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Day by day her husband's complete estrangement from her was rendered additionally bitter to Diane by Catherine's complacent air of triumph. The latter knew that she had won, severed the tie which bound her brother to "the foreign dancing-woman," and she did not scruple to let Diane see that she openly rejoiced in the fact.
At first Diane imagined that Catherine might rest content with what she had accomplished, but the grim, hard-featured woman still continued to exhibit the same self-righteous disapproval towards her brother's wife as hitherto.
Diane endured it in resentful silence for a time, but one day, stung by some more than usually acid speech of Catherine's, she turned on her, demanding passionately why she seemed to hate her even more since the birth of the child.
"I nearly gave my life for her," she protested with fierce simplicity. "I could do no more! Is it because le bon dieu has sent me a little daughter instead of a little son that you hate me so much?"
And Catherine had answered her in a voice of quiet, concentrated animosity:
"If you had died then--died childless--I should have thanked God day and night."
Diane, isolated and unhappy, turned to her baby for consolation. It was all that was left to her out of the wreck of her life, and the very fact that both Hugh and Catherine seemed to regard the little daughter with abhorrence only served to strengthen the passionate worship which she herself lavished upon her.
The child--they had called her Magda--was an odd little creature, as might have been expected from the violently opposing characteristics of her parents.
She was slenderly made--built on the same lithe lines as her mother-- and almost as soon as she was able to walk she manifested an amazing balance and suppleness of limb. By the time she was four years old she was trying to imitate, with uncertain little feet and dimpled, aimlessly waving arms, the movements of her mother, when to amuse the child, she would sometimes dance for her.
However big a tragedy had occurred in Magda's small world--whether it were a crack across the insipid china face of a favourite doll or the death of an adored Persian kitten--there was still balm in Gilead if "petite maman" would but dance for her. The tears shining in big drops on her cheeks, her small chest still heaving with the sobs that were a passionate protest against unkind fate, Magda would sit on the floor entranced, watching with adoring eyes every swift, graceful motion of the dancer, and murmuring in the quaint shibboleth of French and English she had imbibed from old Virginie.
On one of these occasions Hugh came upon the two unexpectedly and brought the performance to a summary conclusion.
"That will do, Diane," he said icily. "I should have thought you would have had more self-respect than to dance--in that fashion--in front of a child."
"It is, then, a sin to dance--as it is to be married?" demanded Diane bitterly, abruptly checked in an exquisite spring-flower dance of her own invention.
"I forbid it; that is sufficient," replied Hugh sternly.
His assumption of arrogant superiority was unbearable. Diane's self- control wavered under it and broke. She turned and upbraided him despairingly, alternately pleading and reproaching, battering all her slender forces uselessly against his inflexible determination.
"This is a waste of time, Diane--mine, anyway," he told her. And left her shaken with grief and anger.
Driven by a sense of utter revolt, she stormed her way to Catherine, who was composedly sorting sheets in the linen room.
"I will not bear it!" she burst out at her furiously. "What have I done that I should be treated as an outcast--a pariah?"
Catherine regarded the tense, quivering little figure with chill dislike.
"You married my brother," she replied imperturbably.
"And you have separated us! But for you, we should be happy together-- he and baby and I! But you have spoilt it all. I suppose"--a hint of the Latin Quarter element in her asserting itself--"I suppose you think no one good enough to marry into your precious family!"
Catherine paused on her way to the cupboard, a pile of fine linen pillowslips in her hands.
"Yes," she said quietly. "It is I who have separated you--spoilt your happiness, if you like. And I am glad of it. I can't expect anyone like you to understand"--there was the familiar flavour of disparagement in her tones--"but I am thankful that my brother has seen the wickedness of his marriage with you, that he has repented of it, and that he is making the only atonement possible!"
She turned and composedly laid the pile of pillowslips in their appointed place on the shelf. A faint fragrance of dried lavender drifted out from the dark depths of the cupboard. Diane always afterwards associated the smell of lavender with her memories of Catherine Vallincourt, and the sweet, clean scent of it was spoiled for her henceforward.
