Stealing, rising, swelling, gathering as it thrilled the ear all graces and delights of perfect sound; sweeping the awed heart with touch that set the strings quivering to an ecstasy that was almost pain; breathing through them in passionate whispering; hovering, swaying, soaring upward to the very roof, then shivering down again in celestial shower of silver—there came a voice that trod all conceptions, all comparisons, all dreams to scorn; a voice beyond hope, beyond belief; a voice that in its unimaginable beauty seemed to compel the very heaven to listen.
And yet—surely I knew—surely it could not be—
I must be dreaming—mad! The bare notion was incredible—and even as my heart spoke the words, the theatre grew dim and shadowy; the vast sea of faces heaved, melted, swam in confusion; all sound came dull and hoarse upon my ear; while there—there—
There, in the blaze of light, radiant, lovely, a glorified and triumphant queen, stepped forward before the eyes of that vast multitude—my love, my Claire!
TELLS HOW THE BLACK AND YELLOW FAN SENT A MESSAGE; AND HOW I SAW A FACE IN THE FOG.
As I sat stupefied our eyes met. It was but for an instant, but in that instant I saw that she recognised me and mutely challenged my verdict. Then she turned to Valentine.
The theatre rang with tumultuous plaudits as her song ended. I could feel Tom’s grasp at my elbow, but I could neither echo the applause nor answer him. It was all so wildly, grotesquely improbable.
This then was my love, this the Claire whom I had wooed and won in the shy covert of Pangbourne Woods—this deified and transfigured being before whom thousands were hushed in awe. Those were the lips that had faltered in sweet confession—those before which the breath of thousands came and went in agitated wonder. It was incredible.
And then, as Tom’s hand was laid upon my arm, it flashed upon me that the woman he loved was my plighted bride—and he knew nothing of it. As this broke upon me there swept over me an awful dread lest he should see my face and guess the truth. How could I tell him? Poor Tom! Poor Tom!
I turned my eyes upon Claire again. Yes, she was superb: beyond all challenge glorious. And all the more I felt as one who has betrayed his friend and is angry with fate for sealing such betrayal beyond revoke.
Whether Claire misinterpreted my look of utter stupefaction or not, I do not know; but as she turned and recognised Valentine there was a tremor in her voice which the audience mistook for art, though I knew it to be but too real. I tried to smile and to applaud, but neither eyes nor hand would obey my will; and so even Claire’s acting became a reproach and an appeal to me, pleading forgiveness to which my soul cried assent though my voice denied it. Minute after minute I sat beneath an agonising spell I could not hope to break.