A Modern Fantasy
AUTHOR OF "THE OLD WIVES' TALES," "CLAYHANGER," ETC., ETC.
BOSTON SMALL, MAYNARD & COMPANY 1911
Copyright, 1907 By HERBERT B. TURNER & CO.
BY SMALL, MAYNARD & COMPANY (INCORPORATED)
I. MY SPLENDID COUSIN
II. AT THE OPERA
III. THE CRY OF ALRESCA
IV. ROSA'S SUMMONS
V. THE DAGGER AND THE MAN
VI. ALRESCA'S FATE
VII. THE VIGIL BY THE BIER
VIII. THE MESSAGE
IX. THE TRAIN
X. THE STEAMER
XI. A CHAT WITH ROSA
XIII. THE PORTRAIT
XIV. THE VILLA
XV. THE SHEATH OF THE DAGGER
XVI. THE THING IN THE CHAIR
XVII. THE MENACE
XVIII. THE STRUGGLE
XIX. THE INTERCESSION
MY SPLENDID COUSIN
I am eight years older now. It had never occurred to me that I am advancing in life and experience until, in setting myself to recall the various details of the affair, I suddenly remembered my timid confusion before the haughty mien of the clerk at Keith Prowse's.
I had asked him:
"Have you any amphitheatre seats for the Opera to-night?"
He did not reply. He merely put his lips together and waved his hand slowly from side to side.
Not perceiving, in my simplicity, that he was thus expressing a sublime pity for the ignorance which my demand implied, I innocently proceeded:
This time he condescended to speak.
Then I understood that what he meant was: "Poor fool! why don't you ask for the moon?"
I blushed. Yes, I blushed before the clerk at Keith Prowse's, and turned to leave the shop. I suppose he thought that as a Christian it was his duty to enlighten my pitiable darkness.
"It's the first Rosa night to-night," he said with august affability. "I had a couple of stalls this morning, but I've just sold them over the telephone for six pound ten."
He smiled. His smile crushed me. I know better now. I know that clerks in box-offices, with their correct neckties and their air of continually doing wonders over the telephone, are not, after all, the grand masters of the operatic world. I know that that manner of theirs is merely a part of their attire, like their cravats; that they are not really responsible for the popularity of great sopranos; and that they probably go home at nights to Fulham by the white omnibus, or to Hammersmith by the red one—and not in broughams.
"I see," I observed, carrying my crushed remains out into the street. Impossible to conceal the fact that I had recently arrived from Edinburgh as raw as a ploughboy!
If you had seen me standing irresolute on the pavement, tapping my stick of Irish bog-oak idly against the curbstone, you would have seen a slim youth, rather nattily dressed (I think), with a shadow of brown on his upper lip, and a curl escaping from under his hat, and the hat just a little towards the back of his head, and a pretty good chin, and the pride of life in his ingenuous eye. Quite unaware that he was immature! Quite unaware that the supple curves of his limbs had an almost feminine grace that made older fellows feel paternal! Quite unaware that he had everything to learn, and that all his troubles lay before him! Actually fancying himself a man because he had just taken his medical degree....
The June sun shone gently radiant in a blue sky, and above the roofs milky-bosomed clouds were floating in a light wind. The town was bright, fresh, alert, as London can be during the season, and the joyousness of the busy streets echoed the joyousness of my heart (for I had already, with the elasticity of my years, recovered from the reverse inflicted on me by Keith Prowse's clerk). On the opposite side of the street were the rich premises of a well-known theatrical club, whose weekly entertainments had recently acquired fame. I was, I recollect, proud of knowing the identity of the building—it was one of the few things I did know in London—and I was observing with interest the wondrous livery of the two menials motionless behind the glass of its portals, when a tandem equipage drew up in front of the pile, and the menials darted out, in their white gloves, to prove that they were alive and to justify their existence.
It was an amazingly complete turnout, and it well deserved all the attention it attracted, which was considerable. The horses were capricious, highly polished grays, perhaps a trifle undersized, but with such an action as is not to be bought for less than twenty-five guineas a hoof; the harness was silver-mounted; the dog-cart itself a creation of beauty and nice poise; the groom a pink and priceless perfection. But the crown and summit of the work was the driver—a youngish gentleman who, from the gloss of his peculiarly shaped collar to the buttons of his diminutive boots, exuded an atmosphere of expense. His gloves, his scarf-pin, his watch-chain, his mustache, his eye-glass, the crease in his nether garments, the cut of his coat-tails, the curves of his hat—all uttered with one accord the final word of fashion, left nothing else to be said. The correctness of Keith Prowse's clerk was as naught to his correctness. He looked as if he had emerged immaculate from the outfitter's boudoir, an achievement the pride of Bond Street.
As this marvellous creature stood up and prepared to alight from the vehicle, he chanced to turn his eye-glass in my direction. He scanned me carelessly, glanced away, and scanned me again with a less detached stare. And I, on my part, felt the awakening of a memory.
"That's my cousin Sullivan," I said to myself. "I wonder if he wants to be friends."
Our eyes coquetted. I put one foot into the roadway, withdrew it, restored it to the roadway, and then crossed the street.
It was indeed the celebrated Sullivan Smith, composer of those so successful musical comedies, "The Japanese Cat," "The Arabian Girl," and "My Queen." And he condescended to recognize me! His gestures indicated, in fact, a warm desire to be cousinly. I reached him. The moment was historic. While the groom held the wheeler's head, and the twin menials assisted with dignified inactivity, we shook hands.
"How long is it?" he said.
"Fifteen years—about," I answered, feeling deliciously old.
"Remember I punched your head?"
"Rather!" (Somehow I was proud that he had punched my head.)
"No credit to me," he added magnanimously, "seeing I was years older than you and a foot or so taller. By the way, Carl, how old did you say you were?"
He regarded me as a sixth-form boy might regard a fourth-form boy.
"I didn't say I was any age," I replied. "But I'm twenty-three."
"Well, then, you're quite old enough to have a drink. Come into the club and partake of a gin-and-angostura, old man. I'll clear all this away."
He pointed to the equipage, the horses, and the groom, and with an apparently magic word whispered into the groom's ear he did in fact clear them away. They rattled and jingled off in the direction of Leicester Square, while Sullivan muttered observations on the groom's driving.
"Don't imagine I make a practice of tooling tandems down to my club," said Sullivan. "I don't. I brought the thing along to-day because I've sold it complete to Lottie Cass. You know her, of course?"
"Well, anyhow," he went on after this check, "I've sold her the entire bag of tricks. What do you think I'm going to buy?"
"A motor-car, old man!"
In those days the person who bought a motor-car was deemed a fearless adventurer of romantic tendencies. And Sullivan so deemed himself. The very word "motor-car" then had a strange and thrilling romantic sound with it.
"The deuce you are!" I exclaimed.
"I am," said he, happy in having impressed me. He took my arm as though we had been intimate for a thousand years, and led me fearlessly past the swelling menials within the gate to the club smoking-room, and put me into a grandfather's chair of pale heliotrope plush in front of an onyx table, and put himself into another grandfather's chair of heliotrope plush. And in the cushioned quietude of the smoking-room, where light-shod acolytes served gin-and-angostura as if serving gin-and-angostura had been a religious rite, Sullivan went through an extraordinary process of unchaining himself. His form seemed to be crossed and re-crossed with chains—gold chains. At the end of one gold chain was a gold cigarette-case, from which he produced gold-tipped cigarettes. At the end of another was a gold matchbox. At the end of another, which he may or may not have drawn out by mistake, were all sorts of things—knives, keys, mirrors, and pencils. A singular ceremony! But I was now in the world of gold.
And then smoke ascended from the gold-tipped cigarettes as incense from censers, and Sullivan lifted his tinted glass of gin-and-angostura, and I, perceiving that such actions were expected of one in a theatrical club, responsively lifted mine, and the glasses collided, and Sullivan said:
"Here's to the end of the great family quarrel."
"I'm with you," said I.
And we sipped.
My father had quarrelled with his mother in an epoch when even musical comedies were unknown, and the quarrel had spread, as family quarrels do, like a fire or the measles. The punching of my head by Sullivan in the extinct past had been one of its earliest consequences.
"May the earth lie lightly on them!" said Sullivan.
He was referring to the originators of the altercation. The tone in which he uttered this wish pleased me—it was so gentle. It hinted that there was more in Sullivan than met the eye, though a great deal met the eye. I liked him. He awed me, and he also seemed to me somewhat ridiculous in his excessive pomp. But I liked him.
The next instant we were talking about Sullivan Smith. How he contrived to switch the conversation suddenly into that channel I cannot imagine. Some people have a gift of conjuring with conversations. They are almost always frankly and openly interested in themselves, as Sullivan was interested in himself. You may seek to foil them; you may even violently wrench the conversation into other directions. But every effort will be useless. They will beat you. You had much better lean back in your chair and enjoy their legerdemain.
In about two minutes Sullivan was in the very midst of his career.
"I never went in for high art, you know. All rot! I found I could write melodies that people liked and remembered." (He was so used to reading interviews with himself in popular weeklies that he had caught the formalistic phraseology, and he was ready apparently to mistake even his cousin for an interviewer. But I liked him.) "And I could get rather classy effects out of an orchestra. And so I kept on. I didn't try to be Wagner. I just stuck to Sullivan Smith. And, my boy, let me tell you it's only five years since 'The Japanese Cat' was produced, and I'm only twenty-seven, my boy! And now, who is there that doesn't know me?" He put his elbows on the onyx. "Privately, between cousins, you know, I made seven thousand quid last year, and spent half that. I live on half my income; always have done; always shall. Good principle! I'm a man of business, I am, Carl Foster. Give the public what they want, and save half your income—that's the ticket. Look at me. I've got to act the duke; it pays, so I do it. I am a duke. I get twopence apiece royalty on my photographs. That's what you'll never reach up to, not if you're the biggest doctor in the world." He laughed. "By the way, how's Jem getting along? Still practising at Totnes?"
"Yes," I said.
"Oh! So—so! You see, we haven't got seven thousand a year, but we've got five hundred each, and Jem's more interested in hunting than in doctoring. He wants me to go into partnership with him. But I don't see myself."
