A DISTINGUISHED novelist, who would rather make an epigram than a friend, always declared that Mrs. Harcourt's flat in Lowndes Gardens reminded him of one of the brilliant stage settings usually associated with a St. James's production, which description had just enough truth in it to carry a sting in its tail. And, indeed, perhaps there was just a suggestion of that glittering artificiality surrounding the home life of the famous actress in question, just a little bit too much gold and colouring; but the young man standing there, with his back to the flower-filled fireplace, noticed nothing of it.
He was not in a condition just then to notice anything but the glamour of the moment, for was he not taking Cecil Marne out to dinner, and convoying her subsequently to the first night of a new play at the Comus? He was good enough to look on, was this young man, with his clean-shaven, handsome face, lighted with a pair of clear, brown eyes, fearless and resolute, a young man with all the world before him and everything in his favour. He was beautifully groomed, of course, immaculate and speckless, the finished product of Eton and Oxford, just a fine specimen of a typical young Englishman, a little tanned and brown—an athlete, in fact, and potentially a leader of men.
He stood there, glancing carelessly about him, a little impatient and a little eager, and, perhaps, just a shade disappointed to find that Cecil was not already awaiting him. She came in presently, a dazzling vision of loveliness and beauty, clad in some pink diaphanous confection that mere man would have found it impossible to describe, but which seemed to be part of herself, as a woman's dress ought to be when she knows how to wear it. And it was not any particular classicality of outline or amazing regularity of feature to which Cecil owed her chief charm; still, it was a beautiful face, soulful and intellectual, and flushed with happiness and pleasure just now.
"I hope I haven't kept you waiting," she said, "but Mrs. Harcourt detained me. She has just gone."
"Oh, down to the theatre, I suppose," Alan Chamberlayne said. "Is she very nervous?"
"Well, not just at the last. I would give anything to have a position like that."
"You would like to go on the stage, Cecil?"
"Of course I should—it must be glorious. And I believe I could do it, Alan. Mrs. Harcourt says so. And, perhaps, some day—"
"I wish you wouldn't talk like that," Alan said. "I think you know—you must know by this time—why I come here so often, Cecil. You must know we are something more than friends. Now, don't you?"
The girl flushed slightly and turned her glowing face away from his. She was still at the parting of the ways, still hesitating with the seed of the dandelion in her hand, saying to herself: "I love him, I love him not."
"Oh, well," she said a little petulantly, "aren't you just a little bit old-fashioned, Alan?"
"I don't know—perhaps I am," Chamberlayne admitted. "Perhaps, if my mother had lived, it might have been different. I suppose I have an altogether too exalted idea of womankind. I don't understand them."
"Does any man?" Cecil laughed. "Do we understand ourselves? And yet you are just like all the rest of your sex. You seem to think that a woman's mission in life is to marry and settle down."
"Well, isn't it?" Alan asked.
"Oh, come along!" Cecil said impatiently. "If we are going to dine at the Ritz first, the sooner we're off, the better."
The big car was waiting at the door, and together they drove along the streets, in the dusk of the falling September night, in the direction of the hotel where they were to dine. They were going on afterwards to the Comus Theatre, to see the first performance of the new comedy in which Mrs. Harcourt expected to achieve one pf her greatest triumphs. A great night, a night to be remembered, and one destined, though Cecil did not know it yet, to mark an important turning point in her life.
And meanwhile here they were at their destination, seated at a little table set out for two, with shaded lights and mauve orchids in reckless profusion. The place was full of diners, the whole of the big room was crowded with youth and beauty, an attractive scene that filled Cecil with pleasure, and brought a look of tenderness into those dusky eyes of hers.
"Do you know," Alan said presently, "that so far you have not met my father?"
"Would he be interested in me?" Cecil smiled.
"What a question! Of course he would. He knows all about you, and he is very anxious to see you. Won't you come down and stay a week-end at our place? It's the most delightful old place in the world, and I think my father and I value it all the more because we so nearly lost it."
"I have heard something of it," Cecil said. "Wasn't your father rather poor in those early days?"
"Terribly poor," Chamberlayne said. "He and my mother lived in lodgings in an obscure seaside town, trying to save enough money to pay the interest on the family mortgages. You see, my father met my mother in Australia, where she was on the stage, and married her. Oh, no, she was no great actress, but a young girl struggling for a living—anything rather than stay in a home that was cursed by drink and poverty. I don't remember her, of course. She died when I was quite a child, and then it occurred to my father to take up his profession. Fortunately, at an early age he had been called to the Bar, and from the first he was a great success. You know what he is to-day. I know you'd love him—everybody does."
"So—so you've told your father all about me?"
"Of course I have. I told him about you long ago."
