Few, of his many acquaintances had any idea that Jack Durrant was sufficiently serious-minded to be the prey of an abiding remorse. To them, he was a young, good-looking, well-groomed man about town, with perhaps more money than was good for him, get- ting a good deal of pleasure out of life and little of its pain.
But then, none of them had known of that early and disastrous love affair of his; none had met the beautiful girl to whom he had become engaged after a passionate wooing and whom he failed so lamentably when, by a ghastly trick of fate, a terrible accident had ruined the beauty he had prized so highly. His remorse had been complete, when, later, after an unsuccessful effort to trace her, he discovered that death had claimed her and so deprived him of any chance of making the belated amends he had honestly intended.
He had never forgotten, nor forgiven, that early failure of his; never - though outwardly gay, debonair, care-free connoisseur of life - offered love to another woman, or tried to awaken love for himself for another. That is, until, upon that memorable day in early spring, there befell the strange adventure that was, in so queer a way, to restore his shattered self-respect and help him back to happiness.
The adventure itself opened ordinarily enough. Something similar has happened to most young men from the beginning of time. Jack was strolling, in his apparently unconcerned way, down Bond Street, no doubt sharing the delight of everyone about him in the freshness of the spring morning, when involuntarily he paused as his wandering gaze was suddenly arrested by the face of a girl sitting alone in an open two-seater car drawn up by the pavement.
It wasn't alone that the face was beautiful. He had seen as many faces as lovely and had passed them by with perhaps a second glance. There was something else, some indefinable and potent charm; something exquisite in the poise of the lovely head in its small, close-fitting hat, pulled over fair, shingled curls; something poignantly appealing in the sweet droop of the delicately curved lips. Jack could not keep himself. He stopped and, as he afterwards bluntly confessed, started like a ploughboy at a fair.
It was at that moment that the girl turned her head, and seeing him there, smiled involuntarily in his eyes; then, instantly aware of what she had done, she turned her head swiftly away, the blood, mantling in a glorious riot of colour, to her temples.
Cursing himself for his unpardonable rudeness, Jack strode on until a sudden realisation halted him in his stride and he stood, irresolutely, gazing with unseeing eyes into a shop window. The truth, the astounding, incredible truth was that he simply couldn't go on his way leaving things just as they were. In one split second something had altered the whole tenor of his life. driving from his mind the haunting memory of that first ill-starred love affair of his, and that something was the face of a girl glimpsed for a moment as he passed by.
He turned at last and slowly retraced his steps, angry with himself for his folly, and yet utterly unable to restrain the impulse which governed him. The two-seater still stood by the pavement, but as he neared it another girl came out of a nearby shop, crossed swiftly to the car and took her seat at the wheel. Before Jack had time to do or say anything - had there been anything to do or to say - the car had slid away and was careering down Bond Street.
The incident was apparently closed - and yet it wasn't! For as the car swung away from the pavement, something slid from the top of the folded hood, bounced on the closed dickey, and thence into the street. Jack did not hesitate. Within a few seconds he had picked up the object, regarded it with momentary astonishment, and then hastily hid it in a capacious pocket of his light overcoat.
The thing was a tiny, high heeled slipper of scarlet brocade, daintily and beautifully fashioned, certainly the last thing one would expect to fall from a car in broad daylight in a London street.
A little pulse of excitement beat in Jack's breast as he continued on his way, fingering the dainty slipper within the sanctuary of his pocket. There was no doubt at all in his mind as to which of the two girls the slipper belonged, for the girl who had been shopping was built on more generous lines than the divinity who had smiled at him from the car, and the slipper was obviously that of a dainty slim girl, with a small, slender foot. But the problem was how to make use of this lucky find of his? How to get in touch with slipper's exquisite owner? Jack thought for a moment of prosecuting inquiries in the shop out of which he had seen the other girl come, hut gave the idea up at once. No salesman would give a clients name and address to a stranger, no matter how discreet the inquiry.
Jack had to find another way.
The only other possible way that presented itself to him was the one he adopted the next day. For on that day there appeared in The Times' personal column the following "agony": -
"SCARLET SLIPPER. - Picked up by Gentleman honoured by smile from lady in car. May he permitted to present his find in person?- Write J. D., Box - ."
Jack had one brief moment of delight next day, for his "agony" drew at least a reply from the lady of his dreams. But his joy was short-lived, for though the reply was couched in the most friendly terms and the writer signed herself his very sincerely, Pauline Mornay, it was uncompromisingly firm on the point. Circumstances rendered it quite impossible for her to see him.
