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"I will not sing--it's no use, I will not." Al'mah's eyes were vivid with anger, and her lips, so much the resort of humour, were set in determination. Her words came with low vehemence.
Adrian Fellowes' hand nervously appealed to her. His voice was coaxing and gentle.
"Al'mah, must I tell Mrs. Byng that?" he asked. "There are a hundred people in the ball-room. Some of them have driven thirty miles to hear you. Besides, you are bound in honour to keep your engagement."
"I am bound to keep nothing that I don't wish to keep--you understand!" she replied, with a passionate gesture. "I am free to do what I please with my voice and with myself. I will leave here in the morning. I sang before dinner. That pays my board and a little over," she added, with bitterness. "I prefer to be a paying guest. Mrs. Byng shall not be my paying hostess."
Fellowes shrugged his shoulders, but his lips twitched with excitement. "I don't know what has come over you, Al'mah," he said helplessly and with an anxiety he could not disguise. "You can't do that kind of thing. It isn't fair, it isn't straight business; from a social standpoint, it isn't well-bred."
"Well-bred!" she retorted with a scornful laugh and a look of angry disdain. "You once said I had the manners of Madame Sans Gene, the washer-woman--a sickly joke, it was. Are you going to be my guide in manners? Does breeding only consist in having clothes made in Savile Row and eating strawberries out of season at a pound a basket?"
"I get my clothes from the Stores now, as you can see," he said, in a desperate attempt to be humorous, for she was in a dangerous mood. Only once before had he seen her so, and he could feel the air charged with catastrophe. "And I'm eating humble pie in season now at nothing a dish," he added. "I really am; and it gives me shocking indigestion."
Her face relaxed a little, for she could seldom resist any touch of humour, but the stubborn and wilful light in her eyes remained.
"That sounds like last year's pantomime," she said, sharply, and, with a jerk of her shoulders, turned away.
"For God's sake wait a minute, Al'mah!" he urged, desperately. "What has upset you? What has happened? Before dinner you were yourself; now--" he threw up his hands in despair--"Ah, my dearest, my star--"
She turned upon him savagely, and it seemed as though a storm of passion would break upon him; but all at once she changed, came up close to him, and looked him steadily in the eyes.
"I do not think I trust you," she said, quite quietly.
His eyes could not meet hers fairly. He felt them shrinking from her inquisition. "You have always trusted me till now. What has happened?" he asked, apprehensively and with husky voice.
"Nothing has happened," she replied in a low, steady voice. "Nothing. But I seem to realize you to-night. It came to me suddenly, at dinner, as I listened to you, as I saw you talk--I had never before seen you in surroundings like these. But I realized you then: I had a revelation. You need not ask me what it was. I do not know quite. I cannot tell. It is all vague, but it is startling, and it has gone through my heart like a knife. I tell you this, and I tell you quite calmly, that if you prove to be what, for the first time, I have a vision you are, I shall never look upon your face again if I can help it. If I come to know that you are false in nature and in act, that all you have said to me is not true, that you have degraded me--Oh," she fiercely added, breaking off and speaking with infinite anger and scorn--"it was only love, honest and true, however mistaken, which could make what has been between us endurable in my eyes! What I have thought was true love, and its true passion, helped me to forget the degradation and the secret shame--only the absolute honesty of that love could make me forget. But suppose I find it only imitation; suppose I see that it is only selfishness, only horrible, ugly self-indulgence; suppose you are a man who plays with a human soul! If I find that to be so, I tell you I shall hate you; and I shall hate myself; but I shall hate you more--a thousand times more."
She paused with agony and appealing, with confusion and vague horror in her face. Her look was direct and absorbing, her eyes like wells of sullen fire.
"Al'mah," he replied with fluttered eagerness, "let us talk of this later--not now--later. I will answer anything--everything. I can and I will prove to you that this is only a mad idea of yours, that--"
"No, no, no, not mad," she interrupted. "There is no madness in it. I had a premonition before I came. It was like a cloud on my soul. It left me when we met here, when I heard your voice again; and for a moment I was happy. That was why I sang before dinner that song of Lassen's, 'Thine Eyes So Blue and Tender.' But it has come back. Something deep within me says, 'He is not true.' Something whispers, 'He is false by nature; it is not in him to be true to anything or anybody.'"
He made an effort to carry off the situation lightly. With a great sense of humour, she had also an infinite capacity for taking things seriously--with an almost sensational gravity. Yet she had always responded to his cheerful raillery when he had declined to be tragical. He essayed the old way now.
"This is just absurd, old girl;"--she shrank--"you really are mad. Your home is Colney Hatch or thereabouts. Why, I'm just what I always was to you--your constant slave, your everlasting lover, and your friend. I'll talk it all over with you later. It's impossible now. They're ready for you in the ball-room. The accompanist is waiting. Do, do, do be reasonable. I will see you--afterwards--late."
