Part 2 out of 6
me--wait, I'm not denying that there was a chance. We were very
congenial. She might have cared if--if I had cared more greatly."
"Henry Callandar! Are you a cad?"
"No. Merely a man speaking the exact truth. I thought I might risk it,
with you. Lorna Sinnet is not a woman to give her love and take a
half-love in return. She was more clear-sighted than you or I. We should
both have been very miserable."
Elliott Willits sighed. He was a very sensible man. He prided himself
upon being devoid of sentiment, but even the most sensible of men,
entirely devoid of sentiment, do not like to see their well laid
plans go wrong.
"Well," he said, "I was mistaken. Let us say no more about it."
Callandar's eyes softened, melted into misty grey. He laid his arm
affectionately over the other's thin shoulders. "Only this," he said.
"That no man ever had a better friend! I know you, old Button-Moulder. I
know your ambition to make of me a 'shining button on the vest of the
world!' You thought that Lorna might help. But I failed you there. I'm
sorry. That was really the bitterness of the whole thing---to fail you!"
"You owe me nothing," gruffly.
"Only my life--my sanity."
"I shall doubt the latter if you stay here."
"No, you will see it triumphantly vindicated. I tell you I am better
already. Look at my hand! Do you remember how it shook the last time I
held it out for you. A few more months of this and it will be steady as
a rock. Ah! it's good to be feeling fit again! And it isn't only a
physical improvement." His smile faded and rising he began to pace the
room. "I doubt if even you fully understand the mental depression that
was dragging me down. No wonder Lorna would have none of me! Strange,
that I cannot understand my own case as I understand the cases of
others. Do what I would, I could not heal myself, the soul of the matter
persistently escaped me. I was beginning to be as much the victim of an
obsession as any of the poor creatures whom I tried to cure."
"You never told me of that."
"No, I was afraid to speak of it. It would have made it seem more real.
But I can tell you now, if you are sure you will not be bored."
"I shall not be bored," said Willits quietly.
"In order to make you understand, I'll have to go back," said the doctor
musingly, "a long way back. Some of the story you already know, but now
I want you to know it all. But first--when you found me in that
hospital, a useless bit of human wreckage, and forced me back into life
with your scorn of a coward and your cutting words, what did you think?
What did I tell you? It is all hazy to me."
"You told me very little. It was plain enough. You had come a bad
cropper. Some girl, I gathered. You had lost her, you blamed yourself.
You talked a great deal of nonsense. I inferred--the usual thing!"
"You were mistaken. It was at once better and worse than that. But let's
begin at the beginning. My father was a fairly wealthy man--but a
dreamer. He made his money by a clever invention and lost it by an
investment little short of idiotic. Like many unpractical men he had
rather fancied himself as a man of business and the disillusion killed
him. He--shot himself. My mother, my sister and myself were left, with
nothing save a small sum in the bank and the deed of the modest house we
lived in. Adela was twenty-one and I was nineteen. We sold the house,
moved into rooms; Adela learned shorthand and went into an office. I
wanted to do the same. But mother was adamant. I must finish my college
course and take my degree; she and Adela could manage until I could make
it up to them later. It was hard, but it seemed the only sensible
thing to do--
"I faced the task of working my way through college with a thankful
heart, for though I pretended that I did not care, it would have been a
terrible thing to have given up my life's ambition. The thought of Adela
trudging to the office hurt--it was the touch of the spur. I needn't
tell you, you can guess how I worked! People were kind. One summer, old
Doctor Inglis, whose amiable hobby it was to help young medical
students, engaged me for the holidays as his chauffeur and general
helper at a wage which would see me through my next term. It seemed an
unusual piece of luck, for he lived only twenty miles from my mother's
home and an electric tram connected the towns. One night I went with
Adela to a Church Social--of all places--and that is where the story
really begins, for it was at the Social that I met Molly Weston. It
seemed the most casual of all accidents, for you can imagine that I did
not frequent churches in those days, and Molly, too, had come there by
chance. She was dressed in pink, her cheeks were pink, she wore a pink
rose in her hair. She was the prettiest little fairy that ever smiled
and pouted her way into a boy's heart. Before I left her I was madly in
love--a boy's first headlong passion. Adela was amazed, teased me in her
elderly sister way but never for a moment took it seriously. Molly was a
mere bird of passage, an American girl staying with friends for a brief
time, therefore my infatuation was a humorous thing. But it was not so
simple as that. Molly stayed on, Dr. Inglis was indulgent, we met
continually. If her friends knew of it they did not care. It was just a
flirtation of their pretty guest's. As a serious factor I was quite
beneath the horizon, a young fellow working his way through college, and
with, later on, a mother and sister to support.
"Molly understood the situation. At least she knew all the facts. I
doubt if she ever understood them. She was one of those helpless,
clinging girls who never seem to understand anything clearly. I remember
well how I used to agonise in explanation, trying to make her see our
difficulties and to face them with me. But when I had talked myself into
helpless silence she would ruffle my hair and say, 'But you really do
love me, don't you, Harry?' or 'I don't care what we have to do, so long
as mother doesn't know.'
"I soon found out that her one strong emotion was fear of her mother.
She was fond of her but she feared her as weak natures fear the strong,
especially when bound to them by ties of blood. I was allowed to see her
photograph--the picture of a grim hard face instinct with an almost
terrible strength. No wonder my pretty Molly was her slave. One would
have deemed it impossible that they were mother and daughter. Molly, it
appears, was like her father, and he, poor man, had been long dead.
Molly would do anything, promise anything, if only her mother might not
know. She had not the faintest scruple in deceiving her, but this I
laid, and still lay, to the strength of her love for me.
"She did love me. She must have loved me--else how could her timid
nature have taken the risk it did?
"Summer fled by like a flash. Molly stayed with her friends as long as
she could find an excuse and then went on for a brief week in Toronto.
It was the week, of course, that I returned to college. We hoped that
she could extend her stay, but her mother wrote 'Come home,' and there
was no appeal from that. Then I did a desperate thing. Without Molly's
knowledge I wrote to her mother telling her that I loved her daughter
and begging, as a man begs for his life, to be allowed to ask her to
wait for me. The letter was a lie in that it concealed the fact that my
love was already confessed but I felt it necessary to shield Molly. I
received no answer to the letter, but Molly received a telegram, 'Come
home at once.'
"I can leave you to imagine the scene--my despair, Molly's tears! Never
for an instant did she dream of disobeying and I--I felt that if she
went I should lose her forever.
"Willits, there is something in me, devil or angel, which will not give
up. Nothing has ever conquered it yet and Molly was like wax in my
hands--so long as 'Mother' need not know. I do not attempt to excuse
myself; what I did was dastardly, but it did not seem so then. The night
before she left, she stole away from home. I had a license and we were
married by a Methodist minister. He knew neither of us and probably
forgot the whole incident immediately. It was a marriage only in name
for we said good-bye at Molly's door. She left next morning. I never saw
Into the silence which followed, the professor's words dropped dryly.
"What was your idea in forcing a meaningless marriage?"
"I loved her. I knew that it was the only way. Madly as I loved her, I
knew that Molly was weak as water. I could not, would not, run the risk
of letting her leave me without the legal tie. But I justified it to
myself--I could have justified anything, I fear! I vowed a vow that she
would be repaid for the waiting as never woman yet was paid. She wept on
my shoulder and said, 'And you really do love me, Harry--and you'll
swear mother need never know?'
"I swore it. There were to be no letters. Molly was too terrified to
write and still more terrified of receiving a letter. She would live in
constant dread, she said, if there were a possibility of such a thing.
Weak in everything else she was adamant in this.
"I went back to work. I worked with the strength of ten. Health,
comfort, pleasure, all were subordinated to the fever of work. I hoped
that I might steal a glimpse of her sometimes. She promised to try to
return to Toronto. But my letter must have alarmed the mother. I found
out, indirectly, that shortly after her return, Mrs. Weston whisked her
off to Europe. They were gone a year. When they returned I was in the
far west with a government surveying party, earning something to help me
with my last year's college expenses. When I was again in Toronto she
had vanished. Gone, as I afterward learned, to stay with an aunt in
California. Her mother, alive to danger, was not going to risk a
meeting, and my vow to Molly left me helpless. But how I worked!
"That last year things began to come my way. Adela married a fine young
fellow, wealthy and generous. My mother went to live with them in their
western home, Calgary, where they still are. Then Thomas Callandar, my
mother's brother, who had never bothered about any of us living, died,
and left me a handsome property, adding, as you already know, the
condition that I take the family name. You remember that my father's
name, the name under which I married Molly, was Chedridge.
"Nothing now held me from Molly--in another month I would have my
degree, and free and rich I could go to claim her. It seemed like a
fairy tale! In my great happiness I broke my promise and wrote to her,
to the California address, hoping to catch her there. In three weeks'
time the letter came back from the dead letter office. I wrote again,
this time to the Cleveland address, a short note only, telling her I was
free at last. Then, next day, I followed the letter to Cleveland, wealth
in one hand, the assurance of an honourable degree in the other.
"I had no trouble in finding the house. It was one of a row of houses,
nondescript but comfortable, in a pleasant street. It seemed familiar--I
had seen Molly's snapshots of it often. I cannot tell you what it felt
like to be really there--to walk down the street, up the path, up the
steps to the veranda. I was trembling as with ague, I was chalk-white I
knew--was I not in another moment to see my wife!
