‘A THROBBING vein,’ said Dr. Gilbert soothingly, ‘is the mother of delusion.’
‘Then how do you account for my knowing when the thing is due?’ Conroy’s voice rose almost to a break.
‘Of course, but you should have consulted a doctor before using—palliatives.’
‘It was driving me mad. And now I can’t give them up.’
‘Not so bad as that! One doesn’t form fatal habits at twenty-five. Think again. Were you ever frightened as a child?’
‘I don’t remember. It began when I was a boy.’
‘With or without the spasm? By the way, do you mind describing the spasm again?’
‘Well,’ said Conroy, twisting in the chair, ‘I’m no musician, but suppose you were a violin-string—vibrating—and some one put his finger on you? As if a finger were put on the naked soul! Awful!’
‘So’s indigestion—so’s nightmare—while it lasts.’
‘But the horror afterwards knocks me out for days. And the waiting for it . . . and then this drug habit! It can’t go on!’ He shook as he spoke, and the chair creaked.
‘My dear fellow,’ said the doctor, ‘when you’re older you’ll know what burdens the best of us carry. A fox to every Spartan.’
‘That doesn’t help me. I can’t! I can’t!’ cried Conroy, and burst into tears.
‘Don’t apologise,’ said Gilbert, when the paroxysm ended. ‘I’m used to people coming a little—unstuck in this room.’
‘It’s those tabloids!’ Conroy stamped his foot feebly as he blew his nose. ‘They’ve knocked me out. I used to be fit once. Oh, I’ve tried exercise and everything. But—if one sits down for a minute when it’s due—even at four in the morning-it runs up behind one.’
‘Ye-es. Many things come in the quiet of the morning. You always know when the visitation. is due?’
‘What would I give not to be sure!’ he sobbed.
‘We’ll put that aside for the moment. I’m thinking of a case where what we’ll call anæmia of the brain was masked (I don’t say cured) by vibration. He couldn’t sleep, or thought he couldn’t, but a steamer voyage and the thump of the screw——’
‘A steamer? After what I’ve told you!’ Conroy almost shrieked. ‘I’d sooner . . . ’
‘Of course not a steamer in your case, but a long railway journey the next time you think it will trouble you. It sounds absurd, but——’
‘I’d try anything. I nearly have,’ Conroy sighed.
‘Nonsense! I’ve given you a tonic that will clear that notion from your head. Give the train a chance, and don’t begin the journey by bucking yourself up with tabloids. Take them along, but hold them in reserve—in reserve.’
‘D’you think I’ve self-control enough, after what you’ve heard?’ said Conroy.
Dr. Gilbert smiled. ‘Yes. After what I’ve seen,’ he glanced round the room, ‘I have no hesitation in saying you have quite as much self-control as many other people. I’ll write you later about your journey. Meantime, the tonic,’ and he gave some general directions before Conroy left.
An hour later Dr. Gilbert hurried to the links, where the others of his regular week-end game awaited him. It was a rigid round, played as usual at the trot, for the tension of the week lay as heavy on the two King’s Counsels and Sir John Chartres as on Gilbert. The lawyers were old enemies of the Admiralty Court, and Sir John of the frosty eyebrows and Abernethy manner was bracketed with, but before, Rutherford Gilbert among nerve-specialists.
At the Club-house afterwards the lawyers renewed their squabble over a tangled collision case, and the doctors as naturally compared professional matters.
‘Lies—all lies,’ said Sir John, when Gilbert had told him Conroy’s trouble. ‘Post hoc, propter hoc. The man or woman who drugs is ipso facto a liar. You’ve no imagination.’
‘’Pity you haven’t a little—occasionally.
‘I have believed a certain type of patient in my time. It’s always the same. For reasons not given in the consulting-room they take to the drug. Certain symptoms follow. They will swear to you, and believe it, that they took the drug to mask the symptoms. What does your man use? Najdolene? I thought so. I had practically the duplicate of your case last Thursday. Same old Najdolene—same old lie.’
‘Tell me the symptoms, and I’ll draw my own inferences, Johnnie.’
‘Symptoms! The girl was rank poisoned with Najdolene. Ramping, stamping possession. Gad, I thought she’d have the chandelier down.’
‘Mine came unstuck too, and he has the physique of a bull,’ said Gilbert. ‘What delusions had yours?’
‘I Faces—faces with mildew on them. In any other walk of life we’d call it the Horrors. She told me, of course, she took the drugs to mask the faces. Post hoc, propter hoc again. All liars!’
‘What’s that?’ said the senior K.C. quickly. ‘Sounds professional.’
‘Go away! Not for you, Sandy.’ Sir John turned a shoulder against him and walked with Gilbert in the chill evening.
‘To Conroy in his chambers came, one week later, this letter:
‘DEAR MR. CONROY—If your plan of a night’s trip on the 17th still holds good, and you have no particular destination in view, you could do me a kindness. A Miss Henschil, in whom I am interested, goes down to the West by the 10.8 from Waterloo (Number 3 platform) on that night. She is not exactly an invalid, but, like so many of us, a little shaken in her nerves. Her maid, of course, accompanies her, but if I knew you were in the same train it would be an additional source of strength. Will you please write and let me know whether the 10.8 from Waterloo, Number 3 platform, on the 17th, suits you, and I will meet you there? Don’t forget my caution, and keep up the tonic.—Yours sincerely,
L. RUTHERFORD GILBERT.
‘He knows I’m scarcely fit to look after myself,’ was Conroy’s thought. ‘And he wants me to look after a woman!’
