The last rumble of applause had died away at the Parthenon Theater, but the audience were leaving very slowly; they wished to linger as long as possible within the atmosphere of the building; though, like the atmosphere of many sacred places, that of the Parthenon was, just at that time, a trifle unsavory. The first performance of the drama of “Cagliostro” had just taken place, and, as the first nights at the Parthenon are invariably regarded as the most exclusive functions of the year, the stalls and boxes had been crowded. And the distinction which in Mayfair and Belgravia attaches to those who have been in the boxes and stalls on Parthenon first night is not greater than that which, in Bloomsbury and Camden Town, accrues to those who have occupied places—not necessarily seats—in the other parts of the house. It is understood, too, that the good will of Bloomsbury and Camden Town is much more valuable to a play than the best wishes of Mayfair and Belgravia.

The gracious manager had made his customary speech of thanks,—for everything produced at the Parthenon was a success,—and while the general audience were moving away very reluctantly, some distinguished men and women followed the guidance of a strong Irish brogue as a flock follows a bell-wether, through a door that led to the stage. Here the great actor and the ever-charming lady who divided with him the affections of West as well as East, received their guests’ congratulations in such a way as made the guests feel that the success was wholly due to their good will.

Mrs. Linton, who was a personage in society,—her husband had found a gold mine (with the assistance of Herbert Courtland) and she had herself written a book of travels which did not sell,—had brought Phyllis with her party to the theater, and they had gone on the stage with the other notabilities, at the conclusion of the performance. George Holland, having become as great a celebrity as the best of them during that previous fortnight, had naturally received a stall and an invitation to the stage at the conclusion of the performance. He had not been of Mrs. Linton’s party, but he lay in wait for that party as they emerged from their box.

Another man also lay in wait for them, and people—outsiders—nudged one another in the theater as the passers down Piccadilly had nudged one another, whispering his name, Herbert Courtland. Others—they were not quite such outsiders—nudged one another when Mrs. Linton laid down her new feather fan on the ledge of the box. It was possibly the loveliest thing that existed in the world at that moment. No artist had ever dreamed of so wonderful a scheme of color—such miracles of color—combinations in every feather from the quill to the spider-web-like fluffs at the tips, each of which shone not like gold but like glass. It was well worth all the nudging that it called forth.

But when Mrs. Linton had picked it up from the ledge, beginning to oscillate it in front of her fair face, the nudging ceased. People looked at the thing with eyes wide with astonishment, but with lips mute.

A more satisfactory evening she had never spent, Mrs. Linton felt; and now the fan was hanging down among the brocaded flowers of her dress, making them look tawdry as she left the box, and noticed how at least two men were lying in wait for her party. There was, however, a frankness in Herbert Courtland’s strategy which George Holland’s did not possess. Mr. Courtland was looking directly at her; Mr. Holland was pretending to be engrossed in conversation with a man in one of the end stalls.

She lifted a finger and Courtland went to her side. The difficulties of the jungle along the banks of the Fly River were trifling compared with the obstacles he had to overcome in obeying her.

“I had no idea that you would be here,” she said.

“Where else should I be?” he said, in so low a tone as to be heard only by her.

“We are so glad,” said Mrs. Linton. “I want to present you to my dearest friend, Phyllis Ayrton.”

“A woman!” said he.

“Not yet. She has never met a man. She will to-night,” said Ella. Then she turned to Phyllis, who was walking beside Lord Earlscourt. “Come here, Phyllis,” she said; “you are the only person in London who doesn’t yet know Mr. Herbert Courtland. This is Mr. Courtland.”

Thus it was that Phyllis went upon the stage of the Parthenon by the side of Herbert Courtland instead of by the side of George Holland; and the little laugh that Mrs. Linton gave was due to her careful observation of the latter’s face when he perceived, as he did in spite of the engrossing nature of his conversation with his friend in the end stall, how his designs had been defeated by her tactics. She would not have minded having Herbert Courtland with her for the hour they might remain at the theater, but she had made up her mind that it was not to Phyllis’ advantage that Mr. Holland should continue by her side in public after she had given him his dismissal.

