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Something of his overnight's optimism remained with Philip when at eleven o'clock on the following morning he was ushered into Elizabeth's rooms. It was a frame of mind, however, which did not long survive his reception. From the moment of his arrival, he seemed to detect a different atmosphere in his surroundings,--the demeanour of Phoebe, his staunch ally, who admitted him without her usual welcoming smile; the unanalysable sense of something wanting in the dainty little room, overfilled with strong-smelling, hothouse flowers in the entrance and welcome of Elizabeth herself. His eyes had ached for the sight of her. He was so sure that he would know everything the moment she spoke. Yet her coming brought only confusion to his senses. She was different--unexpectedly, bewilderingly different. She had lost that delicate serenity of manner, that almost protective affection which he had grown to lean upon and expect. She entered dressed for the street, smoking a cigarette, which was in itself unusual, with dark rings under her eyes, which seemed to be looking all around the room on some pretext or other, but never at him.
"Am I late?" she asked, a little breathlessly. "I am so sorry. Tell me, have you anything particular to do?"
"Nothing," he answered.
"I want to go out of the city--into the country, at once," she told him feverishly. "The car is waiting. I ordered it for a quarter to eleven. Let us start."
"Of course, if you wish it," he assented.
He opened the door but before she passed through he leaned towards her. She shook her head. His heart sank. What could there be more ominous than this!
"I am not well," she muttered. "Don't take any notice of anything I say or do for a little time. I am like this sometimes--temperamental, I suppose. All great actresses are temperamental. I suppose I am a great actress. Do you think I am, Philip?"
He was following her down-stairs now. He found it hard, however, to imitate the flippancy of her tone.
"The critics insist upon it," he observed drily. "Evidently your audience last night shared their opinion."
"I love them to applaud like that, and yet--audiences don't really know, do they? Perhaps--"
She relapsed into silence, and they took their places in the car. She settled herself down with a little sigh of content and drew the rug over her.
"As far as you can go, John," she told the man, "but you must get back at six o'clock. The country, mind--not the shore."
They started off.
"So you were there last night?" she murmured, leaning back amongst the cushions with an air of relief.
"I was there for a few moments. I wrote my note to you in the box office."
She shook the memory away.
"I went to one of the clubs down-town."
"What did you do there?" she enquired. "Gossip?"
"Some of the men were very kind to me," he said. "I had supper with Noel Bridges, amongst others."
"Well?" she asked, almost defiantly.
"I don't understand."
She looked intently at him for a moment.
"I forgot," she went on. "You are very chivalrous, aren't you? You wouldn't ask questions.... See, I am going to close my eyes. It is too horrible here, and all through Brooklyn. When we are in the lanes I can talk. This is just one of those days I wish that we were in England. All our country is either suburban or too wild and restless. Can you be content with silence for a little time?"
"Of course," he assured her. "Besides, you forget that I am in a strange country. Everything is worth watching."
They passed over Brooklyn Bridge, and for an hour or more they made slow progress through the wide-flung environs of the city. At last, however, the endless succession of factories and small tenement dwellings lay behind them. They passed houses with real gardens, through stretches of wood whose leaves were opening, whose branches were filled with the sweet-smelling sap of springtime. Elizabeth seemed to wake almost automatically from a kind of stupor. She pushed back her veil, and Philip, stealing eager glances towards her, was almost startled by some indefinable change. Her face seemed more delicate, almost the face of an invalid, and she lay back there with half-closed eyes. The strength of her mouth seemed to have dissolved, and its sweetness had become almost pathetic. There were signs of a great weariness about her. The fingers which reached out for the little speaking-tube seemed to have become thinner.
"Take the turn to the left, John," she instructed, "the one to Bay Shore. Go slowly by the lake and stop where I tell you."
They left the main road and travelled for some distance along a lane which, with its bramble-grown fences and meadows beyond, was curiously reminiscent of England. They passed a country house, built of the wood which was still a little unfamiliar to Philip, but wonderfully homelike with its cluster of outbuildings, its trim lawns, and the turret clock over the stable entrance. Then, through the leaves of an avenue of elms, they caught occasional glimpses of the blue waters of the lake, which they presently skirted. Elizabeth's eyes travelled over its placid surface idly, yet with a sense of passive satisfaction. In a few minutes they passed into the heart of a little wood, and she leaned forward.
"Stop here, close to the side of the road, John. Stop your engine, please, and go and sit by the lake."
