Mummers in Mufti/Chapter 3

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CHAPTER III

FOR a moment the two men sat in absolute silence, the one staring thoughtfully down at his desk, the other sitting stiffly erect in his chair with eyes fixed and anxious. The tension was broken by a dull buzz from under the desk, a signal so faint that in anything less than that absolute silence it would have passed unobserved.

The doctor took the receiver from his desk-telephone.

"Hello," he said, in an even, professional tone.

A reply of some length came over the wire. At the first word the doctor's face lightened, and when finally he answered his tones were eager and friendly.

"That's very thoughtful of you," he was saying into the telephone. "I wish that I could, but, to tell the truth my wife and I are going out to dinner to-night."

He paused while the voice at the other end of the wire made other suggestions, then replied with the same kindly eagerness.

"Well, possibly I might, but I don't want to put you to any trouble. That's very nice of you. All right. That will be the best place. Thank you again. Good-by."

He hung up the receiver and turned back to Bellsmith, his face relaxing into its former thoughtful expression but somehow the complete confidence that had been established between the two men had been broken or, better, suspended, by the interruption. Both of them felt it, and it was probable that the doctor would never have permitted the interruption if he had not already known the time for ending the consultation to be at hand. As if in demonstration of this, he knocked out his pipe and put it back in its drawer.

"Mr. Bellsmith," he resumed, in a tone rather brisker than any that he had previously used, "I wish to say this. There is, about your case, one feature that is very unusual. That is the completeness and the accuracy with which you have recognized your own condition and the frankness with which you have been willing to state it. What you have told me in an hour it usually takes me months of the most guarded questions and closest observation to find out. And then it is frequently only surmise."

"Then you do know what is the matter with me?" asked Bellsmith eagerly.

"Yes," replied the doctor, "I do."

"What is it?"

The doctor laughed. "I do not think it wise to tell you just at the moment."

Bellsmith's expression changed instantly to one of alarm, and the doctor hastened to explain. "Not because the name of it would frighten you but because, if I really told you, you would n't take it seriously enough."

"Don't worry," said Bellsmith, "It's no joke to me." He paused hopefully, then suggested with genuine wistfulness, "but you think that you can get me out of this state?"

"That depends."

"On what?"

"For one thing, on how faithfully you follow my directions."

"Good heavens, doctor, you don't think that I like being the mess that I am at present? I'm prepared to do anything to shake myself free."

The doctor smiled. "Even to the extent of playing tennis and riding horseback two hours a day?"

Bellsmith laughed in return. "Doctor, that's not fair."

The doctor opened and closed a drawer of his desk as if searching for something.

"Now you see," he remarked, "what a man in my profession is up against. If I could prescribe something easy, like a quinine pill, you would take it and bless me, but the minute that I prescribe anything calling for the slightest coöperation on your part you begin to balk. However," he added, still searching in the desk, "I am not going to inflict you with tennis. In fact, for the time being, I am not going to inflict you with anything except the promise to repeat this call every day for some time. Do you think that you can do that?"

"Gladly," replied Bellsmith. "To tell the truth I have rather enjoyed it."

The doctor had found the object for which he had been searching—his prescription-pad. He drew it from the drawer and sat over it with his pen held aloft.

"In the meantime," he continued, "do you want to do me a favor?"

Bellsmith glanced, puzzled, at the prescription-pad. "I thought you weren't going to give me anything to take."

The doctor laughed and put down his pen. "I think you will like to—take this. Are you going to be busy this evening?"

"No more busy than I ever am."

"Opening and closing doors and holding your hand over the window-pane?" suggested the doctor. "In that case I think you 're my man."

He wrote a few words on his pad and prepared to tear off the top sheet.

"A friend of mine," he explained, "has telephoned offering me a couple of seats at the theater—"

He said it casually but his casualness was just too well done, for, as he said the word "theater" a sudden light flashed over Bellsmith.

"Doctor," he exclaimed, "I know who she is!"

"Who?"

"The girl who was in here this afternoon. I don't know her name but I knew that I had seen her somewhere. Didn't she play in 'Miss Mischief' with Ada Sharpe, two years ago?"