"Ambitious, eh, like I was? Got your degree in Edinburgh?"
I nodded, but modestly disclaimed being ambitious like he was.
"And your sister Lilian?"
"She's keeping house for Jem."
"Pretty girl, isn't she?"
"Yes," I said doubtfully. "Sings well, too."
"So you cultivate music down there?"
"Rather!" I said. "That is, Lilian does, and I do when I'm with her. We're pretty mad on it. I was dead set on hearing Rosetta Rosa in 'Lohengrin' to-night, but there isn't a seat to be had. I suppose I shall push myself into the gallery."
"No, you won't," Sullivan put in sharply. "I've got a box. There'll be a chair for you. You'll see my wife. I should never have dreamt of going. Wagner bores me, though I must say I've got a few tips from him. But when we heard what a rush there was for seats Emmeline thought we ought to go, and I never cross her if I can help it. I made Smart give us a box."
"I shall be delighted to come," I said. "There's only one Smart, I suppose? You mean Sir Cyril?"
"The same, my boy. Lessee of the Opera, lessee of the Diana, lessee of the Folly, lessee of the Ottoman. If any one knows the color of his cheques I reckon it's me. He made me—that I will say; but I made him, too. Queer fellow! Awfully cute of him to get elected to the County Council. It was through him I met my wife. Did you ever see Emmeline when she was Sissie Vox?"
"I'm afraid I didn't."
"You missed a treat, old man. There was no one to touch her in boys' parts in burlesque. A dashed fine woman she is—though I say it, dashed fine!" He seemed to reflect a moment. "She's a spiritualist. I wish she wasn't. Spiritualism gets on her nerves. I've no use for it myself, but it's her life. It gives her fancies. She got some sort of a silly notion—don't tell her I said this, Carlie—about Rosetta Rosa. Says she's unlucky—Rosa, I mean. Wanted me to warn Smart against engaging her. Me! Imagine it! Why, Rosa will be the making of this opera season! She's getting a terrific salary, Smart told me."
"It's awfully decent of you to offer me a seat," I began to thank him.
"Stuff!" he said. "Cost me nothing." A clock struck softly. "Christopher! it's half-past twelve, and I'm due at the Diana at twelve. We're rehearsing, you know."
We went out of the club arm in arm, Sullivan toying with his eye-glass.
"Well, you'll toddle round to-night, eh? Just ask for my box. You'll find they'll look after you. So long!"
He walked off.
"I say," he cried, returning hastily on his steps, and lowering his voice, "when you meet my wife, don't say anything about her theatrical career. She don't like it. She's a great lady now. See?"
"Why, of course!" I agreed.
He slapped me on the back and departed.
It is easy to laugh at Sullivan. I could see that even then—perhaps more clearly then than now. But I insist that he was lovable. He had little directly to do with my immense adventure, but without him it could not have happened. And so I place him in the forefront of the narrative.
AT THE OPERA
It was with a certain nervousness that I mentioned Sullivan's name to the gentleman at the receipt of tickets—a sort of transcendantly fine version of Keith Prowse's clerk—but Sullivan had not exaggerated his own importance. They did look after me. They looked after me with such respectful diligence that I might have been excused for supposing that they had mistaken me for the Shah of Persia in disguise. I was introduced into Sullivan's box with every circumstance of pomp. The box was empty. Naturally I had arrived there first. I sat down, and watched the enormous house fill, but not until I had glanced into the mirror that hung on the crimson partition of the box to make sure that my appearance did no discredit to Sullivan and the great lady, his wife.
At eight o'clock, when the conductor appeared at his desk to an accompaniment of applauding taps from the musicians, the house was nearly full. The four tiers sent forth a sparkle of diamonds, of silk, and of white arms and shoulders which rivalled the glitter of the vast crystal chandelier. The wide floor of serried stalls (those stalls of which one pair at least had gone for six pound ten) added their more sombre brilliance to the show, while far above, stretching away indefinitely to the very furthest roof, was the gallery (where but for Sullivan I should have been), a mass of black spotted with white faces.
Excitement was in the air: the expectation of seeing once again Rosetta Rosa, the girl with the golden throat, the mere girl who, two years ago, had in one brief month captured London, and who now, after a period of petulance, had decided to recapture London. On ordinary nights, for the inhabitants of boxes, the Opera is a social observance, an exhibition of jewels, something between an F.O. reception and a conversazione with music in the distance. But to-night the habitues confessed a genuine interest in the stage itself, abandoning their role of players. Dozens of times since then have I been to the Opera, and never have I witnessed the candid enthusiasm of that night. If London can be naive, it was naive then.
The conductor raised his baton. The orchestra ceased its tuning. The lights were lowered. Silence and stillness enwrapped the auditorium. And the quivering violins sighed out the first chords of the "Lohengrin" overture. For me, then, there existed nothing save the voluptuous music, to which I abandoned myself as to the fascination of a dream. But not for long. Just as the curtain rose, the door behind me gave a click, and Sullivan entered in all his magnificence. I jumped up. On his arm in the semi-darkness I discerned a tall, olive-pale woman, with large handsome features of Jewish cast, and large, liquid black eyes. She wore a dead-white gown, and over this a gorgeous cloak of purple and mauve.
"Emmeline, this is Carl," Sullivan whispered.
She smiled faintly, giving me her finger-tips, and then she suddenly took a step forward as if the better to examine my face. Her strange eyes met mine. She gave a little indefinable unnecessary "Ah!" and sank down into a chair, loosing my hand swiftly. I was going to say that she loosed my hand as if it had been the tail of a snake that she had picked up in mistake for something else. But that would leave the impression that her gesture was melodramatic, which it was not. Only there was in her demeanor a touch of the bizarre, ever so slight; yes, so slight that I could not be sure that I had not imagined it.
"The wife's a bit overwrought," Sullivan murmured in my ear. "Nerves, you know. Women are like that. Wait till you're married. Take no notice. She'll be all right soon."
I nodded and sat down. In a moment the music had resumed its sway over me.
I shall never forget my first sight of Rosetta Rosa as, robed with the modesty which the character of Elsa demands, she appeared on the stage to answer the accusation of Ortrud. For some moments she hesitated in the background, and then timidly, yet with what grandeur of mien, advanced towards the king. I knew then, as I know now, that hers was a loveliness of that imperious, absolute, dazzling kind which banishes from the hearts of men all moral conceptions, all considerations of right and wrong, and leaves therein nothing but worship and desire. Her acting, as she replied by gesture to the question of the king, was perfect in its realization of the simplicity of Elsa. Nevertheless I, at any rate, as I searched her features through the lorgnon that Mrs. Sullivan had silently handed to me, could descry beneath the actress the girl—the spoilt and splendid child of Good Fortune, who in the very spring of youth had tasted the joy of sovereign power, that unique and terrible dominion over mankind which belongs to beauty alone.
Such a face as hers once seen is engraved eternally on the memory of its generation. And yet when, in a mood of lyrical and rapt ecstasy, she began her opening song, "In Lichter Waffen Scheine," her face was upon the instant forgotten. She became a Voice—pure, miraculous, all-compelling; and the listeners seemed to hold breath while the matchless melody wove round them its persuasive spell.
* * * * *
The first act was over, and Rosetta Rosa stood at the footlights bowing before the rolling and thunderous storms of applause, her hand in the hand of Alresca, the Lohengrin. That I have not till this moment mentioned Alresca, and that I mention him now merely as the man who happened to hold Rosa's hand, shows with what absolute sovereignty Rosa had dominated the scene. For as Rosa was among sopranos, so was Alresca among tenors—the undisputed star. Without other aid Alresca could fill the opera-house; did he not receive two hundred and fifty pounds a night? To put him in the same cast as Rosa was one of Cyril Smart's lavish freaks of expense.
As these two stood together Rosetta Rosa smiled at him; he gave her a timid glance and looked away.
When the clapping had ceased and the curtain hid the passions of the stage, I turned with a sigh of exhaustion and of pleasure to my hostess, and I was rather surprised to find that she showed not a trace of the nervous excitement which had marked her entrance into the box. She sat there, an excellent imitation of a woman of fashion, languid, unmoved, apparently a little bored, but finely conscious of doing the right thing.
"It's a treat to see any one enjoy anything as you enjoy this music," she said to me. She spoke well, perhaps rather too carefully, and with a hint of the cockney accent.
"It runs in the family, you know, Mrs. Smith," I replied, blushing for the ingenuousness which had pleased her.
"Don't call me Mrs. Smith; call me Emmeline, as we are cousins. I shouldn't at all like it if I mightn't call you Carl. Carl is such a handsome name, and it suits you. Now, doesn't it, Sully?"
"Yes, darling," Sullivan answered nonchalantly. He was at the back of the box, and clearly it was his benevolent desire to give me fair opportunity of a tete-a-tete with his dark and languorous lady. Unfortunately, I was quite unpractised in the art of maintaining a tete-a-tete with dark and languorous ladies. Presently he rose.
"I must look up Smart," he said, and left us.
"Sullivan has been telling me about you. What a strange meeting! And so you are a doctor! You don't know how young you look. Why, I am old enough to be your mother!"
"Oh, no, you aren't," I said. At any rate, I knew enough to say that.
And she smiled.
"Personally," she went on, "I hate music—loathe it. But it's Sullivan's trade, and, of course, one must come here."
She waved a jewelled arm towards the splendid animation of the auditorium.
"But surely, Emmeline," I cried protestingly, "you didn't 'loathe' that first act. I never heard anything like it. Rosa was simply—well, I can't describe it."
She gazed at me, and a cloud of melancholy seemed to come into her eyes. And after a pause she said, in the strangest tone, very quietly:
"You're in love with her already."
And her eyes continued to hold mine.
"Who could help it?" I laughed.
She leaned towards me, and her left hand hung over the edge of the box.
"Women like Rosetta Rosa ought to be killed!" she said, with astonishing ferocity. Her rich, heavy contralto vibrated through me. She was excited again, that was evident. The nervous mood had overtaken her. The long pendent lobes of her ears crimsoned, and her opulent bosom heaved. I was startled. I was rather more than startled—I was frightened. I said to myself, "What a peculiar creature!"
"Why?" I questioned faintly.
