As she was starting for the Halls for the last time, in the dusk of a Spring day, a special messenger put into her hand a letter he had scribbled in the train. He was in London then. Her heart thumped with a medley of emotions as she tore open the letter:
“Oh, my darling, I shall see you at last face to face—” But she had no time to spend under the hall-light reading it. In her cab she struck a match and read another scrap. “But, oh, cruel one, not to let me come to-night!” She winced. That gave her a pause. If she had let him come—to the Half-and-Half! He would turn from her, shuddering. And was it not precisely to the Half-and-Half that honour should have invited him? The Half-and-Half arrived at the cab window ere she had finished pondering. She thrust the letter into her pocket.
Would she ever get through her three Halls? It did not seem as if she had strength for the Half-and-Half itself. She nerved herself to the task, and knew, not merely from the shrieks of delight, that she had surpassed herself. Happy and flushed she flung herself into her waiting cab.
She had the 9.45 turn at her second and most fashionable Hall—a Hall where the chairman had been replaced by programme numbers—and then would come her third and last appearance at 10.35. It was strange to think that in another hour Nelly O’Neill’s career would be over. It seemed like murdering her. Yes, Eileen O’Keeffe would be her murderess. Well, why not murder what lay between one and happiness? As she waited at the wings, just before going on, while the orchestra played her opening bars, she glanced diagonally at the packed stalls, and her heart stood still. There in the second row sat Colonel Doherty, smoking a big cheroot. Instinctively she made the sign of the cross; then swayed back and was caught by the man who changed the programme-numbers.
“Is No. 9 come?” she gasped.
“I think so; aren’t you well, Miss O’Neill?”
“For God’s sake, give me breathing space,” she said, with a last wild peep at the Colonel. Yes, there was no mistaking him after the three new portraits he had sent her. He was in cheerful conversation with a stout, sallow gentleman of the Anglo-Indian stage-type. Both were in immaculate evening-dress and wore white orchids. How fortunate she had refused to send any photograph in return, pleading ugliness but really afraid of theatrical sketches that might find their way to the officers’ mess!
The band stopped, changed its tune, No. 9 appeared on the board; there was a murmur of confusion.
“No, by Heaven, I’ll face the music,” she said with grim humour. She almost hustled the hastening juggler out of the way. She was in a whirlwind of excitement. So he was there—well, so much the better. He had saved her from lying. He had given her an easy way of confessing. Words were so inadequate, he should see the reality: the stage to-night would be her confessional. She would extenuate nothing. She would throw herself furiously into the fun and racket; go to her broadest limits, else the confession would be inadequate. Then ... if he survived the shock ... why then, perhaps, she’d insist on going on with this double life...! He had risen in his seat. No, no, he must not go away, she could not risk the juggler boring him.