Twilight (Frankau)/Chapter XVI

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Twilight by Julia Frankau
Chapter XVI

CHAPTER XVI


I woke up suddenly. A minute ago I had seen Peter Kennedy kneeling by the sofa, his head against Margaret's dress. He had looked young, little more than a boy. Now he was by my side, bending over me. There was grey in his hair, lines about his face.

"You've grown grey," was the first thing I said, feebly enough I've no doubt, and he did not seem to hear me. "My arm aches. How could you do it?"

"Do what?"

"She was so young, so impetuous, everything might have come right. …"

"She is wandering," he said. I hardly knew to whom he spoke, but felt the necessity of protest.

"I'm not wandering. Is Ella there?"

"Of course I am. Is there anything you want?" She came over to me.

"I needn't write any more, need I? I'm so tired." Ella looked at him as if for instructions, or guidance, and he answered soothingly, as one speaks to a child or an invalid:

"No, no, certainly not. You need not write until you feel inclined. She has been dreaming," he explained.

It did not seem worth while to contradict him again. I was not wide-awake yet, but swayed on the borderland between dreams and reality. Three people were in the dusk of the well-known room. They disentangled themselves gradually; Nurse Benham, Dr. Kennedy, Ella in the easy-chair, Margaret's easy-chair. It was evening and I heard Dr. Kennedy say that I was better, stronger, that he did not think it necessary to give me a morphia injection.

"Or hyoscine."

I am sure I said that, although no one answered me, and it was as if the words had dissolved in the twilight of the room. Incidentally I may say I never had an injection of morphia since that evening. I knew how easy it was to make a mistake with drugs. So many vials look alike in that small valise doctors carry. I was either cunning or clever that night in rejecting it. Afterwards it was only necessary to be courageous.

I found it difficult in those first few twilight days of recovering consciousness to separate this Dr. Kennedy who came in and out of my bedroom from that other Dr. Kennedy, little more than a boy, who had wept by the woman he released, the authoress whose story I had just written. And my feelings towards him fluctuated considerably. My convalescence was very slow and difficult, and I often thought of the solution Margaret Capel had found, sometimes enviously, at others with a shuddering fear. At these times I could not bear that Dr. Kennedy should touch me, his hand on my pulse gave me an inward shiver. At others I looked upon him with the deepest interest, wondering if he would do as much for me as he had done for her, if his kindness had this meaning. For he was kind to me, very kind, and at the beck and call of my household by night and day. Ella sent for him if my temperature registered half a point higher or lower than she anticipated, any symptom or change of symptom was sufficient to send him a peremptory message, that he never disregarded. Ella, I could tell, still suspected us of being in love with each other, and she dressed me up for his visits. Lacy underwear, soft chiffony tea-gowns, silken hose and satin or velvet shoes diverted my weakness into happier channel and kept her in her right milieu.

Then, not all at once, but gradually and almost incredibly the whole circumstances changed. Dr. Kennedy came one day full of excitement to tell us that a new treatment had been found for my illness. Five hundred cases had been treated, of which over four hundred had been cured, the rest ameliorated. Of course we were sceptical. Other consultants were called in and, not having suggested the treatment, damned it wholeheartedly. One or two grudgingly admitted a certain therapeutic value in selected cases, but were sure that mine was not one of them! The medical world is as difficult to persuade to adventure as an old maid in a provincial town. My own tame general practitioner, whom I had previously credited with some slight intelligence, was moved to write to Dr. Kennedy urging him vehemently to forbear. He was fortunate enough to give his reasons, and for me at least they proved conclusive!

On the 27th of May I took my first dose of thirty grains of iodide of potassium and spent the rest of the day washing it down with glasses of chlorine water masked with lemon. I was still the complete invalid, going rapidly downhill; on a water bed, spoon-fed, and reluctantly docile in Benham's hard, yet capable hands. On the 27th of June I was walking about the house. By the 27th of July I had put on seventeen pounds in weight and had no longer any doubt of the result. I had found the dosage at first both nauseous and nauseating. Now I drank it off as if it had been champagne. Hope effervesced in every glass. The desire to work came back, but without the old irritability. Ella, before she left, said I was more like myself than I had been for years. Dr. Kennedy had unearthed this new treatment and she extolled him, notwithstanding her old prejudices, admitted it was to him we owed my restoration, yet never ceased to rally me and comment on the power of love. I agreed with her in that, knowing hers had saved me even before the drug began to act. It was for her hand I had groped in the darkest hour of all. Even now I remember her passionate avowal that she would not let me die, my more weakly passionate response that I could not leave her lonely in the world. Now we said rude things to each other, as sisters will, with an intense sense of happiness and absence of emotion. I criticised Tommy's handwriting, and she retorted that at least she saw it regularly. Whilst as for Dennis. …

But there was no agony there now to be assuaged. My boy was on his way home and the words he had written, the cable that he had sent when he heard of my illness, lay near my heart, too sacred to show her. I let her think I had not heard from him. Closer even than a sister lies the tie between son and mother. Not perhaps between her and her rough Tommy, her fair Violet, but between me and my Dennis, my wild erratic genius, who could nevertheless pen me those words … who could send me the sweetest love letter that has ever been written.