"Because they are too young, too lovely, too dangerous," she responded with fierce emphasis. "And as for Rosa in particular—as for Rosa in particular—if you knew what I knew, what I've seen——"
"What have you seen?" I was bewildered. I began to wish that Sullivan had not abandoned me to her.
"Perhaps I'm wrong," she laughed.
She laughed, and sat up straight again, and resumed her excellent imitation of the woman of fashion, while I tried to behave as though I had found nothing singular in her behavior.
"You know about our reception?" she asked vivaciously in another moment, playing with her fan.
"I'm afraid I don't."
"Where have you been, Carl?"
"I've been in Edinburgh," I said, "for my final."
"Oh!" she said. "Well, it's been paragraphed in all the papers. Sullivan is giving a reception in the Gold Rooms of the Grand Babylon Hotel. Of course, it will be largely theatrical,—Sullivan has to mix a good deal with that class, you know; it's his business,—but there will be a lot of good people there. You'll come, won't you? It's to celebrate the five hundredth performance of 'My Queen.' Rosetta Rosa is coming."
"I shall be charmed. But I should have thought you wouldn't ask Rosa after what you've just said."
"Not ask Rosa! My dear Carl, she simply won't go anywhere. I know for a fact she declined Lady Casterby's invitation to meet a Serene Highness. Sir Cyril got her for me. She'll be the star of the show."
The theatre darkened once more. There were the usual preliminaries, and the orchestra burst into the prelude of the second act.
"Have you ever done any crystal-gazing?" Emmeline whispered.
And some one on the floor of the house hissed for silence.
I shook my head.
"You must try." Her voice indicated that she was becoming excited again. "At my reception there will be a spiritualism room. I'm a believer, you know."
I nodded politely, leaning over the front of the box to watch the conductor.
Then she set herself to endure the music.
Immediately the second act was over, Sullivan returned, bringing with him a short, slight, bald-headed man of about fifty. The two were just finishing a conversation on some stage matter.
"Smart, let me introduce to you my cousin, Carl Foster. Carl, this is Sir Cyril Smart."
My first feeling was one of surprise that a man so celebrated should be so insignificant to the sight. Yet as he looked at me I could somehow feel that here was an intelligence somewhat out of the common. At first he said little, and that little was said chiefly to my cousin's wife, but there was a quietude and firmness in his speech which had their own effect.
Sir Cyril had small eyes, and small features generally, including rather a narrow forehead. His nostrils, however, were well curved, and his thin, straight lips and square chin showed the stiffest determination. He looked fatigued, weary, and harassed; yet it did not appear that he complained of his lot; rather accepted it with sardonic humor. The cares of an opera season and of three other simultaneous managements weighed on him ponderously, but he supported the burden with stoicism.
"What is the matter with Alresca to-night?" Sullivan asked. "Suffering the pangs of jealousy, I suppose."
"Alresca," Sir Cyril replied, "is the greatest tenor living, and to-night he sings like a variety comedian. But it is not jealousy. There is one thing about Alresca that makes me sometimes think he is not an artist at all—he is incapable of being jealous. I have known hundreds of singers, and he is the one solitary bird among them of that plumage. No, it is not jealousy."
"Then what is it?"
"I wish I knew. He asked me to go and dine with him this afternoon. You know he dines at four o'clock. Of course, I went. What do you think he wanted me to do? He actually suggested that I should change the bill to-night! That showed me that something really was the matter, because he's the most modest and courteous man I have ever known, and he has a horror of disappointing the public. I asked him if he was hoarse. No. I asked him if he felt ill. No. But he was extremely depressed.
"'I'm quite well,' he said, 'and yet—' Then he stopped. 'And yet what?' It seemed as if I couldn't drag it out of him. Then all of a sudden he told me. 'My dear Smart,' he said, 'there is a misfortune coming to me. I feel it.' That's just what he said—'There's a misfortune coming to me. I feel it.' He's superstitious. They all are. Naturally, I set to work to soothe him. I did what I could. I talked about his liver in the usual way. But it had less than the usual effect. However, I persuaded him not to force me to change the bill."
Mrs. Sullivan struck into the conversation.
"He isn't in love with Rosa, is he?" she demanded brusquely.
"In love with Rosa? Of course he isn't, my pet!" said Sullivan.
The wife glared at her husband as if angry, and Sullivan made a comic gesture of despair with his hands.
"Is he?" Mrs. Sullivan persisted, waiting for Smart's reply.
"I never thought of that," said Sir Cyril simply. "No; I should say not, decidedly not.... He may be, after all. I don't know. But if he were, that oughtn't to depress him. Even Rosa ought to be flattered by the admiration of a man like Alresca. Besides, so far as I know, they've seen very little of each other. They're too expensive to sing together often. There's only myself and Conried of New York who would dream of putting them in the same bill. I should say they hadn't sung together more than two or three times since the death of Lord Clarenceux; so, even if he has been making love to her, she's scarcely had time to refuse him—eh?"
"If he has been making love to Rosa," said Mrs. Sullivan slowly, "whether she has refused him or not, it's a misfortune for him, that's all."
"Oh, you women! you women!" Sullivan smiled. "How fond you are of each other."
Mrs. Sullivan disdained to reply to her spouse.
"And, let me tell you," she added, "he has been making love to her."
The talk momentarily ceased, and in order to demonstrate that I was not tongue-tied in the company of these celebrities, I ventured to inquire what Lord Clarenceux, whose riches and eccentricities had reached even the Scottish newspapers, had to do with the matter.
"Lord Clarenceux was secretly engaged to Rosa in Vienna," Sir Cyril replied. "That was about two and a half years ago. He died shortly afterwards. It was a terrible shock for her. Indeed, I have always thought that the shock had something to do with her notorious quarrel with us. She isn't naturally quarrelsome, so far as I can judge, though really I have seen very little of her."
"By the way, what was the real history of that quarrel?" said Sullivan. "I only know the beginning of it, and I expect Carl doesn't know even that, do you, Carl?"
"No," I murmured modestly. "But perhaps it's a State secret."
"Not in the least," Sir Cyril said, turning to me. "I first heard Rosa in Genoa—the opera-house there is more of a barn even than this, and a worse stage than this used to be, if that's possible. She was nineteen. Of course, I knew instantly that I had met with the chance of my life. In my time I have discovered eleven stars, but this was a sun. I engaged her at once, and she appeared here in the following July. She sang twelve times, and—well, you know the sensation there was. I had offered her twenty pounds a night in Genoa, and she seemed mighty enchanted.
"After her season here I offered her two hundred pounds a night for the following year; but Lord Clarenceux had met her then, and she merely said she would think it over. She wouldn't sign a contract. I was annoyed. My motto is, 'Never be annoyed,' but I was. Next to herself, she owed everything to me. She went to Vienna to fulfil an engagement, and Lord Clarenceux after her. I followed. I saw her, and I laid myself out to arrange terms of peace.
"I have had difficulties with prime donne before, scores of times. Yes; I have had experience." He laughed sardonically. "I thought I knew what to do. Generally a prima donna has either a pet dog or a pet parrot—sopranos go in for dogs, contraltos seem to prefer parrots. I have made a study of these agreeable animals, and I have found that through them their mistresses can be approached when all other avenues are closed. I can talk doggily to poodles in five languages, and in the art of administering sugar to the bird I am, I venture to think, unrivalled. But Rosa had no pets. And after a week's negotiation, I was compelled to own myself beaten. It was a disadvantage to me that she wouldn't lose her temper. She was too polite; she really was grateful for what I had done for her. She gave me no chance to work on her feelings. But beyond all this there was something strange about Rosa, something I have never been able to fathom. She isn't a child like most of 'em. She's as strong-headed as I am myself, every bit!"
He paused, as if inwardly working at the problem.
"Well, and how did you make it up?" Sullivan asked briskly.
(As for me, I felt as if I had come suddenly into the centre of the great world.)
"Oh, nothing happened for a time. She sang in Paris and America, and took her proper place as the first soprano in the world. I did without her, and managed very well. Then early this spring she sent her agent to see me, and offered to sing ten times for three thousand pounds. They can't keep away from London, you know. New York and Chicago are all very well for money, but if they don't sing in London people ask 'em why. I wanted to jump at the offer, but I pretended not to be eager. Up till then she had confined herself to French operas; so I said that London wouldn't stand an exclusively French repertoire from any one, and would she sing in 'Lohengrin.' She would. I suggested that she should open with 'Lohengrin,' and she agreed. The price was stiffish, but I didn't quarrel with that. I never drive bargains. She is twenty-two now, or twenty-three; in a few more years she will want five hundred pounds a night, and I shall have to pay it."
"And how did she meet you?"
"With just the same cold politeness. And I understand her less than ever."
"She isn't English, I suppose?" I put in.
"English!" Sir Cyril ejaculated. "No one ever heard of a great English soprano. Unless you count Australia as England, and Australia wouldn't like that. No. That is another of her mysteries. No one knows where she emerged from. She speaks English and French with absolute perfection. Her Italian accent is beautiful. She talks German freely, but badly. I have heard that she speaks perfect Flemish,—which is curious,—but I do not know."
"Well," said Sullivan, nodding his head, "give me the theatrical as opposed to the operatic star. The theatrical star's bad enough, and mysterious enough, and awkward enough. But, thank goodness, she isn't polite—at least, those at the Diana aren't. You can speak your mind to 'em. And that reminds me, Smart, about that costume of Effie's in the first act of 'My Queen.' Of course you'll insist—"
"Don't talk your horrid shop now, Sullivan," his wife said; and Sullivan didn't.
The prelude to the third act was played, and the curtain went up on the bridal chamber of Elsa and Lohengrin. Sir Cyril Smart rose as if to go, but lingered, eying the stage as a general might eye a battle-field from a neighboring hill. The music of the two processions was heard approaching from the distance. Then, to the too familiar strains of the wedding march, the ladies began to enter on the right, and the gentlemen on the left. Elsa appeared amid her ladies, but there was no Lohengrin in the other crowd. The double chorus proceeded, and then a certain excitement was visible on the stage, and the conductor made signs with his left hand.
"Smart, what's wrong? Where's Alresca?" It was Sullivan who spoke.