The man obeyed at once with the unquestioning readiness of one used to his mistress' whims. For several minutes she remained silent. She had the air of one drinking in with almost passionate eagerness the sedative effect of the stillness, the soft spring air, the musical country sounds, the ripple of the breeze in the trees, the humming of insects, the soft splash of the lake against the stony shore. Philip himself was awakened into a peculiar sense of pleasure by this, almost his first glimpse of the country since his arrival in New York. A host of half forgotten sensations warmed his heart. He felt suddenly intensely sympathetic, perhaps more genuinely tender than he had ever felt before towards the woman by his side, whose hour of suffering it was. His hand slipped under the rug and held her fingers, which clutched his in instantaneous response. Her lips seemed unlocked by his slight action.
"I came here alone two years ago," she told him, "and since then often, sometimes to study a difficult part, sometimes only to think. One moment."
She released her fingers from his, drew out the hatpins from her hat, unwound the veil and threw them both on to the opposite seat. Then she laid her hands upon her forehead as though to cool it. The little breeze from the lake rippled through her hair, bringing them every now and then faint whiffs of perfume from the bordering gardens.
"There!" she exclaimed, with a little murmur of content. "That's a man's action, isn't it? Now I think I am getting brave. I have something to say to you, Philip."
He felt her fingers seeking his again and held them tightly. It was curious how in that moment of crisis his thoughts seemed to wander away. He was watching the little flecks of gold in her hair, wondering if he had ever properly appreciated the beautiful curve of her neck. Even her voice seemed somehow attuned to the melody of their surroundings, the confused song of the birds, the sighing of the lake, the passing of the west wind through the trees and shrubs around.
"Philip," she began, clinging closely to him, "I have brought you here to tell you a story which perhaps you will think, when you have heard it, might better have been told in my dressing-room. Well, I couldn't. Besides, I wanted to get away. It is about Sylvanus Power."
He sat a little more upright. His nerves were tingling now with eagerness.
"I met him," she continued, "eight years ago out West, when I was in a travelling show. I accepted his attentions at first carelessly enough. I did not realise the sort of man he was. He was a great personage even in those days, and I suppose my head was a little turned. Then he began to follow us everywhere. There was a scandal, of course. In the end I left the company and came to New York. He went to China, where he has always had large interests. When I heard that he had sailed--I remember reading it in the paper--I could have sobbed with joy."
Philip moved a little uneasily in his place. Some instinct told him, however, how greatly she desired his silence--that she wanted to tell her story her own way.
"Then followed three miserable years, during which I saw little of him. I knew that I had talent, I was always sure of making a living, but I got no further. It didn't seem possible to get any further. Nothing that I could do or say seemed able to procure for me an engagement in New York. Think of me for a moment now, Philip, as a woman absolutely and entirely devoted to her work. I loved it. It absorbed all my thoughts. It was just the one thing in life I cared anything about. I simply ached to get at New York, and I couldn't. All the time I had to play on tour, and you won't quite understand this, dear, but there is nothing so wearing in life as for any one with my cravings for recognition there to be always playing on the road."
She paused for a few minutes. There was a loud twittering of birds. A rabbit who had stolen carefully through the undergrowth scurried away. A car had come through the wood and swept past them, bringing with it some vague sense of disturbance. It was some little time before she settled down again to her story.
"At the end of those three years," she went on, "Sylvanus Power had become richer, stronger, more masterful than ever. I was beginning to lose heart. He was clever. He studied my every weakness. He knew quite well that with me there was only one way, and he laid his schemes with regard to me just in the same fashion as he schemed to be a conqueror of men, to build up those millions. We were playing near New York and one day he asked me to motor in there and lunch with him. I accepted. It was in the springtime, almost on such a day as this. We motored up in one of his wonderful cars. We lunched--I remember how shabby I felt--at the best restaurant in New York, where I was waited upon like a queen. Somehow or other, the man had always the knack of making himself felt wherever he went. He strode the very streets of New York like one of its masters and the people seemed to recognise it. Afterwards he took me into Broadway, and he ordered the car to stop outside the theatre where I am now playing. I looked at it, and I remember I gave a little cry of interest.
"'This is the new theatre that every one is talking about, isn't it?' I asked him eagerly.
"'It is,' he answered. 'Would you like to see inside?'
"Of course, I was half crazy with curiosity. The doors flew open before him, and he took me everywhere. You know yourself what a magnificent place it is--that marvellous stage, the auditorium all in dark green satin, the seats like armchairs, the dressing rooms like boudoirs--the wonderful spaciousness of it! It took my breath away. I had never imagined such splendour. When we had finished looking over the whole building, I clutched his arm.
"'I can't believe that it isn't some sort of fairy palace!' I exclaimed. And to think that no one knows who owns the place or when it is going to be opened!'
"'I'll tell you all about that' he answered. 'I built it, I own it, and it will be opened just when you accept my offer and play in it.'
"It all seemed too amazing. For a time I couldn't speak coherently. Then I remember thinking that whatever happened, whatever price I had to pay, I must stand upon the stage of that theatre and win. My lips were quite dry. His great voice seemed to have faded into a whisper.
