MoboReader> Literature > The Powers and Maxine

   Chapter 1 LISA'S KNIGHT AND LISA'S SISTER

The Powers and Maxine By A. M. Williamson Characters: 20257

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


It had come at last, the moment I had been thinking about for days. I was going to have him all to myself, the only person in the world I ever loved.

He had asked me to sit out two dances, and that made me think he really must want to be with me, not just because I'm the "pretty girl's sister," but because I'm myself, Lisa Drummond.

Being what I am,-queer, and plain, I can't bear to think that men like girls for their beauty; yet I can't help liking men better if they are handsome.

I don't know if Ivor Dundas is the handsomest man I ever saw, but he seems so to me. I don't know if he is very good, or really very wonderful, although he's clever and ambitious enough; but he has a way that makes women fond of him; and men admire him, too. He looks straight into your eyes when he talks to you, as if he cared more for you than anyone else in the world: and if I were an artist, painting a picture of a dark young knight starting off for the crusades, I should ask Ivor Dundas to stand as my model.

Perhaps his expression wouldn't be exactly right for the pious young crusader, for it isn't at all saintly, really: still, I have seen just that rapt sort of look on his face. It was generally when he was talking to Di: but I wouldn't let myself believe that it meant anything in particular. He has the reputation of having made lots of women fall in love with him. This was one of the first things I heard when Di and I came over from America to visit Lord and Lady Mountstuart. And of course there was the story about him and Maxine de Renzie. Everyone was talking of it when we first arrived in London.

My heart beat very fast as I guided him into the room which Lady Mountstuart has given Di and me for our special den. It is separated by another larger room from the ballroom; but both doors were open and we could see people dancing.

I told him he might sit by me on the sofa under Di's book shelves, because we could talk better there. Usually, I don't like being in front of a mirror, because-well, because I'm only the "pretty girl's sister." But to-night I didn't mind. My cheeks were red, and my eyes bright. Sitting down, you might almost take me for a tall girl, and the way my gown was made didn't show that one shoulder is a little higher than the other. Di designed the dress.

I thought, if I wasn't pretty, I did look interesting, and original. I looked as if I could think of things; and as if I could feel.

And I was feeling. I was wondering why he had been so good to me lately, unless he cared. Of course it might be for Di's sake; but I am not so queer-looking that no man could ever be fascinated by me.

They say pity is akin to love. Perhaps he had begun by pitying me, because Di has everything and I nothing; and then, afterwards, he had found out that I was intelligent and sympathetic.

He sat by me and didn't speak at first. Just then Di passed the far-away, open door of the ballroom, dancing with Lord Robert West, the Duke of Glasgow's brother.

"Thank you so much for the book," I said.

(He had sent me a book that morning-one he'd heard me say I wanted.)

He didn't seem to hear, and then he turned suddenly, with one of his nice smiles. I always think he has the nicest smile in the world: and certainly he has the nicest voice. His eyes looked very kind, and a little sad. I willed him hard to love me.

"It made me happy to get it," I went on.

"It made me happy to send it," he said.

"Does it please you to do things for me?" I asked.

"Why, of course."

"You do like poor little me a tiny bit, then?" I couldn't help adding-"Even though I'm different from other girls?"

"Perhaps more for that reason," he said, with his voice as kind as his eyes.

"Oh, what shall I do if you go away!" I burst out, partly because I really meant it, and partly because I hoped it might lead him on to say what I wanted so much to hear. "Suppose you get that consulship at Algiers."

"I hope I may," he said quickly. "A consulship isn't a very great thing-but-it's a beginning. I want it badly."

"I wish I had some influence with the Foreign Secretary," said I, not telling him that the man actually dislikes me, and looks at me as if I were a toad. "Of course, he's Lord Mountstuart's cousin, and brother-in-law as well, and that makes him seem quite in the family, doesn't it? But it isn't as if I were really related to Lady Mountstuart. I was never sorry before that Di and I are only step-sisters-no, not a bit sorry, though her mother had all the money, and brought it to my poor father; but now I wish I were Lady Mountstuart's niece, and that I had some of the coaxing, 'girly' ways Di can put on when she wants to get something out of people. I'd make the Foreign Secretary give you exactly what you wanted, even if it took you far, far from me."

With that, he looked at me suddenly, and his face grew slowly red, under the brown.

"You are a very kind Imp," he said. "Imp" is the name he invented for me. I loved to hear him call me by it.

