The Return by Walter de la Mare - HTML preview
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CHAPTER ONE ................................................................................................................. 3
CHAPTER TWO .............................................................................................................. 10
CHAPTER THREE .......................................................................................................... 18
CHAPTER FOUR............................................................................................................. 24
CHAPTER FIVE .............................................................................................................. 26
CHAPTER SIX................................................................................................................. 37
CHAPTER SEVEN .......................................................................................................... 47
CHAPTER EIGHT ........................................................................................................... 53
CHAPTER NINE.............................................................................................................. 57
CHAPTER TEN................................................................................................................ 62
CHAPTER ELEVEN........................................................................................................ 67
CHAPTER TWELVE....................................................................................................... 76
CHAPTER THIRTEEN.................................................................................................... 84
CHAPTER FOURTEEN .................................................................................................. 89
CHAPTER FIFTEEN ....................................................................................................... 99
CHAPTER SIXTEEN..................................................................................................... 108
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN .............................................................................................. 115
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN.................................................................................................. 123
CHAPTER NINETEEN.................................................................................................. 130
CHAPTER TWENTY .................................................................................................... 137
CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE........................................................................................... 146
CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO .......................................................................................... 151
CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE ...................................................................................... 164
"Look not for roses in Attalus his garden, or wholesome flowers in a venomous plantation. And since there is scarce any one bad, but some others are the worse for him; tempt not contagion by proximity and hazard not thyself in the shadow of corruption." -
- SIR THOMAS BROWNE.
The churchyard in which Arthur Lawford found himself wandering that mild and golden September afternoon was old, green, and refreshingly still. The silence in which it lay seemed as keen and mellow as the light--the pale, almost heatless, sunlight that filled the air. Here and there robins sang across the stones, elvishly shrill in the quiet of harvest. The only other living creature there seemed to Lawford to be his own rather fair, not insubstantial, rather languid self, who at the noise of the birds had raised his head and glanced as if between content and incredulity across his still and solitary surroundings. An increasing inclination for such lonely ramblings, together with the feeling that his continued ill-health had grown a little irksome to his wife, and that now that he was really better she would be relieved at his absence, had induced him to wander on from home without much considering where the quiet lanes were leading him. And in spite of a peculiar melancholy that had welled up into his mind during these last few days, he had certainly smiled with a faint sense of the irony of things on lifting his eyes in an unusually depressed moodiness to find himself looking down on the shadows and peace of Widderstone.
With that anxious irresolution which illness so often brings in its train he had hesitated for a few minutes before actually entering the graveyard. But once safely within he had begun to feel extremely loth to think of turning back again, and this not the less at remembering with a real foreboding that it was now drawing towards evening, that another day was nearly done. He trailed his umbrella behind him over the grass-grown paths; staying here and there to read some time-worn inscription; stooping a little broodingly over the dark green graves. Not for the first time during the long laborious convalescence that had followed apparently so slight an indisposition, a fleeting sense almost as if of an unintelligible remorse had overtaken him, a vague thought that behind all these past years, hidden as it were from his daily life, lay something not yet quite reckoned with. How often as a boy had he been rapped into a galvanic activity out of the deep reveries he used to fall into--those fits of a kind of fishlike day-dream. How often, and even far beyond boyhood, had he found himself bent on some distant thought or fleeting vision that the sudden clash of self-possession had made to seem quite illusory, and yet had left so strangely haunting. And now the old habit had stirred out of its long sleep, and, through the gate that Influenza in departing had left ajar, had returned upon him.
'But I suppose we are all pretty much the same, if we only knew it,' he had consoled himself. 'We keep our crazy side to ourselves; that's all. We just go on for years and years doing and saying whatever happens to come up--and really keen about it too'--he had glanced up with a kind of challenge in his face at the squat little belfry--'and then, without the slightest reason or warning, down you go, and it all begins to wear thin, and you get wondering what on earth it all means.' Memory slipped back for an instant to the life that in so unusual a fashion seemed to have floated a little aloof. Fortunately he had not discussed these inward symptoms with his wife. How surprised Sheila would be to see him loafing in this old, crooked churchyard. How she would lift her dark eyebrows, with that handsome, indifferent tolerance. He smiled, but a little confusedly; yet the thought gave even a spice of adventure to the evening's ramble.
He loitered on, scarcely thinking at all now, stooping here and there. These faint listless ideas made no more stir than the sunlight gilding the fading leaves, the crisp turf underfoot. With a slight effort he stooped even once again;--
'Stranger, a moment pause, and stay; In this dim chamber hidden away Lies one who once found life as dear As now he finds his slumbers here: Pray, then, the Judgement but increase His deep, everlasting peace!'
'But then, do you know you lie at peace?' Lawford audibly questioned, gazing at the doggerel. And yet, as his eyes wandered over the blunt green stone and the rambling crimson-berried brier that had almost encircled it with its thorns, the echo of that whisper rather jarred. He was, he supposed, rather a dull creature--at least people seemed to think so--and he seldom felt at ease even with his own small facetiousness. Besides, just that kind of question was getting very common. Now that cleverness was the fashion most people were clever--even perfect fools; and cleverness after all was often only a bore: all head and no body. He turned languidly to the small cross-shaped stone on the other side:'Here lies the body of Ann Hard, who died in child-bed. Also of James, her infant son.'
He muttered the words over with a kind of mournful bitterness. 'That's just it--just it; that's just how it goes!'... He yawned softly; the pathway had come to an end. Beyond him lay ranker grass, one and another obscurer mounds, an old scarred oak seat, shadowed by a few everlastingly green cypresses and coral-fruited yew-trees. And above and beyond all hung a pale blue arch of sky with a few voyaging clouds like silvered wool, and the calm wide curves of stubble field and pasture land. He stood with vacant eyes, not in the least aware how queer a figure he made with his gloves and his umbrella and his hat among the stained and tottering gravestones. Then, just to linger out his hour, and half sunken in reverie, he walked slowly over to the few solitary graves beneath the cypresses.
One only was commemorated with a tombstone, a rather unusual oval-headed stone, carved at each corner into what might be the heads of angels, or of pagan dryads, blindly facing each other with worn-out, sightless faces. A low curved granite canopy arched over the grave, with a crevice so wide between its stones that Lawford actually bent down and slid in his gloved fingers between them. He straightened himself with a sigh, and followed with extreme difficulty the well-nigh, illegible inscription:
'Here lie ye Bones of one,
Nicholas Sabathier, a Stranger to this Parish, who fell by his own Hand on ye
Eve of Ste. Michael and All Angels. MDCCXXXIX
Of the date he was a little uncertain. The 'Hand' had lost its 'n' and 'd'; and all the 'Angels' rain had erased. He was not quite sure even of the 'Stranger.' There was a great rich 'S,' and the twisted tail of a 'g' ; and, whether or not, Lawford smilingly thought, he is no Stranger now. But how rare and how memorable a name! French evidently; probably Huguenot. And the Huguenots, he remembered vaguely, were a rather remarkable 'crowd.' He had, he thought, even played at 'Huguenots' once. What was the man's name? Coligny; yes, of course, Coligny. 'And I suppose,' Lawford continued, muttering to himself, 'I suppose this poor beggar was put here out of the way. They might, you know,' he added confidentially, raising the ferrule of his umbrella, 'they might have stuck a stake through you, and buried you at the crossroads.' And again, a feeling of ennui, a faint disgust at his poor little witticism, clouded over his mind. It was a pity thoughts always ran the easiest way, like water in old ditches.
'"Here lie ye bones of one, Nicholas Sabathier,"' he began murmuring again--'merely bones, mind you; brains and heart are quite another story. And it's pretty certain the fellow had some kind of brains. Besides, poor devil! he killed himself. That seems to hint at brains... Oh, for goodness' sake!' he cried out; so loud that the sound of his voice alarmed even a robin that had perched on a twig almost within touch, with glittering eye intent above its dim red breast on this other and even rarer stranger.
'I wonder if it is XXXIX.; it might be LXXIX.' Lawford cast a cautious glance over his round grey shoulder, then laboriously knelt down beside the stone, and peeped into the gaping cranny. There he encountered merely the tiny, pale-green, faintly conspicuous eyes of a large spider, confronting his own. It was for the moment an alarming, and yet a faintly fascinating experience. The little almost colourless fires remained so changeless. But still, even when at last they had actually vanished into the recesses of that quiet habitation, Lawford did not rise from his knees. An utterly unreasonable feeling of dismay, a sudden weakness and weariness had come over him.
'What is the good of it all?' he asked himself inconsequently-- this monotonous, restless, stupid life to which he was soon to be returning, and for good. He began to realize how ludicrous a spectacle he must be, kneeling here amid the weeds and grass beneath the solemn cypresses. 'Well, you can't have everything,' seemed loosely to express his disquiet.
He stared vacantly at the green and fretted gravestone, dimly aware that his heart was beating with an unusual effort. He felt ill and weak. He leant his hand on the stone and lifted himself on to the low wooden seat nearby. He drew off his glove and thrust his bare hand under his waistcoat, with his mouth a little ajar, and his eyes fixed on the dark square turret, its bell sharply defined against the evening sky.
'Dead!' a bitter inward voice seemed to break into speech; 'Dead!' The viewless air seemed to be flocking with hidden listeners. The very clearness and the crystal silence were their ambush. He alone seemed to be the target of cold and hostile scrutiny. There was not a breath to breathe in this crisp, pale sunshine. It was all too rare, too thin. The shadows lay like wings everlastingly folded. The robin that had been his only living witness lifted its throat, and broke, as if from the uttermost outskirts of reality, into its shrill, passionless song. Lawford moved heavy eyes from one object to another--bird-sun-gilded stone--those two small earth-worn faces--his hands--a stirring in the grass as of some creature labouring to climb up. It was useless to sit here any longer. He must go back now. Fancies were all very well for a change, but must be only occasional guests in a world devoted to reality. He leaned his hand on the dark grey wood, and closed his eyes. The lids presently unsealed a little, momentarily revealing astonished, aggrieved pupils, and softly, slowly they again descended....
The flaming rose that had swiftly surged from the west into the zenith, dyeing all the churchyard grass a wild and vivid green, and the stooping stones above it a pure faint purple, waned softly back like a falling fountain into its basin. In a few minutes, only a faint orange burned in the west, dimly illuminating with its band of light the huddled figure on his low wood seat, his right hand still pressed against a faintly beating heart. Dusk gathered; the first white stars appeared; out of the shadowy fields a nightjar purred. But there was only the silence of the falling dew among the graves. Down here, under the ink-black cypresses, the blades of the grass were stooping with cold drops; and darkness lay like the hem of an enormous cloak, whose jewels above the breast of its wearer might be in the unfathomable clearness the glittering constellations....
In his small cage of darkness Lawford shuddered and raised a furtive head. He stood up and peered eagerly and strangely from side to side. He stayed quite still, listening as raptly as some wandering night-beast to the indiscriminate stir and echoings of the darkness. He cocked his head above his shoulder and listened again, then turned upon the soundless grass towards the hill. He felt not the faintest astonishment or strangeness in his solitude here; only a little chilled, and physically uneasy; and yet in this vast darkness a faint spiritual exaltation seemed to hover.
He hastened up the narrow path, walking with knees a little bent, like an old labourer who has lived a life of stooping, and came out into the dry and dusty lane. One moment his instinct hesitated as to which turn to take--only a moment; he was soon walking swiftly, almost trotting, downhill with this vivid exaltation in the huge dark night in his heart, and Sheila merely a little angry Titianesque cloud on a scarcely perceptible horizon. He had no notion of the time; the golden hands of his watch were indiscernible in the gloom. But presently, as he passed by, he pressed his face close to the cold glass of a little shopwindow, and pierced that out by an old Swiss cuckoo-clock. He would if he hurried just be home before dinner.
He broke into a slow, steady trot, gaining speed as he ran on, vaguely elated to find how well his breath was serving him. An odd smile darkened his face at remembrance of the thoughts he had been thinking. There could be little amiss with the heart of a man who could shamble along like this, taking even pleasure, an increasing pleasure in this long, wolf-like stride. He turned round occasionally to look into the face of some fellowwayfarer whom he had overtaken, for he felt not only this unusual animation, this peculiar zest, but that, like a boy on some secret errand, he had slightly disguised his very presence, was going masked, as it were. Even his clothes seemed to have connived at this queer illusion. No tailor had for these ten years allowed him so much latitude. He cautiously at last opened his garden gate and with soundless agility mounted the six stone steps, his latch-key ready in his gloveless hand, and softly let himself into the house.
Sheila was out, it seemed, for the maid had forgotten to light the lamp. Without pausing to take off his greatcoat, he hung up his hat, ran nimbly upstairs, and knocked with a light knuckle on his bedroom door. It was closed, but no answer came. He opened it, shut it, locked it, and sat down on the bedside for a moment, in the darkness, so that he could scarcely hear any other sound, as he sat erect and still, like some night animal, wary of danger, attentively alert. Then he rose from the bed, threw off his coat, which was clammy with dew, and lit a candle on the dressing-table.
Its narrow flame lengthened, drooped, brightened, gleamed clearly. He glanced around him, unusually contented--at the ruddiness of the low fire, the brass bedstead, the warm red curtains, the soft silveriness here and there. It seemed as if a heavy and dull dream had withdrawn out of his mind. He would go again some day, and sit on the little hard seat beside the crooked tombstone of the friendless old Huguenot. He opened a drawer, took out his razors, and, faintly whistling, returned to the table and lit a second candle. And still with this strange heightened sense of life stirring in his mind, he drew his hand gently over his chin and looked unto the glass.
For an instant he stood head to foot icily still, without the least feeling, or thought, or stir
-staring into the looking-glass. Then an inconceivable drumming beat on his ear. A warm surge, like the onset of a wave, broke in him, flooding neck, face, forehead, even his hands with colour. He caught himself up and wheeled deliberately and completely round, his eyes darting to and fro, suddenly to fix themselves in a prolonged stare, while he took a deep breath, caught back his self-possession and paused. Then he turned and once more confronted the changed strange face in the glass.
Without a sound he drew up a chair and sat down, just as he was, frigid and appalled, at the foot of the bed. To sit like this, with a kind of incredibly swift torrent of consciousness, bearing echoes and images like straws and bubbles on its surface, could not be called thinking. Some stealthy hand had thrust open the sluice of memory. And words, voices, faces of mockery streamed through without connection, tendency, or sense. His hands hung between his knees, a deep and settled frown darkened the features stooping out of the direct rays of the light, and his eyes wandered like busy and inquisitive, but stupid, animals over the floor.
If, in that flood of unintelligible thoughts, anything clearly recurred at all, it was the memory of Sheila. He saw her face, lit, transfigured, distorted, stricken, appealing, horrified. His lids narrowed; a vague terror and horror mastered him. He hid his eyes in his hands and cried without sound, without tears, without hope, like a desolate child. He ceased crying; and sat without stirring. And it seemed after an age of vacancy and meaninglessness he heard a door shut downstairs, a distant voice, and then the rustle of some one slowly ascending the stairs. Some one turned the handle; in vain; tapped. 'Is that you, Arthur?'
For an instant Lawford paused, then like a child listening for an echo, answered, 'Yes, Sheila.' And a sigh broke from him; his voice, except for a little huskiness, was singularly unchanged.'May I come in?' Lawford stood softly up and glanced once more into the glass. His lips set tight, and a slight frown settled between the long, narrow, intensely dark eyes. 'Just one moment, Sheila,' he answered slowly, 'just one moment.' 'How long will you be?' He stood erect and raised his voice, gazing the while impassively into the glass. 'It's no use,' he began, as if repeating a lesson, 'it's no use your asking me, Sheila. Please give me a moment, a...I am not quite myself, dear,' he added quite gravely. The faintest hint of vexation was in the answer. 'What is the matter? Can't I help? It's so very absurd--' 'What is absurd?' he asked dully. 'Why, standing like this outside my own bedroom door. Are you ill? I will send for Dr. Simon.' 'Please, Sheila, do nothing of the kind. I am not ill. I merely want a little time to think in.' There was again a brief pause, and then a slight rattling at the handle. 'Arthur, I insist on knowing at once what's wrong; this does not sound a bit like yourself. It is not even quite like your own voice.' 'It is myself,' he replied stubbornly, staring fixedly into the glass. You must give me a few moments, Sheila. Something has happened. My face. Come back in an hour.'
'Don't be absurd; it's simply wicked to talk like that. How do I know what you are doing? As if I can leave you for an hour in uncertainty! Your face! If you don't open at once I shall believe there's something seriously wrong: I shall send Ada for assistance.' 'If you do that, Sheila, it will be disastrous. I cannot answer for the con--. Go quietly downstairs. Say I am unwell; don't wait dinner for me; come back in an hour; oh, half an hour!'The answer broke out angrily. 'You must be mad, beside yourself, to ask such a thing. I shall wait in the next room until you call.' 'Wait where you please,' Lawford replied, 'but tell them downstairs.' 'Then if I tell them to wait until half-past eight, you will come down? You say you are not ill: the dinner will be ruined. It's absurd.'
Lawford made no answer. He listened a while, then he deliberately sat down once more to try to think. Like a squirrel in a cage his mind seemed to be aimlessly, unceasingly astir. 'What is it really? What is it really?--really?' He sat there and it seemed to him his body was transparent as glass. It seemed he had no body at all--only the memory of an hallucinatory reflection in the glass, and this inward voice crying, arguing, questioning, threatening out of the silence--'What is it really--really-- REALLY?' And at last, cold, wearied out, he rose once more and leaned between the two long candle-flames, and stared on--on--on, into the glass.
He gave that long, dark face that had been foisted on him tricks to do--lift an eyebrow, frown. There was scarcely any perceptible pause between the wish and its performance. He found to his discomfiture that the face answered instantaneously to the slightest emotion, even to his fainter secondary thoughts; as if these unfamiliar features were not entirely within control. He could not, in fact, without the glass before him, tell precisely what that face WAS expressing. He was still, it seemed, keenly sane. That he would discover for certain when Sheila returned. Terror, rage, horror had fallen back. If only he felt ill, or was in pain: he would have rejoiced at it. He was simply caught in some unheard-of snare--caught, how? when? where? by whom?
But the coolness and deliberation of his scrutiny, had to a certain extent calmed Lawford's mind and given him confidence. Hitherto he had met the little difficulties of life only to vanquish them with ease and applause. Now he was standing face to face with the unknown. He burst out laughing, into a long, low, helpless laughter. Then he arose and began to walk softly, swiftly, to and fro across the room--from wall to wall seven paces, and at the fourth, that awful, unseen, brightly-lit profile passed as swiftly over the tranquil surface of the looking-glass. The power of concentration was gone again. He simply paced on mechanically, listening to a Babel of questions, a conflicting medley of answers. But above all the confusion and turmoil of his brain, as a boatswain's whistle rises above a storm, so sounded that same infinitesimal voice, incessantly repeating another question now, 'What are you going to do? What are you going to do?'And in the midst of this confusion, out of the infinite, as it were, came another sharp tap at the door, and all within sank to utter stillness again. 'It's nearly half-past eight, Arthur; I can't wait any longer.'
Lawford cast a last fleeting look into the glass, turned, and confronted the closed door. 'Very well, Sheila, you shall not wait any longer.' He crossed over to the door, and suddenly a swift crafty idea flashed into his mind.
He tapped on the panel. 'Sheila,' he said softly, 'I want you first, before you come in, to get me something out of my old writing-desk in the smoking-room. Here is the key.' He pushed a tiny key--from off the ring he carried--beneath the door. 'In the third little drawer from the top, on the left side, is a letter; please don't say anything now. It is the letter you wrote me, you will remember, after I had asked you to marry me. You scribbled in the corner under your signature the initials "Y.S.O.A."--do you remember? They meant, You Silly Old Arthur!--do you remember? Will you please get that letter at once?'
