A Woman's Vengeance
A WOMAN'S VENGEANCE.
IN the top-floor front of a house in the Kentish Town Road a tall and comely young man sat on the edge of a bed reading a letter. The young man's appearance was not entirely congruous with his surroundings; for, in the matter of linen, clothes, and boots, he was as well turned out as a man need be who is not a professed dandy, whereas the room, though neat and orderly, as a well-bred man's bedroom should be, was an undeniable garret. He sat on the bed, not because there was no chair, but because experience had taught him that a chair with a defective hind leg is an unsuitable seat for a pre-occupied man. And Harry Sinclair was decidedly pre-occupied at the moment.
The letter which he held bore the superscription “44 Adam Street, Adelphi,” and the signature “Polonius Turcival.” It made a conditional offer of an engagement, and requested an appointment by telegram to “Magsulph, London.” Sinclair was disposed to regard the telegram as unnecessary. He produced from his pocket a small pigskin purse and tipped its contents into his hand, and when he had counted the coins and shot them back into the receptacle he was quite certain that the telegram was unnecessary.
A few minutes later—at 8.35 a.m., to be exact—he might have been seen striding along the Kentish Town Road with a very shiny silk hat on his head and a neatly-rolled umbrella in his neatly-gloved hand. Quite a striking figure in that not very fashionable neighbourhood, and one by no means unnoticed by the younger members of the female population.
For a man whose entire pecuniary resources were under two pounds Sinclair was surprisingly cheerful. But, then, his state was not chronic. A week ago he had graduated as a Bachelor of Medicine; and you can't do that on nothing. Then, only the day before our introduction to him, he had paid five guineas for the privilege of putting his name on the Medical Register, and thought it mighty dear at the price; and a good many people will agree with him. So he had no cause for melancholy.
Nevertheless, it was not without a shade of anxiety that he entered the private office of Mr. Turcival, the well-known medical agent. It would be exceedingly inconvenient if he failed to get the engagement.
Mr. Turcival looked him over with a studious grey eye suggestive of old china and first editions, consulted a ponderous volume of the Doomsday Book type, and opened his mouth and spake:
“I have a vacancy for a locum tenens, Dr. Sinclair, which ought to suit you. Eight weeks at five guineas. How will that do?”
Sinclair rapidly worked out a multiplication sum with a product of forty-two pounds, and decided that it would do very well indeed.
“Is it a town or country practice?” he asked.
“Hamblefield, Norfolk,” was the reply.
Sinclair started. For a moment he looked jubilant; then his face clouded.
“What is the railway fare to Hamblefield?” he asked; and when Mr. Turcival replied “Nineteen and twopence,” he performed a rapid subtraction sum, with a remainder of eighteen shillings. Turcival's fee was a guinea.
It was deuced awkward—embarrassing, too. He felt himself turning distinctly red, and when he looked up and met the speculative grey eye he blushed like a pickled cabbage.
Turcival recognised the symptoms. He had seen them before. Applying himself to the Doomsday Book, he coughed drily, and remarked: “You won't be paid till the end of the engagement, so perhaps you'd better settle with me when you come back, unless you're more flush than newly-qualified men are generally.”
“I'm pebbly-beached, as a matter of fact,” said Sinclair, “and it's awfully good of you.”
“Not at all. Matter of business.” Thus Turcival, as dry as a last year's walnut, and desperately afraid of being suspected of doing a kindly act. “Better catch the twelve-thirty from Liverpool Street, if you can,” he added; and, shaking hands aridly, he buried his proboscis in the Doomsday Book.
Sinclair caught the twelve-thirty without difficulty. He even found time to drop into the telegraph office, and “bang went saxpence” in a telegram to Hamblefield, Norfolk. The reader will naturally suppose that the telegram was addressed to the doctor of whose practice he was going to take charge. But it was not. The address space was filled by the words “Miss Lucy Morris, Lavender Cottage, Hamblefield.” And thereby hangs a tale.
Lucy Morris had been a student at the Slade School. Sinclair had been a student at University College Hospital. At one of the college dances they had become acquainted, and each had thought the other a quite exceptionally agreeable young person. But they were none of your cocksure sort. They gave themselves ample opportunities for reconsidering this opinion and testing its correctness, with the natural result—since their first impression turned out to be quite well founded—that they entered into certain mutual arrangements, which included the transformation of Miss Lucy Morris into Mrs. Harry Sinclair. But not yet. They were provident young people, and as poor as church mice.
Meanwhile, Lucy returned to her native village of Hamblefield, and, abandoning the charcoal point for the process artist's pen, and the agreeably-rugged Michallet for prim-faced Bristol board, devoted herself to the art and mystery of illustrating children's books, sharing a cottage with an older Sladeite who drew fashion plates.
By the light of these facts the reader will have no difficulty in understanding the air of deep content with which Sinclair, reclining at his ease in a third-class smoker, consumed an inexpensive brand of tobacco in a ninepenny briar. He had not seen Lucy for many a long month, had not expected to see her for many a month more, and here he was, speeding to far-away Norfolk, where for full eight weeks he would have the daily chance of looking into her pretty hazel eyes, of hearing her well-beloved voice, and of whispering into her ear those persuasive utterances which were novel in the days of the mammoth and the cave-hyena, and have remained novel ever since. Well might he look happy!
At Rugby he put out his head and acquired a Bath bun. By this time she knew he was coming. She might be, even now, devising some plan for a meeting; in fact, it was actually possible, though very unlikely, that she would be at the station. Remote as the possibility was, it occupied him at intervals for the remainder of the journey. And a very agreeable occupation, too.
