JOAN BARRINGTON sat up in a nest of pillows and contemplated the pile of presents that lay on her bed. For it was a crisp, bright Christmas morning, with a powder of snow on the window ledge, where an impudent robin sat with his head on one side, as if he, too, would have liked to investigate the cosiness of that luxurious bedroom. A sound of bells drifted on the air, Christmas bells that rang in Joan's head and mixed confusedly with the thoughts that rushed through her brain.
Christmas Day! And yesterday Joan Barrington had been little more than a well-known actress. And yet since 24 hours ago, she had jumped to the pinnacle of fame. It seemed only yesterday that she had been struggling with managers here and there to get an opening for "Corn in Egypt," and now the name of that play was on everybody's lips. It had been a tremendous triumph both for her and the author, Gerald Aspen. Three times had she faced an audience as Gerald Aspen's heroine in the plays he had written and always with a certain mead of success.
But not like last night at the Melpomene Theatre. That had been a blazing triumph from the first moment that she had walked on the stage to the fall of the curtain, as she had felt, in her heart of hearts, that it always would be. What a night for herself and Gerald! And that was not all. Was not Gerald going to marry her only child, Cecilie, the little girl for whom she had fought so hard and suffered so many privations?
And, goodness knows, she had struggled hard. Married before she was 19 to a handsome scamp, she had been cruelly abandoned somewhere in Australia, where she was touring with a travelling company, and, since then, she had fought a lone hand.
But that was all over now, and the glorious part of it was that she had still retained all her charm and beauty, because she had come into her own before she had reached her 40th year. Fame and fortune in the thirties; what more could any woman ask?
She was still pondering over this question when the door of the bedroom flew open and Cecilie Barrington rushed impetuously into the room. She was just a younger edition of her mother, with all her unspoilt loveliness and charm.
"Hello, mother," Cecilia, cried. "A happy Christmas. And what a Christmas, too! A well-known actress at 8 o'clock last night, and a world-wide celebrity at 11. You were absolutely splendid. I tried to get into your dressing-room after the fall of the curtain, but there was no room for poor little me, so I asked Gerald to drive me home and I was asleep long before you got back. Mother, you are wonderful. What a lucky thing that you had Geoffrey Fair for your leading man."
A momentary shadow lay on Joan Barrington's face.
"Yes, I suppose so," she said rather coldly. "Still, he had only to be his natural self. His handsome face and picturesque grey hair were wonderfully effective."
"Is that all you have to say?" Cecilie asked with a smile. "How ungrateful these great actresses are! Have you forgotten that it was I who persuaded Geoffrey Fair to accept the part of leading man in 'Corn in Egypt?' There is no other actor on the stage who could have played the part half as well. I did manage to have a few words with him last night, and what do you think he did?"
"Well, my child, what did he do?"
"Why, offered me the part of leading lady in the play he is taking to America next autumn. I knew it was coming, but I thought I would keep the fact a secret. I can tell you now that I met Mr. Fair last summer when I was staying with the Mortimers, at Prestley. He told me he had known you for years and that he had acted with you more than once. And he told me more than that, mummy. He said that I had inherited all your talent, and that in the course of time I should achieve a triumph as great as yours. And now the chance has come, Mother, you won't stand in my way, will you? I can go to America, can't I?"
Joan Barrington lay there very silently for a moment or two.
"This comes rather as a shock, Cecilie," she said, presently. "Don't say anything more about it just yet. I will speak to Mr. Fair. Reverting to more immediate matters, I shan't be able to go with you to dine at the Pennington's to-night. You see, if it hadn't been for the kindness of Lord Romney, I should never have had the chance of taking over the Melpomene for the production of my play. So, when he insists upon some of us dining with him to-night, I could not very well refuse. So you will have to go to the Penningtons with Gerald."
A little flush of color crept into Cecilie's cheeks.
"But I can't, mother," she said. "Gerald isn't going."
"Gerald isn't going? Why not?"
"Well, you see mother, we had a difference of opinion when he was driving me home last night. He doesn't like Mr. Fair. He went so far as to say that he was a dissolute scoundrel who lived on his good looks and other people's generosity. And he wasn't a bit grateful to Mr. Fair for playing the hero in 'Corn in Egypt.' So, you see, one word led to another, and—and—Gerald and myself are not going to be married, that's all."
"Then there is no more to be said," Joan Barrington smiled faintly. "Now run away and I will get up."
