THE change of atmosphere at Carsholt began probably soon after Sir Mark’s discovery of the Roman cinerary urn that very morning, but the discordant element in the castle household was not noticeable until Lady Shute betrayed her jealousy with the remark: “It’s that interfering girl again! Why in the world should she go digging about the grounds like this?” Her eyes were questioning; her lips became very thin. “Above all, what possessed her to do it now?”
Her husband, the famous archæologist, a stern faced, elderly man, with an expression, evidently habitual, of great concentration yet aloofness, replied without looking up at first. The mouth was kindly, even tender, though it wore no smile at the moment. “Marjory is invaluable to me, you forget, dear; her memory, accuracy, insight—” he raised his eyes to his wife a moment. “Her knowledge of Roman things in particular is unusual. I often wish she had been with me in Crete and Egypt—”
He spoke soothingly, but the words were evidently the reverse of what his wife desired.
“Miss Trench,” came the sharp interruption, “was an excellent governess before you stole her from the children for your archæology. I don’t grudge you her invaluable services,” with a tiny sneer of disbelief. “You know that. It’s her taking up your time and attention at this particular moment that’s so annoying. The house full of guests, the Christmas Theatricals coming on to-night, the children helpless without her—for rehearsals, dresses, everything—and then she must needs go and dig up a buried antiquity in the Park, and carry you off, and—”
“I—not she—dug it up, Emily,” he corrected her, with a patient smile that secretly enraged her. He knew of her jealousy of his passionate work and, indirectly, of all concerned with it. “As a matter of fact, it was Tiger’s burrowing that did it. A mass of earth, softened by the rain, buried the dog; I went to extricate him—and there—think of it, Emily!—there was the stone work, leading to a cavity”—his eyes shone with the smile of an enthusiastic boy—“a stone cist! I put my hand in. An urn, a lead casket, a Roman burial-place beyond question not far away—”
“Mark, dear,” interrupted Lady Shute, her voice harsh yet pleading, as of one bearing a grievance nobly, “they had lain there several hundred years. It wouldn’t have hurt them to lie a few days longer, would it?”
The conversation was interrupted by a servant, and Sir Mark, outwardly apologetic, but inwardly glowing with his discovery, watched his wife disappear upon some urgent errand, then slowly made his way down a corridor to his study.
“We must be patient, Marjory, for another twenty-four hours or so,” he mentioned, on finding her waiting for him to examine the treasures they had brought into the house only a few hours before. “Once the performance is over, and the people gone, we can get to work again.” And he explained the situation in his blunt fashion, while the girl watched with eager, close attention his slightest word and gesture. The urn had not yet been thoroughly examined. Sir Mark now brought a movable electric lamp from another table. It was a moment of real life for the two delighted experts. The enthusiastic pair could contain themselves no longer.
“Still quite untouched,” said the girl, in a tone a devotee might have used about some holy relic. “How lucky that you found it, instead of some clumsy workman with the point of a pick!” With her experienced, clever fingers she began to clear away the earth and stains of mould that still clung to the entrancing object. Her voice almost trembled with excitement as she added in a quick whisper: “Look, Sir Mark, look!” She pointed. “There’s an inscription on it! I do believe—yes, there’s an inscription! Look!”
He lowered his grey head beside her own, and thrust the light against the beautifully curved side of the precious urn.
“Nephelé,” she whispered, making out the Greek letters before he did, “Nephelé—”
“The Dancer”—he deciphered the Latin words that followed. “Nephelé the Dancer,” he repeated, easily deciphering the full inscription, now that she had shown the way. “Nephelé the Dancer,” he repeated to himself.
He suddenly straightened up and stared hard at her. “Marjory!” he exclaimed, as though for the first time he realised her presence close beside him as a human being and not a secretary merely. “Marjory!”
She stared back at him, a light in her eyes that was not a reflection from the electric lamp he now held askew. “Nephelé the Dancer,” she replied, looking straight into his face, and standing upright, while her breath came quickly. “That means no ordinary slave girl, but probably a celebrated dancer—someone exceptional—”
“They took Greek names, yes—the best of them. It was the fashion, wasn’t it, in those days?” It seemed he asked her, as though he leant upon her special knowledge. The pair of them certainly were thrilled. Yet he was the great expert, she the assistant merely. He waited for her words, a curious look of expectancy in his eyes.