"I could hear the electric bell tingle somewhere inside. Then an awful
pause. What if they were not at home? What if they lived there no
longer? I knew with a pang of fear that I could not bear another
"There was a sound in the hall, the door knob moved--the door opened. I
gasped in the greatness of my relief for the face in the opening was
undoubtedly the face of Molly's mother. They were at home. They must
have had my letter--they must be expecting me--
"Something in the woman's face daunted me. It was deathly and strained.
Surely she did not intend to continue her opposition? Yet it confused
me. I forgot all that I had intended to say, I stammered:
"'I am Henry Chedridge. I want to see Molly. I am rich, I have my
"'You cannot see her!' she said. Just that! The door began to close. But
I had myself in hand now. I laid hold of the door and spoke in a
different tone. The tone of a master.
"'This is foolish, Mrs. Weston. I thought you understood. I can and I
will see your daughter. Molly is my wife!'
"She gave way at that. The door opened wide, showing a long empty hall.
The woman stood aside, made no effort to stop me, but looking me in the
eyes she said: 'You come too late. Your wife is not here. Molly
"Then, in one second, it seemed that all the years of overwork, of
mental strain and bodily deprivation rose up and took their due. I tried
to speak, stuttered foolishly, and fell like dead over the door-sill of
the house I was never to enter.
"You know the rest, for you saved me. When I struggled back to life,
without the will to live, you shamed and stung me into effort. You
brought the new master-influence into my life, taught me that the old
ambition, the old work-ardour was not dead. Those months with you in
Paris, in Germany, in London at the feet of great men saw a veritable
new birth. I ceased to be Henry Chedridge, lover, and became Henry
Callandar, scientist. All this I owe to you."
The other raised his hand.
"No, not that. Some impulse I may have given you, but you have made
yourself what you are. But--you have not told me all yet?"
"No." Again the doctor began his uneasy pacing of the room. "The rest is
harder to tell. It is not so clear. It has nothing to do with facts at
all. It is just that when I first began to show signs of overwork this
last time I became troubled with an idea, an obsession. It had no
foundation. It persisted without reason. It was fast becoming
He paused in his restless pacing and Willits' keen eyes noticed the look
of strain which had aroused his alarm some months ago. Nevertheless he
asked in his most matter-of-fact tone, "And the idea was--?"
Callandar hesitated. "I can hardly speak of it yet in the past tense.
The idea is--that Molly is not dead!"
"Good Heavens!" ejaculated the professor, startled out of his calm. "But
have you any reason to doubt? To--to base--"
"None whatever. No enquiries which I have made cast doubt upon the
mother's words. But on the other hand I have been unable to confirm
them. I cannot find where my wife died--except that there is no record
of her death in the Cleveland registries. She did not die in Cleveland."
"But you have told me that they were seldom at home. That the mother was
a great traveller."
"Yes. The want of evidence in Cleveland proves nothing."
"Did you feel any doubt at first?"
"Absolutely none. The gloomy house, the empty hall, the white face and
black dress of the woman in the door, the look of horror and anger in
her eyes--yes, and a kind of grim triumph too--all served to drive the
fatal message home. Dead!--There was death in the air of that house,
death in the ghastly face--in the cruel, toneless words!--After my
tedious recovery I made an effort to see Mrs. Weston, although I had
conceived a horror of the woman, but she was gone. The house had been
sold. I tried to trace her without result. She seemed to have vanished
off the face of the earth."
"And how long ago did the whole thing happen?"
"Twelve years. I was twenty-three when I went to claim my bride. I am
"Dear me!" said the little man sincerely, "I have always thought you
older than that! But twelve years is--twelve years! And you say this
doubt is a very recent thing?"
"Yes. I have told you the thing is absurd. But I can't help it."
"Have you made any further enquiries?"
"Yes, uselessly. There is a rumour that Mrs. Weston, too, is dead. A
lady who used to know them tells me that she is certain she heard of her
death--in England, she thinks, but upon being questioned was quite at
sea as to where or when or even as to the original source of her
information. She remembers 'hearing it' and that's all. Then I sought
for the aunts, the maiden ladies whom Molly visited in California. They
too are gone, the older died during the time I lay ill in the hospital.
The younger one was not quite bright, I believe, and was taken away to
live with some relatives in the East. It was not Molly's mother who
fetched her. It was a man, a very kind man whom the old lady, my
informant, had never seen before. She said he had a queer name. She
could not remember it, but thought he was a physician. I imagine that
the kind friend was an asylum doctor."
"Very likely. And could your informant tell you nothing of the niece--if
Molly had visited there?"
"She remembered her last visit very well but her memories were of no
value. She was a sweet, pretty child, she said, and she often wondered
how she came to have such a homely mother. She evidently disliked Mrs.
Weston very much, and when I asked her if she had ever heard of Molly's
death she said no, but that she was not a bit surprised as she had
always predicted that the pretty, little, white thing would be worried
into an early grave. I noticed the word 'white' and asked her about it,
for the Molly I knew had a lovely colour. Her memory became confused
when I pressed her, but she seemed quite sure that the girl who came
that winter with her mother was a very pale girl--looked as if she might
have come south for her health."
"All of which goes to prove--"
"Yes--I know. Poor Molly! Poor little girl! I believe in my heart that
our mad marriage killed her. Without me constantly with her, the fear of
her mother, perhaps the doubt of me, the burden of the whole disastrous
secret was too much. And it was my fault, Willits--all my fault!" He
turned to the window to hide his working face. "Do you wonder," he added
softly, "that her poor little wraith comes back to trouble me?"
"Come, come, no need to be morbid! You made a mistake, but you have
paid. As for the doubt which troubles you--it is but the figment of a
tired brain. The mother could have had no possible reason for deceiving
you. You were no longer an ineligible student--and the girl loved you.
Besides, there was the legal tie. Would any woman condemn her daughter
to a false position for life? And without reason? The idea is
preposterous. Come now, admit it!"
"Oh, I admit it! My reasoning powers are still unimpaired. But reason
has nothing to do with that kind of mental torture. It is my soul that
has been sick; it is my soul that must be cured. And to come back to the
very point from which we started, I believe I shall find that cure
"With Mrs. Sykes?" dryly.
"Certainly. Mrs. Sykes is part of the cure."
"And the other part?"
"Oh--just everything. I hardly know why I like the place. But I do. Why
analyse? I can sleep here. I wake in the morning like a man with the
right to live, and for the first time in a year, Willits, a long
torturing year, I am beginning to feel free of that oppression, that
haunting sense that somewhere Molly is alive, that she needs me and that
I cannot get to her. I had begun to fear that it would drive me mad.
But, here, it is going. Yesterday I was walking down a country road and
suddenly I felt free--exquisitely, gloriously free--the past wiped out!
That--that was why I almost feared to see you, Elliott, you bring the
past so close."
The hands of the friends met in a firm handclasp.
"Have it your own way," said the professor, smiling his grim smile.
"Consider me silenced."
The doctor's answer was cut off by the jingling entrance of Mrs. Sykes
bearing before her a large tray upon which stood tall glasses, a beaded
pitcher of ice cold lemonade and some cake with white frosting.
"Seeing as it's so hot," said she amiably, "I thought a cold drink might
cool you off some. Especially as breakfast will be five minutes late
owing to the chicken. I thought maybe as you had a friend, doctor, a
"A chicken will be delicious," said the doctor, answering the question
in her voice. "Mrs. Sykes, let me present Professor Willits; Willits,
Mrs. Sykes! Let me take the tray."
Mrs. Sykes shook hands cordially. "Land sakes!" she said. "I thought you
were a priest! Not that I really suspicioned that the doctor, good
Presbyterian as he is, would know any such. But priests is terrible
wily. They deceive the very elect--and it's best to be prepared. As it
is, any friend of the doctor's is a friend of mine. You're kindly
welcome, I'm sure."
"Thank you," said the professor limply.
The doctor handed them each a glass and raised his own.
"Let us drink," he said, "to Coombe. 'Coombe and the Soul cure!'"
"Amen!" said Willits.
"Land sakes!" said Mrs. Sykes. "I thought it was his spine!"
Zerubbabel Burk sat upon his stool of office in the doctor's consulting
room, swinging his legs. Would-be discoverers of perpetual motion might
have received many hints from Bubble, though he himself would have
scorned to consider the swinging of legs as motion. He was under the
delusion that he was sitting perfectly still. For the doctor was asleep.
Asleep, at four o'clock on a glorious summer day! No wonder his friend
and partner wore a tragic face.
"Doesn't seem to care a hang if he never gets any patients!" mused
Bubble, resentfully, stealing a half fond, half angry glance at the
placid face of the sleeper. "Only two folks in all day and one a kid
with a pin in its throat. And all he says is, 'Don't worry, son, we're
getting on fine!' We'll go smash one of these days, that's what we'll
"Tap-tap" sounded the blinds which were drawn over the western windows.
A pleasant little breeze was trying to come in. "Buzz" sounded a fly on
the wall. Bubble arose noisily and killed it with a resounding "thwack."
"Wake the doctor, would you?" he said. "Take that!"
But even the pistol-like report which accompanied the fly's demise
failed to ruffle the sleeper. Bubble returned disconsolate to
"Smash," he repeated, "smash is the word. I see our finish."