A determined poignant look came into her eyes. She drew still farther away from him. "You will not, you shall not, see me 'afterwards--late.' No, no, no; I will trust my instinct now. I am natural, I am true, I hide nothing. I take my courage in both hands. I do not hide my head in the sands. I have given, because I chose to give, and I made and make no presences to myself. I answer to myself, and I do not play false with the world or with you. Whatever I am the world can know, for I deceive no one, and I have no fears. But you--oh, why, why is it I feel now, suddenly, that you have the strain of the coward in you! Why it comes to me now I do not know; but it is here"--she pressed her hand tremblingly to her heart--"and I will not act as though it wasn't here. I'm not of this world."
She waved a hand towards the ball-room. "I am not of the world that lives in terror of itself. Mine is a world apart, where one acts and lives and sings the passion and sorrows and joys of others--all unreal, unreal. The one chance of happiness we artists have is not to act in our own lives, but to be true--real and true. For one's own life as well as one's work to be all grease-paint--no, no, no. I have hid all that has been between us, because of things that have nothing to do with fear or courage, and for your sake; but I haven't acted, or pretended. I have not flaunted my private life, my wretched sin--"
"The sin of an angel--"
She shrank from the blatant insincerity of the words, and still more from the tone. Why had it not all seemed insincere before?
"But I was true in all I did, and I believed you were," she continued.
"And you don't believe it now?"
"To-night I do not. What I shall feel to-morrow I cannot tell. Maybe I shall go blind again, for women are never two days alike in their minds or bodies." She threw up her hands with a despairing helplessness. "But we shall not meet till to-morrow, and then I go back to London. I am going to my room now. You may tell Mrs. Byng that I am not well enough to sing--and indeed I am not well," she added, huskily. "I am sick at heart with I don't know what; but I am wretched and angry and dangerous--and bad."
Her eyes fastened his with a fateful bitterness and gloom. "Where is Mr. Byng?" she added, sharply. "Why was he not at dinner?"
He hailed the change of idea gladly. He spoke quickly, eagerly. "He was kept at the mine. There's trouble--a strike. He was needed. He has great influence with the men, and the masters, too. You heard Mrs. Byng say why he had not returned."
"No; I was thinking of other things. But I wanted--I want to see him. When will he be back?"
"At any moment, I should think. But, Al'mah, no matter what you feel about me, you must keep your engagement to sing here. The people in there, a hundred of the best people of the county--"
"The best people of the county--such abject snobbery!" she retorted, sharply. "Do you think that would influence me? You ought to know me well enough--but that's just it, you do not know me. I realize it at last. Listen now. I will not sing to-night, and you will go and tell Mrs. Byng so."
Once again she turned away, but her exit was arrested by another voice, a pleasant voice, which said:
"But just one minute, please. Mr. Fellowes is quite right.... Fellowes, won't you go and say that Madame Al'mah will be there in five minutes?"
It was Ian Stafford. He had come at Jasmine's request to bring Al'mah, and he had overheard her last words. He saw that there had been a scene, and conceived that it was the kind of quarrel which could be better arranged by a third disinterested person.
After a moment's hesitation, with an anxious yet hopeful look, Fellowes disappeared, Al'mah's brown eyes following him with dark inquisition. Presently she looked at Ian Stafford with a flash of malice. Did this elegant and diplomatic person think that all he had to do was to speak, and she would succumb to his blandishment? He should see.
He smiled, and courteously motioned her to a chair.
"You said to Mr. Fellowes that I should sing in five minutes," she remarked maliciously and stubbornly, but she moved forward to the chair, nevertheless.
"Yes, but there is no reason why we should not sit for three out of the five minutes. Energy should be conserved in a tiring world."
"I have some energy to spare--the overflow," she returned with a protesting flash of the eyes, as, however, she slowly seated herself.
"We call it power and magnetism in your case," he answered in that low, soothing voice which had helped to quiet storms in more than one chancellerie of Europe. . . . "What are you going to sing to-night?" he added.
"I am not going to sing," she answered, nervously. "You heard what I said to Mr. Fellowes."
"I was an unwilling eavesdropper; I heard your last words. But surely you would not be so unoriginal, so cliche, as to say the same thing to me that you said to Mr. Fellowes!"
His smile was winning and his humour came from a deep well. On the instant she knew it to be real, and his easy confidence, his assumption of dominancy had its advantage.
"I'll say it in a different way to you, but it will be the same thing. I shall not sing to-night," she retorted, obstinately.
"Then a hundred people will go hungry to bed," he rejoined. "Hunger is a dreadful thing--and there are only three minutes left out of the five," he added, looking at his watch.
"I am not the baker or the butler," she replied with a smile, but her firm lips did not soften.