But it was more than a possibility; it actually happened. Talk about the long arm of coincidence! There she was on the platform looking as pretty as a field daisy and as sweet as the lavender that gave her cottage its name. Unfortunately a trap was there, too, in charge of a chuckle-headed rustic. But Sinclair made short work of him. Pitching the Gladstone portmanteau into the trap, he said:
“I think I should like a walk after the railway journey. You go on with my traps and tell Dr. Gribble that I'll be with him in a jiffy.”
The rustic jehu touched his hat. “Yezzir,” he said. “You can't miss your way, zir; 'tis straight up the road from the station, zir.” With which he drove off.
Now the exact duration of a jiffy, as determined, for instance, by a one-metre pendulum, has, I believe, not been satisfactorily settled. But in the present case its indefiniteness was atoned for by certain compensations.
Lucy, of course, as a local person, knew the way perfectly; in fact, she knew the very shortest cut, which took them zig-zagwise across several meadows, along a pretty rose-hung lane, and through a belt of wood. She was in great spirits, and made no secret of it, going so far as to execute a little dance on a piece of level sward in the lane, to the unmeasured surprise of a crow-boy, whose presence had not till then been observed.
“How did you come to hear about Dr. Gribble?” she asked, when she had recovered somewhat from the inopportune crow-boy.
“Turcival got me the job,” replied Sinclair.
“He's a duck!” said Lucy. (Poor Turcival! If he could only have heard!) “And to think that you will be here for eight whole weeks!”
“Yes,” he answered; “eight whole weeks. But they'll pass like a summer's night, dear little lady, won't they?”
“I'm afraid they will,” she assented; and for a while they walked on more soberly.
“I wonder,” he said wistfully, “how long it will be before we can build our little nest, Lucy.”
She looked up at him rather wistfully, too, and thought what a fine picture of wholesome, comely manhood he made, with his alert, intelligent face, his sinewy limbs, and smart, athletic figure.
“We could do with quite a little, you know,” he continued. “You wouldn't mind if we had to spread the butter a trifle thin at first, would you?”
She slipped her hand through his arm and drew closer to him. “You are rather mixing your dear old metaphors,” she said. “People don't spread butter in nests. But I mustn't be flippant. I don't feel so. And as to the mere discomforts of poverty, they would be nothing to me if we were together. The only question is as to what is practicable.”
“The wise woman of Hamblefield,” he chuckled. “But you are quite right, dear; a medicus can't live in a two-pair back—though, by the way, I know one who lives in a three-pair front, only he's a mere bachelor.”
“It is early yet,” said Lucy. “Why, you are only just fledged, in a professional sense. We mustn't be impatient and premature, though, of course, we don't want to go on waiting until we are old.”
“You'll never be old, my dear,” said he. “You will just go on getting sweeter and more lovely from year to year like an everlasting golden pippin, though I should like to be near to watch the process of development.”
“In case I should turn out a medlar, after all,” she laughed.
Here they entered the wood, through which they walked hand-in-hand; a very necessary precaution, he being a stranger in the locality and due at Dr. Gribble's in a jiffy. It would have been a dreadful thing if he had lost his way.
On emerging from the wood they were confronted by an old-fashioned, red-brick house, which stood beyond a couple of meadows.
“That is Dr. Gribble's house,” said Lucy.
“Hang Dr. Gribble's house!” said Sinclair. So they went back into the wood to say “Good-bye.”
The practice at Hamblefield was not a disagreeable one to work. It was small, good class, and rather scattered. It could be worked in the saddle, which was better fun than sitting hunched up in a dogcart; and at present, “the weather being hot and dry,” as the ballad says, there was not so very much to do. By judicious management, Sinclair found it possible on most days to chance to be in the vicinity of Lavender Cottage about tea-time. And very agreeable those improvised tea meetings were; for the tea-things were providently set out in the little drawing-room, whereas the hard-featured fashion-platist (which her name was Maggs—a professed Suffragist and a most inveterate match-maker) invariably found some engrossing occupation in the adjacent studio, which occupation she pursued to the accompaniment of loud humming. So there could be no possible doubt as to her whereabouts.
On these occasions the nest-building project was reviewed in all its bearings; minute computations were made of the compound interest on very small sums of money. Then, too, practical comparisons were made contrasting the velvety softness of the female countenance with the ruggedness of that of the porcupinous male; and so forth. It was all very agreeable. And so the time ran on.
But there was a fly in the ointment. We apologise for the metaphor, because the fly was a lady—which sounds nonsense, and is, in fact, absurd. But that is the worst of embarking on figures of speech.
The lady was a young lady, and her name was Morris—a coincidence, since Lucy's name was also Morris. But, seeing that she was Lucy's first cousin, the coincidence was not so very remarkable. The fact of the relationship came to Sinclair's knowledge quite early, but there was another circumstance that he learned later and which is so relevant to the course of events herein set forth that it is necessary to mention it now. Daisy Morris was a young lady of means. Her considerable property was derived from an uncle (who was also an uncle of Lucy's), and it came to her subject to a certain condition, which was that, in the event of her dying without issue, the whole of it should pass to her cousin Lucy. Why the worthy uncle had not divided the estate between his two nieces no one could make out. But the ways of testators are inscrutable.
Sinclair made the acquaintance of the “fly” on the very day of his arrival. Gribble introduced her when handing over the practice. “Then there's a Miss Daisy Morris, cousin of your friend Miss Lucy.” Sinclair had prudently mentioned his engagement by way of anticipating comment in the village. “You're sure to hear from her. Most unsatisfactory patient. Typical case of hysteria. Wants some thing to do. Damn nuisance. No sooner have you relieved one set of symptoms than she starts another.
