Beaumaroy Home from the Wars
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"I've every inclination to be your friend, but I hardly know you, Mr. Beaumaroy."
"And feel a few doubts about me? From what you've heard from myself – and perhaps from others?"
The wind swished outside; save for that, the little room seemed very still. The professional character of the interview did not save it, for Mary Arkroyd, from a sudden and rather unwelcome sense of intimacy – of an intimacy thrust upon her, though not so much by her companion as by circumstances. She answered rather stiffly, "Perhaps I have some doubts."
"You detect – very acutely – that I have a great influence over Mr. Saffron. You ask – very properly – whether he has relations. I think you threw out a feeler about his money affairs – whether he had anything to worry about was your phrase, wasn't it? Am I misinterpreting what was in your mind?"
As he spoke, he offered her a cigarette from a box on the mantelpiece. She took one and lit it at the top of the lamp-chimney; then she sat down again in the big chair; she had not accepted his earlier invitation to resume her seat.
"It was proper for me to put those questions, Mr. Beaumaroy. Mr. Saffron is not a sound man, and he's old. In normal conditions his relations should at least be warned of the position."
"Exactly," Beaumaroy assented, with an appearance of eagerness. "But he hates them. Any suggestion that they have any sort of claim on him raises strong resentment in him. I've known old men – old monied men – like that before, and no doubt you have. Well now, you'll begin to see the difficulty of my position. I'll put the case to you quite bluntly. Suppose Mr. Saffron, having this liking for me, this confidence in me, living here with me alone – except for servants; being, as one might say, exposed to my influence; suppose he took it into his head to make a will in my favour, to leave me all his money. It's quite a considerable sum, so far as our Wednesday doings enable me to judge. Suppose that happened, how should I stand in your opinion, Dr. Arkroyd? But wait a moment still. Suppose that my career has not been very – well, resplendent; that my army record is only so-so; that I've devoted myself to him with remarkable assiduity, as in fact I have; that I might be called, quite plausibly, an adventurer. Well, propounding that will, how should I stand before the world and, if necessary" (he shrugged his shoulders), "the Court?"
Mary sat silent for a moment or two. Beaumaroy knelt down by the fire, rearranged the logs of wood which were smouldering there, and put on a couple more. From that position, looking into the grate, he added, "And the change of doctors? It was he, of course, who insisted on it, but I can see a clever lawyer using that against me too. Can't you, Dr. Arkroyd?"
"I'm sure I wish you hadn't had to make the change!" exclaimed Mary.
"So do I; though, mind you, I'm not pretending that Irechester is a favourite of mine, any more than he is of my old friend's.Still – there it is. I've no right, perhaps, to press my question, but your opinion would be of real value to me."
"I see no reason to think that he's not quite competent to make a will," said Doctor Mary. "And no real reason why he shouldn't prefer you to distant relations whom he dislikes."
"Ah, no real reason; that's what you say! You mean that people would impute – ?"
Mary Arkroyd had her limitations – of experience, of knowledge, of intuition. But she did not lack courage.
"I have given you my professional opinion. It is that, so far as I see, Mr. Saffron is of perfectly sound understanding, and capable of making a valid will. You did me the honour – "
"No, no!" he interrupted in a low but rather strangely vehement protest. "I begged the favour – "
"As you like! The favour, then, of my opinion as your friend, as well as my view as Mr. Saffron's doctor."
Beaumaroy did not rise from his knees, but turned his face towards her; the logs had blazed up, and his eyes looked curiously bright in the glare – themselves, as it were, afire.
"In my opinion a man of sensitive honour would prefer that that will should not be made, Mr. Beaumaroy," said Mary steadily.
Beaumaroy appeared to consider. "I'm a bit posed by that point of view, Dr. Arkroyd," he said at last. "Either the old man's sane —compos mentis, don't you call it? – or he isn't. If he is – "
"I know. But I feel that way about it."
"You'd have to give evidence for me!" He raised his brows and smiled at her.
"There can be undue influence without actual want of mental competence, I think."
"I don't know whether my influence is undue. I believe I'm the only creature alive who cares twopence for the poor old gentleman."
"I know! I know! Mr. Beaumaroy, your position is very difficult. I see that. It really is. But – would you take the money for yourself? Aren't you – well, rather in the position of a trustee?"
"Who for? The hated cousins? What's the reason in that?"
"They may be very good people really. Old men take fancies, as you said yourself. And they may have built on – "
"Stepping into a dead man's shoes? I dare say. Why mayn't I build on it too? Why not my hand against the other fellow's?"
"That's what you learnt from the war! You said so – at Old Place. Captain Naylor said something different."
