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“Certainly, if you like, sir,” replied the young man, with a little laugh, “but I’m afraid I can’t tell you.”
Chester felt nettled and turned to the lady in the centre, who sat looking over the back of her chair.
“Perhaps Miss Marion Clareborough will tell me how her brother is progressing?”
“Dennis,” said one of the ladies, before any reply could be made, “is this a friend of yours? If so, introduce us.”
“Friend of mine? Hang it, no! Gentleman has got into the wrong box. Never saw him before in my life. What number did you want, sir?”
“This,” said Chester, sternly, as he looked the young man fiercely in the eyes. “Perhaps Miss Clareborough will speak. Believe me, I took great interest in your brother’s case. Can I see him again?”
The lady he addressed turned to one of her companions and whispered a few words, whereupon Mrs James said coldly —
“Will you help this gentleman to find the box he is in search of, Dennis? The place is so dark now the curtain is down, and he does not see the mistake he has made.”
“No, that’s it,” said the young man. “Ah, here you are, then, at last,” he cried, as the entrance was darkened by another figure. “Come in. This gentleman wants to find some friends of his, and he has come to this box by mistake.”
“Indeed!” and Chester at that one word felt the blood surge up to his temples, and a fierce sensation of passion began to make his nerves tingle.
“Well,” continued the speaker, “it’s very easy, dear boy. Places are so confoundedly dark. Couldn’t get here sooner, girls; man detained me at the club – I beg pardon, sir; the box-keeper could no doubt help you.”
The cool, contemptuous manner of the man took away Chester’s breath, and he felt himself almost compelled to give place.
“Thanks, much,” said the newcomer, drawing slightly aside for Chester to back out. “Don’t apologise. They ought to light up the house more when the curtain is down.”
The next moment the door was thrust to, the catch snapped, and as Chester stood there, undecided what to do, he could hear the voices within carrying on a conversation which sounded so calm and matter-of-fact that in his excited state the listener asked himself whether he was in his right senses, and at last hurried away, to pause in the refreshment-room and drink off a glass of brandy to steady his nerves.
He did not return to his seat in the stalls, but stopped in the entry, where, invisible in the gloom, partially hidden by one of the curtains, he stood using his glass upon the occupants of the box he had so lately quitted.
As he stood there, feeling half stunned, he went over the words that had passed and the action of the inmates, forgetting that all was quite consistent with the conduct he might have expected from people whose whole behaviour had been mysterious and strange.
At last he saw a movement among those he was watching, and, desperate almost with rage and despair, he hurried round to station himself in the lobby, where he felt certain that the party must pass.
But they were so long in coming that he was about to seek another doorway.
Then he saw that he was right, for the big, bluff-looking brother and cousin came by without seeing him, spoke to the footman Chester had seen at the house, and then returned, as if to join their party.
A few minutes later they came out slowly amongst the crowd, the tide turning them quite to the outside, so that they were close to him who watched them intently, as if in doubt of his own sanity, wondering whether he could have made any mistake.
“No,” he whispered to himself, as he fixed his eyes on the beautiful woman, upon whose arm he could have laid his hand, so close was she to him as she passed.
It was as if his steady gaze influenced her, for when she was just abreast she turned her head quickly, and her eyes met his full as she rested her hand upon the stalwart young fellow’s arm.
Chester’s look seemed to fascinate her, for her eyes were fixed and strange in those brief moments. Then she passed on, gazing straight before her. There was no start, no sign of the slightest emotion. It was simply the inquiring look of one who seemed to fancy he was the personage who had made his appearance in their box, otherwise one whom she had never before seen.
The impulse was strong upon Chester to follow, but for quite a minute he stood feeling as if he had been stunned.
Then, with a strange, harsh utterance, he forced himself roughly through the well-dressed crowd in his endeavours to follow the party, but weeks of anxiety and abnormal excitement were taking their toll at last; a sudden giddiness attacked him, and with a heavy groan he reeled and fell in the midst of the pleasure-seeking throng.
Aunt Grace’s Cure
Chester was borne into the box-office, and a medical man sent for, under whose ministrations he recovered consciousness, and soon after was able to declare who he was and his ability to return home unaided.
In the short conversation, the doctor, upon learning that his patient was a fellow-practitioner, took upon himself to utter a few words of warning.
“Mustn’t trifle with this sort of thing, my friend,” he said. “You know that as well as I can tell you, eh?”
“Yes, yes,” said Chester, irritably; “I’ll take more care. I have been over-doing it lately, but,” he added, with a curious laugh, “you see I was taking a little relaxation to-night.”