“A pure-bred Roman most likely!” she replied, after a moment’s pause. “The villa that stood here, remember, was the residence of the District Governor. We are reasonably sure of that. And he”—the sudden curious inflexion in her voice he did not notice, nor the bolder expression that flamed an instant in her usually veiled eyes—“and he would certainly have the best—the very best obtainable—wouldn’t he—?”
“No ordinary slave girl, no mere dancer, as you say”—his words went fumbling rather—“would have been buried in this careful, honoured way—that’s certain,” he agreed, regarding her with the first touch of personal, admiring wonder he had ever shown. “Marjory!” he exclaimed. again, “it’s wonderful—very, very wonderful!”
There fell a momentary pause between them that was broken by Sir Mark suddenly rubbing his hands with pleasure and excitement, as he summoned his thoughts back to the consideration of the present. He turned to fetch some other objects to the light, objects that only an expert could have recognised at all, so broken and fragmentary were they, for the small metal box containing them beside the urn had not been properly fastened, the damp had entered, and the result was little more than a discoloured dust.
“A tibia, evidently,” said Miss Trench, quietly; “this was once a little sweet-toned tibia, a flute of sorts you remember.” She took up the crumbled atoms with loving care, as a mother might have lifted the tiny offspring of her own flesh and blood. “And this,” she went on, half to herself, “quite possibly—I wonder?—might well have been a lyra that twanged the accompaniment to the dancing.”
“My dear!” exclaimed Sir Mark with keen interest, and yet keener surprise. “You may be right. How clever of you—”
“The merest guesswork,” replied the girl. “I may just as well be quite wrong, though somehow—I don’t think I am.” Her manner was intent, absorbed; he was as moved as she was. They handled and fingered the mysterious little things of dust and powdery wood, piecing them together again, as it were; making technical, expert comments; yet both stirred to their hearts by the human emotions that seemed still clinging about these pathetic symbols of ancient joy and gaiety.
“The casket! Now for the little casket!” exclaimed the archæologist, his eyes lighting up afresh. He glanced at his companion. “We will open it together, you and I—eh?” He went over quickly to another shelf, the girl so close on his heels that unconsciously she laid her hand upon his arm, and her shining face almost brushed his cheek as they bent down together, then carried back to the light a small, dull object that had lain for twenty centuries beside the urn—the leaden casket. “The chisel, Marjory! The cold chisel—quick—where is it?” But already her swift fingers had passed it to him, and she watched his deft movements as he gently prised up the lead all round the top.
“It overlapped, you see,” she remarked. “It was hammered down to the sides so as to form an air-tight joint all round. You can see the scallop-shell moulding too.”
“Admirable, admirable!” he murmured. “If only you had been with me years ago in Crete!”
“It’s the Roman things I’m best at,” replied the girl simply.
The opening of the casket was accomplished without damage, revealing inside a second box, whose lid threatened to crumble as they touched it. “Cedar wood,” said Miss Trench, “fastened with a leather thong.” The leather was in good preservation. They peered inside. Two flat, brownish objects lay at the bottom of the little cedar box that still exhaled a faint aroma of its original fragrance; and as Sir Mark, puzzled at first, lifted them out tenderly for examination, the emotion of the archæologist rose in him to a degree he had never experienced before, not even in his former Egyptian days of wonderful excavation and discovery. For a second his sight dimmed and became curiously blurred. “Footwear of some kind,” he muttered, “slippers probably, or—”
“Sandals,” came the low, clear voice at his ear, even before his own sentence was completed. “Her dancing sandals. Nephelé’s!”
Her employer turned and stared at her without a word for several seconds; then presently passed over to her, almost automatically, the precious remnants of the centuries. In spite of their great age, the sandals were still soft and pliable, the thongs that once bound them to the twinkling feet still serviceable.
“How neatly made and finished! How strong and flexible!” the girl said in a low voice, holding them to her eyes. “The leather—some imported hide, from Africa probably—gazelle, most likely. And what small feet she had—Nephelé. How marvellously light they are—feel them, Sir Mark—they seem almost alive. And her jewellery—some of her jewellery, too!”