"Suppose Alec Naylor and I – a hero and a damaged article – " he smiled at Mary, and she smiled back with a sudden enjoyment of the humorous yet bitter tang in his voice – "loved the same woman – and I had a chance of her. Am I to give it up?"
"Really we're getting a long way from medicine, Mr. Beaumaroy!"
"Oh, you're a general practitioner! Wise on all subjects under heaven! Conceive yourself hesitating between him and me – "
Mary laughed frankly. "How absurd you are! If you must go on talking, talk seriously."
"But why am I absurd?"
"Because, if I were a marrying woman – which I'm not – I shouldn't hesitate between you and Captain Naylor, not for a minute."
"You'd jump at me?"
Laughing again – his eyes had now a schoolboy merriment in them – Mary rose from the big chair. "At him, if I'm not being impolite, Mr. Beaumaroy."
They stood face to face. For the first time for several years – Mary's girlhood had not been altogether empty of sentimental episodes – she blushed under a man's glance – because it was a man's. At this event, of which she was acutely conscious and at which she was intensely irritated, she drew herself up, with an attempt to return to her strictly professional manner.
"I don't find you the least impolite, Dr. Arkroyd," said Beaumaroy.
It was impudent, yet gay, dexterous, and elusive enough to avoid reproof. With no more than a little shake of her head and a light, yet embarrassed laugh, Mary moved towards the door, her way lying between the table and an old oak sideboard, which stood against the wall. Some plates, knives, and other articles of the table lay strewn, none too tidily, about it. Beaumaroy followed her, smiling complacently, his hands in his pockets.
Suddenly Mary came to a stop and pointed with her finger at the sideboard, turning her face towards her companion. At the same instant Beaumaroy's right hand shot out from his pocket towards the sideboard, as though to snatch up something from it. Then he drew the hand as swiftly back again; but his eyes watched Mary's with an alert and suspicious gaze. That was for a second only; then his face resumed its amused and nonchalant expression. But the movement of the hand and the look of the eyes had not escaped Mary's attention; her voice betrayed some surprise as she said:
"It's only that I just happened to notice that combination knife-and-fork lying there, and I wondered who – "
The article in question lay among some half-dozen ordinary knives and forks. It was of a kind quite familiar to Doctor Mary from her hospital experience – a fork on one side, a knife-blade on the other – an implement made for people who could command the use of only one hand.
"Surely you've noticed my hand?" He drew his right hand again from the pocket to which he had so quickly returned it. "I used to use that in hospital, when I was bandaged up. But that's a long while ago now, and I can't think why Hooper's left it lying there."
The account was plausible, and entirely the same might now be said of his face and manner. But Mary had seen the dart of his hand and the sudden alertness in his eyes. Her own rested on him for a moment with inquiry – for the first time with a hint of distrust. "I see!" she murmured vaguely, and, turning away from him, pursued her way to the door. Beaumaroy followed her with a queer smile on his lips; he shrugged his shoulders once, very slightly.
A constraint had fallen on Mary. She allowed herself to be escorted to the car and helped into it in silence. Beaumaroy made no effort to force the talk, possibly by reason of the presence of Sergeant Hooper, who had arrived back from the chemist's with the medicine for Mr. Saffron just as Mary and Beaumaroy came out of the hall door. He stood by his bicycle, drawing just a little aside to let them pass, but not far enough to prevent the light from the passage showing up his ill-favoured countenance.
"Well, good-bye, Dr. Arkroyd. I'll see how he is to-morrow, and ask you to be kind enough to call again, if it seems advisable. And a thousand thanks."
"Good night, Mr. Beaumaroy."
She started the car. Beaumaroy walked back to the hall door. Mary glanced behind her once, and saw him standing by it, again framed by the light behind him, as she had seen him on her arrival. But, this time, within the four corners of the same frame was included the forbidding visage of Sergeant Hooper.
Beaumaroy returned to the fire in the parlour; Hooper, leaving his bicycle in the passage, followed him into the room and put the medicine bottle on the table. Smiling at him, Beaumaroy pointed at the combination knife-and-fork.
"Is it your fault or mine that that damned thing's lying there?" he asked.
"Yours," answered the Sergeant, without hesitation and with his habitual surliness. "I cleaned it and put it out for you to lock away, as usual. Suppose you went and forgot it, sir!"
Beaumaroy shook his head in self-condemnation and a humorous dismay. "That's it! I went and forgot it, Sergeant. And I think – I rather think – that Doctor Mary smells a rat – though she is, at present, far from guessing the colour of the animal!"
The words sounded scornful; they were spoken for the Sergeant as well as for himself. He was looking amused and kindly, even rather tenderly amused; as though liking and pity were the emotions which most actively survived his first private conversation with Doctor Mary – in spite of that mishap of the combination knife-and-fork.