“Humph! Yes, I see,” said the doctor, watching him curiously. “Well, you feel that you can go home alone?”
“Oh yes; see me into a cab, please. Thanks for all you have done. Only a touch of vertigo.”
“‘Only a touch of vertigo,’” said the strange doctor, as he saw the hansom driven off. “‘Only a touch of vertigo’ means sometimes the first step towards a lunatic asylum.”
“Ah!” muttered Chester, while being driven homewards, “people look at me as if I were going wrong in my head. I wonder whether I am.”
He laughed as he let himself in and heard a rustle on the stairs. “Watching again,” he said to himself. “And they think I’m going wrong, I suppose. But how strange! That utter denial of all knowledge of me. Even she!”
He went into his room, and sat thinking of the incidents of the day and evening for some hours before throwing himself upon his bed, but was down at the usual time in the morning, partook of the unsocial breakfast and rose almost without saying a word.
“Yes, what is it?” said Chester, sharply, for Laura hurried to his side and laid her hand upon his arm. “Money for housekeeping?”
“No – no!” cried his sister, angrily, and there she paused.
“Well, speak, then; don’t stop me. I am busy this morning.”
“I must stop you, Fred,” cried Laura, passionately. “We cannot go on like this.”
“Why?” he said calmly. “Because we are brother and sister. We have always been as one together. You have had no secrets from me. I have had none from you. I have always been so proud of my brother’s love for me, but now all at once everything comes to an end. You withhold your confidence.”
“No; my confidence, perhaps, for the time being,” he said gravely; “not my love from you. God forbid.”
“But you do, Fred.”
“No; it is more the other way on,” he replied. “You have withheld your love from me, and checked any disposition I might have felt to confide in you.”
“Don’t deny it,” he said quietly. “Since I was called away so strangely, and kept away against my will – ”
“Against your will!” cried Laura, scornfully.
“Hah!” he cried, “it is of no use to argue with you, my child. Poor old aunt has so thoroughly imbued you with her doctrines of suspicion that everything I say will be in vain.”
“Imbued me with her suspicions!” cried Laura, angrily. “That is it; because I am quite a girl still you treat me as if I were a child. Do you – oh, I cannot say it! – yes, I will; I am your sister, and it is my duty to try and save you from something which will cause you regret to the end of your days. Do you dare to deny that you have got into some wretched entanglement – something which has suddenly turned you half mad?”
“No,” he said quietly. “That is so.”
“Then how can you go on like this? You have broken poor Isabel’s heart, estranged everybody’s love from you, and are running headlong to ruin. Fred – brother, for all our sakes, stop before it is too late.”
He looked at her mournfully, took her hand and kissed it, and with a passionate burst of sobbing she flung her arms about his neck and clung there.
“Then you do repent, Fred? You will go there no more. Listen, dear; I forgive you everything now, because you are going to be my true, brave, noble brother again, and after a time – some day – Isabel will forgive you too; for she does love you still, Fred, in spite of all. There – there,” she cried, kissing him again and again, “it is all over now.”
Chester loosened her hands from his neck and shook his head sadly.
“No, Laury,” he said, “it is not all over now.”
“What!” she cried quickly. “You will not – you cannot go back now.”
“Yes,” he said, “even if you do not forgive me, I must.”
“Look here, little one,” he said wearily; “you have grown to think and act like a woman, and you complain that I do not confide in you. Well, I will be frank with you to some extent. Laura dear, I am not my own master. I cannot do as you wish.”
“Fred, you must.”
“Say that to some poor creature who is smitten with a terrible mental complaint; tell him he must be ill no longer, but cast off the ailment. What will he reply?”
He paused for an answer, but his sister stood gazing at him without a word.
“He will tell you that he would do so gladly, but that it is impossible.”
“But this is not impossible, Fred,” cried Laura; “and you are again treating me like a child. Yes, I have begun to think like a woman, and though it may sound shameless I will speak out. Do you think that we do not know that all this is wicked dissipation?”
He laughed bitterly, as he pressed his hand to his weary head.
“You do not know – you do not know.”
“Yes,” cried Laura, embracing him again; “I know that my poor brother has yielded to some temptation, but I know, too, that it only needs a strong, brave, manly effort to throw it all off; and then we might be happy once more.”
He took her face between his hands and looked down at her lovingly for a few minutes, then kissed her brow tenderly.
“No,” he said; “you do not understand, my child. I am not master of my actions now.”