'Arthur,' answered the voice from without, empty of all expression, 'what does all this mean, this mystery, this hopeless nonsense about a silly letter? What has happened? Is this a miserable form of persecution? Are you mad?--I refuse to get the letter.'
Lawford stooped, black and angular, against the door. 'I am not mad. Oh, I am in the deadliest earnest, Sheila. You must get the letter, if only for your own peace of mind.' He heard his wife hesitate as she turned. He heard a sob. And once more he waited.'I have brought the letter,' came the low toneless voice again. 'Have you opened it?' There was a rustle of paper. 'Are the letters there underlined three times--"Y.S.O.A."?' 'The letters are there.' 'And the date of the month is underneath, "April 3rd." No one else in the whole world, living or dead, could know of this but ourselves, Sheila?' 'Will you please open the door?' 'No one?' 'I suppose not--no one.'
'Then come in.' He unlocked the door and opened it. A dark, rather handsome woman, with sleek hair, in a silk dress of a dark rich colour entered. Lawford closed the door. But his face was in shadow. He had still a moment's respite.
'I need not ask you to be patient,' he began quickly; 'if I could possibly have spared you-if there had been anybody in the world to go to... I am in horrible, horrible trouble, Sheila. It is inconceivable. I said I was sane: so I am, but the fact is--I went out for a walk; it was rather stupid, perhaps, so soon: and I think I was taken ill, or something--my heart. A kind of fit, a nervous fit. Possibly I am a little unstrung, and it's all, it's mainly fancy: but I think, I can't help thinking it has a little distorted--changed my face; everything, Sheila; except, of course, myself. Would you mind looking?' He walked slowly and with face averted towards the dressing-table.'Simply a nervous--to make such a fuss, to scare!...' began his wife, following him. Without a word he took up the two old china candlesticks, and held them, one in each lank-fingered hand, before his face, and turned.
Lawford could see his wife--every tint and curve and line as distinctly as she could see him. Her cheeks never had much colour; now her whole face visibly darkened, from pallor to a dusky leaden grey, as she gazed. It was not an illusion then; not a miserable hallucination. The unbelievable, the inconceivable, had happened. He replaced the candles with trembling fingers and sat down.'Well,' he said, 'what is it really; what is it really, Sheila? What on earth are we to do?'
'Is the door locked?' she whispered. He nodded. With eyes fixed stirlessly on his face, Sheila unsteadily seated herself, a little out of the candlelight, in the shadow. Lawford rose and put the key of the door on his wife's little rose-wood prayer-desk at her elbow, and deliberately sat down again.
'You said "a fit"--where?' 'I suppose--is--is it very different--hopeless? You will understand my being... O Sheila, what am I to do?' His wife sat perfectly still, watching him with unflinching attention.'You gave me to understand--"a nervous fit"; where?' Lawford took a deep breath, and quietly faced her again. 'In the old churchyard, Widderstone; I was looking at--at the gravestones.' 'A fit; in the old churchyard, Widderstone--you were "looking at the gravestones"?'
Lawford shut his mouth. 'I suppose so--a fit,' he said presently. 'My heart went a little queer, and I sat down and fell into a kind of doze--a stupor, I suppose. I don't remember anything more. And then I woke; like this.''How do you know?' 'How do I know what?' '"Like that"?' He turned slowly towards the looking-glass. 'Why, here I am!'
She gazed at him steadily; and a hard, incredulous, almost cunning glint came into her wide blue eyes. She took up the key carelessly, glanced at it; glanced at him. 'It has made me--I mean the first shock, you know--it has made me a little faint.' She walked slowly, deliberately to the door, and unlocked it. 'I'll get a little sal volatile.' She softly drew out the key, and without once removing her eyes from his face, opened the door and pushed the key noiselessly in on the other side. 'Please stay there; I won't be a minute.'
Lawford's face smiled--a rather desperate, yet for all that a patient, resolute smile. 'Oh yes, of course,' he said, almost to himself, 'I had not foreseen--at least--you must do precisely what you please, Sheila. You were going to lock me in. You will, however, before taking any final step, please think over what it will entail. I did not think you would, after such proof, in this awful trouble--I did not think you would simply disbelieve me, Sheila. Who else is there to help me? You have the letter in your hand. Isn't that sufficient proof? It was overwhelming proof to me. And even I doubted too; doubted myself. But never mind; why I should have dreamed you would believe me; or taken this awful thing differently, I don't know. It's rather awful to have to go on alone. But there, think it over. I shall not stir until I hear the voices. And then: honestly, Sheila, I couldn't face quite that. I'd sooner give up altogether. Any proof you can think of-- I will... O God, I cannot bear it!' He covered his face with his hands; but in a moment looked up, unmoved once more. 'Why, for that matter,' he added slowly, and, as it were, with infinite pains, a faint thin smile again stealing into his face, 'I think,' he turned wearily to the glass, 'I think, it's almost an improvement!'
Something deep in those dark clear pupils, out of that lean adventurous face, gleamed back at him, the distant flash of a heliograph, as it were, height to height, flashing 'Courage!' He shuddered, and shut his eyes. 'But I would really rather,' he aided in a quiet childlike way, 'I would really rather, Sheila, you left me alone now.'
His wife stood irresolute. 'I understand you to explain,' she said, 'that you went out of this house, just your usual self, this afternoon, for a walk; that for some reason you went to Widderstone--"to read the tombstones," that you had a heart attack, or, as you said at first, a fit, that you fell into a stupor, and came home like--like this. Am I likely to believe all that? Am I likely to believe such a story as that? Whoever you are, whoever you may be, is it likely? I am not in the least afraid. I thought at first it was some silly practical joke. I thought that at first.' She paused, but no answer came. 'Well, I suppose in a civilised country there is a remedy even for a joke as wicked as that.'Lawford listened patiently. 'She is pretending; she is trying me; she is feeling her way,' he kept repeating to himself. 'She knows I AM I, but hasn't the courage... Let her talk!'
'I shall leave the door open,' Sheila continued. 'I am not, as you no doubt very naturally assumed--I am not going to do anything either senseless or heedless. I am merely going to ask your brother Cecil to come in, if he is at home, and if not, no doubt our old friend Mr. Montgomery would--would help us.' Her scrutiny was still and concentrated, like that of a cat above a mouse's hole.
Lawford sat crouched together in the candle-light. 'By all means, Sheila,' he said slowly choosing his words, 'if you think poor old Cecil, who next January will have been three years in his grave, will be of any use in our difficulty. Who Mr. Montgomery is...' His voice dropped in utter weariness. 'You did it very well, my dear,' he added softly.
Sheila gently closed the door and sat down on the bed. He heard her softly crying, he heard the bed shaken with her sobs. But a slow glance towards the steady candle-flames restrained him. He let her cry on alone. When she had become a little more composed he stood up. 'You have had no dinner,' he managed to blurt out at last, 'you will be faint. It's useless to talk, even to think, any more to-night. Leave me to myself for a while. Don't look at me any more. Perhaps I can sleep: perhaps if I sleep it will come right again. When the servants are gone up, I will come down. Just let me have some--some medical book, or other; and some more candles. Don't think, Sheila; don't even think!'
Sheila paid him no attention for a while. 'You tell me not to think,' she began, in a low, almost listless voice; 'why--I wonder I am in my right mind. And "eat"! How can you have the heartlessness to suggest it? You don't seem in the least to realize what you say. You seem to have lost all--all consciousness. I quite agree, it is useless for me to burden you with my company while you are in your present condition of mind. But you will at least promise me that you won't take any further steps in this awful business.' She could not, try as she would, bring herself again to look at him. She rose softly, paused a moment with sidelong eyes, then turned deliberately towards the door, 'What, what have I done to deserve all this?'
From behind her that voice, so extraordinarily like--and yet in some vague fashion more arresting, more resonant than her husband's, broke incredibly out once more. 'You will please leave the key, Sheila. I am ill, but I am not yet in the padded room. And please understand, I take no further steps in "this awful business" until I hear a strange voice in the house.' Sheila paused, but the quiet voice rang in her ear, desperately yet convincingly. She took the key out of the lock, placed it on the bed, and with a sigh, that was not quite without a hint of relief in its misery, she furtively extinguished the gas-light on the landing and rustled downstairs.
When completely deserted, Lawford with fumbling fingers opened Quain's 'Dictionary of Medicine.' He had never had much curiosity, and had always hated what he disbelieved, but none the less he had heard occasionally of absurd and questionable experiments. He remembered even to have glanced over reports of cases in the newspapers concerning disappearances, loss of memory, dual personality. Cranks... Oh yes, he thought now, with a sense of cold humiliating relief, there had been such cases as his before. They were no doubt curable. They must be comparatively common in America--that land of jangled nerves. Possibly bromide, rest, a battery. But Quain, it seemed, shared his prejudices, at least in this edition, or had hidden away all such apocryphal matter beneath technical terms, where no sensible man could find it, 'Besides,' he muttered angrily, 'what's the good of your one volume?' He flung it down and strode to the bed, and rang the bell. Then suddenly recollecting himself, he paused and listened. There came a tap on the door. 'Is that you, Sheila?' he called, doubtfully.'No, sir, it's me,' came the answer. 'Oh, don't trouble; I only wanted to speak to your mistress. It's all right.' 'Mrs. Lawford has gone out, sir,' replied the voice. 'Gone out?' 'Yes, sir; she told me not to mention it; but I suppose as you asked--' 'Oh, that's all right; never mind; I didn't ring.' He stood with face uplifted, thinking. 'Can I do anything, sir?' came the faint, nervous question after a long pause.
'One moment, Ada,' he called in a loud voice. He took out his pocket-book, sat down, and scribbled a little note. He hardly noticed how changed his handwriting was--the clear round letters crabbed and irregular.
'Are you there, Ada?' he called. 'I am slipping a note beneath the door; just draw back the mat; that's it. Take it at once, please, to Mr. Critchett's, and be sure to wait for an answer. Then come back direct to me, up here. I don't think, Ada, your mistress believes much in Critchett; but I have fully explained what I want. He has made me up many prescriptions. Explain that to his assistant if he is not there. Go at once, and you will be back before she is. I should be so very much obliged, tell him. "Mr Arthur Lawford."'
The minutes slowly drifted by. He sat quite still in the clear untroubled light, waiting in the silence of the empty house. And for the first time he was confronted with the cold incredible horror of his ordeal. Who would believe, who could believe, that behind this strange and awful, yet how simple mask, lay himself? What test; what heaped-up evidence of identity would break it down? It was all a loathsome ignominy. It was utterly absurd. It was--
Suddenly, with a kind of ape-like cunning, he deliberately raised a long lean forefinger and pointed it at the shadowy crystal of the looking-glass. Perhaps he was dead, was really and indeed changed in body, was fated really and indeed to change in soul, into That. 'It's that beastly voice again,' Lawford cried out loud, looking vacantly at his upstretched finger. And then, hand and arm, not too willingly, as it were, obeyed; relaxed and fell to his side. 'You must keep a tight hold, old man,' he muttered to himself. 'Once, once you lose yourself--the least symptom of that--the least symptom, and it's all up!' And the fools, the heartless, preposterous fools had brought him one volume!
When on earth was Ada coming back? She was lagging on purpose. She was in the conspiracy too. Oh, it should be a lesson to Sheila! Oh, if only daylight would come! 'What are you going to do--to do--to DO?' He rose once more and paced his silent cage. To and fro, thinking no more; just using his eyes, compelling them to wander from picture to picture, bedpost to bedpost; now counting aloud his footsteps; now humming; only, only to keep himself from thinking. At last he took out a drawer and actually began arranging its medley of contents; ties, letters, studs, concert and theatre programmes--all higgledy-piggledy. And in the midst of this childish strategem he heard a faint sound, as of heavy water trickling from a height. He turned. A thief was in one of the candles. It was guttering out. He would be left in darkness. He turned hastily without a moment's heed, to call for light, flung the door open and full in the flare of a lamp, illuminating her pale forehead and astonished face beneath her black straw hat, stood face to face with Ada.
With one swift dexterous movement he drew the door to after him, looking straight into her almost colourless steady eyes. 'Ah,' he said instantly, in a high faint voice, 'the powder, thank you; yes, Mr Lawford's powder; thank you, thank you. He must be kept absolutely quiet--absolutely. Mrs Lawford is following. Please tell her that I am here, when she returns. Mr Critchett was in, then? Thank you. Extreme, extreme silence, please.' Again that knotted, melodramatic finger raised itself on high; and within that lean, cadaverous body the soul of its lodger quailed at this spectral boldness. But it was triumphant. The maid at once left him and went downstairs. He heard faint voices in muffled consultation. And in a moment Sheila's silks rustled once more on the staircase. Lawford put down the lamp, and watched her deliberately close the door.
'What does this mean?' she began swiftly, 'I understand that--Ada tells me a stranger is here; giving orders, directions. Who is he? where is he? You bound yourself on your solemn promise not to stir till I returned. You... How can I, how can we get decently through this horrible business if you are so wretchedly indiscreet? You sent Ada to the chemist's. What for? What for? I say.'
Lawford watched his wife with an almost extraneous interest. She was certainly extremely interesting from that point of view, that very novel point of view. 'It's quite useless,' he said, 'to get in the least nervous or hysterical. I don't care for the darkness just now. That was all. Tell the girl I am a strange doctor--Dr Simon's new partner. You are clever at conventionalities, Sheila. Invent! I said our patient must be kept quiet--I really think he must. That is all, so far as Ada is concerned.... What on earth else ARE we to say?' he broke out. 'That, for the present to EVERYBODY, is our only possible story. It will give us what we must have--time. And next--where is the second volume of Quain? I want that. And next--why have you broken faith with me?' Mrs Lawford sat down. This sudden and baffling outburst had stupefied her.
'I can't, I can't make head or tail of what you say. And as for having broken faith, as you call it, would any wife, would any sane woman face what you have brought on us, a situation like this, without seeking advice and help? Mr Bethany will he perfectly discreet--if he thinks discretion desirable. He is the only available friend we have close enough to ask at once. And things of this kind are, I suppose, if anybody's concern, his. It's certain to leak out. Everybody will hear of it. Don't flatter yourself you are going to hush up a thing like this for long. You can't keep living skeletons in a cupboard. You think only of yourself, only of your own misfortune. But who's to know, pray, that you really are my husband--if you are? The sooner I get the vicar on my side the better for us both. Who in the whole of the parish--I ask you--and you must have the sense left to see that--who will believe that a respectable man, a gentleman, a Churchman, would deliberately go out to seek an afternoon's amusement in a poky little country churchyard? Why, apart from everything else, THAT was absolutely mad to start with. Can you really wonder at the result?'
Probably because she still steadfastly refused to look at him, her memory kept losing its hold on the appalling fact facing them. She realised fully only that she was in a great, unwarrantable, and insurmountable difficulty, but until she actually lifted her eyes for a moment she had not fully realised what that difficulty was. She got up with a sudden and horrible nausea. 'One moment,' she said, 'I will see if the servants have gone to bed.'
That long saturnine face, behind which Lawford lay in a dull and desperate ambush, smiled. Something partaking of its clay, some reflex ghost of its rather remarkable features, was even a little amused at Sheila.
She returned in a moment, and stood in profile in the doorway. 'Will you come down?' she remarked distantly.
'One moment, Sheila,' Lawford began miserably. 'Before we take this irrevocable step, a step I implore you to postpone awhile-- for what comes, I suppose, may go--what precisely have you told the vicar? I must in fairness know that.'
'In fairness,' she began ironically, and suddenly broke off. Her husband had turned the flame of the lamp low down in the vacant room behind them; the corridor was lit obscurely by the chandelier far down in the hall below. A faint, inexplicable dread fell softly and coldly on her heart. 'Have you no trust in me?' she murmured a little bitterly. 'I have simply told him the truth.'They softly descended the stairs; she first, the dark figure following close behind her.
Mr Bethany sat awaiting them in the dining-room, a large, heavily-furnished room with a great benign looking-glass on the mantelpiece, a marble clock, and with rich old damask curtains. Fleecy silver hair was all that was visible of their visitor when they entered. But Mr Bethany rose out of his chair when he heard them, and with a little jerk, turned sharply round. Thus it was that the gold-spectacled vicar and Lawford first confronted each other, the one brightly illuminated, the other framed in the gloom of the doorway. Mr Bethany's first scrutiny was timid and courteous, but beneath it he tried to be keen, and himself hastened round the table almost at a trot, to obtain, as delicately as possible, a closer view. But Lawford, having shut the door behind him, had gone straight to the fire and seated himself, leaning his face in his hands. Mr Bethany smiled faintly, waved his hand almost as if in blessing, but certainly in peace, and tapped Mrs Lawford into the chair upon the other side. But he himself remained standing.
'Mrs Lawford has, I declare, been telling family secrets,' he began, and paused, peering. But there, you will forgive an old friend's intrusion--this little confidence about a change, my dear fellow--about a ramble and a change?' He sat down, put up his kind little puckered face and peered again at Lawford, and then very hastily at his wife. But all her attention was centred on the bowed figure opposite to her. Lawford responded to this cautious advance without raising his head.'You do not wish me to repeat all that my wife tells me she has told you?'
'Dear me, no,' said Mr Bethany cheerfully, 'I wish nothing, nothing, old friend. You must not burden yourself with me. If I may be of any help, here I am.... Oh, no, no....' he paused, with blinking eyes, but wits still shrewd and alert. Why doesn't the man raise his head? he thought. A mere domestic dispute!
'I thought,' he went on ruminatingly, 'I thought on Tuesday, yes, on Tuesday, that you weren't looking quite the thing. Indeed, I remarked on it. But now, I understand from Mrs Lawford that the malady has taken a graver turn--eh, Lawford, an heretical turn? I hear you have been wandering from the true fold.' Mr Bethany leaned forward with what might be described as a very large smile in a very small compass. 'And that, of course, entailed instant retribution.' He broke off solemnly. 'I know Widderstone churchyard well; a most verdant and beautiful spot. The late rector, a Mr Strickland, was a very old friend of mine. And his wife, dear good Alicia, used to set out her babies, in the morning, to sleep and to play there, twenty, dear me, perhaps twenty-five years ago. But I did not know, my dear Lawford, that you--' and suddenly, without an instant's warning, something seemed to shout at him, 'Look, look! He is looking at you!' He stopped, faltered, and a slight warmth came into his face. 'And and you were taken ill there?' His voice had fallen flat and faint.
'I fell asleep--or something of that sort,' came the stubborn reply.
'Yes,' said Mr Bethany, brightly, 'so your wife was saying. "Fell asleep," so have I too-scores of times'; he beamed, with beads of sweat glistening on his forehead. 'And then? I'm not, I'm not persisting?''Then I woke; refreshed, I think, as it seemed--I felt much better and came home.' 'Ah, yes,' said his visitor. And after that there was a long, brightly lit, intense pause; at the end of which Lawford raised his face and again looked firmly at his friend. Mr Bethany was now a shrunken old man; he sat perfectly still, his head craned a little forward, and his veined hands clutching his bent, spare knees.
There wasn't the least sign of devilry, or out-facingness, or insolence in that lean shadowy steady head; and yet he himself was compelled to sidle his glance away, so much the face shook him. He closed his eyes, too, as a cat does after exchanging too direct a scrutiny with human eyes. He put out towards, and withdrew, a groping hand from Mrs Lawford.'Is it,' came a voice from somewhere, 'is it a great change, sir? I thought perhaps I may have exaggerated--candle-light, you know.'