She's taken me through the whole Nosological index already, and when she sees you”—here Dr. Gribble glanced significantly at his handsome young deputy—“she'll start ringing the whole lot of changes over again.”
“I suppose,” said Sinclair, “if she sends for me I'd better go.”
“Must,” said Gribble. “Can't help it. If you don't, she'll swallow a hair pin and prosecute you for criminal neglect. You can't dodge a hysteric. You'll know that when you're my age.”
Gribble's anticipations were realised within twenty-four hours. Sinclair was half-way through his first breakfast at Hamblefield, and had just inflicted a depressed fracture on his second egg, when the inevitable message arrived. “Miss Morris, of 'The Birches,' wished to see Dr. Sinclair. She was in great pain, and would he kindly go as soon as possible?”
Sinclair gobbled the remainder of his breakfast, gulped down a cup of tea, and started. “Pain” is a talismanic word. No doctor can afford to be sceptical of pain until he has seen the patient.
Miss Morris was “discovered,” as the playwrights say, reclining gracefully on a sofa in a pleasant boudoir. Her bodily agonies did not appear to have inhibited the normal activities of the toilet; in fact, she was uncommonly well turned out, and was by no means a bad-looking young woman so long as her face was in repose. And in repose it was, most emphatically, when Sinclair arrived, for she was lying motionless with her eyes closed, and a general air of limpness suggestive of profound suffering endured with heroic fortitude.
When Sinclair introduced himself she opened her eyes and took in her new medical attendant with some surprise and a good deal of approval. What a delightful change from old Gribble! (She didn't say this, of course. She only closed her eyes and breathed a patient sigh.)
Sinclair seated himself, and, after the manner of doctors, inspected the surroundings while the patient skirmished lightly round her symptoms. The constant relation between an organism and its environment makes the study of the latter highly instructive as to the former. And the present environment was very suggestive. It included a pile of novels from Smith's: “The Soul of a Woman,” “A Woman's Passion,” “The Master Woman,” “A Woman's Strength,” and others; a few more serious works such as “The Influence of Woman,” “The Power of Woman in the State,” “Woman in Art,” “Woman in Science,” etc., and some loose numbers of periodicals including The Woman's Clarion, The Woman's Liberator, Modern Woman and Woman.
Thus the environment furnished a working diagnosis. The patient was evidently suffering from an aggravated attack of the universal and everlasting ME.
Nevertheless her symptoms, picturesquely described, were sufficiently harrowing—to a person unacquainted with anatomy and physiology. Sinclair found them quite reassuring, and when he had made a slight and delicate physical examination he deeply regretted having bolted that second egg. However, regrets were useless, so, having administered a dose of valerian, which he had providently brought with him, he commenced to plan a strategic movement to the door.
Now there are several important subjects that are omitted from the ordinary medical curriculum, but the most important of them all is the art of escaping from the sick-room. It is a difficult art, but its acquirement is imperative or the day's work and the night's rest will alike be curtailed; and, like the cognate art of wrapping up a medicine bottle, its necessity is not suspected by the student until he emerges from the wards into general practice. Sinclair was as innocent of it as a baby. He rose from his chair and was made to sit down again. He rose once more, and was again begged to be seated. In fact, he continued to rise and sit down until he looked like a clock-work toy. He was introduced to the soul of a woman; he discussed—principally in the passive voice—the place of woman in contemporary politics, the influence of woman on art, and was even lured into an argument on love as it affects the two sexes—especially the female. When, two hours later, he walked up the garden path, the terms in which he soliloquized were calculated to curdle the milk in the neighbouring dairy-farm.
“So,” said Lucy, when about four o'clock he looked in at Lavender Cottage, “Cousin Daisy has sent for you already.”
“How on earth did you know?” he asked in astonishment.
“Know!” she repeated. “Everybody knows by this time. The proper study of mankind is man, and I can tell you that we carry that study to a finish here in Hamblefield. Why, I even know what you had for breakfast. You had eggs.”
Sinclair glanced hastily at the front of his waistcoat. “That was just a shot,” said he. “I shouldn't be likely to have parrots. But how did you know about Miss Morris?”
“Your housekeeper, Mrs. Stubbs, called to leave some strawberries from the garden. But do tell me what Daisy talked about. Did she hold forth on the mission of woman?”
“Never you mind, little gossip. A doctor's wife must learn not to be inquisitive about her husband's patients.” Sinclair stated this maxim with becoming gravity until Lucy made a quaint little grimace at him, which made him laugh and spoilt the effect of the platitude.
“All the same,” said she, “I wish there were more Daisies here—hundreds of them. Then you'd double Dr. Gribble's income, and he'd want to keep you as his assistant. And you wouldn't have to go away at all. How delightful that would be!”
She sat down by him on the little cane sofa, and laid a particularly soft cheek on his shoulder: and Sinclair, who had his ambitions, thought he would be willing to sink them all and “devil” for old Gribble in perpetuam if thereby he could avoid that “good-bye” that loomed eight weeks ahead. He stroked the soft chestnut hair that strayed so prettily from her brow and said cheerily, “We'll do better than that, little partner; we'll have a practice of our own—a small one. I shall soon get a little money accumulated, and then I'll ask Turcival to find me a cheap nucleus. A very little one would do for a start.”
She snuggled up closer to him and blushed with pleasure. “It would be glorious,” she said. “And we could really do with a very small practice at first, because when people saw you they'd simply tumble over one another to get ill and be attended by you. And then there is my work. I could earn more than enough to pay the rent.”
