Doctor Nikola (Windsor Magazine, 1896)/Chapter 7
A SERIOUS TIME.
It was broad daylight when I recovered consciousness, the sunshine was streaming into my room and birds were twittering in the trees outside. But though I sat up and looked about me I could make neither head nor tail of it; there was evidently something wrong. When I had fallen asleep, as I thought, my bed had been spread upon the floor, and was composed of Chinese materials. Now I lay upon an ordinary English bedstead, boasting a spring mattress, sheets, blankets and counterpane complete. Moreover the room itself was different. There was a carpet upon the floor, and several pretty pictures hung upon the walls. I felt certain they had not been there when I was introduced to the room. Being however too weak to examine these wonders for very long I laid myself down upon my pillow again and closed my eyes. In a few moments I was once more asleep and did not wake until towards evening.
When I did it was to discover someone sitting by the window reading. At first I looked at her—for it was a woman—without very much interest. She seemed part and parcel of a dream from which I should presently wake to find myself back again in the Chinese house with Nikola. But I was to be disabused of this notion very speedily.
After a while the lady in the chair put down her book, rose, and came over to look at me. Then it was that I realised the fact that she was none other than Miss Medwin.
She touched my hand with her soft fingers, to see if it was feverish, I suppose, and then poured into a medicine-glass which stood upon a table by my side something that looked like doctor's physic. When she put it to my lips I drank it without protest and looked up at her.
“Don't leave me, Miss Medwin,” I said, half expecting that she would gradually fade away and appear from my sight altogether.
“I am not going to leave you,” she answered, “but I am indeed rejoiced to see that you are able to recognise me again.”
“What is the matter with me, and where am I?” I asked.
“You have been very ill,” she answered, “but you are much better now. You are in my brother-in-law's house in Pekin.”
I was completely mystified.
“In your brother-in-law's house,” I repeated. “But how on earth did I get here? How long have I been here? and where is Nikola?”
“You have been here twelve days to-morrow; you were taken ill in the city, and as you required careful nursing, your friend Dr. Nikola had you conveyed here. Where he is now I could not tell you; we have only seen him once. For my own part I believe he has gone into the country, but in which direction, and when he will be back, I am afraid I cannot tell you. Now you must try and go to sleep again.”
I was too weak to disobey her, so I closed my eyes and in a few moments was in the land of Nod again.
Next day I was so much stronger that I was able to sit up and partake of more nourishing diet, and, what was still more to my taste, I was able to have a longer conversation with my nurse. This did me more good than any doctor's physic, and at the end of half an hour it seemed to me I was a different man. The poor girl was in deep mourning for her father, and I noticed that the slightest reference to Tientsin flooded her eyes with tears. From what I gathered later the Consul had acted promptly and energetically, with the result that the ring-leaders of the mob which had wrecked the house had been severely punished, while the man who had gone farther and murdered the unfortunate missionary himself had paid the penalty of his crime with his life.
Miss Medwin spoke in heartfelt terms of the part I had played in the tragic affair, and she was also most grateful to Nikola for the way in which he had behaved towards her. Acting on his employer's imperative instructions, Williams had taken her in and at once communicated with the Consul. Then when Mr. Medwin had been buried in the English cemetery and the legal business connected with his murder was completed, trustworthy servants had been obtained, and she had journeyed to Pekin in the greatest luxury.
During the morning she brought me some beef-tea, and, while I was drinking it, sat down beside my bed.
“I think you might get up for a little while this afternoon, Mr. Bruce,” she said; “you seem so much stronger.”
“I should like to,” I answered. “I must do everything that lies in my power to regain my strength. My illness has been a most unfortunate one for me, and I expect Nikola will be very impatient.”
At this she looked a little mortified, I thought, and an instant later I saw what a stupid thing I had said.
“I am afraid you will think me ungrateful,” I hastened to remark; “but believe me I was looking at it from a very different light. I feel more gratitude to you than I can ever express. When I said my illness was unfortunate, I meant that at such a critical period of our affairs my being incapacitated was most inconvenient. You do not think that l am not properly sensible of your kindness, do you?”