But this has nothing to do with me and Dr. Peter Kennedy, and the curious position between us. For a long time after I began to get well it seemed we were like two wary wrestlers, watching for a hold. Only that sometimes he seemed to drop all reserves, to make an extraordinary rapprochement. I might flush, call myself a fool, remember my age, but at these times it would really appear as if Ella had some reason in her madness, as if he had some personal interest in me. At these times I found him nervous, excitable, utterly unlike his professional self. As for me I had to preserve my equanimity, ignore or rebuff without disturbing my equilibrium. I was fully employed in nursing my new-found strength, swallowing perpetually milk and eggs, lying for hours on an invalid carriage amid the fading gorse, reconstructing, rebuilding, making vows. I had been granted a respite, if not a reprieve, and had to prove my worthiness. The desire for work grew irresistible. When I asked for leave he combated me, combated me strenuously.

"You are not strong enough, not nearly strong enough. You have built up no reserve. You must put on another stone at least before you can consider yourself out of the wood."

"I won't begin anything new, but that story, the story I wrote in water …" I watched him when I said this. I saw his colour rise and his lips tremble.

"Oh, yes. I had forgotten about that." But I saw he had not forgotten. "You never saw your midnight visitor again?"—he asked me with an attempt at carelessness—"Margaret Capel. Do you remember, in the early days of your illness how often you spoke of her, how she haunted you?" He spoke lightly, but there was anxiety in his voice, and Fear … was it Fear I saw in his eyes, or indecision? "Since you have begun to get better you have never mentioned her name. You were going to write her life …" he went on.

"And death," I answered to see what he would say. We were feinting now, getting closer.

"You know she died of heart disease," he asked quickly. "There was an inquest …"

"I saw her die," I answered, not very coolly or conclusively. His face was very strange and haggard, and I felt sorry for him.

"How strange and vivid dreams can be. Morphia dreams especially," he replied, rather questioningly than assertively.

"I thought you agreed mine were not dreams?"

"Did I? When was that?"

"When you brought me their letters, told me I was foredoomed to write her story. Hers and his. I can't think why you did."

"Did I say that?"

"More than once. I suppose you thought I was not going to get better." He did not answer that except with his rising colour and confusion, and I saw now I had hit upon the truth. "I wonder you gave me the iodide," I said thoughtfully.

"I suppose now you think me capable of every crime in the calendar?"

That brought us to close quarters, and I took up the challenge.

"No, I don't. Your hand was forced." Then I added, I admit more cruelly: "Have you ever done it again?"

He had been sitting by my couch in the garden; a basket-work chair stood there always for him. Now he got up abruptly, walked away a few steps. I watched him, then thought of my question, a dozen others rising in my mind. It was eleven years since Margaret Capel died and a jury of twelve good men and true had found that heart disease had been the cause of death. There had been a rumour of suicide, and, in society, some talk of cause. Absurd enough, but, as Ella had reminded me, very prevalent and widespread. The rising young authoress was supposed to have been in love with an eminent politician. His wife died shortly before she started the long-delayed divorce proceedings against James Capel, and this gave colour to the rumour. It was hazarded that he had made it clear to her that remarriage was not in his mind. Few people knew of the real state of affairs. Gabriel Stanton shut that close mouth of his and told no one. I wondered about Gabriel Stanton, but more about Peter Kennedy, who had walked away from me when I spoke. What had happened to him in these eleven years? Into what manner of man had he grown? He came back presently, sat down again by my couch, spoke abruptly as if there had been no pause.

"You want to know whether I have ever done for anybody what I did for Margaret Capel?"

"Yes, that is what I asked you."

"Will you believe me when I tell you?"

"Perhaps. Why did you first encourage me to write Margaret Capel's life and then try and prevent my doing it?"

"You won't believe me when I tell you."

"Probably not."

"I wanted to know whether she had forgiven me, whether she was still glad. When you told me you saw and spoke to her …"

"It was almost before that, if I remember rightly."