Yet, at the end of half an hour’s irresolution, he accepted.
Now Conroy’s trouble, which had lasted for years, was this:
On a certain night, while he lay between sleep and wake, he would be overtaken by a long shuddering sigh, which he learned to know was the sign that his brain had once more conceived its horror, and in time—in due time—would bring it forth.
Drugs could so well veil that horror that it shuffled along no worse than as a freezing dream in a procession of disorderly dreams; but over the return of the event drugs had no control. Once that sigh had passed his lips the thing was inevitable, and through the days granted before its rebirth he walked in torment. For the first two years he had striven to fend it off by distractions, but neither exercise nor drink availed. Then he had come to the tabloids of the excellent M. Najdol. These guarantee, on the label, ‘Refreshing and absolutely natural sleep to the soul-weary.’ They are carried in a case with a spring which presses one scented tabloid to the end of the tube, whence it can be lipped off in stroking the moustache or adjusting the veil.
Three years of M. Najdol’s preparations do not fit a man for many careers. His friends, who knew he did not drink, assumed that Conroy had strained his heart through valiant outdoor exercises, and Conroy had with some care invented an imaginary doctor, symptoms, and regimen, which he discussed with them and with his mother in Hereford. She maintained that he would grow out of it, and recommended nux vomica.
When at last Conroy faced a real doctor, it was, he hoped, to be saved from suicide by a strait-waistcoat. Yet Dr. Gilbert had but given him more drugs—a tonic, for instance, that would couple railway carriages—and had advised a night in the train. Not alone the horrors of a railway journey (for which a man who dare keep no servant must e’en pack, label, and address his own bag), but the necessity for holding himself in hand before a stranger ‘a little shaken in her nerves.’
He spent a long forenoon packing, because when he assembled and counted things his mind slid off to the hours that remained of the day before his night, and he found himself counting minutes aloud. At such times the injustice of his fate would drive him to revolts which no servant should witness, but on this evening Dr. Gilbert’s tonic held him fairly calm while he put up his patent razors.
Waterloo Station shook him into real life. The change for his ticket needed concentration, if only to prevent shillings and pence turning into minutes at the booking-office; and he spoke quickly to a porter about the disposition of his bag. The old 10.8 from Waterloo to the West was an all-night caravan that halted, in the interests of the milk traffic, at almost every station.
Dr. Gilbert stood by the door of the one composite corridor coach; an older and stouter man behind him. ‘So glad you’re here!’ he cried. ‘Let me get your ticket.’
‘Certainly not,’ Conroy answered. ‘I got it myself—long ago. My bag’s in too,’ he added proudly.
‘I beg your pardon. Miss Henschil’s here. I’ll introduce you.’
‘But—but,’ he stammered—‘think of the state I’m in. If anything happens I shall collapse.’
‘Not you. You’d rise to the occasion like a bird. And as for the self-control you were talking of the other day’—Gilbert swung him round—‘look!’
A young man in an ulster over a silk-faced frock-coat stood by the carriage window, weeping shamelessly.
‘Oh, but that’s only drink,’ Conroy said. ‘I haven’t had one of my—my things since lunch.’
‘Excellent!’ said Gilbert. ‘I knew I could depend on you. Come along. Wait for a minute, Chartres.’
A tall woman, veiled, sat by the far window. She bowed her head as the doctor murmured Conroy knew not what. Then he disappeared and the inspector came for tickets.
‘My maid—next compartment,’ she said slowly.
Conroy showed his ticket, but in returning it to the sleeve-pocket of his ulster the little silver Najdolene case slipped from his glove and fell to the floor. He snatched it up as the moving train flung him into his seat.
‘How nice!’ said the woman. She leisurely lifted her veil, unbuttoned the first button of her left glove, and pressed out from its palm a Najdolene-case.
‘Don’t!’ said Conroy, not realising he had spoken.
‘I beg your pardon.’ The deep voice was measured, even, and low. Conroy knew what made it so.
‘I said “don’t”! He wouldn’t like you to do it!’
‘No, he would not.’ She held the tube with its ever-presented tabloid between finger and thumb. ‘But aren’t you one of the—ah—“soulweary” too?’
‘That’s why. Oh, please don’t! Not at first. I—I haven’t had one since morning. You—you’ll set me off!’
‘You? Are you so far gone as that?’
He nodded, pressing his palms together. The train jolted through Vauxhall points, and was welcomed with the clang of empty milk-cans for the West.
After long silence she lifted her great eyes, and, with an innocence that would have deceived any sound man, asked Conroy to call her maid to bring her a forgotten book.
‘Conroy shook his head. ‘No. Our sort can’t read. Don’t!’
‘Were you sent to watch me?’ The voice never changed.
‘Me? I need a keeper myself much more—this night of all! ‘
‘This night? Have you a night, then? They disbelieved me when I told them of mine.’ She leaned back and laughed, always slowly. ‘Aren’t doctors stu-upid? They don’t know.’
She leaned her elbow on her knee, lifted her veil that had fallen, and, chin in hand, stared at him. He looked at her—till his eyes were blurred with tears.
‘Have I been there, think you?’ she said.
‘Surely—surely,’ Conroy answered, for he had well seen the fear and the horror that lived behind the heavy-lidded eyes, the fine tracing on the broad forehead, and the guard set about the desirable mouth.
