UP THE HILL
ISABEL ECCLESTONE MACKAY Author of "The House of Windows," etc.
The road runs back and the road runs on, But the air has a scent of clover. And another day brings another dawn, When we're up the hill and over.
TO MY MOTHER
WHO MIGHT HAVE LIKED THIS BOOK HAD SHE LIVED TO READ IT
"From Wimbleton to Wombleton is fifteen miles, From Wombleton to Wimbleton is fifteen miles, From Wombleton to Wimbleton, From Wimbleton to Wombleton, From Wombleton—to Wimbleton—is fif—teen miles!"
The cheery singing ended abruptly with the collapse of the singer upon a particularly inviting slope of grass. He was very dusty. He was very hot. The way from Wimbleton to Wombleton seemed suddenly extraordinarily long and tiresome. The slope was green and cool. Just below it slept a cool, green pool, deep, delicious—a swimming pool such as dreams are made of.
If there were no one about—but there was some one about. Further down the slope, and stretched at full length upon it, lay a small boy. Near the small boy lay a packet of school books.
The wayfarer's lips relaxed in an appreciative smile.
"Little boy," he called, somewhat hoarsely on account of the dust in his throat, "little boy, can you tell me how far it is from here to Wimbleton?"
Apparently the little boy was deaf.
The questioner raised his voice, "or if you can oblige me with the exact distance to Wombleton," he went on earnestly, "that will do quite as well."
No answer, civil or otherwise, from the youth by the pool. Only a convulsive wiggle intended to cover the undefended position of the school books.
The traveller's smile broadened but he made no further effort toward sociability. Neither did he go away. To the dismayed eyes, watching through the cover of some long grass, he was clearly a person devoid of all fine feeling. Or perhaps he had never been taught not to stay where he wasn't wanted. Mebby he didn't even know that he wasn't wanted.
In order to remove all doubt as to the latter point, the small boy's head shot up suddenly out of the covering grass.
"What d'ye want?" he asked forbiddingly.
"Little boy," said the stranger, "I thank you. I want for nothing."
The head collapsed, but quickly came up again.
"Ain't yeh goin' anywhere?" asked a despairing voice.
"I was going, little boy, but I have stopped."
This was so true that the small boy sat up and scowled.
"I judge," went on the other, "that I am now midway between Arden, otherwise, Wimbleton, and Arcady, sometime known as Wombleton. The question is, which way and how? A simple sum in arithmetic will—little boy, do not frown like that! The wind may change. Smile nicely, and I'll tell you something."
Urged by necessity, the badgered one attempted to look pleasant.
"That's better! Now, my cheerful child, what I really want to know is 'how many miles to Babylon?'"
A reluctant grin showed that the small boy's early education had not been utterly neglected. "Aw, what yeh givin' us?" he protested sheepishly, "if it's Coombe you're lookin' for, it's 'bout a mile and a half down the next holler."
"Holler?" the stranger's tone was faintly questioning. "Oh, I see. You mean 'hollow,' which being interpreted means 'valley,' which means, I fear, another hill. Little boy, do you want to carry a knapsack?"
"No? Strange that nobody seems to want to carry a knapsack. I least of all. Well," lifting the object with disfavour, "good-day to you. I perceive that you grow impatient for those aquatic pleasures for which you have temporarily abjured the more severe delights of scholarship. Little boy, I wish you a very good swim."
"Gee," muttered the small boy, "gee, ain't he the word-slinger!"
He returned to the pool but something of its charm was dissipated. Vague thoughts of school inspectors and retribution troubled its waters. Not that he was at all afraid of school inspectors, or that he really suspected the stranger of being one. Still, discretion is a wise thing and word-slinging is undoubtedly a form of art much used in high scholastic circles. Also there had been a remark about a simple sum in arithmetic which was, to say the least, disquieting. With a bursting sigh, the small sinner scrambled to his feet, reached for the hated books, and disappeared rapidly in the direction of the halls of learning.
Meanwhile the stranger, unconscious of the moral awakening behind him, plodded wearily up the steep and sunny hill. As he is our hero we shall not describe him. There is no hurry, and there will be other occasions upon which he will appear to better advantage. At present let us be content with knowing that there was no reason for the hat and suit he wore save a mistaken idea of artistic suitability. "If I am going to be a tramp," he had said, "I want to look like a tramp." He didn't, but his hat and coat did.
He felt like a tramp, though, if to feel like a tramp is to feel hot and sticky and hungry. Perhaps real tramps do not feel like this. Perhaps they enjoy walking. At any rate they do not carry knapsacks, but betray a touching faith in Providence in the matter of clean linen and tooth brushes.
Before the top of the hill was reached, Dr. Callandar wished devoutly that in this last respect he had behaved like the real thing. In setting out to lead the simple life the ultimate is to be recommended—and knapsacks are not the ultimate. They are heavy things with the property of growing heavier, and prove of little use save to sit upon in damp places. The doctor's feelings in regard to his were intensified by an utter lack of dampness anywhere. The top of the hill was a sun-crowned eminence, blazingly, blisteringly, suffocatingly hot. The valley, spread out beneath him, was soaked in sunshine, a haze of heat quivered visibly above the roofs of the pretty town it cradled. There was a river and there were woods, but the trees hung motionless, and the river wound like a snake of brass among them.
The doctor regarded both the knapsack and the prospect resentfully. He had hoped for a breeze upon the hill-top, and there was no breeze. Raising his hand to remove his hat, he noticed that the hand was trembling, and swore softly. The hand continued to tremble, and holding it out before him he watched it, interestedly, until a powerful will brought the quivering nerves into subjection.
"Jove!" he muttered. "Not a moment too soon—this holiday!"
Then, hat in hand, he started down the hill.
It was a long hill, very long, much longer than it had any need or right to be. It had a twist in its nature which would not allow it to run straight. It meandered; it hesitated; it never knew its own mind, but twisted and turned and thought better of it a dozen times in half a mile. It was a hill with short cuts favourably known to small boys and to tramps with a distaste for highways; but this tramp, not being a real one, knew none of them, and was compelled to do exactly as the hill did. The result was, that when at last it slipped into the cool shade of a row of beeches at its base, its victim was as exhausted as itself.
He was thirsty, too, and, worse still, he knew from a certain dizzy blindness that one of his bad headaches was coming on—and there still lay another mile between him and the town. Pressing his hand against his eyes to restore for the moment their normal clearness of vision, he saw, a short way down the road, a gate; and through the gate and behind some trees, the white gleam of a building. But better than all, he saw, between the gate and the building, a red pump! Then the blindness and pain descended again, and he stumbled on more by faith than by sight; blundering through the half-open gate, his precarious course directed wholly by the pump's exceeding redness, which shone like a beacon fire ahead.
Fortunately, it was a real pump with real water and a sucker in good standing, warranted to need no priming. At the stroke of the red handle the good, cool water gurgled and arose with a delightful "plop!" It splashed from the spout freely upon the face and hands of the victim of the long hill—delicious, life-giving! The delight it brought seemed compensation almost for heat and pain and weariness. Callandar felt that if he could only let its sweetness stream indefinitely over his closed eyes it would wash away the blindness and the ache. Perhaps—
"I am afraid I cannot allow you to use this pump!" said a crisp voice primly. "This is not," with capital letters, "a Public Pump!"
Callandar wiped the surplus water from his face and looked up. There, beside him in the yellow haze of his semi-blindness, stood the owner of the voice. She appeared to be clothed in white, tall and commanding. Surrounded by the luminous mist, her appearance was not unlike that of a cool and capable avenging angel.
"This pump," went on the angel with nice precision, "is not for the use of pedestrians."
"Ah!" said the pedestrian.
"If you will continue down the road," the voice went on, "you will find, when you reach the town, a public pump. You may use that."
The pedestrian, feeling dizzier than ever, sat down upon the pump platform. It was wet and cool.
"The objection to that," he said wisely, "is simple. I cannot continue down the road."
"I should like you to go at once," patiently. "There is a pump—"
The pedestrian raised a deprecating hand.
"Let us admit the pump! Doubtless the pump is there, but there is a pump here also, and a pump in the hand is worth two pumps, an ice-box and a John Collins in town. You doubtless know the situation created by Mahomet and the mountain? This is the same, with a difference. In this case the pump will not come to me and I cannot go to the pump. Therefore we both remain in statu quo. Do I make myself plain?"
Apparently he did, for there was no answer. Logic, he concluded, had achieved its usual triumph. The avenging angel had withdrawn. Blissfully he stooped again, closing his eyes to the cool drip of the water, but scarcely had they felt its chill relief when a sharp bark caused them to fly open with disconcerting suddenness—the avenging angel had returned, and with her was an avenging dog! Seen through the mist, the dog appeared to be a bull pup of ferocious aspect.
"I am sorry," the cool voice had no ruth in it, "but it is my duty not to allow tramps upon these grounds. If you will not go, I must ask the dog—"
"ASK the dog!" In spite of his aching head the tramp (now no longer pedestrian) laughed weakly.
"Oh, please don't ask him!" he entreated. "He looks too awfully willing! Besides, I begin to perceive that my presence is not desired. Naturally I scorn to remain."
Very slowly he raised himself from the damp pump platform by means of the red pump-handle. In this manner he achieved an upright position without much difficulty and all might have gone well had he behaved like a proper tramp. But forgetting himself, under the tyranny of training and instinct, he attempted, in deference to the sex of the angel, to raise his hat (which was not on his head anyway). In so doing he released the red pump-handle, lost his balance, struggled wildly to regain it, and then collapsed with a terrible sense of failure and ignominy, right into the open jaws, as it were, of the avenging dog!
He had a fancy that something cool and kind was licking his hand....
It felt like the tongue of a friendly dog. He seemed to have been dreaming about dogs. Something soft and cold lay on his head. It felt like a wet handkerchief ... the pain had dulled to a slow throbbing ... if he opened his eyes he would know who licked his hand and what it was that lay upon his head ... on the other hand, opening his eyes might bring back the pain. It seemed hardly worth the risk ... still, he would very much like to know—
Without being able to decide the question, he fell asleep.
When he awoke, his head was clear and the pain was gone. He felt no longer unbearably tired, but only comfortably weary, deliciously drowsy. Had he been at home in his own bed he would have turned over and gone cheerfully to sleep again. As it was, he opened his eyes with a zestful sense of curiosity.
