- CHAPTER XVI A FINAL REHEARSAL
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A FINAL REHEARSAL
MISS SAPIO'S little drawing-room was turned into the stage of a private theatre.
The rugs were rolled into a heap outside the door. The piano was pushed against the windows and surrounded by chairs, stools and ornaments. All the electric lights were turned on, and the members of the audience were packed together as closely as possible in one corner of the room.
It was the final rehearsal of the pantomimic sketch which Hewett Addison had written for Euphrosyne.
Miss Sapio, most energetic of amateur agents, had been fortunate enough to obtain a trial performance—trial turn as it is called—at one of the principal West End music-halls, and this rehearsal was taking place a couple of days before that eventful day.
The composer of the music, a shy, talented young man in spectacles, sat at the piano to accompany, looking for directions to his friend Addison. Little Gus, Miss Sapio and Mr Quizzical Quilter were all squeezed together on a small sofa.
Standing behind them, mildly annoyed at this unexpected disarrangement of the usually comfortable room, stood Walter Race, the handsome young man who had got into the habit of wasting so much of his time in Miss Sapio's house.
Having been spending Christmas at a country house, he had not met Phosie or Little Gus during the two months which had elapsed since they left The Stroll.
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It must be confessed that Gus, to whom he had just been introduced, was not in a condition to make a very good impression, having a very bad cold in his head, and wearing, plainly visible above his collar, a red flannel bandage round his throat. Walter Race wondered how such a mean-looking, unattractive little fellow came to possess the name of Stewart-Cromwell. He imagined, although no one had actually said so, that the dancer was Gus's sister, and that belief did not increase his anxiety to see her.
Miss Sapio, wearing one of her amazingly brilliant tea-gowns, had an arm locked in Gus's and the other in Mr Quilter's, perhaps to keep them from slipping off the little sofa. Hewett looked grave, but unusually well pleased with himself, for the playlet satisfied him.
Quizzy, puffing a cigar, enlivened the proceedings and jocose remarks addressed to an imaginary orchestra, with an occasional ear-splitting whistle supposed to come from the gallery.
"I suppose we're all ready to begin, Hughie?" said Miss Sapio.
"'Ear! 'ear! Ring up, my boy!" put in Mr Quilter.
"Then perhaps you'll play the overture, Tailing?" said Hewett to the composer.
"Clear, please!" shouted Quizzy, in imitation of a stage manager before the curtain rises. "Progrums, one penny each! Refreshments, gentlemen? Nice, cool glass o' beer—book o' the words!"
"Order! Order!" said Miss Sapio, playfully threatening to push her neighbour off the end of the sofa.
"Beg your puddin'! Mum's the word!" said Quizzy.
The composer ran his strong, sensitive ringers over the keys before he began. The little overture was melodious and haunting. Miss Sapio smiled approval at Addison, and Race enjoyed himself for the first time
140 A SPIRIT OF MIRTHsince he entered the house that afternoon. Quizzy closed his eyes and beat time with one hand, wagging his head from side to side.
As the composer struck the last cord Addison clapped his hands and Euphrosyne entered.
The scheme of the sketch was as light as thistledown, for it dealt with the adventures of a banished fairy, alone by moonlight in the garden of a mortal.
All the stage accessories were necessarily absent—the moon, the owl, the bat, the flowers—but Addison had described them before she began, and the fairy herself was a fairy in mufti, half a fairy and half a girl.
Her grass-green frock was of silk chiffon, a sparkling girdle clasped her supple waist, her little satin shoes were tied round the ankles with silver cord, her wreath of flowers had not been sent home from the costumier's, and her hair, instead of floating free, was closely twisted into a thick plait.
Her cheeks were flushed with excitement, and her eyes sought Addison as she tripped into the room. Tailing played an alluring waltz, and Phosie, with outspread arms, danced her first dance with exact and finished skill on the tips of her toes.
Addison was rewarded for the hours he had spent in teaching her, but he realized that the charm in all she did depended on her own personality. The idea, the steps, the gestures were his, but the peculiar joyousness of her beauty—an evasive, expressive beauty not only in face, but in figure—turned his little sketch into a masterpiece.
Fleet was the word to describe her. She moved as quickly as a bird skimming over water, as lightly as a leaf blown before the wind, as gaily as a bubble floating on the air.
141 A FINAL REHEARSALseemed to be fascinated by the dancer's little feet, on which they kept their eyes fixed.
Walter Race, stooping forward, watched her with absolute delight. He was not the man ever to forget himself in his surroundings, but Phosie's dance affected him in a most strange and unexpected way.