As I spoke I assumed possession of her hand, which was hanging down beside her chair. She blushed a little and her eyes drooped.
“I am very glad we were able to take you in,” she answered. “I assure you my brother and sister were most anxious to do so when they heard what a service you had rendered me. But, Mr. Bruce, I want to say something to you. You talk of this critical position in your affairs. You told me the other day in Tientsin that if you continued the work upon which you were embarking 'you might never come out of it alive.' Is it quite certain that you must go on with it—that you must risk your life in this way?”
“I regret to say it is. I have given my word and I cannot draw back. If you only knew how hard it is for me to say this I don't think you would try to press me.”
“But it seems to me so wicked to waste your life in this way.”
“I have always wasted my life,” I said, rather bitterly. “Miss Medwin, you don't know what a derelict I am. I wonder if you would think any the worse of me if I told you that when I took up this matter I was in abject destitution, and mainly through my own folly? I am afraid I am no good for anything but getting into Scrapes and wriggling my way out of them again.”
“I expect you hardly do yourself justice,” she answered. “I cannot believe that you are as bad as you say.”
As she spoke there was a knock at the door, and in response to my call “come in” a tall handsome man entered the room. He was dressed in the usual garb of a missionary, and might have been anything from thirty to forty years of age.
“Well, Mr. Bruce,” he said cheerily, as he came over to the bed and held out his hand, “I am glad to hear from Miss Medwin that you are progressing so nicely. You have had a sharp touch of fever, and, if you will allow me to say so, I think you are a lucky man to have got over it so satisfactorily.”
“I have to express my thanks to you,” I said, “for taking me into your house; but for your care I cannot imagine what would have become of me.”
“Oh, you mustn't say anything about that,” answered Mr. Benfleet, for such was his name. “We are only a small community of Englishmen in Pekin, and it would be indeed a sorry world if we did not embrace chances of helping each other whenever they occur.”
As he said this I put my hand up to my head. Immediately I was confronted with a curious question. When I was taken ill I was dressed as a Chinaman, wore a pigtail, and had my skin stained a sort of pale mahogany. What could my kind friends have thought of my disguise?
It was not until later that I discovered that I had been brought to the house in complete European attire, and that when Nikola had called upon Mr. and Mrs. Benfleet to take me in he had done so clad in orthodox morning dress and wearing a solar topee upon his head.
“Gladys tells me that you are going to get up this afternoon,” said Mr. Benfleet. “I expect that will do you good. If I can be of any service to you in your dressing I hope you will command me.”
I thanked him, and then, excusing himself on the plea that his presence was required at the mission-room, he bade me good-bye and left.
I was about to resume my conversation with Miss Medwin, when she stopped me.
“You must not talk any more,” she said with a pretty air of authority. “I am going to read to you for half an hour, and then I shall leave you to yourself till it is time for tiffin. After that I will place your things ready for you, and yon must get up.
She procured a book, and seating herself by the window, opened it and began to read. Her voice was soft and musical, and she interpreted the author with considerable ability. I am afraid, however, I took but small interest in the story; I was far too deeply engaged watching the expressions chasing each other across her pretty lace, the delicate shape and whiteness of the hands that held the book, and the exquisite symmetry of the little feet and ankles that peeped from beneath her dress. I think she must have suspected something of the sort, for she suddenly looked up in the middle of a passage which otherwise would have monopolised her whole attention. Then her heightened colour and the quick way in which the feet slipped back beneath their covering confirmed this notion. She continued her reading, it is true, but there was not the same evenness of tone as before, and once or twice I noticed that the words were rather slurred over, as if the reader were trying to think of two things at one and the same time. Presently she shut the book with a little snap and rose to her feet.
“I think I must go now and see if I can help my sister in her housework,” she said hurriedly.
“Thank you so much for reading to me,” I answered. “I have enjoyed it very much.”
