The Upas Tree
A Christmas Story for all the Year
Florence L. Barclay
Author of "The Rosary," etc
G.P. Putnam's Sons
New York and London
The Knickerbocker Press
FLORENCE L. BARCLAY
The Knickerbocker Press, New York
I.—WHICH SHALL SPEAK FIRST? 13
II.—THE SOB OF THE WOMAN 29
III.—HELEN TAKES THE INITIATIVE 40
IV.—FIRELIGHT IN THE STUDIO 44
V.—THE INFANT OF PRAGUE 67
VI.—AUBREY PUTS DOWN HIS FOOT 97
VII.—A FRIEND IN NEED 113
VIII.—PARADISE LOST 129
IX.—THE PINNACLE OF THE TEMPLE 137
X.—RONNIE ARRIVES IN A FOG 149
XI.—THE MIRAGE 160
XII.—A FRIEND IN DEED 174
XIII.—RONNIE FACES THE UPAS 192
XIV.—AS IN A MIRROR 200
XV.—"THE FOG LIFTS" 209
XVI.—"HE MUST REMEMBER" 223
XVII.—"HE NEVER KNEW!" 246
XVIII.—THE FACE IN THE MIRROR 258
XIX.—UNTO US A CHILD IS BORN 271
XX.—GOOD-NIGHT TO THE INFANT OF PRAGUE 283
Part I CHAPTER I
WHICH SHALL SPEAK FIRST?
Ronald West stood at the window of his wife's sitting-room, looking across the bright garden-borders to the wide park beyond, and wondering how on earth he should open the subject of which his mind had been full during their morning ride.
He had swung off his own horse a few moments before; thrown the bridle to a waiting groom, and made his way round to her stirrup. Then he had laid his hand upon Silverheels' mane, and looking up into his wife's glowing, handsome face, he had said: "May I come to your room for a talk, Helen? I have something very important to tell you."
Helen had smiled down upon him.
"I thought my cavalier was miles away from his horse and his wife, during most of the ride. But, if he proposes taking me on the same distant journey, he shall be forgiven. Also, I have something to tell you, Ronnie, and I see the turret clock gives us an hour before luncheon. I must scribble out a message for the village; then I will come to you at once, without stopping to change."
She laid her hand on his shoulder, and dropped lightly to the ground. Then, telling the groom to wait, she passed into the hall.
Ronald left her standing at the table, walked into the sitting-room alone, and suddenly realised that when you have thought of a thing continuously, day and night, during the best part of a week, and kept it to yourself, it is not easy to begin explaining it to another person—even though that other person be your always kind, always understanding, altogether perfect wife!
He had forgotten to leave his hat and gloves in the hall. He now tossed them into a chair—Helen's own particular chair it so happened—but kept his riding-crop in his hand, and thwacked his leather gaiters with it, as he stood in the bay window.
It was such a perfect spring morning! The sun shone in through the old-fashioned lattice panes.
Some silly old person of a bygone century had scratched with a diamond on one of these a rough cross, and beneath it the motto: In hoc vince.
Ronald had inveighed against this. If Helen's old ancestor, having nothing better to do, had wanted to write down a Latin motto, he should have put it in his pocket-book, or, better still, on the even more transitory pages of the blotter, instead of scribbling on the beautiful diamond panes of the old Grange windows. But Helen had laughed and said: "I should think he lived before the time of blotters, dear! No doubt the morning sun was shining on the glass, Ronnie, as he stood at the window. It was of the cross gleaming in the sunlight, that he wrote: In this conquer. If we could but remember it, the path of self-sacrifice and clear shining is always the way to victory."
Helen invariably stood up for her ancestors, which was annoying to a very modern young man who, not being aware of possessing any, considered ancestors unnecessary and obsolete.
But to-day the glittering letters shone out to him as an omen.
He meant to conquer, in this, as in all else.
It was curious that Helen should have chanced upon the simile of a distant journey. Another good omen! In hoc vince!
He heard her coming.
Now—how should he begin? He must be very tactful. He must break it to her gently.
Helen, closing the door behind her, came slowly down the sunny room. The graceful lines of her tall figure looked well, in the severe simplicity of her riding-habit. Her mass of beautiful hair was tucked away beneath her riding-hat. But nothing could take from the calm sweetness of her face, nor the steady expectant kindness of her eyes. Helen's eyes always looked out upon the world, as if they expected to behold a Vision Beautiful.
As she moved towards the bay window, she was considering whether she would decide to have her say first, or whether she would let Ronnie begin. Her wonderful news was so all-important. Having made up her mind that the time had come when she might at last share it with Ronnie, it seemed almost impossible to wait one moment before telling him. On the other hand, it would be so absorbing to them both, that probably Ronnie's subject would be allowed to lapse, completely forgotten and unmentioned. Nothing which was of even the most transitory interest to Ronnie, ever met this fate at his wife's hands. Therefore the very certainty that her news would outweigh his, inclined her to let him speak first.
She was spared the responsibility of decision.
Ronald, turning quickly, faced his wife. Hesitation seemed futile; promptness, essential. In hoc vince!
"Helen," he said, "I want to go to Central Africa."
Helen looked at him in silence, during a moment of immense astonishment.
Then she lifted his hat and gloves, laid them upon a table, seated herself in her easy-chair, and carefully flicked some specks of dust from her riding-habit.
"That is a long way to want to go, darling," she said, quietly. "But I can see you think something of imperative importance is calling you there. Sit down and tell me all about it, right from the beginning. It is a far cry from our happy, beautiful life here, to Central Africa. You have jumped me to the goal, without any knowledge of the way. Now suppose you take me gently along your mental route."
Ronald flung himself, with a sigh of relief, into the deep basket-work chair opposite Helen's. His boyish face cleared visibly; then brightened into enthusiasm. He stretched out his legs, put his hands behind his head, and looked admiringly across at his wife.
"Helen, you are so perfectly splendid in always understanding, always making it quite easy for a fellow to tell you things. You have a way of looking past all minor details, straight to the great essentials. Most women would stand——"
"Never mind what most women would do, Ronnie. I never stand, if I can sit down! It is a waste of useful energy. But you must tell me 'the great essentials,' as they appear to you, if I am to view them properly. Why do you want to go to Central Africa?"
Ronald leapt up and stood with his back to the mantel-piece.
"Helen, I have a new plot; a quite wonderful love-story; better than anything I have done yet. But the scene is laid in Central Africa, and I must go out there to get the setting vivid and correct. You remember how thrilled we were the other day, by the account of that missionary chap, who disappeared into the long grass, thirteen feet high, over twenty years ago; lived and worked among the natives, cut off from all civilisation; then, at last, crawled out again and saw a railway train for the first time in twenty-three years; got on board, and came home, full of wonderful tales of his experiences? Well—you know how, after he had been out there a few years, he found he desperately needed a wife; remembered a plucky girl he had known when he was a boy in England, and managed to get a letter home, asking her to come out to him? She came, and safely reached the place appointed, at the fringe of the wild growth. There she waited several months. But at last the man who had called to her in his need, crawled out of the long grass, took her to himself, and they crawled in again—man and wife—and were seen no more, until they reappeared many years later. Well—that true story has given me the idea of a plot, which will, I verily believe, take the world by storm! So original and thrilling! Far beyond any missionary love-stories."
Helen's calm eyes looked into the excited shining of his.
"Dear, why shouldn't a missionary's love-story be as exciting as any other? I don't quite see how you can better the strangely enthralling tale to which we listened."
"Ah, don't you?" cried Ronald West. "That's because you are not a writer of romances! My dear girl, two men crawled out of the long grass thirteen feet high, at the place where the woman was waiting! Two men—do you see? And the man who crawled out first was not the man who had sent for her! He turned up just too late. Now, do you see?"
"I see," said Helen. "Thirteen is always apt to be an unlucky number."
"Oh, don't joke!" cried Ronald. "I haven't time to tell you, now, how it all works out. But it's quite the strongest thing I've thought of yet. And do you see what it means to me? Think of the weird, mysterious atmosphere of Central Africa, as a setting for a really strong love-interest. Imagine three quite modern, present-day people, learning to know their own hearts and each other's, fighting out the crisis of their lives according to the accepted rules and standards of twentieth century civilisation—yet all amongst the wild primitive savagery of uncivilised tribes, and the extraordinary primeval growths of the unexplored jungles, where plants ape animals, and animals ape men, and all nature rears its head with a loose rein, as if defying method, law, order and construction! Why, merely to walk through some of the tropical houses at Kew gives one a sort of lawless feeling! If I stay long among the queer gnarled plants—all spiky and speckled and hairy; squatting, plump and ungainly on the ground, or spreading huge knotted arms far overhead, as if reaching out for things they never visibly attain—I always emerge into the ordinary English atmosphere outside, feeling altogether unconventional. As I walk across the well-kept lawns, I find it almost difficult to behave with decorum. It takes me quite a long time to become really common-place and conventional once more."
Helen smiled. "Darling," she said, "I think you must have visited the tropical plants in Kew Gardens more frequently than I realised! I shall have to forbid Kew, when certain important County functions are pending."
"Oh, bother the County!" cried Ronnie. "I never went in for a French dancing-master to bid me mind my P's and Q's! But, seriously, Helen, don't you understand how much this means to me? Both my last novels have had tame English settings. I can't go on forever letting my people make love in well-kept gardens!"
"Dear Ronnie, you have a good precedent. The first couple on record made love in a garden."
"Nonsense, darling! Eden was a quite fascinating jungle, in which all the wild animals conversed with intelligence and affability. You don't suppose Eve would have stood there alone, calmly listening while the serpent talked theology, unless conversations with animals had been an every-day occurrence. Think how you'd flee to me, if an old cow in the park suddenly asked you a question. But do let's keep to the point. I've got a new plot, and I must have a new setting."
"Why not be content to do as you have done before, Ronnie; go on writing, simply and sincerely, of the life you live and know?"
