Part 7 out of 7
keen to learn and to work. But I can't. I'm in honour bound to appear
to-night. You see, it's our second century--the first one we could not
observe, because it came at the end of January just in the general
mourning--so there's an awful to-do and tomasha to-night, souvenir
programmes and I don't know what all, also a rather extra special
audience. It would be little too bad if I played them false. But," she
added, rising, "when it's over I shall come back--yes, I will, I will, I
tell you. Don't flatter yourself you can prevent me, beloved lunatic, for
you jolly well can't.--I shall come back directly the performance is over,
and watch with you, through the bad hours till the dawn."
Dominic Iglesias had risen, too. He crossed the room, going to the door
and holding it open for her; then, standing on the little landing, he
watched her as she went down the narrow crooked stairs. And so doing, it
came to him, with a movement of thankfulness and of satisfied pride, how
very fully in the past six months the Lady of the Windswept Dust had
realised and fulfilled all the finer promise of her complex nature. Just
as her figure had matured, retaining its admirable proportions and
suppleness while gaining in distinction and dignity, her mind had matured
likewise. Her splendid fearlessness was no longer that of naughty
dare-devil audacity, but of secure position and recognised success.
Indeed, she had grown into a somewhat imperial creature, for whom the
world, and rightly, is very willing to make place.
At the bottom of the flight Poppy paused, looking up and kissing her hand.
"Till to-night," she cried. "Now I go to herd those two small miseries,
W. O. and Cappadocia.--Take most precious care of yourself until I come
back, dear man. Good-bye and God keep you, till to-night."
Mr. Iglesias crossed the drawing-room, glad at heart, erect and stately as
in the fulness of health. For a minute or so he stood looking out into the
garden, at the stone basin full to the lip--in which the sparrows,
relieved of the presence of the toy spaniels, washed with much fluttering
of sooty wings--and at the spring flowers, beginning to close their
delicate blossoms as the sun declined towards its setting in the gold and
grey of the west. In the recovered stillness, those same spiritual
presences, rare apprehensions, exquisite memories, mysterious invitations,
once again obtained possession, coming forth, passing lightly to and fro,
filling all the place. In aspect and sentiment they were benign, all
fearfulness having gone from out them--they telling of fair things only,
of human relations unbroken by treachery or self-seeking, unsullied by
lust; telling, too, of godly endeavour faithfully to travel the road which
leads to the far horizon touched by the illimitable glory of the Uncreated
But presently Dominic Iglesias became aware that he was very, very tired.
He sat down in the chair again.
"Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy," he murmured, crossing himself. "I
think the day's work is over. I will sleep."
That night Poppy St. John played as she had never played before; and her
audience, taking her astonishing manifestation of talent as a compliment
to themselves, cried with her and laughed with her in most wholehearted
Antony Hammond, in the stage box on the right, turned to Adolphus Carr,
his companion, saying:
"Did I really write such admirable drama as this? I have girded at that
term, 'creating a part,' as an example of the colossal vanity of the
actor, and his very inadequate reverence for his maker, the playwright.
But, I give you my word, after to-night I hide my diminished head. The
player and playing are greater than any fondest conception of mine, when I
put those words on paper."
And Lionel Gordon, his habitual imperturbability altogether broken up by
excitement, stamped up and down stammering:
"Ge-ge-hanna, gehanna, what possesses the woman? I'd tour creation with
her. She must be made to sign a three years' contract. If she can act like
this there's nothing less than a cool half-million sterling in her."
And Alaric Barking, lean and haggard, invalided home from South Africa,
escaping for one evening from the ministrations of gentle Lady Constance
Decies and his pretty _fiancee_, sat huddled together at the end of a
row at the back of the pit, hoping, "The deuce! nobody would see him,"
with a choke in his throat. He would love, honour, and cherish his pretty,
high-bred, innocent maiden; but Poppy's voice tore at his very vitals. And
he asked himself how had he ever borne to give her up, forgetting, as is
the habit of civilised man in such slightly humiliating circumstances,
that it was Poppy herself, not he, who loved and rode away.