Mr Bethany remained still and silent, striving to entertain one thought at a time. His lips moved as if he were talking to himself. And again it was Lawford's faltering voice that broke the silence. 'You see,' he said, 'I have never... no fit, or anything of that kind before. I remember on Tuesday... oh yes, quite well. I did feel seedy, very. And we talked, didn't we?-- Harvest Festival, Mrs Wine's flowers, the new offertory-bags, and all that. For God's sake, Vicar, it is not as bad as--as they make out?'
Mr Bethany woke with a start. He leaned forward, and stretched out a long black wrinkled sleeve, just managing to reach far enough to tap Lawford's knee. 'Don't worry, don't worry,' he said soothingly. 'We believe, we believe.'
It was, none the less, a sheer act of faith. He took off his spectacles and took out his handkerchief. 'What we must do, eh, my dear,' he half turned to Mrs Lawford, 'what we must do is to consult, yes, consult together. And later--we must have advice-- medical advice; unless, as I very much suspect, it is merely a little quite temporary physical aberration. Science, I am told, is making great strides, experimenting, groping after things which no sane man has ever dreamed of before--without being burned alive for it. What's in a name? Nerves, especially, Lawford.'
Mrs Lawford sat perfectly still, absorbedly listening, turning her face first this way, then that, to each speaker in turn. 'That is what I thought,' she said, and cast one fleeting glance across at the fireplace, 'but--'
The little old gentleman turned sharply with half-blind eyes, and lips tight shut. 'I think,' he said, with a hind of austere humour, 'I think, do you know, I see no "but."' He paused as if to catch the echo and added, 'It's our only course.' He continued to polish round and round his glasses. Mrs Lawford rather magnificently rose.
'Perhaps if I were to leave you together awhile? I shall not be far off. It is,' she explained, as if into a huge vacuum, 'it is a terrible visitation.' She moved gravely round the table and very softly and firmly closed the door after her.
Lawford took a deep breath. 'Of course.' he said, 'you realise my wife does not believe me. She thinks,' he explained naively, as if to himself, 'she thinks I am an imposter. Goodness knows what she does think. I can't think much myself--for long!'
The vicar rubbed busily on. 'I have found, Lawford,' he said smoothly, 'that in all real difficulties the only feasible plan is--is to face the main issue. The others right themselves. Now, to take a plunge into your generosity. You have let me in far enough to make it impossible for me to get out--may I hear then exactly the whole story? All that I know now, so far as I could gather from your wife, poor soul, is of course inconceivable: that you went out one man and came home another. You will understand, my dear man, I am speaking, as it were, by rote. God has mercifully ordered that the human brain works slowly; first the blow, hours afterwards the bruise. Oh, dear me, that man Hume--"on miracles"--positively amazing! So that too, please, you will be quite clear about. Credo-not quia impossible est, but because you, Lawford, have told me. Now then, if it won't be too wearisome to you, the whole story.' He sat, lean and erect in his big chair, a hand resting loosely on each knee, in one spectacles, in the other a dangling pocket handkerchief. And the dark, sallow, aquiline, formidable figure, with its oddly changing voice, re-told the whole story from the beginning.'You were aware then of nothing different, I understand, until you actually looked into the glass?' 'Only vaguely. I mean that after waking I felt much better, more alert. And my thoughts--' 'Ah, yes, your thoughts?' 'I hardly know--oh, clear as if I had had a real long rest. It was just like being a boy again. Influenza dispirits one so.' Mr Bethany gazed without stirring. 'And yet, you know,' he said, 'I can hardly believe, I mean conceive, how-- You have been taking no drugs, no quackery, Lawford?' 'I never dose myself,' said Lawford, with sombre pride.
'God bless me, that's Lawford to the echo,' thought his visitor. 'And before--?' he went on gently; 'I really cannot conceive, you see, how a mere fit could... Before you sat down you were quite alone?' He stuck out his head. 'There was nobody with you?' 'With me? Oh no,' came the soft answer.
'What had you been thinking of? In these days of faith-cures, and hypnotism, and telepathy, and subliminalities--why, the simple old world grows very confusing. But rarely, very rarely novel. You were thinking, you say; do you remember, perhaps, just the drift?'
'Well,' began Lawford ruminatingly, 'there was something curious even then, perhaps. I remember, for instance, I knelt down to read an old tombstone. There was a little seat--no back. And an epitaph. The sun was just setting; some French name. And there was a long jagged crack in the stone, like the black line you know one sees after lightning, I mean it's as clear as that even now, in memory. Oh yes, I remember. And then, I suppose, came the sleep--stupid, sluggish: and then; well, here I am.'
'You are absolutely certain, then,' persisted Mr Bethany almost querulously, 'there was no living creature near you? Bless me, Lawford, I see no unkindness in believing what the Bible itself relates. There are powers supernatural. Saul, and so on. We are all convinced of that. No one?'
'I remember distinctly,' replied Lawford, in a calm, stubborn voice, 'I looked up all around me, while I was kneeling there, and there wasn't a soul to be seen. Because, you see, it even then occurred to me that it would have looked rather queer--my wandering about like that, I mean. Facing me there were some cypress-trees, and beyond, a low sunken fence, and then, just open country. Up above there were the gravestones toppling down the hill, where I had just strolled down, and sunshine!' He suddenly threw up his hand. 'Oh, marvellous! streaming in gold--flaming, like God's own ante-chamber.'There was a very pregnant pause. Mr Bethany shrunk back a little into his chair. His lips moved; he folded his spectacles. 'Yes, yes,' he said. And then very quietly he stole one mole-like look into his sidesman's face. 'What is Dr Simon's number?' he said. Lawford was gazing gloomily into the fire. 'Oh, Annandale,' he replied absently. 'I don't know the number.' 'Do you believe in him? Your wife mentioned him. Is he clever?' 'Oh, he's new,' said Lawford; 'old James was our doctor. He--he killed my father.' He laughed out shamefacedly. 'A sound, lovable man,' said Mr Bethany, 'one of the kindest men I ever knew; and a very old friend of mine.'
And suddenly the dark face turned with a shudder from the fire, and spoke in a low trembling voice. 'Only one thing--only one thing--my sanity, my sanity. If once I forget, who will believe me?' He thrust his long lean fingers beneath his coat. 'And mad,' he added; 'I would sooner die.'Mr Bethany deliberately adjusted his spectacles. 'May I, may I experiment?' he said boldly. There came a tap on the door. 'Bless me,' said the vicar, taking out his watch, 'it is a quarter to twelve. 'Yes, yes, Mrs Lawford,' he trotted round to the door. 'We are beginning to see light--a ray!' 'But I--I can see in the dark,' whispered Lawford, as if at a cue, turning with an inscrutable smile to the fire.
The vicar came again, wrapped up in a little tight grey great-coat, and a white silk muffler. He looked up unflinching into Lawford's face, and tears stood in his eyes. 'Patience, patience, my dear fellow,' he repeated gravely, squeezing his hand. 'And rest, complete rest, is imperative. Just till the first thing to-morrow. And till then,' he turned to Mrs Lawford, where she stood looking in at the doorway, 'oh yes, complete quiet; and caution!'
Mrs Lawford let him out. He shook his head once or twice, holding her fingers. 'Oh yes,' he whispered, 'it is your husband, not the smallest doubt. I tried: for MYSELF. But something--something has happened. Don't fret him now. Have patience. Oh yes, it is incredible... the change! But there, the very first thing to-morrow.' She closed the door gently after him, and stepping softly back to the dining-room, peered in. Her husband's back was turned, but he could see her in the looking-glass, stooping a little, with set face watching him, in the silvery stillness.'Well,' he said, 'is the old--' he doggedly met the fixed eyes facing him there, 'is our old friend gone?' 'Yes,' said Sheila, 'he's gone.' Lawford sighed and turned round. 'It's useless talking now, Sheila. No more questions. I cannot tell you how tired I am. And my head--' 'What is wrong with your head?' inquired his wife discreetly.
The haggard face turned gravely and patiently. 'Only one of my old headaches.' he smiled, 'my old bilious headaches--the hereditary Lawford variety.' But his voice fell low again. 'We must get to bed.'
With a rather pretty and childish movement, Sheila gently drew her hands across her silk skirts. 'Yes, dear,' she said, 'I have made up a bed for you in the large spare room. It is thoroughly aired.' She came softly in, hastened over to a closed work-table that stood under the curtains, and opened it.
Lawford watched her, utterly expressionless, utterly motionless. He opened his mouth and shut it again, still watching his wife as she stooped with ridiculously too busy fingers, searching through her coloured silks.
Again he opened his mouth. 'Yes,' he said, and stalked slowly towards the door. But there he paused. 'God knows,' he said, strangely and meekly, 'I am sorry, sorry for all this. You will forgive me, Sheila?'She looked up swiftly. 'It's very tiresome, I can't find anywhere,' she murmured, 'I can't find anywhere the--the little red box key.' Lawford's cheek turned more sallow than ever. 'You are only pretending to look for it,' he said, 'to try me. We both know perfectly well the lock is broken. Ada broke it.'
Sheila let fall the lid; and yet for a while her eyes roved over it as if in violent search for something. Then she turned: 'I am so very glad the vicar was at home,' she said brightly. 'And mind, mind you rest, Arthur. There's nothing so bad but it might be worse.... Oh, I can't, I can't bear it!' She sat down in the chair and huddled her face between her hands, sobbing on and on, without a tear.Lawford listened and stared solemnly. 'Whatever it may be, Sheila, I will be loyal,' he said.
Her sobs hushed, and again cold horror crept over her. Nobody in the whole world could have said that 'I will be loyal' quite like that--nobody but Arthur. She stood up, patting her hair. 'I don't think my brain would bear much more. It's useless to talk. If you will go up; I will put out the lamp.'
0ne solitary and tall candle burned on the great dressing-table. Faint, solitary pictures broke the blankness of each wall. The carpet was rich, the bed impressive, and the basins on the washstand as uninviting as the bed. Lawford sat down on the edge of it in complete isolation. He sat without stirring, listening to his watch ticking in his pocket. The china clock on the chimney piece pointed cheerfully to the hour of dawn. It was exactly, he computed carefully, five hours and seven minutes fast. Not the slightest sound broke the stillness, until he heard, very, very softly and gradually, the key of his door turn in the oiled wards, and realized that he was a prisoner.
Women were strange creatures. How often he had heard that said, he thought lamely. He felt no anger, no surprise or resentment, at the trick. It was only to be expected. He could sit on till morning; easily till morning. He had never noticed before how empty a wellfurnished room could seem. It was his own room too; his best visitors' room. His fatherin-law had slept here, with his whiskers on that pillow. His wife's most formidable aunt had been all night here, alone with these pictures. She certainly was... 'But what are you doing here?' cried a voice suddenly out of his reverie.
He started up and stretched himself, and taking out the neat little packet that the maid had brought from the chemist's, he drew up a chair, and sat down once more in front of the glass. He sighed vacantly, rose and lifted down from the wall above the fireplace a tinted photograph of himself that Sheila had had enlarged about twelve years ago. It was a brighter, younger, hairier, but unmistakably the same dull indolent Lawford who had ventured into Widderstone churchyard that afternoon. The cheek was a little plumper, the eyes not quite so full-lidded, the hair a little more precisely parted, the upper lip graced with a small blonde moustache. He tilted the portrait into the candlelight, and compared it with this reflection in the glass of what had come out of Widderstone, feature with feature, with perfect composure and extreme care, Then he laid down the massive frame on the table, and gazed quietly at the tiny packet.
It was to be a day of queer experiences. He had never before realized with how many miracles mere everyday life is besieged. Here in this small punctilious packet lay a Sesame--a power of transformation beside which the transformation of that rather flaccid face of the noonday into this tense, sinister face of midnight was but as a moving from house to house--a change just as irrevocable and complete, and yet so very normal. Which should it be, that, or--his face lifted itself once more to the ice-like gloom of the looking-glass-that, or this?
It simply gazed back with a kind of quizzical pity on its lean features under the scrutiny of eyes so deep, so meaningful, so desolate, and yet so indomitably courageous. In the brain behind them a slow and stolid argument was in progress; the one baffling reply on the one side to every appeal on the other being still simply. 'What dreams may come?' Those eyes surely knew something of dreams, else, why this violent and stubborn endeavour to keep awake
Lawford did indeed once actually frame the question, 'But who the devil are you?' And it really seemed the eyes perceptibly widened or brightened. The mere vexation of his unparalleled position. Sheila's pathetic incredulity, his old vicar's laborious kindness, the tiresome network of experience into which he would be dragged struggling on the morrow, and on the morrow after that, and after that--the thought of all these things faded for the moment from his mind, lost if not their significance, at least their instancy.
He simply sat face to face with the sheer difficulty of living on at all. He even concluded in a kind of lethargy that if nothing had occurred, no 'change,' he might still be sitting here, Arthur Rennet Lawford, in his best visitor's room, deciding between inscrutable life and just--death. He supposed he was tired out. His thoughts hadn't even the energy to complete themselves. None cared but himself and this--this Silence.
'But what does it all mean?' the insistent voice he was getting to know so well began tediously inquiring again. And every time he raised his eyes, or, rather, as in many cases it seemed, his eyes raised themselves, they saw this haunting face there--a face he no longer bitterly rebelled at, nor dimmed with scrutiny, but a face that was becoming a kind of hold on life, even a kind of refuge, an ally. It was a face that might have come out of a rather flashy book; or such as is revered on the stage. 'A rotten bad face,' he whispered at it in his own familiar slang, after some such abrupt encounter; a fearless, packed, daring, fascinating face, with even--what?--a spice of genius in it. Whose the devil's face was it? What on earth was the matter?... 'Brazen it out,' a jubilant thought cried suddenly; 'follow it up; play the game! give me just one opening. Think--think what I've risked!'
And all these voices thought Lawford, in deadly lassitude, meant only one thing-insanity. A blazing, impotent indignation seized him. He leaned near, peering as it were out of a red dusky mist. He snatched up the china candlestick, and poised it above the sardonic reflection, as if to throw. Then slowly, with infinite pains, he drew back from the glass and replaced the candlestick on the table; stuffed his paper packet into his pocket, took off his boots and threw himself on to the bed. In a little while, in the faint, still light, he opened drowsily wondering eyes. `Poor old thing!' his voice murmured, 'Poor old Sheila!'
It was but little after daybreak when Mrs Lawford, after listening at his door a while, turned the key and looked in on her husband. Blue-grey light from between the venetian blinds just dusked the room. She stood in a bluish dressing-gown, her hand on her bosom, looking down on the lean impassive face. For the briefest instant her heart had leapt with an indescribable surmise; to fall dull as lead once more. Breathing equably and quietly, the strange figure lay stretched upon the bed. 'How can he sleep? How can he sleep?' she whispered with a black and hopeless indignation. What a night she had had! And he!
She turned noiselessly away. The candle had guttered to extinction. The big glass reflected her, voluminous and wan, her dark-ringed eyes, full lips, rich, glossy hair, and rounded chin. 'Yes, yes,' it seemed to murmur mournfully. She turned away, and drawing stealthily near stooped once more quite low, and examined the face on the pillow with lynx-like concentration. And though every nerve revolted at the thought, she was finally convinced, unwillingly, but assuredly, that her husband was here. Indeed, if it were not so, how could she for a single moment have accepted the possibility that he was a stranger? He seemed to haunt, like a ghostly emanation, this strange, detestable face--as memory supplies the features concealed beneath a mask. The face was still and stony, like one dead or imaged in wax, yet beneath it dreams were passing--silly, ordinary Lawford dreams. She was almost alarmed at the terribly rancorous hatred she felt for the face... 'It was just like Arthur to be so taken in!'
Then she too remembered Quain, and remembered also in the slowly paling dusk that the house would soon be stirring. She went out and noiselessly locked the door again. But it was useless to begin looking for Quain now--her husband had a good many dull books, most of them his 'eccentric' father's. What must the servants be thinking? and what was all that talk about a mysterious visitor? She would have to question Ada-- diplomatically. She returned to her room and sat down in an arm-chair, and waited. In sheer weariness she fell into a doze, and woke at the sound of dustpan and broom. She rang the bell, and asked for hot water, tea, and a basin of cornflour.
'And please, Ada, be as quiet as possible over your work; your master is in a nice sleep, and must not be disturbed on any account. In the front bedroom.' She looked up suddenly. 'By the way, who let Dr Ferguson in last night?' It was dangerous, but successful.'Dr Ferguson, ma'am? Oh, you mean... He WAS in.' Sheila smiled resignedly. 'Was in? What do you mean, "was in"? And where were you, then?'
'I had been sent out to Critchett's, the chemist's.' 'Of course, of course. So cook let Dr Ferguson in, then? Why didn't you say so before, Ada? And did you bring the medicine with you?''It was a packet in an envelope, ma'am. But Cook is sure she heard no knock--not while I was out. So Dr Ferguson must have come in quite unbeknown.'
'Well, really,' said Sheila, 'it seems very difficult to get at the truth sometimes. And when illness is in the house I cannot understand why there should be no one available to answer the door. You must have left it ajar, unsecured, when you went out. And pray, what if Dr Ferguson had been some common tramp? That would have been a nice thing.'
'I am quite certain,' said Ada a little flatly, 'that I did shut the door. And cook says she never so much as stirred from the kitchen till I came down the area steps with the packet. And that's all I know about it, ma'am; except that he was here when I came back. I did not know even there was a Dr Ferguson; and my mother has lived here nineteen years.'
'We must be thankful your mother enjoys such good health,' replied Mrs Lawford suavely. 'Please tell cook to be very careful with the cornflour--to be sure it's well mixed and thoroughly done.'
Mrs Lawford's eyes followed with a certain discomfort those narrow print shoulders descending the stairs. And this abominable ruse was--Arthur's! She ran up lightly and listened with her ear to the panel of his door. And just as she was about to turn away again, there came a little light knock at the front door.
Mrs Lawford paused at the loop of the staircase; and not altogether with gratitude or relief she heard the voice of Mr Bethany, inquiring in cautious but quite audible tones after her husband.She dressed quickly and went down. The little white old man looked very solitary in the long, fireless, drawing-room.
'I could not sleep,' he said; 'I don't think I grasped in the least, I don't indeed, until I was nearly home, the complexity of our problem. I came, in fact, to a lamppost. It was casting a peculiar shadow. And then--you know how such thoughts seize us, my dear--like a sudden inspiration, I realised how tenuous, how appallingly tenuous a hold we every one of us have on our mere personality. But that,' he continued rapidly, 'that's only for ourselves--and after the event. Ours, just now, is to act. And first--?''You really do, then--you really are convinced--' began Mrs Lawford.
But Mr Bethany was too quick. 'We must be most circumspect. My dear friend, we must be most circumspect, for all our sakes. And this, you'll say,' he added, smiling, stretching out his arms, his soft hat in one hand, his umbrella in the other--'this is being circumspect--a seven o'clock in the morning call! But you see, my dear, I have come, as I took the precaution of explaining to the maid, because it's now or never to-day. It does so happen that I have to take a wedding for an old friend's niece at Witchett; so when in need, you see, Providence enables us to tell even the conventional truth. Now really, how is he? has he slept? has he recalled himself at all? is there any change?--and, dear me, how are YOU?'Mrs Lawford sighed. 'A broken night is really very little to a mother,' she said. 'He is still asleep. He hasn't, I think, stirred all night.' 'Not stirred!' Mr Bethany repeated. 'You baffle me. And you have watched?'