"Because, my dear girl, in common with the Athenians, people are always wanting either to tell or to hear some new thing. I've got hold of a jolly new thing, and I'm going to run it for all it's worth."
Helen considered this in silence.
Ronald walked over to the window, and beat a tattoo upon the In hoc vince pane.
"Do you see?" he asked.
"Yes," she answered, slowly. "I see your point, but I also see danger ahead. I am so anxious that, in your work, you should keep the object and motive at the highest; not putting success or popularity in their wrong place. Let success be the result of good work well done—conscientiously done. Let popularity follow unsought, simply from the fact that you have been true to yourself, and to your instinctive inspiration; that you have seen life at its best, and tried to portray it at its highest. To go rushing off to Central Africa in order to find a startling setting, is an angling after originality, which will by no means ensure doing really better work. Oh, Ronnie, my advice is: be content to stay at home, and to write truly and sincerely of the things you know."
Ronald came back to his chair; sat down, his elbows on his knees, his chin in his hands, and looked earnestly into the troubled eyes of his wife.
"But, Helen," he said, "that really is not the point. Can't you see that I am completely possessed by this new plot? Also, that Central Africa is its only possible setting? It is merely a satisfactory side-issue, that it varies my mise-en-scene."
"Must you go off there, Ronnie, in order to write it? Why not get all the newest and best books on African travel, and read up facts——"
"Never!" cried Ronald, on his feet again, and walking up and down the room. "I must be steeped in the wonderful African atmosphere, before I can sub-consciously work it into my book. No account of other men's travels could do this for me. Besides, one might get all the main things correct, yet make a slip in some little unimportant detail. Then, by-and-by, some Johnny would come along, who could no more have written a page of your book than he could fly, but who happens to be intimately acquainted with the locality. He ignores the plot, the character-study, all the careful work on the essentials; but he spots your trivial error concerning some completely unimportant detail. So off he writes to the papers, triumphantly airing his little tit-bit of superior information; other mediocre people take it up—and you never hear the end of it."
Helen laughed, tender amusement in her eyes.
"Ronnie dear, I admit that not many Johnnies could write your books. But most Johnnies can fly, now-a-days! You must be more up-to-date in your similes, old boy; or you will have your wife writing to the papers, remarking that you are behind the times! But, seriously, Ronnie, you should be grateful to anybody who takes the trouble to point out an error, however small, in one of your books. You are keen that your work should be perfect; and if a mistake is mentioned, it can be set right. Why, surely you remember, when you read me the scene in the manuscript you wrote just after our marriage, in which a good lady could not sit down upon a small chair, owing to her toupet, I—your admiring and awestruck wife—ventured to point out that a toupet was not a crinoline; and you were quite grateful, Ronnie. You did not consider me an unappreciative Johnny, nor even a mediocre person! Who has, unknown to me, been trampling on your susceptibilities?"
"Nobody, thank goodness! I have never written a scene yet, of which I had not carefully verified every detail of the setting. But it has happened lots of times to people I know. Unimportant slips never seem to me to matter in another fellow's work, but they would matter desperately, horribly, appallingly in one's own. Therefore, nothing will ever induce me to place the plot of a novel of mine, in surroundings with which I am not completely familiar. Helen—I must go to Central Africa."
THE SOB OF THE WOMAN
Helen took off her riding-hat, and passed her fingers through the abundant waves of her hair.
"How long would it take you, Ronnie?" "Well—including the journey out, and the journey back, I ought to have a clear seven months. If we could get off in a fortnight, we might be back early in November; anyway, in plenty of time for Christmas."
"Why do you say 'we,' darling?"
"Why not say 'we'? We always do, don't we?"
"Yes, dear. For three happy years it has always been 'we,' in everything. We have not been parted for longer than twelve hours at a time, Ronnie. But I fear Central Africa cannot be 'we.' I do not feel that I could go out there with you."
"Helen! Why not? I thought you would be keen on it. I thought you were game to go anywhere!" Amazement and dismay were in his eyes.
She rose slowly, went over to the mantel-piece, moved some little porcelain figures, then put them back again.
When at length she spoke, she steadied her voice with an effort.
"Ronnie dear, Central Africa is not a place for a woman."
"But, my dearest girl, a woman arrives there in my story! She crawls into the long grass with the man she loves, and disappears. Our missionary's bride did it. Where a woman could not go, I must not go for my local colour. Oh, I say, Helen! You won't fail me?"
He walked over to the window, and drummed again, with restless, nervous fingers, upon the In hoc vince pane.
She came behind him, laying her hand on his shoulder.
"Darling, it will break my heart if you think I am failing you. But, while you have been talking, I have faced the matter out, and—I must tell you at once—I cannot feel it either right or possible to go. I could not be away just now, for seven months. This place must be looked after. Think of the little church we are building in the village; the farms changing tenants this summer; the hundred and one things I, and I only, must settle and arrange. You never see the bailiff; you hardly know the tenants; you do not oversee the workpeople. So you can scarcely judge, dear Ronnie, how important is my presence here; how almost impossible it would be for me suddenly to go completely out of reach. My darling—if you keep to it, if you really intend to go, we must face the fact that it will mean, for us, a long parting."
The tension of suspense held the stillness of the room.
Then: "It is my profession," said Ronald West, huskily. "It is my career."
She moved round and faced him. They stood looking at one another, dumbly.
She knew all that was in his mind, and most that was in his heart.
He knew nothing of that which filled her mind at the moment, and only partly realised the great, unselfish love for him which filled her heart.
He was completely understood. He rested in that fact, without in the least comprehending his own lack of comprehension.
Moving close to him, she laid both hands upon his shoulders, hiding her face in silence against his breast.
He stroked her soft hair—helplessly, tenderly.
With his whole heart he loved her, leaned upon her, needed her. She had done everything for him; been everything to him.
But he meant to carry his point. He intended to go to Central Africa, and it was no sort of good pretending he did not. You never pretended with Helen, because she saw through you immediately, and usually told you so.
He had not spent a single night away from her since that wonderful day when, calm and radiant, she had moved up the church in presence of an admiring crowd, and taken her place at his side.
He was practically unknown then, as a writer. No one but Helen believed in him, or understood what he had it in him to accomplish. Whereas Helen herself was the last representative of an ancient County family, owner of Hollymead Grange, and of a considerable income; courted, admired, sought after. Yet she gave herself to him, in humble tenderness. Helen had a royal way of giving. The very way she throned you in her heart, dropped you on one knee before her footstool.
He had fully justified her belief in him; but he well knew how much of his success he owed to her. Their love had taught him lessons, given him ideals which had not been his before.
But there was nothing selfish or sentimental about Helen. When the most sacred of their experiences crept into his work, and stood revealed for all the world to read; when his art transferred to hard type, and to the black and white of print and paper, the magic thrill of Helen's tenderness, so that all her friends could buy it for four shillings and sixpence, and discuss it at leisure, Helen never winced. She only smiled and said: "The world has a right to every beautiful thing we can give it. I have always felt indignant with the people who collect musical instruments which they have no intention of playing; who lock up Strads and Cremonas in glass cases, thus holding them dumb for ever to the eager ear of a listening world."
Only once, when he had put into a story a tender little name by which Helen sometimes called him, unable to resist giving his hero the bliss he, on those rare occasions, himself felt—he found a firm pencil line drawn through the words, when he looked at the proof sheets, after Helen had returned them to his desk. She never mentioned the matter to him, nor did he speak of it to her; but his hero had to forego that particular thrill, and it was a long time before Ronald himself heard again the words Helen had deleted.
He heard them now, however—murmured very softly; and he caught her to him with sudden passion, kissing her hair.
Yet he meant to go. In hoc vince. He must conquer his very need of her, if it came between him and the best thing he had yet done in his work.
He could not face the thought of the parting; but there was no need to face that as yet. A whole fortnight intervened. It is useless to suffer a pang until the pang is actually upon you. Besides, every experience—however hard to bear—is of value. How much more harrowing and vivid would be his next description of a parting——
Then, suddenly, Ronald felt ashamed. His arms dropped from around her. He knew himself unworthy—in a momentary flash of self-revelation he knew himself utterly unworthy—of Helen's generous love, and noble womanhood.
"My wife," he said, "I won't go. It isn't worth it."
Her arms strained around him, and he heard her sob; and, alas—it was the sob of the woman in the long grass, when she clung to the man who had crawled out first. His plot stood out to him once more as the supreme thing.
"At least," he added, "it wouldn't be worth it, if it costs you so much. It is my strongest plot, but I will give it up if you would rather I stayed at home."
Then Helen loosed her detaining arms, and lifting a brave white face, smiled at him through her tears.
"No, Ronnie," she said. "I promised, when we married, always to help you with your work and to make it easy. I am not going to fail you now. If the new book requires a parting, we will face it bravely. At the present moment we both need luncheon, and I must get out of my habit. Ring, and tell them we shall not be ready for a quarter of an hour, there's a dear boy! And think of something really funny to tell me at lunch. Afterwards we will discuss plans."
She had reached the door when Ronald suddenly called after her: "Helen! Hadn't you something to tell me, too?"
She turned in the doorway. Her face was gay with smiles.
"Oh, mine must wait," she said. "Your new plot, and the wonderful journey it involves, require our undivided attention."
The sun shone very brightly just then. It touched the halo of Helen's soft hair, turning it to gold. In hoc vince gleamed upon the pane.
For a moment she stood in the doorway, giving him a chance to insist upon hearing that which she had to tell. But Ronald, easily satisfied, turned and rang the bell.
"All right, sweet," he said. "How lovely you look in the sunshine! If it was business, or anything worrying, I would certainly rather not hear it now. You have bucked me up splendidly, Helen. Seven months seem nothing; and my whole mind is bounding forward into my story. I really must give you an outline of the plot." He followed her into the hall. "Helen! Do come back for a minute."
But Helen was half way up the stairs. He heard her laugh as she reached the landing.