In despair, Jack wrote to her, but without avail. Pauline's reply was still very friendly, but quite definite. She would be deeply grateful for the return of the slipper, but begged Jack not to try to see her.
Jack could only slip deeper and deeper into the horrors of his own despair. The very last thing he could do was to banish from his mind the vision of the lovely face he had seen on that fatal day in Bond Street. He must see her again; he could not resume is life without her as part of its scheme.
And then, just as he was almost at the breaking point, a possible way out of the impasse was suddenly revealed to him by, of all things, Pauline's own letters! There, in the top left hand corner of the notepaper, whence it had stared at him every time he had read the letter, was a telephone number! He had been forbidden to call - but not to telephone! And within a few minutes of his discovery he was actually engaged in talking to the girl who had imagined him utterly vanquished.
Pauline tried her best to appear really vexed, but couldn't quite keep the laughter out of her voice - a delicious voice, full of soft, clinging undertones, the very voice to match her beauty of the face Jack remembered so well.
"You know, Mr. Durrant," she said, "you are really very impertinent, very persistent. It's impossible."
"I can't tell you. Honestly, I can't. I'm sorry. Yes, I'm really very sorry; much more sorry than you imagine - but quite impossible."
"But Miss Mornay - it is Miss, by the way, isn't it?"
"Why, yes. What do you mean?"
"Then you are not married!" Jack shouted in his joy.
"I see," she cried, trying desperately not to reveal her amusement. "That was a little trick. However, I'm not married."
"Nor engaged - but that doesn't help matters in the least. Won't you please make things a little easy for me? We really must not see each other. It would only lead to great unhappiness for - for both of us."
He thrilled at the hint of regret of her voice.
"Then," he said a little exultantly, "you really would like to see me, if it were all possible?"
"I shall not answer that question," she faltered.
"You have answered it," he cried. "Pauline - I'm going to call you Pauline in spite of you - the truth is that you want to see me. Oh, yes, I know I'm being more impertinent than ever; grossly presumptuous, and all that; but my impertinence and presumption arise simply from the fact that the first moment I saw you I fell madly and hopelessly in love with you. Yes, it's the truth, Pauline, and I must see you; if only to discuss this thing that has happened to me - to us. We can't leave it. You must find a way. If you don't - then I shall!"
There was silence for a while after that outbreak. Then a quiet voice came over the wire.
"Very well, if you insist. I shall find a way. Will you be content to leave it to me?"
"More than content", Jack replied - and then with sudden penitence - "Pauline, you're not angry with me."
"No", she relied, still in the quiet tones. "I'm not angry with you - only sorry for both of us." Jack heard the click of the receiver being placed and realised that the conversation was over. Filled with a vague apprehension he replaced his own receiver. What had she meant? He could not guess. He could only wait developments with what patience he possessed.
Fortunately for his peace of mind, he had not to wait long, for within a couple of days he had a letter from Pauline. But with its coming the mystery deepened. It contained only a few lines, and enclosed, of all things, a theatre ticket!
The ticket was for a stall in the Imperium and was dated for that evening. The note accompanying it briefly requested Jack to use the ticket for the performance indicated, and was signed "Pauline".
For the moment Jack was at a loss. Then he smiled suddenly at his momentary lack of perspicacity. Of course, the explanation was obvious. Pauline had simply arranged a rendezvous at the theatre, and though it was just a little curious that she has chosen a variety theatre, yet that didn't really matter. What did matter that at last he was to see her again.
Ordinarily a late arrival at any theatre he patronised, Jack, on this particular evening, was occupying his stall at the Imperium before the orchestra had struck up its preliminary scraping. And with him, in a side pocket of his evening overcoat, he carried the magic slipper!
The stalls began to fill. The row in which Jack sat began to fill. But, as yet, no sign of Pauline: Jack's excitement grew with the passing of the minutes. Then the two seats of his immediate right were occupied. A spasm of apprehension thrilled through him. There remained of all the row only two seats next to his, on the left. Was Pauline never coming?
The blow fell. A youthful couple, both complete strangers to Jack, edged past him, compared the numbers of the vacant stalls with their counterfoils, and smilingly seated themselves. The row was full!
Jack sat there in consternation. What was to happen now? What had been Pauline's intention? A dull colour crept into his cheeks as the suspicion that he had been fooled flashed into his mind. But he dismissed immediately as unworthy. Whatever the explanation, that was not it.