He was lying, very easily, upon soft grass. Above him spread the thick greenery of a giant maple; his head rested upon a cushion and close beside him, with comforting nose thrust into his open palm, lay a ferocious-looking bull pup. The pup grinned with delight at his tentative pat; barked fiercely, and then grinned again as if to say, "Don't mind me, it's only my fun!"
There was a noise somewhere, a loud, cheerful noise—the noise of children playing. Not one child, nor two, but children—lots of them! This was perplexing; and another perplexing thing was the nearness of a white stoop which led up to the door of a white building; neither stoop nor building had he ever seen before. Again the dog barked, loudly, and as if in answer to the bark, the door above the stoop opened and a young girl came out. She cast a casual glance at him as he lay under the tree, and, settling herself daintily upon the white steps, opened a small basket and took from it a serviceable square of white damask and a lettuce sandwich. He could see the lettuce, crisp and green, peeping out at the edges.
At the sight, he was conscious of a strange sensation; an almost forgotten feeling to which, for the moment, he could put no name.
And then, as the girl bit into the sandwich, illumination came. He was hungry! But what an unkind, inconsiderate girl!—Another bite and the sandwich would be gone—
"I am awake," he suggested meekly.
"So Buster said." The girl smiled approvingly at the dog. "Good Buster! You may come off guard, sir. Run away and get your lunch."
With a delighted bark for thanks the bull pup trotted away. Callandar's sense of injury deepened. The girl had begun upon a second sandwich. Perhaps there were only two!
"Are you hungry, Mr. Tramp?" asked the girl innocently.
"I think," he said, pausing in order to give his words full weight, "I am starving!" Then, as the blissful meaning of this first feeling of healthy hunger dawned upon him, he added solemnly: "Thank the Lord!"
"Yes?" There was a cool edge of surprise in the girl's voice. She proceeded thoughtfully with the second sandwich.
"Yes. Hunger is a beautiful thing, a priceless possession. Money cannot buy it, skill cannot command it. The price of hunger is far above rubies."
The girl looked down upon him and smiled. It was such a dear little smile that for a moment its recipient forgot about the disappearing sandwich.
"I am so glad," she said warmly, "that you feel like that!"
There was a slight pause. "Because," she went on, finishing the last bite of the second sandwich, "until now I had always thought that hunger wasn't a bit nice. Unless, of course, one has the power to gratify it."
"Fortunately," said Callandar a little stiffly, "I have that power."
The girl raised her eyebrows. They were long and straight and black, and she raised them charmingly. But she was a most unkind and heartless girl, for all that. Never while he lived would he ask her for a sandwich. With a comfortable feeling of security his hand felt for his well-filled pocketbook. It was gone!
Stronger ejaculation seemed forbidden by the Presence on the steps. He tapped all his pockets carefully. The pocketbook was in none of them—and he had used the last cent of loose change for a glass of milk for breakfast.
"I suppose," the girl had apparently not noticed his sudden discomfiture, "that you mean you have money? But the nearest place where money would be of use is Coombe, and Coombe is a full mile away. It is a pity that my principles, and the principles of the school-board, should be all against the feeding of tramps. Otherwise I might offer you a sandwich."
"You might," bitterly, "but I doubt it!"
"Even now, putting the school-board aside, I might offer you one if you were to ask prettily and to apologise to me for making rather a fool of me this morning over there by the pump!"
The pump! Why, of course, the pump! It all came back to him now—the pump, the avenging angel! (Had this been the avenging angel?) The avenging dog!—Oh, heaven, was that the avenging dog?
He burst into a boyish shout of laughter.
"There are only two sandwiches left," she warned him. The doctor stopped laughing.
"Oh, please!" he said.
There was something very pleasant about him when he used that tone; a persuasive charm, a trace of command. The girl liked it—and passed a sandwich.
"Anyway it was you who took for granted that I was a tramp," he smiled at her. "If I remember rightly I was hardly in a condition to contradict you. Not but that it was a natural conclusion. I am curious to know why you changed your mind."
"Oh! as soon as you fainted I knew. Tramps don't faint!"
"Well—hardly ever! And besides—look at your hands!"
The doctor looked, and blushed.
"Dirty?" he ventured.
"Not half dirty enough! And it wasn't only your hands. I noticed—oh! lots of things!" For no perceptible reason a tiny blush fluttered across the whiteness of her face like a roseleaf chased by the wind. The pleasure of watching it made the doctor forget to answer, and the girl went on:
"I know lots more about you than that you aren't a tramp. I know what you are. You are a doctor!" triumphantly.
"A Daniel come to judgment!"
"Yes, a Daniel! Only I wouldn't have been quite so sure if you hadn't dropped this out of your pocket." With a gleeful laugh she held up a clinical thermometer.
The doctor laughed also. "Men have been hanged on less evidence than that," he admitted. "All the same I don't know where it came from. Some one must have judged me capable of wanting to take my own temperature. Anything else?"
"Only general deductions. You are a doctor, you are going to Coombe—deduction, you are the doctor who is going to buy out Dr. Simmonds's practice."
Callandar scrambled up from his pillow with a look of delighted surprise on his face.
"Why—so I am!" he exclaimed.
"You say that as if you had just found it out."
"Well, er—you see I had forgotten it—temporarily. My head, you know."
The suspicion in the girl's eyes melted into sympathy. "I suppose you know," she said with quite a motherly air, "that old Doc. Simmonds hasn't really any practice to sell?"
"No? That's bad. Hasn't he even a little one? You see" (the sympathy had been so pleasant that he felt he could do with a little more of it), "I could hardly manage a big one just now. As you may have noticed, my health is rather rocky. Got to lay up and all that—so it's just as well that old Simpkins' practice is on the ragged edge."
"The name is Simmonds, not Simpkins," coldly.
"Well, I didn't buy the name with the practice. My own name is Callandar. Much nicer, don't you think?"
"I don't know. A well-known name is rather a handicap."
This time the doctor was genuinely surprised.
"A handicap? What do you mean?"
"People will be sure to compare you with your famous namesake, Dr. Callandar, of Montreal. Everyone you meet," with a mischievous smile, "will say, 'Callandar—ah! no relation to Dr. Henry Callandar of Montreal, I suppose?' And then they will look sympathetic and you will want to slap them."
"Dear me! I never thought of that! I had no idea that the Montreal man would be known up here. In the cities, perhaps, but not here."
The girl raised her straight black brows in a way which expressed displeasure at his slighting tone.
"You are mistaken," she said briefly. "I must go now. It is time to ring the bell. The children are running wild."
For the first time the doctor began to take an intelligent interest in his surroundings, and saw that the tree, the white stoop and the small white building were situated in a little, quiet oasis separated by a low fence from the desert of a large yard containing the red pump. On the other side of the fence was pandemonium!
"Why, it's a school!" he exclaimed.
The school-mistress arose, daintily flicking the crumbs from her white pique skirt.
"District No. 15. The largest attendance of any in the county. I really must ring the bell." She flicked another invisible crumb. "I hope," she added slowly, "that I haven't discouraged you."
"Oh, no! not at all. Quite the contrary. It seems unfortunate about the name, but perhaps I can live it down. It isn't as if I were just out of college, you know.—In fact," as if the thought had just come to him, "do I not seem to you to be a little old for—to be making a fresh start?"
The girl's eyes looked at him very kindly. It was quite evident that she thought she understood the situation perfectly. "I shouldn't worry about that, if I were you," she said. "Young doctors are often no use at all. A great many people prefer doctors to be older! I know, you see, for my father was a doctor. He was Dr. Coombe; for many years he was the only doctor here, the only doctor that counted," with a pretty air of pride. "The town was named after his father-I am Esther Coombe."
The doctor acknowledged the introduction with a bow and a quick smile of gratitude.
"You are really very kind, Miss Coombe," he said. "If—if I should take Dr. Spifkin's practice, I hope I may see you sometimes. It is not far from here, is it, to the town—pump?"
Esther laughed. "No, but I do not live out here. I only teach here. We live in town, or almost in. You will pass the house on the way to the hotel. But before you go—" with a gleeful smile she handed him his lost pocketbook—"this fell out of your coat when I pull—helped you under the tree. I should have given it to you before, but I wanted you to understand just how far the blessing of hunger depends upon one's power to gratify it."
They laughed together with a splendid sense of comradeship; then with a startled "I really must ring the bell!" she turned and ran up the steps.
Smilingly he watched her disappear, waiting musingly until a sudden furious ringing told him that school was called.
Two sandwiches, an apple, and a glass of water may save a man from starvation, but they do not go far towards satisfying the reviving appetite of a convalescent. Walking with brisk step down the road, Callandar began to imagine the kind of meal he would order—a clear soup, broiled steak, crisp potatoes—a few little simple things like that! He fingered his pocketbook lovingly, glad that, for the first time in some months, he actually wanted something that money could buy.
Now that noon was past, the intense heat of the morning was tempered by a breeze. It was still hot and his footsteps raised little cyclones of dust which flew along the road before him, but the oppression in the air was gone, and walking had ceased to be a weariness. The mile which separated him from Coombe appeared no longer endless, yet so insistent were the demands of his inner man that when a town-going farmer hailed him with the usual offer of a "lift," he accepted the invitation with alacrity.
"Better," he murmured to himself, "the delights of rustic conversation with a good meal at the end thereof than lordly solitude and emptiness withal."
But contrary to expectation the rustic declined to converse. He was a melancholy-looking man with a long jaw and eyes so deep-set that the observer took them on faith, and a nose which alone would have been sufficient to identify him. Beyond the first request to "step up," he vouchsafed no word and, save for an inarticulate gurgle to his horse, seemed lost in an ageless calm. His gaze was fixed upon some indefinite portion of the horse's back and he drove leaning forward in an attitude of complete bodily and mental relaxation. If his guest wished conversation it was apparent that he must set it going himself.
"Very warm day!" said Callandar tentatively.
"So-so." The farmer slapped the reins over the horse's flank, jerked them abruptly and murmured a hoarse "Giddap!" It was his method of encouraging the onward motion of the animal.
"Is it always as warm as this hereabouts?"
"No. Sometimes we get it a little cooler 'bout Christmas."
The doctor flushed with annoyance and then laughed.
"You see," he explained, "I'm new to this part of the country. But I always thought you had it cooler up here."
The manner of the rustic grew more genial.