‘Then—suppose we have one—just one apiece? I’ve gone without since this afternoon.’
He put up his hand, and would have shouted, but his voice broke.
‘Don’t! Can’t you see that it helps me to help you to keep it off? Don’t let’s both go down together.’
‘But I want one. It’s a poor heart that never rejoices. Just one. It’s my night.’
‘It’s mine—too. My sixty-fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh.’ He shut his lips firmly against the tide of visualised numbers that threatened to carry him along.
‘Ah, it’s only my thirty-ninth.’ She paused as he had done. ‘I wonder if I shall last into the sixties . . . . Talk to me or I shall go crazy. You’re a man. You’re the stronger vessel. Tell me when you went to pieces.’
‘One, two, three, four, five, six, seven—eight—I beg your pardon.’
‘Not in the least. I always pretend I’ve dropped a stitch of my knitting. I count the days till the last day, then the hours, then the minutes. Do you?’
‘I don’t think I’ve done very much else for the last——’ said Conroy, shivering, for the night was cold, with a chill he recognised.
‘Oh, how comforting to find some one who can talk sense! It’s not always the same date, is it? ’
‘What difference would that make?’ He unbuttoned his ulster with a jerk. ‘You’re a sane woman. Can’t you see the wicked—wicked—wicked’ (dust flew from the padded arm-rest as he struck it) ‘unfairness of it? What have I done?’
She laid her large hand on his shoulder very firmly.
‘If you begin to think over that,’ she said, ‘you’ll go to pieces and be ashamed. Tell me yours, and I’ll tell you mine. Only be quiet—be quiet, lad, or you’ll set me off!’ She made shift to soothe him, though her chin trembled.
‘Well,’ said he at last, picking at the arm-rest between them, ‘mine’s nothing much, of course.’
‘Don’t be a fool! That’s for doctors—and mothers.’
‘It’s Hell,’ Conroy muttered. ‘It begins on a steamer—on a stifling hot night. I come out of my cabin. I pass through the saloon where the stewards have rolled up the carpets, and the boards are bare and hot and soapy.’
‘I’ve travelled too,’ she said.
‘Ah! I come on deck. I walk down a covered alleyway. Butcher’s meat, bananas, oil, that sort of smell.’
Again she nodded.
‘It’s a lead-coloured steamer, and the sea’s lead-coloured. Perfectly smooth sea—perfectly still ship, except for the engines running, and her waves going off in lines and lines and lines—dull grey’. ‘All this time I know something’s going to happen.
‘I know. Something going to happen,’ she whispered.
‘Then I hear a thud in the engine-room. Then the noise of machinery falling down—like fire-irons—and then two most awful yells. They’re more like hoots, and I know—I know while I listen—that it means that two men have died as they hooted. It was their last breath hooting out of them—in most awful pain. Do you understand?’
‘I ought to. Go on.’
‘That’s the first part. Then I hear bare feet running along the alleyway. One of the scalded men comes up behind me and says quite distinctly, “My friend! All is lost!” Then he taps me on the shoulder and I hear him drop down dead.’ He panted and wiped his forehead.
‘So that is your night?’ she said.
‘That is my night. It comes every few weeks—so many days after I get what I call sentence. Then I begin to count.’
‘Get sentence? D’ycu mean this? ‘She half closed her eyes, drew a deep breath, and shuddered. ‘“Notice” I call it. Sir John thought it was all lies.’
She had unpinned her hat and thrown it on the seat opposite, showing the immense tnass of her black hair, rolled low in the nape of the columnar neck and looped over the left ear. But Conroy had no eyes except for her grave eyes.
‘Listen now! ‘said she. ‘I walk down a road, a white sandy road near the sea. There are broken fences on either side, and Men come and look at me over them.’
‘Just men? Do they speak?’
‘They try to. Their faces are all mildewy—eaten away,’ and she hid her face for an instant with her left hand. ‘It’s the Faces—the Faces!’
‘Yes. Like my two hoots. I know.’
‘Ah! But the place itself—the bareness—and the glitter and the salt smells, and the wind blowing the sand! The Men run after me and I run . . . . I know what’s coming too. One of them touches me.’
‘Yes! What comes then? We’ve both shirked that.’
‘One awful shock—not palpitation, but shock, shock, shock!’
‘As though your soul were being stopped—as you’d stop a finger-bowl humming?’ he said.
‘Just that,’ she answered. ‘One’s very soul—the soul that one lives by—stopped. So!’
She drove her thumb deep into the arm-rest. ‘And now,’ she whined to him, ‘now that we’ve stirred each other up this way, mightn’t we have just one?’
‘No,’ said Conroy, shaking. ‘Let’s hold on. We’re past’—he peered out of the black windows—‘Woking. There’s the Necropolis. How long till dawn?’
‘Oh, cruel long yet. If one dozes for a minute, it catches one.’
‘And how d’you find that this’—he tapped the palm of his glove—‘helps you?’
‘It covers up the thing from being too real—if one takes enough—you know. Only—only—one loses everything else. I’ve been no more than a bogie-girl for two years. What would you give to be real again? This lying’s such a nuisance.’
‘One must protect oneself—and there’s one’s mother to think of,’ he answered.
‘True. I hope allowances are made for us somewhere. Our burden—can you hear?—our burden is heavy enough.’