"I am hungry, dear," she called over the banisters, "and so are you, only you don't know it! Crawl out of your long grass, and make yourself presentable before the gong sounds; or I shall send bananas for one, to your study!"
"All right!" he shouted; gave Helen's message to the butler; then went through the billiard-room, whistling gaily.
"Why, she is as keen as I am," he said to himself, as he turned on the hot and cold water taps. "And she is perfectly right about not coming with me. Of course it's jolly hard to leave her; but I believe I shall do better work alone."
His mind went back to Helen's bright face in the doorway. He realised her mastery, for his sake, of her own dread of the parting.
"What a brick she is!" he said. "Always so perfectly plucky. I don't believe any other fellow in the world has such a wife as Helen!"
HELEN TAKES THE INITIATIVE
Having once made up her mind that it was right and wise to let Ronnie go, Helen did not falter. She immediately took control of all necessary arrangements. Nothing was forgotten. Ronnie's outfit was managed with as little trouble to himself as possible. They dealt together, in a gay morning at the Stores, with all interesting items, but those he called "the dull things" apparently selected themselves. Anyway, they all appeared in his room, when the time came for packing.
So whole-hearted was his wife's interest in the undertaking, that Ronnie almost began to look upon it as her plan.
It was she who arranged routes and booked his passages.
When Cook's cheque had to be written it was a large one.
Helen took out her cheque book.
"No, no, dear," said Ronnie. "I must pay it out of my own earnings. It is a literary speculation."
Helen hesitated. She knew Ronnie did not realise how much the new building and necessary repairs on the estate were costing her this year.
"What is your balance at the bank, Ronnie?"
"I haven't the remotest idea."
"Darling, why don't you make a note of your last balance on your counterfoil? Then at any moment you can add up all subsequent cheques and see at a glance how you stand."
"Yes, I know, you have explained all that to me before, Helen. But, you see, most of my counterfoils are blank! I forget to fill them in. You can't write books, and also keep accounts. If you really think it important, I might give up the former, and turn my whole attention to the latter."
"Don't be silly, dear! You are blessed with a wife who keeps a careful account of every penny of her own. But I know nothing of your earnings and spendings, excepting when you suddenly remark at breakfast: 'Hullo! Here's a useful little cheque for a thousand'—in much the same tone of voice as you exclaim the next minute: 'Hullo! What excellent hot-buttered toast!' Ronnie, I wish you would manage to invest rather more."
"My dear girl, I have invested heaps! You made me. But what is the use of saving money when there are only ourselves to consider? We may as well spend it, and have a good time. If there were kiddies to leave it to, it would be different. I had so long of being impecunious, that I particularly enjoy feeling bottomless! Besides, each year will bring in more. This African book ought to be worth all the rest put together."
Helen was silent; but she sighed as she filled in Cook's cheque and signed it. Ronald had spoken so lightly of the great disappointment of their married life. It was always difficult to get Ronnie to take things seriously. The fact was: he took himself so seriously, that he was obliged to compensate by taking everything and everybody else rather lightly. No doubt this arrangement of relative values, made for success. Ronnie's success had been very rapid, and very brilliant. He accepted it with the unconscious modesty of the true artist; his work meaning immeasurably more to him than that which his work brought him, either in praise or pennies.
But Helen gloried in the praise, kept a watchful eye, so far as he would let her, on the pennies; and herself ministered to the idea that all else must be subservient, where Ronnie's literary career was concerned.
She was ministering to it now, at a personal cost known only to her own brave heart.
FIRELIGHT IN THE STUDIO
It was Ronnie's last evening in England. The parting, which had seemed so far away, must take place on the morrow. It took all Helen's bright courage to keep up Ronnie's spirits.
After dinner they sat together in a room they still called the studio, although Helen had given up her painting, soon after their marriage.
It was a large old-fashioned room, oak-panelled and spacious.
A huge mirror, in a massive gilt frame, hung upon the wall opposite door and fireplace, reaching from the ceiling to the parquet floor.
Ronald, who used the studio as a smoking-room, had introduced three or four deep wicker chairs, comfortably cushioned, and a couple of oriental tables.
The fireplace lent itself grandly in winter to great log-fires, when the crimson curtains were drawn in ample folds over the many windows, shutting out the dank bleakness of the park without, and imparting a look of cosiness to the empty room.
A dozen old family portraits—banished from more important places, because their expressions annoyed Ronnie—were crowded into whatever space was available, and glowered down, from the bad light to which they had been relegated, on the very modern young man whose uncomplimentary remarks had effected their banishment, and who sprawled luxuriously in the firelight, monarch of all he surveyed, in the domain which for centuries had been their own.
The only other thing in the room was a piano, on which Ronnie very effectively and very inaccurately strummed by ear; and on which Helen, with careful skill, played his accompaniments, when he was seized with a sudden desire to sing.
Ronald's music was always a perplexity to Helen. There was a quality about it so extraordinarily, so unusually, beautiful; combined with an entire lack of method or of training, and a quite startling ignorance of the most rudimentary rules.
On one occasion, during a sharp attack of influenza, when he had insisted upon being down and about, with a temperature of 104, he suddenly rose from the depths of a chair in which he had been lying, talking wild and feverish nonsense; stumbled over to the piano, dropped heavily upon the stool, then proceeded to play and sing, in a way, which brought tears to his wife's eyes, while her heart stood still with anxiety and wonder.
Yet, when she mentioned it a few days later, he appeared to have forgotten all about it, turning the subject with almost petulant abruptness.
* * * * *
But, on this their last evening together, the piano stood unheeded. They seemed only to want two chairs, and each other.
She could hardly take her eyes from his face, remembering how many months must pass before she could see him again. Yet it was Ronnie who made moan, and Helen who bravely comforted; turning as often as possible to earnest discussion of his plot and its possibilities. But after a while even she went under, to the thought of the nearness of the parting.
Though it was late in April, the evenings were chilly; a fire glowed in the grate.
Presently Ronnie rose, turned off the electric light, and seated himself on the rug in the firelight, resting his head against his wife's knees.
Silently she passed her fingers through his hair.
Something in the quality of her silence turned Ronald's thoughts from himself to her alone. "Helen," he said, "I hate to be leaving you. Shall you be very lonely?"
She could not answer.
"You are sure your good old Mademoiselle Victorine is coming to be with you?"
"Yes, dear. She holds herself in readiness to come as soon as I feel able to send for her. She and I lived alone together here during eighteen months, after Papa's death. We were very quietly happy. I do not see why we should not be happy again."
"What shall you do all day?"
"Well, I shall have my duties in the village and on the estate; and, for our recreation, we shall read French and German, and do plenty of music. Mademoiselle Victorine delights in playing what she calls 'des a quatre mains,' which consist in our both prancing vigorously upon the same piano; she steadily punishing the bass; while I fly after her, on the more lively treble. It is good practice; it has its fascinations, and it will take the place of riding, for me."
"Shan't you ride, Helen?"
"No, Ronnie; not without you."
"Will you and Mademoiselle Victorine drive your four-in-hands in here?"
"No, not in here, darling. I don't think I shall be able to bear to touch the piano on which you play to me."
"I don't play," said Ronnie. "I strum."
"True, dear. You often strum. But sometimes you play quite wonderfully. I wish you had been properly taught!"
"I always hated being taught anything," said Ronald. "I like doing things, without learning to do them. And I know what you mean, about the times when I really play. But, excepting when the mood is on me, I don't care to think of those times. I never feel really myself when it happens. I seem to be listening to somebody else playing, and trying to remember something I have hopelessly forgotten. It gives me a strained, uncanny feeling, Helen."
"Does it, darling? Then let us talk of something else. Oh, Ronnie, you must promise me to take care of your health out in that climate! I believe you are going at the very worst time of year."
"I have to know it at its worst and at its hottest," he said. "But I shall be all right. I'm strong as a horse, and sound in wind and limb."
"I hope you will get good food."
He laughed. "I expect to have to live on just whatever I can shoot or grub up. You see, the more completely I leave all civilisation, the more correctly I shall get my 'copy.' I can't crawl into the long grass, carrying tins of sardines and bottles of Bass!"
"You might take meat lozenges," suggested Ronnie's wife.
"Meat lozenges, darling, are concentrated nastiness. I felt like an unhealthy bullock the whole of the rest of the day when, to please you, I sucked one while we were mountain climbing. I propose living on interesting and unique fruits and roots—all the things which correspond to locusts and wild honey. But, Helen, I am afraid there will be quite a long time during which I shall not be able either to send or to receive letters. We shall have to console ourselves with the trite old saying: 'No news is good news.' Of course, so far as I am concerned, it would be useless to hear of any cause for anxiety or worry when I could not possibly get back, or deal with it."
"You shall not hear of any worries, or have any anxieties, darling. If difficulties arise, I will deal with them. You must keep a perfectly free mind, all the time. For my part, I will try not to give way to panics about you, if you will promise to cable occasionally, and to write as often as you can."
"You won't go and get ill, will you, Helen?"
She smiled, laying her cheek on the top of his head, as she bent over him.
"I never get ill, darling. Like you, I am sound in wind and limb. We are a most healthy couple."
"We shall both be thirty, Helen, before we meet again. You will attain to that advanced age a month before I shall. On your birthday I shall drink your health in some weird concoction of juices; and I shall say to all the lions and tigers, hippopotamuses, cockatrices and asps, sitting round my camp fire: 'You will hardly believe it, my heathen hearers, out in this well-ordered jungle, where the female is kept in her proper place—but my wife has had the cheek to march up to-day into the next decade, leaving me behind in the youthful twenties!'—Oh, Helen, I wish we had a little kiddie playing around! I am tired of being the youngest of the family."
She clasped both hands about his throat. He might have heard the beating of her heart—had he been listening.
"Ronald, that is a joy which may yet be ours—some day. But my writer of romances, who is such a stickler for grammatical accuracy, is surely the younger of a family of two!"