"Mostly we do," he admitted; "but this here is a hot spell." Another long pause and then he volunteered suddenly: "You can mostly tell by Alviry. When she gets a sunstroke it's purty hot. I'm going for the doctor now."
"Going for the doctor?" Callandar's gaze swept the peaceful figure with incredulous amusement. "Great Scott, man! Why don't you hurry? Can't the horse go any faster?"
"Maybe," resignedly, "but he won't."
"Make him, then! A sunstroke may be a very serious business. Your wife may be dead before you get back."
The deep-set eyes turned to him slowly. There seemed something like a distant sparkle in their depths.
"Don't get to worrying, stranger. It'll take more 'an a sunstroke to polish off Alviry."
"Was she unconscious?"
"Not so as you could notice."
"But if it were a sunstroke—look here, I'll go with you myself. I am a doctor."
"Kind of thought you might be," he responded genially. "Thinking of taking on old Doc. Simmonds's practice?"
"I don't know. But if your wife—"
The rustic shook his head. "No. You wouldn't do for Alviry. She said to get Doc. Parker, and a sunstroke ain't going to change her none. But if she likes your looks she'll probably try you next time. Tumble fond of experiments is Alviry—hi! giddap!" He slapped his horse more forcibly with the loose reins and settled into, mournful silence.
"Going to put up at the Imperial?" he asked after a long and peaceful pause.
"I want to put up somewhere where I can get a good meal and get it quickly."
The mournful Jehu shook his head gloomily.
"You won't get that at the Imperial."
"Where had I better go?"
"There ain't any other place to go—not to speak of."
The doctor let fall a fiery exclamation.
"I said that it must be a queer town."
"I'm a little hard of hearing, now and agin. But I gather you're not a church-going man. It's a great church-going place, is Coombe. Old Doc. Simmonds was a Methody. We were kind of hoping the next one might be a change. There's two churches of Presbyterians and they're tumble folk for hanging together."
The doctor laughed. "Thanks for the tip. I'll remember. Coombe is considered a healthy place, isn't it?"
The commiseration in the other's tone lent to the simple question such an obvious meaning that the doctor hardly knew whether to be amused or annoyed.
"Heavens, man! I'm not an undertaker. I asked because I'm rather rocky myself. That is, partly, why I'm here."
The mournful one nodded. "Good a reason as any," he assented sadly.
"By the way—er—there used to be a Dr. Coombe here, didn't there? Didn't he live somewhere hereabouts?"
The sad one turned his meditative eyes from their focus upon the horse's back and rested them upon the open and guileleas face by his side. Then from deep down in his brawny throat came a sudden sound. It was unmistakably a chuckle. Without the slightest trace of an accompanying smile, the sound was startling.
"What's the matter?" asked the doctor irritably.
"Nothing. Only when anybody's seen Esther, they always start asking about old Doc. Coombe. It gives them a kind of opening. Yes, that's the old Coombe place—over there. The one with the fir trees and the big elm by the gate."
"A pleasant house," said Callandar in a detached voice.
"So-so. The old Doc. uster putter around considerable. But they say his widow isn't doing much to keep it up. Tumble flighty woman, so they say. Young, you know, just about young enough to be the old Doc.'s daughter—"
"Oh! Esther ain't her child. Esther's ma died when she was a baby. There is a child, though, Jane they call her, a pindling little thing. But p'r'aps you've met Jane too?"
"I did not say—"
"No, but I thought likely if you'd met one, you'd have met the other. Jane's nearly always hanging around Esther 'cept in school hours. Awful fond of Esther she is. Folks say that Esther's more of a mother to Jane than her own ma. But I dunno. Alviry says it's a shame the way Esther's put upon; all the cares of the house when she had ought to be playing with her dolls. Stepmother with 'bout as much sense as a fly. Old Aunt Amy, nice sort of soul but—" he touched his head significantly and heaved the heaviest sigh yet.
"Do you mean to say that there is an aunt who isn't quite sane?" asked Callandar, surprised.
"I don't say so. Some folks does. Alviry says she's a whole lot wiser than some of the rest of us."
From the tone of this remark it was evident that Alviry's observation had been intended personally. Callandar choked back a laugh.
"What say?" asked the other suspiciously.
"I said, rather hard luck for a young girl."
The mournful one nodded and relapsed into melancholy. The doctor turned his attention to the house which a flicker of the whip had pointed out. It was long and low, with wide verandas and a somewhat neglected-looking lawn. At one side an avenue of lilacs curved, and on the other stood a stiff line of fir trees. The front of the house was well shaded by maples and near the gate stood a giant elm-tree, around the trunk of which ran a circular seat. It all looked cool, green and inviting. As the old horse walked sedately past, a woman's figure came out of one of the long windows and flung itself lightly, yet, even at that distance, with a certain suggestion of impatience, into one of the veranda chairs.
"That'll be Mrs. Coombe now," volunteered his informant. "Tumble saucy way she has of flinging herself around—jes' like a young girl! Mebby you can see what sort of dress she's got on. Alviry'll be int'rested to know."
"It's too far off," said Callandar, amused. "All I can see is that the lady is wearing something white."
"Went out of weeds right on the dot, she did! It's not much over a year since the old Doc. died. Esther's still wearing some of her black, but jes' to wear them out, not as symbols. Mrs. Coombe's got a whole new outfit, Alviry says. Turrible extravagant! Folks says it takes Esther all her time paying for them with her school money. But I dunno. What say?"
"I didn't say anything. But, since you ask, do you think all this is any of my business?"
"Well, since you ask, it ain't. 'Tisn't my business either; but it kind of passes the time. Giddap!"
Perhaps the old horse knew he was getting near the end of his journey for, contrary to expectation, he did "giddap" with a jerk which nearly unseated the doctor and caused a flicker of mild surprise to flit across the sad one's face.
"Turrible fast horse, this," he confided, "all you got to do is to get him going."
"Don't let me take you out of your way. If you'll tell me the direction—"
"Sit still, stranger. I'm going right past the Imperial. Hardly any place in Coombe you can go without going past the Imperial. It's what you call a kind of newclus."
As he spoke, the horse, now going at a fairly respectable rate, turned into the main street of the town; a main street, thriftily prosperous but now somewhat a-doze in the sun. Half-way down, the intelligent animal stopped with another jerk for which the doctor was equally ill-prepared. Before them stood a modest red brick building, three stories in height, with a narrow veranda running across the lowest story just one step up from the pavement. On the veranda were green chairs and in the chairs reclined such portion of the male Coombers as could do so without fear and without reproach. Along the top of the veranda was a large sign displaying the words, "HOTEL IMPERIAL."
Callandar alighted nimbly from the democrat, that being the name of the light spring wagon in which he had travelled, and shook his good Samaritan by the hand. "Thank you very much," he said, "and I sincerely hope that the sunstroke will not have terminated fatally by the time you reach home."
The deep-set eyes turned to him slowly and again he fancied a twinkle in their mournfulness. "If it does," said the sad one tranquilly, "it will be the first time it ever has—giddap!"
As no one came forth to take his knapsack, Callandar slung it over his shoulder and entered the hotel. The parting remark of his conductor had left a smile upon his lips, which smile still lingered as he asked the sleepy-looking clerk for a room, and intimated that he would like lunch immediately.
"Dining room closed," said that individual shortly.
"What do you mean?"
"Dining room closes at two; supper at six."
"Do you mean to say that you serve nothing between the hours of two and six?"
"Serve you a drink, if you like," with an understanding grin at his questioner's dusty knapsack.
Forgetting that he had become a Presbyterian, the doctor made a few remarks, and from his manner of making them the clerk awoke to the fact that knapsacks do not a hobo make nor dusty coats a tramp. Now in Canada no one is the superior of any one else, but that did not make a bit of difference in the startling change of demeanour which overtook the clerk. He straightened up. He removed his toothpick. He arranged the register in his best manner and chose another nib for his pen. When Callandar had registered, the clerk was very sorry indeed that the hotel arrangements were rather arbitrary in the matter of meal hours. He was afraid that the kitchen fires were down and everything cold. Still if the gentleman would go to his room, he would see what could be done—
The gentleman went to his room; but in no enviable frame of mind. So wretched was his plight that he was not above valuing the covert sympathy of the small bell-boy who preceded him up the oilclothed stairs. He was a very round boy: round legs, round cheeks, round head and eyes so round that they must have been special eyes made on purpose. There was also a haunting resemblance to some other boy! Callandar taxed his memory, and there stole into it a vision of a pool with willows. He chuckled.
"Boy," he said, "have you a little brother who is very fond of going to school?"
"Nope," said the boy. (It seemed to be a family word.) "I've got a brother, but he don't sound like that."
"You ought to be in school yourself, boy. What's your name?"
"Is that all?"
"Yep. Bubble for short."
"Have you ever known what it is to be hungry?"
"Three times a day, before meals!"
"Well, I'm starving. Do you belong to the Boy Scouts?"
"Well, look here. I am an army in distress. Commissariat cut off, extinction imminent! Now you go and bring in the provisions. And, as we believe in honourable warfare, pay for everything you get, but take no refusals—see?" He pressed a bill into the boy's ready hand and watched the light of understanding leap into the round eyes with pleasurable anticipation.
"I get you, Mister! Here's your room, number fourteen."
The boy disappeared while still the key with its long tin label was jingling in the lock. The doctor opened the door of room number fourteen and went in.
Rooms, we contend, like people, should be considered in relation to that state in which it has pleased Providence to place them. To consider number fourteen in any environment save its own would be manifestly unfair since, in relation to all the other rooms at the Imperial, number fourteen was a good room, perhaps the very best. A description tempts us, but perhaps its best description is to be found in its effect upon Dr. Callandar. That effect was an immediate determination to depart by the next train, provided the next train did not leave before he had had something to eat.
He was aroused from gloomy musings by a discreet tap announcing the return of the scouting party. The scouting party was piled with parcels up to its round eyes and from the parcels issued an odour so delicious that the doctor's depression vanished.
"Good hunting, eh?"
"Prime, sir. 'Tisn't store stuff, either! As soon as I see that look in your eye I remembered 'bout the tea-fight over at Knox's Church last night and how they'd be sure to be selling off what's left, for the benefit of the heathen." The boy gave the roundest wink Callandar had ever seen and deposited his parcels upon the bed. "They always have 'bout forty times as much's they can use. Course I didn't get you any broken vittles," he added, noticing the alarm upon the doctor's face. "It's all as good as the best. Wait till you see!"