She rose, towering into the roof of the carriage. Conroy’s ungentle grip pulled her back.
‘Now you are foolish. Sit down,’ said he.
‘But the cruelty of it! Can’t you see it? Don’t you feel it? Let’s take one now—before I——’
‘Sit down!’ cried Conroy, and the sweat stood again on his forehead. He had fought through a few nights, and had been defeated on more, and he knew the rebellion that flares beyond control to exhaustion.
She smoothed her hair and dropped back, but for a while her head and throat moved with the sickening motion of a captured wry-neck.
‘Once,’ she said, spreading out her hands, ‘I ripped my counterpane from end to end. That takes strength. I had it then. I’ve little now. “All dorn,” as my little niece says. And you, lad?’
‘“All dorn”! Let me keep your case for you till the morning.’
‘But the cold feeling is beginning.’
‘Lend it me, then.’
‘And the drag down my right side. I shan’t be able to move in a minute.’
‘I can scarcely lift my arm myself,’ said Conroy. ‘We’re in for it.’
‘Then why are you so foolish? You know it’ll be easier if we have only one—only one apiece.’
She was lifting the case to her mouth. With tremendous effort Conroy caught it. The two moved like jointed dolls, and when their hands met it was as wood on wood.
‘You must—not!’ said Conroy. His jaws stiffened, and the cold climbed from his feet up.
‘Why—must—I—not?’ She repeated the words idiotically.
Conroy could only shake his head, while he bore down on the hand and the case in it.
Her speech went from her altogether. The wonderful lips rested half over the even teeth, the breath was in the nostrils only, the eyes dulled, the face set grey, and through the glove the hand struck like ice.
Presently her soul came back and stood behind her eyes—only thing that had life in all that place—stood and looked for Conroy’s soul. He too was fettered in every limb, but somewhere at an immense distance he heard his heart going about its work as the engine-room carries on through and beneath the all but overwhelming wave. His one hope, he knew, was not to lose the eyes that clung to his, because there was an Evil abroad which would possess him if he looked aside by a hairbreadth.
The rest was darkness through which some distant planet spun while cymbals clashed. (Beyond Farnborough the 10.8 rolls out many empty milk-cans at every halt.) Then a body came to life with intolerable pricklings. Limb by limb, after agonies of terror, that body returned to him, steeped in most perfect physical weariness such as follows a long day’s rowing. He saw the heavy lids droop over her eyes—the watcher behind them departed—and, his soul sinking into assured peace, Conroy slept.
Light on his eyes and a salt breath roused him without shock. Her hand still held his. She slept, forehead down upon it, but the movement of his waking waked her too, and she sneezed like a child.
‘I—I think it’s morning,’ said Conroy.
‘And nothing has happened! Did you see your Men? I didn’t see my Faces. Does it mean we’ve escaped? Did—did you take any after I went to sleep? I’ll swear I didn’t,’ she stammered.
‘No, there wasn’t any need. We’ve slept through it.’
‘No need! Thank God! There was no need! Oh, look!’
The train was running under red cliffs along a sea-wall washed by waves that were colourless in the early light. Southward the sun rose mistily upon the Channel.
She leaned out of the window and breathed to the bottom of her lungs, while the wind wrenched down her dishevelled hair and blew it below her waist.
‘Well!’ she said with splendid eyes. ‘Aren’t you still waiting for something to happen?’
‘No. Not till next time. We’ve been let off,’ Conroy answered, breathing as deeply as she.
‘Then we ought to say our prayers.’
‘What nonsense! Some one will see us.’
‘We needn’t kneel. Stand up and say “Our Father.” We must!’
It was the first time since childhood that Conroy had prayed. They laughed hysterically when a curve threw them against an arm-rest.
‘Now for breakfast!’ she cried. ‘My maid—Nurse Blaber—has the basket and things. It’ll be ready in twenty minutes. Oh! Look at my hair! ‘and she went out laughing.
Conroy’s first discovery, made without fumbling or counting letters on taps, was that the London and South Western’s allowance of washing-water is inadequate. He used every drop, rioting in the cold tingle on neck and arms. To shave in a moving train balked him, but the next halt gave him a chance, which, to his own surprise, he took. As he stared at himself in the mirror he smiled and nodded. There were points about this person with the clear, if sunken, eye and the almost uncompressed mouth. But when he bore his bag back to his compartment, the weight of it on a limp arm humbled that new pride.
‘My friend,’ he said, half aloud, ‘you go into training. Your putty.’
She met him in the spare compartment, where her maid had laid breakfast.
‘By Jove,’ he said, halting at the doorway, ‘I hadn’t realised how beautiful you were!’
‘The same to you, lad. Sit down. I could eat a horse.’
‘I shouldn’t,’ said the maid quietly. ‘The less you eat the better.’ She was a small, freckled woman, with light fluffy hair and pale-blue eyes that looked through all veils.
‘This is Miss Blaber,’said Miss Henschil. ‘He’s one of the soul-weary too, Nursey.’
‘I know it. But when one has just given it up a full meal doesn’t agree. That’s why I’ve only brought you bread and butter.’
She went out quietly, and Conroy reddened.
‘We’re still children, you see,’ said Miss Henschil. ‘But I’m well enough to feel some shame of it. D’you take sugar?’
They starved together heroically, and Nurse Blaber was good enough to signify approval when she came to clear away.