'Oh no,' was the cheerful answer; 'I felt that quiet, solitude; space, was everything; he preferred it so. He--he changed alone, I suppose. Don't you think it almost stands to reason that he will be alone...when he comes back? Was I right? But there, it's useless, it's worse than useless, to talk like this. My husband is gone. Some terrible thing has happened. Whatever the mystery may be, he will never come back alive. My only fear is that I am dragging you into a matter that should from the beginning have been entrusted to-- Oh, it's monstrous!' It appeared for a moment as if she were blinking to keep back her tears, yet her scrutiny seemed merely to harden.
Only the merest flicker of the folded eyelids over the greenish eyes of her visitor answered the challenge. He stood small and black, peeping fixedly out of the window at the sunflecked laurels.
'Last night,' he said slowly, 'when I said good-bye to your husband, on the tip of my tongue were the words I have used, in season and out of season, for nearly forty-five years--"God knows best." Well, my dear lady, a sense of humour, a sense of reverence, or perhaps even a taint of scepticism--call it what you will--just intercepted them. Oh no, not any of these, my child; just pity, overwhelming pity. God does know best; but in a matter like this it is not even my place to say so. It would be good for none of us to endanger our souls even with verbal cant. Now, if, do you think, I had just five minutes' talk--five minutes; would it disquiet him?'
Only by an almost undignified haste, for the vicar was remarkably agile, Sheila managed to unlock the bedroom door without apparently his perceiving it, and with a warning finger she preceded him into the great bedroom. 'Oh, yes, yes,' he was whispering to himself; 'alone--well, well!' He hung his hat on his umbrella and leaned it in a corner, and then he turned.
'I don't think, you know, an old friend does him any wrong; but last night I had no real oppor--' He firmly adjusted his spectacles, and looked long into the dark, dispassioned face.'H'm!' he said, and fidgeted, and peered again. Mrs Lawford watched him keenly.
'Do you still--' she began. But at the same moment he too broke silence, suddenly stepping back with the innocent remark, 'Has he--has he asked for anything?''Only for Quain.' '"Quain"?' 'The medical Dictionary.'
'Oh, yes; bless me; of course.... A calm, complete sleep of utter prostration--utter nervous prostration. And can one wonder? Poor fellow, poor fellow!' He walked to the window and peered between the blinds. 'Sparrows, sunshine--yes, and here's the postman,' he said, as if to himself. Then he turned sharply round, with mind made up.
'Now, do you leave me here,' he said. 'Take half an hour's quiet rest. He will be glad of a dull old fellow like me when he wakes. And as for my pretty bride, if I miss the train, she must wait till the next. Good discipline, my dear. Oh, dear me! I don't change. What a precious experience now this would have been for a tottery, talkative, owlish old parochial creature like me. But there, there. Light words make heavy hearts, I see. I shall be quite comfortable. No, no, I breakfasted at home. There's hat and umbrella; at 9.3 I can fly.'Mrs Lawford thanked him mutely. He smilingly but firmly bowed her out and closed the door.
But eyes and brain had been very busy. He had looked at the gutted candle; at the tinted bland portrait on the dressing-table; at the chair drawn-up; at the boots; and now again he turned almost with a groan towards the sleeper. Then he took out an envelope, on which he had jotted various memoranda, and waited awhile. Minutes passed and at last the sleeper faintly stirred, muttering.Mr Bethany stooped quickly. 'What is it, what is it?' he whispered.
Lawford sighed. 'I was only dreaming, Sheila,' he said, and softly, peacefully opened his eyes. 'I dreamed I was in the--, His lids narrowed, his dark eyes fixed themselves on the anxious spectacled face bending over him. 'Mr Bethany! Where? What's wrong?'His friend put out his hand. 'There, there,' he said soothingly, 'do not be disturbed; do not disquiet yourself.'
Lawford struggled up. Slowly, painfully consciousness returned to him. He glanced furtively round the room, at his clothes, slinkingly at the vicar; licked his lips; flushed with extraordinary rapidity; and suddenly burst into tears.
Mr Bethany sat without movement, waiting till he should have spent himself. 'Now, Lawford,' he said gently, compose yourself, old friend. We must face the music--like men.' He went to the window, drew up the blind, peeped out, and took off his spectacles.
'The first thing to be done,' he said, returning briskly to his chair, 'is to send for Simon. Now, does Simon know you WELL?' Lawford shook his head. 'Would he recognise you?... I mean...''I have only met him once--in the evening.'
'Good; let him come immediately, then. Tell him just the facts. If I am not mistaken, he will pooh-pooh the whole thing; tell you to keep quiet, not to worry, and so on. My dear fellow, if we realised, say, typhoid, who'd dare to face it? That will give us time; to wait a while, to recover our breath, to see what happens next. And if--as I don't believe for a moment-- Why, in that case I heard the other day of a most excellent man-- Grosser, of Wimpole Street; nerves. He would be absorbed. He'll bottle you in spirit, Lawford. We'll have him down quietly. You see? But there won't be any necessity. Oh no. By then light will have come. We shall remember. What I mean is this.' He crossed his legs and pushed out his lips. 'We are on quaky ground; and it's absolutely essential that you keep cool, and trust. I am yours, heart and soul--you know that. I own frankly, at first I was shaken. And I have, I confess, been very cunning. But first, faith, then evidence to bolster it up. The faith was absolute'-- he placed one firm hand on Lawford's knee--'why, I cannot explain; but it was. The evidence is convincing. But there are others to think of. The shock, the incredibleness, the consequences; we must not scan too closely. Think WITH; never against: and bang go all the arguments. Your wife, poor dear, believes; but of course, of course, she is horribly--' he broke off; 'of course she is SHAKEN, you old simpleton! Time will heal all that. Time will wear out the mask. Time will tire out this detestable physical witchcraft. The mind, the self's the thing. Old fogey though I may seem for saying it--that must be kept unsmirched. We won't go wearily over the painful subject again. You told me last night, dear old friend, that you were absolutely alone at Widderstone. That is enough. But here we have visible facts, tangible effects, and there must have been a definite reason and a cause for them. I believe in the devil, in the Powers of Darkness, Lawford, as firmly as I believe he and they are powerless--in the long run. They--what shall we say?-- have surrendered their intrinsicality. You can just go through evil, as you can go through a sewer, and come out on the other side too. A loathsome process too. But there--we are not speaking of any such monstrosities, and even if we were, you and I with God's help would just tire them out. And that ally gone, our poor dear old Mrs Grundy will at once capitulate. Eh? Eh?'
Through all this long and arduous harangue, consciousness, like the gradual light of dawn, had been flooding that other brain. And the face that now confronted Mr Bethany, though with his feeble unaided sight he could only very obscurely discern it, was vigilant and keen, in every sharp-cut hungry feature.
A rather prolonged silence followed, the visitor peering mutely. The black eyes nearly closed, the face turned slowly towards the window, saw burnt-out candle, comprehensive glass.
'Good,' said Mr Bethany, and more doubtfully repeated 'good.' 'Now there's only one thing left,' he went on cheerfully. 'I have jotted down a few test questions here; they are questions no one on this earth could answer but you, Lawford. They are merely for external proofs. You won't, you can't, mistake my motive. We cannot foretell or foresee what need may arise for just such jog-trot primitive evidence. I propose that you now answer them here, in writing.'
Lawford stood up and walked to the looking-glass, and paused. He put his hand to his head. 'es,' he said, 'of course; it's a rattling good move. I'm not quite awake; myself, I mean. I'll do it now.' He took out a pencil case and tore another leaf from his pocketbook. 'What are they?'
Mr Bethany rang the bell. Sheila herself answered it. She stood on the threshold and looked across through a shaft of autumnal sunshine at her husband, and her husband with a quiet strange smile looked across through the sunshine at his wife. Mr Bethany waited in vain.
'I am just going to put the arch-impostor through his credentials,' he said tartly. 'Now then, Lawford!' He read out the questions, one by one, from his crafty little list, pursing his lips between each; and one by one, Lawford, seated at the dressing-table, fluently scribbled his answers. Then question and answer were rigorously compared by Mr Bethany, with small white head bent close and spectacles poised upon the powerful nose, and signed and dated, and passed to Mrs Lawford without a word.Mrs Lawford read question and answer where she stood, in complete silence. She looked up. 'Many of these questions I don't know the answers to myself,' she said. 'It is immaterial,' said Mr Bethany. 'One answer is--is inaccurate. 'Yes, yes, quite so: due to a mistake in a letter from myself.' Mrs Lawford read quietly on, folded the papers, and held them out between finger and thumb. 'The--handwriting...' she remarked very softly.
'Wonderful, isn't it?' said Mr Bethany warmly; 'all the general look and run of the thing different, but every real essential feature unchanged. Now into the envelope. And now a little wax?'
Mrs Lawford stood waiting. 'There's a green piece of sealing-wax,' almost drawled the quiet voice, 'in the top right drawer of the nest in the study, which old James gave me the Christmas before last.' He glanced with lowered eyelids at his wife's flushed cheek. Their eyes met.'Thank you,' she said.
When she returned the vicar was sitting in a chair, leaning his chin on the knobbed handle of his umbrella. He rose and lit a taper for her with a match from a little green pot on the table. And Mrs Lawford, with trembling fingers, sealed the letter, as he directed, with his own seal.
'There!' he said triumphantly, 'how many more such brilliant lawyers, I wonder, lie dormant in the Church? And who shall keep this?... Why, all three, of course.' He went on without pausing. 'Some little drawer now, secret and undetectable, with a lock.' Just such a little drawer that locked itself with a spring lay by chance in the looking-glass. There the letter was hidden. And Mr Bethany looked at his watch. 'Nineteen minutes,' he said. 'The next thing, my dear child--we're getting on swimmingly--and it's astonishing how things are simplified by mere use--the next thing is to send for Simon.'Sheila took a deep breath, but did not look up. 'I am entirely in your hands,' she replied. '
'So be it,' said he crisply. 'Get to bed, Lawford; it's better so. And I'll look in on my way back from Witchett. I came, my dear fellow, in gloomy disturbance of mind. It was getting up too early; it fogs old brains. Good-bye, good-bye.'
He squeezed Lawford's hand. Then, with umbrella under his arm, his hat on his head, his spectacles readjusted, he hurried out of the room. Mrs Lawford followed him. For a few minutes Lawford sat motionless, with head bent a little, and eyes restlessly scanning the door. Then he rose abruptly, and in a quarter of an hour was in bed, alone with his slow thoughts: while a basin of cornflour stood untasted on a little table at his bedside, and a cheerful fire burned in the best visitors' room's tiny grate.
At half-past eleven Dr Simon entered this soundless seclusion. He sat down beside Lawford, and took temperature and pulse. Then he half closed his lids, and scanned his patient out of an unusually dark, un-English face, with straight black hair, and listened attentively to his rather incoherent story. It was a story very much modified and rounded off. Nor did Lawford draw Dr Simon's attention to the portrait now smiling conventionally above their heads from the wall over the fireplace.
'It was rather bleak--the wind; and, I think, perhaps, I had had a touch of influenza. It was a silly thing to do. But still, Dr Simon, one doesn't expect--well, there, I don't feel the same man--physically. I really cannot explain how great a change has taken place. And yet I feel perfectly fit in myself. And if it were not for--for being laughed at, go back to town, to-day. Why my wife scarcely recognised me.'
Dr Simon continued his scrutiny. Try as he would, Lawford could not raise his downcast eyes to meet direct the doctor's polite attention.
'And what,' said Dr Simon, 'what precisely is the nature of the change? Have you any pain?'
'No, not the least pain,' said Lawford; 'I think, perhaps, or rather my face is a little shrunken--and yet lengthened; at least it feels so; and a faint twinge of rheumatism. But my hair--well, I don't know; it's difficult to say one's self.' He could get on so very much better, he thought, if only his mind would be at peace and these preposterous promptings and voices were still.
Dr Simon faced the window, and drew his hand softly over his head. 'We never can be too cautious at a certain age, and especially after influenza,' he said. 'It undermines the whole system, and in particular the nervous system; leaving the mind the prey of the most melancholy fancies. I should astound you, Mr Lawford, with the devil influenza plays.... A slight nervous shock and a chill; quite slight, I hope. A few days' rest and plenty of nourishment. There's nothing; temperature inconsiderable. All perfectly intelligible. Most certainly reassure yourself! And as for the change you speak of'--he looked steadily at the dark face on the pillow and smiled amiably--'I don't think we need worry much about that. It certainly was a bleak wind yesterday--and a cemetery, my dear sir! It was indiscreet--yes, very.' He held out his hand. 'You must not be alarmed,' he said, very distinctly with the merest trace of an accent; 'air, sunshine, quiet, nourishment; sleep--that is all. The little window might be a few inches open, and--and any light reading.'
He opened the door and joined Mrs Lawford on the staircase. He talked to her quietly over his shoulder all the way downstairs. 'It was, it was sporting with Providence--a wind, believe me, nearly due east, in spite of the warm sunshine.'
'But the change--the change!' Mrs Lawford managed to murmur tragically, as he strode to the door. Dr Simon smiled, and gracefully tapped his forehead with a red-gloved forefinger.
'Humour him, humour him,' he repeated indulgently. 'Rest and quiet will soon put that little trouble out of his head. Oh yes, I did notice it--the set drawn look, and the droop: quite so. Good morning.'
Mrs Lawford gently closed the door after him. A glimpse of Ada, crossing from room to room, suggested a precaution. She called out in her clearest notes. 'If Dr Ferguson should call while I am out, Ada, will you please tell him that Dr Simon regretted that he was unable to wait? Thank you.' She paused with hand on the balusters, then slowly ascended the stairs. Her husband's face was turned to the ceiling, his hands clasped above his head. She took up her stand by the fireplace, resting one silk-slippered foot on the fender. 'Dr Simon is reassuring,' she said, 'but I do hope, Arthur, you will follow his advice. He looks a fairly clever man.... But with a big practice.... Do you think, dear, he quite realised the extent of the--the change?'
'I told him what happened,' said her husband's voice out of the bed-clothes. 'Yes, yes, I know,' said Sheila soothingly; 'but we must remember he is comparatively a stranger. He would not detect--''What did he tell you?' asked the voice.
Mrs Lawford deliberately considered. If only he would always thus keep his face concealed, how much easier it would be to discuss matters rationally. 'You see, dear,' she said softly, 'I know, of course, nothing about the nerves; but personally, I think his suggestion absurd. No mere fancy, surely, can make a lasting alteration in one's face. And your hair--I don't want to say anything that may seem unkind--but isn't it really quite a distinct shade darker, Arthur?''Any great strain will change the colour of a man's hair,' said Lawford stolidly; 'at any rate, to white. Why, I read once of a fellow in India, a Hindoo, or something, who--'
'But have you HAD any intense strain, or anxiety?' broke in Sheila. 'You might, at least, have confided in me; that is, unless-- But there, don't you think really, Arthur, it would be much more satisfactory in every way if we had further advice at once? Alice will be home next week. To-morrow is the Harvest Festival, and next week, of course, the Dedication; and, in any case, the Bazaar is out of the question. They will have to find another stall-holder. We must do our utmost to avoid comment or scandal. Every minute must help to--to fix a thing like that. I own even now I cannot realise what this awful calamity means. It's useless to brood on it. We must, as the poor dear old vicar said only last night, keep our heads clear. But I am sure Dr Simon was under a misapprehension. If, now, it was explained to him, a little more fully, Arthur--a photograph. Oh, anything on earth but this dreadful wearing uncertainty and suspense! Besides ...is Simon quite an English name?'
Lawford drew further into his pillow. 'Do as you think best, Sheila,' he said. 'For my own part, I believe it may be as he suggests--partly an illusion, a touch of nervous breakdown. It simply can't be as bad as I think it is. If it were, you would not be here talking like this; and Bethany wouldn't have believed a word I said. Whatever it is, it's no good crying it on the housetops. Give me time, just time. Besides, how do we know what he really thought? Doctors don't tell their patients everything. Give the poor chap a chance, and more so if he is a foreigner. He's'--his voice sank almost to a whisper--'he's no darker than this. And do, please, Sheila, take this infernal stuff away, and let me have something solid. I'm not ill--in that way. All I want is peace and quiet, time to think. Let me fight it out alone. It's been sprung on me. The worst's not over. But I'll win through; wait! And if not--well, you shall not suffer, Sheila. Don't be afraid. There are other ways out.'
Sheila broke down. 'Any one would think to hear you talk, that I was perfectly heartless. I told Ada to be most careful about the cornflour. And as for other ways out, it's a positively wicked thing to say to me when I'm nearly distracted with trouble and anxiety. What motive could you have had for loitering in an old cemetery? And in an east wind! It's useless for me to remain here, Arthur, to be accused of every horrible thing that comes into a morbid imagination. I will leave you, as you suggest, in peace.' 'One moment, Sheila,' answered the muffled voice. 'I have accused you of nothing. If you knew all; if you could read my thoughts, you would be surprised, perhaps, at my-- But never mind that. On the other hand, I really do think it would be better for the present to discuss the thing no more. To-day is Friday. Give this miserable face a week. Talk it over with Bethany if you like. But I forbid'--he struggled up in bed, sallow and sinister--'I flatly forbid, please understand, any other interference till then. Afterwards you must do exactly as you please. Send round the Town Crier! But till then, silence!'
Sheila with raised head confronted him. 'This, then, is your gratitude. So be it. Silence, no doubt! Until it's too late to take action. Until you have wormed your way in, and think you are safe. To have believed! Where is my husband? that is what I am asking you now. When and how you have learned his secrets God only knows, and your conscience! But he always was a simpleton at heart. I warn you, then. Until next Thursday I consent to say nothing provided you remain quiet; make no disturbance, no scandal here. The servants and all who inquire shall simply be told that my husband is confined to his room with-with a nervous breakdown, as you have yourself so glibly suggested. I am at your mercy, I own it. The vicar believes your preposterous story--with his spectacles off. You would convince anybody with the wicked cunning with which you have cajoled and wheedled him, with which you have deceived and fooled a foreign doctor. But you will not convince me. You will not convince Alice. I have friends in the world, though you may not be aware of it, who will not be quite so apt to believe any cock-and-bull story you may see fit to invent. That is all I have to say. To-night I tell the vicar all that I have just told you. And from this moment, please, we are strangers. I shall come into the room no more than necessity dictates. On Friday we resume our real parts. My husband-- Arthur-to--to connive at...Phh!'
Rage had transfigured her. She scarcely heard her own words. They poured out senselessly, monotonously, one calling up another, as if from the lips of a Cassandra. Lawford sank back into bed, clutching the sheets with both lean hands. He took a deep breath and shut his mouth.
'It reminds me, Sheila,' he began arduously, 'of our first quarrel before we were married, the evening after your aunt Rose died at Llandudno--do you remember? You threw open the window, and I think--I saved your life.' A pause followed. Then a queer, almost inarticulate voice added, 'At least, I am afraid so.'
A cold and awful quietness fell on Sheila's heart. She stared fixedly at the tuft of dark hair, the only visible sign of her husband, on the pillow. Then, taking up the basin of cold cornflour, she left the room. In a quarter of an hour she reappeared carrying a tray, with ham and eggs and coffee and honey invitingly displayed. She laid it down.
'There is only one other question,' she said, with perfect composure--'that of money. Your signature as it appears on the--the document drawn up this morning, would, of course, be quite useless on a cheque. I have taken all the money I could find; it is in safety. You may, however, conceivably be in need of some yourself; here is five pounds. I have my own cheque-book, and shall therefore have no need to consider the question again for-for the present. So far as you are concerned, I shall be guided solely by Mr Bethany. He will, I do not doubt, take full responsibility.''And may the Lord have mercy on my soul!' uttered a stifled, unfamiliar voice from the bed. Mrs Lawford stooped. 'Arthur!' she cried faintly, 'Arthur!'