He began to clear the wash-stand in a businesslike manner, talking all the time. "This here towel will do for a cloth. It's bran' clean—cross my heart! I borrowed a dish or two offen the church. They know me.... We'll put the chicken in the middle and the ham along at this end and the pie over there where it can't slip off—"
"I don't like pie, boy."
"I do. Pie's good for you. We'll put the beet salad by the chicken and the cabbage salad by the ham and the chow-chow betwixt 'em. Then the choc'late cake can go by the pie—"
"Boy, I don't like chocolate cake."
"Honest? Ah, you're kiddin' me! Really? Choc'late cake's awful good for you. I love chocolate cake. This here cake was made by Esther Coombe's Aunt Amy—it's a sure winner! Say, Mister, what do you like anyway?"
"Ever so many more things than I did yesterday. By Jove, that chicken looks good!"
"Yep. That's Mrs. Hallard's chicken. I thought you'd want the best. She ris' it herself. And made the stuffin' too."
"Did she 'ris' the ham also?"
"Nope. It's Miss Taylor's ham. Home cured. The minister thinks a whole lot of Miss Taylor's curin'. Ma thinks that if Miss Taylor wasn't quite so hombly, minister might ask her jest on account of the ham. You try it—wait a jiffy till I sneak some knives!"
Callandar looked at the decorated wash-stand and felt better. He had forgotten all about the room, and when the knives came, in even less than the promised jiffy, he forgot everything but the varied excellences of the food before him. The chicken was a chicken such as one dreams of. The salads were delicious, the homemade bread and butter fresh and sweet; the ham might well cause feelings of a tender nature towards its curer! The chocolate cake? He thought he might try a small piece and, having tried, was willing to make the attempt on a larger scale. The boy was a most efficient waiter, discerning one's desires before they were expressed. But when they got to the pie, the doctor drew up another chair at the pie side of the table and waved the waiter into it.
There was no false modesty about the boy; neither did he hold malice. If he had felt slightly aggrieved at not having been invited earlier, he forgot it after the first mouthful and for a time there was no further conversation in number fourteen. The doctor had temporarily discarded his theory that it is better to rise from the table feeling slightly hungry. The boy had never had so foolish a theory to discard. The chicken, the ham, the pie, disappeared as if conjured away. The boy grew rounder.
"Boy," said the doctor at last, "hadn't you better stop? You are 'swelling wisibly afore my werry eyes!'"
The boy shook his head, but presently he began to have intervals when he was able to speak.
"Better plant all you can," he advised. "Ma says the grub here would kill a cat. I eat at home. Ma wouldn't risk my stomach here. It's fierce."
"But I'll have to eat, boy. Isn't there another hotel?"
"Yep; two. But you couldn't go to them. This here's the only decent one. Gave you a nice room anyway." He looked around admiringly. "Going to stay long?"
"No—that is, yes—I don't know! How can I stay if I can't eat?"
The boy picked his round white teeth thoughtfully with a pin.
"You might get board somewheres."
This was a new idea.
"Why—so I might! Does Mrs. Hallard who raises chickens or Miss What's-her-name who cures ham, keep boarders?"
"Nope. But they're not the only oysters in the soup—There's the bell! They never give a man a minute's peace. Say, if you don't really like that pie, don't waste it—see? Tell you about boarding-houses later."
Callandar had to clear the table himself. This he did by the simple expedient of putting everything on top of everything else. But he did not waste anything, a precaution whose value he realised that night upon returning from the dining room where he had spent some time in looking at that repast known to the Imperial as supper. Bubble, the bell boy, found him with his mind made up.
"Boy," he said, "you have saved my life. But I fear I can sojourn no longer in your delightful town. Find me the first train out in the morning.".
The boy's face fell.
"Ain't you going to stay? Why, it's all over town that you're the new doctor come to take old Doc. Simmonds's practice. Mournful Mark, that you drove up with, told it. He said he shouldn't wonder if you're real clever. Says he suspects you're an old friend of Doc. Coombe's folks—went to college with the doctor, mebby. Says that likely Alviry will have you next time she gets a stroke."
"Tempting as the prospect is, boy, I fear ..."
"Oh, dang it! There's the bell again."
He darted out, bumped down the sounding stairs and, while the doctor was still considering the words of his ultimatum, appeared again at the door, this time decorously on duty.
"A call for you, sir," said Bubble primly.
"A call, sir. Mrs. Sykes wants to know if the new doctor will call 'round first thing in the morning to see Mrs. Sykes's Ann. She dunno, but she thinks it's smallpox."
"Quit your fooling, boy."
"Cross my heart, doctor!"
"Oh!" cheerfully, "I don't cross my heart to that. Mrs. Sykes always thinks things is smallpox. Ann's had smallpox several times now. But the rest is on the level. What message, sir?"
Callandar hesitated. (And while he hesitated the Fateful Sisters manipulated a great many threads very swiftly.) "What train ..." he began. (The Fateful Sisters slipped a bobbin through and tied a cunning knot.) Without knowing why, Callandar decided to stay. He laughed. Bubble stood eagerly expectant.
"Tell Mrs. Sykes I'll come, and ..." but Bubble did not wait for the end of the message.
Coombe is a pretty place. It has broad streets, quiet and tree-lined. It has sunny, empty lots where children play. No one is crowded or shut in. The houses stand in their own green lawns, and are comfortable and even picturesque. The Swiss chalet style has not yet come to Coombe, so the architecture, though plain, is not productive of nightmare. The roads are like country roads, soft and yellowish; green grass grows along the sides of many of them, and board sidewalks are still to be found, springy and easy to the tread. There is a main street with macadamised roadway and stone pavements, real flat stone, for they were laid before the appearance of the all-conquering cement. There is a postoffice with a tower and a clock, a courthouse with a fountain and a cannon, a park with a bandstand and a baseball diamond, a townhall with a belfry and no bell, an exhaustive array of churches, the Imperial Hotel, and the market. We mention the market last (as we were taught at school) because on account of its importance it ought to come first.
When Dr. Callandar, having been efficiently valeted by Bubble, set out to pay his first professional call, he drew in deep breaths of the pleasant air with a feeling of well-being to which he had long been a stranger. He had slept. In spite of the room, in spite of the chocolate cake, in spite of the pie, he had slept. And that alone was enough to make the whole world over. It was still hot but with a heat different from the heat of yesterday. A little shower had fallen during the night. There was a sense of the north in the air, a light freshness, very invigorating. He liked the quiet shaded streets; the cannon by the courthouse amused him; the number of church steeples left him amazed. He felt as if he had stumbled into a dream-town and must walk carefully lest he stumble out.
Bubble had given him very complete directions, indeed so minute were they that we will omit them lest some day you find the way yourself and drop in on Mrs. Sykes when she is not expecting company. But Dr. Callandar in his amused absorption had forgotten that he was going to Mrs. Sykes at all, when he was recalled to a sense of duty by a sharp hail from the corner house of a street he had just passed. Looking back, he saw, half-way down the road, a tall, red woman leaning over a gate, who, upon attracting his attention, began waving her arms frantically, after the manner of an old-fashioned signalman inviting a train to "Come on." Callandar's step quickened in spite of himself and he forgot his idle musings.
"Land sakes! I thought you'd never get here!" exclaimed the red woman fervently. "I suppose that imp of a boy didn't direct you right. Lucky I knew you as soon as you passed the corner. Mark Morrison may be as useless as they make 'em, but he's got a fine gift for description. Come right in. I'm dreadful anxious about Ann. It don't seem like measles, and she's had chicken-pox twice, and if she's sickening for anything worse I want to know it. I ain't one of them optimists that won't believe they're sick till they're dead. Callandar's your name, Mark says—any chance of your being a cousin to Dr. Callandar of Montreal that cured Mrs. Sowerby?"
"No, I am not that Dr. Callandar's cousin."
"I told Mark 'twasn't likely—or you wouldn't be here. Not if he'd any family feeling. I'm a great believer in a man making his own stepping-stones anyway," she went on with a friendly smile; "we ought to rise up on ourselves, like the poet says, and not on our cousins."
"A noble sentiment," said Callandar gravely, as he followed her up the walk, across a veranda so clean that one hesitated to step on it, and into a small hall, bare and spotless, where he was invited to hang up his hat.
"You're younger than I expected," went on Mrs. Sykes kindly. "I hope you ain't entirely dependent on your practice in Coombe?"
The amazed doctor was understood to murmur something about "private means."
"That's good. You'd starve if you hadn't. Coombe's a terrible healthy place and poor Doc. Simmonds didn't pay a call a week. I just felt like some one ought to warn you. I despise folks who hold back from telling things because they ain't quite pleasant. Know the worst, I always say; it's better in the end. Of course, as Mark says, your being a Presbyterian will make considerable diff'rence. Some folks thought Doc. Simmonds was pretty nigh an infiddle!"
Too overcome by his feelings to answer, Callandar followed her up the narrow stair and into a clean bright room with green-tinted walls and yellow matting on the floor.
Mrs. Sykes waved a deprecatory hand, at once exhibiting and apologising for so much splendour.
"This is the spare-room," she explained. "And there," pointing to the high, old-fashioned bed, "is Ann."
Callandar crossed the immaculate matting gingerly, taking Ann on faith, as it were, for, from the door, no; Ann was visible, only a very small dent in the big whiteness of the bed.
"Ann! Here's the doctor!"
A small black head and a pair of frightened black eyes appeared for a moment as if by conjuration, and instantly vanished.
"Ann!" said Mrs. Sykes more sternly.
There was a squirming somewhere under the bedclothes, but nothing happened.
"Great Scott!" exclaimed the doctor, "you've got the child in a feather-bed!"
Mrs. Sykes beamed complacently.
"Yes, I have. It may seem like taking a lot of trouble for nothing, but you never can tell. I ain't one of them that never prepares for anything. Jest as soon as Ann gets sick I move her right into the spare-room and put her into the best feathers. Then if she should be took sudden I wouldn't have anything to regret. The minister and the doctor can come in here any hour and find things as I could wish.... Ann! what do you mean by wiggling down like that? Ann—come up at once! The doctor wants to see your tongue."
This time the note of command was effective. The black head came to the surface, again followed by the frightened eyes and plump little cheeks stained with feverish red.