The pronoun which Bubble used nowadays was always "we." He belonged to
the doctor body and soul, but it was no servile giving. The doctor also
belonged to him, and it was with this privilege of ownership that he now
found fault with his idol. Had any one else objected to the doctor's
afternoon rest he would have found reason and excuse enough; but in his
own heart he was puzzled. Such indifference to the appearances, such
wilful disregard of "business" could hardly, he thought, be real; yet,
for an imitation, it was remarkably well done. Bubble admired even while
Why, he did not even go to church so that the minister might introduce
him around as "Dr. Callandar, the new brother who has come amongst us."
Neither did he walk down Main Street, nor show himself in public places.
When he went walking he went early in the morning and directed his steps
toward the country. About all the usual means of harmless and necessary
advertising he did not seem to know Beans! Bubble looked disconsolately
out of the window. There was Ann, now, coming across the yard. School
must be out, and still the doctor slept.
"Anybody in?" asked Ann in a stage whisper.
"Not just now. Been very busy though. Doctor's resting. Stop that
"I'm not making any noise! He's part my doctor anyway. I'll make a noise
if I like--"
"No you won't, miss!"
"But I don't _like_," added Ann with her impish smile. "If he's asleep
what are you staying here for? Come on out."
Bubble regarded the tempter with scornful amazement.
"That's it!" he exclaimed, "jest like I always said, women haven't any
sense of honour. What d'ye suppose I'm here for?"
"Not just to swing your legs," placidly. "He doesn't need you when he's
asleep, does he? Come on and let's get some water-cress. He'd like some
for his tea--dinner I mean. Say, Bubble, why does he call it dinner?"
"Because he comes from the city, Silly! They don't have any tea in the
city. They have breakfast when they get up and lunch at noon and dinner
about seven or eight or nine at night. Then if they get hungry before
bed-time they have supper. The doctor says he never gets hungry after
dinner so he don't have that."
Ann considered this a moment.
"They do so have tea!" she declared. "I heard Mrs. Andrew West telling
about it. She said her sister in Toronto had a tea specially for her."
"Oh," with superb disdain, "that's just for women. If they can't wait
for dinner they get bread and butter and tea in the afternoon. But they
have to eat it walking around and they only get it when they go out
Ann sighed. "I'd like to live in the city," she murmured. "Say, don't
you feel as if you'd like a cookie right now?"
Bubble squirmed. But his Spartan fortitude held.
"In business hours? No, thank you. 'Tisn't professional. Look silly,
wouldn't I, if one of our patients caught me eating?"
"How many to-day?"
"That'd be telling. 'Tisn't professional to tell. Doctor says if a man
wants to succeed, he's got to be as dumb as a noyster in business!"
"Pshaw!" said Ann, "Aunty'll tell. She always counts. Then you don't
want a cookie?"
"Well--later on--Cricky! here's some one coming! You scoot--pike it!"
"I won't!" Ann stood her ground, peering eagerly around the rose bush.
"It's only Esther Coombe. She'll be coming to see Aunt--no--she's coming
here! Hi, Bubble, wake him up--quick!"
"Hum, Hum!" said Bubble in a loud voice, rattling a chair. The sleeper
made no movement.
Ann, brave through anxiety, flew across the room and shook him with all
the strength of her small hands. The heavy lids lifted and still
"Is it an earthquake?" asked the victim politely.
"No--it's a patient! Oh, do get up. Oh, goodness gracious, look at your
The doctor passed his hand absently over a disordered head. "Yes," he
said, "I have always thought that shaking is not good for hair. Dear me!
I believe I have been asleep!"
Ann threw him a glance of mingled admiration and reproach and vanished
through the parlour door just as the step of the patient sounded upon
the stone steps.
"Why, Bubble Burk!" said a voice. "What are you doing here?"
At the sound of the voice, sleep fled from the doctor's eyes. He arose
"I'm workin'," Bubble's voice was not as confident as usual. "This here
is Dr. Callandar's office. Mrs. Sykes' visitors go round to the
"Oh! But it's the doctor I wish to see. Is he in?"
Bubble was now plainly agitated.
"If you'll just wait a moment, I'll--I'll see."
Leaving Esther smiling upon the steps he disappeared into the shaded
office and pulled up the blinds. The couch had been decorously
straightened. The office was empty! Bubble gave a sigh of relief and his
professional manner returned.
"He isn't just what you might call in," he explained affably to Esther.
"But he'll be down directly. Walk in."
Esther walked in and took the seat which Bubble indicated.
"Somebody sick over at your house?" with ill-concealed hope.
Esther dimpled. "Not dangerously, thank you."
"Then it's just tickets for the choir concert. I might have known. But
you're too late. Doctor's got half a dozen already. He--"
Further revelations were cut short by the entrance of the doctor
himself. A doctor with sleep-cleared eyes, fresh collar, and newly
brushed hair. A doctor who shook hands with his caller in a manner which
even the professional Bubble felt to be irreproachable.
"Bubble, you may go."
With a grin of satisfied pride the junior partner departed, but once
outside the gloomy expression returned.
"It's only choir-tickets!" he told Ann, who was waiting around the
corner of the house. "Come on--let's go fishin'."
Inside the office Esther and the doctor looked at each other and smiled.
He, because he felt like smiling; she, because she felt nervous. Yet it
was not going to be as awkward as she had feared. With a decided sense
of relief she realised that Dr. Callandar looked exactly like a doctor
after all! Convention, even in clothes, has a calming effect. There was
little of the weary tramp who had quenched his throat at the school
pump in the well groomed and quietly capable looking doctor. With a
notable decrease of tension Esther saw that the man before her was a
stranger, a pleasant, professional stranger, with whom no embarrassment
As for him he realised nothing except that Coombe was really a
delightful place. He felt glad that he had stayed.
"No one ill, I hope, Miss Coombe?" His tone, even, seemed to have lost
the whimsical inflection of the tramp.
"No, Doctor. Not ill exactly. It is Aunt Amy. We cannot understand just
what is the matter. You see, Aunty imagines things. She is not quite
like other people. Perhaps," with a quick smile as she thought of Mrs.
Sykes, "perhaps you may have heard of her--of her fantastic ideas? They
are really quite harmless and apart from them she is the most sensible
person I know. But lately, just the other day, something happened--"
He checked her with an almost imperceptible gesture. "Could you tell me
about it from the beginning?"
Esther looked troubled. "I do not know much about the beginning. You
see, Aunt Amy is my step-mother's aunt, and I have only known her since
she came to live with us shortly after my father's second marriage. But
I know that she has been subject to delusions since she was a young
girl. She was to have been married and on the wedding day her lover
became ill with scarlet fever, a most malignant type. She also sickened
with it a little later; it killed him and left her mentally twisted--as
she is now. Her health is good and the--strangeness--is not very
noticeable. It has usually to do with unimportant things. She is
really," with a little burst of enthusiasm, "a Perfect Dear!"
The doctor smiled. "And the new development?"
"It is not exactly new. She has always had one delusion more serious
than the others. She believes that she has enemies somewhere who would
do her harm if they got the chance. She is quite vague as to who or what
they are. She refers to them as 'They.' Once, when she came to us first,
she was frightened of poison and, although my father, who had great
influence over her, seemed to cure her of any active fear, for years she
has persisted in a curious habit of drinking her coffee without setting
down the cup. The idea seemed to be that if she let it out of her hands
'They,' the mysterious persecutors, might avail themselves of the
opportunity to drug it. Does it sound too fantastic?"
"No. It is not unusual--a fairly common delusion, in fact. There is a
distinct type of brain trouble, one of whose symptoms is a conviction of
persecution. The results are fantastic to a degree."
Well, the day before yesterday Aunt Amy was drinking her coffee as
usual, when she heard Jane scream in the garden. She is very fond of
Jane, and it startled her so that she jumped up at once, forgetting all
about the coffee, and ran out to see what was the matter. Jane had cut
her finger and the tiniest scratch upsets poor Auntie terribly. She is
terrified of blood. When she came back she felt faint and at once picked
up the cup and drank the remaining coffee. I hoped she had not noticed
the slip but she must have done so, subconsciously, for when I was
helping her with the dishes she turned suddenly white--ghastly. She had
'They've got me at last, Esther!' she said with a kind of proud
despair. 'I've been pretty smart, but not quite smart enough.'
I pretended not to understand and she explained quite seriously that
while she had been absent in the garden 'They' had seen her half-filled
cup and seized their opportunity. It was quite useless to point out that
there was no one in the house but ourselves. She only said, 'Oh, "They"
would not let me see them "They" are too smart for that.' Overwhelming
smartness is one of the attributes of the mysterious 'They.'
"I hoped that the idea would wear away but it didn't; it strengthened.
In vain I pointed out that she was perfectly well, with no symptom of
poisoning. She merely answered that naturally 'They' would be too smart
to use ordinary poisons with symptoms. 'I shall just grow weaker and
weaker,' she said, 'and in a week or a month I shall die!' I tried to
laugh but I was frightened. Mother advised taking no notice at all and I
have tried not to, but I can't keep it up. She is certainly weaker and
so strange and hopeless. I am terrified. Can mind really affect matter,
"No. As a scientific fact, it cannot. But it is true that certain states
of mind and certain conditions of matter always correspond. Why this is
so, no one knows, when we do know we shall hold the key to many
mysteries. The understanding, even partial, of this correspondence will
be a long step in a long new road. Meanwhile we speak loosely of mind
influencing matter, ignoring the impossibility. And, however it happens,
it is undoubtedly true that if we can, by mental suggestion, influence
your Aunt's mind into a more healthy attitude the corresponding change
will take place physically."