Cecil made no reply for a moment. She had taken one of the orchid blossoms from the table and was aimlessly pulling it to pieces.
"Aren't you taking a good deal for granted?" she challenged.
"Well, perhaps, Cecil; but haven't I had reason to take things for granted? Haven't we been together practically every day since June, and haven't our friends recognised— Well, you know what I mean."
"Oh, it's impossible," Cecil said. "I mean—well, I mean that I'm a bit frightened. Oh, I am to blame, if you like. I have encouraged you, I have been fickle and shallow, incapable of understanding my own mind. If you like to ask me under these conditions—"
Chamberlayne rose slowly from the table. There was a certain grimness about his mouth and a little hardness in his eyes that set Cecil fluttering.
"Perhaps we had better be moving," he said curtly. "And thanks for the confession. We'll forget all about it now, but I will come and see you in the morning."
"Is that a threat?" Cecil laughed.
"No, it isn't—it's a promise."
The frown had gone from his face, and as they drove along in the taxi he might have been no more than the average polished Society young man doing his best to be agreeable to a pretty and fascinating girl. And, strange to say, it was this very change— the change that Cecil had hoped for—that filled her with all sorts of vague alarms. For Cecil knew her world, and Chamberlayne was not the first man who had made love to her. She had come, like so many brilliant and attractive girls, to regard homage from the opposite sex as her prescriptive right. and the sensation that she was merely a mouse, within reach of the claws of the cat, frightened whilst at the same time it strangely attracted her.
She was glad enough to find herself in the theatre, waiting for the curtain to go up. She glanced round the stalls and returned the nods and smiles of her many acquaintances. It was a full house, as she had expected, crammed from floor to ceiling, and everybody was there that was worth counting at all.
And then for the next hour or two Cecil forgot all about her anxieties and worries in the contemplation of the stage and the triumph of Helen Harcourt in one of the finest interpretations that she had ever given in her long and distinguished career. It was not that the play was anything amazing in itself—in fact, it was rather commonplace—but the soul of the artiste dominated it all, and the curtain fell finally on a veritable triumph.
Cecil drew a long breath of sheer delight. She had almost forgotten by this time that Chamberlayne was seated by her side. She turned to him presently with glowing eyes.
"Wasn't it marvellous?" she said.
"I suppose so," said Alan. "I am horribly out of date, but this sort of thing doesn't appeal to me much. I never can quite understand why people make so much fuss of actors and actresses. After all, they are only children of larger growth playing at make-believe, and they don't create the character. The author of the play does that."
Cecil rose impatiently and made her way in silence into the vestibule. She hardly spoke as the taxi purred its way along the streets in the direction of Lowndes Gardens. It was much the same when the flat was reached, and even Chamberlayne gave a sigh of relief when his hostess arrived and supper was announced.
Helen Harcourt came in a beautiful costume in which she had appeared during the last act, tall and graceful, and full of those magnetic qualities which made her what she was. She was radiant enough, gracious and friendly as usual, but never, in Chamberlayne's eyes, had she appeared more remote and aloof than she did at that moment. She was brilliantly witty, as usual, hard as a diamond and as dazzling, but this only deepened the impression in Chamberlayne's mind.
And so the meal went on to the conclusion. One o'clock struck somewhere, and at length Chamberlayne rose to go. He barely touched Cecil's fingers as he said "Good night" to her, and muttered something to the effect that he had work to do, and that he hoped to call on her in the morning. The last words were so cold that Helen Harcourt elevated her eyebrows.
"Good night, Alan," she said, with one of those rare smiles of hers that she always kept for him. "Good night, my dear boy. One moment—your tie is a little on one side. Let me put it straight for you. There!"
She rested her hands on his shoulders just for a moment, then, when she had finished her work, allowed her fingers to stray on his sleek hair and dropped a careless kiss upon his forehead. It was characteristic of a woman of her temperament, a woman who cares nothing for convention, but there was just a touch of intimacy in the action that roused some vague symptom of jealousy in Cecil's breast. Then Helen Harcourt flung herself back in a chair and lighted a cigarette.
"This has been a great night for you," Cecil said—"I should say the greatest in your career. I believe, if I were you, I should die happy."
"Would you?" Mrs. Harcourt sighed. "Ah, I am not at all happy this evening; on the contrary, I never felt more miserable."
"But why?" Cecil cried.
"Do you know what I mean? No, I am afraid you don't, Cecil. So we had better go back to first causes. Why have you quarrelled with Alan?"
The girl fairly staggered back before the directness of the attack. She had no time to fence or dodge, no time to summon up those little, lethal sophistries by which women deceive one another. The blood mounted to her cheeks, and her eyes grew dim. Then she was herself again.