"Some cool water, if you please," ordered the doctor in his best professional manner. Mrs. Sykes opened her lips to ask why, but something caused her to shut them without asking.
When she had left the room, Callandar leaned suddenly over and lifted Ann bodily out of the dent and placed her firmly upon a pillow. It was a very plump pillow, evidently filled with the "best feathers," but compared with the bed it was as a rock in an ocean.
"Now," he said gravely, "you are safe, for the present. You are on an island; but be very careful not to slide off for if you do I may never be able to look at your tongue."
The child's hands grasped the island convulsively.
"Don't hold on like that," he warned. "You might tip." He leaned close so that she might see the smile in his eyes, "And if you tipped ..."
The child gave a sudden delighted giggle. "I'd go right in over my head, wouldn't I?"
"Yes. And next time you were rescued you might feel more inclined to tell your aunt what you had been eating before you became ill."
Ann stopped giggling.
"You don't need to tell me," went on the doctor, "because I know!"
"How d'ye know?"
"Magic. Be careful—you were nearly off that time! Does your aunt know anything about those things you ate?"
"Very well. But you must promise not to eat those particular things again. Not even when you get the chance." Then as he saw the woe upon her face, "At least, not in quantities!"
"Cross my heart!" said Ann, relieved.
"Here's the water," said Mrs. Sykes, returning. "Ann, get right back into bed. Do you want to get your death? Haven't I told you till I'm tired to keep your hands in? Is it measles, Doctor? She's subject to measles. Perhaps it's the beginning of scarlet fever. But if it's smallpox I want to know. No good ever comes of smoothing things over."
The doctor smiled at Ann.
"It isn't smallpox this time, Mrs. Sykes."
"Did you look at them spots on the back of her neck?"
"Yes. A little rash caused by indigestion. I wouldn't worry."
"Don't mind me. I'm used to worrying. I don't dodge my troubles like some I know. Indigestion? It looks more like eczema. Eczema is a terrible trying thing. But if the child's got it I don't want it called indigestion to spare my feelings."
"But it's not eczema! It's indigestion—and prickly heat. I'm afraid Ann's stomach has been giving trouble. It has been hotter than is usual here, I understand. Heat often upsets children. While I write out a prescription, you might bathe her face and hands."
Mrs. Sykes gazed doubtfully at the water. "She was done once last night and once this morning just before you came in," she remarked in an injured tone. "But if you think she needs it again, this sort of water's no good. Nothing's ever any good for Ann except hot water and soap."
The doctor looked up from his writing in surprise. Then as the meaning of the thing dawned upon him, he laughed heartily.
"Oh, Ann's as clean as the veranda floor!" he explained. "This is just to cool her off. Let me show you—doesn't that feel nice, Ann?"
Mrs. Sykes sniffed.
"I suppose that's some new-fangled notion? I never heard before of cooling people off when they've got a fever. In my time, the hotter you were, the hotter you were made to be, till you got cool naturally. I suppose," with half-interested sarcasm, "that you'd give her cold water to drink if she asked for it?"
"Well, I expect she knows better than to ask for it!"
Feeling Ann's imploring gaze, Callandar resorted to diplomacy.
"The fact is, Mrs. Sykes," he said pleasantly, "there really isn't very much wrong with Ann. You have been letting your forethought and your natural anxiety run away with you. There is not the slightest occasion for alarm. If there were, I should not dream of hiding it from one so well-prepared as yourself. As it is, you have taken a lot of needless trouble—this beautiful feather-bed, for example! I feel sure that Ann would do very well in her own bed."
The victim of the feathers gave a relieved gasp which her aunt mistook for a sigh of regret.
"Her own bed's well enough for anything ordinary," she admitted in a mollified tone. "Even if it is a store mattress."
"Quite good enough. Many a little girl would be glad of it." The doctor's tone was virtuous. "If you will allow me, I shall carry her in now. You see, she is cooler already. By to-morrow, if she takes her medicine, she ought to be as well as ever."
Ann's own room turned out to be on the shady side, and though not so grand as the spare-room, it was pleasantly cool. The little bed with the hard mattress and the snowy counterpane was infinitely to be preferred to the ocean of feathers, and the rescued maiden lay back on her smaller pillows with a sigh of gratitude.
"Sure you won't tell?" she whispered as he laid her down.
"Honour bright. Cross my heart! But you must take the medicine. It's nasty, but not too nasty, and you mustn't squeal—or it will be the spare-room again. Red cheeks and prickly heat are consequences, but feather-beds and medicine are retribution."
"That's right, Doctor," said Mrs. Sykes, who had heard the last words. "There's nothing like a word about retribution when a person's sick. It helps 'em to realise their state. I don't hold with the light-minded that want to get away from retribution. Depend upon it, they're the very folks that's got it coming to them. Yes. No one needs to go around denying that there's a hell, if their feet are planted upon a rock and they know they're never going there. It's years now since I've looked hell in the face and turned my feet the other way. But I do say that if I'd decided to go straight ahead in the broad and easy path, I wouldn't try to shut my eyes to the end of it, like some folks! Are you putting up at the Imperial, Doctor?"
"'Putting up' exactly expresses my condition."
"Well, you may as well know at once that a doctor in a hotel will never get any forwarder in Coombe. You'll have to get boarding somewhere. Have you looked around yet?"
"Then I don't mind telling you that the spare-room is to let and the little room down below that has a door of its own and seems made exactly for a doctor's office. I shouldn't mind letting you have them if you feel sure that the smells wouldn't get loose all through the house and in the cooking. There's a barn where you could keep your horse."
"I haven't got a horse," protested Callandar feebly.
"But of course you'll be getting one. A doctor has to have a horse. If you can't pay for it down, Mark knows some one who'd let you have a good one on time. You can trust Mark, if he is mournful. Of course I don't say that these rooms are the only rooms to let in Coombe, but I do think they're about as good as you can get—being so near to Dr. Coombe's old house. People get used to coming for a doctor down this street."
"But that was, over a year ago."
"It takes more 'an a year for Coombe folks to change their ways. Only this day week I saw Bill Brooks tearing down this way on account of Mrs. Brooks' being took kind of unexpected, and Bill losing his head and forgetting all about Dr. Coombe being dead and Dr. Parker living on the other side of the town."
"And you think that if I'd been here he would have 'tore' in here?"
"If he hadn't I'd just have called out to him as he went by. He was that wild he'd have taken anybody."
"I see," with humility. "I lost a good chance there!"
"Well, if you live here you'll get others. Why, from the spare-room windows you can see the corner window down at the Coombe place. I could make out to let you have your meals, too. Only I'd expect you to be as reg'lar as Providence permitted. I know a doctor is bound to be more aggravating in that way than other folks, but if you'd be as regular as lay in you, I'd put up with it. 'Tisn't as if I wasn't always prepared. When will you want to move in?"
"Really, I—I don't know—" The bewildered Callandar glanced for help to Ann, but met only clasped hands and an imploring stare. "I'll—I'll let you know," he faltered.
Thinking it over afterwards, he could never understand why he did not promptly refuse to be coerced, but at the time surrender seemed the only natural thing. Besides, he couldn't stay another day at the Imperial. He had to go somewhere. Perhaps it was his destiny to secure Ann against further feather-beds. Anyway, he accepted it.
"Oh, goody!" cried Ann, clapping her hands.
"Ann! put your hands under those clothes. How often must I tell you that you'll get your death? If you like, Doctor, there's nothing to prevent your moving in to-morrow. I'll need a day to air the feather-tick and make some pie."
The doctor was at last roused to action.
"There are conditions," he said hastily. "If I come here, there is to be no feather-tick and no pie!"
"No feather-bed?" in amazement.
"No pie?" Ann's voice was a sorrowful whisper.
"You see," Callandar explained, "I am here partly for my health. My health cannot lie on feather-beds nor eat pie—well, perhaps," with a glance at Ann, "an occasional pie may do no harm. But I shall send down some springs and a mattress. I have to use a special kind," hastily.
"Oh! it's spinal trouble, is it?" Mrs. Sykes surveyed him commiseratingly. "You look straight enough. But land! You never can tell. Them spinal troubles are most deceiving. Terrible things they are, but they don't shorten life as quickly as some others. Not that that's a blessing! Mostly, folks as has them would be glad to go long before they are took. Still, it gives them some time to be prepared. I remember—"
"I must go now, Mrs. Sykes. Give Ann some of the medicine as soon as it comes. It isn't exactly spinal trouble that is the matter with me, you know, but—er—I'll send down the kind of mattress I like. In fact, I shall probably wish to furnish my rooms myself. You won't mind, I'm sure."
"Land sakes, no, I don't mind! Most doctors are finicky. Don't worry about the medicine. I'll see that Ann takes it."
She watched him go with a glance in which satisfaction and foreboding mingled. "Poor young feller!" she mused. "He didn't like what I said about his spine a mite. Back troubles makes folks terrible touchy."
Two days after the installation of what Mrs. Sykes persisted in calling the "spinal mattress," Esther Coombe was late in getting home from school. As was usually the case when this happened, Jane, designated by mournful Mark as "the Pindling One," was sitting on the gatepost gazing disconsolately down the road. There were traces of tears upon her thin little face and the warmth of the hug which returned her sister's greeting was evidence of an unusually disturbed mind.
"Why aren't you playing with the other children, Jane?"
"I don't want to play, Esther. Timothy's dead."
"Yes, I know, dear. But Fred has promised you a new puppy—"
"I don't want a new puppy. I want Timothy."
"But Timothy is so much happier, Jane. He was old, you know. In the Happy Hunting Grounds, he will be able to frisk about just like other dogs. Wouldn't you like an apple?"
Jane considered this a moment and decided favourably. But her tale of woe was not yet complete. "Mother's ill again," she announced gloomily. "I mustn't play band or nail the slats on the rabbits' hutch. Aunt Amy gave me my dinner on the back porch. I liked that. I wouldn't go in the house, not till you came, Esther."
The straight brows of the elder sister came together in a worried frown.
"You know that is being silly, Jane."
"I don't care."
"You must learn to care. Run now and get the apple and ask Aunt Amy to wash your face."
Jane tripped away obediently, her griefs assuaged by the mere telling of them, and Esther passed into the house by way of the veranda. It was a charming veranda, long and low, opening through French windows directly into the living room which, like itself, was long and low, and charming. There is a charm in rooms which can be felt but not described. It exists apart from the furnishings and even the occupants; it is an essence, haunting, intangible—the soul of the room! only there are many rooms which have no soul.