"But I have tried to reason with her."
"You can't reason with her. She is beyond mere reason. I might as well
try to reason you out of your conviction that the sun is shining. A
delusion like hers has all the stability of a perfectly sane belief."
"Then what can we do?"
"Since that delusion is a fact for her we must treat it as if it were a
fact for us."
"You mean we must pretend to believe that the danger is real?"
"It is real. People have died before now of nothing save a fixed idea of
"But don't worry. Aunt Amy is not going to die. When may I see her? If I
come over in a half an hour will that be convenient?"
Esther rose with relief. How kind he had been! How completely he had
understood! She had been right, perfectly right, in coming to him. In
spite of Mrs. Coombe's ridicule, Aunt Amy's need had been no fancy. And
there was another thing; he was coming to the house. Her mother would
see him--and presto! her prejudice against doctors would vanish--he
would cure the headaches, and everything would be happy again.
The doctor, watching keenly, thought that she must have been troubled
greatly to show such evident relief.
"One thing more," he said. "Was there, do you know, any history of
insanity in your aunt's family?"
The girl paled. The idea was a disturbing one.
"Why--no--I think not. I never heard. You see, she is not my Aunt,
really, but my step-mother's aunt. There was a brother, I think, who
died in--in an institution. He was not quite responsible, but in his
case it was drink. That is different, isn't it? Does it make any
"No--only it may help me to understand the case. Good-afternoon."
He watched her go, through a peep-hole made by Bubble in the blind.
"Pretty, isn't she?" said a reflective voice below him.
The doctor started. But it was only Mrs. Sykes who had stepped around
the house corner to pluck some flowers from the bed beneath the window.
As he did not answer, the voice continued, "That boy Burk has gone
fishing. I told you you'd regret putting that new suit on to him, brass
buttons and all! Not that I want to say anything against the lad and his
mother a widow, but when a person's dealing with a limb of mischief a
person ought to know what to expect. Anybody sick over at
The doctor, leaning against the door in deep reverie, did not seem to
hear. Mrs. Sykes, after a suspicious glance, decided that perhaps he
really had not heard, and proceeded.
"Not that I'm asking out of curiosity, Land sakes! But I've got some
black currant jelly that sick folks fancy. I could spare a jar as
well as not."
The flower picker bunched her flowers into a tight round knot which she
surveyed with pride. "That step-mother of Esther's now," she said. "I
don't hold much with her. Flighty, I call her. Delicate, too, if looks
don't lie. Men are queer. The only thing queerer is women. What d'ye
suppose a sensible middle-aged man like Doctor Coombe ever saw in that
pretty doll? And what did she see in him--old enough to be her father? A
queer match, I call it. But they do say that her side of it is easy
explained. Anyway it must have been a trying thing when the doctor's
gold mine didn't--"
Mrs. Sykes' flow of words ceased abruptly, for rising from a last
descent upon the rose bush she saw that her audience had vanished.
"Dear me! I hope he didn't think I was trying to be curious," said Mrs.
It required some persuasion to induce Aunt Amy to consent to see the
doctor. Doctors, she had found (with the single exception of Dr.
Coombe), were terribly unreasonable. They asked all kinds of questions,
and never believed a word of the answers.
"And if I have a doctor," she declared tearfully, "I shall have to go to
bed. And if I go to bed who will get supper? The sprigged tea-set--"
"But you won't need to go to bed, Auntie. You aren't ill, you know; just
a little bit upset. If you feel like lying down why not use the sofa in
my room? And even if you do not wish to see the doctor for yourself,"
Esther's tone was reproachful, "think what a good opportunity it is for
us to get an opinion about mother. Don't you remember saying just the
other day that you thought mother was foolish to be so nervous
"Yes, but she needn't stay in the room, need she, Esther? I don't want
her in the room. She laughs. But I would like to lie on your sofa and if
I must see him I had better wear my lavender cap."
"Yes, dear, and you will not mind mother staying--"
"But I do mind, Esther. And anyway she can't," triumphantly, "because
she has gone out."
"Gone out? Mother? But she knew the doctor was coming and she
"Yes, I know. She said to tell you she had fully intended staying in
until the doctor had been, but she had forgotten about the Ladies' Aid
Meeting. She simply had to go to that. She said you could attend to the
doctor quite as well as she could and that it was all nonsense anyway,
because there was nothing whatever the matter with me." The faded eyes
filled with tears again and Esther had much ado to prevent their
She settled Aunt Amy upon the couch and adjusted the lavender cap
without further betrayal of her own feelings, but in her heart she was
both angry and hurt. Her mother had known of the doctor's intended visit
and had distinctly promised to remain in to receive him. What would Dr.
Callandar think? It was most humiliating.
The Ladies' Aid Meeting was plainly an excuse for a deliberate shirking
of responsibility. Or, worse still, Mrs. Coombe, divining Esther's
double motive, may have left the house purposely to escape seeing the
doctor on her own account. Esther well knew the stubbornness of which
she was capable upon this one question, and the cunningness of it was
like her. She had made no objections; she had not troubled to refuse or
to argue--she had simply gone out.
Well, it was something to feel that she, Esther, had done what she
could. At any rate, there was no time to worry, for the doctor was
already coming up the walk.
Esther hurried to the door. It relieved her to find that he seemed to
expect her, and showed no offence on realising that the patient's
nearest relative was not at home to receive him. Indeed, he seemed to
think of no one save the patient herself. His manner, Esther thought,
was perfect. Had she been a little older she might have suspected such
perfection, deducing from it that Callandar, like herself, was
subconsciously aware of an interest in the situation not altogether
professional. But the girl made no deductions and certainly there was no
trace of any embarrassment in the doctor's way with his patient. It took
only a moment for Esther to decide that here, at least, she had done the
right thing. She waited only long enough to see the frightened look in
Aunt Amy's eyes replaced by one of timid confidence and then, murmuring
an excuse, slipped away, leaving them together.
Callandar also waited while the startled eyes grew quiet and then lifted
the fluttering hand into his own firm one.
"Creatures of habit, we doctors, aren't we?" he said, smiling. "Always
taking people's temperatures."
Aunt Amy ventured upon a vague answering smile.
"I understand," continued the doctor, "that you have reason to fear that
you have been poisoned?"
The hand began to flutter again, but quieted as the pleasant, confident
voice went on:
"Your niece has told me something of the case but no details. Perhaps
you can supply them for me. When exactly did it happen and what kind of
poison was it?"
The fluttering hand became quite still and the eyes of Aunt Amy slowly
filled with a great amazement. Here was an unbelievable thing--a doctor
who did not argue or deny or playfully scold her for "fancies." A doctor
who took her seriously and showed every intention of believing what she
said. No one, save Dr. Coombe, had ever done that--
"It is always best in these cases to get the details from the patient
herself," went on the doctor, encouragingly.
No, he was not laughing! Aunt Amy could detect nothing save the gravest
of interest in his kindly eyes. An immense relief stole over her. A
relief so great that Callandar, watching, felt his heart grow hot
"Oh, doctor!" she cried feebly, "I--" a rush of easy tears drowned the
rest of the sentence.
Callandar let her cry. He knew the value of those tears. Presently when
she grew more quiet he exchanged her soaking bit of cambric for his own
more serviceable square. Aunt Amy dried her eyes on it and handed it
back as simply as a child.
"Pray excuse me," she begged, "but--the relief! I might have died if you
had not come." She went on brokenly. "You see," dropping her voice, "my
relatives are _queer_. They have strange ideas. When I know things quite
well they tell me I am mistaken. Mary, my niece, laughs. Even Esther,
who tries to help me, thinks I do not know what I am talking about. They
all argue in the most absurd manner. If I do not pretend always that I
agree with them I have no peace. Sometimes when I tell some of the
things I know, Esther looks frightened and says I am not to tell Jane.
So I try to keep everything to myself. I don't want the children to be
frightened. They are young and ought to be happy. I was happy when I was
young--at least, I think it was I. Sometimes I'm not sure whether it
wasn't some other girl--I get confused--"
"Don't worry about it," said the doctor calmly. "Or about Miss Esther
either. I want to hear all about the poison."
Aunt Amy remembered her precarious condition with a start. Her eyes grew
"I don't know how They put it in," she said. "I didn't see Them, you
know. I left my cup of coffee standing while I went to find Jane. I
heard her crying. She had cut her finger and when I had bound it up I
felt faint, so I foolishly forgot and picked up the coffee and drank it.
I wasn't quite myself or I should never have been so careless."
The doctor seemed to appreciate this point. "Did you taste anything in
the coffee?" he asked.
"No. Of course They would be too clever for that!"
"And when did you begin to feel ill?"
"Just as soon as I remembered that I had forgotten to pour out a fresh
cup." The naivete of this statement was quite lost upon the
Esther, who had re-entered the room, opened her lips to improve this
opportunity for argument but, meeting the doctor's eye, refrained.
Callandar took no notice of the significant admission.
"Where do you feel the pain now?" he asked.
Aunt Amy appeared disturbed.
"Mostly in my head--I--I think." She moved restlessly.
Callandar appeared to consider this.
