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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Beloved Woman - Chapter 21
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The Beloved Woman - Chapter 21 Post by :gballard Category :Long Stories Author :Kathleen Thompson Norris Date :May 2012 Read :1050

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The Beloved Woman - Chapter 21

CHAPTER XXI

Suddenly and smoothly they were all transported to town again, and the vigour and sparkle of the autumn was exhilarating to Norma in spite of herself. The Park was a glory of red and gold leaves; morning came late, and the dew shone until ten o'clock; bright mists rose smoking into the sunlight, and when Norma walked home from a luncheon, or from an hour of furious squash or tennis at the club, the early winter dusk would be closing softly in, the mists returning, and the lights of the long Mall in the park blooming round and blue in the twilight.

She was with Mrs. Melrose this winter, an arrangement extremely welcome to the old lady, who was lonely and liked the stir of young life in the house. Alice had quite charmingly and naturally suggested the change, and Norma's belongings had been moved away from the little white room next to Miss Slater's.

One reason for it was that Alice had had two nurses all summer long, and found the increased service a great advantage. Then Mama was all alone and not so well as she had been; getting old, and reluctant to take even the necessary exercise.

"And then you're too young to be shut up with stupid home-loving folk like Chris and me," Alice had told Norma, lightly.

"Your stupidity is proverbial, Aunt Alice," Norma had laughed. She did not care where she went any more. Chris had greeted her casually, upon their meeting in October, and had studiously, if inconspicuously, ignored her. But even to see him at all was so great a relief to her over-charged heart that for weeks this was enough. She must meet him occasionally, she heard his name every day, and she knew where he was and what he was doing almost at every moment. She treasured every look, every phrase of his, and she glowed and grew beautiful in the conviction that, even though he was still mysteriously angry with her, he had that old consciousness of her presence, too; he might hate her, but he could not ignore her.

And then, in December, the whole matter reached a sudden crisis, and Norma came to feel that she would have been glad to have the matter go back to this state of doubt and indecision again.

Mrs. von Behrens was on the directorate of a working girls' club that needed special funds every winter, and this year the money was to be raised by an immense entertainment, at which generous professional singers were to be alternated on a brilliant programme with society girls and men, in tableaux and choruses. Norma, who had a charming if not particularly strong voice, was early impressed into service, because she was so good-natured, so dependable, and pretty and young enough to carry off a delectable costume. The song she sang had been specially written for the affair, and in the quaint dance that accompanied it she was drilled by the dance authority of the hour. A chorus of eight girls and eight men was added to complete the number, and the gaiety of the rehearsals, and the general excitement and interest, carried the matter along to the last and dress rehearsal with a most encouraging rush.

Annie had originally selected Chris for Norma's companion in the song, for Chris had a pleasant, presentable voice, and Chris in costume was always adequate to any role. Theatricals had been his delight, all his life long, and among the flattering things that were commonly said of Chris was that he had robbed the stage of a great character actor.

But Chris had begged off, to take a minor part in another _ensemble_, and Norma had a youth named Roy Gillespie for her partner. Roy was a big, fat, blond boy, good-natured and stupid and rather in love with Norma, and as the girl was entirely unconscious of Annie's original plan, she was quite satisfied with him.

The dress rehearsal was on a dark Thursday afternoon before the Saturday of the performance. It took place in the big empty auditorium, where it was to drag along from twelve o'clock noon, until the preparations for the regular evening performance drove the amateurs, protesting, away. Snow was fluttering down over the city when Annie, with Norma, and a limousine full of properties, reached the place at noon; motor-cars were wheeling and crowding in the side street, and it seemed to Norma thrilling to enter so confidently at the big, dirty, sheet-iron door lettered:

"STAGE DOOR. NO ADMITTANCE."

As always to the outsider, the wings, the shabby dressing-rooms, the novel feeling of sauntering across the big, dim stage, the gloom of the great rising arch of the house, were full of charm. Voices and hammers were sounding in the gloom; somebody was talking hard while he fitfully played the piano; girls were giggling and fluttering about; footlights flashed up and down, in the front rows of seats a few mothers and maids had gathered. There was the sweet, strong smell of some spicy disinfectant, and obscure figures, up the aisles, were constantly sweeping and stooping.

Annie had a chair in a wing. Her small fur hat and trim suit had been selected for comfort; her knees were crossed, and she had a sheaf of songs, a pencil, and various note-books in her hands. She was alert, serious, authoritative; her manner expressed an anxious certainty that everything that could possibly go wrong was about to do so. Men protested jovially to Annie, girls whimpered and complained, maids delivered staggering messages into her ear. Annie frowningly yet sympathetically sent them all away, one by one; persisted that the rehearsal proceed. Never mind the hat, we could get along without the hat; never mind Dixie Jadwin, someone could read her part; never mind this, never mind that; go on, go on--we must get on!

