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“As his wife,” thought Chester; then trying hard to be perfectly cool, and assuming to be treating his position lightly, he partook of the meal placed before him, and joined in the general conversation, a great deal of which dealt with the popular out-door life of the day – Lord’s, Ascot, the promises of sport in August and September, and the ordinary topics of the hour, all lightly traversed by a party of gentlemen who had ample incomes for their needs, and enjoyed life.
The ladies were increased to three when they took their seats at the table, and Chester soon found that two were the young wives of “Jem” and “Paddy,” the bluff, manly fellow; and all seemed so intent now upon ignoring the trouble and setting their prisoner guest at his ease, that Chester’s manner softened, and before they rose from the table he found himself listening with increasing interest to his neighbour’s remarks.
The excellent meal came at last to an end, and after a few words with Chester’s companion, two of the ladies retired while the housekeeper quietly cleared the table; and as Marion, as they all called her, went to the side of the couch, Jem approached Chester.
“The papers,” he said in the most matter-of-fact way. “Cigars and cigarettes on that table. Spirits and soda or seltzer in the cellarette. Pray make yourself at home, my dear doctor, and name anything you want. It shall be obtained directly – everything, that is, but liberty. Won’t you light up now? My cousin there will not mind; we all smoke. Eh, Marion?”
“I beg that Dr Chester will not hesitate,” said the lady addressed, and Chester drew a deep breath as he saw her cross to the table and fetch a cigarette-box and matches.
“It would be ungracious to refuse,” he said coldly, as he took one, and then the lighted match from the white fingers which offered it, their eyes meeting as he lit his cigarette, and as a slight flush mantled the lady’s cheeks, Chester’s heart gave one heavy throb.
The rest of that night-like day passed in a dream, or a time in which Chester felt as if he were suffering from some form of enchantment. He fought hard against the strange, new, mystic influence, and strove to raise like a shield to protect him, his honour, his word; and again and again as he busied himself with his patient he told himself that he dearly loved Isabel, his betrothed, but this feeling was all as new as it was masterful, and often when he met the eyes of her who never left the couch in her assiduous attentions as nurse, he felt that he was drifting fast into a state of slavery, and that this woman was his fate.
“She is another’s wife,” he kept telling himself; “and I am an utter scoundrel to give way to such thoughts. Heaven help me! I must go before it is too late. Have I been drugged, and has the potent medicament sapped me to the very core?”
But he felt that he could not go as yet, for though it was unnoticed by the others, he saw that a change for the worse had taken place toward evening, at a time when all had left the room but the big, athletic fellow and Marion, they being evidently left on guard while a short rest was taken.
Paddy was sitting back smoking, with his eyes half-closed; but he suddenly roused himself up and came across to the couch.
“How is he getting on?” he whispered.
Chester was silent, and after glancing at him, Marion spoke —
“He is better; sleeping well, and in less pain.”
“Don’t look better,” grunted the young man, and he glanced at his watch.
“Dinner at eight. Like to go and lie down, Marion?”
“No,” was the quiet reply.
“All right,” said the young man, and he walked back to his seat, while Marion waited for a few moments, and then, gazing wistfully at Chester, said in a low whisper —
“You did not speak. He is better, is he not?”
The young doctor made no reply, but sat there breathing hard, as if fascinated.
“I cannot tell you how grateful I feel to you,” she continued. “Your coming here has saved poor dear Robert’s life. I know how strange it all must seem to you, but I – we dare not let you go. It is such a terrible emergency.”
“Yes,” he said softly, “and I have done my best.”
“But I cannot help reading it in your eyes, doctor – you are thinking of leaving.”
He started slightly, and then turned his eyes to his patient so as to avoid the gaze which held him in spite of the mental struggle against what seemed to be fate.
“Well,” he said, as he laid his hand upon the sufferer’s brow, “I am. Is it not natural? Yes,” he whispered hoarsely, “by some means I must and will leave this house to-night.”
Her face grew convulsed, and for a few moments she was silent. Then in a low, impassioned whisper, she reached across the couch to lay her hand upon his arm, the contact seeming to send a hot flush through every nerve, and he turned to gaze at her with a look half horror, half delight.
“And you hold his life in your hands,” she murmured piteously. “What can I say? – what can I do to move you? Doctor, he is everything to me in this world. If he – died, I could not live.”