By this time the curtain had risen and Jack sat there listening in some semi-conscious way to a syncopated melody sung by a young lady in abbreviated skirts. while his mind was really still busy with the tremendous problem of Pauline and her mysterious purpose in luring him into the theatre.
The second and then the third turns followed in succession, making little or no impression on Jack's wandering mind, especially as he had not troubled to look at the programme he had automatically bought. And then, at last, he sat up in sheer amazement. The curtain had risen on the fourth turn and revealed - standing in the middle of the stage - Pauline!
There could not be the slightest doubt. It was she - and Jack thrilled with the wonder and surprise of his discovery.
A long wrap of clinging, shimmering silk draped her, and, holding this close about her, she stood motionless and smiling, while the orchestra played its few bars of introductory music. For just a moment she turned her beautiful face in Jack's direction, and it almost seemed as if their eyes met, though she could not possibly have seen him in the darkened auditorium.
Then a pretty, neatly attired girl attendant, who had stood in waiting at the back of the stage, came swiftly forward and with one quick movement, slid the wrap from Pauline's shoulders and retired with it to the wings.
Jack's feelings at the astounding moment can hardly be described. The blood rushed at first, in boiling flood, to his face, and then drained swiftly away, leaving him icy cold. He was conscious, too, of a general quick intake of breath on the part of the whole audience.
Pauline stood there, slimly beautiful, clad only in tights of the palest pink silk, fitting her with unwrinkled perfection like a second skin, the filmy clinging bodice cut daringly low to reveal the white beauty of breast, shoulders and arms. But it was not this frank revelation of her charms that had electrified both Jack and the audience. It was something much more amazing.
Pauline stood, perfectly poised, perfectly at ease, upon a single, slim shapely leg that, as was only too plainly obvious, was the only lower limb she possessed! The left leg was almost entirely absent, there only remaining a somewhat plump, rounded, silk-clad stump just below her hip.
As he stared in utter amazement, there came to Jack the memory of gossip he had heard, among his many men friends, of an extraordinary and sensational "turn" being given at one of the variety theatres by a beautiful girl billed as the "One-legged Venus". And Pauline, his beautiful, exquisite Pauline was actually the "One-legged Venus"!
He watched as in a dream as Pauline, hopping swiftly forward, in astonishing ease, upon her single foot, began an amazing contortion routine that was a miracle of lissome and flexible grace, her slim body appearing as boneless as that of a serpent, curving and undulating with a freedom that seemed to defy all the laws of anatomy.
Standing perfectly balanced on her one tiny foot, she bent backwards and downwards until she was smiling calmly at the audience from below her arched body, her hands lightly clasping her ankle. Retaining this position, she slowly turned her face upwards, until she was able to touch lightly with her lips the round, silk-clad stump, just above her head.
Then, balancing herself on her hands, she swung her body until, at one moment, the lower part of her spine was actually resting on the top of her head, and, at another, her flexible form was wrapped round her left shoulder, while her leg swung round in front and twined itself round her right arm.
So trick followed trick, each more amazing than its predecessor, some being performed on the stage itself, others on a tall, slender pedestal, that added, if possible, to their wonderful skill.
One feat, especially, performed on this pedestal, was greeted with enthusiastic applause. Maintaining he precarious, but skillful balance on her hands, atop the pedestal, with her body arched above her, Pauline kicked off her little slipper, revealing the fact that her tights were "mittened" at the toe, thus leaving her toes bare.
Then, as deftly as if she were using her fingers, she selected, with her toes, a cigarette from a box held by the girl attendant, placed it in her mouth, struck a match, lit the cigarette, and smoked it expertly and enjoyably, still using her toes to remove and replace it in her mouth when necessary. Finally, still keeping her pose, she slowly removed her right hand from the pedestal's top, allowing her body to swing slowly over to a perfect balance, maintained solely upon her rigid left arm. And from this position, she dropped lightly to a standing position on the stage, still smoking her cigarette, as she bent to the tumultuous applause.
Throughout Pauline's amazing "turn," Jack sat only half-conscious of what he saw. His mind seemed capable of grasping only one thing. Pauline, the loveliest thing that had ever come into life, was a cripple, her beautiful body maimed and broken.