‘Nursey?’ Miss Henschil insinuated, and flushed.
‘Do you smoke?’ said the nurse coolly to Conroy.
‘I haven’t in years. Now you mention it, I think I’d like a cigarette—or something.’
‘I used to. D’you think it would keep me quiet?’ Miss Henschil said.
‘Perhaps. Try these.’ The nurse handed them her cigarette-case.
‘Don’t take anything else,’ she commanded, and went away with the tea-basket.
‘Good!’ grunted Conroy, between mouthfuls of tobacco.
‘Better than nothing,’ said Miss Henschil; but for a while they felt ashamed, yet with the comfort of children punished together.
‘Now,’ she whispered, ‘who were you when you were a man?’
Conroy told her, and in return she gave him her history. It delighted them both to deal once more in worldly concerns—families, names, places, and dates—with a person of understanding.
She came, she said, of Lancashire folk—wealthy cotton-spinners, who still kept the broadened a and slurred aspirate of the old stock. She lived with an old masterful mother in an opulent world north of Lancaster Gate, where people in Society gave parties at a Mecca called the Langham Hotel.
She herself had been launched into Society there, and the flowers at the ball had cost eighty-seven pounds; but, being reckoned peculiar, she had made few friends among her own sex. She had attracted many men, for she was a beauty—the beauty, in fact, of Society, she said.
She spoke utterly without shame or reticence, as a life-prisoner tells his past to a fellow-prisoner; and Conroy nodded across the smoke-rings.
‘Do you remember when you got into the carriage?’ she asked. ‘(Oh, I wish I had some knitting!) Did you notice aught, lad?’
Conroy thought back. It was ages since. ‘Wasn’t there some one outside the door—crying? ‘he asked.
‘He’s—he’s the little man I was engaged to,’ she said. ‘But I made him break it off. I told him ’twas no good. But he won’t, yo’ see.’
‘That fellow? Why, he doesn’t come up to your shoulder.’
‘That’s naught to do with it. I think all the world of him. I’m a foolish wench’—her speech wandered as she settled herself cosily, one elbow on the arm-rest. ‘We’d been engaged—I couldn’t help that—and he worships the ground I tread on. But it’s no use. I’m not responsible, you see. His two sisters are against it, though I’ve the money. They’re right, but they think it’s the dri-ink,’ she drawled. ‘They’re Methody—the Skinners. You see, their grandfather that started the Patton Mills, he died o’ the dri-ink.’
‘I see,’ said Conroy. The grave face before him under the lifted veil was troubled.
‘George Skinner.’ She breathed it softly. ‘I’d make him a good wife, by God’s gra-ace—if I could. But it’s no use. I’m not responsible. But he’ll not take “No” for an answer. I used to call him “Toots.” He’s of no consequence, yo’ see.’
‘That’s in Dickens,’ said Conroy, quite quickly, ‘I haven’t thought of Toots for years. He was at Doctor Blimber’s.’
‘And so—that’s my trouble,’ she concluded, ever so slightly wringing her hands. ‘But I—don’t you think—there’s hope now?’
‘Eh?’ said Conroy. ‘Oh yes! This is the first time I’ve turned my corner without help. With your help, I should say.’
‘It’ll come back, though.’
‘Then shall we meet it in the same way? Here’s my card. Write me your train, and we’ll go together.’
‘Yes. We must do that. But between times—when we want—’ She looked at her palm, the four fingers working on it. ‘It’s hard to give ’em up.’
‘I But think what we have gained already, and let me have the case to keep.’
She shook her head, and threw her cigarette out of the window. ‘Not yet.’
‘Then let’s lend our cases to Nurse, and we’ll get through to-day on cigarettes. I’ll call her while we feel strong.’
She hesitated, but yielded at last, and Nurse accepted the offerings with a smile.
‘You’ll be all right,’ she said to Miss Henschil. ‘But if I were you’—to Conroy—, ‘I’d take strong exercise.’
When they reached their destination Conroy set himself to obey Nurse Blaber. He had no remembrance of that day, except one streak of blue sea to his left, gorse-bushes to his right, and, before him, a coast-guard’s track marked with white-washed stones that he counted up to the far thousands. As he returned to the little town he saw Miss Henschil on the beach below the cliffs. She kneeled at Nurse Blaber’s feet, weeping and pleading.
Twenty-five days later a telegram came to Conroy’s rooms: ‘Notice given. Waterloo again. Twenty fourth.’ That same evening he was wakened by the shudder and the sigh that told him his sentence had gone forth. Yet he reflected on his pillow that he had, in spite of lapses, snatched something like three weeks of life, which included several rides on a horse before breakfast—the hour one most craves Najdolene; five consecutive evenings on the river at Hammersmith in a tub where he had well stretched the white arms that passing crews mocked at; a game of rackets at his club; three dinners, one small dance, and one human flirtation with a human woman. More notable still, he had settled his month’s accounts, only once confusing petty cash with the days of grace allowed him. Next morning he rode his hired beast in the park victoriously. He saw Miss Henschil on horseback near Lancaster Gate, talking to a young man at the railings.
She wheeled and cantered toward him.
‘By Jove! How well you look!’ he cried, without salutation. ‘I didn’t know you rode.’
‘I used to once,’ she replied. ‘I’m all soft now.’
They swept off together down the ride.
‘Your beast pulls,’ he said.