“For Heaven’s sake, don’t look at me – don’t speak to me like that!” he whispered back, and he took her hand to remove it from his arm, shivering as if it were some venomous thing; but it turned and clung to his fast, and was joined by the other. “Madam, I have done, and am doing, everything I can to save your husband’s life, and – ”
He ceased speaking, for he saw her lips part in a smile, and her wild eyes grew soft and humid, as, with a little laugh, she said —
“Dearest Rob! My husband!” Then she loosed the hand she held, laid hers upon the head of the couch, and bending down she softly pressed her lips against the patient’s brow, while a feeling of bitter jealousy sent the blood surging through Chester’s brain, till the eyes were turned again to his, and, with a look that sent every forming manly intention flying to the winds, she said softly —
“Why did you think that? Doctor, for a poor, pleading woman’s sake, give up all thought of going. I could not bear it. There – look – his face is growing convulsed,” she whispered in a quick, agitated tone, “And you talk of going! He is dying. Robert! Robert! Oh, doctor, do you not see?”
Aunt Grace Sows the Seed of Discontent
Laura Chester possessed what her aunt termed a bad habit.
“You are so restless, my dear,” said that lady. “Why can’t you stay in your bed of a morning, and then come down at a Christian-like hour?”
“Nine o’clock, aunt dear,” said the girl, smiling.
“Well, say a quarter to, my dear, because that gives ample time to ring for the urn and make the tea, though nine is really a very nice hour. It is not right for a young lady to be racing downstairs before seven o’clock and dusting; and I do not really like for you to be going out for walks at such early hours.”
“London is at its best before breakfast, aunt; everything looks so fresh and bright.”
“What nonsense, my dear! Nothing of the kind. The steps are not cleaned, and there is nobody about but sweeps and dustmen, and milk carts.”
“Oh yes, aunt dear,” cried Laura, merrily. “London is very busy then, and I wish I could get you to come. Covent Garden is lovely quite early with the flowers and fruit.”
“My dear Laura, to hear you talk anyone would think your poor dear papa had been a greengrocer. Pray, do, my dear, try and give up the bad habit. I really don’t know what Isabel must think.”
But the habit only grew stronger, and on the morning after her brother’s sudden call, Laura slipped out while cook was cleaning the steps and went off to Covent Garden to return with a bunch of roses and a basket of strawberries which had been picked that morning nine miles down the western road.
The breakfast was ready, and she was giving the last touches to her arrangement of flowers and fruit upon the table when Isabel joined her, looking as fresh as the flowers in the little shallow bowl.
“Oh, Laury, I am so ashamed at being so late,” she cried, after an affectionate kiss had been exchanged. “I was afraid I was last.”
“Oh no, dear; auntie is not down,” said Laura, glancing at the clock. “She’ll be ten minutes yet.”
“Is she always so punctual?”
“Yes. She does not leave her room till the church clock begins to strike. She is very proud of being so exact.”
“Is – is – ”
“Fred down? No, dear. There! don’t blush, goosey. I expect he was kept late last night, and he loses so much rest, that we never disturb him. He has his breakfast at all sorts of times, but it will be at nine this morning.”
This was accompanied by an arch look.
“Oh, how sweet the flowers are!” cried Isabel, turning away to hide the heightened colour in her cheeks.
“Yes, dear,” said Laura, banteringly, “and life now is all roses and sweets, and the sky was never so blue, and the London sparrows’ ‘chiswick, chiswick’ sounds like the song of nightingales, doesn’t it? Heigho! I wish I were in love, and someone loved me, and put his arm round my waist and took me for walks along the primrose path of dalliance.”
There was a light step behind her, two arms were passed about her waist, a soft, white chin rested upon her shoulder, and a rounded cheek was pressed to hers.
“Don’t tease me, Laury darling,” was whispered. “I can’t help feeling all you say, and looking very weak and stupid now.”
“Tease you, my own sweet!” cried Laura, swinging round to embrace in turn. “No, of course I won’t. It’s only my nasty envy, hatred and malice, because I can’t be as happy as you. There – and there – and there!”
Three kisses, and Isabel started away.
“Fred’s coming!” she whispered.
“No. That’s auntie’s soft, pudgy step. Fred comes down thump, thump, like a wooden-legged man.”
“Oh, well, he doesn’t notice where he’s going. He’s always thinking of operations and that sort of thing. Good-morning, aunt dear.”
“Good-morning, Isabel, my child – morning, Laura.”
“Aren’t you well, dear? You look so serious.”
“Yes, Laura, I look serious. It’s a sad world.”
The girls exchanged glances, and with melancholy mien the old lady rang the bell for breakfast, and then dropped into her seat with a weary sigh.
“No letters, Laura?”
“No, aunt dear. There’s a lovely rose instead.”
“Thank you, Laura. Dear, dear! no one writes to me now. I don’t know why one should go on living when one grows old.”
“Because Fred and I want you, dear,” cried Laura, merrily, “and Bel too. Put two more spoonfuls in the pot, aunt dear. A hot cup of tea will do you good.”
“Nothing will ever do me good again,” sighed the old lady, shaking her head mournfully.
“Oh yes, it will, dear; and Fred likes his tea strong.”