The prospect thus opened engendered further discussion, which, being conducted in increasingly-confidential tones, entailed increased proximity of lips and ears. Then Miss Maggs was heard approaching—very slowly—with the tea things, humming “Annie Laurie,” and missing fire badly on the high notes. But she would not take tea with them. She couldn't leave her work. So she retired to the studio with her refreshment, and, no doubt, found a cup of tea and a plate of bread and butter useful aids to pen and ink drawing.
So day by day, as the weeks crept on, these two young mating birds would foregather to chirp hopefully of the nest that was to be builded. Or in the evenings, when the moon shamelessly got up in broad daylight, they would saunter through the lanes or by the wood and listen to other couples in the trees above telling the same story in twittering “songs without words.” It is hard to be poor, no doubt, but it is good to be young, with the sunshine of love lighting up the rough places on life's highway. Who could pity them, but that, as the golden weeks ran out, they drew ever nearer to that desert of separation that lay between them and the nest that was to be builded?
But it was not all smooth running even at that. The fly—if you will pardon the expression—stuck fast in the ointment and even kicked feebly, but resolutely refused to come out. Miss Daisy Morris was still—as Sinclair coarsely expressed it to himself—“on the job.” Gribble had not overestimated her powers. She rang the changes merrily, and her repertoire extended from the optic nerve to the vermiform appendix. It was of no use to discharge her as cured. That cat wouldn't jump. As surely as Sinclair struck her name off the visiting list, say, on Tuesday evening, so surely would an urgent message come up with the shaving water on Wednesday morning. And, to add to his exasperation, her symptoms began, about the third week, to assume especial virulence about tea-time, with the result that he was repeatedly prevented from making his afternoon call at Lavender Cottage. Nor was this all. Modest as Sinclair really was, he could not be blind to the lady's manner towards him. It would have been a little embarrassing at any time. In the present circumstances it was excessively uncomfortable.
There were other unpleasantnesses, too. The enthusiastic pursuit of “the proper study of mankind” by the Hamblefieldians set up certain eddies of rumour that—in a more or less attenuated form—reached both Lucy and Sinclair. There were the Misses Kiddle and old Mrs. Mumpton and Mr. Bodger, the curate—though he, poor man, contributed no more than a discreet cough—all were earnest students. As, for instance:
The elder Miss Kiddle (looking into the teapot and deciding not to add any more hot water until Mr. Bodger sends up his cup), “Well, people will talk. I don't suppose there's anything in it; though, to be sure, a substantial capital is very valuable to a young medical man. But I'm sure it's all nonsense.”
“Of course,” said Miss. Selina Kiddle; “it must be. He couldn't; under Lucy's very nose, too. Though he certainly does spend a deal of time at 'the Birches,' and, as you say, it must be a great temptation.”
“I didn't say so,” returned Miss Kiddle. “But since you make the suggestion——”
"I don't,” rejoined Miss Selina. “I merely understood you——”
“For my part,” interrupted Mrs. Mumpton, “if I had to be attended in sickness I should not choose a doctor who was engaged to the woman who was waiting to step into my shoes.”
“Good gracious!” exclaimed Miss Kiddle. “I never thought of that. You actually mean to say——”
“No I don't,” said Mrs. Mumpton. “Nothing of the kind. Pray don't misunderstand me. I make no suggestion of any kind whatever.”
There was a pause. Miss Kiddle filled up the teapot, and at that moment discovered that the curate's cup was empty. “How very dreadful,” she murmured. “A most shocking thought—two lumps, I think, Mr. Bodger?”
“If you please; small ones,” said the curate.
“Yes; a terrible thought. What fearful temptations a medical man may be exposed to! Don't you agree with me, Mr. Bodger?”
But the curate only coughed a discreet cough.
This was only a sample of the discussions that took place in the village of Hamblefield on the relations of the good-looking young doctor with his well-to-do patient. Of course, the matter of these debates did not reach the interested parties in a literal and unexpurgated form; but the air was charged with rumour and scandal, and the two young people could not fail to breathe in some of the poison.
Even here Sinclair's troubles did not end. As the weeks sped and the term of his stay at Hamblefield approached, an inverse transformation took place in the two cousins. In proportion as Miss Daisy's manner grew more confidential, more clinging, and more plainly affectionate, so did Lucy's cool off into something approaching stiffness. Sinclair made his afternoon calls at Lavender Cottage, when not prevented by unexpected and urgent messages, and was received not ungraciously, though with a new and discomforting reserve. He made his little appeals as of old, and was not actually repulsed; but though she suffered him to pet and even kiss her, and listened to the words that she had loved to hear, all the old responsiveness, which is the heart and soul of love, was gone.
Sinclair was profoundly puzzled. Something had clearly gone awry, but he could not imagine what. He tentatively sought an explanation, but was met by the impossible answer that there was nothing to explain. And meanwhile the dreaded day of parting drew near. Were they to say “Good-bye” with this mysterious cloud of misunderstanding between them?
The climax of unpleasantness for the unfortunate young doctor was reached less than a week before Dr. Gribble's expected return. He was cantering his horse homeward by a quiet by-road when he was overtaken by a perspiring youth on a bicycle. Miss Morris was dying! Would he go to “The Birches” on the wings of the wind?
Wearily he turned his horse's head and galloped away towards the too familiar bourne. Handing his steed over to the gardener, he tucked his emergency case under his arm and bounded up the stairs whispering profane objurgations. It was a quarter to four already, and Lucy would be waiting for him at four.
