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The Two Destinies

18. The Darkened Room
THE little gentleman advances to my bedside. His silky white hair flows over his
shoulders; he looks at us with faded blue eyes; he bows with a sad and subdued courtesy,
and says, in the simplest manner, "I bid you welcome, gentlemen, to my house."
We are not content with merely thanking him; we naturally attempt to apologize for our
intrusion. Our host defeats the attempt at the outset by making an apology on his own
behalf.
"I happened to send for my servant a minute since," he proceeds, "and I only then heard
that you were here. It is a custom of the house that nobody interrupts me over my books.
Be pleased, sir, to accept my excuses," he adds, addressing himself to me, "for not having
sooner placed myself and my household at your disposal. You have met, as I am sorry to
hear, with an accident. Will you permit me to send for medical help? I ask the question a
little abruptly, fearing that time may be of importance, and knowing that our nearest
doctor lives at some distance from this house."
He speaks with a certain quaintly precise choice of words--more like a man dictating a
letter than holding a conversation. The subdued sadness of his manner is reflected in the
subdued sadness of his face. He and sorrow have apparently been old acquaintances, and
have become used to each other for years past. The shadow of some past grief rests
quietly and impenetrably over the whole man; I see it in his faded blue eyes, on his broad
forehead, on his delicate lips, on his pale shriveled cheeks. My uneasy sense of
committing an intrusion on him steadily increases, in spite of his courteous welcome. I
explain to him that I am capable of treating my own case, having been myself in practice
as a medical man; and this said, I revert to my interrupted excuses. I assure him that it is
only within the last few moments that my traveling companion and I have become aware
of the liberty which our guide has taken in introducing us, on his own sole responsibility,
to the house. Mr. Dunross looks at me, as if he, like the guide, failed entirely to
understand what my scruples and excuses mean. After a while the truth dawns on him. A
faint smile flickers over his face; he lays his hand in a gentle, fatherly way on my
shoulder.
"We are so used here to our Shetland hospitality," he says, "that we are slow to
understand the hesitation which a stranger feels in taking advantage of it. Your guide is in
no respect to blame, gentlemen. Every house in these islands which is large enough to
contain a spare room has its Guests' Chamber, always kept ready for occupation. When
you travel my way, you come here as a matter of course; you stay here as long as you
like; and, when you go away, I only do my duty as a good Shetlander in accompanying
you on the first stage of your journey to bid you godspeed. The customs of centuries past
elsewhere are modern customs here. I beg of you to give my servant all the directions
which are necessary to your comfort, just as freely as you could give them in your own
house."
 
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