He was bewitched, and the habit of mind that made him critical of everything he saw or heard gave place to the admiration of a boy, intense and absorbing.
He could have looked at her for hours. The effect upon him was that of a dream which comes to a man when he is only half asleep, held and controlled by semiconscious effort, but embodying at the same time a fancy too delicate and bright for awakened reason. Beautiful ideas of his youth, long hidden in the darkness of the common days, flashed before him. He re-lived many hours in a few minutes, and they were the hours of lost illusions, when the world was lovely and love was in the world.
The dance ended, and Walter's dream was over. He saw Euphrosyne for what she was—a pretty girl, an amazingly pretty girl, with a laugh which seemed to echo some forgotten laugh of his childhood. No! Not a laugh at all, but the ripple of a foamy stream where he had played with his brothers, or the lilt of an old song without words, or a magic chime ringing in the harebells.
Walter smiled and pulled himself together. Away with such silly thoughts! He heartily joined in the loud applause, led by Quizzy, who shouted "Bravo! " in a voice which raised the roof.
Euphrosyne was enfolded in one of Miss Sapio's smothering embraces, and emerged with ruffled hair. Addison shook hands, and Walter, without waiting for an introduction, did the same.
142 A SPIRIT OF MIRTHdelicious! He thought she was a nymph, a Dresden china shepherdess! Were there ever such sweet lips and sparkling eyes? He felt as if he wanted to get her away from all these coarse people—just wrap her up in tissue paper and carry her home in his pocket.
Mr Quizzical Quilter, not to be outdone in gallantry by the younger men, knelt on one knee and kissed Phosie's hand, to which she submitted with a good grace, afterwards assisting the old gentleman to get up again.
"I think we shall make a hit," said Addison.
"Oh, I'm dead certain of it, Hughie!" cried Miss Sapio.
"Quite right, my dear!" agreed Quizzy, solemnly. "You can take the word of an old ' pro,' you've got a winner."
Little Gus's pleasure was expressed in murmurs and laudable attempts to suppress his sniffing.
Walter did not join in the animated talk which followed, but Phosie was none the less aware of the fact that he was looking at her. Directly there was an opportunity she spoke to him. He thought her frank, friendly little act of boldness the most captivating thing in the world.
"We have seen each other before," she said, nodding wisely.
"Impossible!" he replied. "I should never have forgotten you."
"You were in a hansom, delayed by a block in the traffic at Piccadilly Circus. I was on the edge of the pavement with two friends," said Phosie, decisively. "Your cab nearly ran over me. I jumped backwards laughing, and you heard me. Don't you remember now?"
"Of course I do!" he exclaimed. "It was last autumn. Of course I remember all about it. I had been walking across Regent's Park with a man named Wainwright."
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"What's become of Wainwright?" put in Addison, catching the name. "I haven't seen him for a century."
"He is stopping at my brother's place in Suffolk," answered Race. "I got him a commission to paint my brother and his wife. Poor old Wainwright! He has to work too hard. Do you know Mrs W.?"
"I have never met her," said Addison.
"A most undecorative lady," continued Race. "Of course other men's marriages are generally mysteries, but I would defy anybody to solve Wainwright's."
"What's the woman like?" asked Miss Sapio.
"Wainwright's mother!" said Race. "I don't mean in appearance, for I believe his mother is only of normal plainness, but in age. The kind of person whose sentiments do equal credit to her head and her heart. I think she married Wainwright when he was very young and has slaved for him ever since. He is apparently devoted to her. I never pretend to understand an artist—you think I'm ill-natured?"
His speech ended in this abrupt question to Phosie. He had suddenly met her eyes fixed on his face.
"Perhaps, a little," she replied diffidently. "But of course this lady is not a friend of yours. One doesn't speak like that about one's friends."
She stopped and blushed. What right had she to criticise, for a moment, anything he said? It was good of him to notice her at all. Race made a little bow. She had unintentionally given him the snub he deserved, for Mrs Wainwright had proved herself his friend by years of generous hospitality.
It amused him to see how attentively Phosie listened to her friend, Miss Sapio's, instructions. Was she very simple, he wondered, or very deep? The desire to get her to himself, to talk to her and hear her laugh, grew stronger every minute.
144 A SPIRIT OF MIRTHto work, and was longing to handle it and find out how it was made.
At Miss Sapio's suggestion the young men re-arranged the drawing-room, and then she rang for tea. Hewett Addison made up the fire, and they all drew their chairs close, Phosie sitting on a low stool beside their hostess.