"But I suppose," he said thoughtfully, "that you really feel very little
actual pain. None at all perhaps?"
Aunt Amy admitted that she could not locate any particular pain.
"Weakness is the predominating symptom," went on the doctor. "It is, in
fact, a very simple case. All the more serious, of course, for being so
simple, _if_ we did not understand it. But now that we know exactly what
is wrong we need have no fear."
Aunt Amy's vague eyes began to shine.
"Shall we get the better of them again?" she asked eagerly.
"We certainly shall," kindly. "Miss Esther, I am going to leave some
medicine for your aunt; these little pink tablets. She must have one
every two hours and two at bedtime. When she has taken them for two days
I shall send something else. You will notice an improvement almost at
once. Even in an hour or two, perhaps. By the end of the week all
medicine may be discontinued."
He crushed a little pink tablet in a spoon, mixed it with water, and
watched the old lady while she eagerly swallowed it.
"There!" he exclaimed. "That is the beginning! All we need now is a
little rest and quiet. Nothing to excite the patient and a tablet
regularly every two hours." He arose, affecting not to see Aunt Amy's
grateful tears. "And of course," he added as if by an afterthought,
"_They_ won't know anything about this. They will think that, having
taken the coffee, the result is certain. They will take for granted that
They have finished you, in fact! So cheer up, it is worth a little
illness to be rid of the fear of Them forever."
A lightning flash of hope lit up the worn face upon the pillow. "Oh,
Doctor! Do you really think I am free?"
"Sure of it."
Aunt Amy sank back with a long sigh; her lined face grew suddenly
peaceful. Esther, who had observed the little scene with wonder, said
nothing, but taking the tablets, kissed her Aunt, and led the way out
As they stood together in the hall she could see the amused twinkle in
the doctor's eye.
"I don't like it! You lied to her!"
"So I did," cheerfully.
"These tablets," holding up the glass vial, "what are they?"
"And the medicine which you are going to send later?"
"But she thinks--you gave her to understand that they are the antidote
for the poison which you know does not exist."
"No. They are the antidote for a poison which does exist--medicine for a
"It's--it's like taking advantage of a child."
"So it is, exactly. I suppose you have never taken advantage of a child,
for the child's good?"
"Never told one, gave one to understand, so to speak, that a kiss will
cure a bumped head?"
"Never told your school class during a thunderstorm that lightning never
hurts good children?"
"That's very different."
"And yet all the time you know that lightning falls upon the just and
Esther was silent. The doctor laughed.
"I fear we are both sad story-tellers," he said gaily. "But in Aunt
Amy's case the fibbing will all be charged to my account, you are merely
the nurse. A nurse's duty is to obey orders and not frown (as you are
doing now) upon the doctor. You will find that I shall effect a cure.
Seriously, I do not believe that you have any idea of what that poor
woman has been suffering. If the delusion of living in continual danger
can be lifted in any way even for a time, it will make life over for
her. You would not really allow a scruple to prevent some alleviation of
your Aunt's condition, would you?"
The girl's downcast eyes flashed up to his, startlingly blue.
"No. I would not. I love her. I would tell all the fibs in the world to
help her. But all the time I should have a queer idea that _I_ was doing
wrong. It would be common sense against instinct."
"Against prejudice," he corrected. "The prejudice which always insists
that truth consists in a form of words."
They were now in the cool green light of the living room. Esther stood
with her back to the table, leaning slightly backward, supporting
herself by one hand. She looked tired. There were shadows under her
eyes. The doctor felt an impulse of irritation against the absent mother
who let the girl outwear her strength.
"My advice to you is not to worry," he said abruptly. "You are tired.
More tired than a young girl of your age ought to be. You cannot teach
those imps of Satan--I mean those charming children--all day and come
back to home cares at night. Will it be possible for me to speak to Mrs.
Coombe before I go?"
Watching her keenly he saw that now he had touched the real cause of the
"I am sorry," began Esther, but meeting his look, the prim words of
conventional excuse halted. A little smile curled the end of her lips
and she added, "Since she went out purposely to escape you, it is
"Your mother went out to escape me?" in surprise.
"In your capacity of doctor only. You see," with a certain childish
naivete, "she hasn't seen you yet. And mother dislikes doctors very
much. Oh!" with a hot blush, "you will think we are a queer family,
all of us!"
"It is not at all queer to dislike doctors," he answered her cheerfully.
"I dislike them myself. At the very best they are necessary evils."
"Indeed no! And when one is ill it seems so foolish--"
"Is Mrs. Coombe ill?"
"I don't know. I think so. She has headaches. She is not at all like
herself. I hoped so much that you would meet her this afternoon, and
then she--she went out!"
"And this is really what is troubling you, and not Aunt Amy?"
"Yes. You see, Aunt Amy has been quite all right until the last two
days. But mother--that has been troubling us a long time."
"Almost since father died--a year ago."
"But--don't you think that if Mrs. Coombe were really ill her prejudice
would disappear? People do not suffer from choice, usually."
"No. That is just what puzzles me!" She did indeed look puzzled, very
puzzled and very young.
"If I could help you in any way?" suggested Callandar. "You may be
worrying quite needlessly."
"Do people ever consult you about their mothers behind their mother's
"Often. Why not?"
"Only that it doesn't seem natural. Grown-up people--"
"Are often just as foolish as anybody else!"
"Besides, I doubt if I can make you understand." Now that the ice was
broken Esther's voice was eager. "I know very little of the real trouble
myself. It seems to be just a general state of health. But it varies so.
Sometimes she seems quite well, bright, cheerful, ready for anything!
Then again she is depressed, nervous, irritable. She has desperate
headaches which come on at intervals. They are nervous headaches, she
says, and are so bad that she shuts herself up in her room and will not
let any of us in. She will not eat. I--I don't know very much about
it, you see."
"You know a little more than that, I think, perhaps when you know me
better?--It is, after all, a matter of trusting one's doctor."
"I do trust you. But feelings are so difficult to put into words. And
the greatest dread I have about mother's illness is only a feeling, a
feeling as if I knew, without quite knowing, that the trouble is deeper
than appears. Jane feels it too, so it can't be all imagination. It is
caused, I think, by a change in mother herself. She seems to be growing
into another person--don't laugh!"
"I am not laughing. Please go on."
"Well, one thing more tangible is that the headaches, which seem to mark
a kind of nervous crisis, are becoming more frequent. And the
"But you told me that she took no medicine!"
"Did I? Then I am telling my story very badly. She has some medicine
which she always takes. It is a prescription which my father gave her a
few months before he died. She had a bad attack of some nervous trouble
then which seems to have been the beginning of everything. But that time
she recovered and it was not until after father's death that the
headaches began again. Father's prescription must, long ago, have lost
all effect, or why should the trouble get worse rather than better? But
mother will not hear a word on the subject. She will take that medicine
and nothing else."
"Do you know what the medicine is?"
"No. Father used to fill it for her himself. She says it is a very
difficult prescription and she never has it filled in town, always in
"But why? Taylor, here, is quite capable of filling any prescription. He
is a most capable dispenser."
"Yes--I know. But mother will not believe it."
"And you say it does her no good whatever?"
"She thinks that it does. She has a wonderful belief in it. But she gets
The doctor looked very thoughtful.
"She will not allow you to try any kind of compress for her head?"
"No. She locks her door. And I am sure she suffers, for sometimes when I
have gone up hoping to help I have heard such strange sounds, as if she
were delirious. It frightens me!"
"Does she talk of her illness?"
"Never, and she is furious if I do. She says she is quite well and
indeed no one would think that anything serious was wrong unless they
lived in the house. Any one outside would be sure that I am worrying
needlessly. Am I, do you think?"
"I can't think until I know more. But from what you tell me, it looks as
if this medicine she is taking might have something to do with it. If it
does no good, it probably does harm. Perhaps it was never intended to
be used as she is using it. Otherwise, as you say, the attacks would
diminish. At the same time a blind faith in a certain medicine is not at
all uncommon. One meets it constantly. Also the prejudice against
consulting a physician. It is probable that Mrs. Coombe does not realise
that she is steadily growing worse. Could you let me examine the
"It is kept locked up. But, I might manage it. If I asked her for it she
would certainly refuse. I--I should hate to steal it," miserably.
"I see. Well, try asking first. It is just a question of how far one has
the right to interfere with another's deliberately chosen course of
action. The medicine is probably injurious, even dangerous. I should
warn her, at least. If she will do nothing and you still feel
responsible I should say that you have a moral right to have your own
mind reassured upon the matter."
Esther smiled. "I believe I feel reassured already. Perhaps I have been
foolishly apprehensive and it never occurred to me that the medicine
might be at fault; at the worst I thought it might be useless, not
harmful. If I could only manage to have you see it without _taking_ it!
There must be a way. I'll think of something and let you know."
"Do." The doctor picked up his hat for the second time. He was genuinely
interested. He had not expected to find a problem of any complexity in
sleepy Coombe. The cases of Aunt Amy and the peculiar Mrs. Coombe seemed
to justify his staying on. It was pleasant also to help this charming
young girl--although that, naturally, was a secondary consideration!
Esther ran upstairs with a lightened heart.
"I really could not help being late, Esther! I tried to hurry them but
Mrs. Lewis was there. You know what _she_ is!"
