By ROBERT HICHENS
Author of "The Call of The Blood," "The Fruitful Vine," "A Spirit in Prison."
A. L. BURT COMPANY Publishers New York
Copyright, 1908 By J. B. Lippincott Company
Published October, 1908.
Doctor Meyer Isaacson had got on as only a modern Jew whose home is London can get on, with a rapidity that was alarming. He seemed to have arrived as a bullet arrives in a body. He was not in the heart of success, and lo! he was in the heart of success. And no one had marked his journey. Suddenly every one was speaking of him—was talking of the cures he had made, was advising every one else to go to him. For some mysterious reason his name—a name not easily to be forgotten once it had been heard—began to pervade the conversations that were held in the smart drawing-rooms of London. Women who were well, but had not seen him, abruptly became sufficiently unwell to need a consultation. "Where does he live? In Harley Street, I suppose?" was a constant question.
But he did not live in Harley Street. He was not the man to lose himself in an avenue of brass plates of fellow practitioners. "Cleveland Square, St. James's," was the startling reply; and his house was detached, if you please, and marvellously furnished.
The winged legend flew that he was rich, and that he had gone into practice as a doctor merely because he was intellectually interested in disease. His gift for diagnosis was so remarkable that he was morally forced to exercise it. And he had a greedy passion for studying humanity. And who has such opportunities for the study of humanity as the doctor and the priest? Patients who had been to him spoke enthusiastically of his observant eyes. His personality always made a great impression. "There's no one just like him," was a frequent comment upon Doctor Meyer Isaacson. And that phrase is a high compliment upon the lips of London, the city of parrots and of monkeys.
His age was debated, and so was his origin. Most people thought he was "about forty"; a very safe age, young enough to allow of almost unlimited expectation, old enough to make results achieved not quite unnatural, though possibly startling. Yes, he must be "about forty." And his origin? "Meyer" suggested Germany. As to "Isaacson," it allowed the ardent imagination free play over denationalized Israel. Someone said that he "looked as if he came from the East," to which a cynic made answer, "The East End." There was, perhaps, a hint of both in the Doctor of Cleveland Square. Certain it is that in the course of a walk down Brick Lane, or the adjacent thoroughfares, one will encounter men of his type; men of middle height, of slight build, with thick, close-growing hair strongly curling, boldly curving lips, large nostrils, prominent cheek-bones, dark eyes almost fiercely shining; men who are startlingly un-English. Doctor Meyer Isaacson was like these men. Yet he possessed something which set him apart from them. He looked intensely vital—almost unnaturally vital—when he was surrounded by English people, but he did not look fierce and hungry. One could conceive of him doing something bizarre, but one could not conceive of him doing anything low. There was sometimes a light in his eyes which suggested a moral distinction rarely to be found in those who dwell in and about Brick Lane. His slight, nervous hands, dark in colour, recalled the hands of high-bred Egyptians. Like so many of his nation, he was by nature artistic. An instinctive love of what was best in the creations of man ran in his veins with his blood. He cared for beautiful things, and he knew what things were beautiful and what were not. The second-rate never made any appeal to him. The first-rate found in him a welcoming enthusiast. He never wearied of looking at fine pictures, at noble statues, at bronzes, at old jewelled glass, at delicate carvings, at perfect jewels. He was genuinely moved by great architecture. And to music he was almost fanatically devoted, as are many Jews.
It has been said of the Jew that he is nearly always possessed of a streak of femininity, not effeminacy. In Doctor Meyer Isaacson this streak certainly existed. His intuitions were feminine in their quickness, his sympathies and his antipathies almost feminine in their ardour. He understood women instinctively, as generally only other women understand them. Often he knew, without knowing why he knew. Such knowledge of women is, perhaps fortunately, rare in men. Where most men stumble in the dark, Doctor Meyer Isaacson walked in the light. He was unmarried.
Bachelorhood is considered by many to detract from a doctor's value and to stand in the way of his career. Doctor Meyer Isaacson did not find this so. Although he was not a nerve specialist, his waiting-room was always full of patients. If he had been married, it could not have been fuller. Indeed, he often thought it would have been less full.
Suddenly he became the fashion, and he went on being the fashion.
He had no special peculiarity of manner. He did not attract the world of women by elaborate brutalities, or charm it by silly suavities. He seemed always very natural, intelligent, alive, and thoroughly interested in the person with whom he was. That he was a man of the world was certain. He was seen often at concerts, at the opera, at dinners, at receptions, occasionally even at a great ball.
Early in the morning he rode in the Park. Once a week he gave a dinner in Cleveland Square. And people liked to go to his house. They knew they would not be bored and not be poisoned there. Men appreciated him as well as women, despite the reminiscence of Brick Lane discoverable in him. His directness, his cleverness, and his apparent good-will soon overcame any dawning instinct summoned up in John Bull by his exotic appearance.
Only the unyielding Jew-hater hated him. And so the lines of the life of Doctor Meyer Isaacson seemed laid in pleasant places. And not a few thought him one of the fortunate of this world.
One morning of June the doctor was returning to Cleveland Square from his early ride in the Park. He was alone. The lively bay horse he rode—an animal that seemed almost as full of nervous vitality as he was—had had a good gallop by the Serpentine, and now trotted gently towards Buckingham Palace, snuffing in the languid air through its sensitive nostrils. The day was going to be hot. This fact inclined the Doctor to idleness, made him suddenly realise the bondage of work. In a few minutes he would be in Cleveland Square; and then, after a bath, a cup of coffee, a swift glance through the Times and the Daily Mail, there would start the procession that until evening would be passing steadily through his consulting-room.
He sighed, and pulled in his horse to a walk. To-day he was reluctant to encounter that procession.
And yet each day it brought interest into his life, this procession of his patients.
Generally he was a keen man. He had no need to feign an ardour that he really felt. He had a passion for investigation, and his profession enabled him to gratify it. Very modern, as a rule, were those who came to him, one by one, admitted each in turn by his Jewish man-servant; complex, caught fast in the net of civilized life. He liked to sit alone with them in his quiet chamber, to seek out the hidden links which united the physical to the mental man in each, to watch the pull of soul on body, of body on soul. But to-day he recoiled from work. Deep down in his nature, hidden generally beneath his strong activity, there was something that longed to sit in the sunshine and dream away the hours, leaving all fates serenely, or perhaps indifferently, between the hands of God.
"I will take a holiday some day," he said to himself, "a long holiday. I will go far away from here, to the land where I am really at home, where I am in my own place."
As he thought this, he looked up, and his eyes rested upon the brown facade of the King's Palace, upon the gilded railings that separated it from the public way, upon the sentries who were on guard, fresh-faced, alert, staring upon London with their calmly British eyes.
"In my own place," he repeated to himself.
And now his lips and his eyes were smiling. And he saw the great drama of London as something that a schoolboy could understand at a glance.
Was it really idleness he longed for? He did not know why, but abruptly his desire had changed. And he found himself wishing for events, tragic, tremendous, horrible even—anything, if they were unusual, were such as to set the man who was involved in them apart from his fellows. The foreign element in him woke up, called, perhaps, from repose by the unusually languid air, and London seemed meaningless to him, a city where a man of his type could neither dream, nor act, with all the languor, or all the energy, that was within him. And he imagined, as sometimes clever children do, a distant country where all romances unwind their shining coils, where he would find the incentive which he needed to call all his secret powers—the powers whose exercise would make his life complete—into supreme activity.
He gripped his horse with his knees. It understood his desire. It broke into a canter. He passed in front of the garden of Stafford House, turned to the left past St. James's Palace and Marlborough House, and was soon at his own door.
"Please bring up the book with my coffee in twenty minutes, Henry," he said to his servant, as he went in.
In half an hour he was seated in an arm-chair in an upstairs sitting-room, sipping his coffee. The papers lay folded at his elbow. Upon his knee, open, lay the book in which were written down the names of the patients with whom he had made appointments that day.
He looked at them, seeking for one that promised interest. The first patient was a man who would come in on his way to the city. Then followed the names of three women, then the name of a boy. He was coming with his mother, a lady of an anxious mind. The Doctor had a sheaf of letters from her. And so the morning's task was over. He turned a page and came to the afternoon.
"Two o'clock, Mrs. Lesueur; two-thirty, Miss Mendish; three, the Dean of Greystone; three-thirty, Lady Carle; four, Madame de Lys; four-thirty, Mrs. Harringby; five, Sir Henry Grebe; five-thirty, Mrs. Chepstow."
The last name was that of the last patient. Doctor Meyer Isaacson's day's work was over at six, or was supposed to be over. Often, however, he gave a patient more than the fixed half-hour, and so prolonged his labours. But no one was admitted to his house for consultation after the patient whose name was against the time of five-thirty.
And so Mrs. Chepstow would be the last patient he would see that day.
He sat for a moment with the book open on his knee, looking at her name.
It was a name very well known to him, very well known to the English-speaking world in general.
Mrs. Chepstow was a great beauty in decline. Her day of glory had been fairly long, but now it seemed to be over. She was past forty. She said she was thirty-eight, but she was over forty. Goodness, some say, keeps women fresh. Mrs. Chepstow had tried a great many means of keeping fresh, but she had omitted that. The step between aestheticism and asceticism was one which she had never taken, though she had taken many steps, some of them, unfortunately, false ones. She had been a well-born girl, the daughter of aristocratic but impecunious and extravagant parents. Her father, Everard Page, a son of Lord Cheam, had been very much at home in the Bankruptcy Court. Her mother, too, was reckless about money, saying, whenever it was mentioned, "Money is given us to spend, not to hoard." So little did she hoard it, that eventually her husband published a notice in the principal papers, stating that he would not be responsible for her debts. It was a very long time since he had been responsible for his own. Still, there was a certain dignity in the announcement, as of an honest man frankly declaring his position.
Mrs. Chepstow's life was very possibly influenced by her parents' pecuniary troubles. When she was young she learnt to be frightened of poverty. She had known what it was to be "sold up" twice before she was twenty; and this probably led her to prefer the alternative of being sold. At any rate, when she was in her twenty-first year, sold she was to Mr. Wodehouse Chepstow, a rich brewer, to whom she had not even taken a fancy; and as Mrs. Chepstow she made a great fame in London society as a beauty. She was christened Bella Donna. She was photographed, written about, worshipped by important people, until her celebrity spread far over the world, as the celebrity even of a woman who is only beautiful and who does nothing can spread in the era of the paragraph.
