This etext was produced by Eve Sobol.
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Walter de la Mare
“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 shop-window, 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 fellow-wayfarer 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?’
‘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?’
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.
She speedily returned. ‘I have brought the book.’ she said hastily. ‘I could only find the one volume. I have said you have taken a fresh chill. No one will disturb you.’
Lawford took the book without a word. And once more, with eyes stonily averted, his wife left him to his own company and that of the face in the glass.
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.
‘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 well-furnished room could seem. It was his own room too; his best visitors’ room. His father-in-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.’
‘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.
‘Yes, yes.’ he said; ‘I’ll send for Simon at once.’
‘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 pocket-book. ‘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, wide-brimmed 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