Lawford raised himself on his elbow with a sigh that was very near to being a sob. 'Oh, Sheila, if you'd only be your real self! What is the use of all this pretence? Just consider MY position a little. The fear and horror are not all on your side. You called me Arthur even then. I'd willingly do anything you wish to save you pain; you know that. Can't we be friends even in this--this ghastly-- Won't you, Sheila?'Mrs Lawford drew back, struggling with a doubtful heart. 'I think,' she said, `it would be better not to discuss that now.' The rest of the morning Lawford remained in solitude.
There were three books in the room--Jeremy Taylor's 'Holy Living and Dying,' a volume of the Quiver, and a little gilded book on wildflowers. He read in vain. He lay and listened to the uproar of his thoughts on which an occasional sound--the droning of a fly, the cry of a milkman, the noise of a passing van--obtruded from the workaday world. The pale gold sunlight edged softly over the bed. He ate up everything on his tray. He even, on the shoals of nightmare, dreamed awhile. But by and by as the hours wheeled slowly on he grew less calm, less strenuously resolved on lying there inactive. Every sparrow that twittered cried reveille through his brain. He longed with an ardour strange to his temperament to be up and doing.
What if his misfortune was, as he had in the excitement of the moment suggested to Sheila, only a morbid delusion of mind; shared too in part by sheer force of his absurd confession? Even if he was going mad, who knows how peaceful a release that might not be? Could his shrewd old vicar have implicitly believed in him if the change were as complete as he supposed it? He flung off the bedclothes and locked the door. He dressed himself, noticing, he fancied, with a deadly revulsion of feeling, that his coat was a little too short in the sleeves, his waistcoat too loose. In the midst of his dressing came Sheila bringing his luncheon. 'I'm sorry,' he called out, stooping quickly beside the bed, 'I can't talk now. Please put the tray down.'
About half an hour afterwards he heard the outer door close, and peeping from behind the curtains saw his wife go out. All was drowsily quiet in the house. He devoured his lunch like a schoolboy. That finished to the last crumb, without a moment's delay he covered his face with a towel, locked the door behind him, put the key in his pocket, and ran lightly downstairs. He stuffed the towel into an ulster pocket, put on a soft, widebrimmed hat, and noiselessly let himself out. Then he turned with an almost hysterical delight and ran--ran like the wind, without pausing, without thinking, straight on, up one turning, down another, until he reached a broad open common, thickly wooded, sprinkled with gorse and hazel and may, and faintly purple with fading heather. There he flung himself down in the beautiful sunlight, among the yellowing bracken, to recover his breath.
He lay there for many minutes, thinking almost with composure. Flight, it seemed, had for the moment quietened the demands of that other feebly struggling personality which was beginning to insinuate itself into his consciousness, which had so miraculously broken in and taken possession of his body. He would not think now. All he needed was a little quiet and patience before he threw off for good and all his right to be free, to be his own master, to call himself sane.
He scrambled up and turned his face towards the westering sun. What was there in the stillness of its beautiful splendour that seemed to sharpen his horror and difficulty, and yet to stir him to such a daring and devilry as he had never known since he was a boy? There was little sound of life; somewhere an unknown bird was singing, and a few late bees were droning in the bracken. All these years he had, like an old blind horse, stolidly plodded round and round in a dull self-set routine. And now, just when the spirit had come for rebellion, the mood for a harmless truancy, there had fallen with them too this hideous enigma. He sat there with the dusky silhouette of the face that was now drenched with sunlight in his mind's eye. He set off again up the stony incline.
Why not walk on and on? In time real wholesome weariness would come; he could sleep at ease in some pleasant wayside inn, without once meeting the eyes that stood as it were like a window between himself and a shrewd incredulous scoffing world that would turn him into a monstrosity and his story into a fable. And in a little while, perhaps in three days, he would awaken out of this engrossing nightmare, and know he was free, this black dog gone from his back, and (as the old saying expressed it without any one dreaming what it really meant) his own man again. How astonished Sheila would be; how warmly she would welcome him!... Oh yes, of course she would.
He came again to a standstill. No voice answered him out of that illimitable gold and blue. Nothing seemed aware of him. But as he stood there, doubtful as Cain on the outskirts of the unknown, he caught the sound of a footfall on the lonely and stone-strewn path.
The ground sloped steeply away to the left, and slowly mounting the hillside came mildly on an old lady he knew, a Miss Sinnet, an old friend of his mother's. There was just such a little seat as that other he knew so well, on the brow of the hill. He made his way to it, intending to sit quietly there until the little old lady had passed by. Up and up she came. Her large bonnet appeared, and then her mild white face, inclined a little towards him as she ascended. Evidently this very seat was her goal; and evasion was impossible. Evasion!... Memory rushed back and set his pulses beating. He turned boldly to the sun, and the old lady, with a brief glance into his face, composed herself at the other end of the little seat. She gazed out of a gentle reverie into the golden valley. And so they sat a while. And almost as if she had felt the bond of acquaintance between them, she presently sighed, and addressed him: 'A very, very, beautiful view, sir.'Lawford paused, then turned a gloomy, earnest face, gilded with sunshine. 'Beautiful, indeed,' he said, 'but not for me. No, Miss Sinnet, not for me.' The old lady gravely turned and examined the aquiline profile. 'Well, I confess,' she remarked urbanely, 'you have the advantage of me.' Lawford smiled uneasily. 'Believe me, it is little advantage.'
'My sight,' said Miss Sinnet precisely, 'is not so good as I might wish; though better perhaps than I might have hoped; I fear I am not much wiser; your face is still unfamiliar to me.'
'It is not unfamiliar to me,' said Lawford. Whose trickery was this? he thought, putting such affected stuff into his mouth.
'Now really,' she said, smiling blandly, 'is that quite fair? Think of all the scores and scores of faces in seventy long years; and how very treacherous memory is. You shall do me the service of REMINDING me of one whose name has for the moment escaped me.''I am the son of a very old friend of yours, Miss Sinnet,' said Lawford quietly 'a friend that was once your schoolfellow at Brighton.'
'Well, now,' said the old lady, grasping her umbrella, 'that is undoubtedly a clue; but then, you see, all but one of the friends of my girlhood are dead; and if I have never had the pleasure of meeting her son, unless there is a decided resemblance, how am I to recollect HER by looking at HIM?''There is, I believe, a likeness,' said Lawford.
She nodded her great bonnet at him with gentle amusement. 'You are insistent in your fancy. Well, let me think again. The last to leave me was Fanny Urquhart, that was--let me see--last October. Now you are certainly not Fanny Urquhart's son,' she stooped austerely, 'for she never had one. Last year, too, I heard that my dear, dear Mrs Jameson was dead. HER I hadn't met for many, many years. But, if I may venture to say so, yours is not a Scottish face; and she not only married a Scottish husband, but was herself a Dunbar. No, I am still at a loss.'
A miserable strife was in her chance companion's mind, a strife of anger and recrimination. He turned his eyes wearily to the fast declining sun. 'You will forgive my persistency, but I assure you it is a matter of life or death to me. Is there no one my face recalls? My voice?'
Miss Sinnet drew her long lips together, her eyebrows lifted with the faintest perturbation. 'But he certainly knows my name,' she said to herself. She turned once more, and in the still autumnal beauty, beneath that pale blue arch of evening, these two human beings confronted one another again. She eyed him blandly, yet with a certain grave directness.
'I don't really think,' she said, 'you can be Mary Lawford's son. I could scarcely have mistaken HIM.'
Lawford gulped and turned away. He hardly knew what this surge of feeling meant. Was it hope, despair, resentment; had he caught even the echo of an unholy joy? His mind for a moment became confused as if in the tumult of a struggle. He heard himself expostulate, 'Ah, Miss Bennett, I fear I set you too difficult a task.'
The little old lady took firm hold of her umbrella. She did not answer him. 'The likeness, the likeness!' he began unctuously, and stopped, for the glance that dwelt fleetingly on him was cold with the formidable dignity and displeasure of age. He raised his hat and turned miserably home. He strode on out of the last gold into the blue twilight. What fantastic foolery of mind was mastering him? He cast a hurried look over his shoulder at the kindly and offended old figure sitting there, solitary, on the little seat, in her great bonnet, with back turned resolutely upon him--the friend of his dead mother who might have proved in his need a friend indeed to him. And he had by this insane caprice hopelessly estranged her.
She would remember this face well enough now, he thought bitterly, and would take her place among his quiet enemies, if ever the day of reckoning should come. It was scandalous, it was banal to have abused her trust and courtesy. Oh, it was hopeless to struggle any more! The fates were against him. They had played him a trick. He was to be their transitory sport, as many a better man he could himself recollect had been before him. He would go home and give in; let Sheila do with him what she pleased. No one but a lunatic could have acted as he had, with just that frantic hint of method so remarkable in the insane.
He left the common. A lamplighter was lighting the lamps. A thin evening haze was on the air. If only he had stayed at home that fateful afternoon! Who, what had induced him, enticed him to venture out? And even with the thought welled up into his mind an intense desire to go to the old green time-worn churchyard again; to sit there contentedly alone, where none heeded the completest metamorphosis, down beside the yew-trees. What a fool he had been. There alone, of course, lay his only possible chance of recovery. He would go to-morrow. Perhaps Sheila had not yet discovered his absence; and there would be no difficulty in repeating so successful a stratagem.
Remembrance of his miserable mistake, of Miss Sinnet, faintly returned to him as he swiftly mounted the steps to his porch. Poor old lady. He would make amends for his discourtesy when he was quite himself again. She should some day hear, perhaps, his infinitely tragic, infinitely comic experience from his own lips. He would take her some flowers, some old keepsake of his mother's. What would he not do when the old moods and brains of the stupid Arthur Lawford, whom he had appreciated so little and so superficially, came back to him.
He ran up the steps and stopped dead, his hand in his pocket, chilled and aghast. Sheila had taken his keys. He stood there, dazed and still, beneath the dim yellow of his own fanlight; and once again that inward spring flew back. 'Brazen it out; brazen it out! Knock and ring!'
But Ada still palely barred the way. 'I think, sir,' she said, 'Mrs Lawford would prefer to see you herself; she told me most particularly "all callers." And Mr Lawford was not to be disturbed on any account.'
'Disturbed? God forbid!' said Lawford, but his dark eyes failed to move these lightest hazel. 'Well,' he continued nonchalantly, 'perhaps--perhaps it--,WOULD be as well if Mrs Lawford should know that I am here. No, thank you, I won't come in. Please go and tell--' But even as the maid turned to obey, Sheila herself appeared at the dining-room door in hat and veil.
Lawford hesitated an immeasurable moment. In one swift glance he perceived the lamplit mystery of evening, beckoning, calling, pleading--Fly, fly! Home's here for you. Begin again, begin again. And there before him in quiet and hostile decorum stood maid and mistress. He took off his hat and stepped quickly in.'So late, so very late, I fear,' he began glibly. 'A sudden call, a perfectly impossible distance. Shall we disturb him, do you think?' 'Wouldn't it,' began Sheila softly, 'be rather a pity perhaps? Dr Simon seemed to think.... But, of course, you must decide that.' Ada turned quiet small eyes. 'No, no, by no means,' he almost mumbled.
And a hard, slow smile passed over Sheila's face. 'Excuse me one moment,' she said; 'I will see if he is awake.' She swept swiftly forward, superb and triumphant, beneath the gaze of those dark, restless eyes. But so still was home and street that quite distinctly a clear and youthful laughter was heard, and light footsteps approaching. Sheila paused. Ada, in the act of closing the door, peered out. 'Miss Alice, ma'am,' she said.
And in this infinitesimal advantage of time Dr Ferguson had seized his vanishing opportunity, and was already swiftly mounting the stairs. Mrs Lawford stood with veil half raised and coldly smiling lips and, as if it were by pre-arrangement, her daughter's laughing greeting from the garden, and from the landing above her, a faint 'Ah, and how are we now?' broke out simultaneously. And Ada, silent and discreet, had thrown open the door again to the twilight and to the young people ascending the steps.Lawford was still sitting on his bed before a cold and ashy hearth when Sheila knocked at the door. 'Yes?' he said; 'who's there?' No answer followed. He rose with a shuddering sigh and turned the key. His wife entered. 'That little exhibition of finesse was part of our agreement, I suppose?' 'I say--' began Lawford. 'To creep out in my absence like a thief, and to return like a mountebank; that was part of our compact?' 'I say,' he stubbornly began again, 'did you wire for Alice?'
'Will you please answer my question? Am I to be a mere catspaw in your intrigues, in this miserable masquerade before the servants? To set the whole place ringing with the name of a doctor that doesn't exist, and a bedridden patient that slips out of the house with his bedroom key in his pocket! Are you aware that Ada has been hammering at your door every half-hour of your absence? Are you aware of that? How much,' she continued in a low, bitter voice, 'how much should I offer for her discretion?''Who was that with Alice?' inquired the same toneless voice. 'I refuse to be ignored. I refuse to be made a child of. Will you please answer me?'
Lawford turned. 'Look here, Sheila,' he began heavily, 'what about Alice? If you wired: well, it's useless to say anything more. But if you didn't, I ask you just this one thing. Don't tell her!''Oh, I perfectly appreciate a father's natural anxiety.'
Her husband drew up his shoulders as if to receive a blow. 'Yes, yes,' he said, 'but you won't?'
The sound of a young laughing voice came faintly up from below. 'How did Jimmie Fortescue know she was coming home to-day?'
'Oh, what is the use of sneering?' began the dull voice again. 'I am horribly tired, Sheila. And try how you will, you can't convince me that you believe for a moment that I am not myself, that you are as hard as you pretend. An acquaintance, even a friend might be deceived; but husband and wife--oh no! It isn't only a man's face that's himself--or even his hands.' He looked at them, straightened them slowly out, and buried them in his pockets. 'All I care about now is Alice. Is she, or is she not going to be told? I am simply asking you to give her just a chance.''"Simply asking me to give Alice a chance"; now isn't that really just a little...?'
Lawford slowly shook his head. 'You know in your heart it isn't, Sheila; you understand me quite well, although you persistently pretend not to. I can't argue now. I can't speak up for myself. I am just about as far down as I can go. It's only Alice.''I see; a lucid interval?' suggested his wife in a low, trembling voice.
'Yes, yes, if you like,' said her husband patiently, '"a lucid interval." Don't please look at my face like that, Sheila. Think--think that it's just lupus, just some horrible disfigurement.'
Not much light was in the large room, and there was something so extraordinarily characteristic of her husband in those stooping shoulders, in the head hung a little forward, and in the preternaturally solemn voice, that Sheila had to bend a little over the bed to catch a glimpse of the sallow and keener face again. She sighed; and even on her own strained ear her sigh sounded almost like one of relief.'It's useless, I know, to ask you anything while you are in this mood,' continued Lawford dully; 'I know that of old.' The white, ringed hands clenched, '"Of old!"' 'I didn't mean anything. Don't listen to what I say. It's only--it's just Alice knowing, that was all; I mean at once.'
'Don't for a moment suppose I am not perfectly aware that it is only Alice you think of. You were particularly anxious about my feelings, weren't you? You broke the news to me with the tenderest solicitude. I am glad our--our daughter shares my husband's love.'
'Look here,' said Lawford densely, 'you know that I love you as much as ever; but with this--as I am; what would be the good of my saying so?' Mrs Lawford took a deep breath. And a voice called softly at the door, 'Mother, are you there? Is father awake? May I come in?'In a flash the memory returned to her; twenty-four hours ago she was asking that very question of this unspeakable figure that sat hunched-up before her. 'One moment, dear,' she called. And added in a very low voice, 'Come here!' Lawford looked up. 'What?' he said. 'Perhaps, perhaps,' she whispered, 'it isn't quite so bad.' 'For mercy's sake, Sheila,' he said, 'don't torture me; tell the poor child to go away.' She paused. 'Are you there, Alice? Would you mind, father says, waiting a little? He is so very tired.' 'Too tired to.... Oh, very well, mother.' Mrs Lawford opened the door, and called after her, 'Is Jimmie gone?' 'Oh, yes, hours.' 'Where did you meet?'
'I couldn't get a carriage at the station. He carried my dressing-bag; I begged him not to. The other's coming on. You know what Jimmie is. How very, very lucky I did come home. I don't know what made me; just an impulse; they did laugh at me so. Father dear-do speak to me; how are you now?'Lawford opened his mouth, gulped, and shook his head. 'Ssh, dear!' whispered Sheila, 'I think he has fallen asleep. I will be down in a minute.' Mrs Lawford was about to close the door when Ada appeared. 'If you please, ma'am,' she said, 'I have been waiting, as you told me, to let Dr Ferguson out, but it's nearly seven now; and the table's not laid yet.'
'I really should have thought, Ada,' Sheila began, then caught back the angry words, and turned and looked over her shoulder into the room. 'Do you think you will need anything more, Dr Ferguson?' she asked in a sepulchral voice.Again Lawford's lips moved; again he shook his head. 'One moment, Ada,' she said closing the door. 'Some more medicine--what medicine? Quick! She mustn't suspect.' '"What medicine?"' repeated Lawford stolidly. 'Oh, vexing, vexing; don't you see we must send her out? Don't you see? What was it you sent to Critchett's for last night? Tell him that's gone: we want more of that.' Lawford stared heavily. Oh, yes, yes,' he said thickly, 'more of that....'
Sheila, with a shrug of extreme distaste and vexation. hastily opened the door. 'Dr Ferguson wants a further supply of the drug which Mr Critchett made up for Mr Lawford yesterday evening. You had better go at once, Ada, and please make as much haste as you possibly can.''I say, I say,' began Lawford; but it was too late, the door was shut. 'How I detest this wretched falsehood and subterfuge. What could have induced you....?'
'Yes,' said her husband, 'what! I think I'll be getting to bed again, Sheila; I forgot I had been ill. And now I do really feel very tired. But I should like to feel--in spite of this hideous-- I should like to feel we are friends, Sheila.'
Sheila almost imperceptibly shuddered, crossed the room, and faced the still, almost lifeless mask. 'I spoke,' she said, in a low, cold, difficult voice--'I spoke in a temper this morning. You must try to understand what a shock it has been to me. Now, I own it frankly, I know you are--Arthur. But God only knows how it frightens me, and--and-horrifies me.' She shut her eyes beneath her veil. They waited on in silence a while.
'Poor boy!' she said at last, lightly touching the loose sleeve; 'be brave; it will all come right, soon. Meanwhile, for Alice's sake, if not for mine, don't give way to--to caprices, and all that. Keep quietly here, Arthur. And--and forgive my impatience.'
He put out his hand as if to touch her. 'Forgive you!' he said humbly, pushing it stubbornly back into his pocket again. 'Oh, Sheila, the forgiveness is all on your side. You know I have nothing to forgive.' A long silence fell between them.
'Then, to-night,' at last began Sheila wearily, drawing back, 'we say nothing to Alice, except that you are too tired--just nervous prostration--to see her. What we should do without this influenza, I cannot conceive. Mr Bethany will probably look in on his way home; and then we can talk it over--we can talk it over again. So long as you are like this, yourself, in mind, why I-- What is it now?' she broke off querulously.
'If you please, ma'am, Mr Critchett says he doesn't know Dr Ferguson, his name's not in the Directory, and there must be something wrong with the message, and he's sorry, but he must have it in writing because there was more even in the first packet than he ought by rights to send. What shall I do, if you please?'
Still looking at her husband. Sheila listened quietly to the end, and then, as if in inarticulate disdain, she deliberately shrugged her shoulders, and went out to play her part unaided.