“Yes, yes, very strong, my dear; and always preaches at me if I take it only just coloured. I sometimes think it’s because he thinks I cost too much.”
“Now, auntie, how can you?” cried Laura. “Don’t you believe her, Bel.”
“I do not,” said the girl, smiling. “Poor aunt is not well this morning.”
“How can I be, my child, knowing as I do that my little bit of property is slowly wasting away, and – ”
“Here’s the urn, aunt,” cried Laura. “Shall I make the tea?”
“Certainly not, my dear. Let me, pray, enjoy the last few privileges of my age while I am here. I do not mean in this house, Isabel, my child, but living out my last weary span.”
“Auntie darling,” said Laura, tenderly, getting up as soon as the maid had placed tea-urn and covered dishes upon the table, “don’t be so miserable this morning now that dear Bel is here,” and she kissed the old lady lovingly.
“How can I help it, my child? It is her being here makes me feel so bad.”
“Oh, my dear Mrs Crane!” cried Isabel.
“Worse and worse!” sobbed the old lady, melting into tears. “I did think you were softening to me, and would end by loving me and always calling me aunt – Mrs Crane!”
“Aunt – auntie! There!” cried Isabel, running to her and kissing her. “But I think it is I who ought to complain.”
“Yes, my dear, you ought.”
“You shouldn’t say I make you bad.”
“But you do, my dear. It’s all on your account. It’s dreadful, and I lay awake nearly all the night pitying you.”
“Pitying me when I am so happy, auntie?” cried Isabel.
“Ah, my child! you don’t know. All men are full of evil, but doctors are the worst of all.”
“There, Bel; you are going to marry a horrid wretch,” cried Laura.
“Don’t scoff, my dear,” continued the old lady. “It is too serious. They are always away from home – called at the most unearthly hours.”
“Yes, to do good, auntie,” said Isabel, smiling.
“And auntie won’t do good when she might Aunt, Isabel and I are dying for some tea.”
“Yes, yes, my dear; I’ll pour it out directly.”
“Wait a moment, aunt,” cried Laura. “I’ll go and ask Fred if he is coming down.”
“Go and ask Fred, my dear? He is not at home.”
“What!” cried the two girls in a breath.
“He has not come back yet. I lay awake hour after hour listening, with my door a little way open – I can hear the latch-key then – but – he did not come.”
Laura glanced at her visitor, and saw trouble coming in her face like a cloud. “Oh, well, aunt, dear, it is not the first time.”
“No, my dear,” said the old lady, tightening her lips as she dropped a lump of sugar outside a cup; “it is not the first time by a long way, and I don’t like it.”
“Neither does Fred, I’m sure, poor fellow!” cried Laura, helping the ham and eggs. “It is some serious case, Bel dear, and he’ll come back tired out for you to comfort him up. You’ll often have it to do, for, poor boy, he is called out a great deal.”
At that moment Aunt Grace let the sugar-tongs fell with a clatter among the cups, and burst into a fit of sobbing.
“Aunt dear!” cried Laura, jumping up to go to her side again; “what is the matter?”
“I don’t like it, my dear. His being out like that.”
“Well, Fred doesn’t either.”
“Ah, but that’s it. He does, and it’s horrible; and I will not sit still and see him deceive this poor, dear lamb.”
“Mrs Crane!” cried Isabel, sitting up flushed with indignation.
“I can’t help it, my dear. I should be a wicked woman if I did not speak. I watched last night, and I saw her. One of those horridly handsome, fashionable-looking ladies, and she carried him off just as if she were leading him by a chain. I can’t help it! I had a presentiment then, and I’m obliged to speak. He hasn’t come back, and I felt he would not, and as sure as I’m alive he’ll never come back again.”
“Aunt!” cried Laura, passionately. “Shame – Bel dear, don’t take any notice of her.”
But her words had no effect. Isabel had risen with her face scarlet, then turning white as her lips parted to utter an indignant rebuke.
No words came, and covering her face with her hand she hurried out of the room.
“Auntie!” cried Laura, passionately. “See what you’ve done. You’re right. It’s quite time you made up your mind to die.”
As Chester turned and gazed in his patient’s face, he felt that all was over: and at that moment Paddy, startled by Marion’s excited words, rushed across and caught his arm.
“Is he going?”
“Yes,” cried Marion, passionately, “and he has been murdered. Rob, Rob, my own darling, don’t, don’t leave me here to this! Rob! I cannot bear it! Dr Chester! for pity’s sake! Oh, do something! Help!”
“Hush! You are hindering me,” said Chester, sternly – himself once more. “The brandy! You – you – madam, use your fan rapidly. Is there no air to be got into this wretched prison? That’s right. Raise his head a little more. That’s better. Be calm, both of you. Everything depends upon that.”
“But he is dying – he is dying!” wailed Marion.
