Read CHAPTER XII of The Invader A Novel , free online book, by Margaret L. Woods, on

Milly, too, had not been without a sharp reminder that the leaves in her life so blank to her, had been fully inscribed by another. She hardly yet felt mistress of the house, but it was pleasant to rest and read in the low, white-panelled drawing-room, which lowered awnings kept cool, although the afternoon sun struck a golden shaft across the flowering window-boxes of its large and deeply recessed bow-window. The whole room was lighter and more feminine than Milly would have made it, but at bottom the taste that reigned there was more severe than her own. The only pictures on the panels were a few eighteenth century colored prints, already charming, soon to be valuable, and one or two framed pieces of needlework which harmonized with them.

Presently the door-bell rang and a Mr. Fitzroy was announced by the parlor-maid, in a tone which implied that she was accustomed to his name. He looked about the age of an undergraduate and was extraordinarily well-groomed, in spite of, or perhaps because of, being in a riding-dress. His sleek dark hair was neatly parted in the middle and he was clean shaven, when to be so smacked of the stage; but his manners and expression smacked of nothing of the kind.

“I’m awfully glad to find you at home, Mrs. Stewart,” he said. “I’ve been lunching at the Morrisons’, and, you know, I’m afraid there’s going to be a row.”

The Morrisons? They lived outside Oxford, and Milly knew them by sight, that was all.

“What about?” she asked, kindly, thinking the young man had come for help, or at least sympathy, in some embarrassment of his own.

“Why, about your acting Galatea. Jim Morrison’s been a regular fool about it. He’d no business to take it for granted that that was the part I wanted Mrs. Shaw for. Now it appears she’s telling every one that she’s been asked to play the lead at the Besselsfield theatricals; and, by Jove, he says she is to, too!”

Milly went rather pale and then quite pink.

“Then of course I couldn’t think of taking the part,” she said, gasping with relief at this providential escape.

Mr. Fitzroy in his turn flushed. He had an obstinate chin and the cares of stage-management had already traced a line right across his smooth forehead. It deepened to a furrow as he leaned forward out of his low wicker chair, clutching the pair of dogskin gloves which he held in his hand.

“Oh, come, I say now, Mrs. Stewart!” and his voice and eye were surprisingly stern for one so young. “That’s not playing fair. You promised me you’d see me through this show, and you know as well as I do, Mrs. Shaw can no more act than those fire-irons.”

“But I ” Milly was about to say “I’ve never acted in my life” when she remembered that she knew less than any one in her acquaintance what she had or had not done in that recent life which was not hers. “I shouldn’t act Galatea at all well,” she substituted lamely; “and I shouldn’t look the part nearly as well as Mrs. Shaw will.”

“Excuse me, Mrs. Stewart, but I’m certain you’re simply cut out for it all round, and you told me the other day you were particularly anxious to play it. You promised you’d stick to me through thick and thin and not care a twopenny I mean a straw what Jim Morrison and Mrs. Shaw ”

In the stress of conversation they had neither of them noticed the tinkle of the front-door bell. Now the door of the room, narrow and in the thickness of an enormous wall, was thrown open and Mrs. Shaw was announced.

Fitzroy, forgetful of manners in his excitement, stooped forward and gripping Milly’s arm almost hissed:

“Remember! You’ve promised me.”

The words filled Milly with misery. That any one should be able to accuse her of breaking a promise, however unreal her responsibility for it, was horrible to her.

Mrs. Shaw entered, no longer the seraph of twenty months ago. She had latterly put off the aesthetic raiment she had worn with such peculiar grace, and her dress and coiffure were quite in the fashion of the hour. The transformation somewhat shocked Milly, who could never help feeling a slight austere prejudice against fashionably dressed woman. Then, considering how little she knew Mrs. Shaw, it was embarrassing to be kissed by her.

“It’s odd I should find you here, Mr. Fitzroy,” said Mrs. Shaw, settling her rustling skirts on a chintzy chair. “I’ve just come to talk to Mrs. Stewart about the acting. I’m so sorry there’s been a misunderstanding about it.”

Her tone was civil but determined, and there was a fighting look in her eye.

“So am I, Mrs. Shaw, most uncommonly sorry,” returned Fitzroy, patting his sleek hair and feeling that his will was adamant, however pretty Mrs. Shaw might be.