Through the living room at the Elms vagrant breezes entered, loitered, and drifted out again, leaving behind them scents of sun-warmed flowers. The light there was soft and green. The comfortable chairs invited rest; the polished rosewood table, the bright piano shining in the brightest corner, the smooth old floor in whose rug the colours had long ceased to trouble, the general air of much used comfort, satisfied and refreshed.
Esther loved the room. Her first childish memory was of the rosewood table shining like a pool in the lamplight and of her own wondering face reflected in it, with her father's laughing eyes behind. In every way it was associated with the beginnings of things. The magic of all music began for her in the sweet, thin notes of the old square piano; the key to fairy land lay hidden somewhere in that shelf of well-worn books.
Yet to-night she entered with a hesitating step. It was obvious that she felt no pleasure in the cool greenness. The room was the same room but it was as if the expression on a well-known face had unaccountably changed and become forbidding. The girl sighed as she flung her hat upon a chair.
"Esther," Jane's voice, somewhat obscured by the eating of the promised apple, came through the open window, "are you sure about Timothy being in the Happy Hunting Grounds?"
"Of course, dear."
"But he wasn't what you would call a Christian, Esther?"
"He was a good dog."
"Can Timothy chase chickens there?"
"Is that what happens to bad cats when they die?"
Esther viewed this logical picture of everlastingly pursued cats with some dismay.
"N-o. I don't suppose it would be real cats."
"But Tim wouldn't chase anything but real cats."
"Jane, I wish you wouldn't talk with your mouth full."
Being thus reduced to giving up the argument or the apple, Jane abandoned the former. It was clear that Esther was not in the mood for argument. The child's quick observation had not failed to note the lagging step, nor the quick sigh. She nodded her head as if in answer to some spoken word.
"Yes, I know. I feel like that, too. That's why I didn't come in before; that's why I'm not really in yet. It catches you by the throat and makes you breathe funny. What is it, Esther?"
"Why—I don't know, Jane. It's loneliness I think—missing Dad."
The child shook her head. But whatever her objection might have been it was beyond her power of expression. She slid off the veranda step and wandered back into the garden. There was another apple in the pocket of her apron, and apples are great comforters.
Left alone, Esther with a resolutely cheerful air took down a blue bowl and proceeded to arrange therein the day's floral offerings. A sweet and crushed mixture they were, pansies, clove-pinks, mignonette, bleeding hearts, bachelors' buttons, all short stemmed and minus any saving touch of green, but true love offerings for all that. Wordless gifts most of them, prim little bunches, hot from tight clasping in chubby hands, shyly and swiftly deposited on "Teacher's desk" when the back of that divinity was turned. The blue bowl took kindly to them all, and as the girl's clever fingers settled and arranged the glowing chaos it seemed that with their crushed fragrance something of the lost spirit of the room came back. Just so had she arranged hundreds of times the sweet smelling miscellanies which had been her father's constant tribute from grateful patients.
She had almost finished when the door opened to admit a little, grey wisp of a woman with a mild white face and large faded eyes which might once have been beautiful. She was dressed entirely in lavender, a fondness for this colour being one of the many harmless fancies born of a brain not quite normal. The rather expressionless face brightened at sight of the girl by the table.
"Why, Esther—I didn't hear you come in. Have you put a mat under the bowl? See now! You have marked the table."
Esther good humouredly reached for a table-mat, for the polish of this particular article of furniture was the pride of Aunt Amy's life. "It's all right, Auntie. It's not really a mark. Look, aren't they sweet? It is like one of father's posies. Is mother any better?"
"The children must think a lot of you, Esther!"
"Yes, although I think they would bring flowers to any one, bless 'em! Is mother—"
"Your mother hasn't been down all day. I went up with her dinner but she didn't take any. She wouldn't answer."
"Auntie, don't you think she ought to do something about these headaches?"
"I don't know, Esther. She'll be all right to-morrow. She always is."
"Yes. But they are getting more frequent, and you know—she is so different. She can't be well. Haven't you noticed it?"
"Well, Jane has. So it can't just be imagination. She ought to consult a doctor."
"But it's absurd! What shall we do if she goes on like this? If there were only some one who would talk to her! She won't listen to me because she is older and married and—all that. All the same she doesn't seem older when she acts like this—like a child!"
"Well, you know, Esther, there isn't any doctor here that your mother just fancies."
The girl stooped lower over the blue bowl, perhaps to hide the little smile which crinkled up the corner of her mouth. The faint colour on her cheek may have been a reflection from the flowers.
"Yes, but haven't you heard? There is a new doctor. He seems quite different—I mean they say he is awfully nice. Mrs. Sykes' Ann was telling me all about him. He is going to board with Mrs. Sykes. The child just worships him already. Perhaps mother might see him."
"I shouldn't worry," said Aunt Amy placidly. "This pepper-grass will be very nice for tea. Did you tell Jane she might have two apples, Esther?"
"No. I told her she might have one. But I don't suppose two will hurt her." Esther was used to Aunt Amy's inconsequences which made impossible the discussion of any subjects save the most trivial. But she sighed a little as she realised anew that there was no help here.
"Jane is feeling badly about Timothy," she explained. "Don't you think we might have tea in here, Auntie? It is so cool."
Aunt Amy, who had been anxiously rubbing an imaginary spot on the table, looked up with a startled air. "Oh, Esther!" she said, in the voice of a frightened child. Then with a child's obvious effort to control rising tears, "Of course, if you say so, Esther. But—but do you feel like risking the round table? Couldn't we have it on the little table in the corner?"
The girl settled the last of her flowers and pushed back her hair with a worried gesture. A pang of mingled irritation and anxiety lent an edge of sharpness to her soft voice.
"Auntie dear! I thought you had quite forgotten that fancy. You know it is only a fancy. Round tables are just like other tables. And you promised me—"
"Yes, I know, but—"
"Well, then, be sensible, dear. We shall have tea in here." Then seeing the real distress on the timid old face, the girl's mood softened. "No, we shan't," she declared gaily. "We'll have it as usual in the dining room. You will fix the pepper-grass and I shall set the table."
But the end of Aunt Amy's vagaries was not yet. She hesitated, flushed and more timidly, yet as one who is compelled, begged for the task of setting the table herself. "For you know, Esther, the sprigged tea-set is so hurt if any one but me arranges it. Yes, of course, it is only a fancy, I know that. But the sprigged tea-set does feel so badly if I neglect it. All the pink in it fades quite out. You must have noticed it, Esther?"
The girl sighed and gave in. Usually Aunt Amy's vagaries troubled her little. Disconcerting at first, they had quickly become a commonplace, for the coming of Aunt Amy to the doctor's household had been too great a blessing to invite criticism. Esther had soon learned to express no surprise when told that the sprigged china had a heart of extreme sensitiveness, and that the third step on the front stair disliked to be trodden upon, and that it was dangerous to sit with one's back to a window facing the east. All these and numberless other strange facts were part of Aunt Amy's twilight world. To her they were immensely important, but to the family the really important thing seemed that, with trifling exceptions, the new inmate of the household was gentle and kind; her housekeeping a miracle and her cooking a dream. In the years she had lived with them there had been but one serious thrill of anxiety, and that came when Dr. Coombe had discovered her endeavouring to infect Jane with her delusions. This had been strictly forbidden and the child's mind, duly warned, was soon safeguarded by her own growing comprehension. Jane quickly understood that it was foolish to shut the garden gate three times every time she came through it, and that no one save Aunt Amy thought it necessary to count all the boards in the sidewalk or to touch all the little posts under the balustrade as one came down stairs. Some of the prettier, more elusive fancies she may have retained, but, if so, they did her no harm.
As for Aunt Amy herself, she lived her shadow-haunted life not unhappily. Dr. Coombe she had worshipped, yet his death had not affected her as much as might have been feared. Perhaps it was one of her compensations that death to her was not quite what it is to the more normal consciousness. It was noticeable that she always spoke of the doctor as if he were in the next room. Her devotion to him had been caused by his success in partially relieving her of the most distressing burden of her disordered brain—the delusion of persecution. Aunt Amy knew that somewhere there existed a mysterious power known vaguely as "They" who sought unceasingly to injure her. Of course it was only once in a while that "They" got a chance, for Aunt Amy was very clever in providing no opportunities. More than once had she outwitted "Them." Still, one must be always upon one's guard! From this harrowing delusion the doctor had done much to deliver her, indeed she had become more normal in every way under his care. It was only now, a year after his death, that Esther imagined sometimes that there was a slipping back—
The ill effects of sitting at a round table, for instance? It was a long time since this particular fancy had been spoken of and Esther had considered it gone altogether. Yet here it was, cropping out again and just at a time when other problems threatened. Things seemed determined to be difficult to-day.
The fact was that Esther was suffering from the need of a confidant. Really worried as she felt about her step-mother's health, the burden of taking any determined action against the wishes of the patient herself was a serious one for a young girl. Yet in whom could she confide? Girl friends she had in plenty but not one whose judgment she could trust before her own. Had the minister been an older man or a man of different calibre she might have gone to him, but the idea of appealing to Mr. Macnair was distasteful. Neither among her father's friends was there one to whom she cared to go for advice concerning her father's widow. They had one and all disapproved, she knew, of the sudden second marriage and Dr. Coombe had never quite forgiven their disapproval.
Often she felt like refusing the responsibility altogether. After all, her step-mother was a woman quite old enough to manage her own affairs. If she wished to foolishly imperil her health why need Esther care? Why indeed? But this train of reasoning never lasted long. Always there came a counter-question, "If you do not care, who will?" And the dearth of any answer settled the burden more firmly upon her rebellious shoulders. For one thing there was always the inner knowledge that Mary Coombe was weak and that she, Esther, was strong. She had always known this. Even when her father had brought home his pretty bride and Esther, a shy, silent child of eleven, had welcomed her, she had known that the newcomer was the weaker spirit. The bride had known it too. She had never attempted to control Esther, leaving the child entirely to her father—a bit of unwitting wisdom which did much to smooth daily life at the Elms. If the doctor saw his wife's weakness of character it is probable that it did not interfere with his love for her. Why need she be strong while he was strong enough for two? But he had forgotten one thing—the day when she would have to be strong alone!