"He'll sail in all right," Sir Cyril said calmly. "Don't worry."
The renowned impresario had advanced nearer to the front of our box, and was standing immediately behind my chair. My heart was beating violently with apprehension under my shirt-front. Where was Alresca? It was surely impossible that he should fail to appear! But he ought to have been on the stage, and he was not on the stage. I stole a glance at Sir Cyril's face. It was Napoleonic in its impassivity.
And I said to myself:
"He is used to this kind of thing. Naturally slips must happen sometimes."
Still, I could not control my excitement.
Emmeline's hand was convulsively clutching at the velvet-covered balustrade of the box.
"It'll be all right," I repeated to myself.
But when the moment came for the king to bless the bridal pair, and there was no Lohengrin to bless, even the impassive Sir Cyril seemed likely to be disturbed, and you could hear murmurs of apprehension from all parts of the house. The conductor, however, went doggedly on, evidently hoping for the best.
At last the end of the procession was leaving the stage, and Elsa was sitting on the bed alone. Still no Lohengrin. The violins arrived at the muted chord of B flat, which is Lohengrin's cue. They hung on it for a second, and then the conductor dropped his baton. A bell rang. The curtain descended. The lights were turned up, and there was a swift loosing of tongues in the house. People were pointing to Sir Cyril in our box. As for him, he seemed to be the only unmoved person in the audience.
"That's never occurred before in my time," he said. "Alresca was not mistaken. Something has happened. I must go."
But he did not go. And I perceived that, though the calm of his demeanor was unimpaired, this unprecedented calamity had completely robbed him of his power of initiative. He could not move. He was nonplussed.
The door of the box opened, and an official with a blazing diamond in his shirt-front entered hurriedly.
"What is it, Nolan?"
"There's been an accident to Monsieur Alresca, Sir Cyril, and they want a doctor."
It was the chance of a lifetime! I ought to have sprung up and proudly announced, "I'm a doctor." But did I? No! I was so timid, I was so unaccustomed to being a doctor, that I dared not for the life of me utter a word. It was as if I was almost ashamed of being a doctor. I wonder if my state of mind will be understood.
"Carl's a doctor," said Sullivan.
How I blushed!
"Are you?" said Sir Cyril, suddenly emerging from his condition of suspended activity. "I never guessed it. Come along with us, will you?"
"With pleasure," I answered as briskly as I could.
THE CRY OF ALRESCA
As I left the box in the wake of Sir Cyril and Mr. Nolan, Sullivan jumped up to follow us, and the last words I heard were from Emmeline.
"Sullivan, stay here. You shall not go near that woman," she exclaimed in feverish and appealing tones: excitement had once more overtaken her. And Sullivan stayed.
"Berger here?" Sir Cyril asked hurriedly of Nolan.
"Send some one for him. I'll get him to take Alresca's part. He'll have to sing it in French, but that won't matter. We'll make a new start at the duet."
"But Rosa?" said Nolan.
"Rosa! She's not hurt, is she?"
"No, sir. But she's upset."
"What the devil is she upset about?"
"The accident. She's practically useless. We shall never persuade her to sing again to-night."
"Oh, damn!" Sir Cyril exclaimed. And then quite quietly: "Well, run and tell 'em, then. Shove yourself in front of the curtain, my lad, and make a speech. Say it's nothing serious, but just sufficient to stop the performance. Apologize, grovel, flatter 'em, appeal to their generosity—you know."
"Yes, Sir Cyril."
And Nolan disappeared on his mission of appeasing the audience.
We had traversed the flagged corridor. Sir Cyril opened a narrow door at the end.
"Follow me," he called out. "This passage is quite dark, but quite straight."
It was not a passage; it was a tunnel. I followed the sound of his footsteps, my hands outstretched to feel a wall on either side. It seemed a long way, but suddenly we stepped into twilight. There was a flight of steps which we descended, and at the foot of the steps a mutilated commissionaire, ornamented with medals, on guard.
"Where is Monsieur Alresca?" Sir Cyril demanded.
"Behind the back-cloth, where he fell, sir," answered the commissionaire, saluting.
I hurried after Sir Cyril, and found myself amid a most extraordinary scene of noise and confusion on the immense stage. The entire personnel of the house seemed to be present: a crowd apparently consisting of thousands of people, and which really did comprise some hundreds. Never before had I had such a clear conception of the elaborate human machinery necessary to the production of even a comparatively simple lyric work like "Lohengrin." Richly clad pages and maids of honor, all white and gold and rouge, mingled with shirt-sleeved carpenters and scene-shifters in a hysterical rabble; chorus-masters, footmen in livery, loungers in evening dress, girls in picture hats, members of the orchestra with instruments under their arms, and even children, added variety to the throng. And, round about, gigantic "flats" of wood and painted canvas rose to the flies, where their summits were lost in a maze of ropes and pulleys. Beams of light, making visible great clouds of dust, shot forth from hidden sources. Voices came down from the roof, and from far below ascended the steady pulsation of a dynamo. I was bewildered.
Sir Cyril pushed ahead, without saying a word, without even remonstrating when his minions omitted to make way for him. Right at the back of the stage, and almost in the centre, the crowd was much thicker. And at last, having penetrated it, we came upon a sight which I am not likely to forget. Rosa, in all the splendor of the bridal costume, had passed her arms under Alresca's armpits, and so raised his head and shoulders against her breast. She was gazing into the face of the spangled knight, and the tears were falling from her eyes into his.
"My poor Alresca! My poor Alresca!" she kept murmuring.
Pressing on these two were a distinguished group consisting of the King, the Herald, Ortrud, Telramund, and several more. And Ortrud was cautiously feeling Alresca's limbs with her jewel-laden fingers. I saw instantly that Alresca was unconscious.
"Please put him down, mademoiselle."
These were the first words that I ever spoke to Rosetta Rosa, and, out of sheer acute nervousness, I uttered them roughly, in a tone of surly command. I was astonished at myself. I was astonished at my own voice. She glanced up at me and hesitated. No doubt she was unaccustomed to such curt orders.
"Please put him down at once," I repeated, trying to assume a bland, calm, professional, authoritative manner, and not in the least succeeding. "It is highly dangerous to lift an unconscious person from a recumbent position."
Why I should have talked like an article in a medical dictionary instead of like a human being I cannot imagine.
"This is a doctor—Mr. Carl Foster," Sir Cyril explained smoothly, and she laid Alresca's head gently on the bare planks of the floor.
"Will everyone kindly stand aside, and I will examine him."
No one moved. The King continued his kingly examination of the prone form. Not a fold of Ortrud's magnificent black robe was disturbed. Then Sir Cyril translated my request into French and into German, and these legendary figures of the Middle Ages withdrew a little, fixing themselves with difficulty into the common multitude that pressed on them from without. I made them retreat still further. Rosetta Rosa moved gravely to one side.
Almost immediately Alresca opened his eyes, and murmured faintly, "My thigh."
I knelt down, but not before Rosa had sprung forward at the sound of his voice, and kneeling close by my side had clasped his hand. I tried to order her away, but my tongue could not form the words. I could only look at her mutely, and there must have been an effective appeal in my eyes, for she got up, nodding an acquiescence, and stood silent and tense a yard from Alresca's feet. With a violent effort I nerved myself to perform my work. The voice of Nolan, speaking to the audience, and then a few sympathetic cheers, came vaguely from the other side of the big curtain, and then the orchestra began to play the National Anthem.
The left thigh was broken near the knee-joint. So much I ascertained at once. As I manipulated the limb to catch the sound of the crepitus the injured man screamed, and he was continually in very severe pain. He did not, however, again lose consciousness.
"I must have a stretcher, and he must be carried to a room. I can't do anything here," I said to Sir Cyril. "And you had better send for a first-rate surgeon. Sir Francis Shorter would do very well—102 Manchester Square, I think the address is. Tell him it's a broken thigh. It will be a serious case."
"Let me send for my doctor—Professor Eugene Churt," Rosa said. "No one could be more skilful."
"Pardon me," I protested, "Professor Churt is a physician of great authority, but he is not a surgeon, and here he would be useless."
She bowed—humbly, as I thought.
With such materials as came to hand I bound Alresca's legs together, making as usual the sound leg fulfil the function of a splint to the other one, and he was placed on a stretcher. It was my first case, and it is impossible for me to describe my shyness and awkwardness as the men who were to carry the stretcher to the dressing-room looked silently to me for instructions.
"Now," I said, "take short steps, keep your knees bent, but don't on any account keep step. As gently as you can—all together—lift."
Rosa followed the little procession as it slowly passed through the chaotic anarchy of the stage. Alresca was groaning, his eyes closed. Suddenly he opened them, and it seemed as though he caught sight of her for the first time. He lifted his head, and the sweat stood in drops on his brow.
"Send her away!" he cried sharply, in an agony which was as much mental as physical. "She is fatal to me."
The bearers stopped in alarm at this startling outburst; but I ordered them forward, and turned to Rosa. She had covered her face with her hands, and was sobbing.
"Please go away," I said. "It is very important he should not be agitated."
Without quite intending to do so, I touched her on the shoulder.
"Alresca doesn't mean that!" she stammered.
Her blue eyes were fixed on me, luminous through her tears, and I feasted on all the lovely curves of that incomparable oval which was her face.
"I am sure he doesn't," I answered. "But you had better go, hadn't you?"
"Yes," she said, "I will go."
"Forgive my urgency," I murmured. Then she drew back and vanished in the throng.
In the calm of the untidy dressing-room, with the aid of Alresca's valet, I made my patient as comfortable as possible on a couch. And then I had one of the many surprises of my life. The door opened, and old Toddy entered. No inhabitant of the city of Edinburgh would need explanations on the subject of Toddy MacWhister. The first surgeon of Scotland, his figure is familiar from one end of the town to the other—and even as far as Leith and Portobello. I trembled. And my reason for trembling was that the celebrated bald expert had quite recently examined me for my Final in surgery. On that dread occasion I had made one bad blunder, so ridiculous that Toddy's mood had passed suddenly from grim ferociousness to wild northern hilarity. I think I am among the few persons in the world who have seen and heard Toddy MacWhister laugh.