And then presently she was the heroine of a great divorce case.
Mr. Chepstow, forgetting that among the duties required of the modern husband is the faculty of turning a blind eye upon the passing fancies of a lovely and a generally admired wife, suddenly proclaimed some ugly truths, and completely ruined Mrs. Chepstow's reputation. He won his case. He got heavy damages out of a well-known, married man. The married man's wife was forced to divorce him. And Mrs. Chepstow was socially "done for." Then began the new period of her life, a period utterly different from all that had preceded it.
She was at this time only twenty-six, and in the zenith of her beauty. Every one supposed that the man to whom she owed her ruin would marry her as soon as it was possible. Unfortunately, he died before the decree nisi was made absolute. Mrs. Chepstow's future had been committed to the Fates, and they had turned down their thumbs.
Notorious, lovely, now badly off, still young, she was left to shift for herself in the world.
It was then that there came to the surface of her character a trait that was not beautiful. She developed a love of money, a passion for material things. This definite greediness declared itself in her only now that she was poor and solitary. Probably it had always existed in her, but had been hidden. She hid it no longer. She tacitly proclaimed it, and she ordered her life so that it might be satisfied.
And it was satisfied, or at the least for many years appeased. She became the famous, or the infamous, Mrs. Chepstow. She had no child to be good for. Her father was dead. Her mother lived in Brussels with some foreign relations. For her English relations she took no thought. The divorce case had set them all against her. She put on the panoply of steel so often assumed by the woman who has got into trouble. She defied those who were "down upon her." She had made a failure of one life. She resolved that she would make a success of another. And for a long time she was very successful. Men were at her feet, and ministered to her desires. She lived as she seemed to desire to live, magnificently. She was given more than most good women are given, and she seemed to revel in its possession. But though she loved money, her parents' traits were repeated in her. She was a spendthrift, as they had been spendthrifts. She loved money because she loved spending, not hoarding it. And for years she scattered it with both hands.
Then, as she approached forty, the freshness of her beauty began to fade. She had been too well known, and had to endure the fate of those who have long been talked about. Men said of her, "Mrs. Chepstow—oh, she's been going a deuce of a time. She must be well over fifty." Women—good women especially—pronounced her nearer sixty. Almost suddenly, as often happens in such cases as hers, the roseate hue faded from her life and a greyness began to fall over it.
She was seen about with very young men, almost boys. People sneered when they spoke of her. It was said that she was not so well off as she had been. Some shoddy millionaire had put her into a speculation. It had gone wrong, and he had not thought it necessary to pay up her losses. She moved from her house in Park Lane to a flat in Victoria Street, then to a little house in Kensington. Then she gave that up, and took a small place in the country, and motored up and down, to and from town. Then she got sick of that, and went to live in a London hotel. She sold her yacht. She sold a quantity of diamonds.
And people continued to say, "Mrs. Chepstow—oh, she must be well over fifty."
Undoubtedly she was face to face with a very bad period. With every month that passed, loneliness stared at her more fixedly, looked at her in the eyes till she began to feel almost dazed, almost hypnotized. A dulness crept over her.
And then, one morning of June, Doctor Meyer Isaacson sat sipping his coffee and looking at her name, written against the time, five-thirty, in his book of consultations.
Doctor Meyer Isaacson did not know Mrs. Chepstow personally, but he had seen her occasionally, at supper in smart restaurants, at first nights, riding in the Park. Now, as he looked at her name, he realized that he had not even seen her for a long time, perhaps for a couple of years. He had heard the rumours of her decadence, and taken little heed of them, not being specially interested in her. Nevertheless, this morning, as he shut up his book and got up to go downstairs to his work, he was aware of a desire to hear the clock strike the half-hour after five, and to see Henry opening the door to show Mrs. Chepstow into his consulting-room. A woman who had lived her life and won her renown—or infamy—could scarcely be uninteresting.
As the day wore on, he was several times conscious of a wish to quicken the passing of its moments, and when Sir Henry Grebe, the penultimate patient, proved to be an elderly malade imaginaire of dilatory habit, involved speech, and determined misery, he was obliged firmly to check a rising desire to write a hasty bread-pill prescription and fling him in the direction of Marlborough House. The half-hour chimed, and still Sir Henry explained the strange symptoms by which he was beset—the buzzings in the head, the twitchings in the extremities, the creepings, as of insects with iced legs, about the roots of the hair. His eyes shone with the ardour of the determined valetudinarian closeted with one paid to attend to his complaints.
And Mrs. Chepstow? Had she come? Was she sitting in the next room, looking inattentively at the newest books?
"The most extraordinary matter in my case," continued Sir Henry, with uplifted finger, "is the cold sweat that—"
The doctor interrupted him.
"My advice to you is this—"
"But I haven't explained to you about the cold sweat that—"
"My advice to you is this, Sir Henry. Don't think about yourself; walk for an hour every day before breakfast, eat only two meals a day, morning and evening, take at least eight hours' rest every night, give up lounging about in your club, occupy yourself—with work for others, if possible. I believe that to be the most tonic work there is—and I see no reason why you should not be a centenarian."
"Why not! There is nothing the matter with you, unless you think there is."
"Nothing—you say there is nothing the matter with me!"
"I have examined you, and that is my opinion."
The face of the patient flushed with indignation at this insult.
"I came to you to be told what was the matter."
"And I am glad to inform you nothing is the matter—with your body."
"Do you mean to imply that my mind is diseased?"
"No. But you don't give it enough to think about. You only give it yourself. And that isn't nearly enough."
Sir Henry rose, and put a trembling finger into his waistcoat-pocket.
"I believe I owe you—?"
"Nothing. But if you care to put something into the box on my hall table, you will help some poor man to get away to the seaside after an operation, and find out what is the best medicine in the world."
"And now for Mrs. Chepstow!" the Doctor murmured to himself, as the door closed behind the outraged back of an enemy.
He sat still for a minute or two, expecting to see the door open again, the form of a woman framed in the doorway. But no one came. He began to feel restless. He was not accustomed to be kept waiting by his patients, although he often kept them waiting. There was a bell close to his elbow. He touched it, and his man-servant instantly appeared.
"Mrs. Chepstow is down for five-thirty. It is now"—he pulled out his watch—"nearly ten minutes to six. Hasn't she come?"
"No, sir. Two or three people have been, without appointments."
"And you have sent them away, of course? Quite right. Well, I shan't stay in any longer."
He got up from his chair.
"And if Mrs. Chepstow should come, sir?"
"Explain to her that I waited till ten minutes to six and then—" He paused. The hall door-bell was ringing sharply.
"If it is Mrs. Chepstow, shall I admit her now, sir?"
The doctor hesitated, but only for a second.
"Yes," he said.
And he sat down again by his table.
He had been almost looking forward to the arrival of his last patient of that day, but now he felt irritated at being detained. For a moment he had believed his day's work to be over, and in that moment the humour for work had left him. Why had she not been up to time? He tapped his delicate fingers impatiently on the table, and drew down his thick brows over his sparkling eyes. But directly the door moved, his expression of serenity returned, and when a tall woman came in, he was standing up and gravely smiling.
"I'm afraid I am late."
The door shut on Henry.
"You are twenty minutes late."
"I'm so sorry."
The rather dawdling tones of the voice denied the truth of the words, and the busy Doctor was conscious of a slight sensation of hostility.
"Please sit down here," he said, "and tell me why you come to consult me."
Mrs. Chepstow sat down in the chair he showed her. Her movements were rather slow and careless, like the movements of a person who is quite alone and has nothing to do. They suggested to the watching man vistas of empty hours—how different from his own! She settled herself in her chair, leaning back. One of her hands rested on the handle of a parasol she carried. The other held lightly an arm of the chair. Her height was remarkable, and was made the more apparent by her small waist, and by the small size of her beautifully shaped head, which was poised on a long but exquisite neck. Her whole outline announced her gentle breeding. The most lovely woman of the people could never be shaped quite like that. As Doctor Isaacson realised this, he felt a sudden difficulty in connecting with the woman before him her notorious career. Surely pride must be a dweller in a body so expressive of race!
He thought of the very young men, almost boys, with whom Mrs. Chepstow was seen about. Was it possible?
Her eyes met his, and in her face he saw a subtle contradiction of the meaning her form seemed eloquently to indicate.
It was possible.
Almost before he had time to say this to himself, Mrs. Chepstow's face had changed, suddenly accorded more definitely with her body.
"What a clever woman!" the Doctor thought.
With an almost sharp movement he sat forward in his chair, braced up, alert, vital. His irritation was gone with the fatigue engendered by the day's work. Interest in life tingled through his veins. His day was not to be wholly dull. His thought of the morning, when he had looked at the patients' book, was not an error of the mind.
"You came to consult me because—?"
"I don't know that I am ill," Mrs. Chepstow said, very composedly.
"Let us hope not."
"Do you think I look ill?"
"Would you mind turning a little more towards the light?"
She sat still for a minute, then she laughed.
"I have always said that so long as one is with a doctor, qua doctor, one must never think of him as a man," she said; "but—"
"Don't think of me as a man."
"Unfortunately, there is something about you which absolutely prevents me from regarding you as a machine. But—never mind!"
She turned to the light, lifted her thin veil, and leaned towards him.
"Do you think I look ill?"