Whether she believed what I said or not I could not tell, but she smiled and looked a little conscious, as if she thought there might possibly be another meaning underlying my remark. After that I was left to myself for nearly an hour. During that time I surrendered myself completely to my own thoughts. Some were pleasant, others were not; but there was one conclusion at which I always most painstakingly arrived. That conclusion was that of all the girls I had ever met, Miss Gladys Medwin was by far the most adorable. She seemed to possess all the graces and virtues given to women, and to have the faculty of presenting them to the best advantage. I could not help seeing that my period of convalescence was likely to be a very pleasant one, and you will not blame me, I suspect, if I registered a vow to make the most of it. How long I should have with them it was impossible for me to say. Nikola, my Old Man of the Sea, might put in an appearance at any moment, and then I should be compelled to bid my friends good-bye without delay and to plunge once more into his mysterious affairs.
When tiffin was finished I dressed myself in the garments which had been put out for me, and as soon as my toilet was completed took Benfleet's arm and proceeded to a terrace in the garden at the back of the house. Here chairs had been placed for us, and we sat down. I looked about me, half expecting to see Miss Medwin waiting for us, but she did not put in an appearance. When she did she expressed herself as pleased to see me up and about again, and then went across to where a little Chinese dog was lying in the sunshine at the foot of a big stone figure. Whether she was always as fond of the little cur I cannot say, but the way she petted and caressed it on this particular occasion would have driven most men into a fever of jealousy. I don't know that I am in any way a harsh man with animals, but I am afraid if that dog had come anywhere near me just then I should have been tempted to take a stick to him and treat him to one of the finest beatings he had ever enjoyed in his canine existence.
Presently she looked up, and seeing that I was watching her returned to where we sat, uttered a few commonplaces, more than half of which were addressed to her brother-in-law, and finally made an excuse and returned to the house. To say that I was disappointed would scarcely be the truth; to assert that I was woefully chagrined would perhaps be nearer the mark. Had I offended her, or was this the natural way of women. I had read in novels that it was their custom, if they thought they had been a little too prodigal of their favours while a man was in trouble, to become cold and almost distant to him when he was all right again. If this were so, then her action on this particular occasion was only in the ordinary course of things, and must be taken as such. But soon I discovered that it would be easier to reach the North Pole, and so decide a question which the world has been puzzling about for centuries, than to attempt to be logical at such a crisis as I am now describing. That I was in love I will not attempt to deny; it was, however, the first time I had experienced the fatal passion, and for that reason, like measles caught in later life, it was doubly sudden and severe. For this reason the treatment to which I had just been subjected was not, as may be expected, of a kind calculated to make my feelings easier.
Whether Mr. Benfleet thought anything I cannot say, he certainly said nothing. If however my manner after Miss Medwin's departure did not strike him as peculiar he could not have been the clearheaded man his small Pekin world believed him. All I know is that when I returned to the house, I was about as contrary and irritable a piece or man-flesh as could have been found in that part of Asia.
But within the hour I was to be treated to another example of the strange contrariness of the feminine mind. No sooner had I arrived in the house than everything was changed. It was hoped that I had not caught a fresh cold; the most comfortable chair was set apart for my use, and an unnecessary footstool was procured and placed at my feet. Altogether I was the recipient of as many attentions and as much insinuated sympathy as I had been subjected to coldness before. I did not know what to make of it; but man, like a bear, can be made to dance to several tunes, so in less than half an hour I had completely thawed and forgotten my previous ill temper.
Next day I was so much stronger as to be able to spend the greater part of my time in the garden. On this occasion, both Mr. and Mrs. Benfleet being otherwise engaged, Miss Medwin was good enough to permit me a considerable amount of her company. You may be sure I made the most of it, and we wiled the time away chatting pleasantly on various subjects.