The realisation came to him upon his death-bed. Esther was sure of this. He could not speak, but she had read the message of his eyes, the appeal to the strength in her to help the other's weakness. No getting away from the solemn charge of that entreating look!
* * * * *
Esther was thinking of that look now, as she sat alone in the dusk of the veranda. Tea was over and Aunt Amy was putting Jane to bed. From her mother she had had no word. Blank silence had met her when she had taken the tea tray upstairs and called softly through the closed door. Mrs. Coombe was probably asleep. She would be better to-morrow; but before long she would be ill again, and the interval between the attacks was becoming shorter.
There was anger as well as anxiety in the girl's mind. Her healthy and straightforward youth had little patience with her step-mother's unreasonable caprices. For her illness she had every sympathy, but for the morbid nervousness which seemed to accompany it, none at all. These constant headaches, the increasing nervous irritability from which Mrs. Coombe suffered lay like a shadow over the house. Yet the sufferer refused to take the obvious way of relief and persisted in her refusal with a stubbornness of which no one would have dreamed her light nature capable. Still, willing or unwilling, something must be done. Aunt Amy, too, was becoming more of an anxiety. Once or twice lately she had spoken of "Them," a sign of mental distress which Dr. Coombe had always treated with the utmost seriousness. Perhaps if a doctor were called in for Aunt Amy, Mrs. Coombe would lose her foolish dread of doctors and allow him to prescribe for her also. And if the new doctor were half as clever as Mrs. Sykes said he was—Esther's heart began to warm a little as her fancy pictured such a pleasant solution of all her problems. The little smile curved her lips again as she thought of the maple by the schoolhouse steps, and the lettuce sandwiches and—and everything. She closed her eyes and tried to recall his face as he had looked up at her. Instinctively she knew it for a good face, strong, humorous, kindly, but strong above all. And it was strength that Esther needed. When she went to bed that night her burden seemed a little lighter.
I believe he can help me, she thought, and it isn't as if he were quite a stranger. After all, we had lunch together once!
Undoubtedly Esther slept better that night for the thought of the new doctor. It cannot be said that the doctor slept better because of her. In fact he lay awake thinking of her. He did not want to think of her; he wanted to go to sleep. Twice only had he seen her. Once upon the occasion of the red pump and once when casually passing her on the main street. There was no reason why her white-rose face with its strange blue eyes and its smile-curved lips should float about in the darkness of Mrs. Sykes' best room. Yet there it was. It was the eyes, perhaps. The doctor admitted that they were peculiar eyes, startlingly blue. Dark blue in the shade of the lashes, flashing out light blue fire when the lashes lifted. But Mrs. Sykes' boarder did not want to think about eyes. He wanted to go to sleep. He did not want to think about hair either. Although Miss Coombe had very nice hair—cloudy hair, with little ways of growing about the temple and at the curve of the neck which a blind man could not help noticing. In the peaceful shadows of the room it seemed a still softer shadow framing the vivid girlish face.
Still, on the whole, sleep would have been better company and when at last he did drop off he did not relish being wakened by the voice of Ann at his door.
"Doc-ter, doc-ter! Are you awake? Can I come in?"
"I am not awake. Go away."
Ann's giggle came clearly through the keyhole.
"You've got a visitor," she whispered piercingly through the same medium. "A man. A well man, not a sick one. He came on the train. He came on the milk train—"
"You may come in, Ann." The doctor slipped on his dressing gown with a resigned sigh. "What man and why milk?"
"I don't know. Aunt Sykes kept him on the veranda till she was sure he wasn't an agent. Now he's in the parlour. Aunt hopes you'll hurry, for you never can tell. He may be different from what he looks."
"What does he look?"
Ann's small hands made an expressive gesture which seemed to envisage something long and lean.
"Queer—like that. He's not old, but he's bald. His eyes screw into you. His nose," another formative gesture, "is like that. A nawful big nose. He didn't tell his name."
"If he looks like that, perhaps he hasn't any name. Perhaps he is a button-moulder. In fact I'm almost certain he is—other name Willits. Occupation, professor."
"But if he is a button-maker, he can't be a professor," said Ann shrewdly.
"Oh, yes he can. Button-moulding is what he professes. His line is a specialty in spoiled buttons. He makes them over."
"Better than new."
Ann fidgeted idly with the doctor's cuff-links and then with a flash of her odd childish comprehension, "You love him a lot, don't you?" she said jealously.
The doctor adjusted a collar button.
"England expects that every man shall deny the charge of loving another," he said, "but between you and me, I do rather like old Willits. You see I was rather a worn-out button once and he made me over. Where did you say he was?"
"In the parlour—there's Aunt! She said I wasn't to stay. I'll get it."
Indeed the voice of Mrs. Sykes could be heard on the stairs.
"Ann! Where's that child? Doctor, you'd think that child had never been taught no manners. You'll have to take a firm stand with Ann, Doctor. Land Sakes, I don't want to make her out worse'n she is, but you might as well know that your life won't be worth living if you don't set on Ann."
"All right, Mrs. Sykes. Painful as it may be, I shall do it. Are you sure it's safe to leave a stranger in the parlour?"
Mrs. Sykes looked worried. "I hope to goodness it's all right, Doctor. He's been in the parlour half an hour. I don't think he's an agent, hasn't got a case or a book anywhere. But agents are getting cuter every day. Naturally I didn't like to go so far as to ask his name. And I'm not asking it now. Curiosity was never a fault of mine though I do say it. Still a woman does like to know who's setting in her front parlour."
"And you shall," declared Callandar kindly. "Just hang on a few moments longer, dear Mrs. Sykes, and your non-existent but very justifiable curiosity shall be satisfied."
The parlour at Mrs. Sykes opened to the right of the narrow hall. Its two windows, distinguished by eternally half-drawn blinds of yellow, looked out upon the veranda, permitting a decorous gloom to envelop the sacred precincts. Mrs. Sykes was too careful a housekeeper to take risks with her carpet and too proud of her possessions to care to hide their glories altogether; hence the blinds were never wholly drawn and never raised more than half way. In the yellow gloom, one might feast one's eyes at leisure upon the centre table, draped in red damask, mystic, wonderful, and on its wealth of mathematically arranged books, the Bible, the "Indian Mutiny" and "Water Babies" in blue and gold. This last had been a gift to Ann and was considered by Mrs. Sykes to be the height of foolishness. Still, a book is a book, especially when bound in blue and gold.
Upon the gaily papered walls hung a framed silver name-plate and two pictures. One a gorgeously coloured print of the lamented Queen Victoria in a deep gold frame, and the other a representation of an entrancing allegorical theme entitled "The Two Paths," illustrating the ascent of the saint into heaven and the descent of the sinner into hell. At the top of this picture was the legend, "Which will you choose?"—implying a possible but regrettable lack of taste on the part of the chooser.
Into this abode of the arts and muses came Callandar, alert and smiling. It was hardly his fault that he stumbled over the visitor who, whether in awe or fear of these unveiled splendours, had retreated as far as possible toward the door.
"Don't mind me!" said the visitor meekly.
"Willits! by Jove, I thought it would be you! Say, would you mind not sitting on that chair? It's just glued!"
The visitor arose with conspicuous alacrity. He was a tall man with a domelike head, piercing eyes and formidable nose. Ann's description had been terribly accurate. He observed the tail of his coat carefully and finding no damage, seemed relieved.
"Sit here," said Callandar affably. "And don't expect me to make you welcome, because you aren't. What misfortunate chance has brought you to Coombe?"
"Neither fortune nor chance had anything at all to do with it," declared the visitor. "I followed your luggage. I wanted to see you."
"Well, take a good look."
"I think you can guess why."
"Yes," with a sigh. "I was always a good guesser. And, frankly, Willits, I wish you hadn't."
"I do not doubt it. But, first, is there any other place where we can talk?"
"Don't you like this?" innocently.
The Button-Moulder's look of surprised anguish was sufficient answer. Callandar laughed.
"You always were a bit narrow in your views, Willits. How often have I impressed upon you that beauty depends upon understanding? I don't suppose you have even tried to understand this room? No? Will it help any if I tell you that Mrs. Sykes went without a spring bonnet that she might purchase the deep gold frame which enshrines Victoria the Good, or if I explain that Joseph Sykes, deceased, whose name you see yonder upon that engraved plate, was the most worthless rogue unhung. Yet the silver which displays—"
"Not in the least," interrupted the other hastily. "The place is a nightmare. Nothing can excuse it! And you—how you stand it I cannot see."
"My dear man, I don't stand it. I am not allowed to. It's only upon special occasions that any one is allowed to stand this room. You are a special occasion. But as you seem so unappreciative we can adjourn to my office if you wish."
"You have an office?"
"Certainly. A doctor has to have an office. This way."
Callandar strode across the room and opened a door in the opposite wall. It led into another room, smaller, with no veranda in front of it, yet with a window looking toward the road and two side windows through which the after flush of sunrise streamed. Its door opened upon a small stone stoop set in the grass of the front lawn. The furniture of the room was plain, not to say severe. Cool matting covered the painted floor, hemstitched curtains of linen scrim hung at the windows. There was a businesslike desk, a couch, a reclining chair, a stool by the door; another chair, straight and uncompromising, behind the desk. That was all.
Willits looked around him in a kind of dazed surprise. "Office!" he kept murmuring. "Office!"
"All rather plain, you see," said Callandar regretfully. "But for a beginner with his way to make, not so bad. My patients, three up to date, quite understand and conceal their commiseration with perfect good breeding. Also, the room has natural advantages, it is in the nature of an annex, you see, with a door of its own. Quite cut off from the rest of the house save-for the door by which we entered, the parlour door, which Mrs. Sykes informs me I may lock if I choose although she feels sure that I know her too well to imagine any undue liberties being taken!"
The Button-Moulder with a gesture of despair made as if to sit down upon the nearest chair, but was prevented with kindly firmness by his host.
"Not that chair, please. It may not be quite dry. I glued—"
The voice of the visitor suddenly returned. It was a very dry voice; threadlike, but determined.
"Then if you will kindly find me a chair which you have not glued I shall sit down and dispose of a few burning thoughts. Callandar, as soon as you have finished playing the fool—"
"Consider it finished, old man."
"Then what does this, all this"—with a sweeping hand wave—"mean? You cannot seriously intend to stay here?"
"Your question is absurd."