He gazed at her steadily, with a scrutiny that was almost cruel. The face presented to him in the bold light that flowed in through the large window near which their chairs were placed still preserved elements of the beauty of which the world had heard too much. Its shape, like the shape of Mrs. Chepstow's head, was exquisite. The line of the features was not purely Greek, but it recalled things Greek, profiles in marble seen in calm museums. The outline of a thing can set a sensitive heart beating with the strange, the almost painful longing for an ideal life, with ideal surroundings, ideal loves, ideal realizations. It can call to the imagination that lies drowsing, yet full of life, far down in the secret recesses of the soul. The curve of Mrs. Chepstow's face, the modelling of her low brow, and the undulations of the hair that flowed away from it—although, alas! that hair was obviously, though very perfectly, dyed—had this peculiar power of summons, sent forth silently this subtle call. The curve of a Dryad's face, seen dimly in the green wonder of a magic wood, might well have been like this, or of a nymph's bathing by moonlight in some very secret pool. But a Dryad would not have touched her lips with this vermilion, a nymph have painted beneath her laughing eyes these cloudy shadows, or drawn above them these artfully delicate lines. And the weariness that lay about these cheeks, and at the corners of this mouth, suggested no early world, no goddesses in the springtime of creation, but an existence to distress a moralist, and a lack of pleasure in it to dishearten an honest pagan. The ideality in Mrs. Chepstow's face was contradicted, was set almost at defiance, by something—it was difficult to say exactly what; perhaps by the faint wrinkles about the corners of her large and still luminous blue eyes, by a certain not yet harsh prominence of the cheek-bones, by a slight droop of the lips that hinted at passion linked with cynicism. There was a suggestion of hardness somewhere. Freshness had left this face, but not because of age. There are elderly, even old women who look almost girlish, fragrant with a charm that has its root in innocence of life. Mrs. Chepstow did not certainly look old. Yet there was no youth in her, no sweetness of the girl she once had been. She was not young, nor old, nor definitely middle-aged.
She was definitely a woman who had strung many experiences upon the chain of her life, yet who, in certain aspects, called up the thought of, even the desire for, things ideal, things very far away from all that is sordid, ugly, brutal, and defaced.
The look of pride, or perhaps of self-respect, which Doctor Isaacson had seen born as if in answer to his detrimental thought of her, stayed in this face, which was turned towards the light.
He realized that in this woman there was much will, perhaps much cunning, and that she was a past mistress in the art of reading men.
"Well," she said, after a minute of silence, "what do you make of it?"
She had a very attractive voice, not caressingly but carelessly seductive; a voice that suggested a creature both warm and lazy, that would, perhaps, leave many things to chance, but that might at a moment grip closely, and retain, what chance threw in her way.
"Please tell me your symptoms," the Doctor replied.
"But you tell me first—do I look ill?"
She fixed her eyes steadily upon him.
"What is the real reason why this woman has come to me?"
The thought flashed through the Doctor's mind as his eyes met hers, and he seemed to divine some strange under-reason lurking far down in her shrewd mind, almost to catch a glimpse of it ere it sank away into complete obscurity.
"Certain diseases," he said slowly, "stamp themselves unmistakably upon the faces of those who are suffering from them."
"Is any one of them stamped upon mine?"
She moved, as if settling herself more comfortably in her chair.
"Shall I put your parasol down?" he asked, stretching out his hand.
"No, thanks. I like holding it."
"I'm afraid you must tell me what are your symptoms."
"I feel a sort of general malaise."
"Is it a physical malaise?"
"Why not?" she said, almost sharply.
She smiled, as if in pity at her own childishness, and added immediately:
"I can't say that I suffer actual physical pain. But without that one may not feel particularly well."
"Perhaps your nervous system is out of order."
"I suppose every day you have silly women coming to you full of complaints but without the ghost of a malady?"
"You must not ask me to condemn my patients. And not only women are silly in that way."
He thought of Sir Henry Grebe, and of his own prescription.
"I had better examine you. Then I can tell you more about yourself."
While he spoke, he felt as if he were being examined by her. Never before had he experienced this curious sensation, almost of self-consciousness, with any patient.
"Oh, no," she said, "I don't want to be examined. I know my heart and my lungs and so on are sound enough."
"At any rate, allow me to feel your pulse."
"And look at my tongue, perhaps!"
She laughed, but she pulled off her glove and extended her hand to him. He put his fingers on her wrist, and looked at his watch. Her skin was cool. Her pulse beat regularly and strongly. From her, a message to his lightly touching fingers, flowed surely determination, self-possession, hardihood, even combativeness. As he felt her pulse he understood the defiance of her life.
"Your pulse is good," he said, dropping her hand.
During the short time he had touched her, he seemed to have learnt a great deal about her.
And she—how much had she learnt about him?
He found himself wondering in a fashion unorthodox in a doctor.
"Mrs. Chepstow," he said, speaking rather brusquely, "I wish you would kindly explain to me exactly why you have come here to-day. If you don't feel ill, why waste your time with a doctor? I am sure you are not a woman to run about seeking what you have."
"You mean health! But—I don't feel as I used to feel. Formerly I was a very strong woman, so strong that I often felt as if I were safe from unhappiness, real unhappiness. For Schopenhauer was right, I suppose, and if one's health is perfect, one rises above what are called misfortunes. And, you know, I have had great misfortunes."
"You must know that."
"I didn't really mind them—not enormously. Even when I was what I suppose nice people called 'ruined'—after my divorce—I was quite able to enjoy life and its pleasures, eating and drinking, travelling, yachting, riding, motoring, theatre-going, gambling, and all that sort of thing. People who are being universally condemned, or pitied, are often having a quite splendid time, you know."
"Just as people who are universally envied are often miserable."
"Exactly. But of late I have begun to—well, to feel different."
"In what way exactly?"
"To feel that my health is no longer perfect enough to defend me against—I might call it ennui."
"Or I might call it depression, melancholy, in fact. Now I don't want—I simply will not be the victim of depression, as so many women are. Do you realise how frightfully women—many women—suffer secretly from depression when they—when they begin to find out that they are not going to remain eternally young?"
"I realize it, certainly."
"I will not be the victim of that depression, because it ruins one's appearance and destroys one's power. I am thirty-eight."
Her large blue eyes met the Doctor's eyes steadily.
"In England nowadays that isn't considered anything. In England, if one has perfect health, one may pass for a charming and attractive woman till one is at least fifty, or even more. But to seem young when one is getting on, one must feel young. Now, I no longer feel young. I am positive feeling young is a question of physical health. I believe almost everything one feels is a question of physical health. Mystics, people who believe in metempsychosis, in the progress upward and immortality of the soul, idealists—they would cry out against me as a rank materialist. But you are a doctor, and know the empire of the body. Am I not right? Isn't almost everything one feels an emanation from one's molecules, or whatever they are called? Isn't it an echo of the chorus of one's atoms?"
"No doubt the state of the body affects the state of the mind."
"How cautious you are!"
A rather contemptuous smile flickered over her too red lips.
"And really you must be in absolute antagonism with the priests, the Christian Scientists, with all the cranks and the self-deceivers who put soul above matter, who pretend that soul is independent of matter. Why, only the other day I was reading about the psychophysical investigations with the pneumograph and the galvanometer, and I'm certain that—" Suddenly she checked herself. "But that's beside the question. I've told you what I mean, what I think, that health triumphs over nearly everything."
"You seem to be very convinced, a very sincere materialist."
"Despite the discoveries of science, I think there are still depths of mystery in man."
"Oh, dear, yes! But to return to your condition."
She glanced at a watch on her wrist.
"Your day of work, ends—?"
"At six, as a rule."
"I mustn't keep you. The truth is this. I am losing my zest for life, and because I am losing my zest, I am losing my power over life. I am beginning to feel weary, melancholy, sometimes apprehensive."
"Middle age, I suppose, and the ending of all things."
"And you want me to prescribe against melancholy?"
"Why not? What is a doctor for? I tell you I am certain these feelings in me come from a bodily condition."
"You think it quite impossible that they may proceed from a condition of the soul?"
"Quite. I believe it all ends here on the day one dies. I feel as certain of that as of my being a woman. And this being my conviction, I think it of paramount importance to have a good time while I am here."
"Now, a woman's good time depends on a woman's power over others, and that power depends on her thorough-going belief in herself. So long as she is perfectly well, she feels young, and so long as she feels young, she can give the impression that she is young—with the slightest assistance from art. And so long as she can give that impression—of course I am speaking of a woman who is what is called 'attractive'—it is all right with her. She will believe in herself, and she will have a good time. Now, Doctor Isaacson—remember that I consider all confidences made to a physician of your eminence, all that I tell you to-day, as inviolably secret—"
"Of course," he said.
"Lately my belief in myself has been—well, shaken. I attribute this to some failure in my health. So I have come to you. Try to find out if anything in my bodily condition is wrong."
"Very well. But you must allow me to examine you, and I must put to you a number of purely medical questions which you must answer truthfully."
"En avant, monsieur!"
She put her parasol down on the floor beside her.
"I don't believe in subterfuge—with a doctor," she said.
Mrs. Chepstow came out of the house in Cleveland Square as the clocks were striking seven, stepped into a taximeter cab, and was hurried off into the busy whirl of St. James's Street, while Doctor Meyer Isaacson went upstairs to his bedroom to rest and dress for dinner. His clothes were already laid out, and he sent his valet away. As soon as the man was gone, the Doctor took off his coat and waistcoat, his collar and tie, sat down in an arm-chair by the open window, leaned his head against a cushion, shut his eyes, and deliberately relaxed all his muscles. Every day, sometimes at one time, sometimes at another, he did this for ten minutes or a quarter of an hour; and in these moments, as he relaxed his muscles, he also relaxed his mind, banishing thoughts by an effort of the will. So often had he done this that generally he did it without difficulty; and though he never fell asleep in daylight, he came out of this short rest-cure refreshed as after two hours of slumber.
But to-day, though he could command his body, his mind was wilful. He could not clear it of the restless thoughts. Indeed, it seemed to him that he became all mind as he sat there, motionless, looking almost like a dead man, with his stretched-out legs, his hanging arms, his dropped jaw. His last patient was fighting against his desire for complete repose, was defying his will and conquering it.
After his examination of Mrs. Chepstow, his series of questions, he had said to her, "There is nothing the matter with you." A very ordinary phrase, but even as he spoke it, something within him cried to him, "You liar!" This woman suffered from no bodily disease. But to say to her, "There is nothing the matter with you," was, nevertheless, to tell her a lie. And he had added the qualifying statement, "that a doctor can do anything for." He could see her face before him now as it had looked for a moment after he had spoken.