“Of course, I shouldn’t have thought of taking the part away from Mrs. Stewart,” she resumed, glancing at Milly, not without meaning, “but Mr. Morrison asked me to take it quite a fortnight ago. I’ve learned most of it and rehearsed two scenes already with him. He says they go capitally, and we both think it seems rather a pity to waste all that labor and change the part now.”

Fitzroy cast a look at Mrs. Stewart which was meant to call up reinforcements from that quarter; but as she sat there quite silent, he cleared his throat and begun:

“It’s an awful bore, of course, but I fancy it’s about three weeks or a month since I first asked Mrs. Stewart to play the lead isn’t it, Mrs. Stewart?”

Milly muttered assent, horribly suspecting a lie. A flash of indignant scorn from Mrs. Shaw confirmed the suspicion.

“Mrs. Stewart said something quite different when I spoke to her about it at tennis on Friday. Didn’t you, Mildred?” she asked.

Milly crimsoned.

“Did I?” she stammered. “I’m afraid I’ve got a dreadfully bad memory for for dates of that kind.”

Mrs. Shaw smiled coldly. Mr. Fitzroy felt himself deceived in Mrs. Stewart as an ally. He had counted on her promised support, on her wit and spirit to carry him through, and her conduct was simply cowardly.

“The fact is, Mrs. Shaw,” he said, “Jim Morrison’s not bossing this show at all. That’s where the mistake has come in. My aunt, Lady Wolvercote, is a bit of an autocrat, don’t you know, and she doesn’t like us fellows to arrange things on our own account. If she knew you I’m sure she’d see what a splendid Galatea you’d make, but as it is she’s set her heart on getting Mrs. Stewart from the very first.”

Had he stopped here his position would have been good, but an indignant instinct, urging him to push the reluctant Mrs. Stewart into the proper place of woman that natural shield of man against all the social disagreeables he brings on himself made Fitzroy rush into the fatal detail.

“My aunt told you so at the Masonic; didn’t she, Mrs. Stewart?”

Milly, under the young man’s imperious eye, assented feebly, but Mrs. Shaw laughed. She perfectly remembered Mildred having mentioned on that very occasion that she did not know Lady Wolvercote by sight.

“I’m afraid I’ve come just a few minutes too soon,” she said, dryly. “You and Mr. Fitzroy don’t seem to have talked things over quite enough.”

The saying was dark and yet too clear. Milly, the meticulously truthful, saw herself convicted of some horrible falsehood. She blushed violently, gasped, and rolled her handkerchief into a tight ball. Mr. Fitzroy ignoring the insinuation, changed his line.

“The part we really wanted you to take, Mrs. Shaw, was that of a nymph in an Elizabethan masque which Lumley has written, with music by Stephen Bampton. It’s to be played in the rose garden and there’s a chorus of nymphs who sing and dance. We want them to look perfectly lovely, don’t you know, and as there can’t be any make-up to speak of, it’s awfully difficult to find the right people.”

Mrs. Shaw disdained the lure and mentally condemned his anxiously civil manner as “soapy.”

“I shall ask Mr. Morrison to go to Lady Wolvercote at once,” she said, “and see whether she really wishes me to give up the part. Time’s getting on, and he says he won’t be able to have many more rehearsals.”

There was a sound as of a carriage stopping in the street below, the jingling of bits, and a high female voice giving an order. Fitzroy, inwardly exasperated by Mrs. Shaw’s resistance and the abject conduct of his ally, sprang to his feet.

“I believe that’s my aunt!” he exclaimed. “She wants me to call at Blenheim on the way home, and I suppose the Morrisons told her where I was.”

He managed to slip his head out between the edge of an awning and the mignonette and geraniums of a window-box.

“It’s my aunt, right enough. May I fetch her up, Mrs. Stewart?” He was down the stairs in a moment and voluble in low-voiced colloquy with the lady in the barouche.

Lady Wolvercote was organizing the great fancy fair for the benefit of the County Cottage Hospitals, and had left the dramatic part of the programme to her nephew to arrange. She was a tall, slight woman, of the usual age for aunts, and pleasant to every one; but she took it for granted that every one would do as she wished naturally, since they always did in her neighborhood. As she stumbled up the stairs after Charlie Fitzroy it was a dark staircase and narrow in proportion to its massive oak balusters she felt faintly annoyed with him for dragging her into the quarrels of his middle-class friends, but confident that she could manage them without the least trouble.