She was a wise mother in her day and generation, so she prudently refrained from saying anything that might stand in the way of a reconciliation between the lovers. She had the highest regard for Gerald Aspen, and she would have been happy enough in the engagement of the young couple. But, all the same, she was deeply troubled in her mind and inclined to resent this semi-tragedy which threatened to spoil the happiest day she had known for many years. Still, she was not going to ruin everything by a premature show of displeasure. She waited until Cecilie had left the house on a little round of visit to various young friends in the neighborhood with a view to exchanging the compliments of the season, then she consulted the telephone directory and called up a certain number. Immediately a man's voice answered—the well-known accents of Geoffrey Fair.
"Very well," he said. "I will come round."
It was just a quarter of an hour later that Fair entered the drawing-room of Joan's flat and seated himself in a comfortable chair in a characteristic and elegant pose. He faced Joan with a charming smile on his handsome face.
"This is quite an unexpected honor, my dear Joan," he drawled. "But you have only to command and I obey."
"Always the perfect knight," Joan said with a touch of ice in her voice, "and always the same pose. But we are not on the stage now, nor are we anything more than mere acquaintances. This is the first time I have met you alone, and truth compels me to say that I hope it will be the last. And you will be good enough not to call me your dear Joan again."
"Ah, well, time brings many changes," Fair smiled. "And, upon my word, you seem to grow younger and handsomer every day. Little Cecilie will never be in the same class."
"Precisely," Joan responded. "And that is one of the reasons why I have asked you to come here this morning. Why can't you leave the child alone? Why do you come between us? Perhaps I can guess. But for the moment we need not go into that. You know that she has no real talent for the stage."
"Not a scrap," Fair agreed easily. "She never will reach a rung on the ladder higher than that of a parlor-maid. But she is so sweetly pretty that I could not resist the temptation of watching her face when I suggested America."
"You lie," Joan said coldly. "I don't believe you have made any arrangement to go to America in the autumn. You are too indolent to face the journey. And as for you spending months in the land of prohibition—why, the mere thought amuses me."
"Ah, there," Fair smiled, "you are mistaken. I am not saying that anything is settled yet."
"For the present, you are drawing the highest salary in your career. And there are other pecuniary considerations. Really, on the whole, as lessee of the Melpomene, I am finding Mr. Geoffrey Fair a rather expensive luxury."
"Luxuries are always expensive," Fair said amiably.
"Still, they can be dispensed with. For instance, there is nothing to prevent me calling in 'Corn in Egypt,' and thus terminating your contract. I am sick to death of the stage. In any case, I am through with it in the next two years. I shall be through with it in less if you push me too far."
"Do you know," Fair said whimsically, "that that sounds very like a threat. And threats to me, my dear Joan, are likely to prove rather dangerous. Of course, if the scandal——"
"Scandal! What does any mother worthy of the name care about that sort of thing where the welfare of her only child is concerned? Cecilie is still all I have in the world. For her sake I have suffered privations that I shudder to think of. And now you are trying to take my child away from me. Why? Because you think you can make still better terms for yourself. But you won't. If the child goes to America, our compact comes to an end. And you won't like it. You won't like giving up your luxurious flat and your nice income, and you won't like to find certain country houses closed to you in future. Because that is what it means."
"My dear Joan," Fair protested. "Why all this heat?"
The fascinating smile was still on his lips, the easy pose was there, but the man was beaten and both of them knew it.
"Now, what you have to do is this," Joan went on. "You are to tell Cecilie the truth. Say that you lied to her. Oh, I don't want to humiliate you any more than you have humiliated yourself. You need not see Cecilie unless you like. Write her one of those charming letters of yours, making the position clear, and letting her know definitely that you have no intention whatever of going to America. That is all I have to say."
"And meanwhile?" Fair asked as he rose.
"And, meanwhile, the shameful bargain can go on. Now go, or shall I ring the bell and ask my man——"
But Fair needed no further bidding. The handsomest man on the stage crept from the room with little of his usual fine assurance. A moment later Joan was alone.
But not for long. Cecilie burst into the room, her cheeks aflame and her eyes dim with what might have been angry tears.
"I—I didn't want to listen," she panted. "But you had not closed the door behind you, and I got back sooner than I expected. And then, when certain words came to my ears, I just had to listen. Mother, what does it all mean? What is there between you and that man that you can treat him like a dog and he dare not resent it? And he promised me a great future! He told me that I should be as fine an actress as yourself. Why did he lie to me like that?"
Cecilie threw herself down on a couch and dissolved into a flood of tears. The moment was not yet when she would realise that wounded pride and vanity were at the bottom of her grief.
"And he told me I was an actress," she sobbed. "He spoke as if he meant it! I shall never believe what any man says again as long as I live. And all the time he was laughing at me."
Joan said nothing until the first violence of the storm had died away. Perhaps, on the whole, it was just as well that Cecilie had overheard the conversation. Then, suddenly, the poor child sat up and wiped the tears from her eyes.