"No, it isn't. Let it sink in. Why should I not stay here? Examine the facts. I am ordered change, rest, interest, good air—a year at least must elapse before I take up my life again. I must spend that year somewhere. Why not here? It is healthy, high, piney, quiet. I had become utterly tired of my tramping tour. All the good I can get from it I have got. Chance, or whatever you like to call it, leads me to this place. A place which needs a doctor and which this particular doctor needs. There is nothing absurd about it."
The tall man observed his friend in interested silence. Apparently he required time to adjust his mind to the fact that Callandar was in earnest. The badinage he brushed aside.
"Then you really intend—but how about this office? If it is not a torn-fool office, where does the necessary rest come in?"
"Rest doesn't mean idleness. I should die of loafing. As a matter of fact since coming here I have rested as I have not rested for a year. Look at me! Can't you see it? Or is the renovation not yet visible to the naked eye? Great Scott! I don't need to vegetate in order to rest, do I?"
"No." Another pause ensued during which the gimlet eyes of the professor were busy. Then he seemed suddenly to leap to the heart of the matter.
"And—Lorna?" He asked crisply.
It was the other's turn to be silent. He flushed, looked embarrassed, and drummed with his fingers upon the table.
"Of course I have no right to ask," added Willits primly.
"Yes, you have, old man. Every right. But I knew you had come to ask that question and I didn't like it. The answer is not a flattering one—to me. Nor is it what you expected. To be brief, Lorna won't have me. Refused me—flat!"
Blank surprise portrayed itself upon the professor's face.
"The devil she did!"
"Confess now!" said Callandar, smiling. "You thought I was the one to blame? There was retributive justice in your eye, don't deny it!"
"But, I don't understand! I thought—I was sure—"
"I know. But she doesn't! Not in that way. As a sister—"
"That's enough! I—Accept my apology. I feel very sorry, Henry."
Again that look of embarrassment and guilt upon the doctor's face.
"No. Don't feel sorry! See here, let's be frank about the whole thing. It was a mistake, from the very beginning, a mistake. Miss Sinnet, Lorna, is a girl in a thousand. But—I did not care for her as a man should care for the woman he makes his wife. Nor did she care for me—wait, I'm not denying that there was a chance. We were very congenial. She might have cared if—if I had cared more greatly."
"Henry Callandar! Are you a cad?"
"No. Merely a man speaking the exact truth. I thought I might risk it, with you. Lorna Sinnet is not a woman to give her love and take a half-love in return. She was more clear-sighted than you or I. We should both have been very miserable."
Elliott Willits sighed. He was a very sensible man. He prided himself upon being devoid of sentiment, but even the most sensible of men, entirely devoid of sentiment, do not like to see their well laid plans go wrong.
"Well," he said, "I was mistaken. Let us say no more about it."
Callandar's eyes softened, melted into misty grey. He laid his arm affectionately over the other's thin shoulders. "Only this," he said. "That no man ever had a better friend! I know you, old Button-Moulder. I know your ambition to make of me a 'shining button on the vest of the world!' You thought that Lorna might help. But I failed you there. I'm sorry. That was really the bitterness of the whole thing—-to fail you!"
"You owe me nothing," gruffly.
"Only my life—my sanity."
"I shall doubt the latter if you stay here."
"No, you will see it triumphantly vindicated. I tell you I am better already. Look at my hand! Do you remember how it shook the last time I held it out for you. A few more months of this and it will be steady as a rock. Ah! it's good to be feeling fit again! And it isn't only a physical improvement." His smile faded and rising he began to pace the room. "I doubt if even you fully understand the mental depression that was dragging me down. No wonder Lorna would have none of me! Strange, that I cannot understand my own case as I understand the cases of others. Do what I would, I could not heal myself, the soul of the matter persistently escaped me. I was beginning to be as much the victim of an obsession as any of the poor creatures whom I tried to cure."
"You never told me of that."
"No, I was afraid to speak of it. It would have made it seem more real. But I can tell you now, if you are sure you will not be bored."
"I shall not be bored," said Willits quietly.
"In order to make you understand, I'll have to go back," said the doctor musingly, "a long way back. Some of the story you already know, but now I want you to know it all. But first—when you found me in that hospital, a useless bit of human wreckage, and forced me back into life with your scorn of a coward and your cutting words, what did you think? What did I tell you? It is all hazy to me."
"You told me very little. It was plain enough. You had come a bad cropper. Some girl, I gathered. You had lost her, you blamed yourself. You talked a great deal of nonsense. I inferred—the usual thing!"
"You were mistaken. It was at once better and worse than that. But let's begin at the beginning. My father was a fairly wealthy man—but a dreamer. He made his money by a clever invention and lost it by an investment little short of idiotic. Like many unpractical men he had rather fancied himself as a man of business and the disillusion killed him. He—shot himself. My mother, my sister and myself were left, with nothing save a small sum in the bank and the deed of the modest house we lived in. Adela was twenty-one and I was nineteen. We sold the house, moved into rooms; Adela learned shorthand and went into an office. I wanted to do the same. But mother was adamant. I must finish my college course and take my degree; she and Adela could manage until I could make it up to them later. It was hard, but it seemed the only sensible thing to do—
"I faced the task of working my way through college with a thankful heart, for though I pretended that I did not care, it would have been a terrible thing to have given up my life's ambition. The thought of Adela trudging to the office hurt—it was the touch of the spur. I needn't tell you, you can guess how I worked! People were kind. One summer, old Doctor Inglis, whose amiable hobby it was to help young medical students, engaged me for the holidays as his chauffeur and general helper at a wage which would see me through my next term. It seemed an unusual piece of luck, for he lived only twenty miles from my mother's home and an electric tram connected the towns. One night I went with Adela to a Church Social—of all places—and that is where the story really begins, for it was at the Social that I met Molly Weston. It seemed the most casual of all accidents, for you can imagine that I did not frequent churches in those days, and Molly, too, had come there by chance. She was dressed in pink, her cheeks were pink, she wore a pink rose in her hair. She was the prettiest little fairy that ever smiled and pouted her way into a boy's heart. Before I left her I was madly in love—a boy's first headlong passion. Adela was amazed, teased me in her elderly sister way but never for a moment took it seriously. Molly was a mere bird of passage, an American girl staying with friends for a brief time, therefore my infatuation was a humorous thing. But it was not so simple as that. Molly stayed on, Dr. Inglis was indulgent, we met continually. If her friends knew of it they did not care. It was just a flirtation of their pretty guest's. As a serious factor I was quite beneath the horizon, a young fellow working his way through college, and with, later on, a mother and sister to support.
"Molly understood the situation. At least she knew all the facts. I doubt if she ever understood them. She was one of those helpless, clinging girls who never seem to understand anything clearly. I remember well how I used to agonise in explanation, trying to make her see our difficulties and to face them with me. But when I had talked myself into helpless silence she would ruffle my hair and say, 'But you really do love me, don't you, Harry?' or 'I don't care what we have to do, so long as mother doesn't know.'
"I soon found out that her one strong emotion was fear of her mother. She was fond of her but she feared her as weak natures fear the strong, especially when bound to them by ties of blood. I was allowed to see her photograph—the picture of a grim hard face instinct with an almost terrible strength. No wonder my pretty Molly was her slave. One would have deemed it impossible that they were mother and daughter. Molly, it appears, was like her father, and he, poor man, had been long dead. Molly would do anything, promise anything, if only her mother might not know. She had not the faintest scruple in deceiving her, but this I laid, and still lay, to the strength of her love for me.
"She did love me. She must have loved me—else how could her timid nature have taken the risk it did?
"Summer fled by like a flash. Molly stayed with her friends as long as she could find an excuse and then went on for a brief week in Toronto. It was the week, of course, that I returned to college. We hoped that she could extend her stay, but her mother wrote 'Come home,' and there was no appeal from that. Then I did a desperate thing. Without Molly's knowledge I wrote to her mother telling her that I loved her daughter and begging, as a man begs for his life, to be allowed to ask her to wait for me. The letter was a lie in that it concealed the fact that my love was already confessed but I felt it necessary to shield Molly. I received no answer to the letter, but Molly received a telegram, 'Come home at once.'
"I can leave you to imagine the scene—my despair, Molly's tears! Never for an instant did she dream of disobeying and I—I felt that if she went I should lose her forever.
"Willits, there is something in me, devil or angel, which will not give up. Nothing has ever conquered it yet and Molly was like wax in my hands—so long as 'Mother' need not know. I do not attempt to excuse myself; what I did was dastardly, but it did not seem so then. The night before she left, she stole away from home. I had a license and we were married by a Methodist minister. He knew neither of us and probably forgot the whole incident immediately. It was a marriage only in name for we said good-bye at Molly's door. She left next morning. I never saw her again."
Into the silence which followed, the professor's words dropped dryly.
"What was your idea in forcing a meaningless marriage?"
"I loved her. I knew that it was the only way. Madly as I loved her, I knew that Molly was weak as water. I could not, would not, run the risk of letting her leave me without the legal tie. But I justified it to myself—I could have justified anything, I fear! I vowed a vow that she would be repaid for the waiting as never woman yet was paid. She wept on my shoulder and said, 'And you really do love me, Harry—and you'll swear mother need never know?'
"I swore it. There were to be no letters. Molly was too terrified to write and still more terrified of receiving a letter. She would live in constant dread, she said, if there were a possibility of such a thing. Weak in everything else she was adamant in this.
"I went back to work. I worked with the strength of ten. Health, comfort, pleasure, all were subordinated to the fever of work. I hoped that I might steal a glimpse of her sometimes. She promised to try to return to Toronto. But my letter must have alarmed the mother. I found out, indirectly, that shortly after her return, Mrs. Weston whisked her off to Europe. They were gone a year. When they returned I was in the far west with a government surveying party, earning something to help me with my last year's college expenses. When I was again in Toronto she had vanished. Gone, as I afterward learned, to stay with an aunt in California. Her mother, alive to danger, was not going to risk a meeting, and my vow to Molly left me helpless. But how I worked!
"That last year things began to come my way. Adela married a fine young fellow, wealthy and generous. My mother went to live with them in their western home, Calgary, where they still are. Then Thomas Callandar, my mother's brother, who had never bothered about any of us living, died, and left me a handsome property, adding, as you already know, the condition that I take the family name. You remember that my father's name, the name under which I married Molly, was Chedridge.