Milly was relieved at the return of Mr. Fitzroy with his aunt. She had had an unhappy five minutes with Mrs. Shaw, who had been saying cryptic but unpleasant things and calling her “Mildred”; whereas she did not so much as know Mrs. Shaw’s Christian name.

Seeing Mrs. Shaw, beautiful, animated, well-dressed, and Milly neatly clothed, since her clothes were not of her own choosing, but with her hair unbecomingly knotted, the brightness of her eyes, complexion, and expression in eclipse, Lady Wolvercote wondered at her nephew’s choice. But that was his affair. She began to talk in a rather high-pitched voice and continuously, like one whose business it is to talk; so that it was difficult to interrupt without rudeness.

“So you’re going to be kind enough to act Galatea for us at our fancy fair, Mrs. Stewart? We want it to be a great success, and Lord Wolvercote and I have heard so much about your acting. My nephew said the part of Galatea would suit you exactly; didn’t you, Charlie?”

“Down to the ground,” interpolated, or rather accompanied, Fitzroy. “We shall have the placards out on Wednesday, and people are looking forward already to seeing Mrs. Stewart. There’ll be a splendid audience.”

“Every one has promised to fill their houses for the fair,” Lady Wolvercote was continuing, “and the Duke thinks he may be able to get down ,” she mentioned a royalty. “You’re going to help us too, aren’t you, Mrs. Shaw? It’s so very kind of you. We’ve got such a pretty part for you in a musical affair which Lenny Lumley wrote with somebody or other for the Duchess of Ulster’s Elizabethan bazaar. There’s a chorus of fairies nymphs, Charlie? Yes, nymphs, and we want them all to be very pretty and able to sing, and there’s a charming dance for them. I’m afraid that silly boy, Jim Morrison, made some mistake about it, and told you we wanted you to act Galatea. But of course we couldn’t possibly do without you in the other thing, and Mrs. Stewart seems quite pointed out for that Galatea part. Jim’s such a dear, isn’t he? And such a splendid actor, every one says he really ought to go on the stage. But we none of us pay the least attention to anything the dear boy says, for he always does manage to get things wrong.”

Mrs. Shaw had been making little movements preparatory to going. She had no gift for the stage except beauty, but that produces an illusion of success, and she took her acting with the seriousness of a Düse.

“I’m sorry I didn’t know Mr. Morrison’s habits better,” she replied. “I’ve been studying the part of Galatea a good deal and rehearsing it with him as well. Of course, I don’t for a moment wish to prevent Mrs. Stewart from taking it, but I’ve spent a good deal of time upon it and I’m afraid I can’t undertake anything else. Of course, it’s very inconvenient stopping in Oxford in August, and I shouldn’t care to do it except for the sake of a part which I felt gave me a real opportunity ”

“But it’s a very pretty part we’ve got for you,” resumed Lady Wolvercote, perplexed. “And we were hoping to see you over at Besselsfield a good deal for rehearsals ”

It seemed to her a “part of nature’s holy plan” that the prospect of Besselsfield should prove irresistibly attractive to the wives of professional men.

“Thanks, so much, but I’m sure you and Mr. Fitzroy must know plenty of girls who would do for that sort of part,” returned Mrs. Shaw.

Milly here broke in eagerly:

“Please, Lady Wolvercote, do persuade Mrs. Shaw to take Galatea; I’m sure I sha’n’t be able to do it a bit; and I would try and take the nymph. I should love the music, and I know I could do the singing, anyhow.”

She rose because Mrs. Shaw had risen and was looking for her parasol and shaking out her plumes. But why did Mr. Fitzroy and Mrs. Shaw both stare at her in an unvarnished surprise, touched with ridicule on the lady’s side?

“No, no, Mrs. Stewart, that won’t do!” cried he, in obvious dismay. At the same moment Mrs. Shaw ejaculated, ironically:

“That’s very brave of you Mildred! I thought you hated music and were never going to try to sing again.”

She and Fitzroy had both been present on an occasion when Mildred, urged on by Milly’s musical reputation, had committed herself to an experiment in song which had not been successful.

“Thank you very much,” Mrs. Shaw went on, “for offering to change, but of course Lady Wolvercote must arrange things as she likes; and, to speak frankly, I’m not particularly sorry to give the acting up, as my husband was rather upset at my not being able to go to Switzerland with him on the 28th. No, please don’t trouble; I can let myself out. Good-bye, Lady Wolvercote; I hope the fair and the theatricals will be a great success. Good-bye, Mr. Fitzroy, good-bye.”