Her exquisite hair was dyed a curious colour. Naturally a bright brown, it had been changed by art to a lighter, less warm hue, that was neither flaxen nor golden, but that held a strange pallor, distinctive, though scarcely beautiful. It had the merit of making her eyes look very vivid between the painted shadows and the painted brows, and this fact had been no doubt realized by the artist responsible for it. Apparently Mrs. Chepstow relied upon the fascination of a peculiar, almost anaemic fairness, in the midst of which eyes, lips, and brows stood forcibly out to seize the attention and engross it. There was in this fairness, this blanched delicacy, something almost pathetic, which assisted the completion, in the mind of a not too astute beholder, of the impression already begun to be made by the beautiful shape of the face.
When Doctor Meyer Isaacson had finished speaking, that face had been a still but searching question; and almost immediately a question had come from the red lips.
"Is there absolutely no unhealthy condition of body such as might be expected to produce low spirits? You see how medically I speak!"
"None whatever. You are not even gouty, and three-quarters, at least, of my patients are gouty in some form or other."
Mrs. Chepstow frowned.
"Then what would you advise me to do?" she asked. "Shall I go to a priest? Shall I go to a philosopher? Shall I go to a Christian Science temple? Or do you think a good dose of the 'New Theology' would benefit me?"
She spoke satirically, yet Doctor Isaacson felt as if he heard, far off, faintly behind the satire, the despair of the materialist, against whom, in certain moments, all avenues of hope seem inexorably closed. He looked at Mrs. Chepstow, and there was a dawning of pity in his eyes as he answered:
"How can I advise you?"
"How indeed? And yet—and that's a curious thing—you look as if you could."
"If you are really a convinced materialist, an honest atheist—"
"Well, then it would be useless to advise you to seek priests or to go to Christian Science temples. I can only tell you that your complaint is not a complaint of the body."
"Then is it a complaint of the soul? That's a bore, because I don't happen to believe in the soul, and I do believe very much in the body."
"I wonder what exactly you mean when you say you don't believe in the soul."
"I mean that I don't believe there is in human beings anything mysterious which can live unless the body is living, anything that doesn't die simultaneously with the body. Of course there is something that we call mental, that likes and dislikes, loves and hates, and so on."
"And cannot that something be depressed by misfortune?"
"I did not say I had had any misfortune."
"Nor did I say so. Let us put it this way then—cannot that something be depressed?"
"To a certain degree, of course. But keep your body in perfect health, and you ought to be immune from extreme depression. And I believe you are immune. Frankly, Doctor Meyer Isaacson, I don't think you are right. I am sure something is out of order in my body. There must be some pressure somewhere, some obscure derangement of the nerves, something radically wrong."
"Try another doctor. Try a nerve specialist—a hypnotist, if you like: Hinton Morris, Scalinger, or Powell Burnham; I fear I cannot help you."
"So it seems."
She got up slowly. And still her movements were careless, but always full of a grace that was very individual.
"Remember," she said, "that I have spoken to you so frankly in your capacity as a physician."
"All I hear in this room I forget when I am out of it."
"Truly?" she said.
"At any rate, I forget to speak of it," he said, rather curtly.
"Good-bye," she rejoined.
She left him with a strange sensation, of the hopelessness that comes from greed and acute worldliness, uncombined with any, even subconscious, conception of other possibilities than purely material ones.
What could such a woman have to look forward to at this period of her life?
Doctor Isaacson was thinking about this now. He remained always perfectly motionless in his arm-chair, but he had abandoned the attempt to discipline his mind. He knew that to-day his brain would not repose with his limbs, and he no longer desired his usual rest-cure. He preferred to think—about Mrs. Chepstow.
She had made upon him a powerful impression. He recalled the look in her eyes when she had said that she was thirty-eight, a look that had seemed to command him to believe her. He had not believed her, yet he had no idea what her real age was. Only he knew that it was not thirty-eight. How determined she was not to suffer, to get through life—her one life, as she thought it—without distress! And she was suffering. He divined why. That was not difficult. She was "in low water." The tides of pleasure were failing. And she had nothing to cling to, clever woman though she was.
Why did he think her clever?
He asked himself that question. He was not a man to take cleverness on trust. Mrs. Chepstow had not said anything specially brilliant. In her materialism she was surely short-sighted, if not blind. She had made a mess of her life. And yet he knew that she was a clever woman.
She had been very frank with him.
Why had she been so frank?
More than once he asked himself that. His mind was full of questions to-day, questions to which he could not immediately supply answers. He felt as if in all she had said Mrs. Chepstow had been prompted by some very definite purpose. She had made upon him the impression of a woman full of purpose, and often full of subtlety. He could not rid himself of the conviction that she had had some concealed reason for wishing to make his acquaintance, some reason unconnected with her health. He believed she had wished honestly for his help as a doctor. But surely that was not her only object in coming to Cleveland Square.
The clock on his chimney-piece struck. His time for repose was at an end. He shut his mouth with a snap, contracted his muscles sharply, and sprang up from his chair. Ten minutes later he was in a cold bath, and half an hour later he was dressed for dinner, and going downstairs with the light, quick step of a man in excellent physical condition and capital spirits. The passing depression he had caught from his last patient had vanished away, and he was in the mood to enjoy his well-earned recreation.
He was dining in Charles Street, Berkeley Square, with Lady Somerson, a widow who was persistently hospitable because she could not bear to be alone. To-night she had a large party. When Doctor Isaacson came into the room on the ground floor where Lady Somerson always received her guests before a dinner, he found her dressed in rusty black, with her grey hair done anyhow, managing and directing the conversation of quite a crowd of important and interesting persons, most of whom had got well away from their first youth, but were so important and interesting that they did not care at all what age they were. It was Wednesday night, and the flavour of the party was political; but among the men were two soldiers, and among the women was a well-known beauty, who cared very little for politics, but a great deal for good talk. She was one of those beauties who reign only in faithful London, partly because of London's faithfulness, but partly also because of their excellent digestions, good spirits, and entire lack of pretence. Her name was Mrs. Derringham; her age was forty-eight. She was not "made up." She made no attempt to look any younger than she was. Lively, energetic, without wrinkles, and apparently without vanity, she neither forbade nor encouraged people to think of her years, but attracted them by her splendid figure, her animation, her zest and her readiness to enjoy the passing hour.
Doctor Isaacson knew her well, and as he shook hands with her he thought of Mrs. Chepstow and of the gospel of Materialism. This woman certainly knew how to enjoy the good things of this world; but she had interests that were not selfish: her husband, her children, her charities, her dependents. She had struck roots deep down into the rich and rewarding soil of the humanities. Women like Mrs. Chepstow struck no roots into any soil. Was it any wonder if the days came and the nights when the souls of them were weary? Was it any wonder if the weariness set its mark upon their beauty?
The door opened, and the last guest appeared—a man, tall, broad-chested, and fair, with short yellow hair parted in the middle, a well-shaped head, a blunt, straight nose, a well-defined but not obstinate chin, a sensitive mouth, and big, sincere, even enthusiastic, blue eyes, surmounted by thick blond eyebrows that always looked as if they had just been brushed vigorously upwards. A small, close-growing moustache covered his upper lip. His cheeks and forehead were tanned by the sun. He was thirty-six years old, but looked a great deal younger, because he was fair. His figure was very muscular and upright, with a hollow back and lean flanks. His capable, rather large-fingered, but not clumsy, hands were brown. There was in his face a peculiarly straight and bright look that suggested the North and Northern things, the glitter of stars upon snows, cool summits of mountains swept by pure winds, the scented freshness of pine forests. He had something of the expression, of the build, and of the carriage of a hero from the North. But he was surely a hero from the North who had very recently had his dwelling in the South, and who had taken kindly to it.
When Lady Somerson saw the newcomer, she rushed at him and blew him up. Then she introduced him to the lady he was to take in to dinner, and, with an alacrity that was almost feverish, gave the signal for her guests to move into the dining-room, disclosed at this moment by two assiduous footmen who briskly pushed back the sliding doors that divided it from the room in which she had received.
"Our hostess does not conceal her feelings," murmured Mrs. Derringham, who was Doctor Isaacson's companion, as they found their places at the long table. "Who is the man whom she has just scolded so vivaciously? I know his face quite well."
"One of the best fellows in the world—Nigel Armine. I have not seen him till to-night since last October. He has been out in Egypt."
At this moment he caught the fair man's eyes, and they exchanged with his a look of friendship.
"Of course! I remember! He looks like a knight-errant. So did his father, poor Harwich. I used to act with Harwich in the early never-mind-whats at Burnham House. One scarcely ever sees Nigel now. I don't think he was ever at all really fond of London and gaieties. Harwich was, of course. Yet even in his face there was a sort of strangeness, of other-worldliness. I used to say he had kitten's eyes. How he believed in women, poor fellow!"
"Don't you believe in women?"
"As a race, no. I believe in a very few individual women. But Harwich believed in women because they were women. That is always a mistake. He believed in them as a good Catholic believes in the Saints. And he was punished for it."
"You mean after Nigel's mother died? That Mrs.—what was her name?—Mrs. Alstruther?"
"Yes, Mrs. Alstruther. She treated Harwich abominably. Even if she had been free, she would never have married him. He bored her. But he worshipped her, and thought to the end that her husband ill-used her. So absurd, when Paul Alstruther could call neither his soul nor his purse his own. Nigel Armine has his father's look. He, too, is born to believe in women."
She paused; then she added:
"I must say it would be rather nice to be the woman he believed in."
"Tell me something about this Mr. Armine, Doctor Isaacson," said Lady O'Ryan, who was sitting on the Doctor's other side, and had caught part of this conversation. "You know I am always in County Clare, and as ignorant as a violet. Who is he exactly?"
"A younger brother of Harwich's, and the next heir to the title."
"That immensely rich Lord Harwich whose horses have won so many races, and who married Zoe Mulligan, of Chicago, more than ten years ago?"
"Yes. They've never had any children, and Harwich has knocked his health to pieces, so Armine is pretty sure to succeed. But he's fairly well off, I suppose, for a bachelor. When his mother died, she left him her property."
"And what does he do?"
"He was in the army, but resigned his commission when he came into his land."
"To look after his people. He had great ideas about a landlord's duties to his tenants."
"O'Ryan's tenants have enormous ideas about his duties to them."
"That must be trying. Armine lived in the country, and made a great many generous experiments—built model cottages, started rifle ranges, erected libraries, gymnasiums, swimming baths. In fact, he spent his money royally—too royally."