I hoped that he would not remember me, but, like many great men, he had a disconcertingly good memory for faces.
"Ah!" he said, "I've seen ye before."
"You have, sir."
"You are the callant who told me that the medulla oblongata—"
"Please—" I entreated.
Perhaps he would not have let me off had not Sir Cyril stood immediately behind him. The impresario explained that Toddy MacWhister (the impresario did not so describe him) had been in the audience, and had offered his services.
"What is it?" asked Toddy, approaching Alresca.
"Fracture of the femur."
"Simple, of course."
"Yes, sir, but so far as I can judge, of a somewhat peculiar nature. I've sent round to King's College Hospital for splints and bandages."
Toddy took off his coat.
"We sha'n't need ye, Sir Cyril," said he casually.
And Sir Cyril departed.
In an hour the limb was set—a masterly display of skill—and, except to give orders, Toddy had scarcely spoken another word. As he was washing his hands in a corner of the dressing-room he beckoned to me.
"How was it caused?" he whispered.
"No one seems to know, sir."
"Doesn't matter much, anyway! Let him lie a wee bit, and then get him home. Ye'll have no trouble with him, but there'll be no more warbling and cutting capers for him this yet awhile."
And Toddy, too, went. He had showed not the least curiosity as to Alresca's personality, and I very much doubt whether he had taken the trouble to differentiate between the finest tenor in Europe and a chorus-singer. For Toddy, Alresca was simply an individual who sang and cut capers.
I made the necessary dispositions for the transport of Alresca in an hour's time to his flat in the Devonshire Mansion, and then I sat down near him. He was white and weak, but perfectly conscious. He had proved himself to be an admirable patient. Even in the very crisis of the setting his personal distinction and his remarkable and finished politeness had suffered no eclipse. And now he lay there, with his silky mustache disarranged and his hair damp, exactly as I had once seen him on the couch in the garden by the sea in the third act of "Tristan," the picture of nobility. He could not move, for the sufficient reason that a strong splint ran from his armpit to his ankle, but his arms were free, and he raised his left hand, and beckoned me with an irresistible gesture to come quite close to him.
I smiled encouragingly and obeyed.
"My kind friend," he murmured, "I know not your name."
His English was not the English of an Englishman, but it was beautiful in its exotic quaintness.
"My name is Carl Foster," I said. "It will be better for you not to talk."
He made another gesture of protest with that wonderful left hand of his.
"Monsieur Foster, I must talk to Mademoiselle Rosa."
"Impossible," I replied. "It really is essential that you should keep quiet."
"Kind friend, grant me this wish. When I have seen her I shall be better. It will do me much good."
There was such a desire in his eyes, such a persuasive plaintiveness in his voice, that, against my judgment, I yielded.
"Very well," I said. "But I am afraid I can only let you see her for five minutes."
The hand waved compliance, and I told the valet to go and inquire for Rosa.
"She is here, sir," said the valet on opening the door. I jumped up. There she was, standing on the door-mat in the narrow passage! Yet I had been out of the room twice, once to speak to Sir Cyril Smart, and once to answer an inquiry from my cousin Sullivan, and I had not seen her.
She was still in the bridal costume of Elsa, and she seemed to be waiting for permission to enter. I went outside to her, closing the door.
"Sir Cyril would not let me come," she said. "But I have escaped him. I was just wondering if I dared peep in. How is he?"
"He is getting on splendidly," I answered. "And he wants to have a little chat with you."
"And may he?"
"If you will promise to be very, very ordinary, and not to excite him."
"I promise," she said with earnestness.
"Remember," I added, "quite a little, tiny chat!"
She nodded and went in, I following. Upon catching sight of her, Alresca's face broke into an exquisite, sad smile. Then he gave his valet a glance, and the valet crept from the room. I, as in professional duty bound, remained. The most I could do was to retire as far from the couch, and pretend to busy myself with the rolling up of spare bandages.
"My poor Rosa," I heard Alresca begin.
The girl had dropped to her knees by his side, and taken his hand.
"How did it happen, Alresca? Tell me."
"I cannot tell you! I saw—saw something, and I fell, and caught my leg against some timber, and I don't remember any more."
"Saw something? What did you see?"
There was a silence.
"Were you frightened?" Rosa continued softly.
Then another silence.
"Yes," said Alresca at length, "I was frightened."
"What was it?"
"I say I cannot tell you. I do not know."
"You are keeping something from me, Alresca," she exclaimed passionately.
I was on the point of interfering in order to bring the colloquy to an end, but I hesitated. They appeared to have forgotten that I was there.
"How so?" said Alresca in a curious whisper. "I have nothing to keep from you, my dear child."
"Yes," she said, "you are keeping something from me. This afternoon you told Sir Cyril that you were expecting a misfortune. Well, the misfortune has occurred to you. How did you guess that it was coming? Then, to-night, as they were carrying you away on that stretcher, do you remember what you said?"
"What did I say?"
"You remember, don't you?" Rosa faltered.
"I remember," he admitted. "But that was nonsense. I didn't know what I was saying. My poor Rosa, I was delirious. And that is just why I wished to see you—in order to explain to you that that was nonsense. You must forget what I said. Remember only that I love you."
("So Emmeline was right," I reflected.)
Abruptly Rosa stood up.
"You must not love me, Alresca," she said in a shaking voice. "You ask me to forget something; I will try. You, too, must forget something—your love."
"But last night," he cried, in accents of an almost intolerable pathos—"last night, when I hinted—you did not—did not speak like this, Rosetta."
I rose. I had surely no alternative but to separate them. If I allowed the interview to be prolonged the consequences to my patient might be extremely serious. Yet again I hesitated. It was the sound of Rosa's sobbing that arrested me.
Once more she dropped to her knees.
"Alresca!" she moaned.
He seized her hand and kissed it.
And then I came forward, summoning all my courage to assert the doctor's authority. And in the same instant Alresca's features, which had been the image of intense joy, wholly changed their expression, and were transformed into the embodiment of fear. With a look of frightful terror he pointed with one white hand to the blank wall opposite. He tried to sit up, but the splint prevented him. Then his head fell back.
"It is there!" he moaned. "Fatal! My Rosa—"
The words died in his mouth, and he swooned.
As for Rosetta Rosa, I led her from the room.
Everyone knows the Gold Rooms at the Grand Babylon on the Embankment. They are immense, splendid, and gorgeous; they possess more gold leaf to the square inch than any music-hall in London. They were designed to throw the best possible light on humanity in the mass, to illuminate effectively not only the shoulders of women, but also the sombreness of men's attire. Not a tint on their walls that has not been profoundly studied and mixed and laid with a view to the great aim. Wherefore, when the electric clusters glow in the ceiling, and the "after-dinner" band (that unique corporation of British citizens disguised as wild Hungarians) breathes and pants out its after-dinner melodies from the raised platform in the main salon, people regard this coup d'oeil with awe, and feel glad that they are in the dazzling picture, and even the failures who are there imagine that they have succeeded. Wherefore, also, the Gold Rooms of the Grand Babylon are expensive, and only philanthropic societies, plutocrats, and the Titans of the theatrical world may persuade themselves that they can afford to engage them.
It was very late when I arrived at my cousin Sullivan's much advertised reception. I had wished not to go at all, simply because I was inexperienced and nervous; but both he and his wife were so good-natured and so obviously anxious to be friendly, that I felt bound to appear, if only for a short time. As I stood in the first room, looking vaguely about me at the lively throng of resplendent actresses who chattered and smiled so industriously and with such abundance of gesture to the male acquaintances who surrounded them, I said to myself that I was singularly out of place there.
I didn't know a soul, and the stream of arrivals having ceased, neither Sullivan nor Emmeline was immediately visible. The moving picture was at once attractive and repellent to me. It became instantly apparent that the majority of the men and women there had but a single interest in life, that of centring attention upon themselves; and their various methods of reaching this desirable end were curious and wonderful in the extreme. For all practical purposes, they were still on the boards which they had left but an hour or two before. It seemed as if they regarded the very orchestra in the light of a specially contrived accompaniment to their several actions and movements. As they glanced carelessly at me, I felt that they held me as a foreigner, as one outside that incredible little world of theirs which they call "the profession." And so I felt crushed, with a faint resemblance to a worm. You see, I was young.
I walked through towards the main salon, and in the doorway between the two rooms I met a girl of striking appearance, who was followed by two others. I knew her face well, having seen it often in photograph shops; it was the face of Marie Deschamps, the popular divette of the Diana Theatre, the leading lady of Sullivan's long-lived musical comedy, "My Queen." I needed no second glance to convince me that Miss Deschamps was a very important personage indeed, and, further, that a large proportion of her salary of seventy-five pounds a week was expended in the suits and trappings of triumph. If her dress did not prove that she was on the topmost bough of the tree, then nothing could. Though that night is still recent history, times have changed. Divettes could do more with three hundred a month then than they can with eight hundred now.
As we passed she examined me with a curiosity whose charm was its frankness. Of course, she put me out of countenance, particularly when she put her hand on my sleeve. Divettes have the right to do these things.
"I know who you are," she said, laughing and showing her teeth. "You are dear old Sully's cousin; he pointed you out to me the other night when you were at the Diana. Now, don't say you aren't, or I shall look such a fool; and for goodness' sake don't say you don't know me—because everyone knows me, and if they don't they ought to."
I was swept away by the exuberance of her attack, and, blushing violently, I took the small hand which she offered, and assured her that I was in fact Sullivan Smith's cousin, and her sincere admirer.
"That's all right," she said, raising her superb shoulders after a special manner of her own. "Now you shall take me to Sullivan, and he shall introduce us. Any friend of dear old Sully's is a friend of mine. How do you like my new song?"
"What new song?" I inquired incautiously.
"Why, 'Who milked the cow?' of course."
I endeavored to give her to understand that it had made an indelible impression on me; and with such like converse we went in search of Sullivan, while everyone turned to observe the unknown shy young man who was escorting Marie Deschamps.
"Here he is," my companion said at length, as we neared the orchestra, "listening to the band. He should have a band, the little dear! Sullivan, introduce me to your cousin."
