MoboReader > Literature > Told in a French Garden / August, 1914


Told in a French Garden / August, 1914 By Mildred Aldrich Characters: 25102

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The Tale of an Actress

The next day, just as we were sitting down to dinner, the news came that Namur had fallen. The German army had marched singing into the burning town the afternoon before. The Youngster had his head over a map almost all through dinner. The Belgians were practically pushed out of all but Antwerp, and the Germans were rapidly approaching the natural defences of France running from Lille to Verdun, through Valenciennes, Mauberge, Hirson and Mezières.

Things were beginning to look serious, although we still insisted on believing that the Germans could not break through. One result of the march of events was that we none of us had any longer the smallest desire to argue. Theories were giving way to the facts of every day, but in our minds, I imagine, we were every one of us asking, "How long can we stay here? How long will it be wise, even if we are permitted?" But, as if by common consent, no one asked the question, and we were only too glad to sit out in the garden we had all learned to love, and to talk of anything which was not war, until the Critic moved his chair into the middle of the circle, and began his tale.

"Let me see," he remarked. "I need a property or two," and he pulled an envelope out of his pocket and laid it on the table, and, leaning his elbows on it, began:

* * *

It was in the Autumn of '81 that I last saw Dillon act.

She had made a great success that winter, yet, in the middle of the season, she had suddenly disappeared.

There were all kinds of newspaper explanations.

Then she was forgotten by the public that had enthusiastically applauded her, and which only sighed sadly, a year later, on hearing of her death, in a far off Italian town,-sighed, talked a little, and forgot again.

It chanced that a few years later I was in Italy, and being not many miles from the town where I heard that she was buried, and a trifle overstrung by a few months delicious, aimless life in that wonderful country, I was taken with a sentimental fancy to visit her grave.

It was a sort of pilgrimage for me, for I had given to Dillon my first boyish devotion.

I thought of her, and to remember her was to recall her rare charm, her beauty, her success, after a long struggle, and the unexpected, inexplicable manner in which she had abandoned it. It was to recall, too, the delightful evenings I had spent under her influence, the pleasure I had had in the passion of her "Juliet," the poetic charm of her "Viola"; the graceful witchery of her "Rosalind"; how I had smiled with her "Portia"; laughed with her "Beatrice"; wept with her "Camille"; in fact how I had yielded myself up to her magnetism with that ecstatic pleasure in which one gets the best joys of every passion, because one does not drain the dregs of any.

I well remembered her last night, how she had disappeared, how she had gone to Europe, how she had died abroad,-all mere facts known in their bareness only to the public.

It was hard to find the place where she was buried. But at last I succeeded.

It was in a humble churchyard. The grave was noticeable because it was well kept, and utterly devoid of the tawdry ornamentation inseparable from such places in Italy. It was marked by a monument distinctly unique in a European country. It was a huge unpolished boulder, over which creeping green vines were growing.

On its rough surface a cross was cut, and underneath were the words:

"Yesterday This Day's Madness did prepare,

To-morrow's Silence, Triumph or Despair."

Below that I read with stupefaction,

"Margaret Dillon and child,"

and the dates

"January, 1843"

"July 25, 1882."

In spite of the doubts and fancies this put into my mind, I no sooner stood beside the spot where the earth had claimed her, than all my old interest in her returned. I lingered about the place, full of romantic fancies, decorating her tomb with flowers, as I had once decorated her triumphs, absorbed in a dreamy adoration of her memory, and singing her praise in verse.

It was then that I learned the true story of her disappearance, guessed at that of her death, as I did at the identity of the young Dominican priest, who sometimes came to her grave, and who finally told me such of the facts as I know. I can best tell the story by picturing two nights in the life of Margaret Dillon, the two following her last appearance on the stage.

The play had been "Much Ado."

Never had she acted with finer humor, or greater gaiety. Yet all the evening she had felt a strange sadness.

When it was all over, and friends had trooped round to the stage to praise her, and trooped away, laughing and happy, she felt a strange, sad, unused reluctance to see them go.