"Why was that man so frightened of you?" she demanded.
"So you noticed that," Joan smiled. "It is rather a long story, darling, but I will make it as short as possible. It concerns two girl-friends of mine, one of whom was very like you at one time. They were sisters, one being an actress and the other—well, on the stage. The one who was merely on the stage died. The tragedy of her life lay in the fact that she thought she was an actress—and she wasn't. And that is why she practically perished of starvation. Only her sister, who was an actress, did not know it till after she was dead. Not that the actress sister was in much better case. Hers was a hard life. She endured the most bitter poverty and distress for years before she got her chance, and, after that, she never looked back."
"And then, just as the promised land was in sight, she did a very foolish thing. She married. He was an actor, of course, and one who might have gone far but for his weakness for pleasure and a hatred of hard work. Also, he drank. Quite in a gentlemanly way, but the fact remains. And, in the course of time, he quarrelled with most of the managers who were ready to help him, and so, gradually, he began to live on the earnings of his wife. Occasionally he would take a character if he happened to approve of it, but, for the most part, he preferred to take most of his wife's money and waste it in reckless extravagance. He was a handsome man, and people envied the couple their happiness. Ah, they little knew! And then came the inevitable parting."
"It had to come, or the woman would have been ruined. Her position was assured, and her ambition was to make a competence and retire from the stage, where she had never been happy. Those early struggles had left a sore in her soul that no lapse of time ever wiped out. So she made the man an allowance, of a thousand a year, on condition that he kept away from her, and that the matter of the unhappy marriage should be kept a secret, which was not difficult, seeing that all I am telling you happened in Australia almost twenty years ago. You see, my child, that arrangement suited the man, because he could pose as a bachelor and lead the sybaritic life he loved. And that is why he has kept to his side of the bargain ever since. Once he breaks it he will be thrown on his own resources again—and well he knows it. If the story becomes public, every decent man whose good opinion he values would turn from him in contempt, the country houses would know him no more, and, for once in a way, the woman in the case would not suffer. The sympathy would be hers. Are you beginning to understand what I am leading up to, Cecilie?"
"I—I think so," Cecilie choked. "Oh, mummy——"
"Just a moment, dear. In a way this sorry business began to be a sort of fight for the child. I forgot to mention that the actress had a child. A girl whom she thanked God had never been, and never would be an actress. But it suited the man I am talking about to tell her so, because it gratified his spite against the woman who had so humiliated him. For it is humiliating to live on the charity of a woman who despises the recipient. But I don't think I shall be troubled any further with that man, Cecilie. Of course, if you still want to go on the stage after what I have recently had to say——"
"But I don't," Cecilie almost wailed. "I should hate it. And you really mean to say that Mr. Fair is——"
"Your father," Joan said quietly. "Yes. But we will keep the secret, because that is part of the contract. I know you thought you were doing a clever thing when you induced the man of whom we are speaking to offer his services to me, and I accepted them because your Gerald thought he was the only man——"
"And you can actually play opposite him every night?" Cecilie cried. "Oh, mother, how can you?"
"That, my child," Joan smiled, "is one of the crosses we have to bear. One of the horrors of the profession that I was so anxious to guard you from. One of the things one has to get used to. It is said that the fox enjoys the chase, but I doubt it. And now, let us talk about something else. I thought that this was going to be my happiest Christmas Day, and now that I have had to tell you what you should have known long ago, I am sure that it is going to be my crowning Christmas. No one need know anything about this—with one exception——"
"And who is that?" Cecilie asked.
"Why, Gerald, of course. But then, you are not going to marry him. He isn't even going to take you out to dinner to-night."
Cecilie flamed scarlet.
"I had quite forgotten Gerald," she said contritely. "But I am going to be brave, mother, like you were just now. I am going to ring up Gerald and tell him how sorry I am. Perhaps——"
"There will be no perhaps about it," Joan smiled. "Now, run along and make your Christmas as happy as mine."
It was only a small, still voice that spoke through the telephone, but the man at the other end heard every word or it.
"Cecilie," he cried. "Oh, yes, I hear you. Go on. What's all that? Chucking the idea of the stage? Very sorry? What for? Dear girl, I can't make head or tail of what you are saying. Want me to come round and make it up? Rather. And what on earth are you crying about? Eh? Oh, yes, you are. As soon as I can get hold of a taxi I'll be round in a flash."
"It's all right, mother," Cecilie cried, as she burst into the room. "He didn't say much, but he behaved like a perfect darling. And I'm glad, glad I am not going to America. Oh, what a happy Christmas we are both going to spend."