"Oh, grammar be—relegated to the library!" cried Ronnie, laughing. "And you really presume too much on that one short month, Helen. You often treat me as if I were an infant."
The smile in her eyes held the mother look, in its yearning tenderness.
"Ronnie dear, you are so very much younger than I, in many ways; and you always will be. Unlike the 'Infant of Days,' if you live to be a hundred years old, you will still die young; a child in heart, full of youth's joyous joy in living. You must not mind if your wife occasionally treats you as though you were a dear big baby, requiring maternal care and petting. You are such a veritable boy sometimes, and it soothes the yearning for a little son of yours to cuddle in her arms, when she plays that her big boy is something of a baby."
Ronald took her left hand from about his neck, and kissed it tenderly.
This was his only answer, but his silence meant more to Helen than speech. Words flowed so readily to express his surface thoughts; but when words suddenly and unexpectedly failed, a deeper depth had been reached; and in that silence, his wife found comfort and content.
Ronnie was not all ripples. There was more beneath than the shifting shallows. Deep, still pools were there, and rocks on which might eventually be built a beacon-light for the souls of men. But, as yet, it took Helen's clear and faithful eyes to discern the pools; to perceive the possible strong foundations.
"Do you remember," he said presently, "the Dalmains coming over last January, with their little Geoff? When I saw that jolly little chap trotting about, and looking up at his mother with big shining eyes, full of trustful love and innocent courage, absolutely unafraid—notwithstanding her rather peremptory manner, and apparently stern discipline—I felt that it must be the making of two people to have such a little son as that, depending upon them to show him how to grow up right. One would simply be obliged to live up to his baby belief in one; wouldn't one, Helen?"
"Yes, darling; we—we should."
"I hope you will see a lot of the Dalmains while I am away. Try to put in a good long visit there. And she would come over, if you wanted her, wouldn't she?"
"Yes; she will come if I want her."
"You and she are great friends," pursued Ronnie, "aren't you? I find her alarming. When she looks at me, I feel such a worm. I want to slide into a hole and hide. But there is never a hole to be found. I have to remain erect, handing tea and bread-and-butter, while I mentally grovel. I almost pray that a hungry blackbird or a prying thrush may chance to come my way, and consider me juicy and appetising. You remember—the Vicar and Mrs. Vicar came to tea that day. She wore brown spots. But even the priestly blackbird, and the Levitical thrush, passed me by on the other side."
"Oh, Ronnie, how silly! I know Jane admires your books, darling!"
"She considers me quite unfit to tie your shoe-strings."
"Ronnie, be quiet! You would not be afraid of her, had you ever known what it was to turn to her in trouble or difficulty. She helped me through an awfully hard time, six months before I met you. She showed me the right thing to do, then stood by me while I did it. There is nobody in the whole world quite like her."
"Well, send for her if you get into any troubles while I am away. I shall feel quite brave about her being here, when I am safely hidden in the long grass!"
"Is there any possible chance that you will get back sooner than you think, Ronnie?"
"Hardly. Not before November, anyway. And yesterday my publishers were keen that I should put in a night at Leipzig on my way home, and a night at the Hague; show whatever 'copy' I have to firms there, and make arrangements for German and Dutch translations to appear as soon as possible after the English edition is out. I think I may as well do this, and return by the Hook of Holland. I enjoy the night-crossing, and like reaching London early in the morning. By the way, haven't you a cousin of some sort living at Leipzig?"
"Yes; my first cousin, Aubrey Treherne. He is studying music, and working on compositions of his own, I believe. He lives in a flat in the Grassi Strasse."
"All right. Put his address in my pocket-book. I will look him up. My special chum, Dick Cameron, is to be out there in November, investigating one of their queer water-cures. I wish you knew Dick Cameron, Helen. I shall hope to see him, too. Has your cousin a spare room in his flat?"
"I do not know. Ronnie, Aubrey Treherne is not a good man. He is not a man you should trust."
"Darling, you don't necessarily trust a fellow because he puts you up for the night. But I daresay Dick will find me a room."
"Aubrey is not a good man," repeated Helen firmly.
"Dear, we are none of us good."
"You are, Ronnie—in the sense I mean, or I should not have married you."
"Oh, then, yes please!" said Ronnie. "I am very, very good!"
He laughed up at her, but Helen's face was grave. Then a sudden thought brightened it.
"If you really go to Leipzig, Ronnie, could you look in at Zimmermann's—a first-rate place for musical instruments of all kinds—and choose me a small organ for the new church? I saw a little beauty the other day at Huntingford; a perfect tone, twelve stops, and quite easy to play. They had had it sent over from Leipzig. It cost only twenty-four pounds. In England, one could hardly have bought so good an instrument for less than forty. If you could choose one with a really sweet tone, and have it shipped over here, I should be grateful."
"With pleasure, darling. I enjoy trying all sorts of instruments. But why economise over the organ? If my wife fancied a hundred guinea organ, I could give it her."
"No, you couldn't, Ronnie. You must not be extravagant."
"I am not extravagant, dear. Buying things one can afford is not extravagance."
"Sometimes it is. Extravagance is not spending money. But it is paying a higher price for a thing than the actual need demands, or than the circumstances justify. I considered you extravagant last winter when you paid five guineas for a box at Olympia, intended to hold eight people, and sat in it, in solitary grandeur, alone with your wife."
"I know you did," said Ronnie. "You left me no possible loop-hole for doubt in the matter. But your quite mistaken view, on that occasion, arose from an incorrect estimate of values. I paid one pound, six shillings and three-pence for the two seats, and three pounds, eighteen and nine-pence for the pleasure of sitting alone with my wife, and thought it cheap at that. It was a far lower price than the actual need demanded; therefore, by your own showing, it was not extravagant."
"Oh, what a boy it is!" sighed Helen, with a little gesture of despair. "Then, last Christmas, Ronnie, you insisted upon feting the old people with all kinds of unnecessary luxuries. They had always been quite content with wholesome bread-and-butter, plum cake, and nice hot tea. They did not require pate de foie gras and champagne, nor did they understand or really enjoy them. One old lady, in considerable distress, confided to me the fact that the champagne tasted to her 'like physic with a fizzle in it.' It made most of them ill, Ronnie, and cost at least eight times as much as my simple Christmas parties of other years. So don't go and spend an unnecessary sum on an elaborate, and probably less useful, instrument. I will write you full particulars when the time comes. Oh, Ronnie, you will be so nearly home, by then! How shall I wait?"
"I shall love to feel I have something to do for you in Leipzig," said Ronnie; "and I enjoy poking about among crowds of queer instruments. I should like to have played in Nebuchadnezzar's band. I should have played the sackbut, because I haven't the faintest notion how you work the thing—whether you blow into it, or pull it in and out, or tread upon it; nor what manner of surprising sound it emits, when you do any or all of these things. I love springing surprises on myself and on other people; and I know I do best the things which, if I considered the matter beforehand, I shouldn't have the veriest ghost of a notion how to set about doing. That, darling, is inspiration! I should have played the sackbut by inspiration; whereupon Nebuchadnezzar would instantly have had me cast into the burning fiery furnace."
"Oh, Ronnie, I wish I could laugh! But to-morrow is so near. What shall I do when there is nobody here to tell me silly stories?"
"Ask Mademoiselle Victorine to try her hand at it. Say: 'Chere Mademoiselle, s'il-vous-plait, racontez-moi une extremement sotte histoire.'"
"Ronnie, do stop chaffing! Go and play me something really beautiful, and sing very softly, as you did the other night; so that I can hear the tones of the piano and your voice vibrating together."
"No," said Ronnie, "I can't. I have a cast-iron lump in my throat just now, and not a note could pass it. Besides, I don't really play the piano."
He stretched out his foot, and kicked a log into the fire.
The flame shot up, illumining the room. The log-fire, and the two seated near it, were reflected fitfully in the distant mirror.
"Helen, there is one instrument, above all others, which I have always longed to play; yet I have never even held one in my hand."
"What instrument is that, darling?"
"The violoncello," said Ronnie, sitting up and turning towards her as he spoke. "When I think of a 'cello I seem as if I know exactly how it would feel to hold it between my knees, press my fingers up and down the yielding strings, and draw the bow across them. Helen—if I had a 'cello here to-night, you would listen to sounds of such exquisite throbbing beauty, that you would forget everything in this world, my wife, excepting that I love you."
His eyes shone in the firelight. An older look of deeper strength and of fuller manly vigour came into his face. The glow of love transfigured it.
With an uncontrollable sob, Helen stooped and laid her lips on his.
The clock struck midnight.
"Oh, Ronnie," she said; "oh, Ronnie! It is to-day, now! No longer to-morrow—but to-day!"
He sprang to his feet, took her hand, and drew her to the door.
"Come, Helen," he said.
THE INFANT OF PRAGUE
Two men, in a flat at Leipzig, sat on either side of a tall porcelain stove.
The small door in the stove stood open, letting a ruddy glow shine from within, a poor substitute for the open fires blazing merrily in England on this chill November evening; yet giving visible evidence of the heat contained within those cool-looking blue and white embossed tiles.
The room itself was a curious mixture of the taste of the Leipzig landlady, who owned and had furnished it, and of the Englishman studying music, who was its temporary tenant.
The high-backed sofa, upholstered in red velvet, stood stiffly against the wall, awaiting the "guest of honour," who never arrived. It served, however, as a resting-place for a violin, and a pile of music; while, on the opposite side of the room, partly eclipsing a fancy picture of Goethe, stood a chamber organ, open, and displaying a long row of varied stops.
Books and music were piled upon every available flat space, saving the table; upon which lay the remains of supper.
Of the three easy chairs placed in a semi-circle near the stove, two were occupied; but against the empty chair in the centre, its dark brown polished surface reflecting the glow of the fire, leaned a beautiful old violoncello. The metal point of its foot made a slight dent in the parquet floor.