The girl held in her hand a square piece of crystal attached to a fine gold chain. For a moment she hung it upon her dress, the gold chain touching the skin of her neck, the crystal swinging to and fro against her bosom. Very becoming to her was this ornament of the Roman dancing-girl of two thousand years ago. “It was in the bottom of the cedar box,” she explained in a slow, quiet voice, looking down admiringly at it. “Nephelé wore it, of course, when she danced. I feel—somehow—she loved dancing to this Roman Governor. She gave of her very best. I’m sure she danced divinely, and perhaps”—her voice sank away, fading curiously in volume—“she loved him—”
Her companion, examining the crystal and gold chain in his fingers, was not listening, apparently, to her fanciful description. “Of no great value,” he remarked, “of no particular value, but interesting all the same—extraordinarily interesting. One can see the whole thing,” he continued, half to himself, half to her, “the scene itself, the girl dancing, the great Roman looking on. One can hear the flutes, the twanging of the harps. It’s easily reconstructed, isn’t it? I wonder what she wore, and what he wore; what she felt, and what he felt? She must have been beautiful, yes, a beautiful dancer, of course, and, as you say, she may—”
The hoot and drone of arriving motors broke in upon his words; the sound of a dressing-gong followed harshly; a servant knocked and entered, bearing an urgent message “from her ladyship” that the dinner guests were already within the castle gates and both archæologist and his assistant were needed by the tyrant Present. Sir Mark broke off, listening with a vague impatience.
“Thus,” he said, turning with a smile to Miss Trench, “do the centuries repeat themselves—eh? Somewhat in this way, perhaps, Nephelé herself was summoned to prepare for her performance!”
They exchanged an understanding glance which proved that one and the same sympathy taught both minds, and that both shared a similar vision of reconstruction. Behind the servant, meanwhile, came Hugo Trench, already dressed; as Judge of the rival factions which were to perform after dinner, he was alert and interested like themselves, though in a different way.
The audience is pouring in,” he announced laughingly, “and as I’m a famous dramatic critic as well as arbiter, I insist upon your being ready, Marjory. Every child in the castle’s calling for you, and Lady Shute”—with a glance at his host—“declares you’re wanted in every room at once.” He turned to Sir Mark, as his sister hurried away. “You must let me into the secret too,” he observed, “as soon as the great performance is over. I’m not an expert, like my sister, but I’m eager to see and learn.”
And Sir Mark, drawing up his mind and manners to the surface of to-day again, explained briefly what the precious objects were. “Marjory,” he mentioned, “your sister—her instinct is quite extraordinary where Roman things are concerned, really wonderful. I hope—she won’t overtire herself to-night with all this acting, children business. She seemed to me a trifle—overwrought just now. It’s the twofold excitement, of course.”
“Her own part is a small one,” replied his guest, “and she knows it backwards, she tells me, though I’ve no idea what it is myself. But she’s stagemanager, dresser, scene-shifter, and prompter in addition. How she loves and enjoys it all, though!”
“She’s most competent, most gifted,” added Sir Mark, hurrying off with an excuse to make himself ready, and leaving the critic in charge of the relics on the table.
Hugo Trench, left alone with the musty treasures on the table before him, examined them with the merely curious interest of a well-read, cultivated mind. The sandals in particular he looked at closely for some minutes, since dancing was his absorbing hobby, and it was his “Study of Classical Dancing in Relation to the Modern Ballet” that had won for him his present eminent position in the artistic world.
At the moment, however, a more human interest, and one nearer to his heart, divided his attention. He was thinking of his sister’s passionate adoration for a man thirty years her senior; wondering whether Lady Shute had—and why her husband had not—divined it; hoping that no unhappiness need result from so strange a relationship, involving perhaps the loss of lucrative and pleasant work; asking himself chiefly, however, wherein lay the cause of the recent and sudden increase in the girl’s emotion. It had become so intense that her face betrayed her. Its radiance lent her positively a new beauty. Holding the sandals in his hands, stroking, examining them, his real interest was not with Nephelé, their wearer, whose name even he did not know, but with his sister Marjory, who, it seemed to him, was becoming somewhat deeply entangled in an awkward set of circumstances.