"And were they sick with gratitude?"
"Their thankfulness did not go so far as that. In fact, some of Armine's schemes for making people happy met with a good deal of opposition. Finally there was a tremendous row about a right of way. The tenants were in the wrong, and Armine was so disgusted at their trying to rob him of what was his, after he had showered benefits upon them, that he let his place and hasn't been there since."
"That's so like people, to ignore libraries and village halls, and shriek for the right to get over a certain stile, or go down a muddy path that leads from nothing to nowhere."
"The desire of the star for the moth!"
"You call humanity a star?"
"I think there is a great brightness burning in it; don't you?"
"There seems to be in Mr. Armine, certainly. What an enthusiastic look he has! How could he get wrong with his tenants?"
"It may have been his enthusiasm, his great expectations, his ideality. Perhaps he puzzled his people, asked too much imagination, too much sacred fire from them. And then he has immense ideas about honesty, and the rights of the individual; and, in fact, about a good many things that seldom bother the head of the average man."
"Don't tell me he has developed into a crank," said Mrs. Derringham. "There's something so underbred about crankiness; and the Harwich family have always been essentially aristocrats."
"I shouldn't think Armine was a crank, but I do think he is an idealist. He considers Watts's allegorical pictures the greatest things in Art that have been done since Botticelli enshrined Purity in paint. In modern music Elgar's his man; in modern literature, Tolstoy. He loves those with ideals, even if their ideals are not his. I do not say he is an artist. He is not. His motto is not 'Art for art's sake,' but 'Art for man's sake.'"
"He is a humanitarian?"
"And a great believer."
"In the good that is in man. I often think at the back of his mind, or heart, he believes that the act of belief is almost an act of creation."
"You mean, for instance, that if you believe in a man's truthfulness you make him a truthful man?"
"Oh, Doctor Isaacson," said Lady O'Ryan, "do introduce Mr. Armine to my husband, and make him believe my husband is a miser instead of a spendthrift. It would be such a mercy to the family. We might begin to pay off the mortgage on the castle."
The conversation took a frivolous turn, and died in laughter.
But towards the end of dinner Mrs. Derringham again spoke of Nigel Armine, asking:
"And what does Mr. Armine do now?"
"He went to Egypt after he let his place, bought some land there, in the Fayyum, I believe, and has been living on it a good deal. I think he has been making some experiments in farming."
"And does he believe in the truth and honesty of the average donkey-boy?"
"I don't know. But I must confess I have heard him extol the merits of the Bedouins."
At this moment Lady Somerson sprang up, in her usual feverish manner, and the men in a moment were left to themselves. As the sliding doors closed behind Lady Somerson's active back, there was a hesitating movement among them, suggestive of a half-formed desire for rearrangement.
Then Armine came decisively away from his place on the far side of the long table, and joined Meyer Isaacson.
"I'm glad to meet you again, Isaacson," he said, grasping the Doctor's hand.
The Doctor returned his grip with a characteristic clasp, and they sat down side by side, while the other men began talking and lighting cigarettes.
"Have you only just come back?" asked the Doctor.
"I have been back for a week."
"So long! Where are you staying?"
"At the Savoy."
"Are you surprised!"
The Doctor's brilliant eyes were fixed upon Armine with an expression half humorous, half affectionate.
"Any smart hotel would seem the wrong place for you," he said. "I can see you on the snows of the Alps, or your own moors at Etchingham, even at—where is it?"
"But at the Savoy, the Ritz, the Carlton—no. Their gilded banality isn't the cadre for you at all."
"I'm very happy at the Savoy," Armine replied.
As he spoke, he looked away from Meyer Isaacson across the table to the wall opposite to him. Upon it hung a large reproduction of Watts's picture, "Progress." He gazed at it, and his face became set in a strange calm, as if he had for a moment forgotten the place he was in, the people round about him. Meyer Isaacson watched him with a concentrated interest. There was something in this man—there always had been something—which roused in the Doctor an affection, an admiration, that were mingled with pity and even with a secret fear. Such a nature, the Doctor often thought, must surely be fore-ordained to suffering in a world that holds certainly many who cherish ideals and strive to mount upwards, but a majority that is greedy for the constant gratification of the fleshly appetites, that seldom listens to the dim appeal of the distant voices which sometimes speak, however faintly, to all who dwell on earth.
"What a splendid thing that is!" Armine said, at last, with a sigh. "You know the original?"
"I saw it the other day at the gallery in Compton."
"Progress—advance—going on irresistibly all the time, whether we see it, feel it, or not. How glorious!"
"You are always an optimist?"
"I do believe in the triumph of good. More and more every day I believe in that, the triumph of good in the world, and in the individual. And the more believers there are—true believers—in that triumph, the more surely, the more swiftly, it will be accomplished. You can help, Isaacson."
"Yes, that's the way to help. But Lord! how few people take it! Suspicion is one of the most destructive agents at work in the world. Suspect a man, and you almost force him to give you cause for suspicion. Suspect a woman, and instantly you give her a push towards deceit. How I hate to hear men say they don't trust women."
"Women say that, too."
"Sex treachery! Despicable! They who say that are traitresses in their own camp."
"You value truth, don't you?"
"Suppose women truly mistrust other women; are they to pretend the contrary?"
"They can be silent, and try to stamp out an unworthy, a destructive, feeling."
He said nothing for a moment. Then he looked up at Meyer Isaacson and continued:
"Are you going anywhere when you leave here?"
"I've accepted something in Chesham Place. Why?"
"Must you go to it?"
"Come and have supper with me at the Savoy."
"Supper! My dear Armine! You know nowadays we doctors are preaching, and rightly preaching, less eating and drinking to our patients. I can eat nothing till to-morrow after my morning ride."
"But you can sit at a supper-table, I suppose?"
"Oh, yes, I can do that."
"Come and sit at mine. Let's go away from here together."
"You shall see whether I am out of place at the Savoy."
At a quarter to eleven that night Meyer Isaacson and Nigel Armine came down the bit of carpet that was unrolled to the edge of the pavement in front of Lady Somerson's door, and got into the former's electric brougham. As it moved off noiselessly, the Doctor said:
"You had a long talk with Mrs. Derringham in the drawing-room."
"Yes," replied Armine, rather curtly.
He relapsed into silence, leaning back in his corner.
"I like her," the Doctor continued, after a pause.
"Why do you say that?"
"Because I feel it; I gather it from the way you said 'yes.'"
Armine moved, and leaned slightly forwards.
"Isn't she rather mauvaise langue?" he asked.
"Mrs. Derringham? I certainly don't think her so."
"She's one of the disbelievers in women you spoke of after dinner; one of the traitresses in the woman's camp. Why can't women hang together?"
"They do sometimes."
"Yes, when there's a woman to be hounded down. They hang together when there's a work of destruction on hand. But do they hang together when there's a work of construction to be done?"
"Do you mean a reputation to be built up?"
Armine pulled his moustache. In the electric light Meyer Isaacson could see that his blue eyes were shining.
"Because," Meyer Isaacson continued, "if you do mean that, I should be inclined to say that each of us must build up his or her reputation individually for himself or herself."
"We need help in nearly all our buildings-up, and how often, how damnably often, we don't get it!"
"Was Mrs. Derringham specially down upon some particular woman to-night?"
"Yes, she was."
"Do you care to tell me upon whom?"
"It was Mrs. Chepstow."
"You were talking about Mrs. Chepstow?" Isaacson said slowly. "The famous Mrs. Chepstow?"
"Famous!" said Armine. "I hardly see that Mrs. Chepstow is a famous woman. She is not a writer, a singer, a painter, an actress. She does nothing that I ever heard of. I shouldn't call such a woman famous. I daresay her name is known to lots of people. But this is the age of chatterboxes, and of course—"
At this moment the brougham rolled on to the rubber pavement in front of the Savoy Hotel and stopped before the entrance.
As he was getting out and going into the hall, Meyer Isaacson remembered that the letter Mrs. Chepstow had written to him asking for an appointment had been stamped "Savoy Hotel." She had been staying at the hotel then. Was she staying there now? He had never heard Armine mention her before, but his feminine intuition suddenly connected Armine's words, "I'm very happy at the Savoy," with the invitation to sup there, and the conversation about Mrs. Chepstow just reported to him by his friend. Armine knew Mrs. Chepstow. They were going to meet her in the restaurant to-night. Meyer Isaacson felt sure of it.
They left their coats in the cloak-room and made their way to the restaurant, which as yet was almost empty. The maitre d'hotel came forward to Armine, bowing and smiling, and showed them to a table in a corner. Meyer Isaacson saw that it was laid for only two. He was surprised, but he said nothing, and they sat down.
"I really can't eat supper, Armine," he said. "Don't order it for me."
"Have a little soup, at least, and a glass of champagne?"
Without waiting for a reply, he gave an order.
"We might have sat in the hall, but it is more amusing in here. Remember, I haven't been in London—seen the London show—for over eight months. One meets a lot of old friends and acquaintances in places like this."
Meyer Isaacson opened his lips to say that Armine would be far more likely to meet his friends during the season if he went to parties in private houses. America was beginning to stream in, mingled with English country people "up" for a few days, and floating representatives of the nations of the earth. In this heterogeneous crowd he saw no one whom he knew, and Armine had not so far recognized anybody. But he shut his lips without speaking. He realized that Armine had a purpose in coming to the Savoy to-night, in bringing him. For some reason his friend was trying to mask that purpose, but it must almost immediately become apparent. He had only to wait for a few minutes, and doubtless he would know exactly what it was.
A waiter brought the soup and the champagne.
"If any of the patients to whom I have strictly forbidden supper should see me now," said the Doctor, "and if they should divine that I have come straight from a long dinner!—Armine, I am making a heavy sacrifice on friendship's altar."
"You don't see any patients, I hope?"
"Not as yet," the Doctor answered.