The doctor laughed. "I don't know, but she might have."

Exultantly, Bellsmith hurried on. "The minute you began to talk on the telephone I had a suspicion that that was she who was talking; and when you said 'theater' I suddenly knew where I had seen her before."

"Mr. Bellsmith," remarked the doctor, "a man as astute as you are ought to be ashamed of himself for getting into the state that you are in now. I own up. It does n't make any difference, because you would have found out anyway. The point is, will you take those seats this evening—or one of them—and use it?"

"Very gladly, " said Bellsmith.

The doctor sat looking thoughtfully at his desk-blotter, then spoke slowly, a faint smile twitching at the corners of his close-cropped mustache.

"That young lady whom you saw here this afternoon is Miss Tilly Marshall. She is a—a sort of connection of mine. She is playing here for two weeks with the 'Eleanor' company and naturally finds two weeks in a strange city rather dismal, so my wife and I would like to make it as pleasant for her as possible. As you heard me say, we couldn't accept the seats Miss Marshall offered us for to-night, so I thought that it might amuse you to see the show."

"It would indeed," replied Bellsmith, eagerly. "Thank you very much."

The doctor, however, was not yet through. "If you care to have me," he continued, casually, "I should be very glad to give you a note of introduction to Miss Marshall." The doctor paused, then added tentatively, "If you felt like doing anything to make her stay here in Leicester more amusing, I am sure that she would appreciate it and I know that I should."

The doctor looked up expectantly, but poor Bellsmith was rather alarmed.

"Why, certainly, doctor," he began vaguely. "I should be glad to do anything that I can. Possibly she would like to have me send my car so that she could get out a bit. Would she care to meet some of the people in Leicester? What is she fond of? What sort of things does she like to do?"

The doctor laughed outright. "I don't think that she would like anything in the world except a plain human being to talk to."

Bellsmith blushed crimson. "I know, doctor, but I'm such a dumbhead where people of that kind are concerned. I'm so—I'm sort of stiff without meaning to be. I don't know anything about the stage or the things that she is interested in. I'd simply bore her to tears."

The doctor smiled. "I think you will find that she is interested in very much the same sort of things that you are." He saw that Bellsmith would get nowhere without his very active prompting, and so he finished abruptly: "Why in the world don't you send a note around and ask her to supper after the performance—or take her somewhere to dance? There must be places where you can go—the Stansfield Hotel for instance. Just go around to the stage-door after the show and send in your card."

Bellsmith's jaw dropped. But one must not find poor Bellsmith too incredible, as, to be blunt, Dr. MacVickar was beginning to find him, for it is sometimes rather uncanny to scratch the surface and discover how deeply the granite of Plymouth Bock still permeates the whole of New England, even in this day and generation. For the whole of his thirty-five years, Bellsmith had been unconsciously reared, not so much in the tradition of the Bay Psalm-book as in the tradition of the utter humiliation of the stage-door. Stage people of a certain distinctly literary cast he had occasionally met in a very formal way in New York at the afternoons of some dowdy woman who fondly believed that she had a "salon." Like all the men and indeed the women of his rather staid broking and banking circles, he could talk with a superficial and cynical glibness of this man or that who was not without his acquaintance in musical comedy life, but when he was suddenly brought face to face with such an adventure, applied to himself, right here in Leicester, even under such unimpeachable auspices as those of Dr. MacVickar, the idea pierced through to something within him far more fundamental than the thin veil of his sophisticated existence, his clubman's airs, or the memories of his four innocuous years at Yale University.

Dr. MacVickar saw plainly enough what was going on in his mind, but, not being himself a Leicester man, he saw without proper allowances. In fact what he saw made him decidedly huffy, distinctly sorry that he had made the suggestion at all. With a gesture unmistakably gruff he swept up the prescription-pad on his desk.

"Of course," he said, stiffly, "I didn't intend to suggest anything that would put you out of your way."

Bellsmith was immediately as abject as he had been frightened.