The Hall had certainly come into its own to-night, with a quiet air of grandeur, a dignity, a spaciousness which had accumulated during the passing of the ages. Two immense log-fires roared upon capacious hearths that once had roasted oxen whole; and near the roof, lost among shadows, the faded battle flags of inter-tribal battles long ago hung motionless and grim. The fitful light gleamed on the stands of armour round the walls, and the big candles that alone lit the table might have been torches of resinous wood flaring upon boar’s head, mead in goblets, tankards of foaming ale, instead of upon champagne for the elders and lemonade for the children who formed a large proportion of “those present.”
These annual festivities were a serious affair at Carsholt. Before the climax of the Christmas Tree, there would take place the time-honoured rivalry between the Shutes of the Upper and the Lower Valley, each side giving its performance respectively amid keenest competition. Children, of course, were the actors, only two grown-ups, one of either sex, being permitted to take part; and Lady Shute of Carsholt, zealous partisan of her own Lower Valley, was persuaded that Miss Trench, though her part was a small one, would this time lead her side to victory. The girl’s ten minutes on the stage affected the entire cast, lifting the little play to almost a professional standard. The Upper Valley, she was convinced, could boast no such talent among its grown-up helpers. The prize, an enormous box of chocolates, she did not care about; it was the honour of the Lower Valley she had at heart. There were cousins, too, she longed to see crestfallen after defeat, and the fact that her own children were performing was, of course, an added incentive to her keen desires. Both sides, with a hundred performances behind them, were at present equal. This was a decisive occasion. She certainly counted upon Miss Trench.
The Judge, moreover, was Miss Trench’s famous brother, whose unanimous appointment lent a further distinction to the occasion. Amid much excited laughter and applause he was duly installed after dinner in the stiff chair belonging to his exalted office, the few electric lights Sir Mark permitted were turned out, and in the soft glow of a hundred candles the troupe from the Upper Valley gave a finished performance of the piece they had been rehearsing for weeks, if not for months, beforehand.
Its success, judging by the spontaneous applause from both sides, was beyond question, and Hugo Trench, busily making the notes he was expected to make, watched by numerous anxious eyes, registered as well the mental comment that “if the Lower Valley is going to beat that,” the Shute tribe would indeed be an uncommonly gifted set of people. For the excellence of the performance had genuinely surprised him; he had expected to be mildly bored, but instead had been an admiring and interested spectator. Sir Mark, beside him in the background of the crowded room, clapped long and loudly, while Lady Shute flashed actuely enquiring glances in his direction, though forced to conceal her anxiety, and to applaud as well. Only Marjory, in a chair just behind her host, gave no outward sign of approbation, an omission her brother ascribed to her preoccupation with her own part in the following rival piece. The Banqueting Hall echoed with enthusiastic curtain-calls, and in the general buzz of voices and bustle of excited movement, neither he nor Sir Mark noticed exactly when she left her seat. Being behind them both, indeed, and this end of the hall being but dimly lit by the big fires, her actions were easily concealed. Shadows draped all three of them, for that matter, and several empty rows intervened between them and the main body of the audience. What happened to Marjory Trench at the moment, in any case, no one apparently observed.
Suddenly there came an abrupt lowering of voices everywhere, and the appearance of a figure on the stage announced the approaching excitement of the rival troupe. In the hush that instantly descended upon the audience, the boy of fifteen, stage-manager and impresario, stood with shy self-consciousness before the row of candles and made his solemn announcement. After telling the “ladies and gentlemen” that what they were about to see was “of an unparalleled nature,” and had “never been excelled on any stage,” he added: “And I’m very sorry, ladies and gentlemen, we hope you won’t mind much, but really we must turn all the lights out for it, please!”
The chorus of protest, half-shudderingly made, might have overwhelmed any less confident public man than this one who stuck manfully to his guns, and, availing himself of a pause the Judge obtained for him, carried his point at length successfully. “You see, ladies and gentlemen, the night has turned out fine, and there’s a lot of moonlight now, so the place won’t really be a bit too dark, and the bright light would spoil our piece. Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen”—and he was gone again behind the curtain to the sound of clamorous applause. A moment later a footman appeared and extinguished the footlight candles, while another servant drew back the heavy curtains from the narrow, deep-set -windows. The great body of the hall sank down into obscurity. At once a soft stream of moonlight stole upon the stage with a delightful and mysterious effect.