"Kind!" I echoed. "One isn't kind when one-likes-people."

I saw by his eyes, then, that he knew. But I didn't care. If only I could make him say the words I longed to hear-even because he pitied me, because he had found out how I loved him, and because he had really too much of the dark-young-Crusader-knight in him, to break my heart! I made up my mind that I would take him at his word, quickly, if he gave me the chance; and I would tell Di that he was dreadfully in love with me. That would make her writhe.

I kept my eyes on him, and I let them tell him everything. He saw; there was no doubt of that; but he did not say the words I hoped for. A moment or two he was silent; and then, gazing away towards the door of the ballroom, he spoke very gently, as if I had been a child-though I am older than Di by three or four years.

"Thank you, Imp, for letting me see that you are such a staunch little friend," said he. "Now that I know you really do take an interest in my affairs, I think I may tell you why I want so much to go to Algiers-though very likely you've guessed already-you are such an 'intuitive' girl. And besides, I haven't tried very hard to hide my feelings-not as hard as I ought, perhaps, when I realise how little I have to offer to your sister. Now you understand all, don't you-even if you didn't before? I love her, and if I go to Algiers-"

"Don't say any more," I managed to cut him short. "I can't bear-I mean, I understand. I-did guess before."

It was true. I had guessed, but I wouldn't let myself believe. I hoped against hope. He was so much kinder to me than any other man ever took the trouble to be, in all my wretched, embittered twenty-four years of life.

"Di might have told me," I went gasping on, rather than let there be a long silence between us just then. I had enough pride not to want him to see me cry-though, if it could have made any difference, I would have grovelled at his feet and wet them with my tears. "But she never does tell me anything about herself."

"She's so unselfish and so fond of you, that probably she likes better to talk about you instead," he defended her. And then I felt that I could hate him, as much as I've always hated Di, deep down in my heart. At that minute I should have liked to kill her, and watch his face when he found her lying dead-out of his reach for ever.

"Besides," he hurried on, "I've never asked her yet if she would marry me, because-my prospects weren't very brilliant. She knows of course that I love her-"

"And if you get the consulship, you'll put the important question?" I cut him short, trying to be flippant.

"Yes. But I told you tonight, because I-because you were so kind, I felt I should like to have you know."

Kind! Yes, I had been too kind. But if by putting out my foot I could have crushed every hope of his for the future-every hope, that is, in which my stepsister Diana Forrest had any part-I would have done it, just as I trample on ants in the country sometimes, for the pleasure of feeling that I-even I-have power of life and death.

I swallowed hard, to keep the sobs back. I'm never very strong or well, but now I felt broken, ready to die. I was glad when I heard the music stop in the ballroom.

"There!" I said. "The two dances you asked me to sit out with you are over. I'm sure you're engaged for the next."

"Yes, Imp, I am."

"To Di?"

"No, I have Number 13 with her."

"Thirteen! Unlucky number."

"Any number is lucky that gives me a chance with her. The next one, coming now, is with Mrs. George Allendale."

"Oh, yes, the actor manager's wife. She goes everywhere; and Lord Mountstuart likes theatrical celebrities. This house ought to be very serious and political, but we have every sort of creature-provided it's an amusing, or successful, or good-looking one. By the way, used Maxine de Renzie to come here, when she was acting in London at George Allendale's theatre? That was before Di and I arrived on the scene, you remember."

"I remember. Oh, yes, she came here. It was in this house I met her first, off the stage, I believe."

"What a sweet memory! Wasn't Mrs. George awfully jealous of her husband when he had such a fascinating beauty for his leading lady?"

"I never heard that she was."

"You needn't look cross with me. I'm not saying anything against your gorgeous Maxine."

"Of course not. Nobody could. But you mustn't call Miss de Renzie 'my Maxine,' please, Imp."

"I beg your pardon," I said. "You see, I've heard other people call her that-in joke. And you dedicated your book about Lhassa, that made you such a famous person, to her, didn't you?"

"No. What made you think that?" He was really annoyed now, and I was pleased-if anything could please me, in my despair.

"Why, everybody thinks it. It was dedicated to 'M.R.' as if the name were a secret, so-"

"'Everybody' is very stupid then. 'M.R.' is an old lady, my god-mother, who helped me with money for my expedition to Lhassa, otherwise I couldn't have gone. And she isn't of the kind that likes to see h

er name in print. Now, where shall I take you, Imp? Because I must go and look for Mrs. Allendale."