Then she sat down to her dressing table, hurriedly removed her make-up, and allowed herself to be stripped of her stage finery. Her fine spirits seemed to strip off with her character. She shivered occasionally with nervousness, or superstition, and she was strangely silent.

All day she had, for some inexplicable reason, been thinking of her girlhood, of what her life might have been if, at a critical moment, she had chosen a woman's ordinary lot instead of work,-or if, at a later day, she had yielded to, instead of resisted, a great temptation. All day, as on many days lately, she had wondered if she regretted it, or if, the days of her great triumph having passed,-as pass they must,-she should regret it later if she did not yet.

It was probably because,-early in the season as it was-she was tired, and the October night oppressed her with the heat of Indian Summer.

Silently she had allowed herself to be undressed, and redressed in great haste. But before she left the theatre she bade every one "good night" with more than her usual kindliness, not because she did not expect to see them all on Monday,-it was a Saturday night,-but because, in her inexplicably sad humour, she felt an irresistible desire to be at peace with the world, and a still deeper desire to feel herself beloved by those about her.

Then she entered her carriage and drove hurriedly home to the tiny apartment where she lived quite alone.

On the supper table lay a note.

She shivered as she took it up. It was a handwriting she had been accustomed to see once a year only, in one simple word of greeting, always the same word, which every year in eighteen had come to her on New Year's wherever she was.

But this was October.

She sat perfectly still for some minutes, and then resolutely opened the letter, and read:

"Madge:-I am so afraid that my voice coming to you, not only across so many years, but from another world, may shock you, that I am strongly tempted not to keep my word to you, yet, judging you by myself, I feel that perhaps this will be less painful than the thought that I had passed forgetful of you, or changed toward you. You were a mere girl when we mutually promised, that though it was Fate that our paths should not be the same, and honorable that we should keep apart, we would not pass out of life, whatever came, without a farewell word,-a second saying 'good-bye.'"

"It is my fate to say it. It is now God's will. Before it was yours. It is eighteen years since you chose my honor to your happiness and mine. To-day you are a famous woman. That is the consolation I have found in your decision. I sometimes wonder if Fame will always make up to you for the rest. A woman's way is peculiar-and right, I suppose. I have never changed. My son has been a second consolation, and that, too, in spite of the fact that, had he never been born, your decision might have been so different. He is a young man now, strangely like what I was, when as a child, you first knew me, and he has always been my confidant. In those first days of my banishment from you I kept from crying my agony from the housetops by whispering it to him. His uncomprehending ears were my sole confessional. His mother cared little for his companionship, and her invalidism threw him continually into my care. I do not know when he began to understand, but from the hour he could speak he whispered your name in his prayers. But it was only lately that, of himself, he discovered your identity. The love I felt for you in my early days has grown with me. It has survived in my heart when all other passions, all prides, all ambitions, long ago died. I leave you, I hope, a good memory of me-a man who loved you more than he loved himself, who for eighteen years has loved you silently, yet never ceased to grieve for you. But I fear that I have bequeathed to my son, with the name and estate of his father, my hopeless love for you. If, by chance, what I fear be true,-if, when bereft of me, he seeks you out, as be sure he will,-deal gently with him for his father's sake.

"There was an old compact between us, dear. I mention it now only in the hope that you may not have forgotten-indeed, in the certainty that you have not. I know you so well. Remember it, I beg of you, only to ignore it. It was made, you know, when one of us expected to watch the passing of the other. This is different. If this reminds you of it, it reminds you only to warn you that Time cancels all such compacts. It is my voice that assures you of it.

"Felix R."

Underneath, written in letters, like, yet so unlike, were the words, "My father died this morning. F. R." and an uncertain mark as though he had begun to add "Jr." to the signature, and realized that there was no need.

The letter fell from her hands.

For a long time she sat silent.

Dead! She had never felt that he could die while she lived. A knowledge that he was living,-loving her, adoring her hopelessly-was necessary to her life. She felt that she could not go on without it. For eighteen years she had compared all other men, all other emotions to him and his love, to find them all wanting.

And he had died.