She also perceived, with even greater gratification, that Herbert Courtland was looking nearly as dissatisfied with the result of her tactics as George Holland. If he had looked pleased at being by the side of Phyllis when he expected to be with her—Ella—what would life be worth to her?

But if he was dissatisfied at being with Phyllis instead of Mrs. Linton, he did not consider that any reason for neglecting the former. He wondered if she had any choice in sandwiches—of course she had in champagne. His curiosity was satisfied, and Phyllis was amply provided for.

“You are Mrs. Linton’s dearest friend,” he remarked casually, as they leaned up against the profile of the Church scene in “Cagliostro,” for they were standing in the “wings”—to be exact—on the O. P. side.

“She is my dearest friend, at any rate,” said Phyllis.

“You were not at school together. She is four or five years older than you.”

“Only three. When she got married she seemed to me to be almost venerable. Three years seemed a long time then.”

“But now you fancy that you have formed a right idea of what is meant by three years?”

“Well, a better idea, at any rate.”

“You are still a good way off it. But if you have formed a right estimate of a woman’s friendship——”

“That’s still something, you mean to say? But why did you stop short, Mr. Courtland?”

Phyllis was looking up to his face with a smile of inquiry.

“I was afraid that you might think I was on the way to preach a sermon on the text of woman’s friendship. I pulled myself up just in time. I’m glad that I didn’t frighten you.”

“Oh, no; you didn’t frighten me, Mr. Courtland. I was only wondering how you would go on—whether you would treat the topic sentimentally or cynically.”

“And what conclusion did you come to on the subject?”

“I know that you are a brave man—perhaps the bravest man alive. You would, I think, have treated the question seriously—feelingly.”

He laughed.

“The adoption of that course implies courage certainly. All the men of sentimentality—which is something quite different from sentiment, mind you—have taken to writing melodrama and penny novelettes. You didn’t hear much sentimentality on this stage to-night, or any other night, for that matter.”

“No; it would have sounded unreal. A Parthenon audience would resent what they believed to be a false note in art; and a Parthenon audience is supposed to be the concentration of the spirit of the period in thought and art; isn’t it?”

“I don’t know. I’m half a savage. But I like to think the best of a Parthenon audience; you and I formed part of that concentration to-night—yes, I like to think the best of it. I suppose we know—we, the Parthenon audience, I mean—what our feelings are on the art of acting—the art of play-writing.”

“I shouldn’t like to have to define my feelings at a moment’s notice.”

“One must make a beginning, and then work up gradually to the definition.”

“For instance——”

“Well, for instance, there’s something that people call realism nowadays.”

“My father has his ideas on what’s called realism,” Phyllis laughed. “‘Realism in painting is the ideal with a smudge.’”

“I should like to hear what you think of it?”

He also laughed sympathetically.

“Oh, I only venture to think that realism is the opposite to reality.”

“And, so far as I can gather, your definition is not wanting in breadth—no, nor in accuracy. Sentimentality is the opposite to sentiment.”

“That is a point on which we agreed a moment ago. My father says that sentiment is a strong man’s concealment of what he feels, while sentimentality is a weak man’s expression of what he doesn’t feel.”

“And the Parthenon audience—you and I—laugh at the latter—that is, because we have practiced some form of athletics. The bicycle has given its coup de grace to sentimentality. That man over there with the head and face like a lion’s, and that woman whose face is nature illuminated, have long ago recognized the shallowness of sentimentality—the depths of sentiment. We could not imagine either of them striking a false note. They have been the teachers of this generation—the generation to which you belong. Great Heavens! to think that for so many years human passion should be banished from art, though every line of Shakspere is tremulous with passion! Why, the word was absolutely banished; it was regarded as impure.”

“I know that—I was at a boarding school. The preceptresses regarded as impure everything that is human.”

“Whereas, just the opposite is the case?”

“I didn’t say that, Mr. Courtland.”

“You could scarcely say it. I am only beginning to think it, and I have lived among savages for years. That man with the lion’s face has not feared to deal with passion. All actors who have lived since Garrick have never gone further than to illustrate passion in the hands of a man; but that lion-man, whose stage we are now standing on, shows us not the passion in the hands of a man, but the man in the hands of the passion. The man who tears the passion to tatters is the robustious periwig-pated fellow; the actor, who shows us the man torn in tatters by the passion, is the supreme artist. I am no authority on modern literature; but I must confess that I was astonished at the change that a few years have brought about. I was in a proper position for noticing it, having been practically without books for two years.”