"I'll stay where I am, thank you," I said, "and watch you dance-from far off. That's my part in life, you know: watching other people dance from far off."

When he was gone, I leaned back among the cushions, and I wasn't sure that one of my heart attacks would not come on. I felt horribly alone, and deserted; and though I hate Di, and always have hated her, ever since the tiny child and her mother (a beautiful, rich, young Californian widow) came into my father's house in New York, she does know how to manage me better than anyone else, when I am in such moods. I could have screamed for her, as I sat there helplessly looking through the open doors: and then, at last, I saw her, as if my wish had been a call which had reached her ears over the music in the ballroom.

She had stopped dancing, and with her partner (Lord Robert, again) entered the room which lay between our "den" and the ballroom, Probably they would have gone on to the conservatory, which can be reached in that way, but I cried her name as loudly as I could, and she heard. Only a moment she paused-long enough to send Lord Robert away-and then she came straight to me. He must have been furious: but I didn't care for that.

I had been wanting her badly, but when I saw her, so bright and beautiful, looking as if she were the joy of life made incarnate, I should have liked to strike her hard, first on one cheek and then the other, deepening the rose to crimson, and leaving an ugly red mark for each finger.

"Have you a headache, dear?" she asked, in that velvet voice she keeps for me-as if I were a thing only fit for pity and protection.

"It's my heart," said I. "It feels like a clock running down. Oh, I wish I could die, and end it all! What's the good of me-to myself or anyone?"

"Don't talk like that, my poor one," she said. "Shall I take you upstairs to your own room?"

"No, I think I should faint if I had to go upstairs," I answered. "Yet I can't stay here. What shall I do?"

"What about Uncle Eric's study?" Di asked. She always calls Lord Mountstuart 'Uncle Eric,' though he isn't her uncle. Her mother and his wife were sisters, that's all: and then there was the other sister who married the British Secretary for Foreign Affairs, a cousin of Lord Mountstuart's. That family seemed to have a craze for American girls; but Lord Mountstuart makes an exception of me. He's civil, of course, because he's an abject slave of Di's, and she refused to come and pay a visit in England without me: but I give him the shivers, I know very well: and I take an impish joy in making him jump.

"I'm sure he won't be there this evening," Di went on, when I hesitated. "He's playing bridge with a lot of dear old boys in the library, or was, half an hour ago. Come, let me help you there. It's only a step."

She put her pretty arm round my waist, and leaning on her I walked across the room, out into a corridor, through a tiny "bookroom" where odd volumes and old magazines are kept, into Lord Mountstuart's study.

It is a nice room, which he uses much as his wife uses her boudoir. The library next door is rather a show place, but the study has only Lord Mountstuart's favourite books in it. He writes there (he has written a novel or two, and thinks himself literary), and some pictures he has painted in different parts of the world hang on the walls: for he also fancies himself artistic.

In one corner is a particularly comfortable, cushiony lounge where, I suppose, the distinguished author lies and thinks out his subjects, or dreams them out. And it was to this that Di led me.

She settled me among some fat pillows of old purple and gold brocade, and asked if she should ring and get a little brandy.

"No," I said, "I shall feel better in a few minutes. It's so nice and cool here."

"You look better already!" exclaimed Di. "Soon, when you've lain and rested awhile, you'll be a different girl."

"Ah, how I wish I could be a different girl!" I sighed. "A strong, well girl, and tall and beautiful, and admired by everyone,-like you-or Maxine de Renzie."

"What makes you think of her?" asked Di, quickly.

"Ivor was just talking to me of her. You know he calls me his 'pal,' and tells me things he doesn't tell everybody. He thinks a great deal about Maxine, still."

"She'd be a difficult woman to forget, if she's as attractive off the stage as she is on."

"What a pity we didn't come in time to meet here when she was playing in London with George Allendale. Everybody used to invite her to their houses, it seems. Ivor was telling me that he first met her here, and that it's such a pleasant memory, whenever he comes to this house. I suppose that's one reason he likes to come so much."

"No doubt," said Di sharply.

"He got so fascinated talking of her," I went on. "He almost forgot that he had a dance with Mrs. Allendale. Of course Maxine had made a great hit, and all that; but she didn't stand quite as high as she does now, since she's become the fashion in Paris. Perhaps she had nothing except her salary, then, whereas she must have saved up a lot of money by this time. I have an idea that Ivor would have proposed to her when she was in London if he'd thought her success established."