Almost before the words were out of his mouth, he saw Mrs. Chepstow at some distance from them, coming in at the door. She came in alone. He looked to see her escort, but, to his surprise, she was not followed by any one. Holding herself very erect, and not glancing to the right or left, she walked down the room escorted by the maitre d'hotel, passed close to Armine and the Doctor, went to a small table set in the angle of a screen not far off, and sat down with her profile turned towards them. She said a few words to the maitre d'hotel. He spoke to a waiter, then hurried away. Mrs. Chepstow sat very still in her chair, looking down. She had laid a lace fan beside the knives and glasses that shone in the electric light. Her right hand rested lightly on it. She was dressed in black, and wore white gloves, and a diamond comb in her fair, dyed hair. Her strange, colourless complexion looked extra-ordinarily delicate and pure from where the two friends were sitting. There was something pathetic in its whiteness, and in the quiet attitude of this woman who sat quite alone in the midst of the gay crowd. Many people stared at her, whispered about her, were obviously surprised at her solitude; but she seemed quite unconscious that she was being noticed. And there was a curious simplicity in her unconsciousness, and in her attitude, which made her seem almost girlish from a little distance.
"There's Mrs. Chepstow," said a man at the next table to Armine's, bending over to his companion, a stout and florid specimen from the City. "And absolutely alone, by Jove!"
"Couldn't get even a kid from Sandhurst to-night, I s'pose," returned the other. "I wonder she comes in at all if she can't scrape up an escort. Wonder she has the cheek to do it."
They lowered their voices and leaned nearer to each other. Armine lifted his glass of champagne to his lips, sipped it, and put it down.
"If you do see any patients, you can explain it's all my fault," he said to the Doctor. "I will take the blame. But surely you don't have to follow all your prescriptions?"
His voice was slightly uneven and abstracted, as if he were speaking merely to cover some emotion he was determined to conceal.
"No. But I ought to set an example of reasonable living, I suppose."
They talked for a few minutes about health, with a curious formality, like people who are conscious that they are being critically listened to, or who are, too consciously, listening to themselves. Once or twice Meyer Isaacson glanced across the room to Mrs. Chepstow. She was eating her supper slowly, languidly, and always looking down. Apparently she had not seen him or Armine. Indeed, she did not seem to see any one, but she was rather sadly unconscious of her surroundings. The Doctor found himself pitying her, then denying to himself that she merited compassion. With many others, he wondered at her solitude. To sup thus alone in a crowded restaurant was to advertise her ill success in the life she had chosen, her abandonment by man. Why did she do this? He could not then divine, although afterwards he knew. And he was quietly astonished. Just at first he expected that she would presently be joined by some one who was late. But no one came, and no second place was laid at her table.
Conversation flagged between Armine and him, until the former presently said:
"I want to introduce you to some one to-night."
"Yes? Who is it?"
He asked, but he already knew.
The Doctor was on the verge of saying that he was already acquainted with her, when Armine added:
"I spoke about you to her, and she told me she had never met you."
"When was that?"
"Four days ago, when I was introduced to her, and talked to her for the first time."
The Doctor did not speak for a minute. Then he said:
"I shall be delighted to be presented to her."
Although he was remarkably truthful with his friends, he was always absolutely discreet in his professional capacity. He did not know whether Mrs. Chepstow would wish the fact of her having consulted him about her health to be spoken of. Therefore he did not mention it. And as Armine knew that four days ago Mrs. Chepstow and he were strangers, in not mentioning it he was obliged to leave his friend under the impression that they were strangers still.
"She is staying in this hotel, and is sitting over there. But of course you know her by sight," said Armine.
"Oh, yes, I have seen her about."
"I think you will like her, if you can clear your mind of any prejudices you may have formed against her."
"Why should I be prejudiced against Mrs. Chepstow?"
"People are. No one has a good word for her. Both women and men speak ill of her."
From the tone of Armine's voice Meyer Isaacson knew that this fact had prejudiced him in Mrs. Chepstow's favour. There are some men who are born to defend lost causes, who instinctively turn towards those from whom others are ostentatiously turning away, moved by some secret chivalry which blinds their reason, or by a passion of simple human pity that dominates their hearts and casts a shadow over the brightness of their intellects. Of these men Nigel Armine was one, and Meyer Isaacson knew it. He was not much surprised, therefore, when Armine continued:
"They see only the surface of things, and judge by what they see. I suppose one ought not to condemn them. But sometimes it's—it's devilish difficult not to condemn cruelty, especially when the cruelty is directed against a woman. Only to-night Mrs. Derringham—and you say she's a good sort of woman—"
"Very much so."
"Well, she said to me, 'For such women as Mrs. Chepstow I have no pity, so don't ask it of me, Mr. Armine.' What a confession, Isaacson!"
"Did she give her reasons?"
"Oh, yes, she tried to. She said the usual thing."
"What was that?"
"She said that Mrs. Chepstow had sold herself body and soul to the Devil for material things; that she was the typical greedy woman."
"And did she indicate exactly what she meant by the typical greedy woman?"
"Yes. I will say for her that she was plain-spoken. She said: 'The woman without ideals, without any feeling for home and all that home means, the one man, children, peace found in unselfishness, rest in work for others; the woman who betrays the reputation of her sex by being absolutely concentrated upon herself, and whose desires only extend to the vulgar satisfactions brought by a preposterous expenditure of money on clothes, jewels, yachts, houses, motors, everything that rouses wonder and admiration in utterly second-rate minds.'"
"There are such women."
"Perhaps there are. But, my dear Isaacson, one has only to look at Mrs. Chepstow—with unprejudiced eyes, mind you—to see that she could never be one of them. Even if I had never spoken to her, I should know that she must have ideals, could never not have them, whatever her life is, or has been. Physiognomy cannot utterly lie. Look at the line of that face. Don't you see what I mean?"
They both gazed for a moment at the lonely woman.
"There is, of course, a certain beauty in Mrs. Chepstow's face," the Doctor said.
"I am not speaking of beauty; I am speaking of ideality, of purity. Don't you see what I mean? Now, be honest."
"Yes, I do."
"Ah!" said Armine.
The exclamation sounded warmly pleased.
"But that look, I think, is a question merely of line, and of the way the hair grows. Do you mean to say that you would rather judge a woman by that than by the actions of her life?"
"No. But I do say that if you examined the life of a woman with a face like that—the real life—you would be certain to find that it had not been devoid of actions such as you would expect, actions illustrating that look of ideality which any one can see. What does Mrs. Derringham really know of Mrs. Chepstow? She is not personally acquainted with her, even. She acknowledged that. She has never spoken to her, and doesn't want to."
"That scarcely surprises me, I confess," the Doctor remarked.
There was a definite dryness in his tone, and Armine noticed it.
"You are prejudiced, I see," he said.
In his voice there was a sound of disappointment.
"I don't exactly know why, but I have always looked upon you as one of the most fair-minded, broad-minded men I have met, Isaacson," he said. "Not as one of those who must always hunt with the hounds."
"The question is, What is prejudice? The facts of a life are facts, and cannot leave one wholly uninfluenced for or against the liver of the life. If I see a man beating a dog because it has licked his hand, I draw the inference that he is cruel. Would you say that I am narrow-minded in doing so? If one does not judge men and women by their actions, by what is one to judge them? Perhaps you will say, 'Don't judge them at all.' But it is impossible not to form opinions on people, and every time one forms an opinion one passes a secret judgment. Isn't it so?"
"I think feeling enters into the matter. Often one gets an immediate impression, before one knows anything about the facts of a life. The facts may seem to give that impression the lie. But is it wrong? I think very often not. I remember once I heard a woman, and a clever woman, say of a man whom she knew intimately, 'They accuse him of such and such an act. Well, if I saw him commit it, I would not believe he had done it!' Absurd, you will say. And yet is it so absurd? In front of the real man may there not be a false man, is there not often a false man, like a mask over a face? And doesn't the false man do things that the real man condemns? I would often rather judge with my heart than with my eyes, Isaacson—yes, I would. That woman said a fine thing when she said that, and she was not absurd, though every one who heard her laughed at her. When one gets what one calls an impression, one's heart is speaking, is saying, 'This is the truth.' And I believe the heart, without reasoning, knows what the truth is."
"And if two people get diametrically different impressions of the same person? What then? That sometimes happens, you know."
"I don't believe you and I could ever get diametrically different impressions of a person," said Armine, looking at Mrs. Chepstow; "and to-night I can't bother myself about the rest of the world."
"Don't you think hearts can be stupid as well as heads? I do. I think people can be muddle-hearted as well as muddle-headed."
As the Doctor spoke, it seemed to flash upon him that he was passing a judgment upon his friend—this man whom he admired, whom he almost loved.
"I should always trust my heart," said Armine. "But I very often mistrust my head. Won't you have any more champagne?"
"No, thank you."
"What do you say to our joining Mrs. Chepstow? It must be awfully dull for her, supping all alone. We might go and speak to her. If she doesn't ask us to sit down, we can go into the hall and have a cigar."
There was neither alacrity nor reluctance in Meyer Isaacson's voice, but if there had been, Armine would probably not have noticed it. When he was intent on a thing, he saw little but that one thing. Now he paid the bill, tipped the waiter, and got up.
"Come along," he said, "and I will introduce you."
He put his hand for an instant on his friend's arm.
"Clear your mind of prejudice, Isaacson," he said, in a low voice. "You are too good and too clever to be one of the prejudiced crowd. Let your first impression be a true one."
As the doctor went with his friend to Mrs. Chepstow's table, he did not tell him that first impression had been already formed in the consulting-room of the house in Cleveland Square.
At the sound of Nigel Armine's voice Mrs. Chepstow started slightly, like a person recalled abruptly from a reverie, looked up, and smiled.
"You are here! I'm all alone. But I was hungry, so I had to brave the rabble."
"I want to introduce a friend to you. May I?"
Armine moved, and Doctor Isaacson stood by Mrs. Chepstow.
"Doctor Meyer Isaacson, Mrs. Chepstow."
The Doctor scarcely knew whether he had expected Mrs. Chepstow to recognize him, or whether he had anticipated what actually happened—her slight bow and murmured "I'm delighted to meet you." But he did know that he was not really surprised at her treatment of him as an entire stranger. And he was glad that he had said nothing to Armine of her visit to Cleveland Square.
"Aren't you going to sit down and talk to me for a little?" Mrs. Chepstow said. "I'm all alone and horribly dull."
Armine drew up a chair.
