Out of the Past
By Agnes Boulton Burton
The maid opened the door, and, seeing that it was Lord Eastly who had knocked, she admitted him and went back to her chair in the corner, where she had been mending some delicate garment.
The young man sat down on a brocaded sofa, over the end of which was flung a chiffon negligee, embroidered with pink butterflies. The small room had an atmosphere of pinkness, chiffon, and perfume. On the dressing table were the little singer's make-up articles, carelessly mingled with a gold and tortoise shell set that he had given her and a pile of letters that had been opened and thrust back into their envelopes.
The mirror that so often reflected her youthful face had come from Venice where he had bought it for her because the gilt matched her hair. She had made it the motif in her dressing room and before its oval frame she had received the greatest men in London.
In that mirror his lordship could see himself sitting on the end of the sofa, smoking a cigarette, Tall, well made, and only twenty-five, he had the high nose, the finely-cut mouth and all the pride of his race. His evening clothes, his graceful hands, his languid manner, were suggestive of great drawing rooms.
Women had flattered him and he had had a number of love affairs when he met Alice Langdon. He had fallen in love with her, and after two years he could not find any lessening of the happiness given him by this slender girl of twenty-two.
She had returned his affection ardently. Due to his help and her own personal charm she had become known during the last two years as the prettiest woman in musical comedy.
Lord Eastly mused on the happiness of their friendship as he sat there waiting for her.
Suddenly through the thin walls came a sound as of dry leaves being stirred by the winds of autumn and he knew that Alice was receiving her farewell ovation. This was her last night of the season. Now for a while he would no longer have to share her. They would go away somewhere on his yacht. . . The tenderness that this thought gave him was alien to his British emotions; he felt rather embarrassed and nervously threw away his cigarette.
At this moment she appeared at the door, holding in her arms the flowers she had received. She was dressed in the low round neck, the puffed sleeves and the full skirt of twenty years ago. Her eyes and her figure would have caught attention anywhere. Her golden hair had the loose softness of a child's and there was something child-like in her manner of holding the flowers.
"Cecil!" He had risen swiftly and she looked up into his eyes, "Take my posies. I m so tired!"
While the maid was arranging her tributes, she sat before the dressing table removing her makeup. Lord Eastly watched her eagerly. She usually chattered gaily but to-night she was very silent. He loved to hear her talk; little jolly remarks always amused him.
Then he noticed that she was not even smiling. When he last of her was off she turned to him with a wistful little twist of her lips unconscious, evidently, of how futile a smile it was. She was looking very tired. There was an odd hollowness about her eyes and her mouth appeared pinched.
"You may go, Emma," she said to the maid. "I'll manage by myself."
The maid hesitated, looked at her, then with a murmured acquiescence began putting on her hat and coat.
Lord Eastly said quickly.
"Alice, you look very tired. Hadn't Emma better—"
She gave him such a decided look, accompanied by a slight shake of her head, that he became immediately silent.
When the maid had gone he took her round bare arm and pulled her to his knees, kissing her cheek.
"My sweetheart! You do look a bit fagged, dearie."
"I am." She closed her eyes and put her face against his coat. "So tired, Cecil!"
Her voice ended with something that sounded like a low sob and Lord Eastly said quickly, patting her bare shoulder,
"We'll be off to-morrow if you say so, dear. The sea air will do you good. You have been working too hard."
Suddenly she sat up and he could feel the tenseness of her shoulders. There was something hysterical in her attitude.
"I don't know that I'm going with you, Cecil."
"Alice—you're too tired—"
"I don't know that I'm going with you on the Siren."
He was aware of the hysteria behind her voice.
"What's the matter with you, Alice?"
"Nothing—I'm tired—I'm ill."
He tried to soothe her.
"You must go to bed early to-night, dear. A sleep will do you good. And to-morrow we will go aboard and—"
"I can't go."
Suddenly her voice quickened and she leaned against him again. "Oh, Cecil, you do care for me, don't you? You do, don't you?"
He was amazed at her this evening. He embraced her tenderly, kissing the back of her neck.
"Of course, dearest! How absurd you are."
"Well, then—then—" Her voice began to shake and she lifted a white troubled face to him.
"Then what, Alice? How else can I show it?" He spoke very tenderly.
"Why—why don't you marry me?" The words rushed out, as though she had taken a bitter potion in uttering them.
Lord Eastly did not move for a moment. When he spoke his voice had hardened a little, because he was annoyed.
"Alice, you know very well—"
"I know what?" She was sitting tensely again. "I know all about your title and your family and your mother—yes! I know that you think more of your family—"
"It is quite impossible—"
"Because I was a chorus girl! Earls have married chorus girls. I—I—you know that I'm straight with you. You know it. And I want you to marry me, Cecil. I've never asked you before, but I want you to now. I want you to prove you love me. I just can't stand it the other way any more. I just can't."