At last he understood, only too completely, why she had refused to see him, and why, when he presented his ultimatum over the 'phone, she had taken this drastic means of disillusioning him. This invitation to the theatre had been a highly courageous act on Pauline's part. He would see her exactly as she was, her one-legged condition shown only too pathetically plainly by the revealing tights, and he would then be at liberty, if he wished so, to slip quietly away from the theatre and forget that he had ever met her. Yes, she made it easy for him, no matter how her own heart might break.
The sound of loud and continued applause awakened him from his stupor. Pauline was bowing and smiling near the wings, standing poised, in that effortless manner of hers, upon her slim, beautiful, one leg, and then the great curtains swung together with a swish for the final time, and she was gone.
Jack sat there, a still, huddled figure, conscious only of the gnawing pain in his heart. He had fallen passionately in love with Pauline that very first moment in which their eyes had met. With some part of him he still loved Pauline passionately - but she was a cripple! How could a man love a cripple?
And there came to him a sudden searing memory - the memory of a girl he had once loved and whom he had failed when that dreadful accident had hopelessly crippled her. Was he to fail again - to add to the remorse that had preyed upon him ever since? Or was he strong enough to make amends?
He was astounded at the overmastering flood of joy and relief that, of a sudden, swept through him. The truth, the amazing truth was that he wanted to go on loving Pauline, despite her crippled condition! Dazed by the shock of seeing her revealed in all her maimed beauty, he had read his emotions wrongly. He realised that, subconsciously, he had been thinking of the effect of her condition upon others - his friends, his many men acquaintances. He himself only needed the strength to ignore the opinions and prejudices of such people and that strength had come to him. He knew now that he loved Pauline unreservedly, despite everything, and that, at last, he could try to make some amends for his ghastly failure of long ago.
He rose suddenly, utterly unconscious of the fact that the next "turn" was already on stage, and, hurrying round behind the scenes, was, after some questioning, directed to Pauline's dressing room. Pauline's stage attendant came to the door, took the card he presented, and asked him to wait. In a moment or so, she reappeared, and motioning him to enter, she herself slipped by him into the corridor, leaving him alone with Pauline.
Pauline was seated at her dressing-table in a big, cushioned swivel chair. She had just finished removing her make-up when Jack's card was handed to her, and now, as he entered, she swung round on her chair, the card still in her hand. With a little thrill Jack saw that she was still clad only in her silk tights, just as she had left the stage, her wrap lying loosely round her shoulders, and that her slim, shapely leg and her stump were still revealed.
Her face had paled a little and a little tremulous smile quivered on her lips.
"So you came - in spite of everything," she murmured. "I thought - I thought...."
"You thought I should fail you," said Jack, only just able to keep his voice under control. Then, suddenly, he crossed the room and slipped to his knees by Pauline's chair. "It was brave of you, Pauline," he went on, as he slipped an arm about her shoulders, "it was wonderfully brave of you to give me the chance you did, in the way you did. If I failed to pass the test - well, I was free to go my way, without having to offer any poor, cowardly excuses to you. I could just drift out of the theatre and out of your life for ever."
"And yet - you came," she said softly, her eyes bright, though her lips were still tremulous. "You are sure you really wanted to come, Jack," she used the name unconsciously, and he thrilled at the sound of it on her lips - "and, that now you are here, you still want to stay?" You see me now as I am, as I shall always be. I have beauty, perhaps great beauty" - there was not a tinge of vanity about the remark; she was making a simple statement of facts - "but there will always remain this" - her eyes dropped downwards, and she extended her leg, slimly beautiful in the soft, silken sheen of the perfectly fitting tights - "and this" - her hand dropped lightly on the plump, round, silk-clad stump at her left hip - "and those" - she pointed to a corner, where stood a pair of slender black crutches. - "You will always have to reckon with all these things, Jack," she concluded. "And remembering that you still want to stay?"
Something suspiciously like tears trembled in Jack's eyes. Then with sudden passion he gathered her slim form in his arms and crushed her to him.
"I want to stay all my life," he breathed, "to take care of you, to make amends to you for all you have gone through, I loved you, Pauline, dearest, the first moment my eyes fell upon your beautiful face, and now, taking all you have said into full consideration, facing everything fairly and squarely, I love you all the more dearly and am yours with every bit of my body and soul."
With a little sob, Pauline suddenly went limp in his embrace, her head falling back into the crook of his encircling arm. Then her own arm, which had slipped softly about his neck, drew his head down until their lips met in their first passionate kiss.
So they remained for what seemed an age, tasting the delights of their new found love. Then Pauline, all rosy and smiling, her eyes shining with a new light of joy and happiness, withdrew gently from Jack's embrace and thrust him gaily away.