Her husband turned wearily once more, and drawing up a chair sat down in front of the cold grate. He realised that Sheila thought him as much of a fool now as she had for the moment thought him an impostor, or something worse, the night before. That was at least something gained. He realised, too, in a vague way that the exuberance of mind that had practically invented Dr Ferguson, and outraged Miss Sinnet, had quite suddenly flickered out. It was astonishing, he thought, with gaze fixed innocently on the black coals, that he should ever have done such things. He detested that kind of 'rot'; that jaunty theatrical pose so many men prided their jackdaw brains on.
And he sat quite still, like a cat at a cranny, listening, as it were, for the faintest remotest stir that might hint at any return of this--activity. It was the first really sane moment he had had since the 'change.' Whatever it was that had happened at Widderstone was now distinctly weakening in effect. Why, now, perhaps? He stole a thievish look over his shoulder at the glass, and cautiously drew finger and thumb down that beaked nose. Then he really quietly smiled, a smile he felt this abominable facial caricature was quite unused to, the superior Lawford smile of guileless contempt for the fanatical, the fantastic, and the bizarre: He wouldn't have sat with his feet on the fender before a burnt-out fire.
And the animosity of that 'he,' uttered only just under his breath, surprised even himself. It actually did seem as if there were a chance; if only he kept cool and collected. If the whole mind of a man was bent on being one thing, surely no power on earth, certainly not on earth, could for long compel him to look another, any more (followed the resplendent thought) than vice versa.
That, in fact, was the trick that had been in fitful fashion played him since yesterday. Obviously, and apart altogether from his promise to Sheila, the best possible thing he could do would be to walk quietly over to Widderstone to-morrow and like a child that has lost a penny, just make the attempt to reverse the process: look at the graves, read the inscriptions on the weather-beaten stones, compose himself once more to sleep on the little seat.
Magic, witchcraft, possession, and all that--well, Mr Bethany might prefer to take it on the authority of the Bible if it was his duty. But it was at least mainly Old Testament stuff, like polygamy, Joshua, and the 'unclean beasts.' The 'unclean beasts.' It was simply, as Simon had said, mainly an affair of the nerves, like Indian jugglery. He had heard of dozens of such cases, or similar cases. And it was hardly likely that cases even remotely like his own would be much bragged about, or advertised. All those mysterious 'disappearances,' too, which one reads about so repeatedly? What of them? Even now, he felt (and glanced swiftly behind him at the fancy), it would be better to think as softly as possible, not to hope too openly, certainly not to triumph in the least degree, just in case of--well--listeners.
He would wrap up too. And he wouldn't tell Sheila of the project till he had come safely back. What an excellent joke it would be to confess meekly to his escapade, and to be scolded, and then suddenly to reveal himself. He sat back and gazed with an almost malignant animosity at the face in the portrait, comely and plump.
An inarticulate, unfathomable depression rolled back on him, like a mist out of the sea. He hastily undressed, put watch and door-key and Critchett's powder under his pillow, paused, vacantly ruminated, and then replaced the powder in his waistcoat pocket, said his prayers, and got shivering to bed. He did not feel hurt at Sheila's leaving him like this. So long as she really believed in him. And now--Alice was home. He listened, trying not to shiver, for her voice; and sometimes heard, he fancied, the clear note. It was this beastly influenza that made him feel so cold and lifeless. But all would soon come right-- that is, if only that face, luminous against the floating darkness within, would not appear the instant he closed his eyes.
But legions of dreams are Influenza's allies. He fell into a chill doze, heard voices innumerable, and one above the rest, shouting them down, until there fell a lull. And another, as it were, from afar said quite clearly and distinctly, 'But surely, my dear, you have heard the story of the poor old charwoman who talked Greek in her delirium? A little school French need not alarm us.' And Lawford opened his eyes again on Mr Bethany standing at his bed
'Tt, tt! There, I've been and waked him. And yet they say men make such excellent nurses in time of war. But you see, Lawford, what did I tell you? Wasn't I now an infallible prophet? Your wife has been giving me a most glowing account. Quite your old self, she tells me, except for just this--this touch of facial paralysis. And I think, do you know' (the kind old creature stooped over the bed, but still, Lawford noticed bitterly, still without his spectacles)--'yes, I really think there is a decided improvement. Not quite so--drawn. We must make haste slowly. Wedderburn, you know, believes profoundly in Simon; he pulled his wife through a dangerous confinement. And here's pills and tonics and liniments--a whole chemist's shop. Oh, we are getting on swimmingly.'Flamelight was flickering in the candled dusk. Lawford turned his head and saw Sheila's coiled, beautiful hair in the firelight. 'You haven't told Alice?' he asked.
'My dear good man,' said Mr Bethany, 'of course we haven't. You shall tell her yourself on Monday. What an incredible tradition it will be! But you mustn't worry; you mustn't even think. And no more of these jaunts, eh? That Ferguson business--that was too bad. What are we going to do with the fellow now we have created him? He will come home to roost--mark my words. And as likely as not down the Vicarage chimney. I wouldn't have believed it of you, my dear fellow.' He beamed, but looked, none the less, very lean and fagged and depressed.
'How did the wedding go off?' Lawford managed to think of inquiring. 'Oh, A1,' said Mr Bethany. 'I've just been describing it to Alice--the bride, her bridegroom, mother, aunts, cake, presents, finery, blushes, tears, and everything that was hers. We've been in fits, haven't we, Mrs Lawford? And Alice says I'm a Worth in a clerical collar--didn't she? And that it's only Art that has kept me out of an apron. Now look here; quiet, quiet, quiet; no excitement, no pranks. What is there to worry about, pray? And now Little Dorrit's down with influenza too. And Craik and I will have double work to do. Well, well; good-bye, my dear. God bless you, Lawford. I can't tell you how relieved, how unspeakably relieved I am to find you so much--so much better. Feed him up, my other dear; body and mind and soul and spirit. And there goes the bell. I must have a biscuit. I've swallowed nothing but a Cupid in plaster of Paris since breakfast. Goodnight; we shall miss you both--both.'
But when Sheila returned, her husband was sunk again into a quiet sleep, from which not even the many questions she fretted to put to him seemed weighty enough to warrant his disturbance.
So when Lawford again opened his eyes he found himself lying wide awake, clear and refreshed, and eager to get up. But upon the air lay the still hush of early morning. He tried in vain to catch back sleep again. A distant shred of dream still floated in his mind, like a cloud at evening. He rarely dreamed, but certainly something immensely interesting had but a moment ago eluded him. He sat up and looked at the clear red cinders and their maze of grottoes. He got out of bed and peeped through the blinds. To the east and opposite to him gardens and an apple-orchard lay, and there in strange liquid tranquillity hung the morning star, and rose, rifling into the dusk of night, the first grey of dawn. The street beneath its autumn leaves was vacant, charmed, deserted.
Hardly since childhood had Lawford seen the dawn unless over his winter breakfasttable. Very much like a child now he stood gazing out of his bow-window--the child whom Time's busy robins had long ago covered over with the leaves of numberless hours. A vague exultation fumed up into his brain. Still on the borders of sleep, he unlocked the great wardrobe and took out an old faded purple and crimson dressing-gown that had belonged to his grandfather, the chief glory of every Christmas charade. He pulled the cowl-like hood over his head and strode majestically over to the looking-glass.
He looked in there a moment on the strange face, like a child dismayed at its own excitement, and a fit of sobbing that was half uncontrollable laughter swept over him. He threw off the hood and turned once more to the window. Consciousness had flooded back indeed. What would Sheila have said to see him there? The unearthly beauty and stillness, and man's small labours, garden and wall and roof-tree idle and smokeless in the light of daybreak--there seemed to be some half-told secret between them. What had life done with him to leave a reality so clouded? He put on his slippers, and, gently opening the door, crept with extreme caution up the stairs. At a long, narrow landing window he confronted a panorama of starry night-gardens, sloping orchards; and beyond them fields, hills, Orion, the Dogs, in the clear and cloudless darkness.
'My God, how beautiful!' a voice whispered. And a cock crowed mistily afar. He stood staring like a child into the wintry brightness of a pastry-cook's. Then once more he crept stealthily on. He stooped and listened at a closed door, until he fancied that above the beating of his own heart he could hear the breathing of the sleeper within. Then, taking firm hold of the handle with both hands, he slowly noiselessly turned it, and peeped in on Alice.
The moon was long past her faint shining here. The blind was down. And yet it was not pitch dark. He stood with eyes fixed, waiting. Then he edged softly forward and knelt down beside the bed. He could hear her breathing now: long, low, quiet, unhastening--the miracle of life. He could just dimly discern the darkness of her hair against the pillow. Some long-sealed spring of tenderness seemed to rise in his heart with a grief and an ache he had never known before. Here at least he could find a little peace, a brief pause, however futile and stupid all his hopes of the night had been. He leant his head on his hands on the counterpane and refused to think. He felt a quick tremor, a startled movement, and knew that eyes wide open with fear were striving to pierce the gloom between them.
'There, there, dearest,' he said in a low whisper, 'it's only me, only me.' He stroked the narrow hand and gazed into the shadowiness. Her fingers lay quiet and passive in his, with that strange sense of immateriality that sleep brings to the body.'You, you!' she answered with a deep sigh. 'Oh, dearest, how you frightened me. What is wrong? why have you come? Are you worse, dearest, dearest?' He kissed her hand. 'No, Alice, not worse. I couldn't sleep, that was all.'
'Oh, and I came so utterly miserable to bed because you would not see me. And Mother would tell me only so very little. I didn't even know you had been ill.' She pressed his hand between her own. 'But this, you know, is very, very naughty--you will catch cold, you bad thing. What would Mother say?''I think we mustn't tell her, dear. I couldn't help it; I felt much I wanted to see you. I have been rather miserable.'
'Why?' she said, stroking his hand from wrist to fingertips with one soft finger. 'You mustn't be miserable. You and me have never done such a thing before; have we? Was it that wretched old Flu?'
It was too dark in the little fragrant room even to see her face so close to his own. And yet he feared. 'Dr Simon,' she went on softly, 'said it was. But isn't your voice a little hoarse, and it sounds so melancholy in the dark. And oh'--she squeezed his wrist--'you have grown so thin! You do frighten me. Whatever should I do if you were really ill? And it was so odd, dear. When first I woke I seemed to be still straining my eyes in a dream, at such a curious, haunting face--not very nice. I am glad, I am glad you were here.'
'What was the dream-face like?' came the muttered question.
Like a conjuror's!--it was the first unguarded and ungarbled criticism. 'Perhaps, dear, if you find my voice different, and my hand shrunk up, you will find my face changed, too
-like a conjuror's.... What then?'
Lawford held tight his daughter's hand. 'You do love me, Alice? You would not turn against me, whatever happened? Ah, you shall see, you shall see.' A sudden burning hope sprang up in him. Surely when all was well again, these last few hours would not have been spent in vain. Like the shadow of death they had been, against whose darkness the green familiar earth seems beautiful as the plains of paradise. Had he but realized before how much he loved her--what years of life had been wasted in leaving it all unsaid! He came back from his reverie to find his hand wet with her tears. He stroked her hair, and touched gently her eyelids without speaking,'You will let me come in to-morrow?' she pleaded; 'you won't keep me out?'
'Ah, but, dear, you must remember your mother. She gets so anxious, and every word the doctor says is law. How would you like me to come again like this, perhaps?--like Santa Claus?'
'You know how I love having you,' she said, and stopped. 'But--but ...' He leaned closer. 'Yes, yes, come,' she said, clutching his hand and hiding her eyes; 'it is only my dream-that horrible, dwelling face in the dream; it frightened me so.'
Lawford rose very slowly from his knees. He could feel in the dark his brows drawn down; there came a low, sullen beating on his ear; he saw his face as it were in dim outline against the dark. Rage and rebellion surged up in him; even his love could be turned to bitterness. Well, two could play at any game! Alice sprang up in bed and caught his sleeve. 'Dearest, dearest, you must not be angry with me now!'He flung himself down beside the bed. Anger, resentment died away. 'You are all I have left,' he said. He stole back, as he had come, in the clear dawn to his bedroom.
It was not five yet. He put a few more coals on his fire and blew out the night-light, and lay down. But it was impossible to rest, to remain inactive. He would go down and search for that first volume of Quain. Hallucination, Influenza, Insanity--why, Sheila must have purposely mislaid it. A rather formidable figure he looked, descending the stairs in the grey dusk of daybreak. The breakfast-room was at the back of the house. He tilted the blind, and a faint light flowed in from the changing colours of the sky. He opened the glass door of the little bookcase to the right of the window, and ran eye and finger over the few rows of books. But as he stood there with his back to the room, just as the shadow of a bird's wing floats across the moonlight of a pool, he became suddenly conscious that something, somebody had passed across the doorway, and in passing had looked in on him.
He stood motionless, listening; but no sound broke the morning slumbrousness, except the faraway warbling of a thrush in the first light. So sudden and transitory had been the experience that it seemed now to be illusory; yet it had so caught him up, it had with so furtive and sinister a quietness broken in on his solitude, that for a moment he dared not move. A cold, indefinite sensation stole over him that he was being watched; that some dim, evil presence was behind him biding its time, patient and stealthy, with eyes fixed unmovingly on him where he stood. But, watch and wait as silently as he might, only the day broadened at the window, and at last a narrow ray of sunlight stole trembling up into the dusky bowl of the sky.At any rate Quain was found, with all the ills of life, from A to I; and Lawford turned back to his bondage with the book under his arm.
The Sabbath, pale with September sunshine, and monotonous with chiming bells, had passed languidly away. Dr Simon had come and gone, optimistic and urbane, yet with a faint inward dissatisfaction over a patient behind whose taciturnity a hint of mockery and subterfuge seemed to lurk. Even Mrs Lawford had appeared to share her husband's reticence. But Dr Simon had happened on other cases in his experience where tact was required rather than skill, and time than medicine.
The voices and footsteps, even the frou-frou of worshippers going to church, the voices and footsteps of worshippers returning from church, had floated up to the patient's open window. Sunlight had drawn across his room in one pale beam, and vanished. A few callers had called. Hothouse flowers, waxen and pale, had been left with messages of sympathy. Even Dr Critchett had respectfully and discreetly made inquiries on his way home from chapel.
Lawford had spent most of his time in pacing to and fro in his soft slippers. The very monotony had eased his mind. Now and again he had lain motionless, with his face to the ceiling. He had dozed and had awakened, cold and torpid with dream. He had hardly been aware of the process, but every hour had done something, it seemed, towards clarifying his point of view. A consciousness had begun to stir in him that was neither that of the old, easy Lawford, whom he had never been fully aware of before, nor of this strange ghostly intelligence that haunted the hawklike, restless face, and plucked so insistently at his distracted nerves. He had begun in a vague fashion to be aware of them both, could in a fashion discriminate between them, almost as if there really were two spirits in stubborn conflict within him. It would, of course, wear him down in time. There could be only one end to such a struggle--THE end.
All day he had longed for freedom, on and on, with craving for the open sky, for solitude, for green silence, beyond these maddening walls. This heedful silken coming and going, these Sunday voices, this reiterant yelp of a single peevish bell-- would they never cease? And above all, betwixt dread and an almost physical greed, he hungered for night. He sat down with elbows on knees and head on his hands, thinking of night, its secrecy, its immeasurable solitude.
His eyelids twitched; the fire before him had for an instant gone black out. He seemed to see slow-gesturing branches, grass stooping beneath a grey and wind-swept sky. He started up; and the remembrance of the morning returned to him--the glassy light, the changing rays, the beaming gilt upon the useless books. Now, at last, at the windows; afternoon had begun to wane. And when Sheila brought up his tea, as if Chance had heard his cry, she entered in hat and stole. She put down the tray, and paused at the glass, looking across it out of the window.
'Alice says you are to eat every one of those delicious sandwiches, and especially the tiny omelette. You have scarcely touched anything to-day, Arthur. I am a poor one to preach, I am afraid; but you know what that will mean--a worse breakdown still. You really must try to think of--of us all.'
'Not, of course, if you would prefer not. But Dr Simon advised me most particularly to go out at least once a day. We must remember, this is not the beginning of your illness. Long-continued anxiety, I suppose, does tell on one in time. Anyhow, he said that I looked worried and run-down. I AM worried. Let us both try for each other's sakes, or even if only for Alice's, to--to do all we can. I must not harass you; but is there any--do you see the slightest change of any kind?''You always look pretty, Sheila; to-night you look prettier: THAT is the only change, I think.'
Mrs Lawford's attitude intensified in its stillness. 'Now, speaking quite frankly, what is it in you suggests these remarks at such a time? That's what baffles me. It seems so childish, so needlessly blind.''I am very sorry, Sheila, to be so childish. But I'm not, say what you like, blind. You ARE pretty: I'd repeat it if I was burning at the stake.'
Sheila lowered her eyes softly on to the rich-toned picture in the glass. 'Supposing,' she said, watching her lips move, 'supposing--of course, I know you are getting better and all that--but supposing you don't change back as Mr Bethany thinks, what will you do? Honestly, Arthur, when I think over it calmly, the whole tragedy comes back on me with such a force it sweeps me off my feet; I am for the moment scarcely my own mistress. What would you do?'
'I think, Sheila,' replied a low, infinitely weary voice, 'I think I should marry again.' It was the same wavering, faintly ironical voice that had slightly discomposed Dr Simon that same morning.'"Marry again"!' exclaimed incredulously the full lips in the looking-glass. 'Who?' 'YOU, dear!' Sheila turned softly round, conscious in a most humiliating manner that she had ever so little flushed.
Her husband was pouring out his tea, unaware, apparently, of her change of position. She watched him curiously. In spite of all her reason, of her absolute certainty, she wondered even again for a moment if this really could be Arthur. And for the first time she realised the power and mastery of that eager and far too hungry face. Her mind seemed to pause, fluttering in air, like a bird in the wind. She hastened rather unsteadily to the door.'Will you want anything more, do you think, for an hour?' she asked. Her husband looked up over his little table. 'Is Alice going with you?' 'Oh yes; poor child, she looks so pale and miserable. We are going to Mrs Sherwin's, and then on to Church. You will lock your door?' 'Yes, I will lock my door.' 'And I do hope Arthur--nothing rash!'
A change, that seemed almost the effect of actual shadow, came over his face. 'I wish you could stay with me,' he said slowly. 'I don't think you have any idea what--what I go through.'It was as if a child had asked on the verge of terror for a candle in the dark. But an hour's terror is better than a lifetime of timidity. Sheila sighed.
'I think,' she said, 'I too might say that. But there; giving way will do nothing for either of us. I shall be gone only for an hour, or two at the most. And I told Mr Bethany I should have to come out before the sermon: it's only Mr Craik.''But why Mrs Sherwin? She'd worm a secret out of one's grave.' 'It's useless to discuss that, Arthur; you have always consistently disliked my friends. It's scarcely likely that you would find any improvement in them now.' 'Oh, well--' he began. But the door was already closed. 'Sheila!' he called in a burst of anger. 'Well, Arthur?' 'You have taken my latchkey.' Sheila came hastily in again. 'Your latchkey?' 'I am going out.' '"Going out!"--you will not be so mad, so criminal; and after your promise!'
He stood up. 'It is useless to argue. If I do not go out, I shall certainly go mad. As for criminal--why, that's a woman's word. Who on earth is to know me?'
'It is of no consequence, then, that the servants are already gossiping about this impossible Dr Ferguson; that you are certain to be seen either going or returning; that Alice is bound to discover that you are well enough to go out, and yet not even enough to say good-night to your own daughter--oh, it's monstrous, it's a frantic, a heartless thing to do !' Her voice vaguely suggested tears.