The younger of the two men sat well forward, elbows on knees, eyes alight with excitement, intently gazing at the 'cello.
The other lay back in his chair, his thin sensitive fingers carefully placed tip to tip, his deep-set eyes scrutinising his companion. When he spoke his voice was calm and deliberate, his manner exceedingly quiet. His method of conversation was of the kind which drew out the full confidence of others, while at the same time carefully insinuating, rather than frankly expressing, ideas of his own.
"What a rum fellow you must be, West, to pay a hundred and fifty pounds for an instrument you have no notion of playing. Is it destined to be kept under lock and key in a glass case?"
"Certainly not," said Ronald West. "I shall be able to play it when I try; and I shall try as soon as I get home."
"Give us a sample here."
"No, not here. I particularly wish to play it first with Helen, in the room where I told her a 'cello was the instrument I had always wanted. Oh, I say, isn't it a beauty! Look at those curves, and that wonderful polish, like the richest brown of the very darkest horse-chestnut you ever saw in a bursting bur! See how the silver strings shine in the firelight, against the black ebony of the finger-board! It was made at Prague, and it is a hundred and fifty years old. I call it the Infant of Prague."
"Why the 'Infant'?"
"Because you have to be so careful not to bump its head as you carry it about. Also, isn't there a verse somewhere, about an Infant of Days who was a hundred years old, and young at that? Helen will love the Infant. She will polish it with a silk handkerchief, and make a bed for it on the sofa! I shan't write to her about it. I shall bring it home as a surprise."
He took his eyes from the 'cello and looked across at Helen's cousin; but Aubrey Treherne instantly shifted his gaze to the unconscious Infant.
"Tell me how you came across it. There is no doubt you have been fortunate enough to pick up an instrument of extraordinary value and beauty."
"Ah, you realise that?" cried Ronald. "Good! Well, you shall hear exactly what happened. I arrived here early this morning, put up at a hotel, and sallied out to interview the publishers. I had a mass of 'copy' to show them, because I have been writing incessantly the whole way home. Curiously enough, since I left Africa, I have scarcely needed any sleep. Snatches of half an hour seem all I require. It is convenient when one has a vast amount of work to get through in a short space of time."
"Very convenient. Just the reverse of the sleeping sickness."
"Rather! I was never fitter in my life—as I told Dick Cameron."
Aubrey Treherne glanced at the bright burning eyes and flushed face—the feverish blood showing, even through the tan of Africa.
"Yes, you look jolly fit," he said. "Who is Dick Cameron?"
"A great chum of mine. We met, as boys in Edinburgh, and were at school together. He is the son of Colonel Cameron of Transvaal fame, killed while leading a charge. Dick has done awfully well in the medical, passed all necessary exams, and taken every possible degree. He is now looking out for a practice, and meanwhile a big man in London has sent him out to investigate one of these queer water friction cures—professes to cure cataract and cancer and every known disease, by simply sitting you in a tub, and rubbing you down with a dish-cloth. Dick Cameron says—Hullo! Why are we talking of Dick Cameron? I thought I was telling you about the 'cello."
"You are telling me about the 'cello," said Aubrey, quietly. "But in order to arrive at the 'cello we had to hear about your visit to the publishers with your mass of manuscript, which resulted from having acquired in Central Africa the useful habit of not needing more than half an hour of sleep in the twenty-four; which, possibly, Dick Cameron did not consider sufficient. Doctors are apt to be faddy in such matters. Whereupon you, naturally, told him you were perfectly fit."
"Ah, yes, I remember," said Ronnie. "Am I spinning rather a yarn?"
"Not at all, my dear fellow. Do not hurry. We have the whole evening before us—night, if necessary. You can put in your half-hour at any time, I suppose; and I can dispense with sleep for once. It is not often one has the chance of spending a night in the company of a noted author, an African traveller straight from the jungle, and the man who has married one's favourite cousin. I am all delighted attention. What did your friend Dick Cameron say?"
"Well, I met him as I was hurrying back to the hotel, carrying the Infant, who did not appear to advantage in the exceedingly plain brown canvas bag which was all they could give me at Zimmermann's. When I get home I shall consult Helen, and we shall order the best case procurable."
"Naturally. Probably Helen will advise a bassinet by night, and a perambulator by day."
Ronnie looked perplexed. "Why a bassinet?" he said.
"The Infant, you know."
"Oh—ah, yes, I see. Well, of course I wanted to introduce the Infant properly to Dick Cameron, but he objected when I began taking it out of its bag in the street. He suggested that it might take cold—it certainly is a dank day. Also that there are so many by-laws and regulations in Leipzig connected with things you may not do in the streets, that probably if you took a 'cello out of its case and stood admiring it in the midst of the crowded thoroughfare, you would get run in by a policeman. Dick said: 'Arrest of the Infant of Prague in the Streets of Leipzig' would make just the kind of sensational headline beloved by newspapers. I realised that he was right. It would have distressed Helen, besides being a most unfortunate way for her to hear first of the Infant. Helen is a great stickler for respectability."
Aubrey Treherne's pale countenance turned a shade paler. His thin lips curved into the semblance of a smile.
"Ah, yes," he said, "of course. Helen is a great stickler for respectability. Well? So you gave up undressing your Infant in the street?"
Again Ronnie's eager face took on a look of perplexity.
"I did not propose undressing it," he said.
"I only wanted to take it out of its bag."
"I see. Quite a simple matter. Well? Owing to our absurd police regulations you were prevented from doing this. What happened next?"
"Dick suggested that we should go to his rooms. Arrived there he ceased to take any interest in my 'cello, clapped me into a chair, and stuck a beastly thermometer into my mouth."
"Doctors are such enthusiasts," murmured Aubrey Treherne. "They can never let their own particular trade alone. I suppose he also felt your pulse and looked at your tongue."
"Rather! Then he said I had no business to be walking about with a temperature of 103. I was so much annoyed that I promptly smashed the thermometer, and we had a fine chase after the quicksilver. You never saw anything like it! It ran like a rabbit, in and out of the nooks and corners of the chair, until at last it disappeared through a crack in the floor; went to ground, you know. Doesn't Helen look well on horseback?"
"Charming. I suppose you easily convinced your friend that his diagnosis was rubbish?"
"Of course I did. I told him I had never felt better in my life. But I drank the stuff he gave me, simply to save further bother; also another dose which he brought to the hotel. Then he insisted on leaving a bottle out of which I am to take a dose every three hours on the journey home. I did not know old Dick was such a crank."
"Probably it is the result of sitting in a tub and being scrubbed with a dish-cloth. Did he know you were coming here?"
"Yes; he picked up my pocket-book, found your address, and made a note of it. He said he should probably look us up at about ten o'clock this evening. I told him I might be here pretty late. I did not know you were going to be so kind as to fetch my things from the hotel and put me up. You really are most—"
"Delighted, my dear fellow. Honoured!" said Aubrey Treherne. "Now tell me about the finding of the 'cello."
"I interviewed the publishers, and I hope it is all right. But they seemed rather hurried and vague, and anxious to get me off the premises. No doubt I shall fare better in courteous little Holland. Then I went on to Zimmermann's to choose Helen's organ. I found exactly what she wanted, and at the price she wished. On my way downstairs I found myself in a large room full of violoncellos—dozens of them. They were hanging in glass cases; they were ranged along the top. Then I suddenly felt impelled to look to the top of the highest cabinet, and there I saw the Infant! I knew instantly that that was the 'cello I must have. It seemed mine already. It seemed as if it always had been mine. I asked to be shown some violoncellos. They produced two or three, in which I took no interest. Then I said: 'Get down that dark brown one, third from the end.' They lifted it down, and, from the moment I touched it, I knew it must be mine! They told me it was made at Prague, a hundred and fifty years ago, and its price was three thousand marks. Luckily, I had my cheque-book in my pocket, also my card, Helen's card, my publisher's letter of introduction to the firm here, and my own letter of credit from my bankers. So they expressed themselves willing to take my cheque. I wrote it then and there, and marched out with the Infant. I first called it the Infant on the stairs, as we were leaving Zimmermann's, because I almost bumped its head! Isn't it a beauty?"
"Undoubtedly it is."
"They put on a new set of the very best strings," continued Ronnie; "supplied me with a good bow, and threw in a cake of rosin."
"What did you pay for the organ?" inquired Aubrey Treherne.
"Twenty-four pounds. Helen would not have a more expensive one. She is always telling me not to be extravagant."
"That, my dear boy, invariably happens to an impecunious fellow who marries a rich wife."
Ronnie flushed. "I am impecunious no longer," he said. "During the past twelve months I have made, by my books, a larger income than my wife's."
"I can well believe it," said Aubrey, cordially. "But I suppose she can never forget the fact that, when you married her, she paid your debts."
Ronald West sprang to his feet.
"Confound you!" he said, violently. "What do you mean? Helen never paid my debts! She found them out, I admit; but I paid them every one myself, with the first cheque I received from my publishers. I demand an explanation of your statement."
The other two members of the trio round the stove appeared completely unmoved by the fury of the young man who had leapt to his feet. The Infant of Prague leaned calmly against its chair, reflecting the fire in its polished surface, and pressing its one sharp foot into the parquet. Aubrey smiled, deprecatingly, and waved Ronnie back to his seat.
"My dear fellow, I am sure I beg your pardon. My cousin certainly gave her family to understand that she had paid your debts. No doubt this was not the case. We all know that women are somewhat given to exaggeration and inaccuracy. Think no more of it."
Ronnie sat down moodily in his chair.
"It was unlike Helen," he said, "and it was a lie. I shall find out with whom it originated. But you are a good fellow to take my word about it at once. I am obliged to you, Treherne."
"Don't mention it, West. Men rarely lie to one another. On the other hand women rarely speak the truth. What will my good cousin say to one hundred and fifty pounds being paid for a 'cello?"
"It will be no business of hers," said Ronnie, angrily. "I can do as I choose with my own earnings."