“Is it a change for the better, do you think, Mr. Courtland?”

“I feel certain that it is for the better. I refer, of course, only to the books of those real investigators—real artists. I refer to the fountain-heads, not to the hydrants laid down by the water companies at the end of about ten miles of foul piping. I don’t like the product of the hydrants. I like the springs, and, however natural they may be, I don’t find anything impure in them. Why I love the Bible is because it is so very modern.”

“You don’t think, then, that it is yet obsolete, Mr. Courtland?”

“No book that deals so truly with men and women can ever be obsolete, the fact being that men and women are the same to-day as they were ten thousand years ago, perhaps ten million years ago, though I’m not quite so sure of that. The Bible, and Shakspere, and Rofudingding, a New Guinea poet, who ate men for his dinner when he had a chance, and, when he had finished, sang lyrics that stir the hearts of all his fellow-islanders to this day,—he lived a hundred years ago,—dealt with men and women; that is why all are as impressive to-day as they were when originally composed. Men and women like reading about men and women, and it is becoming understood, nowadays, that the truth about men and women can never be contemptible.”

“Ah, but how do we know that it is the truth?”

“Therein the metaphysician must minister to himself. I cannot suggest to you any test of the truth, if you have none with you. Everyone capable of pronouncing a judgment on any matter must feel how truthfully the personages in the Bible have been drawn.”

“Yes; the Bible is the Word of God.”

“I believe that it is, most certainly. That profound wisdom; that toleration of the weaknesses of men; that sympathy with men, who cannot fathom the mysteries of life, and the struggle for life of all things that love life; that spirit I call God, and I don’t think that a better name has been found for it.”

“It—for it? You think of God as merely a force of nature?”

“Just the contrary. God is the spirit that lives in warfare with nature. Great Heavens! isn’t that the truth of which the whole Bible is the allegory? Nature and nature’s laws constitute the Devil. God is the opposing Force. It is a law of nature to kill off the weak, to crush that which has fallen in the struggle. It is God who helps the weak—who helps the feeble.”

“But merely a force?”

“Oh, I have no private opinion on that part of the question. I am not like that modern philosopher who fancied he had solved the whole problem by spelling God with a small g. But don’t you think that we have gone quite far enough in our exchange of confidence for a first meeting? You are what the Italians call simpatica—that is, more than merely sympathetic. You look at one, and lead one on to confide in you as one does not confide in most girls. You are a thoroughly dangerous young woman, Miss Ayrton, though you are Mrs. Linton’s dearest friend. By the way, can you make her confide in you?”

There seemed to be a measure of curiosity, not to say anxiety, in the tone of this inquiry.

“Well, she makes me confide in her. I wonder if that is just the same thing,” said Phyllis.

“It’s not exactly the same thing,” said he. “But it’s the proper course for dearest friends to adopt toward each other. For the maintenance of a firm friendship between any two persons, only one should confide; the other should be strictly the confidante. By the way, I wonder what is the average duration of the dearest friendship between two women.”

“Why should it have any limits?” said Phyllis gravely. “What is the duration of the friendship between two men?”

“It mostly depends on when the woman makes her appearance,” said he, with a laugh.

“Ah! So that——Ah, never mind. Ella was my dearest friend before Mr. Linton put in an appearance.”

“And he was mine before she put in an appearance,” said he.

“I didn’t know that,” said Phyllis.

“There, you see, is my contention borne out,” said he. “You are the one who confides; she is the one who receives the confidences, and respects them, I’m sure. I hope that you will do the same, Miss Ayrton. Don’t let anyone know that I confided in you all that I think on the subject of the old Adam and the new Eve.”

“No one except Ella Linton, and you know that I can keep nothing from her if we are to remain dearest friends. Perhaps she knows already the limits of your belief, Mr. Courtland.”

“She does—she does.”