Lawford eyed her coldly and stubbornly--thinking of the empty room he would leave awaiting his return, its lamp burning, its fire-flames shining. It was almost a physical discomfort, this longing unspeakable for the twilight, the green secrecy and the silence of the graves. 'Keep them out of the way,' he said in a low voice; 'it will be dark when I come in.' His hardened face lit up. 'It's useless to attempt to dissuade me.''Why must you always be hurting me? why do you seem to delight in trying to estrange me?' Husband and wife faced each other across the clear-lit room. He did not answer. 'For the last time,' she said in a quiet, hard voice, 'I ask you not to go.'
He shrugged his shoulders. 'Ask me not to come back,' he said; 'that's nearer your hope.' He turned his face to the fire. Without moving he heard her go out, return, pause, and go out again. And when he deliberately wheeled round in his chair the little key lay conspicuous there on the counterpane.
The last light of sunset lay in the west; and a sullen wrack of cloud was mounting into the windless sky when Lawford entered the country graveyard again by its dark weatherworn lych-gate. The old stone church with its square tower stood amid trees, its eastern window faintly aglow with crimson and purple. He could hear a steady, rather nasal voice through its open lattices. But the stooping stones and the cypresses were out of sight of its porch. He would not be seen down there. He paused a moment, however; his hat was drawn down over his eyes; he was shivering. Far over the harvest fields showed a growing pallor in the solitary seat beneath the cypresses. He stood hesitating, gazing steadily and yet half vacantly at the motionless figure, and in a while a face was lifted in his direction, and undisconcerted eyes calmly surveyed him.'I am afraid,' called Lawford rather nervously--'I hope I am not intruding?' 'Not at all, not at all,' said the stranger. 'I have no privileges here; at least as yet.' Lawford again hesitated, then slowly advanced. 'It's astonishingly quiet and beautiful,' he said. The stranger turned his head to glance over the fields. 'Yes, it is, very,' he replied. There was the faintest accent, a little drawl of unfriendliness in the remark. 'You often sit here?' Lawford persisted. The stranger raised his eyebrows. 'Oh yes, often.' He smiled. 'It is my own modest fashion of attending divine service. The congregation is rapt.' 'My visits,' said Lawford, 'have been very few--in fact, so far as I know, I have only once been here before.'
'I envy you the novelty.' There was again the same faint unmistakable antagonism in voice and attitude; and yet so deep was the relief in talking to a fellow creature who hadn't the least suspicion of anything unusual in his appearance that Lawford was extremely disinclined to turn back. He made another effort--for conversation with strangers had always been a difficulty to him--and advanced towards the seat. 'You mustn't please let me intrude upon you,' he said, 'but really I am very interested in this queer old place. Perhaps you would tell me something of its history?' He sat down. His companion moved slowly to the other side of the broken gravestone.
'To tell you the truth,' he replied, picking his way as it were from word to word, 'it's "history," as people call it, does not interest me in the least. After all, it's not when a thing is, but what it is, that much matters. What this is'--he glanced, with head bent, across the shadowy stones, 'is pretty evident. Of course, age has its charms.''And is this very old?'
'Oh yes, it's old right enough, as things go; but even age, perhaps, is mainly an affair of the imagination. There's a tombstone near that little old hawthorn, and there are two others side by side under the wall, still even legibly late seventeenth century. That's pretty good weathering.' He smiled faintly. 'Of course, the church itself is centuries older, drenched with age. But she's still sleep-walking while these old tombstones dream. Glowworms and crickets are not such bad bedfellows.''What interested me most, I think,' said Lawford haltingly, 'was this.' He pointed with his stick to the grave at his feet. 'Ah, yes, Sabathier's,' said the stranger; 'I know his peculiar history almost by heart.' Lawford found himself staring with unusual concentration into the rather long and pale face. 'Not, I suppose,' he resumed faintly-- 'not, I suppose, beyond what's there.' His companion leant his hand on the old stooping tombstone. 'Well, you know, there's a good deal there'--he stooped over--'if you read between the lines. Even if you don't.' 'A suicide,' said Lawford, under his breath. 'Yes, a suicide; that's why our Christian countrymen have buried him outside of the fold. Dead or alive, they try to keep the wolf out.' 'Is this, then, unconsecrated ground?' said Lawford.
'Haven't you noticed,' drawled the other, 'how green the grass grows down here, and how very sharp are poor old Sabathier's thorns? Besides, he was a stranger, and they--kept him out.''But, surely,' said Lawford, 'was it so entirely a matter of choice--the laws of the Church? If he did kill himself, he did.'
The stranger turned with a little shrug. 'I don't suppose it's a matter of much consequence to HIM. I fancied I was his only friend. May I venture to ask why you are interested in the poor old thing?'Lawford's mind was as calm and shallow as a millpond. 'Oh, a rather unusual thing happened to me here,' he said. 'You say you often come?' 'Often,' said the stranger rather curtly. 'Has anything--ever--occurred?'
'"Occurred?"' He raised his eyebrows. 'I wish it had. I come here simply, as I have said, because it's quiet; because I prefer the company of those who never answer me back, and who do not so much as condescend to pay me the least attention.' He smiled and turned his face towards the quiet fields.Lawford, after a long pause, lifted his eyes. 'Do you think,' he said softly, 'it is possible one ever could?' '"One ever could?"' 'Answer back?'
There was a low rotting wall of stone encompassing Sabathier's grave; on this the stranger sat down. He glanced up rather curiously at his companion. 'Seldom the time and the place and the revenant altogether. The thought has occurred to others,' he ventured to add.
'Of course, of course,' said Lawford eagerly. 'But it is an absolutely new one to me. I don't mean that I have never had such an idea, just in one's own superficial way; but'--he paused and glanced swiftly into the fast-thickening twilight--'I wonder: are they, do you think, really, all quite dead?''Call and see!' taunted the stranger softly.
'Ah, yes, I know,' said Lawford. 'But I believe in the resurrection of the body; that is what we say; and supposing, when a man dies--supposing it was most frightfully against one's will; that one hated the awful inaction that death brings, shutting a poor devil up like a child kicking against the door in a dark cupboard; one might surely one might--just quietly, you know, try to get out? wouldn't you?' he added.'And, surely,' he found himself beginning gently to argue again, 'surely, what about, say, him?' He nodded towards the old and broken grave that lay between them. 'What, Sabathier?' the other echoed, laying his hand upon the stone. And a sheer enormous abyss of silence seemed to follow the unanswerable question.
'He was a stranger; it says so. Good God!' said Lawford, 'how he must have wanted to get home! He killed himself, poor wretch, think of the fret and fever he must have been in-just before. Imagine it.'
'But it might, you know,' suggested the other with a smile--'might have been sheer indifference.'
'"Nicholas Sabathier, Stranger to this parish"--no, no,' said Lawford, his heart beating as if it would choke him, 'I don't fancy it was indifference.'
It was almost too dark now to distinguish the stranger's features but there seemed a faint suggestion of irony in his voice. 'And how do you suppose your angry naughty child would set about it? It's narrow quarters; how would he begin?'
Lawford sat quite still. 'You say--I hope I am not detaining you --you say you have come here, sat here often, on this very seat; have you ever had--have you ever fallen asleep here?''Why do you ask?' inquired the other curiously.
'I was only wondering,' said Lawford. He was cold and shivering. He felt instinctively it was madness to sit on here in the thin gliding mist that had gathered in swathes above the grass, milk- pale in the rising moon. The stranger turned away from him.'"For in that sleep of death what dreams may come must give us pause,"' he said slowly, with a little satirical catch on the last word. 'What did you dream?'
Lawford glanced helplessly about him. The moon cast lean grey beams of light between the cypresses. But to his wide and wandering eyes it seemed that a radiance other than hers haunted these mounds and leaning stones. 'Have you ever noticed it?' he said, putting out his hand towards his unknown companion; 'this stone is cracked from head to foot?... But there'--he rose stiff and chilled--'I am afraid I have bored you with my company. You came here for solitude, and I have been trying to convince you that we are surrounded with witnesses. You will forgive my intrusion?' There was a kind of old-fashioned courtesy in his manner that he himself was dimly aware of. He held out his hand.
'I hope you will think nothing of the kind,' said the other earnestly; 'how could it be in any sense an intrusion? It's the old story of Bluebeard. And I confess I too should very much like a peep into his cupboard. Who wouldn't? But there, it's merely a matter of time, I suppose.' He paused, and together they slowly ascended the path already glimmering with a heavy dew. At the porch they paused once more. And now it was the stranger that held out his hand.
'Perhaps,' he said, 'you will give me the pleasure of some day continuing our talk. As for our friend below, it so happens that I have managed to pick up a little more of his history than the sexton seems to have heard of--if you would care some time or other to share it. I live only at the foot of the hill, not half a mile distant. Perhaps you could spare the time now?'
Lawford took out his watch, 'You are really very kind,' he said. 'But, perhaps--well, whatever that history may be, I think you would agree that mine is even--but, there, I've talked too much about myself already. Perhaps to-morrow?'
'Why, to-morrow, then,' said his companion. 'It's a flat wooden house, on the left-hand side. Come at any time of the evening'; he paused again and smiled--'the third house after the Rectory, which is marked up on the gate. My name is Herbert--Herbert Herbert to be precise.'
Lawford took out his pocket-book and a card. 'Mine,' he said, handing it gravely to his companion. 'is Lawford--at least...' It was really the first time that either had seen the other's face at close quarters and clear-lit; and on Lawford's a moon almost at the full shone dazzlingly. He saw an expression--dismay, incredulity, overwhelming astonishment--start suddenly into the dark, rather indifferent eyes.'What is it?' he cried, hastily stooping close. 'Why,' said the other, laughing and turning away, 'I think the moon must have bewitched me too.'
Lawford listened awhile before opening his door. He heard voices in the dining-room. A light shone faintly between the blinds of his bedroom. He very gently let himself in, and unheard, unseen, mounted the stairs. He sat down in front of the fire, tired out and bitterly cold in spite of his long walk home. But his mind was wearier even than his body. He tried in vain to catch up the thread of his thoughts. He only knew for certain that so far as his first hope and motives had gone his errand had proved entirely futile. 'How could I possibly fall asleep with that fellow talking there?' he had said to himself angrily; yet knew in his heart that their talk had driven every other idea out of his mind. He had not yet even glanced into the glass. His every thought was vainly wandering round and round the one curious hint that had drifted in, but which he had not yet been able to put into words.
Supposing, though, that he had really fallen into a deep sleep, with none to watch or spy-what then? However ridiculous that idea, it was not more ridiculous, more incredible than the actual fact. If he had remained there, he might, it was just possible that he would by now, have actually awakened just his own familiar every-day self again. And the thought of that--though he hardly realised its full import--actually did send him on tip-toe for a glance that more or less effectually set the question at rest. And there looked out at him, it seemed, the same dark sallow face that had so much appalled him only two nights ago-- expressionless, cadaverous, with shadowy hollows beneath the glittering eyes. And even as he watched it, its lips, of their own volition, drew together and questioned him-'Whose?'
He was not to be given much leisure, however, for fantastic reveries like this. As he leaned his head on his hands, gladly conscious that he could not possibly bear this incessant strain for long, Sheila opened the door. He started up.
'I wish you would knock,' he said angrily; 'you talk of quiet; you tell me to rest, and think; and here you come creeping and spying on me as if I was a child in a nursery. I refuse to be watched and guarded and peeped on like this.' He knew that his hands were trembling, that he could not keep his eyes fixed, that his voice was nearly inarticulate.
Sheila drew in her lips. 'I have merely come to tell you, Arthur, that Mr Bethany has brought Mr Danton in to supper. He agrees with me it really would be advisable to take such a very old and prudent and practical friend into our confidence. You do nothing I ask of you. I simply cannot bear the burden of this incessant anxiety. Look, now, what your night walk has done for you! You look positively at death's door.'
'What--what an instinct you have for the right word,' said Lawford softly. 'And Danton, of all people in the world! It was surely rather a curious, a thoughtless choice. Has he had supper?'
'Why do you ask?'
'I think,' said Sheila indignantly, 'it is hardly fair to speak of a very old and a very true friend of mine in such--well, vulgar terms as that. Besides, Arthur, as for believing-without in the least desiring to hurt your feelings--I must candidly warn you, some people won't.''Come along,' said Lawford, with a faint gust of laughter; 'let's see.'
They went quickly downstairs, Sheila with less dignity, perhaps, than she had been surprised into since she had left a slimmer girlhood behind. She swept into the gaze of the two gentlemen standing together on the hearthrug; and so was caught, as it were, between a rain of conflicting glances, for her husband had followed instantly, and stood now behind her, stooping a little, and with something between contempt and defiance confronting an old fat friend, whom that one brief challenging instant had congealed into a condition of passive and immovable hostility.
Mr Danton composed his chin in his collar, and deliberately turned himself towards his companion. His small eyes wandered, and instantaneously met and rested on those of Mrs Lawford.'Arthur thought he would prefer to come down and see you himself.' 'You take such formidable risks, Lawford,' said Mr Bethany in a dry, difficult voice. 'Am I really to believe,' Danton began huskily. 'I am sure, Bethany, you will-- My dear Mrs Lawford!' said he, stirring vaguely, glancing restlessly.
'It was not my wish, Vicar, to come at all,' said a voice from the doorway. 'To tell you the truth, I am too tired to care a jot either way. And'--he lifted a long arm--'I must positively refuse to produce the least, the remotest proof that I am not, so far as I am personally aware, even the Man in the Moon. Danton at heart was always an incorrigible sceptic. Aren't you, T. D.? You pride your dear old brawn on it in secret?''I really--' began Danton in a rich still voice.
'Oh, but you know you are,' drawled on the slightly hesitating long-drawn syllables; 'it's your parochial metier. Firm, unctuous, subtle, scepticism; and to that end your body flourishes. You were born fat; you became fat; and fat, my dear Danton, has been deliberately thrust on you--in layers! Lampreys! You'll perish of surfeit some day, of sheer Dantonism. And fat, postmortem, Danton. Oh, what a basting's there!'
Mr Bethany, with a convulsive effort, woke. He turned swiftly on Mrs Lawford. 'Why, why, could you not have seen?' he cried.
'It's no good, Vicar. She's all sheer Laodicean. Blow hot, blow cold. North, south, east, west--to have a weathercock for a wife is to marry the wind. There's nothing to be got from poor Sheila but....
'Lawford!' the little man's voice was as sharp as the crack of a whip; 'I forbid it. Do you hear me? I forbid it. Some self-command; my dear good fellow, remember, remember it's only the will, the will that keeps us breathing.'
Lawford peered as if out of a gathering dusk, that thickened and flickered with shadows before his eyes. 'What's he mean, then,' he muttered huskily, 'coming here with his black, still carcase-- peeping, peeping--what's he mean, I say?' There was a moment's silence. Then with lifted brows and wide eyes that to every one of his three witnesses left an indelible memory of clear and wolfish light within their glassy pupils, he turned heavily, and climbed back to his solitude.'I suppose,' began Danton, with an obvious effort to disentangle himself from the humiliation of the moment, 'I suppose he was-- wandering?' 'Bless me, yes,' said Mr Bethany cordially--'fever. We all know what that MEANS.' 'Yes,' said Danton, taking refuge in Mrs Lawford's white and intent gaze. 'Just think, think, Danton--the awful, incessant strain of such an ordeal. Think for an instant what such a thing means!' Danton inserted a plump, white finger between collar and chin. 'Oh yes. But--eh?-needlessly abusive? I never SAID I disbelieved him.' 'Do you?' said Mrs Lawford's voice. He poised himself, as if it were, on the monolithic stability of his legs. 'Eh?' he said.
Mr Bethany sat down at the table. 'I rather feared some such temporary breakdown as this, Danton. I think I foresaw it. And now, just while we are all three alone here together in friendly conclave, wouldn't it be as well, don't you think, to confront ourselves with the difficulties? I know--we all know, that that poor half-demented creature IS Arthur Lawford. This morning he was as sane, as lucid as I hope I am now. An awful calamity has suddenly fallen upon him--this change. I own frankly at the first sheer shock it staggered me as I think for the moment it has staggered you. But when I had seen the poor fellow face to face, heard him talk, and watched him there upstairs in the silence stir and awake and come up again to his trouble out of his sleep. I had no more doubt in my own mind and heart that he was he than I have in my mind that I--am I. We do in some mysterious way, you'll own at once, grow so accustomed, so inured, if you like, to each other's faces (masks though they be) that we hardly realise we see them when we are speaking together. And yet the slightest, the most infinitesimal change is instantly apparent.'
'Oh yes, Vicar; but you see--'
Mr Bethany raised a small lean hand: 'One moment, please. I have heard Lawford's own account. Conscious or unconscious, he has been through some terrific strain, some such awful conflict with the unseen powers that we--thank God!--have only read about, and never perhaps, until death is upon us, shall witness for ourselves. What more likely, more inevitable than that such a thing should leave its scar, its cloud, its masking shadow?--call it what you will. A smile can turn a face we dread into a face we'd die for. Some experience, which would be nothing but a hideous cruelty and outrage to ask too closely about--one, perhaps, which he could, even if he would, poor fellow, give no account of-has put him temporarily at the world's mercy. They made him a nine days' wonder, a byword. And that, my dear Danton, is just where we come in. We know the man himself; and it is to be our privilege to act as a buffer-state, to be intermediaries between him and the rest of this deadly, craving, sheepish world--for the time being; oh yes, just for the time being. Other and keener and more knowledgeable minds than mine or yours will some day bring him back to us again. We don't attempt to explain; we can't. We simply believe.'But Danton merely continued to stare, as if into the quiet of an aquarium. 'My dear good Danton,' persisted Mr Bethany with cherubic patience, 'how old are you?' 'I don't see quite...' smiled Danton with recovered ease, and rapidly mobilising forces. 'Excuse the confidence, Mrs Lawford, I'm forty-three.'
'Good,' said Mr Bethany; 'and I'm seventy-one, and this child here'--he pointed an accusing finger at Sheila--is youth perpetual. So,' he briskly brightened, 'say, between us we're six score all told. Are we--can we, deliberately, with this mere pinch of years at our command out of the wheeling millions that have gone--can we say, "This is impossible," to any single phenomenon? CAN we?'
'No, we can't, of course,' said Danton formidably. 'Not finally. That's all very well, but'-he paused, and nodded, nodding his round head upward as if towards the inaudible overhead, 'I suppose he can't HEAR?'
Mr Bethany rose cheerfully. 'All right, Danton; I am afraid you are exactly what the poor fellow in his delirium solemnly asseverated. And, jesting apart, it is in delirium that we tell our sheer, plain, unadulterated truth: you're a nicely covered sceptic. Personally, I refuse to discuss the matter. Mere dull, stubborn prejudice; bigotry, if you like. I will only remark just this--that Mrs Lawford and I, in our inmost hearts, know. You, my dear Danton, forgive the freedom, merely incredulously grope. Faith versus Reason--that prehistoric Armageddon. Some day, and a day not far distant either, Lawford will come back to us. This-- this shutter will be taken down as abruptly as by some inconceivably drowsy heedlessness of common Nature it has been put up. He'll win through; and of his own sheer will and courage. But now, because I ask it, and this poor child here entreats it, you will say nothing to a living soul about the matter, say, till Friday? What step-by-step creatures we are, to be sure! I say Friday because it will be exactly a week then. And what's a week?--to Nature scarcely the unfolding of a rose. But still, Friday be it. Then, if nothing has occurred, we will, we shall HAVE to call a friendly gathering, we shall be compelled to have a friendly consultation.'
'I'm not, I hope, a brute, Bethany,' said Danton apologetically; 'but, honestly, speaking for myself, simply as a man of the world, it's a big risk to be taking on--what shall we call it?-- on mere intuition. Personally, and even in a court of law-- though Heaven forbid it ever reaches that stage--personally, I could swear that the fellow that stood abusing me there, in that revolting fashion, was not Lawford. It would be easier even to believe in him, if there were not that--that glaze, that shocking simulation of the man himself, the very man. But then, I am a sceptic; I own it. And 'pon my word, Mrs Lawford, there's plenty of room for sceptics in a world like this.'