It was at this moment, perhaps, that the change of atmosphere, lurking hitherto unnoticed behind the general details of the day, stepped forward a little from the background and proclaimed itself a recognisable item in the programme. A soft, mysterious gloom pervaded the whole place, and a shudder of enjoyable creepiness ran among the children in an audible wave. The hall now doubled in size, the lofty ceiling reared away among deep shadows that blurred all outlines, and the sudden absence of glare from the stage candles made it difficult to welcome the swift change from brilliance to obscurity.
It is a fact, moreover, that into this pause when the voices ceased and talk died away, there fell abruptly an unexpected sound—the barking of dogs, muffled by distance, but answering one another with distinctness in the night outside. With the faint moonlight, now streaming across the stage from the uncurtained windows, entered also this curiously mournful sound. The Carsholt hounds were baying the wintry moon, no more, no less; yet over that packed audience, obeying automatically the spell of semi-darkness—as men and women must and ever will—stole the faint presage of the singular change. It almost seemed that the deep baying of the uneasy dogs, as by some preconcerted signal, had announced it.
“Admirable—quite admirable, really!” exclaimed the Judge beneath his breath, as though both baying and the moonlight were artificial tricks of the producer’s—and at the same time wondering whence came the shiver that chilled his skin uncomfortably and made him look across his shoulder. “A wonderful mise en scené, isn’t it—so dramatic?” he whispered to his host, who stood upright at his side, one arm resting on the stiff-backed chair. “We’re going to see something exceptional, I do believe!”
Sir Mark, apparently, was too intent upon the empty stage to answer; his eyes stared fixedly, he showed no sign of having heard; and Trench turned next to take an impression of his sister, whose chair, placed behind and below his own, left her in shadow somewhat. But before sight picked her up, he forgot his first intention. The performance had begun. From that moment, in any case, Hugo Trench, as critic, as man, as Judge, forgot everything in the world except the thing he saw and heard upon the little improvised Carsholt stage.
“It’s really capital, first class!” ran his murmured exclamations, as the strings stole deliciously across the dark spaces of the immense old hall. “How in the world do they manage it? It’s too delightful!” For this sound of harp-strings plucked very far away seemed to enter the room from the Park beyond the narrow windows; the players, no doubt, were standing, muffled to the eyes, upon the moonlit lawns outside; and the effect, as the soft twanging sent its small vibrations through the vaulted hall, was most cleverly conceived and carried out. As the strings grew louder, the sense of anticipation became yet more keen, and when low flutes took up a delicate melody to the harps’ accompaniment, the critic knew a moment of positive enchantment that he, for one, had never yet experienced upon any stage before.
“The youthful impresario was right,” he whispered to his host. “Where—who are the players? How do they manage that sound so well?” He interrupted himself with a long-drawn “Sshhh” to the audience, who still kept up their whispering too loudly. “Very, very clever!” he went on, “but I wish they’d shut that door or window—ugh!” and he shivered a second time, then gave a little start. Sir Mark, in an effort to see and hear better, had leaned over and lurched rather heavily against his chair, but the same second almost was rigid again.
“Harps! Flutes! It’s astonishing!” he was muttering, though to himself rather than to his guest. “A curtain has been drawn,” his whisper continued, “and someone looks forth on us!”
“Perfect, perfect!” repeated the Judge, as the tune quickened and the strings now sounded close behind the curtain. “It’s Marjory’s idea, no doubt,” he added proudly, too excited to notice the strangeness of the other’s language, and then came once more his vehement hiss, half-angrily this time, since the audience obstinately refused to maintain a proper silence. It was in the obedient hush following this time the authority of the Judge’s chair, that a figure all had been waiting for slipped round the edges of the immense plush curtains and began to dance.