She looked at the date of the letter. He would be resting in that tomb she remembered so well, before she could reach the place; that spot before which they had often talked of Death, which had no terrors for either of them.

She rose. She pushed away her untouched supper, hurriedly drank a glass of wine, and, crossing the hall to her bedroom, opened a tiny box that stood locked upon her dressing table. She took from it a picture-a miniature. It was of a young man not over twenty-five. The face was strong and full of virile suggestion, even in a picture. The eyes were brown, the lips under the short mustache were firm, and the thick, short, brown hair fell forward a bit over the left temple. It was a handsome manly face.

The picture was dated eighteen years before. It hardly seemed possible that eighteen years earlier this woman could have been old enough to stir the passionate love of such a man. Her face was still young, her form still slender; her abundant hair shaded deep gray eyes where the spirit of youth still shone. But she belonged, by temperament and profession, to that race of women who guard their youth marvellously.

There were no tears in her eyes as she sat long into the morning, and, with his pictured face before her, reflected until she had decided.

He had kept his word to her. His "good bye" had been loyally said. She would keep hers in turn, and guard his first night's solitude in the tomb with her watchful prayers. She calculated well the time. If she travelled all day Sunday, she would be there sometime before midnight. If she travelled back at once, she could be in town again in season to play Monday; not in the best of conditions, to be sure, for so hard a r?le as "Juliet," but she would have fulfilled a duty that would never come to her again.

* * *

It was near midnight, on Sunday.

The light of the big round harvest moon fell through the warm air, which scarcely moved above the graves of the almost forgotten dead in the country churchyard. The low headstones cast long shadows over the long grass that merely trembled as the noiseless wind moved over it.

A tall woman in a riding dress stood beside the rough sexton at the door of the only large tomb in the enclosure.

He had grown into a bent old man since she last saw him, but he had recognized her, and had not hesitated to obey her.

As he unlocked and pushed back the great door which moved easily and noiselessly, he placed his lantern on the steps, and telling her that, according to a family custom, there were lights inside, he turned

away, and left her, to keep his watch near by.

No need to tell her the family customs. She knew them but too well.

For a few moments she remained seated on the step where she had rested to await the opening of the door, on the threshold of the tomb of the one man among all the men she had met who had stirred in her heart a great love. How she had loved him! How she had feared that her love would wear his out! How she had suffered when she decided that love was something more than self-gratification, that even though for her he should put aside the woman he had heedlessly married years before, there could never be any happiness in such a union for either of them. How many times in her own heart she had owned that the woman would not have had the courage shown by the girl, for the girl did not realize all she was putting aside. Yet the consciousness of his love, in which she never ceased to believe, had kept her brave and young.

She rose and slowly entered the vault.

The odor of flowers, the odor of death was about it.

She lifted the lantern from the ground, and, with it raised above her head, approached the open coffin that rested on the catafalque in the centre of the tomb and mounted the two steps. She was conscious of no fear, of no dread at the idea of once more, after eighteen years, looking into the face of the man she had loved, who had carried a great love for her into another world. But as she looked, her eyes widened with fright. She bent lower over him. No cry burst from her lips, but the hand holding the lantern lowered slowly, and she tumbled down the two steps, and staggered back against the wall, where, behind lettered slides, the dead Richmonds for six generations slept their long sleep together. Her breast heaved up and down, as if life, like a caged thing, were striving to escape. Yet no sound came from her colorless lips, no tears were in her widened eyes.

The realizing sense of departed years had reached her heart at last, and the shock was terrible. With a violent effort she recovered herself. But the firm step, the fearless, hopeful face with which she had approached the coffin of her dead lover were very different from the blind manner in which she stumbled back to his bier, and the hand which a second time raised the lantern trembled so that its wavering light shed an added weirdness on the still face, so strange to her eyes, and stranger still to her heart.

He had been a young man when they parted. To her he had remained young. Now the hair about the brows was thin and white, the drooping mustache that entirely concealed the mouth was grizzled; lines furrowed the forehead, outlined the sunken eyes, and gave an added thinness to the nostrils. She bent once more over the face, to her only a strange cold mask. A painful fascination held her for several minutes, forcing her to mark how love, that had kept her young, proud, content in its very existence, had sapped his life, and doubled his years.