It was angina pectoris this time—a very severe attack. The symptoms were really alarming, and the more so because they were technically so very unorthodox. There was nothing like them in any of the text-books. It took Sinclair an hour and a half and two capsules of nitrite of amyl (of which he administered one in homeopathic doses, and, dropping the other on the carpet, trod on it to make a reassuring smell) before he could reduce the attack to manageable proportions. The pain was very severe (and all in the wrong place), and the emotional manifestations most remarkable, causing the patient to weep copiously, to fling her arms round her medical attendant's neck, and address him as “dearest.” Sinclair fairly perspired with embarrassment.
At last she began to “come to”—very much “to,” in fact. Then she made him sit by her on the sofa, and asked him penitently if he thought her very silly,. which was an awkward question, because he did. But, of course, he couldn't say so.
“How kind you have been!” she exclaimed, tearfully. “How patient and sweet! And I so unworthy, too.” (Sinclair inwardly agreed with her warmly.) “But I am a miserable wretch! Oh, if you only knew how miserable, how unhappy I am! You would forgive everything—you, so gentle, so tender-hearted, so—so—— Oh, what shall I do? What shall I do?” She stared tragically at Sinclair, who, having no suggestion to make other than that she should stop playing the fool, preserved a diplomatic silence.
“What shall I do,” she repeated, “without you? When you are far away, and I am left alone with my sorrow? I can't—I can't let you go!” And here, to Sinclair's horror, she laid her head on his shoulder and began to sob.
“Oh, come,” he said, in a matter-of-fact tone, “you'll be all right! Dr, Gribble will look after you—at half a guinea a time” (this was an unspoken “aside”). “He's much more experienced than I am.”
Miss Morris snuggled closer to him. “I can't,” she murmured, “I can't let you go out of my life for ever.” Here she slipped her arm round his neck and whispered shyly in his ear: “Don't you understand? Have you never guessed? Oh, dearest! Don't think me unmaidenly and horrid. But I had to—I had to tell you!”
It was a devil of a position for the poor young man. The direct attack fairly “knocked him sideways,” as the phrase has it; for he was only twenty-six. Now, if he had been forty-six or fifty it would have been different. A man of fifty who practises the art of medicine, keeping his weather eyelid elevated and his weather eyeball peeled—if you will pardon the colloquialism—takes a deal of surprising. But poor Sinclair was a green hand, and he was absolutely thunderstruck.
“It's awfully good of you, Miss Morris,” he stammered, reaching tentatively for another nitrite of amyl capsule, “very flattering, and—er—and all that sort of—er——”
“Have I taken you by surprise?” she whispered. “But surely you must have guessed! You must have seen. And you do, don't you? Oh, say you do care for me just a little, only a little! But say it.”
Sinclair wriggled in agony. “Of course,” he spluttered, “I—er—I have the greatest regard—er—and—er—esteem and—all that sort of—er——”
“Esteem!” she exclaimed coquettishly. “As if I cared for your esteem, silly boy!” Then, with a sudden return to the tender manner: “Don't say esteem, dear one; say love! Say you love me, if it be only ever so little.” The last words died away in a whisper, leaving Sinclair absolutely paralysed with horror.
“It—it's awfully good of you!” he gasped. “Should be delighted, under other circumstances, but, you see, there's Lucy. You knew I was engaged to Lucy, didn't you?”
“Lucy!” was the disdainful answer. “Why speak of that absurd little scribbler. She is no match for you, and you know it. Now I—I should be proud of you. I should be ambitious for you. You should rise, you should soar. You should—but you know. You must know. Oh, say you know and understand!”
But the disrespectful reference to Lucy had stiffened Sinclair's back. He disengaged himself from her embrace, and said bluntly: “I can't listen to this, Miss Morris. Lucy is the one woman for me. Rich or poor, I want her and her only; and if I had to sweep a crossing to win her, I'd sweep it, and sweep it jolly clean.”
He stood up, very red in the face, and began to gather up the implements of his trade.
Miss Morris sat bolt upright, pale and venomous, and as near to looking ill as Sinclar had ever seen her. Her appearance cut him to the heart. It is a hateful thing to have to humiliate a woman; and yet what else could he do?
“I'm most awfully sorry, Miss Morris,” he said. And he was. And so would any man have been. When a woman dares, for love, to break the chains of convention every male heart is touched with a certain sneaking sympathy; though you understand the thing is quite wrong in principle.
But Miss Morris was quite equal to the situation. She sat on the sofa, rigid and white, breathing quickly and watching him, with a very devil of malice in her eyes, as he hastily packed his bag. For a few moments she was too angry to speak, but she soon recovered herself, and then said, with rigid self-possession: “I don't follow you at all. You seem to be putting a most extraordinary construction on my simple remarks. Anyone would suppose that I had been persuading you not to marry poor Lucy.”
Sinclair opened his mouth like a newly-landed codfish, and felt rather like one, too. He had never met anything like this before. But, then, as we have said, he was only twenty-six.
“I'm most awfully sorry, Miss Morris——” he began.
“So, I think, you remarked before,” she interrupted coldly.
“Frightfully stupid of me to misunderstand you like that.”
“Very,” said Miss Morris, “unless you did it intentionally.”
“You don't surely think——” he began to protest; but she stood up and interrupted him.
“I think we had better put an end to this ridiculous interview. Shall I ring, or can you let yourself out?”
He could let himself out, and he did, wondering meanwhile whether he was drunk, dreaming, or merely insane. He mounted his steed at the gate, preserving sufficient self-possession to get up with his face towards the horse's head, and surrendered himself to the guidance of that sagacious animal, who, considering the topography of the district in terms of oats, headed gleefully for the stable.