He hurried from the room. Then she heard the door close, and his footsteps hurrying up the stairs followed by the banging of his door.
“Lost, lost!” she wailed; and she threw herself sobbing upon the couch.
“Well!” said a sharp voice, and the girl started up and tried hard to remove all traces of her tears.
“I did not hear you come in, aunt dear.”
“Perhaps not, my love, but I have been waiting and listening. Well, what does he say about coming home in that state last night? I’m sure, my dear, that was wine! Is he going to be a good boy now?”
Laura uttered a passionate sob.
“Oh no, aunt, oh no!” she cried.
“Because if he is and will repent very seriously, I may some day, perhaps, forgive him. But I must have full assurance that he is really sorry for all his wickedness. What did he say, child?”
“Nothing, aunt. It is hopeless – hopeless.”
“Then I was right at first. He has gone quite out of his mind, and I fully believe that it is our duty to have him put under restraint.”
“Aunt!” cried Laura, wildly.
“Yes, my dear. That is the only cure for such a complaint as his. A private asylum, Laury dear.”
“Oh, aunt, impossible! How can you say anything so horrible?”
“My dearest child, nothing can be horrible that is to do a person good. It is quite evident to me that he can no longer control his actions.”
“No, he said so,” sobbed Laura.
“Hah! I knew I was right. Well, then, my dear, we must think it over seriously. You see, the weakness must have come on suddenly. How, he and somebody else best know,” said the lady, with asperity. “You see, attacks like that are only temporary, and his would, I am sure, yield to proper treatment. Now let me see what ought to be the first steps? This is a valuable practice, if he has not completely wrecked it by his wicked dissipation, and I think it ought to be our first duty, my dear, to get a permanent locum tenens– a man of some eminence, who might be induced to come if some hope were held out to him of a future partnership. Then we could consult him about what to do, for I believe certificates have to be obtained before a patient is sent to an asylum.”
“Aunt! Are you going mad too?” cried Laura, angrily.
“Laura! my child!”
“Well, then, you should not say such horrid things about Fred. Consult a perfect stranger about putting him into a lunatic asylum! Oh, shame!”
“Shame to you, Laura, for daring to speak to me as you do. Do you want him to have one of those what-do-you-call-thems? – Para-para-para-dox – no, no, paroxysms; and then do as mad people always do, turn against those they love best? Do you want him to come some night and murder us both in our beds?”
“No, aunt, of course not,” said Laura, growing more cool and matter-of-fact now.
“Then do not from any false sentiment begin to oppose me. A few months under proper treatment in a good private asylum, and he would come back completely strengthened and cured. Now, let me see; I think under the circumstances that we ought first of all, my dear, to take poor dear Isabel into our confidences.”
“Aunt!” cried Laura; “if you dare to tell Isabel that you think such a dreadful thing of poor Fred I don’t know what I will not do.”
“Dare, Laura, dare?” said Aunt Grace, sternly.
“Yes, aunt, dare!” cried the girl. “If you do I’ll tell poor Bel that it is one of your hallucinations, and that you have got softening of the brain.”
“Laura!” shrieked the old lady, as she sank back in the nearest chair. “Oh, that I should live to hear such words! You horrible, abandoned child!”
“I’m very sorry, auntie,” said Laura, coolly, “but you always impressed upon me that I should tell the truth. You must be getting imbecile, or you would never have proposed such a dreadful thing.”
“Yes, aunt; it is a sign, too, that you know it is coming on. You must have been thinking of madhouses, and that made you speak.”
“Worse and worse!” wailed the old lady. “You must be getting as bad as your brother. Actually siding with him now!”
“No, aunt, only pitying him, for I am beginning to believe that he is suffering worse than we are.”
A Dangerous Case
“It’s all over,” said Chester to himself. “That doctor’s correct, and I must not trifle or I shall be laid by with something wrong in the head. That drugging began it, and I’m not right. I won’t give up the quest, but I must get square first, and I can’t do so here. I’ll pack up and go on the Continent for a bit. Change may make me able to think consistently. Now my brain is in a whirl.”
He tried to reason calmly, and at last, not feeling in the humour to see and explain to his sister, he wrote to her briefly, telling her that the anxiety and worry of the case to which he had been called that night had completely unhinged him, and he found that the only thing he could do to recover his tone was to get right away for a time. He was going, he said, to see a colleague that morning, who would come and take charge of the practice, and he would write again from abroad.