‘Wa-ant him to. Gi-gives me something to think of. How’ve you been?’ she panted. ‘I wish chemists’ shops hadn’t red lights.’
‘Have you slipped out and bought some, then?’
‘You don’t know Nursey. Eh, but it’s good to be on a horse again! This chap cost me two hundred.’
‘Then you’ve been swindled,’ said Conroy.
‘I know it, but it’s no odds. I must go back to Toots and send him away. He’s neglecting his work for me.’
She swung her heavy-topped animal on his none too sound hocks. ‘’Sentence come, lad?’
‘Yes. But I’m not minding it so much this time.’
‘Waterloo, then—and God help us!’ She thundered back to the little frock-coated figure that waited faithfully near the gate.
Conroy felt the spring sun on his shoulders and trotted home. That evening he went out with a man in a pair oar, and was rowed to a standstill. But the other man owned he could not have kept the pace five minutes longer.
He carried his bag all down Number 3 platform at Waterloo, and hove it with one hand into the rack.
‘Well done!’ said Nurse Blaber, in the corridor. ‘We’ve improved too.’
Dr. Gilbert and an older man came out of the next compartment.
‘Hallo!’ said Gilbert. ‘Why haven’t you been to see me, Mr. Conroy? Come under the lamp. Take off your hat. No—no. Sit, you young giant. Ve-ry good. Look here a minute, Johnnie.’
A little, round-bellied, hawk-faced person glared at him.
‘Gilbert was right about the beauty of the beast,’ he muttered. ‘D’you keep it in your glove now?’ he went on, and punched Conroy in the short ribs.
‘No,’ said Conroy meekly, but without coughing. ‘Nowhere—on my honour! I’ve chucked it for good.’
‘Wait till you are a sound man before you say that, Mr. Conroy.’ Sir John Chartres stumped out, saying to Gilbert in the corridor, ‘It’s all very fine, but the question is shall I or we “Sir Pandarus of Troy become,” eh? We’re bound to think of the children.’
‘Have you been vetted?’ said Miss Henschil, a few minutes after the train started. ‘May I sit with you? I—I don’t trust myself yet. I can’t give up as easily as you can, seemingly.’
‘Can’t you? I never saw any one so improved in a month.’
‘Look here!’ She reached across to the rack, single-handed lifted Conroy’s bag, and held it at arm’s length. ‘I counted ten slowly. And I didn’t think of hours or minutes,’ she boasted.
‘Don’t remind me,’ he cried.
‘Ah! Now I’ve reminded myself. I wish I hadn’t. Do you think it’ll be easier for us to-night?’
‘Oh, don’t.’ The smell of the carriage had brought back all his last trip to him, and Conroy moved uneasily.
‘I’m sorry. I’ve brought some games,’ she went on. ‘Draughts and cards—but they all mean counting. I wish I’d brought chess, but I can’t play chess. What can we do? Talk about something.’
‘Well, how’s Toots, to begin with?’ said Conroy.
‘Why? Did you see him on the platform?’
‘No. Was he there? I didn’t notice.’
‘Oh yes. He doesn’t understand. He’s desperately jealous. I told him it doesn’t matter. Will you please let me hold your hand? I believe I’m beginning to get the chill.’
‘Toots ought to envy me,’ said Conroy.
‘He does. He paid you a high compliment the other night. He’s taken to calling again—in spite of all they say.’
Conroy inclined his head. He felt cold, and knew surely he would be colder.
‘He said,’ she yawned. ‘(Beg your pardon.) He said he couldn’t see how I could help falling in love with a man like you; and he called himself a damned little rat, and he beat his head on the piano last night.’
‘The piano? You play, then?’
‘Only to him. He thinks the world of my accomplishments. Then I told him I wouldn’t have you if you were the last man on earth instead of only the best-looking—not with a million in each stocking.’
‘No, not with a million in each stocking,’ said Conroy vehemently. ‘Isn’t that odd?’
‘I suppose so—to any one who doesn’t know. Well, where was I? Oh, George as good as told me I was deceiving him, and he wanted to go away without saying good-night. He hates standing a-tiptoe, but he must if I won’t sit down.’
Conroy would have smiled, but the chill that foreran the coming of the Lier-in-Wait was upon him, and his hand closed warningly on hers.
‘And—and so—’ she was trying to say, when her hour also overtook her, leaving alive only the fear-dilated eyes that turned to Conroy. Hand froze on hand and the body with it as they waited for the horror in the blackness that heralded it. Yet through the worst Conroy saw, at an uncountable distance, one minute glint of light in his night. Thither would he go and escape his fear; and behold, that light was the light in the watchtower of her eyes, where her locked soul signalled to his soul: ‘Look at me!’
In time, from him and from her, the Thing sheered aside, that each soul might step down and resume its own concerns. He thought confusedly of people on the skirts of a thunderstorm, withdrawing from windows where the torn night is, to their known and furnished beds. Then he dozed, till in some drowsy turn his hand fell from her warmed hand.
‘That’s all. The Faces haven’t come,’ he heard her say. ‘All—thank God! I don’t feel even I need what Nursey promised me. Do you?’
‘No.’ He rubbed his eyes. ‘But don’t make too sure.’
‘Certainly not. We shall have to try again next month. I’m afraid it will be an awful nuisance for you.’
‘Not to me, I assure you,’ said Conroy, and they leaned back and laughed at the flatness of the words, after the hells through which they had just risen.