"Sit on my other side, Doctor Isaacson. I've heard a great deal about you. You've made perfect cures of most of my enemies."
There was not the least trace of consciousness in her manner, not the faintest suspicion of embarrassment in her look, and, as he sat down, the Doctor found himself admiring the delicate perfection of her deceit, as he had sometimes admired a subtle nuance in the performance of some great French actress.
"You ought to hate me then," he said.
"Why? If I don't hate them?"
"Don't you hate your enemies?" asked Armine.
"No; that's a weakness in me. I never could and never shall. Something silly inside of me invariably finds excuses for people, whatever they are or do. I'm always saying to myself, 'They don't understand. If they really knew all the circumstances, they wouldn't hate me. Perhaps they'd even pity me.' Absurd! A mistake! I know that. Such feelings stand in the way of success, because they prevent one striking out in one's own defence. And if one doesn't strike out for oneself, nobody will strike out for one."
"I don't think that's quite true," Armine said.
"Oh, yes, it is. If you're pugnacious, people think you're plucky, and they're ready to stand up for you. Whereas, if you forgive easily, you're not easily forgiven."
"If that is so," Armine said, "why don't you change your tactics?"
As he said this, he glanced at Isaacson, and the Doctor understood that he was seeking to display to his friend what he believed to be this woman's character.
"Simply because I can't. I am what I am. I can't change myself, and I can't act in defiance of the little interior voice. I often try to, for I don't pretend in the least to be virtuous; but I have to give in. I know it's weakness. I know the world would laugh at it. But—que voulez-vous?—some of us are the slaves of our souls."
The last sentence seemed almost to be blurted out, so honestly was it said. But instantly, as if regretting a sincere indiscretion, she added:
"Doctor Isaacson, what an idiot you must think me!"
"Why, Mrs. Chepstow?"
"For saying that. You, of course, think we are the slaves of our bodies."
"I certainly do not think you an idiot," he could not help saying, with significance.
"Isaacson is not an ordinary doctor," said Armine. "You needn't be afraid of him."
"I don't think I'm afraid of anybody, but one doesn't want to make oneself absurd. And I believe I often am absurd in rating the body too low. What a conversation!" she added, smiling. "But, as I was all alone in the crowd, I was thinking of all sorts of things. A crowd makes one think tremendously, if one is quite alone. It stimulates the brain, I suppose. So I was thinking a lot of rubbish over my solitary meal."
She looked at the two men apologetically.
"La femme pense," she said, and she shrugged her shoulders.
Armine drew his chair a little nearer to her, and this action suddenly made Doctor Isaacson realize the power that still dwelt in this woman, the power to govern certain types of men.
"And the man acts," completed Armine.
"And the woman acts, too, and better than the man," the Doctor thought to himself.
Again his admiration was stirred, this time by the sledge-hammer boldness of Mrs. Chepstow, by her complete though so secret defiance of himself.
"But what were you thinking about?" Armine continued, earnestly. "I noticed how preoccupied you were even when you came into the room."
"Did you? I was thinking about a conversation I had this afternoon. Oddly enough"—she turned slowly towards Meyer Isaacson—"it was with a doctor."
"Indeed?" he said, looking her full in the face.
She turned away, and once more spoke to Armine.
"I went this afternoon to a doctor, Mr. Armine, to consult him about a friend of mine who is ill and obstinate, and we had a most extraordinary talk about the soul and the body. A sort of fight it was. He thought me a typical silly woman. I'm sure of that."
"Because I suppose I took a sentimental view of our subject. We women always instinctively take the sentimental view, you know. My doctor was severely scientific and frightfully sceptical. He thought me an absurd visionary."
"And what did you think him?"
"I'm afraid I thought him a crass materialist. He had doctored the body until he was able to believe only in the body. He referred everything back to the body. Every emotion, according to him, was only caused by the terminal of a nerve vibrating in a cell contained in the grey matter of the brain. I dare say he thinks the most passionate love could be operated for. And as to any one having an immortal soul—well, I did dare, being naturally fearless, just to mention the possibility of my possessing such a thing. But I was really sorry afterwards."
"Tell us why."
"Because it brought upon me such an avalanche of scorn and arguments. I didn't much mind the scorn, but the arguments bored me."
"Did they convince you?"
"Mr. Armine! Now, did you ever know a woman convinced of anything by argument?"
"Then you still believe that you have an immortal soul?"
"More, far more, than ever."
She was laughing, too. But, quite suddenly, the laughter died out of her, and she said, with an earnest face:
"I wouldn't let any one—any one—take some of my beliefs from me."
The tone of her voice was almost fierce in its abrupt doggedness.
"I must have some coffee," she added, with a complete change of tone. "I sleep horribly badly, and that's why I take coffee. Mere perversity! Three black coffees, waiter."
"Not for me!" said Meyer Isaacson.
"You must, for once. I hate doing things alone. There is no pleasure in anything unless some one shares it. At least"—she looked at Armine—"that is what every woman thinks."
"Then how unhappy lots of women must be," he said.
"The lonely women. Ah! no man will ever know how unhappy."
There was a moment of silence. Something in the sound of Mrs. Chepstow's voice as she said the last words almost compelled a silence.
For the first time since he had been with her that night Meyer Isaacson felt that perhaps he had caught a glimpse of her true self, had drawn near to the essential woman.
The waiter brought their coffee, and Mrs. Chepstow added, with a little laugh:
"Even a meal eaten alone is no pleasure to a woman. To-night, till you came to take pity upon me, I should have been far happier with 'something on a tray' in my own room. But now I feel quite convivial. Isn't the coffee here good?"
Suddenly she looked cheerful, almost gay. Happiness seemed to blossom within her.
"Never mind if you lie awake for once, Doctor Isaacson," she continued, looking across at him. "You will have done a good action; you will have cheered up a human being who had been feeling down on her luck. That talk I had with a doctor had depressed me most horribly, although I told myself that I didn't believe a word he said."
Meyer Isaacson sipped his coffee and said nothing.
"I think one of the wickedest things one can do in the world is to try to take any comforting and genuine belief away from the believer," said Armine, with energy.
"Would you leave people even in their errors?" said the Doctor. "Suppose, for instance, you saw some one—some friend—believing in a person whom you knew to be unworthy, would you make no effort to enlighten him?"
He spoke very quietly—almost carelessly. Mrs. Chepstow fixed her big blue eyes on him and for a moment forgot her coffee.
"Perhaps I should. But you know my theory."
"Oh—to be sure!"
Meyer Isaacson smiled. Mrs. Chepstow looked from one man to the other quickly.
"What theory? Don't make me feel an outsider," she said.
"Mr. Armine thinks—may I, Armine?"
"Thinks that belief in the goodness, the genuineness of people helps them to become good, genuine, so that the unworthy might be made eventually worthy by a trust at first misplaced."
"Mr. Armine is—" She checked herself. "It is a pity the world isn't full of Mr. Armines," she said, softly.
Armine flushed, almost boyishly.
"I wish my doctor knew you, Mr. Armine. If you create by believing, I'm sure he destroys by disbelieving."
As she said the last words, her eyes met Meyer Isaacson's, and he saw in them, or thought he saw, a defiance that was threatening.
The lights winked. Mrs. Chepstow got up.
"They're going to turn us out. Let us anticipate them—by going. It's so dreadful to be turned out. It makes me feel like Eve at the critical moment of her career."
She led the way from the big room. As she passed among the tables, every man, and almost every woman, turned to stare at her as children stare at a show. She seemed quite unconscious of the attention she attracted. But when she bade good night to the two friends in the hall, she said:
"Aren't people horrible sometimes? They seem to think one is—" She checked herself. "I'm a fool!" she said. "Good night. Thank you both for coming. It has done me good."
"Don't mind those brutes!" Armine almost whispered to her, as he held her hand for a moment. "Don't think of them. Think of—the others."
She looked at him in silence, nodded, and went quietly away.
Directly she had gone Meyer Isaacson said to his friend:
"Well, good night, Armine. I am glad you're back. Let us see something of each other."
"Don't go yet. Come to my sitting-room and have a smoke."
"Better not. I have to be up early. I ride at half-past seven."
"I'll ride with you, then."
"But have you got any horses up?"
"No; I'll hire from Simonds. Don't wait for me, but look out for me in the Row. Good night, old chap."
As they grasped hands for a moment, he added:
"Wasn't I right?"
"About her—Mrs. Chepstow? She may have been driven into the Devil's hands, but don't you see, don't you feel, the good in her, struggling up, longing for an opportunity to proclaim itself, to take the reins of her life and guide her to calm, to happiness, to peace? I pity that woman, Isaacson; I pity her."
"Pity her if you like," the Doctor said, with a strong emphasis, on the first word, "but—"
He hesitated. Something in his friend's face stopped him from saying more, told him that perhaps it would be much wiser to say nothing more. Opposition drives some natures blindly forward. Such natures should not be opposed.
"I pity Mrs. Chepstow, too," he concluded. "Poor woman!"
And in saying that he spoke the truth. But his pity for her was not of the kind that is akin to love.
The black coffee Mrs. Chepstow had persuaded Meyer Isaacson to take kept him awake that night. Like some evil potion, it banished sleep and peopled the night with a rushing crowd of thoughts. Presently he did not even try to sleep. He gave himself to the crowd with a sort of half-angry joy.
In the afternoon he had been secretly puzzled by Mrs. Chepstow. He had wondered what under-reason she had for seeking an interview with him. Now he surely knew that reason. Unless he was wrong, unless he misunderstood her completely, she had come to make a curiously audacious coup. She had seen Nigel Armine, she had read his strange nature rightly; she had divined that in him there was a man who, unlike most men, instinctively loved to go against the stream, who instinctively turned towards that which most men turned from. She had seen in him the born espouser of lost causes.
She was a lost cause. Armine was her opportunity.
Armine had talked to her four days ago of Meyer Isaacson. The Doctor guessed how, knowing the generous enthusiasm of his friend. And she, a clever woman, made distrustful by misfortune, had come to Cleveland Square, led by feminine instinct, to spy out this land of which she had heard so much. The Doctor's sensation of being examined, while he sat with Mrs. Chepstow in his consulting-room, had been well-founded. The patient had been reading the Doctor, swiftly, accurately. And she had acted promptly upon the knowledge of him so rapidly acquired. She had "given herself away" to him; she had shown herself to him as she was. Why? To shut his mouth in the future. The revelation, such as it was, had been made to him as a physician, under the guise of described symptoms. She had told him the exact truth of herself in his consulting-room, in order that he might not tell others—tell Nigel Armine—what that truth was.
