But the moment of release came at length. A final good-night kiss to Gillian on the landing outside her bedroom door, and then a nerve-racking hour while Virginie fussed over her, undressing her and preparing her for bed with the same tender care she had devoted to the bebe she had nursed and tended more than twenty years ago.
It was over at last.
“Sleep well!” And Virginie switched off the electric light as she pattered out of the room, leaving Magda alone in the cool dark, with the silken softness of crepe de chine once more caressing her slender limbs, and the fineness of lavender-scented linen smooth against her cheek.
The ease, and comfort, and wellbeing of it all! Yet this first night, passed in the familiar luxury which had lapped her round since childhood, was a harder, more bitter night than any of the preceding three hundred and sixty-five she had spent tossing weary, aching limbs on a lumpy straw mattress with a coarse brown woollen blanket drawn up beneath her chin, vexing her satin skin.
For each of those nights had counted as a step onwards along the hard road that was to lead her back eventually to Michael. Now she knew that they had all been endured in vain. Spiritually her self-elected year of discipline might have fitted her to be the wife of “Saint Michel.” But the undimmed physical beauty and charm which Michael, the man and artist, would crave in the woman he loved was gone.
The recognition of these things rushed over her, overwhelming her with a sense of blank and utter failure. It meant the end of everything. As far as she was concerned, life henceforward held nothing more. There was nothing to hope for in the future—except to hope that Michael might never see her again! At least, she would like to feel that his memory of her—of the Wielitzska whose lithe grace and beauty had swept him headlong even against the tide of his convictions—would remain for ever unmarred.
It was a rather touching human little weakness—the weakness and prayer of many a woman who has lost her lover. . . . Let him remember her—always—as she was before the radiance of youth faded, before grief or pain blurred the perfection that had been hers!
Perhaps for Magda the wish was even stronger, more insistent by reason of the fact that her beauty had been of so fine and rare a quality, setting her in a way apart from other women.
With the instinct of the wounded wild creature she longed to hide—to hide herself from Michael, so that she might never see in his eyes that look of quickly veiled disappointment which she knew would spring into them as he realised the change in her. She felt she could not bear that. It would be like a sword-thrust through her heart. . . . Better if she had never left the sisterhood!
Suddenly every nerve of her tautened. Supposing—supposing she returned there, never to emerge again? No chance encounter could ever then bring her within sight or sound of Michael. She would be spared watching the old, eager look of admiration fade suddenly from the grey eyes she loved.