"Jack, dearest," she cried in mock consternation, "do you realise that you are making passionate love to me in my dressing-room, well I am - well, would anyone call me respectably dressed?" - A swift blush flamed delightfully in the lovely face and, with a quick movement, she drew her silk wrap around her. "Besides," she added. "poor Mimi is waiting all this time outside, to help me finishing my dressing. I shall have to turn you out, darling, until I'm respectably clad. As a reward you shall take me out to dinner. Run along and send Mimi in."
Gaily snatching a kiss, Jack turned to obey, and then, at a sudden recollection, swung round again. With a swift movement he drew something from his pocket and held it up. It was the scarlet slipper.
"And this?" he queried with a laugh. "What about this - the cause of everything? Am I to he permitted, after all, to present it to its beautiful owner?"
"I'll tell you when I'm dressed," laughed Pauline gaily.
"But, dearest, at least satisfy my most desperate curiosity about the slipper. How on earth did it come to fall out of the car? You didn't, by any chance, kick it off, darling?"
Pauline laughingly shook her head."Of course, I didn't, you silly," she said. "I didn't happen to be wearing it at the moment, and besides, I confine my acrobatics to the stage. No, the explanation is really very simple. I, naturally, have to have all my slippers specially made for me, as, unfortunately, I require only one of each kind.
Well, on the afternoon you saw me, I was ordering, through my sister Brenda, who does all my shopping for me whenever possible, several new evening slippers, and she had taken the scarlet slipper into the shop to serve as a model for the new ones. The shoe people, however, still had the last from which the now famous scarlet slipper had been made, and so Brenda returned with it to the car and flung it, in her usual careless manner, among the folds of the hood. The jerk of the car when starting must have flung the slipper out, and a most beneficent and kindly fate dropped it at your feet. And that's all."
"Good old Brenda!" cried Jack enthusiastically. "And three cheers for the kind fate." Then thrusting the slipper back in his pocket he turned to the door.
"I'll give you five minutes," he said. "Not a minute more. I simply couldn't stand the strain of waiting longer."
It was probably only five or so minutes later, though Jack was convinced it was an hour, that Mimi, smiling demurely, readmitted him to the dressing-room and went off on her way home.
Within, he found a gay and exquisite Pauline waiting for him, seated as before in her big, swivel chair. She was very lovely in a clingingly intimate frock of flame-coloured georgette, cut very low to expose the perfection of white bust and shoulders, and leaving the beautifully moulded arms bare to the shoulder.
The frock, as he could judge even while she was seated, only barely reached the knee, leaving her slim leg daringly revealed in a gossamer stocking of the palest nude silk. With an added thrill he saw that, as yet, she wore no slipper on the little foot that rested invitingly on a cushioned footstool.
She looked up as he entered, smiling with happy confidence into his eyes, and swiftly he bent down and pressed his lips to her uplifted ones.
"I'm quite ready, dearest," she said softly, after the long, clinging kiss. "That is," she added demurely, "except for a slipper - unless, of course, you are able to find a slipper somewhere or another?" And she held out her slender foot, delicately arching the instep and pointing the toe like a dancer. With an understanding smile, Jack drew out the little scarlet slipper and held it up.
"Hey presto!" cried Pauline, clapping her hands. "The very thing! It rather clashes with my colour scheme, I'm afraid, but what does a little thing like that matter on an important occasion like this. It's our lucky slipper, darling, and, on this night of nights, the only one I could possibly wear."
Jack needed no second bidding! Dropping to one knee, he took the little foot in his hand and instinctively lifted it to his lips, pressing a lingering kiss upon the warm, perfumed instep. Then, after touching lightly with his lips the fateful slipper, he placed it on the extended foot.
Pauline bent forward and took his cheeks between her cool palms. "You have no regrets my darling?" she whispered. "You will be happy with your 'One-legged Venus'?"
Jack slipped his arms about her and held her close.
"Not a single regret, dearest," he said softly. "I am happier than I ever thought it possible to be. And you must get it into your dear little head once and for all, that I am immensely proud of my lovely 'One-legged Venus,' that I do not mind in the very least the fact that she is one-legged."
Pauline pressed her lips to his in a swift, passionate kiss and then laughed happily.
"Neither do I mind - now!" she said tremulously. And together they went out to face whatever life had in store for them, Pauline swinging happily along on her crutches by his side.