Mrs. Coombe sank gracefully into a veranda chair. Out of the corners of
her eyes she cast a swift glance at the face of her step-daughter and,
as the girl was not looking, permitted herself a tiny smile of malicious
amusement. She was a small woman but one in whom smallness was charm and
not defect. Once she had been exceedingly pretty; she was moderately
pretty still. The narrow oval of her face remained unspoiled but the
small features, once delicately clear, appeared in some strange way to
be blurred and coarsened. The fine grained skin which should have been
delicate and firm had coarsened also and upon close inspection showed
multitudes of tiny lines. Her fluffy hair was very fair, ashy fair
almost, and would have been startlingly lovely only that it, too, was
spoiled by a dryness and lack of gloss which spoke of careless treatment
or ill health, or both. Still, at a little distance, Mary Coombe
appeared a young and attractive woman. The surprise came when one looked
into her eyes. Her eyes did not fit the face at all; they were old eyes,
tired yet restless, and clouded with a peculiar film which robbed them
of all depth. Curiously disturbing eyes they were, like windows with
the blinds down!
If her eyes were restless, her hands were restless too and she kept
snapping the catch of her hand-bag with an irritating click as
"I know I ought to have been here when the doctor called to see Amy,"
she went on, "but I could not get away. Mrs. Lewis talked and talked.
That woman is worse than Tennyson's brook. She makes me want to scream!
I wonder," musingly, "what would happen if I should jump up some day and
scream and scream? I think I'll try it."
"What did Doctor Paragon-what's-his-name say about Amy?"
"He thinks we have been treating Aunt Amy wrongly. He thinks she should
be humoured more. His name is Callandar."
"Callandar? What an odd name! It sounds half-familiar. I must have heard
it somewhere. There is a Dr. Callandar in Montreal, isn't there? A
specialist or something."
"I think this is the same man. But if it is he, doesn't want it known.
He is here for his health, and he has never taken the trouble to correct
the impression that he is a beginner working up a practice. I thought so
myself at first."
"When I first saw him. I have met him several times."
Mrs. Coombe was evidently not sufficiently interested to pursue the
subject. "Whoever he is," she said fretfully, "I hope he is not going to
allow Amy to fancy herself an invalid."
"He is going to cure the fancy."
"Oh!" dubiously. "Well, I hope he does! I find I must run over to
Detroit for a few days."
"It would be provoking to have her ill while I'm away. No one else can
manage Jane properly while you're at school. Where is Jane?"
"I don't know. You are not speaking seriously, are you?"
"I certainly am. At a pinch I suppose I could take Jane with me. She
needs new clothes. But I'd rather not bother with her. Her measure will
do quite as well. I wish you would call her. I've got some butterscotch
somewhere. Here it is." The restless hands fumbled in the hand-bag. "No,
it isn't here, how odd! I promised Jane--"
"Mother, when did you decide to go away?"
"Some time ago. It doesn't matter, does it? I had a letter from Jessica
Bremner to-day. She asks me to come at once. It's in this bag somewhere.
I declare I never can find anything! Anyway, she wants me to come."
"When did you get the letter?"
"On the noon mail, of course."
Esther turned away. She knew very well that there had been no letter
from Detroit on the noon mail. But there seemed no use in saying so.
These little "inaccuracies" were becoming common enough. At first Esther
had exposed and laughed at them as merely humorous mistakes; but that
attitude had long been replaced by a cold disgust which did not scruple
to call things by their right names. She knew very well that Mary Coombe
had developed the habit of lying.
"You see," went on the prevaricator cheerfully, "it would be necessary
to run down to Toronto soon anyway. I haven't a rag fit to wear and
neither has Jane. But Detroit is better. Things are much cheaper across
the line. And easy as anything to smuggle. All you need to do is to wear
them once and swear they're old."
"An oath is nothing? But where is the money coming from?"
Mrs. Coombe shrugged her shoulders. "One can't get along without
clothes! And even if I could, there is another reason for the trip. My
medicine is almost finished. I can't risk being without that."
It was the opportunity for which Esther had waited. She spoke eagerly.
"Why not try getting it filled here? I'm sure they are as careful as
possible at Taylor's."
The hand-bag shut with a particularly emphatic click. Mrs. Coombe rose.
"We have discussed that before," she said coldly. "It is a very
particular prescription and hard to fill. As it means so much to me in
my wretched health to have it exactly right, I am surprised at
Esther put the surprise aside.
"You could get it by mail, couldn't you?"
"I shall not try to get it by mail."
"But Taylor's are absolutely reliable. Why not give them a chance? If it
is not satisfactory I shall never say another word. It seems so
senseless going to Detroit for a few drugs which may be had around the
corner. Perhaps it is not as difficult to fill as you think. Let me show
the prescription to Dr. Callandar--" She stopped suddenly for Mrs.
Coombe had grown white, a pasty white, and she broke in upon the girl's
suggestion with a little inarticulate cry of rage, so uncalled for, so
utterly unexpected, that Esther was frightened. For a moment the film
seemed brushed from the hazel eyes--the blinds were raised and angry
fear peeped out.
"You wouldn't dare!" The words were a mere breath. Then meeting the
girl's look of blank amazement she caught herself from the brink of
hysteria and added more calmly, "What an impossible suggestion! I need
no second opinion upon the remedy which your father prescribed for me
and I shall take none. As for the journey, I shall ask your advice when
I wish it. At present I am capable of managing my own affairs. I shall
come and go as I like."
The would-be firm voice wavered wrathed badly toward the end of this
defiance, but the widely opened eyes were still shining and as she
turned to enter the house, Esther caught a look in them, a gleam of
something very like hate.
"So that is what comes of asking," said Esther sombrely.
She did not follow her step-mother into the house but remained for a
while on the veranda, thinking. It was clearly useless to reopen the
subject of the prescription. For some reason Mrs. Coombe regarded it as
a fetish. She would not trust it to Taylor's. She would not allow a
doctor to see it; there remained only the suggestion of Dr. Callandar
that it be inspected without her consent. Esther knew where the
prescription was kept, but--
Women are supposed, by men, to have a defective sense of loyalty and it
is a belief fairly well established, also among men, that there is a
fundamental difference in the attitude of the sexes to that high thing
called honour. Esther was both loyal and honourable. To deceive her
step-mother, however good the motive, could not but be horrible to her
and just now, being angry with a very young and healthy anger, she was
less willing than ever to lose her own self-respect in the service of
"I won't!" said Esther firmly, and went in to prepare Aunt Amy's supper.
"I don't feel like I ought to be eating upstairs this way," fussed the
invalid as Esther came in with the tray. "I am so much better. That
medicine the doctor gave me helped me right away. He must be a very
smart man, Esther."
"It looks like it, Auntie."
"I don't doubt I'll be around to-morrow just like he said. So I don't
want you staying home from school. That girl you get to take your place
is kind of cross with the children, isn't she?"
"She is strict."
"Well, don't get her. I don't like to think about the children being
scared out of their lives on my account. So I'll just get up as usual. I
could get up now if necessary. And my mind feels better."
"Your _mind_?" Never before had Esther heard Aunt Amy refer to "her"
mind as being in any way troublesome.
"Yes. I suppose you never knew, but sometimes I have felt a little
worried about my mind."
"Whatever for?" The surprise which still lingered on the girl's voice
was balm to Aunt Amy's soul. She laughed nervously.
"Of course it was foolish," she said, "but really there have been times
when I have felt--felt, I can hardly express it, but as if there were a
little something _wrong_, you know. Did you ever guess that I felt like
Aunt Amy shivered. For a moment her faded eyes grew large and dark. "I'm
glad you did not guess it. It is a dreadful feeling, like night and
thunder and no place to go. A black feeling! I used to be afraid I might
get caught in the blackness and never find a way out and then--"
"And then what, dear?"
"Why, then--I'd be mad, Esther!"
"Oh, darling, how awful!" Esther's warm young arms clasped the trembling
old creature close. "You must never, never be afraid again! Why didn't
you tell me and let me help?"
"I couldn't. You would not have believed me. And it would have
frightened you. And you might have told Mary. If Mary knew of it she
would be certain to be frightened and if she was frightened she would
send me away. Then the darkness would get me."
"It never shall, Auntie. No one shall ever send you away! And you won't
be afraid any more, will you?"
"No, not if you don't keep telling me that things I know aren't true. I
know they are true, you see, but when you say they aren't it makes my
head go round."
"We'll be more careful, dear! And here is your medicine before you have
Aunt Amy turned cheerfully to the supper tray.
"Your mother need not be told about it," she observed. "She wouldn't
understand. She was in a while ago to say she hoped I'd be better in the
morning. She is going to the city. What she came for was to ask me to
lend her my ruby ring. She never understands why I can't lend it to her.
I told her she might have the string of pearls and the pearl brooch and
the ring with the little diamonds and anything else except the ruby.
You see, I might die before she got back, and I couldn't die without the
ruby ring on my finger. I promised somebody--I can't remember whom--"
"I know, dear, don't try to remember."
"Mary says it is shameful waste to leave it lying shut up in the box in
my drawer. But it has to lie there. If I took it out now it would stop
shining immediately. And it must be all red and bright when I die, like
a shining star in the dark. Then, afterwards, you can have it, Esther.
You don't mind waiting, do you?"
"Gracious! I hope I'll be an old woman before then! So old that I shan't
care for ruby rings at all."