"'Your offer?' I repeated.
"'Yourself,' he answered gruffly."
There was a silence which seemed to Philip interminable. All the magic of the place had passed away, its music seemed no longer to be singing happiness into his heart. Then at last he realised that she was waiting for him to speak.
"He wanted--to marry you?" he faltered.
"He had a wife already."
Splash! John was throwing stones into the lake, a pastime of which he was getting a little tired. A huge thrush was thinking about commencing to build his nest, and in the meantime sat upon a fallen log across the way and sang about it. A little tree-climbing bird ran round and round the trunk of the nearest elm, staring at them, every time he appeared, with his tiny black eyes. A squirrel, almost overhead, who had long since come to the conclusion that they were harmless, decided now that they had the queerest manners of any two young people he had ever watched from his leafy throne, and finally abandoned his position. Elizabeth had been staring down the road ever since the last words had passed her lips. She turned at last and looked at her companion. He was once more the refugee, the half-starved man flying from horrors greater even than he had known. She began to tremble.
"Philip!" she cried. "Say anything, but speak to me!"
Like a flash he seemed to pass from his own, almost the hermit's way of looking out upon life from the old-fashioned standpoint of his inherent puritanism, into a closer sympathy with those others, the men and women of the world into which he had so lately entered, the men and women who had welcomed him so warm-heartedly, human beings all of them, who lived and loved with glad hearts and much kindliness. The contrast was absurd, the story itself suddenly so reasonable. No other woman on tour would have kept Sylvanus Power waiting for three years. Only Elizabeth could have done that. It was such a human little problem. People didn't live in the clouds. He wasn't fit for the clouds himself. Nevertheless, when he tried to speak his throat was hard and dry, and at the second attempt he began instead to laugh. She gripped his arm.
"Philip!" she exclaimed. "Be reasonable! Say what you like, but look and behave like a human being. Don't make that noise!" she almost shrieked.
He stopped at once.
"Forgive me," he begged humbly. "I can't help it. I seem to be playing hide and seek with myself. You haven't finished the story yet--if there is anything more to tell me."
She drew herself up. She spoke absolutely without faltering.
"I accepted Sylvanus Power's terms," she went on. "He placed large sums of money in Fink's hands to run the theatre. There was a wonderful opening. You were not interested then or you might have heard of it. I produced a new play of Clyde Fitch's. It was a great triumph. The house was packed. Sylvanus Power sat in his box. It was to be his night. Through it all I fought like a woman in a nightmare. I didn't know what it meant. I knew hundreds of women who had done in a small way what I was prepared to do magnificently. In all my acquaintance I think that I scarcely knew one who would have refused to do what I was doing. And all the time I was in a state of fierce revolt. I had moments when my life's ambitions, when New York itself, the Mecca of my dreams, and that marvellous theatre, with its marble and silk, seemed suddenly to dwindle to a miserable, contemptible little doll's house. And then again I played, and I felt my soul as I played, and the old dreams swept over me, and I said that it wasn't anything to do with personal vanity that made me crave for the big gifts of success; that it was my art, and that I must find myself in my art or die."
The blood was flowing in his veins again. She was coming back to him. He was ashamed--he with his giant load of sin! His voice trembled with tenderness.
"Go on," he begged.
"I think that the reason I played that night as though I were inspired was because of the great passionate craving at my heart for forgetfulness, to shut out the memory of that man who sat almost gloomily alone in his box, waiting. And then, after it was all over, the wonder and the glory of it, he appeared suddenly in my dressing-room, elbowing his way through excited journalists, kicking bouquets of flowers from his path. We stood for a moment face to face. He came nearer. I shrank away. I was terrified! He looked at me in cold surprise.
"'Three minutes,' he exclaimed, 'to say good-by. I'm off to China. Stick at it. You've done well for a start, but remember a New York audience wants holding. Choose your plays carefully. Trust Fink.'
"'You're going away?' I almost shrieked.
"He glanced at his watch, leaned over, and kissed me on the forehead.
"'I'll barely make that boat,' he muttered, and rushed out."...
Philip was breathless. The strange, untold passion of the whole thing was coming to him in waves of wonderful suggestion.
"Finish!" he cried impatiently. "Finish!"
"That is the end," she said. "I played for two years and a half, with scarcely a pause. Then I came to Europe for a rest and travelled back with you on the Elletania. Last night I saw Sylvanus Power again for the first time. Don't speak. My story is in two halves. That is the first. The second is just one question. That will come before we reach home...John!" she called.
The man approached promptly--he was quite weary of throwing stones.
"Take us somewhere to lunch," his mistress directed, "and get back to New York at six o'clock."
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