Trench was aware of two things: that someone had omitted to close the open door through which the cold winter’s air came in with the musicians—and that he was spell-bound. He forgot even to chide the stupid, chattering audience into silence. He watched with an amazement that increasingly mastered him. “I didn’t know—I simply never guessed she had it in her …!” he exclaimed aloud once to his neighbour, then fell to silence, enchanted, strangely moved, caught out of himself by something he had never seen before on any stage.
In his day he had known much solo interpretative dancing, the best the capitals of Europe had to offer, and his criticism had picked out its almost invariable weakness—the inability to tell the story clearly. Hence, then, the miracle that now arrested the experienced soul in him, with a startled wonder and wholehearted admiration that took his breath away. The story that the figure interpreted in her dancing was clear as print. It was, moreover, a deep, a subtle story. How many, he wondered maliciously, among that country audience grasped it too?
For all that, his mind seemed confused—and curiously confused—between two sets of values. He watched, he felt, he analysed; he did not wholly understand; there was a missing item of immense importance somewhere that evaded him. That his sister possessed this touch of genius, that it explained her previous odd excitement, that her performance really must be seen in London, Paris, Milan—herein lay one set of values he could deal with easily enough. It was the other that puzzled him, even to laying a shadow upon his heart and mind.
In some way he could not define exactly, the exquisite performance he witnessed slipped just, though only just, beyond the edge of what was explicable and normal. This fact both puzzled and enthralled him, but it was the type of dancing that added the element of distress. Never before had he seen its like; its genre was unfamiliar; wholly new to him indeed. There were moments when Hugo Trench, who signed weekly articles in a newspaper of authority, doubted his own eyes. This lovely draped figure with the masses of dark, unfastened hair falling below her waist, a jewel gleaming on her breast, her bright feet flashing, twinkling; these gestures and movements that so superbly rendered the drama, now passionate, now pathetic, of a soul in the anguish of a great yet unuttered love—that this was his own sister Marjory, dancing upon the Carsholt stage for a Christmas gathering seemed incredible. For the face, hidden by falling hair and flowing drapery, was never clearly visible in the uncertain moonlight, while the sound of the little feet, well-nigh inaudible too in their fairy lightness, was drowned even by the faintly plucked strings and soft-blown flutes. He was aware of a deep lost meaning that went drifting, fluttering, hanging in the air before him, though of one he could not wholly seize …
Yet the story itself certainly unravelled itself clearly enough before his enchanted eyes, and to a setting of deep emotion only great art and even greater conviction could have hoped to waken: the story of a faithful love divinely felt, but of a love unspoken because unrecognized by the object of its worship a love, therefore, heroically concealed. By what power, by what art, was conveyed, further, the spiritual grandeur belonging to a passion that was unearthly in the sense that it was deathless, able to survive all possible barriers of space and time? It was this touch of majesty that arrested the critic’s soul with a wondering amazement, making him ask himself repeatedly: “How can she do this thing? Can this really be Marjory?”
So profound was the impression made upon him by the interest of the story, that he was less surprised than might otherwise have been the case when, to questions his brain asked occasionally, there rose from somewhere instantaneous and adequate replies. That an inner voice came to his assistance in this way, answering questions in his mind, satisfying moments of doubt he felt from time to time in the dance—he was as positive of this, as he was that these replies were absolutely true. Did he fail sometimes to follow the rapid, concentrated drama, did the meaning become momentarily obscure or wavering, then instantly rose this voice with a few true words that supplied the lost intention. Guided by these infallible, mysterious comments, he followed the brief story with a divination beyond his normal powers. For it was not the action merely that he sometimes failed to grasp, but rather the motives, desires, hopes and fears that lay deeply buried in the dancer’s beating heart; it was these the mysteriously understanding voice made clear …
Far from her native land, beneath skies alien yet not unfriendly, the girl danced this great love she could not, dared not, otherwise express. Her secret was her life; she told it, offered it, in ecstasy. And not entirely in vain; her lavish giving of all she had to give was not wasted utterly; for though unrecognised by him who called it forth, her passionate beauty enriched the curtained eyes, sweetened the heart, of him who thought he delighted merely in her perfect art. His days stole some strange added happiness, whose origin he did not trouble himself to ask …
“He never knew, he never recognised …” rose the inner voice in explanation. “He remained blind—almost to the end …”
The figure bent lower, as the dance now drew towards its close; the jewel flashed in the moon upon her heaving breast; she kissed the alien soil he also trod; the masses of dark hair fell forward abruptly in a final gesture of sacrificial pain and happiness, covering her young face and outline as with the night of death.