The remainder of that day Sinclair spent in profound cogitation. It was an astonishing affair. Deucedly unpleasant, too, though it had one redeeming element—she wouldn't send for him again. But even this circumstance appeared less gratifying when, in the course of the evening, he received a note from Mrs. Wingfield, the elderly relative who acted as Miss Daisy's companion and chaperon. The note was short and stiff. It informed him that his further attendance would not be required, and added the gratifying information that Dr. Gallibut, of Lynn, had been asked to take over the case. At the concluding clause Sinclair smiled grimly, and wished Dr. Gallibut joy of his attendance. But, all the same, it was no joke. Gribble would be furious. Miss Morris might be a “damn nuisance,” as Gribble had said, but her yearly account must be something considerable. And the G.P. doesn't practise for fun.
Lucy's reception of the ill-tidings mortified him deeply. She had heard about it, of course; everybody had. She listened without comment to his statement that he “had given offence in some way.” She agreed with his opinion that Gribble wouldn't like it, that Turcival would hear of it and write him down a duffer, but she offered no condolences. He felt her unconcern keenly. This was his first engagement, and he had made a mess of it, and she didn't seem to care a hang. Of course, she didn't know that it was not his fault; but the old Lucy would have taken that for granted.
It appeared from current report that Miss Morris was seriously ill. Dr. Gallibut had even asked for a second opinion, which might mean anything. But it didn't improve Sinclair's position. He thought about it a good deal in his intervals of leisure, which, by the way, were uncommonly few; for the unexpected had happened. He had taken it for granted that his dismissal from “The Birches” would throw him out of employment elsewhere. But the result was exactly the reverse; he was in universal demand. Elderly and middle-aged ladies, who had enjoyed uninterrupted good health for years, were taken ill by the dozen. It was a regular epidemic; and their symptoms were so much alike, too. In fact, they were identical. These good ladies “'wanted to know, you know,” as Mr. Tite Barnacle expresses it. Sinclair's language, as he rode from house to house, would have been indictable under the “Profane Swearing Act.”
On the fourth afternoon, just after lunch, Sinclair was in the surgery spreading a belladonna plaster (Gribble was an old-fashioned man, and made his own plasters—didn't believe in the ready-made stuff that you buy in rolls like stair-carpet), when his occupation and gloomy reflections were interrupted by the appearance of the jovial and gigantic Chief Constable.
Sinclair looked up and laid down the spatula. “Good afternoon, Mr. Ratley,” he said. “Just dropped in for a pick-me-up?”
The officer smiled uneasily. He stepped lightly to the door, looked out, closed it, and approached with a confidential air.
“The fact is, doctor,” he said in a low tone, “I've come on a bit of very unpleasant business—unpleasant for you and unpleasant for me.”
Sinclair looked at him sharply.
“Miss Morris,” the officer continued, “has charged you with stealing a diamond from her dressing-table—there! don't get in a fluster! we know it's all rot. But you've got to come and answer the charge before the justices. They are sitting in the courtroom now.”
For one moment Mr. Ratley realised that he stood a first-class chance of having his head punched. Sinclair's face was crimson, and his eyes blazed.
“It's no use getting shirty with me,” said Ratley. And Sinclair realised that it was not.
“You'd better search me at once,” he said. “I insist on your searching me.” He banged his keys down on the table and turned out his pockets one after the other. “Now take my keys and come upstairs.”
Ratley accompanied him to his bed-room and made a very systematic search. But a diamond is a small thing. The most exhaustive search, even of a bedroom, might easily fail to discover it, especially if it wasn't there. But he had searched. That was the main thing. He could go into court and say so on oath with a clear conscience.
The Hamblefield bench was a cut above the ordinary. The chairman was a retired London solicitor, a very knowing old gentleman, who, as Sinclair entered the dock, red-faced and furious, glanced at him critically and decided that he didn't look like a petty thief. The charge was stated by a local solicitor who was retained for the prosecution, and the chairman looked critically at him, too.
“This charge,” said the lawyer, “rests on the definite statement of the prosecutrix, Miss Daisy Morris, that she saw the prisoner take the diamond.”
“Is Miss Morris present?” asked the chairman.
“No, your worship. She is very seriously ill.”
“Is there any other witness?”
“Yes, your worship. There is Mrs. Wingfield.”
“Did she see the prisoner steal the diamond?”
“No, your worship; but she saw the empty setting from which the diamond had been stolen.”
“Has the prisoner been searched?”
“Yes, your worship,” said Ratley. “I searched him at his own request, and his room also. I did not find the stolen, property.”
“Then,” said the chairman, “the prisoner will be remanded until the prosecutrix can attend. He may be released on his own recognisances.”
The ignominy, then, of confinement in a prison cell was at least deferred. The formalities complied with, Sinclair took his way gloomily homewards; but the undisguised interest with which he was regarded by stray wayfarers told him the students of humanity were already in possession of the facts.
On arriving home his first act was to retire to the surgery and indite a letter to Lucy. He was a remanded prisoner charged with theft. If Daisy Morris was prepared to declare on oath that she saw him commit the theft, it seemed that there was no escape. A bare denial was all he had to offer. If he were convicted he was ruined, for his name would be erased from the medical register. And even if he were discharged, the stigma of that sworn statement would follow him through life. It was manifestly his duty to release Lucy from the engagement whether she wished it or not.
The letter was not a very long one. It set forth the facts of the case, and declared the engagement at an end. He had just signed it and was sitting staring at it, with a terrible lump in his throat, when he heard footsteps in the passage outside, and Lucy herself burst into the surgery. She ran to him, and, flinging her arms round his neck, laid her cheek against his.