"I hate you!" she exclaimed in a low voice of helpless rage. "I hate you--and I wish to God Hugh had never had a sister!"
"Well"--composedly--"he will not have one much longer."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that as far as our life together is concerned, it is very nearly over."
"Do you mean"--Diane bent towards her breathlessly--"do you mean that you are going away--going away from Coverdale?"
"Yes. I am entering a sisterhood--that of the Sisters of Penitence, a community Hugh is endowing with money that is urgently needed."
"As part of the penance he has set himself to perform." Catherine's steely glance met and held the younger woman's. "Thanks to you, the remainder of his life will be passed in expiation."
Diane shook her head carelessly. Such side-issues were of relatively small importance compared with the one outstanding, amazing fact: Catherine was going away! Going away from Coverdale--for ever!
"Yes"--Catherine read her thoughts shrewdly--"yes, you will be rid of me. I shall not be here much longer."
Diane struck her hands together. For once, not even the fear of Catherine's gibing tongue could hold her silent.
"I'm glad--glad--glad you're going away!" she exclaimed passionately. "When you are gone I will win back my husband."
"Do you think so?" was all she said.
But to Diane's keyed-up consciousness it was as though the four short words contained a threat--the germ of future disaster.
In due time Catherine quitted Coverdale for the austere seclusion of the sisterhood, and a very few weeks sufficed to convince Diane that her forebodings had been only too well founded.
Catherine had long been anxious to enter a community, restrained from doing so solely by Hugh's need of her as mistress of his house, and now that her wish was an accomplished fact, it seemed as though he were spurred on to increasing effort by the example of his sister's renunciation of the world. He withdrew himself even more completely from his wife, sometimes avoiding her company for days at a time, and adopted a stringently ascetic mode of life, denying himself all pleasure, fasting frequently, and praying and meditating for hours at a stretch in the private chapel which was attached to Coverdale. As far as it was possible, without actually entering a community, his existence resembled that of a monk, and Diane came to believe that he had voluntarily vowed himself to a certain form of penance and expiation for the marriage which the bigotry of his nature had led him to regard as a sin.
His life only impinged upon his wife's in so far as the upbringing of their child was concerned. He was unnecessarily severe with her, and, since Diane opposed his strict ruling at every opportunity, Magda's early life was passed in an atmosphere of fierce contradictions.
The child inherited her mother's beauty to the full, and, as she developed, exhibited an extraordinary faculty for getting her own way. Servants, playmates, and governesses all succumbed to the nameless charm she possessed, while her mother and old Virginie frankly worshipped her.
The love of dancing was instinctive with her, and this, unknown to Hugh, her mother cultivated assiduously, fostering in her everything that was imaginative and delicately fanciful. Magda believed firmly in the existence of fairies and regarded flowers as each possessed of a separate entity with personal characteristics of its own. The originality of the dances she invented for her own amusement was the outcome.
But, side by side with this love of all that was beautiful, she absorbed from her mother a certain sophisticated understanding of life which was somewhat startling in one of her tender years, and this, too, betrayed itself in her dancing. For it is an immutable law that everything--good, bad, and indifferent--which lies in the soul of an artist ultimately reveals itself in his work.
And Magda, inheriting the underlying ardour of her father's temperament and the gutter-child's sharp sense of values which was her mother's Latin Quarter garnering, at the age of eight danced, with all the beguilement and seductiveness of a trained and experienced dancer.
Even Hugh himself was not proof against the elusive lure of it. He chanced upon her one day, dancing in her nursery, and was so carried away by the charm of the performance that for the moment he forgot that she was transgressing one of his most rigid rules.
In the child's gracious, alluring gestures he was reminded of the first time that he had seen her mother dance, and of how it had thrilled him. Beneath the veneer with which his self-enforced austerity had overlaid his emotions, he felt his pulses leap, and was bitterly chagrined at being thus attracted.