‘And now,’ she said, strict eyes on Conroy, ‘why wouldn’t you take me—not with a million in each stocking? ‘
‘I don’t know. That’s what I’ve been puzzling over.’
‘So have I. We’re as handsome a couple as I’ve ever seen. Are you well off, lad?’
‘They call me so,’ said Conroy, smiling.
‘That’s North country.’ She laughed again. ‘Setting aside my good looks and yours, I’ve four thousand a year of my own, and the rents should make it six. That’s a match some old cats would lap tea all night to fettle up.’
‘It is. Lucky Toots!’ said Conroy.
‘Ay,’ she answered, ‘he’ll be the luckiest lad in London if I win through. Who’s yours?’
‘No—no one, dear. I’ve been in Hell for years. I only want to get out and be alive and—so on. Isn’t that reason enough?’
‘Maybe, for a man. But I never minded things much till George came. I was all stu-upid like.’
‘So was I, but now I think I can live. It ought to be less next month, oughtn’t it?’ he said.
‘I hope so. Ye-es. There’s nothing much for a maid except to be married, and — ask no more. Whoever yours is, when you’ve found her, she shall have a wedding present from Mrs. George Skinner that——’
‘But she wouldn’t understand it any more than Toots.’
‘He doesn’t matter—except to me. I can’t keep my eyes open, thank God! Good-night, lad.’
Conroy followed her with his eyes. Beauty there was, grace there was, strength, and enough of the rest to drive better men than George Skinner to beat their heads on piano-tops—but for the new-found life of him Conroy could not feel one flutter of instinct or emotion that turned to herward. He put up his feet and fell asleep, dreaming of a joyous, normal world recovered—with interest on arrears. There were many things in it, but no one face of any one woman.
. . . . .
Thrice afterward they took the same train, and each time their trouble shrank and weakened. Miss Henschil talked of Toots, his multiplied calls, the things he had said to his sisters, the much worse things his sisters had replied; of the late (he seemed very dead to them) M. Najdol’s gifts for the soul-weary; of shopping, of house rents, and the cost of really artistic furniture and linen.
Conroy explained the exercises in which he delighted—mighty labours of play undertaken against other mighty men, till he sweated and; having bathed, slept. He had visited his mother, too, in Hereford, and he talked something of her and of the home-life, which his body, cut out of all clean life for five years, innocently and deeply enjoyed. Nurse Blaber was a little interested in Conroy’s mother, but, as a rule, she smoked her cigarette and read her paper-backed novels in her own compartment.
On their last trip she volunteered to sit with them, and buried herself in The Cloister and the Hearth while they whispered together. On that occasion (it was near Salisbury) at two in the morning, when the Lier-in-Wait brushed them with his wing, it meant no more than that they should cease talk for the instant, and for the instant hold hands, as even utter strangers on the deep may do when their ship rolls underfoot.
‘But still,’ said Nurse Blaber, not looking up, ‘I think your Mr. Skinner might feel jealous of all this.’
‘It would be difficult to explain,’ said Conroy.
‘Then you’d better not be at my wedding,’ Miss Henschil laughed.
‘After all we’ve gone through, too. But I suppose you ought to leave me out. Is the day fixed?’ he cried.
‘Twenty-second of September—in spite of both his sisters. I can risk it now.’ Her face was glorious as she flushed.
‘My dear chap!’ He shook hands unreservedly, and she gave back his grip without flinching. ‘I can’t tell you how pleased I am!’
‘Gracious Heavens!’ said Nurse Blaber, in a new voice. ‘Oh, I beg your pardon. I forgot I wasn’t paid to be surprised.’
‘What at? Oh, I see!’ Miss Henschil explained to Conroy. ‘She expected you were going to kiss me, or I was going to kiss you, or something.’
‘After all you’ve gone through, as Mr. Conroy said.’
‘But I couldn’t, could you?’ said Miss Henschil, with a disgust as frank as that on Conroy’s face.
‘It would be horrible—horrible. And yet, of course, you’re wonderfully handsome. How d’you account for it, Nursey?’
Nurse Blaber shook her head. ‘I was hired to cure you of a habit, dear. When you’re cured I shall go on to the next case—that senile-decay one at Bournemouth I told you about.’
‘And I shall be left alone with George! But suppose it isn’t cured,’ said Miss Henschil of a sudden. ‘Suppose it comes back again. What can I do? I can’t send for him in this way when I’m a married woman!’ She pointed like an infant.
‘I’d come, of course,’ Conroy answered. ‘But, seriously, that is a consideration.’
They looked at each other, alarmed and anxious, and then toward Nurse Blaber, who closed her book, marked the place, and turned to face them.
‘Have you ever talked to your mother as you have to me?’ she said.
‘No. I might have spoken to dad—but mother’s different. What d’you mean?’
‘And you’ve never talked to your mother either, Mr. Conroy?’
‘Not till I took Najdolene. Then I told her it was my heart. There’s no need to say anything, now that I’m practically over it, is there?’
‘Not if it doesn’t come back, but——’ She beckoned with a stumpy, triumphant finger that drew their heads close together. ‘You know I always go in and read a chapter to mother at tea, child.’
‘I know you do. You’re an angel.’ Miss Henschil patted the blue shoulder next her. ‘Mother’s Church of England now,’ she explained. ‘But she’ll have her Bible with her pikelets at tea every night like the Skinners.’