Aunt Amy looked at the girl's pretty hand wistfully. "I'd like to give
it to you right now, Esther. But you know how it is. I can't. If the red
star did not shine I might lose my way. Some one told me--"
"I know, Auntie. I quite understand. And you have given me so many
pretty things that I don't need the ruby."
"You may have anything else you want. But of course the ruby is the
loveliest of all. If I could only remember who gave it to me--"
"Perhaps you always had it," suggested Esther, hastily, for she knew
quite well the tragic history of the ruby.
"Perhaps. But I don't think so. I love it but I never dare to look at
it. It makes the blackness come so near. Does it make you feel
"No--I don't know--large jewels often give people strange feelings they
"Do they?" hopefully. "Go and look at it now. Don't lift it out of the
box. Just open the lid and look in. Perhaps you will feel something."
Esther went obediently to the drawer where the beautiful jewel had lain
ever since Aunt Amy's arrival. As no one outside knew of its existence
it was considered quite safe to keep it in the house. The box lay in a
corner under a spotless pile of sweet smelling handkerchiefs. Esther
snapped open the lid of the case and looked in. She looked close, closer
still, bending over the open drawer--
"Do you feel anything, Esther?"
The girl's answer came, after a second's pause, in a strained voice.
"The drawer is so dark, I can't tell!"
"Take it to the window," said Aunt Amy.
Esther lifted the case from the drawer and carried it into a better
light. Her eyes were panic-stricken. For her indecision had been only a
ruse to give herself time to think. She had known the moment she opened
the case that the ruby was gone!
"It does make me feel queer," she said, closing the case. "I'll put it
"Is it a black feeling?" with interest.
"I think it is."
"Then you are kin to it," said Aunt Amy sagely. "Your mother never has
any feeling about it at all. Except that she would like to wear it. She
was looking at it when she was in. She was as cross as possible when I
told her she could not take it with her."
Esther gathered up the tea things without a word. Her curved mouth was
set in a hard red line. At the door she paused and turning back as if
upon impulse, said: "If it makes you feel like that, I would advise you
not to look at it, Auntie. It will be quite safe. I'll see to that. I'll
appoint myself 'Guardian of the Ring.'"
Esther carried the tea-tray into the kitchen and stood for a moment
beside the open window letting the sweet air from the garden cool the
colour in her cheeks. Through the doorway into the hall she could see
into the living room where Jane sat at the table in a little yellow pool
of lamplight, busy with her school home work. Farther back, near the
dusk of one of the veranda windows, Mrs. Coombe reclined in an easy
chair. Her eyes were closed; in the half light she looked very pretty,
very fragile; her relaxed pose suggested helplessness. Unconsciously
Esther's innate strength answered to the call; her hard gaze softened.
To apply the terms liar and thief to that dainty figure in the chair
seemed little short of brutality. Mary was weak, that was
At the sound of the girl's step in the doorway Mrs. Coombe opened her
eyes. They were very filmy to-night, blank, contented. Her nervousness
seemed to have left her. Perhaps she was half asleep, for she yawned, an
open, ugly yawn, which she did not trouble to raise her hand to hide.
"I have decided to take Jane with me, Esther."
"I don't want to go," said Jane.
"Well, you are going--that's enough."
"If you have really decided to go," began Esther slowly, "I think you
are wise to take Jane. We cannot tell yet just how Aunt Amy may be."
The child returned to her book with a discontented sigh. Esther came
nearer and spoke in a lower tone. "But before you go," she said, "please
don't forget to replace Aunt Amy's ring. If she were to find it gone it
would be no joke but a serious shock, as I suppose you know."
Mrs. Coombe laughed. And Esther realised that a laugh was the last thing
she had expected. For anger, evasion, denial, she had been prepared.
Mary would probably storm and bluster in her ineffective way--and return
the ring. Instead--
"How did you know I had it?" she asked good humouredly.
"I saw that it was gone."
"And the deduction was obvious? Well, this time you are right. I did
take it. I expect I have a right to borrow my own Aunt's things if she
is too mean to lend them. It's a shame of her to want to keep the only
decent jewel we have shut up. Amy gets more selfish every day."
"But you will put it back before she misses it?"
Mrs. Coombe could see her step-daughter's face quite plainly and its
expression made her wince, but she was reckless to-night. After all, why
pretend? If Esther intended to eternally interfere with her affairs the
sooner an open break came, the better.
"Perhaps, perhaps not. Certainly not until I return from my visit."
Esther fought down her rising dismay.
"Mother, don't you understand what you are doing? The ring is Aunt Amy's
You have no right to take it!"
"I've a right if I choose to make one."
"If Auntie finds out it is not in its box, we cannot tell what the
effect may be!"
"She needn't find out. What she doesn't know won't hurt her!"
"But--it is stealing!"
Mrs. Coombe laughed. "What a baby you are, Esther, for all your solemn
eyes and grown-up airs. Stealing--the idea! Anyway you need not worry
since you are not the thief." She yawned again, rose, and declared that
she felt quite tired enough to go to bed.
When she had gone, Jane left her lessons and came to her sister's side.
"Esther, do I really have to go away with Mother?"
"It looks like it, Janie. But you'll like it. Mrs. Bremner has a little
"I don't like little girls."
"Then you ought to! The change will probably do you good."
Jane looked dubious. "Things that I don't want never do me any good.
Will you help me with my 'rithmetic?"
"I will when I come back."
"Where're you going?"
"Out. I'll not be long. Answer Aunt Amy's bell if it rings, like a dear
Esther's decision had been made, as many important decisions are,
suddenly, and without conscious thought. All the puzzling over what was
right and wrong seemed no longer necessary. Without knowing why, she
knew that it had become imperative to get some good advice and get it at
once. If she had been disturbed and uneasy before, she was frightened
now. Something must be done, if not for Mary's sake at least for the
sake of the honoured name she bore, and for Jane's sake!
"Mother doesn't seem to _know_ when a thing is wrong any more!" was the
burden of the girl's thought as she hurried upstairs.
She knew where the prescription was kept--in a little drawer of her
father's old desk, a drawer supposed to be secret. To-morrow Mary would
take it away with her. Esther opened the drawer without allowing herself
a moment for thought or regret. The paper was there, folded, in its
With a sigh of relief she seized it, hurried to her own room for her hat
and then out into the summer night. A brisk five minute walk brought her
to Mrs. Sykes' gate, and there, for the first time, she hesitated.
"Evening, Esther!" called Mrs. Sykes cheerfully from the veranda. "Come
right along in. Mrs. Coombe told Ann you might be over to borrow the
telescope valise if she decided to take Jane. Rather sudden, her going
away, isn't it? Hadn't heard a word about it until the Ladies' Aid--come
up and sit on the veranda and I'll get it."
"I didn't come for the telescope," said Esther. "I came to see Dr.
"Oh," with renewed interest. "Well, he's in. At least he's in unless he
went out while I was upstairs putting Ann to bed. That's his consulting
room where the light is. It's got a door of its own so folks won't be
tramping up the hall--but of course you know. You were here this
afternoon. Funny, Mrs. Coombe going away with your poor Auntie sick and
all! I suppose it _is_ your Auntie, since it can't be Jane or
"Yes, it is Aunt Amy. She has not been very well."
"The heat, likely. Heat is hard on folks with weak heads. Not that your
Auntie's head ever seems weaker than lots of other folks. Won't you come
up and sit awhile?--Well, ring the bell."
Mrs. Sykes voice trailed off indistinctly as Esther rounded the veranda
corner and stood by the rose bush before the doctor's door. She pushed
the new electric bell timidly.
"You'll have to push harder than that!" called Mrs. Sykes. "It sticks
But the door had opened at once, letting out a flood of yellow light.
"It's Esther Coombe come about her Aunt Amy," called the voice from the
Hastily the doctor drew her in and closed the door with an emphatic
bang. Then for the second time that day they looked into each other's
eyes and laughed.
"Do you think my patients will stand that?" he asked her ruefully.
"Oh, we are used to Mrs. Sykes, we don't mind."
"That's good! Ah, I see you have the mysterious prescription. It wasn't
so hard after all, was it? Probably your mother was quite as anxious
"No, she refused to let me show it you. I took it. To-night was the only
chance, for she is going away to-morrow and will take it with her."
"And how about your Presbyterian conscience?" Still with a twinkle.
"Silenced, for the present. But look at it quickly for the silence may
not last. It seemed that I simply had to help mother, in spite of
herself. And there was no other way. All the same I shall despise myself
when I get time to think."
The doctor took the paper with a smile. "When that time comes I shall
argue with you, though argument rarely affects feeling. To my mind you
are doing an eminently sensible thing."
He opened the paper and peered at it under the lamp; looked quickly up
at the girl's eager face and then from her to the paper again.
"What is it?" she asked anxiously.
"Why--I don't know. Where did you get this?"
"In the secret drawer of father's desk."
"Was the prescription always kept there?"
The doctor folded the paper again and handed it to her. "Does this look
like the prescription?"
"Yes, of course. It is the prescription."
"I'm afraid not. Come and look."
Esther seized the paper eagerly and saw--a neatly written recipe for
Hot and cold with mortification, she stared at it blankly. "I have been
nicely fooled," she said in a low voice.
"Am I permitted to smile, or would it hurt your feelings?"
"It is not at all funny! Of course the real prescription has been
removed. She must have suspected. You see, I asked her to let me have
it. Oh!" with sudden shame and anger. "She guessed that I might take it,
don't you see?"