His lordship answered her in a light, comforting tone.
"Don't be silly, Alice. You know I love you, dear. I love you more than I've loved any other woman. I could never care for anyone as I care for you. Remember that. You're just nervous, dear." His voice had grown very tender and he put his arms tightly about her shoulders. He felt assured that this was only an attack of nerves, due perhaps to working too hard. She would get over it and to-morrow they would be happier than ever. As for marrying her—if it had not been for his title and his family estates, he would have married her at once. But the Eastlys had never yet married out of the aristocracy. . . .
"I know you love me," she persisted. "But I—I want you to marry me, Cecil. You ought to love me enough to do that. .If you don't care enough for me for that, why then—"
He let his arms fall from her shoulders.
"I—I won't see you any more."
"Is that so?" He had always hated to be threatened. He resented the new, uncompromising attitude that she was taking.
"Yes. If you won't say now that we can be, I want you to go."
"We simply can't be married, Alice."
She slipped off his lap. Her small pale face, overhung by her soft hair, turned away from him determinedly.
"Please—please go then."
"You mean it?" He had paled. "You want me to go now?"
"I do—unless—unless—" She turned back to him. There was a smooth glittering hardness in her eyes. Her mouth was held in a tense line. He did not know her. His quick temper was aroused.
"I told you it was impossible—so good night, as you seem to want it that way!" He stepped to the door, hesitated, and then closed it after him.
Five minutes later he came back, repentant, and tried to open it. It was locked on the inside. He knocked and waited. There was no answer. Angrily he turned away and left the theatre.
The gnarled cedars, bathed in moonlight, cast great black shadows across the road. The man who walked slowly along the white, deserted avenue felt keenly the charm of the hour and the place. He threw away his cigar and stood still, looking out over the glistening waters of the bay. The moonlight touched his graying hair and softened his distinguished, cleanly cut features. Lord Eastly was forty-five, but he had not forgotten how to appreciate the sentiment of a night like this.
On the silent, perfumed air drifted a clear sweet voice, singing softly. The air was vaguely familiar to him, yet he did not recognize the song, until at the refrain the words came more clearly:
It was sung softly, without any emotion, and yet each sentence hurt him.
It was no time to remember—to-night! He laughed bitterly. Then, with an actual pain in his throat, he thought that by this time she would be a girl no longer, but a woman of nearly his own years. The thought filled him with sadness and he began to walk up the road again, knowing that he must get out of this mood before long, before he kept his appointment.
The voice had ceased, but from the shade of one of the cedars it rose again. He paused. A girl was standing close to the great gnarled trunk, her back toward him, leaning over the broad white wall that terraced the road up from the bay.
She was singing again the old refrain:
He did not move, charmed by her voice; but in the midst of her refrain, seeing him, she gave a little scream.
"I beg your pardon. I did not mean to frighten you," said Lord Eastly in his gentlest manner. In spite of the shadow in which she stood he could see that she was hardly more than a child, with long curls tied at the back of her neck, and a simple, short gown.
"Oh! I—I was silly to scream."
She remained looking toward him, as though she expected him to answer her instead of passing on and he could see her eyes shining like two little stars. It occurred to him that with the negroes and the militia on the island it was rather dangerous for her alone on this white road on the outskirts of the sleepy town.
"Forgive me for listening," he said. "Your song and your voice brought back old memories."
Evidently she was not opposed to a moonlight flirtation. She laughed lightly and stepped into the white moonlight.
"Isn't it wonderful out here?"
A small, piquant face was raised to his and he felt a strange stir at the beauty of this child. She smiled; even in the moonlight he could see a dimple in her cheek. She was very lovely.
"Yes. But you shouldn't be here alone. Don't you know it's dangerous?"
"I waited to see this lovely night way out here. Everyone at the hotel is playing whist or something. I ran away. You can't understand the moonlight when there are so many people about."
"Do you understand it now?" asked Lord Eastly softly. He felt touched by the confidence of this young girl.
"I think I do—a little, anyway."
"And you don't care if I stop and talk to you."
"I don't mind."
He stepped beside her to the low white wall, glancing at his watch. It was a quarter to ten. He looked up the road reflectively.
"Would you let anyone stop here to talk to you," he asked her curiously. "Just because it is moonlight?"
"No. I'm a good judge of character," she said naively. "As soon as I saw your face I knew you were all right you look so good and noble."
Lord Eastly gave a sudden short laugh.
"My dear child—" he began, and paused. He was embarrassed, thinking that the moonlight must make him look younger. He had never cared for young girls, and since his own youth he had known little of their charms, but this little creature touched him.
"I'm not such a child!" she protested. "I'm seventeen."
"No wonder you love the moonlight."
"There are boys I could get to walk over here with me," she went on emphatically. "Easy enough! But I just wanted to be alone somehow."
"Your people will be worried."
"Mamma's used to me."
"You are stopping at the hotel?"