“Be silent, madam, and obey my orders,” whispered Chester, angrily, and the desperate fight went on. Desperate indeed it seemed to the doctor, and he fought as he had never fought before. But for some time every breath the poor fellow drew, feebly and painfully, seemed to her who watched him, with staring eyes, his very last.
They were alone with him for quite an hour, before the old housekeeper came in, to grasp at once what was wrong, and hurry to the couch.
“Oh, my child, why did you not ring for me?” she cried.
“Hush! Silence!” said the doctor, sternly. “The paroxysm has exhausted itself. With perfect quiet he may yet live.”
His hand was caught by Marion and passionately kissed, before she sank, half-fainting, in the old housekeeper’s arms.
Paddy went in and out on tip-toe, his action suggesting always that he was doing something in silence for a wager; and twice over his brother came in as the hours slipped past, but only to be sternly ordered to go by the doctor, who was then alone with Marion and the wounded man.
“But hang it all, sir!” he protested, “am I not to do what I like in my own house?”
“No, not while I am in charge of my patient.”
“But – ”
“Look here, sir, I will not be answerable for his life if you stay,” whispered Chester, sharply.
The intruder bit his lips and glanced at Marion, then at the doctor and back. There was a world of meaning in his eyes, but Chester was too dreamy then to interpret it, and the man went away, but only for the far door to be re-opened and Paddy to make his appearance.
Marion uttered a sign of annoyance, and hurried to meet him.
“You must not stay, Paddy,” she whispered. “It is so important that Robert should be kept quiet.”
“All right,” he said. “I didn’t want to come, but Jem sent me. He doesn’t like your being alone with the doctor.”
An angry frown darkened Marion’s face.
“Go,” she said firmly. “Paddy, I think he will live now.”
“Thank God!” cried the young fellow, fervently. “But, I say, if I go I’m pretty sure that Jem will come himself. He as good as said so.”
“Stop him, then, and tell him to go to his wife.”
Paddy shrugged his shoulders.
“You know what he is.”
“Yes,” said Marion, bitterly, “I know what he is,” and she pointed towards the couch. “We know what he is. Now go.”
“All right; but you want something. They’ve got some dinner or supper yonder; come and have a bit.”
“Then I’ll have some sent in.”
“I don’t want anything. Tell them to send something for the doctor.”
But almost as she spoke the door was softly opened, and the old housekeeper appeared with a tray.
One long dream, in a strangely protracted night, as it appeared to Chester – a night in which the world seemed to be halting during a singular delirium. Time stood still apparently for both nurse and doctor, who hardly left the room, but were waited on by the housekeeper and the two ladies, who came in and out softly, each offering to take Marion’s place; but she invariably refused.
Nature grew stern at times towards the watchers at the wounded man’s side, and sometimes one, sometimes the other, sank suddenly into a deep sleep, during which, whether it were one hour or many, the other remained perfectly awake and watchful.
And day after day, night after night, the dual fight went on – the fight with death and that with honour. There were times when Fred Chester seemed to be winning in both encounters, but as often he felt that his patient was slowly slipping away from him, as he himself was lapsing from all that he ought to have held dear.
Everything was, in the latter case, against him. Forced into close contact with the woman who had so strangely influenced him from the first moment of their meeting, with her eyes constantly seeking his appealingly as the sufferer’s life rose and fell – flickering like the flame of an expiring candle, he felt that his position was too hard for man to bear. He owned himself weak, pitiful and contemptible, but as he struggled on he felt himself drifting hopelessly away, and that, come what might, he was to become this woman’s slave.
One day was like that which followed, in its wild delirium and strangeness. Chester had almost lost count of the time which had elapsed, and grew startled at last as the feeling was impressed upon him that the precautions taken by those around had grown unnecessary and that if the door had stood open he would not now have attempted to escape. A strange thrall held him more than locks and bars, and he was ready to sacrifice everything to stay there by Marion’s side and fight the grim Shade till it was defeated and he had won her gratitude and love.
The great trouble Chester had to fight was the succession of strange convulsive fits which attacked his patient, each of which seemed to have snapped the frail thread which held the wounded man to life; but as they passed off the flame flickered up again, and the struggle recommenced.
At last came the day when, hopeless and despondent, Chester bent over to dress the wound, feeling that the struggle had been all in vain, and that his skill was far less than he had believed.
The old housekeeper was waiting upon him, and Marion had, at his request, gone to the other end of the room.
“You unnerve me,” he whispered.
She looked at him reproachfully, and went away without a word, to seat herself with her arm on the side of a chair, her hand supporting her brow.
As a rule, the sufferer had made no sign during the opening and rebandaging, but this time he winced sharply at every touch, and the old housekeeper looked up questioningly.
“Is that a bad sign?” she whispered, with her face all drawn and ghastly with fear.ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
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