Lady Wolvercote’s faint remonstrances were drowned in the adieus, and Mrs. Shaw sailed out with flying colors, while Milly sank back abjectly into the seat from which she had risen. Every minute she was realizing with a more awful clearness that she, whose one appearance on the stage had been short and disastrous, was cast to play the leading part in a public play before a large and brilliant audience. She hardly heard Fitzroy’s bitter remarks on Mrs. Shaw not forgetting Jim Morrison or Lady Wolvercote exclaiming in a voice almost dreamy with amazement:

“Really it’s too extraordinary!”

“I’m very sorry Mrs. Shaw won’t take the part,” said Milly, clasping and unclasping her slender fingers, “for I know I can’t do it myself.”

Fitzroy was protesting, but she forced herself to continue: “You don’t know what I’m like when I’m nervous. When we had tableaux vivants at Ascham I was supposed to be Charlotte putting a wreath on Werther’s urn, and I trembled so much that I knocked the urn down. It was only card-board, so it didn’t break, but every one laughed and the tableau was spoiled.”

Fitzroy and his aunt cried out that that was nothing, a first appearance; any one could see she had got over that now. Pale, with terrified eyes, she looked from one to the other of her tormentors, who continued to sing the praises of her past prowess on the boards and to foretell the unprecedented harvest of laurels she would reap at Besselsfield. The higher their enthusiasm rose, the more profound became her dejection. There seemed no loop-hole for escape, unless the earth would open and swallow her, which however much to be desired was hardly to be expected.

The ting of a bicycle-bell below did not seem to promise assistance, for cyclists affected the quiet street. But it happened that this bicycle bore Ian to the door. He did not notice the coronet on the carriage which stood before it, and assumed it to belong to one of the three or four ladies in Oxford who kept such équipages. Yet in the blank state of Milly’s memory, he was sorry she had not denied herself to visitors, which Mildred had already learned to do with a freedom only possible to women who are assured social success. Commonly the sight of a carriage would have sent him tiptoeing past the drawing-room, but now, vaguely uneasy, he came straight in. He looked particularly tall in the frame of the doorway, so low that his black hair almost touched the lintel; particularly handsome in the shaded, white-panelled room, into which the dark glow of his sunburned skin and brown eyes, bright with exercise, seemed to bring the light and warmth of the summer earth and sky.

Milly sprang to meet him. Lady Wolvercote was surprised to learn that this was Mrs. Stewart’s husband. She had no idea a Don could be so young and good-looking. Judging of Dons solely by the slight and slighting references of her undergraduate relatives, she had imagined them to be weird-looking men, within various measurable distances of the grave.

“Lady Wolvercote and Mr. Fitzroy want me to act Galatea at the Besselsfield theatricals,” said Milly, clinging to his sleeve and looking up at him with appealing eyes. “Please tell them I can’t possibly do it. I’m I’m not well enough am I?”

“We’re within three weeks of the performance, sir,” put in Fitzroy. “Mrs. Stewart promised she’d do it, and we shall be in a regular fix now if she gives it up. Mrs. Shaw’s chucked us already.”

“Yes, and every one says how splendidly Mrs. Stewart acts,” pleaded Lady Wolvercote.

Stewart had half forgotten the matter; but now he remembered that Mildred had been keen to have the part only a week ago, and a little pettish because he had advised her to leave it alone, on account of Mrs. Shaw. Now she was hanging on him with desperate eyes and that worried brow which he had not seen once since he had married her.

“I’m extremely sorry, Lady Wolvercote,” he said, “but my wife’s had a nervous break-down lately and I can’t allow her to act. She’s not fit for it.”

“Ah, I see I quite understand!” returned Lady Wolvercote. “But we’d take great care of her, Mr. Stewart. She could come and stay at Besselsfield.”

Fitzroy’s gloom lifted. His aunt was a trump. Surely an invitation to Besselsfield must do the job. But Stewart, though apologetic, was inflexible. He had forbidden his wife to act and there was an end of it. The perception of the differences between the two personalities of Milly which had been thrust to-day on his unwilling mind, made him grasp the meaning of her frantic appeals for protection. He relieved her of all responsibility for her refusal to act.

Lady Wolvercote observed, as she and her nephew went sadly on their way, that Mr. Stewart seemed a very, very odd man in spite of his presentable manners and appearance; and Fitzroy replied gloomily that of course he was a beast. Dons always were beasts.