"I doubt it," smiled Aubrey Treherne.
"The man who married my cousin Helen, was bound to surrender his independence and creep under her thumb. I am grateful to you for having saved me from that fate. As no doubt she has told you, she refused me shortly before she accepted you."
Ronald's start of surprise proved at once to Aubrey his complete ignorance of the whole matter.
"I had no idea you were ever in love with my wife," he said.
"Nor was I, my dear fellow," sneered Aubrey Treherne. "Others, besides yourself, were after your wife's money."
A sense of impotence seized Ronald, in nightmare grip. Indignant and furious, he yet felt absolutely unable to contradict or to explain.
Suddenly he seemed to hear Helen's voice saying earnestly: "My cousin Aubrey is not a good man, Ronnie; he is not a man you should trust."
This vivid remembrance of Helen, brought him to his senses.
"I prefer not to discuss my wife," he said, with quiet dignity; "nor my relations with her. Let us talk of something else."
"By all means, my dear fellow," replied Aubrey. "You must pardon the indiscretion of cousinly interest. Tell me of your new book. Have you settled upon a title?"
But the instinct of authorship now shielded Ronnie.
"I never talk of my books, excepting to Helen, until they are finished," he said.
"Quite right," agreed Aubrey, cordially. "But you might tell me why this one took you to Central Africa. Is it a book of travels?"
"No; it is a love-story. But the scene is laid in wild places—ah, such places! One cannot possibly understand, until one gets there and does it, what it is like to leave civilisation behind, and crawl into long grass thirteen feet high!"
"It sounds weirdly fascinating," remarked Aubrey. "So unusual a setting, must mean a remarkable plot."
"It is the strongest thing I have done yet," said Ronnie, with enthusiasm.
Aubrey smiled, surveying Ronnie's eager face with slow enjoyment. He was mentally recalling phrases from reviews he had written for various literary columns, on Ronnie's work. Already he began wording the terse sentences in which he would point out the feebleness and lack of literary merit, in "the strongest thing" Ronnie had done yet. It might be well to know something more about it.
"It will be very unlike your other books," he suggested.
"Yes," explained Ronnie, expanding. "You see they were all absolutely English; just of our own set, and our own surroundings. I wanted something new. I couldn't go on letting my hero make love in an English garden."
"If you wanted a variety," suggested Aubrey Treherne, "you might have let him make love in another man's garden. Stolen fruits are sweet! There is always a fascination about trespassing."
"No, thank you," said Ronnie. "That would be Paradise Lost."
"Or Paradise Regained," murmured Aubrey.
"I think not. Besides—Helen reads my books."
"Oh, I see," sneered Aubrey. "So your wife draws the line?"
"I don't know what you mean," replied Ronnie. "Falsehood, frailty, and infidelity, do not appeal to me as subjects for romance. But, if they did, I certainly should not feel free to put a line into one of my books which I should be ashamed to see my own wife reading."
"Oh, safe and excellent standard!" mocked Aubrey Treherne. "No wonder you go down with the British public."
"I think, if you don't mind," said Ronald, with some heat, "we will cease to discuss my books and my public."
"Then there is but one subject left to us," smiled Aubrey—"the Infant of Prague! Let us concentrate our attention upon this entirely congenial topic. I wonder how long this dear child has remained dumb. I have seen many fine instruments in my time, West, but I am inclined to think your 'cello is the finest I have yet come across. Do you mind if I tune it, and try the strings?"
Ronnie's pleasure and enthusiasm were easily rekindled.
"Do," he said. "I am grateful. I do not even know the required notes."
Aubrey, leaning forward, carefully lifted the instrument, resting it against his knees. He took a tuning-fork from his pocket.
"It is tuned in fifths," he said. "The open strings are A, D, G, C. You can remember them, because they stand for 'Allowable Delights Grow Commonplace'; or, read the other way up: 'Courage Gains Desired Aims.'"
With practised skill he rapidly tightened the four strings into harmony; then, after carefully rosining the bow, rasped it with uncertain touch across them. The Infant squealed, as if in dire pain. Ronnie winced, obviously restraining himself with an effort from snatching his precious 'cello out of Aubrey's hands.
It did not strike him as peculiar that a man who played the violin with ease, should not be able to draw a clear tone from the open strings of a 'cello.
"I don't seem to make much of it," said Aubrey. "The 'cello is a difficult instrument to play, and requires long practice." And again he rasped the bow across the strings.
The Infant's wail of anguish gained in volume.
Ronnie sprang up, holding out eager hands. "Let me try," he said. "It must be able to make a better sound than that!"
As he placed the 'cello between his knees, a look of rapt content came into his face. He slipped his left hand up and down the neck, letting his fingers glide gently along the strings.
Aubrey watched him narrowly.
Ronnie lifted the bow; then he paused. A sudden remembrance seemed to arrest the action in mid-air.
He laid his left hand firmly on the shoulder of the Infant, out of reach of the tempting strings.
"I am not going to play," he said. "The very first time I really play, must be in the studio, and Helen must be there. But I will just sound the open strings."
He looked down upon the 'cello and waited, the light of expectation brightening in his face.
Aubrey Treherne noted the remarkable correctness of the position he had unconsciously assumed.
Then Ronnie, raising the bow, drew it, with unfaltering touch, across the silver depths of lower C.
A rich, full note, rising, falling, vibrating, filled the room. The Infant of Prague was singing. A master-hand had waked its voice once more.
Ronnie's head swam. A hot mist was before his eyes. His breath came in short sobs. He had completely forgotten the sardonic face of his wife's cousin, in the chair opposite.
Then the hot mist cleared. He raised the bow once more, and drew it across G.
G merged into D without a pause. Then, with a strong triumphant sweep, he sounded A.
The four open strings of the 'cello had given forth their full sweetness and power.
"Helen, oh, Helen!" said Ronnie.
Then he looked up, and saw Aubrey Treherne.
He laughed, rather unsteadily. "I thought I was at home," he said. "For the moment it seemed as if I must be at home. I was experiencing the purest joy I have known since I left Helen. What do you think of my 'cello, man? Isn't it wonderful?"
"It is very wonderful," said Aubrey Treherne. "Your Infant is all you hoped. The tone is perfect. But what is still more wonderful is that you—who believe yourself never to have handled a 'cello before—can set the strings vibrating with such unerring skill; such complete mastery. Of course, to me, the mystery is no mystery. The reason of it all is perfectly clear."
"What is the reason of it all?" inquired Ronnie, eagerly.
"In a former existence, dear boy," said Aubrey Treherne, slowly, "you were a great master of the 'cello. Probably the Infant of Prague was your favourite instrument. It called to you from its high place in the 'cello room at Zimmermann's, as it has been calling to you for years; only, at last, it made you hear. It was your own, and you knew it. You would have bought it, had its price been a thousand pounds. You could not have left the place without the Infant in your possession."
Ronald's feverish flush deepened. His eyes grew more burningly bright.
"What an extraordinary idea!" he said. "I don't think Helen would like it, and I am perfectly certain Helen would not believe it."
"You cannot refuse to believe a truth because it does not happen to appeal to your wife," said Aubrey. "Grasp it clearly yourself; then educate her up to a proper understanding of the matter. All of us who are worth anything in this world have lived before—not once, nor twice, but many times. We bring the varied experiences of all previous existences, unconsciously to bear upon and to enrich this one. Have you not often heard the expression 'A born musician'? What do we mean by that? Why, a man born with a knowledge, a sense, an experience, of music, who does not require to go through the mill of learning all the rudiments before music can express itself through him, because the soul of music is in him. He plays by instinct—some folk call it inspiration. Technical, skill he may have to acquire—his fingers are new to it. The understanding of notation he may have to master again—the brain he uses consciously is also of fresh construction. But the sub-conscious self, the Ego of the man, the real eternal soul of him, leaps back with joy to the thing he has done perfectly before. He is a born musician; just as John the Baptist was a born prophet, because, into the little body prepared by Zacharias and Elisabeth, came the great Ego of Elijah reincarnate; to reappear as a full-grown prophet on the banks of the Jordan—the very spot from which he had been caught away, his life-work only half-accomplished, nine centuries before. Even our good Helen, if she knows her Bible, could hardly question this, remembering Whom it was Who said: 'If ye will receive it, this is Elijah which was for to come; and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed.'"
"Great Scott!" exclaimed Ronnie. "What a theory! But indeed Helen would question it; and not only so, but she would be exceedingly upset and very much annoyed."
"Then Helen would fully justify the 'If' of the greatest of all teachers. She would come under the heading of those who refuse to receive a truth, however clearly and unmistakably expressed."
"Lor!" exclaimed Ronnie, in undisguised perplexity. "You have completely cornered me. But then I never set up for being a theologian."
"No; you are a born artist and musician. Music, tone, sound, colour, vibrate in every page of your romances. Had your parents taught you harmony, the piano, and the fiddle, your music would have burst forth along its normal lines. As they merely taught you the alphabet and grammar, your creative faculty turned to literature; you wrote romances full of music, instead of composing music full of romance. It is a distinction without a difference. But, now that you have found your mislaid 'cello, and I am teaching you to KNOW YOURSELF, you will do both."
Ronald stared across at Aubrey. His head was throbbing. Every moment he seemed to become more certain that he had indeed, many times before, held the Infant of Prague between his knees.
But there was a weird, uncanny feeling in the room. Helen seemed to walk in, to seat herself in the empty chair; and, leaning forward, to look at him steadily, with her clear earnest eyes. She seemed to repeat impressively: "Aubrey is not a good man, Ronnie. He is not a man you should trust."
"Well?" asked Aubrey, at last. "Do you recognise the truth?"
Then, with an effort, Ronnie answered as he believed Helen would have answered; and her face beside him seemed to smile approval.
"It sounds a plausible theory," he said slowly; "it may possibly be a truth. But it is not a truth required by us now. Our obvious duty in the present is to live this life out to its fullest and best, regarding it as a time of preparation for the next."