'Very well,' said Mr Bethany crisply, 'that's settled, then. With your permission, my dear,' he added, turning untarnishably clear childlike eyes on Sheila, 'I will take all risks--even to the foot of the gibbet: accessory, Danton, AFTER the fact.' And so direct and cloudless was his gaze that Sheila tried in vain to evade it and to catch a glimpse of Danton's small agate-like eyes, now completely under mastery, and awaiting confidently the meeting with her own.'Of course,' she said, 'I am entirely in your hands, dear Mr Bethany.'
Lawford slept far into the cloudy Monday morning, to wake steeped in sleep, lethargic, and fretfully haunted by inconclusive remembrances of the night before. When Sheila, with obvious and capacious composure, brought him his breakfast tray, he watched her face for some time without speaking.'Sheila,' he began, as she was about to leave the room again. She paused, smiling. 'Did anything happen last night? Would you mind telling me, Sheila? Who was it was here?' Her lids the least bit narrowed. 'Certainly, Arthur; Mr Danton was here.' 'Then it was not a dream?' 'Oh no,' said Sheila. 'What did I say? What did HE say? It was hopeless, anyhow.' 'I don't quite understand what you mean by "hopeless," Arthur. And must I answer the other questions?' Lawford drew his hand over his face, like a tired child. 'He didn't--believe?' 'No, dear,' said Sheila softly. 'And you, Sheila?' came the subdued voice.
Sheila crossed slowly to the window. 'Well, quite honestly, Arthur, I was not very much surprised. Whatever we are agreed about on the whole, you were scarcely yourself last night.'Lawford shut his eyes, and re-opened them full on his wife's calm scrutiny, who had in that moment turned in the light of the one drawn blind to face him again. 'Who is? Always?' 'No,' said Sheila; 'but--it was at least unfortunate. We can't, I suppose, rely on Dr Bethany alone.' Lawford crouched over his food. 'Will he blab?' 'Blab! Mr Danton is a gentleman, Arthur.' Lawford rolled his eyes as if in temporary vertigo. 'Yes,' he said. And Sheila once more prepared to make a reposefui exit. 'I don't think I can see Simon this morning.' 'Oh. Who, then?' 'I mean I would prefer to be left alone.' 'Believe me, I had no intention to intrude.' And this time the door really closed. 'He is in a quiet, soothing sleep,' said Sheila a few minutes later.
'Nothing could be better,' said Dr Simon; and Lawford, to his inexpressible relief, heard the fevered throbbing of the doctor's car reverse, and turned over and shut his eyes, dulled and exhausted in the still unfriendliness of the vacant room. His spirits had sunk, he thought, to their lowest ebb. He scarcely heeded the fragments of dreams--clear, green landscapes, amazing gleams of peace, the sudden broken voices, the rustling and calling shadowiness of subconsciousness--in this quiet sunlight of reality. The clouds had broken, or had been withdrawn like a veil from the October skies. One thought alone was his refuge; one face alone haunted him with its peace; one remembrance soothed him-Alice. Through all his scattered and purposeless arguments he strove to remember her voice, the loving-kindness of her eyes, her untroubled confidence.
In the afternoon he got up and dressed himself. He could not bring himself to stand before the glass and deliberately shave. He even smiled at the thought of playing the barber to that lean chin. He dressed by the fireplace.'I couldn't rest,' he told Sheila, when she presently came in on one of her quiet, cautious, heedful visits; 'and one tires of reading even Quain in bed.' 'Have you found anything?' she inquired politely. 'Oh yes,' said Lawford wearily; 'I have discovered that infinitely worse things are infinitely commoner. But that there's nothing quite so picturesque.' 'Tell me,' said Sheila, with refreshing naivete. 'How does it feel? does it even in the slightest degree affect your mind?'
He turned his back and looked up at his broad gilt portrait for inspiration. 'Practically, not at all,' he said hollowly. 'Of course, one's nerves--that fellow Danton--when one's overtired. You have'--his voice, in spite of every effort, faintly quavered--'YOU haven't noticed anything? My mind?'
'Me? Oh dear, no! I never was the least bit observant; you know that, Arthur. But apart from that, and I hope you will not think me unsympathetic--but don't you think we must sooner or later be thinking of what's to be done? At present, though I fully agree with Mr Bethany as to the wisdom of hushing this unhappy business up as long as possible, at least from the gossiping outside world, still we are only standing still. And your malady, dear, I suppose, isn't. You WILL help me, Arthur? You will try and think? Poor Alice!''What about Alice?' 'She mopes, dear, rather. She cannot, of course, quite understand why she must not see her father, and yet his not being, or, for the matter of that, even if he was, at death's door.'
'At death's door,' murmured Lawford under his breath; 'who was it was saying that? Have you ever, Sheila, in a dream, or just as one's thoughts go sometimes, seen that door?...its ruinous stone lintel carved into lichenous stone heads...stonily silent in the last thin sunlight, hanging in peace unlatched. Heated, hunted, in agony--in that cold, green-clad shadowed porch is haven and sanctuary....But beyond--O God, beyond!'Sheila stood listening with startled eyes. 'And was all that in Quain?' she inquired rather flutteringly. Lawford turned a sidelong head, and looked steadily at his wife. She shook herself, with a slight shiver. 'Very well, then,' she said and paused in the silence.
Her husband yawned, and smiled, and almost as if lit with that thin last sunshine seemed the smile that passed for an instant across the reverie of his shadowy face. He drew a hand wearily over his eyes. 'What has he been saying now?' he inquired like a fretful child.Sheila stood very quiet and still, as if in fear of scaring some rare, wild, timid creature by the least stir. 'Who?' she merely breathed.
Lawford paused on the hearth-rug with his comb in his hand. 'It's just the last rags of that beastly influenza,' he said, and began vigorously combing his hair. And yet, simple and frank though the action was, it moved Sheila, perhaps, more than any other of the congested occurrences of the last few days. Her forehead grew suddenly cold, the palms of her hands began to ache, she had to hasten out of the room to avoid revealing the sheer physical repulsion she had experienced.
But Lawford, quite unmindful of the shock, continued in a kind of heedless reverie to watch, as he combed, the still visionary thoughts that passed in tranced stillness before his eyes. He longed beyond measure for freedom that until yesterday he had not even dreamed existed outside the covers of some old impossible romance--the magic of the darkening sky, the invisible flocking presences of the dead, the shock of imaginations that had no words, of quixotic emotions which the stranger had stirred in that low, mocking, furtive talk beside the broken stones of the Huguenot. Was the 'change' quite so monstrous, so meaningless? How often, indeed, he remembered curiously had he seemed to be standing outside these fast-shut gates of thought, that now had been freely opened to him.
He drew ajar the door, and leant his ear to listen. From far away came a rich, longcontinued chuckle of laughter, followed by the clatter of a falling plate, and then, still more uncontrollable laughter. There was a faint smell of toast on the air. Lawford ventured out on to the landing and into a little room that had once, in years gone by, been Alice's nursery. He stood far back from the strip of open window that showed beneath the green blind, craning forward to see into the garden--the trees, their knotted trunks, and then, as he stole nearer, a flower-bed, late roses, geraniums, calceolarias, the lawn and-yes, three wicker chairs, a footstool, a work-basket, a little table on the smooth grass in the honey-coloured sunshine; and Sheila sitting there in the autumnal sunlight, her hands resting on the arms of her chair, her head bent, evidently deeply engrossed in her thoughts. He crept an inch or two forward, and stooped. There was a hat on the grass-Alice's big garden hat--and beside it lay Flitters, nose on paws, long ears sagging. He had forgotten Flitters. Had Flitters forgotten him? Would he bark at the strange, distasteful scent of a--Dr Ferguson? The coast was clear, then. He turned even softlier yet, to confront, rapt, still, and hovering betwixt astonishment and dread, the blue calm eyes of his daughter, looking in at the door. It seemed to Lawford as if they had both been suddenly swept by some unseen power into a still, unearthly silence.'We thought,' he began at last, 'we thought just to beckon Mrs Lawford from the window. He--he is asleep.'
Alice nodded. Her whole face was in a moment flooded with red. It ebbed and left her pale. 'I will go down and tell mother you want to see her. It was very silly of me. I did not quite recognise at first...I suppose, thinking of my father--' The words faltered, and the eyes were lifted to his face again with a desolate, incredulous appeal. Lawford turned away heartsick and trembling.
'Certainly, certainly, by no means,' he began, listening vaguely to the glib patter that seemed to come from another mouth. 'Your father, my dear young lady, I venture to think is now really on the road to recovery. Dr Simon makes excellent progress. But, of course
-two heads, we know, are so much better than one when there's the least--the least difficulty. The great thing is quiet, rest, isolation, no possibility of a shock, else--' His voice fell away, his eloquence failed.
For Alice stood gazing stirlessly on and on into this infinitely strange, infinitely familiar shadowy, phantasmal face. 'Oh yes,' she replied, 'I quite understand, of course; but if I might just peep even, it would--I should be so much, much happier. Do let me just see him, Dr Ferguson, if only his head on the pillow! I wouldn't even breathe. Couldn't it possibly help--even a faith-cure?' She leant forward impulsively, her voice trembling, anal her eyes still shining beneath their faint, melancholy smile.'I fear, my dear...it cannot be. He longs to see you. But with his mind, you know, in this state, it might--?' 'But mother never told me,' broke in the girl desperately, 'there was anything wrong with his MIND. Oh, but that was quite unfair. You don't mean, you don't mean--that--?'
Lawford scanned swiftly the little square beloved and memoried room that fate had suddenly converted for him into a cage of unspeakable pain and longing. 'Oh no; believe me, no! Not his brain, not that, not even wandering; really: but always thinking, always longing on and on for you, dear, only. Quite, quite master of himself, but--'
'You talk,' she broke in again angrily, 'only in pretence! You are treating me like a child; and so does mother, and so it has been ever since I came home. Why, if mother can, and you can, why may not I? Why, if he can walk and talk in the night....''But who--who "can walk and talk in the night?"' inquired a low stealthy voice out of the quietness behind her. Alice turned swiftly. Her mother was standing at a little distance, with all the calm and moveless concentration of a waxwork figure, looking up at her from the staircase. 'I was--I was talking to Dr Ferguson, mother.'
'But as I came up the stairs I understood you to be inquiring something of Dr Ferguson, "if," you were saying, "he can walk and talk in the night": you surely were not referring to your father, child? That could not possibly be, in his state. Dr Ferguson, I know, will bear me out in that at least. And besides, I really must insist on following out medical directions to the letter. Dr Ferguson I know, will fully concur. Do, pray, Dr Ferguson,' continued Sheila, raising her voice even now scarcely above a rapid murmur--'do pray assure my daughter that she must have patience; that however much even he himself may desire it, it is impossible that she should see her father yet. And now, my dear child, come down, I want to have a moment's talk with Dr Ferguson. I feared from his beckoning at the window that something was amiss.'
Alice turned, dismayed, and looked steadily, almost with hostility, at the stranger, so curiously transfixed and isolated in her small old play-room. And in this scornful yet pleading confrontation her eye fell suddenly on the pin in his scarf--the claw and the pearl she had known all her life. From that her gaze flitted, like some wild demented thing's, over face, hair, hands, clothes, attitude, expression, and her heart stood still in an awful, inarticulate dread of the unknown. She turned slowly towards her mother, groped forward a few steps, turned once more, stretching out her hands towards the vague still figure whose eyes had called so piteously to her out of their depths, and fell fainting in the doorway. Lawford stood motionless, vacantly watching Sheila, who knelt, chafing the cold hands. 'She has fainted?' he said; 'oh, Sheila, tell me--only fainted?'Sheila made no answer; did not even raise her eyes.
'Some day, Sheila' he began in a dull voice, and broke off, and without another word, without even another glance at the still face and blue, twitching lids, he passed her rapidly by, and in another instant Sheila heard the house-door shut. She got up quickly, and after a glance into the vacant bedroom turned the key; then she hastened upstairs for sal volatile and eau de cologne....
It was yet clear daylight when Lawford appeared beneath the portico of his house. With a glance of circumspection that almost seemed to suggest a fear of pursuit, he descended the steps, only to be made aware in so doing that Ada was with a kind of furtive eagerness pointing out the mysterious Dr Ferguson to a steadily gazing cook. One or two well-known and many a well-remembered face he encountered in the thin stream of City men treading blackly along the pavement. It was a still, high evening, and something very like a forlorn compassion rose in his mind at sight of their grave, rather pretentious, rather dull, respectable faces.
He found himself walking with an affectation of effrontery, and smiling with a faint contempt on all alike, as if to keep himself from slinking, and the wolf out of his eyes. He felt restless, and watchful, and suspicious, as if he had suddenly come down in the world. His, then, was a disguise as effectual as a shabby coat and a glazing eye. His heart sickened. Was it even worth while living on a crust of social respectability so thin and so exquisitely treacherous? He challenged no one. One or two actual acquaintances raised and lowered a faintly inquiring eyebrow in his direction. One even recalled in his confusion a smile of recognition just a moment too late. There was, it seemed, a peculiar aura in Lawford's presence, a shadow of a something in his demeanour that proved him alien.
None the less green Widderstone kept calling him, much as a bell in the imagination tolls on and on, the echo of reality. If the worst should come to the worst, why--there is pasture in the solitary by-ways for the beast that strays. He quickened his pace along lonelier streets, and soon strode freely through the little flagged and cobbled village of shops, past the same small jutting window whose clock had told him the hour on that first dark hurried night. All was pale and faint with dying colours now; and decay was in the leaf, and the last swallows filled the gold air with their clashing stillness. No one heeded him here. He looked from side to side, exulting in the strangeness. Shops were left behind, the last milestone passed, and in a little while he was descending the hill beneath the elm boughs, which he remembered had stood like a turreted wall against the sunset when first he had wandered down into the churchyard.
At the foot of the hill he passed by the green and white Rectory, and there was the parson, a short fat, pursy man with wrists protruding from his jacket sleeves as he stood on tiptoe tying up a rambling rose-shoot on his trim cedared lawn. The next house barely showed its old red chimney-tops, above its bowers; the next was empty, with windows vacantly gazing, its paths peopled with great bearded weeds that stood mutely watching and guarding the seldom-opened gate. Then came more lofty grandmotherly elms, a dense hedge of every leaf that pricks, and then Lawford found himself standing at the small canopied gate of the queer old wooden house that the stranger of his talk had in part described.
It stood square and high and dark in a small amphitheatre of verdure. Roses here and there sprang from the grass, and a narrow box-edged path led to a small door in a low green-mantled wing, with its one square window above the porch. And while, with vacant mind, Lawford stood waiting, as one stands forebodingly upon the eve of a new experience he heard as if at a distance the sound of falling water. He still paused on the country roadside, scrutinising this strange, still, wooden presence; but at last with an effort he pushed open the gate, followed the winding path, and pulled the old iron hanging bell. There came presently a quiet tread, and Herbert himself opened the door which led into a little square wood-panelled hall, hung with queer old prints and obscure portraits in dark frames.'Ah, yes, come in, Mr Lawford,' he drawled; 'I was beginning to be afraid you were not coming.'
Lawford laid hat and walking-stick on an oak bench, and followed his churchyard companion up a slightly inclined corridor and a staircase into a high room, covered far up the yellowish walls with old books on shelves and in cases, between which hung in little black frames, mezzo tints, etchings, and antiquated maps. A large table stood a few paces from the deep alcove of the window, which was surrounded by a low, faded, green seat, and was screened from the sunshine by wooden shutters. And here the tranquil surge of falling water shook incessantly on the air, for the three lower casements stood open to the fading sunset. On a smaller table were spread cups, old earthenware dishes of fruit, and a big bowl of damask roses.
'Please sit down; I shan't be a moment; I am not sure that my sister is in; but if so, I will tell her we are ready for tea.' Left to himself in this quiet, strange old room, Lawford forgot for a while everything else, he was for the moment so taken up with his surroundings.
What seized on his fancy and strangely affected his mind was this incessant changing roar of falling water. It must be the Widder, he said to himself, flowing close to the walls. But not until he had had the boldness to lean head and shoulders out of the nearest window did he fully realize how close indeed the Widder was. It came sweeping dark and deep and begreened and full with the early autumnal rains, actually against the lower walls of the house itself, and in the middle suddenly swerved in a black, smooth arch, and tumbled headlong into a great pool, nodding with tall slender water-weeds, and charged in its bubbled blackness here and there with the last crimson of the setting sun. To the left of the house, where the waters floated free again, stood vast, still trees above the clustering rushes; and in glimpses between their spreading boughs lay the far-stretching countryside, now dimmed with the first mists of approaching evening. So absorbed he became as he stood leaning over the wooden sill above the falling water, that eye and ear became enslaved by the roar and stillness. And in the faint atmosphere of age that seemed like a veil to hang about the odd old house and these prodigious branches, he fell into a kind of waking dream.
When at last he did draw back into the room it was perceptibly darker, and a thin keen shaft of recollection struck across his mind--the recollection of what he was, and of how he came to be there, his reasons for coming and of that dark indefinable presence which like a raven had begun to build its dwelling in his mind. He sat on, his eyes restlessly wandering, his face leaning on his hands; and in a while the door opened and Herbert returned, carrying an old crimson and green teapot and a dish of hot cakes.'They're all out,' he said; 'sister, Sallie, and boy; but these were in the oven, so we won't wait. I hope you haven't been very much bored.' Lawford dropped his hands from his face and smiled. 'I have been looking at the water,' he said.
'My sister's favorite occupation; she sits for hours and hours, with not even a book for an apology, staring down into the black old roaring pot. It has a sort of hypnotic effect after a time. And you'd be surprised how quickly one gets used to the noise. To me it's even less distracting than sheer silence. You don't know, after all, what on earth sheer silence means--even at Widderstone. But one can just realize a water-nymph. They chatter; but, thank Heaven, it's not articulate.' He handed Lawford a cup with a certain niceness and self-consciousness, lifting his eyebrows slightly as he turned.
Lawford found himself listening out of a peculiar stillness of mind to the voice of this suave and rather inscrutable acquaintance. 'The curious thing is, do you know,' he began rather nervously, 'that though I must have passed your gate at least twice in the last few months, I have never noticed it before, never even caught the sound of the water.'
'No, that's the best of it; nobody ever does. We are just buried alive. We have lived here for years, and scarcely know a soul-- not even our own, perhaps. Why on earth should one? Acquaintances, after all, are little else than a bad habit.''But then, what about me?' said Lawford.
'But that's just it,' said Herbert. 'I said ACQUAINTANCES; that's just exactly what I'm going to prove--what very old friends we are. You've no idea! It really is rather queer.' He took up his cup and sauntered over to the window.
Lawford eyed him vacantly for a moment, and, following rather his own curious thoughts than seeking any light on this somewhat vague explanation, again broke the silence. 'It's odd, I suppose, but this house affects me much in the same way as Widderstone does. I'm not particularly fanciful--at least, I used not to be. But sitting here I seem, I hope it isn't a very frantic remark, it seems as though, if only my ears would let me, I should hear-- well, voices. It's just what you said about the silence. I suppose it's the age of the place; it IS very old?'
'Pretty old, I suppose; it's worm-eaten and rat-eaten and tindery enough in all conscience; and the damp doesn't exactly foster it. It's a queer old shanty. There are two or three accounts of it in some old local stuff I have. And of course there's a ghost.''A ghost?' echoed Lawford, looking up.