"Nonsense!" Di broke out, her cheeks very pink. "As if Ivor were the kind of man to think of such a thing!"

"He isn't very rich, and he is very ambitious. It would be bad for him to marry a poor girl, or a girl who wasn't well connected socially. He has to think of such things."

I watched the effect of these words, with my eyes half shut; for of course Di has all her mother's money, two hundred thousand English pounds; and through the Mountstuarts, and her aunt who is married to the Foreign Secretary, she has got to know all the best people in England. Besides, the King and Queen have been particularly nice to her since she was presented, so she has the run of their special set, as well as the political and artistic, and "old-fashioned exclusive" ones.

"Ivor Dundas is a law unto himself," she said, "and he has plenty of good connections of his own. He'll have a little money, too, some day, from an aunt or a god-mother, I believe. Anyway, he and Miss de Renzie had nothing more than a flirtation. Aunt Lilian told me so. She said Maxine was rather proud to have Ivor dangling about, because everyone likes him, and because his travels and his book were being a lot talked about just then. Naturally, he admired her, because she's beautiful, and a very great actress-"

"Oh, your Aunt Lilian would make little of the affair," I laughed. "She flirts with him herself."

"Why, Lisa, Aunt Lilian's over forty, and he's twenty-nine!"

"Forty isn't the end of the world for a woman, nowadays. She's a beauty and a great lady. Ivor always wants the best of everything. She flirts with him, and he with her."

Di laughed too, but only to make it seem as if she didn't care. "You'd better not say such silly things to Uncle Eric," she said, staring at the pattern of the cornice. "Aren't those funny, gargoyley faces up there? I never noticed them before. But oh-about Mr. Dundas and Maxine de Renzie-I don't think, really, that he troubles himself much about her any more, for the other day I-I happened to ask what she was playing in Paris now, and he didn't know. He said he hadn't been over to see her act, as it was too far away, and he was afraid when he wasn't too busy, he was too lazy."

"He said so to you, of course. But when he spends Saturday to Monday at Folkestone with the godmother who's going to leave him her money, how easy to slip over the Channel to the fair Maxine, without anyone being the wiser."

"Why shouldn't he slip, or slide, or steam, or sail in a balloon, if he likes?" laughed Di, but not happily. "You're looking much better, Lisa. You've quite a colour now. Do you feel strong enough to go upstairs?"

"I would rather rest here for awhile, since you think Lord Mountstuart is sure not to come," said I. "These pillows are so comfortable. Then perhaps, by and by, I shall feel able to go back to the den, and watch the dancing. I should like to keep up, if I can, for I know I shan't sleep, and the night will seem so long."

"Very well," said Di, speaking kindly, though I knew she would have liked to shake me. "I'm afraid I shall have to run away now, for my partner will think me so rude. What about supper?"

"Oh, I don't want any. And I shall have gone upstairs before that," I interrupted. "Go now, I don't need you any more."

"Ring, and send for me if you feel badly again."

"Yes-yes."

By this time she was at the door, and there she turned with a remorseful look in her eyes, as if she had been unkind and was sorry. "Even if you don't send, I shall come back by and by, when I can, to see how you are," she said. Then she was gone, and I nestled deeper into the sofa cushions, with the feeling that my head was so heavy, it must weigh down the pillows like a stone.

"She was afraid of missing Number 13 with Ivor," I said to myself. "Well-she's welcome to it now. I don't think she'll enjoy it much-or let him. Oh, I hope they'll quarrel. I don't think I'd mind anything, if only I was sure they'd never be nearer to each other. I wish Di would marry Lord Robert. Perhaps then Ivor would turn to me. Oh, my God, how I hate her-and all beautiful girls, who spoil the lives of women like me."

A shivering fit shook me from head to feet, as I guessed that the time must be coming for Number 13. They were together, perhaps. What if, in spite of all, Ivor should tell Di how he loved her, and they should be engaged? At that thought, I tried to bring on a heart attack, and die; for at least it would chill their happiness if, when Lady Mountstuart's ball was over, I should be found lying white and dead, like Elaine on her barge. I was holding my breath, with my hand pressed over my heart to feel how it was beating, when the door opened suddenly, and I heard a voice speaking.

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