At tiffin, to which I sat up for the first time, it was proposed that during the afternoon we should endeavour to get as far as the Great Wall. Accordingly, as soon as the meal was over, we set off. The narrow streets were crowded with pushing coolies, springless private carts, sedan chairs, ponies but little bigger than St. Bernard dogs, and camels, some laden with coal from the Western Hills and others bearing brick-tea from Pekin away up into the far north. Beggars in all degrees of loathsomeness, carrying the scars of almost every known ailment upon their bodies, and in nine cases out of ten not only able but desirous of presenting you with a replica of the disease, swarm round you, and push and jostle you as you walk, while at every few yards you are assailed with scornful cries and expressions that would bring a blush to the cheek of the most blasphemous coalheaver in existence, accompanied by gestures which make your hands itch to be upon the faces of those who practise them. If you mix up with all this the sights and smells of the foulest Eastern city you can imagine, add to it the remembrance of the fact that you are despised and hated by the most despicable race under the sun, fill up whatever room there is left with the dust that lies on a calm day six inches deep upon the streets, and in a storm—and storms occur on an average at least three times a week—covers you from head to foot with a coating of corrupted impurity, you will have received but the smallest impression of what it means to take a walk in the streets of Pekin. To the Englishman who has never travelled in China it may appear that this denunciation is a little extravagant. My only regret is that personally I do not consider it strong enough.
Not once but a hundred times did I find good reason to regret having brought Miss Medwin out with me. But thank goodness we reached the Wall at last.
Having once arrived there, we seated ourselves on a bastion, and looked down upon the city. It was an extraordinary view we had presented to us. From the Wall we could see the Chi-en-Men or Great Gate; to the north lay the Tartar city. On the side upon winch we looked was a comparatively small temple, round which thronged a seething multitude of foot-passengers, merchants, coolies, carts, camels, ponies, private citizens, beggars, and hawkers. Over our heads were the two great towers, which rise high into the air and form part of the Wall itself. Below us to right and left, almost as far as the eye could reach, and seeming to overlap each other, were the roofs of the city, covered, in almost every instance, with a decaying brown grass, and in many cases having small trees and shrubs growing out of the interstices of the stones themselves. Away in the distance we could see the red wall of the “Forbidden City,” in other words, the Imperial Palace; on another side, was the Great Bell Tower, with near it the Great Drum Tower, and farther still the roofs of the Llamaserai. The latter, as you will suppose, had a great attraction for me, and once having seen it I could hardly withdraw my eyes from it.
When we had examined the view and were beginning to contemplate making our way home again, I turned to my companion and said—
“I suppose I shall soon have to be leaving you. It cannot be very long now before I shall hear from Nikola.”
She was quiet for a moment, and then said—
“You mustn't be angry with me, Mr. Bruce, if I tell you that I do not altogether like your friend. He frightens me.”
“Why should he do that?” I asked, as if it were a most unusual effect for Nikola to produce. Somehow I did not care to tell her that her opinion was shared by almost as many people as knew him.
“I don't know why I fear him,” she answered, “unless it is because he is so different from any other man I have ever met. Don't laugh at me if I tell you that I always think his eyes are like those of a snake, so cold and passionless, yet seeming to look you through and through. I never saw such eyes in my life before, and I hope I never may again.”
“And yet he was very kind to you.”
“I don't forget that,” she answered, “and it makes me seem so ungrateful; but one cannot help one's likes and dislikes, can one?”
Here I came a little closer to her.
“I hope you have not conceived such a violent dislike for me?” I said.
She began to pick at the mud masonry between the great stones at our feet.
“No, I don't think I have,” she answered softly, seeming to find a great source of interest in the movements of a tiny beetle which had come out of a hole and was now making its way toward us.
“I am glad of that,” I answered; “I should like you to think well of me.”
“I am sure I do,” she answered. “Think how much I owe to you. Oh, that dreadful night! I shall never be able to drive the horror of it out of my mind. Have you forgotten it?”
I saw that she was fencing with me and endeavouring to push the conversation to a side issue. This I was not going to permit. I looked into her face, but she turned away and stared at a cloud of dun-coloured dust which was rising on the plain.
“Miss Medwin,” I said, “I suppose into the life of every man there must, sooner or later, come one woman. Do you know what I am going to say?”