Walter Race lounged on the sofa, in shadow, where he could look at her unobserved. Little Gus, who never talked to strangers, perched himself uncomfortably on the music-stool, now and again slipping his elbow down on the keys, to the great annoyance of Tailing, the composer.
"You must excuse me joining in the cup that cheers without inebriating, Flo," said Quizzy. "I find that tea upsets my nerves—never touch it by doctor's orders—over the left!"
So he took whisky-and-soda instead.
Addison and Miss Sapio were the principal talkers, Phosie putting in a word here and there, and always ready with her laugh of appreciation at the smallest of jokes. Walter thought she was a clever little flatterer, for he did not believe her simple pleasure could be genuine.
The flickering, red glow of the fire lent a peculiar charm to her face and figure. It made them both indefinite. It was like a tantalising veil wrapped round a fairy, now displaying, now concealing, the lines of beauty lost in shadow.
One of her feet was thrust forward to the fender, and, as she still wore her heelless dancing shoes, Walter could see what a pretty foot it was; the foot of a dancer, strong, springy, well-shaped. A foolish desire, impossible to gratify, came into his mind. He wanted to lay his hand upon the ground, palm upwards, and ask the girl to rest her foot upon it, just to see whether his long fingers would meet above the high instep.
145 A FINAL REHEARSALidea would shock her primness—no! that was equally absurd. There was no primness about Phosie.
He had not been so bewitched with a girl since—Rosalind?—Lucy?—for the life of him Walter could not remember which was the last of his lights-o'-love.
When Addison at last left off drinking tea and Little Gus had devoured all the macaroons, Phosie rose from her low seat and said she must go home. Miss Sapio did not ask her to stop to dinner. In fact, she did not invite any of her visitors to delay their departure, except Addison, and her invitation to him was conveyed in a lift of the eyebrows and a questioning smile. He accepted with a grave nod.
Phosie went upstairs to change her shoes. The men were left alone for a minute.
"What do you say to my discovery?" asked Addison, leaning his back against the mantelpiece and looking curiously at Walter and the old clown.
"Sweet, my boy!" exclaimed Quizzy, positively hissing the word. "Sweet! Prettiest little bit o' frock I've seen for years. Little bit of all right! Talk about ankles! They look as if you could snap 'em between your finger and thumb. Talk about eyelashes! If once a man got tangled up in 'em he'd never want to get out again. Talk about—"
"She's charming, Hughie," interrupted Race, who felt sure that Mr Quilter's compliments would sooner or later give him offence. "I congratulate you. Your sketch is a gem."
"The setting for a gem, you mean," said Addison.
"Where does she come from?" asked Race, ignoring the ruffled Quizzy. "How did you get to know her?"
"She's an old friend of Flo's," replied Addison, "an orphan girl, living all by herself in rooms—at least, not quite by herself, for she seems to have adopted that fellow who has just gone downstairs. I don't quite
146 A SPIRIT OF MIRTHunderstand the situation. She treats him like a brother, but they are not related."
"Is he quite right?" asked Walter, tapping his forehead.
"Oh, I think so," said Addison. "Something of a simpleton, you know, but a very good-tempered, harmless simpleton."
At that minute Miss Sapio and Phosie returned. The girl was simply, even poorly, dressed, with a bunch of red berries in her small black hat and a bright red worsted muffler round her neck. They were the only touches of colour she could afford to brighten the sombre look of her serviceable clothes.
The whole party went down into the slip of a hall. Miss Sapio, according to custom, kissed Phosie many times and implored her not to think about being nervous at the coming début. Addison gave her the same advice in less florid language.
"I'm going to hoof it towards my club," announced Quizzy, having struggled into an ulster of huge checks, put on his hat before the mirror in the hat-stand, and lighted his cigar. "Anybody who wants the pleasure of my company is welcome to have it. Don't all speak at once."
Phosie intimated that she and Gus were going in the opposite direction, and Race did not say anything, so Tailing, the composer, found himself walking down the street beside the atrocious check ulster. His friends looked after him with smiling faces.
"You could play checkers on dear old Quizzy's back," observed Miss Sapio.
"Tailing makes himself a martyr to civility," said Walter Race.
He followed Phosie and Gus down the steps, turned to lift his hat to Miss Sapio, and coolly walked away beside the girl.
There was a minute's silence.
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"Shall we walk home, Gus?" she said suddenly, turning her face from the too eager gaze bent upon it from her other side.
"I dunno," said Gus, with his usual vagueness. "Just as you like."
"Don't you think it is a very long way to walk?" said Walter Race, gravely.