The realization bent her slender figure under a load of self-reproach and self-mistrust. She drooped lower and lower above the sad, dead face until she slid to the ground beside him. Heavy tearless sobs shook her slight frame as it stretched its length beside the dead love and the dead dream. The ideal so long treasured in her soul had lost its reality. The present had wiped out the past as a sponge wipes off a slate.

If she had but heeded his warning, and refrained from coming until later, she would have escaped making a stranger of him forever. Now the sad, aged face, the dead, strange face which she had seen but five minutes before, had completely obscured in her memory the long-loved, young face that had been with her all these years. The spirit whose consoling presence she had thought to feel upholding her at this moment made no sign. She was alone in the world, bereft of her one supporting ideal, alone beside the dead body of one who was a stranger alike to her sight and her emotions; alone at night in an isolation as unexpected as it was terrible to her, and which chilled her senses as if it had come to oppress her forever.

The shadows which she had not noticed before, the dark corners of the tomb, the motionless gleam of the moon as it fell through the open door, and laid silently on the floor like light stretched dead, the low rustle of the wind as if Nature restlessly moved in her sleep, came suddenly upon her, and brought her-fear. She held her breath as she stilled her sobs to realize that she alone lived in this city of the Dead. The chill of fright crept along the surface of her body, which still vibrated with her storm of grief.

She seemed paralyzed. She dared not move.

Every sense rallied to her ears in dread.

Suddenly she heard her name breathed: "Margaret!"

It was whispered in a voice once so familiar to her ears, a voice that used to say, "Madge."

She raised herself on her elbow.

She dared not answer.

She hardly dared breathe.

She was afraid in every sense, and yet she hungered for another sound of that loved voice. Every hour of its banishment was regretted at that moment. There seemed no future without it.

Every nerve listened.

At first she heard nothing but the restless moving of the air, which merely emphasized her loneliness, then she caught the pulsation of slow regular breathing.

She started to her feet.

She snatched up the lantern and quickly mounted to the bier. She looked sharply down into the dead face.

Silent, with its white hair, and worn lines, it rested on its white pillows.

No sound came from the cold still lips.

Yet, while her eyes were riveted on them, once more the longed-for voice breathed her name. "Margaret!"

It came from behind her.

She turned quickly.

There in the moonlit doorway, with a sad, compassionate smile on his strong, young face-as if it were yesterday they had parted-stood the man she remembered so well.

Her bewildered eyes turned from the silent, unfamiliar face among the satin cushions, to the living face in the moonlight,-the young, brown eyes, the short, brown hair falling forward over the left temple, the erect, elastic figure, the strong loving hands stretching out to her.

She was so tired, so heart sick, so full of longing for the love she had lost.

"Felix," she sobbed, and, blindly groping to reach what she feared was a hallucination, she stumbled down the steps, and was caught up in the arms flung wide to catch her, and which folded about her as if forever. She sighed his name again, upon the passionate young lips which had inherited the great love she had put aside so long before.

* * *

As the last words died away, the Critic drew himself up and laughed.

He had told the story very dramatically, reading the letter from the envelope he had called a "property," and he had told it well.

The laugh broke the spell, and the Doctor echoed it heartily.

"All right, old man," said the Critic, "you owed me that laugh. You're welcome."

"I was only thinking," said the Doctor, his face still on a broad grin, "that we have always thought you ought to have been a novelist, and now we know at last just what kind of a novelist you would have been."

"Don't you believe it," said the Critic, "That was only improvisatore-that's no sample."

"Ho, ho! I'll bet you anything that the manuscript is up in your trunk, and that you have been committing it to memory ever since this idea was proposed," said the Doctor, still laughing.

"No, that I deny," replied the Critic, "but as I am no poseur, I will own that I wrote it years ago, and rewrote it so often that I never could forget it. I'll confess more than that, the story has been 'declined with thanks' by every decent magazine in the States and in England. Now perhaps some one will tell me why."