Aubrey's thin lips framed the word "Rubbish!" but, checking it unuttered, substituted: "Quite right. This existence is a preparation for the next; just as that which preceded was a preparation for this."
Then Ronnie ceased to express Helen, and gave vent to an idea of his own.
"It would make a jolly old muddle of all our relationships," he said.
"Not at all," replied Aubrey. "It merely readjusts them, compensating for disappointments in the present, by granting us the assurance of past possessions, and the expectation of future enjoyment. In the life which preceded this, Helen was probably my wife, while you were a beautiful old person in diamond shoe-buckles, knee-breeches, and old lace, who played the 'cello at our wedding."
"Confound you!" cried Ronnie, in sudden fury, springing up and swinging the 'cello above his head, as if about to bring it down, with a crashing blow, upon Aubrey. "Damned old shoe-buckle yourself! Helen was never your wife! More likely you blacked her boots and mine!"
"Oh, hush!" smiled Aubrey, in contemptuous amusement. "Excellent young men who make innocent love in rose-gardens, never say 'damn.' And in those days, dear boy, we did not use shoe-blacking. Pray calm yourself, and sit down. You are upsetting the internal arrangements of your Infant. If you swing a baby violently about, it makes it sick. Any old Gamp will tell you that."
Ronnie sat down; but solely because his knees suddenly gave way beneath him. The floor on which he was standing seemed to become deep sand.
"Keep calm," sneered Aubrey Treherne. "Perhaps you would like to know my excellent warrant for concluding that Helen was my wife in a former life? She came very near to being my wife in this. She was engaged to me before she ever met you, my boy. Had it not been for the interference of that strong-minded shrew, Mrs. Dalmain, she would have married me. I had kissed my cousin Helen, as much as I pleased, before you had ever touched her hand."
The incandescent lights grew blood-red, leaping up and down, in wild, bewildering frolic.
Then they steadied suddenly. Helen's calm, lovely figure, in a shaft of sunlight, reappeared in the empty chair.
Ronnie handed the Infant to her; rose, staggered across the intervening space, and struck Aubrey Treherne a violent blow on the mouth.
Aubrey gripped his arms, and for a moment the two men glared at one another.
Then Ronnie's knees gave way again; his feet sank deeply into the sand; and Aubrey, forcing him violently backward, pinned him down in his chair.
"I would kill you for this," he whispered, his face very close to Ronnie's; blood streaming from his lip. "I would kill you for this, you clown! But I mean to kiss Helen again; and life, while it holds that prospect, is too sweet to risk losing for the mere pleasure of wiping you out. Otherwise, I would kill you now, with my two hands."
Then a black pulsating curtain rolled, in impenetrable folds, between Ronnie and that livid bleeding face, and he sank away—down—down—down—into silent depths of darkness and of solitude.
AUBREY PUTS DOWN HIS FOOT
Ronnie's first sensation as he returned to consciousness, was of extreme lassitude and exhaustion.
His eyelids lifted heavily; he had some difficulty in realising where he was.
Then he saw his 'cello, leaning against a chair; and, a moment later, Aubrey Treherne, lying back in the seat opposite, enveloped in a cloud of tobacco smoke.
"Hullo, West!" said Aubrey, kindly. "You put in your half-hour quite unexpectedly. You were trying, in a sleepy fashion, to tell me how you came to purchase this fine 'cello; but you dropped off, with the tale unfinished."
Ronnie looked in silence at his wife's cousin.
"Are you the better for your sleep?"
"I am fagged out," said Ronnie, wearily.
Aubrey went to a cupboard, poured something into a glass, and handed it to Ronald.
"Drink this, my boy. It will soon wake you up."
Ronnie drank it. Its tint was golden, its odour, fragrant; but otherwise, for aught he knew, it might have been pure water.
He sat up and took careful note of his surroundings.
Then an idea seemed to strike him. He leaned forward and twanged the strings of his 'cello. They were not in tune.
"Will you lend me your tuning-fork?" he said to Aubrey.
But Aubrey had expected this.
"Sorry," he said. "I don't possess one, just now. I gave away mine last week. You can tune your 'cello by the organ."
"I don't know how to tune a 'cello," said Ronnie.
"Let me show you," suggested Aubrey, with the utmost friendliness.
He walked over to the organ, drew out the 'cello stop, sounded a note, then came back humming it.
Then he took up the Infant and carefully tuned the four strings, talking easily meanwhile.
"You see? You screw up the pegs—so. The notes are A, D, G, C."
"What have you done to your lip?" said Ronald, suddenly.
"Knocked it on the stove just now, as I bent to stoke it with my fingers, for fear of waking you. It bled amazingly."
Aubrey produced a much-stained handkerchief.
"It is curious how a tiny knock will sometimes draw as much blood as a sword-thrust. There! The Infant is in perfect tune, so far as I can tell without the bow. Do you mind if I just pass the bow across the strings? After each string is perfectly tuned to a piano or organ, you must make them vibrate together in order to get the fifths perfect. A violin or a 'cello is capable of a more complete condition of intuneness—if I may coin a word—than an organ or a piano."
He took up the bow, then with careful precision sounded the strings, singly and together. The beautiful open notes of the Infant of Prague, filled the room.
"There," said Aubrey, putting it back against the empty chair. "I am afraid that is all I must attempt. I only play the fiddle. I might disappoint you in your Infant if I did more than sound the open strings."
Ronald passed his hand over his forehead. "When did I fall asleep?" he asked.
"Just after suggesting that we should not discuss your books or your public."
"Ah, I remember! Treherne, I have had the most vivid and horrid nightmares."
"Then forget them," put in Aubrey, quickly. "Never recount a nightmare, when it is over. You suffer all its horrors again, in the telling. Turn your thoughts to something pleasant. When do you reach England?"
"I cross by the Hook, the day after to-morrow, reaching London early the following morning. I shall go to my club, see my publisher, lunch in town, and get down home to tea."
"To the moated Grange?" inquired Aubrey.
"Yes, to the Grange. Helen will await me there. But why do you call it 'moated'? We do not boast a moat."
Aubrey laughed. "I suppose my thoughts had run to 'Mariana.' You remember? 'He cometh not,' she said; the young woman who grew tired of waiting. They do, sometimes, you know! I believe her grange was moated. All granges should be moated; just as all old manors should be haunted. What a jolly time you and Helen must have in that lovely old place. I knew it well as a boy."
"You must come and stay with us," said Ronnie, with an effort.
"Thanks, dear chap. Delighted. Has Helen kept well during your absence?"
"Quite well. She wrote as often as she could, but there was a beastly long time when I could get no letters. Hullo!—I say!"
Ronnie stood up suddenly, the light of remembrance on his thin face, and began plunging his hands into the many pockets of his Norfolk coat.
"I found a letter from Helen at the Poste Restante, here; but owing to my absorption in the Infant, I clean forgot to read it! Heaven send I haven't dropped it anywhere!"
He stood with his back to the stove, hunting vaguely, but feverishly, in all his pockets.
Aubrey smoked on, watching him without stirring.
Aubrey was wishing that Helen could know how long her letter had remained unread, owing to the Infant of Prague.
At length Ronnie found the letter—a large, square foreign envelope—safely stowed away in his pocket-book, in the inner breast-pocket of his coat.
"Of course," he said. "I remember. I put it there when I was writing Zimmermann's cheque. You will excuse me if I read it straight away? There may be something requiring a wire."
"Naturally, my dear fellow; read it. Cousins need not stand on ceremony; and the Infant now being thoroughly in tune, your mind is free to spare a thought or two to Helen. Don't delay another moment. There may be a message in the letter for me."
Ronnie drew the thin sheets from the envelope in feverish haste.
As he did so, a folded note fell from among them unseen by Ronnie, and dropped to the floor close to Aubrey's foot.
Ronnie began reading; but black spots danced before his eyes, and Helen's beautiful clear writing zig-zagged up and down the page.
Presently his vision cleared a little and he read more easily.
Suddenly he laughed, a short, rather mirthless, laugh.
"What's up?" inquired Aubrey Treherne.
"Oh, nothing much; only I suppose I'm in for a lecture again! Helen says: 'Ronald'—" Ronnie lifted his eyes from the paper. "What a nuisance it is to own that kind of name. As a small boy I was always 'Ronnie' when people were pleased, and 'Ronald' if I was in for a wigging. The feeling of it sticks to you all your life."
"Of course it does," said Aubrey sympathetically. "Beastly hard lines. Well? Helen says 'Ronald'—?"
Ronnie's eyes sought the paper again; but once more the black spots danced in a wild shower. He rubbed his eyes and went on reading.
"'Ronald, I shall have something to tell you when you get home, which will make a great difference to this Christmas, and to all Christmas-times to come. I will not put it into a letter. I will wait until you are here, and I can say it.'"
"What can it be?" questioned Aubrey.
"Oh, I know," said Ronnie, unsteadily—the floor was becoming soft and sandy again. "I have heard it all before. She always thinks me extravagant at Christmas, and objects to her old people being given champagne and other seasonable good things. I have heard—heard it—all before. There was no need to write about it. And when she—when she says it, I shall jolly well tell her that a—that a—a fellow can do as he likes with his own earnings."
"I should," said Aubrey Treherne.
Ronald went on reading, in silence.
Aubrey's eye was upon the folded sheet of paper on the floor.
Suddenly Ronnie said: "Hullo! I'm to have it after all! Listen to this. 'P.S.—On second thoughts, now you are so nearly home, I would rather you knew what I have to say, before your return; so I am enclosing with this a pencil note I wrote some weeks ago. Ronnie, we will have a Christmas-tree this Christmas.' Well, I never!" said Ronnie. "That's not a very wild thing in the way of extravagance, is it? But it's a concession. I have wanted a Christmas-tree each Christmas. But Helen said you couldn't have a Christmas-tree in a home where there were no kids; it was absurd for two grownup people to give each other a Christmas-tree. Now, where is—" He began searching in the empty envelope.