"Charmed—delighted." And Sullivan beamed with pleasure. "Ah, my young friend," he went on to me, "you know your way about fairly well. But there! medical students—they're all alike. Well, what do you think of the show?"
"Hasn't he done it awfully well, Mr. Foster?" said Miss Deschamps.
I said that I should rather think he had.
"Look here," said Sullivan, becoming grave and dropping his voice, "there are four hundred invitations, and it'll cost me seven hundred and fifty pounds. But it pays. You know that, don't you, Marie? Look at the advertisement! And I've got a lot of newspaper chaps here. It'll be in every paper to-morrow. I reckon I've done this thing on the right lines. It's only a reception, of course, but let me tell you I've seen after the refreshments—not snacks—refreshments, mind you! And there's a smoke-room for the boys, and the wife's got a spiritualism-room, and there's the show in this room. Some jolly good people here, too—not all chorus girls and walking gents. Are they, Marie?"
"You bet not," the lady replied.
"Rosetta Rosa's coming, and she won't go quite everywhere—not quite! By the way, it's about time she did come." He looked at his watch.
"Ah, Mr. Foster," the divette said, "you must tell me all about that business. I'm told you were there, and that there was a terrible scene."
"What business?" I inquired.
"At the Opera the other night, when Alresca broke his thigh. Didn't you go behind and save his life?"
"I didn't precisely save his life, but I attended to him."
"They say he is secretly married to Rosa. Is that so?"
"I really can't say, but I think not."
"What did she say to him when she went into his dressing-room? I know all about it, because one of our girls has a sister who's in the Opera chorus, and her sister saw Rosa go in. I do want to know what she said, and what he said."
An impulse seized me to invent a harmless little tale for the diversion of Marie Deschamps. I was astonished at my own enterprise. I perceived that I was getting accustomed to the society of greatness.
"Really?" she exclaimed, when I had finished.
"I assure you."
"He's teasing," Sullivan said.
"Mr. Foster wouldn't do such a thing," she observed, drawing herself up, and I bowed.
A man with an eye-glass came and began to talk confidently in Sullivan's ear, and Sullivan had to leave us.
"See you later," he smiled. "Keep him out of mischief, Marie. And I say, Carl, the wife said I was to tell you particularly to go into her crystal-gazing room. Don't forget."
"I'll go, too," Miss Deschamps said. "You may take me there now, if you please. And then I must go down to where the champagne is flowing. But not with you, not with you, Mr. Foster. There are other gentlemen here very anxious for the post. Now come along."
We made our way out of the stir and noise of the grand salon, Marie Deschamps leaning on my arm in the most friendly and confiding way in the world, and presently we found ourselves in a much smaller apartment crowded with whispering seekers after knowledge of the future. This room was dimly lighted from the ceiling by a single electric light, whose shade was a queer red Japanese lantern. At the other end of it were double curtains. These opened just as we entered, and Emmeline appeared, leading by the hand a man who was laughing nervously.
"Your fortune, ladies and gentlemen, your fortune!" she cried pleasantly. Then she recognized me, and her manner changed, or I fancied that it did.
"Ah, Carl, so you've arrived!" she exclaimed, coming forward and ignoring all her visitors except Marie and myself.
"Yes, Emmeline, dear," said Marie, "we've come. And, please, I want to see something in the crystal. How do you do it?"
Emmeline glanced around.
"Sullivan said my crystal-gazing would be a failure," she smiled. "But it isn't, is it? I came in here as soon as I had done receiving, and I've already had I don't know how many clients. I sha'n't be able to stop long, you know. The fact is, Sullivan doesn't like me being here at all. He thinks it not right of the hostess...."
"But it's perfectly charming of you!" some one put in.
"Perfectly delicious!" said Marie.
"Now, who shall I take first?" Emmeline asked, puzzled.
"Oh, me, of course!" Marie Deschamps replied without a hesitation or a doubt, though she and I had come in last. And the others acquiesced, because Marie was on the topmost bough of all.
"Come along, then," said Emmeline, relieved.
I made as if to follow them.
"No, Mr. Foster," said Marie. "You just stay here, and don't listen."
The two women disappeared behind the portiere, and a faint giggle, soon suppressed, came through the portiere from Marie.
I obeyed her orders, but as I had not the advantage of knowing a single person in that outer room, I took myself off for a stroll, in the hope of encountering Rosetta Rosa. Yes, certainly in the hope of encountering Rosetta Rosa! But in none of the thronged chambers did I discover her.
When I came back, the waiting-room for prospective crystal-gazers was empty, and Emmeline herself was just leaving it.
"What!" I exclaimed. "All over?"
"Yes," she said; "Sullivan has sent for me. You see, of course, one has to mingle with one's guests. Only they're really Sullivan's guests."
"And what about me?" I said. "Am I not going to have a look into the crystal?"
I had, as a matter of fact, not the slightest interest in her crystal at that instant. I regarded the crystal as a harmless distraction of hers, and I was being simply jocular when I made that remark. Emmeline, however, took it seriously. As her face had changed when she first saw me in the box at the Opera, and again to-night when she met me and Marie Deschamps on my arm, so once more it changed now.
"Do you really want to?" she questioned me, in her thrilling voice.
My soul said: "It's all rubbish—but suppose there is something in it, after all?"
And I said aloud:
We passed through the room with the red Japanese lantern, and lo! the next room was perfectly dark save for an oval of white light which fell slantingly on a black marble table. The effect was rather disconcerting at first; but the explanation was entirely simple. The light came from an electric table-lamp (with a black cardboard shade arranged at an angle) which stood on the table. As my eyes grew accustomed to the obscurity I discovered two chairs.
"Sit down," said Emmeline.
And she and I each took one of the chairs, at opposite sides of the table.
Emmeline was magnificently attired. As I looked at her in the dimness across the table, she drummed her fingers on the marble, and then she bent her face to glance within the shade of the lamp, and for a second her long and heavy, yet handsome, features were displayed to the minutest part in the blinding ray of the lamp, and the next second they were in obscurity again. It was uncanny. I was impressed; and all the superstition which, like a snake, lies hidden in the heart of every man, stirred vaguely and raised its head.
"Carl—" Emmeline began, and paused.
The woman indubitably did affect me strangely. Hers was a lonely soul, an unusual mixture of the absolutely conventional and of something quite else—something bizarre, disturbing, and inexplicable. I was conscious of a feeling of sympathy for her.
"Well?" I murmured.
"Do you believe in the supernatural?"
"I neither believe nor disbelieve," I replied, "for I have never met with anything that might be a manifestation of it. But I may say that I am not a hard and fast materialist." And I added: "Do you believe in it?"
"Of course," she snapped.
"Then, if you really believe, if it's so serious to you, why do you make a show of it for triflers?".
"Ah!" she breathed. "Some of them do make me angry. They like to play at having dealings with the supernatural. But I thought the crystal would be such a good thing for Sullivan's reception. It is very important to Sullivan that this should be a great success—our first large public reception, you know. Sullivan says we must advertise ourselves."
The explanation of her motives was given so naively, so simply and unaffectedly, that it was impossible to take exception to it.
"Where's the crystal?" I inquired.
"It is here," she said, and she rolled a glass ball with the suddenness that had the appearance of magic from the dark portion of the table's surface into the oval of light. And it was so exactly spherical, and the table top was so smooth that it would not stay where it was put, and she had to hold it there with her ringed hand.
"So that's it," I remarked.
"Carl," she said, "it is only right I should warn you. Some weeks ago I saw in the crystal the face of a man whom I did not know. I saw it again and again—and always the same scene. Then I saw you at the Opera last week, and Sullivan introduced you as his cousin that he talks about sometimes. Did you notice that night that I behaved rather queerly?"
"Yes." I spoke shortly.
"You are the man whom I saw in the crystal."
"Really?" I ejaculated, smiling, or at least trying to smile. "And what is the scene of which I am part?"
"You are standing—But no!"
She abruptly ceased speaking and coughed, clearing her throat, and she fixed her large eyes on me. Outside I could hear the distant strain of the orchestra, and the various noises of a great crowd of people. But this little dark room, with its sharply defined oval of light, was utterly shut off from the scene of gaiety. I was aware of an involuntary shiver, and for the life of me I could not keep my gaze steadily on the face of the tall woman who sat so still, with such impressiveness, on the other side of the table. I waited for her to proceed, and after what seemed a long interval she spoke again:
"You aren't afraid, are you?" she demanded.
"Of course I'm not."
"Then you shall look into the crystal and try to see what I saw. I will not tell you. You shall try to see for yourself. You may succeed, if I help you. Now, try to free your mind from every thought, and look earnestly. Look!"
I drew the globe towards me from under her fingers.
"Rum!" I murmured to myself.
Then I strenuously fixed my eyes on the glinting depths of the crystal, full of strange, shooting fires; but I could see nothing whatever.
"No go!" I said. "You'll have to tell me what you saw."
"Patience. There is time yet. Look again. Take my hand in your right hand."
I obeyed, and we sat together in the tense silence. After a few minutes, the crystal darkened and then slowly cleared. I trembled with an uneasy anticipation.
"You see something," she breathed sorrowfully in my ear.
"Not yet, not yet," I whispered. "But it is coming. Yes, I see myself, and—and—a woman—a very pretty woman. I am clasping her hand."
"Don't you recognize the woman?" Again Emmeline's voice vibrated like a lamentation in my ear. I did recognize the woman, and the sweat stood on my brow.
"It is Rosetta Rosa!"
"And what else do you see?" my questioner pursued remorselessly.
"I see a figure behind us," I stammered, "but what figure I cannot make out. It is threatening me. It is threatening me! It is a horrible thing. It will kill me! Ah—!"
I jumped up with a nervous movement. The crystal, left to itself, rolled off the table to the floor, and fell with a thud unbroken on the soft carpet. And I could hear the intake of Emmeline's breath.
At that moment the double portiere was pulled apart, and some one stood there in the red light from the Japanese lantern.
"Is Mr. Foster here? I want him to come with me," said a voice. And it was the voice of Rosa.
Just behind her was Sullivan.
"I expected you'd be here," laughed Sullivan.
