tact of the whole Diplomatic Service to deal with Magda. And you ought to know it."

"True, miladi. But I was not designed for diplomacy, and a man can only use the weapons heaven has given him."

"I wouldn't have suggested heaven as invariably the source of your inspirations," retorted Lady Arabella. And hopped into the car.

They arrived at the Imperial Theatre to find Mrs. Grey already seated in Lady Arabella's box. Someone else was there, too--old Virginie, with her withered-apple cheeks and bright brown, bird-like eyes, still active and erect and very little altered from the Virginie of ten years before. Just as she had devoted herself to Diane, so now she devoted herself to Diane's daughter, and no first performance of a new dance of the Wielitzska's took place without Virginie's presence somewhere in the house. To-night, Lady Arabella had invited her into her box and Virginie was a quivering bundle of excitement. She rose from her seat at the back of the box as the newcomers entered.

"Sit down, Virginie." Lady Arabella nodded kindly to the Frenchwoman. "And pull your chair forward. You'll see nothing back there, and there is plenty of room for us all."

"Merci, madame. Madame est bien gentille." Virginie's voice was fervent with ecstatic gratitude as she resumed her seat and waited expectantly for Magda's appearance.

Other dances, performed principally by lesser lights of the company and affording only a briefly tantalising glimpse of Magda herself, preceded the chief event of the evening. But at last the next item on the programme read as The Swan-Maiden (adapted from an Old Legend), and a tremour of excitement, a sudden hush of eager anticipation, rippled through the audience like wind over grass.

Slowly the heavy silken curtains drew to either side of the stage, revealing a sunlit glade. In the background glimmered the still waters of a lake, while at the foot of a tree, in an attitude of tranquil repose, lay the Swan-Maiden--Magda. One white, naked arm was curved behind her head, pillowing it, the other lay lightly across her body, palm upward, with the rosy-tipped fingers curled inwards a little, like a sleeping child's. She looked infinitely young as she lay there, her slender, pliant limbs relaxed in untroubled slumber.

Lady Arabella, with Quarrington sitting next to her in the box, heard the quick intake of his breath as he leaned suddenly forward.

"Yes, it has quite a familiar look," she observed. "Reminds me of your 'Repose of Titania.'"

His eyes flickered inquiringly over her face, but it was evident that hers had been merely a chance remark. The old lady had obviously no idea as to who it was who had posed for the Titania of the picture. That was one of the "slices of fact" which Magda had omitted to hand out when recounting her adventure in the fog to her godmother. Quarrington leaned back in his chair satisfied.

"It's not unlike," he agreed carelessly.

Then the entrance of Vladimir Ravinski, the lovelorn youth of the legend, riveted his attention on the stage.

The dance which followed was exquisite. The Russian was a beautiful youth, like a sun-god with his flying yellow locks and glorious symmetry of body, and the pas de deux between him and Magda was a thing to marvel at--sweeping through the whole gamut of love's emotion, from the first shy, delicate hesitancy of worshipping boy and girl to the rapturous abandon of mated lovers.

Then across the vibrant, pulsating scene fell the deadly shadow of the witch Ritmagar. The stage darkened, the violins in the orchestra skirled eerily in chromatic showers of notes, and the hunched figure of Ritmagar approaching menaced the lovers. A wild dance followed, the lovers now kneeling and beseeching the evil fairy to have pity on them, now rushing despairingly into each other's arms, while the witch's own dancing held all of threat and malevolence that superb artistry could infuse into it.

The tale unfolded itself with the inevitableness of preordained catastrophe.

Ritmagar declines to be appeased. She raises her claw-like hand, pointing a crooked finger at the lovers, and with a clash of brazen sound and the dull thrumming of drums the whole scene dissolves into absolute darkness. When the darkness lifts once more, the stage is empty save for a pure white swan which sails slowly down the lake and disappears. . . . Followed a solo dance by Ravinski in which he gave full vent to the anguish of the bereft lover, while now and again the swan swam statelily by him. At length the witch appeared once more and, yielding to his impassioned entreaties, declared that the Swan- Maiden might reassume her human form during the hour preceding sunset, and Magda--the Swan-Maiden released from enchantment for the time being--came running in on the stage.

This love-duet was resumed and presently, when the lovers had made their exit, Ritmagar was seen gleefully watching while the red sun dropped slowly down the sky, sinking at last below the rim of the lake.

Then a low rumble of drums muttered as she stole from the stage, the personification of vindictive triumph, and all at once the great concourse of people in the auditorium seemed to strain forward, conscious that the climax of the evening, the wonderful solo dance by the Wielitzska, was about to begin.

The moon rose on the left, and Magda, a slim white figure in her dress which cleverly suggested the plumage of a swan, floated on to the stage with that exquisite, ethereal lightness of movement which only toe-dancing--and toe-dancing of the most perfectly finished quality-- seems able to convey. It was as though her feet were not touching the solid earth at all. The feather-light drifting of blown petals; the swaying grace of a swan as it glides along the surface of the water; the quivering, spirit-like flight of a butterfly--it seemed as though all these had been caught and blended together by the dancer.

The heavier instruments of the orchestra were silenced, but the rippling music of the strings wove and interwove a dreaming melody, unutterably sweet and appealing, as the Swan-Maiden, bathed in pallid moonlight, besought the invisible Ritmagar for mercy, praying that she might not die even though the sun had set. . . . But there comes no answer to her prayers. A sombre note of stern denial sounds in the music, and the Swan-Maiden yields to utter despair, drooping slowly to earth. Just as Death himself claims her, her lover, demented with anguish, comes rushing to her side, and turning towards him as she lies dying upon the ground, she yields to his embrace with a last gesture of passionate surrender.