Twice the curtain was raised at the end of the performance, and the Lady
of the Windswept Dust made her bow with the rest of the company.--Now she
could depart; thank heaven! she could go back to the strangely still
house in Holland Street and fulfil her promise to Dominic Iglesias to
watch with him till dawn. All through the play, the passion and excitement
and pathos and mirth of it, her anxiety had deepened, her yearning
increased, so that the joy of her public triumph was barred and seared
by intimate pain. Now she could go. Already the carpenters were beginning
their nightly work of destruction, metamorphosing the so-lately brilliant
stage into a vast unsightly cavern of gaunt timbers, creaking pulleys,
noisy mechanical contrivances, gaudy painted surfaces of canvas and paper,
piled-up properties, of uncertain lights and draughts many and chill.
Careless of all save that determination of going, Poppy moved away. But
still the unseen audience clamoured. A fury had taken it, a madness such
as will sometimes attack even the soberest and most aristocratic crowd,
excitement reacting upon itself and stimulating excitement, till the
demand which had begun in kindly enthusiasm became oddly violent, even
brutal, men and women standing up, applauding, drumming, shouting a single
"There, it's over, thank the powers! Now let me get out of all this
infernal din," she said, putting her hands over her ears as she pushed
into the wings.
But Lionel Gordon met her, barring her passage, his face working with
nervous agitation, and caught hold of her unceremoniously by both arms.
"What's the matter?" she cried angrily. "I can't stay. I have a case of
illness on hand."
"Hang illness!" he answered. "My good girl, pull yourself together. Go
back. Don't be a blooming fool. Listen--it's you they're splitting their
throats for--yes, you--about the most fastidious audience in Europe
yelling like a pack of drunken bookies! Gehenna! you're the luckiest woman
living. You're made, great heavens, you're made!"
He dragged her aside, pushing her into the mouth of the narrow passage
between the curtain and the footlights, where the roar of the house and
the welter of faces met her like a breaking wave.
* * * * *
Standing against the edge of the pavement in front of Mr. Iglesias' house,
in Holland Street, was a covered van. As Poppy drove up a couple of men
came down the steps, in the black and white of the moonlight. Their dark
clothing and somewhat sleek appearance were repulsive to her. She swept
past them, swept past Frederick holding open the door, and on up the
stairs. Her hands were encumbered by her trailing draperies of velvet and
silver tissue, and by an extravagant bouquet of orchids, lilies, and
roses, with long yellow satin streamers to it. She had not stayed even to
wash the grease paint off her face. Just as she was, the stamp of her
calling upon her, eager, fictitious, courageous, triumphant, pushed by a
great fear, she came. But in the doorway she faltered, set her teeth,
bowed her head, and paused.
For in the centre of the room a bier was dressed, and on either side of it
stood lighted tapers of brownish wax, in tall black and gold candlesticks.
At the foot, some distance apart, two low-seated rush-bottomed high-backed
_prie-dieu_ had been placed. Upon the one on the left a little nun
knelt, her loose black habit concealing all the outline of her figure. The
white linen pall was turned back, across the chest of the corpse, to where
the shapely long-fingered hands were folded upon an ebony and silver
crucifix. By some harsh irony of imagination Lionel Gordon's voice rang in
Poppy's ears: "My good girl, pull yourself together. Gehenna! you're the
luckiest woman living. You're made, great heavens, you're made!"--while,
blank despair in her heart, she went forward, the little nun looking up
momentarily from her prayers, and stood beside the bier. Beautiful in
death as in life, serene, proud, austere, but young now with the eternal
youth of those who have believed, and attained, and reached the Land of
the Far Horizon, Dominic Iglesias lay before her.
Presently a sound of sobbing broke up the stillness, and turning, Poppy
descried good George Lovegrove, sitting in the dusky far corner of the
room, his knees wide apart, his shiny forehead showing high above the
handkerchief he pressed against his eyes. She backed away from the corpse,
as in all reverence from the presence of a personage august and sacred.
Coming close to him, she laid her hand gently upon George Lovegrove's
shoulder. "Go home, my best beetle," she said, very tenderly. "You're worn
out with sorrow. Come back in the morning if you will. I promised Dominic
I would watch with him till the dawn. I keep my promise."
Then the Lady of the Windswept Dust laid her extravagant bouquet with its
yellow streamers, on the floor, at the foot of the bier; and kneeling upon
the vacant _prie-dieu_, beside the little nun, buried her painted
face in her hands and wept.