"It may have been. Do you remember I said you were a reincarnation? The first time I came in and saw you sitting there, at her writing-table, in her writing-chair, I thought of you as a reincarnation."

The light in his eyes was rather fitful, strange.

"I was right, wasn't I, Margaret?" He put a hand on my knee. I remembered how she had flung it off under similar circumstances. I let it lie there. Why not?

"My name is Jane." It came back to me that I had said this to him once before.

"You don't care for me at all?"

"I am glad you thought of the intensive iodide treatment. It has its advantages over hyoscine."

"You have not changed?"

"I would rather like you to remember this is the twentieth century."

He sighed and took his hand off my knee, drew it across his forehead.

"You don't know what the last few months have meant to me, coming up here again, every day or twice a day, taking care of you, giving you back those letters, knowing you knew …"

"You had not the temptation to rid yourself of me again?"

"You have grown so cold. I suppose you would not look at the idea of marrying me?"

"You suppose quite correctly," I answered, thinking of Ella, and what a score this would be to her.

"It would make everything so right. I have been thinking of this ever since you began to get better, before, too. You will always be delicate, need a certain amount of care. No one could give it to you as well as I. Why not? I have almost the best practice in Pineland, and I deserve it, too. I've worked hard in these eleven years. I've given an honest scientific trial to every new treatment. I've saved scores of lives …"

"Your own in jeopardy all the time."

"She asked me to do it, begged me to do it …" He spoke wildly. "Gabriel Stanton was inflexible, the marriage was to be postponed whilst Mrs. Roope was prosecuted, or the case fought out in the Law Courts. And every little anxiety or excitement set her poor heart beating … put her in pain … jeopardised her life. I'd do it again tomorrow. I don't care who knows. You'll have to tell if you want to. If you married me you couldn't give evidence against me …"

His smile startled me; it was strange, cunning. It seemed to say, "See how clever I am, I have thought of everything."

"There, I have had that in my mind ever since you began to be better."

"It was not because you have fallen in love with me, then?" I scoffed.

"When you are Margaret, I love you … I adore you." The whole secret flashed on me then, flashed through his strange perfervid eyes. We were in full view of a curious housemaid at a window, but he kneeled down by my couch, as he had kneeled by Margaret's.

"You are Margaret. Tell me the truth. There is no other fellow now. You always said if it were not for Gabriel Stanton …"

I quieted him with difficulty. I saw what was the matter. Of course I ought to have seen it before, but vanity and Ella obscured the truth. The poor fellow's mind was unhinged. For years he had brooded and brooded, yet worked magnificently at his profession, worked at making amends. The place and I had brought out the latent mischief. Now he implored me to marry him, to show him I was glad he had carried out my wishes.

"Your heart is now quite well … I have sounded it over and over again. You will never have a return of those pains. Margaret …"

I got rid of him that day as quickly as possible, not answering yes or no definitely, marking time, soothing him disingenuously. Before the next day was at its meridian I had hurriedly left Carbies. Left Pineland, all the strange absorbing story, and this poor obsessed doctor. I left a letter for him, the most difficult piece of prose I have ever written. I was writing to a madman to persuade him he was sane! I gave urgent reasons for being in London, added a few lines, that I hoped he would understand, about having abandoned my intention of turning my morphia dreams into "copy"; tried to convey to him that he had nothing to fear from me …

I never had an answer to my letter. I parried Ella's raillery, resumed my old life. But I could not forget my country practitioner nor what I owed him. A peculiar tenderness lingered. However I might try to disguise names and places he would read through the lines. It was difficult to say what would be the effect on his mind and I would not take the risk. I held over my story as long as I was able, even wrote another meantime. But three months ago I became a free woman. I read in the obituary column of my morning paper that Peter Kennedy, M.D., F.R.C.S., of Pineland, Isle of Wight, had died from the effects of a motor accident.

The obituary notices were very handsome and raised him from the obscurity of a mere country practitioner. It mentioned the distinguished persons he had had under his care. The late Margaret Capel, for instance. But not myself! I suspected Dr. Lansdowne of having sent the notices to the press, his name occurred in all of them, the partnership was bugled.

Peter Kennedy died well. He was driving his car quickly on an urgent night call. Some strange cur frisked into the road and to avoid it he swerved suddenly. Death must have been instantaneous. I was glad that he died without pain. I had rather he was alive today, although my story had remained for ever unwritten. So few people have ever cared for me. Had I chosen I do believe his reincarnation theory would have held. And I should have had at least one lover to oppose to Ella's many!