At that moment Ella Linton came up with Lord Earlscourt.

“Has Mr. Courtland been telling you all about the bird of paradise?” she asked of Phyllis, while she waved the tail feathers of the loveliest of the birds of paradise before her face.

“The bird?—not the bird,” laughed Phyllis.

“But the topic was paradise?” Ella joined in the laugh—yes, to some extent.

“I talked of Adam—the old one of that name,” said Mr. Courtland.

“And Eve—the new one of that name,” said Phyllis.

“Theology is in the air!” cried Ella. “Even the stage of a theater is not free from the taint. It must be the case of Mr. Holland. Where is Mr. Holland, by the way, Lord Earlscourt?”

“I haven’t seen him for some time. He must have gone away. I’m not Mr. Holland’s keeper, thank Heaven!” said Lord Earlscourt, with heartfelt devoutness.

“Now you know that everyone holds you accountable for what he has done!” said Ella.

“Then that’s just where everyone makes a mistake,” said he. “Great Lord! is it your idea of British justice to persecute the wrong man? Why doesn’t the bishop do his duty? What do we pay him for?”

“We won’t abandon our charity at the call of theology,” said Ella.

“Theology—represented by Lord Earlscourt,” said Mr. Courtland.

“You don’t know how I’ve been abused during the past fortnight, indeed you don’t,” moaned Lord Earlscourt. “Why, there’s my own wife, she abused me like a cab-driver because George Holland had been with us on the platform when the Chinese teetotalers came here to protest against the public houses in England; she says that his backsliding will put back the cause a quarter of a century. Then there are the other churchwardens; they look on me as if I had been making a suggestion to raffle the sacred plate. George Holland has a run for his money, but I’ve had no fun out of it.”

“It does seem hard,” said Courtland. “But it’s plain that the case calls for persecution, and why not persecute you? Someone must be persecuted, you’ll admit.”

“Then why the—”

“I thought that your good old Bunyip would look in on us before long,” said Courtland. “There’s no possibility of discussing delicate points in theology without him.”

“I think we had better go home,” said Ella.

“We must have some consideration for our host,” said Courtland. “We didn’t all play the part of Cagliostro to-night.”

During the movement of her circle and the adjustment of wraps, preparatory to the delivery of a valedictory word of congratulation to the great actor, Ella said in a low tone to Herbert Courtland:

“Cagliostro? No; we didn’t all play the part; but—well, Cagliostro was a weaver of spells.”

There was a pause before he said:

“Yes, but the art did not die with him. He had a daughter to whom he taught his art.”

“Not that I ever heard of,” said she. “What do you think of Phyllis Ayrton?”

“I think that she is the dearest friend of my dearest friend,” he replied.

“And I should like her to become the dearest friend of my dearest friend.”

“That would be impossible,” he said.

Then the felicitous valedictory word was said to the great actor and actress, and Mrs. Linton’s carriage received Phyllis. Lord Earlscourt took a seat in Mr. Courtland’s hansom.

“What do you think about Mr. Courtland?” inquired Ella of her dearest friend, as they lay back with their heads very close together.

There was a long pause before Phyllis replied:

“I really don’t know what I think about him. He is, I suppose, the bravest man alive at present.”

“What? Is that the result of your half hour’s chat with him?”

“Oh, dear, no! but all the same, it’s pleasant for a girl to feel that she has been talking to a brave man. It gives one a sense of—of—is it of being quite safe?”

“Good gracious, no! just the opposite—that is——Oh, you don’t understand.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Never mind. Tell me what he talked about?”

“Oh, everything! God.”

“I know that it was in the air. He has ideas, I believe. He never talked on that topic to me. I hope you found him to be quite sound, theologically.”

“But it seems rather funny, doesn’t it?” said Phyllis; “but I really don’t think that when I was listening to him I considered for a moment whether he was sound or the opposite in his views.”