THE DAGGER AND THE MAN
Rosetta Rosa and I threaded through the crowd towards the Embankment entrance of the Gold Rooms. She had spoken for a few moments with Emmeline, who went pale with satisfaction at the candid friendliness of her tone, and she had chatted quite gaily with Sullivan himself; and we had all been tremendously impressed by her beauty and fine grace—I certainly not the least. And then she had asked me, with a quality of mysteriousness in her voice, to see her to her carriage.
And, with her arm in mine, it was impossible for me to believe that she could influence, in any evil way, my future career. That she might be the cause of danger to my life seemed ridiculous. She was the incarnation of kindliness and simplicity. She had nothing about her of the sinister, and further, with all her transcendent beauty and charm, she was also the incarnation of the matter-of-fact. I am obliged to say this, though I fear that it may impair for some people the vision of her loveliness and her unique personality. She was the incarnation of the matter-of-fact, because she appeared to be invariably quite unconscious of the supremacy of her talents. She was not weighed down by them, as many artists of distinction are weighed down. She carried them lightly, seemingly unaware that they existed. Thus no one could have guessed that that very night she had left the stage of the Opera after an extraordinary triumph in her greatest role—that of Isolde in "Tristan."
And so her presence by my side soothed away almost at once the excitation and the spiritual disturbance of the scene through which I had just passed with Emmeline; and I was disposed, if not to laugh at the whole thing, at any rate to regard it calmly, dispassionately, as one of the various inexplicable matters with which one meets in a world absurdly called prosaic. I was sure that no trick had been played upon me. I was sure that I had actually seen in the crystal what I had described to Emmeline, and that she, too, had seen it. But then, I argued, such an experience might be the result of hypnotic suggestion, or of thought transference, or of some other imperfectly understood agency.... Rosetta Rosa an instrument of misfortune! No!
When I looked at her I comprehended how men have stopped at nothing for the sake of love, and how a woman, if only she be beautiful enough, may wield a power compared to which the sway of a Tsar, even a Tsar unhampered by Dumas, is impotence itself. Even at that early stage I had begun to be a captive to her. But I did not believe that her rule was malign.
"Mr. Foster," she said, "I have asked you to see me to my carriage, but really I want you to do more than that. I want you to go with me to poor Alresca's. He is progressing satisfactorily, so far as I can judge, but the dear fellow is thoroughly depressed. I saw him this afternoon, and he wished, if I met you here to-night, that I should bring you to him. He has a proposition to make to you, and I hope you will accept it."
"I shall accept it, then," I said.
She pulled out a tiny gold watch, glistening with diamonds.
"It is half-past one," she said. "We might be there in ten minutes. You don't mind it being late, I suppose. We singers, you know, have our own hours."
In the foyer we had to wait while the carriage was called. I stood silent, and perhaps abstracted, at her elbow, absorbed in the pride and happiness of being so close to her, and looking forward with a tremulous pleasure to the drive through London at her side. She was dressed in gray, with a large ermine-lined cloak, and she wore no ornaments except a thin jewelled dagger in her lovely hair.
All at once I saw that she flushed, and, following the direction of her eyes, I beheld Sir Cyril Smart, with a startled gaze fixed immovably on her face. Except the footmen and the attendants attached to the hotel, there were not half a dozen people in the entrance-hall at this moment. Sir Cyril was nearly as white as the marble floor. He made a step forward, and then stood still. She, too, moved towards him, as it seemed, involuntarily.
"Good evening, Miss Rosa," he said at length, with a stiff inclination. She responded, and once more they stared at each other. I wondered whether they had quarrelled again, or whether both were by some mischance simultaneously indisposed. Surely they must have already met during the evening at the Opera!
Then Rosa, with strange deliberation, put her hand to her hair and pulled out the jewelled dagger.
"Sir Cyril," she said, "you seem fascinated by this little weapon. Do you recognize it?"
He made no answer, nor moved, but I noticed that his hands were tightly clenched.
"You do recognize it, Sir Cyril?"
At last he nodded.
"Then take it. The dagger shall be yours. To-night, within the last minute, I think I have suddenly discovered that, next to myself, you have the best right to it."
He opened his lips to speak, but made no sound.
"See," she said. "It is a real dagger, sharp and pointed."
Throwing back her cloak with a quick gesture, she was about to prick the skin of her left arm between the top of her long glove and the sleeve of her low-cut dress. But Sir Cyril, and I also, jumped to stop her.
"Don't do that," I said. "You might hurt yourself."
She glanced at me, angry for the instant; but her anger dissolved in an icy smile.
"Take it, Sir Cyril, to please me."
Her intonation was decidedly peculiar.
And Sir Cyril took the dagger.
"Miss Rosa's carriage," a commissionaire shouted, and, beckoning to me, the girl moved imperiously down the steps to the courtyard. There was no longer a smile on her face, which had a musing and withdrawn expression. Sir Cyril stood stock-still, holding the dagger. What the surrounding lackeys thought of this singular episode I will not guess. Indeed, the longer I live, the less I care to meditate upon what lackeys do think. But that the adventures of their employers provide them with ample food for thought there can be no doubt.
Rosa's horses drew us swiftly away from the Grand Babylon Hotel, and it seemed that she wished to forget or to ignore the remarkable incident. For some moments she sat silent, her head slightly bent, her cloak still thrown back, but showing no sign of agitation beyond a slightly hurried heaving of the bosom.
I was discreet enough not to break in upon her reflections by any attempt at conversation, for it seemed to me that what I had just witnessed had been a sudden and terrible crisis, not only in the life of Sir Cyril, but also in that of the girl whose loveliness was dimly revealed to me in the obscurity of the vehicle.
We had got no further than Trafalgar Square when she aroused herself, looked at me, and gave a short laugh.
"I suppose," she remarked, "that a doctor can't cure every disease?"
"Scarcely," I replied.
"Not even a young doctor?" she said with comical gravity.
"Not even a young doctor," I gravely answered.
Then we both laughed.
"You must excuse my fun," she said. "I can't help it, especially when my mind is disturbed."
"Why do you ask me?" I inquired. "Was it just a general observation caused by the seriousness of my countenance, or were you thinking of something in particular?"
"I was thinking of Alresca," she murmured, "my poor Alresca. He is the rarest gentleman and the finest artist in Europe, and he is suffering."
"Well," I said, "one can't break one's thigh for nothing."
"It is not his thigh. It is something else."
She shook her head, to indicate her inability to answer.
Here I must explain that, on the morning after the accident, I had taken a hansom to the Devonshire Mansion with the intention of paying a professional visit to Alresca. I was not altogether certain that I ought to regard the case as mine, but I went. Immediately before my hansom, however, there had drawn up another hansom in front of the portals of the Devonshire, and out of that other hansom had stepped the famous Toddy MacWhister. Great man as Toddy was, he had an eye on "saxpences," and it was evident that, in spite of the instructions which he had given me as to the disposal of Alresca, Toddy was claiming the patient for his own. I retired. It was the only thing I could do. Two doctors were not needed, and I did not see myself, a young man scarcely yet escaped from the fear of examinations, disputing cases with the redoubtable Toddy. I heard afterwards that he had prolonged his stay in London in order to attend Alresca. So that I had not seen the tenor since his accident.
"What does Monsieur Alresca want to see me about?" I demanded cautiously.
"He will tell you," said Rosa, equally cautious.
A silence followed.
"Do you think I upset him—that night?" she asked.
"You wish me to be frank?"
"If I had thought you would not be frank I would not have asked you. Do you imagine it is my habit to go about putting awkward questions like that?"
"I think you did upset him very much."
"You think I was wrong?"
"Perhaps you are right," she admitted.
I had been bold. A desire took me to be still bolder. She was in the carriage with me. She was not older than I. And were she Rosetta Rosa, or a mere miss taken at hazard out of a drawing-room, she was feminine and I was masculine. In short—Well, I have fits of rashness sometimes.
"You say he is depressed," I addressed her firmly. "And I will venture to inform you that I am not in the least surprised."
"Oh!" she exclaimed. "And why?"
"After what you said to him that night in the dressing-room. If I had been in Alresca's place I know that I should be depressed, and very much depressed, too."
"You mean—" she faltered.
"Yes," I said, "I mean that."
I thought I had gone pretty far, and my heart was beating. I could not justly have protested had she stopped the carriage and deposited me on the pavement by the railings of Green Park. But her character was angelic. She accepted my treatment of her with the most astounding meekness.
"You mean," she said, "that he is in love with me, and I chose just that night to—refuse him."
"That is emotional cause enough, isn't it, to account for any mysterious depression that any man is ever likely to have?"
"You are mistaken," she said softly. "You don't know Alresca. You don't know his strength of mind. I can assure you that it is something more than unreturned love that is destroying him."
"Yes, destroying him. Alresca is capable of killing a futile passion. His soul is too far removed from his body, and even from his mind, to be seriously influenced by the mistakes and misfortunes of his mind and body. Do you understand me?"
"I think so."
"What is the matter with Alresca is something in his most secret soul."
"And you can form no idea of what it is?"
She made no reply.
"Doctors certainly can't cure such diseases as that," I said.
"They can try," said Rosetta Rosa.
"You wish me to try?" I faced her.
She inclined her head.
"Then I will," I said with sudden passionateness, forgetting even that I was not Alresca's doctor.
The carriage stopped. In the space of less than a quarter of an hour, so it seemed to me, we had grown almost intimate—she and I.
Alresca's man was awaiting us in the portico of the Devonshire, and without a word he led us to his master. Alresca lay on his back on a couch in a large and luxuriously littered drawing-room. The pallor of his face and the soft brilliance of his eyes were infinitely pathetic, and again he reminded me of the tragic and gloomy third act of "Tristan." He greeted us kindly in his quiet voice.
"I have brought the young man," said Rosa, "and now, after I have inquired about your health, I must go. It is late. Are you better, Alresca?"
"I am better now that you are here," he smiled. "But you must not go yet. It is many days since I heard a note of music. Sing to me before you go."
"What shall I sing?"
"Anything, so that I hear your voice."
"I will sing 'Elsa's Dream.' But who will accompany? You know I simply can't play to my own singing."
I gathered together all my courage.
"I'm an awful player," I said, "but I know the whole score of 'Lohengrin.'"
"How clever of you!" Rosa laughed. "I'm sure you play beautifully."