At five o'clock she was very tired, and Norma, fully arrayed, was tired, too. The girl had been sitting on a barrel for almost an hour, patiently waiting for the tardy Mr. Roy Gillespie to arrive, and permit their particular song to be rehearsed. Everything that could be done in the way of telephoning had been done: Mr. Gillespie had left his office, he was expected momentarily at his home, he should be given the message immediately. Nothing to do but wait.

Suddenly Norma's heart jumped to her throat, began to hammer wildly. A man had come quietly in between her and Annie, and she heard the voice that echoed in her heart all day and all night. It was Chris.

He did not see her, perhaps did not recognize her in a casual glance, and began to talk to his sister-in-law in low, quick tones. Almost immediately Annie exclaimed in consternation, and called Norma.

"Norma! Chris tells me that poor old Mr. Gillespie died this afternoon. _That's what's been the matter. What on earth are we to do now? I declare it's _too much!"

Norma got off her barrel. The great lighted stage seemed to be moving about her as she went to join them.

What Chris saw strained his tried soul to its utmost of endurance. He had not permitted himself to look at her squarely for weeks. Now there was a new look, a look a little sad, a little wistfully expectant, in the lovely face. Her eyes burned deeply blue above the touch of rouge and the crimson lips. Her dark, soft hair fell in loose ringlets on her shoulders from under the absurd little tipped and veiled hat of the late seventies. Her gown, a flowered muslin, moved and tilted with a gentle, shaking majesty over hoop skirts, and was crossed on the low shoulders by a thin silk shawl whose long fringes were tangled in her mitted fingers. The white lace stockings began where the loose lace pantalettes stopped, and disappeared into flat-heeled kid slippers. Norma carried a bright nosegay in lace paper, and on her breast a thin gold locket hung on a velvet ribbon.

She herself had been completely captivated by the costume when Madame Modiste had first suggested it, and when the first fittings began. But that was weeks ago, and she was accustomed to it now, and conscious in this instant of nothing but Chris, conscious of nothing but the possibility that he would have a word or a smile, at last, for her.

"Stay right here, both of you--don't move a step--while I telephone Lucia Street!" said the harassed Annie, her eyes glittering with some desperate hope. She hurried away; they were alone.

"Poor old Roy--he adored his father!" Chris said, with dry lips, and in a rather unnatural voice. Norma, for one second, simulated mere sympathy. Then with a rush the pride and hurt that had sustained her ever since that weary September evening in the hotel lobby vanished, and she came close to Chris, so that the fragrance and sweetness of her enveloped him, and caught his coat with both her mitted hands, and raised her face imploringly, commandingly to his.

"Chris--for God's sake--what have I done? Don't you know--don't you know that you're killing me?"

He looked down at her, wretchedly. And suddenly Norma knew. Not that he liked her, not that she fascinated and interested him, not that they were friends. But that he loved her with every fibre of his being, even as she loved him.

The revelation carried her senses away with it upon a raging sea of emotion and ecstasy. He drew her into a dim corner of the wings, and put his arms about her, and her whole slender body, in its tilting hoops, strained backward under the passion and fury of his first embrace. Again and again his lips met hers, and she heard the incoherent outpouring of murmured words, and felt the storm that shook him as it was shaking her. Norma, after the first kiss, grew limp, let herself rest almost without movement in his arms, shut her eyes.

Reason came back to them slowly; the girl almost rocking upon her feet as the vertigo and bewilderment passed, and the man sustaining her with an arm about her shoulders, neither looking at the other. So several seconds, perhaps a full minute, went by, while the world settled into place about them; the dingy, unpainted wood of the wings, the near-by stage where absorbed groups of people were still coming and going, the distant gloom of the house.

"So now you know!" Chris said, breathlessly, panting, and looking away from her, with his hands hanging at his sides. "Now you know! I've tried to keep it from you! But now--now you know!"

Norma, also breathing hard, did not answer for a little space.

"I've known since that time we were in town, in September!" she said, almost defiantly. Chris looked toward her, surprised, and their eyes met. "I've known what was the matter with _me_," she added, thoughtfully, even frowning a little in her anxiety to make it all clear, "but I couldn't imagine what it was with _you_!"

But this brought him to face her, so close that she felt the same sense of drowning, of losing her footing, again.

"Chris--please!" she whispered, in terror.

"But, Norma--say it! Say that you love me--that's all that matters now! I've been losing my mind, I think. I've been losing my mind. Just that--that you do care!"

"I have----" Tears came to her lifted blue eyes, and she brushed them away without moving her gaze from him. "I think I have always loved you, Chris--from the very first," she whispered.

Instantly she saw his expression change. It was as if, with that revelation, a new responsibility began for him.