“ … until she died at his very feet, falling with his name upon her lips, her secret told in the eyes’ last look … so that too late … he knew—”
A shock of surprise and fear fell suddenly on the listener’s heart. This voice was real. It was not an inner, an imagined voice, but one he knew and recognised. It was close beside him, against his very ear. It was his host’s. Also he now recognised the jewel, the sandals too; the very music was not what he had the right to hear. This, beyond all question, was his sister Marjory, but in what borrowed, stolen guise, he asked himself? The blood for a moment left his heart, then rushed back with uncomfortable pressure, as he turned to the man at his elbow who had all along been supplying him with these uncanny, whispered explanations.
An instant of blinding confusion, of values that refused to right themselves, swept over him. Added to this, came the rising whispers of the impatient audience, but whether in praise of the performance just over—the figure had disappeared—or to welcome the young stage manager who now tried to stammer a few words, he could not say. This, too, remained a blurred picture in his troubled mind. Memory, indeed, hardly registered normally for some minutes, and it was partly the marble-white face of his host, and partly another thing as well, that undoubtedly caused his momentary loss of self-control. Sir Mark lurched heavily, a second time against his chair. A sound immediately behind them both had rendered his balance insecure. Trench turned in the grip of a supreme amazement. The voice was that of his sister. It issued from the lips of Marjory, as she collapsed yet deeper into the chair she had never, he now realised, for one moment left.
“Help me! We must get her out—away from this,” cried Sir Mark, yet quietly, his tone perfectly steady and controlled. It was exactly as though he knew and understood something his guest just failed to grasp—the very item, indeed, that had eluded him during the entire evening. It was he, the brother, however, who divined the fuller truth, and divined it perhaps alone—that the girl had been unconscious during the whole of the little act. Her cry was not uttered in the moment of fainting, but uttered out of an unconscious state she had lain in for the past half-hour and more.
Trench, though he made a great effort to recover his mental balance, was too surprised, too shocked still, to succeed entirely. He moved as in a dream. He remembers inaccurately what happened. He had just lived a dream; that dream continued oddly. The interest of the audience in the second piece, now about to begin, enabled the two men to carry the girl out of the room unnoticed; the rows of empty seats, the darkness, and the proximity of a side door helped them further. Once in the lighted passage outside, he remembers hearing, with a vague dull anger in his heart, some words his host muttered about “the sandals, the very sandals … and the jewel. I saw them on her. I must—forgive me a moment—I’ll see if they’re still safe …” He broke off, almost letting drop the feet he carried, and was gone, deep in the preoccupation of his personal and passionate concern, shaking the little human interest from his obstinate mind, as though he shook off at the same time the recognition of something that he knew was true, yet dreaded.
Trench managed to carry his sister, unaided, to her room. Before he reached it, however, her eyes had opened and her normal state already begun to return. It was the rapidity of this return from unconsciousness, together with the first words she uttered, that confused her anxious brother even more, but at the same time convinced him finally that he had indeed witnessed something that had not been “seen on any stage before.”
“Nephelé …” she murmured, staring at him with moist eyes and quivering lips; “she told him … she gave her secret. But did he realise … understand?”
“N-no, no,” stammered her brother in reply. “He never understood. He never will!”
He was shaking. He spoke with curious conviction, wondering at himself. His words—her own as well—came evidently from the glamour of his dream, belonged still to the story that had so vehemently possessed him. He supported the girl’s arm as he led her to the sofa. Who was she? Who was Nephelé? Who was Majory? Who, above all, was—this other? The questions rose flooding into his bewildered mind.
“He’s gone to make sure his precious relics are safe,” came lamely, stupidly from his lips, as he watched his sister now putting her hair tidy before the mirror. She had refused to lie down. She declared she felt all right again. “You—you wore them, you know—Marjory,” he added, in spite of his desire not to say this thing.
She did not understand apparently, perhaps she did not catch his words. The normal expression rapidly reestablished itself on her face. She was calm.