"I don't quite understand what you mean," she said coldly. "I have not quarrelled with Alan."
"No? But you are keeping something from me now. You know what my ambition has been for you—you know that I wanted to see you happily married to the finest man I know. And now something has come between you. Won't you tell me what it is?"
"You are imagining these things," Cecil said. "I like Alan Chamberlayne immensely. I am sure that he is all you say he is, and more. But I don't want to marry him, dearest, and, above all, I want to go on the stage."'
Mrs. Harcourt sighed gently.
"I was afraid of that," she said. "My dear girl, I have had scores of young women to stay with me from time to time, and, after they have once seen me play, every one of them has wanted to go on the stage. Do you know what I earned for the first three years of my career?"
"What does that matter?" Cecil said petulantly.
"My dear, it matters a great deal. If fame and fortune are to do you, any good, they must come in the early thirties—after that it's too late. Ah, I know, and that is why I am so bitterly disappointed to think that you should have turned your back on your own happiness so deliberately as you have done. Fate gave me the same chance, and I also turned my back upon it. Shall I tell you the story?"
Cecil nodded. She was strangely moved by the torrent of bitter words that had fallen from her companion's lips, words that seemed to have a new shape and meaning, declaimed as they were by one who knew the utmost value of every syllable. And the great actress was playing now with a force and intensify that she probably had never displayed before, for she was playing, not to an audience, but to the soul of one girl, playing for the stake of human happiness.
"Very well," she said. "I'll tell you. But first give me another cigarette. I suppose it is the proper thing for the adventurous heroine to tell her story with a cigarette between her lips. At least, that is what the public expect, and you are my public for the moment, Cecil. I married a good man, who took me from a sordid home, and I, like the fool that I was, thought I was conferring a favour upon him. From the very first he spoilt me. Everything I wanted in reason I could have, though I knew he was saving all his income for a specific purpose, and when occasionally he remonstrated with me on my extravagance, I only grew angry and accused him of being mean. Mean! Good Heavens! Now I know he was one of the most generous men on this earth. And so it went on for two years— two long, dragging years—during which my husband grew poorer and more anxious, and then I left him."
"You mean you quarrelled?" Cecil asked.
"Oh, no, there was no quarrel. I have not even that excuse. I had made up my mind that he was a poor creature, absolutely unworthy of being the soul-mate of so brilliant a personage as myself, and so I left him.
"I must have cut him to the heart. can see his face now as I told him everything. It was to be an absolute parting. It was understood that we were never to meet again, and we never have. But I know where my husband is, and what he is doing, and I know now what has ever been a bitter humiliation to me. I know it was I who kept him down, who spent his money, and crippled him in a thousand ways. For the man I regarded as a poor, spiritless creature is to-day one of the most successful men in England. Directly he was free from me and the weight that I hung about his neck, he began to rise, and he has never looked back since. I am not going to try and coerce you—I won't attempt to influence you further. I merely wish to point out what a lonely, unsatisfactory life my own selfishness has built up for me; I want to save you from the same melancholy fate, if possible. With my eyes wide open I made the same mistake as you are going to make. With my eyes wide open I turned my back upon my husband and my child—"
"A child!" Cecil gasped. "How could you?"
"Ah, how could I? My dear, I have asked myself that same question many times. And I am glad to hear you speak like that, because it has proved to me that my story has not fallen on barren soil. Yes, it was part of the price I had to pay. It was my own suggestion. And now, when the shadows are beginning to deepen, and my hair is getting grey, I am alone in the world!"
"But you might go back," Cecil whispered.
"I shall never do that," Mrs. Harcourt said sadly. "It would not be fair to either of them; I doubt if it would be even fair to me. Why should I obtrude upon their lives after all these years? They are well and happy, they are devoted to one another, and there was no shadow on my husband's face when I saw him last, like there used to be in the old days, when I was dragging him down. No, he and the boy—"
"Your son!" Cecil exclaimed. "How strange it seems!"
"My son—yes. And, mind, this is a secret between us, which you are to keep till I give you leave to speak. And do you know why I tell you this? Because you love Alan Chamberlayne, you admire his many fine qualities, and you are afraid he may dominate you if you marry him. Of course he will; no husband is worth his salt who doesn't. And now I have finished. Do you want me to tell you any more? Do you want me to tell you why I like Alan so well?"
A great light suddenly leapt into Cecil's eyes, the lines about her lips trembled and wavered. Then, with a smile, she got up and reached for the telephone on the table. As she called the number of Chamberlayne's flat clearly and firmly, Helen Harcourt smiled, too, and there were tears standing in her eyes.
"Complete surrender?" she whispered.
"Absolutely!" Cecil laughed unsteadily. "Absolutely! Listen..."