"I don't know the answer," said the Youngster, seriously, "unless it is 'why not?'"

"I shouldn't wonder if it were sentimental twaddle," sighed the Journalist, "but I don't know."

"I noticed," expostulated the Critic, "that you all listened, enthralled."

"Oh," replied the Doctor, "that was a tribute to your personal charm. You did it very well."

"Exactly," said the Critic, "if editors would let me read them my stories, I could sell them like hot cakes. I never believed that Homer would have lived as long as he has, if he had not made the reputation of his tales by singing them centuries before any one tried to read them. Now no one dares to say they bore him. The reading public, and the editors who cater to it, are just like some stupid theatrical managers I know of, who will never let an author read a play to them for fear that he may give the play some charm that the fool theatrical man might not have felt from mere type-written words on white or yellow paper. By Jove, I know the case of a manager who once bought the option on a foreign play from a scenario provided by a clever friend of mine-and paid a stiff price for it, too, and when he got the manuscript wrote to the chap who did the scenario-'Play dashety-dashed rot. If it had been as good as your scenario, it would have gone.' And, what is more, he sacrificed the tidy five thousand he had paid, and let his option slide. Now, when the fellow who did the scenario wrote: 'If you found anything in the scenario that you did not discover in the play, it is because I gave you the effect it would have behind the footlights, which you have not the imagination to see in the printed words,' the Manager only replied 'You are a nice chap. I like you very much, but you are a blanketty-blanketty fool.'"

"Which was right?" asked the Journalist.

"The scenario man."

"How do you know?"

"How do I know? Why simply because the play was produced later-ran five years, and drew a couple of million dollars. That's how I know."

"By cricky," exclaimed the Youngster, "I believe he thinks his story could earn a million if it had a chance."

"I don't say 'no,'" said the Critic, yawning, "but it will never get a chance. I burned the manuscript this morning, and now being delivered of it, I have no more interest in it than a sparrow has in her last year's offspring."

"The trouble with you is that you haven't any patience, any staying power. That ought to have been a three volume novel. We would have heard all about their first meeting, their first love, their separation, his marriage, her débuts, etc., etc.," declared the Journalist.

"Oh, thunder," said the Doctor. "I think there was quite enough of it. Don't throw anything at me-I liked it-I liked it! Only I'm sorry she died."

"So am I," said the Critic. "That really hurt me."

"Because," said the Doctor, shying away toward the door, "I should have liked to know if the child turned out to be a genius. That kind do sometimes," and he disappeared into the doorway.

"Anyhow," said the Critic, "I am going to wear laurels until some one tells a better-and I'd like to know why the Journalist looks so pensively thoughtful?"

"I am trying to recall who she was-Margaret Dillon."

"Don't fret-she may be a 'poor thing,' but she is all 'mine own'-a genuine creation, Mr. Journalist. I am no reporter."

"Ah? Then you are more of a sentimentalist than I even dared to dream."

"Don't deny it," said the Critic, as he rose and yawned. "So I am going to bed to sleep on my laurels while I may. Good night."

"Well," called the Sculptor after him, as he sauntered away, "as one of our mutual friends used to say 'The Indian Summer of Passion scorches.'"

"But, alas!" added the other, "it does not always kill."

"Witness-" began the Journalist, but the Critic cut him short.

"As you love me-not that famous list of yours including so many of the actresses we all know. I can't bear that to-night. After all the French have a better phrase for it-'La Crise de quarante ans.'"

The Nurse and Divorcée had been very quiet, but here they locked hands, and the former remarked that they prepared to withdraw:

"That is our cue to disappear-and you, too, Youngster. These men are far too wise."

So we of the discussed sex made a circle with our clasped hand about the Youngster and danced him into the house. The last I saw of the garden that night, as I looked out of my window toward the northeast, with "Namur" beating in my head, the five men had their heads still together, but whether "the other sex" was getting scientifically torn to bits, or they, too, had Namur in their minds I never knew.

* * *

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