“My poor darling!” she murmured; “what a fiendish thing this is. I have only just heard, and I ran up at once to beg your forgiveness.”
“My forgiveness!” exclaimed Sinclair. “What on earth for?”
“For being a disloyal] little cat,” she replied. “For listening to calumny when I ought to have known better. But I know better now. I think I understand everything.”
“What calumnies have you listened to?” Sinclair asked.
“That wretch Daisy,” she answered viciously. “I called to see her that day when she was confined to bed with—what was it?”
“That was it. She was lying there with all her jewels spread out on the dressing-table. You had just left, and she was in great spirits for a person with gastric ulcer. She remarked on your insinuating manners, and told me how you stayed and chatted with her, so that she had the greatest difficulty in getting rid of you. In fact, she hinted that you were making love to her for all you were worth. She didn't pretend that you were in love with her; she professed to think that you merely wanted her for her money—the artful, lying wretch. And I actually took it all in.”
“You must have been a silly little guffin,” said Sinclair.
“T was a great deal worse than silly. But she was so circumstantial—the viper! Are you going to forgive me, Hal, dear?”
“Forgive you, my sweet!” exclaimed Sinclair, kissing her again and again, and forgetting all about his letter. “I'm only too thankful——”
“I want a token that you really forgive me,” said Lucy, with a quick, nervous glance at the letter that lay on the table. “I want you to make me a promise.”
“What is it, darling?”
“I'll tell you when you have promised.”
“I don't like making promises with my eyes shut,” said Sinclair, with masculine caution.
“Hal,” she said earnestly, “I ask you to. Don't refuse. Trust me and say yes.”
“Very well, I promise.”
“It's really a solemn promise?”
“There's only one kind of promise, you know,” Sinclair said bluntly. “Now, what is it?”
“You have promised,” said Lucy, “that if they fix this ridiculous, trumped-up charge on you, and you have to go—to—to prison” (here her voice shook a little) “you will marry me directly you come out.”
Sinclair started up. “Good Lord!” he exclaimed, “what a fool I am! I had just written you a letter——”
“Yes, I know,” said Lucy. “I knew you would directly I heard. That is why I came here at once.”
“But, my dear girl, it couldn't be. You must——”
“Rubbish,” said Lucy. “She's not going to rob me of you that way. Oh—yes—I was going to ask you: what was it that you did to give her such mortal offence?”
Sinclair hummed and hawed. “I'm a tactless sort of fellow, Lucy,” he said. “I'd rather not go into details.”
“Did she make love to you?”
Sinclair gasped. These confounded women! “You oughtn't to ask me questions like that, Lucy,” he said. “You know I shouldn't give her away if she had; but—er——”
Lucy laughed. “Very well, you dear old innocent. You needn't give her away—any more. I think I know pretty well what happened. But I don't care. She shan't part us; and I don't suppose anyone will believe this diamond nonsense.”
Whether this was so or not, the practice suddenly went as flat as a punctured tyre. The ladies all recovered simultaneously. For now they knew all about it, or thought they did. Which answered their purpose as well. Besides, you can't repose confidence in a medical man who is admittedly a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles from the dressing-table. It would not be safe, and it certainly would not be proper.
It is needless to say that Sinclair avoided the vicinity of Lavender Cottage. He was unclean; a social leper, whose presence was a contamination. But the cottagers weren't going to have that. They revolted in a body. And when repeated and urgent invitations proved unavailing, the forbidding Maggs marched boldly into the surgery with a warlike air and a large smear of Indian ink on the side of her nose, and led him, a protesting captive, to the cottage, where he was given more tea than was good for him and as much petting as two loyal-hearted women could contrive. And we all know what they can manage at a pinch.
On the fourth day after the first hearing, Sinclair duly surrendered to his bail and took his place in the dock. There was a profound hush in the court, though every available place was occupied. The magistrates looked preternaturally solemn, and the face of the jolly chief constable wore an expression of gloom. The case was reopened by the solicitor for the prosecution in tones of portentous gravity.
“Since the prisoner was first charged four days ago,” he began, “a very terrible thing has happened. The prosecutrix, your worship, is dead. She died this morning at half-past eleven.”
The magistrates were profoundly shocked; the spectators, who had all known Daisy Morris, were still more profoundly shocked; and as to Sinclair, he was thunderstruck. Dead! Could it be that those symptoms of grave disease at which he had inwardly scoffed were, after all, genuine? That he had held this poor woman's life in his hands and negligently let it slip? It was an awful thought. His present peril was forgotten for the moment in the horror of that hideous possibility. He looked up with a haggard face and met the eye of the chief constable watching him curiously.
Here the chairman turned to the solicitor and asked: “Were any depositions taken?”
“Yes, your worship. I have them here. They were taken in the presence of witnesses a few hours before the death of the deceased lady.”
“When those depositions were taken was the deceased aware that she was dying?”
“I believe not, your worship.”
“Was she told by the doctors that she was dying?”
The solicitor hastily consulted a gentleman who sat by him at the table, and then replied:
“No, your worship, she was not.”
“Then,” said the chairman, “it is unnecessary for me to tell you that those depositions are not admissible as evidence.”
Apparently the solicitor was aware of the fact. He laid down his papers and said:
“In that case, your worship, the prosecution falls through. The evidence of the other witnesses is merely corroborative.”
“Exactly,” said the chairman. “There is no case. The prisoner must be discharged.”
Sinclair stepped out of the dock in a state of bewilderment, which did not, however, prevent him from perceiving clearly that he was by no means cleared of the charge. But he had no time to reflect on this unsatisfactory circumstance, for hardly had he left the dock when the chief constable approached and touched him on the shoulder.