Once more she did not answer; but the unfortunate beetle, who had, unnoticed, crawled within reach of her foot, received his death-blow. And yet at ordinary times she was one of the kindest of her sex. This significant little action showed me more than any words could have done how perturbed her feelings were.
“I was going to say,” I continued, “that at last a woman has come into my life. Are you glad of that?”
“How can I if I do not know her?” she protested feebly.
“If you do not,” I said, “then nobody else does. Miss Medwin, you are that woman. I know I have no right to tell you this, seeing what my present position is, but God knows I cannot help it. You are dearer to me than all the world; I have loved you since I first saw you. Can you love me a little in return? Speak your mind freely, and, come what may, I will abide by what you say.”
She was trembling violently, but not a word passed her lips. Her face was very pale, and she seemed to find a difficulty in breathing, but at any cost I was going to press her for an answer.
“What have you to say to me, Gladys?”
“What can I say?”
“Say that you love me,” I answered.
“I love you,” she whispered.
And then, in the face of all Pekin, I kissed her on the lips.
Once in most men's lives—and I suppose in most women's also—there comes a certain five minutes when they understand exactly what unalloyed happiness means—a five minutes in their little span of existence when the air seems to ring with joy-bells, when time stands still, and there is no such thing as care. That was my state at the moment of which I am writing. I loved and was loved; but almost before I had time to realise my happiness a knowledge of my real position sprang up before my eyes and cast me down again. What right had I, I asked myself, to make a girl love me when it was almost outside the bounds of possibility that I could ever make her my wife? None at all. I had done a cruel thing. Now I must go forward into the jaws of death, leaving behind me all that could make life worth living, and with the knowledge that I had brought pain into the one life of all others I desired to be free from it. True, I did not doubt but that if I appealed to Nikola he would let me off, but would that be fair to him when I had given my word that I would go on with him? No, there was nothing for it but for me to carry out my promise, and trust to Fate to bring me safely back into my own world again.
The afternoon was fast slipping away, and it was time for us to be thinking about getting home. I was the more disposed to hurry as it was growing dark, and I had no desire to take a lady through the streets of Pekin after dusk. They, the streets, were bad enough in the day, at night they were ten times worse. We accordingly descended from the Wall and in twenty minutes had reached the Benfleets' bungalow.
By the time we entered the house I had arrived at a determination. As an honourable man there were only two courses open to me: one was to tell Mr. Benfleet the state of my affections, the other to let Gladys firmly understand that, until I returned—if return I did—from the business for which I had been engaged, she must not consider herself bound to me in any shape or form. Accordingly, as soon as the evening meal was finished, I asked the missionary if he could allow me five minutes' conversation. He readily granted my request, but not, I thought, without a little cloud upon his face. We passed into his study, which was at the other end of the building, and when we got there he bade me take a seat, saying as he did so—
“Now, Mr. Bruce, what is it you wish to say to me?”
Now I don't somehow think I am a particularly nervous man, but I will confess to not feeling at my ease in this particular situation. I cast about me for a way to begin my explanation, but for the life of me I could think of no way to begin.
“Mr. Benfleet,” I said at last in desperation, “you will probably be able to agree with me when I assert that you know very little about me.”
“I think I can meet you there,” said the clergyman with a smile. “I know very little about you.”
“I could wish that you knew more.”
“For what reason?”
“To be frank with you, for a very vital one. I proposed to your sister-in-law, Miss Medwin, this afternoon.”
“I must confess, I thought you would,” he said. “There have been signs and wonders in the land of late, and though Mrs. Benfleet and I live in Pekin we are still able to realise what the result is likely to be when a man is as attentive to a girl as you have been to my sister-in-law.”
“I trust you do not disapprove?”
“Am I to say what I think?”
“By all means. I want you to be perfectly candid.”
“Then I am afraid I must say that I do disapprove.”
“You have of course a very good reason?”