"Doctor," he begged, "you must n't think I would n't be delighted. I was merely thinking what an awful, staid ass I would seem to—to a girl like Miss Marshall."

The doctor was not yet completely mollified, but he saw that the affair could not stop now. Without another word he finished his brief note and handed it to poor Bellsmith.

"The tickets are in my name at the Lyceum Theater," he said shortly. "There is a note to Miss Marshall. If you feel that you can do anything to help her out while she is here this will serve as an introduction. If you can't, don't bother. Come and see me at the same time to-morrow."

He rose very brusquely and began to arrange the chairs in the already perfect office. The consultation was obviously at an end, but Bellsmith stood waiting vaguely, with his hat and coat in his hands, distinctly unhappy. He felt that he had been unconscionably rude and unconscionably silly. Every instinct within him was clamoring to make amends, but the curt, swift movements of the doctor left him no opening. Not at all because it was the best thing to do under the circumstances but merely because he could think of nothing else, he said, "Good night," and fled.

As soon as he had gone the office nurse came silently into the room. She found Dr. MacVickar staring out of the window, over the ugly, meaningless, pebbled roofs of adjacent buildings which dimly bulked in the gathering twilight.

"Will there be anything more to-night, doctor?"

The doctor turned and relapsed immediately into his gentler professional manner.

"Nothing more, thank you, Miss Cowes."

Then, in spite of himself, something more human broke through his crust of restraint. At long intervals, possibly because he knew that she never by any chance understood them, Dr. MacVickar took a grim pleasure in shooting wildly unrelated remarks at Miss Cowes's wholly capable and wholly unimaginative head.

"Miss Cowes," he asked, "how long have you lived in Leicester?"

The blond Diana of a nurse looked at him in surprise. "Twenty-two years."

"And you still survive?"

Miss Cowes's eyebrows lifted perceptibly. "Why, certainly. I think that Leicester is a very pleasant place, indeed."

Without further explanation the doctor went back to his desk.

"I just want to write a couple of notes. You need n't wait, but before you go please telephone for a messenger-boy. Leave that door open so I will hear him when he comes."

"Yes, certainly, doctor. Good night."

"Good night."

Two minutes later he heard Miss Cowes emerge from her cloak-room into the little hall. Her movements timed by habit to a fifth of a second, he heard her turn the key in her desk, put out the lights in the waiting-room and pick up the tightly rolled umbrella which she always carried, rain or shine. The outer door closed softly. As if he had been waiting for that final signal, the doctor unscrewed his pen and began the first of his notes:

 

R. J. Maxley, M. D.,
113 Park Avenue,
New York City.

My dear Doctor:

Your patient, Miss Tilly Marshall, presented your letter on her arrival yesterday and called again to-day. I shall be glad to advise her while in this city and recommend her in turn to some physician in the next town to which her company may move.

Although I have had only two days' acquaintance with the case I agree with you that Miss Marshall's condition of persistent melancholia and habitual nervous fatigue is one which can hardly be permanently relieved so long as it is unfortunately necessary for her to endure the anxieties and inevitable rigors of her profession. The best I can do in such a brief time will be, of course, to reassure her and, if possible, suggest some diversion.

Please do not consider yourself under any obligation to me whatever. Although I have never had the pleasure of meeting you personally I have read with the greatest interest your articles in the Medical Review. It has, in fact, been a distinct pleasure to make the acquaintance of your patient, Miss Marshall.

Sincerely yours,
James MacVickar.

 

The other note required a little more thinking.

 

My dear Miss Marshall:

I wish to thank you again for the seats which Mrs. MacVickar and I were unfortunately unable to use.

I have taken the liberty of giving the tickets to my friend Mr. Arnold Bellsmith and have taken the farther liberty of asking him to introduce himself and do what he can to lighten the tedium of your stay in Leicester.

At first acquaintance you may think Mr. Bellsmith the biggest fool ever born, but please take my assurance that actually he is the salt of the earth, and, on further acquaintance, although you may still find him ridiculous, you may also find him, as I do, extremely amusing.

Cordially yours,
James MacVickar.