“Harry Sinclair,” said the officer, “I arrest you on the charge of the wilful murder of Daisy Morris, and I caution you that anything that you say will be used in evidence against you.”
Sinclair gazed at the officer in utter stupefaction. The caution was unnecessary. He was speechless with amazement and horror. Before he could recover himself he had been hustled back into the dock.
The chairman looked sharply at Sinclair, and from him to the chief constable.
“What is this case?” he asked.
“The prisoner, Harry Sinclair, is charged, your worship, with the wilful murder of Daisy Morris, spinster, of 'The Birches,' Hamblefield.”
A murmur of amazement arose from the body of the court. A faint shriek was heard, and a woman was borne insensible out through the open doorway. The woman was Lucy Morris.
“I propose,” said the officer, “merely to offer evidence of arrest.”
“But,” said the chairman, “is it a known fact that the deceased died from other than natural causes?”
“No, your worship; but the circumstances are very highly suspicious.”
The chairman briefly consulted with his colleagues; then he said:
“We can't accept evidence of arrest only. You will have to make out a prima facie case against the prisoner.”
The officer bowed, and proceeded to outline the case.
“In the first place, it appears that the prisoner had a distinct interest in the death of the deceased.”
“We won't go into that now,” said the magistrate. “Let us have the actual facts.”
The officer bowed again, and continued: “On the fourteenth instant the prisoner was in attendance on the deceased, and is known to have administered certain medicines to her with his own hand. Later on, the same day, the deceased dismissed the prisoner for reasons which are not clearly known, and called in Dr. Gallibut in his place. Dr. Gallibut called in Dr. Horner in consultation, and the two medical gentlemen continued in attendance on the deceased until her death. Dr. Gallibut is in court now.”
“Let him be sworn,” said the chairman; and Dr. Gallibut entered the witness box. Having taken the oath, and made the usual preliminary statement, he gave a brief account of the circumstances of his attendance. The case had been a very puzzling one, the end was rather unexpected, and he had not felt justified in giving a certificate of death. The symptoms were anomalous throughout, but rather suggested the effects of an irritant poison.
“Did you observe anything that led you to suspect foul play?” the chairman asked.
“Nothing beyond the peculiar nature of the symptoms.”
The chairman pursed up his lips. “The arrest,” he said, addressing the Chief Constable, “seems to have been rather precipitate. It would have been better to wait until the cause of death had been ascertained. However, the prisoner must now be remanded in custody. When is the inquest to be held?”
“To-morrow, your worship,” said the Chief Constable.
The hours dragged out their weary length. Night melted into dawn, dawn brightened into day, the sun climbed aloft and shot its golden beams into the gaunt little room, lighting up the dusty volumes of police records on the shelves and heralding the approach of noon. At length the Chief Constable entered, and Sinclair stood up expectantly.
“Now, doctor, if you are ready we will go down,” said the officer; and captor and captive went forth together.
The inquest was being held in a room in the courthouse. It was a large room, but none too large, for the whole of Hamblefield seemed to be crowded into it. Lucy and Miss Maggs had chairs near the table, and both nodded cheerfully to Sinclair as he entered with his custodian. Three of the magistrates, including the chairman, sat immediately behind the coroner, and the two doctors from Lynn, with Mrs. Wingfield and the deceased woman's solicitor, sat at the far end of the table. When Sinclair entered the jury had already been sworn, and had just returned from viewing the body. They now took their seats, and the first witness, Dr. Gallibut, was called.
He had taken the oath and made the preliminary statements when the coroner interposed. “I think, doctor,” said he, “before you give your evidence in detail, there is one question that the jury would like to have answered. Have you ascertained the cause of death?”
“Yes, I have,” was the confident reply.
“Have you ascertained it beyond doubt?”
“Yes; the cause of death is perfectly clear. There can be no doubt whatever.”
“What was the cause of death?”
Dr. Gallibut felt in his waistcoat pocket and drew from it a small packet. He opened the packet and took from it a pill-box, which he handed to the coroner.
“The cause of Miss Daisy Morris's death, sir,” he said, “is in that box.”
There was a deathly silence in the room. The coroner raised the lid of the box, peered in, and then turned it upside down, when a small, sparkling object dropped on to the table.
“Bless my soul,” he exclaimed, looking up at Dr. Gallibut, “it's a diamond!”
“Yes,” said the witness, “it is a diamond. I may add, sir, that it is the diamond—the one which is supposed to have been stolen. Mrs. Wingfield identified it in my presence, and I myself tried it in the empty setting and found that it fitted.”
“Astonishing!” exclaimed the coroner. “And are we to understand that the deceased—ah——”
“Swallowed the diamond?” said Dr. Gallibut. “Certainly. There can be no doubt whatever about that; and appearances suggest that she had already swallowed it when she sent for me.”
There was very little more evidence given after this. The facts were as plain as anyone wished them to be and a charitable verdict of “Death from misadventure” brought the proceedings to a close.
As soon as the verdict was given the three magistrates conferred briefly, and the chairman beckoned to the Chief Constable. The officer approached with his prisoner. “I suppose, your worship,” he said, “Dr. Sinclair may now be released from custody?”
“Certainly,” was the answer. “And if you, doctor, will step into the court-room with me and my colleagues and the coroner, we will formally dismiss the charge and place the circumstances on record.”
A few minutes later Sinclair went forth escorted by Lucy, moist-eyed but radiant, and the faithful Maggs; and a great success the escort was—so much so that he determined to retain it permanently, and does so even unto this day. Lucy, of course, had to get rid of the ill-omened name of Morris, but Maggs is still Maggs.