"Here, dear, you mustn't cry!" he said, composedly. He gave her his handkerchief, helped her set the tipped hat and lace veil straight, smiled reassurance and courage into her eyes. "I'll see you, Norma--we'll talk," he said. "Oh, my God, to talk to you again! Come, now, we'll have to be here when Annie comes back--that's right. I--I love the little gown--terribly sweet. I haven't seen it before, you know; my crowd has done all its rehearsing at Mrs. Hitchcock's. Here's Annie now----"

"Christopher," said Annie, in deadly, almost angry earnest, as she came up desperate and weary, "you'll have to sing this thing with Norma. Burgess Street absolutely refuses. He's in the chorus, and he sings, but he simply won't do a solo! His mother says he has a cold, and so on, and I swear I'll throw the whole thing up; I will, indeed!--rather than have this number ruined. There's no earthly reason why you can't do both--of course the poor old man couldn't help dying--but if you knew----"

"My dear girl, of course I'll do it!" All the youth and buoyancy that had been missing from his voice for weeks had come back. Christopher laughed his old delightful laugh. "I'll have to have Roy's costume cut down, but Smithers will do it for me. I'll do my very best----"

"Oh, Chris, God bless you," Annie said. "You'll do it better than he ever did. Take my car and stop for his suit, and express whatever's decent--the funeral will be Saturday morning and we'll all have to go, but there's no help for it. And come to my house for dinner, and you and Norma can go over it afterward; you poor girl, you're tired out, but it's such a Godsend to have Chris fill in. And it will be the prettiest number of all."

Tired out? The radiant girl who was tripping away to change to street attire was hardly conscious that her feet touched the ground. The stage, the theatre, the fur coat into which she buttoned herself, the fragrance of the violets she wore, were all touched with beauty and enchantment.

Snow was still falling softly, when she and Annie went out to the car. Annie was so exhausted that she could hardly move, but Norma floated above things mortal. The dark sidewalk was powdered with what scrunched under their shoes like dry sugar, and up against the lighted sky the flakes were twirling and falling. The air was sweet and cold and pure after the hot theatre. Chris put them in the motor-car. He would see his tailor, have a bite of dinner at home, and be at Annie's at eight o'clock for the rehearsal.

"I'll do something for you, for this, Norma!" her aunt assured the girl, gratefully. Norma protested in a voice that was almost singing. It was nothing at all!

She felt suddenly happy and light. It was all right; there was to be no more agony and doubt. Alice should lose nothing, the world should know nothing, but Chris loved her! She could take his friendship fearlessly, there would be nothing but what was good and beautiful and true between them. But what a changed world!

What a changed room it was into which she danced, to brush her hair for dinner, and laugh into her mirror, where the happy girl with starry eyes and blazing cheeks laughed back. What a changed dinner table, at which the old lady drowsed and cooed! Norma's blood was dancing, her head was in a whirl, she was hardly conscious that this soaring and singing soul of hers had a body.

At eight she and Mrs. Melrose went to Mrs. von Behrens's, and Norma and Chris went through the song again and again and again, for the benefit of a small circle of onlookers. Hendrick, who had sworn that wild horses would not drag him to the entertainment, sat with a small son in his lap, and applauded tirelessly. Annie criticized and praised alternately. Mrs. Melrose went to sleep, and Annie's new secretary, a small, lean, dark girl of perhaps twenty-two, passionately played the music. Norma knew exactly how this girl felt, how proud she was of her position, how anxious to hold it, and how infinitely removed from her humble struggle the beautiful Miss Sheridan seemed! Yet she herself had been much the same less than two years ago!

Norma could have laughed aloud. She envied no one to-night. The mystery and miracle of Chris's love for her was like an ermine mantle about her shoulders, and like a diadem upon her brows. Annie was delighted with her, and presently told her she had never before sung so well.

"I suppose practice makes perfect!" the girl answered, innocently. She was conscious of no hypocrisy. No actress enjoying a long-coveted part could have rejoiced in every word and gesture more than she. Just to move, under his eyes, to laugh or to be serious, to listen dutifully to Annie and the old lady, to flirt with Baby Piet, was ecstasy enough.

They had small opportunity for asides. But that was of no consequence. All the future was their own. They would see each other to-morrow--or next day; it did not matter. Norma's hungry heart had something to remember, now--a very flood-tide of memories. She could have lived for weeks upon this one day's memories.

Norma and Chris were placed toward the centre of the first half of the programme on the triumphant Saturday night, and could escape from the theatre before eleven o'clock to go home to tell Alice all about it. Chris played the song, on his own piano, and Norma modestly and charmingly went through it again, to the invalid's great satisfaction. Alice, when Norma and her mother were gone, tried to strike a spark of enthusiasm from her husband as to the girl's beauty and talent, but Chris was pleasantly unresponsive.

"She got through it very nicely; they all did!" Chris admitted, indifferently.

"When you think of the upbringing she had, Chris, a little nameless nobody," Alice pursued. "When you think that until last year she had actually never seen a finger-bowl, or spoken to a servant!"

"Exactly!" Chris said, briefly. Alice, who was facing the fire, did not see him wince. She was far from suspecting that he had at that moment a luncheon engagement for the next day with Norma, and that during the weeks that followed they met by appointment almost every day, and frequently by chance more often than that.

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