“I fainted—didn’t I?” she was asking quietly. She looked about her, her grey eyes clear and soft, her voice quite steady. “Where are we? Oh, my room, of course. How idiotic of me! I’ve never fainted in my life before.”
For a moment there passed through her eyes a distant expression as of things remembered but not explained, then vanished again. “Where is—” she had an air of searching vaguely—“I mean—has the second piece begun?” She changed the sentence. “Quick, Hugo, I must hurry! Lady Shute will never forgive me if I’m late.” With a few deft touches to her dress, she ran with anxiety, yet laughingly, to the door. “You too, Hugo,” she exclaimed, as she opened it to the sound of excited voices coming up the passage. “You’re Judge, remember!”
Following the excited voices, in came the young stage manager and the breathless Lady Shute herself.
“Oh, I say, Miss Trench, wherever have you been?” cried the aggrieved boy.
“We have all been waiting for you,” put in the exasperated lady, a jealous anger gleaming behind the frigid manner. “You were nowhere to be found. It’s really unforgivable!”
The Judge took the blame upon himself as they hurried downstairs but the second piece, thus delayed, went poorly, for the players were upset, and Miss Trench, herself flustered and apologetic, gave an uninspired, even a mediocre performance of her own particular part. The Judge was forced to decide in favour of the Upper Valley, to the intense and venomous annoyance of his hostess. Sir Mark was not present. He arrived only just in time to make his customary little speech to the assembled rival tribes, and to hand the prize to the delighted winners.
“That stupid, selfish, irresponsible girl!” his wife relieved her mind at the first opportunity afterwards. “Her mind was elsewhere the whole time. And I’d counted on her so absolutely. Really she might—you, too, Mark—might have left your dead specimens in their grave just one day longer! I think,” she added acidly, “it’s time that Miss Trench’s work was done by a man.”
He made no adequate reply, his wife’s grievance was admitted.
“The girl could hardly help fainting, I suppose,” he mumbled. “She’s been over-doing it lately a bit perhaps—”
“Men don’t faint,” his wife informed him. “You should have a man secretary. As for the girl—I’ve packed her off to bed, and I think it’s time you engaged another assistant, dear.”
Sir Mark sympathised, staring at his enraged wife somewhat blankly. There was justice and common sense in what she said. He was aware of this. Then, suddenly, he was aware of another thing that an unalterable firmness lay in him with regard to something she had said, a fixed decision. He would never dismiss Miss Trench from his employment …
It was long after midnight, the last guests gone, the children sound asleep, and the moon looking down softly upon Carsholt and the time-worn valley of the Shute.
In the mind of the archæologist, as he stood gazing down upon his treasures before going to bed, stirred a faint, inexplicable warmth of awakened imagination, whose trail, as he followed it, led him out into the wintry sky beyond the old stone walls. Upon one open palm lay the little pair of shining sandals, upon the other gleamed the bright crystal jewel. He gazed down at them in silence, forgetting that his guest sat smoking by the fire, watching him.
“They say,” he murmured, “that history repeats itself. It certainly was passing strange and wonderful! Can I believe that—?”
“Genius,” remarked the critic, not wishing to play unwilling eavesdropper, “is ever strange—particularly in its spasmodic appearances.” Sir Mark’s face was not visible, his back being to the glare of the electric light. “Never on any stage before,” he went on, slowly, “have I witnessed anything—”
His host turned sharply with a look on his face that stopped his companion dead. Tenderly laying down the treasures, he came over to the fire where his guest sat watching, listening, wondering.
“Let me tell you this,” he said thickly, “that what we witnessed to-night is something that our old world has not seen for close upon—two thousand years.”
He laid a hand gently upon the other’s shoulder. “I suggest, Trench,” he added in a lowered voice trembling with emotion, “that it remain our secret, since you and I were the only witnesses. To-morrow I shall replace these relics in their ancient tomb. I shall bury them again.”
He did, then, an amazing thing. Turning back to the table, he raised the sandals to his lips and kissed them with a reverent devotion. He kissed the shining jewel too.
“Let us, too, bury in our hearts,” he said softly, “those treasures which we appreciate—but may not use.”