“I don't deny that it is one that time and better acquaintance might possibly remove. But first let us consider in what light you stand to us. Until a fortnight or so ago neither I, my wife, nor Miss Medwin were aware that there was such a person in the world. But you were ill and we took you in, all the time knowing nothing, as to your antecedents. You will agree with me, I think, that an English gentleman who figures in Chinese costume, and does not furnish a reason for it, and who perambulates China with a man that is very generally feared, is not the sort of person one would go out of one's way to accept for the husband of a sister one loves. But I am not a bigoted man, and I know that very often when a man has been a bit wild a good woman will do him more good than ever the Archbishop of Canterbury and all his clergy could effect. If you love her you will set yourself to win her, and, in sporting parlance, this is a race that will have to be won by waiting. If you think Gladys is worth working and waiting for, you will do both, and because I like what I have seen of you I will give you every opportunity in my power of achieving your end. If you don't want to work, or to wait for her, then you will probably sheer off after this conversation, in which case we shall be well rid of you. One thing, however, I think would be prudent, and that is that you should leave my house to-morrow morning.”
“I was going to suggest as much myself.”
“You will understand why I say that, of course.”
“Very good then. As I understand, the matter stands as follows:—As my sister-in-law's guardian I do not absolutely forbid your engagement. But I will consent to nothing for some considerable time to come, or in other words until I know you better. When you are in a position to support a wife in a befitting manner, and you can come to us without any secrecy or fear, I will talk further on the subject with you, in the meantime we will drop the subject. I am sure my poor father-in-law would have said the same.”
“You have treated me very fairly, and I thank you for it.”
“I am glad you fall in with my views. Now a few words as to this business upon which you are engaged. I don't know its nature, but I should be glad to receive your assurance that it is nothing of which you need be ashamed.”
“I don't know that there is anything in it of which I need personally reproach myself,” I said. “It is more a matter of science than anything else. I am paid a large sum to risk my life to find out certain things. That is as much as I can tell you.”
“You are pledged to secrecy, I suppose?”
“I have given my promise to reveal nothing.”
“Then I won't press you. Now shall we go back to the ladies?”
When I got back to the drawing-room my sweetheart greeted me with an anxious face. I smiled to reassure her, and when, a few minutes later, kindly Mrs. Benfleet made an excuse and went out of the room to speak to her husband, I was able to tell her all that had occurred at our interview.
She quite agreed with me that the course her brother-in-law had suggested was the best we could pursue. For the whole of the time that I was absent with Nikola we would not communicate in any way. By so doing we should be able to find out the true state of our own minds, and whether our passion was likely to prove lasting or not.
“But oh! how I wish that I knew what you are going to do,” said Gladys when we had discussed the matter in all its bearings save one.
“I am afraid that is a thing I cannot tell even you,” I answered. “I am hemmed in on every side by promises. You must trust me, Gladys.”
“It isn't that I don't trust you,” she said with almost a sob in her voice. “I was thinking of the dangers you will run, and of the long time that will elapse before I shall hear of you or see you again.”
“I'm afraid that cannot be helped,” I said “If I had only met you before I embarked on this wild-goose chase things might have been arranged differently, but now I have made my bed and must lie upon it.”
“As I said this afternoon, I am so afraid of this man Nikola.”
“But you needn't be. I get on very well with him, and as long as I play fair by him he will play fair by me. You might tremble for my safety if we were enemies, but so long as we remain friends you need have no fear.”
“And you are to leave us to-morrow morning?”
“Yes, darling, I must go! As we are placed towards each other, more than friends, and yet in the eyes of the world, less than lovers, it would hardly do for me to remain here. Besides I expect Nikola will be requiring my services. And now, before I forget it, I want you to give me the ring I gave you in Tientsin.”
She left the room and returned with it in a few moments. I took it from her and, raising her hand, placed it upon her finger, kissing her as I did so.
“I will wear it always,” she said.
As she spoke Mrs. Benfleet entered the room. A moment later I caught the sound of a sharp firm footstep in the passage that was unpleasantly familiar to me. Then Nikola entered and stood before us.