‘It was Naaman and Gehazi last Tuesday that gave me a clue. I said I’d never seen a case of leprosy, and your mother said she’d seen too many.’
‘Where? She never told me,’ Miss Henschil began.
‘A few months before you were born—on her trip to Australia—at Mola or Molo something or other. It took me three evenings to get it all out.’
‘Ay—mother’s suspicious of questions,’ said Miss Henschil to Conroy. ‘She’ll lock the door of every room she’s in, if it’s but for five minutes. She was a Tackberry from Jarrow way, yo’ see.’
‘She described your men to the life—men with faces all eaten away, staring at her over the fence of a lepers’ hospital in this Molo Island. They begged from her, and she ran, she told me, all down the street, back to the pier. One touched her and she nearly fainted. She’s ashamed of that still.’
‘My men? The sand and the fences? ‘Miss Henschil muttered.
‘Yes. You know how tidy she is and how she hates wind. She remembered that the fences were broken—she remembered the wind blowing. Sand—sun—salt wind—fences—faces—I got it all out of her, bit by bit. You don’t know what I know! And it all happened three or four months before you were born. There!’ Nurse Blaber slapped her knee with her little hand triumphantly.
‘Would that account for it?’ Miss Henschil shook from head to foot.
‘Absolutely. I don’t care who you ask! You never imagined the thing. It was laid on you. It happened on earth to you! Quick, Mr. Conroy, she’s too heavy for me! I’ll get the flask.’
Miss Henschil leaned forward and collapsed, as Conroy told her afterwards, like a factory chimney. She came out of her swoon with teeth that chartered on the cup.
‘No—no,’ she said, gulping. ‘It’s not hysterics. Yo’ see I’ve no call to hev ’em any more. No call—no reason whatever. God be praised! Can’t yo’ feel I’m a right woman now?’
‘Stop hugging me!’ said Nurse Blaber. ‘You don’t know your strength. Finish the brandy and water. It’s perfectly reasonable, and I’ll lay long odds Mr. Conroy’s case is something of the same. I’ve been thinking——’
‘I wonder——’ said Conroy, and pushed the girl back as she swayed again.
Nurse Blaber smoothed her pale hair. ‘Yes. Your trouble, or something like it, happened somewhere on earth or sea to the mother who bore you. Ask her, child. Ask her and be done with it once for all.’
‘I will,’ said Conroy . . . . ‘There ought to be——’ He opened his bag and hunted breathlessly.
‘Bless you! Oh, God bless you, Nursey!’ Miss Henschil was sobbing. ‘You don’t know what this means to me. It takes it all off—from the beginning.’
‘But doesn’t it make any difference to you now?’ the nurse asked curiously. ‘Now that you’re rightfully a woman?’
Conroy, busy with his bag, had not heard. Miss Henschil stared across, and her beauty, freed from the shadow of any fear, blazed up within her. ‘I see what you mean,’ she said. ‘But it hasn’t changed anything. I want Toots. He has never been out of his mind in his life—except over silly me.’
‘It’s all right,’ said Conroy, stooping under the lamp, Bradshaw in hand. ‘If I change at Templecombe—for Bristol (Bristol—Hereford—yes)—I can be with mother for breakfast in her room and find out.’
‘Quick, then,’ said Nurse Blaber. ‘We’ve passed Gillingham quite a while. You’d better take some of our sandwiches.’ She went out to get them. Conroy and Miss Henschil would have danced, but there is no room for giants in a South-Western compartment.
‘Good-bye, good luck, lad. Eh, but you’ve changed already—like me. Send a wire to our hotel as soon as you’re sure,’ said Miss Henschil. ‘What should I have done without you?’
‘Or I?’ said Conroy. ‘But it’s Nurse that’s saving us really.’
‘Then thank her,’ said Miss Henschil, looking straight at him. ‘Yes, I would. She’d like it.’
When Nurse Blaber came back after the parting at Templecombe her nose and her eyelids were red, but, for all that, her face reflected a great light even while she sniffed over The Cloister and the Hearth.
Miss Henschil, deep in a house furnisher’s catalogue, did not speak for twenty minutes. Then she said, between adding totals of best, guest, and servants’ sheets, ‘But why should our times have been the same, Nursey?’
‘Because a child is born somewhere every second of the clock,’ Nurse Blaber answered.
‘And besides that, you probably set each other off by talking and thinking about it. You shouldn’t, you know.’
‘Ay, but you’ve never been in Hell,’ said Miss Henschil.
The telegram handed in at Hereford at 12.46 and delivered to Miss Henschil on the beach of a certain village at 2.7 ran thus:
‘“Absolutely confirmed. She says she remembers hearing noise of accident in engine-room returning from India eighty-five.”’
‘He means the year, not the thermometer,’ said Nurse Blaber, throwing pebbles at the cold sea.
‘“And two men scalded thus explaining my hoots.” (The idea of telling me that!) “Subsequently silly clergyman passenger ran up behind her calling for joke, ‘Friend, all is lost,’ thus accounting very words.”
Nurse Blaber purred audibly.
‘“She says only remembers being upset minute or two. Unspeakable relief. Best love Nursey, who is jewel. Get out of her what she would like best.” Oh, I oughtn’t to have read that,’ said Miss Henschil.
‘It doesn’t matter. I don’t want anything,’ said Nurse Blaber, ‘and if I did I shouldn’t get it.’