He found himself brought up forcibly once more against the inevitable consequences of his marriage with Diane, and reasoned that through his weakness in making such a woman his wife, he had let loose on the world a feminine thing dowered with the seductiveness of a Delilah and backed--here came in the exaggerated family pride ingrained in him--by all the added weight and influence of her social position as a Vallincourt.
"Never let me see you dance again, Magda," he told her. "It is forbidden. If you disobey you will be severely punished."
Magda regarded him curiously out of a pair of long dark eyes the colour of black smoke. With that precociously sophisticated instinct of hers she realised that the man had been emotionally stirred, and divined in her funny child's mind that it was her dancing which had so stirred him. It gave her a curious sense of power.
"Sieur Hugh is afraid because he likes me to dance," she told her mother, with an impish little grin of enjoyment.
(On one occasion Hugh had narrated for her benefit the history of an ancestor, one Sieur Hugues de Vallincourt, whose effigy in stone adorned the church, and she had ever afterwards persisted in referring to her father as "Sieur Hugh"--considerably to his annoyance, since he regarded it as both disrespectful and unseemly.)
From this time onwards Magda seemed to take a diabolical delight in shocking her father--experimenting on him, as it were. In some mysterious way she had become conscious of her power to allure. Young as she was, the instinct of conquest was awakened within her, and she proceeded to "experiment" on certain of her father's friends--to their huge delight and Hugh's intense disgust. Once, in an outburst of fury, he epitomised her ruthlessly.
"The child has the soul of a courtesan!"
If this were so, Hugh had no knowledge of how to cope with it. His fulminations on the subject of dancing affected her not at all, and a few days after he had rebuked her with all the energy at his command he discovered her dancing on a table--this time for the delectation of an enraptured butler and staff in the servants' hall.
Without more ado Hugh lifted her down and carried her to his study, where he administered a sound smacking. The result astonished him considerably.
"Do you think you can stop me from dancing by beating me?"
Magda arraigned him with passionate scorn.
"I do," he returned grimly. "If you hurt people enough you can stop them from committing sin. That is the meaning of remedial punishment."
"I don't believe it!" she stormed at him. "You might hurt me till I died of hurting, but you couldn't make me good--not if I hated your hurting me all the time! Because it isn't good to hate," she added out of the depths of some instinctive wisdom.
"Then you'd better learn to like being punished--if that will make you good," retorted Hugh.
Magda sped out into the woods. Hugh's hand had been none too light, and she was feeling physically and spiritually sore. Her small soul was aflame with fierce revolt.
Just to assure herself of the liberty of the individual and of the fact that "hurting couldn't make her good," she executed a solitary little dance on the green, mossy sward beneath the trees. It was rather a painful process, since certain portions of her anatomy still tingled from the retributive strokes of justice, but she set her teeth and accomplished the dance with a consciousness of unholy glee that added appreciably to the quality of the performance.
"Are you the Fairy Queen?"
The voice came suddenly out of the dim, enfolding silence of the woods, and Magda paused in the midst of a final pirouette. A man was standing leaning against the trunk of a tree, watching her with whimsical grey eyes. Behind him, set up in the middle of a clearing amongst the trees, an easel and stool evidenced his recent occupation.
Magda returned the scrutiny of the grey eyes. She was no whit embarrassed and slowly lowered her foot--she had been toe-dancing--to its normal position while she surveyed the newcomer with interest.
He was a tall, lean specimen of mankind, and the sunlight, quivering between the interlacing boughs above his head, flickered on to kinky fair hair that looked almost absurdly golden contrasted with the brown tan of the face beneath it. It was a nice face, Magda decided, with a dogged, squarish jaw that appealed to a certain tenacity of spirit which was one of her own unchildish characteristics, and the keen dark-grey eyes she encountered were so unlike the cold light-grey of her father's that it seemed ridiculous the English language could only supply the one word "grey" to describe things that were so totally dissimilar.