“Funny? It would have been rather funny if you had done that,” laughed Ella. “The question that a healthy girl—and you are a healthy girl, Phyllis—asks herself after talking to such a man as Herbert Courtland is not, Is his theology sound? What healthy girl cares the fraction of a farthing about the theology of a man with a face like Herbert Courtland’s and arms like Herbert Courtland’s? You talked with him for half an hour, and then come to me and say that you suppose he is the bravest man alive in the world. That was right—quite right. That is just what every healthy girl should say. We understand a man’s thews and sinews; we likewise understand what bravery in a man is, but what do we know, or, for that matter, care about his theology, whether it is sound or the opposite? Nothing. We don’t even care whether he has any theology or not.”

“Good gracious, Ella! one would fancy that you thought——”

“Thought what?”

“I don’t quite know. You see I met Mr. Courtland quite casually, just as I met a dozen men at various places during the week. Why should you question me more closely about him than about the dozen other men? He only talked a little more widely, and perhaps wildly. His bravery is no more to me than his theology.”

“Of course it isn’t, Phyllis. But there was the case of George Holland—”

“That is very different, Ella. I had engaged myself to marry George Holland. It would be impossible for me to marry any man who had shown his contempt for—for everything that I regard as sacred.”

“I believe it would, if you didn’t love that man. But if you loved the man——Oh, when you come to know what it means to love you will understand all. A woman before she loves is—what is she, an egg before it is hatched? That sounds ridiculous. Better say a green chrysalis before it breaks into a butterfly; for the transition comes at once. Theology! Oh, my Phyllis, haven’t you read in history, true history—novels written by men who know us and how we were created, and why—haven’t you read what women do when they truly love a man? How they fling every consideration to the winds: heaven—home—husband—God—Mrs. Grundy? Theology! Ah, you are a healthy girl. You never cared a scrap for George Holland. You were glad when the excuse presented itself in order to throw him over.”

“Yes; I believe that is quite true.”

Ella’s cry of surprise, and her laugh that followed, shocked her companion, and feeling that this was the case, the one who laughed hastened to make her apologies.

“Don’t be annoyed with me, dear,” she cried. “But I really couldn’t help that laugh when I thought of your earnestness the week before last. Then, you will remember, you were in great pain because of the heterodoxy of George Holland. Didn’t I tell you at that time that you had never loved him? You were ready to assure me that you had, and that you were making a great sacrifice to your principles?”

“I remember very well,” said Phyllis, with a sound that was not far removed from a sob.

“Ah, you are a puzzle to yourself, you poor little chrysalis,” said Ella, putting the meteoric feathers playfully down upon the serious face of Phyllis—its seriousness was apparent beneath the light of the carriage lamp. “No, don’t make the attempt to explain anything to me. Don’t try to reconcile your frankness now with your pretense then, because you’ll certainly make a muddle of it, and because no such attempt is necessary to be made to me. I know something of the girl and her moods—not a great deal, perhaps, but enough to prevent my doing you an injustice. You are perfectly consistent, my Phyllis.”

“Oh, consistent?”

“Perfectly consistent with your nature as a girl. It is the nature of a girl to change with every wind that blows. It is only the female prig who acts consistently under all circumstances. In a world the leading of which is its men, inconsistency is the best nature of a healthy girl made to be loved by men. One doesn’t sneer at the weathercock because one hour it points to the north and the next to the east. ‘Tis its nature to. ‘Tis our nature to change with every breeze of man that bears down on us. That’s why they love us and detest the prigs. Here we are at your house. I hope you don’t keep your maid up for you. I would scorn to keep a girl out of her bed for the sake of brushing my hair. Good-night, dear, and dream of the paradise that awaits you—a paradise in which there are birds to be shot, birds of paradise to make feather fans for women who hold them to their bosoms one minute, and the next dispose of them to Mr. and Mme. Abednego with last season’s opera wrap. There’s a parable for you to sleep upon.”

“And you—you?” cried Phyllis.

“Oh, as for me, I’ll, I’ll—well, I think I’ll put my meteor fan on the pillow beside my own to-night. I’m still newfangled with my toy and—well, I’m a woman.”

At this instant the carriage pulled up to Mr. Ayrton’s hall door and the footman jumped down from the box to run up the steps and ring the bell.

“Good-night,” said Phyllis. “I enjoyed my evening greatly, and the drive home best of all.”

Ella Linton’s laugh was smothered among the delicate floss of the feathers which she held up to her face.

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