Her complete reliance upon her own capacity for reading character surprised and almost delighted the Doctor. For there was something within him which loved strength and audacity, which could appreciate them artistically at their full value. She had given a further and a fuller illustration of her audacity that evening in the restaurant.
Now, in the night, he could see her white face, the look in her brilliant eyes above the painted shadows, as she told to Nigel the series of lies about the interview in Cleveland Square, putting herself in the Doctor's place, him in her own. She had enjoyed doing that, enjoyed it intellectually. And she had forced the Doctor to dance to her piping. He had been obliged to join her in her deceit—almost to back her up in it.
He knew now why she had been alone at her table, why she had advertised her ill success in the life she had chosen, her present abandonment by men. This had been done to strike at Armine's peculiar temperament. It was a very clever stroke.
But it was a burning of her boats.
Meyer Isaacson frowned in the night.
A woman like Mrs. Chepstow does not burn her boats for nothing. How much did she expect to gain by that sacrifice of improper pride, a pride almost dearer than life to a woman of her type? The quid pro quo—what was it to be?
He feared for Nigel, as he lay awake while the night drew on towards dawn.
Mrs. Chepstow's sitting-room at the Savoy was decorated with pink and green in pale hues which suited well her present scheme of colour. In it there was a little rosewood piano. Upon that piano's music-desk, on the following day, stood a copy of Elgar's "Dream of Gerontius," open at the following words:
"Proficiscere, anima Christiana, de hoc mundo! Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul! Go from this world!"
Scattered about the room were The Nineteenth Century and After, The Quarterly Review, the Times, and several books; among them Goethe's "Faust," Maspero's "Manual of Egyptian Archaeology," "A Companion to Greek Studies," Guy de Maupassant's "Fort Comme la Mort," D'Annunzio's "Trionfo della Morte," and Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter." There was also a volume of Emerson's "Essays." In a little basket under the writing-table lay the last number of The Winning Post, carefully destroyed. There were a few pink roses in a vase. In a cage some canary-birds were singing. The furniture had been pulled about by a clever hand until the room had lost something of its look of a room in a smart hotel. The windows were wide open on to the balcony. They dominated the Thames Embankment, and a light breeze from the water stirred the white and green curtains that framed them.
Into this pretty and peacefully cheerful chamber Nigel Armine was shown by a waiter at five o'clock precisely, and left with the promise that Mrs. Chepstow should be informed of his arrival.
When the door had closed behind the German waiter's back, Nigel stood for a moment looking around him. This was the first visit he had paid to Mrs. Chepstow. He sought for traces of her personality in this room in which she lived. He thought it looked unusually cosy for a room in an hotel, although he did not discover, as Isaacson would have discovered in a moment, that the furniture had been deftly disarranged. His eyes roved quickly: no photographs, no embroideries, one or two extra cushions, birds, a few perfect roses, a few beautifully bound books, the windows widely opened to let the air stream in. And there was an open piano! He went over to it and bent down.
"Proficiscere, anima Christiana, de hoc mundo! Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul! Go from this world!"
So she loved "Gerontius," that intimate musical expression of the wonder and the strangeness of the Soul! He did not remember he had told her that he loved it. He stood gazing at the score. The light wind came in from the river far down below, and the curtains made a faint sound as they moved. The canaries chirped intermittently. But Nigel heard the voice of a priest by the side of one who was dying. And as he looked at the chords supporting the notes on which the priest bade the soul of the man return to its Maker, he seemed to hear them, as he had heard them, played by a great orchestra; to feel the mysterious, the terrible, yet beautiful act of dissolution.
He started. He had launched himself into space with the soul. Now, abruptly, he was tethered to earth in the body. Had he not heard the murmur of a dress announcing the coming of its wearer? He looked towards the second door of the room, which opened probably into a bedroom. It was shut, and remained shut. He came away from the piano. What books was she fond of reading! Emerson—optimism in boxing-gloves; Maspero—she was interested, then, in things Egyptian. "Faust"—De Maupassant—D'Annunzio—Hawthorne, "The Scarlet Letter." He took this last book, which was small and bound in white, into his hand. He had known it once. He had read it long ago. Now he opened it, glanced quickly through its pages. Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale—suddenly he remembered the story, the sin of the flesh, the scarlet letter that branded the sin upon the woman's breast while the man went unpunished.
And Mrs. Chepstow had it, bound in white.
"Are you judging my character by my books?"
A warm and careless voice spoke behind him. She had come in and was standing close to him, dressed in white, with a black hat, and holding a white parasol in her hand. In the sunshine she looked even fairer than by night. Her pale but gleaming hair was covered by a thin veil, which she kept down as she greeted Nigel.
"Not judging," he said, as he held her hand for a moment. "Guessing, perhaps, or guessing at."
"Which is it? 'The Scarlet Letter'! I got it a year ago. I read it. And when I had read it, I sent it to be bound in white."
"Why was that?"
"'Though your sin shall be as scarlet,'" she quoted.
He was silent, looking at her.
"Let us have tea."
As she spoke, she went, with her slow and careless walk which Isaacson had noticed, towards the fireplace, and touched the electric bell. Then she sat down on a sofa close to the cage of the canary-birds, and with her back to the light.
"I suppose you are fearfully busy with engagements," she continued, as he came to sit down near her. "Most people are, at this time of year. One ought to be truly grateful for even five minutes of anybody's time. I remember, ages ago, when I was one of the busy ones, I used to expect almost servile thankfulness for any little minute I doled out. How things change!"
She did not sigh, but laughed, and, without giving him time to speak, added:
"Which of my other books did you look at?"
"I saw you had Maspero."
"Oh, I got that simply because I had met you. It turned my mind towards Egypt, which I have never seen, although I've yachted all over the place. Last night, after we had said good night, I couldn't sleep; so I sat here and read Maspero for a while, and thought of your Egyptian life. I didn't mean to be impertinent. One has to think of something."
Her tone, though light, had surely been coloured with apology.
"Well, people are so funny—now. I remember the time when lots of them were foolish in the opposite way. If I thought of them, they seemed to take it as an honour. But then I wasn't thirty-eight, and I was in society."
The German waiter came in with tea. When he had arranged it and gone out, Nigel said, with a certain diffidence:
"I wonder you don't live in the country."
"I know what you mean. But you're wrong. One feels even more out of it there."
She gave him his cup gently, with a movement that implied care for his comfort, almost a thoughtful, happy service.
"The Rector is embarrassed, his wife appalled. The Doctor's 'lady,' much as she longs for one's guineas, tries to stop him even from attending one's dying bed. The Squire, though secretly interested to fervour, is of course a respectable man. He is a 'stay' to country morality, and his wife is a pair of stays. The neighbours respond in their dozens to the mot d'ordre, and there one is plantee, like a lonely white moon encircled by a halo of angry fire. Dear acquaintance, I've tried it. Egypt—Omaha—anything would be better. What are you eating? Have one of these little cakes. They really are good. I ordered them specially for you and our small festivity."
She was smiling as she handed him the plate.
"I should think Egypt would be better!" exclaimed Nigel, with a strength and a vehemence that contrasted almost startlingly with her light, half-laughing tone. "Why don't you go there? Why don't you try the free life?"
"Live among the tribes, like Lady Hester Stanhope in the Lebanon? I'm afraid I could never train myself to wear a turban. Besides, Egypt is fearfully civilized now. Every one goes there. I should be cut all up the Nile."
The brutality of her frankness startled and almost pained him. For a moment, in it he seemed to discern a lack of taste.
"You are right," she said; and suddenly the lightness died away altogether from her voice. "But how is one not to get blunted? And even long ago I always hated pretence. Women are generally pretending. And they are wise. I have never been wise. If I were wise, I should not let you see my lonely, stupid, undignified situation."
Suddenly she turned so that the light from the window fell full upon her, and lifted her veil up over the brim of her hat.
"Nor my face, upon which, of course, must be written all sorts of worries and sorrows. But I couldn't pretend at eighteen, nor can I at thirty-eight. No wonder so many men—the kind of men you meet at your club, at the Marlborough, or the Bachelors', or the Travellers'—call me an 'ass of a woman.' I am an ass of a woman, a little—little—ass."
In saying the very last words all the severity slipped away out of her voice, and as she smiled again and moved her head, emphasizing humorously her own reproach to herself, she looked almost a girl.
"The 'little' applies to my mind, of course, not to my body; or perhaps I ought to say to my soul, instead of to my body."
"No, 'little' would be the wrong adjective for your soul," Nigel said.
Mrs. Chepstow looked touched, and turned once more away from the light, after Nigel had noticed that she looked touched.
"Have you seen your friend, Doctor Isaacson, to-day?" she said, seeming to make an effort in changing the conversation. "I like that man, though usually I dislike Jews because of their love for money. I like him, and somehow I feel as if he had liked me the other night, as if he had felt kindly towards me."
"Isaacson is a splendid fellow. I haven't seen him again. He has been called away by a case. We were to have ridden together this morning, but he sent to say it was impossible. He has gone into the country."
"Will he be away long?"
"I don't know. I hope not. I want him here badly."
"I mean that he's congenial to me in many ways, and that congenial spirits are rare."
"You must have troops of friends. You are a man's man."
"I don't know. What is a man's man?"
"A man like you."
"And a woman's man?" he asked, drawing his chair a little towards her.
"Every man's man is a woman's man."
"You say you cannot pretend. Cannot you flatter?"
"I can pretend to that extent, and sometimes do. But why should I flatter you? I don't believe you care a bit about it. You love a kindly truth. Who doesn't? I've just told you a kindly truth."
"I should like to tell you some kindly truths," he said.
"I'm afraid there are not many you, or any one else, could tell. I dare say there are one or two, though, for I believe there is in every one of us a little bit—almost infinitesimal, perhaps—of ineradicable good, a tiny flame which no amount of drenching can ever extinguish."