"I am afraid you are right. But now at least I should think that you
have done your whole duty. It would look as if Mrs. Coombe was herself
aware of the inadvisability of continuing this prescription. Why else
should she be so careful to prevent you showing it to me? At the same
time she is determined to go on using it. We cannot prevent her."
"Can we do nothing?"
"When I see her I shall be better able to judge."
"But she is going away."
"Then we must wait. If it is, as I suspect, a case of disordered nerves
aggravated by improper treatment, the instinct is strongly for
concealment. Do you find, for instance, that Mrs. Coombe is not as frank
in other matters as she used to be?"
A shamed blush crimsoned the girl's cheek, but the doctor's tone was
compelling and she answered in a low voice: "Yes, I think so."
"Don't look like that. It is only a symptom of something rotten in the
"Isn't there such a thing as character?" bluntly.
"As distinct from the nervous system? Some say not. But we do not need
to venture such a devastating belief to know, well, that a dyspeptic is
usually disagreeable. In potential character he may be equal to the
cheeriest man who ever ate a hearty dinner. Think of Carlyle."
"I don't like Carlyle."
"But don't you admire him?"
"No. Do you remember the story of the beggar who picked up his hat one
day and instead of giving him sixpence, Carlyle said, 'Mon, ye may say
ye hae picked up the hat of Thomas Carlyle.'"
The doctor laughed. "Oh he had a guid conceit o' himself--must you go?"
For Esther had risen.
"Yes, thank you. Oh, please do not come with me. It is only a step. I'd
much rather not. Mrs. Sykes would conclude that the whole family were in
danger of immediate extinction."
She was so evidently perturbed that the doctor laid down his hat, but
for the first time it occurred to him that Mrs. Sykes was not an
Esther was holding out her hand.
"Then you think we can safely leave it until mother returns?"
"I think we shall have to, and if things have been going on as long as
you think, a week more or less will make no very material difference. In
any case we cannot examine a lady by force or prevent her from getting a
prescription until one knows it to be dangerous."
"No, of course not. Good-night, and--thank you, Doctor!"
"And I am not to be allowed to walk home with you?"
"Truly, I would rather not."
"Then good-night, and don't worry."
He watched her flit down the dusky path, heard the click of the gate
latch, and turned back into the office to wonder why it seemed suddenly
bare and empty!
Mrs. Coombe had been in the city a week when one morning Ann, who was
feeling lonely without Jane, sat swinging upon the five-barred gate and
whistling intermittently for Bubble. She had become very tired of
waiting. She knew that Bubble could hear. The five-barred gate was
within easy hearing distance of the house, and both doors and windows of
the office were open. Therefore it became each moment more evident that
the whistles were being deliberately ignored.
"Horrid, nasty boy!" exclaimed Ann, climbing to a precarious seat on the
highest of the five bars. "Well, if he waits until I come to get him,
It was very hot on the gate. The vacant field on the other side, where
the Widow Peel pastured her cow, was hot, too, but if one cut across the
field and circled the back of the Widow Peel's cottage one substantially
lessened the distance between oneself and the cool deliciousness of the
river. The Widow Peel was near-sighted and hardly ever noticed one
rushing over her beds of lettuce and carrots and onions, or if she did,
she could not "fit a name to 'em."
Ann sighed and swung her brown legs. Should she or should she not go in
search of Bubble? Going would mean a distasteful swallowing of proper
pride; not going would mean--no Bubble. It would be a case of cutting
off one's nose--Ann's small white teeth came together with a
"I'll go. But I'll pay him out afterwards."
With this thoroughly feminine decision she tumbled off the gate, raced
across the orchard and, having paused a moment to regain breath and
poise, appeared casually at the office door. The office looked cool and
empty; Bubble was not upon his official stool. Perhaps, after all, he
had not heard the whistles! Perhaps--
"What d'ye want?" asked a gruff voice from behind the desk.
Ann jumped, and then tried to look as if she hadn't.
"I knew you were there!" she said. "But just you wait till the doctor
catches you at it!" Mounting the step she frowned across at Bubble who,
in the doctor's favourite attitude, was reclining in the doctor's chair.
"I suppose you think you look like him, but you don't, nor act like him
either. If he was sitting there and a lady came in, he'd be up too quick
for anything. And if the lady was polite and stayed on the doorstep
(just like I am) he would say, 'Pray come in, madam,' and then he'd set
a chair and--"
"Oh, cut it out!" Bubble's dignity collapsed with his attitude. The
tilted chair came down with a bang and its occupant settled himself more
naturally upon a corner of the desk. "Don't bother me! I can't come out.
Doctor's away. Some one's got to attend to business. See those
medicines? Well, don't you go handling them! This here is for Lizzie
Stephens (measles), and that there is for Mrs. Nixon (twins). If they
got mixed I'd be responsible. Run away!"
"Where's the doctor?" asked Ann, ignoring.
"The doctor is out. You needn't wait. He won't be back all day."
"Where'd he go?"
"Little girls mustn't ask questions!"
Ann's small face wrinkled into an elfish grin. "I know where he's gone,"
she said slyly.
"Yes, you do!" This sarcastic comment was Bubble's most emphatic
"Very well, then, I don't."
Not to be outdone, Ann volunteered no further information. She sat down
on the step and waited.
Bubble busied himself with tying up the bottles. Presently he stepped
out from behind the desk.
"Think you can mind the office while I run around with these medicines?"
he asked sternly.
"Sure!" Ann's assent was placid.
"What'll you say if any one comes and asks for the doctor--or me?"
"You're out delivering medicines and the doctor's been called away very
"What'll you tell them if they ask you what he's been called away to?"
"Oh, I'll just say they needn't worry, 'tisn't anything catching."
Bubble allowed his face to relax. He even displayed a grudging
admiration for this feminine diplomacy.
"And you wouldn't be telling lies, either," he remarked approvingly.
"All the same," with a return to gloom, "we can't keep it a secret.
Folks are bound to find out. You can bet your eyes on that!"
Ann nodded. "I expect most of them know by now. Any one that wanted to
could see them. _He_ didn't seem to care. They drove right down the main
street and you could see the picnic basket sticking out at the side!"
"O cricky! Isn't that just like him? You'd think he wanted the whole
town to know he'd gone off picnicking with a girl. But I'd have thought
Esther Coombe would have better sense!"
"It wasn't Esther's fault. She couldn't act as if she was ashamed of
him, could she? When a gentleman asks a lady to go out in his automobile
she can't ask him to drive down the back streets."
"If he had only taken her at night!" groaned the harassed junior
partner. "But no, he must take a whole day off and him with two patients
on his hands. Look at me! Have I ever asked off to go on any picnics?
Not on your tintype. Business is business. Doctors can't fool round like
Ann nodded agreement. Things were coming her way very nicely. She
glanced at the wrathy Bubble out of the corners of her eyes. "I didn't
think he'd be mean like that," she remarked craftily.
"Like what? He isn't mean!"
"To make you stay in all day."
"He didn't. Not him! He gave me fifty cents and told me to take a day
off. 'Just run around with the medicine, Bubble,' says he, 'and then you
can hike it. I have a feeling in my bones,' he says, 'that nobody's
going to die to-day.'"
"A man has a sense of duty for all that."
"Well," rising with a dejected air, "if you're not coming, good-bye. It
will be lovely paddling! Aunt's given me some lettuce sandwiches and two
apple turnovers. One was for you, but I suppose I can eat them both. The
sugar's leaked all round the edge--lovely!"
The stern disciple of business watched her tie on her sun-bonnet with
mingled feelings. It began to look as if she was really going!
"Good-bye," said Ann.
Bubble's red face grew a shade redder.
"Just like a girl!" he said bitterly. "Because a man's got to deliver
two medicine bottles, off she goes and won't wait for him. And the
farthest I've got to go is over to Mrs. Nixon's. The whole thing won't
take five minutes."
Sun-bonnets are splendid things for hiding the face! Had Bubble seen
that slow smile of victory there is no telling what might have happened.
But he did not see it. And Ann was too good a general to exult openly.
Her answer was carefully careless. "I'll wait--if you'll hurry up!"
But the look which she threw after his hastily retreating figure was as
old as Eve.
Meanwhile the doctor and Esther, who had been so criminally careless of
professional appearances as to drive down Main Street with a picnic
basket protruding, were enjoying themselves with an enjoyment peculiar
to careless people. Esther had forgotten about the pile of uncorrected
school exercises which were supposed to form her Saturday's work; the
doctor had forgotten about the measles and the twins. Rain had fallen in
the night and the dust was laid, the trees were intensely green.
Neither of them knew exactly how this pleasant thing had come about,
although, as a matter of crude fact, Mrs. Sykes had played the part of
the god from the machine. This energetic lady had made the doctor's
professional career her peculiar care and it had occurred to her that,
as a resident physician, he was disgracefully ignorant of the
surrounding country. At the same moment she had remembered that
to-morrow was Saturday, and that for trapesing the country and
meandering around in outlandish places there was no one in town equal to
"But," objected the doctor, "I hardly know Miss Coombe well enough to
ask a favour of her."
Mrs. Sykes opined that that didn't matter. "Land sakes," she declared,
"it would be a nice state of affairs if one huming-being couldn't do a
kindness to another without being acquainted a year or two." Besides,