She did not fall into his little trap, but looked up at him with laughing eyes.
"How do you know it is a long way, Mr Race?"
He tried not to laugh. Little Gus, unconscious of his ignorance, enlightened him.
"We live at No. 5 Belton Terrace, turning off Park Road, it's handy to everywhere and you can't miss it if you follow the Baker Street 'buses," he said, repeating their landlady's formula.
"Well, Belton Terrace is too far for you to walk, I'm sure," said Race, promptly, to the girl. "Let us get a cab."
"Oh, no, we'll go by this," said Phosie, decisively, signalling as she spoke to the driver of a passing omnibus.
"Outside only!" cried the conductor, beckoning them forward.
They climbed aloft. Phosie twisted her muffler more warmly round her neck and told Gus to put up his collar. Race sat behind them, and, leaning forward with his arms folded on the back of their seat, he was close to the glowing cheek of the girl, and could see that her dark eyelashes were long enough to curve upward like the petals of a tiny flower. He recollected Quizzy's foolish words: "If once a man got tangled up in them he'd never want to get out again."
They chattered gaily about her dance—Miss Sapio's kindness—Tailing's music—London crowds—Christmas—Walter hardly knew what was said. He paid as little attention to her words as to his own, for he felt instinct-
148 A SPIRIT OF MIRTHively that Phosie shared the subtle delight of the fleeting minutes.
It was little Gus, the only member of the party who seemed aware of the cutting wind and passing of time, who stopped the omnibus at Belton Terrace.
"Are we there already?" exclaimed the girl, ingenuously, as she rose to her feet.
"Alas! So soon!" said Race.
Belton Terrace was a narrow, rather sombre street. It looked very mean and poor to the young man, to whom the word London conveyed the idea of the principal roads in the West End. Phosie glanced at him, guessing his thoughts.
"I'm afraid Belton Terrace has seen its best days," she said with a smile. "Perhaps you would rather not venture as far as No. 5?"
"On the contrary, I long to discover No. 5," said Race, smiling too.
The street was deserted, except for the solitary figure of a melancholy man with a bell in his hand, which he tinkled feebly as he walked along, occasionally stopping to look up at the windows of the houses. On his head he carried a tray, covered with a bit of green baize.
"That is our muffin man," said Phosie, in reply to Walter's question about the tinkling bell. "Surely you have seen a muffin man before to-day?"
"No, I don't believe I have," said Race. "Does he spend his whole life ringing a bell and trying to sell his wares?"
"Only in the winter," she replied. "I expect he makes the muffins during the summer and keeps them stored up. They're always very delicious, but rather leathery. Here's the key, Gus dear. Mr Race, will you come in?"
Walter accepted the invitation as frankly as it was given. He had made up his mind to go in, but hardly dared to hope it could be managed so easily.
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No. 5 was a particularly dull little house, with long lace curtains hanging limply at the windows, a milk-can on the top step, and two cats engaged in the first stages of a lengthy dispute in the area.
"It is only right to inform our distinguished visitor that this is not our individual milk-can," said Phosie, seriously. "Also, those are not our cats. Our apartments—a most elegant suite, as you will see—are on the top floor, and we have nothing to do with the other lodgers. We look down on them figuratively, and they look down on us literally. Mr Race will understand these social distinctions have to be preserved if he has any experience of lodgings. But perhaps his area is all his own and he is undisputed lord of his milk-cans and his cats."
"You ridiculous girl!" exclaimed Walter.
Gus, after much fumbling, opened the door and closed it again behind him. The passage was close and dark, the only furniture being a very dusty, lop-sided umbrella and hat-stand, and a dead fern in a blue pot.
"Run upstairs and light the gas, will you, Gus?" said the girl. "Keep against the wall as you ascend to the elegant suite, Mr Race, the stairs in these stately homes of England being dangerous at the corners."
Gus obeyed Phosie and disappeared into the darkness above, slowly followed by the other two.
Walter Race abominated bad air, and, to add to his momentary disgust, he stumbled over a frayed mat at the top of the first flight, rapping his shin bone smartly against the banisters.
"Oh, have you hurt yourself?" cried Phosie. "I'm so sorry."
She stopped and put out her hand impulsively.
"Let me guide you!" she said.
Walter reached up and took her hand. He felt how strong and warm it was through the woollen glove.
150 A SPIRIT OF MIRTHchildishly amused by the need of groping their way. It was music in his ears. The prettiest laugh in the world.
He held her hand in a close grasp and followed her lightly and merrily up the stairs.
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