He changed his tactics with adroitness. If he failed now, it would be final. He thought he knew where she might be really vulnerable.
"Byng will be disappointed and surprised when he hears of the famine that the prima donna has left behind her. Byng is one of the best that ever was. He is trying to do his fellow-creatures a good turn down there at the mine. He never did any harm that I ever heard of--and this is his house, and these are his guests. He would, I'll stake my life, do Al'mah a good turn if he could, even if it cost him something quite big. He is that kind of a man. He would be hurt to know that you had let the best people of the county be parched, when you could give them drink."
"You said they were hungry a moment ago," she rejoined, her resolution slowly breaking under the one influence which could have softened her.
"They would be both hungry and thirsty," he urged. "But, between ourselves, would you like Byng to come home from a hard day's work, as it were, and feel that things had gone wrong here while he was away on humanity's business? Just try to imagine him having done you a service--"
"He has done me more than one service," she interjected. "You know it as well as I do. You were there at the opera, three years ago, when he saved me from the flames, and since then--"
Stafford looked at his watch again with a smile. "Besides, there's a far more important reason why you should sing to-night. I promised some one who's been hurt badly, and who never heard you sing, that he should hear you to-night. He is lying there now, and--"
"Jigger?" she asked, a new light in her eyes, something fleeing from her face and leaving a strange softness behind it.
"Quite so," he replied. "That's a lad really worth singing for. He's an original, if ever there was one. He worships you for what you have done for his sister, Lou. I'd undergo almost any humiliation not to disappoint Jigger. Byng would probably get over his disappointment--he'd only feel that he hadn't been used fairly, and he's used to that; but Jigger wouldn't sleep to-night, and it's essential that he should. Think of how much happiness and how much pain you can give, just by trilling a simple little song with your little voice oh, madame la cantatrice?"
Suddenly her eyes filled with tears. She brushed them away hastily. "I've been upset and angry and disturbed--and I don't know what," she said, abruptly. "One of my black moods was on me. They only come once in a blue moon; but they almost kill me when they do." . . . She stopped and looked at him steadily for a moment, the tears still in her eyes. "You are very understanding and gentle--and sensible," she added, with brusque frankness and cordiality. "Yes, I will sing for Rudyard Byng and for Jigger; and a little too for a very clever diplomatist." She gave a spasmodic laugh.
"Only half a minute left," he rejoined with gay raillery. "I said you'd sing to them in five minutes, and you must. This way."
He offered her his arm, she took it, and in cheerful silence he hurried her to the ball-room.
Before her first song he showed her the window which looked across to that out of which Jigger gazed with trembling eagerness. The blinds and curtains were up at these windows, and Jigger could see her as she sang.
Never in all her wonderful career had Al'mah sung so well--with so much feeling and an artist's genius--not even that night of all when she made her debut. The misery, the gloom, the bitterness of the past hour had stirred every fibre of her being, and her voice told with thrilling power the story of a soul.
Once after an outburst of applause from the brilliant audience, there came a tiny echo of it from across the courtyard. It was Jigger, enraptured by a vision of heaven and the sounds of it. Al'mah turned towards the window with a shining face, and waved a kiss out of the light and glory where she was, to the sufferer in the darkness. Then, after a whispered word to the accompanist she began singing Gounod's memorable song, "There is a Green Hill Far Away." It was not what the audience expected; it was in strangest contrast to all that had gone before; it brought a hush like a benediction upon the great chamber. Her voice seemed to ache with the plaintive depth of the song, and the soft night filled its soul with melody.
A wonderful and deep solemnity was suddenly diffused upon the assembly of world-worn people, to most of whom the things that mattered were those which gave them diversion. They were wont to swim with the tide of indolence, extravagance, self-seeking, and sordid pleasure now flowing through the hardy isles, from which had come much of the strength of the Old World and the vision and spirit of the New World.
Why had she chosen this song? Because, all at once, as she thought of Jigger lying there in the dark room, she had a vision of her own child lying near to death in the grasp of pneumonia five years ago; and the misery of that time swept over her--its rebellion, its hideous fear, its bitter loneliness. She recalled how a woman, once a great singer, now grown old in years as in sorrow, had sung this very song to her then, in the hour of her direst apprehension. She sang it now to her own dead child, and to Jigger. When she ceased, there was not a sound save of some woman gently sobbing. Others were vainly trying to choke back their tears.
Presently, as Al'mah stood still in the hush which was infinitely more grateful to her than any applause, she saw Krool advancing hurriedly up the centre aisle. He was drawn and haggard, and his eyes were sunken and wild. Turning at the platform, he said in a strange, hollow voice:
"At the mine--an accident. The Baas he go down to save--he not come up."
With a cry Jasmine staggered to her feet. Ian Stafford was beside her in an instant.
"The Baas--the Baas!" said Krool, insistently, painfully. "I have the horses--come."
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