With a quick stealthy movement, Aubrey put his foot upon the note.
"It is not here," said Ronnie, shaking out the thin sheets one by one, and tearing open the envelope. "She has forgotten it, after all. Well—I should think it will keep. It can hardly have been important."
"Evidently," remarked Aubrey, "third thoughts followed second thoughts. Even Helen would scarcely put a lecture on economy into a welcome-home letter."
"No, of course not," agreed Ronnie, and walked unsteadily to his chair.
Aubrey, stooping, transferred the note from beneath his foot to his pocket.
Ronald read his letter through again, then turned to Aubrey.
"Look here," he said. "I must send a wire. Helen wants to know whether I wish her to meet me in town, or whether I would rather she waited for me at home. What shall I say?"
Aubrey Treherne rose. "Think it over," he said, "while I fetch a form."
He left the room.
He was some time in finding that form.
When he returned his face was livid, his hand shook.
Ronald sat in absorbed contemplation of the Infant.
"It appears more perfect every time one sees it," he remarked, without looking at Aubrey.
Aubrey handed him a form for foreign telegrams, and a fountain pen.
"What are you going to say to—to your wife?" he asked in a low voice.
"I don't know," said Ronnie, vaguely. "What a jolly pen! What am I to do with this?"
"You are to let Helen know whether she is to meet you in town, or to wait at the Grange."
"Ah, I remember. What do you advise, Treherne? I don't seem able to make plans."
"I should say most decidedly, let her wait for you at home."
"Yes, I think so too. I shall be rushing around in town. I can get home before tea-time. How shall I word it?"
"Why not say: Owing to satisfactory news in letter, prefer to meet you quietly at home. All well."
Ronnie wrote this at Aubrey's dictation; then he paused.
"What news?" he asked, perplexed at the words he himself had written.
"Why—that Helen is quite well. Isn't that satisfactory news?"
"Oh, of course. I see. Yes."
"Then you might add: Will wire train from London."
"But I know the train now," objected Ronnie. "I have been thinking of it for weeks! I shall catch the 3 o'clock express."
"Very well, then add: Coming by 3 o'clock train. Home to tea."
Ronnie wrote it—a joyous smile on his lips and in his eyes.
"It sounds so near," he said. "After seven long months—it sounds so near!"
"Now," said Aubrey, "give it to me. I will take it out for you. I know an office where one can hand in wires at any hour."
"You are a good fellow," said Ronnie gratefully.
"And now look here," continued Aubrey. "Before I go, you must turn into bed, old chap. You need sleep more than you know. I can do a little prescribing myself. I am going to give you a dose of sleeping stuff which brought me merciful oblivion, after long nights of maddening wakefulness. You will feel another man, when you wake in the morning. But I am coming with you to the Hague. I can tend the Infant, while you go to the publishers. I will see you safely on board at the Hook, on the following evening, and next day you will be at home. After all those months alone in the long grass, you don't want any more solitary travelling. Now come to bed."
Ronnie rose unsteadily. "Aubrey," he said, "you are a most awfully good fellow. I shall tell Helen. She will—will—will be so—so grateful. I'm perfectly all right, you know; but other people seem so—so busy, and—and—so vague. You will help me to—to—to—arrest their attention. I must take the Infant to bed."
"Yes, yes," said Aubrey; "we will find a cosy place for the Infant. If Helen were here she would provide a bassinet. Don't forget that joke. It will amuse Helen. I make you a present of it. If Helen were here she would provide a bassinet and a pram for the Infant of Prague."
Ronnie laughed. "I shall tell Helen you said so." Then, carrying the 'cello, he lurched unsteadily through the doorway. The Infant's head had a narrow escape.
* * * * *
Aubrey Treherne sent off the telegram. He required to alter only one word.
When it reached Helen, the next morning at breakfast, it read thus: Owing to astonishing news in letter prefer to meet you quietly at home. All well. Coming by 3 o'clock train. Home to tea.—Ronald.
Helen suffered a sharp pang of disappointment. She had expected something quite different. The adjective "astonishing" seemed strangely cold and unlike Ronnie. She had thought he would say "wonderful," or "unbelievable," or "glorious."
But before she had finished her first cup of coffee, she had reasoned herself back into complete content. Ronnie, in an unusual fit of thoughtfulness, had remembered her feeling about the publicity of telegrams. She had so often scolded him for putting "darling" and "best of love" into messages which all had to be shouted by telephone from the postal town, into the little village office which, being also the village grocery store, was a favourite rendezvous at all hours of the day for village gossips.
It was quite unusually considerate of Ronnie to curb the glowing words he must have longed to pour forth. The very effort of that curbing, had reduced him to a somewhat stilted adjective.
So Helen finished her lonely breakfast with thoughts of glad anticipation. Ronnie's return was drawing so near. Only two more breakfasts without him. At the third she would be pouring out his coffee, and hearing him comment on the excellence of Blake's hot buttered toast!
Then, with a happy heart, she went up to the nursery.
Yet—unconsciously—the pang remained.
A FRIEND IN NEED
As Aubrey Treherne, on his way back from despatching the telegram, stood in the general entrance hall, fumbling with the latch-key at the door of his own flat, a tall young man in an ulster dashed up the wide stone stairs, rapidly read the names on the various brass plates, and arrived at Aubrey's just as his door had yielded to persuasion and was admitting him into his own small passage.
"Hullo," said a very British voice. "Do you happen to be Ronald West's wife's cousin?"
Aubrey turned in the doorway, taking stock of his interlocutor. He saw a well-knit, youthful figure, a keen resourceful face, and a pair of exceedingly bright brown eyes, unwavering in the steady penetration of their regard. Already they had taken him in, from top to toe, and were looking past him in a rapid investigation of as much of his flat as could be seen from the doorway.
Aubrey was caught!
He had fully intended muffling his electric bell, and not being at home to visitors.
But this brisk young man, with an atmosphere about him of always being ten minutes ahead of time, already had one of his very muddy boots inside the door, and eagerly awaited the answer to his question; so it was useless to reply to the latter in German, and to bang the former.
Therefore: "I have that honour," replied Aubrey, with the best grace he could muster.
"Ah! Well, I'm sorry to bother you so late, but I must have a word with you; and then I am going round to spend the night with Ronnie at his hotel."
"Come in," said Aubrey, in a low voice; "but we must not talk in the passage or we shall wake him. I saw he was not fit to be alone, so I sent to the hotel for his traps, and am putting him up here. He turned in, half an hour ago, and seemed really inclined to sleep. He was almost off, when I left him."
Aubrey, closing the door, led the way to his sitting-room, where the three easy chairs were still drawn up before the stove.
"I conclude you are Dr. Cameron," said Aubrey, turning up the light, and motioning his visitor to the chair which had lately been Ronnie's.
"Yes, I am Dick Cameron, Ronnie's particular chum; and if ever he needed a particular chum, poor old chap, he does so at this moment. But I am glad he has found a friend in you, and one really able to undertake him. You did right not to leave him at the hotel; and he must not travel back to England alone."
"I have already arranged to accompany him," said Aubrey Treherne.
"Good; it will save me a journey."
Dick pulled off his ulster, threw it across the red velvet sofa, flung his cap after it, and took the proffered chair.
In his blue serge suit and gay tie, he looked like the captain of a college football team.
Aubrey, eyeing him with considerable reserve and distaste, silently took up his position in the chair opposite. He felt many years older than this peremptory young man, who appeared to consider himself master of all situations.
Dick turned his bright eyes on to the empty chair between them.
"So Ronnie has spent the evening with you?"
"Who was the third party?"
"The third party was the Infant of Prague."
"Oh, bother that rotten Infant!" exclaimed Dr. Dick. "I came near to putting my foot through its shining tummy this morning! Still it may serve its silly use, if it takes his mind off his book, until we can get him safely home. I suppose you know, sir, that Ronald West is about as ill as a man can be? It will be touch and go whether we can get him home before the crash comes."
"I thought he seemed excited and unwell," said Aubrey. "What do you consider is the cause of his condition?"
"Well, the bother is, we can't exactly tell. But I should say he has been letting himself in for constant exposure to extreme heat by day, and to swampy dampness by night; not taking proper food; living in a whirl of excited imagination with no rational companionship to form an outlet; and, on the top of all this, contracted some malarial germ, which has put up his temperature and destroyed the power of natural sleep. This condition of brain has enabled him to work practically night and day at his manuscript, and I have no doubt he has written brilliant stuff, which an enchanted world will read by-and-by, with no notion of the price which has been paid for their pleasure and edification. But meanwhile, unless proper steps are taken to avert disaster, our friend Ronnie will be, by then, unable to understand or to enjoy his triumph."
Aubrey's lean face flushed. "I hope you are taking an exaggerated view," he said.
"I hope you understand," retorted Dr. Dick, "that I am doing nothing of the kind. I cannot tell you precisely what course the illness will run; the nuisance of these African jungle poisons is that we know precious little about them. But I have known Ronnie since he and I were at school together, and any poison goes straight to his brain. If he gets influenza, he never sneezes and snuffles like an ordinary mortal, but walks about, more or less light-headed, all day; and lies dry awake, staring at the ceiling all night."
"What do you recommend in this case?"
"Ah, there we arrive at my reason for coming to you. I don't know Ronnie's wife. I conclude you do."
"She is my first cousin. I have known her intimately all her life."
"Can you write to her to-night, and mail the letter so that it will reach her before he arrives home?"
"I have every intention of doing so."
Dick Cameron sat forward, eagerly.
"Good! It will come better from you than from a total stranger. No doubt I am known to her by name; but we have never chanced to meet. Without alarming her too much, I want you to make Ronnie's condition quite clear to her. Tell her he must be kept absolutely quiet and happy on his return; and, with as little delay as may be, she must have the best advice procurable."