This done, he fastened down the envelope and left the letter upon the table, after which he went to his room, threw a few necessaries into a portmanteau, brought it down, with Aunt Grace carefully watching from the top of the staircase, and sent the servant for a cab.
Five minutes later he was on his way to his club to consult the time-tables and guide-book as to the route to take.
He was not long in deciding upon Tyrol as the starting-place for a long mountain tramp. There was a train at night, and without returning home he would dine at the club and start from there.
He followed out the earlier portion of his programme, even to dining at the club, but afterwards, upon entering the smoking-room and taking a cigar, he found the place half full, and, longing for solitude, he went out to stroll down the steps and into the Park for an hour, ending by taking one of the seats under an old elm in the Mall and sitting back thinking of all that had happened during the past few weeks.
He was once more going over the scenes by the wounded man’s couch, and seeing again the every movement and look of his anxious sister, when he shrank back against the trunk of the great tree and let his chin sink upon his breast, for there were steps just to the right, and two gentlemen strolled by, one of them talking aloud angrily, and the following words smote like blows upon the listener’s ears —
“Look here, if you want to quarrel, say so, Paddy. But you’re no saint, so don’t you begin preaching morality. I repeat I have taken a tremendous fancy to her; what then? As for Rob, curse him for a miserable prig! If it were not for the consequences I’m ready to wish that the shot had ended it, and I swear I’ll – ”
The last words died out into the night air, and, save for the preternaturally excited state of his brain, Chester would not have heard so much.
He sat up, and saw the figures of the brothers, who had passed him, growing indistinct as they went beyond the next lamp; and then he rose and followed.
“‘And I swear I’ll – ’ what?” said Chester to himself. “Shoot me? Well, let him. There, it’s all over. I can’t go away; I must see this out to the very end.”
Chester followed the pair with the full intention of demanding an explanation and having a scene with the elder brother, for his resentment seemed to be making the blood bubble up through his veins. They were walking through the Palace Yard, and directly after they crossed the road and went up St James’s Street, talking angrily; and he was just about to join them when he saw the younger turn angrily off into the road, as if about to separate, but in an instant the elder had him by the arm and after a faint resistance led him back on to the pavement, where Chester was awaiting them.
“Mr Clareborough,” he said sharply, and both brothers turned upon him in surprise.
“Yes; what is it?” cried the elder. “Oh, the man in the wrong box! Come along, boy.”
He turned short off, and before Chester could recover from his surprise, the brothers had passed through the swinging doors of one of the clubhouses and disappeared in the great hall.
Chester was about to follow, but checked himself upon the threshold as the question arose in his mind, What for?
To demand an explanation of their conduct toward him.
Well, he felt that he might demand it, but he knew that they would preserve the same attitude as before, and treat him with contempt – treat him as if he were some half-witted being who claimed acquaintance; and how could he get people to believe in his strange story – how could he advance his position with respect to Marion?
He calmed down as quickly as he had grown excited and began to feel that to force a quarrel in the club to which these men belonged could have but one ending, that of the police being called in and his being ejected.
“And what then?” he asked himself. “Possibly the whole business would be dragged into the police court, then into the daily papers, and if Marion were ready to continue her intimacy with the man who had saved her brother’s life, would she not be hurt and annoyed with him for forcing into publicity an affair which the conduct of all concerned showed them to be eager to keep hushed up?”
Chester walked down St James’s Street again, with the intention of cooling his burning head in the quiet gloom of the Park; but he altered his mind and turned off to his left, along Pall Mall, re-entered his club and went up to the smoking-room, which proved to be a little more full than before, but this did not trouble him now. He sat down and took a cigar and began smoking, thinking, trying to argue out the reason for the strange behaviour of these Clareboroughs. He could understand that there had been a desperate quarrel, resulting in the use of the revolver, and he was ready to grant that the elder brother’s conduct toward Marion had been the moving cause for that. But he felt convinced that there was something more behind; else why all the secrecy?
Here they were, a wealthy family, evidently moving in good society, and living in a magnificently-appointed mansion; but during all the days of his enforced stay, with the exception of the old housekeeper, he had not seen a single servant, and nothing to suggest that any were in the place. That they kept domestics was plain enough, for he had since seen the butler and footman. Then, too, there had been the coachman who drove the carriage that night, though he, as an out-door servant, might easily have been kept in ignorance of all that took place in the house. But where were the others, the staff which would be necessary for carrying on such an establishment?
There was no answer to the question, even at the finishing of a second cigar, and he gave it up, and then smiled to himself as he rose.ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
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