"They're like eyes with little fires behind them," Magda told herself. Then smiled at their owner radiantly.
"Are you the Fairy Queen?" he repeated gravely.
She regarded him with increasing approval.
"Yes," she assented graciously. "These are my woods."
"Then I'm afraid I've been trespassing in your majesty's domain," admitted the grey-eyed man. "But your woods are so beautiful I simply had to try and make a sketch of them."
Magda came back to earth with promptitude.
"Oh, are you an artist?" she demanded eagerly.
He nodded, smiling.
"I'm trying to be."
"Let me look." She flashed past him and planted herself in front of the easel.
"Mais, c'est bon!" she commented coolly. "Me, I know. We have good pictures at home. This is a good picture."
The man with the grey eyes looked suitably impressed.
"I'm glad you find it so," he replied meekly. "I think it wants just one thing more. If"--he spoke abstractly--"if the Fairy Queen were resting just there"--his finger indicated the exact point on the canvas--"tired, you know, because she had been dancing to one of the Mortals--lucky beggar, wasn't he?--why, I think the picture would be complete."
Magda shot him a swift glance of comprehension. Then, without a word, she moved towards the bole of a tree and flung herself down with all the supple grace of a young faun. The artist snatched up his palette; the pose she had assumed without a hint from him was inimitable--the slender limbs relaxed and drooping exactly as though from sheer fatigue. He painted furiously, blocking in the limp little figure with swift, sure strokes of his brush.
When at last he desisted he flung a question at her.
"Who taught you to pose--and to dance like that, you wonder-child?"
Magda surveyed him with that mixture of saint and devil in her long, suddenly narrow eyes which, when she grew to womanhood, was the measure of her charm and the curse of her tempestuous life.
"Le bon dieu," she responded demurely.
The man smiled and shook his head. It was a crooked little smile, oddly humorous and attractive.
"No," he said with conviction. "No. I don't think so."
The daylight was beginning to fade, and he started to pack up his belongings.
"What's your name?" asked Magda suddenly.
She looked at him with sudden awe.
"Not--not Saint Michel?" she asked breathlessly.
Virginie had told her all about "Saint Michel." He was a very great angel indeed. It would be tremendously exciting to find she had been talking to him all this time without knowing it! And the grey-eyed man had fair hair; it shone in the glinting sunset-light almost like a halo!
He quenched her hopes with that brief, one-sided smile of his.
"No," he said. "I'm not Saint Michael. I'm only a poor devil of a painter who's got his way to make in the world. Perhaps, you've helped me, Fairy Queen."
And seeing that "The Repose of Titania" was the first of his paintings to bring Michael Quarrington that meed of praise and recognition which was later his in such full measure, perhaps she had.
"I think I'm glad you're not a saint, after all," remarked Magda thoughtfully. "Saint's are dreadfully dull and superior."
He smiled down at her.
"Are they? How do you know?"
"Because Sieur Hugh is preparing to be one. At least Virginie says so --and she sniffs when she says it. So you see, I know all about it."
"I see," he replied seriously. "And who are Sieur Hugh and Virginie?"
"Sieur Hugh is my father. And Virginie is next best to petite maman. Me, I love Virginie."
Magda made no answer, but she stood looking at him with an odd, unchildlike deviltry in her sombre eyes.
"Fairy Queen, I should like to kiss you," said the man suddenly. Then he jerked his head back. "No, I wouldn't!" he added quickly to himself. "By Jove, it's uncanny!"
Magda remained motionless, still staring at him with those long dark eyes of hers. He noticed that just at the outer corners they slanted upwards a little, giving her small, thin face a curiously Eastern look.
"Please kiss me, Saint Michael," she said.
For a moment he hesitated, a half-rueful, half-whimsical smile on his lips, rather as though he were laughing at himself. Then, with a shrug of his shoulders, he stooped quickly and kissed her.
"Witch-child!" he muttered as he strode away through the woods.
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