He did not tell her that his yacht was anchored in the bay while he visited the Governor. Again the whimsical thought that he probably looked much younger than his actual age made him smile. Indeed, he felt oddly romantic and young, and he had to stifle an impulse to ask if he might call on her some afternoon.
"Now, I am going to ask you to do something for me, moonlight princess," he whispered. "Will you?"
She looked up at him, pleased.
"Let me take you to the ferry." He referred to the little boat that took passengers across the bay to the big white hotel. "It is really too late for you to be here alone."
"Well—I will. I was going very soon."
In the distance the red eye of the ferryboat could be seen, about to make a landing. The young girl chatted innocently, telling him of her childhood in the States and of her travels with her mother and father. Her pale golden hair glistened like silver in the moonlight and every time that she lifted her eyes to his Lord Eastly regretted his wasted years. He had tried hard to forget Alice, in brief amours and in some that he had thought might last, but which ended none too soon. . . And now this child was taking him back to the past again.
He left her in the ferry. They had not spoken of names, and, he reflected that this was better. He was hardly the companion for a young girl. Taking out his watch he glanced at it and frowned. He retraced his footsteps up the long white road across whose whiteness black shadows fell.
Beneath one of the big cedars he found the lady with whom he was keeping tryst—at ten o'clock.
"Cecil . . . you are late. Naughty boy!"
Two tiny useless hands, loaded with rings, caught the lapels of his coat, and a painted, provocative face was raised to his. Mrs. Arundel was thirty, the wife of an officer, and the mother of two boys, but she still used baby talk on occasions.
"Doin' to tis um?"
Lord Eastly turned his head away sharply. He did not quite understand his own emotions—and he had found Mrs. Arundel very attractive. She had pursued him with all the arts of her sex and, flattered, he had amused himself.
"I don't feel like kissing, Ella."
"Cecil!" The words seemed almost like a blow in her face. She blinked her eyes rapidly several times. "My dear, are you angry about something?"
She laughed sneeringly.
"What is it, a new flame or a new set of morals?"
He was silent.
"Really, Cecil, your mouth has that set expression peculiar to the too sincere clergy. Only! Go on."
"It strikes me this is a bit beastly to your husband."
He moved away from her and putting his bands in his pockets, biting at his under lip. This time her laughter was almost hilarious.
"If you are going to start considering injured husbands, past, present and future, your conscience is going to be busy!" she exclaimed.
He flushed. Even in the moonlight she could see the dark stain on his cheeks and temple. Her soft perfumed person came close to him again.
"Kiss me, nice, bad boy. Ah—Cecil!
He had pushed her away roughly, and she stood trembling, her tiny hands clenched.
"Well, I wish you'd leave me alone, Ella. I may be a—a cad, but really, for your husband's sake, I think we must cut this short. I saw him to-day." He paused. "I want you to let me take you home."
"Home!" She echoed him scornfully. "What is the matter with you, Cecil?"
"I am going to quit this game, Ella. I'm going to quit, that's all. You are a nice little woman, but we're doing a rotten thing. We haven't even got the excuse of love, Ella. It's just a dirty game. You'd as soon play it with the next fellow. Oh, I know. I know women too well. I've met a hundred like you. Life is like that! But Ella, I want to take you home."
"No!" She was blazing her outraged pride at him, her eyes steely, a thin line around her hard, little mouth. "I'm going to stay here! And you are going to stay with me. Do you hear? Do you think you can fool me like this, lie to me, pretend to me? You've broken up my home! What about the things you said to me? I have your letters! Why did you make love to me?"
"You made love to me, dear lady." He looked at her cynically. "Come now, you must admit it. Are you going to pretend you thought I was taking things seriously?
She began to cry.
"Of course I did! Of course!"
"And how was I to know I was honored by your serious attentions? There have been several . . ." He paused significantly.
"You beast! You cad!"
"Come, let me take you home, Mrs. Arundel."
"I won't go home! You don't mean what you are saying. What has happened? What has changed you?" she cried through her rather artificial sobs.
"You will catch cold, Ella. Come let me take you home."
"Do you think I can stay on this beastly island without any amusement? What real harm was there—is there—"
Lord Eastly stood patiently, listening to her voice and wondering how he could have ever found her attractive. Her American accent was breaking through its British veneer and he began to think that she was common as well as boresome. He repeated:
Her voice suddenly changed again. She became pleading.
"You are only teasing me, Cecil. You couldn't mean this. Let me kiss you. Let me kiss—"
He removed her arms carefully from his neck. She laughed shrilly.
"So you don't care for my kisses now? Well, Lord Eastly, you may leave me, please. No, I intend to linger here. Yes, quite alone."
"You'd better let me take you home."
She shrugged her shoulders angrily.
"No. You really begin to bore me you know.
Quite a charming little farce,
Lord Eastly hesitated, then he started off down
the road toward the village.
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