Alresca rewarded me with a look, and, trembling, I sat down to the piano. I was despicably nervous. Before the song was finished I had lost everything but honor; but I played that accompaniment to the most marvellous soprano in the world.
And what singing! Rosa stood close beside me. I caught the golden voice at its birth. Every vibration, every shade of expression, every subtlety of feeling was mine; and the experience was unforgettable. Many times since then have I heard Rosa sing, many times in my hearing has she excited a vast audience to overwhelming enthusiasm; but never, to my mind, has she sung so finely as on that night. She was profoundly moved, she had in Alresca the ideal listener, and she sang with the magic power of a goddess. It was the summit of her career.
"There is none like you," Alresca said, and the praise of Alresca brought the crimson to her cheek. He was probably the one person living who had the right to praise her, for an artist can only be properly estimated by his equals.
"Come to me, Rosa," he murmured, as he took her hand in his and kissed it. "You are in exquisite voice to-night," he said.
"Yes. You have been excited; and I notice that you always sing best under excitement."
"Perhaps," she replied. "The fact is, I have just met—met some one whom I never expected to meet. That is all. Good night, dear friend."
She passed her hand soothingly over his forehead.
When we were alone Alresca seemed to be overtaken by lassitude.
"Surely," I said, "it is not by Toddy—I mean Dr. Todhunter MacWhister's advice that you keep these hours. The clocks are striking two!"
"Ah, my friend," he replied wearily, in his precise and rather elaborate English, "ill or well, I must live as I have been accustomed to live. For twenty years I have gone to bed promptly at three o'clock and risen at eleven o'clock. Must I change because of a broken thigh? In an hour's time, and not before, my people will carry this couch and its burden to my bedroom. Then I shall pretend to sleep; but I shall not sleep. Somehow of late the habit of sleep has left me. Hitherto, I have scorned opiates, which are the refuge of the weak-minded, yet I fear I may be compelled to ask you for one. There was a time when I could will myself to sleep. But not now, not now!"
"I am not your medical adviser," I said, mindful of professional etiquette, "and I could not think of administering an opiate without the express permission of Dr. MacWhister."
"Pardon me," he said, his eyes resting on me with a quiet satisfaction that touched me to the heart, "but you are my medical adviser, if you will honor me so far. I have not forgotten your neat hand and skilful treatment of me at the time of my accident. To-day the little Scotchman told me that my thigh was progressing quite admirably, and that all I needed was nursing. I suggested to him that you should finish the case. He had, in fact, praised your skill. And so, Mr. Foster, will you be my doctor? I want you to examine me thoroughly, for, unless I deceive myself, I am suffering from some mysterious complaint."
I was enormously, ineffably flattered and delighted, and all the boy in me wanted to caper around the room and then to fall on Alresca's neck and dissolve in gratitude to him. But instead of these feats, I put on a vast seriousness (which must really have been very funny to behold), and then I thanked Alresca in formal phrases, and then, quite in the correct professional style, I began to make gentle fun of his idea of a mysterious complaint, and I asked him for a catalogue of his symptoms. I perceived that he and Rosa must have previously arranged that I should be requested to become his doctor.
"There are no symptoms," he replied, "except a gradual loss of vitality. But examine me."
I did so most carefully, testing the main organs, and subjecting him to a severe cross-examination.
"Well?" he said, as, after I had finished, I sat down to cogitate.
"Well, Monsieur Alresca, all I can say is that your fancy is too lively. That is what you suffer from, an excitable fan—"
"Stay, my friend," he interrupted me with a firm gesture. "Before you go any further, let me entreat you to be frank. Without absolute candor nothing can be done. I think I am a tolerable judge of faces, and I can read in yours the fact that my condition has puzzled you."
I paused, taken aback. It had puzzled me. I thought of all that Rosetta Rosa had said, and I hesitated. Then I made up my mind.
"I yield," I responded. "You are not an ordinary man, and it was absurd of me to treat you as one. Absolute candor is, as you say, essential, and so I'll confess that your case does puzzle me. There is no organic disease, but there is a quite unaccountable organic weakness—a weakness which fifty broken thighs would not explain. I must observe, and endeavor to discover the cause. In the meantime I have only one piece of advice. You know that in certain cases we have to tell women patients that a successful issue depends on their own willpower: I say the same thing to you."
"Receive my thanks," he said. "You have acted as I hoped. As for the willpower, that is another matter," and a faint smile crossed his handsome, melancholy face.
I rose to leave. It was nearly three o'clock.
"Give me a few moments longer. I have a favor to ask."
After speaking these words he closed his eyes, as though to recall the opening sentences of a carefully prepared speech.
"I am entirely at your service," I murmured.
"Mr. Foster," he began, "you are a young man of brilliant accomplishments, at the commencement of your career. Doubtless you have made your plans for the immediate future, and I feel quite sure that those plans do not include any special attendance upon myself, whom until the other day you had never met. I am a stranger to you, and on the part of a stranger it would be presumptuous to ask you to alter your plans. Nevertheless, I am at this moment capable of that presumption. In my life I have not often made requests, but such requests as I have made have never been refused. I hope that my good fortune in this respect may continue. Mr. Foster, I wish to leave England. I wish to die in my own place—"
I shrugged my shoulders in protest against the word "die."
"If you prefer it, I wish to live in my own place. Will you accompany me as companion? I am convinced that we should suit each other—that I should derive benefit from your skill and pleasure from your society, while you—you would tolerate the whims and eccentricities of my middle age. We need not discuss terms; you would merely name your fee."
There was, as a matter of fact, no reason in the world why I should have agreed to this suggestion of Alresca's. As he himself had said, we were strangers, and I was under no obligation to him of any kind.
Yet at once I felt an impulse to accept his proposal. Whence that impulse sprang I cannot say. Perhaps from the aspect of an adventure that the affair had. Perhaps from the vague idea that by attaching myself to Alresca I should be brought again into contact with Rosetta Rosa. Certainly I admired him immensely. None who knew him could avoid doing so. Already, indeed, I had for him a feeling akin to affection.
"I see by your face," he said, "that you are not altogether unwilling. You accept?"
"With pleasure;" and I smiled with the pleasure I felt.
But it seemed to me that I gave the answer independently of my own volition. The words were uttered almost before I knew.
"It is very good of you."
"Not at all," I said. "I have made no plans, and therefore nothing will be disarranged. Further, I count it an honor; and, moreover, your 'case'—pardon the word—interests me deeply. Where do you wish to go?"
"To Bruges, of course."
He seemed a little surprised that I should ask the question.
"Bruges," he went on, "that dear and wonderful old city of Flanders, is the place of my birth. You have visited it?"
"No," I said, "but I have often heard that it is the most picturesque city in Europe, and I should like to see it awfully."
"There is nothing in the world like Bruges," he said. "Bruges the Dead they call it; a fit spot in which to die."
"If you talk like that I shall reconsider my decision."
"Pardon, pardon!" he laughed, suddenly wearing an appearance of gaiety. "I am happier now. When can we go? To-morrow? Let it be to-morrow."
"Impossible," I said. "The idea of a man whose thigh was broken less than a fortnight since taking a sea voyage to-morrow! Do you know that under the most favorable circumstances it will be another five or six weeks before the bone unites, and that even then the greatest care will be necessary?"
His gaiety passed.
"Five more weeks here?"
"I fear so."
"But our agreement shall come into operation at once. You will visit me daily? Rather, you will live here?"
"If it pleases you. I am sure I shall be charmed to live here."
"Let the time go quickly—let it fly! Ah, Mr. Foster, you will like Bruges. It is the most dignified of cities. It has the picturesqueness of Nuremburg, the waterways of Amsterdam, the squares of Turin, the monuments of Perugia, the cafes of Florence, and the smells of Cologne. I have an old house there of the seventeenth century; it is on the Quai des Augustins."
"A family affair?" I questioned.
"No; I bought it only a few years ago from a friend. I fear I cannot boast of much family. My mother made lace, my father was a schoolmaster. They are both dead, and I have no relatives."
Somewhere in the building a clock struck three, and at that instant there was a tap at the door, and Alresca's valet discreetly entered.
"No, Alexis. Leave us."
Comprehending that it was at last Alresca's hour for retiring, I rose to leave, and called the man back.
"Good night, dear friend," said Alresca, pressing my hand. "I shall expect you to-morrow, and in the meantime a room shall be prepared for you. Au revoir."
Alexis conducted me to the door. As he opened it he made a civil remark about the beauty of the night. I glanced at his face.
"You are English, aren't you?" I asked him.
"I only ask because Alexis is such a peculiar name for an Englishman."
"It is merely a name given to me by Monsieur Alresca when I entered his service several years ago. My name is John Smedley."
"Well, Mr. Smedley," I said, putting half a sovereign into his hand, "I perceive that you are a man of intelligence."
"Hope so, sir."
"I am a doctor, and to-morrow, as I dare say you heard, I am coming to live here with your master in order to attend him medically."
"He says he is suffering from some mysterious complaint, Smedley."
"He told me as much, sir."
"Do you know what that complaint is?"
"Haven't the least idea, sir. But he always seems low like, and he gets lower, especially during the nights. What might the complaint be, sir?"
"I wish I could tell you. By the way, haven't you had trained nurses there?"
"Yes, sir. The other doctor sent two. But the governor dismissed 'em yesterday. He told me they worried him. Me and the butler does what's necessary."
"You say he is more depressed during the nights—you mean he shows the effects of that depression in the mornings?"
"Just so, sir."
"I am going to be confidential, Smedley. Are you aware if your master has any secret trouble on his mind, any worry that he reveals to no one?"
"No, sir, I am not."
"Thank you, Smedley. Good night."
"Good night, sir, and thank you."
I had obtained no light from Alexis, and I sought in vain for an explanation of my patient's condition. Of course, it was plausible enough to argue that his passion for Rosa was at the root of the evil; but I remembered Rosa's words to me in the carriage, and I was disposed to agree with them. To me, as to her, it seemed that, though Alresca was the sort of man to love deeply, he was not the sort of man to allow an attachment, however profound or unfortunate, to make a wreck of his existence. No. If Alresca was dying, he was not dying of love.