Slowly the heavy curtains swung together, hiding the limp, lifeless body of the Swan-Maiden and the despairing figure of her lover as he knelt beside her, and after a breathless pause, the great audience, carried away by the tragic drama of the dance, its passion and its pathos, broke into a thunder of applause that rolled and reverberated through the theatre.

Again and again Magda and her partner were called before the curtain, the former laden with the sheafs of flowers which had been handed up on to the stage. But the audience refused to be satisfied until at last Magda appeared alone, standing very white and slender under the blaze of lights, a faint suggestion of fatigue in the poise of her lissome figure.

Instantly the applause broke out anew--thunderous, overwhelming. Magda smiled, then held out her arms in a little disarming gesture of appeal, touching in its absolute simplicity. It was as though she said: "Dear people, I love you all for being so pleased, but I'm very, very tired. Please, won't you let me go?"

So they let her go, with one final round of cheers and clapping, and then, as the curtains fell together once more and the orchestra slid unobtrusively into the entr'acte music, a buzz of conversation arose.

Michael Quarrington turned and spoke to Davilof as they stood together.

"This will be my last memory of England for some time to come. Mademoiselle Wielitzska is very wonderful. As much actress as dancer-- and both rather superlatively."

There was an odd note in Quarrington's voice, as if he were forcibly repressing some less measured form of words.

Davilof glanced at him sharply.

"You think so?" he said curtly.

The musician's hazel eyes were burning feverishly. One hand was clenched on the back of the chair from which he had just risen; the other hung at his side, the fingers opening and shutting nervously.

Quarrington smiled.

"Don't you?"

The eyes of the two men met, and Michael became suddenly conscious that the other was struggling in the grip of some strong emotion. He could even sense its atmosphere of antagonism towards himself.

"I think"--Davilof spoke with slow intensity--"I think she's a soulless piece of devil's mechanism." And turning abruptly, he swung out of the box, slamming the door behind him.

Quarrington frowned. With his keen perceptions it was not difficult for him to divine what lay at the back of Davilof's bitter criticism. The man was in love--hopelessly in love with the Wielitzska. Probably she had turned him down, as she had turned down better men than he, but he had been unable to resist the bitter-sweet temptation of watching her dance, and throughout the evening had almost certainly been suffering the torments of the damned.

The artist smiled a little grimly to himself, remembering the many evenings he, too, had spent at the Imperial Theatre, drawn thither by the magnetism of a white, slender woman with night-black hair, whose long, dark eyes haunted him perpetually, even coming between him and his work.

And then, just as he had made up his mind to go away, first to Paris and afterwards to Spain or perhaps even further afield, and thus set as many miles of sea and land as he could betwixt himself and the "kind of woman he had no place for," fate had played him a trick and sent her out of the obscurity of the fog-ridden street straight to his very hearth and home, so that the fragrance and sweetness and charm of her must needs linger there to torment him.

He thought he could make a pretty accurate guess at the state of Davilof's feelings, and was ironically conscious of a sense of fellowship with him.

Lady Arabella's sharp voice cut across his reflections.

"I don't care for this next thing," she said, flicking at her programme. "Mrs. Grey and I are going round to see Magda. Will you come with us?"

Quarrington had every intention of politely excusing himself. Instead of which he found himself replying:

"With pleasure--if Mademoiselle Wielitzska won't think I'm intruding."

Lady Arabella chuckled.

"Well, she intruded on you that day in the fog, didn't she? So you'll be quits." She glanced impatiently round the box. "Where on earth has Davilof vanished to? Has he gone up in flame?"

Michael laughed involuntarily.

"Something of the kind, I fancy," he replied. "Anyway, he departed rather hurriedly."

"Poor Antoine!" Gillian spoke with a kind of humorous compassion. "He has a temperament. I'm glad I haven't."

"You have the best of all temperaments, Mrs. Grey," answered Michael, as they both followed Lady Arabella out of the box.

She looked at him inquiringly.

"The temperament that understands other people's temperaments," he added.

"How do you know?" she asked, smiling.

Lady Arabella was prancing on ahead down the corridor, and for the moment Michael and Gillian were alone.

"We artists learn to look for what lies below the surface. If your work is sincere, you find when you've finished a portrait that the soul of the sitter has revealed itself unmistakably."

Gillian nodded.

"I've been told you've an almost diabolical genius for expressing just what a man or woman is really like--in character, I mean--in your portraits."

"I can't help it," he said simply. "It comes--it reveals itself--if you paint sincerely."

"And do you--always paint sincerely?"

He laughed.

"I try to. Though once I got hauled over the coals pretty sharply for doing so. My sitter happened to be a pretty society woman, possessed of about as much soul as would cover a threepenny-bit, and when I'd finished her portrait she simply turned and rent me. 'I wanted a taking picture,' she informed me indignantly, 'not the bones of my personality laid bare for public inspection.'"

They were outside Magda's dressing-room by this time, and Virginie, who had flown to her nurseling the moment the dance was at an end, opened the door in response to Lady Arabella's preemptory knock. Gillian paused a moment before entering the room.

"Yours is a wonderful gift of perception," she said quietly. "It ought to make you--very merciful."

Michael looked at her swiftly. Her eyes seemed to be asking something of him--entreating. But before he could speak Lady Arabella's voice interposed remorselessly.

"Come in, you two; and for goodness' sake shut the door. There's draught enough to waft one to heaven."

There was no choice but to obey, and silently Quarrington followed Mrs. Grey into the room.